Colorful Haruki Murakami and His Ever-growing Popularity: Why do People Like His Works?
Whenever you walk into a bookstore, chance is high that you will always encounter at least several copies of Haruki Murakami’s work. The sixty four years old Japanese writer has written more than a dozen novels, among many other short stories and non-fiction, ever since his 1979 debut novel, ‘Hear the Wind Song’. There is no doubt that he is one of the most important writers of our time, being seen as a favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for years. In an age where reading is not as valued as before and printed version are gradually being substituted by digital copies, it is remarkable Murakami’s fanbase around the world is still steadily growing, if not stronger (his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Prilgrimage (2013), sold 350,000 copies in the first three days of sale in Japan; the English translation should be out in 2014). The question is: why do people like to read Murakami’s work? What is so special about his stories that people are willing to buy his book even though they have no idea what the book is really about? Why do people like him?
One aspect that distinguishes Murakami’s work from others is his unusual writing style. Some critics have said he is not really a ‘Japanese writer’, considering that his prose sounds more English than Japanese even in its original, Japanese text. Largely influenced by Western novelists like Fitzgerald, Murakami departs from the traditionally tragic and serious style of Japanese writing and opts for a more casual, often humorous approach to his words. In fact, Murakami himself admits that when writing, he often writes the sentences in English first then translates them into Japanese. His style of writing short paragraphs, with a focus on character’s psychology and not so much on the environment, also departs from typical Japanese writers such as Yasunari Kawabata (first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1968) or Yukio Mishima (nominated for the Nobel Prize a few times), who devote a lot of passages in describing the context. This creates a unique style of writing where Japanese readers find enticing, and Western readers find easy to follow as well.
The theme of alienation and sense of loss is prominent in most of his novels. Often times, the protagonists are people who follow societal norms while feeling nihilistic about anything they do. While this isn’t anything particularly new, this is very important considering the context of post-war Japanese society. After the Second World War, the Japanese experienced a difficult time of reconstruction, both physically and socially. The people went through the troubling 1960s with the student protest movement, the prospering economy of the 1970s and 1980s, only for the bubble to burst in the 1990s. Murakami’s novels took place frequently under such post-modern contexts. His characters are not direct victims of such events, but you can sense how such contexts affect their growth and their perception towards human relationships. Like a recurring Hedgehog dilemma, the characters are always weary of establishing intimate relationships with others, in the fear of protecting themselves and the people they care about. In this context, there is a subtle critique of capitalism as well, as the advancement of technology in Japan does not necessarily make people feel better about their lives. Through this critique of modern society, along with his unique writing style, Murakami shows us how we are a lot more distant from other people than we imagine.
His work often invokes surreal creatures or settings. From the talking cats in Kafka on the Shore (2002) to the city of two moons in 1Q84 (2009), from the character that sees her imaginary self in Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) to the girl that sleeps for years in After Dark (2004), often times Murakami includes such fantasy-like settings that challenge our perception, yet somehow, you feel like they make sense. When reading the chapters, you will feel odd, but at the same time you find them very believable, as if you are just waiting for them to happen. In this sense, it almost feels like Murakami is putting forward an existentialist question: what do you do to find your meaning of existence in an apparently absurd world? Do you accept it as it is or do you try your best to figure out why that is the case? The various surreal settings and creatures in his novels provoke such thoughts, as readers, often to no avail, try to decipher their real meaning.
The curious settings also lead to another common feature of Murakami’s novels: he never fully explains everything. What happen to Toru and Midori by the end of Norwegian Wood (1987)? What exactly are the Little People in 1Q84? Why is Tsukuru specifically chosen to take the blame in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Prilgrimage? Murakami never provides concrete answers to such questions. Instead, he basically let the readers decide what happens at the end. Throwing out the setting and expecting us to accept them as they are, Murakami is often criticized by readers for this. Yet, at the same time, it is through such bizarre contexts that the characters can really struggle to find their existential meaning, through the exploration of sexuality (sex is prominent in Murakami’s work, be it sexual fantasy or intercourse; somehow, all women in his work pretty much want to sleep with the male protagonist, who is usually very ordinary by all means), adventure in a foreign land, questioning of purpose of life, and confronting human desires. In this aspect, Murakami is a skilled pop psychologist who can describe human emotions well and keep the readers on the edge of their seats as he goes on to discuss what happens in the characters’ minds.
An essential aspect to Murakami’s work is his insistence on the inclusion of music. He is a noted music fan, having opened a jazz bar before he wrote his first novel, and he effortlessly incorporates music (particularly classical and jazz) into his stories. While the music serves more as an accompanying piece to the story, devoted readers find it pleasing to listen to that particular piece while reading his novel. For example, the Czech composer Janacek’s Sinfonietta is referenced many times in 1Q84, serving as a connection point between the male and female protagonists. The story won’t be affected, in terms of content, if all the mention of the music is omitted, but music has become so prominent in Murakami’s work that without any classical or jazz music reference, it just feels not Murakami enough. The inclusion of music also makes the reading process more entertaining, as if you’re picturing the scenes in your mind while listening to the background music being played in a movie. (Notably, his passion for classical music has earned him appreciation from the music industry as well, for every time a Murakami novel is published, sales for the particular piece mentioned in the book will skyrocket.)
While Murakami’s stories make him famous, it is his humanitarian side that earns him respect from even people who are not familiar with his work. Shortly after the Subway Sarin Incident in Tokyo, 1995, staged by the cult Aum Shinrikyo, when thirteen people were killed and thousands were left injured, Murakami interviewed some victims to get their full experience on that day. Such interviews were later compiled into his first non-fiction work, Underground. He was not done, however; the year after, he proceeded to interview 8 members of Aum Shinrikyo in order to answer the questions: why did the cult commit such an act, and what did the cult members think about it? He then penned his second non-fiction work, Underground II: The Promised Land (in the English version, this book is included in Underground as well). When everyone was pointing fingers at the cult members, Murakami calmly pointed out that these members were no different from ordinary citizens of society, and he criticized the society for focusing on what had happened, instead of trying to figure out why it had happened.
It almost makes you feel like reading an interview of the Jacks in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
Two more incidents outlined Murakami’s reputation as the most prominent humanitarian writer of our time. In 2009, he received the Jerusalem Prize, which sparked outrage in Japan and many places since Israel just bombed Gaza. Murakami chose to attend the event despite controversies, and in his acceptance speech he implicitly criticized the Israeli government for its action, and famously proclaimed that:
“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg…If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?”
No wonder that many people shook their head resignedly when Mo Yan, the Chinese writer who has strong affiliation with the government, was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature last year.
Murakami is also not afraid of criticizing his government regarding sensitive issues. In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, he openly criticized the government’s nuclear policy and condemned its role in marginalizing opposition voices in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘convenience’. He also ridiculed Japan’s row with China in dispute over the ownership of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. He slammed both governments for stirring up nationalism in respective countries instead of trying to resolve the issue diplomatically. It was a bold statement from the unflashy writer, considering that this has long been a very sensitive issue in China and Japan. For sure, his comments did not change a lot in terms of the outcome (Fukushima is still a mess, and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands issue remains unresolved), but it is important for someone as widely acclaimed as Murakami to speak up against the wall, when the wall stands erect with pride.
One might get frustrated by Murakami’s ambiguous tone and often melodramatic events. In fact, often times one only gets more confused when one flips to the last page of the novel, only to find that nothing is being resolved whatsoever. Still, the key to understanding Murakami’s reputation lies in the process of exploring his world. Like Toru’s desperate call to Midori by the end of Norwegian Wood, we are stuck in the world of nowhere, trying to understand what lies ahead of us, but never quite grasping the essence to living or human existence. A simple question like ‘Where are you now?’ is enough to make us think why we are here. What matters, though, is the courage to move forward while getting past the sense of disorientation in a seemingly absurd world.
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