Like all other aspects of film,
Sound is completely fabricated. Almost all dialogue and incidental sound is recorded a long time after the scene was filmed, often in an entirely different part of the world. All sound is tailored by the film-makers to contribute to the experience, providing context or even becoming an actively expressive and emotional part of the film.
In Norwegian Wood, characters have their own sounds and colours and even their own patterns of visual composition. Naoko is rarely without wind or rain, and her scenes are almost always tinted blue. Similar colour changes happen whenever Toru becomes intimate with another character. Toru himself gets to have occasional moments of clarity without noise, but Naoko and the other women are not afforded such a luxury. If you ask me, that’s what the film is really about. Toru is the narrator, an anchor who holds everyone together. He is not the protagonist. The movie is not about him, it is about the things he has experienced in his life. It is about the people he meets, intimately and fleetingly. Toru floats along and witnesses, but not without pain and not without his own hand. The film is about sharing.
Sound is one of the parts of film that most physically effects us. This might seem like an odd or innocuous statement but it is true. Sound effects us physically: think of the loud bursts of noise that make you jump in cheap-scare horrors, the roars that give dinosaurs and engines life, or deafening blasts of gunfire. Sound also articulates space: the rhythm of footsteps from a room over, drunken conversation bubbling in the back of the club, rain on the outside of paper walls, or the roar of the city that pervades all urban locations.
This film is full of noise. Noise is part of its body. It is a part of the film that touches us. I mean this in a very literal way. Sound reaches out and vibrates our bodies. The noise always covers us, quietly. Sometimes it is soft and calming, sometimes it expands and becomes suffocating. It always surrounds and envelopes us. It is the rain, or the cars or the people, sometimes it is just white noise. Sometimes the noise is quiet enough for us to hear conversation, and sometimes it swells over-top and drowns out all words. Sometimes the characters may simply be struck speechless, and the roar of the ocean or rain speaks for them.
Sound doesn’t have to be noise. It can also be music. The music in this film is composed by Jonny Greenwood, who has also composed scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the 2003 documentary Bodysong, and the upcoming psychological thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin. Greenwood’s music is a major force in the film. Unfortunately and somewhat surprisingly, the score is actually the weakest part of the film. The guitar is top-notch, but Jonny’s familiar dramatic string sound becomes rather less effective as the movie progresses. The strings sometimes sound positively melodramatic compared to the breathtaking nuance of the wind and rain. The noise buoys the characters’ emotions and brings us directly into their moments. The music often does this as well, but sometimes the strings swell up too strongly and try to tell us what to feel instead of framing the experience.
Toru must navigate the increasingly faceless noise of his life. He does not know what to feel. Both the women in his life lead him to and fro, literally and figuratively. Midori teases him along the garden path and Naoko pulls him along into her astounding depression. He can’t quit either of them, it’s unclear what they contribute to his life, and it is unclear what he contributes to theirs. Toru himself doesn’t understand all of his motivations. All of the characters use each other to try and understand themselves. Or perhaps help each other is a better word.
Silence is a type of sound.
Norwegian Wood deals pretty heavily with suicide, and also uses it as an effective device which encapsulates many of the overarching themes. Ultimately the film is about surviving incredible trauma, both personally and socially. As the film progresses the suicide gets more and more effective as a metaphor, and by Toru’s final emotional release it is unclear whether the images are narrative or metaphorical. There is a heavy use of sound, colour, and expressive visual composition which make the film work wonders on a sensory level, at times dipping its toes into the abstract.
In North America, nearly every part of this film registers as metaphor. Indeed, every part of the narrative serves to reinforce and transmit the textual themes. However, in Japan all of these themes are much more visceral and much more literal. Suicide is a different problem in Japan, where it is the leading cause of death for men ages 20 – 44. Even the metaphors ring differently in Japan – the film is set at a time when the entire nation was struggling to understand itself after the horror of the nuclear bomb, much as Toru and Naoko struggle to understand their place after their friend’s suicide. In many ways the film is an entirely literal examination of people living in a society which is becoming increasingly dehumanizing, right down to its traditions and infrastructure dissolving under foreign influence. This is the generation that film-maker Fukasaku Kinji calls the “in-the-ruins generation,” and when it gets down to it they never quite got out.
Despite it all, Norwegian Wood is consistently beautiful in a way we don’t often get to see on our side of the pond. The mixture of melancholy and sublime beauty is something Japan is really good at, from Grave of the Fireflies to Battles Without Honour and Humanity to any number of Kurosawa films. Shots move at the languorous pace of meticulous and poignant memory. We feel every movement and caress with a hyper-sensitive hindsight that knows how it ends and replays it anyway, hoping to find an answer that simply isn’t there.
The film is really first and foremost a love story, but it is not a romance. It is about people being with each other and also being with themselves. It is about people who don’t really know who they are yet, don’t know how to figure it out, but are looking for it in each other anyway. It is about people who are not sure how they are supposed to live or even what it is to be alive, and it is about whether or not they try to find out. They also talk about sex a lot, and so did you when you were their age.
This could still be a date movie. In many ways, it is an infinitely better version of David Cronenberg’s melodrama A Dangerous Method, which was all around disappointing and mediocre. If your date liked A Dangerous Method, only listens to Radiohead, and is from Japan, then this could be the date movie for you.
Norwegian Wood is showing tonight at 7:00 pm and once again on Wednesday at 9:00 pm and the Metro Cinema.