Norwegian Wood: Death, grief and sex.

Ok – so I am now reading this because the film is so alluring, I decided to take on my first Haruki Mirukami novel. (The great love recommended it to me as well, and who can resist that combination?)

This novel has been called impossible to adapt for film. It is the fifth of Mirukami’s novels and the highest selling novel in Japan of all time. Its primary themes of coming of age, loss, alienation, sexual confusion and romantic longings are faithfully brought to the screen in this adaptation. Also present is the deeper themes of questions around sexual progressiveness, sex and death and grief and connection. The film is set in the late 1960’s, and involves the interwoven lives of Toru Watanabe and Naoko as they struggle to come to terms with the death of his best friend and her long time boyfriend, the love of her life,  Kizuki.

Many countries were dealing with sexual revolution at the time of the sixties.  Just finished reading Julian Barnes novella The Sense of an Ending where he states flatly that the sexual revolution might have been occurring in London but it hadn’t made it to the outer realms of the United Kingdom till the 70’s. This film gives us another take on the sixties mythology. Beautiful shots of students protesting as backdrop against Watanabe’s ennui are juxtaposed against his friend Nagasawa, a person who appears sophisticated and worldly. Watanabe befriends Nagasawa and they form a habit of going to bars and picking up girls, but Watanabe soon tires of this, seeing through it to the desperate loneliness and isolation in Nagasawa. Watanabe confides to Hatsumi, Nagasawa’s long suffering girlfriend, that he fears Nagasawa is afraid to be happy. Through narration we are informed Hatsumi eventually leaves Nagasawa to marry, and two years after that will take her own life.

Suicide and its effect on the living is the primary theme of this film. The opening scenes are of Toru and Naoko bonded by their mutual love of Kizuki. Toru and Kizuki are best friends, but Naoko and Kizuki have been together almost since birth, loving each other even as children. There is a bond formed between them, only made stronger by Naoko’s sister’s suicide in their youth. These are three happy, healthy young people looking forward to embracing full and happy lives. Until one day, inexplicably, Kizuki commits suicide, leaving Toru and Naoko to a long life without him.

With nothing to bond them, the young people go their separate ways, only to reunite once they are back in college. Here they are both struggling with concepts of self possession and their own definition of what it means to be an adult. Both are still wracked by the loss of Kizuki, and this brings them together as lovers. On Naoko’s birthday they consummate their relationship, and Toru discovers Naoko is a virgin and asks her why she never slept with Kizuki. This direct confrontation has the disastrous result of sending Naoko into a depression she can’t emerge from, a moment that will shape Toru for the rest of his life.

Without explanation, Naoko goes to a sanatorium in the mountains. In a period of a few months when she is not corresponding with Toru, he forms an unconsummated attachment for Midori, a pretty vivacious sweet girl who is the very opposite of the dark brooding passionate beauty of Naoko.  I’ve read many reviews that suggest Toru is now torn between his future and his past, but for me this was never the case. Despite his attraction for Midori, his bond to Naoko (a woman he knows can never love him properly) has been forged and he is her devoted lover. He states at one point that he chooses a strong life, a powerful life, and this is symbolised by his refusal to back away from the complexities of loving Naoko.  As he chooses his love for her, which is unconditional in that he knows it can never be returned n matter how much Naoko needs him, his character grows and strengthens. This is compared with decline in self possession in Nagasawa. As Watanabe becomes a man, he is the very symbol of self possession and inner clam strength because of his conviction in his own choices.

In this way I found the film to be a striking treatise on existentialism and the relief from alienation “being your choice” can be. This is set against the 60’s when existentialism and alienation were topics at the fore of literature. This is brought out in Watanabe’s interest in Western literature and his references to it.  Sex is used in the film symbolically to represent both the way we embrace intimacy and repel intimacy.  For Toru and Naoko, consummating their love affair devastates Naoko (A woman who’s body usually shuts down when she tries to be physically close to her lover) who responds powerfully to Toru, while sex is about their memories of Kizuki. When it becomes about them as a couple, she is unable to respond. Midori, on the other hand, is light and flirtatious about sex, withholding herself because she has a boyfriend, but teasing Toru so that he is aware of her interest in him. She tells him that when they do it, they each must have no one else. In her grief over her dead father she asks Toru to take her to pornographic film, as she craves the sexual intimacy with Toru, but tries to trivialise it with porn. Despite her attraction to Toru, she refuses to give in to her own whims and desires, using her own self possession to recognise the depth possible in their inevitable connection.

Set against these two primary relationships are the sexual excesses of Nagasawa and the brief sexual encounter between Watanabe and Reiko when they have their own shared grief to suffer through. Just as Midori wants pornography to ease her suffering through the destruction of intimacy, Watanabe and Reiko need their sexual connection to exhaust the depth of feeling between them brought on by a tragedy that threatened to engulf both of them. Their sexual encounter is not about feelings each for the other, but about a shared mutual grief, and a way of cementing and putting to rest an experience that will shape them both. Nagasawa uses brief sexual encounter to avoid the intimacy with Hatsumi, but in his case, he needs the faithful witness of Hatsumi to justify his lovemaking. Nagasawa doesn’t sleep with many women as a single man; he does it as a man pretending to be faithful, even if he is pretending rather badly. He is transferring his pain to Hatsumi, forcing her to bear it, punishing her for loving him – someone he believes does not deserve love.  Watanabe and Reiko share a sexual experience through the love they share for someone else, Nagasawa shares sexual experience to kill a love he feels he doesn’t deserve.

At the base of all these connections is the ultimate theme of alienation and the courage it takes to face the complexities of another human being and choose them, embracing all ones personal power in doing so. While the students are marching, and the sixties is demanding free love, the characters in this film are examining what love means and what it means to be naked and exposed with another person.

Against this long, deep intricate story is the beauty of the film in itself. Tran Anh Hung and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping (who worked together before on ‘vertical ray of the sun’) have put together a fine looking film in response to the complex subject matter and subtleties of this story. Together they have produced a completely beautiful film, that is as much a pleasure to look at as it is to enjoy the adaptation. Much has been made of this films beauty and deservedly so. There is some criticism that at two hours and thirteen minutes it is too long, but I disagree with this assessment, my feelings justified by the complicated nature of the subject matter. Considering it is an internal film with little action, a lot depends on the imaging aspects of the film itself and I found they used the time to great effect, bringing me closer to the three main characters.  This same delicate touch extends to the casting, Matsuvama, Kikuchi and Mizuhara are the walking embodiment of pain with the standout being the gentle Kikuchi as the deeply sad Naoko.

There is a pleasant soundtrack by Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead) that is – I think – a tad out of place, but the central song that gives the novel and film its name is perfectly timed and heartbreaking in its simplicity.

A complex study of the clash of cultures, generations, loves and loses, this beautiful film should not be missed. Grab it at the big screen if you get the chance.