Together in the Dark
by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Tran Anh Hung, Japan, Red Flag Releasing
These last few months have been kind to American fans of author Haruki Murakami. Toward the end of October, his much anticipated brick 1Q84 made its way here after selling millions in Japan and undergoing a several-year translation process. Now, just a few months later, a film of Norwegian Wood, the novel that catapulted the author to prominence in his home country (and led him to flee the Land of the Rising Sun for over a decade), by Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo), has wound its way into a limited U.S. release after premiering in Venice way back in 2010. Given Murakami’s enormous international popularity and the general spareness of his scenarios (many center in large part on the actions of solitary men making themselves dinner and listening to Jazz in small apartments), it’s surprising that this is merely the third text of his to be adapted into a feature-length film. The first was Kazuki Ōmori’s 1980 adaptation of Murakami’s debut, Hear the Wind Sing, which hasn’t seen any U.S. release that I can find, and the second was Jun Ichikawa’s modest 2004 stab at the equally modest short story Tony Takitani, which arrived at an admirably approximate visual scheme for the clean lines suggested by the writer’s prose but ended up hobbled by the thinness of the source material. A paltry tally on the whole, yet that the two major Murakami-inspired theatrical productions that have toured in the past decade—of short-story collection The Elephant Vanishes and epic novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—resorted to dense layers of multimedia trickery to capture the feel of the author’s work, suggests hidden adaptive difficulties around his slippery, often banal-seeming prose.
Norwegian Wood, a short, easily digestible 1987 bildungsroman, was a smash in Japan but not published in the U.S. in 2000 (well-after Wind-Up Bird), and was the follow-up to Murakami’s more openly surreal A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), which became available here in 1989 and 1991, respectively. Its reputation as a somewhat jejune entry in the Murakami canon is an unfortunate result of schedules of translation presenting a skewed vision of an author’s progression—its long unavailability and autobiographical cast lent it an air of the “burgeoning” when it was in fact written just after one of his most archetypically strange novels in perhaps the most fecund period of his career. Tran’s film takes some liberties with the text (most obviously omitting a framing device that kicked the novel off, and also trimming a few minor subplots and characters), but largely hits the major narrative beats. That he does so via a battery of oblique storytelling strategies suggests again the difficulties of truly adapting Murakami, and signals the filmmaker’s sensitivity to rendering the feel of the writer’s world as opposed to just following his story by rote.
The film begins by introducing a trio of friends who are ripped apart not long after we meet them. Teenaged lovers Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and Kizuki’s best friend, Toru (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), are inseparable until, suddenly, they’re not. Tran shorthands their youthful play via a series of disconnected shots—frolics at a community pool or wanderings in a preternaturally green field, while Toru’s barebones voiceover outlines the contours of their camaraderie. After Kizuki abruptly, and without any discernible textual warning, kills himself (in a distressingly sober single-take), the film flashes forward a few years to Toru’s new life as a book-obsessed university student in early 1970s Tokyo, where he’s occupying a raggedy communal dorm, avoiding the massive protests that rocked the country, trying to sleep with a girl every now and again. His narration immediately following Kizuki’s death spoke of a desire for a break, and in the utter lack of reference to the life with Kizuki and Naoko he once lived, it seems he’s been successful. Here, Tran tosses off bits and snatches of narrative information, foreshortens scenes, builds montages only to cut them off abruptly (even bluntly hacking at his catchy period music cues), destabilizing his audience as to the import of each image, save their aggregated suggestion of the forward march of time.
Toru’s surprised when Naoko turns up at school unexpectedly; it’s clear that the pair cut ties after Kizuki’s death, but they pick up where the film’s introduction cut off. They don’t talk of Kizuki, but his absence hangs heavy over their meetings, which most often take the form of long, aimless walks around the city. After a few months, on her birthday, the two have sex, the kind of unanticipated, mysteriously meaning-heavy narrative-hinging sex that so many of Murakami’s novels turn on, rendered with appropriate weight and discretion by Tran. It’s erotic, yet never lurid, illuminated by moonlight, which gives it a liminal feel; is this intercourse happening in Naoko’s apartment? Or does its utter unexpectedness signal they’ve shifted elsewhere? Midway through, an obviously pained Naoko admits that she’d never had sex with Kizuki, and when the surprised Toru later asks why, she shuts herself off entirely, refusing to answer. The next day she moves out of the apartment, and disappears from Toru’s life, at least for a while.
She resurfaces a few months later via a letter, sent from a remote sanitarium in which she’s been recuperating. In the meantime, Toru has been approached by the vivacious, forward, sexually open Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) who, though dating someone else, is clearly interested in our reticent hero. While growing closer to Midori, he reconnects with Naoko, and after seeing her at her retreat and experiencing her now openly fragile, unstable state (an impromptu acoustic strumming of “Norwegian Wood” by Naoko’s roommate during his visit suggests why it became the film’s title; the first line alone: “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me” takes on unbearable weight as the film progresses), he is pushed to assume the untenable role of her protector, savior and lifeline. Her life’s advancement is clearly blocked, and gallant Toru, nursing sadness over Kizuki’s death and fear of the life he’s this far avoided living, allows himself to take a pause as well. The tale of a young man caught between two women isn’t exactly the stuff of vanguard fictions, but as Naoko and Toru’s first love becomes horribly complicated and impossibly heavy, the Murakamian strangeness creeps in. Who expects their first major romance to become twisted by madness and death? How reality-bending must that be?
Tran clearly relishes the unconventional edges of the scenario (perhaps he’d also encountered Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun and 1Q84 before filming, both of which spin surreal narratives from the lingering pangs of first love)—unreality infuses every frame. His Norwegian Wood is a film of sensations, of artfully arranged compositions of the lovers in nature, harsh winds blowing at their hair as crisp Foley work overwhelms the soundtrack. It’s a film where some sex is merely penetration for pleasure, and other sex is a true intercourse between beings. And, most Murakamian of all, it’s a film in which characters can change their entire bearing without warning, in an instant. The silky smooth HD photography suggests everything we see is constantly in-between—late nights lit by odd moons and dimming street lamps; record store interiors that literally glow; Toru’s dorm, often filmed in mammoth tracking shots seems a combination of boys’ circus and zoo—none are like any place that existed outside of a created world. Tran’s inviting hyperrealism neuters somewhat the obviously painstaking period production design by lending a modern luster to the assortment of clashing colors, striped pants and corduroy jackets worn by its male protagonists, but nails what’s most crucial to Murakami’s universe. Unlike many adaptive works, it feels a film obsessed with channeling the sensibility of another artist, as opposed to imposing one’s own.
The success of Murakami as an author, as has been repeated ad nauseum, is his ability to locate the strangeness in the mundane, ferreting out holes in the fabric of perceived reality and picking at them, enlarging them until they’ve opened onto new vantage points. Many odd things happen in Murakami novels, but their protagonists generally absorb these strange turns with unfazed acceptance or mild curiosity. Looking back now on the apparent simplicity of Norwegian Wood, produced before the codification of the Murakami brand feels instructive. The massively ambitious, wantonly bizarre 1Q84, by its author’s own admission, was an attempt at summation: his Brothers Karamazov. His editors should have talked him down (even Dostoevsky’s shorter masterpiece Demons could have benefited from some judicious snipping in its first section); the book’s bloat gradually overwhelms the flashes of pleasing strangeness that made Murakami an international novelist in the first place. When one arrives at the conclusion to find that 950 pages of words were expended on an attempt to merge Norwegian Wood’s puppy love-with-complications and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s this-is-Japan statement-making, it’s hard not to feel let down. The book Norwegian Wood, for all its lack of narrative convolutions and supernatural happenings, excels because it admirably manages to repress the overt trappings of sci-fi and fantasy that Murakami is celebrated for within the most benign of tales. The result is among his more truly uncanny works and Tran’s film follows suit (he even renders a few of Murakami’s darkest sequences with the sickly feel of good horror filmmaking). The hysterical acrobatics of 1Q84 reek of an author trying to recapture magic, but, having read too many of his own reviews, failing. For those seeking to recapture the Murakami that wowed in the 1990s, Tran’s sensitive, singular adaptation of his small, lovely book isn’t a bad place to go.