Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Norwegian Wood - Emotional Hurricanes and Murakami Musings

“I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me,

She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?”

So goes the song evoking emotions that linger long after the credits roll. To be honest about it, it’s a vague Beatles song for me. I couldn’t place it. But once I’ve heard it, it stays on like a delicate henna tattoo. After all, Rollingstone Magazine has ranked it 83rd of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

For Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), it summoned memories of a caustic chapter in his younger life when his best friend Kizuki committed suicide. The 60’s was a harrowingly decadent era; a complex of crisscrossing cultural and political upheavals and trends slicing through out the globe like a tumultuous force that refuses restraint. To recover from it, Toru, who’s soft spoken and pensive, moves to Tokyo, dividing his time between university and manual labor.

One day, Toru finds Naoko (Rinku Kikuchi), Kizuki’s girl friend.They hook up and grow close, but Naoko is a different girl since her boyfriend’s suicide. A part of her is an inconsolable vacuum of regret and longing. On Naoko’s 20th birthday, she shares her bed with timid Toru. After their intimate encounter, Naoko spirals into depression and withdraws from the world. She retreats to a sanitarium in the mountains of Kyoto to heal. Toru keeps writing her, but she refuses to reply.

Though Toru keeps to himself, he seeks solace in the company of Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), a colleague from university, whose character and disposition is antithetical from sullen Toru. Nagasawa is a charming guy who sleeps around (try 70 to a hundred girls) despite having a girlfriend. Toru also meets Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) whose ebullience fascinates him so. But Midori is Naoko's complete opposite. And she bristles with vitality, confidence and honesty.

Then Toru receives a note from Naoko: “Just wait for me. Someday, we will meet again.” And he did! Toru would occasionally visit Naoko, who’s still conflicted with his presence. During their moments of intimacy, Naoko disallows his reciprocation to her affections, lustful and otherwise. So Toru submits himself completely to Naoko’s ministrations… like an accommodating slave. But her restrictions are too ominous and peculiar; and Toru is enraptured. Despite all these, Naoko is a restless, dispossessed soul, who has lost a part of her forever.

The film resonates with haunting despair. The characters are victims of tragedies well ingrained in their flawed characters. It’s almost impenetrable to discern a modicum of real happiness. Yet we’re drawn to their grief and longing like an inveterate addiction. The introspective musings of Japanese novelist Haruki Mirukami is perfectly captured by director Tran Anh Hung’s languid storytelling. Tran Anh Hung employs fetching vistas of the Japanese landscape to frame his scenes in a cinematic canvas, a cinematic tack that envelopes the essence of the story. It took my breath away.

The novel is sexually risky, but never impertinent or scurrilous. In Toru and Naoko’s first coupling (during Naoko’s 20th birthday), the scene sizzles with passion spilling over. His concupiscent thrusts feel very raw and real yet you respect the sincerity of its urgency. You understand why. In another scene where Toru visits Naoko, they sit on a field of overgrown hay while Naoko suggests to the submissive Toru, “Do you want me to touch you?” He meekly nods, as the camera pans over the very green field being blown by a ravaging wind. The implications are astounding, I was swept away.

Despite the deceptive calm in most scenes, it's hard not to get affected by the raw emotions ambiguously underlined within the narrative. The film is not for everyone. It tests your patience analogous to the joys of climbing a mountain. But the payback is ultimate and expansive. I can relate to Toru's moments of isolation. And I end up needing a good cry. But his journey inspires. When Naoko ultimately chooses a path of perdition, Toru embraces life.

The lines are memorable:

Who likes being alone? I just try not to make friends by force, so that I am not disappointed later.”

When Midori’s inconsolable dad lost her wife, he succinctly tells his children: “I would rather have lost one of you than one of her.” Honesty could be a mean preoccupation.

Kenichi Matsuyama plays Toru with impassioned conviction, it’s hard to believe that he’s the same guy who played “L” in the “Death Note” franchise. But it’s his brilliance that allows Matsuyama to shift from one weird character to the next. He is known for his affinity to strange characters. Think Johnny Depp, Japanese style. As Toru, it’s hard to forget his pout; his utter subservience to his girl. After watching him here, it’s understandable to get a little obsessive. Yes, he’s married and is expecting their first child early next year.

The back stories behind the song is interesting. John Lennon wrote it to smokescreen one of his numerous affairs. John recalled: “I was very careful and paranoid because I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I'd always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair.” The Norwegian Wood is a parody “on those kind of girls who when you'd go to their flat there would be a lot of Norwegian wood,” said Paul McCartney. Norwegian wood is nothing special because it’s really but a cheap pine wood. If you notice the weird strings used in the song, its an Indian guitar called “sittar” that George Harrison was playing.

The novel by Murakami, a story of loss and sexuality, became a cult hit in Japan and has been subject of controversy because of its delicate theme. In fact, it’s been removed from the reading list in Missouri, Virginia and New Jersey because of parents’ protests. But sexuality is a component of life and you can’t always dig a hole when you’re uncomfortable with a particular matter. It isn't all gratuitous.

It can be beautiful.

Kenichi Matsuyama

Kenichi Matsuyama

Rinko Kikuchi

Rinko Kikuchi

Kiko Mizuhara

Kiko Mizuhara

Kiko Mizuhara

Tetsuji Tamayama

Tetsuji Tamayama

Tetsuji Tamayama

Director Tran Anh Hung


RM said...

nabasa mo na ba 'yung novel? :)

Cathy Pena said...

Hindi pa po. Have you? How was it in comparison to what I've somehow "described" in the movie?

RM said...

it's like the Kite Runner movie version, some scenes are bent and changed. However,para sa akin, it went well. Nakatulong yata yung taon na binilang para mapa-OO si Murakami sa movie translation. (Wag lang sana magkaroon ng USA-Holly version.tsk)

The movie, I think, is a good one. Halatang supervised ni Murakami ang screenlay at production. However, sex scenes are toned down; no blow jobs and scrotum dramatics, no pubic hair and orgasm.

Nakakainis lang kasi whilst reading, Midori is like an AV star on my mind, and Naoko, a cute jap-drama girl. Pero mga skinny girls ang mga nakita ko. hehe. About Watanabe Toru, I don't care. haha

"And I end up needing a good cry." you sounded like Murakami here.

AND...your Laro review is funny. Sobra. Tawang-tawa ako pag nanglalait ka ng accent, enunciation, pronunciation. Bad Girl.:D

Cathy Pena said...

I will try to get a copy of the novel.

But what I really love about the film is how sensuality is treated, albeit without gratuity, thus making the sex scenes doubly erotic. There was "blowjob" - I mentioned it, so I'm not sure if there's more in the novel (though you've mentioned a few more graphic details); but what's really fetching is how submissive Toru is to both girls. He does everything they tell him to do. In Toru's little world, the ladies call the shots, even sexually (except for the character of Nagasawa who's Toru's exact opposite).

I have always loved the director who's French Vietnamese who also did "The Scent of Green Papaya", etc. I've seen 4 of his works and I find him perfect for Murakami's masterpiece because he patiently builds atmosphere and meticulously constructs mood without being too indulgent. He knows the balance between entertainment and artistic conceit.

The word I read is that the film is actually faithful to the novel, but I don't know for sure since I haven't read the novel - but I will. Truth be told, I could kiss the director and novelist for such a diverting, honest, "risky" fare that hits me in the gut like a rude flash of lightning. It almost bothers me that it "bothered" me so much. Gawd! I'm so hopeless.

RM said...

My personal favorite from the Viet/French guy:The Vertical Ray of the Sun esp. its languid yet vivid cinematography.

Anyway. About Murakami, di siya pinapansin ng Literary Establishments sa Japan kasi hindi siya kasing style conscious nina Yukio Mishima, Tanizaki, at Kawabata. More on short sentences siya like how American writers do e.g. Carver, Hemmingway. Masyado rin siyang naimpluwnesiyahan ng Kanluran, o ng Western culture kaya ayaw sa kaniya mga 'lit' gods ng Japan.. Norwegian Wood is a good start, then read Sputnik Sweetheart, and South of the Border, West of the Sun-- dito KIKILIGIN at IIYAK ka, for sure. Isasara ko ang blog ko kapag hindi. haha. Kasi 'yung iba niyang works, more on cyberpunk/Kafkesque/magic realism na. His latest is 1Q84, a wordplay of George Orwell's 1984.

Cathy Pena said...

Me too. I prefer "Vertical Rays..." over the more popular "Scent of..." Wow, you're quite the Murakami follower. I like how disappointed he got when "Norwegian Wood" caught "fire" in Japan and suddenly he had cult following from out of the blue. Writers like that write the way they want without compromising integrity of style or content.

ethan h said...

How do you get to watch movie like this? I always wonder when I read movie reviews online.

DVD? Film festival?


Cathy Pena said...

hi ethan:

I have a dvd of this one. :)

Jaimeelyn Go said...

Hi there! I just finished reading Murakami's Norwegian Wood then I came across your blog as I was eagerly searching online sites where I can watch this movie with English subtitles. Would you happen to know any link/s for movie streaming? May I know where did you buy your DVD copy? :) BTW, you got a nice blog here. Such an eloquent blogger. Please keep it up!

Cathy Pena said...

Hi Jaimeelyn,

I bought my DVD copy in KL, the very same copy that's been circulating around Metro Manila's DVD tiangge (I've even seen a "lata" -tin - version). Though I will never endorse patronage of film piracy, where else do you get one since they're not available commercially? No knowledge of streaming sites unfortunately.

If you liked the novel, you would love the film's moody atmosphere. Thanks for the kind words. :)

dragonfly said...

Hi cathy,

I have just finished reading the book as well...and i read that you got the dvd in kl?after reading your comments on the movie, it has made me interested to watch it too.. may i know where? as i am in kl as well and have been searching high and low for that movie..

Cathy Pena said...

Hi dragonfly,

If you're familiar with Jalan Alor in Bukit Bintang, there's a dvd shop there (the only shop - not the stalls spread out across this hawker street). I got my copy there. You have to remember that it's been awhile since... but you can still try. There's a folder containing Asian/Japanese/Chinese/Taiwanese titles. You may have to look for it yourself. But they may still have it. Good luck. :)

dragonfly said...

dear cathy,

thanks a lot, i will definitely head there,...fingers crossed..hopefully i'll get lucky!
thanks again!

Cathy Pena said...

You're welcome. :)