Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rain, Sex, and Records: Norwegian Wood in Film

The first change I noticed about the long-awaited film adaptation of Haruki Murakami's beloved novel Norwegian Wood was, well, the first seconds of the movie. The novel opens with our narrator at age 37, landing in dreary weather at a German airport for one of what we sense has been a monotonous string of business trips. Then an instrumental version of the Beatles' odd, melancholy "Norwegian Wood" begins to play, and our narrator drifts back in time to that fabled year of '69.

Of course I am not implying that a good movie adaptation necessarily sticks to the book verbatim. And in film, this opening might have come off as a bit cliched, or aging the actor playing Toru Wantanabe, our protagonist, from 19 to 37, might have come off as inauthentic. But I mention this difference between book and film because I feel like sticking to this framing device might have made this somewhat disjointed retelling feel a bit more grounded.

Murakami's Norwegian Wood is the story of Toru, a college student newly transplanted to Tokyo, and his love for Naoko, the girlfriend of his childhood friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. When Naoko and Toru reunite, they seem to be newly discovered soul mates, but Naoko's crippling depression soon greatly complicates matters, as does Toru's introduction to sparkling, sexually frank Midori. Toru is soon caught between two worlds: Naoko in her remote but gorgeous rural sanitarium, and Midori in vibrant, changing Tokyo.

Film adaptations of novels are almost always going to have cut content; that's just the reality of the medium and commercial movie lengths. However, I didn't feel like this adaptation by director and writer Ahn Hung Tran always cut and kept wisely. We get lots of beautiful, long shots of nature and the dim light of city apartments on rainy days - which set the tone perfectly - but there are also scenes that feel randomly inserted (Toru being helped by old hippies after a workplace accident, a go-nowhere plot point with Midori's dad) and could have been sacrificed, their time put to better use by letting us get a fuller sense of these characters and their relationships. The character of Reiko, an older musician who is Naoko's caring, wry sanitarium roommate, is especially shortchanged. I was most saddened with the ruthless paring down of a scene that occurs near the end: what was in the novel a multi-layered scene of two people connecting over loss and gathering the strength to move on becomes a rote sex act with little explanation (and no 60's acoustic guitar strumming!) in the movie. Even in the equally whittled-down context, the scene makes little sense.

But this isn't to say I hated the movie. It is gorgeous, and as I mentioned, Tran captures the mood beautifully.  The true bleakness of depression is tangible here, as is the majesty of the hills and woods surrounding the rural clinic. It's hard to imagine a more breathtaking aerial shot of a blow job performed against a barren snowy landscape, and I say that sans snark. Rinko Kikuchi, who plays Naoko, brings the swirling, overwhelming emotions of depression to the screen with great authenticity. This character - pensive, secretive, sweet, intelligent, and often on the verge of a breakdown - is a tough role to do well, and Kikuchi (Oscar-nominated for 2006's Babel) excels.

In the end, the movie generally captures Murakami's story: in a turbulent time, a young man moves from a beautiful but tragic past to a more hopeful but uncertain future. Perhaps I am so critical because I love the book so much. The friend I saw the movie with, who is also a fan of Norwegian Wood, had a similar reaction. I'm not sure what someone who hasn't read the novel would make of this jumble of lovely scenes. The "look" and feeling of the story is there, but disjointed editing and too-deep cuts to character development hinder this adaptation from being the powerful film it could be. I guess I'll have to hold out hope for the perfect David Lynch adaptation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that I've produced in my head.

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