Norwegian Wood: Between Reel & Read

There is a small Murakami club brewing in my household. And it is expanding. Our friend Deepika is also part of the fan club now after we introduced Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman to her during our last holiday together amid the ruins and squalor of Mumbai. It’s a different story that she loves her bed.

Last night we watched Norwegian Wood. After reading the book I was quite eager to see how film directors capture a novel as rich as this one. On the surface, Norwegian Wood is a story of love and loss. Set in the 1960’s wintry Japan, Toru Watanabe is a university student unaffected by the student uprising of the time, a loner who hankers after Naoko, girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki who killed himself. But Naoko is a troubled girl who ends up in a mental institution and ultimately hangs herself.  Watanabe loved Naoko, she loved him too but they did not live happily ever after.

And it is in the ending that you ask yourself a series of questions. Murakami’s books deceive simplicity because his philosophies are trapped within those simplicities. His mind works on different realms. The friendship among Naoko, Kizuki and Watanabe is deep seated, almost surreal. And I will attempt at deconstructing Murakami’s definition of this surreal friendship. 

Three best friends and love intertwined – that is Naoko, Kizuki and Watanabe for you. Naoko and Kizuki are childhood sweethearts, their love blossoming as they grow into adolescence. But it is a love that is cut short as Kizuki kills himself (why I forget, it’s been a while since I read the book and my memory is not as good as I thought it was).  A fragile Naoko grows closer to best friend Watanabe, also a loner who knows no other friendship apart from the one he shared with Kizuki. In many ways, Watanabe fulfils the love that Kizuki left behind. When Wantanabe makes love to Naoko, he is surprised she is a virgin despite having been with Kizuki for so many years. It is something that Naoko tells Watanabe many months later on a rainy afternoon at the lush forest of the mental asylum. “It was painful, I never got wet,” she reveals. And yet they loved each other insanely. And this is something that runs in Naoko’s mind throughout – that she could not be normal with the one she loved and normal with the one she loved later.

The more Naoko gets closer to Watanabe, the more her condition seems to deteriorate. It appears Watanabe is her medium to get closer to Kizuki, united in death, as they say. For most part of their friendship, the tangible link between Watanabe and Naoko are in the long letters they exchange, sometimes sporadic in their renewals because of Naoko’s long bouts of silence. But they never leave each other’s thoughts.

As Watanabe turns 20, he tells himself he will become stronger and live life unlike Kizuki who gave in. The more he hangs on to this thread of optimism, the more Naoko deteriorates. When he turns 21, Naoko hangs herself amid the woods. What happens to Watanabe at the end is what I will discuss but first a glimpse into Watanabe’s other ambiguous friendships.

In the course of his life as a student, Watanabe comes across two distinct people, his roommate Nagasawa, a suave, promiscuous fellow student studying to be a diplomat. He gets some initiation into his world as he takes him to bars and other seedy places. The other person is Midori, a young vivacious classmate who veils the own sad story of her life with a steely exterior. Midori’s mother died young and her father vegetates in a hospital, he eventually dies. From surreal love to worldly friendships – Watanabe's life seems to have a semblance of normalcy. But it would not be. While Nagasawa shows Watanabe the shallowness of life when he blatantly cheats on a loyal and doting girlfriend, Midori comes as a whiff of fresh air bringing the smile on to his face by her brutal honesty and cute humour. Visiting him in the hostel one day, she asks him loud, “Do all the guys here masturbate thinking about women?” At which Watanabe hushes her and tows her out of the hostel with a, “Yes they won’t be thinking about the stock market and doing it.” Midori yaps further, “Do you think about me and do it?” 

Watanabe does not have the answer to many of Midori’s questions because he likes her. It ends there. It is a friendship that is almost platonic. And they are there for each other. He tells Naoko about her in his letters and she replies, “Midori sounds like a nice girl.”  

The day Watanabe gets the news about Naoko’s death, he meets Midori. She has already confessed her love for him so she tells him that she will wait for him but with a request: “Don’t hurt me; I have not been happy in a long time.”  It would seem a rebound is inevitable as with most human beings – Naoko dies and Watanabe has Midori’s love and companionship to fall back on. Being lonely will not be new to Watanabe anymore.

But life, according to Murakami, is not a Utopian dream. Watanabe takes off backpacking to clear the lumps of sorrow lugging at his being, he is found sleeping by the beach, inside caves crying incessantly. It is perhaps the only scene in the movie that succeeds in capturing the deep torments of the one who has loved and lost. After months of drifting, he comes to his senses and pines for Midori.

But when he reaches his apartment, someone is waiting for him. It is none other than Reiko, a musician who was also recovering from a breakdown and who cared for Naoko at the asylum. In Naoko’s death, Reiko saw her own healing and left the asylum to start a new life. She spends a night with Watanabe and requests him to sleep with her. I thought Murakami introduced this episode to show Reiko resuming back to normalcy and embracing both the pleasures and pains of life. Watanabe drops Reiko at the station the next day, and it is also the day he picks the phone to call Midori, to pick up the threads of his life and begin anew. 

Midori listens but for every word from Watanabe, there is just a long silence from her, perhaps miffed by his long absence. “I love you,” says Watanabe. The smile breaks out, she asks, “Where are you?” Watanabe looks around, he is at the station but he says, “I don’t know...I don’t know.” 

The movie ends with ‘Kizuki will be 17 forever and Watanabe 21 forever’. I have been thinking hard and come to the conclusion that the lives of the three friends were like three pillars, so intrinsically linked that the death of one collapsed the friendship. It brought a gaping hole in their lives which could not be filled by someone else. Either the hole had to be filled or it had to become wider. Kizuki took his life, and soon Naoko was on the path to destruction and because Watanabe was so close to Naoko whatever sense of balance he assumed he had and all the strength that he vowed he will have paled before the power of this love. In the end he too lost his grip of space and time. Was he on the path that Naoko treaded? 

I am sure I hardly made sense but reading the book and watching the movie made me accept the story and surrender to its open interpretations. While the book was more enjoyable, the movie seemed a bit disjointed and cramped in its narration. It was too dark and I wished Midori had more of the colour in her personality as in the book. Advice reading the book first and watching the movie later. Must admit, I love Murakami’s ability to create perfectly normal characters with some of the weirdest experiences.
Norwegian Wood: Between Reel & Read Norwegian Wood: Between Reel & Read Reviewed by Indira on July 11, 2012 Rating: 5

4 comments:

Sabarmati View said...

Have to read the book. And you wrote "She loves the bed." can be interpreted in million ways. Let me write a piece on 'The Bed'

Indira said...

LOL! bring on your bed-ding piece my darling!

Tony Tharakan said...

Hi Indira, I read the book recently and was stunned by the power of Murakami's words. The only other books by him that I read were "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" and "A Wild Sheep Chase" -- which I think pale in comparison although they are more in line with Murakami's trademark works of fantasy. I would love to watch the movie for "Norwegian Wood". Didn't know there was one. Which other book by Murakami would you recommend?

Indira said...

hi Tony, i just bought The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. have put it aside as i am struggling with Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace just now. you might enjoy Murakami's Kafka on the shore and IQ84. his other short stories are also nice! cheers

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