Norwegian Wood (New Video, NR)

dvd norwegian-woodThe movie never quite goes like the book you imagine in your head.

Imagine how stereotypical a teenage girl is with the Twilight books or, perhaps these days, the Hunger Games series. That’s pretty much how I am with Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s novels, and Norwegian Wood is my favorite of the bunch. It caused a huge sensation in Japan when it was released there in 1987, though hasn’t found the American audience it deserves since its first publication here in 2000. Murakami, the increasingly well-known author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and last year’s 1Q84, has historically been very averse to allowing his stories to be adapted into movies, despite how cinematic they tend to be. The only one in his catalog for years was Jun Ichikawa’s 2004 film Tony Takitani, which is based on a short story of the same name. But then a couple of years ago, somehow Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya) talked Murakami into letting him adapt one of his most cherished works, Norwegian Wood, into a film; this is quite a feat on Hung’s part.

On the surface it might seem weird—a French-speaking Vietnamese director writing and directing a film in Japanese, which is set in Japan and features exclusively Japanese actors, and the text it’s based on is much beloved in its native country. But if you look back on Hung’s past work, it starts to seem more logical as to why Murakami would have given him the green light when he turned so many others down over the years; at his best, Hung makes visually gorgeous, haunting, moving films.

The filmmakers get more multi-culti from there, too, what with Taiwanese master Mark Lee Ping Bin working as cinematographer (he is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s usual collaborator, and shot the parts of In the Mood for Love that Christopher Doyle didn’t) and Radiohead’s (obviously British) Jonny Greenwood writing the score. (Greenwood is really making a name for himself as a film composer in recent years; beyond Wood, remember he did the great score for There Will Be Blood back in 2007, and is working with Paul Thomas Anderson again with this fall’s The Master. (It’s also perhaps worth noting that Radiohead’s “Creep” is used to great effect in a key scene in Hung’s 1995 film Cyclo.) His work on Norwegian Wood is his best yet, though (specifically for a film, anyway); the Nonesuch release of the film’s soundtrack, replete with Greewood’s score and a handful of awesome old Can cuts, was a too-overlooked highlight of last year.)

Like a true geek for the book, I was pretty seriously disappointed with the film the first time I saw it, as is basically always the case in situations like this: It never quite goes like you imagine it in your head. I’ve watched it a lot since, though, and while it still seems far from perfect, I like it a lot better each time. Really, it’s absolutely worth seeing, if only for MLPB’s gorgeous photography and Greenwood’s score (and those Can tracks); the ambiance of the film is incredible.

Most of my beef with the film is in the characterization; what in the book seem like fully realized characters all around, even the secondary characters here feel like ciphers with little in the way of logic, feeling, or motivation. For example, far and away the best character in the book is Midori, who in the film is played by Kiko Mizuhara, a movies newcomer but an established model prior to its filming. Mizuhara is undeniably pretty, but she’s also pretty much totally lacking in the charisma her basis is so full of; part of this is on account of the way she’s written and part is because of the way she’s played. The problem is that nearly everyone in the film is like this: The book is bursting with memorable characters and the movie doesn’t really even have a single one. Though it should perhaps be said that, for those who haven’t read the book, the main character, Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), is played more or less how he’s written in the book. Curiously, Murakami wrote him as more or less of a blank slate, perhaps to aid the reader in imagining themselves in his role; it worked—for me, anyway.

And, as I am a true hardcore Norwegian Wood wiener, the new U.S. release of the DVD is the third time I’ve owned it on home video; I originally imported the Japanese Asmik Ace release of the blu-ray and then the Soda Pictures release of the British DVD when they were released many months ago. They all have their pros and cons: The Japanese Blu-ray has both a theatrical cut and a 16-minute-longer director’s cut, the latter of which I haven’t seen surface in the West. Also, it’s replete with a lot of special features, as one would expect. Sadly, while being compatible with U.S. Blu-ray players, neither version of the film nor any of the special features on the Japanese set have an option for subtitles.

The British release does, of course, but it’s lacking some of the special features. They also got a Blu-ray over there (which I haven’t tested; I just imported their regular DVD). On our fresh New Video release of the DVD in America, they get the special features right (a 52-minute making-of that’s on all three releases I’ve screened, as well as a nice featurette from the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere), and of course it’s subtitled and everything, but given how about the single biggest draw to the film is how aesthetically pretty it is, I’m really sorry that they didn’t release it on Blu-ray here, as well. Oh well. I can just watch my Japanese Blu-ray sans subtitles—God knows I know the story well enough to follow along. | Pete Timmermann

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