Thursday, 9 December 2010

Norwegian Wood: Murakami on film

I've always been struck by the beginning to Haruki Murakami's bestselling novel, Norwegian Wood (1987). Thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe is in a 747 coming into land at Hamburg airport when a Muzak version of The Beatles' Norwegian Wood plays over the PA; he is transported back 20 years to when he was a student in Tokyo, specifically his love affairs of the time.

It's a startling introduction that is only referenced very briefly a couple of pages in and never mentioned again: the entire rest of the novel is told in the past. A sonic version of Proust's madeleine, it is a tantalising glimpse of Watanabe's grown-up future but it is ignored by a much-anticipated film version of the book, out 18 March 2011.

Director Tran Anh Hung's Norwegian Wood (pictured) opens with the suicide of Toru's best friend Kizuki, which forms the rest of the drama; Toru falls in love with Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko while being courted by fellow student Midori, 'the kind of girl you notice'. (Norwegian Wood is Naoko's favourite song: 'That song can make me feel so sad… I don't know, I guess I imagine myself wandering in a deep wood. I'm all alone and it's cold and dark, and nobody comes to save me.')

As has been well documented, the massive success of the book provoked a sort of crisis for the author, who fled Japan. It's easy to see why it's so popular: its universal theme of first love is tempered with a seriousness only death (suicide) can bring. It's no way one of Murakami's best, nor is it a particular favourite. At the back of the Vintage edition, translator Jay Rubin seems to offer an apologia for the work, as well as answering criticism aimed at what he calls 'its autobiographicality'.

There are undeniable traces of the author, from the book's late-1960s university setting, with its burgeoning student protest movement, to Watanabe's reading matter: 'Truman Capote, John Updike, F Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, but I didn't see anyone else in my lectures or the dorm reading writers like that. They liked Kazumi Takahashi, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima…'

The film raises questions about Rubin's translation as Tran Anh Hung's take on Murakami's book is slow - at 133-minutes long - and overly reverential. Long takes may have suited Jun Ichikawa's version of Murakami short story Tony Takitani (2004), but the English-language translation of Norwegian Wood is lively and funnier than its big-screen version; Watanabe's comic roommate, nicknamed 'Storm Trooper', is reduced in the movie to a single gag. (Having done a little post namechecking Olivier Assayas the other day, he could be a better fit, even Cédric Klapisch or Christophe Honoré.)

British reviewers will no doubt point to Jonny Greenwood's decidedly odd score, which leaps in, strings blazing, at the film's few moments of heightened emotion. Otherwise old Can tracks take up the best part of the soundtrack, fading in and then being cut off abruptly in a manner that may or may not be reminiscent of the stop-go pacing on Martin Scorsese's remarkable Kundun (1997).


  1. thanks, dude. i loved the book but i might avoid the movie to not ruin it for me.
    xxx anna

  2. Thank you, have a great Christmas and very happy new year!