In the early morning hours of January 16, 1995, a 7.2 earthquake hit the port city of Kobe, Japan, killing over five thousand people, causing billions of dollars worth of damage, and putting 300,000 out of their homes, including the parents of writer Haruki Murakami. Two months later, the radical Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a gas attack on the subway system in Tokyo, killing eleven and crippling many others for life. Because of these twin terrors, Murakami, who had lived in the United States for several years, returned to Japan to research and write a series of newspaper articles on the terrorist attack, later published as Underground: The Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (2001), filled with accounts of the lives of both survivors and cult members. In Murakami’s new book, After the Quake, six stories explore the seemingly tangential, yet very real, effect of the earthquake on several Japanese characters in February, 1995, the month between the two disasters.
The first story, “UFO in Kushiro,” begins with a woman who has spent five days after the quake in front of the television. On the sixth day, when her husband Komura, a salesman at an electronics store in Tokyo, comes home, she has disappeared, leaving him a note saying that although he is good, kind, and handsome, living with him is like living with a “chunk of air.” As usual with Murakami’s characters, Komura does not make any emotional reactions to his wife’s departure. He takes a week off from work, and one of his colleagues says that if he will deliver a small package for him to his younger sister in the city of Kushiro he will pay for his airfare and hotel.
When the sister, Keiko, along with a friend, Shimao, meet Komura at the airport, he has the strange impression that he is witnessing some moment from the past. He also feels he has not come far even though it was a long journey. These impressions create a transition from everyday life into a mysterious realm of reality typical of many of these stories. When Komura says he does not think his wife’s departure had anything to do with the earthquake, Shimao says she wonders if things like that are nonetheless connected somehow. When Komura and Shimao try to have sex, he fails several times because he has been seeing images of the earthquake. He tells her about his wife’s note, and she asks if it is true that there is “nothing” inside him. When he asks what “something” inside of him could be, she tells him that the box he brought contains the “something” inside of him and that he will never get it back. At the end of the story, the most pessimistic in the collection, Komura understands the emptiness inside himself.
The second story, “Landscape with Flatiron,” focuses on a young woman named Junko and an older man named Miyake building bonfires on the beach. As Junko watches, she thinks of the story “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London (1876-1916), about a man traveling alone in the Alaskan wilderness who cannot get a fire started and freezes to death. She is convinced that the man actually wanted death, even though he fought to stay alive. Junko has always felt a “certain something deep down” as she watches bonfires. Miyake, who is obsessed with the fires, tells her that getting such a feeling while looking at a fire shows a deep, quiet kind of feeling inside a person.
Like Komura in the first story, Junko says she is empty, to which Miyake replies that he is an expert on emptiness. After talking about committing suicide together when the fire goes out, Junko goes to sleep and Miyake tells her that when the fire goes out she will feel the cold and wake up whether she wants to or not. In spite of the sense of emptiness, characteristic of other stories in this book, there is also a sense of communion between the two characters at the end. This mutual understanding suggests that it is possible that when the fire goes out, the two will still have each other.
The story “All God’s Children Can Dance” begins with a man named Yoshiya following a mysterious man with a missing earlobe. Interspersed with accounts of Yoshiya following the man are flashbacks to Yoshiya’s childhood, when his mother told him that his father was the Lord, and that one day he will show himself to him if he keeps his faith. Yoshiya is convinced the man with a missing earlobe must be his biological father. When the man gets off the train in an industrial area, he walks like a mechanical doll being drawn by a magnet. The fact that there is no sign of human life and the place looks like an imaginary stage set in a dream is another indication, typical of these stories, that the main character has entered some alternate dream reality. When Yoshiya follows the man into an empty baseball field, he disappears, and Yoshiya’s...
(The entire section is 1956 words.)