Haruki Murakami

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Naomi Matsuoka (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Murakami Haruki and Raymond Carver: The American Scene,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, 1993, pp. 423–38.

[In the following essay, Matsuoka compares A Wild Sheep Chase to Raymond Carver's “Blackbird Pie,” tracing similarities between motifs, themes, and characters to illustrate the “confluence” of American and Japanese fictional conventions in contemporary world literature.]

In the preface to From Puritanism to Postmodernism, Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland write:

Now, by virtue not only of its quality but its modern resonance, and indeed America's own power of influence and distribution as well as its possession of a world language, American literature more than ever exists for more people than simply the Americans. It is part of, and does much to shape, the writing of literature through much of the contemporary world.1

Twentieth-century American literature has indeed made a strong impact on Japanese literature. And since the 1980s, Japanese novels and stories have influenced and also exhibited the influence of contemporary American works. Japanese million-seller writers such as Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana are read widely in the United States: Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase (trans. 1989) and Yoshimoto's Kitchen (trans. 1993) were popular among both readers and reviewers, the latter of whom do not fail to point out that the novels are very similar to American stories. In 1992, two of Murakami's short stories, “Sleep” and “Barn Burning,” appeared in The New Yorker, and these and other stories have been published in the first English collection of Murakami's stories, The Elephant Vanishes. It was of course The New Yorker as well that published a number of stories by Raymond Carver, whom Murakami admires, and whose stories Murakami has been translating into Japanese. Thus readers in America can read a Japanese author as a contemporary of an American author in the same magazine. Similarly, in Japan Murakami's short stories and his translations and interpretations of Carver's stories as well as his interview with Carver have been published in literary magazines such as Shincho and Eureka: the former, an established literary magazine circulated among avid readers of literature, and the latter, a more specialized and academic magazine on both domestic and international cultural issues, including current literature. Murakami's readers trust his choice of translations, especially those of Carver's stories. So in this case as well, readers in Japan can read contemporary Japanese and American stories in a similar literary environment.

The reasons for this phenomenon include the growing similarities in lifestyle and literary background between Japan and America. Accordingly, the similarities of Japanese to American fiction should no longer be seen as merely a matter of influence and reception. Here recalling Bradbury and Ruland's remarks on American literature in the broadest sense, that is, as a world literature, we should come to understand Japanese and American works as parts of contemporary modern literature. In this paper I would like to give an example of not only the influence of one writer on another, but also of the confluence of the works of writers in Japan and America in our time by comparing two works of Murakami Haruki and Raymond Carver.

Murakami Haruki has immersed himself in modern American literature from the 1920s to the present, and these works have become his literary foundation, just as they have become the literary foundation of modern American writers like Carver. Japanese authors such as Soseki, Tanizaki, and Kawabata are seldom discussed in relation to Murakami's literature. Murakami had found particular affinity to the literature of the American 1920s, especially to F. Scott Fitzgerald. However, his extensive reading list includes Raymond...

(This entire section contains 6129 words.)

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Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, John Updike, John Cheever, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, John Irving, Raymond Carver, and Tim O'Brien. He is also a serious reader of science fiction. Consequently, we can observe his pastiche of various works of American literature:A Wild Sheep Chase is based in plot and theme on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye as Murakami himself admits,2 and Professor Koshikawa notes that the narrative style and form of American Romance in Murakami's Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando [Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World] (1985) and Noruei no mori [Norwegian Wood] (1987) are similarly related to The Great Gatsby (1925).3 Thus, inside of the modern legacy of American literature, Murakami reads and studies American fiction and applies its different styles and modes: memory, romance, science fiction, detective story, and realism. Murakami's endeavors show one typical characteristic of modern writers: they are so self-conscious about writing a work of literature that they do not allow themselves to indulge in just one form of writing. Murakami also frequently explains and analyzes his own writings: he thinks that he owes his exuberant, fanciful way of storytelling to John Irving and his attempts to depict the subtle but realistic and humanistic depiction of life to Raymond Carver.

Translating some works of American fiction into Japanese is another way in which Murakami has immersed himself in American literature and, at the same time, introduced these works to Japanese readers. Among the authors he has translated are F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, Truman Capote, Tim O'Brien, and most significantly in the opinions of many critics, Carver. In the afterword to Sasayakadakeredo yakuni tatsu koto, Murakami has written on how challenging it is to put Carver's characteristic English into Japanese.4 By choosing the works above, he reveals again his inclination to the two main streams of American fiction: extraordinary and exuberant story telling, and the subtle but humanistic depiction of life.

In order to examine the relationship of Murakami and Carver, I would like to discuss Part Two of Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase and Raymond Carver's “Blackbird Pie,” one of his later short stories included in the collection Where I'm Calling From. In the afterword to his translation of “Blackbird Pie,” Murakami calls its situation “Carveresque,” meaning “a family drama of collapse,” a situation in which a wife leaves her husband.5 Similar is the second part of Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase, where it becomes apparent that not only the situation, but the style, the language, and the theme of these two stories are quite close. Both narratives are delivered in the first person and are self-reflective. Their language is limited to the description of concrete objects, emphasizing the detachment from emotions. Finally, both protagonists realize through self-reflection their alienation from the society and confront the absolute solitude of death.

A Wild Sheep Chase is a fantasy adventure. The protagonist is almost thirty years old, an ordinary man, aimless and mired in the monotony of the quotidian world. He is, however, forced to go to Hokkaido on a quest to find a special sheep. He is guided by his dead friend, helped by a girl with splendid ears, a “sheep man,” and Dr. Sheep. Finally, he confronts death, but manages to return to the present world ready to live his life. As mentioned above, Murakami here takes the framework of a detective story, also applying the techniques of fantasy literature. Part Two of A Wild Sheep Chase marks the beginning of the adventure. When his wife leaves him, the protagonist realizes that he is a total failure in life, a social misfit who leads a dull, unremarkable existence. In spite of the fantastic and mysterious development of the main part, Part Two is written in a most quiet and realistic manner in order to convey the ordinary lifestyle of the protagonist. In this sense, Part Two comes closer to Carver's style of writing than any other works by Murakami.

Part Two of A Wild Sheep Chase is divided into two chapters: juroppo arukukoto ni tsuite [On Walking Sixteen Steps] and kanojo no shometsu,shashin no shometsu,slip no shometsu [Disappearance of Her,Disappearance of Photographs,Disappearance of Slips]. In the first section, the protagonist comes home drunk to find his wife sleeping at the kitchen table. He has returned from the funeral of a woman, a former lover from his college days. One month ago his wife had told him that she wanted a divorce and left him, and now she has returned to the apartment in order to take her belongings. The conversation is spare, but we learn that the wife is no longer able to endure his indifference toward her. After she leaves, in the second chapter, he finds that she has taken everything with her; she even cut out all her pictures from their photo albums. He realizes that he misses her and wishes that she could have left at least one of her slips, so he would have something to cling to for a while. He thinks of a slip because he remembers that in one American story he has read, a husband places his wife's slip over the back of a dining chair for months after she has left him.

Carver's “Blackbird Pie” is not so typical in style as other stories by Carver. Carver quite intentionally tries to write a mystery, perhaps one of his attempts to write a different kind of story toward the end of his life. “Blackbird Pie” is a strange, nightmare-like story in which the narrator-protagonist tells us about one evening when his wife suddenly leaves him. One evening after dinner in late summer, someone pushes under the door of his study a long letter, which explains all the reasons why his wife is leaving him. He resists reading the letter, but just skims through it. Although he admits the charges made against him, he claims strangely that the handwriting is not hers and, therefore, that whatever is said in the letter is not credible. While he hesitates to talk to his wife in the living room, two stray horses come into their yard, shortly followed by a deputy sheriff and a rancher who are called by the wife to take them away. The wife asks them to give her a ride to the town, and thus she leaves the house in the rancher's pickup truck on the foggy night. Sometime later, the narrator comes across her wedding picture, which he throws away with other belongings of hers, and ostensibly loses the letter. The husband is left alone and lost, and realizes that their separation is final.

In both stories the failure of a marriage is caused by the failure of communication between a husband and a wife in otherwise normal settings of daily life: a talk over a kitchen table in an apartment house or near the kitchen sink in a summer house, and so on. In Wild Sheep Chase, the couple has not seen each other for one month and when they meet, they are not in a condition to converse, although it seems that the wife has returned with hopes of reconciliation, only to find that her husband has stayed out all night. Both of them are caught up in their own sorrows and despair: he feels guilty for failing to help his former lover, and the wife, on the other hand, is tormented by love-hate feelings toward him. Neither of them understands the other's sadness and cannot be gentle enough to start a talk. To her request for a divorce one month ago, he answers, “it's up to you,” refusing to take any responsibility in the matter.6 He thinks that “her disappearance was due to circumstances beyond [his] control” (20). On the other hand, when he mentions the death of his former lover, the wife dismisses his sorrow and criticizes his noncommittal and indifferent attitude—the most painful criticism to him now. Rejected by his wife, he does not pursue the subject. The wife also gives up trying to talk with him and just leaves fragments of words behind her: a note on his desk to tell where things are and what else to do.

In “Blackbird Pie,” the communication between husband and wife is more unnatural. Although the couple have lived together in a rented house for the whole summer, it seems that they have not talked to each other, not even routine conversations over meals:

On the evening in question, we ate dinner rather silently but not unpleasantly, as was our custom. From time to time I looked up and smiled across the table as a way of showing my gratitude for the delicious meal—poached salmon, fresh asparagus, rice pilaf with almonds.7

Also, the protagonist wants to go back to his room as soon as possible although he blames his wife in a twisted turn of thought:

“I think I'll go to my room now.”

She took her hands out of the water and rested them against the counter. I thought she might proffer a word or two of encouragement for the work I was engaged in, but she didn't. Not a peep. It was as if she were waiting for me to leave the kitchen so she could enjoy her privacy.


Despite the professed doubts of the narrator, it seems that the wife pushes her letter under the door of his study instead of talking to him in person, even making sure beforehand that he is in the room. Although the narrator keeps telling his readers that there was nothing peculiar on that day, or in the conversations between them, there are many hints that he rejects communication with his wife by shutting himself up in his study. The letter starts as follows:


Things are not good. Things, in fact, are bad. Things have gone from bad to worse. And you know what I'm talking about. We've come to the end of the line. It's over with us. Still, I find myself wishing we could have talked about it. It's been such a long time now since we've talked.


While the wife is desperate to talk, the husband is not. He refuses to talk or to read the letter, insisting that it is not her handwriting. Curious about what is happening, however, he reluctantly reads the beginning of the letter and skims the rest although he gets most of the meaning out of it as if he knew what she would write from the beginning. Even so he still refuses to talk with her about the contents of the letter.

At the end of “Blackbird Pie” the protagonist says, “to take a wife is to take a history. And if that's so, then I understand that I'm outside history now” (510). The break-up of a marriage is one of the most common scenes in modern life, but with its commonness the authors present the alienation of an individual from the society, because marriage is a social convention which relates the individual to society.

Murakami's Noruei no mori [Norwegian Wood] depicts a similar situation. Midori, one of the protagonist's girlfriends, writes him a letter of accusation while sitting on a park bench next to him, then tells him to read it only after he gets home. She is very angry at him because he is indifferent to her and impossible to talk to; thus she decides to write a letter right in front of him in order to communicate with him. Although the situation is more comical here than in “Blackbird,” the letter writing is the final and desperate means of communication between frustrated women and their indifferent men. Including Midori's letter, the letters are very often the desperate or final means of communications in Murakami's novels: in A Wild Sheep Chase, for example, the protagonist receives letters from his friend who is going to kill himself, letters which urge him to make a move, and in Noruei no mori, for another girlfriend, Naoko, letter writing is the last line to keep her in touch with reality even though eventually she becomes unable even to write letters. As literary devices, the letters in Murakami's works develop the plot, reveal the protagonists' alter ego, and enable the characters to express internal dialogues as first-person narratives which finally make the text self-referential and self-conscious.

Carver uses letters to suggest the situation, for example, of waiting, of hoping, or of having to make a decision as in “What Do You Do in San Francisco?” “Collectors,” and “Elephant.” A letter is important as something which happens in everyday life, but in “Blackbird” the content or the text of the letter itself is important: the story is actually about writing. After his close analysis of the text of “Blackbird,” Randolph Paul Runyon suggests that the letter may have been written by the husband himself rather than by his wife.8 This is another resemblance between Part Two of A Wild Sheep Chase and “Blackbird.”

Both works are written in a detached style. Their protagonists do not talk much to explain, support, or to excuse themselves, and yet they are eloquent in their depiction of things and of their reflections. Murakami's protagonist describes the things around him tersely and makes them speak more eloquently than human words: the elevator in the hall, the red shoes in the entrance, the strap of a slip seen from the wife's dress, the toilet articles, the photographs, and the slip. The title of the second chapter also demonstrates this equal treatment of people and objects: “Disappearance of Her, Disappearance of Photographs, Disappearance of the Slip.” They tell us about the helpless situation of the drunken husband: the sadness, loneliness, isolation, fear, and humiliation. Carver's protagonist tells us about two different things: what is happening now, (his wife is leaving) and history. He is worried about his wife, but he tries to maintain a light and playful tone by talking about history as presented by the title, “Blackbird Pie”: he says “Ask me anything about the Tartans. … Tannenberg? Simple as blackbird pie. The famous four and twenty that were set before the king” (492). He attempts to convince us that he is confident and capable of mastering the facts. In doing so, He tries to gain our trust but, ironically, loses it. This playful tone in the face of adversity can be observed when Murakami's protagonist calls himself “the Most Courteous Drunk” and “The Earliest to Rise, the Last Boxcar over the Bridge.” Here too, the pose taken by the narrator tends to make him seem somewhat unreliable.

In regard to moral judgment, the two husbands are also similar. They both realize that they have hurt others, but it seems too late for them to seek reconciliation. They both know that they have been making mistakes in their lives. In Murakami's novel it is only after his wife leaves the place and after he discovers that she has taken everything, even photographs of hers from their album, that he realizes that he misses her, just as he suffered from the sense of guilt and loss only after the death of his former lover. In “Blackbird Pie,” while the protagonist reads over the letter, it occurs to him several times that he should go to talk to his wife, but every time, he hesitates and never leaves his room. Finally when he sees her, she is standing on the porch, all ready to leave him, completely dressed up and carrying her suitcase with all of her belongings in it. In both cases, the hesitation and inaction of the husbands are considered confirmation of the charges against them, not only by the wives but also by the readers.

Furthermore, in both stories the protagonists are unable to take any action or to make any decision or judgment. Instead they indulge themselves in drinking or hiding in a room. Murakami's protagonist, instead of trying to persuade his wife not to leave, encourages her to do so because he understands that she has realized that he, not she, is socially unfit (37). Carver's protagonist stays in his room as though he were paralyzed and incapable of stopping her. When the Sheriff and the rancher come and force him to face the situation, he is intimidated. Meeting them he regrets that he does not have a hat on because these two men are dressed in their outfits for action with their hats, boots, raincoats—even a pistol. The sheriff and the rancher talk about the wife and the break-up of his marriage openly in front of him, and the sheriff even warns him neither to argue nor to make any trouble. One of the men takes her away from the house. The visitors seem to be intruding in the husband's personal life, but he just stands there unable to make any defensive or offensive move.

The wives, on the other hand, are more practical and realistic: they make decisions, judgments, choices, and take actions to change their situations. They have endured living with their husbands, but now they ponder their marriages, decide to end them officially in a letter or by filing a paper for divorce. They also clean out their belongings and refuse or do not expect any help from their husbands for leaving. The reason why they leave is also the same: the deterioration of their husbands. Even their final words are practically identical. In A Wild Sheep Chase, the wife says, answering her husband's request for her not to go, “But I'm going nowhere staying with you” (21). In “Blackbird Pie” the wife says, “Well, I don't know what I can say now except the truth: I can't go it another step” (499). The wives make a move, while the husbands become more and more introverted and inactive.

The attachment of both husbands to the objects their wives wear, to the debris they leave behind or to their images after they have gone makes them look more trivial and helpless. Murakami's protagonist finds his wife's red pumps in the entrance and understands right away that something is wrong. Then, after she leaves, he counts the things his wife took with her one by one, and every time he confirms to himself the fact that she left him: “Her cosmetics, toiletries, and curlers, her tooth brush, hair dryer, assortment of pills, boots, sandals, slippers, hat boxes, accessories, handbags, shoulder bags, suitcases, purses, her ever-tidy stock of underwear, stockings, and socks, letters, everything with least womanly scent was gone” (20). But most of all, he wishes that his wife had left one of her slips, so that he could act out the plot of an American story. In “Blackbird,” in the scenes on the porch and in the yard, the husband keeps thinking about the hat and high-heel shoes the wife is wearing. He remembers that she wore the same hat with a veil at her mother's funeral, and he watches her walk in the shoes on the grass in the yard: for him they are entirely out of place just as Murakami's protagonist feels about his wife's red pumps. Then at the moment his wife leaves, the protagonist thinks of a particular wedding picture of his wife, remembering how happy she was when they married. A few days later while he looks through the belongings of his wife, he throws the picture away, telling himself he does not care.

Thus the wives represent social values and moral judgments on their husbands, and become, in a sense, their executioners. The wife-executioner seems to be a self-reflective, self-penalizing device in these works. Both husbands are charged, sentenced, and punished by their wives. The husbands accept their charges, understand their responsibility, and are punished.9 Death is repeatedly suggested in both stories (by the description or mention of funerals, a funeral hat, a foggy night, and a sound sleep) in order to prepare the reader for the endings in which both protagonists face terminal loss and isolation, that is, their own death. Part Two of Wild Sheep Chase is “rounded with a sleep”:

To her, I was already lost. Even if she still loved me, it didn't matter. We'd gotten too used to each other's role. She understood it instinctively; I knew it from experience. There was no hope.

So it was that she and her slip vanished forever. Some things are forgotten, some things disappear, some things die. But all in all, this was hardly what you could call a tragedy.

July 24, 8:25 A. M.

I checked the numerals of the digital clock, closed my eyes, and fell asleep.


At the conclusion of Carver's “Blackbird Pie,” the narrator discusses the end of the affair and the end of his marriage as though it were the end of his life:

She's gone for good. She is. I can feel it. Gone and never coming back.

Period. Not ever. …

It could be said, for instance, that to take a wife is to take a history. And if that's so, then I understand that I'm outside history now—like horses and fog. Or you could say that my history has left me. Or that I'm having to go on without history. Or that history will now have to do without me—. … That's when it dawns on me that autobiography is the poor man's history. And that I am saying good-by to history. Good-bye, my darling.


In both works, we see the depiction of a humiliated man. Murakami discussed the subject with Carver in a 1984 interview. Asked by Carver what aspect of his stories are accepted in Japan, Murakami answered, “there is something common between your stories and traditional Japanese short stories. … there is some subtle change in a rather domestic situation, and the situation is altered although there is no change in the essential level and the story is cut off at that point.”10 Tess Gallagher later remembered the day and wrote in the foreword for the Japanese translation of Ultra Marine that they—Murakami, Carver, and Gallagher herself—concluded that “Japanese readers, just like the American middle class, have broken down and agonized, that probably there is something like humiliation among the life of the labor class which is common in both Japan and America.”11 Raymond Carver himself refers to this discussion in his poem, “The Projectile,” a poem he dedicated to Murakami, in the collection Ultramarine:

We sipped tea. Politely musing
on possible reasons for the success
of my books in your country. Slipped
into talk of pain and humiliation
you find occurring, and reoccurring,
in my stories. And that element
of sheer chance. How all this translates
in terms of sales.


The last ironic turn of thought, which deflates the seriousness of the point being made, could easily have been made by Murakami. Both writers deflate the narrators in the works we have considered here.

The humiliation of a man in a rather quiet ordinary life is repeatedly depicted in Japanese literature in modern times. Murakami is not an exception—Oe Kenzaburo has said recently that Murakami belongs to the school of Maruya Saiichi, who wrote “shimin shosetsu” [stories of (average) citizens]. While Japanese writers come to resemble their American counterparts in writing styles and in situations, American writers of the 1980s, sometimes called minimalists, have thoroughly explored the theme of the humiliation of common people in everyday life. In a passage from “The Art of Fiction,” which serves as epigraph to a recent collection of his writings, Carver quoted Chekhov: “Friend, you don't have to write about extraordinary people who accomplish extraordinary and memorable deeds.”12 In No Heroics, Please, he says that reading Chekhov changed him.13 Murakami is attracted by this aspect of Carver's short stories, as his selection for his first translation of Carver shows: Yoru ni naruto sake wa [At Night the Salmon Move]14 includes “Feathers,” “The Pheasant,” Vitamins,” “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” and “My Father's Life.”

For both authors, the everyday life of ordinary people in modern times is the basis of their writings. The stories concern common events such as marriage or divorce, having a job or losing one, drinking and eating, love and making love. Naturally, their characters are families, mainly husband and wife, and their friends and colleagues. Common images are letters, telephones, TV sets, and cars. Their characters often talk over a kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a can of beer, and so on. Telephones, letters, and unexpected visitors such as salesmen are intruders into an ordinary life, and they reveal the inner life of their characters or their most essential concerns.

In the 1950s and '60s Oe's so-called “translation Japanese,” that is, Japanese which sounds like a translation from a foreign language, was more stiff and rigid like a literal translation of English syntax, and this difference from the traditional Japanese prose added a new tone to Japanese literature. In contrast, Murakami's Japanese is more idiomatic and yet carries the flow of the American English. While Oe tries to clarify the ideas and processes of thinking with his translation-like Japanese, Murakami concentrates on creating tones and feelings in his writings: hard-boiled, detached, casual, humorous, and self-conscious. Some of the typical phrases by his protagonists are “sore wa warukunai” [Not bad!] and “yareyare” [Just great!]. As a matter of fact, when we read Murakami's Japanese, we can sense the English expressions behind it at the same time. Readers with some knowledge of English (actually most Japanese people nowadays) enjoy these kinds of narratives, those which seem to be written in both Japanese and English at the same time. In one example cited above, the wife says, “Demo, anata to issho ni itemo mo dokonimo ikenainoyo” (37). In Japanese this sounds unnatural and even contradictory. Literally it means, “I'm not able to go any other place as long as I stay with you.” Actually this phrase contains Murakami's literal translation of the American idiom “going somewhere” in the sense of progressing or achieving, something which is not idiomatic in Japanese.

In a recent study on translations into Japanese, Inoue Ken says that by translating Western literature we have acquired something which might be called, “translation Japanese,” which is neither natural nor idiomatic because it is restricted by the syntax of the original language.15 And this difference from common Japanese has been renewing Japanese literature like Oe Kenzaburo's writings in the late 1950s and '60s. Thirty years after Oe, Inoue continues, Murakami Haruki has appeared in a similar context, but our everyday life has become filled with so much of translation that his Japanese, which bears traces of American English, does not seem so very foreign anymore for Japanese readers (5–6). The American English-like Japanese of such writers as Murakami is also authentic Japanese at the present time. In his case, especially, he translates contemporary American fiction into Japanese, and his readers read both his fiction and his translations of American fiction interchangeably. The readers do not distinguish his original works from the American works because of a difference in Japanese language alone. Here are some examples from the two works discussed above:

Doa o san'bun no ichi bakari akete sokoni karada o suberikomase, doa o shimeru. Genkan wa shin to shiteita. Hitsuyo ijo ni shin to shiteita. Sorekara boku wa ashimoto no akai panpusu no sonzai ni kizuita. Minareta akai panpusu datta. Sorewa dorodarake no tennis shoes to yasumono no beach sandal ni hasamarete, kisetsu hazure no Christmas present mitai ni mieta. Sono ue ni komakai chiri no yona chinmoku ga ukande ita.

(Hitsuji o megaru bōken, 26)

The door maybe one-third open, I slid my body in, shutting the door behind me. The entryway was dead silent. More silent than it ought to be.

That's when I noticed the red pumps at my feet. Red pumps I've seen before. Parked in between my mud-caked tennis shoes and a pair of cheap beach sandals, like some out-of-season Christmas present. A silence hovered about them, fine as dust.

(Wild Sheep, trans. Birnbaum 14)

Next is an example of a passage from Murakami's translation of Carver's “Blackbird Pie,” with the original following it:

Aru yo, heya ni iru tokini, roka no ho ni monooto ga kikoeta. Shigoto no te o yasumete sochira ni me o yaruto, doa no shita kara huto ga sashikomareru noga mieta. Futo wa kanari atsukattaga, demo doa no shita o kugurinukerarenaihodo atsukuwa nakatta. Futo niwa watasi no namae ga kaite ari, sono naka niwa watashi no tsuma karano tegami ni misekaketa mono ga haitte ita.

(“Blackbird,” trans. by Murakami 429)

I was in my room one night when I heard something in the corridor. I looked up from my work and saw an envelope slide under the door. It was a thick envelope, but not so thick it couldn't be pushed under the door.

(“Blackbird,” 491)

The first passage describes the moment when Murakami's protagonist realizes that his wife has returned to their apartment, and the second is the beginning of “Blackbird.” Both establish the uneasiness of the protagonists, who prepare themselves for defence, and introduce the readers into the stories and to the notion that something different is going to happen. Both passages actually turn out to be common scenes, the breakup of a marriage, but for the protagonists they mean a more fundamental change inside: the beginning of a trip to the world of death, or a blackout of consciousness. Both passages are simple and colloquial, but the omen of tragicomedy is sufficiently presented. The similarities in style and tone suggest that we may consider them contemporary fictions rather than classifying them by countries.

In the 1980s and '90s, however, English and American culture had already penetrated throughout the mass body of the Japanese population not only by books and education but also by movies, music, mass-media, and especially by the rapidly Americanized life style. Nowadays American English and the American way of life are everyday reality to many Japanese, especially in urban areas: in the morning many city dwellers have coffee, eat McDonald's hamburgers for lunch and have pizzas delivered to their home within thirty minutes for supper. They talk about American movies and listen to American music, including the Beatles' songs of the 1960s, which are in a sense Anglicized American rock songs. The middle-class life with a car and a house, which had once been thought the American Dream, is common. Relations between men and women have also changed, and the divorce rate is increasing. These are the contemporary scenes and situations common in Japanese and American literature.

Moreover, the exuberant exposure to American literature is not limited to Murakami; a whole generation of young people is familiar with it. So from the opening page of Murakami's first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, Japanese readers come across familiar names and phrases from American fiction. When the bar owner's name is “Jay,” and “the rich” are berated, how could we help thinking of The Great Gatsby? It seems that the more Japanese readers are familiar with American language and literature, the more they can understand and appreciate Murakami's works.

Murakami's success in the United States shows the change in attitude of American readers and confirms the idea of confluence. American readers no longer expect mystery and ambiguity from Japanese literature, but they admire Murakami's works because they are similar works of modern American literature. Originally, Murakami was not pleased with the idea of his novels being translated into English. He maintained that his Japanese was a result of his effort to adjust and craft English expressions and styles into Japanese, so that, if his Japanese were put back into to English, the characteristics of his English-like Japanese would be lost. Actually, his Japanese seems to have helped smooth translation into English.


  1. Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland, From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature (New York: Viking, 1991) xix.

  2. Murakami Haruki, “Raymond Carver,” spec. issue of Eureka (June 1990): 242.

  3. Yoshiaki Koshikawa, “Noruei no mori: American romansu no kanosei?” Eureka (June 1989).

  4. Raymond Carver, Sasayakadakeredo yakuni tatsu koto [A Small Good Thing], trans. into Japanese by Murakami Haruki (Tokyo: Chuokoron, 1989).

  5. Raymond Carver, “Blackbird Pie,” trans. into Japanese by Murakami Haruki, Shincho (Jan. 1993) 448.

  6. Murakami Haruki, A Wild Sheep Chase, trans. Alfred Birnbaum (Tokyo: Kodan-sha International, 1989) 21. Further references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  7. Raymond Carver, “Blackbird Pie,” Where I'm Calling From (New York: Vintage, 1989) 497. Further references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  8. Randolph Paul Runyon, Reading Raymond Carver (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992) 195.

  9. Carver treats this theme more fully in the story “Intimacy” in Where I'm Calling From.

  10. Raymond Carver, Yoru ni naruto sake wa [At Night the Salmon Move] Chuo Koron (1985) 180. My translation.

  11. Raymond Carver, Umi no muko kara [Ultramarine], trans. into Japanese by Kuroda Emiko (Tokyo: Ronso-sha, 1990). My translation. Further references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  12. Raymond Carver, “The Art of Fiction,” A New Path to the Waterfall (New York: Atlantic Monthly P, 1989).

  13. Raymond Carver, No Heroics, Please (New York: Vintage, 1992) 21.

  14. Actually, this is the title to a collection of Carver's poetry, but Murakami used it as the title of his translation of a number of Carver's stories and poems.

  15. Ken Inoue, Sakka no yakushita sekai no bungaku (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1992). Further references will be given parenthetically in the text.


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Haruki Murakami 1949-

Japanese novelist, short story writer, translator, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Murakami's career through 1999.

One of the most commercially successful and influential writers of contemporary Japanese jun-bungaku (“serious literature”), Murakami is a best-selling novelist and prolific short story writer who has extensively translated works of modern American fiction into Japanese, including the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, John Irving, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Many critics recognize Murakami as a spokesperson for the shin-jinrui (“new human beings”)—the affluent postwar generation that typically shuns traditional Japanese values in favor of the appeal of American popular culture. In his fiction Murakami has consciously diverged from the mainstream of jun-bungaku. Murakami writes in a new style of Japanese prose, which juxtaposes and merges distinctly American motifs and diction with such traditional jun-bungaku themes as love, death, and the self. Combining metaphysics with the cinematic devices of film noir, Murakami's fiction frequently alludes to commercial brand names and cultural icons of the United States. Much of his work has been noted for its surreal qualities, blending bizarre plot twists and unique narration styles in a fashion that nevertheless retains an air of plausibility. Those of the shin-jinrui generation have bought millions of Murakami's books, prompting both popular and critical attention from a global audience. Although some critics have characterized Murakami's novels as slickly packaged consumer products, several others have compared Murakami's literary achievement to the works of Ōe Kenzaburō and Kōbō Abé, whose writings from an earlier generation similarly changed the Japanese language.

Biographical Information

Murakami was born January 12, 1949, in Ashiya City, Japan, a suburb of Kōbe. His mother and father were high-school-level Japanese literature teachers. As a boy, Murakami felt alienated by the authoritarian strictures and familiar closeness of traditional Japanese culture. Rejecting the values of his World War II veteran father, Murakami instead immersed himself in 1960s American popular culture, growing familiar with Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the television show “Peter Gunn,” and American jazz. As an adolescent, his interest in jazz deepened, and Murakami began reading American literature, both in Japanese translation as well as the original English. Murakami entered Tokyo's Waseda University in 1968 and spent seven years earning his bachelor's degrees in screenwriting and Greek drama. In 1971 he married Yoko Takahashi, a fellow university student, and together they opened a suburban Tokyo jazz bar shortly before their graduation. The couple managed the Peter Cat nightclub until 1981, catering to a diverse clientele of Japanese students and American soldiers from a nearby U.S. military base.

In 1978 Murakami began writing his first novel, Kaze no uta o kike (1979; Hear the Wind Sing). Murakami published two more novels, 1973-nen no pinbōru (1980; Pinball, 1973) and Hitsuji o megaru bōken (1982; A Wild Sheep Chase), which were met with critical acclaim. After the publication of his third novel, he decided to sell the nightclub and commit to a full-time writing career. In 1981, Murakami published the first work in a continuous series of Japanese translations of modern American fiction. Subsequently, Murakami turned his attention to shorter fiction, publishing three Japanese-language collections of short stories. In 1985, Murakami published Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). Murakami then spent the next decade travelling around Greece, Italy, and the United States, contributing individual stories to both Japanese- and English-language publications, as well as writing the novels Noruei no mori (1987; Norwegian Wood) and Dansu, dansu, dansu (1988; Dance, Dance, Dance). Murakami attained international celebrity after the 1989 publication of the first English-language edition of A Wild Sheep Chase, his first translated novel. Murakami held a visiting fellowship in East Asian studies at Princeton University from 1991 to 1993. At Princeton, Murakami completed the novel Kokkyō no minami, taiyō no nishi (1992; South of the Border, West of the Sun) and released his first English-language collection of previously published and new short fiction, The Elephant Vanishes (1993). Before returning to Japan in late 1995, Murakami also served as a writer-in-residence at Tufts University, where he wrote his three-volume novel Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (1994–1995; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).

Major Works

Leaving behind both the conventions and expectations of traditional Japanese jun-bungaku, Murakami's major works examine contemporary Japanese identity through such unconventional devices as colloquial language, postmodern plotting techniques, and pessimistic thematic material. In Murakami's first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, the protagonist (conventionally referred to in jun-bungaku as “Boku”), is a twenty-one-year-old biology major who has come home from college. After drinking at a local bar with an older friend known as “The Rat,” Boku eventually realizes that he wants to write fiction. Although Boku and the Rat never encounter each other in the narrative, they both appear in Murakami's next novel, Pinball, 1973, set during the autumn months of 1973. The novel focuses on Boku as he confronts the world of his memory by generating a compendium of early 1970s pop trivia. A Wild Sheep Chase completes Murakami's trilogy centering on Boku and the Rat. Set in July 1978, Boku recounts his adventures of attempting to locate the Rat, but his quest is blocked by a mysterious supernatural sheep who embodies the Rat's persona. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World tells two separate, alternating first-person narratives which gradually converge and unite by the novel's end. The story follows one narrator (Boku) as he interprets dreams within the confines of a fantastic walled town, while the second narrator (Watashi) lives in a futuristic city resembling Tokyo, where internal conflicts are growing within the information syndicate.

Evoking the ambiance of the 1960s with lyrical prose, Norwegian Wood is Murakami's most realistic and most commercially successful novel, representing the peak of his popularity with shin-jinrui. This dark, “boy-meets-girl” novel, which derives its title from a Beatles song, recounts the maturation of a college student, similar to the hero of the Japanese classic Tale of Genji. A relationship between the student, Toru, and Naoko is marked by the death of a mutual friend years earlier. Naoko turns increasingly inward and is eventually resigned to a drug rehabilitation center where she commits suicide, and Toru turns to another character, Midori, for comfort. Dance, Dance, Dance continues the adventures of the protagonist from A Wild Sheep Chase. The protagonist is searching for an old girlfriend and learns that a famous movie star has murdered her. South of the Border, West of the Sun begins with a description of the sexual exploits of a teenage narrator and then flashes forward to a present-day affair between the now-thirty-something narrator and a former classmate. The classmate vanishes from the narrator's life as quickly as she first appeared, leaving him to wonder how well people can truly know one another. Murakami's short story anthology The Elephant Vanishes contains seventeen first-person narratives that span the spectrum between realism and fantasy, covering a similar range of themes and motifs as his longer fiction. Distinguished by its treatment of historical and political events, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle rejects the popular Japanese image of its citizens as the victims of World War II. Instead, the novel examines the massacre at Nomonham, a World War II battle in the Mongolian desert where the Japanese blindly attacked Chinese soldiers, who then massacred the Japanese in retaliation. Recounted through the memories of soldiers who were there and citizens of the era, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle confronts the legacy of Japanese aggression during World War II from the perspective of Murakami's generation, illuminating the darker chapters of Japan's recent past for a younger audience. In 1997, Murakami published the first volume of Andaguraumdo (Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche), a collection of interviews with victims of a sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway that occurred in March 1995, perpetrated by a radical cult group called “Aum Supreme Truth.” A second volume was published in 1998, collecting interviews between Murakami and members of the cult. Murakami returned to fiction writing in 2001 with Suputoniku no koibito (Sputnik Sweetheart), a romantic novel about a young high-school teacher who travels to Greece to find a missing friend who has mysteriously disappeared.

Critical Reception

Beginning with the publication of his first novel, Murakami has enjoyed literary success in Japan, attracting younger readers by the millions with his linguistic playfulness and indeterminate narratives. However, Murakami has also baffled Japan's World War II generation for many of the same reasons. While most professional Japanese critics of jun-bungaku have favorably received Murakami's writings, praising his fusion of conventional Japanese literary aesthetics with postmodernism, other critics have expressed skepticism about his “American” language and cinematic plotting techniques. Many critics in both the East and the West have admired Murakami's skillful recognition of the irony that pervades grave situations and his ability to create strong characterizations. Although his fiction is often noted for its distinctly postmodern devices, most reviewers have agreed that these devices are not mere gimmicks, but rather valuable keys to understanding his fiction. Several Western critics have traced Murakami's influences from a range of contemporary American writers, often speculating upon the role of his Japanese translations of their works in shaping his style and narrative techniques. Other commentators have noted the “confluence” of Eastern and Western literary traditions in Murakami's writings. In addition, Murakami is often credited with introducing a new type of jun-bungaku hero, one that reflects the author's own politically aloof and cutting-edge public persona, which, critics note, are tendencies exhibited and emulated by Murakami's generation in Japan. Critics have also referred to Murakami as the Japanese equivalent of American novelist Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis. Despite these comparisons and the rampant consumerism of Murakami's characters, many reviewers have acknowledged a psychic or spiritual dimension to his writings.

Yoshio Iwamoto (essay date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: “A Voice from Postmodern Japan: Haruki Murakami,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 295–300.

[In the following essay, Iwamoto identifies the distinctly postmodern qualities of Murakami's fiction, focusing on A Wild Sheep Chase.]

Forget everything you know about Japan and enter the postmodern world of Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase, where people sweat about their careers, drink too much, and drift through broken marriages, all without a kimono in sight.

A postmodern detective novel in which dreams, hallucinations and a wild imagination are more important than actual clues.

As these two quotes—appearing on the back cover and front page of the paperback edition of A Wild Sheep Chase,1 the English translation of Haruki Murakami's novel Hitsuji o megaru bōken (1982)—might suggest, the author, perhaps the most popular and widely read, if not the most highly respected, among the current crop of the more “serious” Japanese writers, is frequently identified as a “postmodernist” by both Japanese and Western critics alike. The attribution somehow rings true. Still, what the term postmodern signifies exactly, and in what sense (complimentary, derisive, neutral) it is being employed, is not always made clear.

Cutting across a multitude of disciplines, discourse on postmodernism, originated by such European thinkers as Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Guattari, has now been a staple on the Western academic landscape for about the past two decades. Popular usage of the term has not lagged far behind. A recent issue of Time (31 August 1992), for instance, reporting on the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow debacle, refers to the prescandal couple as having “produced the portrait of an ideal postmodern family. Unmarried, they lived apart yet loved together.” Japanese scholar-critics, taking their cue from Western pronouncements on the subject, have been no less voluble in expatiating on the so-called postmodern condition. An effort in 1987 by a group of Western scholars to draw Japan into a larger orbit of postmodern discourse resulted finally in a volume of essays, edited by Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian, called Postmodernism and Japan.2 Representing expertise in a variety of fields, the book includes, for example, an insightful piece by the anthropologist Marilyn Ivy, who sees Japanese culture in postmodern terms by virtue of the way knowledge is consumed, like a commodity, via its extensive high-tech information network. The essays as a whole raise a host of provocative issues, among them the role Japan has played in the East-West confrontation that has contributed to the delineation of the premodern-modern-postmodern dialectic.

The question of the literary, artistic, and cultural manifestations of postmodernism has also received considerable attention from many scholars. Among them is Ihab Hassan, whose wide-ranging inquiries into Western postmodernism (as seen, for instance, in his collection of essays entitled The Postmodern Turn)3 include attempts, in somewhat abstract terms, to differentiate between “postmodern” and “modern” literary traits. Hassan, a frequent visitor to Japan, was moved on a recent visit to comment on the postmodern signs suffusing its hybrid East-West culture, specifically identifying, though without any elaboration, Haruki Murakami and Yasuo Tanaka as postmodernist writers.4

There is little question that many contemporary Japanese artistic productions exhibit aspects of the numerous characteristics that Hassan identifies as postmodern: for example, “a diffuse self, fugitive forms, a culture open to syntagma and parataxis instead of hierarchic or generative models of organization.”5 Indeed, Tanaka's Nantonaku kurisutaru (Somehow Crystal; 1980) is regarded unanimously by Japanese critics as the quintessential postmodern work. Most of the novel shows, in nonlogical fashion, its characters euphorically immersed in the mood, atmosphere, and feelings generated by the brand-name goods of a consumerist society. Their attempt to forge an identity from the acquisition of these brand-name items is complemented by a section of guidebooklike notes, equal in length to the main text, that provides the reader with such information as the special qualitites of the products and where they might be purchased.6

An interesting facet of the discussion on postmodernism is the articulation by a number of Japanese scholars, notably Kōjin Karatani,7 of the presence already in premodern Japanese culture of those elements, such as hostility toward a logocentric system, that Western scholars have called postmodern—a phenomenon that has facilitated the acceptance of postmodernism in Japan, without the resistance to it seen in the modern West. This observation, at the same time, confirms the view that the concept of postmodernism should not be regarded in strictly chronological terms. The assertions of the Japanese scholars accord uncannily in some respects with Roland Barthes's singular “reading” of Japanese culture in L'empire des signes (1970; Eng. The Empire of Signs, 1982), focusing largely on the traditional aspects (chopsticks, sukiyaki, puppet theater, Zen Buddhism, haiku) still remaining in the contemporary society, where he sees a propensity for decentering and the privileging of the signifier over the signified that tend to produce “silences” and to diffuse “meaning.” In literary terms, these characteristics in turn beget such traits as fragmented structures, deemphasis on plot, delight in verbal and rhetorical playfulness, et cetera. Indeed, it might even be argued that the emergence of postmodernist literary modes in the West should help close the gap that Western readers have apparently sensed in approaching Japanese works with their episodic, nonlinear structures—say, those of Yasunari Kawabata—thus rendering them less “exotic.”

How to situate Haruki Murakami in the scheme of postmodernist literary discourse is somewhat problematic. Whence does his postmodernist penchant derive? It is easy to surmise that, as a Japanese growing up in a postindustrial, late-capitalist society already permeated with so-called postmodern properties from the traditional culture, Murakami (whose parents were teachers of Japanese literature) imbibed osmotically the tendency toward postmodernist modes. Still, it would be remiss to ignore the possible Western sources. Japanese commentaries on Murakami never fail to point out his love affair with Western, especially American, literature and culture.8 Born in Ashiya, near Kobe, in 1949, the author majored in drama within the Literature Department of Waseda University, where he wrote a thesis entitled “The Ideology of Journeys in American Films” to graduate in 1973. From 1974 to 1982 he managed a jazz bar in Tokyo, during which time he began his writing career, including translation work from American literature. His choices for translation have veered toward authors recognized as somewhat “popular” and/or for their postmodernist leanings: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, John Irving, Paul Theroux, Tim O'Brien, and Truman Capote. His own work has also been compared with that of Jay McInerney, that chronicler of American yuppie life.

A Wild Sheep Chase, the third of Murakami's novels, displays an abundance of those postmodernist qualities noted above.9 To begin with, the notion of dispersal and decentering can be sensed in the novel's supreme indifference to the categories of writing into which Japanese works have been habitually and rigidly placed, as though the author were intent on collapsing hitherto sacrosanct boundaries. Is it, for instance, a tsūzoku-shōsetsu (popular novel) or junbungaku (pure literature)?

The story concerns the first-person narrator, “I” (Boku in Japanese and so identified in the discussion that follows), the “hero” of the narrative, who is coerced by the secretary of a well-known and powerful (but silent) right-wing figure into abandoning his part-ownership in a small advertising agency in Tokyo to go in search of a sheep with a star-shaped birthmark on its back. The sheep appears in the midst of an idyllic landscape photograph of clouds, mountains, grassy pasture, and sheep that Boku had used in advertising copy for an insurance company. The picture had been taken by an old friend of Boku nicknamed “Rat,” who had suddenly disappeared several years earlier and was now apparently roaming aimlessly in Hokkaido. Thus caught in the meshes of an invisible “system,” the recently divorced Boku begins a wild sheep chase to Hokkaido, his newly acquired girlfriend, an ear model, in tow. In the pursuit he encounters a motley crew of quirky, oddball characters and learns about the incredible tale of the spirit/soul of the sheep with the star-shaped birthmark entering the bodies of first the Sheep Professor, then the right-wing leader, and now his lost friend Rat.

The elements of fantasy, mystery, adventure, and detective story, all presented with suspense and humor in a smooth, sophisticated style, nudge the novel in the direction of the “popular.” There is enough of the “pure” and “serious” about the work, however, to have held critics back from dismissing it merely as popular stuff—enough, it might be said, of the adversarial role against established norms of all sorts that the distinguished writer Kenzaburō Ōe sees as the defining feature of “pure literature.”10 In other words, it seems to register a concern, albeit in a playfully oblique manner, over the human condition in the contemporary world.

Postmodernist too is A Wild Sheep Chase's fragmented, discontinuous structure. It is paratactic, agglutinative, and cavalierly unfaithful to the rules of cause and effect that might be expected in a narrative that carries a detective- or mystery-story line. For instance, part 1, chapter 1 (titled “Prelude: Wednesday Afternoon Picnic” in the translation, “25 November 1970” in the original) bears no organic relationship to the story of the sheep chase, which is loosely launched in chapter 2 that begins part 2 (“July, Eight Years Later” in the translation, “July 1978” in the original). This beginning episode recalls Boku's relationship with a woman who has just died and whose funeral he attends—a relationship that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s during his university days, when she was still a free-spirited, teenage flower child. At most, what the chapter contributes is a sense of Boku's nature and tastes. He records: “Those were the days of the Doors, the Stones, the Byrds, Deep Purple, and the Moody Blues. The air was alive, even as everything seemed poised on the verge of collapse, waiting for a push” (4). The chapter closes with Boku's indifferent response to the news of Yukio Mishima's suicide on 25 November 1970, an event widely seen by critics as a marker for the end of the politically tumultuous 1960s and the beginning of the politically apathetic, economically prosperous 1970s.

Boku may well be viewed as an exemplar of the diffusion of the ego, the dispersal of the self, the death of the subject, that are an integral part of postmodern discourse. Fredric Jameson, who enunciates such features as the “technological sublime” and “high tech paranoia” as symptoms of the postmodernist mode, puts it in the following way:

Such terms [the alienation and fragmentation of the self] inevitably recall one of the more fashionable themes in contemporary theory—that of the “death” of the subject itself = the end of the autonomous bourgeois monad or ego or individual—and the accompanying stress, whether as some new moral ideal or as empirical description, on the decentring of that formerly centred subject or psyche. (Of the two possible formulations of this notion—the historicist one, that a once-existing centred subject, in the period of classical capitalism and the nuclear family, has today in the world of organizational bureaucracy dissolved; and the more radical poststructuralist position for which such a subject never existed in the first place but constituted something like an ideological mirage—I obviously incline towards the former; the latter must in any case take into account something like a ‘reality of the appearance.’)11

In Japan the issue has been taken up as a problem of shutaisei, a word not readily defined that came into existence in the pre-World War II period to deal with the Western idea of individualism which entered the country in the nineteenth century, when its modernization process began. No doubt in the same lineage with terms like the novelist Sōseki Natsume's kojinshugi (individualism) and the critic Hideo Kobayashi's shakaika-sareta watakushi (socialized self), shutaisei is a compound made up of three characters—shu (subject, subjective, sovereign, main), tai (body, substance, situation), and sei (quality, feature)—which Japanese-English dictionaries define as “subjectivity; subjecthood; independence; identity.” Masao Miyoshi in his book Off Center notes that “the word means inclusively the agent of action, the subject of speculation or speech act, the identity of existence, and the rule of individualism,” while elsewhere glossing the term variously as “confidence,” “autonomy,” et cetera.12 He concludes that the establishment of shutaisei in Japan is especially difficult because of, among other reasons, the cultural and social forces of conformism and communalism that envelop the individual. Others have observed that the formation of shutaisei is immeasurably hampered in a language where the subject (or, for that matter, the object) need not be explicitly stated so long as it is implied and/or understood.

Does Boku of A Wild Sheep Chase possess shutaisei? In a recorded conversation (taiwa) among three contemporary Japanese critics concerning Murakami where the question is repeatedly raised of whether or not the author and by extension his characters are empowered with shutaisei, the answer is ambiguous and inconclusive.13 Boku, thirty years old, is in many respects an average middle-class citizen who, free from excessive financial worries, enjoys the kind of independence his station bestows. A product of the 1960s, he takes endless pleasure in smoking, drinking, and eating, in bars, coffeehouses, and restaurants. He dresses with casual chic and frequents the movies regularly. His tastes in music and reading materials, though predominantly popular, are disarmingly eclectic—from the Beatles to Mozart, from Sherlock Holmes to Nietzsche—in the postmodern way of leveling elite/popular boundaries. Boku is far from gregarious, yet by no means a true loner; he is by all counts a likable, easygoing fellow, devoid of malice and an overbearing aggressiveness. Indeed, endowed with a sense of humor and self-irony, he is engaging in his displays of sensitivity and tenderness, possesses a wry and ready wit, and evinces a bemused air.

Significantly, however, Boku is a member of the advertising world, that symbol of media-dominated and consumer-oriented contemporary Japanese culture, which is revealed to be under the thumb of the right-wing leader by virtue of his financial holdings; it is this man who indirectly draws Boku into the maelstrom of the sheep chase and robs him of his independence. No wonder, then, that there is no core, only vacuity, to Boku's being. He is literally without a past14 (or a future, for that matter). Victims of erasure, neither his family nor his divorced wife, for instance, impinges much on his consciousness. Paradoxically, he is often filled with a sense of loss, though the content of that loss is not clearly spelled out. There are, at most, references to the style and climate of the 1960s (as noted earlier), a past that Boku tends to estheticize into an indulgent, wistful nostalgia.

The thinness of Boku's shutaisei is exposed by the absence of an interiority and in his relations with other people. If, as Jean-Paul Sartre claims, true identity is forged in the crucible of the dialectic between self and other,15 Boku fails the test. The “other” is a problematic force for the subjective “I” or self, because it too, unlike inanimate objects, is endowed with a consciousness and subjectivity that often clash with those of the self. Consciously or unconsciously, Boku tries to escape the self-other confrontation by viewing others as objects, no doubt because his own subjective self is wanting in depth.

A case in point is his relationship with his former wife. The divorce effectively takes place early on in the novel, in chapter 2, when Boku returns to their apartment after attending his old girlfriend's funeral to find his wife ready to move out for the final time. The conversation between the two skirts everything that might be thought of as essential for an understanding of their situation. At one point Boku remarks, “I'm not explaining. I'm just making conversation” (16)—summing up the tenor of their relationship. Boku is dejected over and saddened by the failed marriage; but there is no reflection whatsoever on what might have gone wrong, and the matter is soon erased from his consciousness.

The relationship with his new girlfriend is carried out on no firmer ground than that with his former wife. First attracted to her by her beautiful ears glimpsed in a photograph, Boku regards her, perhaps unknowingly, as an object (her ears), thus depriving her of a subjectivity. It is not that Boku is intentionally mean and insensitive, only that he is fundamentally more comfortable with exteriors and averting the deep probe. Indeed, he is fully adept at displaying affection of the surface variety—a candlelight dinner in the romantic setting of a posh French restaurant, for instance. The chitchat they engage in, often bordering on the ridiculous, produces a delightful humor; but in the end it signifies nothing more than the postmodernist “noisy silence.” Most telling is his reaction to her sudden disappearance toward the end of the novel. They have finally reached the site in the mountains of Hokkaido where the picture of the grazing sheep had been taken. As Boku naps in the villa, formerly the property of the Sheep Professor and now owned by Rat's family, she mysteriously vanishes. (The reader is informed shortly thereafter that the Sheep Man, who turns out to be the ghost of the now-dead Rat, had urged her to leave.)

I could not accept the fact of her disappearance. I was barely awake, but even if I were totally lucid, this—and everything that was happening to me—was far beyond my realm of comprehension. There was almost nothing one could do except let things take their course.


Far from chasing after her, Boku proceeds to prepare his dinner—stew, bread, an apple, and wine—which he consumes while listening to a record of the Percy Faith Orchestra playing “Perfidia.” The extent of his reflection runs as follows, laying bare his penchant for estheticizing and romanticizing even the very recent past: “I was feeling lonely without her, but the fact that I could feel lonely at all was consolation. Loneliness wasn't such a bad feeling. It was like the stillness of the pin oak after the little birds had flown off” (246).

Boku's attitude toward “others” is perhaps most basically reflected in his aversion to referring to them by their proper names (which are never revealed), as if denying them their independent, subjective identities. (Since Boku [“I”] himself is not assigned a name, the proclivity in turn mirrors that of the author, who in fact has littered his oeuvre with nameless characters.)16 Thus, Boku's wife is merely “the wife,” his girlfriend “the girlfriend with the beautiful ears,” and, like the “secretary,” the “business partner,” and the “hotel clerk,” who also inhabit the novel's world, they are reduced to their functional categories. Whatever names do appear are nicknames, such as Rat and Sheep Professor, perhaps suggesting these characters' less-than-human capacities.

The antipathy toward naming is no accident. The topic is taken up within the novel itself and given a comic turn. When Boku is forced to leave Tokyo in search of the special sheep, in a funny scene of reverse bullying, he insists that the right-wing leader's secretary care for his aged cat. Sent to pick up the feline, the secretary's chauffeur asks its name.

“Nice kitty-kitty,” said the chauffeur, hand not outstretched. “What's his name?”

“He doesn't have a name.”

“So what do you call the fella?”

“I don't call it,” I said. “It's just there.”

“But he's not a lump just sitting there. He moves about by his own will, no? Seems mighty strange that something that moves by its own will doesn't have a name.”


The conversation continues with an amusing give-and-take on why some things (like ships) are accorded names whereas others are not (like airplanes). The problem goes unresolved, even as the conversants consider the “act of conscious identification with living things” and “non-interchangeability” as possible bases for naming (154).

A symptom of Boku's exteriority is his almost fetishistic attention to trivia, to “things.” It is as if a careful tracking of “things” furnishes him with a handle and a grip on a recalcitrant reality. He notes the exact number of steps from the elevator to the door of his apartment, the amount of coffee and cigarettes he consumes, or the time that a particular song was in vogue; he becomes obsessively curious about a whale's penis on display at an aquarium he visits. Even something so intimate as sex turns into a “thing.” Concerning his own sexual affairs, about which he is surprisingly reticent, at one point he records perfunctorily, “We returned to the hotel and had intercourse. I like that word intercourse. It poses only a limited range of possibilities” (172). Sex, it would seem, offers him not much more than the sensual gratification he derives from the consumption of “things,” like gourmet foods.

Boku's perception of and response to people and things leans heavily on the side of the immediate, the physical, the sensual, mixed with not a little affectation. Riding in the limousine driven by the chauffeur, he comments, “Compared to my fifteen-year-old Volkswagen Beetle I'd bought off a friend, [it] was as quiet as sitting at the bottom of a lake wearing earplugs” (65). He reacts to his girlfriend's ears in the following way:

She'd show me her ears on occasion; mostly on sexual occasions. Sex with her with her ears exposed was an experience I'd never known. When it was raining, the smell of the rain came through crystal clear. When birds were singing, their song was a thing of sheer clarity. I'm at a loss for words, but that's what it was like.


Anything requiring sustained thought, spiritual input, or a committed stance bores him, perhaps even frightens him. What he finds hard to handle or bothersome, he dismisses with slick, flippant aphorisms, something he remarks Russians are prey to: “Russians have a way with aphorisms. They probably spend all winter thinking them up” (96). Here he is on the matter of sex:

To sleep with a woman: it can seem of the utmost importance in your mind, or then again it can seem like nothing much at all. Which only goes to say that there's sex as therapy (self-therapy, that is) and there's sex as pastime.

There's sex for self-improvement start to finish and there's sex for killing time straight through; sex that is therapeutic at first only to end up as nothing-better-to-do, and vice versa. Our human sex life—how shall I put it?—differs fundamentally from the sex life of the whale.


It bears reiteration that Boku is by no means a despicable man, out to perpetrate evil. Neither is he coldly indifferent toward those around him—his former wife, his girlfriend, or J the bar owner. He seems genuinely fond of his friend Rat in particular, carrying out with good cheer the curious favors the latter requests. In fact, Rat appears in many ways to be the alter ego of Boku himself—Rat's letters to Boku have the same mannerisms and tone as Boku's speech. Ultimately, however, Boku avoids engagement and commitment, those qualities Sartre deemed so essential in human relations. Short in attention span, he is constitutionally incapable of giving fully of himself to anything. All is surface.

Some Japanese critics have expressed dissatisfaction with Murakami, complaining that his works lack a deep-seated sociopolitico-historical awareness, as if such an awareness were a sine qua non for a fully developed shutaisei. There is no denying that Boku, who apparently dodged the turbulent student riots of the 1960s, is mostly uninterested in such matters. However, to assert that Murakami is oblivious to sociopolitical concerns seems extreme. There is enough in A Wild Sheep Chase to prove otherwise. What troubles the critics, perhaps, is the teasing, playful, oblique, and incomplete manner—a postmodernist manner—with which they are treated, never allowing them to become central to the narrative. There is, for instance, the matter of the sociopolitico-historical implications of the sheep. A third of the way into the novel, the right-wing leader's secretary furnishes a ponderous summary of the history of sheep in Japan, an animal alien to Japanese soil. The importation of sheep from America began in earnest in the Meiji period (1868–1912), paralleling the country's modernization process. Why, it is logical to ask, is the spirit of the sheep with the star-shaped birthmark made to lodge in the brain of a right-wing nationalist who comes to control politics and the advertising and information industries? And why is it made to find, just before the leader's death, a new host in Rat, who commits suicide in order to kill the sheep? What does the sheep “mean”?

Not a few Japanese critics have taken up the task of sorting out the puzzle of the sheep. To mention but two examples: Kazuo Kuroki, briefly put, interprets the sheep chase as a sentimental journey on Boku's part in search of his lost youth;17 Mitsuo Sekii sees the sheep as a symbol of Christian, Western society, which Japan tried to emulate in its course of modernization, and its death at the end signifies the demise of modernity.18 None of the analyses, however, accounts convincingly for, for example, the connection between the sheep and the right-wing leader. Murakami himself has admitted that the sheep as a “key word” was used primarily in the spirit of a game, without any deep significance.19 There is the temptation to take Murakami at his word, for the “clues” lead nowhere, leaving unanswered what at first looked like a serious historical query about Japanese-Western relations. In the end the novel appears to argue for the postmodern position of decentering and dispersal. The ghost of Rat explains to Boku his reason for murdering the sheep. The sheep, he says, was lusting after “a realm of total conceptual anarchy. A scheme in which all opposites would be resolved into unity. With me and the sheep at the center” (284).

That A Wild Sheep Chase found an immense readership in Japan is no surprise. It deftly combines equal measures of hard-boiled realism and beguiling lyricism, of humor and seriousness. It is easy to conjecture that countless readers see mirrored in Boku's breezy, go-with-the-flow attitude their own approach to living in a glossy world dominated by high technology and consumerism. Much more difficult to assess is Murakami's disposition toward Boku and his noncommittal moral posture, or toward the kind of cultural condition that produced him. To be noted, however, is a more openly critical stance discernible in, for example, Murakami's recent collection of short stories called TV piipuru (TV People; 1990).


  1. Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase, Alfred Birnbaum, tr., New York, Penguin/Plume Books, 1990. Page references appearing in the body of this paper will be to this edition. The English translation was first published in 1989 by Kodansha International and was reviewed in WLT 64:4 (Autumn 1990), p. 701.

  2. Postmodernism and Japan, Masao Miyoshi & H. D. Harootunian, eds., Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 1989. Reviewed in WLT 64:2 (Spring 1990), p. 364.

  3. Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1987.

  4. Ihab Hassan, “The Burden of Mutual Perceptions: Japan and the United States,” lecture presented at the International House of Japan on 15 May 1989. The lecture appears in the International House of Japan Bulletin, 10:1 (Winter 1990), and is reproduced in Salmagundi, 85/86 (Winter–Spring 1990), pp. 71–86.

  5. Ihab Hassan, “Parabiography: The Varieties of Critical Experience,” in The Postmodern Turn, p. 160.

  6. There is an interesting analysis of this work by Norma Field in Postmodernism and Japan.

  7. Karatani Kōjin, Hihyō to posuto modan (Criticism and the Postmodern), Tokyo, Fukutake Shoten, 1985, pp. 9–49. (In original-language references the names are given in Japanese sequence, surname first.)

  8. Two examples are: Matsuzawa Masahiro, Haruki, Banana, Gen'ichirō (the given names of three contemporary Japanese writers), Tokyo, Aoyumisha, 1989; and Sengoku Hideyo, Airon o kakeru seinen: Murakami Haruki to Amerika (A Young Man Who Does Ironing: Haruki Murakami and America), Tokyo, Sairyūsha, 1991.

  9. Besides A Wild Sheep Chase, there is one other Murakami novel in English translation available to American readers: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Alfred Birnbaum, tr., New York, Kodansha International, 1991), a work that was originally published in Japanese under the title Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando. Other Murakami novels in English translation, available in Japan, are not sold in the United States.

  10. See Kenzaburō Ōe, “Japan's Dual Identity: A Writer's Dilemma,” WLT 62:3 (Summer 1988), pp. 359–69. In this article Ōe denies that Murakami's work constitutes “pure literature.”

  11. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review, No. 146 (July-August 1984), pp. 53–92.

  12. Masao Miyoshi, Off Center: Power and Culture Relations Between Japan and the United States, Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 98.

  13. Kasai Kiyoshi, Katō Ten'yō, & Takeda Seishi, Murakami Haruki o meguru bōken (Haruki Murakami's Adventures), Tokyo, Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 1991. It is often difficult to fathom the real meaning of the sound-bite-size utterances issuing from the participants in a taiwa, where little is discussed in a sustained way.

  14. A Wild Sheep Chase is regarded as the last volume in a trilogy that began with Kaze no uta o kike (Listen to the Wind Song; 1979) and was followed by 1973-no pinbōru (Pinball in 1976; 1980); but in these two previous works too not a great deal is revealed about Boku's past.

  15. See the section entitled “Being-for-Others” in Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, New York, Washington Square Press, 1966.

  16. Kōjin Karatani offers a complicated, philosophically oriented explanation for Murakami's avoidance of names and like matters. See the chapter entitled “Murakami Haruki no ‘fūkei’” (Haruki Murakami's “Landscape”), in his Shūen o megutte (Concerning the End), Tokyo, Fukutake Shoten, 1990.

  17. Kuroki Kazuo, Murakami Haruki: Za rosuto wārudo (Haruki Murakami: The Lost World), Tokyo, Rokkō Shuppan, 1989, p. 71.

  18. Sekii Mitsuo, “‘Hitsuji’ wa doko e kieta ka” (Where Did the “Sheep” Disappear?), Kokubungaku Kaishaku to Kyōzai no Kenkyū, 30:3 (March 1985), p. 124.

  19. Quoted in Hisai Tsubaki & Kuwa Masato, Zō ga heigen ni kaette hi (The Day the Elephant Returned to the Plains), Tokyo, Shinchōsha, 1991, pp. 183–84.

Principal Works

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Kaze no uta o kike [Hear the Wind Sing] (novel) 1979

1973-nen no pinbōru [Pinball, 1973] (novel) 1980

Hitsuji o megaru bōken [A Wild Sheep Chase] (novel) 1982

Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando [Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World] (novel) 1985

Noruei no mori [Norwegian Wood] (novel) 1987

Dansu, dansu, dansu [Dance, Dance, Dance] (novel) 1988

Murakami Haruki zensakuhin, 1979–1989. 8 vols. [Complete Works of Murakami Haruki, 1979–1989] (novels and short stories) 1990–1991

Kokkyō no minami, taiyō no nishi [South of the Border, West of the Sun] (novel) 1992

The Elephant Vanishes (short stories) 1993

Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru 3 vols. [The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle] (novel) 1994–1995

*Andaguraumdo 2 vols. [Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche] (nonfiction) 1997–1998

Suputoniku no koibito [Sputnik Sweetheart] (novel) 2001

*The English-language translation of Underground was published in 2001 and combined the two volumes into a single work.

David L. Ulin (review date 4 April 1993)

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SOURCE: “Disorder Out of Chaos,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 4, 1993, pp. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Ulin describes the general style, themes, principal characters, and tone of Murakami's short fiction in The Elephant Vanishes.]

For better or worse, we live today in an atmosphere of cultural cross-pollination, where words and images are transmitted across continents at the speed of television, and the writing of one society can influence the writers of another until the idea of boundaries becomes nearly irrelevant.

In some circles, it's fashionable to lament this process, to see it as responsible for a kind of mass homogenization that will ultimately render all of us, no matter where we live, as mostly the same. But such laments neglect the basic fact of imagination, the human race's great saving grace. After all, if, as E. M. Forster once said, the purpose of literature is to record “the buzz of implication” of a specific time in history, then perhaps we are on the threshold of some sort of global writing, one that will emphasize our commonalities rather than the differences between us, and allow us to reimagine our relationships with the world.

This intention seems to be central to the work of Haruki Murakami, whose collection of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes, has just been published in the United States for the first time. One of Japan's best-selling authors, Murakami grew up reading American paperbacks in the port city of Kobe and claims Raymond Chandler as his biggest influence, although his stripped-down, off-handed prose seems more akin to that of Raymond Carver—which makes sense, since he's Carver's Japanese translator.

But the 17 stories here also reflect strains of literature and popular culture ranging from classical fairy tales to “The Twilight Zone,” making The Elephant Vanishes one of the most consistently universal volumes of fiction you'll ever come across, a book that reflects the often disassociating experience of living at the end of the 20th Century, even for those who've never been within 5,000 miles of Japan.

Part of the way Murakami pulls this off is by ignoring the most obvious markers of his Japanese settings, minimizing the importance of place in driving his narratives along. Thus, while much of the material in The Elephant Vanishes takes place in the suburbs of Tokyo, it's a Tokyo that's been essentially deracinated, that, except for certain surface details of geography, could be any city in the industrialized world.

“The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women,” for instance—the first story in the collection—opens with the narrator cooking spaghetti and “whistling the prelude to Rossini's La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio.” Even when he goes outside to look for his missing cat, we have no clear indication of where it is exactly that he lives. And in “The Second Bakery Attack,” a newlywed couple, looking to assuage “an unbearable hunger” in the middle of the night, ends up at McDonald's, where, “[w]earing a McDonald's hat, the girl behind the counter flashed me a McDonald's smile and said, ‘Welcome to McDonald's.’”

“The Second Bakery Attack,” actually, works as a signifier for the entire collection—starting off with a situation that's relatively mundane, then slowly and irrevocably getting out of hand. The couple, it turns out, are not going to McDonald's to buy anything; they are there to hold the place up, as a way of exorcising a demon from the husband's past. What's more, the whole thing is the wife's idea, and the husband goes along with it as if in a dream, at once a part of the action and slightly detached from it. Even after the fact, the only thing he can do is to wonder passively about what's occurred. “I'm still not sure I made the right choice,” he explains. “But then, it might not have been a question of right and wrong. Which is to say that wrong choices can produce right results, and vice versa. I myself have adopted the position that, in fact, we never choose anything at all. Things happen. Or not.”

All in all, it's a rather amoral perspective, but we can see the essential truth behind it, the way things do tend to happen without much conscious control. In fact, this may have a lot to do with why the work in The Elephant Vanishes seems so accessible, so reflective of how so many of us live our lives. For, like us, Murakami's characters inhabit a universe that is morally and socially ambiguous, and often go through the motions of their day-to-day existence at somewhat of a loss. In contrast to most Japanese literature, his narrators—all of the pieces in this collection are written in the first-person—are outsiders, if not exactly loners, then on their own, people who have jobs, not careers. And their disassociation gives Murakami's writing an ironic, quizzical edge that really hits home—because it seems like the most intelligent response to so much of what's going on.

It also opens these stories up to a striking sense of playfulness, a feeling that if “Things happen. Or not,” anything can happen at any time. Murakami makes the most of this, allowing reality to veer off its tracks again and again, much to the quiet amazement of his characters. There's “Sleep,” in which a housewife stops sleeping for 17 days, and discovers that “[p]retty soon, reality just flows off and away.” Or “TV People,” in which a man's apartment is invaded by reduced-size human replicas—“slightly smaller than you or me. … About, say, 20 or 30 percent,” who first bring him an “ordinary Sony color TV,” then slowly disconnect him from his life until “the words slip away.” Even the collection's title piece [“The Elephant Vanishes”], with its account of an elephant that disappears from the elephant house, assumes a kind of magical realist tone when the narrator admits that he was the last person to see the animal in captivity and that it appeared to have shrunk.

Of course, not all of the writing in The Elephant Vanishes is so phantasmagoric. The exquisite and affecting “On Seeing the 100٪ Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” explores the thoughts of a man in the few brief seconds that it takes him to pass his “100٪ perfect girl” on “a narrow side street”; “Was it really right for one's dreams to come true so easily?” he asks himself as she goes by. And “The Silence” recounts the experience of a man who was tortured with the silent treatment during his final term in high school; the whole point of this saga is to express the man's conviction that “it's impossible, in my own mind, to believe in people. … When I think of these things … I wake my wife up and I hold on to her and cry. Sometimes for a whole hour, I'm so scared.”

Whether offbeat or down-to-earth, what all of Murakami's stories have in common is the idea that we live in a world without equilibrium, which may be the most universal thing about them at all. For who among us hasn't felt that life is somehow out of whack, that if we could just see better it might all make more sense? As the narrator of “The Elephant Vanishes” puts it, “I often get the feeling that things around me have lost their proper balance. … Some kind of balance inside me has broken down.”

Further Reading

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Davis, Alan. Review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. Hudson Review 51, No. 2 (Summer 1998): 433–39.

Davis highlights the pop culture aspects of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, comparing its narrative pace to television programming.

Johnson, J. Douglas. “Springs of Japanese Violence.” Far Eastern Economic Review 161, No. 3 (15 January 1998): 40.

Johnson explores the implications of the political themes in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle within the contexts of the novel and Murakami's career.

Additional coverage of Murakami's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 136 and 165; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 182; Literature Resource Center; Modern Japanese Writers; and St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers.

Brooke Horvath (review date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Norwegian Wood, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, Fall, 1993, pp. 228–29.

[In the following review, Horvath summarizes the plot and themes of Norwegian Wood, comparing the novel to Murakami's other works.]

In 1989 Kodansha International published Alfred Birnbaum's translation of Murakami's 1982 novel A Wild Sheep Chase (reviewed RCF 10.2). Kodansha followed up on that novel's success with the release of Birnbaum's translation of Hard-Boiled Wonderland (1985) in 1991 (reviewed RCF 12.2). Although Murakami's own follow-up to that novel, Norwegian Wood (1987), has not yet been released in this country, it is, along with several other books by Murakami, presently available in a Birnbaum translation in Japan as part of Kodansha's “English Library.”

Kodansha was wise to introduce Murakami to American readers with A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland as the mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and techno thriller in these two books was immediately engaging, even if this mix did allow some readers to dismiss Murakami as a lightweight purveyor of pop schlock. Regardless of how one felt about these two novels, they decisively established the very western Murakami as worlds apart from the majority of Japanese novelists who preceded him. Indeed, the more vexing question about these first American releases—broached, for instance, by Henry Hughes in his “Letter from Niigata” (Harvard Review, 1992)—was how representative of “the Japanese condition” Murakami's work is. Hughes believes Norwegian Wood Murakami's “most sincerely Japanese novel” and takes this feature as the explanation of why its American release “has been strategically delayed.”

Written between Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Dance, Dance, Dance (a sequel to Sheep Chase), Norwegian Wood is, as Hughes notes, a very different sort of novel. Set in Tokyo and in a mountain sanatorium in the late sixties, it is, one suspects, the very autobiographical story of a college student, Toru Watanabe, trying to find himself, to grow up, to make a commitment to someone, and to be true to that commitment. Unlike the speaker in the Beatles song from which the novel takes its title, Watanabe once had (and was had by) two girls, one of whom is sliding slowly into complete mental disintegration, the other—feisty, independent, but as desperately lonely as Watanabe—lodging the claims of love, life, and a warm body against those of past pledges. Murakami's prose is surprisingly gentle (surprising, that is, for those of us becoming habituated to the way Murakami's themes and subjects have recently been treated here by the likes of Bret Easton Ellis) and captures beautifully both Watanabe's buffeted anomie and late-sixties Tokyo, a milder if still recognizably similar version of the American sixties. Indeed, I would say that the novel is no more or less “western” than Sheep Chase or Hard-Boiled Wonderland. What makes it seem so different is that beyond the slightly otherworldly sanatorium, Norwegian Wood is exclusively a work of realism. As such, it is a less startling novel than the earlier two, a quieter novel, but no less rewarding. Look for Norwegian Wood if and when Kodansha releases it here, or do what I did: write to a friend in Japan.

Jim McCue (review date 19 November 1993)

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SOURCE: “Doing without Feeling,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 19, 1993, p. 23.

[In the following review, McCue focuses on the indifferent descriptions and emotional detachment of Murakami's narrative style in The Elephant Vanishes.]

Haruki Murakami's people are mostly youngish, middle-class, educated, smart and, without realizing it, disaffected. They are caught up in jobs, property, habits, relationships, marriages which mean nothing—but they are not looking for meanings. Each day is unexceptionable, except that each day is unexceptional. “It was another beautiful, cloudless day, just like yesterday. In fact, it was like a continuation of yesterday. …”

Then comes the interruption, the something to make you think. It may be a Kafkaesque monster crawling out of the earth, a mysterious phone call or a dream about a dwarf; but whatever it is, it is meant to act as a hinge between the mundane and the significant. This unpredictable event usually doesn't come as the surprise one might suppose: somehow it has been prepared for, and—Murakami asserts—is the shaping force in these lives. In the title story [of The Elephant Vanishes], for instance, the narrator has been keeping a scrapbook about the elephant before its disappearance, though he has no formal connection with it.

Description remains detached, and inner reactions are listed without interest. The narrators notice their own behaviour, yet lack wills of their own. They are loth to question or resist. Confronted with something out of science-fiction or surrealism, they do not test the new parameters, but watch passively. One has a job manufacturing elephants—one part dissected Nelly to five parts fabricated wrinkle—but the idea is not made to tell in any of the ways it might: it is not a joke, nor a comment on changing relations with animals, or on human ingenuity or vanity. The pretence is that only the unsophisticated would wonder why the story is written this way, for it is blank to discussion.

Such indifference extends to a decadent uninvolvement in the relations between doing and feeling.

“Put the light out,” she said, so I did … A TV next door was blasting the day's pro-baseball results. What with the darkness and my drunkenness, I hardly knew what I was doing. You couldn't call it sex. I just moved my penis and discharged some semen. … Without even bothering to wipe up, I got dressed and left.

“The hardest thing”—continues the American translation, with as little care for phrasing as the narrator shows for his lay—“was picking out my polo shirt and pants from among her stuff in the dark.”

All this listlessness, randomness and heedlessness allows the author undue freedom. Seeing kangaroos at the zoo prompts a salaryman to send a weird, confessional tape to a dissatisfied customer:

Maybe that strikes you as odd … Just what is the connection … ? Well, you can stop thinking those thoughts right now. Makes no never-mind. … Thirty-six intricate procedural steps, followed one by one in just the right order, led me from the kangaroos to you—that's it. … If but one of those steps had gotten screwed up … I might have ended up somewhere in the Antarctic Ocean careening about on the back of a sperm whale. Or maybe I'd have torched the local cigarette stand.

Interpreted as lazily as this chaos theory—anything might cause anything else, and you'd better believe it—makes for fervently inconsequential fiction.

The narrator of “Barn Burning” meets a guy who has apparently gotten one of the steps screwed up and claims to set fire to “one barn every two months.” This appears to have no more than novelty value: “No grief to anyone. They just … vanish. One, two, poof!” But the world in which arson is an indifferent matter, in which no one is ever burnt to death, is not ours. (In Faulkner's story of the same title, even a child sees that barn burning is a moral issue.) In defying all questions about responsibility, the story, as well as the character, is delinquent, in the same way as the American cartoon series Beavis and Butt-head. Writing that treats an armed midnight raid on a hamburger joint in terms only of aesthetics and psychology (a comparison with Wagner; the resolving of unfinished business) is not fully functional. If only parts of people are involved, and not their imaginations, emotions or consciences, the stories are deadened too, whatever the claims for them as faithfully portraying modern Japanese torpor.

It is a relief to come to “The Silence,” a story which, though not profound, at least has all its human faculties. Like several of the other tales, this turns on an enduring, unlaid memory. A boxer tells how in his schooldays he flattened a fellow student, and was as a result slandered and ignored for six months. The motivation, the choices and the effect of enduring bullying and isolation are well sketched. Character, circumstances and emotion are properly imagined, and there is no need for tricks.

Constance Markey (review date 2 January 1994)

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SOURCE: “In the Steps of a Japanese Gumshoe,” in Chicago Tribune Books, January 2, 1994, p. 6.

[In the following review, Markey outlines the central themes of Dance, Dance, Dance.]

Haruki Murakami's Dance, Dance, Dance is a mystery that requires the reader to do some sleuthing. Without providing much background, it picks up abruptly where the author's earlier novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, ends—inviting the reader to speculate on the riddle of Sheep Chase and at the same time puzzle through this book.

The story takes place in today's Japan and involves tangled adventures and grisly crimes, but the lure of the uncanny clearly inspires the author more than conventional whodunit plots. For him, authentic suspense (and wisdom) rests less in the real world than in other worlds—those outside of the everyday and perhaps buried within the psyche.

In Dance Murakami creates an alternate universe, a timeless, magical zone populated by Sheep Men, a race apparently wiser and more intuitive than humankind. It is this alternate world that first beckons to the novel's unlikely hero—a detective by accident rather than design who often comes off as an ironic parody of the '40s private eye.

A divorced, mostly unemployed journalist, he takes assignments when his fancy or unpaid bills move him. Although he lives in Tokyo, he could be living anywhere there are fast food restaurants, booze and easy women. He is bereft of illusions and his plans for the future extend to his next trip to the cleaners or the nearest bar. All that keeps even a spark of energy alive in his listless soul are the weird premonitions he has been having lately.

For example, he has heard within himself the voice of a woman from his past, crying over him. In dreams he has often returned to where he “belongs,” to Sapporo, the city that figured prominently in the earlier novel. He feels sure that back in Sapporo, at the old Dolphin Hotel, he will find the crying woman and perhaps, in the bargain, “reclaim himself.”

Tormented by those irrational impulses and at last unable to resist them, he accepts a job near Sapporo and, like some oddball mythological hero, embarks on an eccentric quest. Once there, however, he sees that in his absence everything has changed, especially at the Dolphin Hotel. Like many modern enterprises it has been upgraded to luxurious sterility, and amusingly rechristened “I'Hotel Dauphin.” Nothing he sees remotely suggests the previous place or the Sheep Man he met there earlier—nothing, that is, that the obviously nervous manager is willing to divulge.

Discouraged but still hopeful, our nameless hero decides to wait for whatever clue might happen along. Sure enough, a pretty desk clerk comes to his aid and tells him the hotel's dark secret, describing her own terrifying trip to the 16th floor and what she saw and heard in its dank corridor before her timely escape.

Our hero has come to the right place after all and rediscovered the realm of the Sheep Men. All he needs to do now is go to the 16th floor. The cries in the night, the reason he has been called to Sapporo—all will be made clear to him.

The next pages are an entertaining mix of modern sci-fi, nail-bitting suspense and ancient myth. The journey to the 16th floor becomes a nightmarish inversion of the classic hero's descent to the underworld. But soon we come to wonder how our dingy, updated Odysseus could ever hope to learn anything useful from the seedy creature who hastens to welcome him. The Sheep Man has indeed been waiting, but his cryptic advice is this: “Dance. Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays.”

Will these words of wisdom point our hero down the right road or has the reader been led down a primrose path? It is too soon to know, for our hero's journey has just begun. His subsequent return to reality will be marked by murder and mayhem. And his efforts to solve these heinous crimes will be thwarted at every turn, not by devious villains but by a devious author bent on dismembering what remains of the mystery.

Murakami is not a frivolous writer, but he is an impious one. Although he was born to a solid Eastern tradition, his fiction defies convention and is much influenced by recent Western trends. Facile solutions, therefore, are not the central issue in his mysteries, any more than they are in the recent works of Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon. Easy answers do not exist for him—not in life and certainly not in the honest novel.

Dance, Dance, Dance is a sometimes funny, sometimes sinister mystery spoof, but like all good postmodern fiction, it also aims at contemporary human concerns, philosophical as well as literary. Living life fully is a hazardous occupation, even for the best detective.

Elizabeth Ward (review date 16 January 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Long Sayonara,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 24, No. 3, January 16, 1994, pp. 1, 11.

[In the following review, Ward describes the plot of Dance, Dance, Dance, detailing the novel's settings and characters.]

Don't read Haruki Murakami if you want Japanese exotic. His settings—Sapporo, Hakone, Shibuya, Azabu—may exert an initial outlandish charm, but his props—from steak houses and Maseratis to Sam Cooke and Cutty Sark—are as Western as last week's New Yorker tossed on the coffee table. This is mi casa es su casa with a vengeance: We are all living in the suburbs of a global metropolis in which the discontinuities between East and West have long since dissolved. Romantic Japan is dead and gone, say Murakami's novels; modern, urban, middle-aged Japan looks out the window, feels angst, sees signs of April and thinks … T. S. Eliot and Count Basie.

This probably goes far toward explaining Murakami's breakthrough popularity in the U.S., which is not generally noted for a reciprocal interest in Japanese culture. His first novel to appear in English was A Wild Sheep Chase in 1989, seven years after its publication in Japanese. This eerie, jazzy thriller-cum-ghost story, translated into echt hard-boiled American by Alfred Birnbaum, was an instant critical and even commercial success, and publishers quickly followed up with translations of a second novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and a collection of wildly surrealistic stories entitled The Elephant Vanishes. So popular did these prove that the publishers are scrambling to play catch-up with the prolific Murakami: Dance, Dance, Dance was first published in Japanese in 1988, and Norwegian Wood (1987), which has sold millions of copies in Japan, has yet to be translated.

In the case of Dance, Dance, Dance, it's a game worth playing if you are a fan of A Wild Sheep Chase, a tale that left more ends dangling than a mess of garter snakes. Readers will remember how the world-weary, recently divorced, thirtyish, decent, mediocre protagonist had gotten himself entangled in a perfectly absurd mystery: Where was he to track down the sinister sheep with the star-shaped birthmark that was the key to half the power in contemporary Japan? His search took him and his nameless girlfriend—she of the thrillingly sexy ears—to the northern island of Hokkaido, in whose frigid fastnesses he found the sheep, communed with the dead and lost the girlfriend. By story's end he has returned to Tokyo, like a latterday Ancient Mariner, dazed, saddened, but vaguely wiser, to resume his life “as if,” he says, “I had somewhere to go.”

But, naturally, he can't help wondering what happened to Sexy Ears. What about the old Sheep Man, that mumbling mediator between the living and the dead? And why can't he shake off this feeling that, after all, he still doesn't understand a thing? The old Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo, where so much mystery was set in motion, beckons …

It all comes together, sort of, in Dance, Dance, Dance. Our hero still can't locate his girlfriend—tracing her whereabouts becomes a central strand in the action—but he does discover that her name is Kiki. The ratty old Dolphin has been transmogrified into the glittering, multi-star l'Hotel Dauphin, but the Sheep Man is holed up in it in an odoriferous time-warp on the 16th floor. There are murders and accidental deaths. “Caught in the cross-hair of the real and the imaginary,” our man dauntlessly follows each twisting thread back to where it all began, in Sapporo, “a sump of a city slushed with sunken souls.”

In Sapporo it is the Sheep Man who tells him, somewhat unhelpfully, that the way out of the maze he is in is to “dance. As long as the music plays. You gotta dance.” Before long, he's dancing as fast as he can, always one step behind a plot in which every turn seems to lead him to another corpse.

This fun-fair of the plot is of course what keeps you turning pages, but as in A Wild Sheep Chase it's soon clear that plot is really just an excuse, a framework on which to drape the true reason for being of any Murakami novel: reporting on the parallel waste lands of modern Japan and burgeoning middle age. “So many, I had not thought death had undone so many …” should be this book's motto.

Murakami has a thoroughly theatrical imagination, though, and it's evident that he enjoys setting and peopling his bleak stage. The background is painted deliberately dreary—characters are named Yuki (snow) and Ame (rain), the hero resorts frequently to the image of “shoveling snow” to describe his do-nothing job as an advertising-copy writer, the island of Hokkaido looms like a damp, chill ghost, and the protagonist complains, “My resignation was a silent rain falling over a vast sea.” “You been under the weather?” a friend asks him. “Under,” he replies, “is not the word.”

The foreground is more colorful: Murakami is a master of the scene-clinching detail, and he zooms in unerringly on the passion for things that so befuddles the senses of modern Tokyo. “I tooled the Maserati to the Akasaka condo” (sentences like that are one of the reasons to read Murakami). “At five, I walked to Harajuku and wandered through the teeny-bopper stalls along Takeshita Street … Finally, after visiting several stores, I found what I was looking for: a badge that read ELVIS THE KING. Then to Tsuruoka's for tempura and beer …” In the neon-lit swirl of sensation, aimlessness is all: After a movie, “the end credits came on and I left the theater, hardly having any grasp of the plot. I walked, stepped into a bar, and had a couple vodka gimlets.”

By this point the reader, hardly having any grasp of the plot either, may feel like a couple of vodka gimlets himself. But it's impossible not to stick with it, not because one particularly cares about death's dream waiting-room in Honolulu or the smoke-and-mirror business on the 16th floor of l'Hotel Dauphin, but because one becomes overwhelmed with anxiety to see whether the hapless hero is going to emerge from his gloom and start developing some sense of direction. He seems such a decent fellow, one would hate to think of him stuck for the rest of his life on the hoary old question, “Was the sickness in here or out there?”

Not to give away any crucial details, it seems fair to divulge that the clouds do lift some, and the skeletons do rattle back into the darkness. Plot-ends are tied off, and an improbable new romance puts out buds. Murakami isn't one to make any hollow promises, though. “Outside it was sunny,” the protagonist observes near the novel's end. “Summer coming on. If only the rainy season could be put on hold.”

I don't know. In truth, this slushbound saga of spiritual desolation is so entertaining, maybe sunshine would seem dull by comparison. Pass the vodka.

Alan Wearne (review date February 1994)

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SOURCE: “Adventurous,” in Australian Book Review, Vol. 158, February, 1994, pp. 43–44.

[In the following review, Wearne provides an overview of Murakami's works and career through Dance, Dance, Dance.]

Every adventurous reader of fiction ought to have a private hoard of novelists, preferably from a non-English writing background, who have escaped the appalling nonsense of Booker style PR hype. Luckily publishers like Collins Harvill set about promoting such writers; unluckily for Australia though our major literary pages often neglect to review the bulk of such output. You will have your favourites in such a category but let this reviewer recommend the following: Jose Donoso, Etienne Leroux, Jose Saramago, Eduardo Mendoza, Saiichi Maruya and Haruki Murakami.

If I see a bookshelf containing a Murakami I feel assured that its owner is probably a person of vigorous taste and intellect. The writer is male, Japanese, by now in his mid-forties. His two novels published in English are A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World with Dance, Dance, Dance appearing on the horizon. Australians have bought his work, though not in the quantities of an Atwood or a Garcia Marquez.

Frightening, cynical, bleak and comic by turns, the narratives are set in an identifiable near-to-present-day Japan; in a country propelled by home grown computer driven gadgetry despite having the sheen of mainstream Western culture. The novels could be termed ‘dream-like’ but in the same way that dreams are sardonic and hard-edged, where any ambiguity is and debatable. In Murakami's world the mundane and the surreal not only complement each other, often they are two sides to the same cultural coin. His fantasy and his fabulous happen not only in kitchens, bedrooms, showrooms and offices of contemporary Tokyo but also deep in the psyches of their workaday inhabitants.

The Elephant Vanishes is a collection of seventeen short stories: bemusing, quirky, often sombre, they are still in a more relaxed, less chilled mode, in the main, than the novels. Though usually in a more minor key, they battle with similar obsessions, for, like any writer worthy of the title, Murakami is a scribbler with decided obsessions. Of course these stories have their recurring Murakami fingerprints. Just as Richard Ford has a succession of married couples separating through death or divorce in late fifties Montana, so these first person narratives invariably give the age and occupation of the protagonists. Quite often there is a semi-courtship of two Japanese yuppies dangling about. From time to time different male characters will appear named Norabu Watanabe, a not uncommon Japanese name. Fast food outlets are never too far away from the action. Such signs of modern life happen enough to anchor the stories in contemporary Tokyo, but these devices are skilfully controlled.

The elephant in the title piece does actually vanish from his specially constructed suburban elephant house. In ‘Sleep’ a female insomniac confronts her condition with what looks likely to be tragic results. The protagonist of another story knows that she has taken part in an impossible reality when she telepathically slays a small green monster who has just proposed marriage to her.

In Japan Murakami's work sells in numbers we Australians never bother to dream about. His Norwegian Wood has sold four million copies making him the nation's best selling novelist. And the man is no Jeffrey Archer: he produces witty, challenging, intelligent, imaginative art! His success says something about his country, but it can also say a fair bit about ours. Who in our prose world could log up an equivalent number of sales (400,000 at a fair guess)? Why don't Moorehouse, Garner, Carey, Winton etc sell near to half a million on these shores?

And it says something about our Anglo-American oriented myopia but one wonders why Murakami hasn't been the subject of articles in our literary journals, arts pages, and even our hideous Saturday colour supplements; even better why he hasn't been approached for one of our fabulous literary festivals. I'm not asking that the man repeat his Japanese success here, but anyone with more than an interest in where our part of the world is heading should be reading what our literate contemporaries in our rich and powerful acquaintance to the north are buying and enjoying.

Alexander Harrison (review date 18 March 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Dance, Dance, Dance, in Times Literary Supplement, March 18, 1994, p. 12.

[In the following positive review, Harrison praises Murakami's achievement in Dance, Dance, Dance.]

The nameless copywriter who narrates Dance, Dance, Dance is a modern Japanese. He has schooled himself in Western music, from Count Basie through Isaac Hayes to Boy George, and knows every trick that Hollywood ever pulled. He sustains himself on Japanese food or high-quality international cuisine. Gotanda, a film star of consummate elegance and beauty, and he become friends, finding each other as they drink Cutty Sark and vodka gimlets while discussing the ocean of costly consumer goods in which they and their nation are awash—BMW, Rolex and Maserati do not fare well here, for both men, it seems, are happier with a Subaru. Haruki Murakami has an aggressive take on advanced capitalism, as his copywriter calls it, which simultaneously mesmerizes and shocks as the subject demands.

As well as acute intelligence, the novel has a relentless pace and verve which would run the world's best blockbuster out of breath. The plot moves furiously as the reader is whirled from city to town to country in Japan and Hawaii. One by one, those whom the copywriter has befriended die: Gotanda commits suicide by powering his Maserati into Tokyo Bay; an expensive call-girl, Mei, is murdered and the circumstances suggest a high level cover-up; another friend, Dick North, is killed by a van as he crosses the road with groceries. The story, however, goes beyond simply dealing with the cold possibilities of global corporatism and the expense accounts of its warriors, as it takes in the uncertainties of human life and love.

Yumiyoshi and the copywriter court each other at length with long-distance phone-calls, until he comes back to the Dolphin Hotel where she works, and where the story starts and ends. Within their powers, Gotanda and the narrator try to escape the influence of the multi-nationals, but Yumiyoshi's job makes her position more equivocal. She is not allowed any kind of personal relationship with the customers and, always wearing her make-up, must adopt a professional attitude which obscures her humanity.

The pressures of urban Japanese living affect the characters in different ways. Murakami, works emotion and perception into a philosophical thriller and blends dreaming surrealism with a paranoid modern cynicism. The fluid brilliance of the style and the strong characterization are based on acute observation: the copywriter knows not only how Yumiyoshi feels working in the Dolphin, but also how powerful are the forces which bring such a place into existence. Murakami's people speak and think in an American vernacular made potent by a consciousness of seasons and settings and a serious awareness of the importance of life and dying. And he uses the contemporary forms of the modern detective novel, the blockbuster and the postmodern thriller, acknowledging his occidental peers before blowing them away. The narrator's toughness under interrogation would impress Philip Marlowe.

Although the text has its share of postmodern devices, the final effect is neither tricksy nor impenetrable. Philip Kerr, Paul Auster and Nicholson Baker could all take tuition from Haruki Murakami, and so indeed could Jackie Collins.

Celeste Loughman (review date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of The Elephant Vanishes, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, Spring, 1994, pp. 434–35.

[In the following review, Loughman discusses the sense of emptiness conveyed by the themes and characters of The Elephant Vanishes.]

Among Japanese writers born after the war whose work has been translated into English, Haruki Murakami (b. 1949) has received the most attention, especially since the 1989 publication in English of his 1982 novel Hitsuji o megaru bōken (Eng. A Wild Sheep Chase; see WLT 64:4, p. 701). The Elephant Vanishes is the first collection of his short stories, many of which have appeared elsewhere, including several in the New Yorker and in the recent anthologies Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices (both 1991; see WLT 66:2, p. 406).

Readers familiar with Roland Barthes's Empire of Signs will recognize the pervasive sense of emptiness in the stories here—but with a difference. Whereas Barthes found an empty center in signs of traditional Japanese culture such as its food, its architecture, and its poetry, Murakami's stories are almost completely emptied of Japanese signs. His characters eat pasta, McDonald's hamburgers, and sometimes vichyssoise; they listen to Bruce Springsteen, Three Dog Night, and Ravel; the date markers for events in their lives are not Japanese but “the year Johansson and Patterson fought for the heavyweight title, or when “Jim Morrison was singing ‘Light My Fire.’” They have lost their bearings in lives that are forms without substance.

Looking back at the Japan in which he was raised, Murakami has said: “Something has vanished in these twenty-five years, some kind of idealism. It has vanished, and we became rich.” His people are part of the get-rich society of mass production. They work in law offices, in quality control for department stores, in PR for appliance manufacturers. All are dissatisfied. Some rebel and quit their jobs; more often they escape into dream, fantasy, and even death. They crave mystery, the unknowable, the existence of an unfathomable power from another dimension. Paradoxically, however, as if unwilling to confront the emptiness within, they take refuge in ritual behavior and methodical attention to detail. In “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women” the narrator says, “Whenever things get in a muddle, I always iron shirts.” He does so in twelve steps, never deviating from the sequence. Similarly, the narrator of “The Fall of the Roman Empire …” knows that the wind began to blow at precisely seven past two and that the phone rang at thirty-six past two.

“The Dancing Dwarf” is a parody of mass production. The narrator works in the ear department of an elephant factory, a business that is needed because people do not want to wait for elephants to give birth naturally every four or five years. Instead, one real elephant is spliced to make five elephants. Thus, four-fifths of each manufactured elephant is “reconstituted,” but no one notices the difference. How does the narrator escape from the boredom of manufacturing elephant ears? “A dwarf came into my dream and asked me to dance.” “The Elephant Vanishes” also objectifies the creature. Here the societal problem is to dispose of the old, unwanted elephant after a zoo closes to make way for a high-rise condo. The narrator notices that the elephant and his keeper have genuine feeling for each other; and in Murakami's fictional world it is possible that the feeling is so profound that the two are equalized, even in size, allowing the elephant to slip out of his chain and vanish with the keeper. Meanwhile, the narrator continues to sell refrigerators and toaster ovens.

All seventeen stories are narrated in the first person, two by women. In “Sleep,” the longest piece, the narrator lives a comfortable middle-class life with her dentist husband and her son, though she does not like her husband very much. An insomniac for seventeen days, she performs her marital duties with detached efficiency during the day, while at night her mind is alive and free. Her nocturnal travels take her to the waterfront, where a policeman warns her that a man has been killed there recently and his companion raped. Courting death as the ultimate detachment from her everyday life, she dresses like a young man and returns to the waterfront, where her car is attacked.

Dissatisfaction with life in a depersonalized, mechanistic society is an overworked theme. Murakami's stories rise above the cliché by the inventiveness, the fantasies and dreams, with which the characters respond to their situations. Immensely popular in Japan, Murakami is not without his critics. Inevitably he is compared to modern giants such as Kawabata and Tanizaki, but Murakami rightfully asserts that what he is doing is unrelated to those writers. When they wrote about the inroads of Western culture, their characters could choose to embrace traditional Japanese ways, and they usually did. Murakami's characters do not have that choice. Too much time has passed. Japan has come too far. Murakami wants nothing less than to “reconstruct a morality for this new world.” His people, however, have not reached that point. Caught between values to which they cannot return and those which are yet to be constructed, they are lost, empty. “A Slow Boat to China” conveys the meaning of the collection when the narrator says: “And everywhere, infinite options, infinite possibilities. An infinity, and at the same time, zero.”

Celeste Loughman (essay date Winter 1997)

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SOURCE: “No Place I Was Meant to Be: Contemporary Japan in the Short Fiction of Haruki Murakami,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 87–94.

[In the following essay, Loughman analyzes the characterization, particularly of the narrators, in Murakami's stories.]

The opening scene of Natsume Soseki's 1914 novel Kokoro shows Sensei, the central figure, at a beach accompanied by a Westerner, alluding to his and the Japanese attraction to the West. In the end, however, following General Nogi's example after the Emperor Meiji's death in 1912, Sensei makes the traditional samurai choice of committing suicide to redeem his honor. Similarly, in Junichiro Tanizaki's 1928 novel Tade Kuu Mushi (Eng. Some Prefer Nettles) there is a scene wherein Kaname, the male protagonist, boards a ship on which, given the choice, he selects a Japanese room rather than a Western one. Nevertheless, he changes from the kimono he is wearing into a gray flannel suit. Although the novel ends ambiguously, it is very likely that Kaname's future lies not with his modern, westernized wife or with his Eurasian mistress, but with the puppetlike figure who embodies, or at least plays the role of, the passive, submissive Japanese woman. Examples such as these have been repeated innumerable times since Commodore Perry docked in Tokyo Bay in 1853. They reflect the concern, even obsession, of the Japanese with the inroads of Western culture on Japanese society, a concern that has produced contradictory responses ranging from indiscriminate borrowing of Western ways to the cry “Expel the Barbarians.”

No such conflict between Japan and the West exists in the works of Haruki Murakami, arguably Japan's most popular novelist. Whereas the characters in early-twentieth-century Japanese fiction could and usually did choose traditional Japanese ways, Murakami knows that no such choice is possible now. Japan has come too far. If a conflict still exists, his characters are not engaged in or even aware of it. So enmeshed are they in the forms of Western, and particularly American, culture that they accept these forms as integral to contemporary Japanese life. Nonetheless, their essential Japaneseness is never truly lost in spite of what the works appear to say.

Reading Anna Karenina, the narrator of the short story “Sleep” remarks: “Like a Chinese Box, the world of the novel contained smaller worlds, and inside those were yet smaller worlds. Together, these worlds made up a single universe, and the universe waited there in the book to be discovered by the reader” (EV, 100). No comparison of Murakami with Tolstoy is intended by the reference, but the Chinese box is an appropriate image to designate the structure of Murakami's works. The short stories collected in the volume The Elephant Vanishes offer a good overview of the patterns and variety to be found in Murakami.

The outer world or container of his fiction, the geographic boundary of Japan and Tokyo in particular, is indisputably Japanese. People drive to Shinjuku, Aoyama, and Roppongi; they travel the Tokyo subways and take the Yamanote Loop. The environment is stable, fixed. Within that geographic frame, however, is the far less stable world of social interaction in which traditional Japanese culture has all but disappeared and there are no fixed markers anywhere. Notably absent is the sense of group identity, a cornerstone of Japan's social structure. In the context of Murakami's fiction, Chie Nakane's excellent analysis of Japan's group consciousness, Japanese Society, first published a quarter of a century ago (1970), seems quaint. Nakane writes: “In group identification, a frame such as a ‘company’ or ‘association’ is of primary importance; the attribute of the individual is a secondary matter” (3). She notes the “exceedingly high degree” of emotional attachment to one's company (4) to the point of limiting social life to the members of the work group. Murakami's narrators have no such involvement. They are so-called “salarymen” who work in law offices, in quality control for department stores, in PR for appliance manufacturers. Bored and dissatisfied, some quit their jobs; others escape into dream and fantasy; all are emotionally and psychologically detached from their work group.

The family group fares no better. Whether single, married, or divorced, the narrators are disconnected, alone. Concerning kinship in Japan, Nakane cites the adage “The sibling is the beginning of the stranger” (6). Contradicting this view, the bond between the narrator and his sister in “Family Affair” is the closest family relationship to be found among the stories. Physically separated from their parents and living together in Tokyo, the two enjoy their casual, unstructured, and uncommitted lives. Tension develops between them when the sister becomes engaged to a computer engineer who is engrossed in his job, has strong family ties, and follows traditional courtship behavior. The narrator sneers at the conventionality and formality of the fiance, the only one who is given a name in the stories. Yet, in a rare example of the force of tradition, the sister will marry the man, vaguely recognizing that the way she and her brother have been living does not have “the feel of what real life is all about” (179). She is attracted to the order and stability her fiance represents: “There's nothing wrong in having one guy like him in every family” (186). Marriages in the stories are unhappy, dissolving, or dissolved. The women who choose to leave their husbands are those who are economically independent with careers of their own. In A Wild Sheep Chase the wife, reflecting the sexual freedom that some contemporary Japanese women are experiencing, leaves the narrator to live openly with his friend. The traditional Japanese housewives who stay with their husbands are invariably lonely and unable to communicate with them. In all instances the men, when they are aware at all of their marital relationships, seem bewildered by their wives' dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

The lack of group identification is only one indication of the breakdown of traditional Japanese culture in the stories. The signs are everywhere; and like those highlighted by Roland Barthes in Empire of Signs, they signify emptiness, but with a difference. Whereas Barthes found an empty center in signs of traditional Japanese culture, such as its food, its landscape, and its poetry, Murakami's works are almost completely emptied of Japanese signs. His characters eat pasta, McDonald's hamburgers, and sometimes vichyssoise; they listen to Willy Nelson, Three Dog Night, and Ravel; the date markers for events in their lives are not Japanese but the year Johansson and Patterson fought for the heavyweight title or when Paul McCartney was singing “The Long and Winding Road.” Murakami overloads his works with Western images to make his point. For example, in a story already filled with similar references, it is gratuitous for the narrator to comment, “I was brushing my teeth to Bruce Springsteen's ‘Born in the U.S.A.’” (“Family Affair,” EV, 167). The characters' immersion in the pop culture of the West is not, however, treated disparagingly by Murakami. In fact, he has said, “To tell the truth, I have no interest in traditional Japanese lifestyle” (UN, 41). At the same time, however, he is pointing out the emptiness of the signs, which signify nothing beyond their momentary, superficial function. Ignoring their traditional culture while absorbing the forms but not the substance of another culture, his people have lost their moorings and are adrift.

To a considerable degree, Murakami's characters are universal stock figures of contemporary literature, almost a cliche of the existential condition. Lonely, fragmented, unable to communicate, they live a mechanical, purposeless existence. They have become merely their functions, as Emerson warned. Vaguely they sense that something is missing in their lives. Some are shallow with little interior life; others have a deep need for meaning and self-fulfillment. Mostly they are simply bewildered by their sense of disconnection and loss. Murakami's tone is sometimes comic, sometimes sympathetic and serious. When least serious, he uses parody, satire, and sometimes fantasy to show his people trying to make sense out of life in a high-tech, consumer society in which they know that “things you can't sell don't count for much” (“The Elephant Vanishes,” EV, 320).

“The Dancing Dwarf” is in part a parody of mass production. The narrator works in the ear department of an elephant factory, a business that is needed because people do not want to wait for elephants to give birth naturally every four or five years. Instead, one real elephant is spliced to make five elephants. Thus, four-fifths of each manufactured elephant is “reconstituted,” but no one notices the distortion in an age which demands, to use Ezra Pound's description, “an image of its accelerated grimace.” In “The Kangaroo Communique” Murakami satirizes the “I,” who is attracted to emptiness and whose principal desire is to “exist in two places simultaneously” (64). “I want to be a McDonald's Quarter Pounder and still be a clerk in the product-control section of the department store” (65). In his job answering customer complaints, he is sexually aroused by a letter from a woman because she is absent from it. What excites him, he tells her in his response, “is that there's no you in the whole piece of writing” (60), only the story itself.

The shallowness of the narrator is also the focus of “A Window,” a more serious story about loneliness. The twenty-two-year-old college student has a part-time job critiquing letters written by students in a correspondence school. It is obvious that many of those enrolled simply need to communicate with someone, anyone, particularly the thirty-two-year-old woman who invites the narrator to lunch when he leaves his job. She is a recurring figure in the stories, the traditional Japanese wife who waits at home alone for a husband she rarely sees and with whom she cannot communicate. Her loneliness and limited choices do not touch anything deep in the narrator, whose sensitivity is limited to recognizing a good hamburger. He simply wonders why she continues to stay with her husband. Ten years later his shallowness is still intact. Passing the building where she lived, he asks himself, “Should I have slept with her? That's the central question of this piece” (194).

One narrator could be telling many of the stories in the collection. Several have the same history and experience a similar sense of loss, mystery, and bewilderment in their lives. The narrators of “The Second Bakery Attack” and “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women” both worked part time mowing lawns, were graduated from the law department of a reputable university, failed the bar exam several times, got married, and worked for a considerable period at a low-level job in a law office. They are connected to the narrator of “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon.” The three stories, which show the narrator at different stages, contain key ideas that run through the collection, particularly the concern with a lost past, a lost self. Attempting to recapture his past through memory, the thirty-four-year-old narrator of “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon” recalls being a nineteen-year-old college student on the last day of his lawn-mowing job. His work is careful, methodical, beautiful. The customer is a lonely widow who drinks all day; and when he is finished mowing, she gives him a drink and takes him to her daughter's room to show him the girl's things but really to keep him there. She engages him in a game of “signs” by asking him to tell what the daughter's things signify about the girl as a person. His answers lead away from the girl to conjectures that relate to himself: “What matters is … she hasn't really taken to anything. Her own body; the things she thinks about, what she's looking for, what others seek in her … the whole works” (288). Uncertain of so much about himself, he is sure of one thing: “All I wanted, it came to me, was to mow a good lawn” (289). Limited though the goal may be, it is the closest that any of Murakami's characters come to having an ideal. The point of the story is that the ideal and the self who held it have vanished, as expressed in the line “Not once since then have I mowed a lawn” (290).

The search for a lost past or a lost self is treated more directly in the other two stories. “The Second Bakery Attack” is also told retrospectively, recounting an incident when the narrator was two weeks married and working in a law office. The couple's insatiable hunger, which pointedly developed only after the marriage, evokes the narrator's recollection of his attempt, while a college student, to rob bread from a bakery with his friend. The baker thwarted the robbery by giving the students bread in return for their listening to Wagner overtures. As the narrator sees it, the outcome was a turning point, rooting him in a life of conventionality. He went back to the university, graduated, took a job in a law firm, studied for the bar exam, married. At his wife's instigation, they now set out to rob another bakery. The wife, who inexplicably has a shotgun and masks and seems to know how to conduct a robbery, serves to illustrate the idea of the mystery we are to one another. They can find no bakery, only McDonald's—the implications are obvious—where they succeed in stealing hamburgers. For a moment he, symbolically at least, has retrieved his past, changed it, and made possible a different future. Contrived though the story is, it is part of the pattern of dissatisfaction with one's life and one's self that afflicts all the narrators.

In “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women” the narrator is thirty years old, has been married for a while, has failed the bar exam several times, and has quit his longtime job in a law office, though he doesn't know why except that he wants “to settle in a new life cycle.” For the moment he is a househusband while his wife works. He too wonders what happened to his old self, but this lost self is the one with ambition, the one voted runner-up as “Most Likely to Succeed.” “So where had I screwed up?” he asks himself. The answer is in the wind-up bird of the title, a metaphor for contemporary society mentioned several times in the story and even explained for the reader: “A regular wind-up toy world this is, I think. Once a day the wind-up bird has to come and wind the springs of this world” (31). By quitting his job and probably deliberately failing the bar exam, he is rejecting a world of mechanical rituals emptied of meaning. Paradoxically, however, to escape from his confusion, he, like the characters in other stories, takes refuge in ritual behavior and methodical attention to detail, the only stability he has: “Whenever things get in a muddle, I always iron shirts” (7). He does so in twelve steps, never deviating from the sequence. His marriage is part of the muddle, and his day has what one senses is a routine ending: “Me drinking my beer, my wife sobbing away” (33).

Although Murakami is not proposing a return to the traditional Japanese life-style as a remedy for the restlessness, confusion, and dissatisfaction that he portrays, he is conscious of the loss of idealism that marked Japan earlier in the century: “Something has vanished in these twenty-five years, some kind of idealism. It has vanished, and we became rich” (UN, 41). His people live in a rich society which they find wanting. They show its insufficiency as a source of fulfillment by, for example, withdrawing from the race for success and riches or attempting to retrieve a lost self. Murakami shows that neither materialism itself nor the preference for Western popular culture is the problem. The problem is that that's all there is. The idealism which has disappeared has not been replaced with anything else as a source of meaning and self-fulfillment.

An intimate link is implied between lost or confused personal identity and the lost connection with Japan's cultural past. Occasionally someone senses that link, if only obliquely, as in “A Slow Boat to China.” (The title, taken from a 1940s American song, suggests the role of America in the acceleration of that lost connection.) In the story China is less a specific place than it is a metonym for the most influential source of Japanese culture. As the narrator says, “Not any China I can read about. … It's a part of myself that has been cut off by the word ‘China’” (238–39). As usual, the narrator is bewildered: “There are some things I don't understand at all. I can't tell what I think about things or what I'm after. I don't know what my strengths are or what I'm supposed to do about them” (231). The story is slight, a culling from the past of the few encounters the narrator has had with Chinese in his thirty years. The first such encounter occurred twenty years earlier, when he was a student assigned to take an exam at a Chinese elementary school. He remembers the flawless order and the words of the Chinese test proctor, “And be proud.” The second encounter, at nineteen, was with a female co-worker who astonished him with her diligence and commitment to perfection on the job. She is another example of flawless order and one who lived the proctor's words. Although the narrator insists that it was a mistake, he disoriented her when, after a date, he put her on a train going in the wrong direction. The values that he sensed in the Chinese from these encounters impressed and, at nineteen, disconcerted him. The most recent encounter, however, is with a high-school acquaintance who has lost connection with his cultural past. The narrator remembers the Chinese as a close-knit, self-contained group that remained apart from the rest of the students. Since then, though, his fellow student has been absorbed by the Tokyo way of life, and the Chinese have become for him simply people to whom he can sell encyclopedias. “China,” the narrator concludes, “is so far away” (239).

When it was remarked to him about one of his stories that it could have easily taken place in America, Murakami replied: “But you see, what I wanted was first to depict Japanese society through that aspect of it that could just as well take place in New York or San Francisco. You might call it the Japanese nature that remains only after you have thrown out, one after another, all those parts that are altogether too ‘Japanese’” (NYTBR, 28). Within the world of social interaction in a materialistic society is the innermost world, or box, of Murakami's works, the interior life of his characters where imagination often roams free and where the essential Japaneseness of Murakami can sometimes be found—specifically, in the echoes of early Shinto and Buddhist thought.

In “A Slow Boat to China” images of Tokyo assail the narrator as he rides the train:

The dirty facades, the nameless crowds, the unremitting noise, the packed rush-hour trains, the gray skies, the billboards on every square centimeter of available space, the hopes and resignation, irritation and excitement. And everywhere, infinite options, infinite possibilities. An infinity, and at the same time, zero. We try to scoop it all up in our hands, and what we get is a handful of zero. That's the city. That's when I remember what that Chinese girl said. This was never any place I was meant to be.

(EV, 238)

He is not aware of the ironic reference to Buddhist thought in his use of the terms infinity and zero. To him the city of Tokyo, a synecdoche for Japan, represents infinite possibilities for self-fulfillment that equal nothing, zero. Zen Buddhism, however, posits the opposite, that nothing equals everything because one becomes one's true self in nothingness, which means a state of being beyond intellection. D. T. Suzuki uses the terms zero and infinity to describe the process of self-realization: “The realm of absolute subjectivity is where the Self abides. ‘To abide’ is not quite correct here, because it only suggests the statical aspect of the Self. But the Self is ever moving or becoming. It is a zero which is a staticity, and at the same time an infinity, indicating that it is all the time moving” (“Lectures,” 25). The nihilistic emptiness of Japanese society implied in “a handful of zero” is also an ironic contrast to the Buddhist concept of sunyata, “emptiness,” which refers to ultimate reality or truth and is synonymous with “nothingness”: “Sunyata is the point at which we become manifest in our own suchness as concrete human beings, as individuals with both body and personality. And at the same time, it is the point at which everything around us becomes manifest in its own suchness” (Nishitani, 90).

There is another allusion to Buddhist thought in the story. After being knocked out while playing baseball as a boy, the narrator comes to and says, “That's okay, brush off the dirt and you can still eat it” (220). Though he has never understood what the words meant, a parallel comment by Suzuki clarifies the statement. When discussing the teachings of Ichiun (a philosopher of swordsmanship) and the legendary Buddha, he says: “Both want us to scratch away all the dirt our being has accumulated even before our birth and reveal Reality in its is-ness, or in its suchness, or in its nakedness, which corresponds to the Buddhist concept of emptiness (sunyata)” (ZJC, 179). The boy's epiphany was a recognition that beneath the accumulated “dirt” of Japanese society one could still find the source of self-fulfillment and truth in the foundations of Japanese culture. Twenty years later he knows that that time has passed and that the only “words of wisdom” he could utter now would be like those of the Chinese girl: “This is no place for me” (238). In spite of his characters' indifference to traditional Japanese culture, in the allusions to Buddhist thought Murakami is showing that at some unconscious level Japan's cultural past is not forgotten.

Murakami's characters live exterior lives that are efficient, predictable, and mechanical to create the illusion of purpose and meaning. At the same time, inside they are saying “This is no place for me” and often escape into their interior worlds of fantasy and dream, where imagination runs free. The relationship between the reader and the narrator varies among the stories. Sometimes the reader knows that what the narrator is experiencing is simply an imaginary projection from within himself. At other times the reader is asked to accept nonrational or metaphysical experiences as objectively true. And in still other instances the reader is left in doubt about what is physically experienced or what is imagined. An example of this last situation is “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women.” Of the three “Tuesday's women,” the reader can be sure only of the wife's physical presence. The second woman is a pornographic telephone caller who knows the narrator's personal history and, in a sequence of calls, tries to arouse him sexually through descriptions of her erotic poses and behavior. Later, as he wanders down the alley behind his house in search of his lost cat, he encounters the third woman, actually a precocious teenager who invites him to sunbathe with her. She begins talking to him about death as a concrete entity:

“I think about what it would be like to cut the thing open with a scalpel. Not the corpse. The lump of death itself. There's got to be something like that in there somewhere, I just know it. Dull like a softball—and pliable—a paralyzed tangle of nerves. I'd like to remove it from the dead body and cut it open.” (29)

The only hint that the gruesome conversation has not actually taken place is that the narrator has been dozing, and the girl speaks the words in a whisper after she awakens him. The reader is left speculating whether the encounters with the strange women were imagined, a projection in the first instance of his desire for sexual vitality, which could be viewed as an impulse to life, and in the second instance a contrary fascination with death. Viewed as a projection from within, the encounters reveal desires that he cannot express directly and openly.

No such ambiguity exists in “The Little Green Monster,” one of the two stories in The Elephant Vanishes that have a female narrator. Here is a housewife who is left alone all day and well into the night with nothing to do but look out at the garden. Hearing a sound, she thinks at first that it comes from within herself, as pointedly it does. The ground breaks open, and out of it comes an ugly creature with claws, a long nose, and green scales that then makes its way into the house. The creature means no harm, however. It seeks only her love. Its ugly exterior “masked a heart that was as soft and vulnerable as a brand-new marshmallow” (155). She responds to its expression of love by torturing it with cruel thoughts until it withers and dies. The images of the soft Japanese wife with the underlying desire for cruelty and the beauty of heart that lies beneath an ugly exterior link the story to others in its contradiction between interior and exterior selves.

Unlike the narrator of “The Little Green Monster,” the “I” of “The Elephant Vanishes,” the title story, is rooted in objective reality and questions his uncanny experience, which, however, would be accepted within the cosmic view of early Shinto. He is the conventional Japanese “salaryman,” successful in his PR role promoting the sale of kitchen appliances. In his leisure time he occasionally peers into the elephant house from a cliff to watch the elephant and its trainer during their private time. When the zoo is closed to make way for a high-rise condo development, the elephant is transferred to a special house, where he is secured by a cuff and chain on his leg. As the narrator watches, he witnesses the unusual affinity between the two in which their sizes are mysteriously balanced. The narrator has the feeling “that a different, chilling kind of time was flowing through the elephant house—but nowhere else” (326). The feeling is reinforced when, without the cuff or chain being broken or unlocked, the elephant and his trainer vanish. Although the narrator becomes more successful than ever in his job, the elephant episode has left him with the sense that the world in which he lives is somehow out of balance and that whatever he does or does not do makes little difference. He knows that the relationship he believes he witnessed is incredible, like something from a primordial time; yet it is consistent with the world view of the early Japanese, who “took it for granted that they were integrally part of the cosmos, which they saw as a ‘community of living beings,’ all sharing the kami (sacred) nature” (Kitagawa, 12). In such a world view the magic that the narrator witnessed would not be incredible at all.

The connection with Shinto beliefs is more direct and obvious in those works in which Murakami uses spirit possession as the fantastic element—for example, the sheep in A Wild Sheep Chase and the dwarf in “The Dancing Dwarf.” In Shinto, kami (gods or spirits, sometimes spirits of animals), good or evil, could possess human beings (Kitagawa, 14), controlling them completely. The implied reader in both works is asked to accept, along with the narrators, the reality of spirit possession. In both instances, the fantastic experiences occur at a point of extreme dissatisfaction with day-to-day life. In A Wild Sheep Chase the narrator's wife has divorced him; he is about to give up his partnership in an advertising business and, like other Murakami characters, does not know what he wants or what to do next. Unlike the realistic, conventional society which frames A Wild Sheep Chase and “The Elephant Vanishes,” the fantastic elements in “The Dancing Dwarf” occur in a society already made absurd by its business of manufacturing elephants. The narrator is bored with his job making elephant ears when the dwarf comes into his dream and dances to a miscellany of music—Rolling Stones, Mitch Miller, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra—in a sylvan setting while the narrator watches, eating grapes. He learns the history of the dwarf, who had been given a room in the palace after the king, a lover of music, had watched the dwarf dance. The rumor was that “the dwarf used an evil power on the palace” (252), causing a revolution that resulted in the king's death and the dwarf's escape into the forest. To get a beautiful girl to sleep with him, the narrator allows the dwarf to possess him temporarily so that he can lure the girl with his dancing, the arrangement being that if the narrator utters a sound during the experience, the dwarf will possess him permanently. Like a perverse fairy tale, as he makes love to the girl she turns into a corpselike creature being devoured by maggots. By not uttering a sound, the narrator wins—but only temporarily. Being chased by police who have heard of his connection to the dwarf, the narrator is driven into the forest, where it is assumed the dwarf will eventually take control of him, because, as the dwarf told him, “No one has the power to change what has been decided” (245). Human powerlessness is also an issue in A Wild Sheep Chase, as one of the characters commits suicide to free himself from possession by a sheep which has inhabited and left several persons at will.

Suicide is the choice also of the female narrator of “Sleep,” which brings together several key ideas already presented: the emptiness of contemporary Japanese life, the search for a lost self, and especially the problem of the divided self and its echoes of Shinto and Buddhism. The narrator is a conventional Japanese housewife but with no discernible reason for complaint. Indeed, she can be regarded simply as a malcontent. She lives a comfortable middle-class life with her son and dentist husband, who doesn't drink or socialize and who is faithful, kind, and attentive but whom she doesn't like very much nevertheless. An insomniac for seventeen days, she welcomes sleeplessness. She feels no physical fatigue and performs her marital duties with detached efficiency during the day while at night her mind “floated in its own space,” alive and free. A typical Murakami character, she wonders, “Where had the old me gone, the one who used to read a book as if possessed by it?” (98). As if to reclaim that lost self, in her wakeful hours she eats chocolates and reads Anna Karenina with intensity, as she had done as a teenager.

Her insomnia began when she awakened from a bad dream, and in what she thinks is either a trance or a dream, a gaunt old man appears at the foot of her bed and pours water ceaselessly over her feet from a seemingly bottomless pitcher. She has no idea what the ritual means, but it may easily be seen as a purification rite that can be connected to Shinto, of which purification is a central characteristic: “What concerned the early Japanese was not moral sins but physical and mental defilements, which had to be cleansed ceremonially by exorcism and abstention” (Kitagawa, 13). The narrator has concluded that people live in the “prison cells of their own tendencies” (98), hers being “those chores I perform day after day like an unfeeling machine” (99). “The same physical movements over and over” are like an accumulation of dirt over her essential self, so that death becomes for her a drastic but necessary rite of purification. Her nocturnal activities take her to the waterfront, where a policeman warns her that a man had been killed there recently and his companion raped. Courting death, she dresses like a young man and returns to the waterfront, where her car is attacked.

The basic conflict in the story is the narrator's mind-body split. She refuses to sleep because she is resentful that her mind must also rest to repair her body, which is being consumed by its “tendencies”: “My flesh may have to be consumed, but my mind belongs to me” (99). Her attitude is better understood if considered in the context of the subject-object bifurcation of ego consciousness in Zen Buddhism. Ego consciousness or awareness “is expressed as affirmation of itself,” which “includes itself both as affirmer and as affirmed” (DeMartino, 143)—that is, both as a subject and as an object. The ego as subject has only “conditioned subjectivity,” because it “is forever bound to itself and its world as object” (DeMartino, 144). While not understanding fully the nature of her problem or her quest, the narrator of “Sleep” in her reference to “prison cells” recognizes her bondage to herself as object. Her attitude and behavior actually express her desire “to overcome the divisive inner and outer cleavage separating and removing the ego from itself—and its world—in order that it may fully be and truly know who and what it is” (DeMartino, 154).

The desire to be freed from the subject-object dichotomy is even more explicit in “The Girl from Ipanema,” in which the narrator imagines that his heart is somehow linked with that of the Ipanema girl, “probably in a strange place in a far-off world” (quoted in Rubin, 496). He then conjectures about another link in his consciousness:

Somewhere in there, I'm sure, is the link joining me with myself. Someday, too, I'm sure, I'll meet myself in a strange place in a far-off world. … In that place, I am myself and myself is me. Subject is object and object is subject. All gaps gone. A perfect union. There must be a strange place like this somewhere in the world.


The subject-object division in ego consciousness is everywhere in Murakami. With its dual stories and dual narrators, the novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is in fact an allegory of the divided self and the struggle of the ego toward self-realization. Nothing other than the state of complete subjectivity, or sunyata, is being described when the narrator is told, “It's a peaceful world. Your own world, a world of your own makin'. You can be yourself there. You've got everythin' there. And at the same time, there is nothin'. Can you picture a world like that?” (286). The narrator's answer is “Not really,” the same one that the narrators in any of the stories could give.

Murakami's breezy tone, his hapless people with their empty centers, and especially his catalogues of Western popular culture often make his work appear trivial. However, as in a detective story (a genre of which Murakaml is fond), these characteristics are a red herring leading the reader away from the author's essential Japaneseness and his serious intentions that are found in the innermost world of his stories. He has said: “I want to reconstruct a morality for this new world, this economic world. My generation, we are in a way disappointed, but we have to survive. We have to survive in this society, so we have to establish a new morality” (UN, 41).

No doubt in part because of his popularity, critics have questioned Murakami's seriousness as a writer. One formidable detractor is the distinguished writer Kenzaburo Oe. Oe does not classify Murakami's work as serious literature, junbungaku, which he translates in English as “sincere or polite literature” (360). In a discussion of the decay of Japanese literature, Oe says that “any future resuscitation of junbungaku will be possible only if ways are found to fill in the wide gap that exists between Murakami and pre-1970 postwar literature” (363). His standard for judgment is literature produced between 1946 and 1970 “that strived to provide a total, comprehensive contemporary age and a human model that lived it” (361). Oe's dismissal of Murakami is unjustified, but he has a point. In spite of Murakami's expressed goal of creating a new morality for the contemporary, economic world, his works do not show what that moral ideal is, nor has he created characters who would be capable of recognizing it. The many allusions to Japan's early religions function not as an idealism envisioned by Murakami but rather as primal memory, an intimation of the longing to be fulfilled in oneself and to live in harmony with one's world. His composite narrator, however, is “caught between all that was and all that must be” (HBW, 85) and can say only, “This is no place for me.” Reading Murakami's work, one senses that the best is still to come.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Empire of Signs. Richard Howard, tr. New York. Hill & Wang. 1982.

DeMartino, Richard. “The Human Situation and Zen Buddhism.” In Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, and Richard DeMartino. Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. New York. Harper & Row. 1970.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. Religion in Japanese History. New York. Columbia University Press. 1966.

Murakami, Haruki. The Elephant Vanishes. Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, trs. New York. Knopf. 1993. Unless otherwise indicated, all short fiction cited in the text is from this collection. Abbreviated parenthetically as EV.

———. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Alfred Birnbaum, tr. New York. Kodansha. 1991. Abbreviated parenthetically as HBW.

———. Interview with Fred Hiatt. Union-News (Springfield, Ma.), 17 January 1990, p. 41. Abbreviated parenthetically as UN.

———. “Roll Over Basho: Who Japan Is Reading and Why.” Conversation with Jay McInerney. New York Times Book Review, 27 September 1992, p. 1+.

———. A Wild Sheep Chase. Alfred Birnbaum, tr. New York. Kodansha. 1989.

Nakane Chie. Japanese Society [1970]. Tokyo. Tuttle. 1984.

Natsume Soseki. Kokoro. Edwin McClellan, tr. Washington, D.C. Regnery Gateway. 1957.

Nishitani Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Jan Van Bragt, tr. Berkeley. University of California Press 1982.

Oe Kenzaburo “Japan's Dual Identity: A Writer's Dilemma.” World Literature Today, 62:3 (Summer 1988), pp. 359–69.

Rubin, Jay. “The Other World of Murakami Haruki.” Japan Quarterly, 39 (1992), pp. 490–500.

Suzuki, D[aisetz] T[eitaro]. “Lectures on Zen Buddhism.” In Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.

———. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press. 1959. Abbreviated ZJC.

Tanizaki Junichiro. Some Prefer Nettles. Edward G. Seidensticker, tr. New York. Perigee-Putnam. 1955.

Elizabeth Ward (review date 9 November 1997)

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SOURCE: “A Medley of Good and Evil,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 27, No. 45, November 9, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following review, Ward discusses the moral issues raised by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, calling the novel “a turning point” in Murakami's career.]

Haruki Murakami's English-language fans have read enough of his work by now—most notably the novels A Wild Sheep Chase,Dance, Dance, Dance and the era-defining Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World—to be able to recognize The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as something of a turning point. It is not just that this is Murakami's most ambitious attempt yet to stuff all of modern Japan into a single fictional edifice; it marks a genuine change of tone, a kind of mid-life deepening of purpose. His trademark weirdness remains, but where he used to be slick he is suddenly, surprisingly, serious.

It takes a while to figure out quite where the “new” Murakami is heading. A bulging brick of a book set in mid-1980s Tokyo, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle borrows its modus operandi from the magpie introduced in the opening sentence: “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.” Rossini's opera is just one of many pieces of Western music cobbled together to provide the novel with a “score,” but the reference recurs so often its meaning is hard to miss: There is no sliver of life too insignificant for the magpie Murakami to scavenge for his book. The result is 600-plus pages of dogged, indiscriminate, yet oddly mesmerizing accumulation of detail, all of it stamped with the slightly dotty literalness of that first sentence. The question is, what does it all add up to?

A couple of hundred pages in, one is thinking that the detail must be the point: the bombardment of people's minds and spirits by sensations and experiences too numerous to sort out is modern life. Well, yes, but Murakami has shown us that before. Surely, if we keep reading, some profounder insight will emerge. On about page 398 the narrator confirms this suspicion (or hope): “All I am doing … is a mechanical inventory of details. But … just as the rubbing together of stones or sticks will eventually produce heat and flame, a connected reality takes shape little by little.” Luckily, the central story proves gripping enough, and the hero sympathetic enough, to keep us turning pages until that elusive “connected reality” begins to dawn.

The narrator, Toru Okada, seems unimpressive to begin with: Thirtyish, unemployed, a bit down at heel, mildly henpecked, he potters about the house while his wife goes to work. He likes animals, we note, and is neat, uncomplaining and thoughtful, but undoubtedly a failure in the world's eyes. He, however, is our man. And from the moment the phone rings in that opening sentence, he finds his hitherto numbingly ordinary life assuming the dream quality of Alice's sojourn in Wonderland. The cat has already disappeared. But now his wife leaves him as well, walking out one midsummer morning without even a change of clothes. Did her creepy politician brother put her up to it? Strange women and old soldiers with psychic powers issue advice: Beware of half moons and water. Our man starts having sex with the lady psychic's younger sister in his dreams—or maybe in hers. He befriends a misfit teenage girl in the neighborhood who nicknames him Mr. Wind-Up Bird.

And speaking of the neighborhood, what is going on in that vacant house whose dry well has such an interesting, half-moon-shaped double lid? A mother-and-son couple code-named Nutmeg and Cinnamon intervene; they're kind of psychic too. The cat comes back. Characters pop in and out of wells. The plot doesn't just thicken, it becomes glutinous.

In fact it all looks more complicated than it is. It helps to think of the novel as one of those shape-changing creatures that fairy-tale heroes must hold onto through a series of ever more terrifying transmutations before breaking the spell and rescuing their own true love. This, of course, is exactly what Mr. Wind-Up Bird does at the climax of his quest for his lost wife (“You want to take me home as Kumiko. But what if I'm not Kumiko? What will you do then?” “I'm going to take you home”). That the scene takes place in a modern Tokyo hotel room doesn't make it any less of a fairy-tale convention.

Murakami's branching, hybrid tale is a love story one minute, a detective story the next, a psychological thriller, a New Age-ish Bildungsroman, a sober chronicle of wartime atrocities, a meditation on historical guilt and more, in dizzying succession. All the reader has to do is hold on grimly to the bedrock that all these disparate things are grounded in—the narrator's fundamentally decent, patient, brooding sensibility—and the “connected reality” comes clear. In 1980s Japan, as in every other time and place, life is a medley of good and evil; our job is to sort out one from the other (though the smoke and mirrors of modern urban existence make that difficult), to recognize evil and hold on for dear life to the good.

The novel element in the book is the admission, in the form of long interpolations dealing with Japan's prewar occupation of China, that evil—and its twin, guilt—can have a collective as well as an individual face. Somehow, Okada realizes, the darkness he must face down is connected with dark acts committed long ago, acts that still go barely acknowledged in Japan 60 or more years later. Even if he doesn't quite see how, he recognizes that many of the pieces of the puzzle he has to solve “were linked as in a circle, at the center of which stood prewar Manchuria [and] continental East Asia.”

In the end, it's this underlying moral seriousness—the double imperative of choice and responsibility—that sustains the reader's interest in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. At one point the narrator feels so befuddled and depressed he is briefly tempted by the opposite image of human life, one he associates with the “wind-up bird” of the title. “The cry of this bird was audible only to certain special people, who were guided by it toward inescapable ruin. The will of human beings meant nothing, then … People were no more than dolls set on tabletops, the springs in their backs wound up tight, dolls set to move in ways they could not choose, moving in directions they could not choose. Nearly all within range of the wind-up bird's cry were ruined, lost. Most of them died, plunging over the edge of the table.”

In the light of Japan's 20th-century history, which Murakami deliberately brings within his novel's scope, this is a remarkable and sobering passage indeed. It is his great achievement to have given us, in this major work, a Japanese hero who refuses to act like a wind-up doll, redefines the nobility of failure and thumbs his nose at the very idea of fate.

Lindsley Cameron (review date 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in Yale Review, Vol. 86, No. 1, 1998, pp. 167–74.

[In the following excerpt, Cameron finds The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to be ambitious in its scope and skillfully crafted in its style, but ultimately decides that the novel (“a bad good book”) is a failure.]

The Far East brings out the best in some, the beast in others. Oddly, this observation holds true even for Far Easterners themselves. This season brings four fictional takes on East Asia, of widely varying merit: Yasunari Kawabata's The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories, Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, and Simon Elegant's A Floating Life.

The Kawabata collection is, unsurprisingly, superior. The first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1968, Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) was among Japan's most important writers at a time when the country was producing great fiction at a breathtaking rate. Most of his major works have been translated into English, but this collection is by no means scraping the bottom of the barrel. All but one of these twenty-three stories are previously untranslated; fans will welcome these additions, and the whole book makes a good introduction to Kawabata for readers who have never encountered his distinctive sensibility and manner, which the translator, J. Martin Holman, serves very well.

The sensibility is above all elegiac, intrigued equally by beauty and ugliness, sensuously alert, and wistfully but not sentimentally fascinated with the innocent and the virginal. The manner is evocative and sometimes downright mysterious, with narratives structured more or less associatively rather than logically.

The title story, written in 1926 (and already familiar to many English-speaking readers in Edward Seidensticker's graceful translation), was the work that first made Kawabata famous and is well established as a classic. Yet it remains amazingly fresh. It is an unassuming little narrative about a university student who, traveling in a resort area, falls in with a group of poor itinerant entertainers. Struck by the beauty of the girl, who plays their drum, he thinks of seducing her, but he discovers that she is actually only a child (he was misled by her costume and makeup) and the discovery relieves him greatly. There is more to the story, of course. Many critics have plumbed its depths, and there is little a brief review could add to what they have said, but I can't resist praising—in passing—its almost miraculously deft and economical characterizations and its haunting interplay of two very different kinds of innocence: the narrator's and the child's.

The first section of the book has four more stories, two nearly equal to the first: “Diary of My Sixteenth Year” and “The Master of Funerals.” These draw on the unhappy experiences of the author's early life: his father died when he was two, his mother when he was three. His grandparents cared for him then, but his grandmother died when he was seven, leaving him with his grandfather, who, descending gradually into blindness and senility, died when Kawabata was sixteen. The “Diary” may or may not be an authentic diary, with parenthetical notes added later, written by the young author at his grandfather's deathbed (Kawabata insisted it was; critics, citing its stylistic dissimilarity to his surviving juvenilia, say it could not possibly be). The tension between the teenager's disgust at the old man's rapidly deteriorating body and the affection he feels for him never lets up; it is a deeply moving and utterly (though perhaps not literally) authentic story.

“The Master of Funerals” was the nickname the unfortunate author received because of the expertise at funeral etiquette and decorum that he acquired due to his early bereavements, and not only the initial ones; this orphan was shunted about among a widening circle of distant relatives, incurring funeral-attending obligations in an ever-increasing number of far-flung branches of his extended family. As often in Kawabata's work, touches of dead-pan macabre humor make this narrative even more poignant than it would be if its straightforward sadness were unrelieved.

The eighteen stories in the second section of the book are mostly the ultrashort tales Kawabata called “stories that fit in the palm of the hand.” Though the stories in the first section, and all of the novels that are available in English, are fairly conventional, many of these tiny tales are modernist or surrealist, and some are entirely successful, making poetic use of the illogical associations of dreams. “Frightening Love,” for example, is mysterious, but satisfyingly rather than maddeningly so. “The Money Road,” more vignette than story, is probably the best of these; it is a beautifully drawn picture of two beggars taking advantage of a moment when the real world becomes a bit surrealistic as impatient crowds, blocked from moving forward to put their coins in an offering box on the first anniversary of the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, throw money down in the street until it is covered with silver and copper coins. Some of the tales are less successful, but, as is always the case with the inferior works of a truly great writer, all are worth reading.

The same cannot be said for writers who are capable only of occasional greatness. Excerpts from Haruki Murakami's new novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle appeared in The New Yorker well in advance of the book's publication. One of them in particular was so riveting and so powerful that it raised extraordinary expectations, leading its readers to hope that Murakami, whose writing has been notably uneven in the past, must finally have hit his stride and that this would be the novel that would establish him definitively as a major world-class literary talent. His commercial status has been assured for some time (his books routinely sell in the millions), causing some head-shaking among connoisseurs of Japanese fiction. How had the culture that had been dazzling us since the beginning of the century with not only Kawabata but Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Soseki, Junichiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai, Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe, and Kenzaburo Oe descended with such an abrupt thud to the likes of the Murakamis (Ryu—no relation—specializes in sensationalism) and Banana Yoshimoto, who, for all her staggering commercial success, has produced nothing more memorable than her pen name?

Haruki Murakami looked to be the best of a bad bunch. When he is bad—as in his novel Dance, Dance, Dance (inexplicably a mega-bestseller in Japan) he is indeed horrid, but when he is good, he is very, very good. His novel A Wild Sheep Chase seemed a promising attempt at Kobo Abe's peculiar brand of surrealism, and some of the stories in the collection The Elephant Vanishes, which included the first chapter of this novel (in a different translation) were downright brilliant—particularly the stunningly original “TV People.”

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, unfortunately, except for that misleadingly excerpted section, is more in the horrid vein. It is long—a hefty 613 pages. A third of the way through, I began to think of adorning its jacket with a bumper sticker saying, “I'd rather be reading Kobo Abe.” Halfway through, I decided the sticker should say, “I'd rather be reading almost anyone,” and by the time I was done with this monster of a novel, I concluded that the hours I had devoted to it would have been better spent watching all twenty-two Godzilla movies.

The Chronicle is mostly a first-person narrative told by its protagonist, Toru Okada, beginning in the summer of 1984 and ending the following new year. He is thirty years old and unemployed, having quit his job as a gofer at a law firm. He is a cheerful enough househusband, living in Setagaya, a posh residential section of Tokyo, on a combination of unemployment benefits, a small inheritance, and his wife's earnings as editor of a health-food magazine. He spends his days doing housework, shopping, and cooking, unwilling to look for a new job until he can decide what he really wants to do with his life.

This is a strange way for a college-educated young man to exist in Japan, much more outrageous than it would be here. But that's only the beginning of the strangeness. As the novel opens, Okada receives a call from a strange (in both senses) woman who seems to be trying to tempt him into phone sex. He leaves the house to look for his cat, which has wandered off. The cat is called Noboru Wataya, after his wife's detested older brother. In the course of his search for it, Okada meets a charming (and strange) sixteen-year-old high-school dropout named May Kasahara, who, like him, spends her days mostly hanging around the house.

Okada's wife, Kumiko, tells him that he will receive a call from a woman named Malta Kano and that he should do whatever she says. Malta Kano is some sort of mystic who has concentrated on studying water with allegedly magical properties; she has a sister, Creta, who dresses in early sixties ensembles with matching makeup and hairstyles. Kumiko's family, the Watayas, have a tradition of relying on occult healers of various kinds: one condition they established for giving their approval to Kumiko's marrying Toru was that the two make regular visits to a Mr. Honda, an elderly spiritual healer who turns out to have served in the Japanese imperial army in Manchuria at the time Japan established its puppet state, Manchukuo, there. After his death, he connects Okada to another veteran, Lieutenant Mamiya. These soldiers shared some shattering experiences, including witnessing such atrocities as the skinning alive of a Japanese intelligence officer, after which Mamiya was marooned in a dried-up well. Another witness to Manchurian atrocities was a Japanese veterinarian, sent to work in the zoo in the capital, whose daughter, like Mr. Honda and the Kano sisters, is working as a spiritual healer in Tokyo in the 1980s. This woman, who is called Nutmeg Akasaka, spots Okada on a bench in downtown Tokyo one day—he has gone there, following Mr. Honda's advice, to look aimlessly at people. Okada is wondering how to make some money because he wants to buy an abandoned house near May Kasahara's in his neighborhood for the sake of a dried-up well in its garden, where he believes he may find enlightenment. He feels particularly in need of revelations because by this time, his wife, like the cat, has simply disappeared. Nutmeg drafts him into taking over for her with the clients whose ills her touch has palliated, paying him liberally and buying him a lavish wardrobe. Her faith-healing business is essentially run by her mute son, Cinnamon, who stopped speaking at age six after hearing the eponymous wind-up bird and seeing horrifying sights in a vision.

The wind-up bird, so called because its song sounds like a spring being wound, can be heard only by people with paranormal powers. And each incidence of hearing it appears to signal the entering of an alternative world, a world of intuition, imagination, and invention, where the real meaning of real events is represented by impossible, fantastical events in a way that is somehow truer than any literal, merely factual account could be. This kind of representation can work beautifully in the hands of a master: Abe wrote exclusively in these terms, and even his least successful novels are unfailingly persuasive and moving, and never less than entertaining.

But Murakami hasn't pulled it off here. The reader, plodding patiently through his labyrinth-engendering labyrinths, becomes increasingly exasperated as it becomes increasingly clear that this demanding narrative is nothing but a long, pointlessly complicated story that finally offers no resolution of any kind and not enough rewards along the way to make the journey worthwhile for its own sake. It fairly bristles—if such a limp saga can be said to do such a thing—with signs that its author intended great things in it. Symbols abound. The dried-up wells, for example, are definitely intended to have something to do with intentionally childless women; Murakami seems to see Japan's declining birthrate as a consequence of its war guilt, without giving any hints about whether it should be seen as extension of the selfishness that prompted its aggression on the Asian continent or a self-annihilating expression of remorse.

The novel's principal subject appears (one has to say that, for it is never really clear) to be the ultimate interconnectedness of all things, and the dangers of ignoring it. The Manchurian sections seem meant to finger Japan's isolation in delusions of imperialistic grandeur as responsible for many of the ills of the modern world, as experienced by the sympathetic characters in mid-1980s Tokyo. Okada's lack of interest in or awareness of others seems to be both a consequence of that dangerous, deluded mental isolation and a variant of it. Murakami achieves real pathos as Okada, desolate after his wife's desertion, begins questioning himself and all he has taken for granted about the world, yet this pathos is undercut by the irritating coyness of the multilayered narrative. We learn—as Okada does—that he is an unreliable narrator, yet we are never given enough information to figure out the truth of the story he is unreliably narrating. It is never made clear, for example, whether a letter and some later on-line chat purporting to be communications from Kumiko are to be understood as having been received in the world of workaday reality. Nor is it even clear whether, if they were, they (or all or any of them) really came from Kumiko. Perhaps some (or all) of them (and who knows what else besides) were elaborate fakes engineered by her older brother, Noboru Wataya, who is apparently intended to be the villain.

Apparently, Okada hates him. He is certainly unpleasant enough in the scenes where he actually appears. Kumiko hates him. He seems to have been somehow implicated in the death of their little sister at an early age, and Kumiko at one point says she caught him masturbating, later, with the dead little sister's clothes. But Kumiko turns out to be a liar, so she may not have been telling the truth. He is also said to have been responsible for “defiling” Creta Kano at a time when he bought her services as a prostitute. Near the end of the novel, Okada concludes that Noboru Wataya somehow ruined and defiled both sisters—the dead one and Kumiko—and that this defilement (which we are given to understand consisted of nothing so straightforward as sexual abuse but rather a misuse of some never-defined mystic power that drew out these girls' evil potential) was the real reason Kumiko ran away. But Okada could be wrong about that; by this time, he's been proven wrong about many things, one after another. Noboru Wataya's worst crime seems to be that he has gained some fame as an intellectual although his opinions are superficial, that he becomes known as a television personality, and that he is elected to public office. But Murakami never reveals why the emergence of one more fatuous and unpleasant person on the Japanese political scene should be especially horrifying.

In the end, one is left gloomily marveling at this novel. It engenders the same emotions as such perverse craft projects as Lord's Prayers on pinheads or life-size portraits of Elvis in mosaic made of Pez candies. Whyever would anyone bother? Murakami is certainly intelligent, and he lacks neither skill nor talent as a fiction writer, yet this novel—his longest, most complicated, and most ambitious—is a bewildering misapplication of his gifts. It is a spectacular failure of judgment.

There are two truly great scenes in this novel, both describing atrocities in Manchuria. Unlike the rest of the novel, they deal with real evil—with gratuitous violence, abuses of power, and all but unthinkable cruelties that at the time the scenes were set were being perpetrated on a global scale. The rest of the book is diddling: abstract, pallid, unconvincing, unmoving, and only intermittently interesting. Jay Rubin's translation, by the way, is an admirable example of the art that conceals art, but this text is mostly a regrettable waste of his outstanding skills.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is that saddening thing, a bad good book—a well-intentioned, ambitious, painstakingly crafted failure. Coincidentally, its illustrious publisher is simultaneously offering us an example of its opposite: a good bad book, also in some way concerned to follow the consequences of predatory Japanese activities in the 1930s into the present day. “Good” might not be quite the right word, but it can definitely be enjoyed, though not in the ways its author intended.

Edward Hower (review date May 1998)

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SOURCE: “The Salaryman's Quest,” in The World & I, Vol. 13, No. 5, May, 1998, pp. 261–66.

[In the following review, Hower assesses Murakami's accomplishment in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, offering thematic and character analyses.]

The idea of the quest is as old as storytelling itself, occurring in tales all over the world. In one version an innocent young man goes in search of a woman who is held captive by an evil sorcerer. Along the way he is helped by loyal friends and supernatural beings. At the end he not only frees the woman but gains spiritual powers himself.

This story is one that Haruki Murakami, one of Japan's most critically acclaimed writers, has used to good advantage in his last two books. A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance, and again in his most recent novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. All three works feature unlikely knight-errants—yuppie dropouts—whose mild-mannered individualism is an affront to the ruthless politicians and faceless, graysuited salarymen who dominate Japanese society. The young protagonists quit their meaningless jobs and go off on obsessive, romantic missions. Sleek, modern, take-charge women often guide their way. These antiheroes have obviously been popular in Japan, where Murakami's books have sold in the millions. Translated into fourteen languages, they have gained him a worldwide readership.

His characters seem to have abandoned traditional Japanese culture; they listen to Rossini and John Coltrane on the radio, cook spaghetti for dinner, smoke Marlboros, wear baseball jackets and Van Halen T-shirts. As a result, they take on universal qualities—alienated modern men seeking to find meaning for their lives in bleak, soulless, glass and steel landscapes.

The author's previous novels were both praised and criticized for having a whimsical, pop-culture feel to them. They had funny chapter headings—like “One for the Kipper” in A Wild Sheep Chase—lots of absurd, loopy dialogue; scenes that were reminiscent of detective stories, TV sit-coms, and even computer games. Though not without some humorous passages, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is more serious and longer—over 600 pages—than Murakami's previous books. One change in the new work is the author's willingness to examine his nation's history, particularly Japan's brutal occupation of Manchuria during the 1930s and '40s. He also expands on some mystical themes he touched on in previous works.


At the beginning of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru, the narrator, is surprised to discover that his wife, Kumiko, has consulted a psychic to find their lost cat. Toru walks away from his boring job as a paralegal, and Kumiko, a magazine editor, puts no pressure on him to find another one. He becomes a passive, good-natured househusband; all day he cleans, reads, naps, and wanders around the nearly empty suburban neighborhood. His marriage is passionless but pleasant, with only the occasional flare-up. When Kumiko tells him she detests the kind of tissue paper he has bought, he calmly apologizes, and she lowers her face to her folded arms on the kitchen table and weeps with quiet exasperation. He hardly notices when she starts coming home late from her office—until one night she doesn't appear at all. Then he needs a psychic to find not only his missing cat but his vanished wife as well. The quest begins.

Soon Toru becomes involved with several very strange mystics, each one sending him on missions he hopes will bring him closer to Kumiko. One woman he meets calls herself Malta because, after searching the world, she found the most spiritually invigorating water on that Mediterranean island. An immaculately dressed, dynamic woman, she introduces Toru to her sister Creta (whom she has named after the island of Crete).

Creta, a sixties waif, has in the past worked as a prostitute, but now she is only a “prostitute of the mind.” By this, she means that she can visit Toru while he sleeps and cause him to have nocturnal emissions. Later, she can recount their dream adventures when she turns up naked in his bed at night. Toru can find no dirt on her bare feet or any sign that she arrived by any means other than spontaneous materialization. He begins to understand that Creta is able to occupy both the real world and a kind of alternative universe—a skill he feels he will need to develop himself.

Now when he wanders around the neighborhood, he feels it is overflowing with strange forces working on him in ways he can't understand. He hears (but never sees) a bird with a peculiar metallic cry. “Every time the wind-up bird came to my yard to wind its spring, the world descended more deeply into chaos.” Throughout the book, when he and other characters hear this bird, it is a kind of harbinger of doom. Yet Toru comes to understand that if the bird were to abandon the world altogether, an even worse disaster—a total absence of the awareness of death and evil—would occur.

For relief from his restlessness, Toru climbs to the bottom of a dry well in a nearby yard. There, in pitch darkness, he has out-of-body experiences. Sometimes he succeeds in passing through the well's wall into the strange alternative world that the beautiful succubus Creta has introduced him to.


Creta is not the only person who can move beyond the barriers of ordinary reality. A sinister figure, Noboru—Kumiko's brother—is also using these psychic powers, Toru discovers. Noboru is contemptuous of his brother-in-law; like his father, Noboru believes with absolute conviction that “the only way to live a full life in Japanese society [is] to earn the highest possible marks and to shove aside anyone and everyone standing in your path to the top.” An economist who rises quickly in politics, Noboru has turned into a kind of media monster whose face, like that of Orwell's Big Brother, seems to mesmerize millions when he delivers his pompous, acerbic opinions on television. When Toru learns that his wife is staying with Noboru, he begins to fear for her safety.

The power that Noboru represents is paralleled by the evil that Toru hears about in stories told him by a third psychic he meets. This woman, an elegant fashion designer who calls herself Nutmeg, was raised in Japanese-occupied Manchuria where her father was a zoo veterinarian. In the last days of World War II, she says, her father was forced to watch his animals slaughtered in their cages by the retreating Japanese army. Why? Because the soldiers had orders to do so. They were farmers' sons who had spent their youthful years in the depressed thirties, steeped in the tragedies of poverty, while a megalomaniac nationalism was hammered into their skulls. … Commanded in the name of the emperor to dig a hole through the earth to Brazil, they would grab a shovel and set to work.

The power to command this sort of blind obedience, Murakami implies, is what makes Toru's nemesis, Noboru, such a dangerous figure in present-day Japan.

Some of the book's most powerful writing occurs in the long historical passages. Murakami delves into memories that have been so deeply buried in the Japanese psyche that extraordinary self-examination—like the experience Toru has each time he goes to the bottom of his well—is needed to bring them to the surface.

The slaughter of zoo animals is all the more horrific for its absurdity. So is the execution of Chinese prisoners that the veterinarian has to witness. The Japanese lieutenant in charge orders a soldier to kill one cadet with a baseball bat. “Have you ever played baseball?” the lieutenant asked …

“No, sir, never,” replied the soldier, in a loud voice … He had spent his boyhood running around the fields, catching dragonflies.

The lieutenant showed him how to hold the bat and taught him the basics of the swing. … “See, it's all in the hips. … Starting from the back-swing, you twist from the waist down. The tip of the bat follows through naturally. Understand?” …

The soldier … practiced his swing for a while. …

The lieutenant nodded to the soldier. With a deep breath, the soldier took a back-swing, then smashed the bat with all his strength into the back of the Chinese cadet's head. He did it amazingly well. … There was a dull crushing sound as the skull shattered.

Primo Levi, writing about his Holocaust experiences, discussed the ways people in Europe dealt with recollections of atrocities like this one. “The best way to defend oneself against the invasion of burdensome memories is to impede their entry, to extend a cordon sanitaire.” Many of Murakami's characters need to break through this sort of barrier to fully understand their nation's history.

And also to understand themselves. Almost all the characters in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle have trouble experiencing their emotions—anger, compassion, sadness, or joy. Often they speak of being unable to feel any connections between their minds and their bodies. Toru, Kumiko, Malta, Nutmeg, and Greta are ultracalm, obsessively restrained people. For all their mystical preoccupations, they seem in tune with the orderly, disciplined society that they are trying to escape. Even sex produces no excitement for them, merely the release of bodily fluids and a few quiet, unexplained tears. Several times women come to Toru needing just to be held for a while; he acquiesces without much involvement. The only character in the book he actually enjoys touching is his cat.


It's a strange world that Murakami presents us with, one that has some resonances with our own fast-paced society, in which we feel helpless before the power of colossal institutions. The author writes about his alienated characters with tremendous skill and keeps a strong, if convoluted, plotline going continually. His tale owes much to the work of Lewis Carroll and to Franz Kafka. As Toru plunges through the looking glass into his dreamlike alternative world, he meets some very mad hatters indeed.

I was seated across the table from Malta Kano drinking tea. … Across the ceiling, as high as that of a Buddhist temple, stretched countless heavy beams, from all points of which there hung, like potted plants, objects that appeared to be toupees. A closer look showed me that they were actual human scalps. … I was afraid that the still-fresh blood might drip into our tea. …

“The cat came back.” [Toru said] … I thought I'd better let you know.” …

“You are sure it is the same cat?”

“Absolutely. …”

“I see,” said Malta Kano. “To tell you the truth, though, I am sorry, but I have the cat's real tail right here.”

Malta … stood and stripped off her coat. As I had suspected, she was wearing nothing underneath … She did not remove her red vinyl hat. She turned and showed her back to me. There, to be sure, attached above her buttocks, was a cat's tail.

Also on the other side of the barrier are endless labyrinthine hotel corridors where Toru pursues faceless characters reminiscent of the bureaucrats in Kafka's castle. Increasingly persistent, he finally manages to penetrate the barrier via computer and contacts his wife in her parallel world. But afterward, he feels bereft.

I go back to the computer and sit there, carefully reading our entire exchange. … The whole thing is still there on the screen, with a certain graphic intensity. As my eyes follow the rows of characters she has made, I can … recognize the rise and fall of her voice, the subtle tones and pauses. The cursor on the last line keeps up its blinking with all the regularity of a heartbeat, waiting with bated breath for the next word to be sent. But there is no next word.

Truly, a love story for the 1990s!


In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami has tried to produce a very big book in which everything—history, mysticism, political corruption, alienation, love, and death—is examined and interconnected. At times his ingenious plotting and sheer originality allow him to approach the ranks of such international writers as Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Naguib Mahfouz. But Murakami has said that he lets his novels take shape as he goes along, imposing no planned structure on them, and this technique produces some needlessly repetitive scenes. Red herrings are frequently thrown, sometimes into stagnant waters—slow passages in which not only the characters but the author seem to be treading water waiting to see what will happen next. Too many events are left unexplained; too many are connected by far-fetched coincidences.

Still, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is mostly a great pleasure to read. Jay Rubin's translation is lively and clear, presenting an author who, for all his quirks, writes beautifully and produces some unforgettable scenes and characters.

Even in the bleak, modern world that Murakami describes so well, a few people break the mold and show tender emotions. One of his best creations is May, a teenage neighbor of Toru's who has a crush on him. She calls him “Mr. Wind-up Bird,” keeps him company while he misses his wife, and writes him letters full of sweet longing.

I woke up an hour ago from a dream about you … Moonlight was pouring through the window. This great big moon like a stainless steel tray was hanging over the hill. It was so huge, it looked like I could have reached out and written something on it. And the light coming in the window looked like a big, white pool of water. …

Anyhow, I took every stitch of clothing off and … got down on my knees on the floor in the white moonlight. … Then I took turns holding different parts of my body out to be bathed in the moonlight. The moonlight was so absolutely, incredibly beautiful that I couldn't not do it. …

The light gave my skin a magical color, and it threw a sharp black shadow of my body across the floor … All of a sudden I burst into tears … I could actually see and hear my tears dripping down into the white pool of moonlight. … Then I noticed that my shadow was crying too, shedding clear, sharp shadow tears. Have you ever seen the shadows of tears, Mr. Wind-up Bird? They're nothing like ordinary shadows … They come from some other, distant world, especially for our hearts … It struck me then that the tears my shadow were shedding might be the real thing, and tears that I was shedding were just shadows … When a naked seventeen-year-old girl is shedding tears in the moonlight, anything can happen.

In Haruki Murakami's ingenious, erratic, mysterious, lyrical, powerful book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anything can and does happen, giving us a great deal to enjoy and to ponder.

Matthew C. Strecher (essay date May 1998)

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SOURCE: “Beyond ‘Pure’ Literature: Mimesis, Formula, and the Postmodern in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki,” in Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 2, May, 1998, pp. 354–78.

[Strecher is an assistant professor of Japanese Language, Literature, and Culture at the University of Montana. In the following essay, he discusses Murakami's narrative strategies and styles in A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Norwegian Wood, speculating on the novelist's achievement in relation to both the traditions of jun-bungaku and postmodernism.]

With the publication of Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind Sing; 1979), Murakami Haruki (b. 1949) found himself more or less at odds with well-known members of the Japanese literary establishment. If one takes Murakami at his word, this was not the result of conscious effort on his part, but rather a matter of his own individualism, a certain indifference (feigned or not) toward the conventions and opinions of professional critics in Japan's literary community. He commented to journalist Kawamoto Saburō in a 1985 interview that “[i]t never occurred to me to resist the paradigms of existing ‘pure’ literature, or to offer some kind of antithesis to it. … I don't think I worried about whether existing types of works would go on existing, so long as I could write what I wanted, how I wanted” (Kawamoto 1985, 39–40). Such a statement might be taken as a reflection of the author's anxiety not to be labeled “anti-bundan,” or otherwise standing against the proliferation of so-called “pure” literature, or junbungaku. And yet, given the general trend of Japanese literature from 1980 onward, beginning perhaps with Tanaka Yasuo's plotless novel Nantonaku, Kurisutaru (Somehow, Crystal; 1980), Murakami appears to belong to a growing new set of contemporary authors who do precisely that: resist the concepts and definitions of “pure” literature, redefining the term to suit their own needs. As Alfred Birnbaum writes in the “Introduction” to Monkey Brain Sushi, a collection of recent short stories,

Starting from the early 1980s, a new generation of Japanese writers has emerged to capture the electric, eclectic spirit of contemporary life in Japan's mega-cities. Choosing to speak through the medium of popular magazines—rather than literary journals, as did the preceding generations—these young authors have shunned such traditional labels as jun bungaku, pure literature, opting instead for the Anglicism fuikkushon, fiction.

(1991, 1)

But what kind of classification, if any, might be applied to such a group? In particular, if Murakami Haruki disassociates himself from the “pure” literature establishment, intentionally or not, then to what group might he be attached?

The question is a complex one, for the distinctions between “pure” and “mass” (jun and taishū, respectively) do not necessarily correspond to Western arguments informing the categories “serious” and “popular.”1 The matter is further complicated by the fact that, in the West, at least, the opposition of serious and popular literature has been called into question for some time, first by structuralist arguments in the 1960s and 1970s, and finally by the theorists of the postmodern in the 1980s. Whereas in the case of structuralism, however, such distinctions are done away with in order to show that all literature lies on a continuum between what is conventional and what is inventive, the postmodern text resists definition in these terms precisely because it contains a mixture of both high and low culture. As the present essay will demonstrate, Murakami Haruki plays a structuralist game with his readers, creating texts which are obviously and meticulously formulaic, but with results and purposes distinctly postmodern in character.

Murakami's works give one the impression of a serious artist who expresses himself in a distinctly un-serious manner. That is to say, he writes imaginative, often unrealistic texts, but typically with a sturdy message attached, in the tones of an elder brother, pointing out the pitfalls of life to his readers. His books are narrated by a first-person singular familiar narrator, “Boku,” whose introspection borders on the obsessive, and whose worldview is pervaded by a strong sense of boredom. Yet few would be tempted to compare the action in Murakami's fiction with that of Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), Mori Ōgai (1862–1922), Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892–1927), or even more recent literati such as Mishima Yukio (1925–1970) or Ōe Kenzaburō (b. 1935). For all the narrator's self-interest, his movements are still more obvious and less cerebral than was common in Japanese literature until recent years. One has not the impression of reading a text written purely as art; its entertainment value is too high for that, its language too transparent. If one might compare the verbally dense style of Ōe to the style of Thomas Pynchon, one might compare Murakami's style to that of Raymond Carver, not coincidentally one of Murakami's favorite writers.

This is not, however, to suggest that Murakami's experiments with literary style place him into a literary category with contemporaries such as Kataoka Yoshio or Akagawa Jirō, both of whom write prolifically, but whose works tend to be rather unvaried, utilizing prefabricated plots. Such authors clearly write for volume, quantity rather than quality, and form the lowest common denominator in the literary world. Mainly because their works show so little variance, both Akagawa and Kataoka are able to produce with tremendous speed and to sell prodigiously, for they limit themselves for the most part to what has succeeded in the past.

Clearly Murakami stands somewhere between the extremely inventive, experimental texts of Ōe, and the highly formulaic, entertaining yet monotonously uniform novels of Akagawa Jirō. In part one may attribute this to Murakami's rejection of literature as “art” in the contemporary period, reflected in his efforts to develop a literary language which is accessible to all. Whereas Ōe insists upon a somewhat turgid prose style in order to separate his works (“high” art) from those which any Japanese might read, Murakami relies on a language which is simple and readable, and if there is an artistic presence in his text, it lies not in the language he uses, but in the story he tells.

This is not to suggest, however, that Murakami's prose style is without distinction; quite the contrary, it carries with it a strikingly international ambience. The frequency of his use of the first-person pronoun “I” rivals that of its use in English, despite the fact that the Japanese language does not require the naming of subjects where context makes them clear. The result of this prodigious use of the first-person familiar “Boku” is to lend the text a rather un-Japanese atmosphere, almost as though it were translated from English.

Murakami is also fond of using expressions which are taken from English, translated literally into Japanese (such as sore ijō de mo nai shi, sore ika de mo nai for “neither more nor less”), as well as repeating himself almost to the point where one can predict his next use of the most commonly recurring phrase, Boku ni wa wakaranakatta: “It wasn't clear to me.” His Japanese is easily translated into foreign languages, partly for its simplicity and partly for its reliance on foreign (or foreign-sounding) idioms. One finds there none of the fondness for the mysterious, the pedantic, or the obscure, as is so often said of the prose of Kawabata, Mishima, or Ōe, and presumably this is what led Ōe to comment to Kazuo Ishiguro once that “Murakami writes in Japanese, but his writing is not really Japanese. If you translate it into American English, it can be read very naturally in New York” (Ōe and Ishiguro 1993, 172).

Unfortunately for the critic attempting to take him seriously, Murakami's reliance on a simplistic language, hiding little or nothing from the reader, often obscures the seriousness of his literary contribution. But he shares this fondness for simplicity and internationality in his language with many of his contemporaries: Takahashi Gen'ichirō (b. 1951), Shimada Masahiko (b. 1961), and Shimizu Yoshinori (b. 1947), to name a few of the more successful. Like these authors, Murakami experiments with language, genre, realism, and fantasy, in order to explore the outer limits of postmodern expression. Murakami may be unique among his peers, however, for his remarkable ability to bring an insightful understanding of the literary formula to his experiments with genre, demonstrating a knack for reproducing the structures of such texts, while at the same time maintaining a less obvious seriousness which lies beneath these formulaic structures. Ironically, it is probably his very success at reproducing such formulaic structures that has contributed to his lack of acceptance by some Western scholars of Japanese literature.


Between 1969 and 1976, John Cawelti critiqued the terms “serious” and “popular,” ultimately to do away with both in favor of the less loaded “mimetic” and “formulaic.” His strategy was to sidestep the traditional value judgments that accompany the former set of terms, and to assert instead that virtually all literature falls within a continuum between the two poles of the inventive and the conventional.

Of course, the mimetic and the formulaic represent two poles that most literary works lie somewhere between. Few novels, however dedicated to the representation of reality, do not have some element of the ideal. And most formulaic works have at least the surface texture of the real world. …

(Cawelti 1976, 13; cf. Cawelti 1969, 381–90)

“Mimesis” as it is used here is not limited merely to the mirroring of life's events, but extends to elements within the narrative that reflect the conditions of everyday life. Uncertainty, fear, loose ends and confusion, are all components of “real life,” and as such these lend the air of reality to the mimetic work. The suspension of these elements, and the subsequent creation of a limited fantasy world, form the beginnings of the literary formula, which typically consists of a combination of universal truths, or archetypes, combined with culturally specific elements that create relevance for the intended audience within that culture. Hence, the “high mimetic hero” (v. Frye 1957) will be fitted with the trappings of the specific culture in which he or she appears. A useful comparison might thus be drawn between the American Western cowboy adventure and the Japanese Samurai tale. The “universal” elements between the two are quite similar: the hero is empowered with characteristics such as courage, conventional morality, and a belief in his duty and ability to redress evil. In both types of story the hero's task is to eliminate some specific evil, and then to move on to the next crisis.

Cultural specificities, on the other hand, are a different matter. Both types of story—the Western and the Samurai epic—are culturally relevant to their intended audiences, but would be far less so to outsiders. A Japanese might be confused, for instance, at the cowboy's injunction against shooting a man in the back, while Americans usually find Japanese ritual suicide incomprehensible. Cultural specificities such as these touch something fundamental in the audiences that witness them, affirming basic ideologies within the culture.

What links formulaic expression across cultures is the predictability of the ending: the hero succeeds in accomplishing that which is deemed by the audience to be morally right. There may be a last surprise—the final, sudden shot fired at Clint Eastwood at the end of For a Few Dollars More—but the end should bring about the death of the enemy, along with the clear understanding that the hero has not been wasting his time. War stories, another subgenre of the adventure tale, illustrate this point especially well. The more formulaic examples, such as The Sands of Iwo Jima, or The Green Berets, have in common their portrayal of the hero as a “good guy,” who fights in the open, with honor, outnumbered by hordes of treacherous enemies. Such works usually serve most effectively as war propaganda, and their audiences may reasonably expect that the heroes will either survive the battle, gloriously successful, or die tragically (but heroically). Either way, the clear and ever-present message of such a tale is that the struggle matters, that it is worth the price paid.

Intertwined with the predictability of the formula is the first and most important imperative set out by Cawelti: that the “moral fantasy”—a belief or ideology essential to the society in question—will be upheld by the conclusion of the story. Naturally, that moral fantasy will differ not only from culture to culture, but from one genre to the next: most detective fiction prioritizes discovery and rationality over mystery and ambiguity; romance valorizes the precedence of true love (or even monogamous marriage, not long ago) for the heroine, in place of sexual or career fulfillment; spy fiction, prior to the demise of the Warsaw Pact, emphasized free world democracy over communism.

On the other side of this equation stand films and novels like Platoon,All Quiet on the Western Front,A Rumor of War,and Catch-22, in which neither side holds a monopoly on good or evil, and the purposes of the conflict are far less clearly stated. If the formulaic war tale glorifies the sacrifice of the individual hero, then the mimetic (or ironic) one shows the realities, either on the battlefield itself or in the absurdity of armed conflict.

The predictability of the formula suggests several things: first, that the world in which the action takes place will be removed sufficiently from the real world so that the reader or viewer is permitted to suspend disbelief during the course of the story. In other words, the audience must be able to enter the universe of the story—be it film, text, or television—with a minimum of fuss, accepting the story on its own terms. At the same time, this condition serves to reduce to manageable levels the stress generated in scenes of extreme violence or horror: when faces start melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the viewer must be able to retreat into the real world, where such things do not normally occur. The formulaic writer, thus, must create, master, and manipulate the worlds he or she creates, so that readers are both convinced and not convinced.


Murakami works within the structural confines of the literary formula most visibly in his three most successful novels to date: Hitsuji o megaru bōken (An Adventure Surrounding Sheep; 1982, translated as A Wild Sheep Chase; 1989), Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; 1985), and Noruei no mori (Norwegian Wood; 1987). Although the plots of these novels differ widely, all are sufficiently formulaic in structure to excite a sense of expectation and predictability in the reader. Indeed, Murakami clearly encourages that response in his readers through the titles of the first two novels.

A Wild Sheep Chase is thoroughly different from anything Murakami had written to this point. Gone is the brooding atmosphere of his first two novels, Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind Sing; 1979) and 1973-nen no pinbōru (Pinball, 1973; 1980), both of which are characterized by a pervasive, deathly boredom and the lackadaisical mulling about by the narrator. A Wild Sheep Chase, too, begins slowly, but its pace quickens before long. The narrator, a cool, detached character who owns an advertising agency and describes himself as “dumb to the world,” is in fact the quintessential model of the hard-boiled detective, masking remarkable characteristics behind a façade of simplicity. His adversary in the story is a right-wing figure known only as “the Boss,” the head of a powerful syndicate which is neither government, business, industry, nor media, yet which somehow holds all of these powers at its disposal. The Boss is, it would seem, a manifestation of the postmodern State: hidden, elusive, and unaccountable. As one of his henchmen describes it,

“We built a kingdom. … A powerful underground kingdom. We pulled everything into the picture. Politics, finance, mass communications, the bureaucracy, culture, all sorts of things you would never dream of. We even subsumed elements that were hostile to us. From the establishment to the anti-establishment, everything. Very few if any of them even noticed they had been co-opted. In other words, we had ourselves a tremendously sophisticated organization.”2

At the heart of this organization stands the Boss, but even his power source is steeped in mystery. The theory professed by members of the Boss's clique is that he draws power from a magical sheep, credited with providing power to other famous despots in history such as Genghis Khan. But perhaps because the sheep is of questionable reality, the Boss himself remains unseen throughout the story. With characteristic irony, Murakami creates in the Boss the symbol of a power syndicate, which is empty and hidden, yet all-powerful and pervasive. In other words, his “organization” emblemizes the postmodern State, while he himself would seem to symbolize the powerless Emperor.

The plot of A Wild Sheep Chase revolves around the narrator's quest for the mysterious sheep from which the Boss gains his power. His interest is not an idle one; his original involvement with the sheep comes by means of a close friend named Rat, who sends him a photograph of the sheep with the request that it be given a lot of exposure. Having followed these instructions, the entire world of the Boss's elusive State suddenly threatens to come down on the protagonist's shoulders, and, by extension, onto Rat's as well. He is pressured to reveal the source of the sheep photograph, but refuses to disclose this in order to protect his friend. By way of alternative, he is offered the chance to go and find the sheep himself, and this he elects to do, though he makes it clear to his enemies that his decision is not inspired by any fear for himself; indeed, his own invulnerability lies, as he himself notes, in his mediocrity. “I've made no name for myself, have no social credibility, no sex appeal, no talent. … In a word, to borrow your turn of phrase, I am an utterly mediocre person. What have I got to lose? If you can think of anything, clue me in, why don't you?” (MHZ 2:178; 139).

The protagonist's speech is not mere bravado. Rather, his rebellion is thematically vital, necessary to demonstrate his independent, self-interested stance toward the mystery. His real interest in the case must be personally and morally motivated, for this is one of the major distinctions between the hard-boiled detective and the “classic” one, whose interest in the case is typically scientific and objective. According to Cawelti:

Since he becomes emotionally and morally committed to some of the persons involved, or because the crime poses some basic crisis in his image of himself, the hard-boiled detective remains unfulfilled until he has taken a personal moral stance toward the criminal.

(Cawelti 1976, 143)

With the trademark Murakami twist, however, the crime in this case is as “virtual” as the criminals themselves. There is no actual murder, no body, no weapons of any kind. The protagonist is simply threatened with his own erasure from society, with the implicit understanding that his friend Rat will suffer the same fate. The result is unchanged, however: Murakami's hero is forced out of his initial state of inertia, vigorously launching himself into the quest.

One is, however, never out of this “virtual” state in the Murakami text, even when he clearly appropriates the hard-boiled detective framework. The postmodern landscape that Murakami creates is rich with questionable realities, and rests upon the superimposition of a fantasy world onto a more mimetic one. His sidekick in the chase is a plain young woman whose sole strength is the power and beauty of her ears, the mere sight of which causes everything from orgasms to heart failure. More importantly, however, as the symbolism of her ears suggests, she possesses psychic powers that point the protagonist in the right direction on his search for the sheep. It is she who leads the chase to Hokkaidō, and, specifically, to a mountain lodge from where the photograph of the sheep was taken.3

Once at the lodge, events occur in quick succession. The sidekick conveniently disappears, having fulfilled her function; heavy snow sets in, threatening to trap the protagonist in the lodge until the spring, and by extension threatening any successful outcome for his mission (for he has been given a deadline); and a bizarre new character known as the “Sheepman” (Hitsuji-otoko) enters the narrative. Similar in his function to that of the girl with the ears, the Sheepman exists to provide a line of communication between the protagonist and the sheep; at the same time, one soon realizes that it provides his link to Rat, as well, for the Sheepman (as his name hints) is a superimposition of a man—of Rat—onto the sheep. Through the Sheepman, the protagonist arranges a final meeting with his friend, who explains the mystery much as Ellery Queen might have, taking the reader through the mystery step-by-step. What makes Murakami's explication scene a little different is that Rat is, by this time, dead and buried.

“I hanged myself from the beam in the kitchen,” said the Rat. “The Sheep Man buried me next to the garage. Dying itself wasn't all that painful, if you worry about that sort of thing. But really, that hardly matters.”


“A week before you got here.”

(MHZ 2:350–51; 280)

It is difficult to know what to make of a mystery that ends with the specter of the victim (or one of them) coming back to explain how it all happened. In addition to shifting the focus from the protagonist's ability to reason the mystery out for himself, Rat's supernatural appearance actually undermines the moral fantasy in which truth and clarity triumph over mystery and doubt. Such a denouement can only be seen in an ironic sense, in which one's anticipation of the solution is haunted constantly by lingering doubt as to whether Rat, the Sheepman, the Man in Black, or the sheep, actually exist outside the narrator's mind.

In this sense, and perhaps only in this sense, A Wild Sheep Chase bears some close methodological connection to other, nonformulaic Murakami texts, in which the paranormal is free to operate in a surface text, in order to ground a more concrete, mimetic subtext. Precisely what that subtext is remains open to speculation and interpretation, but given the adversarial relationship between Rat, a kind of 1960s retro-hippie, and the Boss, representing the ultra sophisticated, mechanical, and technological State, one could suggest that in his subtext Murakami parodies the struggles of the Japanese student movement (Zenkyōtō) in the 1960s against an unresponsive government, while in his surface text he explores the potential for similar, more contemporary conflicts. His point, one imagines, is not simply to present the reader with a nostalgia “trip,” shedding pointless tears over the death of the 1960s, or of the student movement; rather, he provides a much darker story, in which he asserts his contention that the adversary State against which his generation battled in the 1960s is now more powerful, and, indeed, more deadly, than ever. The adversarial relationship between the protagonist, on the one hand, and the Boss and his power syndicate, on the other, allegorizes the potentially lethal relationship of Japan's mass society and its slippery, unaccountable power structure, an entity which Karel van Wolferen terms “the System” (1989, 43–46). Against such an opponent, what real hope can there be for a satisfyingly conclusive ending?

For Murakami, who once professed an intense dislike for the pat, final page revelations which are a definitive part of the formulaic detective story, this unsatisfying ending is perhaps inevitable. It is also, however, an example of his play with genre, and this is first and foremost what makes A Wild Sheep Chase exemplary of postmodern fiction.


The dualism implicit in A Wild Sheep Chase, pitting the real against the imaginary, the contrived against the realistic, is given concrete structural expression in Murakami's next major novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. In this novel, which earned Murakami the Tanizaki Prize, two “worlds” are contrasted: one known as the “hard-boiled wonderland” and another, narrated in more lyrical language, referred to as the “end of the world.” These two parallel texts are both narrated by Murakami's usual first-person singular “I,” but they are distinguished in that the narrator of the hard-boiled landscape uses the more formal pronoun “Watashi,” while the narrator of the more lyrical passages goes by the informal “Boku.”

But this is only the beginning of the duality that forms the most striking feature of this novel. The narrator “Watashi” describes to us a cyberpunk world that is urban and harsh, filled from end to end with dangers both seen and unseen. The world known to “Boku,” on the other hand, is rural (known as “the Town”), filled with golden unicorns, a fearsome Gatekeeper, and a librarian for whom the narrator feels some vague romantic attachment. As one eventually realizes, however, these two places are in fact not opposites, but simply the same place seen through different modes of consciousness. One can easily imagine that the world which most closely resembles our own, save for a variety of mechanical innovations not yet invented, is the one seen through the narrator's conscious mind, whereas the more fantastic landscape, with its supernatural beasts and dreamlike qualities, is the one seen through the narrator's subconscious. The narrator is able to move between these two worlds by means of a series of implanted switches in his brain, but within this mechanism lies the central conflict of the novel: the narrator of the hard-boiled wonderland is in danger of being trapped forever in the end of the world, for the switches in his brain are on the verge of mechanical meltdown. Faced with the threat of permanent unconsciousness, the narrator struggles desperately to preserve his life as he knows it, and thus the “moral fantasy” goal of this novel is twofold: to explicate the mysterious, and to thwart death.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is, if anything, even more overtly hard-boiled than A Wild Sheep Chase, chiefly by virtue of its narrator, its setting, and the nature of his quest. The narrator of the “hard-boiled” sequences in this novel appears from the beginning as a tough, cocksure operator, but he is neither perfect nor superhuman. He is a keisanshi, or “calcutec,” whose job is to use the mechanical implants in his brain to encode and decode secret information, much as a computer does from a floppy disk, except that his encoding is entirely unique; only he can read or write the code. His work, known as “shuffling,” is performed for an organization known only as “the System” (shisutemu, written with the Kanji for soshiki), echoing van Wolferen's characterization of the postmodern State. Opposed to Watashi and others like him are kigōshi, “semiotecs,” information pirates who will stop at nothing—including torture and mutilation—to extract information. In such an environment, it is not unnatural for the protagonist to be uneasy. Yet, his susceptibility to fear and anxiety on the job, while casting him into the role of the low mimetic hero, typical in hard-boiled detective fiction, at the same time covers up certain extraordinary qualities which set him apart from others. He is characterized by a sense of rebelliousness and marginality, while his principal talent is for dealing with unusual—especially dangerous—situations.

The marginality of such a hero manifests itself in a variety of ways, but primarily it shows as a hostility toward the authorities, or the Establishment, that seems to function effectively within Murakami's unflattering portrayal of the Japanese State. His narrator in the “hard-boiled” sequences makes a habit of playing by his own rules. He bypasses official channels to take on his present job, lies to his superiors, and works at his own pace, without the knowledge or approval of his liaison officer. At one point a superior officer from the System even promises to “terminate” the narrator (in the most final sense of the word) if it is discovered that he is working for the other side, noting finally that “‘the System is the state. There is nothing we cannot do’” (MHZ 4:217; 160).

This portrayal of the System/State as all-powerful, omniscient, and vigilant, is typical of Murakami's literature, but, more importantly for the hard-boiled formula, it locates an evil presence throughout the urban landscape of Tokyo. Evil in this scenario is no longer simply an aberration, but a state of normalcy, against which the hero's marginality stands out as a rebellious, yet wholesome good. Nor is the presence of the State the only source of fear in the narrator's world; indeed, far greater terrors lurk behind the clean façade of megalopolitan Tokyo. Not only do the streets crawl with semiotecs, prepared to gouge out a calcutec's brains to obtain the information they contain, but beneath the ground lurk even more hideous creatures: the kurayami, or “INKlings,” monsters who feed on human flesh, whose network of control extends throughout the Tokyo subway tunnels, as suggested by the narrator's discovery of a businessman's shoe in chapter 29. This sinister characterization of the city as a beautiful shell, teeming with evil and danger, is definitive of the hard-boiled setting, for it underscores the notion that the evil lurking in society is not isolated psychopathy, but an endemic feature of the modern (or in this case, postmodern) social structure. In such a landscape, according to Cawelti, we find “empty modernity, corruption, and death. A gleaming and deceptive facade hides a world of exploitation and criminality in which enchantment and significance must usually be sought elsewhere” (Cawelti 1976, 141).

This structure seems to suit Murakami's own purposes particularly well, as he continues to point not only to the irony of the isolated individual in a city of over 20 million inhabitants, but also to the powerful and invasive force of the postmodern, late-capitalist consumerist State into the lives of ordinary Japanese. As in A Wild Sheep Chase, the State is both ever-present, yet slippery and difficult to pin down. It is everywhere and nowhere. Even the task with which the narrator is initially entrusted—to “shuffle” some data privately for an aging scientist—turns out to be a façade, for the old scientist is actually an employee of the System, and his real purpose is to follow the results of an experiment he did on the narrator himself some years earlier for that organization. It is from this experiment that the narrator now faces the possibility of permanent imprisonment in his own subconscious. The narrator is thus very personally involved in the task at hand.

It should not be supposed, however, that the opposition of the Town to the City in this novel suggests a perfectly pastoral setting within the narrator's subconscious. Rather, the Town is a perfect (or nearly perfect) mirror of the urban nightmare of Tokyo itself, viewed through different lenses of perception. It is guarded by a fearsome Gatekeeper, whose home is filled with all manner of bladed weapons, the constant sharpening of which forms his chief occupation. Precisely what he does with these weapons is clear when the narrator first enters the Town's enclosure, and is told he must surrender his shadow, which represents the narrator's conscious mind, his will, and his memories. Without it, he will be trapped, unable to think or act, in the Town deep within his own mind. The Gatekeeper, who carves the shadow away with a keenly honed knife, may thus be seen as the subconscious manifestation of the System/ State and its various control mechanisms. The same menacing potential for violence exists in the Town as in the urban streetscapes of Tokyo.

The juxtaposition of this seemingly mild, yet deceptively dangerous landscape, with the high-tech world of the hard-boiled wonderland, makes for engaging reading, and at the same time raises interesting philosophical questions for the reader. What, for instance, are the real stakes in this story? Does continued existence in the subconscious arena constitute living, or does the narrator face a form of death at the end of the story? The matter is further complicated by the fact that much of the landscape at the end of the world is not actually the narrator's own perception, but a fabrication created by the old scientist, drawing on his past experience as a film editor (MHZ 4:382; 263). The world into which the narrator is finally placed, then, is little more than a clever virtual reality, a pastiche of computer-generated images organized according to the professional and artistic tastes of the scientist, rather than of the narrator himself. Moreover, this final world, lacking all possibility of choice and self-determination, represents a very real threat of death to the narrator's individuality.

All of this brings the moral fantasy back to the fore. Once again, by virtue of the style and structure of the text, the reader may reasonably expect that the mystery in this novel will become clear, and, indeed, everything is revealed by the old scientist at the end of the work. The essence of what is revealed, however, is that there is no hope for the narrator in this case. Because the old scientist's subterranean laboratory has been destroyed during the course of the novel, there is no longer any hope of reversing the damage. As in A Wild Sheep Chase, all is explained, but nothing is solved. The story permits the fulfillment of the moral fantasy attached to the detective formula, but the larger moral fantasy—victory over death—has in the final run been subverted, or at least left ambiguous. Had the author written Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World in a more conventional vein, the narrator of the hard-boiled sequence would surely have found and used some means of rescuing himself, proving once and for all his own superiority, and the primacy of life (consciousness) over death (unconsciousness). This, however, is not what Murakami elects to do.

Once again, one is led to query the possibility of some hidden subtext within this novel. Though dualistic in structure, as A Wild Sheep Chase is dualistic, the subtext of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is somewhat more obscure. We may conclude that Murakami portrays a futuristic world, but with the exception of certain technology not yet available, it seems that the “hard-boiled wonderland” is not so different from present-day reality. He portrays a setting that is at once technologically removed from the reader, yet frighteningly familiar in its dominant ideology. Brain implants, “shuffling,” INKlings, and a maze of subterranean caverns crisscrossed beneath downtown Tokyo provide the cyberpunk icing to a postmodern cake, but the conflict itself, centered on information wars, the reification and commodification of knowledge, the concretization of thoughts and memories, are all part of an ongoing trend observable in the real world. One thinks of advancements, especially from the 1980s on, in sophisticated computer equipment; floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and computer “memory” might all be viewed as physical manifestations of abstract concepts such as knowledge and information which have become commonplace in the contemporary moment. The literal objectification of knowledge and memory is given peculiar expression by the old scientist early in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, when he describes his theory that the skulls of animals retain the thoughts and memories of the animals they used to be. According to his theory, once a technique is discovered by which to recover such information, there would no longer be any need to torture prisoners for information; one could simply kill them, clean their skulls, and retrieve the data (MHZ 4:50; 29).

This novel represents Murakami's first real experiment with the postmodern notion of the “commodified sign,” and the larger implications of a social and economic system that turns information (among other things) into a commodity to be bought, sold, or in this case, stolen. The focus on the power and value of information—and, in particular, reified information—seen in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is by no means a peculiarly postmodern phenomenon, but it is especially pronounced in the postmodern moment, and perhaps at no other time in history has the importance of information been such an integral part of everyday life. In many ways this situation is foretold in A Wild Sheep Chase, in which the power of the Boss comes from control of political, industrial, and most importantly, media interests. The principal source of his power seems to be information, the key commodity of the postmodern moment. Marilyn Ivy astutely draws attention to the commodification of information as signaling the dawn of the postmodern:

In this contemporary postmodern era, the virulence of capital has turned everything into pure commodified signs. National borders give way as information circulates at blinding speeds. Mass media, television, and advertising create “hyperreal” space, a space of “simulation.” … The problem of knowledge as an informational commodity comes up repeatedly in Japanese texts devoted to analyzing the postmodern condition.

(Ivy 1989, 24–25)

One hardly need add that whoever controls the dissemination of this information holds a considerable source of power. The “texts” noted by Ivy are, one supposes, the semi-anthropological works of public figures such as Asada Akira and Isozaki Arata, but a growing number of recent novelists—some of whom were mentioned above—are also writing fiction in one form or another about the commodification of the abstract and the intangible that emerges as a by-product of the postmodern era. This mixture of the physical and the metaphysical is of course visible in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World through its focus on reified, commodified information, but also in the power it gives the narrator to travel back and forth artificially between his conscious and subconscious selves, ultimately to be trapped within the latter. Finally, as in A Wild Sheep Chase, there is the juxtaposition of the formulaic adventure tale with the more severe subtext which lurks beneath.

But what does this subtext suggest? Is Murakami's point that we should all seek to escape the dangers of an increasingly reified society and withdraw into our own minds? This hardly seems viable. One recalls at the same time that while the narrator at the end of the world chooses to remain, the narrator of the hard-boiled wonderland has no such choice; the implants in his brain render his fate a foregone conclusion. At the same time, the narrator of the end of the world seems to sense the dire nature of the decision that lies before him, and, like Rat, he elects to leave the Town and its “white utopia,” in Kawamoto Saburō's terms, and strike out for the unknown territory of the woods, which lie outside the control of either Town or Gatekeeper.4

Even so, one realizes that for the narrator to remain in this constructed unconscious at all is to succumb to the power of the State, by whose authority his mechanized brain was created. In this way, so long as he is cut off from his own individual core consciousness (represented in the shadow), he is doomed to remain in an artificial and managed existence. The analogy is not difficult to see. The only two choices that remain to the narrator are precisely mirrored by the reality of the blank utopia of contemporary consumerist society: a utopia of empty consumerism, carefully managed by a System of political, industrial, and media enterprises. Like Rat in A Wild Sheep Chase, the hard-boiled narrator struggles in this novel to maintain his ability to make his own choices, to think, and to interpret. Significantly, although the narrator at the end of the world is given the special job of “reading” the old dreams of the skulls of unicorns at the Town library (the subconscious manifestation of his job as a “calcutec”), he is strictly forbidden to interpret them, or even to think about them at all. His dream-reading is in a larger sense a metaphor for interpreting signs in any form, or any language, but to read with neither interpretation, retention, nor even comprehension or purpose ultimately voids the unconscious of all thought and volition.

In ontological terms, it could be argued that the narrator's entrapment in his own subconscious is a form of death, and that his decision to remain, and thus to capitulate to State power, is a form of suicide. But is this the realization of the moral fantasy attached to the formulaic novel? Surely the end of the novel suggests neither the reaffirmation of life over death, nor of clarity and truth over mystery and doubt. Rather it simply reinforces our understanding (or at any rate Murakami's understanding) of reality: that the postmodern State is impregnable, irresistible, and that we ourselves participate in our own corruption by it. This peculiar juxtaposition of the formulaic and the mimetic can lead to a variety of speculations concerning Murakami's place as a writer, but the overwhelming conclusion must be that this, too, is a text of the postmodern which, like A Wild Sheep Chase, parodies the popular literary formula in order to lead the reader down a more dire path.


Murakami's next book, Norwegian Wood, has been his one and only “million-seller” thus far. Significantly, the book also ranks as his only major attempt at the romance genre to date. Nevertheless, the reader notes a familiar duality in Norwegian Wood, as with the other texts, in the conspicuous opposition of the urban and rural, the present and the past, and the political right and left. What we do not find, perhaps to our surprise, is the usual intrusion of the paranormal, the alternative realities that have come to be Murakami's trademark. Instead, the text is marked by a realism once again peculiarly juxtaposed to the structural formula of the romance novel.

My classification of Norwegian Wood as romance is based on the understanding of formulaic romance as an exploration of love as a prime factor in the human condition. However, this classification is admittedly tenuous, as were the classifications of the previous two novels for, as we have seen, neither of those texts upheld the moral fantasies normally attached to them. Of equal concern are a variety of academic studies (Modleski 1982; Radway 1984; Mulhern 1989), which have concluded the romance to be a specifically female-centered genre of literature. Tania Modleski (1982) has argued convincingly for an understanding of the formulaic romance as a marginalized form of fiction chiefly because it is a female form of literature. Similarly, Janice Radway's “Smithton Readers” insist that “[t]o qualify as a romance, the story must chronicle not merely the events of the courtship, but what it feels like to be the object of one” (Radway 1984, 64).5 The dominant assumption in the romance formula is that it centers on the experiences of a female protagonist, and that while a central male character must exist, he is actually secondary. Examples of such novels have existed in the West, arguably, since Defoe's Moll Flanders and Richardson's Pamela in the eighteenth century, and flourished in the days of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Radway's study focuses primarily on the Harlequin and Silhouette romances, readily and inexpensively available at any bookstall or grocery store, the most recent and standardized trend in the romance novel, arguing—correctly, I think—that the majority of readers of such works are females within definable social and economic subcategories, primarily middle-class housewives.

For the purpose of examining Murakami's Norwegian Wood, however, a rather more general, less gender-specific definition of the term romance will be of greater applicability. While Cawelti's text lacks a specific chapter on the romance, he does provide a brief, useful sketch of the romance, based on the moral fantasy such texts typically uphold.

The crucial defining characteristic of romance is not that it stars a female but that its organizing action is the development of a love relationship, usually between a man and a woman. … The moral fantasy of the romance is that of love triumphant and permanent, overcoming all obstacles and difficulties. Though the usual outcome is a permanently happy marriage, more sophisticated types of love story sometimes end in the death of one or both of the lovers, but always in such a way as to suggest that the love relation has been of lasting and permanent impact.

(Cawelti 1976, 42)

This statement elaborates on Northrop Frye's contention nearly twenty years earlier, that “[t]ranslated into ritual terms, the quest-romance is the victory of fertility over the wasteland” (Frye 1957, 193). In other words, the basic conflict between sustained sexual relations on the one hand, with the potential to turn recreational sex into procreational, and the proverbial “one-night stand” on the other, is as vital to the moral fantasy of romance as which character stands out as the focus of attention. Whether Norwegian Wood is concerned more with its hero (the narrator), or its heroine, a woman named Naoko who turns up in other Murakami stories as well, is not always easy to determine, but it would not be inaccurate to say that the principal goal of the narrative is to examine the trials of Naoko through the eyes of the hero/narrator. It is because of the work's central theme—the elevation of love over sex, and fidelity over promiscuity—however, that leads one to consider its possible categorization as a romance. Furthermore, the presence of certain structural elements which are common to the formulaic romance, for example, the rivalry established between Naoko and the vivacious “other woman,” and the physical and emotional mutilation of the heroine, suggests that Murakami is aware of the recognized format of the formulaic romance. At the same time, his use of that formula is once again subverted by a darker, more nihilistic subtext that ultimately overshadows and disrupts the moral fantasy of love conquering all.

Norwegian Wood traces the narrator's life and loves in Tokyo during his college years; events are related some eighteen years after their occurrence. The setting of this retrospective narrative covers the period from autumn 1969 until autumn 1970, portraying some of the most turbulent conflicts between the political right and left. Yet, the book makes fun of both sides of the struggle, suggesting in an indirect way the absurdity of the political situation as it reached its climax. The ridiculous ways in which the factions are portrayed, from the rigidly structured flag-raising ceremony outside the narrator's dormitory, to the left-wing activists who bore students even more than their drama professor after taking over a class one day, make it abundantly clear that the surface text of Norwegian Wood is not about politics.

In contrast to all the political activism going on around him, the narrator spends his time with Naoko, forming the basis for activity in this text. Their relationship is a complex one, for Naoko suffers from an unexplained malady—presumably psychological in nature—which prevents her from engaging in sexual intercourse. This condition remits only once, on her twentieth birthday, when she suddenly becomes sexually capable, and she and the narrator consummate their relationship for the first and last time. Following this real and symbolic wounding of Naoko, she begins a gradual physical, mental, and emotional decline that leads to her entry into a rural sanitarium. The narrator is naturally concerned about her, and feels not a little responsible for Naoko's mental scars. His sense of guilt and resulting solicitousness toward Naoko, however, are in fact a necessary structural element in the Japanese romance, according to Chieko Mulhern, for the narrator's guilt substitutes for a lack of grounding in Western-style chivalry.

There is no denying … that dancing attendance on women is definitely beyond the average Japanese male's instinct or expertise. Hence, the heroine must be made unconscious, hurt, or otherwise physically incapacitated in the presence of the hero, preferably in a manner to cause him to feel responsible for her condition.

(Mulhern 1989, 64)

Mulhern identifies here one of the most important and definitive motifs in the Japanese formulaic romance, and one which marks Norwegian Wood, as well. The physical “injury” Naoko suffers is, of course, the loss of her virginity, but apart from the physical rending of the female commonly associated with coitus, Naoko also suffers from real emotional and psychological pains as well, and whether they are the direct result of her relationship with the narrator, he cannot help blaming himself for her condition.


Following Naoko's hospitalization, the narrator encounters a young coed named Midori, who perfectly fits the role of the “other woman” in the novel. Significantly, Midori is everything that Naoko is not: she is talkative, outgoing, cheerful, and, most importantly, she presents herself as sexually available. Almost from the outset Midori maneuvers closer to the narrator, placing him into situations in which he must choose between yielding to his sexual desire and remaining faithful to Naoko. As important as this conflict between desire and duty may be for the narrator, the rivalry which it implicitly creates between Naoko and Midori is at least as important.

The effect of the Midori/Naoko rivalry is intensified by the fact that it remains largely constant to the end of the story. In violation of convention in the romance formula, in which the “other woman” is neutralized by being “either married, in love with someone else, or else related by blood to the hero so that [she poses] no threat to the heroine” (Mulhern 1989, 60), Midori actually grows more inviting, more available, as the narrative progresses, testing to the limit the narrator's fidelity. Strictly speaking, the result of this should be the greater vindication of the narrator's honor and love for Naoko at the end of the novel, cementing the primacy of his feelings for Naoko over his desire for carnal pleasure with Midori. This, however, is not how the novel ends, for near the end, at the very point of seeming recovery from her mental illness, Naoko suddenly hangs herself in the forest near the sanitarium, leaving the narrator to flee Tokyo in confusion. Once again, Murakami cannot bring his narrator to the point of a decision, nor can he resist throwing one final surprise at the reader. The ultimate message contained in Norwegian Wood, far from reaffirming the reader's belief in love everlasting, seems to be rather that even true love cannot save anyone.

As with the previous two novels, Murakami's view in Norwegian Wood remains essentially a dualistic, contrastive one by which he relays his subliminal message of despair. Some of these contrasts, such as his distinction between the absurd reality of the University/city, and the pastoral—yet deadly—country sanitarium where Naoko commits suicide, appear in previous books as well; we have observed the phenomenon in both A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. But other contrasts are peculiar to Norwegian Wood, for they are specific to the romance genre. The most important of these is the contrast between sexuality and love, one already seen in the behavior by the narrator toward Naoko and Midori. The matter is even more clearly represented in two peripheral characters: Reiko, who is Naoko's roommate at the sanitarium, and Nagasawa, who befriends the narrator while both are living in the university dormitory.

Both Reiko and Nagasawa are given a detailed sexual exposition, but in their responses toward sex they are polar opposites. Reiko, for instance, reveals to the narrator that she entered the sanitarium after being molested by a thirteen year-old lesbian, who then accused Reiko of having attacked her. From this moment Reiko, never mentally stable to begin with, had been tormented by insecurities about her own sexuality, and had thus withdrawn from the pointless sexual abandon of the urban world into this mountain hideaway. In terms of the romance, it is of mechanical importance that she should be thus guarded about her sexual needs, for it precludes her becoming a rival in the relationship between the narrator and Naoko when he visits the sanitarium. The point is made even more unequivocal by the fact that Reiko is considerably older than the two lovers, with a wizened countenance; Murakami makes it clear that, for the time being, at least, the narrator's attraction to her will not be physical, but fraternal and emotional in nature. In short, Reiko represents mature, controlled (perhaps over-controlled) sexuality.

Nagasawa, in clear opposition to this, suggests unbridled, entirely pointless sexual activity. The first thing the reader learns about Nagasawa is that “people said he had a huge penis, and that he had already slept with a hundred girls” (MHZ 6:50). While the actual number turns out to be somewhat more modest—around seventy—it is clear that for Nagasawa sex is something that can be measured only in terms of quantity. He eventually persuades the narrator to engage in this lifestyle for himself, but predictably, the narrator's reaction to meaningless sex is boredom and self-disgust, proving, according to Nagasawa, that the narrator is “an ordinary, decent guy” (MHZ 6:53–54).

Nagasawa's determination in the pursuit of sex carries over into other aspects of his life as well. He sets goals—career and otherwise—and works toward them with a single-minded obsession that the narrator both admires and fears. Moreover, while Nagasawa may be debauched, he is unswervingly honest about himself, as suggested by his assurance to his present girlfriend, Hatsumi, that one day he will leave her behind to pursue his career goals. This actually happens, and Hatsumi, after a brief marriage to someone else, commits suicide in despair. Nagasawa, when told of the event, remarks that her death is too bad, but that she was warned.

In the larger scheme of the urban versus the rural, Nagasawa comes to epitomize the “real” world of Tokyo, and with an irony similar to that in the previous novel, one which is typical not only of Murakami, but of other postmodern writers as well, Tokyo is presented as a façade of sanity, masking the turmoil and despair of the postmodern age that lurk beneath the surface.6 Nagasawa himself, in his excessive consistency and openness, strikes one as a character of immense rationality, and yet his logical predictability is not, in this case, an attractive feature. Rather, the rural setting of the sanitarium, with its surreal atmosphere and population of bewildered and schizophrenic inmates, is presented as the “sane” world. Here is where Reiko becomes important as the other side of the sexual coin, for her own absolute honesty, which she tells the narrator is the first rule for everyone at the sanitarium, marks her as a parallel character to Nagasawa. Whereas Nagasawa's honesty is designed to protect himself, however, Reiko's is therapeutic, intended to heal wounds, rather than to justify inflicting them. Unfortunately, this honesty, and Reiko's genuine, sororal love for Naoko, proves ineffectual, and Naoko commits suicide near the end of the novel, before the narrator can see her again.

As noted above, however, the death of the heroine in a romance does not necessarily preclude the work's fulfillment of the moral fantasy of love's primacy (one recalls that at the end of Romeo and Juliet both lovers lay dead; their love is vindicated by the remorse that remains). Rather, it is the narrator's response to this event which commands the reader's attention. The real subversion of the romance formula comes at the end of the novel, when the narrator, after wandering around Japan for a month, cleansing himself symbolically of Naoko's death, returns to Tokyo and, for the first time since Naoko's death, calls Midori. She asks him where he is, and he realizes his dilemma, quite the same as in the previous two novels: he has no idea where he is. “All around me were hordes of people walking past, all bound for nowhere. I called out again and again for Midori from the middle of nowhere” (MHZ 6:419).

These final lines of Norwegian Wood, filled with anxiety and doubt, turn the moral fantasy of love triumphant into a farce, leaving the reader as confused as the narrator about where things finally stand. Far from finding perfect happiness, or at least inner peace and vindication, in exchange for his fidelity to Naoko, the narrator ends the book crying out for the most overtly sexual of the three main female characters in the novel, only to realize that he himself is completely lost. His love has neither rescued Naoko nor himself, and, though one may admire him, it leaves the reader somewhat at a loss.


In all three of these novels, one finds the unlikely—indeed, the oxymoronic—juxtaposition of the predictability of the literary formula, and the unpredictability of the actual world. But what is Murakami's point in creating novels along such clearly recognizable formulaic lines, only to render those formulas false by subverting their predictable conclusions? Why, in other words, does Murakami inject the mimetic into what is, by definition, non-mimetic literature?

The answer, as I have attempted to demonstrate above, is that in this combination of the mimetic and the formulaic, and consequently of “high art” and “mass culture,” Murakami produces a quintessentially postmodern tone in his literature. Moreover, within that literary structure is embedded a dualistic worldview in which the contemporary, postmodern, post-1970 era in Japan is contrasted with the more idealistic, morally and socially critical world of the 1960s. And yet, as one sees in texts such as Norwegian Wood, Murakami's parody of the 1960s is not entirely nostalgic, for it is tinged with a critical scorn for the politics and moralism of the student movement of the late 1960s.

It is Murakami's liberal use of the “paradoxical mixing of seeming opposites,” in Linda Hutcheon's (1991, 6) terminology, that draws our attention to these novels, but even more important is the fact that the contradiction of form they present is left open, unresolved. All three novels discussed above parody both the realism, or mimesis, of what the Japanese, since the early twentieth century, have termed “pure” literature (junbungaku), and the genre formula of “mass” literature (taishūbungaku), emphasizing rather than minimizing their oxymoronic qualities. This must clearly be understood, however, not as a failure on the part of the author to produce “high” art, but as a wholly intentional characteristic of the postmodern. As Hutcheon writes, “[n]ot only is there no resolution … of contradictory forms in postmodern parody, but there is a foregrounding of those very qualities” (Hutcheon 1991, 94).

Such parody might be seen as a strictly post-1970 phenomenon, however, for as Andreas Huyssen has noted, there is a great difference in character between the postmodernism/avant-gardism of the 1960s, and the noncritical postmodernism of the 1970s. Parody in 1960s avant-gardism is essentially hostile toward the once experimental forms of modernism, long since canonized and subsumed into the Establishment of codified High Art proper. The postmodern impulse of the 1960s, according to Huyssen—what he calls the “Duchamp-Cage-Warhol axis” (Huyssen 1986, 188)—was intended to smash the distinction between “high” and “low” art, but, by its very critical nature, may unwittingly have reinscribed precisely those practices of modernism which created the canon to begin with. This is the postmodernism of Charles Newman, whose models are the experimental writings of Pynchon and Barth, which “possess a complexity of surface, a kind of verbal hermetic seal which holds them together, irrespective of linear pattern or narrative momentum” (Newman 1985, 91). One of the characteristics in these works to which Newman responds is the inherent, intentional difficulty of the text's language, creating art not only through the content of the work, but through its linguistic structure. The works of Ōe Kenzaburō and Nakagami Kenji suggest themselves as potential parallels in Japan to the authors cited by Newman.

Against such writers, Newman posits an opposing trend by writers such as Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver, whose work is marked by “an obdurate unsurprised and unsurprising plainstyle which takes that famous ‘meaning between the lines’ to its absurd conclusion, and makes the middle ground mimesis of an Updike or Cheever seem rococo by comparison” (Newman 1985, 93). Clearly Newman's view of this side of the postmodern is dim, but when viewed against Huyssen's analysis above, one understands that Newman responds negatively to the post-1970 manifestation of the postmodern: the noncritical, seemingly simplistic celebration of the mundane. One might presume that his objection to Carver and Beattie is not wholly dissimilar to Masao Miyoshi's objections to Murakami and Yoshimoto Banana in the “Epilogue” to Off Center, where he describes Murakami's works as “trivia,” and “story-less stories,” while Yoshimoto's are “entirely couched in baby talk” (Miyoshi 1994 (1991), 234–36). This may be true, as perhaps Newman's contention may be true that Carver's and Beattie's works are characterized by “elisions of inadvertancy and circumspection” (Newman 1985, 93). But at some level it must be recognized that both critics pit the sophisticated and abstruse against the seemingly simplistic, and thus recreate precisely the hierarchy that postmodernism has sought to eliminate. This must surely be the principal reason that many recent postmodern writers in Japan are viewed with misgiving by their experimental forebears, many of whom worked in the avant-gardist medium of the 1960s.

Huyssen's characterization of post-1970 postmodernism, on the other hand, rests on the existence of an artistic strain which is marked by “eclecticism, a largely affirmative postmodernism which had abandoned any claim to critique, transgression or negation” (Huyssen 1986, 188). Though stopping short of calling this postmodernism a “paradigm shift” in art, this is essentially what Huyssen describes in his conception of a “different” postmodernism, significantly after the end of the 1960s, following the recession of the highly critical, radically contentious voice of the worldwide student movement. One could surmise that because of the focus on bringing down the Establishment, 1960s avant-gardist experiments in literature succeeded more in legitimizing marginalized forms than in eliminating the hierarchy between “high” and “low.”

One crucial issue this raises is the effect of the student movement's aftermath on trends in literature throughout the world. Although significant links exist between what was happening at Berkeley, in Tokyo, and in Paris in 1968, the consequences of the demonstrations within their own cultural settings were quite distinct. Whereas in the United States the student movements of the 1960s could, with justification, take some credit for ending the Vietnam War and for bringing down the Nixon presidency, in Japan the results were far less evident or successful. The government did not fall; the Vietnam War did not end on account of the Zenkyōtō movement; American troops did not vacate Japan (though Okinawa did revert to Japanese sovereignty in 1972); the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (AMPO)—one of the major focuses of the demonstrations—was reratified; one could not even point to the moral righteousness of the movement, for the majority of its membership joined the Establishment en masse after 1970, while remnants turned either to the largely ineffectual New Left, or to terrorist squads such as the Japanese Red Army. By the time the Vietnam War ended, Zenkyōtō was largely a memory, and for many—including Murakami—a bad memory, at that.

The effects of Zenkyōtō's failure on the weakening or strengthening of conservatism in Japanese literature after 1970 is a topic which deserves to be treated in a separate essay, and clearly more research is needed. If one were tentatively to suggest a hypothesis, however, it might be that the collapse of Zenkyōtō between 1970 and 1972, and the subsequent absorption of its participants into mainstream Japanese society, weakened whatever trend may have existed toward the liberalization of literary art in Japan by reinscribing the power of the Establishment. In other words, unlike in the United States, the conservative elements in Japan weathered the student movement and emerged largely unscathed. Furthermore, with the unprecedented rise in the 1970s and 1980s of the mass media and its enhanced symbiotic relationship with business, industry, and government, the Japanese power structure—van Wolferen's “System”—has not only grown stronger, but is more elusive than ever. As a consequence, that “System” is less confrontable, thereby precluding the possibility of meaningful resistance, whether it be political, social, or artistic.

One might further hypothesize that because of the failure to discredit conservatism in Japan, in part, at least (for one does not wish to discount the historical precedents of conservatism in Japan), literature itself has until very recently remained conservative, despite its inheritance by leftist writers like Ōe. This should not surprise us, however, for Ōe's own vision of literature has remained modernist, and although he was surely one of the great literary experimentalists of the 1960s, his understanding of literature is still framed within the terminology of the “pure” and “mass” hierarchy. For Ōe, “pure” literature is defined in terms of a socially responsible, essentially didactic model. Thus, despite strongly liberal political leanings, his stance on literature remains conservative.

This is not to suggest that Ōe alone decides the fate of Japanese literature to come, but over the past several decades, as his fellow practitioners of “pure” literature have passed away, he has come to symbolize Japanese high culture more than any other, and therefore by definition he becomes one of the most formidable obstacles for the advancement of postmodern literature in Japan. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Ōe and Murakami appear to be theoretically opposed to one another. It is also no surprise that Masao Miyoshi strongly privileges the work of Ōe, almost to the point of worship: “If there is anyone now in Japan whose work deserves fullscale studies, it is Oe Kenzaburo,” writes Miyoshi in the same “Epilogue” quoted above. However, “[t]he studies so far published [on Ōe] do little justice to one of the most intricate minds in the world today” (Miyoshi 1994 (1991), 238). Miyoshi suggests that the reason Ōe is so rarely studied, and with virtually no success (a statement many would contest!) is that he is too complex, and we have simply failed as critics and scholars to grasp the monumental genius that lies within his work. Few, of course, deny the brilliance of Ōe, nor does one wish in any way to trivialize his key role in the development of Japanese literature. At the same time, one cannot help noting an almost cabalistic appeal in Miyoshi's argument, as if Ōe were a biblical mystery, too brilliant for our minds to comprehend, yet isolated and unexamined precisely because of that mystery.

The importance of Ōe, however, does not preclude or negate the importance of the rise of a writer like Murakami Haruki, nor the gradual advancement of postmodern literature in Japan. What is needed now, one might argue, is for studies of Japanese literature in the West to keep pace with developments in that field. As conservative as Japanese literature may have remained in the ten years or so following the demise of the Zenkyōtō movement, Western perceptions of that literature have remained even more so. Huyssen stated over a decade ago that “the great divide that separated high modernism from mass culture and that was codified into the various classical accounts of modernism no longer seems relevant to postmodern artistic or critical sensibilities” (Huyssen 1986, 196–97). The issue of “high” and “low” in Western literature, it would seem, is a dead one. In Japanese literary studies, however, this demise has been somewhat slower in coming. Although serious discussions of the works of Murakami, Yoshimoto Banana, and Shimada Masahiko are gradually emerging in scholarly writing in the academy, fairly strong resistance is still to be found among those whose tastes in Japanese literature were formed by and tenaciously remain close to high modernist icons such as Kawabata, Tanizaki, and later, Mishima and Ōe. The difficulty in moving beyond this is exacerbated by the fact that these four writers in particular present us with a cherished image of the Japanese which is, however, no longer wholly relevant to contemporary Japanese literature or society.

What has at last opened the door to experiments of the type discussed above, and to the development of Japanese postmodern literature in general, is the gradual disappearance of such icons, beginning with Tanizaki in 1965, Mishima in 1970, Shiga Naoya in 1971, and Kawabata in 1972. Although the modernist tradition of a dominant “pure” literature lived on in such artists as Ibuse Masuji, Abe Kōbō, and Nakagami Kenji after the death of Kawabata, these men, too, have gradually passed into history (Nakagami in 1992; Ibuse and Abe both in 1993), leaving Ōe isolated as the sole trumpeter of the notion that “pure” literature is, in the words of Ian Buruma, “meant not to entertain so much as to teach, improve, uplift” (Buruma 1996, 68). One might add that such lessons should be presented in a medium that upholds the critical aloofness of Art from Kitsch, as high modernism is wont to do. In the age of postmodernist genre-shifts and parody, however, this expectation is itself as much fantasy as anything Murakami has written.

It seems that this reality has at last dawned on the Japanese literary community, which has gradually passed from the control of the élite writers who once made up the largely defunct bundan, or literary guild, into the hands of literary critics, yet another phenomenon worth exploring further elsewhere. I have discussed in a separate article the impulses—largely self-preserving—which led the bundan to define “pure” literature so rigidly, first in 1935, again in the early 1960s, and finally in the 1980s by Ōe himself, as noted above (Strecher 1996). Further study is needed, however, to determine what impulses inform the pronouncements of contemporary critics in Japan, many of whom have begun to view Murakami Haruki as a serious and significant spokesman for his generation. Kuroko Kazuo (1993) has argued that whereas Murakami's early texts and characters lacked social commitment and awareness of their place in the world, since his novel Kokkyō no minami, taiyō no nishi (South of the Border, West of the Sun; 1992) Murakami's literature has grown up and become responsible. Katō Norihiro (1986) has argued similarly that Murakami characters are isolated and socially irresponsible, but cannot deny the strangely political relevance in works like A Wild Sheep Chase.7 Even Shinchō's recent Nihon Bungaku Jiten contains an entry on Murakami, albeit a short one, in which he is listed not as a taishūbungakusha (“mass” literature writer) but simply as a shōsetsuka (novelist).

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that Murakami Haruki has assumed the mantle of the “pure” writer in Japan, and, indeed, Ōe's earlier remarks, quoted above, suggest his belief, at any rate, that someone as un-Japanese as Murakami never will. But this is not Murakami's aim, nor should it be, for to seek “legitimacy” for Murakami would in itself be to reinforce the hierarchical structure of “pure” and “mass,” precisely what the author himself has managed so far to avoid. What he has achieved, to some extent, at least, is to bring Japanese postmodern literature into the forefront of critical thinking in contemporary Japan. The literary world in Japan does take notice with each new novel, story, and essay Murakami produces, and booklength studies of his writing and himself increase every year. It is far more outside of Japan that so many scholars and critics of Japanese literature have remained guarded and skeptical.

This, too, has been changing, however. In addition to several short pieces written by Jay Rubin early in this decade, which served to introduce and explain the peculiar world of Murakami to a new American readership, a number of more recent pieces have served to reevaluate Murakami's place in the Japanese literary world. Stephen Snyder attempts what he terms a “recuperative” reading of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, seeking not to address “the thorny question of what does or does not constitute ‘serious’ literature,” but to “suggest a way in which [his] work, whether serious or not, may at least be taken seriously” (Snyder 1996, 70). Snyder, who likens the Murakami text to the futuristic landscapes of Philip K. Dick, argues that Murakami's evident reluctance to engage and interrogate the past with greater critical focus (the principal complaint of both Ōe and Karatani Kōjin) is offset by his use of “memory” to mark and “recover” an imagined future rather than the (irrecoverable) past. Critiquing Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Snyder writes:

Ōe has accused Murakami Haruki and his generation of failure to produce an “active model of life in the present and for the future,” a function he sees as the primary one for literature, but in [this work], at least, memory can be seen to serve as a placemarker for such a model. … It cannot, as it still might in Ōe's fiction, offer links to the myths and traditions (of the margins) that can restore culture. Instead, by reversing its trajectory, by taking the future as its proper object, memory becomes a kind of simple affirmation, an acknowledgement that, at the very least, narrative consciousness (or the novel itself) will persist.

(Snyder 1996, 80)

At the same time, Snyder appears tempted—though wary—of offering his reading as evidence of a greater political consciousness for Murakami Haruki than is generally acknowledged (Snyder 1996, 75). And yet, if my readings of the three novels above demonstrate anything about Murakami, it is that he has, virtually from the start, concerned himself with forming a connection between his political and artistic inclinations. This is also the focus of a recent article by Ian Buruma (1996), who praises Murakami's recent engagement of both politics and history in his latest novel, Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; 1994–95).

Couched within the terms of yet another introduction to Murakami, Buruma takes a simpler approach than Snyder, yet his commentary is extremely useful, for it provides an up-to-date overview of Murakami's progression, from a new writer in 1979 determined to break with everything Japan stood for, to a maturing, successful writer, now concerned that he has cut himself off rather too far from the culture and society that created him.8 Even so, certain key facets of Murakami's career are oddly sidestepped—Buruma praises Murakami for his tighter focus on history in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for instance, but only hints at the author's ultimate goal—to critique historically the political system in which modern Japan has developed. Moreover, despite his praise of Murakami as an important Japanese writer, Buruma has virtually nothing to say about his crucial importance as a spokesman for the postmodern—which must surely be one of the author's main contributions to modern Japanese literature. He notes that Murakami has the potential to be one of the most important writers of his age, if he can “strike the right balance between social engagement and the necessary withdrawal into his … own imagination” (Buruma 1996, 71), but, clearly, there is more to the matter than this. Murakami Haruki has already contributed significantly to the development of modern Japanese literature. By spearheading the advance of the postmodern into the mainstream literary discourse, he has contributed significantly to an attack on the very core of the pure/mass opposition that has held sway over Japanese literature for nearly three-quarters of a century. Moreover, while Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is certainly the most sophisticated text Murakami has written to date, it would be a mistake to ignore the texts above simply because of their clearly formulaic structure, or their play with fantasy. In fact, one sees even more clearly through these early texts the depth of understanding that Murakami brings to his postmodern experiment, and its importance to world literature in general. Despite his claim, quoted at the beginning of this article, that his work was never intended to run counter to the hegemony of “pure” literature, this is precisely what his first five novels accomplished, and with such precision that it can hardly be termed accidental.

This raises an interesting point: Huyssen's contention that the postmodernism of the post-1970 period is affirmative and noncritical notwithstanding, can one truly call Murakami's parody of the 1960s “noncritical”? One begins to surmise, rather, that in his simplistic, international language, Murakami targets the very avant-gardism of Ōe and Abe that was intended to resist the high modernism of Kawabata and his generation. If modernism, which began as a medium for the experimental art form, was ultimately subsumed into the mainstream of Art proper, then one could argue that 1960s avant-gardism has followed the same course. This is the point of Murakami's studied rejection of everything that was established and accepted in Japanese literature—right down to his language which, like Ōe's at one time, has been termed batā-kusai, “reeking of butter,” an expression which suggests that one's language is too Western. His literature suggests an acute awareness that the radical avant-gardists of the 1960s merely reinvented the canon in their own image. Murakami once admitted that when he read the works of Tanizaki and Kawabata as a child, he felt no particular inclination to become a writer, because he felt the task was in secure hands.9 By 1978, however, the year he began Hear the Wind Sing, he had evidently changed his mind, and decided that his voice needed to be heard. Had Murakami finally sensed the stagnation of Japanese literary expression following the end of Zenkyōtō? Buruma points out that Murakami was spurred on by an abhorrence in the early 1970s for the “corporate conformity” imposed by Japanese society on its people (Buruma 1996, 66); a similar critique could easily be leveled at the literary world, and the intellectual community in general, both during and after the 1960s. It is of little wonder, then, that Murakami should fit so smoothly into a new movement leading Japanese literature away from the rigid definitions of “pure” literature set down, with only minor adjustments, more than a decade before he was born.

What Murakami has achieved in the texts discussed above is the subtle evocation of the politics of the postmodern era in texts which do not seem political in the least. Buruma notes this also, stating that Murakami “has always wanted to apply his literary imagination to political ideas. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is his most serious attempt to do so” (Buruma 1996, 71). Whether one accepts this last assertion, Buruma has adroitly pointed out the raison d'être of Murakami literature since the beginning of his career. Despite claims—some by Murakami himself—that his early style was concerned only with living styles and choices in an age of mass consumerism, this very observation implies his connectivity with the infection of literary expression by mass culture and its commodity-fetishism, further placing Murakami into the vanguard of the Japanese postmodern literary movement.

Finally, it might be useful to point out that, Buruma's admiration for Murakami's new interest in history notwithstanding, many of the old trademarks remain in his literature, and they continue to mark him as the legitimate spokesman for the postmodern. Although he has not written an overtly formulaic novel since Norwegian Wood, remnants of the adventure/quest motif remain in his later works, including Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. More importantly, his fascination with the tenuous borders that move in and out of focus between the real and the unreal, the surreal, or even the hyperreal, continues to be evident, often manifested through the superimposition of the dream world on the waking world, reminiscent of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World Put another way, one might conclude that, even as Murakami's focus shifts closer to home for him, his modes of literary expression have not really changed; they have simply evolved into a more inventive form.


  1. See Hirano 1972 and Strecher 1996.

  2. Murakami Haruki, Hitsuji o megaru bōken in the Murakami Haruki zensakuhin, 1979–1989 (Complete Works of Murakami Haruki, 1979–1989, hereafter cited as MHZ), 1991, 2: 154; A Wild Sheep Chase, trans., Alfred Birnbaum, 1989, 118. Hereafter, page references from the original (in italics) and translation (in roman type) are given in parentheses after the quotation. The same format will be used for citations from Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando (MHZ Vol. 4) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, trans. Alfred Birnbaum.

  3. Kawamoto Saburō has pointed out the likelihood of a connection between this mountain lodge and the Asama Sansō Jiken (Asama Mountain Villa Incident) of 1972, in which former student activists-turned-terrorists barricaded themselves after killing a number of their comrades. The incident, which received widespread media coverage in Japan, has been seen by many Japanese culture critics as a real and symbolic end of the “Sixties” in Japan (Kawamoto 1986).

  4. Kawamoto Saburō (1986) uses the expression “white utopia” to describe the world offered to Rat by the sheep in A Wild Sheep Chase, suggesting a life devoid of pain, but also blank, without thought or volition. This is, presumably, related to the world confronting the narrator of the end of the world, and could also be seen as a metaphorical representation of Japan's postmodern, consumer-capitalist society.

  5. The “Smithton Readers” were members of a regular reading society who formed a controlled research group for Radway's examination of the various reasons that women read romance fiction.

  6. Hino Keizō, whose novel Yume no Shima (Isle of Dreams; 1985) vied for the Tanizaki Prize against Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, deals almost exclusively with the theme of the beautiful, empty shell of Tokyo in the 1980s.

  7. For a recent reevaluation of Murakami's first novella, see “Natsu no Jūkunichikan: Kaze no uta o kike no Dokkai” (Nineteen Days of Summer: A Critical Reading of Hear the Wind Sing) in Kokubungaku, Mar. 1995.

  8. For another, even more recent discussion of Murakami's evolution as a writer, see Strecher, “Murakami Haruki: Japan's Coolest Writer Heats Up,” Japan Quarterly, Jan.-Mar. 1998.

  9. Interview with Murakami, Boston, 24 October 1994.

I would like to thank Professor John Whittier Treat, the University of Washington, and Professor Jay Rubin, Harvard, for guidance and encouragement in my work on Murakami Haruki, and to Murakami himself for his willingness on more than one occasion to share time and ideas with me. I also wish to remember the late Professor Andrew Markus, University of Washington, for his support up until his untimely death. Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to the anonymous readers of the Journal of Asian Studies for their penetrating comments and suggestions.

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———. 1986. “Murakami Haruki o Meguru Kaidoku” (Deciphering Murakami Haruki). In Sīku & Fuaindo Murakami Haruki (Seek & Find Murakami Haruki), edited by Murakami Ryū. Tokyo: Seidōsha.

Kuroko Kazuo. 1990. Murakami Haruki to Dōjidai Bungaku (Murakami Haruki and Contemporary Literature). Tokyo: Kawaide Shuppan.

———. 1993. Murakami Haruki: Za Rosuto Wārudo (Murakami Haruki: The Lost World). Tokyo: Daisan Shokan.

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———. 1992. Kokkyō no minami, taiyō no nishi (South of the Border, West of the Sun). Tokyo: Kōdansha.

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Noruei no mori no Himitsu” (The Secret of Norwegian Wood). 1989. Bungei Shunjū 67 (5): 162–96.

Ōe Kenzaburō. 1989. “Japan's Dual Identity: A Writer's Dilemma.” In Postmodernism and Japan, edited by Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian. Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press.

———. With Kazuo Ishiguro. 1993. “The Novelist in Today's World: A Conversation.” In Japan in the World, edited by Masao Miyoshi. Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press.

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Julian Ferraro (review date 1 May 1998)

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SOURCE: “The Mystery in Room 208,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1998, p. 22.

[In the following review, Ferraro praises Murakami's narrative skills in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, particularly admiring the delineation of his fictional world and the persona of his hero.]

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the fourth of Haruki Murakami's novels to be translated into English. The first, A Wild Sheep Chase (translated in 1990), with its story of a man uncovering a right-wing corporate conspiracy in the course of pursuing a mutant sheep across Japan, created a distinctive imaginative world and established the persona of the Murakami hero: “Say there's an hourglass: the sand's about to run out. Someone like you can always be counted on to turn the thing over.” The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle opens with Toru Okada, “Mr. Wind-Up bird,” doing what comes naturally to such people mid-morning—“boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.” Just as his pasta is becoming nicely al dente, accompanied by a suitable musical crescendo, the phone rings and a strange woman asks for ten minutes of his time, so that they can “understand each other.” With this conversation begins the unravelling of a seemingly impeccably well-ordered life.

The bizarre and involved plot begins with a missing cat and extends through the break-up of Okada's marriage, a series of encounters with the psychic sisters Malta and Kreta Kano, and the increasingly supernatural confrontation between Okada and his sinister brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya, economist, television pundit and budding politician. Running parallel to this is the recounting of three stories about the fighting between Russian and Japanese troops on the Chinese mainland before the Second World War. As the book unfolds, Okada becomes more and more obsessed by Lieutenant Mamiya's wartime experiences in Outer Mongolia at the hands of the savage Russian commander, Boris the Manskinner; so much so that he finds himself compelled to re-create Mamiya's imprisonment at the bottom of a well, with (needless to say) supernatural consequences.

If this sample from the sprawling plot sounds strange in summary, it is testament to the power and skill of Murakami's storytelling that such a bizarre chain of events unfolds with a plausible, if surreal, logic that leaves the reader accepting each new twist as reasonable. This is achieved in part by combining the depiction of the surreal and supernatural with a careful delineation of the more banal excesses of modern life. One moment, Okada is helping May Kasahara, his precocious teenage neighbour, to classify passing commuters according to three stages of male-pattern baldness—part of a market survey for the wig manufacturer for whom she works part-time—the next, he has been set up in business as a clairvoyant by Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka, mother and son fashion designers turned psychics. The absurdities of Murakami's fictions seem fuelled by an appreciation of the strangeness of many features of everyday life under the logic of late capitalism. As May Kasahara puts it: “But really Mr. Wind-Up bird, it's been a lot of fun being with you. No kidding. I mean, you're such a supernormal guy, but you do such unnormal things.”

The most impressive thing about Murakami's writing is his sustained delineation of a surreal, super-real world. Each of his books has been a variation on a set of common themes: for all their strangeness, their invention and their bizarre twists and turns, they have a compelling familiarity. Thus, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, we once again encounter a thirty-year-old (and two months) hero, bereft of ambition and abandoned by his wife; a precocious teenage-girl sidekick; a strange, supernatural hotel; a fleeting insight into the operation of sinister, sometimes supernatural, right-wing power structures; and women with unusually beautiful ears. As with the heroes of the other books, so Mr. Wind-Up bird must face up to his loneliness and isolation: “I sat at the kitchen table as usual, drinking a beer and listening to music on the radio. It then occurred to me that I wanted to talk to someone—about the weather, about political stupidity; it didn't matter what. I just wanted to talk to somebody, but I couldn't think of anyone, not one person I could talk to. I didn't even have the cat.”

Part science-fiction, part detective-story and part beat philosophy, Murakami's fictions are hard to place in their genre. They tend to read like Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely retold by Flann O'Brien. Indeed, the cod epigraph to O'Brien's The Third Policeman might serve to characterize the denouement of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the supernatural confrontation in the mysterious hotel room 208: “Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.” As with O'Brien's books, the playfulness of Murakami's writing carries the reader along to sometimes unsettling conclusions about cherished realities.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle grew out of a short story that appeared in Murakami's 1993 collection, The Elephant Vanishes. In “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women,” a revised version of which becomes the first chapter of the novel, there is a casual reference to a Mr Suzuki—“College professor, on TV half the time … Horrible family … Stuck-up, the whole lot of them. TV people are such a bunch of phonies.” From this hint develops one of the book's central plot lines, the confrontation between Okada and Noboru Wataya, an extrapolation which is redolent of Murakami's approach to fiction itself. A minor incident, the observation of a seemingly unimportant detail, leads on to the uncovering of ever more elaborate systems and constructions, and ultimately to an intimation of the workings of a parallel order of things. Murakami has been hailed as one of the most important contemporary novelists, and this book will enhance and extend his reputation.

Michael Wood (review date 11 May 1998)

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SOURCE: “The Roads Not Taken,” in New Republic, Vol. 218, No. 19, May 11, 1998, pp. 49–52.

[In the following review, Wood examines the metafictional themes of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.]

Fiction constantly concerns itself with the lives of others, with the lives that we are not living. But then someone is pictured as actually living them, and there remains a purer, more speculative possibility, which is the life that no one is living except as an act of the fearful or desiring imagination. Fully realized pictures of this second life are quite rare in fiction, for reasons that are perhaps not as self-evident as they would seem. Why (we could ask, grumbling and sturdily resisting fashion) would a world which is already fictional, already an alternative to what we think of as history, offer a picture of yet another alternative, except out of sheer artiness or a longing for complication, or a belief that the more meta, the better?

One answer is that pictures of alternatives are inextricably part of any world that we know. The road not taken is not just the road that we did not take. It is also the one that haunts the taken roads, that gets caught up in our choices among them. We can think of Henry James's marvelous late tales of other lives, notably “The Jolly Corner” and “The Beast in the Jungle,” and of his unfinished novel The Sense of the Past; and maybe all ghost stories, James's and everyone else's, are representations of lives not lived. There are some brilliant enactments of parallel or forking lives in Borges and in some otherwise drab science fiction, but the ambition doesn't leak much out of that genre and those special places. It's as if writers and readers of fiction had signed a secret compact: only one life for each fictional person, and that life to be represented as real within the fiction, and all fantasy to be classified as such or confined to the heads of troubled or idealistic characters.

Haruki Murakami doesn't exactly break this compact, at least not all the time. But the other life is his great subject. “I have the impression,” one of his characters says, “that elsewhere we may all have lived totally different lives, and that somehow we may have forgotten that time.” “I let her words sink in,” another says. “They weren't fact. They were possibility. Nothing more, nothing less, but the force of the possibility was shattering.” And the same character insists, more violently, that “possibilities are like cancer. The more I think about them, the more they multiply.” Well, maybe not like cancer, but much of the energy of Murakami's fiction comes from the tug of proliferating possibilities—always on the verge of realization, or already realized. He is not trafficking in fictional magic or spirit worlds, or even in the ordinary license of the imagination. He is asking, through fiction, how many lives are buried under the lives that we find ourselves living.

The question has an historical resonance, especially in Japan, with its glorified and then denied imperial destiny and its famous codes of cultural concealment. Perhaps psychological questions of this kind always edge us into history. In Murakami's novel A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), almost all the characters are in some sort of discreet disguise—though they themselves usually take these disguises for the truth. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), a character's unconscious life is artificially extrapolated and simulated on a computer, and then reinserted surgically, in the form of a kind of virtual movie, into the man's brain. He lives half his life (and half the novel) inside this simulation, but the other half of his life knows nothing of it. In Dance, Dance, Dance (1988), characters slip through a rift in time to an older, denied world, whose inhabitants cry the tears that cannot be cried in continuing, up-to-date life. “We shed tears for all the things you never let yourself shed tears, we weep for all the things you did not weep.” And in Murakami's new novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (it appeared in Japan in 1994 and 1995, in three separate volumes), an evil character is murdered (twice) on one level of the fiction and suffers a stroke on another. Then he is murdered again.

Born in Kyoto in 1949, Murakami has been enormously successful in Japan, and he has a growing reputation in this country. Dance, Dance, Dance, in particular, is a book that people have been murmuring about, and even reading. The four novels that I have mentioned have all been translated into English, along with a volume of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes. For reasons that I can only guess—Murakami's easy familiarity with American culture, perhaps—his work reads as if it had been written in Japan but not in Japanese. I'm not even sure that it was all written in Japan, since the biographical data on his books have him moving pretty frequently from east to west and back. A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) says that he lives in Tokyo. Hard-Boiled Wonderland (1991) says that he teaches at Princeton. The Elephant Vanishes and Dance, Dance, Dance have him living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle says he lives “near Tokyo.”

Murakami has translated Fitzgerald, Carver, Capote, and other American authors into Japanese, but his main stylistic model, at least in the earlier work, seems to be Raymond Chandler—or rather Philip Marlowe, his tone and his imagery updated for the post-industrial city. Murakami is said to have “managed a jazz bar from 1974 to 1981”; this doesn't explain anything much in the fiction, but it helps to situate Murakami's musical and urban expertise. Here is a writer who not only knows Phil Collins, Iggy Pop, and Bananarama, but also remembers Mitch Miller and Al Martino. “The cherries bloomed,” he writes in an excellent parody of post-Chandler cool, “and the blossoms scattered in the evening showers. Elections came and went, a new school year started. Bjorn Borg retired. Michael Jackson was number one in the charts in the whole time. The dead stayed dead.”

Here is how one of Murakami's narrators describes himself to a woman whom he has just met:

I have an old tomcat for a pet. Smoke forty cigarettes a day. Can't seem to quit. I own three suits, six neckties, plus a collection of five hundred records that are hopelessly out of date. I've memorized all the murderers' names in every Ellery Queen mystery ever written. I own the complete A la recherche du temps perdu, but have only read half. I drink beer in summer, whiskey in winter. This may not sound like boasting, but it is boasting—or it is at least a claim to a certain battered style.

Some time later the narrator tells us directly that he has “read And Quiet Flows the Don and The Brothers Karamazov three times through.” He has read The German Ideology once, and he can recite the value of pi to 16 places. In Murakami's world, however, this man is not as unusual as he thinks. He is “crestfallen” when a chauffeur who is driving him home turns out to know the value of pi to 32 places, and to be slightly apologetic about the limits of his knowledge.

Murakami's main characters are usually male, in their thirties, tidy, keen on cooking, unaware of the disarray that hides behind their ordinariness. They work, or have worked, in law firms or advertising or magazine journalism. A wife or a girlfriend has recently left them, but this abandonment itself looks like a symptom of a larger loss. They strike up friendships with young girls, often damaged or isolated but somehow in touch with something the men don't know.

The men talk to us in the first person, and they are never lacking in cultural references. “The elevator shook like a large dog with lung disease.” “I was on edge, irritable, as if trying to read station signs from a speeding train.” “I felt like a tiny child in a De Chirico painting.” “It was like watching an old Kurosawa movie from the very front row of a run-down theater.” A hunger is said to be “as vast and boundless as the Sinai Peninsula,” heads are “as empty as the young D. H. Lawrence's piggy bank.” The hero of Dance, Dance, Dance wears a Keith Haring button, and tells us he is “not a snob who only goes to see Fellini or Tarkovsky.” “When I awoke the following morning, it was April. As delicately rendered as a passage from Truman Capote, fleeting, fragile, beautiful. April, made famous by T. S. Eliot and Count Basie.”

There are risks of glibness and cuteness in these endlessly multiplying references, but Murakami's characters are too troubled to be saved by their allusions, however coolly they try to scatter them. Quite often the allusions disclose the trouble. Murakami's tour de force in this line occurs close to the end of Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Our man is about to die, or more precisely he is about to come to the end of his physical life and live on only in the simulation that has been made of his unconscious. He decides to rent a smart car and to play a tape or two for his exit from what is, after all, the real world.

I went to a record shop and bought a few cassettes. Johnny Mathis's Greatest Hits, Zubin Mehta conducting Schonberg's Verklarte Nacht, Kenny Burrell's Stormy Sunday, Popular Ellington, Trevor Pinnock on the harpsichord playing the Brandenburg Concertos, and a Bob Dylan tape with Like a Rolling Stone. Mix 'n' match. I wanted to cover the bases—how was I to know what kind of music would go with a Carina 1800 GT Twin-Cam Turbo?

The narrator picks up his car, puts on the Dylan tape, tries all the switches and signals. The young woman from the rental agency asks if she can help, and the following dialogue ensues:

“These computerized panels in the latest models are pretty complicated.” “Which button do I push to find the square root of 185?” I asked.

“I'm afraid you'll have to wait until the next model,” she laughed. “Say, isn't that Bob Dylan you have on?”

“Right,” I said. “Positively 4th Street.”

“I can tell Bob Dylan in an instant,” she said. “Because his harmonica's worse than Stevie Wonder?”

She laughed again. Nice to know I could still make someone laugh.

“No, I really like his voice,” she said. “It's like a kid standing in the window watching the rain.”

This is the only appearance of this woman in the novel, the narrator's brief encounter with a person who knows how to respond to jokes with jokes, but also how to let jokes go and say what she means. The fancy car, or more precisely the recital of the name of the fancy car, along with the ill-assorted and ponderously selected tapes, looks like a satire of certain consumer ideals (in the hour of your death you want a Carina 1800 GT, not some bottom-of-the-range, no-frills Datsun); but the joking exchange and the analogical definition of Dylan's voice suggest rather that style and specificity are important even in death. In the late twentieth century, as at other times, you build your ship of death with whatever materials come to hand. The pathos is not in the materials. The pathos is in your having to leave them, and in all the emotions that they help you to hold at bay.

What one of Murakami's characters calls the wind-up bird first appears in a story in The Elephant Vanishes. The bird screeches every morning, “sharp as a tightening spring,” as if to set in motion the clockwork of the day. “This wind-up bird is there … in the trees of the neighborhood to wind things up. Us, our quiet little world, everything.” In this story a cat goes missing, and our out-of-work narrator receives an obscene telephone call from a woman, and he meets a young girl who limps slightly as the result of a motorcycle accident. His wife comes home late from work; everything seems subtly wrong in this regulated household. The cat's continuing absence assumes new proportions, and looks like a verdict on the marriage. The telephone rings again.

Amplified again, this story becomes the first chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The wife acquires a name, Kumiko, and so do the narrator and the girl who limps: Toru Okada and May Kasahara. Kumiko disappears; she just fails to come home from work one evening. Toru has some more disturbing telephone calls and some odd visits. Everything seems slightly desultory for quite a while, and you wonder whether this book is just a short story in search of a larger world.

But then that world arrives and becomes the book. An old soldier tells a story of espionage and torture and death on the borders of Manchuria and Outer Mongolia in 1938. Toru meets a young woman who calls herself “a prostitute of the mind”: he dreams that he has sex with her, and it is only a dream, but she knows about it, she has instigated it. “Only a dream” here means the thing has not physically happened, but Toru begins to wonder whether “dream” is quite the right word for this sort of stuff. “I have had relations with women in my dreams—or in some world that, within the limits of my vocabulary, I could only call a dream.”

Toru spends more and more time in this territory, no longer having sex but exploring the rooms and the corridors of a mysterious dream-hotel, and at last beats his brother-in-law to death with a baseball bat. This world is not real, because the brother-in-law is still alive on the historical plane of the novel. Yet it is not entirely unreal either, because it leaves traces on its visitors, notably a black-and-blue mark on Toru's face, which he loses at the end of the book.

Kumiko doesn't return, but trying to get her back becomes the quest and the adventure of Toru's life. He meets an odd, rich woman, formerly a fashion designer, now some kind of medium, and he goes to work for her and her mute son. He listens to her stories, and reads the stories that the son leaves for him on a computer. These stories, like the old soldier's stories, take us back to the years before and during World War II, to the age of Japanese expansion and ruin, and the falling puppet state of Manchukuo. Among the stories, most spectacularly, is an account of an execution of the animals in a Manchurian zoo at the end of the war, because the Soviet army is advancing, and the creatures can no longer be fed. The rich woman's father was the veterinary officer there, and he was obliged to oversee the killing of “the tigers, the leopards, the wolves, and the bears”:

In the end, they did not kill the elephants. Once they actually confronted them, it became obvious that the beasts were simply too large, that the soldiers' rifles looked like silly toys in their presence. The lieutenant thought it over for a while and decided to leave the elephants alone. Hearing this, the men breathed a sigh of relief. Strange as it may seem—or perhaps it does not seem so strange—they all had the same thought: it was so much easier to kill humans on the battlefield than animals in cages, even if, on the battlefield, one might end up being killed oneself. Or perhaps it does not seem so strange. The slaughter of the animals reveals the raw dying that is ordinarily hidden under so many reasons of state and war.

Murakami has made his novel a place where such revelations keep occurring. Their force is unmistakable, but it is not at all clear what his characters (or his readers) can do about them. The defining feature of this world, which gives it an odd, much-filtered resemblance to the world of Kafka, is that metaphors cannot be relied on to stay only metaphorical. Toru's brother-in-law, a right-wing politician, speaks of people as having lost “all sense of direction.” We should forget about them, he says, leave them to their error. “They might as well be deep in a forest or down in a well.” Toru, who is precisely the type that the politician is describing, spends a good deal of the novel literally down in a well. This is where he makes contact with the other world that is not, or is not only, a dream.

A diviner consulted by Toru and Kumiko in the early days of their marriage instructs that they are not to resist the flow. Yet sometimes there is no flow. “It can be hard to wait for the flow to start, but when you have to wait, you have to wait. In the meantime, assume you're dead.” This speech seems safely, vacuously metaphorical, and the irrelevance is confirmed by the old man's regularly taking off into his war memories, particularly those of the battle of Nomonhan, a desperate Japanese defeat by the Russians. The old man has a cryptic little haiku: “Dying is the only way / For you to float free: / Nomonhan.” But then this hocus-pocus is also literalized by Toru's time in an actual (dry) well, and by the water's finally coming back and almost drowning him. And the remembered war connects all kinds of other memories of a time well before Toru's and Kumiko's birth. The novel is set in 1984 and 1985, and he is 30 when it starts.

Stories leak, similarly, into other stories. When features of his own life—his baseball bat, the mark on his face, the wind-up bird—appear in the old stories of Manchuria, Toru doesn't know whether he is looking at an eerie set of coincidences, or whether his own narrative has been borrowed and injected into the past. His provisional conclusion is that his own story has “eaten its way” into the others, but that the source of the material is less important than its use. His wind-up bird starts the day, and represents the fear that the day might not start, that the day could be born dead. But the wind-up bird in the Manchurian stories is the voice of “inescapable ruin”: “People were no more than dolls set on tabletops, the spring in their backs wound up tight, dolls set to move in ways they could not choose, moving in directions they could not choose.”

Characters regularly feel this way about their lives in this novel, and not only in memories of Manchuria. Toru realizes that what is happening to him suggests a kind of “circle, at the center of which stood prewar Manchuria, continental East Asia, and the short war of 1939 in Nomonhan. But why Kumiko and I should have been drawn into this historical chain of cause and effect I could not comprehend.” The question could also be reversed. What is there about the lives of Kumiko and Toru in 1984–1985 that brings back the harsh old time? There is a legacy, of course. But what makes the legacy come alive, especially in the minds of those who know almost nothing about it?

There is not an easy answer to these questions. Murakami offers one large answer, but it seems too lurid and too programmatic. Toru thinks he has understood the power of his evil brother-in-law:

He is trying to bring out something that the great mass of people keep hidden in the darkness of their unconscious. He wants to use it for his own political advantage. It's a tremendously dangerous thing, this thing he is trying to draw out: it's fatally smeared with violence and blood, and it's directly connected to the darkest depths of history, because its final effect is to destroy and obliterate people on a massive scale.

I know that there are those who feel this way about their in-laws, but even so. Slightly more persuasive is Kumiko's sense that she is enslaved to her hated brother by a dark complicity with him. “I was the chain that bit into my ankle, and I was the ruthless guard that never slept.” This is why she has to take off and kill him. And more persuasive still is the rich woman's understanding of the cause of her son's muteness and her husband's violent and horrible death: “Something that came out of those stories snatched his tongue away. And a few years later, the same thing killed my husband.”

Like many contemporary novelists—one thinks especially of Rushdie and Garcia Márquez—Murakami invites us to regard history as both inescapable and hard to grasp, a violent haunting which comes to us as a set of conflicting narratives. It's not that history is fiction. Quite the contrary: too many stories are true. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle does not quite find the precise and yet capacious form for which it is searching, and sometimes, I think, Murakami seems to be miming disarray rather than exploring it or unfolding it. Still, very few recent novels have so accurately or inventively caught the killing power, or the silencing power, of other lives and the stories of other lives, especially when they are imperfectly buried.

Tom Hiney (review date 20 June 1998)

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SOURCE: “Yearlong Paranoia Binge,” in Spectator, June 20, 1998, pp. 35–36.

[In the following mixed review, Hiney describes the postmodern method and themes of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as praiseworthy but lacking spirit.]

The themes of this big novel [The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle]—paranoia, sterility, general loss of national confidence—are clearly ones that are striking at the heart of contemporary Japan. Few developed cultures currently show such a determined lack of interest in procreating. The birth rate is at its lowest since 1899, and the population—as in several European countries—is shrinking. While this is clearly good news in the long run (population growth equalling traffic jams) it has also damaged national self-respect. Too many people live in dirty cities, where too much stress, insecurity and pollution render many of them effectively impotent—how patriotic can you be in such circumstances? In India two years ago I read a newspaper article stating that in the large, industrial city of Bihar no less than 40 per cent of couples were finding themselves unable to have children. Too much stress and pollution were again blamed. This is all happening very quickly and, most people agree, is not without its overall benefits to the human race. But while nature thus corrects herself, what are the new childless generations supposed to do with themselves? Wallow in paranoia and have weird sex, according to Haruki Murakami.

The hero of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (though one senses that he should be unlikely to describe himself as a hero) is an out-of-work young lawyer called Toru Okada. He has left what was a boring job and his young wife has in turn left him. So he drinks beer, sits at the kitchen table and begins a yearlong paranoia binge. He wants love, some money and a peaceful sleep but he gets a series of nightmares involving rejection, dismemberment, and weird sex. The book is also shot through with excerpts from a Japanese soldier's various experiences, vividly brought to life, in the last war. At over 600 pages, it all makes for a heck of a gift book. In America, where it has already been published, it has been received as something of a modern masterpiece.

With the exception of the fascinating war chapters, there are some weak moments in this novel: at times it reads like a bad Thomas Pynchon rip-off. It is occasionally heartfelt, lyrical and even dazzling, but there is a major problem that keeps recurring, as far as holding the reader's attention. For Murakami ultimately catches himself in a trap of his own making. On the one hand we are supposed to accept his young narrator's dismissal of himself as a rejected, neurotic urban nothing; while on the other hand we are still supposed to care what happens to him, and follow his dispirited commentary for over 600 pages. However ingeniously and precisely Murakami sometimes manages to crawl under the skin of his damaged hero, the further he crawls the less, in many ways, one cares. And there is little time, after all the Oprah Winfrey-type pages of self-loathing and neurosis for anything much in the way of a plot. There is a baddy in this book (an evil media personality who happens to be the narrator's brother-in-law) but he does not really do anything.

Murakami would claim this inertia to be part of his message. He once wrote a book called A Wild Sheep Chase, in which the same sort of thing happened, or rather didn't. Characters went round in circles, the world got a bit more confusing, and then the book stopped. Which is really what happens here. This is avant-garde writing, and not supposed to be straightforward, but in a culture where cynicism and sterility have become mainstream what would be truly avant-garde would be for someone of Murakami's clear talent to write something that explored such intellectually taboo emotions as hope or faith in humanity. An intriguing book this, but lacking in soul.

Yoshiko Yokochi Samuel (review date Spring 1999)

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SOURCE: A review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 2, Spring, 1999, p. 389.

[In the following review, Samuel highlights the postmodern conventions of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, comparing its style to that of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.]

Published half a century after the end of Japan's fifteen-year war that began with the seizure of Manchuria in 1931, the voluminous narrative (1,156 pages in three volumes in Japanese) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle probes the meaning of time, memory, and self-actualization in the “high-tech” age. Haruki Murakami spices this postmodern work with elements of science fiction, in a manner reminiscent of works by such cyberpunk writers as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.

The first-person narrator of the story is a thirty-year-old man with only a thin sense of subjectivity. Having left his job for no specific reason, he idles his time away, while “the wind-up bird” winds “the spring of our quiet little world.” His world begins to crumble, however, when his cat vanishes, followed by the disappearance of his wife. His search for his wife sends him on a virtual journey, leading him into the darkness of a deep dry well and through its wall into “the other side.” A “dangerous place,” this cyberspace realm is dominated by the televised image of the hero's worst adversary, his wife's brother, who has gained enormous political popularity by exploiting the mass media's potential for image-making. He is a nephew of the top confidant of the ringleader of the 1931 Manchurian Incident and holds the key to the destiny of his sister. Having given himself the nickname “Wind-Up Bird” at the outset of his journey, the protagonist is now the keeper of Time, determined to fight against his brother-in-law for his wife's freedom.

The journey thus takes the protagonist back to the time of Japan's invasion of China and to the subsequent Nomonhan Incident of 1939, in which unspeakable atrocities took place. A string of people, all appearing and disappearing like images on television and computer screens, guide him in his endeavor. Among them, a veteran of the Nomonhan Incident and repatriates from Manchuria reconstruct for the hero scenes of the atrocities. Their stories constitute a legacy of Japan's modern period, which began in 1868 with an all-out push for a capitalist economy and for militarization. A high-school dropout, an alter ego of the hero's wife, sends constant encouragement to the protagonist from her own “little quiet world” somewhere far away.

With her husband's help, the wife eventually frees herself from her brother's spell by bludgeoning him with a baseball bat—the weapon used by Japanese military men in Manchuria to execute Chinese soldiers for their “insubordination”—and escapes back to the reality on “this side” of the well wall. The protagonist too emerges from the well, now replenished with fresh water, as a man with a solid sense of responsibility and commitment.

A delightful story, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle demonstrates the enormity of Murakami's literary imagination and his thoughtful insight into the meaning of postmodern reality. The translation, capturing the style and aura of the original, is equally enjoyable. It is regrettable, however, that the English version has been subjected to extensive cutting, undoubtedly under pressure from the publisher.

Phil Baker (review date 23 July 1999)

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SOURCE: “Old Sweet Songs,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 23, 1999, p. 21.

[In the following review, Baker comments on the role of popular Western music in South of the Border, West of the Sun, focusing on the novel's motifs and use of simile.]

Books like A Wild Sheep Chase,Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World have established a distinctive image of Haruki Murakami as Japan's most contemporary writer, a man in love with all things Western, who writes slightly off-the-wall postmodern novels influenced by science fiction. South of the Border, West of the Sun should modify that picture considerably. Plainly and beautifully told, it is a sad love-story with a more traditionally Japanese feel to it, despite its immersion in Western popular culture. Just as the protagonist rediscovers his childhood sweetheart, so the author seems to be re-exploring his Japanese roots.

Hajime is growing up in a comfortable postwar suburb. An only child and a loner, he strikes up a friendship with a girl named Shimamoto, another only child whose quiet maturity and self-possession owe something to the crippled leg she never complains about. They spend happy afternoons together playing her father's records. Listening to Liszt's piano concertos with Shimamoto gives Hajime transcendent and complex sensations that he is unable to communicate, but it is American popular music that is to play the largest role in the novel. They listen over and over again to Bing Crosby's Christmas songs, and to Nat King Cole singing “South of the Border,” and “Pretend”: “Pretend you're happy when you're blue / It isn't very hard to do.” Unable to understand the words, Hajime still associates the song with Shimamoto: “The song and the lovely smile that always graced Shimamoto's face were one and the same to me.”

They grow up and lose touch. Hajime marries and opens a high-class bar, with cocktails and jazz. Meanwhile, he has had a relationship with Izumi, who never recovers from his leaving her. Emotionally burnt out, she lives alone for the rest of her life, her face so bleakly empty that the local children are afraid of her. Back then, Hajime was unable to understand what he had done. “That I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.” As Hajime has damaged Izumi, exemplifying the book's desperate and fatalistic view of love, so Shimamoto will damage Hajime.

One day Shimamoto drifts into Hajime's bar, Casablanca-style, and as they talk the band plays Duke Ellington's “Star-Crossed Lovers.” They go to the country together and at last consummate their relationship, after which Shimamoto slips away again. Hajime understands that she would have liked them to die together, and that she is never going to come back. We leave him resigned to the companionship of his loving wife, and perhaps even comforted by it.

South of the Border, West of the Sun constantly risks sentimentality, kitsch and excess. If it triumphantly survives them, it is perhaps because those things are innately part of relationships, and also because its aestheticization and stylization of emotion are akin to what Noël Coward famously described as the strange potency of cheap music. Cheap music notwithstanding, there is more than a little here that bears comparison with Yukio Mishima; a writer who might be considered as the absolute opposite of Murakami, and whom Murakami may well find distasteful. Mishima's beautiful description of a girl's undistinguished piano playing—“in the tonal colour of those piano sounds there was a feeling of intimacy, like amateurish candy made while looking at a recipe book”—would not be out of place in here, with Murakami's delicate and finessed similes. Holding hands for the first time, “It was merely the small, warm palm of a twelve-year-old girl, yet those fingers and that palm were like a display case crammed full of everything I wanted to know. …” There is also something Mishima-like in the association between eroticism and death, which is far less languorous here than its Western Romantic counterpart. Images of the void, the sea and the desert underpin the book's emotional landscape; although the desert, characteristically, is associated with a Disney film.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is impressively written and structured, with a deft use of repeated motifs. Murakami deploys and withdraws tokens by which Hajime knows his experiences with Shimamoto have not been a dream, tokens such as lipstick traces on a cigarette—redolent of song lyrics—and also an envelope, which disappears. Above all, the novel is memorable for its unflinchingly extreme treatment of romantic love, and its belief in the irreplaceable uniqueness and exclusivity of the rapport between two individuals. As the old adage has it, there is someone for everyone; and sometimes that is exactly the trouble.

Lorna Sage (review date 30 September 1999)

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SOURCE: “A Simpler, More Physical Kind of Empathy,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 21, No. 19, September 30, 1999, pp. 22–23.

[In the following review, Sage relates the common themes of South of the Border, West of the Sun and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to Murakami's general concern with defining a postmodern Japanese consciousness.]

Talking to Jay McInerney in 1992, the year South of the Border, West of the Sun was published in Japanese, Haruki Murakami said that he wasn't so much an international writer, as a non-national writer: ‘You might call it the Japanese nature that remains only after you have thrown out, one after another, all those parts that are altogether too “Japanese.” That is what I really want to express.’ His pleasure in jettisoning the picturesque and traditional signs of ‘roots’ is of a piece with the fact that he was a fan of the work of Raymond Carver, and became his Japanese translator. South of the Border is a minimalist's novel. A 1984 interview with Carver is commemorated in a Carver poem:

We sipped tea, politely musing
on possible reasons for the success
of my books in your country. Slipped
into talk of pain and humiliation
you find occurring and reoccurring
in my stories. And that element
of sheer chance. How all this translates
in terms of sales.

Murakami would have appreciated the last gesture that switches from chance as a fictional device to the cultural lottery of late capitalism—it's a connection his own authorial avatars often make. They are determinedly not traditionalists: on the other hand, they are witnesses to the defeat of the radical movements of the Sixties and Seventies, and live in the real world of paradoxically empty freedom, mobility and disaffection. ‘It's the way of the world,’ says the cool narrator of Dance, Dance, Dance, ‘philosophy starting to look more and more like business administration … things were a lot simpler in 1969. All you had to do was throw rocks at the police. But with today's sophistication, who's in a position to throw rocks? … You throw a rock and it'll come right back at you.’ Murakami said to McInerney that he was now ‘after something Japanese’:

I would like to write about Japanese society from the outside. I think that is what will increasingly define my identity as writer. By the way, do you know there is no equivalent in Japanese for the word ‘identity.’ That's why when we want to talk about identity, we have to use the English word.

However, as the Carver poem suggests, pain and humiliation are eminently translatable into Japanese, and vice versa, and they occur and reoccur in Murakami's fiction, too.

Western readers wouldn't necessarily have known this until the last couple of years, however, because his own identity was a pretty slippery one, and the first of his novels to be translated were parodic and playful, and crammed with distracting trophies of his love-affair with American popular culture: A Wild Sheep Chase (1982, translated 1989), Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985, translated 1991). These books, together with Dance, Dance, Dance (1988, translated 1994), formed a loose trilogy of mixed-genre, jokey metafictions, texts that read very much as he said he wrote them, making it all up as he went along, saluting American detective fiction, science fiction and demotic fantasy (Vonnegut, Brautigan), as well as pop music and jazz and movies, and using brand names and other cultural imports as ‘props’ (in the theatrical sense: he did his degree in drama). In between, in 1987, he'd published Norwegian Wood, which sold two million copies in Japan. These books were obviously fun, and eerily recognisable (someone wittily rechristened the first ‘The Big Sheep’). For the young Murakami, who used to like to tell people that his vocation as a novelist came to him out of the blue while he was watching a baseball game, the United States had been what Roland Barthes called Japan, back in 1970, an ‘empire of signs,’ a place where signifiers floated loose from their signifieds. He says that his America was a virtual reality, he pieced it together in his head in Kobe, where the secondhand bookshops were full of American fiction traded in by the US Navy. His parents were teachers of Japanese literature, and he was an only child, both things that inspired him to levitate in his head into this alternative, charmingly fairy-tale place.

By the time he was having his conversation with McInerney, however, he was living in the States. He left Japan in 1986, when he was 37, for almost ten years, living first in Greece and Italy, then in Princeton and Boston. In 1996 he dryly summed up the round trip: ‘In Japan I wanted personal independence. I wanted to be free. In America, I felt free. But Americans take individual independence for granted.’ He could not, and the novel of his imaginative return, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–95, translated 1997), which he researched in the library at Princeton, puts Japanese history—the history of the Sino-Japanese war, and of the Manchurian front in World War Two—back into the picture in inset stories. Violence, he told the New Yorker, which printed some peculiarly nasty episodes from the book, is ‘the key to Japan’: ‘The most important thing is to face our history.’ So these last two translated books belong, the one in minimalist style, the other in the style of what Patricia Waugh calls ‘historiographic metafiction’ (an appropriately baggy label for a sprawling sub-genre), to the literature of ‘pain and humiliation.’

The first-person narrator of South of the Border, West of the Sun is in the middle of a good life: a happy marriage, with two small daughters he loves, and lots of ‘props.’ ‘And here I was … savouring Schubert's Winterreise as I lounged in my BMW, waiting for the lights to change at a crossroads in ritzy Aoyama. I was living someone else's life, not my own.’ He's the typical Murakami protagonist, a man who's too typical, almost abnormally ordinary, with just the odd quirk in his fate (being an only child in a generation where that isn't yet usual) that helps tip his lack of conviction over into existential crisis. Hajime (his name means ‘Beginning’: he was born in the first week of the first month of the first year of the second half of the 20th century, 4 January 1951) manages a bar, as his author did between 1974 and 1982, before his first literary successes turned him into a full-time writer. But this is not—or not directly—a portrait of the artist. Hajime has invested his imagination and his leftover idealism in his personal life, and now his sense of creeping unreality focuses on loves he lost in childhood and adolescence, before he turned into this plausible adult. Watching his own children grow, he feels his apartness—the only child—turning into mere mulch in a family line, ‘as if a tree were growing inside my body, laying down roots, spreading its branches, pushing down on my organs.’ And it's at this moment of crisis that Shimamoto, his lost best friend from childhood, walks into his fashionable bar, and reawakens a passionate conviction of affinity he has never quite recaptured since, not even with Yukiko, the wife who rescued him from pointless drifting, and whom he loves.

Shimamoto, too, was an only child, and walked with a limp back when they were 12, a precocious but infinitely receptive companion who mirrored and shared his loneliness. ‘She gazed at me gently as I talked … It was as if … she were gently peeling back, one after another, the layers that covered a person's heart, a very sensual feeling. Her lips moved ever so slightly with each change in her expression.’ Murakami lends his character Hajime a hesitant, lyrical eloquence that translates emotions into body-language, and makes this exchange as erotic as the later description of the long-delayed consummation of their desire for each other. In a sense that's the point, that there was a completeness about this childhood intimacy which was better than anything that came after. But as a result Shimamoto is for him a fatal woman, a kind of Lamia even, when she reappears—an emissary from the land of unlived lives, paths not taken. For here there's no middle way, it's total possession or nothing, ‘her eyes told me she was already given up to death’; re-meeting and re-losing her, Hajime painfully lays bare to himself his own heartless character.

It's a plot about spooky empathy v. human sympathy. And it's Hajime's offence against the latter that Shimamoto in a sense avenges, though she knew nothing about it—his unfaithfulness to his second love, Izumi, his high-school girlfriend: ‘Izumi could never understand my dream. She had her own dreams, a vision of a far different place, a world unlike my own.’ He discovered himself as a person who could do evil in the damage he did to her in pursuit of his personal castle in the air, and is doing now to his wife. From one angle—the angle of ‘one,’ in fact—the book is a tale of romantic agony; from another, it's about renouncing the charm of the eternal return, rediscovering the reality of the order that says there's a beginning, a middle and an end. ‘No one will weave dreams for me—it is my turn to weave dreams for others … If my own life is to have any meaning at all, that is what I have to do.’ And here there is a hint of aesthetic life-writing, an apologia for the artist. The parting image (‘Rain softly falling on a vast sea, with no one there to see it’) has more in common with Joyce's ‘The Dead’ than with Carver's deliberate, prosaic poverty of spirit, even though in theory it's exorcising the specialness of ‘I,’ making our hero just another character.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle a sinister, minor Mephistopheles with a walk-on part, a cabaret performer, wakes up his inattentive audience with a didactic set-piece on the paradoxes of empathy:

He set his guitar on the floor and, from the guitar case, took a single candle … ‘As you are well aware,’ the man continued, his voice soft but penetrating, ‘in the course of life we experience many kinds of pain. Pains of the body and pains of the heart … People say that only they themselves can understand the pain they are feeling. But is this true? If, before our own eyes, we see someone who is truly suffering, we do sometimes feel his suffering as our own. This is the power of empathy … The reason people sing songs for other people is because they want to have the power to arouse empathy … tonight, as a kind of experiment I want you to experience a simpler, more physical kind of empathy …’ He held his hand over the lighted candle … Someone in the audience made a sound like a sigh or a moan. You could see the tip of the flame burning the man's palm. You could almost hear the sizzle of the flesh … Everyone … watched in frozen horror.

And then he clasps his hands together, produces a thin red scarf from between them, and reveals the whole thing as an illusion. Rapturous applause, he's a marvellous conjuror, he ought to be on TV, they say, but while they're savouring their relief he has disappeared. The novel itself, all six hundred-odd pages of it, pulls this kind of trick again and again, in revisiting horrors and atrocities from the last war—most memorably and terribly in the inset stories told by Lieutenant Mamiya, who describes watching a Japanese agent being flayed alive on the orders of a Russian, and the experiences, told by his daughter, of a vet who saw zoo animals being shot to bits by Japanese soldiers, and recaptured Chinese prisoners being bayoneted, and brained with a baseball bat.

These narratives are juxtaposed with the present-day quest of Toru Okada, another ‘ordinary’ Murakami narrator with a mid-life crisis, for his wife Kumiko, who has been having an affair with another man, has now left him for what turn out to be much more mysterious and deep-rooted reasons. Okada, coming unstuck in his own life, at a loose end, becomes the audience for other people's stories. He can't do empathy, it turns out—but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Instead, he searches his own psyche, and his personal experience, for traces and echoes of the kind of violence that came out of the closet in the war. Talking to Ian Buruma in the New Yorker, Murakami said that when he was a boy he heard his father (whom he doesn't get on with) reveal something terrible about his experience as a soldier in China, but he couldn't remember later what it was: ‘I don't want to know the facts. I'm only interested in the effect my blocked memory has on my imagination.’ The novel shows what he seems to have meant: Okada does his researches by exploring the alley to nowhere at the back of his house, and climbing down into the implausibly deep dry well in the back garden of an empty house where a retired general who committed suicide once lived. Alongside the sensation of empathy suggested by realistic, illusionist writing, Murakami sets a kind of translation or internal re-creation of the violence and pain of the past. It must be ‘there’ somewhere in one's character, his character Toru Okada reasons, as he turns into a psychic warrior, and learns to walk through walls. Vertigo and disorientation overtake him, ‘a throbbing deep in my head … a lump of string in the pit of my stomach,’ and intensify to the point where they start to resemble skinnings and stabbings of the self. Like Marguerite Duras in La Douleur, which she claimed was a wartime journal she found in a drawer, but had no memory of writing, Murakami lays claim to a share in others' crimes against humanity. His character Okada becomes a kind of clairvoyant conscript, not only suffering the shame of rejection and powerlessness, but wielding a fatal virtual baseball bat against his enemies.

Chief among these is his brother-in-law Noboru Wataya, a Post-Modern economics guru turned politician, who is described with real dislike—‘Consistency and an established worldview were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media's tiny time-segments.’ The novel may be sceptical about the good faith of realist writing, but it's also nauseated by Wataya's kind, cultural vampires, the new undead. Maintaining this balancing act doesn't subdue its exuberance: it has the usual metafictional company—the truanting teenage sidekick, the prostitute of the mind, the sweating, chain-smoking gangster go-between, the missing cat, even the sheep. The teenager, May, provides a handy description of the formal rules of this writing: ‘So then one disconnected thing led to another disconnected thing, and that's how all kinds of stuff happened.’ There's even some nice ‘hardboiled’ pastiche for old time's sake: ‘She dropped the cigarette on the ground as if testing gravity conditions for the day.’

So what does Murakami's return to a Japanese ‘identity,’ and facing up to history amount to? It's edged around with irony, certainly, and scrupulously disconnected and rootless in its structure. At the same time, Okada is much closer to being a hero than earlier protagonists. May, whose disaffection and youth give her a special authority in this upside-down world, says to him: ‘I can't help feeling that you are fighting for me … that, in a way, you are probably fighting for a lot of other people at the same time you're fighting for Kumiko.’ But it's perhaps too easy from the outside to seize on signs of representative Japaneseness, especially when they come in the form of ‘reverse anthropology,’ returning from foreign parts to look at your own culture with an estranged eye, as so many Western writers have done since the war. How do Japanese readers react to his return home? Do they empathise, or do they see him as still the international writer? Is his history theirs? In South of the Border, West of the Sun Hajime wonders whether the real purpose of inventing alternative realities, fictions, castles in the air, afterlives in the underground (Murakami's own jazz bar was in a cellar), is to sustain by contrast the reality of here and now. The danger is, he muses, that then you need a third reality to serve as grounding, and so on and on. Nonetheless, it's only by maintaining that chain that we keep the uncertain world of memory and sensation in business. This has the air of an apologia pro vita sua as a Post-Modern success, but it saves the conjuring tricks, too. The story of Murakami's oeuvre is itself fascinating, a great contemporary triumph of translation, in more senses than one.

Scott Reyburn (review date 15 November 1999)

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SOURCE: “Intimate Encounters,” in New Statesman, Vol. 128, No. 4462, November 15, 1999, p. 54.

[In the following review, Reyburn assesses the strengths of Murakami's storytelling in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.]

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is one of the most compellingly original voices in world literature. Born in Kyoto, in 1949, the son of a Japanese army veteran of the second world war, Murakami used to run a jazz bar before publishing a series of weird and wonderful novels whose commercial and critical success have earned him superstar status in his native land.

The English-speaking world has taken longer to catch up with him. His novels have been fitfully available in translation (just two are currently in print in Britain) and it was not until last year's publication of the epic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—a surreal journey through the dark interior of a damaged marriage, set against the even darker backdrop of wartime atrocity—that American and British readers awoke to his talent. The Wind-Up Bird received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. You'll now struggle to get decent odds against his winning a Nobel prize at some point in the next century.

Murakami is, in many ways, the shape of 21st-century fiction to come. Using the narrative mechanisms of Hollywood noir, he explores, in a surreal way, the metaphysical anxieties of our age while retaining a mordant grasp of its mass-consumed realities. His fiction belongs to no genre but has the addictive fluency of the best genre fiction. He writes equally vividly about the mystery of personal identity as he does about a man buying trainers in a mall. His heroes are likeable, easy-going guys who ask for little more from life than to listen to jazz records and cook good pasta. Then the telephone rings, or a mysterious woman turns up, and the world turns upside down.

The Wind-Up Bird, with its virtuoso set pieces—a Japanese officer being flayed alive, a massacre of zoo animals—displayed Murakami's fictional imagination at its most extravagant. South of the Border is an altogether more intimate piece. It was originally published in Japan in 1992, two years before The Wind-Up Bird. Since Murakami's most recent book has been a non-fiction account of the Tokyo gas massacre, we shouldn't infer too much from this slim offering about which direction his fiction is taking.

Hajime, our latest fall guy, is a happily married Tokyo jazz club owner. His life is thrown into disarray by the reappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Shimamoto. Never go back, the saying goes, but Hajime has to go back to go forward. Although he knows little about her adult life and not so much as a kiss has passed between them, Hajime finds himself risking all for the love of this cool beauty who sips cocktails in his club.

The title neatly sums up the trademark duality of this novel. First, the irretrievable idyll of childhood, of the 12-year-old Hajime and Shimamoto listening to Nat King Cole's “South of the Border” on scratchy vinyl; second, the restless desire “to find a new place, grab hold of a new life” which Shimamoto distils in the central image of light-starved Siberian farmers walking to their deaths in search of a mystical land that lies “west of the sun.”

Background exposition and description are pared down and characters are animated in a single image. Murakami introduces Shimamoto, a girl with a limp to whom the pre-pubescent Hajime is drawn, thus: “Some of the others in our class must have thought her cold and haughty. But I detected something else—something warm and fragile beneath the surface. Something very much like a child playing hide-and-seek, hidden deep within her, yet hoping to be found.”

Murakami writes with authority about what, for other less gifted novelists, is the crushing ordinariness of late-20th-century life. There is a lot of sitting around in apartments, and Hajime spends much time talking to Shimamoto in his jazz bar, like the postmodern equivalents of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in their station buffet.

Contemporary American and English readers used to divorce rates of 40 per cent or higher might well find the emotional compromises that resolve this novel an unconvincing return to the moral world of Brief Encounter. But cultural differences are at play here. Until last year, when an unprecedented 200,000 Japanese marriages were dissolved, divorce still carried a social stigma in Japan, not wholly dissimilar from that constricting the passions of 1940s Britain, although with a more urbane tolerance of extramarital affairs.

Or is it simply that the 12-year-old Shimamoto is right when she says: “After a certain length of time has passed, things harden. Like cement in a bucket. And we can't go back any more.” So the past, for Hajime, as he is forced to choose between two loves, becomes another haunted country which doesn't issue re-entry visas.


Haruki Murakami World Literature Analysis