Norwegian Wood (ノルウェイの森)

A few people have asked, so here’s a review of sorts: if you love the book, should you see the film?

Two disclaimers up front: I’m no film expert, just an idiot with a history of low-rent literary criticism. Your level of agreement may vary. Also, I’m focusing purely on the perspective of those who know the book. If you haven’t read it, please stop here as I am going to spoil it in a huge, horrible way – go buy a copy. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is great, too, as are Murakami’s other novels – they are, to a great extent, the reason I spend hours every weekend battering my head into kanji textbooks and the conjugation of regular-1 and regular-2 Japanese verbs.

And with that out of the way: there’s both a lot to like and dislike in this film adaptation.

First of all, the good stuff. This is, no doubt, a tough novel to film – there’s a lot in it, it’s written from within a frame where the central character narrates back historically, and some decent chunks are explicit in a way that’s going to be hard to film without it looking either pornographic or just naff – but the director has clearly made an effort to create something more than a television movie. Although quite a bit of the plot is omitted, little is changed. Some of the acting is excellent and none is poor, and a few of the scenes (the dinner with Nagasawa and Hatsumi, in particular, and the pacing scene out at the sanatorium with Watanabe and Naoko) are really very well done.

It’s also important to note the overwhelming artfulness of the cinematography. Every single shot in the film has been made to count, from huge vistas of the countryside to the panning close-ups of just about every conversation and the macro wildlife shots used to break scenes. A few fairly peripheral scenes – one in the university, and another introducing Nagasawa and Hatsumi – use long huge tracking shots that are genuinely breathtaking.

The problem, though, is that I found myself noticing how the camera was moving, rather than what was actually happening. And although the clever filming has much to do with that, I think it also demonstrates that the story doesn’t have the same arresting power in this adaptation as it does in the novel.

There are other, bigger, problems, though. The film is two hours long, so some cuts from the book were probably unavoidable, but some are strange: at one point Midori apologises for arriving late to meet Watanabe, but only those who remember the novel will know why, as that part of their close-distant-close relationship isn’t included. Similarly, the dinner scene with Nagasawa and Hatsumi may be a highlight, but it arrives in a blink of an eye with no explanation.

Watanabe’s commentary on the student occupations is missing, Reiko’s background is cut out completely, leaving events at the end of the novel isolated and almost nonsensical, and the significance of the song “Norwegian Wood” is stripped out entirely – Reiko sings it, as do the Beatles over the credits. No plane, no connection to Naoko, no money in a jar, no point.

And if the director might have been forced to cut stuff out, you have to wonder why on earth several scenes are added. Kizuki’s suicide is shown, rather than described in the past tense, and Naoko’s death is handled in a manner that’s not only less powerful than the novel but, in my opinion, borderline distasteful. Watanabe’s subsequent journey into the countryside is reduced to five minutes of awful overblown yowling that’s so bad I comtemplated leaving the cinema, while Hatsumi’s character also deserves better than the way her death is handled here.

And finally, the ending. The ending of Norwegian Wood is, to me, almost perfect. In the movie it’s relocated, stripped of the location’s significace (Midori’s story about the train journey is cut entirely), and marred by a tacked-on conclusion from the narrator.

So, if you love the book, should you go to to see it? The answer probably depends on how much you enjoy the cinema for the cinema’s sake. If you love film, beautiful camerawork, artful landscapes, interesting ways of filming close conversations and/or want to see one of the best “light beams through trees” shots ever, then go: although the book is trampled on, you’ll find much to like. Similarly, if you’re studying the Japanese language then much of the film is easy to understand, not least because Watanabe spends almost half the time saying “もちろん” in answer to an assortment of questions from the female characters.

If you’re primarily interested in the story, though, this adaptation is likely to leave you disappointed at best: the narrative mostly survives, but its nuance and significance are lost in the trees.

All © 2022 Tom Royal