Director: Anh Hung Tran
Screenplay: Anh Hung Tran
Producer: Shinji Ogawa
Starring: Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara
Runtime: 133 min.
I find myself in an almost existential funk as a result of watching Norwegian Wood. It is almost as if the cast and crew sought to craft a film that would satisfy all of my aesthetic whims (through both my eyes and ears), while simultaneously grating against the very fabric of my analytical mind. In most reviews, I would save the following zinger for the end, hoping to glean a (hopefully genuine) smirk from each and every reader – that does not seem appropriate here, as the following ramblings will likely steer you away long before you reach my conclusions. That being said, there’s one rather simple term with which I may describe this film with startling accuracy:
Norwegian Wood is, at its heart, a tale of shared love and loss. Watanabe (Matsuyama) and Naoko (Kikuchi) are drawn to each other on the heels of the inexplicable and unexpected suicide of Kizuki – the best friend of the former, and the latter’s beau. Their shared ability to cope with Kizuki’s passing is tenuous at best, eventually driving the fragile Naoko into an isolated sanitarium … and Watanabe into the arms of the extroverted, playful, and vivacious Midori (Mizuhara). Watanabe struggles to strike a balance between his love for Naoko (whom he sees sparingly) and his need for unadulterated human contact, personified by the cruel and manipulative Midori.
Stylistically, Norwegian Wood is nothing short of exceptional. Mark Lee Ping Bin’s cinematography paints a beautiful portrait of most every aspect of the human condition, from the simple (the touch of another, the feel of skin on skin) to the macro (nature as a spectator) to the metaphysical (the ephemeral intimacy of mere proximity or shared thoughts). His utilization of shadows, tones, and an incredibly diverse color palette serves as a fine reminder of how very beautiful life is, or can be. Much of this is applicable to Johnny Greenwood’s melodious orchestral score, as well, which I’m quite sure will be shamefully forgotten this time next year. A score’s ability to paint a picture with music is a tragically overlooked aspect of filmmaking (thus begins and ends a mini-rant).
At this point, you are more than welcome to turn your attention elsewhere.
To refer to the characterization as poor would likely be inaccurate, if not entirely false. That being said, I cannot quite think of a more appropriate label, with the possible exception of schizophrenic. We are treated to alternating implicit and explicit explanations of beliefs and motivations, which are oftentimes incomprehensible (and occasionally conflicting). It is not, in my mind, a matter of the characters changing in any significant matter. Rather, it seems an intentional means to keep the viewer off-balance – or, I suppose in-tune with the hectic nature of intimacy, as it spills over many levels. It strikes me as disingenuous, if not downright manipulative, and it makes it difficult (for me, at least) to see the characters as anything more than sensual caricatures of doomed lovers.
Perhaps this is a criticism more properly leveled against the actors, as many a fine script have been butchered by poor casting. That is not the case here, as both the writing and the acting are at fault. Matsuyama is dense, and his body language never quite jibes with what he is saying and doing. It seems as if he is uncomfortable in his own skin, and not in such a way that is befitting of his character. Kikuchi shows an array of emotions that is equal part dazzling and dizzying, and her character suffers for it. I suspect that the viewer is expected to find Kikuchi’s … moods … to be a result of PTSD or something of that nature, but her words and actions are too often distracting and contradictory. As for Mizuhara, well, she comes across as a bitch just for the sake of being a bitch. Her primary motivation? She’s a bitch. Why is she a bitch? Because it’s fun. Okay.
I understand that much of my complaints can be explained away by the tone of the film. After all, it is a film revolving around loss and coping and soul-searching and all that jazz – but that is simply not an excuse for lazy storytelling and one-dimensional characters. I’m sure I will give the film another chance, given its generally glowing reviews, but it is difficult for me to imagine myself enjoying the manipulative nature of it all.
And therein lies my issue with my own core take on Norwegian Wood. The beauty crafted by Bin and Greenwood is something that I could enjoy in perpetuity. I want to see the vibrant green hillsides and feel the intimacy in contact. I yearn to hear the loneliness and yearning in the strings. Yet I cannot rectify that with my disdain for most everything else, which essentially comprises the very foundation of the film. For that, I cannot offer a sensible take on such a beautiful disaster.