With his striking visual sense and gift for conjuring a mood of languid sensuality, Tran Anh Hung would seem the ideal filmmaker to tackle “Norwegian Wood,” Haruki Murakami’s beguiling novel of longing, loss and sexual curiosity in 1960s Japan. But while this beautiful-looking film at times succeeds in capturing its source material’s delicate emo spirit, it’s far less attentive to the richness of Murakami’s characters — namely, a college student haunted by one woman and ardently pursued by another. Lovely but listless picture is likely to test audience patience beyond Tran’s arthouse admirers and the author’s fans.
Published in 1987, “Norwegian Wood” has become Murakami’s most widely read novel and is generally regarded as his most autobiographical work, despite the author’s protests to the contrary. Though it unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of the student protests in Japan and elsewhere during the late ’60s, the story sidelines these events to focus on a young man drifting along on a tide of emotional and erotic confusion; the character’s general passivity and alienation effectively serve to critique what Murakami views as a hypocritical and jejune form of political rebellion.
One of only a handful of films based on Murakami’s work (including 2004’s pitch-perfect “Tony Takitani”), “Norwegian Wood” also happens to be Tran’s first literary adaptation. In look, texture and rhythm, the film most closely resembles the Vietnamese writer-director’s “The Scent of Green Papaya” (1993) and “The Vertical Ray of the Sun” (2000), but its attempt to faithfully adhere to the source text makes for a more constrained, less intuitive piece of filmmaking.
As his peers march the streets and disrupt classes to hold debates, Tokyo university freshman Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) is gradually drawn into the orbit of the beautiful, damaged Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), longtime g.f. of Watanabe’s best friend, Kizuki (Kengo Kora), who recently killed himself. (The suicide is calmly recounted in the opening scenes, barely disrupting the film’s exquisite languor.)
Emotionally fragile and deeply troubled, Naoko reaches out to Watanabe and initiates what turns out to be her first sexual experience. Shortly afterward, she drops out of school and retreats to an out-of-town healing center; Watanabe eventually comes to visit and promises to remain devoted to Naoko while she recovers.
Back in Tokyo, he develops a close friendship with the very different Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who is as chatty and outgoing as Naoko is distant and introverted. It’s here that the film makes its crucial misstep. In the book, Midori all but leaps off the page; prone to voicing the dirtiest thoughts in the cheeriest, most innocent tones, she’s an irresistible hoot. Onscreen, however, she seems to have been tamped down so as not to clash with the film’s more rarefied air, and Mizuhara comes across as far too polite and restrained, as though reading Midori’s sexually candid musings from a script.
The tale never becomes a full-fledged romantic triangle, but it soon becomes clear Watanabe must choose between Naoko and Midori, or between past regret and future hope — a difficult decision in a world where people are often emotionally or geographically unavailable and death is the only constant.
While “Norwegian Wood” suffers from familiar adaptation problems — truncated supporting roles, excessive voiceover — Tran makes a strong, committed effort to turn prose into poetry, and to render the characters’ emotional states, especially grief, as honestly as possible. Dialogue scenes are boldly attenuated, generally delivered in whispered, hesitant exchanges, with moments of silence and stillness that are by turns eloquent and anemic.
There’s something touching about the way the film elevates Watanabe and Naoko’s moments together to Edenic heights, framing them against impossibly verdant woods or falling snow, and taking a palpable delight in their unspoiled beauty (and Yen Khe Luguern’s stylish retro costumes). Viewers coming to the material for the first time, however, may find these swooning tableaux too repetitive over the film’s slow-paced 133 minutes, while Murakami readers may be disappointed that the sexual content is nowhere near as explicit as the book’s.
Pale, handsome Matsuyama comes across as disaffected but sensitive, while Kikuchi is superbly pained in her many-sided depiction of emotional instability. Briefly appearing as the g.f. of Watanabe’s friend Nagasaswa (Tetsuji Tamayama), Eriko Hatsune is outstanding in a gem of a scene in which she holds the screen almost singlehandedly.
Shooting on pristine HD, top d.p. Mark Lee Ping-bing (who also lensed Tran’s “Vertical Ray of the Sun”) works wonders with such details as the play of candlelight on actors’ faces and the arrangement of bodies in the widescreen frame. While Jonny Greenwood’s largely string-based score is not as boldly inventive as his compositions for “There Will Be Blood,” it surges with operatic intensity at pivotal moments, signifying turning points in the characters’ relationships. Music is sparingly used throughout, but in addition to the titular Beatles tune, the ’60s playlist includes a wide selection of Can tunes.