Articles


Pop Master


Outside looking in
Author in Focus
Garbage Dissect Our Modern Age

Break on through
The elusive Murakami

The Postmodern in Murakamis Novels
Terrorism before WTC
Japanese writer probes souls dark kingdom
Big in Japan
The healer
Murakami shares his thougts with students
A Japanese Novelist in Search of Lost Ideals
Inner space
Haruki Murakami does Seattle
Overview of the hard-boiled fiction of hm
The other Speech
dancing as fast as he can
Tokyo Prose
A Voice from Postmodern Japan
The American Scene
Hi Mr Haruki Murakami
The Return from the Lost world
Presents from the dead


Kawamoto Saburou
From Metropolitan Sensibility
   
     
  date unknown
  source unknown

 

Metropolitan Writers

In recent years, the "I" or "We" as subject in Japanese Literature has been largely replaced by the completely inorganic "Metropolis." The phrase "Metropolitan sensibility," for instance, means not the sensibility of the inhabitants of metropolis but instead the sensibility of the metropolis itself. Thus it does not refer to human sensibility, but points to the sensibility of the metropolitan space after every human has been de-characterized. The modern city is no longer a living space filled with the odour of human characters. It should now be described as an inorganic, anti-scenic two dimensional space of information and signs.

What we get in touch everyday are junks of information transmitted by television screens, newspapers and magazines. The so-called "living reality" and "human existentialism" are becoming sparser day by day. Such a city is more appropriately named as an abstract space where all types of symbols and signs intersect and co-exist. Our young people do not need to go out to the street. They only have to carry what happen on the streets back home for reading. For these readers, the living space of Tokyo has become the so-called two dimensional space of "T O K Y O" which lacks all "reality of life." The over-expansion of information circle versus the over-contraction of living circle is our daily experience. The daily activity of our children is confined to the travelling distance between school and home.

Back home they are shut up in the narrow space called "bedroom," where they consume information produced by television, radio, newspaper and magazines. "Living reality" is getting thinner, while information flies and swarms within the tiny enclosure. Information about the war in Middle East has the same value as those in commercials on instant noodles and walkmans. Gradually, urban dwellers lack experience in direct contact with others. Only in the consumption of information could they get agential experience . The horrors felt by urban cities are not derived rom bloody murders frequently occuring in reality.

Though such bloody events happen everywhere at everytime, what people get in touch are not living facts, but instead cool information. It is worth pondering what effects the metropolitan inorganism and semiotism might have on literature now and future. In the world of music, this trend could be seen in Technic POP represented by Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). Technic POP is based on sounds produced by computer chips, and human voice is extremely de-animated to the point of those non-human voice produced by the computer. Thus whatever sentiments and emotions are negated between the player the his music, with the consequence of music becoming much more empty.

Even Jazz manifests the inhuman qualities akin to those of Technic POP. Literature could hardly catch up with the rapidly changing urban scene. The language of real blood and flesh, commonly employed by writers in the past, could no longer describe the present phenomena. Haruki Murakami could be regarded as the contemporary young writer who receives wildest attention. His works are rich in what we call "metropolitan sensibility," the contents of which are deeply hidden in the writing style. No, the style itself is the content. The "living reality" which used to support stylistic effects, or the true-to-life emotions used to be found in other writers, are absent in his works. He seems to get concerned with the surface of the metropolis, and to enjoy himself in the "happy atmostphere" provided by the metropolitan life of comsumption. Or we shoud say he pretend to enjoy himself, and uses his pretense as his special literary language of expression.

Names of discs, writers, directors, musicians, movies appear in Murakami's works. He does not intend to create a special style, but merely feels that they are more familiar to everyone of us than what's called "life." Besides, he wants to describe the urban phenomena thickly wrapped up by these signs and symbols. Murakami chooses those things he likes and changes them as signs in his novels at the same time. His protagonists do not speak language used in real life for most of the time, but quotes the sayings of their favourite writers and lyrics. In other words, his characters are "youngsters of commodity catalogues, youngsters of signs." Their speeches often become soliloquys and the expression of claustrophobic autism. For instance, most conversations in Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 take place in "J's Bar," in bed, on vehicles.

Protagonists sit on chair or lie in bed, where they talk freely about writers, dreams, movies and novels. There never appears any topic on "living reality." Characters do not move a lot. They must be either lying or sitting. All these match what I call contraction of living circle and expansion of information circle in modern city life. In Pinball 1973 families and parents do not appear on stage. Continuity of time is deliberately cut off and what appears is merely the "present" of city surface. The world drawn by Murakami is very often a "passive" little world, in which he avoids on purpose any scene which could induce chaos. Like his "youngsters of commodities" who shut themselves up with discs, cartoons, posters and favourite things, Murakami only brings together his favourite signs in his works. His characters are always at "J's Bar," or beside the wooden fences outside the bar, or sitting in front of the desk in the translation company.

These symbolic descriptions well express the extreme narrowing of their moving space. Murakami does not agree to his being describe as a "light-hearted" writer or "metropolitan writer." He said in an interview, "In fact, I have things which I dislike, and have real flesh-and-blood expriences. I cheated others, and was cheated ... Yet I think many aspects of our city are worth criticizing. Such life of consumption and enjoyment could not continue forever. One day it will collapse and vanish ..." The school days of Murakami was in the latter half of the 60s. It was the age of "Vietnam war," "student disputes" and "political season." It was also the era of sensational release through music represented and advocated by Beatles. Such amazing co-existence of the lack of freedom (politics) and freedom (music) produced a carefree nihilism on the surface, which in fact lurks a"despair" behind. For the older generation who asserted: "We only have politics," such young generation reacted: "We also have music," an advocation of sensational freedom. Yet for the next generation who believed: "We only have music," they re-affirmed: "But we also have politics." This emotional delirium produced is responsible for the literary style of Murakami. He gives up the mode of expression used by past novelists, which is supported by exquisite real feeings of life. Through the use of unique language, the aggregation of urban signs and sarcastic jokes, a mask of gaiety is put up. He attempts to use his own feelings and consciousness to tell stories, and turn the "misery" of our modern age into "happiness." Therefore the works by Murakami could be compared to a mirror reflecting the inanimate sensibility accumulated by the flat signs of our modern society. His works are extremely vivid, fresh, and worth exploring.

 
 

 

1980s: An Age Of Emptiness Not only do Japanese call the modern age as "The Age of Emptiness," in America there has appeared the "No Generation" (meaning the generation which pursues nothing) ever since it stepped into the 1980s. These people abduct from cigarettes, wines, meats, and do not wear accessories even. They are too aware of themselves as insignificant entities in the giant metropolitan institution. Therefore there is no need to express their emotions strongly. The characters of Haruki Murakami have their favourite jazz discs, foreign novels, beers - trivialities which are enough to set up their "little room of fun," where they could live happily and sufficiently. In Pinball 1973, "I" live with the twin sisters, a life which is envied by others. However, the relationship of three of us could not be regarded as the normal male-female relation.

For me, the twin sisters who dress themselves in T-shirts which are gifts from the newly-opened supermarket are rather like the dolls of Snoopy. "We" do not make love, but only caress each other to sleep. "My" relation with "Rat" also reminds one of the friendship between Snoopy and Woodstock. The idiom of Snoopy is "I don't care about you, so please don't bother me." He doesn't love to argue, but always lies on his little house, looking at the sky or sleeping. If you want to praise Murakami, you'd rather say, "Your characters are like Snoopy" rather than: "Your novels fully reflect the mentality of our youngsters." The former will surely "please" him more. The AG, magazine for youngsters once introduced the novels by Haruki Murakami in this way: "The details are very sharp, and the writing is smooth. Even the intruding episodes do not destroy the smoothness, but only add to its elasticity and make it seem more lively. The effect produced could hardly be captured by a picture. ... "Yet Akiyama san in his literary criticism voices the question: `Could this light-heartedness toward life bear a straightforward relationship with the reality of our survival?' However, there already exist too many novels weaved out by the language of such reality.

Why couldn't we be more open, and begin an in-depth and open exploration of those anti-traditional novels?" In fact, when the happy union between language and narrator is already completely dissolved today, how empty the so-called "living reality" is! The reality of world and life has lagged far behind that of signs and language. For those insignificant city dwellers who understand this fact, language is no longer the accessories of the subject, but has become the subject itself. This reminds me of Woody Allen in the movie called "Manhatton" who describes in a self-jeering way the Jew who earns his living in New York Manhatton as a cultural elite. One exclaims: "Oh! Here's another `No Generation'!" Like this movie which describes the "civil minimum" of urban city dwellers; like the "quotation-knitted product" who quotes countless musicians, writers and film stars; or, like a jizzaw puzzle, this traceless and vibrant dispersal really interests me. Compared with the so-called humanized phrases like "I love you," "painful" and "lonely," the "names" of "culture" readily verbalized by urban cultural elites could better express their emptiness. Such "names" are not unlike the logos of tinned food found in supermarkets.

Though neatly arranged, they are meaningless. Murakami might be both a jazz and movie fanatic. He says, "Arranging cash on the table by using the most ancient method and separating them into several equal parts is a pleasurable thing to do. It reminds me of the movie "Cincinnattic Kids," one of the scenes in which Edward Robinson plays poker with Steve McQueen." Reading this I could not help but laugh, responding, "I see!" The scene in Pinball 1973 where the protagonist finally meets the "Spaceship" machine in the storehouse and the touching description which follows also reminds me of "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind." Though Murakami works are those of adolescence, "parents" and "families" do not appear often. In Kinema magazine, Frebruary 1980, he commented on the American movie Young Generation which he thought had been destroyed by the appearance of "parents." He also wrote: "Youth or the so-called Adolescence is built on fiction.

To forcibly add in reality would only result in total failure. What must be done is not to describe the realness, but to express the realness exactly." His words explains Pinball 1973 and Hear The Wind Sing clearly. And we discover the parents of Charles Brown (Needless to mention Snoopy) never appear. Thus Murakami is really like Snoopy. Inoue Hisashi describes Pinball 1973 correctly as: "Daily episodes of an autumn, expressed in a thoughtful arrangement and yet without pretense, like a ready performance of jazz." Though Hear The Wind Sing is what we call "fiction," for me, it belongs to the "chatting" type of novel. Chatting on whatever topics, which are all episodes of everyday life. But it is unlike a jizzaw puzzle, which produces a full picture after the last piece is fit in. "The works of Haruki Murakami are forever fragments randomly fallen upon the ground. They do not aspire to a unified world." If you are moved after reading the works of Murakami, it must not be induced by the impression of a complete world, but rather by the atmosphere called up by incidents of daily life which touch you deeply in your mind. The atmosphere is retained in the fragments, or hidden in the blank space in between fragments. This is as though our daily life is transmitted through channels, the workings of which produce different television scenes to be consumed, dispersed and finally disppear. Only, what is reflected are the meaningless and the uncontrollable.

To talk about the uncontrollable, the uncertainty of time is a refrain commonly found in Murakami's works. "Sometimes, yesterday becomes like last year, and last year becomes like yesterday. When things are getting serious, things happen in next year suddenly become those happened in last year." Here, time becomes episodic and scattered. Though Haruki Murakami belongs to the "jaunty" type of writers, he does not want to bring out any thematic idea deliberately but only brings out the episodes and to accept them with "gaiety." To have achieved this lightness and yet at the same time being thoughtful, Murakami is definitely appreciated for his apparent lack of restlessness. Moreover, Murakami usually constructs his novels on parallel and opposing episodes, so as to avoid falling alone into the giant abyss of "solitude" and "absolutism." Thus his works often end in a "light-hearted" mood while leaving with touches of bitterness simultaneously. This is perhaps a distancing effect due to the fading of his own prime. Or perhaps he is a melancholy city dweller who knows that though he shaves his beard in the morning, black roots always start to sprout by evening. The main reason however, I think, is that he is too aware of the existence of modern "episodic hell" which must oppose the "individual hell." Although he is able to survive happily in the chaotic episodes of modern age, the opposition of different episodes at night cuts him out from his anchor and exhausts him. Yet of course he always revitalizes himself to the point of whistling the next morning. For me, such alternation of gaiety and melancholy is exactly the orginal form of voidness faced by modern cit y dwellers, from which they have no escape. On such level of interpretation, Murakami is already qualified as a remarkable modern writer.

 

Modernist Writing With High Level Of Abstraction You only need to read one page of the novels by Haruki Murakami to feel and discover immediately: "Oh! This is Murakami's works!" Only in his works could we find completely different writing style and a world based on total trust on one's sensibility. One of the major characteristics of his novels is the extreme abstraction of conversation, near to the point of aphorism. Examples are "That is because you merely live on half of yourself!" She said frankly. "You haven't even touched the other half, and have forgotten where you left it." Or That yours is not a boring life, nor are you one to seek a boring life." Those who make such speeches in real life must be criticized as "pretentious." Yet in Murakami's world such idioms possess strong sense of reality.

To order to make such abstract and alphoric conversations seem more lively and natural, Murakami has embarked on higher abstraction - anti-realism for the other parts of stories besides conversations. The writer who gives up describing the "inner reality" of his characters must opt for the abstract and anti-realism in his use of language. Haruki Murakami attempts to observe the "naked" part of individuals in modernist society and to describe this purely crystallized part.. Thus his world tends to the abstract or the allegorical. Alphorism refers to the summary of certain impression, usually produced by a hundred words or theoretical elaboration, into one single sentence. That is the crossing out of trivial words to achieve a succint and crystallized world. Another characteristic of Murakami's writing is the feature of "childishness."

Man's natural kindness, rich imagination, naughty comparisons, and wild descriptions are found in-between lines and words, which never cease to bring surprise. He likes numeral games, and love to choose "things for description" and "things under description" from two entirely different worlds so as to form a double structure. For instance, he calls the nameless twin sisters as 208 and 209; in The 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. Haruki Murakami is definitely not a writer who writes seriously on serious topics; and he is not one who treat those serious topics lightly. Instead, he deprives those complex intersecting episodes of their standard value and manifest them openly regardless of their worth. Needless to speak, "Numerals" are naturally more abstract than "language."

Thus Murakami's stories deviate from reality into forests of abstraction. His highly abstract style stands out from those young literary writers who describes their surroundings or boredom of adolescence. His "childishness" is always manifested in his descriptions. Such examples are: "The sun was so small, small as an orange." -- "A smile like those commonly found on girls who get whole column of A in their school reports." -- "The Rugged streets stick to the ground like the wrinkles of Hami sweet melons." In the pairings of The sun and the orange, smile of girls and report slips, streets and sweet melons of Hami: a huge gap exist between "things for description" and "things under description." Haruki Murakami obviously feels proud of this gap, and even creates another new language world to house those "things for description" besides "things under description." Therefore his works hide a double structure, which does not only stands as a special feature, but also adds a allegorical touch to his works. His characters seem on one hand indifferent to worldly affairs, and on the other hand yearning perpetually for something.

In Pinball 1973 "I" walks to the small station in order to see dogs, and gets through many obstacles to find the abandoned pinball machine. In The Wild Sheep Chase, "I" explore the deep forests of Hokkaido for the sake of getting in touch with my friend "Rat" and searching for an extraordinary sheep. Such curiosity and exploration reminds one of a director interested in children and the unknown, and he is nobody but Steven Spielberg, the director of "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," and "Indiana Jones." According to the reports by News Week, Steven Spielberg used 55,000 U.S. dollars to buy a prop used by Oson Welles in the movie "Citizen Kane." It was a sledge with a small symbol of the "rose bud" on it. In "Citizen Kane," the protagonist recites a riddle before his death. The whole film narrates backward from this riddle. Though the riddle of "rose bud" is left unsolved at the end, it obviously refers to the symbol on the sledge which the protagonist loves to use when he was young, which points to nothing but his own adolescence. This sledge was named by "News Week" as the "symbol of lost innocence." Both Haruki Murakami and Steven Spielberg seem to be yearning for something in "lost innocence." Murakami's protagonist was 20 in 1967, and opened a small translation comapny in the 70s.

He does not like his job, but only uses it a point of contact with the society. Therefore though he has his occupation, he is actually alienated from the social world. He is rather like Oscar in "Brass Drum," and could be described as the "boy who resists growing up" or the "retarded child of self-growth." ... Haruki murakami once commented on the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, categorizing her writing as the language "Typewriting." He said: "It is very difficult to define "Typewriting." As a general, I think, the concentration and convergence of consciousness form the essence of such language called "Writing"; while the dispersal and disconnection of consciousness is the essence of "Typewriting." To state more clearly, in the chaos and blendings of values typical of modern world, the entity called writer should leave out something in what he writes. And the blanks are used to express certain general. This is what I call `Typewriting.' " Based on what he said, we feel certain that Murakami has nearly classified his works under the realm of "Typewriting." I believe Murakami must have thought that in such modern city life which gradually disintegrates into episodes, only through "Typewriting" with its essence of "dispersal and disconnection of consciousness" could the individual capture the modern (or the modern mood.)

I agree too.