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Dustin Putman

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Norwegian Wood  (2012)
3 Stars
Directed by Tran Anh Hung.
Cast: Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Tetsuji Tamayama, Eriko Hatsune, Reika Kirishima, Kengo Kora.
2012 – 133 minutes
Not Rated (equivalent of R for strong sexual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 4, 2012.
In Haruki Murakami's acclaimed, thought-to-be-unfilmable 1987 novel "Norwegian Wood," the bittersweet memories of narrator-protagonist Toru Watanabe's post-adolescent college years in late-1960s Japan come flooding back to him when he hears an orchestral cover of The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)." As passionately adapted by writer-director Tran Anh Hung (1993's "The Scent of Green Papaya"), this big-screen treatment does not include such a wraparound segment or spell out the meaning of said song, but the tune wafts powerfully over the proceedings just the same, remaining very much a part of the difficult, alternately nostalgic and tragic tapestry of Watanabe's life and remembrances. If Hung has had to part ways with details and subplots from Murakami's book, that comes with the territory of translating a novel into a roughly two-hour form. What is more important is that Hung has spellbindingly captured the tone and spirit of the source material while also delivering a visually arresting, existentially melancholic romantic drama confident enough to stand on its own two feet.

In 1967 Japan, the sudden suicide of 17-year-old Kizuki (Kengo Kora) creates a ripple effect for lifelong soul mate Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and best friend Toru Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), inexorably altering both their lives forever. Upon high school graduation, Watanabe heads off to Tokyo to continue his studies, lethargically going through the paces until Naoko shows back up in his life. When Kizuki was around, they were bonded only through their close relationships with him. Now that he's gone, they are empathetically joined by his death, struggling to express their feelings better than they know how. When Watanabe and Naoko find themselves falling in love, their intimacy excites the heretofore virginal Naoko, but also sends her further down a spiral of grief. When she runs away, ending up at a secluded halfway house/commune in the Kyoto mountains, Watanabe becomes torn between his allegiance with the dour, troubled, irreplaceable Naoko and vivacious, headstrong, semi-elusive college classmate Midori (Kiko Mizuhara).

Low-key and sweeping, intimate and classically melodramatic, "Norwegian Wood" never deviates from focus on its characters, but places them within a tableau where falling in love and meeting an awful end are on the same mounted—and expected—wavelength. Watanabe intermittently narrates with an omniscient point-of-view, providing information, some of it grievous, to the viewer long ahead of it actually occurring. In the here-and-now of the radical '60s, however, surrounded by campus protests that he has no time or interest getting involved in, he hasn't any more answers than anyone else. As all people in their late teens and early twenties are apt to be, Watanabe, Naoko, Midori, and the other characters lurking at the edges of the story think and talk a lot about sex, but their curiosity is often matched by inexperience. With a long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune), who can't understand why he insists on having countless women on the side, Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) is a smooth player who gives Watanabe lessons on bedding women, but not on valuing them. That comes later, naturally, when Watanabe sees himself being pulled in opposite directions by the mentally ill Naoko and the not-exactly-monogamous Midori and finally takes a stand about his own true feelings. For a guy who has been something of a question mark in his detached, contradictory actions up to this point, Watanabe's arc into a more mature, responsible, emotionally available person is a welcome turnaround. Even if the script still skimps on his past and background—mentions of family are scarce, if there at all—writer-director Tran Anh Hung enlightens by shining a light on Watanabe's internal conflicts and ultimate growth.

Performances are engaging from an entire ensemble who carve out memorable names for themselves, but Rinko Kikuchi (2006's "Babel"), as Naoko, and stunning newcomer Kiko Mizuhara, as Midori, are the standouts. Kikuchi fills Naoko with such an innocent, earnest light that it's heartbreaking when she is inwardly overtaken by a darkness she can't seem to break free of. The scenes between Naoko and Watanabe are some of the film's most stirring and alive, even in their quiet; here are two people who could be immensely happy in different circumstances. In some ways, Mizuhara's Midori is reminiscent of who Naoko might have become had she been stronger. Midori has known loss and neglect in her life—her mother has passed away and her selfish father abandoned her and her sister soon thereafter—but she seems confident in spite of all that. Yes, she is shady in the midst of her airiness by flirting with Watanabe while admitting that she has a boyfriend, but one can tell where her genuine heart lies. Mizuhara makes Midori gentle, energetic, fierce and eye-catching, sometimes all at once. Even when she frustrates him, it's easy to see why Watanabe is drawn in her direction.

The restless characters who centrally occupy "Norwegian Wood" are all still young, and have a lot of learning to do. That nearly half of them are fated to lives cut short makes their struggles more emphatically sorrowful. If some of them are doomed to misery and unhealthy mental states, others—like Watanabe and Midori—have a chance at something more. Once old enough, they'll see that the worst of days, too, shall pass. Director Tran Anh Hung illustriously conveys the restlessness of youth and the finality of death through the seasons, cinematographer Ping Bin Lee aiding in the haunting imagery of snow-covered mountains in winter and wind storms besieging the meadow where Watanabe and Naoko steal precious time together. Meanwhile, production designers Norifumi Ataka (2008's "Shutter") and Yen Khe Luguern exude cool, dreamy vibes with a look of colorful '60s kitsch balanced by a more universal external view of modernity sneaking up on the past. It'll be here before Watanabe and Midori know it, but never will what's come and gone be far from their thoughts.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman