Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel Norwegian Wood left a deep impression of loss and a kind of pervading sadness in me when I read it. The day after having watched the film, I am reliving in my mind the scenes of this beautiful cinematic poem on the nature of death and rebirth.
A story of love lost and love reclaimed from loss, a story that follows four young characters in the Japan of the late 60s, when rebellious students were taking over the streets and university campuses all over (and, yes, I did the same in 1969), a time of social instability and clashing orders, a time of hope and, ultimately, a time of betrayal as the force of reality drowned the dreams.
The story is narrated with the wisdom born out of years gone by. Watanabe’s (Kenichi Matsuyama) love for Naoko (an excellent Rinko Kikuchi, whom we saw in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel) is doomed by the suicide of her chilhood sweetheart and Watanabe’s friend, Kizuki (Kengo Kôra), several years earlier. Naoko never fully recovered from the shock of his death, preferring to keep all the pain inside her, as if she were pretending that episode in her life did not exist, until she meets Watanabe again in Tokyo seven years, an encounter that brings the earlier trauma to the fore in her troubled mind. Not able to cope with social interaction, she withdraws to a recovering clinic, refusing to see him. Watanabe starts a relationship with a fellow student, Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) , a very live loving and outgoing girl who has also been damaged by failed relationships, her personality being quite the opposite of Naoko’s.
Sometimes I wonder if Murakami’s novel reflects to some extent a trait deeply embedded in Japanese culture, a feeling of constant loss and rebirth, certainly present in ancient Shinto rites, and which we have seen in the recent tragic earthquake and tsunami that affected the North-east of the country.
Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Murakami’s novel coveys brilliantly that sense of loss, sadness and rebirth pervading the story, whilst Ping Bin Lee’s washed out cinematography and his sense of both natural and human landscape so evident in his camerawork, gives the film an aura of a story lost in a bygone era. The Beatles song, both in its original version, and that sung by Reika Kirishima (Reiko in the film), adds to this sense of nostalgia.