Based on the novel by acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami, the bittersweet and surrealism-tinged coming of age story Norwegian Wood is now available on VOD from Red Flag Releasing. Laconically paced and poetically atmospheric, the film is steeped in nostalgia for the trappings of Western culture that infiltrated Japan during the 1960s, and tells the story of a college student rended by dual affections for a quirky, vivacious co-ed, and the emotionally fragile girlfriend of his deceased best friend from high school.
Following the suicide of his friend Kizuki, Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) begins an awkward, protective romance with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), which is truncated suddenly and unexpectedly the morning after their first fumbling sexual encounter. Leaving only a vague note alluding to her whereabouts and motivations, Naoko vanishes, and Toru becomes cautiously involved in a flirtatious but platonic entanglement with Midori, a flighty but charming fellow student at his college.
Learning that Naoko has been institutionalized, Toru travels to the remote, pastoral rehabilitation center where she has been situated to aid with her fumbling emotional recovery, unsure whether the growing intensity of his feelings for her are propelled merely by a sense of chivalry, or by something much deeper. As his parallel fascinations with both Midori and Naoko grow increasingly complex, Toru is forced to reconcile the ghosts of his tortured past with the uncertainty of his future, and his sense of duty and responsibility with his need to move forward whole and complete.
The film is shot beautifully, with meditative pacing that allows its emotional resonances and sense of subdued longing to gradually and seductively smolder. Its period setting plays less as an attempt at metaphoric social commentary or nostalgic window dressing than a source of diffuse longing for a past that has already become inaccessible, remote, and largely irrelevant, except as a series of lovingly preserved emotional impressions.
Murakami’s balance of poetic alienation and creeping surrealism, likewise, is captured accurately and poignantly. Like most female Murakami characters, Naoko and Midori play simultaneously as distinct individuals and split projections of the protagonist’s feminine ideal, and the shuffling of their threads of interaction elaborates Toru’s own inner monologue at the same time it comments on the characters’ relationships to one another. The film’s sense of brooding melancholy makes it a simultaneously sweet and painful exploration of self-identity and first love that more than does justice to the rhythms and coloration of its source material.