Monday, September 5, 2011

Norwegian Wood (film) (2010)

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 FlowersThe 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.


Matt said...

"I'm not really sure why they kept this scene in the film, actually."

Indeed. Our researches indicate that the hu-mans are endlessly fascinated by their methods of reproduction, even in cases when no reproduction was actually achieved.

The music thing is an interesting point. I don't remember the book, but would Watanabe actually have listened to that home-grown stuff? The novel's very title evokes the refraction through the Japanese prism of Western postwar teen culture, after all. (Although let me disavow in advance any extended argument that reference to the West specifically is a theme of the book or anything.)

Also, did you notice that Daniel has started the annual countdown-to-Nobel-disappointment (burn!) Murakami Fest at How to Japanese? You guys should combine forces for the next few weeks!

Daniel said...

I was disappointed that the title song was only played once in the film, twice if you count the credits. (Am I remembering that correctly?) But I liked some of the things they did with the sound/soundtrack. There was one moment where Nagasawa is talking with Watanabe and Watanabe isn't really hearing him, so they play a song, which is interrupted by a high hat on the drums from Nagasawa - surprising moment, and I thought it represented Watanabe's confusion nicely.

But ultimately the film was too serious. Deadly serious. Which the novel is in someways, but the movie lacked any humor at all. Stormtrooper just felt kind of desperate and pathetic (big disappointment). And I agree completely about Midori. The movie makes the women seem insane - almost all of them.

Beautiful movie, and I think you captured it perfectly when you say it "fails in a very seductive way."

Oh, and I felt like Watanabe was overacted a little...especially the distraught scenes after Naoko's death.

Tanuki said...

About why they left the sex scene in: touché. No reason to ask: it's a sex scene.

About the music: Thing is, the Can wasn't used in a way that was suggesting Watanabe was listening to it. It wasn't diegetic music, if you will. If it was, I'd object more strenuously - this being Murakami, it should be jazz. A little Wes Montgomery or something. Instead, the music was just being used to create a late-'60s Youth Culture mood; as such, Can wasn't a bad choice, especially as it's true that lots of Western psychedelic bands would have been echoing in the halls of that dorm, as it were. Mainly, though, my suspicion is that Johnny Greenwood simply (a) wanted to display his own love for Can (aren't they kind of a hip name to drop these days?), and (b) couldn't be bothered to research any actual Japanese bands from the period. This may be an unfair assessment.

That said (and this pivots to being @Daniel), I love the original music Greenwood contributed to the score. I don't remember the exact moment you mention, but it was a very intelligent, sensitive soundtrack, I thought.

Yeah, you're right about the humor. I didn't even think about it, because I generally liked the somber tone of the film, but you're right that the book is much funnier. That's part of why I fell in love with Murakami, of course (and why I'm still loyal to the Birnbaum translation over Rubin's - I like Birnbaum's sense of humor)("Kamikaze" is funnier than "Stormtrooper," even if the latter is, arguably, more accurate), and it didn't come through at all in the film.

I agree about the distraught scenes after Naoko's death. They were beautiful, but overdone.