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Literature / Norwegian Wood

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Norwegian Wood (Japanese: ノルウェイの森, Noruwei no Mori) is a 1987 Coming of Age novel by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. The publication of this book led Murakami to unwanted superstardom in Japan; so much so that he eventually left for the United States and Germany. Fans of his works often note that Norwegian Wood as a novel is far removed from his ordinary works. It is a fairly straightforward tale of adolescent romance and the protagonist, Toru Watanabe, is very much an Everyman as opposed to other protagonists in works such as Kafka on the Shore or After Dark.

The plot follows a love triangle among Watanabe, his childhood love Naoko and a girl he meets at university, the outspoken and lively Midori. Each girl represents different things to Watanabe but he has a hard time choosing.

Some critics consider Norwegian Wood to be semi-autobiographical but the author has flat out denied this, describing Norwegian Wood as a "challenge" that he did to see if he could write a novel with none of the themes that have become his trademark in later works.

A film adaptation was made in 2010 by the Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran. It was released in December 2010 in Japan, as well as festival showings and small releases in Canada and Italy. The cast features Rinko Kikuchi, Kenichi Matsuyama, Shigesato Itoi, Haruomi Hosono, and Yukihiro Takahashi. The score was composed by Jonny Greenwood.

Tropes found in Norwegian Wood include:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The film trims a great deal from the story, omitting large chunks of Backstory (especially Reiko's), giving many minor characters less prominence (such as Storm Trooper) and cutting out numerous events that don't significantly advance the core Love Triangle plot (such as Watanabe and Nagasawa's numerous one-night stands, several of which are depicted in detail in the novel).
  • All There in the Manual: Kizuki's visit to a hospitalized Naoko via motorcycle is actually elaborated upon in "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman".
  • Author Appeal: Several references to Sixties jazz and pop, The Great Gatsby, The Magic Mountain and various obscure Western Literature works.
  • Barefoot Suicide: In the film, Kizuki appears to have taken just one of his shoes off when he dies. Naoko is barefoot however.
  • Betty and Veronica: On face value, Midori is the more exotic, fun-loving Veronica and Naoko the old, childhood friend Betty, but Murakami plays with this throughout the novel and the reader's perspective can be expected to flip.
  • Broken Bird: Naoko. Ever since Kizuki died, she's been emotionally fragile.
  • The Casanova: Nagasawa, who spends most weekends going out and getting women to sleep with him, even when he already has a girlfriend.
  • Coming of Age: The novel is a quiet study of this.
  • Consummate Liar: Reiko's piano student.
  • Cool Big Sis: Reiko Ishida, Naoko's confidant at the centre. Hatsumi also, as a wish fulfillment for Watanabe.
    • Naoko's actual older sister was also one of these till she committed suicide and Naoko found her body.
  • Cradle of Loneliness: Naoko, who is still struggle trying to live without Kizuki.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Subverted. Naoko kills herself, leaving Watanabe free to pursue Midori. He calls her and tells her he wants to be with her, but the story ultimately ends on a cliffhanger, leaving it ambiguous whether they ultimately got together or not.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sadly, Naoko, Hatsumi, and Storm Trooper. Also Kizuki, whose death provides the catalyst for events in the novel. The reader never gets an inkling towards what caused his suicide, though. There's also Naoko's older sister whose suicide is also left unexplained. The novel seems to run on this trope.
    • It's hinted that Kizuki's suicide may have been related to his physical relationship with Naoko.
  • The Dutiful Daughter: Despite the emotional scars inflicted on her by her parents, Midori still frequently visits her father in hospital and brings him lunches.
  • Eating Lunch Alone: How Midori first meets Watanabe. Unusually, he doesn't really mind being by himself that much.
  • Epiphanic Prison: The Ami Hostel, a mental asylum in the woods where no one is forced (physically or otherwise) to leave. Residents are kept there more by a feeling that they can't handle the world outside due to their own psychological issues than anything else.
  • The Everyman: Watanabe.
  • Family Theme Naming: Midori means "green" and her older sister is "Momoko", which means "peach girl".
  • Fetishized Abuser: Subverted. Nagasawa is the Big Man on Campus and a lady-killer. He also has sociopathic tendencies and doesn't care one bit about his girlfriend (he's unfaithful, callous, and dismissive), only worrying about fulfilling his own hedonistic desires. His girlfriend, Hatsumi, knows about his affairs and seems to be perfectly fine with it, therefore making it seem that his abusive behavior is part of his sexual appeal. However, we later learn that Hatsumi's massive self-esteem issues are behind her acceptance. Later in the plot, she commits suicide because of Nagasawa's abuse, among other things.
  • Foil: Nagasawa to Watanabe, despite the former's claims to the contrary.
  • Framing Device: The novel opens with Watanabe hearing the titular song on a plane to Germany and being reminded of the events of the plot, writing them down as a kind of therapeutic exercise. The film omits this, even though it's clear that Watanabe is narrating the events with the benefit of hindsight.
  • Hereditary Suicide: Naoko's older sister hanged herself as a teenager. Naoko ultimately goes the same way.
  • Heroic BSoD: Watanabe after Naoko's suicide.
  • Hope Spot: Towards the end of the novel, Toru receives a letter from Reiko informing him that Naoko is progressing much faster than anyone had expected, which closes the chapter. The first line of the next chapter is the Wham Line listed below.
  • Jerkass: Nagasaswa. Intelligent, charming and outwardly a perfect gentleman, but completely indifferent to the feelings of others.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Reiko's piano student.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Naoko explains that Watanabe was this to her and Kizuki when they were in highschool. Later, she clings to Reiko as a clutch when she's staying in the Ami Hostel.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: The Distaff Counterpart to this trope. Naoko is incapable of getting properly aroused in sexual situations, and as a consequence is unable to have sex with Kizuki, even though she wants to. This contributes to his eventual suicide. Naoko fears that she will never be able to become physically aroused, which, in turn, is a major reason she eventually kills herself as well.
  • Love Triangle: Watanabe, Naoko and Midori.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Midori is this but unusually for the trope Watanabe doesn't realise this until near the end of the novel. It's played with insofar as she's a more rounded character than one would expect for this trope, and has just as many neuroses as anyone else in the novel.
  • May–December Romance: Toward the end of the novel, Reiko visits Watanabe and sleeps with him after Naoko's death. It's an essentially platonic act however, and there's no suggestion that they pursue a relationship afterwards.
  • Millionaire Playboy: Nagasawa who befriends Toru at their dorm. He also doubles as The Hedonist.
  • No Ending: After Naoko's death, Watanabe calls Midori asking whether she'll forgive him and whether they can try again for a relationship. She gives a cryptic response of "Where are you?" and the novel ends with Watanabe trying to answer the question in his inner monologue
  • Plucky Girl: Midori takes an adventurous and deterministic approach to life. Growing up in harsh environments, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
  • Ordinary University Student: Watanabe.
  • Roman à Clef: Explicitly denied by Word of God.
  • School Uniforms are the New Black: Several minor characters in the novel are treated with derision for wearing the university uniform even though it isn't obligatory. Storm Trooper gets his nickname this way as the other students assume he's a fascist (in truth, he just doesn't want to have to worry about clothes).
  • The '60s: The setting.
  • The Sociopath: Reiko's piano student. She lies constantly, even about things that don't matter, has a magnetic personality (to the point of successfully seducing a heterosexual woman), is sexually aggressive, and has absolutely no empathy. Reiko even describes her face as seeming painted on, with nothing behind her eyes whatsoever.
    • Watanabe hints that Nagasawa may have tendencies akin to this also.
  • Starts with a Suicide: Not the book itself, but Naoko and Watanabe's story definitely kicks off with Kizuki's suicide.
  • Stepford Smiler: Hatsumi, Nagasawa's long-suffering girlfriend. She pretends not to mind that Nagasawa is sleeping around, but two years after Nagasawa graduates and goes abroad, leaving her behind, she marries another man. Two years after the marriage however, she kills herself. Naoko also became this after Kizuki died.
  • Teens Are Monsters: The girl who destroyed Reiko Ishida's life. A pathological liar, she tries to seduce Reiko during a piano training session and when the former rebuffs her she lies to her mother that Reiko assaulted her. This is before declaring to Reiko that she had known Reiko was a lesbian as soon as she saw her and implies that the whole thing had been a trap. The lie spreads throughout the neighbourhood and drives Reiko to leave her husband and daughter and go to Ami Hostel in the first place.
  • Titled After the Song: After The Beatles song; it's one of Naoko's favorites. Watanabe hearing a version of it on an international flight triggers memories of Naoko and kicks off the novel.
  • Tokyo University: Most of the novel is set during Watanabe's time as a student in Tokyo.
  • Uptight Loves Wild: An aversion. Midori's former boyfriend dislikes her approach to life and disapproves of the most minor things. This is even Lampshaded by Watanabe in his inner monologue, wondering why a guy like that would want a girlfriend like Midori.
  • Wacky Fratboy Hijinx: There's a bit of this here and there. Nagasawa achieved his reputation as Big Man on Campus after resolving a dispute between two groups of students which almost resulted in physical violence. How did he resolve the dispute? One of the student groups insisted he eat three whole slugs.
  • Wham Line: "Reiko wrote me several letters after Naoko's death."
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Reiko's piano student tells everyone Reiko molested her, when actually, the opposite is true.