An Overview of the Hard-Boiled fiction of Murakami Haruki.
In this essay, I will be examining the principal symbols and themes in two of Murakami's "Hard Boiled" novels, A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance. First, I will give a definition of alienation, which is a recurring theme throughout much of his corpus. I will then give a brief overview of some of Murakami's works, examining his style, and describing the protagonist. The main part of the essay will examine in detail the novels chosen from four different angles; firstly that of important symbols in the works, secondly, the role of death, thirdly, the impact and influence of foreign culture on his protagonist's value systems, actions, and way of life, and fourthly, Murakami's unique use of the Japanese language.
As much of Murakami's work is based around the themes of
alienation, in particular those of rootlessness, powerlessness
and estrangement, I will now examine a few of their definitions.
One source considers alienation to be "Estrangement from other people, society, or work... a blocking or dissociation of a person's feelings, causing the individual to become less effective. The focus here is on the person's problems in adjusting to society. However, some philosophers believe that alienation is inevitably produced by a shallow and depersonalised society."1 Also, from a sociological viewpoint: "Émile Durkheim's anomie, or rootlessness, stemmed from loss of societal and religious tradition..." "...according to Heidegger, mankind has fallen into crisis by taking a narrow, technological approach to the world and by ignoring the larger question of existence."2
Alienation has also been described as: - "estrangement; mental or emotional detachment; the state of not being involved; the critical detachment with which, according to Bertolt Brecht, audience and actors should regard a play, considering action and dialogue and the ideas in the drama without emotional involvement."3
The Encyclopaedia Britannica has this to say: "Alienation, in social sciences, the state of feeling estranged or separated from one's milieu, work, products of work, or self," encompassing such variants as "...powerlessness, the feeling that one's destiny is not under one's control but is determined by external agents, fate, luck, or institutional arrangements, meaninglessness, a generalised sense of purposelessness in life... cultural estrangement, the sense of removal from established values in society, and ... self-estrangement, perhaps the most difficult to define, and in a sense the master theme, the understanding that in one way or another the individual is out of touch with himself."4
Since Marx, alienation has lost much of its original sociological meaning, and has been used to describe a wide variety of phenomena. These include: any feeling of separation from, and discontent with, society; feelings that there is a moral breakdown in society; feelings of powerlessness in the face of the solidity of social institutions; the impersonal, dehumanised nature of large-scale and bureaucratic social organisations.5
Now, I will give a brief overview of Murakami's works, and a
few comments on the books I will be covering.
Murakami Haruki is often regarded as being in a genre of his own, in which he mixes what he refers to as "Hard Boiled" suspense and elements of science fiction. His characters move through life in a desultory fashion, frequenting bars, recalling lyrics from songs, encountering and losing touch with each other.6 His novels in general have unremarkable protagonists, who live regular unremarkable lives. They seem on one hand indifferent to worldly affairs, and on the other hand yearning perpetually for something.7
Like most Japanese, the typical Murakami protagonist believes himself to be a man of the middle, a product of, to quote his novel Norwegian Wood, "a regular workaday family, not especially rich, not especially poor. A real run-of-the-mill house, small yard, Toyota Corolla."8
It could be said that Murakami is taking this notion of anonymity to an extreme; in none of his Hard-Boiled novels does the protagonist have a name. He is always an "I," and in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Murakami differentiates between the two personas by having them refer to themselves as "Boku" and "Watashi" (a distinction lost in the translation). Neither is this necessarily confined to the protagonist, either. In A Wild Sheep Chase, he doesn't know the name of his girlfriend of several months, and central characters go by monikers such as The Rat, The Boss, My colleague, or The Sheep Professor. It seems Murakami doesn't want to personalise his characters too much by dignifying them with names.
Oe Kenzaburo has said recently that Murakami, rather than writing shi-shosetsu, [I-novels] writes shimin-shosetsu, [stories of (average) citizens] in the style of Maruya Saiichi.9 "However, unusual things befall these 'average citizens'. Their girlfriends commit suicide. Their friends turn into sheep.... But they will be damned if they're going to make a big deal out of it."10 His protagonists have been described by the term "Deadpan Hipness."
There is a lot of variety in Murakami's works, which broadly speaking, can be divided into two camps. That of the hard-boiled science-fiction adventure, (A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Dance Dance Dance.) although to use the term 'science fiction' would suggest something extraordinary, which is at odds with the incongruous nature of the majority of Murakami's works. His other fiction (not explored in this essay) is that of the sombre commentary on life and love, such as Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun.
A Wild Sheep Chase, and its sequel Dance Dance Dance are adventures, sometimes bordering on fantasy, with their protagonist an outsider who lets the world go by with only the odd blip on his otherwise quiescent radar screen.11 He is a thirty-something Tokyoite, something of a nerd, aimless and mired in the monotony of everyday life. " . . . the protagonist realises 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, A Wild Sheep Chase is written in a most quiet and realistic manner in order to convey the ordinary lifestyle of the protagonist."12 He's a sceptic, he's a cynic, he lives somewhat outside of society. But he wouldn't consciously call himself an outlaw.13
Murakami seems to delight in creating totally unremarkable protagonists with whom the reader can easily sympathise, and although the boundary between reality and imagination is blurred in many of Murakami's novels, the over-riding impression is one of normality. Not so much in the sense that the situations that they become embroiled in may be considered normal, but more that their reactions to these occurrences are very down to earth. In the main, the protagonists accept the situation, and although strange things happen, these "anti-heroes" do not let it bother them.
This is illustrated in Murakami's short story Hitsuji Otoko no Kurisumasu, (not covered in this essay) a light-hearted fairy-tale. The protagonist, a regular human dressed in a sheep costume, is not commented on at all. Indeed, he is portrayed as almost normal, with only his landlady commenting at all on his unusual appearance. He holds a regular job, in a doughnut shop, and has an apartment. When he decided to become a sheepman, he went to "Sheepman's school." However, when something totally illogical and inexplicable occurs, he doesn't sit around puzzling over the situation, he gets down to the task of sorting out his problem, namely a curse, a task which is also taken in his stride. (The sheepman character crops up several times in his works, most notably in A Wild Sheep Chase, and Dance Dance Dance, which continue the story of "Boku," the series started with Hear the wind Sing and Pinball 1973.)
I will now give a brief summary of the two books analysed in this essay. In A Wild Sheep Chase, our protagonist works in a small advertising company with his partner. One day, he receives a strange visitor, who demands that he, on pain of being forced into bankruptcy, find a mysterious sheep, seen in a photograph that he received from his friend the Rat. Hence, with his slightly psychic girlfriend, he heads off on the chase after which the book is named. In Hokkaido, he encounters assorted strange characters, but the overriding theme seems to be that of coincidence, how things just seem to fit together. He meets his friend The Rat, has his first encounter with the Sheepman, and succeeds in his task of finding the sheep.
In Dance Dance Dance, a continuation of the same story, he feels compelled to return to the same hotel in Hokkaido where he stayed in A Wild Sheep Chase. Through people that he seemingly coincidentally meets there, comes to terms with his past, and in the most literal sense, many of the skeletons in his closet. Whereas A Wild Sheep Chase is a story of loss, in Dance Dance Dance he manages to come to terms with many of the demons that have been haunting his past, and the denouement has a refreshing finality about it, with none of the sense of despair that permeated its predecessor.
There are several important symbols in the two books covered
in this essay, principally those of the Sheep, the Sheepman, and
the Dolphin Hotel. I will discuss them, giving the context in
which they appear, and will describe the ways in which Murakami
uses them to communicate various points.
Although at first glance, the Sheep and the Sheepman may appear to be one and the same, they do in fact portray very different things. In A Wild Sheep Chase, the mysterious sheep with the unusual star-shaped mark on its back is a metaphor for society and group identity. Murakami is ambivalent as regards society as a whole - through his nameless protagonist, he shows many instances of wanting to fit into society, and of wanting to be anonymous, but he "goes into battle" against that sheep. It is perhaps enforced group identity against which he is railing.
In A Wild Sheep Chase, the Sheep Professor (a different character again) states "What the sheep seeks is the embodiment of sheep thought,"14 which he regards as a bad thing. However, "To the sheep's thinking (of course) it's good,"15 that is, subsuming one's own identity to the greater. It is thought to be immortal, and enters the body of anyone it considers susceptible. This sheep (meaning society) gives unbelievable will to anyone it enters, changes their consciousness, and through them, exerts a fearsome influence on the world at large.16 Those who are entered by the sheep are in essence possessed, and they no longer appear to be the same person. "The values of one lone individual cannot bear up before the presence of that sheep."17
While someone is possessed by the sheep, they are also thought to also be immortal. They are used by the sheep as a conduit in its scheme of building a large organisation - the same embodiment of sheep thought. (The sheep had)... "a monumental plan to transform humanity and the human world."18
However, when people are deemed to have outlived their usefulness by the sheep, it abandons them to the fate of the "Sheepless" - left with an afterimage of the sheep. "People have their limits, and the sheep has no use for people who've reached their limit. My guess is that he did not fully comprehend all that the sheep had cut out for him" and once that was complete, "...he was tossed. Just as the sheep used me as a means of transport."19 The "Sheep Professor says of the Boss, a shady behind-the-scenes magnate figure, who lies dying in a coma, "Such bliss. Better that the 'sheepless' be without this shell of half consciousness."20 The protagonist is drawn into a battle against the sheep and all it represents.
Another interpretation of the Sheep metaphor is tied up in the politics of the late sixties and early seventies. In the late 1960's, there was considerable dissension within the ranks of the various student organisations in Japan, some of which Murakami was a member. Kazuo Kuroko considers that A Wild Sheep Chase was written as a response to this. He argued that the sheep, which resided in the body of the Rat, symbolised the attempt by various members of the dissenting student movements, to manipulate the centre of authority. The decisiveness and courage of the Rat, in his suicide symbolised the "destruction and banishment from this world of this transgressive desire." Kawamoto Saburo maintained that Murakami was attempting to put across the idea that "Sheep equals revolution and self-negation," and the suicide of the Rat was the end of these various social upheavals, the end of an era.21
The Dolphin Hotel is central to both A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance. In A Wild Sheep Chase, our protagonist meets the Sheep Professor there, and thus learns of the whereabouts of the aforementioned sheep. This hotel is unremarkable, except that the protagonist's girlfriend Kiki is quite adamant that they should stay there. It is rather run down, and inhabited by the eccentric, yet still human Sheep Professor. However, four years later, in Dance Dance Dance, far from the dull anonymity of the Dolphin Hotel of A Wild Sheep Chase, it is now a modern "Bauhaus Modern-Art Deco symphony of glass and steel."22 The hotel symbolises a part of his consciousness, a part that he does not fully understand. He is afraid to delve too deeply into it, primarily because the Dolphin Hotel is the home of the Sheepman.
The Sheepman is a very different character to the sheep, one with a much more benevolent mien. This really comes out in Dance Dance Dance, where the Sheepman is there "for me," acting as a kind of switch-box, co-ordinating events and desires. The Sheepman seems to have a central, yet less than clear role in Dance Dance Dance (compared to A Wild Sheep Chase, where his appearances are infrequent and not pivotal). He acts as part fairy godmother, part guardian angel, and even the protagonist "I" is unsure as to his nature. "I" has been aware of the Sheepman since A Wild Sheep Chase, when his friend the Rat assumed his form, but has tried to deny his existence. Because of it's association with his friend's death, he has also been unwilling to accept the role the Dolphin Hotel plays in his life.
Unwillingly, but not coincidentally, he felt compelled to return, "Like a bird returning to the nest... Maybe my life had been following this unspoken course all this time."23 "I always thought I'd come back, I guess. I knew I had to, but I didn't have it together. I dreamed about it. About the Dolphin Hotel, I mean. Dreamed about it all the time. But it took a while to make up my mind to come back."24
The Sheepman tells him that for "I", everything begins and ends at the Dolphin Hotel, of which the Sheepman is a part. The Dolphin Hotel is where it all ties together. "Thisisyourplace. It'stheknot. It'stiedtoeverything. (sic)"25 The previous owner of the Dolphin Hotel, the Sheep Professor, had refused to sell out to developers unless the new hotel would keep the name "Dolphin." This had been done so that "I" would know where to return to. Naturally, he is surprised by all this, and wonders why an entire hotel and specifically, its ovine resident are there for his benefit. Still, as is typical of Murakami's latter-day anti-heroes, he doesn't let it get to him, and accepts it at face value.
While the Dolphin Hotel may be his nexus, where "it's all tied together," the Sheepman himself is the one who lives there for him. The Sheep Man is his "Screw turner," and is "The man who lives for me in a place for me."26 The Sheepman's role is to tie together the things that "I" wants and the things he can get.
"The Sheepman is kind of like my caretaker, kind of like
a switchboard operator. If he weren't around, I wouldn't be able
to connect anymore."
"Yeah, when I'm in search of something, when I want to connect, he's the one who does it."27
The Sheepman is there so that everything is kept "in order," and to "keep everything from falling apart."28 Our anti-hero has dimly been aware of a presence, of someone looking out for him, since childhood, but was unaware of its nature.
I guess you've been around all this time, except I haven't
seen you. Just your shadow everywhere. You're just sort of always
That's right, We'rehalfshadow, we'reinbetween. (sic)"29
The reader gets the feeling that "I" is not entirely
comfortable with the existence of the Sheepman. However, as he
discovers what he has made of his life, he recognises that he
needs him in order to tie together the many loose ends that are
ruining his life, and to salvage what's left of it.30 That the Sheepman resides in
a corner of our protagonist's mind is clear, a corner, old, dank
and dusty, smelling of decay seemingly situated on a floor of a
modern hotel. Humans supposedly can not see this world, which is
part figment of "I's" imagination, part parallel
dimension. It is identical to the room inhabited by the Sheep
Professor in A Wild Sheep Chase; (even containing some of the old
Professor's things) the same person who demanded the hotel kept
the "Dolphin" name.
But why does "I" see a sheep in the first place? This is not clear. Who or what, exactly is the Sheepman?
The world that the Sheepman inhabits is our protagonist's private world, and according to the Sheepman, it's only one reality of many. The Sheepman appeared to choose it. In his meeting with the Sheepman, "I" is told to "Dance. As long as the music plays." This is the main theme of the book. Dancing is a metaphor for going through the motions, being a good citizen, and as Kazuo Kuroko says, the pursuit of human relationships.31 Indeed, the Sheepman is telling him to keep on being a regular guy, forging relationships, something that our hero already considers himself to be doing. In a sense, glorifying mediocrity. Of his friend, killed in an accident, he praises him by saying "...even if he wasn't such a great man. He fulfilled his duties nobly, excellently."32 By living that workaday life, dancing the steps, one is fulfilling ones duty to society, and fulfilling one's destiny. By doing that, everything will fall into place. Although there may not be any explicit reason for our existence, this does not necessarily imply that there is nothing guiding us.
Murakami is saying that we all have a shadow, or a part of our subconscious acting not so much as a guide, rather as a facilitator for what we know deep down to be the right thing to do. The Sheepman is his subconscious, talking to him and to Yumiyoshi, trying to tie the various threads of his life together. One simply has to connect the dots, by dancing to the music, doing the decent thing. Dancing itself is the end, rather than a means to the end.
In his subconscious, the protagonist uses memories and visions, some very vivid, as motivations for doing things. In a dream about following Kiki in Honolulu, she tells him "It wasn't me. It was you who called yourself. I'm merely a projection. You guided yourself, through me. I'm your phantom dance partner. I'm your shadow. I'm not anything more."33 Kiki symbolises his losses. She shows him what he has lost, and once "I" appears to have found a path out of his inner maze of uncertainty, she does not appear again.
So we have two sheep metaphors, very different in nature. Why would this be? Perhaps the difference between the two Sheep books is a sign of Murakami's maturing. The younger protagonist of A Wild Sheep Chase is rebelling against an all powerful overwhelming individuality-repressing sheep, because he is still younger, has no real ties, and is relatively happy to go traipsing off chasing wild sheep. The more mature protagonist of Dance Dance Dance, after having lost so much, so many friends, his wife, his job, is wanting to settle down and find love, rather than just sex. He tells Yuki that "I don't want to be hurt any more."34
Yumiyoshi coming to him is symbolic of this settling down. He talks of getting a real job, writing "Maybe a novel, something for me..."35 and getting his trusty Subaru up to Sapporo. He talks of settling down, domesticity, and coming of age. And it is decided by his subconscious (i.e. the Sheepman) that it is what he must do. It is, in essence, destined by fate. Near the end of the novel, when asked, "Where have you been?" he says "...I've made it back to reality-that's the important thing. I've come full circle. And I'm still on my feet, dancing."36
Death is one of the other central themes in Murakami's
hard-boiled fiction; and a pivotal one. His protagonist is
surrounded by people his own age, who die with an eerily
monotonous regularity. All of these deaths serve a purpose in
illustrating certain points.
Perhaps the most persistent of these is the idea that death extinguishes the past, and that through the death of others, one is freed from the demons that inhabit our past. Our protagonist, by his own admission, is way behind the times, and his life is haunted by the memories of past friends, lovers and locales. On several occasions, he describes his taste in music and clothes as "hopelessly out of date." His tastes in clothes and music may be one thing; one that he has no inclination to change, but his losing friends is a disturbing influence on him.
Personally, he is afraid of dying, afraid of ageing even. He lives in a Peter-Pan world, where he likes to think of himself as if not young, then at least young at heart. For him, the passing of time is not the process of growing up, or maturing, it's the process of decaying, of degenerating, and of marching inexorably towards death.37
In Dance Dance Dance, he is unwilling to return to the Dolphin Hotel, as it (in whichever form) reminds him too vividly of his friend the Rat's death However, in a wider sense, it reminds him of his past as a whole. A Wild Sheep Chase is a story of loss, and although he ultimately triumphs over the sheep, his final victory is nothing if not pyrrhic.
With the death of the Sheep, the sceptre of student protest again rears its head. Kazuo Kuroko feels that what "I" loses in A Wild Sheep Chase is his youth, which is ultimately illusory. Kuroko maintains that he lost it around 1970 "and the following decade." After his encounter with the Sheep, and the proof that it had finally been killed, "I" speaks with the Sheep Professor, whose statement "Haven't you just started your new life?"38 is a proof that "I" is finally released from that past illusion. Essentially, he is implying that "I" had been living in a dream, and had not been aware of that fact. The death of the Rat stood for a final coming of age, of giving up childish things. It was the ultimate act of altruism, for in sacrificing himself, he extinguished "I's" past.
To the comment espoused by some that it is not realistic to attribute the whole of A Wild Sheep Chase to a short episode in the author's student days, Kuroko replies: "The release from "Illusion = Past" is the same as the return to reality. However, the "Illusion = Past" which has been staying with a person for more than 10 years could never expire in a single day. It takes some time to adopt to the routine of daily life. (sic)"39
Dance Dance Dance is a story of his rebirth through the death of others, and is replete with both symbolism and deaths. Whereas in A Wild Sheep Chase, there is only really one death of any consequence, that of his Sheep-possessed friend the Rat, in Dance Dance Dance, the fatalities come thick and fast. His girlfriend Kiki, who accompanied him on his quest for the sheep vanished one morning, leaving him alone to confront his nemesis. Where we may have thought that we'd seen the last of her, she reappears in Dance Dance Dance, but not in any corporeal form. In A Wild Sheep Chase, fully human, she guided him in the sheep chase, but in Dance Dance Dance, forms the linking media between the "I" in Past=illusion, and reality.40 Kiki's main purpose was to bring "I" back to reality. Despite her importance, she only appears to "I" in his mind, not even consciously guiding him, acting rather as his motivation for going to the Dolphin Hotel (where it all ties together) in the first place. Eventually, he finds out that she is dead, and has been for a long time, killed by his junior high school friend Gotanda. Yuki, a teenager he met by being led to the Dolphin Hotel by the memory of a vanished Kiki, invites him to her mother Ame's residence in Hawaii.
Continuing the series of seemingly coincidental occurrences, he catches sight of Kiki, thus affirming what the Sheepman says: by merely dancing, one could find the link of matters. He follows her to the building in which she vanishes. Instead of the expected confrontation, all he finds are six skeletons. Like the illusory Kiki, having been killed long before, the skeletons are also produced by his own illusions.41
The skeletons, identifiably those of his friends, convey the symbolic meaning of deaths around us. Murakami has used the idea that it is only through ritualistic death that one could continue to live in the present. As both the Rat and Kiki are closely involved in his past, they therefore also belong in the realm of death.
This whole idea of the skeletons meaning the ties of the past is powerfully reinforced by his question to himself "Who was this skeleton number six then?"42 The book does not explicitly answer this question. After the series of deaths of all the people that meant anything to him, he almost gives up and withdraws from "The Dance." He finally finds Yumiyoshi, with whom he decides to live, and "Thus there is enough evidence to view the last skeleton as the "I" who got shackled by the curse of the past. In other words, if the theme of Dance Dance Dance is the protagonist's return from "past" to reality, "my" life with Miss Yumiyoshi could only come true after "my" rebirth. The last skeleton becomes the previous "I," which is now dead."43 All six of the skeletons are, in a most literal sense, "Skeletons in the closet." Through his dancing, as instructed by the Sheepman, he learns to carry on with life, taking what it throws at him. Finally, he confronts death, but manages to return to the present world ready to live his life.44
His friend Gotanda talks of being unable to separate himself from his shadow, and having first turned to murder, turns to suicide. He is mired in an existence devoid of love, in a job he hates, envies what he perceives as "I's" direction (although "I" would argue that he didn't consciously have any.). "You're being guided somewhere. You've got hope."45 Gotanda detests his past, and by killing Kiki, tries to extinguish it, in order to free himself from its grip over him. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but as he has an image to maintain as a famous actor, is too weak to act on it. His façade is one of self-confidence, but in reality, he despises himself. Gotanda is not in control of his subconscious, and although he killed a mutual friend of theirs, he is uncertain of the details of her death, to the extent of being unsure as to whether he actually killed her or not. "I have memories of something. But are the memories for real? Or are they something I made up later to fit? ... I'm lost."46 Unable to break this bond with the past, he kills himself.
The novel is partly a celebration of "I's" internal, yet unrecognised and unacknowledged strength, which Murakami is trying to convey to us. By facing up to negativity, feelings of loss, and despair, one can overcome any hardship, which is exactly what "I" manages to do at the end of Dance Dance Dance. Far from the paranormal adventures and unusual characters that populate this novel, his waking up with his girlfriend represents the emergence from a long dark tunnel, many years long. Through his meeting her, he again starts to find some peace in his heart. The final lines, of "Yumiyoshi, it's morning", are impressive in their freshness.47
It is undeniable that Murakami's works are heavily influenced
by foreign culture, primarily popular culture. There are numerous
references to western cultural icons, such as jazz, rock and
classical musicians, clothing labels, and automobile
manufacturers. His works are often compared to those of renowned
"Hard-boiled" detective storywriters Raymond Chandler
and Mickey Spillane. Chandler's influence is clear in a simile
from Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. After a
scene of wanton destruction, the narrator quips, Philip
Marlowe-like: "My puss was puffy like cheap
cheesecake." Or, from A Wild Sheep Chase: the limo moved
"like a washtub gliding over a sea of mercury."48
Murakami grew up in the cosmopolitan port city of Kobe, with many used bookshops, and while still a teenager, devoured large amounts of American fiction. "It was like opening a treasure chest. I mostly read hard-boiled detective stories or science fiction. They were all so different from Japanese writers. They provided a small window in the wall of my room through which I could look out onto a foreign landscape, a fantasy world."49 "American culture was so vibrant back then, and I was very influenced by its music, television shows, cars, clothes, everything. That doesn't mean that the Japanese worshipped America, it means that we just love that culture. It was so shiny and bright that sometimes it seemed like a fantasy world. We loved that fantasy world. In those days, only America could afford such fantasies, I was 13 or 14, an only child. Alone in my room, I would listen to American jazz and rock-and-roll, watch American television shows and read American novels."50
Murakami draws on the lingua franca of world pop culture, as well as European high culture.51 Along with other (Japanese) writers of his generation, (for instance, Banana Yoshimoto, Kyoji Kobayashi or Ryuu Murakami)52 he does not appear self-conscious about making references to Western culture, either high or low. In Dance Dance Dance for example, there are references to Schubert, Count Basie and Duran Duran within several pages of each other, and numerous references to brand names.
This comes as a marked change compared to Japanese writers of even a generation before, who were seen as being "guardians of high culture."53 "In Tanizaki, for instance, you can hear the bass drums in the background whenever someone is wearing Western clothes. It's fraught with ominous implications of cultural pollution and miscegenation."54
If Murakami can be seen to be a guardian of culture, it is not high culture, but the one that is prevalent in Japan today. In Metropolitan Sensibility, Kawamoto Saburou states that his novels "...fully reflect the mentality of our youngsters."55 Essentially, he is a product of his times, one where flaunting brand names and ostentatious consumption are de rigeur. One of the protagonist's favourite beliefs is that buying consumables that he doesn't need, he is doing his civic duty. Our narrator is a pop-culture junkie with little concern for context or meaning. He likes Clint Eastwood, Jodie Foster, Paul McCartney, the Doors, T.S. Eliot, Artie Shaw, and Steven Spielberg.56 It often appears that our protagonist is consciously steering away from Japanese cultural icons, as they are almost never mentioned. Despite the continued popularity of Japanese music and literature in Japan, if one were to go solely by Murakami's novels, one might never know they existed. It is as if the culture of the West, and in particular that of America has completely replaced that of Japan.
Murakami uses the comparison between foreign-made goods and Japanese made goods to good effect. He likes his music American, his clothes European. This is not to say he doesn't have anything to do with Japan, or Japanese things. To the contrary. It's merely that whenever things Japanese (Subaru, Udon, Ochazuke) are mentioned, there is a feeling of mundanity, of being comfortable and at ease, and of being unpretentious. On the other hand, references to things non-Japanese (Maseratis, pasta, Patek Phillippe watches, Hawaii) always conjure up a sense of the exotic, a sense of the high-life.
His friend Gotanda is embroiled in the world of the movie star, has more money than he will ever need, but hates it. He longs to be a regular person, anonymous, living a "simple life."57 "If I told someone deep down that I'm a Subaru man, they'd think I was stark raving mad, and they'd cart me off to a shrink."58
"I" constantly talks about luxury (read: foreign) items, and is incessantly name brand dropping. He is constantly fawning over Gotanda's clothing, style and dress sense, but knows he is the type of person that Gotanda yearns to be; regular, anonymous, living an uncomplicated existence. There are many indications that he knows that the lifestyle of the rich and famous is way out of his league. "The Maserati wasn't listening to the likes of me. Cars know their class too."59 "The fellow glanced at me, pegged me immediately as a nobody... I was invisible."60
Why the preoccupation with name brands? Is it merely a device to set the scene, or is there an ulterior motive in the almost obsessive noting of details that would strike most people as irrelevant? It has been suggested that rather than a device to place the work in time and location, Murakami is consciously "casting a harsh Saturday Night Fever disco light on his narrator's self-pity, self-seriousness, and petty obsessiveness."61 Murakami, once thought of as a representative of "Meism,"62 has over the years tried to distance himself from the rat race, and he does this through his protagonists, but their very separation from that rat race which is modern society ensures that they are to a certain extent socially dysfunctional. Interesting they may be, but they are not necessarily likeable. Sometimes his nameless guy's melancholy is sincere; sometimes, as when he covets a friend's car or recites designer labels, it's plain silly.63
What is the reason for his doing this? Simply, it is a way of connecting with the youth of today, questioning their roots and adherence to Japanese culture. "By gratuitously mentioning the names of writers, musicians and assorted brand names, he is not trying to create a special style, but merely feels that they are more familiar to everyone of us than what's called 'life.'"64 Murakami's characters are "youngsters of commodity catalogues, youngsters of signs."65 They appear to be without goals, purpose, or a sense of belonging.
His protagonist realises that he is not making any meaningful contribution to society, but is merely going through the motions of a day to day existence. He does not like his job, but only uses it a point of contact with society. Although he has an occupation, he is actually alienated from the social world. "In Dance Dance Dance, he refers to his job as "cultural snow-ploughing," a humble term implying a self-sufficient attitude which degenerates into a pessimistic and autistic nihilism with regard to this modern age and society."66
So, rather than participate in the world at large, his Hard-Boiled protagonists live a little apart from society; they are never overly burdened by money troubles, and appear free to follow their desires. His characters seem on one hand to be indifferent to worldly affairs (although they may be bothered by the anonymity of quotidian life), but on the other seem to be perpetually yearning for something. Their withdrawal from society, their self imposed isolation, appears not so much egoistic, shutting themselves off from it, rather it appears anomic, that they are avoiding it because they feel it is disintegrating around them.
Kato Koichi disagrees. He maintains that the alienation of Murakami's protagonist in A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance is due to his own elevated self-opinion. "Emotionally immature people tend towards loneliness, they hold high opinions of themselves, they themselves stand out, any problems that may occur are inevitably someone else's fault. "I" is firm on that point, instead of attributing blame, he suffers in silence, and when introducing himself uses clichés such as 'dull', 'average', 'plain', 'Capricorn, blood type A'."67
He seems to have taken to heart Bertolt Brecht's ideas on
alienation, being what he describes as a "critical
detachment with which one should regard a play, both audience and
actors considering action and dialogue and the ideas in the play
without emotional involvement."68 To this end, "I"
works on the principle of not bothering anyone. Rather than
trample on anyone, he would rather do without altogether -
replying to the woman, whom he'd later marry and then divorce:
""So that's how you plan to spend the rest of your
"Probably. At least I won't be bothering anybody."
"If you really feel that way," she said, "Why not live in a shoebox?"
A charming idea." (Pinball 1973)69
Murakami is himself reticent about imposing himself on anyone,
in Haiho, a collection of observations on daily life: "I'm
not a particularly timid parson, but I do feel uncomfortable
about imposing myself on others."70 His protagonist is
unable to take any action or to make any decision or judgement.
Instead he indulges himself in drinking or hiding in a room. In
trying to persuade his wife not to leave, he instead encourages
her to do so because he understands that she has realised that it
is he, not she that is socially unfit. Under the veneer of a
hyper-caffeinated roller coaster of a detective story, his novels
describe the helpless situation of the drunken husband: the
sadness, loneliness, isolation, fear, and humiliation. "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."71
And yet it would be a mistake to pity this "humiliated
man" too much. Under the surface, he is decidedly stubborn,
a trait we see when he encounters the Boss' private secretary, a
situation in which we see our "anti-hero" almost
surrender everything he has worked for over the years out of
obduracy. At times he may act childishly, as in his dealings with
his wife, but it would be wrong to judge him on these aspects
alone. His non-confrontational attitude is not a result of
laziness or cowardice, rather, he has decided that life is simply
easier to deal with that way.
The origin of this laissez-faire attitude is unclear. Of the failed counterculture of the '60s, Murakami himself states that "We were too weak, and traditional Japanese society was too powerful, I guess that's why we lost."72 "His novels have been called "allegories for a nation sleepwalking through prosperity, bumping into the shrouded furniture of its history on the way to the gleaming electronic future."73 Murakami was at high school in the late '60s, the era of the Vietnam War, of student protests at the renewal of the US Japan security treaty (Ampo), combined with an upheaval in popular culture. It was the time of the summer of love, and unabashed hedonism advocated by foreign musicians such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. A forced coexistence of such diametrically opposed ideas: on one side order, discipline and authority, on the other Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, brought about a "carefree nihilism," which masked a deep despair.74 But even the famous Ampo riots were tempered by the feeling that they had failed. It was widely perceived that because Japan had no long historical tradition of popular struggle,75 once Michiko Kanba was killed, long-term continuation of the anti government struggle was seen as too difficult. The Japanese youth, who had been so enthusiastic in their protesting metamorphosed into a broad stream of people with a "middle-class consciousness,"76 subconsciously cowed by the threat of a right-wing resurgence in response to any popular protest movements. And the phenomenon has engendered more of the same. Adults have succeeded in turning antagonistic children into sensible children and adolescents, who feel powerless in that their destiny is not under their own control, but is determined by external agents, fate, luck, or institutional arrangements. Those youths who cannot adapt take part no longer in protest demonstrations; instead they develop neuroses.77
There is however, a veneer of freedom. External conditions operate to repress true freedom and self-reliance, and in practice both are very remote from the grasp of young people.78 A university student is quoted in Rokuro Hidaka,'s The Price of Affluence - Dilemmas of Contemporary Japan as saying: "This place is certainly free. The students are told to choose what they really want to study and what they really want to do. But as for myself, I don't know what I really want to do. Faced with freedom, I feel completely at a loss."79
The reason why a regulated society can function on the scale it does today is not simply a result of those in control being coercive or the technology of control being so advanced. Strange as it may seem, it is because the young people who are supposed to be seeking freedom spontaneously (this spontaneity is in any case false when considered in psychological terms) want to be controlled.80 What Murakami is protesting in his works are those youth who are boundlessly submissive, boundlessly conformist. "They are a pathological symptom of the malaise in out society today."81 "We [in Japan] got rich in the last 20 years, but we don't have pride." "We don't know who we are, and we don't know where we are going or what our purpose is - sometimes we feel at a loss."82
So how does our nameless protagonist cope with this regulated
society? In a sense, he hides from it, and tries to deny many
parts of it. By categorising and enumerating, he can give himself
a point of reference and thus a handle on reality. He lives by
routine and rituals, minutely dividing time up, deciding what
should and shouldn't be done, filling up the day's schedule. An
everyday schedule like "I get up at 7, brew coffee, make
toast, leave for work, in the evening I eat out, have 2 or 3
drinks, return home, and read in bed for an hour..." is
surely a necessary contrivance, in order to divert ones attention
from the cracks that silently develop in growing older.83 He
often appears to be trivialising things in his categorising; in A
Wild Sheep Chase, "(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 style." "I am 28, and six years have
passed since I got married. I buried three cats within these six
years." "Married life" and "death of three
cats" are juxtaposed in absurdity. However, he would argue
against assuming this to be trivialising either marriage or his
cats' death. Rather, it is the result of an upbringing that fails
to equip one with the necessary tools to be able to make the
required value judgments,84
and a society so driven by material acquisition and greed, that
one isn't even expected to be able to. The works by Murakami can
be compared to a mirror reflecting the inanimate sensibility
accumulated by the flat signs of our modern society, (sic)85
offset by his trademark juxtaposition of the mundane and
paranormal which gives the book an eerie mood and accentuates the
sadness and heroism of everyday life.86
Not only does he rarely mention Japanese authors and literature in general in his work, stylistically it is very different also. Japanese authors such as Soseki, Tanizaki, and Kawabata are seldom discussed in relation to Murakami's literature. One aspect, which is not readily apparent to someone reading Murakami's works in translation, (especially his "hard-boiled" works) is how foreign they seem to a native Japanese reader. This is not to say that Japanese writers have never taken anything from the West: Tanizaki Jun'ichiro learned his craft from reading Edgar Allen Poe; Mishima Yukio drew inspiration from Jean Genet; and Abe Kobo's spooky parables are nothing if not Kafkaesque. But their style and substance have remained recognisably Japanese.87
Murakami, on the other hand, is so translatable that he is, paradoxically, the most untranslatable of Japanese writers; Everything in his fiction can be conveyed to an American reader except the shock of prose that reads so, well, American.88 His pop-culture metaphysics seem so jarringly out of sync with Japanese literary conventions.89 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 English, the characteristics of his English-like Japanese would be lost. Actually, his Japanese seems to have helped smooth translation into English.90
In this essay, I have attempted to give an overview of the
Hard-Boiled works of Murakami Haruki, covering what I perceive to
be the major themes and symbols that appear in them.
The critic Nakamura Mitsuo asserted in his 1950 book "Fuuzoku Shousetsu Ron" that modern Japanese novels were "distorted," tending to be no more than fictionalised autobiographies lacking in meaningful social criticism.91 This argument may have had merit when written, but the two Murakami books covered in this essay prove that his statement is no longer valid. Merely because Murakami's books take one on a mental roller-coaster ride does not mean that they are any less worthy in a literary sense than the works of more serious authors such as Abe Kobo, Oe Kenzaburo, or Mishima Yukio. In one sense, it is their sheer accessibility that makes them so worthy. When it comes to fiction, popular does not necessarily equate to pulp.
Murakami's novels can simply be enjoyed as entertaining detective thrillers, but under the street-smart savvy and offbeat similes lie some harsh criticisms of Japanese society. Delving deeper into the novels to find out what lies behind the verbal agility is rewarding, but Murakami's obtuseness means one is never entirely satisfied. Novel's end may well send readers back to page one to unpack Murakami's weightier cargo, the import of which seems to hang tantalisingly just out of reach, as though he were saying "do not understand me too easily."92 He seems to want the reader to be intrigued by his novels, the apparent inconsequence ... of which...eventually lands on one like a ton of sheep.93
Note on translation.
In the passages that I have quoted from A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance, rather than translate directly from the original, I have drawn on the excellent translations of Alfred Birnbaum.
Note on Personal Names.
In this essay, I have followed the convention of writing Japanese names in the Japanese order, surname preceding given names.
1 Microsoft Corporation Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia
3 Microsoft Corporation Microsoft Bookshelf Basics.
4 Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. Encyclopaedia Britannica Micropaedia .vol.1 p.270.
5 Abercrombie, Hill, Turner The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. p.14
6 Kodansha Japan, an Illustrated Encyclopedia. p.1014
7 Kawamoto, Saburo Metropolitan Sensibility.
8 The New York Times Book Review A Dialogue Between Jay McInerney and Haruki Murakami. Roll Over Basho: Who Japan Is Reading, and Why. September 27, 1992
9 Matsuoka, Naomi Murakami Haruki and Raymond Carver: The American Scene.
10 A Dialogue Between Jay McInerney and Haruki Murakami
12 Murakami Haruki and Raymond Carver: The American Scene.
13 A Dialogue Between Jay McInerney and Haruki Murakami
14 Murakami, Haruki A Wild Sheep Chase. (translated by Alfred Birnbaum) p.190
15 ibid. p.190
16 Miyawaki, Toshifumi Review of Dance Dance Dance.
17 A Wild Sheep Chase. p.192
18 ibid. p.189
19 ibid. p.190
20 ibid. p.190
21 Metropolitan Sensibility.
22 Murakami, Haruki Dance Dance Dance. (translated by Alfred Birnbaum) p.21
23 ibid. p.81
24 ibid. p.81
25 ibid. p.84
26 Aho san
27 Dance Dance Dance. p.193
28 ibid. p.84
29 ibid. p.87
30 Amazon.com review
31 Kuroko Kazuo The Return From The Lost World.
32 Dance Dance Dance. p.334
33 ibid. p.371
34 ibid. p.120
35 ibid. p.183
36 ibid. p.380
37 Katou, Kouichi Shisha-tachi no Okurimono.
38 Murakami, Haruki Hitsuji wo Meguru Bouken in The Return From The Lost World.
39 The Return From The Lost World.
42 Murakami, Haruki Dance Dance Dance. p.392
43 The Return From The Lost World.
44 Matsuoka, Naomi Murakami Haruki and Raymond Carver: The American Scene.
45 Dance Dance Dance. p.323
46 ibid. p.353
47 Review of Dance Dance Dance.
48 Wright, Sarah, Dancing as Fast as He Can, In Boston Magazine,
49 A Dialogue Between Jay McInerney and Haruki Murakami
55 Kawamoto, Saburo, Metropolitan Sensibility.
56 Dancing as Fast as He Can.
57 Dance Dance Dance. p.290
58 ibid. p.291
59 ibid. p.293
60 ibid. p.147
61 Dancing as Fast as He Can.
62 Murakami, Haruki Murakami Haruki, Kawai Hayao ni ai ni iku, quoted in Horagai.
63 Dancing as Fast as He Can.
64 Metropolitan Sensibility.
66 Kuroko, Kazuo The Return From The Lost World.
67 Shisha-tachi no Okurimono.
68 Microsoft Bookshelf Basics.
69 Pinball 1973, quoted in Shisha-tachi no Okurimono.
70 Murakami, Haruki Haiho. p.69
71 Matsuoka, Naomi Murakami Haruki and Raymond Carver: The American Scene.
72 Castelli, Jean-Christophe Tokyo Prose.
74 Metropolitan Sensibility.
75 Hidaka, Rokuro, The Price of Affluence Dilemmas of Contemporary Japan. p.129
76 ibid. p.125
77 ibid. p.127
78 ibid. p.109
79 Quoted in ibid. p.110
80 ibid. p.112
81 ibid. p.121
82 Tokyo Prose.
83 Shisha-tachi no Okurimono.
85 Metropolitan Sensibility.
86 Amazon.com book review.
87 Tokyo Prose.
91 Quoted in Japan, an Illustrated Encyclopedia. p.1040
92 Horvath, Brooke Book Review on A Wild Sheep Chase.
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