Director: Anh Hung Tran
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Kenichi Matsuyama
Runtime: 133 mins
Adapted from celebrated Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s novel, Norwegian Wood is, true to the book, a completely sensory film. With a soundtrack composed by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood that makes it all the more evocative, this story revolves around huge and difficult-to-handle concepts such as death, loss, sex, and where love could fit into any of this.
Set in 1960s Japan, we follow Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), who has just started his first year at university in Tokyo. He has thrown himself into his studies (drama and American literature, which he pursues rather listlessly) so as not to think about what he has left behind – the memory of his high school best friend Kizuki’s suicide at 17. One day he runs into Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), the girl who used to be Kizuki’s girlfriend.
As the two renew their friendship, deliberately avoiding talking about Kizuki’s suicide, their newfound closeness suddenly leads to exchanged promises of love. Soon afterwards, however, the emotionally fragile Naoko leaves for rehabilitation at a retreat in the woods on the outskirts of Tokyo. Although Watanabe genuinely believes himself to be in love with her, and visits her regularly, he soon strikes up a friendship with Midori, a confident and vivacious fellow student who already has a boyfriend but reciprocates Watanabe’s feelings for her. Even though Watanabe remains loyal to the emotionally and sexually troubled Naoko, can love and longevity stem from what began as mutual loss?
This and many other questions besides are explored: the role of sex within love, the state of the ones that are ‘left behind’ after the experience of death, and the dilemma facing those who have to choose between their past and their future. Although these are very complex ideas to handle, director Anh Hung Tran sticks to the simplest and therein most successful means to tell them with: light, colour and sound. There is not a single setting, choice of filter or music that doesn’t seamlessly enhance, rather than overpower, whatever the actors are trying to express at any given time.
Nevertheless, it is still the settings that stand out as the crowning achievement of the film. Tran has filmed everything from endless snowy fields to ferocious waves crashing onto the Japanese coast, lending the interiority of the characters a physical counterpart in the form of nature’s elements. Although the gradual pace, subject matter and weighty cinematography may feel too stifling for the casual movie-goer, this isn’t really one for a Friday night with a tub of popcorn anyway.