Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) and Naoko (Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi) are part of the lovely scenery in "Norwegian Wood." (Images: Red Flag Releasing)

Rafu Entertainment Editor

Famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for words in describing his “Norwegian Wood” as “a love story. I know this is a very stale way to call it, but I can’t think of any other appropriate words.”

For the film adaptation, now available on home video, his description is entirely appropriate, yet not always in the most flattering fashion.

Murakami resisted efforts to bring his 1987 blockbuster text–which has sold some 12 million copies worldwide–to the screen, until finally giving his blessing for the project under Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung. Tran had lobbied Murakami for the green light since their first meeting in 2004.

The result is somewhat predictable, to both the film’s advantage and its detriment. Frame by frame, it is a masterfully gorgeous piece of work, due in no small part to the gentle artistry of Lee Ping Bin, the director of photography who also shot one of the most subtly sensual films ever, Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love.”

Tran, who broke onto the international scene with “The Scent of Green Papaya,” plies his trademark of introspection and inner torment to its fullest in “Norwegian Wood,” but it is not always as effective as, well, a novel, in terms of conveying complex and conflicted emotion. Several of the sequences, pretty as they are, fail to become more than characters staring off into space.

Murakami’s story begins in the turbulent late 1960s, a period during which Japan, like many countries, struggled through the younger generation’s rejection of the political establishment. Its title is taken from the Beatles song of the same name, in which John Lennon deploys tactile imagery to discreetly tell of a one-night stand. Like the song, the film has its basis in the sexual revolution that shaped so much of its era.

The narrative centers around college student Watanabe, played by Kenichi Matsuyama, whose carefree high school days with pals Naoko (Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi) and Kizuki (Kengo Kora) have come crashing down into adult reality. Kizuki marked his high school graduation by promptly committing suicide, leaving girlfriend Naoko in such a state that she ends up not at a university, but in an asylum.

Before then, however, she has a quick tryst with Watanabe, thoroughly confusing him, as he is also being pursued by the newly-sexually liberated Midori, portrayed by the softly incandescent Kiko Mizuhara in her film debut.

Midori (model Kiko Mizuhara in her film debut) makes her intentions crystal clear, further complicating matters for Watanabe.

Anyway, it’s all a bit of mess (anyone who was in college through the ’60s and ’70s can fully relate, I’m sure), as relationship boundaries and definitions begin to blur. Toward the end of the movie’s 133 minutes, one begins to wonder why no fewer than three women (add fellow asylum resident Reiko to the mix) throw themselves at the awkwardly timid–and somewhat dull–Watanabe.

Tran takes full advantage of the story’s nostalgic pinnings, painting each scene as a postcard from the past with costumes and set design that honor the time period without become cartoonish. There are scenes of sex and intimacy, but Tran emphasizes emotion over physicality, which serves Murakami’s text of love and loss very well.

Perhaps the film’s most potent scene comes when Naoko finally spills her guts to Watanabe about her relationship with the now-deceased Kizuki. Shot in one long take with the two actors pacing frantically back and forth on a grassy hillside, it is a masterful mix of unleashed emotion and cinematic artistry. Unfortunately, it is one of the few parts of the film that makes such a satisfying impact.

Norwegian Wood, 133 minutes, unrated. Japanese with English and Chinese subtitles. Widely available at retail/rental outlets, including J-Wave in Little Tokyo and Videotheque in South Pasadena.

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