The melancholy tune and sentiment of this classic Beatles song seems to have taken the life of Toru Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), who is similarly uncertain as to how he should view his relationships. At heart, a quiet and serious young Tokyo college student in 1969, Watanabe, is deeply devoted to his first love, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), a beautiful and introspective young woman. But their mutual passion is made by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Watanabe lives with the influence of death everywhere, while Naoko feels as if some integral part of her has been permanently lost. On the night of Naoko's 20th birthday, they finally make love to each other. However, shortly thereafter Naoko decides to quit college and become a recluse. It is at that time Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) – a girl who is everything that Naoko is not: outgoing, vivacious, supremely self-confident – marches into Watanabe's life and he has to choose between his future and his past.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: An aesthetic powerhouse paradoxically overpowered by its narcotic beauty, Ahn Hung Tran’s adaptation of Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami’s much beloved 1987 novel, is a deeply personal, deliriously romantic interpretation of its source. In some ways it is the director’s clearly impassioned commitment that becomes a source of frustration over the film’s 133 minutes: The luster of the images and painterly attention to composition initially assert Tran’s devotion to the emotional, elusive nexus of the story; about halfway through, however, the film’s dramatic purpose flounders and the studiously lyrical aesthetic grows stifling and self-important.
Much like the inside of a teenager’s mind, I suppose. A small story with very fine bones, its impact depends on our commitment to the central character’s largely interior journey, and the sense of his world expanding; here the vividly expressionistic psychological landscape begins to close in on the characters, and a potentially ecstatic film suffers as a result.
Although the character of Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) narrates several portions of the film as if from some future perch, the framing device of the novel—in which Watanabe is called back to the events of his 20th year by an orchestral rendition of the titular Beatles song—is abandoned, and we stay put in the Japan of 1967. 19-year-old Watanabe is something of a third wheel to Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, best known from her remarkable performance in Babel), and Kizuki (Kengo Kora), a young couple in love.
When the impossibly beautiful Kizuki commits suicide, Naoko is sent reeling to Tokyo, and suspends his actual life for the one he can live—for a while anyway—through books. After some months he runs into Naoko on his college campus and between them a tentative mutual alliance forms. Watanabe has been numbed by the loss of his friend, while Naoko has clearly absorbed the blow. Initially they do not speak of Kizuki, but take long, striding walks through the grass, with Watanabe always trailing but compelled to keep up. During an intimate celebration of her birthday, Naoko whispers (Naoko always whispers) of her desire to spend her life travelling between 18 and 19, suspended between innocence and loss.
Tran weights and orchestrates such moments of tender admission with perfect pitch, staging the abrupt sexual encounter that follows the above admission, for instance, with a blend of piercing uncertainty and fumbling grace. His evocation of the ascendant adolescent sensibility is acute—there are period details on screen and in Jonny Greenwood’s marvelous score, and oblique references to protests are made, but the aim is more timeless—and there develops in the languid pacing and endless, trembling close-ups an evocation of pivotal moments in a consciousness that may take decades to present themselves in full. Watanabe, a largely reactive character, begins to compute that throughout his life people will come and then go without warning, or regard for your plans to have them stay. Perhaps equally importantly, he learns to recognise when 'I’ll call you sometime" means 'I’ll basically never call you again."
The women in his life—Naoko and a fellow student and pocket provocateur named Midori (Kiku Mizuhara)—keep Watanabe suspended between those two extremes, offering themselves and then either crumbling with grief or coolly retreating to a surer thing. Recovering from an emotional breakdown in a kind of urban sanctuary, Naoko agonises over questions of sex and sexuality, pacing through wind-blown grass with Watanabe again in tow and confessing shame and bewilderment over her body’s fickle responses. Midori taunts Watanabe with wanton braggadocio, then insists that she’ll only be his when he is hers alone. Watanabe remains poised at two opposing whims and willing to take whatever is offered. As a cross-section of the psycho-sexual havoc wreaked by the sexual revolution the dynamic is deceptively astute. And yet couched in Norwegian Wood’s increasingly overblown, elegiac trappings, it’s a theme—like much of the film’s emotional impact—smothered in unfulfilled portent and petrified scenery.