Although not the first screen adaptation of his work, Norwegian Wood opens a potential floodgate of cinematic versions. Does Murakami survive or get lost in translation? Declan Tan finds out
Anh Hung Tran’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel Norwegian Wood is one of those films that leaves you seeking out the source material. Perhaps that isn’t even a bad thing.
As good as Murakami’s text might be, this film is coldly one-dimensional and only seems to mean it in parts. The rest of the time it’s plain uninteresting. The story is actually quite strong. Watanabe (Matsuyama), our protagonist, journeys with us through his seeking of lasting love, his dalliances with death and all of his lost passions. Watanabe’s best friend, Kizuki (Kora), commits suicide at 17. Naturally, Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Kikuchi), is pretty devastated. Eventually Watanabe and Naoko get it together after spending a lot of silent moments, hours, days together. Then Naoko disappears, checking herself into a sanatorium. Watanabe, with his blank face incapable of expressions, doesn’t know what to do. He meets another girl but can’t decide between them. That is quite a cheap summary and probably doesn’t do Murakami’s tale justice. But it will do for this film.
Tran’s refusal to really mark out some genuine feeling – allowing it too long to drip like a loose faucet – hurts the film’s chances of hitting any of the right emotions. Mostly you’ll be feeling straight frustration, which may lead eventually to boredom. Maybe. There are good ideas in here, not in the directorial execution, but in the content of the script, Murakami’s story.
The ‘moments of significance’, as underlined by Tran, are unsubtle and obvious, tripping the slow burning patience that he seems to be building, which leaves the narrative feeling all lumpy and unsure of itself, as if Tran didn’t know what to keep in or leave out. The end result is the sneaking suspicion that much of the shooting script was simply cut for length (and at 133 mins, it already feels too long).
What is missing? Hard to say. The performances are fine, if sometimes veering wildly from melodramatic to unfeeling – Kikuchi does a fair job, while Matsuyama is frozen in time it seems. The shots are okay, yawning in places, and the slow pace isn’t even particularly boring. It’s just the rhythm of an uneven narrative that fails to really grips. Everything seems slightly askew and void of feeling, perhaps because Tran underplays it too much, trying to let it build by itself, which it doesn’t quite manage.
It’s a kind of just inessential cinema. It doesn’t offer anything new, refreshing or interesting that the novel didn’t. A symptom of an unnecessary adaptation.
Alternatively, watch Villon’s Wife.