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.
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).
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.
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.