Based on a hugely popular 1987 Japanese novel, the quiet drama NORWEGIAN WOOD is a haunting coming-of-age story that explores love and loss against the backdrop of 1960s Tokyo.
As his fellow students protest and march—Tokyo had its ’60s radicals, too—brooding college student Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) falls into a romantic affair with the delicate, damaged Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). The two come together in unspoken grief after the suicide of their mutual friend, Kizuki, who was also Naoko’s first love.
The young couple’s first sexual encounter leads to a emotional breakdown for Naoko, who retreats to a countryside sanitarium. Watanabe, meanwhile, executes a retreat of his own—into books and ideas and the new vistas of college life. He soon encounters the beautiful, free-spirited Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), whose sunniness seems a light at the end of his tunnel. Then things get complicated.
Norwegian Wood is a beautiful and melancholy film that moves to its own unhurried rhythms. Not much happens, but when it does, it’s tidal in force. Young love, the film suggests, is the same in any era or place—baffling, euphoric and occasionally scary as hell.
One fascinating aspect of the film’s love stories is that, for the central characters, the sex is anything but casual. The young adults in Norwegian Wood are suspended between Japanese cultural tradition and the glad tidings of the sexual revolution drifting in from the West. For them, sex is decidedly liberating—but also inseparable from honesty, responsibility and loyalty.
Director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya) uses music to underline themes of past versus future; yesterday versus tomorrow. The traditional orchestral score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is punctuated by snippets from the Doors and the Beatles. Keep in mind this is 1960s Tokyo, back when Japanese hipsters shopped for American vinyl records, and not the other way around.
Norwegian Wood is one of those great little films you can usually find migrating to home video in any given week. The film had a limited release in a few North American cities earlier this year, but otherwise you’d need to have attended a festival in Toronto or Venice to catch this one.
The Extras: English subtitles, an hour-long making-of doc and a featurette on the film’s premiere at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Golden Lion award.