'Norwegian Wood': A Classic Book Becomes a Movie

Japanese author Haruki Murakami's coming-of-age novel is being turned into a film, and it looks promising



"The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her. I know, too, why she asked me not to forget her. Naoko herself knew, of course. She knew that my memories of her would fade. Which is precisely why she begged me never to forget her, to remember that she had existed.

So internationally acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami touches off the love triangle at the center of his iconic novel Norwegian Wood. Catcher in the Rye for Japan's post-1960s generation, the novel has sold over 9.2 million copies in its home country alone and has been translated into 36 languages. Now it's being turned into a movie—and judging from initial screenshots, the film version just might live up to the literary original.

Set against the backdrop of Tokyo student revolts and social upheaval in the late 1960s, Norwegian Wood pits protagonist Toru Watanabe, a stoic, preternaturally serious student between two women: the beguiling but depressive Naoko, an acquaintance of Toru's since childhood, and Midori, Toru's sprightly and rebellious fellow student. The novel's characters ignore and hurt and "force stuff" on each other, as Midori says, until each relationship becomes a zero-sum game in which the only way to gain stability is at the expense of a partner. What remains is a balance sheet of love's compromises.

Though not as blatantly surreal as Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood retains the author's characteristic transformation of the ordinary into the bizarre and his obsession for pinpointing the sacrifices maturity requires of youth. These qualities will, hopefully, be transposed to film in Norwegian Wood's first movie adaptation, directed by French-Vietnamese auteur Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, 1993), scored by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (There Will be Blood, 2007) and due to be released in Japan in December 2010.

Norwegian Wood was Murakami's first major hit in Japan and pushed the author into literary superstardom. After the novel's initial release in 1987, Norwegian Wood became a cultural icon. Originally published in two volumes, the first colored deep red and the second forest green, Murakami's novel inspired Japanese fans to broadcast their favorite section of the story by donning correspondingly colored t-shirts. The novel's English edition was translated by Jay Rubin and published in 2000, and though never as omnipresent as it became in Japan, even in America Norwegian Wood is one of Murakami's most widely read novels.

Although Hung's film adaptation was announced in July 2008, details and screenshots have only just begun to leak. Leaked stills show Toru sitting with Midori on her porch, setting the scene for the couple's first kiss, a visit Toru pays to Naoko and her older roommate Reiko, and several shots of Toru and Naoko together outside in the snow. The scenes mark an aesthetic that takes to heart Murakami's introverted and thoughtful characters, the novel's first-person intimacy with its main character and the surreal whirl of images and backdrops against which Toru, Naoko and Midori's stories play out.

In the opening scene of the book, a 37-year-old Toru lands in Berlin to a tinny, orchestral version of the eponymous 1965 Beatles song playing over airplane speakers. The music transports Toru back, in a hallucinatory passage, to a past walk through a Tokyo forest with Naoko. As Naoko pulls Toru along through the forest, she speaks of a hidden well that waits to swallow into darkness those who wander too far off the path alone.

A production still and accompanying documentary news clip capture the filming of the scene. The two characters take their places side-by-side, just as Murakami writes, with Toru falling slightly behind as Naoko obliviously leads. Late afternoon sunshine washes over the surrounding knee-high grass and trees, foliage just enough to hide a lurking field well. Fleeting aesthetic beauty and looming threat make for a heady mix that follows Murakami's delicate sense of symbolic setting and the balancing acts of his characters between self-realization and self-destruction.

Rinko Kikuchi, most familiar to Western audiences as the deaf schoolgirl in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel (2006), plays a moody Naoko. Captured in the outdoor stills, Kikuchi's face is framed by dramatic bangs and her "deep and clear" eyes, hooded by lashes, stare out at the camera. As in Babel, Kikuchi has an ability to look hurt, somehow permanently damaged, even though no problem is superficially evident. On the other side of the triangle, 18 year-old newcomer Kiko Mizuhara plays the energetic Midori. Mizuhara's own vivacity is already apparent in her performance; one still depicts a laughing Midori caught up in conversation with Toru, head forward and mouth open, as outgoing as Kikuchi's Naoko is guarded.

Kenichi Matsuyama (Death Note Trilogy, 2006-2008) cuts a handsome but anonymous figure as Toru, clothed in nondescript polo shirts and a corduroy jacket. A shaggy, bangs-heavy haircut brings the character somewhat closer to a Japanese pop star than feels suitable for Murakami's gritty, counterculture style.

Fan reaction to the leaked stills has been largely positive. Online commenters have come out in favor of Hung's choice of actors, particularly in the case of Matsuyama, who is known to embrace unorthodox roles. On the aesthetics front, others have raised concerns that the stills don't quite match up with Murakami's own dry style—images are too cute, too pat for the author's sense of film noir.

A principal danger for Hung's Norwegian Woodis falling into this trap of glitz. What makes Murakami's novel so persuasive, so moving and so iconic is its unsparing engagement with Toru, Midori, and Naoko's inner worlds. As a film, the story will only hold up if it preserves a similarly introspective spirit. From an initial glance, I would say Hung's got a handle on his own vision of Norwegian Wood, one that avoids over-sentimentalizing as much as Murakami's original. Sure, the leaked screens are riddled with pensive, far-eyed gazes into the distance. But then it wouldn't be Murakami without them.

The thought fills me with an almost unbearable sorrow. Because Naoko never loved me."