Set in the late-60's when Tokyo universities were rife with political unrest, Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) is a quiet, reclusive student whose deepening relationship with the emotionally fragile Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, Babel) is haunted but fuelled by the spectre of a shared tragedy, the suicide of Watanabe's best friend and Naoko's boyfriend, Kizuki. Caught between Naoko's emotional breakdown and geographical retreat and the expanding and exciting world of his college life, Watanabe's loyalty is tested by his outgoing and sexually active roommate and Midori (Kio Mizuhara), a sexy, enchanting and free spirited girl he meets on campus.
Norwegian Wood's first act is very clunky, consisting of surprisingly un-captivating fragments of Murokami's expansive novel that are quite ineffective in relaying Watanabe's sense of loss, nor building a believable by-chance romantic connection between the grieving friends. This bond is examined more later, but with the exception of one particular lengthy sequence (an impressive acting display from Kikuchi), most of the scenes feature limited dialogue. I think there are some early faults that were never eradicated. I found it difficult to care for the characters because of the sporadic time they share together.
This is essentially the same for Watanabe. Naoko disappears a long period in the middle as Watanabe's interests turn to Midori. His internal conflict; being torn between his attraction to Midori and his eternal love for Naoko is not really convincing, and without this conflict dividing his character and shaping his relationships, I struggled to be captivated. Perhaps it was guilty of being too subtle, even. What this film does quite well, but could have taken much further by making the 1960's student demonstrations more essential to the story, was addressing teenage disillusionment amongst its central protagonists.
Watanabe, Naoko and Midori are at a crossroads where their youthful sexual urges and sense of adventure are met with adult responsibility and mature expectations, both in their dedication to those they care for, and in their sexual performance. For Watanabe, a quiet and reclusive young man, he is simultaneously dealing with the death of his close friend, balancing newfound desires for sexual experimentation and trying to make sense of a blossoming but unattainable, and seemingly doomed first love.
The slow, ponderous pacing of this film allows the viewer to absorb the gorgeous visuals. If there was one highly commendable feature of this film, it is the outstanding cinematography from Mark Lee Ping Bin. If the film reminds you of Wong Kar Wai's sensual masterpiece, In the Mood for Love, it is because Ping was also involved. While Johnny Greenwood's score, which is a collaboration of his own individual work and Can (I knew it!) is fantastic, it often feels out of place and serves as an inconsistently effective accompaniment to the imagery.
While I have no doubt that Murokami's novel is a beautiful, expansive novel of incredible tenderness, beauty and youthful coming-of-age and heartbreak, I didn't think this resulted in an engaging or effective transfer to the screen. As with most cinematic adaptations (including the recent Jane Eyre) large parts of the novel have been quickly skimmed over or left out entirely. Despite not having read the novel, I recognised early on, that this adaptation was comprised of mere fragments of an emotionally rich tale.
My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars (C-)