I’ve read most (though not yet all) of Haruki Murakami’s books. NORWEGIAN WOOD is easily his most straight-forward and accessible. This from a writer known for his stream-of-consiousness and oftentimes abstract and dreamlike storytelling qualities. The book came as a surprise to those who may have wondered if Murakami was capable of writing outside his surreal comfort-zone (a zone I love, by the way). Apparently, Murakami wrote NORWEGIAN WOOD to answer this question for himself as well. It’s a beautiful work, heart-wrenching and melancholy, but also filled with vivid joys and hidden pleasures.
I was concerned when I heard the book was being adapted to film. It was somewhat of a relief to learn that the film was being done in Murakami’s country of origin, Japan, and not here in Hollywood. Then when I found out the director would be Vietnamese-born Tran Anh Hung, who gave us the stunning and evocative THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA, my hopes raised even higher, despite the fact I had hoped for a Japanese director (Hung lives in France and doesn’t speak Japanese). But Hung’s sensibilities as a filmmaker offered the possibility that the emotional backbone of the story would be honored.
The film was released internationally in 2010 to some good reviews, but it wasn’t until January 2012 that the film found a VERY limited release here in the States (with the exception of one film fest screening at the always open-minded Seattle International Film Festival back in 2011). Following its almost non-existent U.S. theatrical run, the film finally found its way to DVD here in the States –but oddly not Blu-ray in this somewhat artistically limited country of ours. And that’s a shame as WOOD is a visually stunning film and deserves the hi-def treatment (a region-A Hong Kong Blu-ray version is available).
Tran Anh Hung’s interpretation of Murakami’s NORWEGIAN WOOD is an incredibly visceral and moving experience. Like PAPAYA, the story unfolds through a series of impressionistic moments, emotional beats and haunting imagery. The casting is terrific with faces that burn into our mind’s eye and linger as if excised directly from our own past, from our dreams, fantasies and nightmares. The film is a beautiful piece of work and I believe will stick with me for some time to come. It is also a film I will return to. I already feel the pull to experience it again and it hasn’t even been 24 hours.
Sadly but not surprisingly, American critics were luke warm at best in their response to WOOD. However, I think Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir summed it up best:
“This is a wonderful, passionate, well-nigh unforgettable adaptation of a great novel about the horrors of love, and the wonderful fact that at least some of us live through it and come back for more.”
The film brought me back to the roller coaster of complex emotions that still linger in my sense-memory of the madness and joys of youthful love and the inevitable loss which followed –in much the same way Murakami’s novel so hauntingly did. The New York Times Stephen Holden summed the film up in what I expect was meant to be a negative illustration, but one I think apt and, for me, praise-worthy:
“Norwegian Wood” registers less as a coherent narrative than as a tortuous reverie steeped in mournful yearning.”
For me, the most natural form of storytelling –the one that registers in our deepest recesses– are the ones told, not as so-called “coherent narratives,” but as reveries, steeped in metaphor. All of us, as human beings, lie our heads down each night to face our subconscious which naturally, organically, works through our struggles, joys and fears with surreal, metaphorical storytelling. We wake, oftentimes having to interpret the stories we’ve created for ourselves while our defenses were down. And these stories often linger within us, even if the events themselves have been forgotten. For me, NORWEGIAN WOOD successfully taps into that same place where dreams are born.