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Norwegian Wood (Movie Tie-in Edition) Reader’s Guide

By Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood (Movie Tie-in Edition) by Haruki Murakami

READERS GUIDE

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. We hope they will lead to a richer understanding of this remarkable novel.

Introduction

Set in Tokyo in the late sixties, Norwegian Wood explores the life of Toru Watanabe, a solitary and anguished young student, as he struggles to find himself, to recover from the suicide of his best friend, and to choose between the two women he loves, Naoko and Midori. At seventeen, after an ordinary evening playing pool, Watanabe’s friend Kizuki kills himself, an act that plunges Naoko, Kizuki’s companion since childhood, into a depression from which she never fully emerges. In their grief, Naoko and Watanabe are drawn together. But Naoko’s depression worsens, she enters a sanitarium in the mountains near Kyoto, and Watanabe, to ease his loneliness, joins a hedonistic fellow student, Nagasawa, in pursuit of meaningless sexual encounters. Then he meets Midori, a vibrant, wildly unpredictable, and fiercely emotional young woman who will complicate his loyalty to Naoko and offer him a love that he says "stands and walks on its own, living and breathing and throbbing and shaking me to the roots of my being" [p. 268]. Torn between his vow to help Naoko recover and his desire to begin a more hopeful relationship with Midori, Watanabe vacillates. He visits Naoko in the asylum, an otherworldly place where doctors and patients are nearly interchangeable, but at the same time deepens his connection with Midori, who demands a profound commitment from him. His choice, and the tragic conclusion to Naoko’s suffering that follows it, impel Watanabe into a period of desperate wandering, from which he returns with a deeper self-understanding and a firm resolve to begin his life anew.

An elegiac novel that explores the aftermath of suicide, mental illness, and death, Norwegian Wood is also a sharply observed and often hilarious commentary on Japanese society and university life during a time of widespread student activism and protest. Most of all, it is a bittersweet meditation on friendship, memory, and the elusive, shifting nature of love.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. When Watanabe arrives in Hamburg and hears the song "Norwegian Wood," memories of a scene with Naoko from eighteen years before come back to him. He feels these memories as "kicks" and says they were "longer and harder than usual. Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. . . . I have to write things down to feel I fully understand them" [p. 5]. Why does this particular song have such a powerful effect on Watanabe? What does he understand—or fail to understand—about it by the end of the novel? In what ways does the process of writing help in understanding?

2. Many readers and critics have observed that Norwegian Wood is Murakami’s most autobiographical book. While we can never know exactly to what degree a work of fiction reflects the lived experience of its author, what qualities of the novel feel autobiographical rather than purely fictional? Do these qualities enhance your enjoyment of the book?

3. After Watanabe sleeps with Naoko, he says that "her cry was the saddest sound of orgasm I had ever heard" [p. 40]. Just before she commits suicide, Naoko tells Reiko: "I just don’t want anybody going inside me again. I just don’t want to be violated like that again—by anybody" [p. 284]. In what sense did Watanabe "violate" her? Do you feel this experience directly relates to her suicide? Was it, as Watanabe still asks himself nearly twenty years later, "the right thing to do"?

4. Throughout the novel, Watanabe is powerfully drawn to both Naoko and Midori. How are these women different from one another? How would you describe the different kinds of love they offer Watanabe? Why do you think he finally chooses Midori? Has he made the right choice?

5. The events Norwegian Wood relates take place in the late sixties, a period of widespread student unrest. The university Watanabe attends is frequently beset with protests and strikes and, in Watanabe’s view, pompous "revolutionary" speeches filled with meaningless cliches. "The true enemy of this bunch," Watanabe thinks, "was not State Power but Lack of Imagination" [p. 57]. At first, he identifies with the student protesters but then grows cynical. What qualities of Watanabe’s character make this cynicism inevitable? What is Midori’s reaction to student activism?

6. How would you describe Watanabe’s friend Nagasawa? What is his view of life, of the right way to live? Why is Watanabe drawn to him? In what important ways—particularly in their treatment of women—are they different? How does Murakami use the character of Nagasawa to define Watanabe more sharply?

7. The Great Gatsby is Watanabe’s favorite book, one that he rereads often. Why do you think he identifies so strongly with Fitzgerald’s novel? What does this identification reveal about his character and his worldview?

8. In many ways, Norwegian Wood is a novel about young people struggling to find themselves and survive their various troubles. Kizuki, Hatsumi, Naoko’s sister, and Naoko herself fail in this struggle and commit suicide. How do their deaths affect those they leave behind? In what ways does Kizuki’s suicide both deepen and tragically limit Watanabe’s relationship with Naoko?

9. Murakami’s prose rises at times to an incandescent lyricism. The description of Watanabe embracing Naoko is one such instance: "From shoulder to back to hips, I slid my hand again and again, driving the line and the softness of her body into my brain. After we had been in this gentle embrace for a while, Naoko touched her lips to my forehead and slipped out of bed. I could see her pale blue gown flash in the darkness like a fish" [p. 163]. Where else do you find this poetic richness in Norwegian Wood? What does such writing add to the novel? What does it tell us about Watanabe’s sensibility?

10. At the center of the novel, Reiko tells the long and painful story of how her life was ruined by a sexual relationship with a young and pathologically dishonest female student. How does this story within the story illuminate other relationships in the novel?

11. What is unusual about the asylum where Reiko and Naoko are staying? What methods of healing are employed there? How do the asylum and the principles on which it is run illuminate the concerns about being "normal" that nearly all the characters in the novel express?

12. Naoko attributes Kizuki’s suicide and her own depression to the fact that they shared such an idyllic childhood together and eventually, as adults, had to pay the price for that early happiness. "We didn’t pay when we should have, so now the bills are due" [p. 128]. Do you think this is an accurate way of understanding what’s happened to them? What alternative explanations would you propose?

13. After Kizuki and Naoko have both committed suicide, Watanabe writes: "I had learned one thing from Kizuki’s death, and I believed that I had made it part of myself in the form of a philosophy: ‘Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of life’" [p. 273]. What do you think he means? Is this view of life and death resigned or affirmative? How would such a philosophy change one’s approach to life?

14. What makes Midori such an engaging and forceful character? How is she different from everyone else in the novel? What kind of love does she demand from Watanabe? Is she being selfish in her demands or simply asking for what everyone wants but is afraid to pursue?

15. Norwegian Wood appears to end on a happy note with Watanabe calling Midori and telling her: "All I want in the world is you. . . . I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning" [p. 293]. But when Midori asks where he is, Watanabe is plunged into a kind of existential confusion. How do you interpret the novel’s final mysterious sentence: "Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place." Is there anything positive in Watanabe’s not knowing "where he is"? What is the significance of his being at the "dead center" of no place, wishing for a new beginning?

16. The events of the novel take place in the fictional past. What can you infer about Watanabe’s present condition from the way he tells this story? Do you imagine that he and Midori have remained together?

About this Author

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1949, but grew up largely in Kobe, a cosmopolitan seaport where he made early contact with foreign languages and literature. He studied classical drama at Waseda Univeristy, and, after graduating, briefly managed a jazz bar in Kokubunji. His first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, appeared in 1979 and was awarded the Gunzou Literature Prize. One of Japan’s most important and popular writers, his work has been translated into sixteen languages and includes South of the Border, West of the Sun; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Dance Dance Dance; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World; A Wild Sheep Chase; and The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of stories. An intrepid traveler, Murakami completed Norwegian Wood, which was originally published in 1987, during a three-year sojourn in Greece and Italy. He has taught at Princeton University and now lives near Tokyo.
 
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