“Don’t ever feel sorry for yourself,” says Nagasawa, the elitist playboy in “Norwegian Wood,” the first film to be made of Haruki Murakami’s best-selling 1987 novel of the same title.
It’s good advice for his troubled friend Watanabe, the movie’s main character, who grapples with a pal’s suicide, his emotionally fragile girlfriend Naoko, and an unexpected love triangle.
Fans of the novel, which has been translated into 39 languages and sold more than 10 million copies in Japan alone, will be happy that it has transferred faithfully to the screen, partly because Murakami agreed to help draft the screenplay.
Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung, who won the “Camera d’Or” prize at Cannes for “The Scent of Green Papaya” in 1993, captures the lush scenery and impeccable portrayals of the novel’s characters.
The film is backed by a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and songs by Can, the Doors and of course the Beatles. If you can’t stand tortured indie rock bands, save your 1,800 yen ($21.50) for Murakami’s more thrilling “1Q84.”
Naoko is played by Rinko Kikuchi, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of a deaf-mute teenager in the 2006 film “Babel.” That made her a natural choice to play Watanabe’s institutionalized girlfriend, who mostly whispers clipped phrases as she questions her love for a dead childhood friend.
While student radicals unleash their passions onto the streets of Tokyo in 1969, Watanabe, a typical Murakami anti-hero, chooses to read books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, John Updike and Raymond Chandler.
“It’s not that I like being lonely,” he tells a classmate. “I just don’t go out of my way to make friends.”
The film’s elegant moodiness is broken up by the appearance of the gamine Midori, who enjoys recounting her pornographic fantasies to Watanabe. Played by newcomer Kiko Mizuhara, she bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Tautou’s title character in “Amelie” with the same bob hairstyle, crimson lips and slightly creepy smile.
Seeking companionship after her father’s death, she tearfully asks Watanabe: “Will you take me to a porno? A really kinky one?” Who can say no?
Sex, however, is no joke in this movie. It preoccupies and confounds many of the characters, and guiltless pleasure is rarely enjoyed by any of them. Tran doesn’t shy away from portraying this struggle in all its rawness, which contrasts with their unwavering feelings of love.
“I just can’t help it,” says well-bred Hatsumi, explaining her devotion to Nagasawa in spite of his girl-swapping exploits.
Tran returns to the patient cinematography of “Green Papaya,” after a detour into gratuitously violent territory with “I Come With the Rain” in 2008. Director of photography Pin Bing Lee captures sunlight streaming through trees at dawn, and beautiful shots of Watanabe and Midori chatting on the veranda, as rain gently patters. There’s lots of rain and snow.
Naoko’s caretaker Reiko gives a lovely acoustic performance of the Beatles title song in a cabin in the hills of rural Kyoto, and the original version graces the credits.
Sound direction is restrained, with gentle pianissimos building slowly to an explosion of white noise. The wailing eventually settles down, and we are left feeling hopeful.
“Even someone as powerless and incomplete as me feels at times how wonderful it is to be alive,” Reiko tells Watanabe.
Growth may not come without suffering. But at some point, enough is enough.
“Norwegian Wood,” distributed by Toho Co., opens Dec. 11 in Japan.
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(Makiko Kitamura writes for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)