Critics of Haruki Murakami, such as Masao Miyoshi, have questioned whether it’s right to treat Murakami’s work as jun-bungaku (pure literature). Here, Murakami effectively stands accused of lacking artistic integrity, providing the masses with ‘mainstream’ – cheap, superficial – entertainment.
So is he perhaps no more than a mere anodyne purveyor of pop fiction?
Not at all! Murakami crosses the boundaries between high and low forms of art, and of rigid genre distinctions. His stories often lack any straightforward storyline or clearly defined plot, and on the surface they seem disengaged from ‘real’ problems – in this way, the magical elements of his stories can seem to function as an escape from things that actually matter.
As a result his literary style is sometimes misunderstood as mere avant-garde posturing. Nonetheless, it is understandable why his endeavour to make sense of the nonsensical, through a rigorous deconstruction of our treasured cultural and linguistic conceptions, is underappreciated by writers who are preoccupied with more literal definitions of their social and political positions.
In fact Murakami’s idea of imagination is central to his socio-political commitment as a writer. Rather than retreat into solipsism, he tries to transcend it by uncovering those deepest areas of the human psyche that govern both individual and collective experience. Through magical realism, Murakami illuminates two distinct yet inseparable worlds: the conscious and the unconscious, with the latter only becoming visible and tangible through irrational means. In encounters with the ‘magical’, his protagonists are forced to face reality as a whole.
In a recent public interview in Kyoto, on 6 May 2013, (the first in 18 years!) Murakami repeatedly used the word “commitment”, showing a definite shift in its meaning from his earlier work (commitment as an individual member of society) to his present “endeavour to accept the existence of others”.
Murakami’s novels revolve around the impotence of a protagonist in seeking to quell his or her disillusionment – the ultimate question for Murakami being one of action versus passivity. Whilst I personally prefer his earlier style of writing, his second stage of literary development (1995-present) reflects his progress in a search for a ‘core identity’.
The year 1995 was a major turning point in Murakami’s writing career. The sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway orchestrated by an apocalyptic cult, Aum Shinrikyo, shook society in a similar way to the 9/11 attack in the United States. The crucial difference, however, was that Aum terrorism was committed by “Japan’s best and brightest”, who had received education at top universities.
As a Japanese writer, Murakami felt obliged to face this affair seriously. It was easy for anyone to ridicule the followers of Aum Shinrikyo as being “mad”. However, Murakami understood that they had turned to the cult because Japanese society had failed to offer a more viable narrative that would give them meaning in life.
Shoko Asahara, the charismatic leader of the cult, was able to attract so many young people, who felt completely ostracised from society, because he provided them with something positive and dynamic, a sense of belonging and higher purpose – everything which contemporary Japanese society lacked.
Murakami’s eighth novel, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995) follows the story of Toru Okada: an average man struggling to maintain his marriage, until one day his wife Kumiko suddenly disappears from his life.
He later finds out that Kumiko’s ‘identity’ has been stolen by her brother, and is adrift within her own unconscious world. After a long period of indecision, he finally decides to rescue his wife – in a manner reminiscent of the Shinto legend of Izanagi.
He goes down an abandoned well, setting off on an adventure into the depths of the underworld (literally) to confront both himself and the reality that hums beneath the surface of everyday life. In Toru’s search for his wife he stumbles upon ugly aspects of Japan’s recent history. Through harrowing reflections on Japan’s wartime atrocities, Murakami establishes a clear link between Japan’s vacant present and her violent past. Although he fails to show how Japanese people can reconcile themselves to the evils committed by their forefathers, he demonstrates that there is a clear and vital connection between identity and history, on both individual and societal levels.
The influence of Western culture upon Japan has long been a theme in Japanese literature, with some writers seeing it as having supplanted traditional Japanese ways of life and leaving the people of Japan forced to inhabit a deracinated country. Murakami engages with the West not as a monolithic cultural Other, but via small fragments entwined in the experiences of his characters – a breath of fresh air in Japanese literature. It offers an alternative, humanistic emancipation from the persistent dilemmas and frictions of Japanese modernity. Yet, for all that, there is no real solution to the serious challenges that Murakami presents in his literature.
Murakami gives us mesmerising and hypnotic stories, which don’t require complex interpretation – rather, they have a direct influence on the way we experience our world. This indirect didacticism points readers towards their own interior labyrinths, giving them courage to explore the thoughts, emotions and images that lurk there.
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