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Norwegian Wood

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    Ugetsu

    I went to see a film I’ve been looking forward to in a long time last night – Anh Hung Trans version of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I love Murakami’s books (although Norwegian Wood isn’t my favourite), and I love Tran’s earlier films, so I thought this had huge potential.

    I’ve mixed feelings after seeing it. Its very beautiful, and it captures sort of swooning nostalgic eroticism of the book very well. But there are also some very odd directorial decisions – I found the flow of the film oddly choppy and incoherent and it was maybe a little too faithful to the book. Oddly for Tran, who is usually extremely minimalist, some scenes are very overwrought, helped along by a very intrusive score. Tran also seemed uncertain about whether the film would be (like the book) told from the very personal perspective of the older man looking back at his early self, or told more as a period piece (like the fairly similar In the Mood for Love, or Tran’s own films like Vertical Rays of the Sun). There were also some odd casting decisions – Rinko Kikuchi, who plays Naoko, the doomed young lover, seems to me to be simply too old to be playing a girl just out of her teens – I may be cynical, but i couldn’t help thinking she was cast as one of the few modern Japanese actresses with name appeal internationally. The actress who plays Reiko, who is described as ‘wrinkly’ in the book, is quite young and good looking, which seemed to me to miss the point of that character in the novel.

    Tran apparently doesn’t speak Japanese, and I was curious to see if he would put in some overt references to other Japanese directors or whether he would deliberately go for a very un-Japanese look. He likes lots of swooping, moving cameras, so its very un-Ozu like, but the choppy editing made it seem quite distinctive, a little too distinctive, I get the impression he was trying to stamp his authority on the film by being a little too showy. There is a scene which of all things, reminded me of Sanshiro Sugata – the final scene in a wind blown grassland (not dissimiilar too, to scenes in Ran). Tran also likes his wind machines and having actors blown about by the elements. I doubt if it was a deliberate reference.

    So all in all, a beautiful, if somewhat flawed film. But it is nice to see that rarity these days, a Japanese film with a worldwide release.

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    lawless

    A Livejournal friend of mine who lives in Glasgow saw it and is now interested in reading Murakami’s books. Sadly, her post is locked, so I can’t link to it, but while she liked it, she left the theatre thinking she’d missed some things because of the language and cultural barriers. This struck me a little odd because we know each other because we are fans of and write about the manga Saiyuki, a reimagining of the Chinese folk novel Journey to the West,. Even though Saiyuki is purportedly set in China, it’s culturally Japanese, with a heavy dose of (real) Zen Buddhism and Japanese symbolism.

    I may have mentioned this before when you said were looking forward to this film, but Norwegian Wood and Dance, Dance, Dance are the only Haruki Murakami novels I’ve read. I’ve also read his ‘memoir’ What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I prefer Norwegian Wood to Dance, Dance, Dance, but would like to read at least one more of his novels of magical realism before making an assessment.

    At the same time as I stumbled onto Haruki Murakami’s novels, I ran across Ryu Murakami’s Sixty-Nine, set in the same period as Norwegian Wood and touching on some of the same themes. I’ve since read his In the Miso Soup. Ryu Murakami’s writing is somewhat more accessible to Westerners and his content is edgier. So far, while Haruki Murakami probably stretches further in his books, I like Ryu Murakami’s better. I’m particularly fond of Sixty-Nine.

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    Ugetsu

    Thanks Lawless, I’ve heard a few people say they like Ryu Murakami, I must check him out.

    I hear Haruki Murakami’s new book (not out here yet) is great. But I think that by general concensus of his fans, the Wind Up Bird Chronicle is the best of his magical realism books. I prefer them to his more ‘straight’ books. I found Norwegian Wood too overwrought when I read it, but oddly enough, the characters have stuck in my mind years after I read it, unlike other books which I enjoyed more at the time.

    I suspect that if your friend found cultural barriers, it was more in the film than in the book – I’ve never found anything really too inaccessible about Murakami (and I started reading his books before I developed an interest in things Japanese, including Kurosawa).

    And you remind me I posted here before about Norwegian Wood, I forgot that, otherwise I wouldn’t have posted a new thread…..

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    lawless

    The time I checked Dance, Dance, Dance out of the library, I’d been looking for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’d still like to read it some day. I found Norwegian Wood more elegaic than overwrought, but the feelings in it felt dampened, almost fatalistic. In some respects, the main character’s second girlfriend (sorry, I forget the names) was the one who held my interest most and who I remembered the best, possibly because she seemed so Western in comparison with everyone else and almost too good and quirky to be true compared to Naoko.

    Yes, Reiko was supposed to be older and wiser than Naoko. Casting a pretty young thing in the role changes it significantly, though certainly there’s no reason why Reiko couldn’t be attractive-looking as well as older. I don’t remember her being described as ugly

    I wouldn’t exactly call Haruki Murakami’s work inaccessible, but I think it’s more set within a Japanese milieu stylistically and in how he sees things — for one thing, because of the fatalism and way mental illness is treated in Norwegian Wood. It’s a topic I’ve researched for a story about what kind of counseling and psychiatric care a Japanese teen raped while living in New York might find when he returned to his family in Japan. (The story derives from the backstory of a main character in a favorite manga of mine.) It turns out that the mainstream way of counseling is a kind of guided meditation, where the patient reflects on his or her life and choices.

    Ryu Murakami’s writing style is much different from Haruki Murakami’s. Like Haruki’s Norwegian Wood, Sixty-Nine, which was his first book and won a prestigious literary prize, is significantly different from his other books. It’s sharp and very witty. His other books are darker in tone and subject matter. In the Miso Soup deals with a Westerner on a killing spree among the denizens of the sex industry in Tokyo as seen through the eyes of a young man he hires as his guide to Tokyo nightlife.

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    Chris

    If I could add something about Haruki Murakami through the constant aftershocks and nuclear disasters I’m experiencing here in Tokyo . . . I find both your comments, Lawless and Ugetsu, very interesting. Here in Japan, one of the biggest criticisms with Haruki Murakami is that his work is too Western. I’ve even had a Japanese friend after reading Murakami the first time say to me, “It was like reading an American novel!” She didn’t enjoy it very much.

    I think Haruki Murakami might arguably be the most successful Japanese writer in the west, as well. His early books especially are littered with innumerable references to western music and movies. Also, he has been a major translator into Japanese of many of his favorite American writers. He has said that Raymond Chandler, among many others, has been a very big influence on him. Also, as you probably already know, he lived for a few years in the United States and speaks fluent English.

    I would argue that any inaccesiblity or noticable barriers, while partially involed to cultural issues, may, in fact, be more related to Murakami’s own personal style and life-view.

    Granted, I’ve lived in Japan for a while now, but I’ve never found his books allusive at all.

    (As a side note, my absolute favorite Japanese writer is the stunningly amazing Kenzaburo Oe, but unless you like very challenging novels, I guess can’t really recommend him. Although if you are the least bit curious, read A Personal Matter! That book leaves me breathless.)

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    Ugetsu

    Thanks Chris, you are the second person in a week who recommended I read Kenzaburo Oe – I must see if I can find one of his books.

    Interestingly, on the subject of Japanese writers being ‘western’, I’m not very well read in Japanese literature, but I recently read one book by Yasunari Kawabata, who I thought was considered very ‘Japanese’, but oddly enough I found the book (Sound of the Mountain) very reminiscent of a certain genre of Irish writers such as John McGahern (a style sometimes called rural Irish Modernism, so I’m told). I thought the book could have been transposed to an Irish setting with only the slightest changes.

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    lawless

    Chris – As mentioned above, I’ve only read two novels of his, Norwegian Wood and Dance, Dance, Dance. I mostly found the differences in cultural outlook in Norwegian Wood, mainly having to do with a different attitude toward mental illness, depression, and suicide. With Dance, Dance, Dance, it had more to do with the tension of a grown man shepherding a barely teenage girl around with her mother’s blessing. It would raise eyebrows, and possibly result in a family services and/or criminal investigation, in contemporary America and probably even America at the time the book was published.

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    Chris

    Lawless, your assessment of the American reaction is definitely spot on. I can’t disagree. However, have you ever read or heard of the novels of the American writer Charles Palahniuk? (His Fight Club and Choke were made into movies.) They make Murakami look rather tame in comparison. There are some disturbing and shocking things in his novels. And, of course, there is the whole narrative movement of William S. Burroughs and his followers. I’m pretty open-minded, but many of his works and the events contained therein put me very much off.

    Ugetsu, if you are interested in Kenzaburo Oe, as I motioned above, A Personal Matter is a fantastic book and, I believe, the best book to start with. Some of his other novels, The Silent Cry, The Pinch Runner Memorandum, Somersault, and others are quite hard to get into, but A Personal Matter is very readable. As a wonderful companion to that novel, I’d then recommend A Quiet Life.

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    lawless

    Chris – I’ve heard of Chuck Palahniuk, but haven’t read any of his books. I’m not sure, though; are you talking about Haruki Murakami’s books or Ryu Murakami’s books? I see more cultural differences in Haruki Murakami’s and more disturbing and shocking subject matter in Ryu Murakami’s books. See entries #2 and #4 above.

    I read crime and suspense novels, so the revelation of the identity of the murderer in Haruki Murakami’s Dance, Dance, Dance, while sad (because I liked the character), wasn’t particularly shocking. I found the magical realism harder to deal with, actually. So far (keeping in mind I’ve only read two novels apiece by them) I like Ryu Murakami’s books more, but that’s also partially a matter of personal taste; I like more straightforward, in-your-face writing, and I particularly like the narrative voice and humor in his novel Sixty-Nine..

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    Vili Maunula

    For whatever it’s worth, I am not a big Haruki Murakami fan, but my favourite of his was probably Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Now, that would make a strange film.

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    cocoskyavitch

    I’m happy to have a thread on writers! I love Kawabata, and even found Mishima fascinating. I cannot wait to read Oe.

    Chirs, we’ve pulled all our kids home from Japan, and have given our Japanese students counselling. Our university president read a statement written by my boss, the Director of International Programs, and a fundraiser is going on all week. We watch rather helplessly as events unfold in Japan.

    This morning a Japanese-American scientist recommended removing the military from management of the disaster and suggested an international team of the best nuclear scientists be put in charge wtih resolving this escalating crisis.

    I sincerely hope that you and your family are well and safe.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Thanks to the above posts I’ve downloaded Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Kenzaburo Oe’s The Changeling.

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    lawless

    Returning to this thread to report that I couldn’t make my way through Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I just wasn’t interested enough in the story or the characters and would rather read books that hold my interest — in this case, a fictionalized account of the Affair of the Poisons during the reign of Louis XIV, which reached as far as his mistress, Madame de Montespan, The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley, and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

    I don’t know how much of the problem is his penchant for magical realism and how much is due to his storytelling. The only magical realism I’ve read is his book Dance Dance Dance, in which I found the magical realism awkward, and Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. But I’ve read Stephen King books containing what I’d call magical realism — off the top of my head, Rose Madder, Hearts in Atlantis, and much of The Dark Tower series — but which, because they’re in horror/fantasy novels, are probably considered part and parcel of the genre and passed off as dreams, fantasies, etc.

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    Vili Maunula

    lawless: Returning to this thread to report that I couldn’t make my way through Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. … I don’t know how much of the problem is his penchant for magical realism and how much is due to his storytelling.

    Now that you mention it, I think that also I have to count it among books that I started but never finished. It just didn’t hold my interest. It could be that I’m personally not very fond of magical realism. I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t ignite my engine. I tried quite hard to like works like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but they just leave me cold.

    My loss, I suppose.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Now that you mention it, I think that also I have to count it among books that I started but never finished. It just didn’t hold my interest. It could be that I’m personally not very fond of magical realism. I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t ignite my engine. I tried quite hard to like works like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but they just leave me cold.

    I’m the same – I know Coco was shocked when I mentioned that I couldn’t finish ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’! But oddly enough I like Murakami’s version of magic realism. Maybe its all the cats. Oh hang on, I hate cats….

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