Iidabashi Tokyo

NORWEGIAN WOOD: FILM VS. NOVEL LOCATIONS

Directed by Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, the film adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s most well-known novel was released back in 2010. While I’ve been aware of the film’s existence for awhile, it wasn’t until the other week that I finally got around to watching it. After recently visiting the real-life Norwegian Wood locations for The Murakami Pilgrimage, I was curious to see if any of the actual locations from the novel were featured on-screen.

REAL-LIFE JAPAN LOCATIONS: NOVEL VS. MOVIE

Norwegian Wood deals with issues like young love, mental health, suicide and other heavy stuff. All in all, whether or not a particular neighborhood mentioned in the book also makes an appearance in the movie shouldn’t have a huge impact on how the story plays out in the film. Yet, while watching the movie I was often baffled by many of the director’s choices.

We know that Watanabe and Naoko meet each other by chance in Tokyo on the Chuo Line subway. In the movie, on the other hand, Watanabe is sitting on a bench in front a pond somewhere when he notices her standing nearby.

At the end of their walk together they find themselves in a large forested area which seems to be Rikugien Gardens in Komagome. It’s here in the film, for some reason, that Naoko finally asks where they are and Watanabe tells her. Having visited Rikugien Gardens and knowing that one must wait in line to buy a ticket, I found this scene a little silly. This can be easily forgiven, of course, as most people watching the movie wouldn’t have visited the gardens.

Komagome Norwegian Wood
The Rikugien Gardens in Komagome: One of the few actual locations featured in the film

After their walk, it’s clearly stated in the novel that they ate soba together. In the film, on the other hand, they’re at some other type of restaurant. Again, this change is not a big deal. But really, how hard would it have been for them to shoot the scene at a noodle shop? Soba restaurants can be found everywhere in Japan. And Komatsuan, the specific one mentioned in the book, is still around today.

In regards to Watanabe’s dorm Wakeijuku, it doesn’t seem like they filmed on location, which is understandable considering all the students living there full-time. It would’ve been nice if they’d put in some effort to recreate the statue and flag pole described in the novel, however. Many other details of Watanabe’s dorm life were completely missing from the film.

Norwegian Wood Dorm
The statue and the flag pole do not make an appearance in the movie

Further into the movie, no Tokyo neighborhoods are mentioned by name. We don’t even learn that Watanabe moves to Kichijoji, for example. Instead, the film just jumps to a scene of him living in a new place which doesn’t fit the description in the novel at all. Rather than a standalone structure with a garden, it’s some generic apartment complex with a lobby. This shouldn’t be a big deal, but as I’ll get into shortly, this choice of scenery really screwed up the film’s final scene.

Watanabe’s discussion with Midori’s father at the hospital, during which he refers to the train ride to Ueno, is also completely missing from the film. This was a strange scene to leave out, as it was a pretty significant one in the novel. Ueno Station is not brought up or featured at any point during the film.

At the end of the movie, just as in the book, Watanabe calls Midori. She asks him where he is, to which he responds “I wonder where I am now?” Such a response sort of made sense in the novel as he was surrounded by the disorienting bustle of Ueno Station. It was absolutely ridiculous in the movie, however, to see Watanabe say this in the lobby of his own apartment complex.

Ueno Norwegian Wood
Missing from the film: Ueno Station or any mention of it

Considering the story is set in the late ’60’s, I can understand how featuring modern-day Tokyo train stations might’ve been difficult. But they could’ve at least included the Toden-Arakawa tram line which hasn’t changed much since decades ago when the book takes place.

I did like the choice of filming location for the Ami Hostel, which was shot in the mountains of Hyogo Prefecture as opposed to somewhere in Kyoto. This doesn’t matter because the exact location within Kyoto Prefecture is never mentioned in the book anyway.

MY REVIEW

First off, I’ll start with the positive. Where Norwegian Wood really shines is in its visuals and sound. This is an incredibly visually stunning work. The cinematography is excellent and the colors are vibrant. Every shot just draws you in. The costumes were also excellent, making the viewer really feel like he or she is peaking into Japan of the late 1960’s.

The soundtrack features original compositions by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood. His pieces fit the atmosphere and mood of the movie very well and are worth a listen to even on their own. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear so many songs by the German rock group CAN, one of my personal favorite bands.

Sound and visuals aside, the film adaptation of Norwegian Wood contains plenty of faults. Like so many book-to-movie adaptations, this one simply does not do justice to the original novel.

First of all, there’s hardly any narration from Watanabe which makes it very difficult to get a feel for his personality, especially if you’ve never read the novel. It’s as if Tran was just assuming his viewers have all read the book, saving him from much of the effort to make Wanatabe’s personality shine.

Norwegian Wood the novel is overall a pretty dark and heavy story but it also contains plenty of humor and charm. As far as I can recall, it’s one of the only Murakami novels to make me laugh out loud. Unfortunately, this humor and charm is almost completely absent from the film. I cannot understand why Stormtrooper, for example, is only in the movie for about two very brief scenes. The actor they chose was an excellent casting and the absence of Stormtrooper really brought the film down overall.

Reiko was also a pretty funny and witty character in the book but not so much in the movie. One of the strangest omissions of all was them completely leaving out the musical funeral from the end of the book. That was one of the highlights of the novel and a horrible idea to leave out from the movie, even if they may have had to alter the playlist due to copyright issues.

Inokashira Park Norwegian Wood
The film lacks any mention of Kichijoji or the special funeral for Naoko

Many of the scenes with Watanabe and Naoko alone together are painfully slow and dull. I would’ve liked to see some of these cut in half to make room for more Stormtrooper.

I would not recommend this film to anyone who’s not yet read the novel. Furthermore, if you’ve read the novel and are coming to Tokyo in the near future to visit its real-life scenes, you should hold off on seeing the movie. It’s a lot more fun to explore the neighborhoods from the book while the images you’ve created in your mind are still fresh in your memory.

Murakami books are probably mostly better left off just as they are – as books. Murakami apparently also feels the same, and Tran mentions in interviews how hard it was to get him to approve of the project. With that said, I would be very interested to see one of Murakami’s more surrealistic novels adapted for the big screen. Could you imagine The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle directed by David Lynch? Or what about Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Alejandro Jodorowsky? Now that’s the type of project I am eagerly hoping to see!