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‘Norwegian Wood’: Love And Loss, And Memory Too

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
January 5, 2012

“Hey, you’re not a liar, are you?”

It’s 1967, and veracity is prized on college campuses. That’s why outgoing Tokyo student Midori (Japanese-American model-actress Kiko Mizuhara) interjects that odd question into her very first conversation with a quiet classmate, Watanabe (Death Note star Kenichi Matsuyama).

In fact he’s not a liar. But the truth is knotty in Norwegian Wood, deftly adapted by Franco-Vietnamese writer-director Tran Anh Hung from Haruki Murakami’s most popular novel. (Published in 1987, the book has reportedly sold 12 million copies and been translated into 33 languages.)

There’s the matter of Watanabe’s high school friend, Kizuki, who killed himself. And Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), who might now be Watanabe’s girlfriend. She’s at a rustic asylum outside Kyoto, and the doctor says she shouldn’t see Watanabe for now. It’s a bit much to explain.

The novel, Murakami’s most straightforward, is written in the first person, which makes intimate revelations simpler. It also looks back on the story’s events from almost 20 years later, with a rueful distance from youthful passions. But Tran takes a more immediate approach, placing the tale’s shifting romantic alliances in the context of their restive time.

Watanabe is an apolitical literature student who wanders a campus roiled by leftist protests and demands. With Naoko off limits, he’s drawn to Midori. Watanabe is encouraged to pursue her by the womanizing Nagasawa, who openly cheats on his long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi. (The men are identified by their surnames and women by their given names, as is common in Japan.)

Eventually, Watanabe is allowed to visit Naoko. They become closer, but she doesn’t get better. Then Watanabe learns that Midori is not so carefree as she seems. The film’s conclusion leaves Watanabe’s relationships with the women — well, with one of them — open-ended.

Set in an age of erotic as well as political insurrection, Norwegian Wood includes some awkwardly candid conversations about sexual response. The movie’s lovemaking scenes are shot discreetly, however, with the camera usually trained on faces. The sex depicted here is — mostly — in the head.

Although he sometimes uses voiceover to render Watanabe’s internal monologues, Tran makes the story more overt. (That’s nearly inevitable when translating prose to filmed drama.) Occasionally, the movie becomes too high-pitched, notably when the string-heavy score, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, shifts from plaintive to emphatic. The tone is more naturalistic when the action is cued to period rock by Can, the Doors and (of course) the Beatles.

Only Tran’s fifth feature since his elegant 1993 debut, The Scent of Green Papaya, Norwegian Wood includes lovely, contemplative sequences set near Naoko’s refuge, as well as a few along a rocky seashore. The movie was filmed in widescreen by Mark Lee Ping Bin (best known for working on In the Mood for Love), and its stately compositions suggest Asian scroll paintings. Yet some of the scenes are kinetic, even agitated.

The two modes combine in one masterly single-shot take that follows Naoko and Watanabe as they walk and she talks, delivering a long speech and shifting mood entirely. It’s stunning, and an impressive showcase for Kikuchi, playing a much more vulnerable character than Babel’s brassy deaf teenager (a performance that earned her an Oscar nomination). The sequence was supervised, astonishingly, by a director who doesn’t speak Japanese.

What Tran does understand, clearly, are loss and memory. Norwegian Wood is mostly faithful to Murakami’s novel, yet the movie is so febrile and spontaneous that it feels it’s been summoned just by hearing a familiar line: “I once had a girl …” (Recommended) [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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