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2011: 1Q84 Goes Abroad

Murakami Haruki’s most recent novel 1Q84 was released in English translation this past October — his most widely anticipated work and arguably the most anticipated Japanese translation ever.

Before its initial May 2009 release, Murakami kept the content of the two-volume novel a close secret. That sense of mystery fueled sales in Japan: The novel quickly sold out and went through several printings. Murakami added Book Three in April 2010 to finish the tale of writer/math teacher Tengo and physical trainer/assassin Aomame, two thirty-year-olds who are transported to an alternate universe and battle bizarre forces that control the universe. Book Three sold a million copies in just two weeks.

News of the Japanese version stoked the interest of the author’s international fan base. Now that Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, and Phillip Gabriel (in addition to his many other translators around the world) have caught up with Murakami, fanboys and girls have to get their news from abroad via those who can read Japanese, or other languages which are more quickly translated. The Japan Times ran a review of Books One and Two (and later Three) as did The Complete Review cataloged the international critical response as the European translations followed the Chinese and Korean. Orthofer even wrote a review of the first two books based on the German translation.

In October, some American bookstores held midnight release parties, and one New York San Francisco bookstore even bought tacos and beer for customers who had pre-ordered the novel. The critical response to the 900+ page mammoth arrived quickly thanks to review copies that had been issued months earlier. 1Q84 has been included on all of the year-end best of lists by default (Amazon, New York Times, Barnes and Noble, The Economist), and many have lumped it together with Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and George R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, celebrating the return of the epic five-pound novel.

Critics overall, however, have been far more divided than the initial fervor surrounding the release would suggest.

Some have attempted to locate Murakami’s Japanese-ness as John Updike did in The New Yorker in 2005 for Kafka on the Shore, praising Murakami for his “Japanese spiritual tact.” Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal gives a balanced review that is mostly negative, but his final comment claims that the book “floats in a globalized ether”: It’s weak because it is “wrapped in a cocoon — or an air chrysalis — of cultural amnesia” and doesn’t take advantage of the country’s literary history. Emily Parker of The Daily Beast defends the novel with the puzzling suggestion that readers should “stop looking for hidden meanings.” Instead “Be one with the Japanese. Japanese cultural phenomena don’t always translate so well overseas.”

Michael Dirda of the Washington Postand Kathryn Schulz of the New York Times both claim that the book kept them reading (and thinking about it after they finished), but Dirda is far more willing to overlook its weaknesses. Schulz is one of the few critics to question Murakami’s use of rape, calling the novel “psychologically unconvincing and morally unsavory.” She isn’t ready to dismiss it completely, though. She still enjoyed reading it.

Another review in the New York Times, this one by Janet Maslin, was far more negative than Schulz’s and summed up the critical response: “…1Q84 has even [Murakami’s] most ardent fans doing back flips as they try to justify this book’s glaring troubles.” Nathan Heller of Slate is one of these fans, apparently. In the beginning of his review he acknowledges that “a novelist who can draw in, and retain, so large and avid an international audience must be doing something right.” And then the backflips begin. He decides that that “something” is this: 1Q84 succeeds by re-creating a childhood experience of storytelling.” He dismissed the banalities, the childish plot points, and fantastical nature as intentionally childish.

Heller is a more forgiving reader than Christian Williams of The Onion A.V. Club who refuses to play the game and bashes the novel, labeling it “stylistically clumsy” and filled with “tone-deaf dialogue, turgid description, and unyielding plot.” Perhaps the most succinct summary of the novel came on Amazon from a user named “bookcynic” who stated “many curiosities were left unexplained.”

While this is true for many of Murakami’s novels, nowhere before has he been gone on for so many pages with so little resolution. Nor with so much awkward sex: The novel was nominated for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award, an annual contest sponsored by Literary Review. 1Q84 was nominated along side King’s novel as well as Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas; David Guterson ended up winning for his rewriting of the Oedipus Rex myth, Ed King.

For more perspective, let us turn to Jay Rubin’s take on Kafka on the Shore in his book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words — perhaps the most fitting description of Murakami’s fiction post-1987:

One’s reception…depends heavily on the degree of one’s willingness to ‘go with the flow’ of the story. To a reader less willing, Murakami seems to be relying far too heavily on contrivance and coincidence, and he too easily overlooks inconsistencies on the realistic pane.

Critics willing to read past what Schulz called the “surface gaffes” are more likely to enjoy the book. This, more than anything else, explains the range of responses to the book.

Other than Christopher Tayler of the London Review of Books, critics have also failed to mention that 1Q84 is Murakami’s least funny novel. Tayler astutely notes that the third-person narration “dampens the wisecracks, deprives the central characters of Boku’s buttonholing powers and generally takes the edge off Murakami’s storytelling.” One of the most enjoyable (if not the most enjoyable) parts about reading Murakami, especially his early works, is hearing his boku narrator’s commentary on the world around him. Take, for example, the narrator’s encounter with hotel reception when he asks about the development of the new Dolphin Hotel in Dance Dance Dance:

Thirty seconds later, [the receptionist] returned with a fortyish man in a black suit. A real live hotelier by the looks of him. I’d met enough of them in my line of work. They are a dubious species, with twenty-five different smiles on call for every variety of circumstance. From the cool and cordial twinge of disinterest to the measured grin of satisfaction. They wield the entire arsenal by number, like golf clubs for particular shots.

This is the Murakami I know and love. His narration had a healthy disrespect for authority but didn’t make much of it. At the heart of the narrator is sentimentality.

To an extent, Murakami wrote through his own disillusion of the dissolution of the student movement of the late-’60s. While Murakami worked late hours running a jazz bar after he graduated from Waseda University, his former classmates sold out for the Japanese economy, helping run the big businesses that fueled Japan’s boom. Norwegian Wood then is the end of the line — until then his narrators had been capable of drinking off the bad times or forgetting them, but in Norwegian Wood we learn that there is no amnesia, that in fact the narrators have been haunted by memories of lost love and dead friends. While this is a notable shift in tone, Watanabe, the narrator of the book, still has a healthy, sardonic view of the world.

The tone of 1Q84, however, is drastically different than anything Murakami’s ever written. Written completely in third person, the lack of first person narrator makes it difficult to tell when Murakami is trying to be funny and when he is trying to be earnest. Aomame’s lesbian encounter, for example, seems overly earnest:

As her mind traced these graphic memories, the brass unison of Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta rang like festive background music. The palm of her hand was caressing the curve of Tamaki’s waist. At first Tamaki just laughed as if she were being tickled, but soon the laughter stopped, and her breathing changed. The music had initially been composed as a fanfare for an athletic meet. The breeze blew gently over the green meadows of Bohemia in time with the music. Aomame knew when Tamaki’s nipples suddenly became erect. And then her own did the same. And then the timpani conjured up a complex musical pattern.

Yet the strange juxtaposition of bold brass instruments and erect nipples also begs to be read as comedy (unintentional though it may be). Murakami’s biggest failure with 1Q84 may be that he’s trying too hard.

December 23, 2011

Daniel MORALES lives in Chicago and blogs at howtojaponese.com.

Loss and Recovery: 1Q84 and Murakami's Sunken Continent


Reviewer’s Note: I have tried not to give away too many of 1Q84‘s secrets, but a review must address the content of a novel. If you’re hoping for a carta blanca Murakami experience, better bookmark this and come back in a couple years.

All translations other than the quote from A Wild Sheep Chase are my own.

In 1985, Murakami Haruki was hitting his stride as a writer. Moving away from the characters in the “Rat Trilogy,” he received the Tanizaki Prize for the markedly more ambitious Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, made an “honest literary declaration” of his working definition of fiction (Supplement to Complete Works Vol. 5, xi) in the introduction to his short story collection Kaiten mokuba no deddo hīto 『回転木馬のデッド・ヒート』 (“Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round”, discussed previously on Néojaponisme), published his translation of Raymond Carver’s At Night the Salmon Move, and still found time to write most of the stories that would be collected in Pan’ya saishūgeki 『パン屋再襲撃 』 (“The Second Bakery Attack”) the following year. One of these stories, “The Twins and the Sunken Continent” (title translation borrowed from Jay Rubin’s Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words), remains notable today for two reasons: it is the only story from the collection not yet translated into English, and it is the final story using his original boku narrator. Technique and time separate “The Twins” and 1Q84, but they share their major theme: loss.

1Q84 sprawls 1055 pages in the hardback version and chronicles a large portion of Japanese history in passing, but the main narrative concerns just a handful of characters over a six-month period in 1984. Murakami uses his favorite device to frame the novel – alternating storylines with separate protagonists that become more closely linked as the plot thickens. These protagonists are Aomame, a fitness and martial arts instructor in Tokyo who grew up in a fictional missionary group called the Shōninkai (証人会, literally “Association of Witnesses”), and Kawana Tengo, a prep school math instructor and aspiring writer who has never met his mother.

In an interview just before publication, Murakami provided a cryptic summary of the work:

A young boy and girl meet. And they fall in love. From that point of view it’s a simple story. But something happens and the two of them go to the dark side of the moon. (Courrier 19)

To a certain extent, 1Q84 is the simple love story that Murakami suggests, centered on the image of the jazz standard “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” But, of course, the book includes an array of other themes, some handled better than others. Murakami’s word choices, specifically a couple of terms he uses with frequency, identify these major themes of the novel and reveal how he uses Aomame and Tengo within the novel.

First, something is rotten in Tokyo in 1984. Numerous intrigues are described as usankusai (胡散臭い): fishy, shady or suspicious. An editor conspires to ghost-write a novel and have it win the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious award for up and coming writers. A secret religious cult (loosely based on radical movements of the ’60s and religious cults like Aum Shinrikyo) plots some terrible evil in its Yamanashi Prefecture compound. A wealthy, landed woman wages a covert war on misogyny. The world undergoes abrupt, strange, and highly specific changes, and that trip to the dark side of the moon is more literal than you might expect.

These schemes draw in our protagonists like whirlpools, bringing in another key theme: hikareru (惹かれる) (to be drawn in) and related words make frequent appearances. Tengo is convinced to play ghost writer by his editor Komatsu, but he also admits to being equally drawn in by the book itself, which is titled “Kūki sanagi” 『空気さなぎ』(“The Air Chrysalis”) and written by the quiet 17-year-old storyteller Fukada Eriko. Aomame is recruited by the unnamed wealthy lady and drawn into her conspiracy.

Aomame and Tengo don’t seem to have had much going on their lives before becoming entangled in all this intrigue, but once involved they do not remain passive. Both knowingly withhold information and make decisions that run counter to their employers’ plans. As always with Murakami, the stakes are high, and everyone is looking out for themselves.

Another frequently appearing term is sonawatte iru (具わっている, be equipped/skilled/gifted with). Murakami uses it to describe his characters’ supernatural gifts, “that special something” that differentiates them from others and makes them useful to the conspirators. Aomame is equipped with hypersensitive fingers and an ability to read the layout of people’s bodies. Tengo seems fairly unremarkable to begin with, other than his passion for math – even his writing is clean but uninspired — but he eventually taps into some latent abilities, which are never fully explained.

Other characters include the aforementioned teenage writer Fukada Eriko, known by her pen name “Fukaeri” throughout the work; Ushikawa, a disheveled messenger for a shadowy scholarship company; Tamaru, a gay bodyguard originally from Sakhalin, Russia; Tengo’s married older girlfriend who visits him once a week for therapeutic sex; and Asami, a police officer with a tortured soul who is always looking for a good time… in bed.

Many of the book’s characters can be linked to roles in older Murakami works. Fukaeri seems to suffer from a form of semi-autism, and Tengo plays assistant to her, like Nakata and Hoshino in Kafka on the Shore. The wealthy, middle-aged lady free to pursue her own interests recalls Nutmeg in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The unexplained absence of Tengo’s mother mirrors that of Kafka’s in Kafka on the Shore.

Other familiar Murakami themes make appearances. Sex is, once again, a physical desire that needs occasional quenching but in the end should be saved spiritually for the right person:

During the sex, too, Tengo kept thinking about different things off and on, but that did not diminish the physical pleasure of the sexual act. As always, she deftly drew the week’s worth of sexual desire out of him and briskly disposed of it. (Book 1, 544)

Self-determination is questionable, evidenced by the sheer importance of coincidence and by the way characters feel drawn in to their circumstances:

“But, with food or men or other things, we feel like we are choosing things, but we might not be choosing anything at all. Maybe everything has been decided in advance from the beginning, so we’re just pretending to choose. Free will is just a perception. Sometimes I think that,” said Aomame.

“If that’s the case, then life is pretty bleak.”

“Maybe so.”

“But if you can really love someone with your heart, no matter how terrible that person is, then life isn’t hell. No matter how bleak it is.” (Book 1, 344)

The imagery of warmth, and memory as a type of warmth, plays an important role as it did in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World:

“But now I finally understand. She’s not a concept. Not a symbol, nor an allegory. She exists in reality and has an active spirit and a body with warmth. And that warmth and movement is something I shouldn’t lose sight of. It took me twenty years to understand something so basic.” (Book 2, 356)

These ideas all have their moments, some longer than others. The themes that Murakami comes back to in the end, however, are loss and recovery:

Tengo suddenly remembered the fact that people lose 40 million skin cells every day. They’re lost, peel off, turn into a fine dust invisible to the eye, and disappear. To the world, we might be something like skin cells. And if so, there wouldn’t be anything strange about someone up and disappearing some day. (Book 2, 347)

This passage is eerily similar to one from A Wild Sheep Chase:

“Body cells replace themselves every month. Even at this very moment,” she said, thrusting a skinny back of her hand before my eyes. “Most everything you think you know about me is nothing more than memories.” (167)

Loss in 1Q84 is depicted in various states of permanency. Some people mysteriously disappear — Murakami uses the passive word ushinawarete iru (失われている, “are/have been lost”) rather than an active word like kieta (消えた, “disappeared”) — but memories seem to be more resolute within the characters than in many of Murakami’s previous works.

As Aomame and Tengo get closer and closer, their connection is revealed, and they seem to be fighting for similar objectives. The ending Murakami provides suggests that one of the characters might become “the egg” cracked on “the wall” of the system he referred to in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize earlier this year, while the other may battle on and try to recover the past. By no measure is the action complete within the 1055 pages of these two volumes; the way things are resolved points to the final line of Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Little Dog,” a tale of two lovers who finally resolve to elope at the end of the story: “…it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.”

Though written in 1985, “The Twins and the Sunken Continent” takes place between Pinball, 1973 (1980) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), and explores the shock boku feels when he suddenly remembers his old girlfriends, the eponymous twins with whom he lived in Pinball. As the story opens, they have been gone for six months, and boku has been working. Killing time in a cafe before a meeting with a client, boku is surprised to stumble upon their picture in a magazine:

About half a year had passed since I parted with the twins, when I found them in a picture in a magazine.

The twins in the picture weren’t in their usual cheap sweatshirts — the ones they always wore when they lived with me — embroidered with the numbers “208” and “209”; they looked much more chic. One was wearing a knit dress, and the other was wearing something that looked like a rough cotton jacket. Their hair was much longer than before, and they even had light makeup on around their eyes.

But I knew right away that those were the twins. (125)

In Pinball, the twins just hole up in boku’s apartment for most of the book. Other than a surprising encounter with a repairman, they interact only with boku and almost seem like figments of his imagination (Rubin 54-55). Seeing them photographed out in the real world with real world clothes and makeup on, interacting with real other men, predictably confuses boku who returns to his office and examines the photograph closely with a magnifying glass.

The twins were photographed at The Glass Cage — the newest, most fashionable club in Tokyo. The club combines the natural and the unnatural: it is made almost entirely of glass, described as “an aquarium” (126) and “a transparent labyrinth” (127), but it also functions like “a precise, transparent anatomical model of the body. All the parts functioned properly according to their different principles” (126).

Boku looks closer at one of the twins and the man she is talking to:

The twin who was facing the young man and telling him something in his ear — I will never be able to tell the difference between the two — had a smile so faint floating around the edge of her mouth that you might accidentally overlook it. …

In contrast to her, the man she was talking to had a somewhat dark look on his face. He was a thin, handsome man. He was wearing a fashionable dark blue shirt and had a skinny silver bracelet around his right wrist. He had both of his hands on the table and was staring at the tall glass in front of him. It seemed almost as though the drink’s existence was so important that it was going to change his life; and he was being wracked by some kind of decision with the drink. I could see white smoke rising in the shape of some incantation from the ashtray placed next to the drink. (131-132)

Boku claims not to feel jealousy, or anything at all for that matter, but he seems at least nostalgic toward the twins and shows signs of empathy for the man:

One thing that interested me slightly was the unpleasant dark look on the man’s face. You’ve got no reason to be making a dark face, I thought. You’ve got the twins, I don’t. I lost the twins, you haven’t yet. You might end up losing them at some point, but that’s some point in the future, and for the time being you aren’t even thinking that you might lose them. Well, I guess you are a little confused. I feel like I can understand that much. But the confusion you’re experiencing right now isn’t a lethal variety. And you’ll understand that yourself at some point.

But having thought that, there was no way for me to relay it to the man. They were in a distant land in a distant time. Like a floating continent, they were wandering aimlessly in a dark universe unknown to me. (133-134)

Eventually five o’clock rolls around and boku does what Murakami narrators normally do when confused: roam the city in search of alcohol and sex. He ends up in a small bar where he “sometimes goes to drink alone” (142), thinking about loss:

I tried to convince myself that everything was something that had been lost. Everything is something that had been lost and should continue to be lost. Once something has been ruined, no one can return it to its original state. That’s why the Earth continues to revolve around the Sun.

In the end, what I needed was a dose of reality. The Earth revolves around the Sun. The moon revolves around the Earth. That kind of reality. (142-143)

The story then cuts to boku naked, in bed with a woman. He starts to tell her the dream that’s been tormenting him in predawn hours. The story is long and somewhat haunting. He is walking around the city and happens upon a building under construction. Inside, a man is building a wall, and boku stops to watch him work:

“Behind the bricks the man was stacking was the original wall of the building. Just your plain old, smooth concrete wall. So basically the man was making a new, ornamental wall in front of the original wall. Do you understand what I’m trying to say? […]

“… If you looked hard, you could see a space about 40 centimeters wide between the original wall and the new wall. I didn’t know why he was going to the trouble to leave that space. Doing that would make the room much more narrow. I thought that was strange and strained my eyes a little more to see what the worker was doing. When I did, I gradually started to see what looked like people. It was almost like the people had come floating up like on a photograph in developing fluid. The figures were stuck between in the space between the new wall and the old wall.

“It was twins,” I continued. “Twin girls. About 19 or 20, maybe 21. The two of them were wearing my clothes. One was wearing a tweed jacket, and the other was wearing a windbreaker. Both were my clothes. They were being closed into that gap of 40 centimeters or so in uncomfortable positions, but despite that, they seemed to be completely unaware that they were being sealed into a wall and just chatted away like they always do. The worker, too, didn’t seem to realize that he was gradually sealing the twins in. He just stacked the bricks in silence. I seemed to be the only one who realized what was happening.” (148-149)

The twins, once part of boku’s real world and later an important element of his memory, have now been locked away from him completely. Ironically, seeing them as real people makes them, to boku, less real.

Boku pays the woman — who has turned out to be a prostitute — extra for listening to the story and is left alone with his thoughts.

I stared at the ceiling and thought about the ancient, legendary continent that sank under the sea. I have no idea why I thought about something like that. Maybe it was because I didn’t bring my umbrella with me on a cold, rainy November night. Or maybe it was because I’d held the body of a woman — I couldn’t remember what kind of body it was — whose name I didn’t know with my hands still chill from a dawn dream. That’s probably exactly why I thought about the legendary continent that I’d submerged to the ocean floor long ago. The light was faintly blurred, sound was muzzled, and the air was heavy and humid.

How many years had it been since it was lost?

But I couldn’t remember when it had been lost. Most likely it had already been lost long before the twins left me. The twins only made me aware of that fact. When something is lost, the only certainty we have is not when we lost it, but when we realized we lost it.

Which I guess is fine. Let’s go from there.

Three years.

That three year period brought me to this rainy November evening.

But maybe I’ll get used to this new world little by little. It might take time, but little by little I’ll burrow my body and bones into the faults of this heavy, humid universe. In the end, people are able to assimilate themselves into any situation. No matter how vivid their dreams may be, they are swallowed up by the blur of reality and disappear. And at some point, I probably won’t be able to remember that the dream even existed.

I turned off the light next to my pillow, closed my eyes, and slowly stretched out on the bed. Then I began to sink my consciousness into a dreamless sleep. Rain hit the window, and dark ocean currents washed forgotten mountain ranges. (153-154)

The image of Atlantis is contrasted with the floating continent from earlier in the story. The twins have flown off, leaving boku in a fuzzy and depressing world that can, at best, be gotten used to. Loss is part of life, and while the tone of the story is dark and apathetic, Murakami’s last moments with his boku narrator focus on hope — the thought that he will be able to live on in this world.

Murakami continued to write first-person narratives for years to come, but “The Twins” is his last true boku. Two years later, he would name his narrator “Toru Watanabe” in Norwegian Wood. After writing Norwegian Wood, Murakami wanted to revisit the characters from A Wild Sheep Chase (Rubin 168-169), but Dance Dance Dance, the result of seeing those characters again, feels different from previous bokus; it shows us that boku on an expense account is no boku at all. South of the Border, West of the Sun has anonymous first-person narration, but other characters are named and the narrator, while older, is not the same person. Subsequent works for Shinchō such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore are told largely in the first person, but with extensive third-person sections; the stories in After the Quake are all in the third person. 1Q84, a 1055-page work told completely in the third person, completes the transition. The reader, however, only shadows two characters (other than one notable scene), so the distance between character and narrator is not much more than that between character and player in a third-person shooter.

Parts of 1Q84 rival Murakami’s best writing. The tale of Tengo’s father, who tried his luck as a settler in Manchuria before returning to Japan to work as a collection man for NHK; Tengo’s married girlfriend’s ominous dream she relates to him in bed at the end of Book 1 (remarkably similar in style and feel to boku’s dream in “The Twins and the Sunken Continent”); and a story within the story about a town run completely by cats from a book that Tengo reads, are three notable examples. But overall, the book feels long, inconsistent, and occasionally repetitive. Over the course of 1,000 pages, characters and themes both float in and out of the narrative, many of them seemingly forgotten by the end of Book 2. Religious cults are discussed in depth in Book 1 only to be left out of Book 2. Tengo’s father is an important part of the whole book, but it is unclear how his past is connected to the rest of the book. Ebisuno-sensei, Fukaeri’s foster father, has most of his action offstage, and we never even meet Azami, Fukaeri’s foster sister. Most of the book is spent going over the past of the characters, so much so that plot discussion more extensive than that given above would start to reveal some of the only development in the novel’s present — plot that Murakami made no secret of trying to keep a secret in the run up to the publishing date.

Aomame’s personality seems to be the most inconsistent part of the work. She is calm and collected at parts and then loud and aggressive at other times, especially when it involves getting balding men into bed. Take these two passages from Book 1 Chapter 15 about Aomame who, as a child, was determined to escape the severe minimalism of life as a Christian missionary:

However, as an adult, Aomame discovered the fact that she was most comfortable living a moderate, austere lifestyle. She preferred wearing sweats and spending time by herself in her room to dressing up nicely and going out somewhere with someone. (Book 1, 328)

Six pages later she’s out on the town with a friend:

Aomame had on a blue-gray short-sleeved dress with a small, white cardigan on over it, and Ferragamo high-heeled shoes. She wore earrings and a thin, gold bracelet. She left her usual shoulder bag at home…and had a small La Bagagerie purse. (Book 1, 334)

Shortly after this section, the characters are in a French restaurant ordering moules soup, three-onion salad, cervelle de veau in a red wine sauce, lentil soup, and angler roasted in a paper bag with polenta.

Although this might be an isolated incident, clothing choices, especially Aomame’s, are given all through the novel, almost always with brand names included. In the Courrier interview, Murakami claims that this can’t be helped: “When I write about life in the city, lots of those kind of modern cultural icons appear. People eat Dunkin Donuts and wear Armani. It’s unavoidable” (Courrier 19). And, to be fair, in 1Q84, some of this partly seems to be an attempt to place the novel firmly in 1984. There are references to Michael Jackson songs, fashion, and pink telephones. There are lots of forced phone conversations and characters who, for the convenience of the plot, either pick up or don’t pick up, and many times there seems to be an implied “because there aren’t cell phones yet” to the circumstances. Still, the strange juxtaposition of donuts and name-brand fashion from the interview suggests that Murakami has left behind the days when all that was necessary was an anonymous worn tweed jacket and khaki pants as in “The Twins and the Sunken Continent.”

1Q84‘s biggest problem, though, is pacing. Very little seems to actually happen, despite the work’s prodigious length (ironic given that Tengo spends the first few chapters of the book editing down Fukaeri’s story!). Some chapters pass very quickly, but others feel drawn out. Finally, at the end of Book 1, some interesting questions are raised, and some of Book 2 is as suspenseful as Dance Dance Dance‘s scenes with the Sheep Man in the dark passages of the Dolphin Hotel — but Murakami then proceeds to ruin this by dragging out the resolution. This is largely due to the tendency he has developed to expound at length on philosophy, art, and music. In his early works, characters would drop a name or quote a single line (the switch panel’s Kantian funeral in Pinball, 1973 comes to mind), and the rest was left up to the reader; in 1Q84, we get extended discussion of Anton Chehkov’s trip to Sakhalin, The Brothers Karamazov, Carl Jung, Aristotle, and Leos Janacek among others.

These pacing problems also defeat Murakami’s attempts to create a mythology for his universe as he did in Hard-boiled Wonderland and, to a lesser extent, in Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Without going into detail, he spends less time developing these ideas than he did in either of these works, and the details we finally get towards the end of Book 2 feel scattered and intangible — certainly no match for the golden flocks of unicorns, their life-cycle in the Town, and their relationship to the watashi of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the boku of the End of the World.

It’s hard not to wonder if Murakami realized he was raising more questions than he answers with this book. The title choice is explained by Aomame once she realizes she’s left her old world:

1Q84 — that’s what I’ll call this new world, decided Aomame. Q is the Q from ‘question mark.’ That which creates a question.” (Book 1, 202)

And later in the novel, one of the reviewers of Kūki sanagi says that after reading that novel they felt as though they had been “left stranded in a mysterious pool of question marks” (Book 2, 124). Those who have finished 1Q84 might be experiencing a similar sensation, especially readers who are familiar with his older, more minimalist works.

Jay Rubin’s comment regarding Kafka on the Shore can be quoted verbatim to describe how readers will likely receive 1Q84:

One’s reception of Kafka on the Shore, then, depends heavily on the degree of one’s willingness to “go with the flow” of the story. To a reader less willing, Murakami seems to be relying far too heavily on contrivance and coincidence, and he too easily overlooks inconsistencies on the realistic pane (Rubin 288).

In “The Twins and the Sunken Continent,” the twins are a vital memory within the mind of the narrator, and seeing them in Roppongi as different individuals jars him, making him realize that the twins he once knew have been lost to memory and even that will eventually dissipate. In 1Q84, there is much that is lost to memory and even some things that become lost in a frighteningly literal sense of the word. Like boku, some of the characters keep memories so deep within themselves that it becomes a defining point of their existence.

The ending of “The Twins” is typical ’80s Murakami: cool, detached, but with a new glimmer of hope. In a way, it is a summation of Murakami’s early work — a final break with tales of boku bumbling through love, loss, and life, passing on his experiences to readers. Twenty years later, in 1Q84, Murakami’s narrators have become more proactive: they fight for what is lost, although it is worth noting that “Fukaeri,” the name of the elfish storyteller, is a homonym for “no return.” Some are speculating that, as with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, there may be a third volume on the way, so we may have to wait for Murakami to work things out for us.

In the end, much of your opinion of 1Q84 will, like your opinion on Murakami in general, depend on the first novel of his that you read. If your boyfriend gave you Norwegian Wood as a birthday present, you probably expected his other books to be realistic love stories with tones of the mysterious. If you discovered The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in The Hipster’s Handbook, you might have expected giant, postmodern epics that cover a wide variety of topics in many different narrative forms. If you found a first edition of A Wild Sheep Chase in a used bookstore in Tokyo, you would be expecting more of his offbeat and boozy narrator and that narrator’s “What, me worry?” take on the hijinks he gets sucked into. If you’re one of the fortunate ones like me and stumbled upon Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World sitting enshrined in a halo of awesomeness in a dark corner of a bookstore in New Orleans, you might be expecting quirky, science fiction explorations of the mind, memory and modern society.

Some unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) souls will choose 1Q84 as their very first Murakami novel. As they follow Aomame and Tengo through the confusion of the novel and experience a Murakami world for the first time, they too will likely be drawn in by the dialogue, by the pregnant pauses, by the temple rubbing and lack of responses to important questions. By the music references, some of the lofty overtones in the first chapter, and the hints of warmth and connection implied in the final chapter. If new readers like the book, they still have the strongest part of his catalog left to enjoy. On the other hand, they might be expecting more of the same. Experienced Murakami readers will recognize connections with his old works, and if they strain their eyes hard enough, they might even be able to see flashes of the old boku as he is bricked in for good by the third-person narrative in 1Q84.

Works Cited

1Q84 Book 1, (Shinchōsha, 2009).

1Q84 Book 2, (Shinchōsha, 2009).

Jesus Ruiz Mantilla, “Murakami Haruki: boku no shōsetsu wa, konton to shita jida ni motomerareru,” Kōdansha, Courrier Jul. 2009: 17-19.

A Wild Sheep Chase, trans. Alfred Birnbaum (Kodansha International, 1989).

“Futago to shizunda tairiku,” Pan’ya saishūgeki, (1989; Bungeishunju, 2002) 125-154.

“Jisaku o kataru — Hosoku Monogatari-gun.” Supplement to Murakami Haruki Zensakuhin 1979 – 1989 Vol. 5, xi. Kōdansha, 1991.

Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, (2003; Harvill Press: London, 2005).

July 28, 2009

Daniel MORALES lives in Chicago and blogs at howtojaponese.com.

The Year 2013 in Japan

2013: A New Hope / W. David MARX
This website shall reward no high fives to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (especially after his Yasukuni visit), but we will admit that the Abe Regime Redux successfully implanted a hypnotic suggestion, both in Japan and overseas, that the Japanese economy may be heading towards its long-awaited recovery. Looky, looky — the Nikkei cracked 16,000! Of course the skepticism index grows in parallel. Normal Japanese people suspect that the Abenomics momentum will not deliver higher wages, and herein lies a threat of serious sugar crash. At no time was the air more pessimistic about the future than in the mid-2000s when people heard constantly in the media about a “growing economy” and yet saw no changes in their bank accounts.

Putting aside Abenomics, however, there were some exciting hints that Japanese society is under transformation. Between Fukushima and the abominable new secrecy law, there is real potential for a semblance of political debate returning to popular culture — even if the mainstream media refuses to be the host. The rise in smartphones and web literacy means that the Japanese Internet may soon become a true reflection of the national experience rather than an exclusive meeting ground of anonymous, angry, right wing-sympathetic idol-lovers. And Puzzle & Dragons and Line are not just hit apps: the companies behind them are answering Japan’s long call for more entrepreneurs.

Times remain perilous, but fortunately, with less faith in the establishment, the Japanese people are striking out to save themselves.

Economics and Politics / Noah SMITH
Abe has been riding the wave of popularity from Kuroda Haruhiko’s program of monetary easing, but the success of that policy is mainly just a rebound from the deflationary hole which Japan dug itself into after the 2008 crisis. To boost growth in the longer term, Abe is going to need to tackle the thorny issue of structural reform, which he is unlikely to do, given the havoc it will wreak on the Japanese social contract.

Meanwhile the Japanese opposition is splintering once again. This is only natural; the LDP has a nationalist ideological core that keeps it glued together, while Japan’s liberals have no such central idea or group around which to coalesce — especially after a defeat. As long as liberalism has no central organizing principle in Japan, the LDP or something like it will continue to reign with only short interruptions.

The Secrecy Law is a clear product of this new political order. The fragmentation of the Japanese opposition, combined with the brief spurt of economic optimism created by monetary policy, made this terrible law possible. Given the inertia of Japan’s politics, it is doubtful that this loss of freedom can be undone without major political upheaval. The only silver lining will be if the law galvanizes a grassroots liberal movement in Japan.

Kanji of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
The 2013 Kanji of the Year was , “ring,” as in Olympics (五輪), because of course. Of course. Some voters were all, oh, you see, the much-discussed TPP promises to turn the Pacific rim into a big ring of trade and blah blah blah — come on, man. Even 五, which just means “five” and is the other half of the Japanese translation of “Olympic Games,” made it to 14th place, ahead of 税, “tax”. See you in 2020, 五!

A Shift in the Great Shift / W. David MARX
The central idea of my long 2011 essay “The Great Shift in Japanese Pop Culture” was that otaku and gyaru subcultures’ current dominance was not a cyclical trend but instead the result of structural changes in society. To wit, lower levels of youth culture consumption forced the industry to cater almost exclusively to highly-dedicated subcultural groups and ignore mainstream or sophisticated tastes.

The events of 2013 completely challenged this thesis. At some point in the last few years, the gyaru look essentially disappeared. The front of Shibuya 109 is full of women who look almost… normal. Meanwhile the once influential gyaru-o newsletter men’s egg closed up shop. Working class kids from the countryside who wore outrageous things in the past have significantly mellowed. Meanwhile the shrinking of the total youth market means that the fashion industry needs to further collapse subcultural barriers to make one big “youth culture” with very few hard edges. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is working hard to be both Harajuku and Shibuya — although it’s unclear whether these neighborhoods will continue to signify a clear difference in fashion.

At the same time, mainstream consumers are growing tired of otaku antics, fueled in part by normal people’s looming takeover of the Japanese Internet. From here on, culture will be born on the open web and thus recenter around something other than 2ch. In this scenario, otaku will keeping demanding infantile cartoon females to soothe their psychological pain but the rest of society will no longer have to watch.

Peak AKB48 / Ian MARTIN
For years now, idol music has made a mockery of the Oricon singles charts, but 2013 was a new low, with AKB48 and their sister clones accounting for half of the top 30 singles of the year and boy bands from Johnny Kitagawa’s thousand-year reich accounting for most of the rest (Exile, Southern All Stars, and Linked Horizon were the only intruders in this idol love-in).

An AKB48 single will sell ten times an Oricon number one from other weeks, somewhat from the Dentsu-machine’s cross-marketing media saturation. The primary driver, however, remains encouraging consumption patterns among fans that have nothing to do with music and everything to do with the dutiful purchase of silicon discs as if they are character goods. The AKB48 cult has essentially gamified the groups, allowing fans to “play” through their consumption levels.

This system, however, encourages fans to see idols as their personal property, which naturally leads to terrifying penance rituals like Minegishi Minami’s concentration camp cosplay head-shaving. These rituals help keep fans engaged, but the Minegishi incident — along with Shukan Shunbun catching top AKB48 manager Kubota Yasushi having a sleepover with member Kasai Tomomi and then manager Togasaki Tomonobu merrily deploying “prostitution” as his alibi for being seen taking young girls to a love hotel — provided the weary public with some very concrete examples of AKB48’s once abstract ickiness.

The objective evidence suggests that AKB48 jumped the shark this year. Google Trends shows a very clear decline for AKB48 searches, and with the top members from the group’s glory days going solo, 2014 could be the year that consumers finally force the media-industrial complex to move on to something else. The question is, what in the world will replace them?

Japanese Indie Music / Ian MARTIN
The idols and best-of albums on the yearly charts suggest that the mainstream music market is stuck in an ‘80s-’90s fug of golden era nostalgia, but the indie scene also harked back to the old days in its own way. My Bloody Valentine’s long-awaited follow-up to Loveless gave the Japanese shoegaze scene a shot in the arm, with the lineups of the Yellow Loveless tribute album and the Japan Shoegaze Festival revealing a level of diversity (although not always of quality) that is less the scene that celebrates itself and more the scene that celebrates absolutely bloody everything.

Indiepop of a definitively ‘80s variety was all over the place as well, with groups like Wallflower, Homecomings, Elen Never Sleeps, The Moments, Ykiki Beat, Boyish, and Hearsays putting out new releases, many of whom on Fukuoka label Dead Funny Records. While the shoegaze scene tends to use the past as a springboard towards creating something of their own, indiepop is increasingly unaware of the genre’s ’80s roots and draws more from contemporary overseas acts like Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Veronica Falls, and French Films.

Other music that impressed in 2013 included Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s excellent self-titled debut as well as a magnificent new album by Melt Banana. And notably, there was a new Capsule album Caps Lock that represents some of the most interesting and promising work Nakata Yasutaka has done in years — and a welcome relief from the frequently overbearing nature of his output over the past few years.

RIP Tsutsumi Seiji (1927-2013) / W. David MARX
Why do retailers in such a fundamentally conservative culture like Japan frequently champion the world’s most creative, innovative, and iconoclastic artists? Tsutsumi Seiji, who passed away late this year, embodied the answer to this question. Tsutsumi did not just play a key role in the expansion of Japanese consumer society, but made sure that it developed in interesting directions.

As an inheritance consolation prize from his father, Tsutsumi took control of the family’s second-rate department store Seibu. Importing French designers and holding grand art exhibits, Tsutsumi turned Seibu into a cultural powerhouse and then spun its financial success into the broader Saison retailing group — namely, fashion building Parco, DIY-shop Loft, import record store Wave, avant-garde fashion boutique Seed, and the back-to-basics Mujirushi Ryohin (MUJI). Tsutsumi was an enlightened despot among capitalists; a theoretical thinker and respected poet/writer, he once explained to shareholders his business strategy “as a Baudrillardean exercise in embrace of simulacra and parody.” He made Saison a patron for the world’s great talent: The PARCO theater, for example, opened with a performance from avant-garde dramatist Terayama Shūji.

Tsutsumi personally set the highest levels of taste for Japan’s fast-moving, sophisticated consumer society. Sadly, the Japanese economy over the last decade has not been able to sustain the advances Tsutsumi made, as stores and brands head towards lowest common denominators to sustain sales. The lingering brilliance in retailing, however, can be directly traced back to Tsutsumi.

(To learn more about Tsutsumi, read either Architects of Affluence or the more gossip-y The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family.)

RIP Yamazaki Masayuki (1945-2013) / W. David MARX
In the early 1970s, Harajuku was a quiet neighborhood like any other residential area of Tokyo, with a small creative class clustered around a café called Leon. In 1972, bar owner and Elvis aficionado Yamazaki Masayuki of famed grimy Shinjuku bar Kaijin 20 Mensō opened a new watering hole called King Kong down the street from Leon. Its success led to more bars, and in 1975, Yamazaki opened a new shop off Meiji-doori called Cream Soda to sell vintage 1950s clothing he picked up in London. The store struck gold, sparking not just a boom for retro Greaser fashion in the American Graffiti mold but also launched the distinctly Japanese business of scooping up second-hand American garments and selling them at huge markups back in Tokyo. Yamazaki made millions from selling American delinquent style to teens, culminating in the multi-level Pink Dragon store on Cat Street that still stands today. The rockabilly boom faded in the mid-1980s, but as Yamazaki’s great legacy, Harajuku still stands today as Tokyo’s center of youth culture.

RIP Hayashida Teruyoshi (1930-2013) / W. David MARX
The 1965 photo book Take Ivy clearly demonstrates the degree to which Japan has acted as the unofficial archivist of Western popular culture. Americans in the 1960s never thought to photograph, document, and annotate the campus styles of university students any more than they thought to produce books about other everyday things such as traffic lights, Howard Johnsons, or silverware. As part of a team from clothing brand VAN Jacket and magazine Men’s Club, photographer Hayashida Teruyoshi visited six Ivy League campuses in May 1965, and his images became the Take Ivy book. Between web scans and a U.S. reprint in 2010, his snaps from the voyage have been traded around the American cognoscenti as the definitive guide to classic American style. Hayashida was only vaguely aware of his recent fame overseas, but after his death, he should forever represent the beginning of Japan’s importance in reverently chronicling global culture.

RIP men’s egg (1999-2013) / Patrick MACIAS
men’s egg magazine (never capitalized) fought the good fight for bad taste, beginning in 1999 and finishing on a very sad day in November 2013. The gas, it seemed, had finally gone out of a screaming, howling fourteen-year streak that straddled the pre-millennial generation of dark-tanned sidewalk surfer dudes to the post-apocalyptic gutter playboys of the Center Guy tribe.

A magazine designed as spin-off from egg magazine proper — designed for girls and still in print, it should now be noted — men’s egg was rude, funny, and possessed of a clinical myopia that assumed that the Shibuya ward was the only place in the world that really existed and actually mattered. Ostensibly a fashion and lifestyle periodical, the pages were thick with fear of the opposite sex, and plenty of anxiety about sex itself. With that came the constant reassurance that the worst obstacles could always be overcome with the right pickup lines and the correct consumer choices (depending on who the advertisers were that month).

The exact cause of men’s egg death is unknown, but the usual suspects — low circulation, the decline of the print magazine, and a sluggish specialized men’s fashion market — probably didn’t help. Maybe it was time for everyone associated with the scene to just grow up and graduate already (Hot gossip: I know of one guy who spent 2013 experiencing partial hair loss over the stress associated with modeling for men’s egg, running his own brand, working as a host, and who knows what else).

When I got the news that the magazine was going away, two quotes from two friends came immediately to mind. They may seem really simple, or even unrelated, but that’s the way real hard truth sometimes shows up at the end of the year. “Work aimed at young people in Japan is quite difficult,” says one. “I feel sorry for today’s kids. They don’t have money to spend on stupid clothes anymore,” says another. But as long as there is a Tokyo and a Shibuya with trash-strewn streets acting as incubators of sorts, I’d like to think that there will always be eggs.

The Year in Murakami Haruki / Daniel MORALES
2013 was the year that Murakami Haruki became a super-duper star equally in all parts of the world. Not only was his April novel Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage Japan’s best-selling book, even the publication of a single short story in Japanese drew the attention of the international press.

“Drive My Car: Men Without Women,” published in the December Bungei Shunju, concerns a stage actor Kafuku who has to hire a driver after a DUI. The driver turns out to a be a younger woman named Watari Misaki in whom he feels comfortable confiding his solitary life as a widower. Between this and the English translation of the very strange “Samsa in Love,” published in The New Yorker in October, Murakami has had a strong year, returning to his roots and focusing less on writing long, “comprehensive” novels.

Amazon Bestsellers / Matt TREYVAUD
Fully half of Amazon’s top 10 bestselling books this year were by either Hyakuta Naoki or Ikeito Jun. In fact, apart from Murakami Haruki (in at #2 for Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru etc.), they are the only two authors of fiction in the entire top twenty. We also got two Kankore books, some game guides, and various books promising improved communication: better handwriting, better speaking, better interactions with your doctor. Oddly, the best-selling book in the “foreign books” (洋書) category is… the Rider-Waite tarot deck?

Anime Movies / Matthew PENNEY
2013 saw the release of two Ghibli films — Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) and Kaguya Hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) — perhaps the final feature-length movies in the respective careers of anime titans Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao. Both films have moments of brilliance, but both also have problems that hold them back from the top tier of the Ghibli canon. In Kaze, Miyazaki may have been true to his vision of Zero fighter designer Horikoshi’s struggles, but the love story felt forced and makes female lead Nahoko into a sort of prop in the engineer’s tale. Miyazaki is renowned for sketching young heroines full of vitality and potential but has never shown how one gets from that state to actual adulthood. Nahoko in particular lacks agency and ends up as simple fodder for the tragic climax. Takahata’s Kaguya carries on his experimentation with animation technique, but at well over two hours it loses some of the concise archetypal force of the folktales on which it is based.

While Kaze and Kaguya may be strong films by great directors, it is Shinkai Makoto’s Koto no Ha no Niwa (Garden of Words) that may stand as the most confident anime film of 2013. Koto is a short film at 46 minutes and does not move much beyond the themes and experiments with style and tone of Shinkai’s earlier films like Byosoku Go Senchimetoru (Five Centimeters Per Second), but it is a fine return to form after the visually brilliant but narratively cluttered attempt to do a Miyazaki-style adventure film in Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices).

Anime TV / Matthew PENNEY
2013 is the best year for anime TV of the last five thanks to excellent examples of many anime genres. Action series Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) has established a strong presence in Japanese popular culture despite (because of?) an absence of the saccharine and sexploitative elements that keep most recent anime in the otaku ghetto. The reworking of zombie / monster, 99% dystopia vs. 1% utopia, and high-flying hero tropes in Shingeki show that in a crowded international action-thriller market, Japanese manga and anime can still show us something fresh. For “slice of life” Uchoten Kazoku (The Eccentric Family) stands out for the warmth of its storytelling and its incredibly detailed depiction of Kyoto — perhaps the best representation of a real environment in anime history. The robot anime Suisei no Gargantia (Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet) echoes past greats like Mirai Shonen Konan (Future Boy Conan) and Gunbuster but also appears as a breath of fresh air in a genre that still creaks under the weight of the legacy of introspective and not infrequently grim Evangelion. At 13 episodes, it is perfectly paced and effectively weds elements of space opera, futurist thinking about artificial intelligence, and the classic anime eco-fable. The comedy series Watashi ga Motenai no ha do Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui (No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!) is another standout. The hilarious exterior provided by voice actress Kitta Izumi’s brilliant performance is frequently peeled back to reveal a poignant look at adolescent fear of others and the self-defeating fantasies which are a dark side of otaku experience.

My pick for the best anime TV series of 2013 is drama Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil). An experiment in rotoscoping by Nagahama Hiroshi, known for his work on Mushishi which stands as one of the great achievements of small screen anime. Aku no Hana improves on the manga with its constricting, decayed representation of a small Japanese town, enhanced sense of realism, and fantastic score. Finally, the deliberately stupidly insane Kill la Kill defies genre pigeonholing (and good taste) but is relentlessly entertaining and yet another memorable series from what was an excellent year in TV anime.

Attack on Titan / Matt TREYVAUD
After four years building steam, Isayama Hajime’s Attack on Titan made the leap from manga to anime this year, immediately becoming a worldwide hit and spawning endless arguments about whether the protagonist’s surname is spelled “Jaeger” or “Yeagar” (not to mention baffled posts on Chiebukuro asking whether “Attack on Titan” is really an appropriate translation of 進撃の巨人). Titan‘s refreshingly non-sexist attitude drew particular praise, and its mysterious setting has inspired endless allegorical interpretations: The titans are China! No, the walled, doomed city is Japan! Me, I prefer to see the titans of the early chapters as stand-ins for colonialism, War of the Worlds style.

Typography on the Web / Ian LYNAM
In June, telecommunications giant SoftBank announced the purchase of Fukuoka-based FontWorks, one of Japan’s leading type foundries. The acquisition neatly mirrored events in American telecommunications over the past few years, notably Adobe’s buy up of the Typekit webfont service in 2011. Softbank and FontWorks were strategic business partners since 2011, having worked together to develop FontPlus, SoftBank’s proprietary webfont service. (The official explanation in the merger document is that “SBT believes that we are able to establish system which enables us to utilize mutual corporate resources rapidly and effectively, and it will make further progress on our service deployment combining ‘creativity’ including the Web-font service and ‘technology.'”) The acquisition reifies Softbank’s aggressive interest in web technologies and an expansion from mere mobile communications to more developed aspects of mobile computing. The ¥1,760 million purchase belies SoftBank’s outlook for the future of web-based typography in Japan.

Kiss me Kappa / Matt ALT
After the short-lived fad for pouty, come-hither “duck mouth” expressions peaked in 2010, domestic and foreign media scrambled to identify other facial trends without much success (an even shorter-lived fad for “sparrow face,” notwithstanding.) We finally have a new contender: “kappa mouth,” which takes its name from the flatulent, frog-skinned, bird-beaked yokai with a penchant for sticking slimy fingers into swimmers’ colons. It involves rolling in the lips and pushing down to create a shallow V. Pundits are suspiciously silent as to whether the naming refers to the yokai’s beak, or rather the expression one assumes after having a slimy finger stuck into their backside.

December 28, 2013

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.

Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage

Daniel Morales reviews the new Murakami Haruki novel, still awaiting English translation. Some basic plot spoilers ensue.

Murakami Haruki’s most recent novel might be the best book he’s written since Norwegian Wood made him a household name in 1987. Published in April, Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage (『色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年』) was an instant best seller, quickly selling out and moving a million copies in just a week.

Unlike the massive tomes that have come to characterize his writing in the years since Norwegian Wood (1988’s Dance Dance Dance, 1994’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 2002’s Kafka on the Shore, and 2009’s 1Q84), Murakami’s latest outing is a mere 370 pages in the Japanese. The story also eschews complex metaphysical adventures for a more realistic setting. The work conveys the intense emotional landscape of protagonist Tazaki Tsukuru, a Nagoya-born Millenial whose given name — homophonous with a word meaning “to build” or “to construct” — corresponds nicely with his work as a train station designer.

The novel mirrors the setup of Norwegian Wood to a certain extent. Norwegian Wood was a coming of age story set in the turbulent student movement of the late 1960s in Tokyo, centered around the narrator Toru and his friend Naoko’s struggle to deal with life after the suicide of Naoko’s boyfriend Kizuki. The three were close high school friends, and Toru and Naoko pair up in Tokyo when they graduate and move away from their hometown.

In Tazaki Tsukuru, Tsukuru has four close high school friends, all of whom have “colorful” Japanese surnames: Akamatsu (“Red Pine”), Omi (“Blue Sea”), Shirane (“White Root”), and Kurono (“Black Field”). They playfully refer to each other as Red, Blue, White, and Black, but Tsukuru is always just Tsukuru; this is one of the reasons he’s always felt separate from the group and worried about his place. Red and Blue are men while White and Black are women, and although Tsukuru is attracted to both White and Black, the stability of the group takes precedence. The five friends make up what he comes to consider a “an inseparable and harmonious collective entity.” They have an unspoken vow to spend as much time together as possible, even after Tsukuru has left Nagoya to study train station engineering with a famous professor at a college in Tokyo.

No one dies at the start of this novel, but death is an important issue from the very first line: “From July of his sophomore year of college to the following January, Tazaki Tsukuru lived his life thinking almost exclusively about death.”

During the summer break of his sophomore year, his friends summarily dismiss him without warning. They don’t even take his phone calls, but when they do, they tell him they don’t want to see him. “Hey,” Tsukuru asks when one of them finally answers, “what happened?” “Ask yourself that question,” Blue responds.

Tsukuru spends the next 18 years living with that question and bearing the scars of the loss, which brings him to the present of the novel. Tsukuru is 36 and living in Tokyo, trying to overcome his past and have a serious relationship with Kimoto Sara, a travel agent two years his senior. The two have been on a handful of dates, slept with each other, and seem to like each other and get along well.

The first half of the book is tantalizing in classical Murakami style. He jumps deftly back and forth between Tsukuru’s interactions with Sara in the present and his past: the way he lost 15 pounds and went through a physical transformation during his death-obsessed depression after losing his friends, how he met a classmate named Haida who swam at the same pool and gave him a quiet friend to turn to, the way Haida also disappeared from his life.

Also included are Murakami’s trademark stories within stories: Haida tells a particularly good one about the time his father met a man who was destined to die in a month. And it wouldn’t be a Murakami novel without a few reality-bending “dreams”: Tsukuru has wet dreams that combine White and Black into a single person, and another that suddenly involves a homosexual relationship with Haida.

So it comes as no surprise when Sara puts a halt to their relationship after hearing about his high school friends. “When we were having sex, I felt like you were somewhere on a different plane,” she tells him. “Somewhere separate from the two of us. You were nice, and it was wonderful sex, but…”

But he has too much baggage. Her response, however, is not to cut and run. Instead, she wants to help him fix it. In what feels like a line directly out of “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” one of the very first stories Murakami ever wrote, Sara says, “Tell me their names. You can decide what happens after that. If, after certain things become clear, you still don’t want to see them, then you don’t have to. Because it’s your problem. But despite that, I just happen to be interested in them. I want to know more about them. About the people that are still, even now, imprinted on your back.”

Using her powers of travel agency for good, she tracks down the four friends, researches their situations a bit, and the second half of the book becomes a Murakami quest novel. Murakami has had a tendency to mediate his main characters in the past, and he’s been particularly obsessed with the telephone as symbol. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle begins with a telephone call. Norwegian Wood ends with one. Phones play a huge part in communication within 1Q84, and Murakami has also used phones in countless short stories, notably “The Year of Spaghetti” and “Nausea 1979.” In every case, the phones represent the strangeness of human interaction as a whole: here we all are, communicating with each other, but is that the best we can do? Are we only ever “talking on the phone”? Are we always separate? When characters aren’t communicating over the phone, their interactions are often mediated by letters, dreams, or stories.

There is some of this in Tazaki Tsukuru, but it’s refreshing to see Murakami run these characters into each other and have them talk it out in person. Tsukuru is forced out of his comfort zone in Tokyo, back to his hometown Nagoya, and even outside Japan to find out what caused the break in college. Confronting his friends face to face, he finds, as you might expect, the unexpected.

After a buildup that derives a lot of narrative drive from shifting gears and cliffhanger chapter endings that aren’t resolved until two chapters later, the second half of the book becomes somewhat linear. We meet the friends, learn how their lives have changed, and Tsukuru returns to Tokyo to see what he can make of things with Sara.

Before Haida disappears from Tsukuru’s life, less painfully but equally mysteriously as the four colorful friends, he makes the following remark: “It’s strange: No matter how calm and consistent everyone’s life appears to be, it seems like there’s always a period of major collapse. You might even call it a time for them to just lose it completely. I think humans probably need milestones like that.”

This seems to be what Murakami is exploring in this book. Can Tsukuru recover from his major collapse and get to a point where he feels comfortable being in a relationship, which necessarily requires one to emerge from the shell of self and trust another person?

The book has its weaknesses. The twists in the latter half of the story aren’t as compelling as some of his great novels, and Murakami is clearly still getting comfortable with third person narration — this is only his second full book told from that point of view.

The narrative balance is also off a little. Murakami adds in flashbacks at the end which would have been far more helpful in the front half of the novel. We learn very little about the four friends, so meeting their new, 36-year-old versions doesn’t feel as weighty to readers as it must to Tsukuru, and the flashbacks make this clear.

And as with many of Murakami’s work, resolution of any sort is uncertain. But after 1Q84, a winding book filled with a strange mythology that didn’t feel completely fleshed out, Tazaki Tsukuru is a book that knows its scope, one that Murakami started as a short story and then let go longer as he followed Tsukuru on his journey. Following Tsukuru is the main point here; structurally the book is bookended by beginning and ending sections that dive deep into his mindset and provide an anatomy of love and loss as experiences.

English readers will have to wait for Phillip Gabriel to finish his translation, which he’s said he’ll be able to do within the year, putting it on shelves in your neighborhood at some point next year. It’s worth the wait this time.

October 4, 2013

Daniel MORALES lives in Chicago and blogs at howtojaponese.com.