In Haruki Murakami's bestselling novel of 1987, the 37-year-old narrator, Toru Watanabe, is transported back to his student days in late 1960s Tokyo by hearing the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" on the loudspeaker system of an airliner as he flies into Hamburg.
It is a time of student unrest and strident demonstrations, but in the lengthy novel and the film carved out of it, this is merely the background to a delicate love story, or series of love stories. The central tale concerns the reserved Watanabe's devotion to the mentally disturbed Naoko, the former girlfriend of Watanabe's only close friend, Kizuki, who committed suicide at the age of 17. It is a doomed affair that after a single night of love is conducted during visits to an asylum outside Kobe where Naoko is being cared for by an older woman, Reiko, a musician who's also recovering from a breakdown. It is Reiko who sings, in English, a rather beautiful version of "Norwegian Wood" which is later sung by Lennon and McCartney over the final credits. Meanwhile, Watanabe is given a dubious sentimental education at the hands of Nagasawa, a suave, promiscuous fellow student bound for the diplomatic corps, and a more beneficial one from the pretty, witty, intelligent Midori, who attempts to draw him out of his solipsistic shell.
Norwegian Wood is a languorous, visually striking movie about love and loss, infused with the earnestness of young people struggling with powerful emotions and with evolving ideas about life, death, art, freedom and responsibility. A constant voiceover commentary and long tracking shots are broken up by lengthy dialogues, and its gifted writer-director Tran Anh Hung, born in Laos and educated in France, is neither embarrassed by the narrator's frequent callowness and solemnity nor afraid to risk boring his audience.
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