Norwegian Wood, Narcissism, and Social Change

noruwei_no_mori_ver3_xlg“I guess I’ve been waiting so long I’m looking for perfection. That makes it tough.”

“Waiting for perfect love?”

“No, even I know better than that. I’m looking for selfishness. Perfect selfishness.  Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortcake.  And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me.  And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortcake out to me. And I say I don’t want it anymore and throw it out the window. That’s what I’m looking for.”

“I’m not sure that has anything to do with love,” I said with some amazement.

“It does,” she said. “You just don’t know it.  There are times in a girl’s life when things like that are incredibly important.”

“Things like throwing a strawberry shortcake out the window?”

“Exactly.  And when I do it, I want the man to apologize to me. ‘Now I see, Midori.  What a fool I’ve been! I should have known that you would lose your desire for the strawberry shortcake. I have all the intelligence and sensitivity of a piece of donkey shit.  To make it up to you, I’ll go out and buy you something else.  What would you like?  Chocolate mousse? Cheesecake?'”

“So then what?”

“So then I’d give him all the love he deserves for what he’s done.”

“Sounds crazy to me.”

“Well to me, that’s what love is. Not that anyone can understand me though.  For a certain kind of person, love begins from something tiny or silly.  From something like that or it doesn’t begin at all.”

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“Girls my age never use the word “fair.” Ordinary girls as young as I am are basically indifferent to whether things are fair or not.  The central question for them is not whether something is fair but whether or not it’s beautiful or will make them happy. “Fair” is a man’s word…”

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It’s best to see that scene within the correct context.  At the beginning of the movie, you have major student protests, confrontations between faculty and students over the relevance of Greek literature to political life–not seeing anything that isn’t immediately personally relevant as relevant at all.  The book, then, presumably takes place in ’68 and I think should be taken as an exploration of that massive event.  The political upheaval, the sexual liberation and libertinism, the conflict between traditional and modern values, the sense of alienation, the narcissism of Midori.  As you know, second wave feminism was born from the 60s; in one of the early conversations I had with my girlfriend (not yet a girlfriend), I asked her if she knew what feminism is, and she responded, “it says that women should be better than men.”  I laughed, quite shocked.

This is the proper context and way to read the scene: 1960s narcissism.  In this sense, the movie is a very typical, perhaps even ubiquitous, exploration (and critique) in Japanese cinema between tradition and cultural change.  You know that the title Norwegian Wood is taken from a 1965 Beatles song.

Where Toru’s relationship to Naoko seems to represent tradition (by way of his virtuous sense of obligation), Toru’s relationship to Midori is much more modern.  First, Midori is definitely much more dynamic, aggressive, forward than Naoko: Midori is something of a modern Japanese young woman trying to find her way.  And second, and more obviously, the relationship between Toru and Midori comes at the end of a spate of Toru’s womanizing.  Reinforcing these themes is the subplot between Nagasawa and Hatsumi–Hatsumi ultimately committing suicide because of the infidelity and coldness of Nagasawa, whom she loves.  So, on the surface, Naoko represents tradition, which ultimately becomes schizophrenic and commits suicide, and Midori represents the vitality, although uncertain, of the future.

But note that Midori redeems herself by waiting for, and ultimately forgiving Toru for rejecting her in favor of his traditionally Japanese obligation toward Naoko; this ushers in a new beginning, on the note of which the film ends.  How to account for the capitulation of the narcissistic ethos–in the name of love?  Read at a deeper level, Naoko rather than Midori is the true exemplification of uncompromising narcissism.

First, note that one of the central plot elements (at least in the film) is that Naoko can’t have intercourse because her pussy can’t get wet.  She never had it with Kizuki, whom she insisted on several occasions to have genuinely loved; she had it only once with Toru.  Ultimately, this incapacity for sexual intimacy is a significant contributor to her madness.  But, when is the one time when she can get wet, when she has intercourse with Toru?  It’s prior to her commitment to Toru: it is prior to the commitment to genuine emotional engagement.  The only time that she is capable of vaginal wetness is in the fulfillment of bodily pleasure, in the absence of emotional bond to the Other, in a situation where she does not wither in self-consciousness in the gaze of the Other: narcissism sine qua non.  Ultimately, her incapacity for physical intimacy is inextricably linked to her madness: her incapacity for physical intimacy mirrors her simultaneous rejection of relationships with others–with her hyperreflexivity, constantly talking about herself, driving herself mad with thoughts about her own self and own feelings, etc.–and ultimate suicide.

Here we are starting to see most clearly the focus on the thematic of alienation–of separation of person from person, of personal isolation–that is one of the major subjects of the film, whether through sexuality, through madness, or in extreme conceptions of love.  Midori, although appearing to be a real fucking bitch on first sight, forgives Toru, so we should be inclined to forgive her.  She is a young woman who struggles with contrary conceptions of self, but unlike Naoko, who uncontrollably spirals into herself, escapes into the fantasmal past, and toward suicide, she ultimately compromises with her emotions, and indeed her stated ideal of love–and in a rather conservative conclusion, fulfills the classical motif of the woman faithfully waiting for her man while he is away on a personal journey (seen first in Odysseus and recapitulated throughout the Western literary patriarchy).

Does not, then, Midori in fact fulfill a traditional female role, or at least move toward it in a modern way, whereas Naoko is the one who exemplifies inflexibility and the descent into the self and self-destruction?  Midori shows herself as a maturing young woman, originally with flawed views and an egregious and possibly insulting stated worldview, but who ultimately compromises her own narcissism for her love of Toru–even as she claims not to understand Toru’s commitment to Naoko.  Like in Pulp Fiction, the vision of the film points toward the future rather than the past, but it simultaneously recognizes the logic of the traditional past without inflexibly adhering to it–as when Butch cuts down The Gimp and incapacitates Zed with a samurai sword but rides away on a motorcycle.

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