The sexual tension between Naoko and Kizuki is apparent within the first minute of the film, when he takes food out of her mouth with his own. As they swim half-naked in a pool, Kizuki rubs against Naoko’s body. These intimate secenes immediately draw the viewer into the characters’ blossoming relationship. Norwegian Wood takes place during the 1960s, a time when passionate young love seemed to be everywhere. Director Tran Anh Hung succeeds in making Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel come alive.
The narrator of the film, Watanabe, is a college student at Tokyo University. He loses his best friend Kizuki, Naoko’s onetime sweetheart. Kizuki commits suicide by locking himself in his car with the engine running; he blocks the exhaust pipe so that he is eventually overcome by carbon monoxide fumes. After this traumatic experience, Watanabe and Naoko have their first intimate encounter. It is Naoko’s 20th birthday and the camera focuses on their lips uniting to mark this sacred moment. Naoko loses her virginity on the same night, after which both youths struggle with a great deal of silent grief. The sex scenes are made more intense by Tran’s decision to show only the characters’ faces.
When Watanabe raises the subject of Kizuki, Naoko breaks down, and blames herself for his demise.
Naoko and Watanabe go their separate ways and have no contact until Naoko contacts Watanabe from a rural sanitarium, where she has been sent to recover from a nervous breakdown. Watanabe visits her occasionally, but as time goes by Naoko does not get better and even develops schizophrenia.
However, during the time that Naoko and Watanabe are separated, Watanabe is immediately distracted by Midori, another woman who is the complete opposite of Naoko. Midori is free-spirited and persistent; Watanabe is not used to seeing these two qualities in a lover. He soon discovers that Midori is not as carefree as she seems. She derives pleasure from teasing him as she constantly toys with his emotions. He soon finds himself in an emotional dilemma.
Towards the end of the film, Watanabe grieves by the sea. He sits near a bonfire for warmth, watching the waves hit the rocks. This is the first time the audience sees Watanabe have anything close to a breakdown. Up till that point, Watanabe refrains from exhibiting any strong emotions except towards Naoko.
The music throughout the film is soft and seems to depict the (stereotypical?) Asian culture on which Norwegian Wood focuses. The music is often delicate and orchestral. Sexual encounters between the protagonists are marked by upbeat, almost celebratory music. True to the film’s title, the music of The Beatles is prominently featured during the film.
At times, Norwegian Wood is much like the characters it portrays. One criticism would be that the characters remain transient detached from the audience. The narration is often vague, although it does help to convey the appropriate mood. The words sometimes seem unnatural and out of order, such that the viewer is diverted from contemplating their signifiance. The result is a feeling of disconnect even in very intimate scenes.
Tran’s ability to capture the mood is remarkable. Whether the mood is romantic or melancholic (the latteris more often the case), Tran is adept at selecting the right music, imagery and scenery. The beautiful background of various nature scenes is breathtaking and peaceful, just like the poetic conversations that goes on between the characters. It often feels like you are watching a fantasy, yet somehow the film is magically realistic.
Grieving over the loss of someone you love is never easy, and this is well depicted throughout the film. That person needn’t have been a lover. That void that you feel never wholly disappears. This principle is very well illustrated by observing Naoko deal with the loss of her soulmate Kizuki.
This love story is a must see; Tran adds a few brilliant touches to Murakami’s already enjoyable and unique work.