(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

On March 20, 1995, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo shocked Japan and the world. Under orders from the cult’s leader, five of its members carried plastic bags of a liquid form of deadly sarin gas onto the Tokyo subway. At five stations, as they had carefully rehearsed, the perpetrators systematically punctured the bags with sharpened umbrella tips, resulting in the deaths of eleven commuters and subway employees and the injury of up to five thousand others, some of whom have never completely recovered.

While the event received immediate massive media coverage in Japan and worldwide, scholars, journalists, and others have struggled for years afterward to uncover the path that led to an event that came within a hairbreadth of achieving its immediate aim, mass murder. How such an act could have been conceived and justified has been the subject of books such as Yale University psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s Destroying the World to Save It (2000), which explored the psychology and belief systems of the Aum Shinrikyo. Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche takes a different tack in seeking primarily to enter the world of the victims and to record and preserve their experience as well as to give an account of how postwar Japanese society spawned the cult and allowed its madness to go unchecked.

Murakami is a well-known Japanese novelist, the author of eight previous books. At the time of the subway attack he had recently returned to his homeland after an extensive period abroad, during which he attempted to see Japan through a more detached lens in an attempt to understand this complex society at a deeper level. Like his compatriots, he experienced overwhelming dismay at this horrendous, seemingly meaningless act of urban terrorism.

Seeking a means to understand an event he takes to be of enormous significance, Murakami hit upon the interview method: He would create verbal snapshots of individual experiences of the attack. Once assembled, the snapshots would give readers a series of eyewitness glimpses of what victims endured, without the writer’s intrusion. The result would not be a “nonfiction novel” like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965), written in the novelist’s words with the collaboration of the responsible criminals, but rather a work that would allow the victims to speak for themselves without the potential distortion of authorial interpretation.

To this end, Murakami sought interviews with as many gassing victims as he could locate and who would consent to an interview. Many who agreed to speak did so on condition of anonymity. In the interviews, Murakami himself tends to keep a low profile, allowing each individual to speak his or her mind. When the interview nears conclusion, most of those interviewed express their feelings toward the insane cult’s criminal actions. Interestingly, a number expressed no anger toward Aum Shrinrikyo. In some instances, the victims say they are “beyond anger,” either in the sense that they have transcended it or that their outrage is beyond ordinary expression.

The experience of the gassing victims, while varying in detail, becomes depressingly familiar with each retelling. All at once people begin coughing uncontrollably; someone slumps over, as if dead. Passersby keep passing by, ignoring the macabre scene they sidestep. Once the victim comes in contact with the noxious liquid or breathes its fumes, all becomes dark. Breathing becomes difficult. In the worst cases, taking a breath seems impossible.

Most of the injured have fully recovered from their contact with sarin—most, but not all. Murakami carefully sought survivors with unresolved medical problems. One poignant personal story concludes with an account of terrible physical duress, of gut-wrenching headaches that recur frequently, without warning. Another is “Shizuko Akashi” (a pseudonym), who has lost her memory of everything prior to being gassed and has moved little from the vegetative state to which the attack reduced her. Recovery appears remote.

The title Underground—culled from the author’s long-standing interest in exploring the depths of the human soul—brings to mind Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous nineteenth century novella Notes from Underground, a profound meditation on the subterranean psychic cauldrons in which resentment ferments. Similarly, Murakami’s title obvious plays on the “subways” of the human unconscious.

In the English-language version of the book, Murakami constructs a further section that adds considerable interest to the volume. He interviews members of the cult, though none of them directly involved in the 1995 attack. Through the many strikingly similar characteristics of these self-descriptions, a composite portrait emerges of the cult’s membership. The most salient of these traits is alienation from society at large, though some were not alienated from their families.

In joining Aum, most members attempted to undergo a sort of rebirth. Feeling abandoned in a hostile world of ceaseless, meaningless effort, they were...

(The entire section is 2091 words.)