Director Anh Hung Tran given free hand in adapting Haruki Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’

Norwegian Wood
‘Norwegian Wood’
TOKYO (TR) – Haruki Murakami is one of the world’s most celebrated authors. Yet in adapting what is his most autobiographical novel, “Norwegian Wood,” to the big screen, helmer Anh Hung Tran was given few restrictions by the novelist.

After a special screening of the film at the Norwegian Embassy in Tokyo’s Minato Ward on Wednesday, the Vietnamese-French Tran said that Murakami only made some suggestions in the beginnings of the development of the screenplay.

“After the first round of exchanges, he generally allowed me great freedom to do what I wanted to,” said the 47-year-old Tran of the film, which opens nationwide today (December 11). “As an artist himself, he understood that I, a director, need my space to make my own creative decisions.”

Taking place amid student uprisings in Tokyo in the late 1960s, the pic, which received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, is a tale of love and letting go. University student Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) falls for Naoko (Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi), the former girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who had killed himself not long before.

Unable to cope with the trauma of Kizuki’s passing, Naoko enters a sanitarium in Kobe. At the same time, Watanabe develops an interest in fellow student Midori (model Kiko Mizuhara, who is making her film debut). Subsequently, Naoko, too, commits suicide, leaving Watanabe distraught.

Since publication in 1987, the best-selling “Norwegian Wood” has been translated into over 30 languages. Tran explained that he couldn’t follow the novel to the letter and had to remove some elements.

“If you read the novel,” he said, “you know that it begins with an older Watanabe looking back at his younger days. I cut that entirely because I felt that a flashback was a commonly used device in films. I wanted to avoid that entirely.”

Instead, he honed the story to the basics.

“What I did was focus on the protagonist, Watanabe, and his emotional arc in falling in love and then experiencing loss,” the director said. “I wanted him to learn how to embrace life and then be able to tell another woman, ‘I love you.’ That is the main narrative that I wanted to focus on.”

Tran’s debut pic, “The Scent of Green Papaya” (1993), was nominated for an Oscar (for Best Foreign Film). His subsequent pic, “Cyclo” (1995), took the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.

Producer Shinji Ogawa said that Murakami was hesitant at first to approve the project, whose beginnings date back to the initial discussions with the author in 2004. But after seeing Tran’s initial script he gave his consent.

Since Tran is not a speaker of Japanese himself, the script for “Norwegian Wood” was first written in French and then translated. Yet language was not critical; it was more about relating the emotional power of the novel.

“I felt that it was important for me to translate the personal experience I had when I read the novel for the first time,” he said. “What I wanted to do was take what I experienced and communicate that as effectively as possible to the audience. I’ve read many books in my life, but few have created the sort of intimacy with the reader that ‘Norwegian Wood’ does. That distinct intimacy is what I was trying to convey.”

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