Norwegian Wood is dreary, unfocused, and unreasonably slow-paced. It involves characters so dour and unlikeable that investing in them takes nothing less than sheer will power. They each find themselves in relationships so emotionally complicated that never once do we see a process of connection at work; we can only marvel at the fact that these people have somehow found their way into each other’s lives. Not only do we not understand their reasons for being together, but on the basis of what unfolds, no one is the better for it. Here is a coming of age drama so confused and needlessly drawn out that we’re anxious for the moment when the hero finally grows up – which, in this case, has nothing to do with witnessing a beautiful act of transition and everything to do with ending two miserable hours sitting in a theater.
Adapted from the novel by Haruki Murakamki, the film has been structured by writer/director Tran Anh Hung in the most curious of ways, namely to make every single scene play like the finale. When you have a movie filled with ends, you will inevitably invite speculation as to how it all began, and it’s incredibly unfair to deprive audiences of answers. Some scenes are just plain awkward in their length, pacing, and exploration of characters that have no bearing on the central plot. It’s almost as if clips from an entirely different movie had been randomly spliced in by editor Mario Battistel, perhaps because he was feeling a bit mischievous and wanted to get audiences off of what narrow a trail there was to follow. If that was his intention, he succeeded. This story leads us nowhere in particular, except in circles.
It takes place in Japan during the late 1960s, the era of the Vietnam War and a time of great social unrest. You’d think that, given this rich history, the filmmakers would actually make it a part of the plot. But no – history is reduced to a handful of brief shots, all of disorganized student protests that immediately fade into the background. Because it’s barely a backdrop for a soapy story of love and loss, this movie could have taken place anywhere at any time. It’s told from the point of view of nineteen-year-old Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), who moves to Tokyo and enters college following the inexplicable suicide of his best friend since childhood, Kizuki (Kengo Kora). Why this is left unexplained, I have no idea. I, for one, would have appreciated knowing what made Kizuki so unhappy that he felt the need to poison himself with exhaust from his own car.
Toru forms a relationship of sorts with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), who also knew him since childhood. Ever since his death, she has not only fallen into a deep depression, she has also lost all traces of her sexuality. She will make repeated attempts to find it throughout the movie, at first by submitting herself to Toru on the night of her twentieth birthday, the rest of the time through sexual advances she initiates. Alas, it’s to no avail; she’s incapable of feeling anything physically, while emotionally she retreats further into herself. Her mental state has landed her in a sanitarium buried in the forested mountains of Kyoto. I use the word “sanitarium” loosely, as it isn’t made to seem like one. If anything, it comes off as a spiritual retreat for the musically inclined.
Toru occasionally visits Naoko, and will even exchange letters with her. He might even have feelings for her, although you’d never know it by looking at him; as Toru, Matsuyama gives a performance so statuesque and soft-spoken that never once does an emotion leap off the screen. Regardless, Toru finds himself torn between Naoko and one of his classmates, a young woman named Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), equally as soft spoken but far more outgoing. At times, she’s developed to the point of oddness, and if you watch the scene where she calls Toru after the death of her father, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The worst thing about this character is that her interest in Toru stems from nothing made clear to the audience; she, like everyone else in this movie, has no clear purpose apart from being doing and saying miserable things.
In spite of the characters, the plot, the structure, and the performances, a connection still might have been possible had it not been for the horrendous soundtrack. On the one hand, we have samples of sleep-inducing folk rock hits of the era, including the Beatles song the film derives its title from. On the other hand, we have Jonny Greenwood’s score, which is comprised of depressing and emotionally manipulative violin dirges. Most of it plays during the latter half of the movie, at which point the story goes from solemn to outright devastating. Listening to both the score and the songs, one wonders if anyone involved in the film has ever laughed, or even knows what laughing is. For films like Norwegian Wood, joy and happiness are treated as foreign concepts that get lost in translation.