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It’s okay, I like toxic women

            ~Tran Anh Hung, New York City, 2011


With that breezily candid declaration by director Tran Anh Hung, helmer of such gripping dramas as the Oscar-nominated The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, we have our reason and motivation behind his latest film, an adaptation of author Haruki Murakami’s signature novel, Norwegian Wood.

Toru Watanabe is having the existentialist blues.  The world is changing from the simple place he knew; going to school, hanging around with his best friend, Kizuki and Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko, as a happy third wheel, to observing the civil disobedience and political protests that mark college campuses all across late-1960’s Tokyo.  The other occurrence that disturbs the balance of Watanabe’s uncomplicated life is the suicide of Kizuki.  His death will bear repercussions for Watanabe and harsher ones for Naoko, who summarily loses touch with Watanabe, but meets again by chance some time later.  Their shared closeness to Kizuki and their grief and bewilderment over his suicide draws the pair together.  Naoko’s guilt because of her feelings and eventual intimacy towards Watanabe builds to the point where she leaves him to go to a sanatorium deep in the Kyoto woods.  In the long stretch of time before he can see Naoko in the asylum, Watanabe’s life goes on; working in a record shop and being a University student.  It’s on campus where he meets the vivacious Midori, who makes no bones about her attraction to Watanabe, catching him up in a flirtatious game of hurry up and wait, alternately alluding to a boyfriend then making Watanabe doubt that she has one.  Despite Midori’s flitty charms, the lure of Naoko calls him like a siren to the sea; his every visit to Kyoto reviving his hope that she’ll recover and come home to him.  It seems for every step forward, Naoko is always pulled back by her inability to process the effect of Kizuki’s death or her own sexual inhibitions and violent mood swings, which may all be part of the same issue.  Watanabe’s feelings for Naoko pull on him stronger than his budding affection for Midori and he is caught between the two women, with a third, Naoko’s close friend and co-patient at the asylum, Reiko, thrown in for good measure.

The siren analogy I made a few lines earlier is fairly apt; Watanabe is like a man lost at sea, buffeted between the forces of nature and each calling shore represents a new danger:  With Naoko it’s the fear that she might never get well, or conversely what it means if getting well requires abandoning her guilt-ridden relationship with Watanabe.  Midori’s seemingly normal flirtations are filled with emotional booby traps that Watanabe, caught up in his love for Naoko, is too dazed to navigate, and quite frankly, Midori’s a bit of a flake.  After all his expectations and disappointments with Naoko, has he the strength to deal with another complicated woman?  Even Watanabe’s fleeting moment with the older Reiko is fraught with emotions over their love of Naoko and Reiko’s own story of sadness.

Director Tran captures the dizzying coming of age of young Watanabe as he faces more difficulties in his first love than the average teenager, yet his refusal to give up on the ideal of Naoko, no matter how much of it may only exist in his mind, is universal.  How much of his feelings for the girl is based on the real Naoko, who, at her most present is only barely there?  She exists as a will-o’-the-wisp in their relationship; part of her seeming to have left this earthly plane when Kizuki did.  The start of their attraction may have partly originated with Watanabe seeing himself standing in to care for Naoko in Kizuki’s stead.  Naoko’s neediness, fragility and unattainability capture the young man irrevocably.  The risk for Watanabe is being caught in the vertigo that Naoko represents.  Tran photographs the beautiful natural imagery around the Kyoto mountainside asylum in all its bursting colours and blinding snows in a perverse counterpoint to the washed-out grays of “normal” life on campus in Tokyo, which is the perfect analogy for Watanabe’s life without Naoko.  Even tomcatting around with a pal who refuses to be faithful to his wonderful girlfriend does nothing to anesthetise Naoko’s absence or fade her memory.  Norwegian Wood captures the fever of Watanabe’s first stirrings of love, heightened by the danger and unpredictability of Naoko’s illness, his loss of self and the long road of self-discovery he must follow.

Tran weaves a gorgeous, hypnotic web of emotion and austerity.  He captures the rushes of passion that suddenly grow cold and full of regret.  We feel a youth’s obsession with his image of the girl he loves, rather than her reality, and his refusal to let go of that dream even when a saner, safer option stands waiting.  Tran conducts amazing performances from his actors, particularly Kenichi Matsuyama, who we have lauded on this site since his appearance in 2005's wonderful Linda Linda Linda, and later as L in the Death Note films.  The role of Watanabe is a turning point in the young actor’s career because we see him transform from teen idol to a serious artist of depth and maturity.  It’s remarkable to watch him grow up during the process of this film, taking dares that might never have come to him had he been careful to protect his strong fan following.  Tran doesn’t shy away from the sexuality of the story (excepting in those subplots left out of the adaptation) and while the nudity isn’t abundant or remotely gratuitous, it is there, and it is a significant moment for Matsuyama to be portrayed in a realistic adult role.  Despite all the grown-up trappings, his Watanabe never loses the boyish sweetness that keeps him carrying the torch for Naoko, being befuddled by Midori or expressing tenderness for Reiko.  It’s his almost-childlike acceptance of the things out of his control that anchors Watanabe as he exists inside this tornado of complicated femininity.  Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi is perfectly cast as Naoko; she is half myth and half flesh in Watanabe’s mind.  She beguiles him without trying to and desperately wants to love him – or someone – but simply can’t.  Kikuchi makes the variations in Naoko’s behaviour utterly believable and heartbreaking.  The viewer wants her to recover; they want her to not suffer and to find a happy life with Watanabe.  Kiko Mizuhara captures the coltish playfulness and flirtatiousness of Midori; but just as she’s full of warmth and spark and life, the actress can turn it all off in heartbeat, growing wan and distant, making the temperature in the room drop below freezing after being wronged by Watanabe.  In a small role, but worth a mention for the power of the scene, Eriko Hatsune plays Hatsumi, the girlfriend of Watanabe’s playboy pal, Nagasawa.  In a moment that’s downright masochistic, while the trio is at dinner, Hatsumi insists on Watanabe telling her all about the night he and her wandering man spent out playing together; sharply cutting off any placating interruptions or prevarication from her conniving beau.  The mounting tension in the scene as she explains to Watanabe her confusion about how a man who claimed to be in love with a woman could hurt his lover by wanting somebody else is riveting.  Hatsune plays the scene with Hatsumi desperately holding on to her last thread of poise and grace, while the underlying pain at having to say these words is palpable and show-stopping.  It’s one of those moments that hurts to watch.  The quality of the acting is even more remarkable when one considers that the director doesn’t speak the same language as his Japanese cast.  Tran blends all these performances beautifully with a sharp, unsentimental script, amazing cinematography and an evocative score to make Norwegian Wood a haunting, mesmerising symphony of heartache, love, loss and hope.

Gorgeous, this.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

January 1st, 2012


Exclusive Interview with Tran Anh Hung and Rinko Kikuchi


The Lady Miz Diva:  Norwegian Wood is a career-making role for Kenichi Matsuyama.  I wonder, Ms. Kikuchi how you prepared for your scenes together, and for Director Tran, what was it you saw in him that convinced you he was Watanabe?

Rinko Kikuchi:  I never saw his films before I worked with him, but we talked a lot about character.  The sex scene?  It was like choreography.  I’m so lucky to work with him because he really challenged me a lot and also I challenged him, so that was great.

Tran Anh Hung:  What was really important for me is to find someone who has the same feeling of humanity of the character, and when you find someone like this, then you know that you can work with him and find a way to make a good shot with him.  So, it was not really difficult.  We talked a lot, like Rinko said, and they talked a lot, and most of the time I got into their conversation and changed everything.  

RK:  So mean! {Laughs}

TAH:  {Laughs} And sometimes we improvised a lot because just before the shooting of the scene, sometimes I would change everything.  I don’t want to shoot the scene anymore because somehow, it doesn’t work anymore after a few weeks of shooting. Then I would ask for a half an hour to write another scene to replace it and then discuss again and shoot the scene.


LMD:  Director Tran, had you seen Mr. Matsuyama’s work before you cast him?

TAH:  No, I just asked to see everyone.


LMD:  How did you get Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead to score the film?

TAH:  He was in Tokyo for a concert, so I met with him and asked him if he would like to do the score for this project and he said yes.  So something like three months later, we got an email from his manager and he said he’s not available anymore because Thom Yorke would like to go back and record something. So he told me that he was sorry, but he needed to go back. I shot the movie and after shooting the movie, I said “No, I need him. It must be him.” Then I tried to put the music that he did for There Will Be Blood in the movie and it worked so well that I sent him an email saying, “Jonny, I need you because your music is perfect for the movie.”  And he sent me an email saying “Are you crazy? What does this Irish music have to do with your Japanese story?”  I said, “Okay, I’ll send you some scenes with your music and you will see.” I sent him this and he called me back and he said, “If you accept not to go with a big orchestra and if we go with a sextet, then I will have time for you.” I said, “Okay, no problem for the sextet.” And then we started to work on it and then finally he said, “Oh no, we need an orchestra.” {Laughs}


~The Lady Miz Diva

December 14th, 2011


Special thanks and appreciation to Mr. Samuel Jamier, of the Japan Society for his generous assistance in arranging these interviews.


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