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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1956

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 acts seem to have no meaning to him; in fact, meaning itself seems to have broken down, never to be the same again. Kneeling on the pitcher’s mound, Yoshiya gives himself up to the flow of time, saying aloud, “Oh God.” Once again, Murakami’s story ends with a sense of emptiness and loneliness; however, because Yoshiya calls out the name of his absent father at the end, there is some ambiguity about whether his discovery is positive or negative.

In “Thailand,” a woman named Satsuki goes to a professional conference in Bangkok, Thailand, and decides to vacation there for a week with the help of a limousine driver and guide named Nimit. The alternate reality theme is introduced when the limousine arrives looking like an object from another world, as if it had dropped from someone’s fantasy. When Nimit asks Satsuki if her hometown of Kyoto, which is not far from Kobe, was much damaged by the quake, she thinks of an unnamed “he” who lives in Kobe. Nimit takes Satsuki to a poor village to meet an eighty-year-old woman fortune-teller who tells Satsuki that there is a stone inside her body and that she must dream of a snake that will remove it or she will die. The old woman also tells Satsuki that the unnamed man in Kobe, obviously a man who jilted Satsuki in the past, is not dead. Satsuki now recognizes that it is she who is headed toward death. She even thinks that the earthquake may be her fault because she wished for it to kill the man. As she flies home, she wishes for sleep so her dream will come. Once again, a character is reminded of the emptiness inside the self, but once again also there is some ambiguity about the implications of this realization. If Satsuki has her dream, will she be saved from the hardness of her heart?

The most surreal story in the collection is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” which begins, Kafka-like, with a man named Katagiri finding a giant frog in his apartment who tells him he has come to save Tokyo from destruction from an earthquake. Frog says that he and Katagiri must go underground to do mortal combat with a creature named Worm, who gets larger as he absorbs hatred. Frog, quoting the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, says Katagiri must cheer him on, for fighting is not something he likes to do. When Katagiri tells Frog that he is even less than ordinary and does not see how he can help save Tokyo, Frog says he is trying to save Tokyo for good, ordinary people just like him. However, on the day they are to go underground Katagiri is shot by a man in the street and wakes up in a hospital, only to find out there has been no earthquake and that he was not shot at all. Like other characters in these stories, Katagiri has no idea of what is true anymore. When Frog comes to the hospital and tells Katagiri that he did a great job in his dreams, the strange creature begins to break out in boils, out of which come maggots, centipedes, worms, and bugs, which fill the room and crawl all over Katagiri. When he wakes up, he knows that Frog saved Tokyo at the cost of his life, for he went back to the mud and will never come again. Then Katagiri falls into a restful, dreamless sleep. Although this is certainly the most Kafkaesque story in the book, it is also one of the most optimistic, for it ends with Katagiri no longer troubled by strange dreams, peaceful in his very ordinariness.

Perhaps the most hopeful story in the book is “Honey Pie,” which begins with a man named Junpei telling a story to a child named Sala about a bear named Masakichi, who has no friends and is especially hated by a tough bear named Tonkichi. The child’s mother, Sayoko, has called Junpei, a writer and a friend, to come and help her because Sala is having hysterical fits in which she believes someone called the Earthquake Man is trying to put her in a little box.

When Junpei, Sayoko, and her husband Takatsuki were close friends at the university, Junpei felt that Sayoko was the girl he had been looking for, but because he could never bring himself to express his feelings to her, Takatsuki was the first one to declare his love. After graduation, Junpei became a successful short-story writer, while Takatsuki got a job with a newspaper and married Sayoko. Just before Sala’s second birthday, Takatsuki and Sayoko divorce and Junpei thinks about asking Sayoko to marry him but cannot make up his mind. When Junpei and Sayoko take Sala to a zoo to see the bears, he tells the little girl a story about Tonkichi who trades salmon with Masakichi for his honey, eventually making them best friends. When the salmon disappear, Tonkichi ends up being sent to the zoo.

That evening after dinner, Junpei and Sayoko embrace as if nothing has changed since they were nineteen. During the night Sala comes into the bedroom and says the Earthquake Man came and told her that he has a box for everyone. Junpei sleeps on the sofa and looks at the television, musing that they are inside the television waiting for the box to open. He thinks that as soon as Sayoko wakes up he will ask her to marry him. He also thinks of a conclusion for the story for Sala; he has Tonkichi bake honey pies, which Masakichi takes to town and sells so they can live as best friends forever. Thinking he now will keep watch over this woman and little girl and never let anyone put them in that crazy box, not even if the earth should crack open, Junpei decides he wants to write stories different from those he has written so far; he wants to write about people who dream and wait. Indeed, this final story in Murakami’s collection is precisely that kind of story—a story that ends with fullness and unity instead of emptiness and separation. Thus, although these stories seem distinct entities, they are interconnected not only by the effect of the Kobe earthquake, but also because they move from meaninglessness to final hope.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (July, 2002): 1821.

The Hartford Courant, September 15, 2002, p. H5.

Library Journal 127 (June 15, 2002): 99.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 2002, p. 13.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 18, 2002, p. 10E.

The New York Times, August 20, 2002, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (August 18, 2002): 5.

Publishers Weekly 249 (July 29, 2002): 53.

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