[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B004TFCVUY][/pullquote] Before beginning my review of Norwegian Wood, I should say up front that I’m a huge fan of the novel it is based on, written by Haruki Murakami. It’s inevitable that this should influence my view of the film and it would be pointless to try to avoid it. Therefore I make no attempt to pretend to be objective in my review of the film version.
Norwegian Wood is a bittersweet romance, set in the late 60s. At the start, its protagonist, Toru Watanabe moves to Tokyo to attend University, shortly after the suicide of his best friend, Kizuki. He wants a fresh start and to forget the past and the pain. But shortly after his arrival, he chances upon Naoko, Kizuki’s girlfriend, who has had much the same idea. Both lonely, they become friends, based on taking long walks through Tokyo together. This friendship becomes something more, but then Naoko breaks it off and disappears from his life.
Toru picks himself up again and meets Midori, a girl on his course at University, but then receives a letter from Naoko, from the clinic she is staying at in the mountains (she has suffered from some sort of breakdown). Toru finds he must choose between his first love, the fragile Naoko and the livewire Midori.
Reading back this synopsis on the page, Norwegian Wood doesn’t sound like a great deal, and while the book made it something special, on the screen it doesn’t always feel like a great deal either. The novel spends a lot of time inside the protagonist’s head as he tries to make sense of the adult world and the relationships he finds himself (or to be more accurate, found himself in “ the narrator is Toru aged 37, looking back on his younger self. This framing technique adds a tone of yearning and regret to the novel “ it has been mysteriously left out of the film). Unable to show Toru’s thoughts, the film resorts to quite a lot of middle-distance staring, which is less effective.
It’s very hard to adapt a much-loved novel, as due to the nature of the form, there’s so much the director has to leave out from Norwegian Wood’s original material, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that some of the wrong decisions have been made. The introduction to the main characters feels rushed, and as a result, the first half of the film is a bit of a struggle (in all honesty, after about an hour I was thinking about giving up on it). However, it does improve significantly in the second half as you grow to know more and care about the characters and their troubles. As the choices before Toru become clearer and the emotional complexity is drawn out, a strangely satisfying sense of melancholy settles over the film, that remains strongly until the end.
While by no means bad, the film of Norwegian Wood is, to me, slightly unsatisfying (though it definitely grew on me as it went and the scenes towards the end pack quite a strong emotional punch). I also feel very conflicted about it, it clearly has both merits and flaws, but I find it difficult to separate my feelings about these from my feelings about the novel.