TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Adapting a bestselling novel like “Norwegian Wood” for the cinema can be a tough task for any director, but try making the film in a language you can’t speak.
That’s the challenge Vietnamese-French filmmaker Tran Anh Hung faced in bringing the Haruki Murakami story of love and loss to the screen 23 years after the book enchanted millions of Japanese readers and raised the author’s profile globally.
But Tran, who won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for his 1995 film “Cyclo,” said it was never an option to make Norwegian Wood outside Japan or in another language.
Tran first wrote the screenplay in French, had it translated into English and eventually Japanese, and relied on help from his producer in communicating with the actors.
“Murakami was very open and said I could adapt it in any language I wanted and in any place in the world,” Tran told Reuters in an interview ahead of the film’s December 11 release in Japan.
“But I said I wanted to film Japanese faces, because what attracted me in the novel is that it’s Japanese,” he said.
Murakami, however, was initially reluctant to allow the novel to be adapted to the big screen, and it took Tran and producer Shinji Ogawa four years to win the author’s approval after a series of meetings and discussions about the script.
Norwegian Wood, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, is the first film adaptation of a major Murakami work, but Tran said he didn’t feel any pressure despite high expectations from many of the author’s fans.
“The book is the book and the film is the film. The only pressure is to make a good film,” he said.
Set in the late 1960s against a backdrop of campus protests, Norwegian Wood revolves around university student Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) and his first love, Naoko — also the former girlfriend of Watanabe’s best friend, Kizuki, who recently committed suicide.
When Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), still distraught over Kizuki’s death, drops out of school and checks into a convalescence home, Watanabe also finds himself drawn to Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), whose vivacious personality cuts a sharp contrast with the emotionally scarred Naoko.
Tran said the decision to cast Kikuchi, an Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress in 2006’s “Babel,” as Naoko, had a major impact on the film in that he organized all the other actors according to her and her character.
Tran, who said he became a director because “I love the cinema, it’s as simple as that,” nevertheless described filmmaking as a long journey that required courage to get through the rough spots.
But he also said a bit of luck doesn’t hurt.
Tran had written in the script that a key scene — a reunion between Watanabe and Naoko — was to take place in the snow, but when they arrived on location the day before filming there was no snow at all, only yellow grass and brown hills.
That evening, however, the forecast was for snow, and sure enough they were greeted with a blizzard.
“The next morning we had absolutely magnificent snow for filming,” he said. “It was a miracle. These are the things that touch me the most.”
Norwegian Wood is an Asmik Ace Entertainment and Fuji Television Network production, to be distributed in Japan by Toho.
Editing by Paul Casciato