A story of sexual discovery, devastating loss, self-realization and all kinds of love in various geometries, set amidst the political unrest of Tokyo university life in the late 1960s, Norwegian Wood is the fifth feature from Tran Anh Hung, who’s works include The Scent of Green Papaya and The Vertical Ray of the Sun. Tran’s films possess a sensual languor, a vivid fecundity, a certain tenderness and grace that, despite the fact that he was born in Vietnam, lives in France, and doesn’t speak Japanese, made Tran an ideal filmmaker to adapt Haruki Murakami’s beloved 1987 heartbreaker-breakthrough, the author’s sole novel that contains no elements of the fantastical, in which the shy yet charismatic Toru Watanabe wrestles with irrepressible youthful desires, ambiguous relationships, an innate resistance to the youth movements enveloping him, and the suicides of more than one of his closest friends.
The lead performances by Kenichi Matsuyama, Kiko Mizuhara and Rinko Kikuchi, who most of you will probably recognize from her Oscar-nominated turn in Babel, balance varied degrees of physical or social awkwardness with glimpses of inner turmoil and sudden sparks of preternatural wisdom. The photography by Mark Lee Ping Bin, best-known for his collaborations with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai, would seem almost too sublimely pretty if it weren’t so utterly precise, governed by the dictates of narrative and close attention to the actor’s impulses. The music by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, who previously scored There Will Be Blood, seems born of a bubbling caldron of romantic-modernist strife. And the sweaters are to die for. (Costume credit goes to Tran Nu Yên-Khê, the writer/director’s wife and frequent star.)
I think we cover a fair amount of ground in the conversation transcribed below, so I’ll refrain from whipping up much in the way of analysis here. I spoke with Tran while he was visiting Toronto last October.
Tran Anh Hung during production on Norwegian Wood
JB: Norwegian Wood is arguably Murakami’s most overtly personal work. Certain elements seem almost autobiographical. Do you feel any kind of similarly personal connection?
Tran: Yes, but only because of the broad themes. Someone finds first love and then loses it, someone is first confronted with grief, or first has to accept the consequences of major life decisions—all this is universal. On a certain level it could have happened to anyone. I think the international success of the book comes from this.
JB: But there’s also this specific theme of suicide and its effect on those left in its wake, the suggestion that when you encounter suicide at a young age it throws a shadow over everything in your life from that point on. All of the choices Watanabe makes after coming into contact with suicide seem influenced by that contact.
Tran: This is true, but we have to recognize that suicide is also a narrative mechanism. The suicide of Kizumi at the beginning of the movie is traumatic for Naoko, and the mechanism starts to work on her when she has sex with Watanabe. Suddenly she doesn’t understand why she couldn’t make it with Kizuki yet now she can make it with a boy she doesn’t love. This mechanism is at work throughout the story. Life is just experience. You can only harness the beauty of experience through art. As an artist you have to find out how to express experience so that the audience can draw the beauty from it. You want the audience to leave the theatre carrying some trace of that beauty with them.
JB: Norwegian Wood closes on quite a bracing note, just the black screen and those final words spoken about how Watanabe’s friends will be 17 and 21 forever, while he has to continue to grow older.
Tran: Yes, I’m quite proud of that. [Laughs] Those words exist somewhere in the book, but to pluck them out and place them at the end feels very right, better than anything I would have created by myself.
JB: I imagine Norwegian Wood demanded a very different development process for you. Your preceding films are rather spare in incident and you give a lot of room for scenes to breathe; with Norwegian Wood you have a great deal of plot to manage. Did you find that process enjoyable? Or was it frustrating?
Tran: Everything that is difficult in the creative process is enjoyable. I like having problems to solve. When you move from one form to another, you have to build emotion from the devices specific to the new form. For example, you have this sequence where you see Watanabe mourning by the sea, then in the next scene he’s making love with a woman, then in the next scene he calls another woman and says, “I love you.” It’s disturbing. Normally such behavior is not acceptable. But when you’ve surrendered to this story it seems acceptable. My challenge is to make an audience intuit this without fully understanding exactly what happened. When Reiko asks Watanabe to make love to her, it’s a rescue scene. Meaning that by making love to her he would give back to her what she has lost—her sexuality. By saving her he feels his guilt towards Naoko lighten. Which means he can reclaim his life and tell Midori that he loves her.
JB: The book has a framing device: a man—the narrator—sits on a plane, hears some music, and is drawn into the past. So it’s all channeled through memory. In the movie that framing device survives only through a very sparing use of voice-over. Did you ever think of structuring the movie similarly, as a memory collage?
Tran: No. Structures relying on flashbacks feel too mechanical. I don’t really like them. But there’s a more important reason. Normally when you move back and forth between present and past you need to show how the past changed or influenced the present somehow. In the book there’s nothing like that. It’s just a voice. So for me to follow this structure I would need to create other events happening in the present. I prefer to focus on the past. To show the wound when it’s fresh. Using a little voice-over was just a way of bringing the melancholy out of the story.
JB: I guess if you tried to weave in the present then you’d be stuck shooting a lot of coverage of some guy on an airplane, thinking.
Tran: [Laughs] Yes. Airplane, then hotel room... Not really interesting.
JB: Murakami’s characters tend to be very composed, at least externally. Your rendering of Norwegian Wood features at least two elements that seem to counter that. One is your allowance of Naoko to succumb to these tempests of convulsive weeping. The other is Johnny Greenwood’s music, which expresses a lot of high emotion.
Tran: Murakami’s characters are always meant to be normal people. Given the romantic nature of this story he could have created moments where the characters go really crazy, do spectacular things. But he always stays with normal people. That’s a great strength. Everyone can identify with his characters. So I had to maintain that aspect while at the same time give voice to the romantic side of things. Johnny Greenwood has a special talent for creating very serious, very dark music that has this captivating beauty. I don’t like the idea of creating so many variations in music. I wanted it to speak to the deep, dark parts of the characters.
JB: I like that you say that, because the movie strikes me as having a very bold sort of sonic division. The diegetic sound serves one purpose, the popular music serves one purpose, and the score serves one purpose.
JB: I was also very drawn to your use of landscape, the specificity brought to looking at the geography of living spaces, the fact that the camera, in my memory at least, seems to be moving almost constantly. There’s the sense that these characters and their intimate story are always set within a larger, very particular landscape.
Tran: I think this is very important. You need to have the physical feeling of a movie. Watanabe’s life is suspended, floating, so you need to find a way to shoot every scene to create a sense of that instability. Every set that we built, every space that we used needed to allow us to move a certain way. Every landscape needed to give wings, somehow, to the emotions of the characters. To be lyrical. That mourning sequence by the sea, for instance. Because what Watanabe is feeling is very primitive, something inside all of us, something that was probably inside the first man on Earth, I needed to find a place that resembled the beginning of life. Only rocks and the violence of the water and the wind. It’s all very essential. All this violence needs to be forceful enough to break through Watanabe’s reserve, to let loose the tears. You cannot explain this to the audience—they just need to feel it. And they way we did this, with this combination of elements, is something that you can do only with movies. When I wake up in the morning it’s precisely this kind of challenging that I’m seeking, that I’m looking forward to as a filmmaker.
JB: Are you familiar with the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto?
JB: Because he has this very famous series of photographs of the sea that have been gleaned from all over the world but in each case the composition is identical.
Tran: Ah, yes! Now that you describe it, of course.
JB: His whole rationale behind that series is very similar to what you were saying about finding a landscape that erases all traces of history, that reflects an idea of landscape—or rather seascape—that exists in some primordial part of the brain.
Tran: Yes, I’ve seen some of these. They are very beautiful.
JB: I want to ask you a little more about camera movement, because it seems like no matter how much activity is transpiring within a scene—I’m thinking specifically about the bit where Watanabe moves through the university campus, with demonstrators passing by—the camera seems to give this feeling of isolation and loneliness to Watanabe that I don’t think we would have found if the camera remained fixed. I don’t know if your approach to camera movement or mise en scène has any sort of overriding philosophy behind it…
Tran: No. It’s only about emotions. The camera in this movie needs to give you the feeling that things are unsettled. You cannot seize the moment easily. Yet, though you may not remember it, there are a lot of scenes where the camera is still… Well, still but not really. [Laughs] Okay, it’s usually moving a little bit.
JB: Something distinctive about your films, something that’s become increasingly precious as we interact more and more with digital media, is their emphasis on sensuality. In the weather, the objects, the way you frame hands and faces and bodies, there’s this sense that we’re being asked to really feel what it’s like to touch things.
Tran: Yes. My idea is that you cannot touch the spiritual directly, but if you can touch the skin you can touch the spiritual, so let’s give the skin to the audience. Everything I’m dong with costumes, lights, locations, everything needs to be there to make the skin more palpable. I don’t need everything to be natural, but I don’t like it when it’s purely symbolic either. Like in The Tree of Life, when you see movement that’s too symbolic I don’t like it. But the movies need to be sensual. People need to feel things. Rain, wind, other people, everything that makes contact with the skin is very important. Paradoxically, I use digital cameras to capture the right feeling of skin. Celluloid has these grains in it, and somehow it puts a layer on top of the skin. With digital cameras you don’t have that anymore. So now I’m shooting all my movies with digital cameras. I don’t want that layer. I want always to touch.