Norwegian Wood (Japan)

2010 Japan

SUNDAY 10th FEBRUARY 10.00 am


In the midst of student rebellion in the 1960s, student Toru Watanabe’s (Kenichi Matsuyama) personal life is similarly in tumult. At heart, he is deeply devoted to his first love, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), a beautiful, introverted young woman. But their complex bond has been forged by the tragic death at 17 of Kizuki (Kengo Kora), her boyfriend and his best friend, years before. When he meets Midori (Kiko Muzuhara), he is intrigued and infatuated by this girl who is everything that Naoko is not – outgoing, vivacious, self-confident. With the damaged Naoko living reclusively in a country retreat under Reiko’s (Reika Kirishima) gentle care, Watanabe ‘commutes’ between the two, unable to choose – until fate intervenes.


Love, death and sorrow are the themes delicately canvassed in this poetic ode to love. Set in the late 60s when students are rebelling against the establishment, this is a story about longing, uncertainty and reflection as Kenichi Matsuyama’s protagonist Watanabe teeters on the precipice of love. The past and the future form a double edged sword as Watanabe tries to understand himself and his desires, with life becoming confused and complicated. Translated into 33 languages since its publication in 1987, Haruki Murakami’s bestselling novel has been adapted with an obvious passion by director Anh Hung Tran. Cinematic with a cascade of orchestral strings that deliver joy, pain, despair and beauty, it is Watanabe’s emotional inner life that is the focus as the storyline meanders along leisurely. This is not a film for everyone, especially the impatient, and the 133 minute running time that often drags, may deter many.

Tran has structured his screenplay as memories from the past. When we first meet Watanabe in a brief but vital interlude, it is before he has been damaged by the impact of death and the idea of love. From college in Tokyo, Watanabe becomes more and more confused as he tries to work out what his life means and where love and sex fit in. There’s a feeling of impotency regarding his affection for the vulnerable Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) as he assumes feelings of guilt and responsibility for her. This is sharply contrasted by the alluring Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) whose emotional state is stable. Then there’s Reiko (Reika Kirishima), the music teacher who looks after Naoko’s wellbeing and who sings the Beatles’ tune Norwegian Wood accompanied by guitar in a haunting scene in the middle of nowhere.

The scenery is breathtaking – from the secluded places by rippling streams, rolling grassy hills that become snow-covered and angry ocean waves that roar under grey skies. Music sets the tone and even before we see what the camera is about to show us, we know by the jarring strings that something terrible is going to happen. The performances are all excellent and the ending is beautifully conceived, leaving us sure-footed, yet in keeping with the film’s ethereal themes.


I was roughly the same age as the three central characters in Norwegian Wood at the time the film is set in the mid-late 60s, when students in many countries were rebelling against the establishment. (And The Beatles were singing Norwegian Wood, a song which plays a minor role in the film.) I didn’t know it at the time, but the same thing was happening in Tokyo, where this romantic drama takes place. Students waving placards bustle down the street in early scenes, although we never see them again.

The turmoil is meant to symbolically mirror the turmoil caused by love in the lives of our characters, primarily young Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), a rather sullen and low-key character we really never get to know. He is a passive player in a love triangle which builds around him, following his chance re-meeting Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) some years after the death of her boyfriend and his best friend.

Friendship quickly morphs into romance, but it’s stilted, halting, unfulfilled – and perhaps stillborn in the wake of Naoko’s inner turmoil. The reason for this turmoil is never clear, but eventually we understand it’s at least connected to (if not caused by) her inability to make love with Kizuki (Kengo Kora). Her gradual decline, perhaps into depression but it’s not clear, does nothing to lessen Watanabe’s feelings for her – though you wouldn’t know it by his behaviour.

When Midori (Kiko Muzuhara) makes an advance in the student canteen, Watanabe responds – in his muted way – and the romantic drama takes on the love triangle structure that drives it to the end, spiced with sex scenes – the last one of which is hard to take seriously (not the sex, the participants).

Although intriguing at times, the film is not easy to access; this is partly due to an erratic and sometimes clumsy editing sensibility, coupled with an overly ornate score with occasionally screeching violins, almost caricaturing classic love dramas painted on a large scale. These elements are off-putting, as are the frequently manipulative but meaningless shots between scenes and the elongated dynamic that is held together only by extensive use of close ups.

The screenplay’s literary origins (it was a best seller) are visible and not always to best advantage of the film; performances are absolutely fine, but I still find it difficult to believe in much of the story elements.

While the film doesn’t work for me at all, it clearly works for others; it was selected as one of the 12 in Competition at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival.