Adapting a novel considered ‘unfilmable’, Tran Ahn Hung’s effort is certainly a valiant attempt to adapt the hugely popular Haruki Murakami novel. Unfortunately, in translation from page to screen, Norwegian Woodultimately falls rather flat.
In the late 1960s a young high-school student, Kizuki, inexplicably commits suicide, leaving behind his best friend Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) and his girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). Both unbeknownst to each other, they each leave their respective homes for Tokyo, attempting to start a new life away from the shadow Kizuki’s death has cast.
Stumbling across one another, Watanabe begins a tentative romance with Naoko, which swiftly ends when Naoko retires to a remote sanatorium in the mountains. Compelled to stay away from her until she feels well enough for him to visit, Watanabe begins a friendship with the lively and vivacious Midori (Kiko Mizuhara). Attracted to Midori but emotionally tied to Naoko, Watanabe struggles with his feelings for both women. The film is certainly wonderful to look at: the cinematography is especially worthy of note, projecting sensuality to its viewer. The scenes that take place in the sanatorium, set against the backdrop of lush greenery, result in some of the film’s most striking moments; unfortunately for lovers of the novel, looking good is the film’s only achievement.
Whilst the film itself is well-paced, with little attempt at character development engagement, the film quickly feels overlong. The slow-burning manner that Tran Ahn Hung’s film so desperately attempts is sorely undermined by the passivity of the characters, and in turn the passive nature it creates in its viewer; it is very difficult to care about these characters when we have been given little reason to do so.
Not being one to compare film adaptations, there is little doubt that in the adaptation process much of the subtlety and depth that so invested the novel has been starkly removed. Tran Ahn Hung’s adaptation dispenses with the retrospective framing of Murakami’s novel, in turn losing the bleak contrast between youth and experience that infiltrates the novel’s narrative. There is an initial attempt to create an interior monologue, featuring Watanabe’s narrative voice, but this is soon disposed of.
By no means a failure, Norwegian Wood is simply a disappointment, leaving the viewer apathetic towards the character’s fate. A stunning film to look at, with some truly gorgeous moments, it’s frustrating that it fails to succeed on all other accounts.