I was first introduced to Haruki Murakami when I was about 19 and a friend recommended Norwegian Wood to me. Since then, over the years, I’ve avidly read my way through nearly all Murakami’s books that have been translated into English, and am looking forward to reading his latest novel, 1Q84, which is apparently coming out in this country later this year.
By now, the plot of Norwegian Wood was a little hazy in my mind but as soon as I started watching the film, it came back to me, even stray lines of dialogue or little details you’d think would have been completely forgotten. The film is about a university student, Toru Watanabe, who falls in love with a girl, Naoko. He has known her since childhood and they are bound together by a tragic event in both their pasts. Naoko has been so traumatised by this event that she is suffering from severe depression and goes to stay in a strange, dream-like mental hospital, isolated deep in the countryside. The effects of grief on Toru are very different; he copes well with life on the surface but retreats into himself and his books, maintaining a distance between himself and university life, which seems to mean nothing to him. The story is set in 1967, and there are student protests and unrest all around Toru, but the film shows him walking among the rioters, untouched by their emotion and absorbed in the circumstances of his own life. He is befriended by a more sophisticated fellow student, Nagasawa, who has had sex with many women, and begins to take Toru with him on nights out to find girls to sleep with. In this way, Toru can still have sex, even though all his feelings are attached to Naoko, who he can’t sleep with; she is too fragile and vulnerable and sex is painful for her. Toru’s life is divided between Nagasawa’s world of casual sex and his visits to Naoko in the institution.
But then everything changes when a girl called Midori sits down at his table in the cafeteria one day. Midori is a complete contrast to Naoko; she’s outgoing, talkative, confident, witty, flirtatious. She has no problem talking about sex and telling Toru her sexual fantasies about him. Most of all, she has a strong desire for life. While Naoko is trapped in a world of mourning and self-destructiveness, from which she can’t seem to break free, no matter how much she tries, Midori never allows her problems to destroy her overwhelming wish to move forward in life and be loved. I think the film shows the way in which people react differently to loss. Midori admits that, although her mother has died and her father has moved away, she does not feel grief or abandonment. Toru asks her if that means she wasn’t loved enough by her parents and Midori replies, ‘I was always hungry for love. Just once, I wanted to know what it was like to get my fill of it – to be fed so much love I couldn’t take any more.’ When her father dies, she is sad, but then after she’s finished crying, she asks Toru if he will take her to a porn film. Her reaction to death is an ever stronger desire for life (which in the film seems mostly to mean sex) whereas Naoko seems to want to follow the dead into the grave.
Midori is a great character and one thing the film lacks is the time the book takes to develop the relationship between her and Toru. The book is full of very entertaining conversations between the two of them. When the film does occasionally use some of the book’s dialogue, it introduces some humour to the tragic story. Like Midori’s description of her ideal of perfect love:
‘Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortbread. And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortbread out to me. And I say I don’t want it any more and throw it out of the window. That’s what I’m looking for.’
‘I’m not sure that has anything to do with love,’ I said with some amazement.
The book enables the reader to care more about these characters and to see why they are drawn together. It is also difficult to translate the narrative voice of Toru to the screen. In the book, he’s funny, thoughtful, deadpan, calm. In the film, he is sympathetic but doesn’t come across so much as a strong character, missing the witty observations he makes in the book. The film strips the story down to its sad essentials, but the book gives the reader so much more. However, I did like the film. It is visually very beautiful and I would like to see it again for that reason alone. There is a lot of silence in the film, leaving space to think and to look. When there is a musical score, it occasionally seems intrusive, as if it’s deliberately drawing attention to itself, as the discordant violins well up during a dramatic or emotional scene. I wondered whether this was a reference to older traditions of film, as it seemed quite melodramatic, but I don’t know enough about cinema to be sure… Some scenes definitely seemed archaic and mythical to me, taking place against a vast landscape of snowy fields or a bleak scene of cliffs above a violent sea.
Suicide was always present in this film, inexplicable and mysterious but also symbolic. It seemed as if the characters who committed suicide were unable to cope with life, and in particular with change. The story is set at a time of social change and sexual liberation. Some of the characters are affected so deeply by loss or infidelity that they can never really recover. I did feel sympathetic to these more absolutist and inflexible characters. I wondered if this was somehow connected to the time in which the story was set, as the 1960s seemed (from my very vague knowledge…) to focus only on youth and the future, on breaking away from outdated ways. I think that another side of social revolutions can be throwing away what doesn’t fit in to the new world, and not wasting much sympathy on those who don’t belong, who were born too early or remain tied to the old traditions. It made me think about how forgetting can be an act of callousness but also of self-preservation and renewal. The characters who survive realise they ‘have to go on living’ (a phrase repeated a couple of times during the film) and don’t allow themselves to be consumed by what’s happened in the past. I felt as if the story shows that suicide is often linked to a moment of transition in life, for example if a person is not strong enough to make the leap from adolescence to adulthood. Those who survive the transition are changed and move on to the next stage in their lives. Part of what’s needed to do this is to forget the dead they’ve left behind, or at least not allow them to dominate the present.
There were some things that bothered me about the story, in particular the ending, that I can’t remember feeling at all disturbed by when I was 19. I’ll try to talk about these plot developments in vague terms, but it might be difficult not to drop a few obvious hints as to what happens… The two main female characters, Naoko and Midori, seemed to represent different feminine ideals, one old-fashioned and passive, one modern and self-determining, one linked to death and the other to life, one looking back into the past and the other forward into the changed world of the 1960s. They also seemed to symbolise two different paths Toru’s life could take. What happens at the end of the film therefore seems necessary in relation to the plot and Toru’s destiny, but also cruel. It seems as Naoko’s fate was simply a way for Toru to continue with his life and break out of the unhealthy stasis he’d been trapped in, and I found it difficult to forget Naoko amid the hopefulness of the ending. I suppose that’s the problem when characters are symbolic as well as easy to relate to and sympathise with; you have to detach yourself a little from their fate. In fact, the very ending of the book is more ambiguous. However, I did like the very last lines of the film, which seemed to capture perfectly its mingled atmosphere of melancholy and optimism.