It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got That Swing: An Interview with Haruki Murakami

Article excerpt

The Japanese author who has best captured the odd combination of consumerist abundance and spiritual emptiness that has characterized Japanese life during the past twenty-five years is Haruki Murakami. Born in 1949 in Kyoto and raised in Kobe in an academic family setting (his father taught Japanese literature at a nearby high school), Murakami as a teenager shared with many Japanese youths a fascination with Western cultural artifacts--television shows, rock music and jazz, films, and fiction; by the time he entered Tokyo's Waseda University in the late sixties at the height of student activism (which he witnessed but did not actively participate in), Murakami had deliberately turned his back on Japanese literature in favor of the sort of hip, new, fabulist American writings by Vonnegut, Brautigan, and other postmodernists whose works were beginning to appear in Japanese translation. Convinced that he wasn't yet ready to embark on a career as a fiction writer, Murakami spent the next six or seven years running a jazz bar in Tokyo--an experience which provided him with an ideal perspective on the evolution of Tokyo's bored-but-hyper youth culture that was then emerging. Starting in the late seventies, Murakami began publishing a series of coming-of-age novels--including Pinball 1973 and his enormously popular Norwegian Wood (which sold several million copies)--which vividly portrayed central characters aimlessly drifting through life in a brave new Japanese world like some latter day equivalents of Holden Caulfield. Presented in a lyrical (though often affectless) style that lingered obsessively on the surface features of Japanese life, full of casual sex, references to Western music, film, and other forms of pop culture, and often dripping with nostalgia, these early novels made Murakami an instant celebrity--a role he felt uncomfortable enough with that during the late eighties, he embarked on a several-year period of self-imposed exile in Europe and the United States.

If Murakami was embraced by his younger readers as their spokesperson, the popularity of his novels was viewed by most Japanese literary critics at the time with suspicion and often harsh condemnation. Murakami quickly became a flashpoint within Japanese intellectual circles in much the way (and for many of the same reasons) that Bret Ellis and Jay McInerney were in America during the 1980s. Blaming the messenger for the message, these critics frequently voiced their displeasure with precisely those features of Murakami's fiction that so successfully and poignantly captured the blankness, spiritual emptiness, and confusion of the emerging shinjinrui (literally, "New Human Race") generation of Japanese youths from that period, who found themselves unable to find any sense of personal satisfaction from a life of empty consumerism and mindless commitment to job--and equally unable to envision any means of effecting a change or even expressing their dissatisfactions.

However, beginning with A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami began to develop innovative narrative strategies that successfully integrated paraliterary elements (most notably those drawn from detective and SF formats), cultural and political criticism, and metaphysical and psychological investigations in a manner that allowed him to present the struggles of ordinary Japanese citizens to remain human in a world that seemed increasingly unreal and inhuman. No longer merely passive victims, the main characters in Murakami's major novels during this period--which include Sheep Chase and its sequel, Dance Dance Dance, and (perhaps his masterpiece to date) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World--were now presented as questors seeking not merely romantic and nostalgic connections to the past but also a more active means of making sense of their lives and the bewildering plurality of hyperrealities around them. No longer content, as he had been in Pinball 1973 and Norwegian Wood, to tell a story about the conflict between self and environment in terms of daily, surface reality, Murakami devised a kind of"simulation approach" in which the conflicts existing within his protagonists' personal consciousnesses were simulated and then projected into the surreal, labyrinthine regions of dream and personalized, Jungian unconsciousness. …