Naoko (Kikuchi Rinko) and Toru (Matsuyama Kenichi)

I wasn’t sure about this film. I’d caught a whiff of indifference from some reviewers and I didn’t have strong expectations (I’d carefully forgotten some of the important contributors to the film).

When I came out of the screening I had the strong sense that I’d just seen one of the films of the year. Certainly it is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen for a long time and there was something about the tone and the sensuous feel that made me think of some examples of classical Japanese Cinema (in particular Ichikawa Kon’s Kokoro (1955) – also a literary adaptation). But when I got home and started reading through the reviews and the comments on IMDB I was dismayed by some of the negative responses and by the assumption that I couldn’t understand the narrative if I hadn’t read the book from which the script was adapted. I also found myself in agreement with the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw – something that happens only rarely. So what is the cause of this confusion?

Norwegian Wood is an adaptation by writer-director Tran Anh Hung of the 1987 Japanese novel of the same title by Murakami Haruki. The novel was inspired by the Beatles song which reminded Murakami of the late 1960s in Japan (supposedly when he heard it in an airport building). Its central character is Watanabe Toru who in the late 1980s begins to reminisce about his time as a young man starting university in Tokyo in the midst of the late 1960s student unrest. He carries with him the memory of the tragedy that befell his best friend in high school, Kizuki. One day he bumps into Naoko, Kizuki’s girlfriend from home. They begin a relationship but it goes dramatically wrong on Naoko’s 20th birthday. Over the next year, Toru struggles to maintain something with Naoko, who he loves, and to fend off the more assertive Midori who is pursuing him. An older student offers to give him a ‘sentimental education’ in the bars and love hotels of Tokyo, but otherwise the politics of the time and even the conventions of university life pass him by. In his spare time, Toru mainly works in a record shop and the fish market in order to maintain his modest lifestyle. As well as the two younger women, Toru also comes across Reiko, a (slightly) older woman who is Naoko’s companion.

I guess the problem for some audiences will be the slowness of this film – and the seemingly aimless life of Toru. The film is 133 mins and devotees of the book think that a lot is left out. Personally, I can cope with the slow pace if I have something to look at and to listen to. Jonny Greenwood’s score seemed very effective but I’ve since seen criticism that towards the end of the film it becomes too overwrought. I didn’t think this at the time but on reflection that might be true. The score includes three tracks from the German rock band Can.

I need to read more by Murakami but I sense that his novels are usually ‘disturbing’ in some way – or perhaps ‘unsettling’. Certainly the frank discussion/presentation of masturbation in the film seemed jarring/unsettling for the time period. Research suggests that this might be a Murakami trait. Masturbation as such isn’t disturbing of course except in the sense of how it operates as a taboo subject in polite society and in this way it marks Murakami’s ‘cool’ appeal to a mass readership much younger than he is. It goes along with his insertion of Western popular culture into Japanese stories. In the end that may be what becomes the focal point of the film – the questions about its ‘Japaneseness’. Tran is a Vietnamese director who grew up in France and the film was shot by the acclaimed Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, a long time collaborator with Hou Hsaio-hsien. He also shot Tran’s previous film. With Greenwood this makes an interesting trio of interpreters of Murakami’s story. Mark Lee’s other famous credit is Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love, a similarly ‘globally-produced’ love story – though one in which desire is never consummated, unlike the situation in Norwegian Wood. I wonder who will be first to think about putting the two films into a single double bill?


The film opened in Japan in December 2010 and lasted five weeks in the Japanese Top 10 with a box office take of around $13 million. For what is essentially a ‘specialised film’ that isn’t bad. On the other hand, Norwegian Wood is the novel that made Murakami a celebrity amongst young people in Japan and the novel has sold millions in Japan and worldwide. It’s two stars are also well-known.  In the UK the film was released on just 33 screens by Soda Pictures. All we know is that it took £92,000 on its first weekend – the 4th best screen average that week, but only on a limited release. It is now sneaking round a few more arthouse cinemas. I suspect that those who have read the book will finally catch up with it on DVD – which is a shame as it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. I’m pondering reading the novel and considering if I can find an excuse to show it on a cinema screen again. If you get the chance I urge you to take it.

Official UK trailer from Soda Pictures: