or should I say
She once had me.
Many films about the idylls of young love involve one partner being sucked into the orbit of the other. In Norwegian Wood based on the popular novel by Haruki Murakami Toru Watanabe gets sucked into the orbit of two different women.
The pull of the first, Naoko, is the sorrow she and Toru share.
The pull of the second, Midori, is how distant to Toru’s sorrow she is.
In 1967, after the death of his friend by suicide, Toru leaves his rural home to attend university in Tokyo. He says that, as he left, he locked his sadness away, not wanting to deal with it. But soon Naoko shows up.
She and Toru’s friend had been soulmates of sorts, and since his death Naoko has been drifting. They become companions, providing comfort for each other without ever speaking of the suicide.
Midori, meanwhile, is light and bubbly and sexual in a completely bizarre way. She has had her share of loss, too her mom is dead, her dad is dying but she floats resolutely above it. Unlike Naoko, who uses Toru as an avatar of grief, Midori sees him as a bright (though somewhat made-up) carrier of life’s possibilities.
Like its namesake Beatles song, Norwegian Wood is suspended in a kind of gauzy surreality. There’s nothing hallucinatory in the dialogue or action, but the cinematography lingers like a haze and the way scenes and lines of dialogue abut each other dissonant and jarring makes the whole thing feel like a faint, strange dream.
While the novel, narrated by Toru, is very much about him, the film by virtue of the fact that we don’t have his voice guiding us through his life is too much about the women. They are not the heroes of this saga; they are sirens one inspiring stasis, the other change.
Still, we get enough of Toru that his growth feels real, if not full.
There are two great tragedies that occur in his life. After the second, Toru walks to the ocean, huddles in a cave and wails for days. At the end of it, he concludes, “Nothing can heal the loss of a beloved. All we can do is live through the sorrow and learn something from it. But whatever we learn will be of no help in facing the next sorrow to come along.”
It is a profound and lingering sentiment: There is no way to get better at this. At best, there is a way to gain strength from it.
People have been critical of this film as a love story. Neither woman is available to Toru any more than Toru is available to them. Those people, though, miss the power and purpose of that scene on the beach.
Norwegian Wood is not a love story, it is a loss story. The disjointed, somewhat stilted love arc only exists to prop up the arc of loss, wherein a scared young man learns to grieve, heal, grow up and move on.
Critics are right that this isn’t a good love story. As a loss story, though, it verges on excellent.
Directed by Anh Hung Tran
Starring Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara