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Friday, Dec. 10, 2010

'Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no Mori)'

Murakami's tale of crazy love falters on the big screen

"Love hurts" is a staple message of popular culture everywhere, from blues songs about cheating lovers to tear-jerking Japanese melodramas about teenage couples eternally separated by terminal disease. But "Love can drive you crazy" is one uncomfortable truth mainstream movies, from Hollywood and Japan alike, shy from, for good box office reasons. Their target female audience, who enjoy a good cry over romance gone wrong, is less willing to vicariously dwell in the hell of clinical depression.

Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no Mori) Rating: (2.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Tainted love: Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) suffer the fallout of mental affliction in "Norwegian Wood." ©2010 "NORWEGIAN WOOD" HARUKI MURAKAMI / ASMIK ACE ENTERTAINMENT INC., FUJI TELEVISION INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director: Anh Hung Tran
Running time: 133 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Dec. 11, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

That, however, is what "Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no Mori)," Anh Hung Tran's adaptation of the eponymous Haruki Murakami novel, asks them to do.

Watching the film after it screened in this year's Venice Film Festival competition — and left with mixed reviews and not a single prize — I understood why it had taken more than two decades to bring the novel to the screen, despite the 4 million copies sold since its 1987 publication.

First, the young hero, Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), is immature, introverted and vacillating — hardly a leading-man type — while his ventures into romance are more about intimate talk and interior musings than crowd-pleasing action, in the bedroom or out.

The film's emotional center, however, is the sensitive, fragile Naoko, Watanabe's high-school friend turned lover whose breakdown and long, difficult struggle with mental illness are portrayed with unflinching commitment by Rinko Kikuchi. In contrast to typical heroines in Japanese romantic dramas, however, Naoko is neither reassuringly normal nor upliftingly selfless and pure.

Vietnamese-French Tran ("The Scent of Green Papaya," "The Vertical Ray of the Sun"), who both scripted and directed, has teamed with Taiwanese cinematographer Pin Bing Lee to make dramatically stylish visuals that fully capture the beauty of Japan's seasons and landscapes: Winter has seldom looked as desolatingly wintry and storm waves on a rocky coast as theatrically stormy.

At the same time, the drama of the characters' intertwined and tangled lives feels curiously inert, punctuated by vivid, stark moments of emotional revelation or upheaval. And though the set design and costumes are meticulously of the period, the characters and their problems are not specifically of the 1960s or even Japan: I could easily imagine a French version of the story set in the 1980s — or any modern era you could name.

This impression is strengthened by the music, supervised by Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood, which includes relatively few tunes from the era, in favor of strings and contemporary pop sounds. The title song, however, is the real Beatles deal, instead of the usual Fab Four covers heard in Japanese movies.

As the film begins, Naoko, Watanabe and the soft-spoken, charismatic Kizuki (Kengo Kora), who is Naoko's boyfriend and Watanabe's best pal, are 1960s-era high-school students. But when Kizuki suddenly and inexplicably commits suicide, their little world is shattered. Watanabe goes to college in Tokyo, arriving at the height of the period's student unrest, but takes no interest in radical politics or the local version of the counterculture.

A chance meeting with Naoko leads to a resumption of their friendship — and intensifies their common mourning for Kizuki, particularly Naoko's. This leads, on their private celebration of Naoko's 20th birthday, to a flood of emotion — and awkward passion.

But Watanabe cannot heal Naoko's damaged psyche, and she goes off to the countryside for treatment at a sanitarium. Watanabe exchanges letters with her, but is soon distracted by Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a perky, talkative, sexually confident girl who is the withdrawn Naoko's polar opposite.

Telling himself that he is only obeying male instinct, Watanabe succumbs to the aggressive Midori's advances. His rattish behavior is encouraged by Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), a smooth-talking, worldly senior classmate, but Watanabe can't help feeling guilty, especially after he visits Naoko in the sanitarium in the dead of winter and realizes he still has feelings for her.

He also meets Reiko (Reika Kirishima), another patient and Naoko's close friend — who one night sings and plays for them "Norwegian Wood," the Beatles tune that is Naoko's favorite song. But this cozy idyll cannot last.

Matsuyama, best known abroad as the reclusive, sweets-addicted detective L in the "Death Note" films, was the producers' first choice for the introspective Watanabe. He tries to fit the naive, pure-hearted mold of the usual seishun eiga (youth drama) hero, while tamping down the on-screen strangeness that has made him Japan's own version of Johnny Depp. He may be trying to broaden his range, but his performance is on the limited and listless side.

Kikuchi, Oscar-nominated for her performance as a deaf school girl in "Babel," rather amazingly had to audition for the role of Naoko — possibly since she is, at 29, a bit old to be playing yet another troubled young woman. But she also gives the film's strongest performance, convincingly crossing the line from ordinary grief to full-blown depression, which sex cannot heal and tears cannot ease.

One pleasant surprise is Eriko Hatsune as Nagasawa's much-abused girlfriend, who gives Watanabe and Nagasawa a dressing down for their piggishness that is perfectly chilled in its anger and deadly accurate in its thrust. For a moment I thought I was not in Tran's visually sumptuous, amorphous exercise in style, but a film by Stanley Kubrick. Who would have probably told the producers of "Norwegian Wood" that the novel was unfilmable.

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