I admire the drama Norwegian Wood, but I didn't really enjoy watching it. Tran Anh Hung's film of Haruki Murakami's 1987 novel is handsomely photographed, and it is, yes, novelistic in the way it takes on so many intense themes, including tragic romance, mental illness and violent political turmoil.
The two main characters, Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) and Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), are troubled, broken young people. In the opening scenes, a young man named Kizuki (Kengo Kora), who is Watanabe's friend and Naoko's lover, kills himself. The other two are shattered. Naoko goes to a sanitarium and begins hearing voices. Watanabe wanders impassively through Tokyo as the youth revolt of the 1960s plays out around him, and he starts up a doomed flirtation with a lively college classmate (Kiko Mizuhara).
It's all very sad, but it doesn't engage me. In a novel we can read what's going on in people's minds. In the film we get a little of that in the form of voiceover narration delivered retrospectively by an older Watanabe. But mainly Hung (Cyclo, The Scent of Green Papaya) conveys his characters' unhappiness with long silences and dialogue that's delivered in robotic monotones by actors staring into space. I grew restless as the film unfolded, all 133 minutes of it.
Murakami's book was a sensation when it was published, and there is indeed fascinating material here - about how the 1960s played out in Japan, about the urgency of young love. There's a sexual frankness that I find bracing. The lovemaking scenes feel awkward and true.
But let me be sexually frank in registering a complaint. A crucial aspect of Naoko's character relates to the fact that she can't get wet for sex. She agonizes over this. We hear about it again and again. Truly, a simple, water-based lubricant might well solve the problem, and it surprises me that this doesn't occur to anyone. Then, however, there might not be a movie.
The cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin is breathtaking. I'm especially struck by a scene at Naoko's sanitarium. Watanabe and Naoko sneak out of her room to walk in the countryside, and the camera follows them in a single long take as the two of them argue and march back and forth across a lush meadow. The effect is beautiful and unsettling.
At times the film's understated approach works well. There's a shattering revelation that has to do with a minor character, the girlfriend of Watanabe's playboy associate. She and the young Watanabe have a brief scene together, and the camera lingers on her as the older, narrating Watanabe flatly notes that sometime later, she killed herself. It's a quick, devastating, very effective moment.