Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no mori) – Movie Review

The juxtaposing of nature and three young lovers make this film a feast for the eyes and the heart.

Director Anh Hung Tran snatched up a nomination for the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival for this lollapalooza of a love story, only his fifth feature film as director. It even more surprising that he wrote this commendable screenplay, as he wrote his own screenplay for all of his previous four award winning films (including Academy Award nominee “Scent of Green papaya” and Venice Golden Lion winner “Cyclo”). The man is a powerhouse. The screenplay is based on the novel by Haruki Murakami.

The film opens in 1960’s Tokyo where students are echoing the protests occurring around the world. Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) hangs out with his best friend Kizuki and Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). Toru is attracted to the beautiful Naoko and only his steadfast loyalty to Kizuki forbids him even to think about showing her affection.

Although the lives of three outwardly appear to the ultimate in contentment and self-knowledge, there is despair within, just as there is tumult and violent protest in the streets. The director, and DP Mark Lee Ping Bin, use the violent, noisy and costumed student marches to look inside the heads of the three.

Without warning, Kizuki commits suicide, dropping precipitously out of Toru’s and Naoko’s lives. As their emotions are turned upside down the story cuts to sometime later. The remainder of the film is told in the context of their conflicted and unconsummated love.

Naoko is played by accomplished actor Rinko Kikuchi who was in her late 20’s when the film was shot. In spite of her young age, Kikuchi is as practiced and assured as she is beautiful. In the first fourteen years of her career she has collected dozens of awards and nominations including the Oscar and Golden Globe awards for Best Supporting Actress for her work in “Babel” in 2006.

As the director tells the story, she badly wanted the part in spite of Anh Hung’s stated feelings that she was not right for it. She snuck away from filming “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo” in which she plays an insane murderer and transformed herself into the soft, tender and vulnerable Naoko.

Anh Hung was sold. As it turns out, Kikuchi told interviewers that as a teenager she was always attracted to violence in the streets. Perhaps it is this lust for danger that provides a shade of threatening undercurrent to her perceived fragility.

Toru Watanabe is played by Ken’ichi Matsuyama, the iconic hero of the cult favorite “Death Note” franchise. Although he only made a dent in the awards bucket in Asia for his remarkably memorable role as “L” in the “Death Note” series his eccentric, although sharply defined, personality was what Anh Hung Tran needed for this film.

Perhaps it is just as well for Matsuyama that he did not go any farther in the simplistic, but atmospheric, “Death Note” whodunit series, as the huge success of those low budget, super entertaining mystery thrillers could have left him stereotyped. It turns out lucky for him that he declined to make another dozen sequels, although they all might well have made a lot of money.

In the second half of the film Naoko is revealed to have significant issues when it comes to intimate relationships. Suddenly, into Toru’s life springs the effervescent and lusty Midori (Kiko Mizuhara). Toru is forced to confront his newfound feelings for Midori with his lifetime of longing for the emotionally stunted Naoko. In so doing he must confront the possibility that his love for Naoko is a substitute for his love of Kizuki, so tragically taken away.

As the audience ponders this, the possibility emerges that Naoko may have been the main cause of Kizuki’s suicide. If her inability to respond to her lover’s overtures was in some way related to Toru’s hidden affections, then both she and Toru are implicated in Kizuki’s death. If this is so, the grass, rain and streams will echo their remorse forever. You must be the judge.

“Norwegian Wood” is a film that shimmers with production values. Anh Hung Tran’s direction is all the more amazing considering he is Vietnamese and does not speak Japanese, the language in which the film is shot. The direction and cinematography make every shot of a blade of grass, a branch of a tree, or a patch of snow into an essay, reflecting the condition of the lead characters.

Nature is something that couples with everybody in the film and contributes to the expression of their feelings. Many who saw Matsuyama in the “Death Note” series fell in love with him as the eccentric, isolated, alienated genius. With this commendable performance he has morphed out of that entrapping stereotype into a more normal, sensitive young man.

The down side is that the film is too long by most standards of Western taste. It would appear the message could have been delivered in forty-five minutes less run time, although the filmmakers would not stand for the loss of feeling.

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Directed by: Anh Hung Tran
Written by: Haruki Murakami (based upon the novel), Anh Hung Tran (screenplay)
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Ken’ichi Matsuyama and Kiko Mizuhara
Release Date: January 6, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Color: Color