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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1958

Haruki Murakami established his reputation, in both Japanese and English, as a writer of surreal, fantastic tales of a world gone slightly awry, where a man can be spiritually possessed by a sheep (Hitsuji o meguru boken, 1982; A Wild Sheep Chase, 1989) and a hotel can contain an alternate universe (Dansu dansu dansu, 1988; Dance Dance Dance, 1994), where a man can gain access to an alternate universe by sitting at the bottom of a well (Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru, 1994;The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 1997), or where a hero who inhabits alternate universes approaches himself in alternate chapters (Sekai no owari to hado-boirudo wandarando, 1985; Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1991). What is clear is that Haruki Murakami’s universes are always alternatives; even the mundane world is inhabited by characters who push against the conformist grain of Japanese society. Murakami is a fan of Raymond Chandler, indeed has translated him into Japanese, and Murakami’s protagonists all bear some degree of resemblance to Chandler’s hard-boiled, loner detective, Philip Marlowe—his cynicism, his sense of morality, and his propensity to rescue damsels in distress.

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In 1968, Toru Watanabe leaves his home town of Kobe to attend university in Tokyo. He lives in a private dormitory, where students from many universities board. He is a loner, spending his time reading American novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike.

One reason for Watanabe’s solitary existence is that when he was in high school, his best friend, Kizuki, committed suicide. Kizuki was smart, charismatic, and popular, seeming to have everything in the world to live for. Watanabe spent most of his time with Kizuki and Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko. He seems to be reluctant to open up to anyone after this inexplicable loss.

Until that time, I had understood death as something entirely separate from and independent of life. The hand of death is bound to take us, I had felt, but until the day it reaches out for us, it leaves us alone. This had seemed to me the simple, logical truth. Life is here, death is over there. I am here, not over there.

The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. When it took seventeen-year-old Kizuki that night in May, death took me as well.

One Sunday, two years after Kizuki’s suicide, Watanabe runs into Naoko in Tokyo, and they begin to spend their Sundays together walking around the city. It is an ambiguous relationship, not that of boyfriend and girlfriend, but of a deeper emotional connection than a typical college friendship. They never speak of the past, but the fact of Kizuki’s death is always there between them. Slowly, Watanabe falls in love with Naoko. On the night of her twentieth birthday, he brings a cake to her apartment to celebrate. After dinner, when Watanabe tries to leave, she begins to cry:

One big tear spilled from her eye, ran down her cheek, and spattered on a record jacket. Once that first tear broke free, the rest followed in an unbroken stream. Naoko bent forward where she sat on the floor and pressing her palms to the mat, she began to cry with the force of a person vomiting on all fours. . . . Supporting her weight with my left arm, I used my right hand to caress her soft straight hair. And I waited. In that position, I waited for Naoko to stop crying. And I went on waiting. But Naoko’s crying never stopped.

I slept with Naoko that night.

After Watanabe leaves the next morning, Naoko disappears. She moves out of her apartment with no forwarding address. A letter he mails to her parents’ address in Kobe is not answered. Finally, after three months, he receives a letter from a sanatorium outside Kyoto. Naoko explains that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown, but cannot explain anything more.

Time goes by. One day, in a small student café, a girl from his History of Drama class approaches him. Her name is Midori, and despite his insistence that he is just “an ordinary guy,” she persists in seeing him as unique and iconoclastic. Soon the two of them are spending time together, although she has a boyfriend and he is still emotionally bound to Naoko. Midori is a working-class girl—her father owns a small bookstore in a rundown neighborhood—who was sent to an upper-class high school because of her academic skills. The chip on her shoulder is evident, as are her eccentricities. She relishes, for instance, relating to Watanabe her fantasies, both sexual and interpersonal. These fantasies invariably revolve around her ability to control other people, to subject them to her whims and caprices.

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Meanwhile, Naoko sporadically writes letters from her sanatorium. Watanabe goes to visit her, and meets her roommate, Reiko. The sanatorium is a very open, unconventional place, where people work on the land, share group therapy, and attempt to rebalance themselves. Reiko is in her late thirties, a pianist with a history of mental breakdowns. The event that drove her to the sanatorium was a lesbian seduction launched at her by one of her students, a sociopathic, manipulative thirteen-year-old. She spends much of her time playing music, and whenever Naoko requests that she play the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood,” she has to put some money in a jar, because she requests it so often.

Naoko begins to be able to talk to Watanabe about her own past, in particular her relationships with Kizuki and her older sister, another “perfect” teenager who committed suicide. The only flaw in her perfection was that she had a habit of periodically shutting herself up in her room for a day or two; after her suicide, her parents recalled another relative who had shut himself up in his house for four years, then threw himself in front of a train. Naoko was the one who discovered her sister’s body, and she retreated to her bedroom for three days afterward, unable to talk. She seems to regard this withdrawal as evidence that she is tainted with the same “flaws” that drove her sister to suicide. These suicides are unexplained to the extent that there is no note explaining why, but it seems that these perfect children choose death over imperfection. The strain is too great for them, and they crack under the pressure.

On his return to Tokyo, Midori takes Watanabe to visit her father, who is in a hospital recovering from surgery for a brain tumor. This is the illness that killed Midori’s mother just a few years before. It becomes increasingly clear that Midori’s fantasies of bossing other people around are a compensation for the years she has spent tending to ungrateful ailing relatives—her father’s reaction to her mother’s death was to tell his daughters that one of them should have died instead. Watanabe offers to sit with her father while she goes out and relaxes, and although the man cannot speak (a situation that Murakami indicates by placing his voiceless words within angle brackets) and is almost out of touch with reality, Watanabe talks to him about the small things going on in his life, going to classes, doing laundry, the concept of deus ex machina. He persuades Midori’s father to eat a cucumber, cut into small pieces, wrapped in nori, and dipped in soy sauce:

“How was that? Good, huh?”

“Good”, he said.

“It’s good when food tastes good,” I said. “It’s kind of like proof you’re alive.”

Nonetheless, the next week Midori’s father dies. Midori does her own disappearing act after that, leaving Watanabe torn between his growing love for Midori and his feeling of responsibility to Naoko. He makes another visit to the sanatorium; he attends classes. Midori sells the bookstore and moves into an apartment with her sister; Watanabe moves out of the dormitory into a little house far from the university and tries to persuade Naoko that she should leave the sanatorium and come live with him. Unfortunately, he neglects to tell Midori about his move, and she cuts off communication with him in a fit of pique. At the same time, communication from Naoko dries up as well. Eventually Reiko writes him that Naoko has gotten worse. She is hearing voices. “I had assumed that the only problem was whether she could regain the courage to return to the real world, and that if she managed to do so, the two of us could join forces and make a go of it. Reiko’s letter smashed the illusory castle that I had built on that fragile hypothesis, leaving only a flattened surface devoid of feeling.” Naoko leaves the sanatorium to get treatment at a more conventional mental hospital. Now he is stuck in limbo, between one girl who cannot speak to him and another who refuses.

Finally Midori breaks her silence and tells him straight out that she has broken up with her boyfriend and is in love with him. He confesses that he loves her, but is still bound to Naoko, even though she does not love him. The problem of choice, however, becomes moot, for soon afterward Naoko commits suicide, hanging herself just as her sister had done.

Watanabe takes off on an aimless journey, wandering from town to town, sleeping on beaches or in flophouses, trying to come to terms with all the death around him. “I had learned one thing from Kizuki’s death . . . : Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of life.’ By living our lives, we nurture death. True as this might be, it was only one of the truths we had to learn. What I learned from Naoko’s death was this: no truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one.”

When he returns to Toyko, he receives a letter from Reiko; as a result of Naoko’s death, she has decided that it is time to leave the sanatorium herself. She is on the way to take up a job teaching music in Hokkaido, and she wants to see him on the way. When she arrives, they talk about Naoko and where their lives may go from here. Finally, they make love. After seeing Reiko off on the train, Watanabe calls Midori.

Norwegian Wood was a sensation when it was published in Japan in 1987. Superficially it is a completely realistic novel, lacking Murakami’s usual infusion of Magical Realism. However, in both theme and tone it is unmistakably Murakami in its portrayal of a young man torn between commitments to a melancholy, withdrawn, psychologically troubled woman who does not love him and to one who is unconventional, aggressive, very much of the here and now. “I’m a real, live girl,” Midori says, “with real, live blood gushing through my veins. You’re holding me in your arms and I’m telling you that I love you.” Naoko slips into the Otherworld of death as mysteriously as Kiki dissolves into the Sheep Man’s alternate Dolphin Hotel in Dance Dance Dance, she is as imprisoned as Kumiko in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Naoko and Kizuki choose death, where stillness will keep them perfect. Watanabe and Midori choose life because they know they are imperfect, and so is life.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (June 1, 2000): 1798.

Library Journal 125 (November 1, 2000): 136.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 3, 2000, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (September 24, 2000): 7.

Publishers Weekly 247 (July 3, 2000): 45.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 2, 2000, p. 24.

The Village Voice 45 (October 3, 2000): 205.

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