Watching Norwegian Wood and writing about it call upon two different and opposed parts of the brain.
Writing Mind says: A Japanese Love Story (with suicides). Yoko Ono’s revenge on Paul McCarthy. Coitus, Interrupted.
Art-Film-Watching Mind says: Look at the landscape. Bare winter trees. Lush parks with rain-showers that bring lovers together under willow trees. A remote sanctuary in snowy mountains reachable by a narrow goatpath. Oh, and chanting blue-helmeted student protestors who storm campus streets only to vanish like falling petals in the rain.
It’s better to split the difference. Give in to each influence, but don’t let either win out. Accept that Norwegian Wood is going to be personal, like a Rorschach test. Like an Escher print, it induces alternate-take perceptions throughout the course of its meandering, willfully passive journey.
The story starts off being about a trio of inseparable childhood friends but we’re quickly down to two. After a separation of a year the two who are left, Watanabe and Naoko, meet by chance and tentatively fall in love. But the departed one’s presence hovers. Not as a ghost, but as a symptom of clinical depression and sexual disfunction.
Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s novel of the same name, Norwegian Wood is directed by Tran Ahn Hung in a state of post-adolescent suspension in which voice-overs and time-frames overlap. Sometimes you catch the slippage into stylized tableaux–like the weeping willows, or the mountainous monastery/sanitorium where Naoko retreats–and suspect you’re being played for a sap by scenes that come right out of The Old Orientalist’s Playbook.
Other mood-shifts are more original, as in the moment I realized the same rock ‘n’ roll band had been warming up for a year in Watanabe’s college student union but we’d yet to hear a song. (The atmospheric guitar soundtrack is by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.) Protestors sweep past, but Watanabe in Love wanders unnoticing and unnoticed. In this story, the personal is apolitical.
Compared to Watanabe, the fierce uniformed brigades of student protestors, better regimented than the police they face, look like cowards for being afraid to be individuals. You know they can’t look inward, nor can Watanabe’s one male friend, a louche Don Juan. Yet Watanabe listens to his heart and takes the risk that doing so will ruin his life. Even when nothing makes sense to Watanabe and he has every right to feel that he’s being conned and abused, not to mention losing the universal 20-something’s right to wallow in sex, drugs and rock ʻn roll, he listens. Even when Naoko is obviously doomed, and he’s losing the other possible love of his life, Midori, he listens.
Unlike much of romantic literature, from The Sorrows of Young Werther to our current vampire franchises, Norwegian Wood courts unpopularity by addressing sexual and psychological issues in a frank and unglamorous way. What Hurakami and Hung are portraying is that shape-shifting time in our lives when we’re unable to quite grow up and, therefore, in danger of slipping back down into a bog of narcissism and “lovesickness.” They don’t think it’s grand that the doomed lovers are being called to complete the unspoken pact initiated by their departed friend. Unlike much Japanese literature and film, they quietly champion life over death.
If Watanabe’s choices in the film amount to a quiet “yes,” it feels like a win for us all.