Interviews


Break on through
The elusive Murakami

Up from the Underground
The healer
The Outsider
The human cost

Roll over Basho
Murakami is seeking new style
Mizumaru Ansei

S. Gregory, T. Miyawaki,
L. McCaffery
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It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got that...
     
     
  Around 1995
Center for Book Culture

 

The Japanese author who has best captured the odd combination of consumerist abundance and spiritual emptiness that has characterized Japanese life during the past twenty-five years is Haruki Murakami. Born in 1949 in Kyoto and raised in Kobe in an academic family setting (his father taught Japanese literature at a nearby high school), as a teenager Murakami shared with many Japanese youths a fascination with the Western cultural artifacts--television shows, rock music and jazz, films, and fiction; by the time he entered Tokyo's Waseda University in the late sixties at the height of student activism (which he witnessed but did not actively participate in), Murakami had deliberately turned his back on Japanese literature in favor of the sort of hip, new, fabulist American writings by Vonnegut, Brautigan, and other postmodernists whose works were beginning to appear in Japanese translation.

 
 

 

Convinced that he wasn't yet ready to embark on a career as a fiction writer, Murakami spent the next six or seven years running a jazz bar in Tokyo--an experience which provided him with ideal perspective on the evolution of Tokyo's bored-but-hyper youth culture that was then emerging. Starting in the late seventies, Murakami began publishing a series of coming-of-age novels--including Pinball 1973 and his enormously popular Norwegian Wood (which sold several million copies)--which vividly portrayed central characters aimlessly drifting through life in a brave new Japanese world like some latter day equivalents of Holden Caulfield. Presented in a lyrical (though often affectless) style that lingered obsessively on the surface features of Japanese life, full of casual sex, references to Western music, film, and other forms of pop culture, and often dripping with nostalgia, these early novels made Murakami an instant celebrity--a role he felt uncomfortable enough with that during the late eighties, he embarked on a several-year period of self-imposed exile in Europe and the United States.

 

 

If Murakami was embraced by his younger readers as their spokesperson, the popularity of his novels was viewed by most Japanese literary critics at the time with suspicion and often harsh condemnation. Murakami quickly became a flashpoint within Japanese intellectual circles in much the way (and for many of the same reasons) that Brett Ellis and Jay McInerney were in America during the 1980s. Blaming the messenger for the message, these critics frequently voiced their displeasure with precisely those features of Murakami's fiction that so successfully and poignantly captured the blankness, spiritual emptiness, and confusion of the emerging shinjinrui (literally, "New Human Race") generation of Japanese youths from that period, who found themselves unable to find any sense of personal satisfaction from a life of empty consumerism and mindless commitment to job--and equally unable to envision any means of effecting a change or even expressing their dissatisfactions.

 

 
 

 

However, beginning with A Wild Sheep Chase Murakami began to develop innovative narrative strategies that successfully integrated paraliterary elements (most notably those drawn from detective and SF formats), cultural and political criticism, and metaphysical and psychological investigations in a manner that allowed him to present the struggles of ordinary Japanese citizens to remain human in a world that seemed increasingly unreal and inhuman. No longer merely passive victims, the main characters in Murakami's major novels during this period--which include Sheep Chase and its sequel, Dance Dance Dance and (perhaps his masterpiece to date) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World--were now presented as questors seeking not merely romantic and nostalgic connections to the past but also a more active means of making sense of their lives and the bewildering plurality of hyperrealities around them. No longer content, as he had been in Pinball 1973 and Norwegian Wood, to tell a story about the conflict between self and environment in terms of daily, surface reality, Murakami devised a kind of "simulation approach" in which the conflicts existing within his protagonists' personal consciousnesses were simulated and then projected into the surreal, labyrinthine regions of dream and personalized, Jungian unconsciousness. Fully aware of the confusing, often banalizing impact that hyperconsumerism was having on Japan, these novels are all cautionary parables about the dangers of life under late capitalism--dangers which included information overload, the irrelevance of human values and spirituality in a world dominated by the inhuman logic of postindustrial capitalism, and the loss of contact with other human beings.

 

 

By the mid-nineties (when this interview was conducted in Boston, where Murakami was then living), Murakami was in the process of completing another ambitious novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which focused on another loss--that of history and historical perspective generally, and in particular the ongoing difficulty of the Japanese people to come to grips with their collective responsibility for what occurred during WWII. Moving freely back and forth between dream and reality, the past and the present, and mixing together elements of the Gothic romance, war novel (key sections of the novel deal with the horrific violence inflicted on the Chinese during its invasion of Manchuria during the 1930s), and hard-boiled detective fiction, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle vividly describes a hypermediated world in which the actualities of reality and history become transformed into hyperconsumerist by-products. (Toshifumi Miyawaki)

Larry McCaffery: Most of your biographical statements mention that you owned a jazz bar for a number of years. And of course references to jazz appear frequently in your works. Did jazz have any influence on your writing in any way?

Haruki Murakami: Not consciously. Jazz is just my hobby. It is true that I was listening to jazz for ten hours a day for several years, so maybe I was deeply influenced by this kind of music--the rhythm, the improvisation, the sound, the style. Managing that jazz club did have some direct effect on my decision to write, though. One night looking down the bar of the club I saw some black American soldiers crying because they missed America so much. Up until that point, I had been so immersed in Western culture ever since I was about ten or twelve--not just jazz but also Elvis and Vonnegut. I think that my interest in these things was partly due to wanting to rebel against my father (he was a teacher of Japanese literature) and against other Japanese orthodoxies. So when I was sixteen I stopped reading Japanese novels and began reading Russian and French novelists, such as Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, and Balzac, in translation. After studying English for four years in high school, I began reading American books at used-bookstores. By reading American novels I could escape out of my loneliness into a different world. It felt like visiting Mars at first, but gradually I began to feel comfortable there. But that night I saw those American black men crying I realized that, no matter how much I loved this Western culture, it meant more to these soldiers than it ever could for me. That was really why I began to write.

 
   
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