By Mat Hough
It was a sunny day, a couple of years ago, and a friend and I were driving alongside the Bridgewater canal towards Trafford. We had stopped at the traffic lights before the Barton Swing Bridge and The Beatles song Norwegian Wood was playing on the radio. My friend turned towards me and asked in his blasé fashion. “Oh yeah, that reminds me! Have you read anything of Murakami?” until that day I hadn’t heard of him let alone read anything by him.
Since then however, I have managed to read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore (2002), The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1997) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) enjoying their philosophical and bleak existentialism. And when I heard that Norwegian Wood (1987) had been adapted into film by Ahn Hung Tran back in late 2010, it stirred me to get the book before I watched it at Manchester’s Cornerhouse in March 2011.
The lead character Toru Wantanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) is the personification of Murakami himself. The story is a nostalgic and emotionally engaging semi biography, semi fictional reflection of his struggle with adolescence. A struggle that is paralleled with the student protests in Tokyo in the late 1960s: a world of convoluted social networks, casual sex and a torrent of Western culture.
This film is quite a unique Franco-Nihon production. The aesthetic is of course Japanese, set in Tokyo using fantastic native actors. Some new to film, others better known in various Japanese media, but all are relatively new to the stage of world cinema. Despite this, Norwegian Wood is a truely dynamic film and it seems to have an almost French feel. I should point out now that this film is not for every Japanese enthusiast out there, but more for those cinephiliacs who appreciate the works of Tarkovski or Bergman.
In my reading of the film, the French Vietnamese director Tran is hotly influenced by La Nouvelle Vague indicated by his rejection of classical cinematic form and self styled cinematography. He uses rapid changes of scene, shots that go beyond the 180° axis, non-diegetic music that comes to a sudden abrupt halt and jump cuts that distort the temporal composition of the film. These techniques couples with the romance at the heart of the drama put me in mind of classic French films such as Breathless (Godard, 1960) and Jules et Jim (Truffaut, 1962).
The film is a sincere interpretation of Murakami’s best seller. It applies some of the themes very respectfully and is by no means too disingenuous in terms of narrative and plot. Tran does manage to leave his mark on this piece of wonderful literature by acquiring a melancholic and beautiful elegance, captured in it’s award winning cinematography which rightly distinguishes this director as an Auteur of world cinema.