Watching “Norwegian Wood” is more like reading a poem than viewing a movie. Director Anh Hung Tran’s brooding take on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 1987 coming-of-age novel offers an escape into a world of lavish, imposing imagery — massive green mountain vistas and enormous rocky shorelines, tender close-ups of lovers and forlorn glimpses of best friends who can barely stand to look at each other. It’s a lovely movie to look at and get lost in, but those who aren’t swept up by its considerable splendor may find less to like.
Like Mr. Murakami’s book, the movie tells the story of Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a young man with a literary bent torn between two beautiful young women, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), each of whom proves as difficult as she is attractive. Midori is a brutal tease who seems to live to seduce and toy with men; Naoko is an unstable wreck prone to emotional breakdowns. Toru, an awkward introvert, somehow finds time to attract and have relationships with both. They have sex. They talk about sex. They spend time in record stores. Pop music plays in the background.
If this sounds more than a little bit familiar, it should. “Norwegian Wood” offers a moody Japanese variant on Western lad lit — part Philip Roth, part Nick Hornby — obsessed with sex and pop music, as if coming of age is best understood as a music video made to accompany a boy’s choice about whom he really wants to get in bed with. (The name of the movie itself comes from the name of a Beatles song.)
Mr. Murakami’s novel was a cult sensation that launched him into international stardom, and the movie attempts to preserve a literary sensibility with a series of voice-overs. But as is often the case in big-screen adaptations, what sounds good on the page doesn’t sound quite as good when read aloud; the flowery narration is both too ornate and too vague to be spoken effectively.
Images, not words, are the movie’s strength. In the book, Mr. Murakami has Toru recall his situation: “I was in love. Love with complications. Scenery was the last thing on my mind.” But scenery is the foremost thing on Mr. Tran’s mind; indeed, the movie is most stunning when the director stages high-tension dramatic showdowns and moments of deep personal anguish against an array of imposing scenic vistas. The choice of shots and locations is more suggestive than anything any of the characters say, with the imposing scenery reflecting the perceived scale and scope of Toru’s dilemma.
Like Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, Mr. Tran is an expert mood maker with a gift for capturing the romance of melancholy. Backed by a stirringly discordant string score from Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, Mr. Tran successfully conjures up the full existential heartache of late adolescence. But in portraying the poetry of “Norwegian Wood’s” youthful drama, he also has bought into its myths, making the pain of being young seem far more meaningful than it really is.
TITLE: “Norwegian Wood”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Anh Hung Tran
RATING: Unrated; contains sex, suicide, explicit sexual discussion
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars