HARUKI MURAKAMI: HIS LIFE, HIS BOOKS, POPULARITY ABROAD AND NORWEGIAN WOOD FILM

HARUKI MURAKAMI

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in Jerusalem
Haruki Murakami is described by many as Japan's best living writer. Sometimes referred as a Japanese Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis and compared with Franz Kafka, Thomas Pynchon and Raymond Carver, he often writes about lowlife characters in bizarre situations and spices his novels with American lingo and references to things like Dunkin Donuts, MTV, Talking Heads and Van Halen. He has said that one of his primary goals in life has been to escape the “Japanese condition” at all costs.

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: Three decades into his career, Murakami has established himself as the unofficial laureate of Japan---arguably its chief imaginative ambassador, in any medium, to the world: the primary source, for many millions of readers, of the texture and shape of his native country. John Updike wrote in The New Yorker: “Though his work abounds with American culture, especially its popular music, and though he details a banal quotidian with an amiable flatness reminiscent of Western youth and minimalist fiction in the hungover 1970s, his narratives are dreamlike, closer to the vivid surrealism of Kobe Abe than to the superheated but generally sold realism of Mishima and Tanizaki.”

The Japanese writer Ginki Kobayashi wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Murakami was completely different from his predecessors. He managed to detach himself from Japan’s literary past while creating a fictious world that felt very close to home for his country’s younger generation...It felt fresh at the same time as being familiar.” Murakami heros are often dull ordinary people who have extraordinary things happen to them. Joseph Colem of AP wrote, "Murakami's books are full of disoriented twists: Characters crawl down wells and slip into netherworld; they come face to face with evil and lose their souls; their personalities split apart...The darkness is his work, however, is balanced by a dose of humor and self-effacement."

An Israeli newspaper described Murakami as a “very polite person who watches the level of the wine in everyone’s glasses and discreetly fills them” and asked everyone about their childhood. On his wife Yoko, Murakami told Araonot, “She’s a very strict editor who makes many [critical] remarks.” He said he is childless because he is to busy writing and traveling.

Good Websites and Sources: Complete Review on Haruki Murakami complete-review.com ; Wikipedia article with a list of interviews at the end Wikipedia ; Murakami Site murakami.ch ; Random House site on randomhouse.com ; Hackwriters.com hackwriters.com/murakami ; Book: Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words by Jay Rubin (Harvill Press, 2002). Rubin is a professor of Japanese literature at Harvard.

Links in this Website: JAPANESE CULTURE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE CULTURE AND HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; CLASSIC JAPANESE LITERATURE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TALE OF GENJI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BASHO, HAIKU AND JAPANESE POETRY Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; CLASSIC 20TH CENTURY JAPANESE LITERATURE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; MODERN LITERATURE AND BOOKS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; HARUKI MURAKAMI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; POPULAR WESTERN BOOKS AND WESTERN WRITERS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Haruki Murakami's Life

null Murakami was born in Kyoto, grew up in Kobe, and attended Waseda University in Tokyo. His parents were teachers who taught Japanese literature and talked about it all the time, so much so that Murakami said he hated the subject and became interested in Western literature. He spent his youth reading American novels, especially hard-boiled detective novels, and listening to Western pop music and jazz.

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: Murakami has always considered himself an outsider in his own country. He was born into one of the strangest sociopolitical environments in history: Kyoto in 1949---the former imperial capital of Japan in the middle of America’s postwar occupation. “It would be difficult to find another cross-cultural moment,” the historian John W. Dower has written of late-1940s Japan, “more intense, unpredictable, ambiguous, confusing, and electric than this one.” Substitute “fiction” for “moment” in that sentence and you have a perfect description of Murakami’s work. The basic structure of his stories---ordinary life lodged between incompatible worlds---is also the basic structure of his first life experience. [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

One protagonist of Murakami’s novel, “1Q84,” is tormented by his first memory to such an extent that he makes a point of asking everyone he meets about their own. When I met Murakami, finally, in his Tokyo office, I made a point of asking him what his own first memory was. When he was 3, he told me, he managed somehow to walk out the front door of his house all by himself. He tottered across the road, then fell into a creek. The water swept him downstream toward a dark and terrible tunnel. Just as he was about to enter it, however, his mother reached down and saved him. “I remember it very clearly,” he said. “The coldness of the water and the darkness of the tunnel---the shape of that darkness. It’s scary. I think that’s why I’m attracted to darkness.” As Murakami described this memory, I felt a strange internal joggling that I couldn’t quite place---it felt like déjà vu crossed with the spiritual equivalent of having to sneeze. It struck me that I had heard this memory before, or, eerily, that I was somehow remembering the memory myself, firsthand. Only much later did I realize that I was, indeed, remembering the memory: Murakami had transferred it to one of his very minor characters near the beginning of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.”

After university Murakami worked for several years as a jazz bar owner. Anderson wrote in the New York Times. "In his early 20s, instead of joining the ranks of a large corporation, Murakami grew out his hair and his beard, married against his parents’ wishes, took out a loan and opened a jazz club in Tokyo called Peter Cat. He spent nearly 10 years absorbed in the day-to-day operations of the club: sweeping up, listening to music, making sandwiches and mixing drinks deep into the night." On that period of his life Murakami told Israeli interviewer Yediot Aharonot, “Every night, I had to speak with the customers...In Those seven years, I did enough talking for a lifetime. Afterwards I made an oath to myself that I wouldn’t talk to anyone to whom I really didn’t want to talk to.”

Murakami Leaves and Returns to Japan

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Murakami has always viewed himself as an outsider. Despite his popularity many Japanese don’t like him and even the people who like him dislike many of his books.

In the late 1980s after Norwegian Wood became a big success Murakami and Yoko moved to Europe and then the United States, mostly in Hawaii. He taught for a while at Princeton and began translating books by famous American writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote into Japanese. When he and Yoko came back to Japan for periodic visits they did so quietly and discreetly.

Murakami told Araonot, that he left Japan and settled in the United States because he found Japan “distressing and pressuring” him. “It is a very homogeneous and restricting society---120 million people who are like one person,” he said. In a discussion at Berkeley he said, “Some critics and other writers hated me because I was different. I was called a punk, a con man. Some kind of swindler. Being different is difficult in Japan...They hated me so I left.”

The Kobe earthquake and sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway in 1995, drew Murakami back to Japan. The Kobe earthquake destroyed his parents house. The tone of his books changed as he dealt with serous topics with serious fiction and nonfiction books. This alienated many of his fans who preferred his dreamy, irreverent books.

Haruki Murakami, English and Music

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: Murakami speaks excellent English in a slow, deep voice. He dislikes, he told me, speaking through a translator. His accent is strong---inflections would rise dramatically or drop off suddenly just when I was expecting them to hold steady---and yet only rarely did we have trouble understanding each other. Certain colloquialisms (“I guess”; “like that”) cycled in and out of his speech in slightly odd positions. I got the sense that he enjoyed being out of his linguistic element: there’s a touch of improvisational fun in his English. [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

When asked if he could remember the first record he ever bought, Anderson wrote Murakami “stood up, rummaged around one of his shelves and produced, for my inspection, “The Many Sides of Gene Pitney.” Its cover featured a glamour shot of Pitney, an early-60s American crooner, wearing a spotted ascot and a lush red jacket. His hair looked like a cresting wave frozen into shape. Murakami said he bought the record in Kobe when he was 13. (This was a replacement copy; he wore the original out decades ago.) He dropped the needle and played Pitney’s first big hit, “Town Without Pity,” a dramatic, horn-filled vamp in which Pitney voices a young lover crooning an apocalyptic cry for help: “The young have problems, many problems/We need an understanding heart/Why don’t they help us, try to help us/Before this clay and granite planet falls apart?”

One the room in his seaside home where he wrote most of “1Q84,” Anderson wrote: This is also, not coincidentally, the home of his vast record collection. (He guesses that he has around 10,000 but says he’s too scared to count.) The office’s two long walls were covered from floor to ceiling with albums, all neatly shelved in plastic sleeves. Presiding over the end of the room, under a high bank of windows that looked out onto the mountains, were two huge stereo speakers. The room’s other shelves held mementos of Murakami’s life and work: a mug featuring Johnnie Walker, the whisky icon whom he re-imagined as a murderous villain in “Kafka on the Shore”; a photo of himself looking miserable while finishing his fastest marathon ever (1991, New York City, 3:31:27). On the walls were a photo of Raymond Carver, a poster of Glenn Gould and some small paintings of important jazz figures, including Murakami’s favorite musician of all time, the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.

On Janacek’s “sinfonietta,” by the Czechoslovakian composer Leos Janacek, the song that “kicks off, and then periodically haunts” “1Q84,” Anderson wrote: “the busy, upbeat, dramatic [music]-like five normal songs fighting for supremacy inside an empty paint can” makes it the perfect theme for the frantic, lumpy, violent adventure of “1Q84.” Shouting over the music, Murakami told me that he chose the “sinfonietta” precisely for its weirdness. “Just once I heard that music in a concert hall,” he said. “There were 15 trumpeters behind the orchestra. Strange. Very strange. . . . And that weirdness fits very well in this book. I cannot imagine what other kind of music is fitting so well in this story.” He said he listened to the song, over and over, as he wrote the opening scene. “I chose the “sinfonietta” because that is not a popular music at all. But after I published this book, the music became popular in this country. . . . Mr. Seiji Ozawa thanked me. His record has sold well.”

Running with Haruki Murakami

While he ran the bar Murakami smoked three packs of cigarettes day and stayed up late and slept late. When he gave up the bar he radically changed his life, replacing cigarettes and booze with running and going to bed early, around 9:00am, and waking up 3:00pm to write. He told Roland Ketts in the Daily Yomiuri, “I actually lost a lot of friends when I made the change. They just couldn’t understand and got angry...You know, nightlife is kind of an illusion. You think there are all these gorgeous things happening late at night, and sometimes they happen. But mostly, its just boring.”

Murakami is remains dedicated runner. He began running seriously at the age of 33 in 1982 and has competed in more than 60 marathons and completed an ultra-marathon of 62 miles in 1996. In recent years he has gotten into triathlons. He likes to listen to Eric Clapton when he runs and even published a work on his interest: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Knopf, 2008). He is also fan of the Yakult Swallows, a Japanese baseball team.

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: At the end of our time together, Murakami took me for a run. (“Most of what I know about writing,” he has written, “I’ve learned through running every day.”) His running style is an extension of his personality: easy, steady, matter of fact. After a minute or two, after we found our mutual stride, Murakami asked if I would like to start with something he referred to only as the Hill. The way he said it sounded like a challenge, a warning. Soon I understood his tone, because we were suddenly climbing it, the Hill---not exactly running anymore but stumbling in place at a serious tilt, the earth an angled treadmill underneath us. As we inched our way toward the end of the road, I turned to Murakami and said, “That was a big hill.” At which point he gestured to indicate that we had only reached the first of many switchbacks. After awhile, as our breathing turned more and more ragged, I started to wonder, pessimistically, if the switchbacks would never end, if we had entered some Murakami world of endless elevation: ascent, ascent, ascent. But then, finally, we reached the top. We could see the sea far below us: the vast secret water world, fully mapped but uninhabitable, stretching between Japan and America. Its surface looked calm, from where we stood, that day. [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

And then we started running down. Murakami led me through his village, past the surf shop on the main street, past a row of fishermen’s houses (he pointed out a traditional “fishermen’s shrine” in one of the yards). For a while the air was moist and salty as we ran parallel to the beach. We talked about John Irving, with whom Murakami once went jogging in Central Park as a young, unknown translator. We talked about cicadas: how strange it would be to live for so many years underground only to emerge, screaming, for a couple of fatal months up in the trees. Mainly I remember the steady rhythm of Murakami’s feet.

Haruki Murakami’s Early Writing Career

Murakami began writing his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing (1979), in English and didn’t really explore Japanese literature until he was well established as a writer. Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: His career as a writer began in classic Murakami style: out of nowhere, in the most ordinary possible setting, a mystical truth suddenly descended upon him and changed his life forever. Murakami, age 29, was sitting in the outfield at his local baseball stadium, drinking a beer, when a batter---an American transplant named Dave Hilton---hit a double. It was a normal-enough play, but as the ball flew through the air, an epiphany struck Murakami. He realized, suddenly, that he could write a novel. He had never felt a serious desire to do so before, but now it was overwhelming. [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

And so he did: after the game, he went to a bookstore, bought a pen and some paper and over the next couple of months produced “Hear the Wind Sing,” a slim, elliptical tale of a nameless 21-year-old narrator, his friend called the Rat and a four-fingered woman. Nothing much happens, but the Murakami voice is there from the start: a strange broth of ennui and exoticism. In just 130 pages, the book manages to reference a thorough cross-section of Western culture: “Lassie,” “The Mickey Mouse Club,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “California Girls,” Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, the French director Roger Vadim, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, the cartoon bird Woodstock, Sam Peckinpah and Peter, Paul and Mary. That’s just a partial list, and the book contains (at least in its English translation) not a single reference to a work of Japanese art in any medium. This tendency in Murakami’s work rankles some Japanese critics to this day.

Murakami submitted “Hear the Wind Sing” for a prestigious new writers’ prize and won. After another year and another novel---this one featuring a possibly sentient pinball machine---Murakami sold his jazz club in order to devote himself, full time, to writing.

Haruki Murakami’s Life as a Writer

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: “Full time,” for Murakami, means something different from what it does for most people. For 30 years now, he has lived a monkishly regimented life, each facet of which has been precisely engineered to help him produce his work. He runs or swims long distances almost every day, eats a healthful diet, goes to bed around 9 p.m. and wakes up, without an alarm, around 4 a.m.---at which point he goes straight to his desk for five to six hours of concentrated writing. (Sometimes he wakes up as early as 2.) He thinks of his office, he told me, as a place of confinement---“but voluntary confinement, happy confinement.” [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

“Concentration is one of the happiest things in my life,” Murakami told the New York Times. “If you cannot concentrate, you are not so happy. I’m not a fast thinker, but once I am interested in something, I am doing it for many years. I don’t get bored. I’m kind of a big kettle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I’m always hot.”

On his Tokyo office Anderson wrote: We sat at a table in his office...the headquarters of what he refers to half-jokingly as Murakami Industries. A small staff buzzed around, shoelessly, in the other rooms. Murakami wore blue shorts and a short-sleeve button-up shirt that appeared to have been---like many of his characters’ shirts---recently ironed. (He loves ironing.) He was barefoot. He drank black coffee out of a mug featuring the Penguin cover of Raymond Chandler’s “Big Sleep”---one of his first literary loves, and a novel he is currently translating into Japanese.

Translation---shuttling from one world to another---is in many ways the key to understanding Murakami’s work. He has consistently denied being influenced by Japanese writers; he even spoke, early in his career, about escaping “the curse of Japanese.” Instead, he formed his literary sensibilities as a teenager by obsessively reading Western novelists: the classic Europeans (Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Dickens) but especially a cluster of 20th-century Americans whom he has read over and over throughout his life---Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut. When Murakami sat down to write his first novel, he struggled until he came up with an unorthodox solution: he wrote the book’s opening in English, then translated it back into Japanese. This, he says, is how he found his voice. Murakami’s longstanding translator, Jay Rubin, told me that a distinctive feature of Murakami’s Japanese is that it often reads, in the original, as if it has been translated from English. You could even say that translation is the organizing principle of Murakami’s work: that his stories are not only translated but about translation.

Driving to Haruki Murakami’s Seaside Home

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: On our second day together, Murakami and I climbed into the backseat of his car and took a ride to his seaside home. One of his assistants, a stylish woman slightly younger than Aomame, drove us over Tokyo on the actual elevated highway from which Aomame makes her fateful descent in “1Q84.” The car stereo was playing Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Old Dan Tucker,” a classic piece of darkly surrealist Americana. (“Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man/Washed his face in a frying pan/Combed his hair with a wagon wheel/And died with a toothache in his heel.”) [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

As we drove, Murakami pointed out the emergency pullouts he had in mind when he wrote that opening scene. (He was stuck here in traffic, he said, just like Aomame, when the idea struck him.) Then he undertook an existentially complicated task: he tried to pinpoint, very precisely, on the actual highway, the spot where the fictional Aomame would have climbed down into a new world. “She was going from Yoga to Shibuya,” he said, looking out the car window. “So it was probably right here.” Then he turned to me and added, as if to remind us both: “But it’s not real.” Still, he looked back through the window and continued as if he were describing something that had actually happened. “Yes,” he said, pointing. “This is where she went down.” We were passing a building called the Carrot Tower, not far from a skyscraper that looked as if it had giant screws sticking into it. Then Murakami turned back to me and added, as if the thought had just occurred to him again: “But it’s not real.”

We left Tokyo and entered its exurbs. We passed numerous corporate headquarters, as well as a love hotel shaped like a giant boat. After an hour or so, the landscape thickened and rose, and we arrived at Murakami’s house, a nice but ordinary-looking two-story structure in a leafy, hilly neighborhood halfway between the mountains and the sea.

Murakami on Writing

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Murakami has described writing novels as “telling skillful lies...to reveal the truth” with the goal of communicating “private language”---which one feels but can’t explain to others in words---through “objective language”---logical language easily communicated to others---and better yet allowing the two kinds language to interact and enhance each other.

Murakami wrote “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running everyday. He has said that writing, like running, requires, in order of importance, talent, focus and endurance, he also said that writing is fundamentally “an unhealthy type of work” because brings the writer is face to face with the “toxin that lies deep down in all humanity” and without which “no creative activity in the real sense can take place.”

On his characters Haruki Murakami told Tokyo University lecturer Roland Kelts, “They are so lonely, but at least they have their styles and obsessions for survival. If their lives are empty of meaning, purpose or goals, they adopt a kind of postmodernist view’surviving a meaningless life strictly on their own obsessions , their tastes in things, their styles.”

In 2006, 57-year-old Murakami released a translation of The Great Gatsby. He had once said the book was “the most important novel in my life” and once said he wished to translate it when I reach 60.” He also translated Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and the complete works for Raymond Carver as well as works by John Irving and Tim O’Brien.

Some have compared Murakami’s works to the films of Dennis Lynch and TV programs like Monty Python. Two Murakami stories have been made into films: Tony Takitani and Kaze no Uta o Kike (“Hear the Song if the Wind”). In October 2006, Murakami was awarded the Franz Kafka International Literary Award.

Murakami told Roland Ketts in an article in the Daily Yomiuri, “My readers are the most important thing to me. It doesn’t matter what the critics say. If you are a writer, and you have your readers, you can survive.” He also commented how his readers seem to get younger as he gets older. When he writes a novel he often opens a website and communicates to readers through e-mail, blogs and bulletin boards.

Murakami told the New York Times that the theme of many of his works in an ordinary person involved in an extraordinary event, “because I’m an ordinary man, I wrote about ordinary people,” he said, adding, “readers in Asian countries, such as China and South Korea , tend to accept extraordinary events without questioning them, or thinking them strange, unlike readers from Europe.”

Haruki Murakami’s Imagination and Dreams

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: I told Murakami that I was surprised to discover, after so many surprising books, that he managed to surprise me again. As usual, he took no credit, claiming to be just a boring old vessel for his imagination. “The Little People came suddenly,” he said. “I don’t know who they are. I don’t know what it means. I was a prisoner of the story. I had no choice. They came, and I described it. That is my work.” [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

I asked Murakami, whose work is so often dreamlike, if he himself has vivid dreams. He said he could never remember them---he wakes up and there’s just nothing. The only dream he remembers from the last couple of years, he said, is a recurring nightmare that sounds a lot like a Haruki Murakami story. In the dream, a shadowy, unknown figure is cooking him what he calls “weird food”: snake-meat tempura, caterpillar pie and (an instant classic of Japanese dream-cuisine) rice with tiny pandas in it. He doesn’t want to eat it, but in the dream world he feels compelled to. He wakes up just before he takes a bite.

“I live in Tokyo,” Murakami told the New York Times, “a kind of civilized world---like New York or Los Angeles or London or Paris. If you want to find a magical situation, magical things, you have to go deep inside yourself. So that is what I do. People say it’s magic realism---but in the depths of my soul, it’s just realism. Not magical. While I’m writing, it’s very natural, very logical, very realistic and reasonable.”

Murakami insists that, when he’s not writing, he is an absolutely ordinary man---his creativity, he says, is a “black box” to which he has no conscious access. He tends to shy away from the media and is always surprised when a reader wants to shake his hand on the street. He says he much prefers to listen to other people talk---and indeed, he is known as a kind of Studs Terkel in Japan. After the 1995 sarin-gas attacks, Murakami spent a year interviewing 65 victims and perpetrators; he published the results in an enormous two-volume book, which was translated into English, heavily abridged, as “Underground.”

Haruki Murakami’s World

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: Murakami’s fiction has a special way of leaking into reality. During my five days in Japan, I found that I was less comfortable in actual Tokyo than I was in Murakami’s Tokyo---the real city filtered through the imaginative lens of his books. I spent as much time in that world as possible. I went to a baseball game at Jingu Stadium---the site of Murakami’s epiphany---and stood high up in the frenzy of the bleachers, paying special attention every time someone hit a double. (The closest I got to my own epiphany was when I shot an edamame bean straight down my throat and almost choked.) I went for a long run on Murakami’s favorite Tokyo running route, the Jingu-Gaien, while listening to his favorite running music, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and Eric Clapton’s 2001 album “Reptile.” My hotel was near Shinjuku Station, the transportation hub around which “1Q84" pivots, and I drank coffee and ate curry at its characters’ favorite meeting place, the Nakamuraya cafe. I went to a Denny’s at midnight---the scene of the opening of Murakami’s novel “After Dark”---and eavesdropped on Tokyoites over French toast and bubble tea. I became hyperaware, as I wandered around, of the things Murakami novels are hyperaware of: incidental music, ascents and descents, the shapes of people’s ears. [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

In doing all of this I was joining a long line of Murakami pilgrims. People have published cookbooks based on the meals described in his novels and assembled endless online playlists of the music his characters listen to. Murakami told me, with obvious delight, that a company in Korea has organized “Kafka on the Shore” tour groups in Western Japan, and that his Polish translator is putting together a “1Q84"-themed travel guide to Tokyo.

Sometimes the tourism even crosses metaphysical boundaries. Murakami often hears from readers who have “discovered” his inventions in the real world: a restaurant or a shop that he thought he made up, they report, actually exists in Tokyo. In Sapporo, there are now apparently multiple Dolphin Hotels---an establishment Murakami invented in “A Wild Sheep Chase.” After publishing “1Q84,” Murakami received a letter from a family with the surname “Aomame,” a name so improbable (remember: “green peas”) he thought he invented it. He sent them a signed copy of the book. The kicker is that all of this---fiction leaking into reality, reality leaking into fiction---is what most of Murakami’s fiction (including, especially, “1Q84") is all about. He is always shuttling us back and forth between worlds.

The signature pleasure of a Murakami plot is watching a very ordinary situation (riding an elevator, boiling spaghetti, ironing a shirt) turn suddenly extraordinary (a mysterious phone call, a trip down a magical well, a conversation with a Sheep Man)---watching a character, in other words, being dropped from a position of existential fluency into something completely foreign and then being forced to mediate, awkwardly, between those two realities. A Murakami character is always, in a sense, translating between radically different worlds: mundane and bizarre, natural and supernatural, country and city, male and female, overground and underground. His entire oeuvre, in other words, is the act of translation dramatized.

Murakami's Books

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Murakami had written 27 novels as 2004. Norwegian Wood (1987), Murakami's bestselling book, sold more than 4 million copies in Japan and millions more overseas and has been translated into 40 languages. The title refers to a Beatles' song. The book itself is about a teenage suicide and young man's first tragic love. An experiment in realism, it was much different than his earlier fantastic novels. He wrote most of the book in Rome.

Other Murakami books include Dance, Dance, Dance (1988), about a divorced man who steps off an elevator into a parallel universe; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), a hilarious book regarded by some as his masterpiece; Sputnik Sweetheart, about a lonely man in love with a woman who loves another woman; The Wild Sheep Chase (1982), with reference to sheep in Hokkaido; South of the Border, West of the Sun (1999); and All God's Children Can Dance (2000), about a man’s relationships with his father and son, and set in his home town.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf, 1995) is regarded by some as Murakami’s best work. It is set during a 1939 battle in which Japanese troops were slaughtered by Soviet tanks in Mongolian Desert because the Japanese leaders though they were assured of victory because they had been given a blessing by the Emperor. The main character is looking for his cat.
A passage from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle goes" "The cat has run away. Strange calls had come from a strange woman. I had met an odd girl and started visiting a vacant house. Noboru Wataya had raped Creta Kano, Malta Kanao had predicted I'd find my necktie."

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: Murakami's "daily boiling has produced, over time, one of the world’s most distinctive bodies of work: three decades of addictive weirdness that falls into an oddly fascinating hole between genres (sci-fi, fantasy, realist, hard-boiled) and cultures (Japan, America), a hole that no writer has ever explored before, or at least nowhere near this deep. Over the years, Murakami’s novels have tended to grow longer and more serious---the sitcom references have given way, for the most part, to symphonies---and now, after a particularly furious and sustained boil, he has produced his longest, strangest, most serious book yet."

Recent Murakami Books

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Underground (1997) is a collection of interviews with Aum cult members and survivors of the sarin gas attack in Tokyo in 1995. After the Quake (Knopf, 2002) is a collection of stories related to survivors of the Kobe earthquake in 1995. Murakami’s parents had been left homeless by the quake. He said that writing these two books changed him, filling him with a sense of duty as a writer and a person that he hadn’t had before. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, released in English in 2006, is a collection of 25 “Strange tales” taken from his entire career.

Umibe no Kafuka (“Kafka on the Shore”) was selected by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books on 2005. Critics who liked it praised it for its use of strange worlds and interconnected stories that attempt to tackle some of the big questions about life. Critics who didn’t like it said it went off on too many irrelevant tangents and came across more as a lecture than a novel. The book is about a 15-year-old boy names Kafka who makes some strange friends in a library. John Updike wrote in The New Yorker that it was “a real page-turner as well as an incessantly metaphysical mind-bender.” In Japan, the two volumes of Kafka on the Shore sold 738,00 copies.

1Q84

1Q84, Murakami’s first novel in over five years, hit the stores in Japan in May 2009 and flew of the shelves, selling faster than any of his previous books. Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 and released in two volumes, it sold more than 1 million copes within two weeks of its release and 1.5 million within the first month.

1Q84 is almost 2,000 pages long and features a main female and main male characters who narrate alternating chapters. Murakami began working on the book in Hawaii and spent two years writing it. On writing it he told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I only had two things in mind: That the story would be about a man and woman, both 30 years old, who search for each other after meeting and parting at the age of 10; and that I’d make this simple story as long and complicated as possible. If I start out thinking about the plot, things don’t go well...I don’t want t spend two years writing a story whose plot I already know.”

Murakami said that among the things that motivated and inspired him to 1Q84 was the Aum Supreme Truth cult, especially the case of Yasuo Hayashi, who was responsible for the death of eight people in the Tokyo sarin gas attack in 1995 and received a death sentence for that but, according to Murakami, joined the cult without knowing what he was doing and was brainwashed to commit murder. Murakami told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I attended as many hearings [of Aum trials] at Tokyo’s district and high courts as I could,. At that time I imagined the terror of being left alone on the other side of the moon where a Joe Blow unwittingly commits a felonious crime and ends up becoming a death row convict...I considered for years the meaning of this.”

The third volume of 1Q84 went on sale in Japan IN April 2010. Murakami said that he was motivated to write 1Q84 by the September 11th 2001, terrorist attack on the United States, telling the Yomiuri Shimbun that the attack “seemed to have spread international sentiment that a separate and different world may exist with our own...I felt compelled to write about the surreal belief that our world may exist in parallel with another where there has been no Iraq war and [the United States] is led by a different president.”

1Q84 as a Big Book

1Q84 has been translated into English, French, Thai, Spanish, Hebrew, Latvian, Turkish, German, Portuguese, Swedish, Czech, Russian and Catalan. It has sold millions of copies across Asia, Anderson wrote, and generated serious Nobel Prize chatter in most of the languages in which it is not yet even available. The American version of the book is 932 pages long and nearly a foot tall---the size of an extremely serious piece of legislation. “It’s so big,” Murakami told the New York Times. “It’s like a telephone directory.” [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: In Japan, “1Q84" came out in three separate volumes over two years. (Murakami originally ended the novel after Book 2 and then decided, a year later, to add several hundred more pages.) In America, it has been supersized into a single-volume monolith and positioned as the literary event of the fall. You can watch a fancy book trailer for it on YouTube, and some bookstores are planning to stay open until midnight on its release date, Oct. 25. Knopf was in such a hurry to get the book into English that they split the job between two translators, each of whom worked on separate parts.

This giant book, however, grew from the tiniest of seeds. According to Murakami, “1Q84" is just an amplification of one of his most popular short stories, “On Seeing the 100 percent Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning,” which (in its English version) is five pages long. “Basically, it’s the same,” he told me. “A boy meets a girl. They have separated and are looking for each other. It’s a simple story. I just made it long.” I asked Murakami if he intended to write such a big book. He said no: that if he’d known how long it would turn out to be, he might not have started at all. He tends to begin a piece of fiction with only a title or an opening image (in this case he had both) and then just sits at his desk, morning after morning, improvising until it’s done. “1Q84,” he said, held him prisoner for three years.

For decades now, Murakami has been talking about working himself up to write what he calls a “comprehensive novel”---something on the scale of “The Brothers Karamazov,” one of his artistic touchstones. (He has read the book four times.) This seems to be what he has attempted with “1Q84": a grand, third-person, all-encompassing meganovel. It is a book full of anger and violence and disaster and weird sex and strange new realities, a book that seems to want to hold all of Japan inside of it---a book that, even despite its occasional awkwardness (or maybe even because of that awkwardness), makes you marvel, reading it, at all the strange folds a single human brain can hold.

Plot of 1Q84

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: “1Q84" begins at a dead stop: a young woman named Aomame (it means “green peas”) is stuck in a taxi, in a traffic jam, on one of the elevated highways that circle the outskirts of Tokyo. A song comes over the taxi’s radio: a classical piece called the “Sinfonietta,” by the Czechoslovakian composer Leos Janacek---“probably not the ideal music,” Murakami writes, “to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” And yet it resonates with her on some mysterious level. As the “Sinfonietta” plays and the taxi idles, the driver finally suggests to Aomame an unusual escape route. The elevated highways, he tells her, are studded with emergency pullouts; in fact, there happens to be one just ahead. These pullouts, he says, have secret stairways to the street that most people aren’t aware of. If she is truly desperate she could probably manage to climb down one of these. As Aomame considers this, the driver suddenly issues a very Murakami warning. “Please remember,” he says, “things are not what they seem.” If she goes down, he warns, her world might suddenly change forever. [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

She does, and it does. The world Aomame descends into has a subtly different history, and there are also---less subtly---two moons. (The appointment she’s late for, by the way, turns out to be an assassination.) There is also a tribe of magical beings called the Little People who emerge, one evening, from the mouth of a dead, blind goat (long story), expand themselves from the size of a tadpole to the size of a prairie dog and then, while chanting “ho ho” in unison, start plucking white translucent threads out of the air in order to weave a big peanut-shaped orb called an “air chrysalis.” This is pretty much the baseline of craziness in “1Q84.” About halfway through, the book launches itself to such rarefied supernatural heights (a levitating clock, mystical sex-paralysis) that I found myself drawing exclamation points all over the margins.

Orwell and 1Q84

Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: The title of “1Q84" is a joke: an Orwell reference that hinges on a multilingual pun. (In Japanese, the number 9 is pronounced like the English letter Q.) I asked Murakami if he reread “1984" while writing “1Q84.” He said he did, and it was boring. (Not that this is necessarily bad; at one point I asked him why he liked baseball. “Because it’s boring,” he said.) “Most near-future fictions are boring,” he told me. “It’s always dark and always raining, and people are so unhappy. I like what Cormac McCarthy wrote, “The Road”---it’s very well written. . . . But still it’s boring. It’s dark, and the people are eating people. . . . George Orwell’s “1984" is near-future fiction, but this is near-past fiction,” he said of “1Q84.” “We are looking at the same year from the opposite side. If it’s near past, it’s not boring.” [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

On wether he felt any kinship with Orwell, Murakami told the New York Times: “I guess we have a common feeling against the system,” Murakami said. “George Orwell is half journalist, half fiction writer. I’m 100 percent fiction writer. . . . I don’t want to write messages. I want to write good stories. I think of myself as a political person, but I don’t state my political messages to anybody.”

Popularity of Murakami Abroad

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Norwegian Wood, the movie
Murakami is widely read in Asia. Over 1.3 million legal copies of Norwegian Wood and 300,000 copies of Kafka on the Shore have been printed in China and no doubt many tomes more illegal copies have been sold. . Norwegian Wood, sold under name translated to mean The Age of Derivation, has sold well in South Korea.

Murakami’s works have been translated into 40 languages. They are also widely read in Europe and the United States. Kafka on the Shore toped the bestseller lost in Austria. More than 2,000 people came out to see Murakami in a stage discussion in San Francisco and fans lined up for hours to get a signed book.

Murakami has been awarded the Jerusalem Prize and Franz Kafka Prize and is touted as a future winner of the Nobel prize. Murakami received the Jerusalem Prize in Jerusalem when Israel was carrying out a large-scale offensive in the Gaza Strip and condemned Israel for its aggression at the award ceremony.

The film version of Norwegian Wood was directed by Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran. For many this was a surprise because Murakami has said before the only director he would let handle his works were Woody Allen and David Lynch.

Haruki Murakami was awarded Spain’s top culture award, the order of Arts and Letters, in 2009. He is popular in Spain.

Film of Norwegian Wood

“The 2010 film Norwegian Wood was the first film adaptation of one of the most famous works by Murakami,” Kumi Matsumaru wrote in the Daily Yomiuri. “The 1987 novel starts with the Beatles song "Norwegian Wood" triggering memories in 37-year-old Watanabe of his youth. The film, however, follows him as a 19-year-old university student.” [Source: Kumi Matsumaru, Daily Yomiuri, December 10, 2010]

“In the late 1960s, Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama, Death Note, Kamui Gaiden ) leaves his hometown for Tokyo in the wake of the suicide of his close friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora). Though his classmates are becoming politically active, Watanabe is directionless. That is, until he is reunited with Kizuki's old girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, Babel ).

“The three had been inseparable in high school. Watanabe begins to regularly visit Naoko, who has yet to recover from Kizuki's abrupt death. They console each other, and as a result, grow closer. As their relationship develops, however, Naoko becomes more confused and more aware of her loss, and subsequently decides to check herself into a sanatorium in the mountains of Kyoto for a while. The story proceeds with an intense emotion that clashes with the beautiful, often quiet scenery and equally subdued conversations. The story is told with a detached tone, catching viewers off-guard with the enormous feelings of loss and emptiness.”

“Vietnamese Director Tran Anh Hung ( The Scent of Green Papaya ) skillfully portrays the quiet and complex feelings of the characters. They include that of Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who is attracted to Watanabe, who in turn constantly struggles with Watanabe's feelings for Naoko. Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), who is senior to Watanabe, is an arrogant and distant womanizer, but seems to be falling apart.”

“Though the film was said to have been shot entirely in Japan, parts of it appear as if they had actually been shot abroad....The film certainly would have lost some of its charm if the three main actors were perfect looking. Each of them, however, is average, be it through reality or makeup. In fact, it is this ordinariness that helps to create the film's depth and sense of reality.” Tran said it would have been inconceivable to film the movie outside of Japan with non-Japanese actors: "What I liked the most about the novel was Japan's culture and the presence of the characters."

“While this film is portrayed as a sad story of youth finding their way in life, it is actually a film about suicide and how people are affected by it. John Lennon's titular song accordingly was stuck in my head for days after seeing it. But the more I reflected on the story and its tale of a man with little direction in life, another, perhaps better-fitting Beatles song came to mind” Nowhere Man.

Theater-Version of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

A theater-version of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle debuted in Edinburgh in August 2011. The adaption by Stephan Earnhart took eight years to put together. The Times of London called it “a dreamlik multimedia feast.”

According to the Edinburgh Spotlight: “Toru Okada has lost his cat---and his wife. In his strange and portentous quest to recover both, he finds himself treading the paths of his own memory and dreams, as characters real and imagined accompany him on his journey. As the trail leads to his bullying politician brother-in-law, Toru pieces together the fragments to discover a terrible truth.” [Source: Edinburgh Spotlight, September 2011]

“Using video projection, puppetry, mood-enhancing lighting and immersive, claustrophobic sound design, Earnhart has created something which at times feels like a new medium: blurring lines between theatre, art and film almost as effectively as Murakami’s tale of loss and identity mixes fantasy and reality.”

“An accomplished thirteen-strong cast of mostly American Japanese create the multitude of characters in this complex and multilayered work: sharing roles as they portray gameshow hosts, lounge singers and ex-prisoners of war. Complementing the piece, a live soundtrack is provided by experimental musician Bora Yoon, herself resembling an exotic bird in black evening gown and feather headdress as she uses piano and electronic instruments to conjure up a suitably atmospheric score.”

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is, at its core, an examination of how our lives connect: either through long-held relationships or via chance encounters. And, like these connections, Earnhart and Pierce’s stunning adaptation lingers in the mind long after we return from its creative vision into the reality of our own lives.

Haruki Murakami on Nuclear Power and Disasters in Japan

At an awards ceremony in Barcelona in the summer of 2011, Murakami criticized Japan’s nuclear industry, calling the Fukushima crisis the second nuclear disaster in the history of Japan, but the first that was entirely self-inflicted. Later he told the New York Times: “I am 99 percent a fiction writer and 1 percent a citizen,” he said. “As a citizen I have things to say, and when I have to do it, I do it clearly. At that point, nobody said no against nuclear power plants. So I think I should do it. It’s my responsibility.” He said that the response to his speech, in Japan, was mostly positive---that people hoped, as he did, that the horror of the tsunami could be a catalyst for reform. “I think many Japanese people think this is a turning point for our country,” he said. “It was a nightmare, but still it’s a good chance to change. After 1945, we have been working so hard and getting rich. But that kind of thing doesn’t continue anymore. We have to change our values. We have to think about how we can get happy. It’s not about money. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about discipline and purpose. What I wanted to say is what I’ve been saying since 1968: we have to change the system. I think this is a time when we have to be idealistic again.” [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

The defining disasters of modern Japan---the subway sarin-gas attack, the Kobe earthquake, the recent tsunami---are, to an amazing extent, Murakami disasters: spasms of underground violence, deep unseen trauma that manifests itself as massive destruction to daily life on the surface. He is notoriously obsessed with metaphors of depth: characters climbing down empty wells to enter secret worlds or encountering dark creatures underneath Tokyo’s subway tunnels. (He once told an interviewer that he had to stop himself from using well imagery, after his eighth novel, because the frequency of it was starting to embarrass him.) He imagines his own creativity in terms of depth as well. Every morning at his desk, during his trance of total focus, Murakami becomes a Murakami character: an ordinary man who spelunks the caverns of his creative unconscious and faithfully reports what he finds.

Image Sources: 1) Photo, Wikipedia 2) Books, Amazon, 3) Norwegian wood movie, Japan Zone

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2012

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