There will be no shortage of films branded as “coming-of-age” and since most, if not virtually all of those films deal with some form of sexual awakening, Norwegian Wood is merely the next of those films to arrive. Perhaps that this film is a Japanese import is a curious angle to consider when looking at the subject matter, but Norwegian Wood is a measured, beautifully shot ode to melodramatic tendencies, conflicting love interests, and young adults straddling between carefree youthfulness and serious adult issues. Hitting on many emotional beats, the film pulses and sways in and out of tune and has moments of great emotion and moments that fall out of key and register as tone deaf. Essentially, Norwegian Wood is an ambitious mixed bag.
The fifth film from Franco-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, who also adapted the novel into the screenplay, Norwegian Wood focuses largely on three main characters. Although the third character is replaced by a tragedy early on, he hangs like a cloud over the entire film. In the early moments, we meet 19-year old Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) and his similarly aged best friends Naoko and Kizuki (Rinko Kikuchi and Kengo Kôra), who have been a romantic couple for some time. Blind to any problems in front of them, Toru and Naoko are rocked by unspeakable sadness when Kizuki commits suicide. Searching for reasoning and understanding from the tragedy, Naoko and Toru connect and form a close bond with one another and after sharing intimacy on Naoko’s 20th birthday, Naoko is debilitated by her emotions. She informs Toru that she is going to enter a mental health facility and “leave the world” for awhile and while saddened by her decisions, Toru has no choice but to accept Naoko’s choice and remain supportive.
While Toru is able to visit Naoko on occasion, he meets the beautiful Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) during his Spring semester of college. Midori represents a stark contrast to Naoko as where Naoko is vulnerable, Midori is self-confident. Where Naoko is reserved and quiet, Midori is outgoing and flirtatious. Toru and Midori develop a spark and while Toru attempts to read Midori’s overtures, he is still drawn to Naoko and when allowed, takes every opportunity to visit her. While cherishing the chance to reconnect with Naoko, their visits are overseen by Reiko (Reika Kirishima), a patient of the hospital for seven years who has been tasked with overseeing Naoko’s treatment. Reiko is observant and allows Toru and Naoko to steal moments together, which often lead to conversations and exchanges of a sexual and physical nature, Toru in love with his friend and Naoko trying to rationalize the differences she feels between the two men she has loved in her life. And yet Midori remains in the picture.
Tran Anh Hung’s film is unique and somewhat frustrating in how it paces itself. Several times the film slows down and dwells in the darkness, both metaphorically and visually, and forces the viewers to hang on the spoken words exchanged between characters. This works as often as it fails and many times you must accept the breathtaking images from Hung and his Director of Photography Ping Bin Lee, alongside the inability to figure out what is transpiring in certain key moments. And yet, acclaimed lenser Ping Bin Lee finds beautiful moments where he can bring forth and retract images out of the darkness, offering some simply beautiful cinematography. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood offers another astute and entrancing score, which feels punctual and aware, and when Hung allows the film to move, Norwegian Wood is compelling melodramatic theater.
The film is well acted, especially when it comes to former Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), who has the meatier and more risky role of the emotionally fragile Naoko. Ken’ichi Matsuyama handles Toru fine but Norwegian Wood is quite good when the women are prominent and in praising Kikuchi, it should be noted that Kiko Mizuhara and Reika Kirishima are terrific as well.
I simply wish that Norwegian Wood was not so literary on screen and could sacrifice 15-20 minutes of its 130+ minute running time. Not familiar with Haruki Murakami’s novel, I feel as if things likely play better when elongated in the book as opposed to on screen. The inconsistencies present in the film simply frustrate and initiate a desire for everything to quicken and accelerate, serving as a stark contrast to Hung’s obvious intent. Norwegian Wood is enough of an accomplishment that I can recommend it for those interested. I just wish it delivered more than some great individual moments and a few good performances. The film feels like it wants to say important things, that it wants to deliver a soliloquy of sorts on love in all forms, both physical and emotional, but just never reaches the level of profundity it seeks. In some ways, a great film and in other ways, a missed opportunity, Norwegian Wood is a compelling underachiever.