Pop Master

8 minute read
Velisarios Kattoulas/Tokyo

War crimes, nationalism, teenagers, the World Cup, second-rate writers, third-rate politicians: no matter what he’s discussing, Haruki Murakami appears strangely, almost disconcertingly placid. During nearly three hours of conversation, emotion flickers across the face of the most popular Japanese writer since Yukio Mishima precisely once. After a wry put-down of a rival novelist, his eyes sparkle with mischief and his lips curl into a smile. But Murakami’s words—both written and spoken—are a different matter. Listen to them carefully and you soon realize he is brimming with passion. As American novelist Jay McInerney puts it, Murakami captures “the common ache of the contemporary head and heart.”

In East Asia, his lyrical fictional style has spawned a legion of imitators dubbed “Murakami’s children.” In South Korea, where his books often hit best-seller lists, 50 volumes of his work have appeared in translation, including novels, short stories, travel pieces, essays and interviews. “Readers develop empathy for Japanese of their age through Murakami’s books,” writes Noriko Kayanuma, a professor of Japanese literature at Choong Euk National University in South Korea. “They realize that Japanese young people have similar sentiments, worries and problems.” In the West, too, admiration is growing. “Is he the voice of our age?” asks Jay Rubin, a professor of Japanese literature at Harvard University and author of a recent Murakami biography. “Who knows? But judging by the reactions of people from different cultures, you can say his work has that great amorphous thing that makes literature live.”

But writers, like prophets, are sometimes dishonored in their own countries. So it is with Murakami. He is commercially successful. That can be a curse in Japan, where the literati distinguish condescendingly between “pure” literature and fiction for the masses. Highbrow novelists compete for the tony Akutagawa Prize. Their down-market brethren wrestle over the Naoki Prize. Murakami, 53, has won neither (he has garnered lesser awards, including the Gunzo for debut novels.) “Murakami’s work is in-between,” explains Mitsuyoshi Numano, a literature professor at the University of Tokyo. “If a writer pursues high-quality literature, the book doesn’t sell.” Murakami’s latest novel, Kafka on the Shore, has thus cast him into further disfavor with Japan’s guardians of aesthetic integrity. Published in September, it vaulted to the top of Japanese best-seller lists on the day of its release and sold 460,000 copies in just two months.

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Murakami acknowledges he has an “easygoing,” accessible style, yet he’s careful to rebut the chief accusation made against his work: that it’s frothy entertainment. “Many of my readers read my books three or four times, because my novels are easy to read,” Murakami says. “But the stories are not easy to understand.” In A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, for example, he examines complex issues, such as Japan’s brutal colonialism in the first half of the 20th century, while also portraying his characters’ struggles to reconcile their hopes and fears with the lives they lead. In any case, popularity doesn’t shame him: “Some people think literature is high culture and that it should only have a small readership. I don’t think so … I have to compete with popular culture, including TV, magazines, movies and video games.”

As Murakami tells it, his emergence as a novelist was a mystical experience—an artistic epiphany. It came in 1977, he says, as he sat in Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium watching his favorite baseball team, the Yakult Swallows. When batter Dave Hilton hit a double, Murakami, then 28, says he heard a voice telling him to begin his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing. “That was one of the happiest experiences of my life,” he recalls. “Perhaps the happiest.” A decade later came the momentous publication of Norwegian Wood. Until then, the psychomysteries that formed the bulk of Murakami’s work had done well but not spectacularly. Norwegian Wood was a phenomenon. A coming-of-age novel set partly in a college dorm, it was more accessible than anything he had written before—or since—and the Japanese version sold almost four million copies. Suddenly, the shy author was besieged by editors and fans. Like many of his protagonists, he dealt with the pressure by escaping, spending most of the next 10 years in self-imposed exile in Greece, Italy and the U.S., reading, writing and teaching. He returned to Japan in 1995 after the Kobe earthquake, which destroyed his parent’s home, and the sarin-gas attacks by doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. “I thought 1995 was a turning point for our society,” Murakami recalls. “I didn’t know if it was good or bad, only that everything had changed. At the same time, it was a turning point for me. I made up my mind that I had to commit to my society again.”

Today, Murakami does much of his writing at an apartment in Omotesando, a chic Tokyo neighborhood. His spartan office there is as businesslike as its inhabitant. Unassuming as ever, he still dresses in jeans, casual shirts and sneakers, runs 10 kilometers a day, watches his diet, goes to bed early and rises before dawn to work. “He has been the same right from the beginning,” says Mizumaru Anzai, an illustrator and writer who has known Murakami for three decades.

One thing that has changed, though, is his writing. Murakami has an uncanny connection to the sensibilities of his readers, many of whom are educated Japanese urbanites in their 30s and 40s. As their worldviews have shifted, so has the material in Murakami’s novels. In the 1980s, when Japan’s bubble economy was in full swing, his novels featured protagonists who were “very cool, very detached,” says Murakami. “It was all very cool fantasy. I was escaping from the real world. But without realizing it, I got used to fighting—against the world, surroundings and the system. My stories have changed in every degree. Now what my protagonists seek is peace of mind. To get there, they might have to fight a force, a strong force, sometimes an evil force.” He adds: “I think stories are a kind of role model for society. That’s the power of fiction.”

He was always prolific, but in the past seven years Murakami has kicked into overdrive. He’s translated short stories, nonfiction and children’s books, written travelogues, essays, short stories, a short novel and two books of nonfiction. With Kafka on the Shore, Murakami has added his first full-length novel in seven years. Loosely based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, it’s the story of Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old boy who flees Tokyo to find the meaning of life. He comes from the kind of dysfunctional family Murakami often portrays. Kafka’s mother and elder sister leave when he’s four; his father, a renowned sculptor, predicts his son will commit incest and then dies.

Reviews have been mixed. Some critics found Kafka antifeminist and its sex scenes gratuitous. “Precisely because the writing is so good, its … content worries me,” the critic Yuzo Tsubouchi wrote in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. However, Tetsuo Matsuda, who reviewed it for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s best-selling broadsheet, praised the book as a profound philosophical rumination on the turbulent times afflicting Japan. “In any heavy storm, there are always writers who hoist a torchlight in front of people,” Matsuda raved. “Murakami has been, and will be, taking that role. Whatever happens in the world, I will watch his light.”

Overseas, Murakami is more revered than ever. In Taiwan, a newspaper recently predicted that his face could one day grace a Japanese banknote, like the Meiji-era novelist Natsume Soseki, whose image appears on 1,000-yen notes. To such devotees, Murakami is not just another obscure Japanese writer. He is a great writer who just happens to be Japanese.

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