Norwegian Wood

Film, Drama
5 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
(11user reviews)
Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung has a distinct curiosity about the significance of music, both in everyday life and in cinema. A recurring scene from his gorgeous 2000 film ‘At the Height of Summer’ saw a young couple waking each morning to the strains of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and engaging in a ritualised early-morning ballet of stretches and ablutions. At a pivotal moment in his wistful and agonisingly poignant new work – a thoughtfully abridged adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s lilting 1987 chronicle of late-teen neurosis in 1960s Tokyo – a young woman, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), who’s still traumatised by the suicide of a schoolyard sweetheart, breaks down when a friend casually strums through a rendition of The Beatles’ torch song ‘Norwegian Wood’. The idea that something as ephemeral as a pop song could release a storm cloud of sorrows encapsulates the objectives of this film. It asks: how can we ever really be sure of love without understanding the hidden impulses of others? And what’s the point of love if death’s cruel hand can swipe at any moment?

The film is set during a period of revolutionary upheaval, but Tran does not dwell on context, as if to say that this story transcends all links to broader society. Kenichi Matsuyama plays Watanabe, a bookish student struggling to figure out whether his love of Naoko is born of the need to save her from herself, or whether the suicide of Kizuki (her boyfriend and his best friend) has gifted them with a unique perspective on each other’s fractured emotional state. Much of their anxiety derives from sex, his sense of selfish pleasure-seeking, and her need to explore her own sexual incompetence. Matters get more complex when sex-savvy Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) enters the fray, and Watanabe must weigh up his sense of responsibility against his more base desires.

It’s an unhurried and precise film, but approach it on these terms and you’ll find a sensitive, profoundly perceptive and life-affirming study of what it means to develop a bond with someone else. And as an unblinking portrait of the abject, sometimes self-destructive, almost unendurable distress suffered after the loss of a loved one, the movie recalls no less a masterpiece than Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’.

The performances of the young cast attain an affecting blend of reticence and hope, but it’s Tran’s fastidious technique that nudges the film into the realms of greatness. His prowling Steadicam circles the protagonists from behind curtains and shelves, giving both interior and exterior scenes an added sense of intimacy. His bold use of colour, too, emphasises the volatility of the characters by oscillating between warm browns, fulsome ochres and chilly blues or sharp whites. The swelling Arvo Pärt-like score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood offers subtle hints rather than obvious cues to how we should read these intense situations. But it’s the clever use of Can’s Krautrock tear-jerker ‘Mary, Mary So Contrary’ that best captures the mood of this remarkable and devastating work.


Release details

Release date:
Friday March 11 2011
128 mins

Cast and crew

Tran Anh Hung
Haruki Murakami
Kenichi Matsuyama
Rinko Kikuchi
Kiko Mizuhara
Kengo Kora
Reika Kirishima

Average User Rating

2.8 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:2
  • 4 star:0
  • 3 star:0
  • 2 star:3
  • 1 star:0
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If you find this story even remotely interesting, read the novel. The movie, unfortunately, does not do the story justice. The character depth in the film does not begin to explain who and what these characters are and why their actions fit within their personalities. The book gives the characters the depth that the film does not try to give for lack of time or budget. There were some good performances in the film and nothing seemed wrong with the direction, but the adaptation from novel to film left massive chunks in the overall story. So again read the book before checking out this film, or you will most likely leave with only an unsatisfying glimpse and more questions than you had going in.

This is probably the worst film I have seen this year. Looks cinematic but this type of story would be more suited for a short film. If you're fluent in Japanese, then the acting and dialogue will seem fake.

This film is extremely tiresome. It goes on forever. I failed to empathise with either of the main characters. The female lead was particularly self obsessed and unattractive. At least they dressed well. Sure it looks good and it's worth appreciating that, but then you can leave like a few of the others seem to have done. Either that, or don't go in the first place.

I found it cold and sterile, and I had little interest in the characters. It looked great in places, but seemed protracted. Unusually, I left early rather than try and sit it out.

I thought this was an excellent adaptation of the Murakami novel - anyone who has any appreciation of nuanced Japanese cinema (Ozu, Mizoguchi. Kore-Ada) will probably love this film. I'm quite surprised by the bad reviews above but don't let that put you off if you like decent cinema.

I thought this was an excellent adaptation of the Murakami novel - anyone who has any appreciation of nuanced Japanese cinema (Ozu, Mizoguchi. Kore-Ada) will probably love this film. I'm quite surprised by the bad reviews above but don't let that put you off if you like decent cinema.

I'm being generous giving the film 2 stars because it looks beautiful. It is so desperately boring. I didn't feel empathy for or interest in the characters as they were so apathetic, one-dimensional . I just wanted them to put an end to it all and be done with it so I could leave the ciinema!

Just over 2 hours of blank looks interrupted now and again by some unconvincing crying. The Japanese have nice snow.