April 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
Recently I read a great novel: Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the book that made Murakami a literary superstar when it was published in Japan in 1987 and later, in translation, around the world. The fact that it’s a bildungsroman makes Norwegian Wood more accessible than Murakami’s other novels, which feature supernatural elements, historical delvings and post-modern puzzles. Though more layered than most mainstream fiction, the novel’s relatively straightforward storytelling and universal themes–love, loss and coming of age–explain its worldwide popularity.
The novel, which largely takes place between 1967 and 1969, follows Toru, a student at an elite university in Tokyo. At eighteen, Toru has left his hometown of Kobe for personal as well academic reasons: his best friend from high school, Kizuki, mysteriously committed suicide during their senior year, leaving a lingering sadness. In Tokyo, Toru is able to make a fresh start until he runs into Kizuki’s fragile girlfriend Naoko, who has moved there for similar reasons. Bound by their grief over Kizuki, Toru and Naoko begin spending Sundays together. In time they embark on a tentative romance, at which point Naoko abruptly withdraws from her college and disappears. Before he finds her, Toru meets Midori, a fellow student who is Naoko’s opposite: quirky, opinionated and sexually frank. They soon strike up a close friendship, but Toru, still in love with Naoko, resists Midori’s romantic overtures. In time he reunites temporarily with Naoko, who has exiled herself to a remote psychiatric facility after suffering a nervous breakdown. In the course of these events, Toru becomes the man he is meant to be: a caring friend and lover, an intellectual and a genuine adult.
Despite the deaths described in the novel–five, including three suicides–Norwegian Wood is less sad than you might expect. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, Toru experiences his share of pleasures–literature, music (not just the Beatles song of the title but a wide range of classical, jazz and rock), food, drink and sex–quite a lot of sex, befitting a college student in a sexually liberated time. In some ways, the novel is a late 1960’s time capsule, containing all that was exciting about the era. (I was a child in Tokyo during those years and can attest to the novel’s veracity, not just the musical references but the radical student movement that roiled Toru’s university–they used to riot outside my house.)
Although there are some specifically Japanese elements–buying sake from vending machines, visiting love hotels, getting drunk legally in parks–most of “Norwegian Wood” could take place anywhere. Part of Murakami’s genius is creating characters who are very much like their American and European counterparts: they eat the same foods, listen to the same music and have the same frustrations and goals. This universality makes Norwegian Wood adaptable for the screen, which brings us to Tran Anh Hung’s 2012 film, “Norwegian Wood.”
Though a French-Vietnamese director who (presumably) isn’t fluent in Japanese would seem an unlikely choice to adapt a Japanese novel into a Japanese-language film, Tran (“The Scent of Green Papaya”) does a good job with “Norwegian Wood.” The cinematography is beautiful, the locations–among them Kobe, Toru and Murakami’s hometown, and Waseda, their alma mater–are perfect, and the acting is excellent. If Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) is more handsome than Murakami describes, it’s an understandable exaggeration, and the script logically omits minor characters and back stories. Where Tran goes wrong is in ignoring the novel’s humor, not only Toru’s wry exposition but Midori’s hilariousness. Unlike the wispy, troubled Naoko, Midori* has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her great obsessions are food and sex, and she enjoys wearing outrageously short skirts even at the hospital where her father is dying. Although it would have worked beautifully onscreen, Tran leaves out this exchange between Midori and her father’s surgeon:
Doctor: Wow, that’s some short skirt you’re wearing!
Midori: Nice, huh?
Doctor: What do you do on stairways?
Midori: Nothing special. I let it all hang out.
The nurse chuckled behind the doctor.
Doctor: Incredible. You ought to come and let us open your head one of these days to see what’s going on in there. Do me a favor and use the elevators while you’re in the hospital. I can’t afford to have any more patients.
Tran even makes Midori’s skirt is more modest than described–it’s short, but not indecently so. Choices like these make Midori’s outré moments–for example, her expressed desire to watch hard-core porn films with Toru–seem discordant, rather than a natural extension of her curiosity and free spiritedness. As a result, “Norwegian Wood” is much sadder than Murakami’s novel, and not to its advantage.
*A language note: Midori, which means green, is not only a modern name but a word that was not widely used before the late nineteenth century. Before then, blue (Aoi) was used for both blue and green, and green was considered a type of blue, not a separate color. Beyond representing life, Midori’s name provides a direct contrast with Naoko’s: Nao means upright or obedient, and the traditional feminine suffix ko means child. Through their names alone, Murakami makes clear that Naoko, “Obedient Child,” is Midori’s polar opposite.
November 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
In 2008, I wrote this about Hara and her work.
February 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign might recall my 2010 post on cultural and linguistic misunderstandings in American reviews of Japanese films.
In it I talked about two films by Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Nobody Knows,” and “Still Walking,” both of which were significantly misinterpreted by American critics. Since then, Kore-eda has gotten better subtitling and some of the critics have gotten more savvy: in fact, Manohla Dargis got through her review of his latest film “Like Father, Like Son,” without making any gaffes.
“Like Father, Like Son,” which won the 2013 Jury Prize at Cannes, is the story of two boys switched at birth and given to two very different sets of parents. (There have been a number of baby-switching cases in Japan, including a particularly tragic one that was only just resolved, sixty years after the two newborns were given to the wrong parents.) The film’s protagonists are the Nonomiyas, a well-off Tokyo architect and his stay-at-home wife, whose adorable son Keita turns out to be biologically unrelated. (There’s a casting problem here, as Keita actually resembles Nonomiya more than his biological son does.) The Nonomiyas’ biological son Ryusei has been raised by the Sakais, an earthy working class couple who own an electrical supply shop in a provincial city and have two younger children. Informed of the DNA results when the boys are six, Nonomiya is not only determined to have Ryusei returned but to hold onto Keita. Despite his workaholic life and tepid interest in fatherhood, Nonomiya uses his means, education and sleek Tokyo apartment as justification for gaining a son and keeping the one he has raised. Before he broaches the subject with the Sakais, however, a period of visitations ensues, with Keita having boisterous fun with the Sakai family and Ryusei cooped up in the apartment with Mrs. Nonomiya, since his father is usually working.
What’s fascinating about the story is not so much the obvious lesson–that your child is the one you’ve raised, regardless of blood–but the class element, and this is what the critics mostly missed. Throughout much of the post-WWII era, Japan has prided itself on being a middle-class country, one in which the vast majority share a similar standard of living. No more: while Japan still lacks the yawning income and cultural divisions of the United States, its middle-class society is more ideal than reality at this juncture. In “Like Father, Like Son,” Kore-eda makes this point by not having any middle-class characters. The extremely upper-middle-class Nonomiya is horrified at the Sakais’ electrical shop, the back of which constitutes their home, a typical arrangement in Japan. For their part, the Sakais compare the Nonomiya’s highrise apartment to a hotel–and not in a good way. The two families even eat differently, a significant factor in a country whose cuisine is shared across class lines. The Nonomiyas welcome Ryusei with sukiyaki, an extravagantly expensive meal, while the Sakais feed Keita fried gyoza, a festive but cheap treat.
But the real cultural difference comes at bath time: Ryusei is explicitly instructed to bathe alone, while the Sakai père bathes with his two boys. Anthony Lane, who reviews for The New Yorker, has it backwards when he writes,”[Sakai] even takes baths with the children.” Japanese bathtubs are deep soaking tubs; all the washing and rinsing is done with buckets before entering. Small children can’t manage either part of the process on their own, hence the tradition of bathing en famille when the kids are young. (The only reason the entire Sakai family isn’t bathing at the same time is because their tub is too small.) Thus the unusual bathing custom in the film is the Nonomiyas’ solitary western-style one.
Lane goes on to refer to Nonomiya as a “middle-class professional,” but his fancy apartment building and black Lexus are well beyond the grasp of middle-class Japanese. Not only is he a high-earning architect at an impressive firm but, at forty, he has much of his lucrative career still ahead of him, whether or not he stays on the fast track.
Nevertheless, Lane wraps up the review by making an excellent point: that although Nonomiya is the main character, his wife and Mrs. Sakai are the ones who manage “the righting of elusive wrongs.” Lane then suggests a better title for the American remake, “Like Mother, Like Son.” Which would be great if the Japanese title were actually “Like Father, Like Son,” but “Soshite Chichi Ni Naru” translates “And I Become Your Dad,” a typically vague Japanese title. Dreamworks will probably call its version something else entirely, but whatever else is lost in translation I’m sure the class divisions will come through loud and clear.
January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
Oshima’s films were featured in a major retrospective at the American Cinematheque in 2009, about which I wrote this piece:
During his fiery career, Oshima broke cultural and censorship barriers in Japan and abroad. The product of an affluent and aristocratic Kyoto family, he studied law and had every reason to protect the status quo, both politically and artistically. Yet he was heavily influenced by the Japanese student protests of the 1960s, and by leftist politics in general. As a filmmaker, he claimed, “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it.” He meant it. Oshima had no use for the poetic films of Yasujiro Ozu (on which he got his start as an assistant). He also claimed the goal of his films was “to force the Japanese to look in the mirror.”
There are no equivalents to Oshima among younger Japanese filmmakers: there don’t have to be. In challenging censorship, artistic mores and the very basis of filmmaking, he blazed a trail that made their path smoother, though probably less memorable. RIP.
A link to the New York Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/16/movies/nagisa-oshima-iconoclastic-filmmaker-dies-at-80.html?hp&_r=0
August 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
Setusuko Hara is an actress with no equivalent in western film. For 20 years after WWII, she defined contemporary femininity for Japanese audiences, first playing young, unmarried women, then wives, then mothers. In all her roles, she was a vital, central character, never an adjunct to a male star. (If only the same were true for female characters in American films!) So totemic is Hara’s place in Japanese cinema that she earned the moniker “The Eternal Virgin.” By refusing to grow old onscreen–she made her last movie at 46–and never marrying in real life, she further set herself apart, not only from other actors but societal norms.
Although Hara made 73 films in her 30-year career, she is best known for the twelve she made with three major post-war auteurs: Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. A more detailed essay on her life and work can be found in my Pages.
May 3, 2009 § 1 Comment
The recent Oshima retrospective at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood–continuing at LACMA–was a bracing reminder of the Japanese New Wave, which lasted much longer than the French one– from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s–and whose directors included Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki and Hiroshi Teshigahara. Unlike their French counterparts, who mostly began as film critics, most Japanese New Wave directors came up through the studio system, serving traditional apprenticeships before rebelling against the restrained filmmaking styles of their elders (Ozu, Mizoguchi) .
No one pushed the envelope more than Oshima, who in his rejection of tasteful indirection also depicted an amoral new generation of Japanese–mods and punks, gangsters and juvies–flailing their way through life in a developing superpower. The post-war images of genteel city dwellers in the black-and-white films of Ozu give way to Oshima’s blasts of 1960s neon, bouffant hairdos and stylish outfits, showing the world just how much had changed in Japan during the 50’s.
In “Cruel Story of Youth,” a pretty, aimless high school girl takes up with a sadistic but handsome petty criminal, with predictably tragic results. In “Pleasures of the Flesh,” a besotted young university student’s obsession with his high school tutee leads him to commit murder on her behalf, a crime that renders him both a victim of blackmail and his own bottomless appetite for self-destruction.
The films take place in the Tokyo of my childhood, whose locations–Shibuya, Yoyogi, Asakusa–I recognized with delight. I was far too young to have seen any of them when they came out and it would be decades before they were available on video, so seeing them for the first time was both a relevation and a reminder of how many decades have passed since rich Japanese men aspired to big American cars (which they apparently used to cruise jailbait on the Ginza). Oshima’s characters–however stupid, violent or wrongheaded–are so vivid that the screen barely contains them; in their determination to get rich, get the girl, get revenge, they seem on the verge of bursting through the frame.
The strangest of the Oshima films I saw last weekend was “Japanese Summer: Double Suicide,” in which a hilarious, nihilistic, nymphomaniacal teenage girl hooks up with a suicidal stranger in hopes of having sex. The two wind up in a bunker of paramilitary assassins preparing for the start of a gang war. The result is an unforgettable mashup of Godot’s “Weekend,” “Waiting for Godot,” and “The Wild Bunch.” The female protagonist–ballsy, profane and unlike any other–is still making me laugh a week later.
Other directors have been compared to Jean-Luc Godard, but in this case the comparison is apt; not only do Oshima’s early films and their concerns mirror his, but both men came to filmmaking the same way, starting as critics, which made Oshima atypical in Japan and Godard typical in France. Like Godard, Oshima writes his own scripts and is a master of unexpected dialog. “She’s mute and a little crazy, but she’s nice,” says a madam about one of her prostitutes in “Pleasures of the Flesh.”
The first Oshima film I ever saw was the also the first I was aware of: “In the Realm of the Senses.” When it opened the New York Film Festival in 1976, the police shut it down; arrests were made. It caused rioting in Cannes and has never been shown in its uncensored form in Japan. When it finally came out on video in the early 90’s, I rushed out to rent it, mentioning to the cashier at Rocket Video that I had been too young to see it when it was new. “You may still be too young,” he laughed, and he had a point. What I saw was not only the first hard-core pornography of my life but also the most purely artistic film I’d ever seen, one that burned so deeply into my mind that I remember it vividly nearly two decades later. (It opened the Cinematheque retrospective, but I missed it because of a shut-down of Hollywood Blvd. for a Depeche Mode concert.)
“In the Realm of the Senses,” obsessed me for days, during which I talked about it to any adult who would listen. My tendency to ruminate on it unnerved my boyfriend at the time, who once threatened to get out of my bed if I didn’t stop describing the plot to him. (Spoiler alert: the heroine, a prostitute swept up in a amour fou, cuts off her lover’s penis and carries it around in her obi for a few days, until the police catch up with her. It’s a true story that took place in the 1930s.)
Eventually I stopped talking about the film, but I’ve never stopped thinking about its amazing power. Oshima’s psychological fearlessness, coupled with his superb visual and writing styles, are keys to his greatness. His work puts him head and shoulders above most of today’s directors, even the best of whom care more about “likeability” (both their characters’ and their own) than depicting life in all its beauty, brutality and complexity. In a time of increasingly inane and boring cinematic pablum, it’s a relief to know that–at least on DVD–there are brilliant alternatives.