Pop Master

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The elusive Murakami

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The other Speech
dancing as fast as he can
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Presents from the dead

Matt Thompson
The elusive Murakami
  May 26, 2001
  The Guardian, London


He has been made the subject of breathless comparisons: Auster, Salinger, Chandler, Borges. His books sell in millions to under-30s in Japan; now he is gaining large readerships worldwide. One day, his growing legions of supporters insist, he will win the Nobel Prize. Magazine editors hunt him down in vain. It seems that everyone wants a piece of Haruki Murakami.



No wonder, as this elusive man tells me in a rare interview, he wants to hang on to himself: “I’m looking for my own story...and descending to my own soul.” This kind of introspection is the key to his work, and the inner journey may also be the source of his appeal for young Japanese readers. Economic woes have transformed a country once famous for its discipline and formality. Young people no longer want to buy into all that. Murakami hopes that “my books can offer them a sense of freedom—freedom from the real world.”


In person, Murakami gives an impression of self-containment. His manner is earnest, but he has a ready and dark sense of humor. He was brought up in the Kyoto area; his father was the son of a Buddhist priest and his mother the daughter of an Osaka merchant. Today he lives in the suburb of Osio (about 70 minutes from Tokyo on a fast commuter train). Very spacious, steel-framed, his home is modernist in style—though there were traditional tatami mats on the floor. The room we spoke in was dominated by two enormous loudspeakers and a wall of vinyl: 7,000 records, a legacy of his time running a Tokyo jazz club. At that time he was, he says, running away from himself. “I was a hermit in a wonderland of jazz.”



Murakami’s many references to Western culture—Le Figaro, Duran Duran, spaghetti—make older Japanese readers uneasy. They prefer the formal beauty of Mishima, Tanizaki, or Kawabata. Murakami sees this as part of a more general retreat into formalism: “After the war and modernization, the Japanese lost their sense of home and were deeply hurt. By collecting and depicting the beauty of Japanese nature, traditional clothes, or Japanese food, they tried to reassemble that Japanese home.”


Murakami himself tries to recover the realm of the spirit by other means; he doesn’t look back. When I asked him about the traditional puppets, the Bunraku, he said: “I find them very boring.” It is this sort of attitude that older Japanese find threatening. Sex is another issue. His blockbuster Norwegian Wood is the Japanese equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye: Every young Japanese person has read it. The uncharitable said it sold so well because its characters have so much sex, and talk about it so freely. Murakami takes another view: “Sex is a key to enter a spirit....Sex is like a dream when you are awake; I think dreams are collective. Some parts do not belong to yourself.”

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