I have been looking forward to this film for a good few months. I used to be a voracious reader, but in recent years I have found myself less attracted to novels, but there was an odd little history behind this one. I had actually seen it in the bookshop a number of times, attracted both by the striking cover and by the title – one of my favourite Beatles songs. When Best Friend suggested it as a good read, then it seemed the stars had aligned, and I purchased and devoured it. So imagine my surprise when I saw that just a few months after I finally came around to reading it, that a film adaptation was in the works. I did have my doubts whether it would really transfer well to the big screen. I guess it is not particularly clever of me to say that most adaptations of books fall very short of the source material, and I am sad to announce, this is one that falls into that category.
“Norwegian Wood” tells the tale of Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), as he recounts his affairs with both the girl he loves, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), and Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), the girl who pursues his affections. Naoko and Toru are linked by the suicide of Kizuki – this being Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend. They initiate a relationship together, possibly searching for some closure to Kizuki’s suicide, but after a single moment of physical intimacy, Naoko disappears, and eventually reappears at a sanatorium. Toru remains in contact with her, initially by letter and then by visiting her along with her fellow patient Reiko (Reika Kirishima). Whilst this is going on, he is pursued by Midori – the polar opposite of the sensitive, withdrawn Naoko – a lively, open, brash girl, who seems to want to be with Toru despite his heart obviously being elsewhere. It’s all sad stuff, in which no-one is destined to get what they want.
Visually, this is utterly gorgeous – the screen is assaulted by a wind and rain swept Japanese countryside, mixed with a real sense of fin-de-cycle 1960’s (student riots against the Vietnamese War, the introduction of Western Music and culture).
I’m not going to complain that the actors do not look as I imagined. Naoko pretty much works for me (even if the actress is some 10 years too old), a complex, haunted figure. The actress playing Midori does a fine job, but I never really got her sense of fun and wonder – she should be a polar opposite to Naoko, and I never got that sense fully. In fact the character of Midori seems reigned back somewhat, in order to fit into the slow introspective mood the director is obviously going for.
And I think this is my problem with the film.
In the novel, the framing device is one of an older Toru, reminded of his past when hearing the song “Norwegian Wood” on a plane journey. This ties into the themes of memories that permeate the novel, but that idea seems to have been lost here – we pretty much jump straight into 1967. I get that the novel has to be stripped of various subplots to get down to a 2 hour-ish running time, but even with the languid pacing of the film, it really rushes through a good portion of the novel, missing out a lot of the work that lets you understand Toru himself. The book is narrated wholly by Toru, yet here he is almost a passive bystander, which stops us getting close enough to understand any of our protagonists. The is a film with which we should be intimate with the characters, yet I always got that feel we are utterly apart from them, and other than the obvious issues for Naoko I really don’t think we ever get under the skins of our protagonists.
In fact, I have no idea how someone seeing this film without reading the novel would even understand what is going on, let alone empathise with the characters. So other than getting a kick out of seeing some scenes enacted, I just cannot see how anyone could come to this film and enjoy it without that foreknowledge.
The biggest crime is the complete reduction of all the supporting characters. The lack of explanation of Reiko’s back-story – it is pretty difficult and unsettling in the novel – really does not help the film, and indeed she is hardly explored at all, when in the novel she is an important voice for understanding Naoko. The other male characters are also given short shrift – Stormtrooper is a large part of the early chapters of the Novel, put here he is used to briefly that maybe the whole sub-plot should have been entirely forgotten. Toru’s friend Nagasawa gets a few scenes, but again, they serve little purpose in this adaptation. Only one powerful scene really works – a dinner party between Toru, Nagasawa and Nagasawa’s long suffering girlfriend. It almost feels as if someone took a highlighter to the book, and just filmed the scenes they thought were key dramatically, without taking into account the required links to make this a palatable whole.
The score, by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood starts off very interesting and textured, but eventually becomes an annoyance – the raucousness and noise becoming a distraction, rather than helping mirror Toru’s mental state, which I assume is the intention.
So, in the end what we have is a visually interesting film, that lacks the emotion and heart of the source novel, and totally unable to stand on it’s own. If you have read and enjoyed the novel, it is mildly recommended. If not, then just go buy the book. An opportunity missed.