I expected this to suck.
The Tanuki loves Murakami Haruki 村上春樹. That won't really be apparent from this blog, because this blog only covers the last three years of the Tanuki's engagement with cultural production, and it just so happens that the Tanuki hasn't been reading a lot of Haruki in the last three years. That's because the Tanuki damn near OD'd on Haruki in the previous sixteen years since first encountering him. Murakami's works hold a deep and abiding importance for the Tanuki, for more reasons than can be discussed in this post (so I won't try). And the novel on which this film is based, 1987's Norway no mori ノルウェイの森 (Norwegian Wood), happens to be my favorite Murakami novel. The one that turned me on to him. The one that pretty much decided my career path. And so I expected this to suck (=to fail to satisfy the Tanuki's very personal requirements for a treatment of Murakami's work).
And: I know Tran Anh Hung's pedigree - I saw and loved The Scent of Green Papaya - but that still didn't give me much hope that he'd get this right (=please me, selfish git that I am). Not necessarily through any fault of his own. Murakami somewhat famously has refused permission to film his novels, but a few years ago he made his first exception, for Ichikawa Jun 市川準's Tony Takitani トニー滝谷; the result merely confirmed for me that Murakami's first impulse, to keep his novels on the page and in his readers' minds, was the right one. I don't know that Murakami's novels are any more difficult to adapt to the screen than most; I just know that in his case, I don't want to sit through any more failures. I expected this to suck.
Mostly it doesn't. Mostly, in fact, it's a great movie. It might even be all the way a great movie, but you'd have to get that opinion from someone with a little more distance on the source than me. But even for me: it gets the novel about three-quarters right.
That, of course, is not all it does. The visuals are, as one would expect from Tran, amazing, and they're amazing in a way that largely captures the wide-eyed romanticism of the novel. The contrast between the natural settings and the cityscapes, the period detail in costume and interiors, the thoughtful, unblinking camera work all contribute to a film that's gorgeous to look at, simply intoxicating. The score, by the Radiohead guy, is equally impressive, with bold dissonance that reaches verges on noise, but in a very romantic-tragic way. (I have my quibbles, inevitably, with the songs interpolated into the soundtrack: Can, with their Japanese lead singer, has a certain metafictional appropriateness, but there were any number of Japanese psychedelic/early prog bands that could have been used, too: couldn't they have found room for somebody like the Mops? The Flower Traveling Band/The Flowers? The Tempters?)
And it gets two of the main characters right. Matsuyama Ken'ichi as Watanabe-kun is pitch perfect: his delivery of "mochiron" is just how it should be, a wary rapprochement with the world that just happens to be cool to the point of near-arrogance. And Kikuchi Rinko realizes Naoko with all the ethereal, waifish beauty the role requires: the character needs to be barely there, and yet emotionally dominant, and that's how she is here. The parts of the movie that focus on this relationship are fine.
In the novel, however, Naoko's character is perfectly balanced by Midori, who is Life to Naoko's Thanatos, earth to Naoko's otherworldliness, Body to Naoko's Spirit; and Mizuhara Kiko doesn't quite bring it. Maybe she's just too physically insubstantial, or maybe she just can't shake the passive flirtatiousness that is required of so many Japanese starlets, but her Midori fails to provide a counterbalance to Naoko, which means the movie ultimately fails to spell out the crossroads that Watanabe finds himself at.
The film also fails with the all-important secondary character of Reiko. Her dazzling monologue about her piano student is eliminated, meaning we really have no idea of her past, why she's hospitalized, or even what kind of person she is; and although her sex scene with Watanabe at the end is preserved, in the film she comes across as a weak older woman begging for the young phallus. Which is not what she is in the book at all. I'm not really sure why they kept this scene in the film, actually.
All of which means, I suppose, that I think this film really does fail, ultimately; it just fails in a very seductive way, I guess.