New Emissary

Norwegian Wood OK, and Pretty

Despite a tepid critical reception so far, people will go see the film adaptation of one of Japan’s most revered books.

The film adaptation of one of Japan’s most revered modern books was released in Japanese cinemas over the weekend. Norwegian Wood, or Noruwei No Mori, is based on the 1987 novel of the same name by 61-year-old novelist Haruki Murakami, the country’s superstar of postmodern literature and a 2010 Nobel literature nominee.

Unsurprisingly, expectations for the movie were high and media coverage plentiful. The film’s cast members have been making the rounds through the Japanese variety show circuit over the past few weeks as well, helping to add to the hype. A consequential resurgence of national pride and interest in Murakami’s book isn’t surprising either—in the two decades-plus it’s been out, Norwegian Wood has already had widespread appeal: It’s sold over 10 million copies in Japan alone, and has also been read by millions of people around the world in over 30 languages.

One thing that is surprising is that so far, despite it being a labour of love for Vietnamese-French Director Tran Anh Hung, (who reportedly spent four years ‘of dedicated persuasion and patient discussion with Murakami’ to get permission to make the film, and then took on the feat of filming it in Japanese despite the fact that he doesn’t speak the language), reviews for the film have been fairly lukewarm. The Daily Yomiuri gives it 3.5 out of 5 stars, with the critic admitting that ‘no matter what I write about Norwegian Wood, people will want to see it,’ because of the book’s popularity. Meanwhile, The Japan Times’  veteran critic Mark Shilling gives it only 2.5 out of 5 stars, saying ‘the drama of the characters' intertwined and tangled lives feels curiously inert.’

However, one thing people all seem to be agreeing on is that the film’s visual appeal is its core strength, and the cinematographer of Norwegian Wood deserves more than just a hearty pat on the back. Marvels the Asahi Shimbun: ‘scenes of hilly grasslands and snow-covered mountains make the film visually breath-taking, allowing viewers to become immersed in beauty and tranquillity.’ The Hollywood Reporter meanwhile raves: ‘Superb cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin creates a web of visual sensitivity that accompanies the characters on their emotional journey. From the magic ancient world of nature in Kyoto to the majestic violence of the storming sea, there is much to feast the eyes on.’

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Another strong point has been the performance of Academy Award nominee Rinko Kikuchi, who plays the emotionally troubled character, Naoko. It’s a performance Shilling calls ‘the film's strongest,’ that convincingly takes you through ‘the line from ordinary grief to full-blown depression, which sex cannot heal and tears cannot ease.’ The Nation also hails Kikuchi’s performance as a ‘real scene-stealer’ and one that involves an ‘intense portrayal of the emotionally fragile Naoko,’ by the 29-year-old actress.

It’ll be interesting still to see how the rest of the world receives the film, set in Japan in the 1960s, as it’s released internationally over the coming months.