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. Fully aware of the confusing, often banalizing impact that hyperconsumerism was having on Japan, these novels are all cautionary parables about the dangers of life under late capitalism--dangers which included information overload, the irrelevance of human values and spirituality in a world dominated by the inhuman logic of postindustrial capitalism, and the loss of contact with other human beings.

By the mid-nineties (when this interview was conducted in Boston, where Murakami was then living), Murakami was in the process of completing another ambitious novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which focused on another loss--that of history and historical perspective generally, and in particular the ongoing difficulty of the Japanese people to come to grips with their collective responsibility for what occurred during WWII. Moving freely back and forth between dream and reality, the past and the present, and mixing together elements of the Gothic romance, war novel (key sections of the novel deal with the horrific violence inflicted on the Chinese during Japan's invasion of Manchuria during the 1930s), and hard-boiled detective fiction, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle vividly describes a hypermediated world in which the actualities of reality and history become transformed into hyperconsumerist byproducts. (Toshifumi Miyawaki)

Larry McCaffery: Most of your biographical statements mention that you owned a jazz bar for a number of years. And of course references to jazz appear frequently in your works. Has jazz had any influence on your writing in any way?

Haruki Murakami: Not consciously. Jazz is just my hobby. It is true that I was listening to jazz for ten hours a day for several years, so maybe I was deeply influenced by this kind of music--the rhythm, the improvisation, the sound, the style. Managing that jazz club did have some direct effect on my decision to write, though. One night looking down the bar of the club, I saw some black American soldiers crying because they missed America so much. Up until that point, I had been so immersed in Western culture ever since I was about ten or twelve--not just jazz but also Elvis and Vonnegut. I think that my interest in these things was partly due to wanting to rebel against my father (he was a teacher of Japanese literature) and against other Japanese orthodoxies. So when I was sixteen I stopped reading Japanese novels and began reading Russian and French novels, such as Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, and Balzac, in translation. After studying English for four years in high school, I began reading American books at used-bookstores. By reading novels I could escape out of my loneliness into a different world. It felt like visiting Mars at first, but gradually I began to feel comfortable there. But that night, when I saw those American men crying, I realized that, no matter how much I loved this Western culture, it meant more to these soldiers than it ever could to me. That was really why I began to write.

LM: My sense is that in the 1960s in the United States, many of the postmodern writers--Thomas Pynchon, for example--were very influenced by jazz, especially jazz's reliance on improvisation. In your own case, would you describe your writing as being improvisational at all?

HM: Rhythm is more important to me than notions of improvisation. When I am writing, I am always thinking of rhythm. "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing."

Sinda Gregory: You adopt an interesting version of the hard-boiled style in your novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland. What about the hard-boiled style appeals to you?

HM: Its authenticity. But I wasn't really interested in writing a hard-boiled mystery; I just wanted the hard-boiled mystery structure. I'm very interested in structure. I've been using other pop structures in my writing as well--science fiction structures, for example. I'm also using love-story or romance structures. But as far as my thinking about the hard-boiled style, I'm interested in the fact that they are very individualist in orientation. The figure of the loner. I'm interested in that because it isn't easy to live in Japan as an individualist or a loner. I'm always thinking about this. I'm a novelist and I'm a loner, an individualist. I think that's why I came to this country. It's my dream to write hard-boiled mysteries.

SG: One of the conventions of the hard-boiled style is having the individualist/loner who at some point had a very bad pain; you typically get the feeling that this guy is trying to deal with this pain somehow, but he doesn't talk about that pain. I thought that might be part of why it's a good structure for you, because so many of your characters are suffering from a similar sense of angst. So you can create characters whose lives in the present are very much a response to that pain without going into all the messy details of all the specifics of the pain. The pain is still there, but you're not wallowing in it.

HM: I think you're right. When I was younger I was very attracted to the hard-boiled fiction writers like Chandler and Ross Macdonald, maybe because their detectives seemed to be so individual. No matter what happened to them, they were always able to live their own way, working in a way they like and never complaining about their misfortunes. I love that. I myself don't write directly about those kinds of pains and sufferings and everything. Of course, I have those pains and sufferings, but I don't talk so much about myself, generally. And I don't write about this because I have read so many books that care about those pains and pains and pains--I'm tired of it! So I don't write about it.

LM: I think just about all of your novels are in the first person. Have you ever thought about not writing in the first person?

HM: Yes, for a short time I tried to write in the third person, but it didn't work out.

LM: What's the problem? Is it not as interesting? Is it the voice?

HM: When I tried to use third person, I just felt like I became a god. But I don't want to be a god. I don't know everything. I can't write everything. I'm just myself. I would write something just as myself. I don't mean that I really am the protagonist but that I can envision what my protagonist sees and experiences. Writing lets me enter my own subconscious; that's the process I use to tell my stories. It's the most exciting thing I've ever done. For me telling a good story is like what happens when I walk down the street. I love the street, and so when I'm walking, I'm watching everything, hearing and smelling everything. When you do this, the world changes-you're experiencing everything in a new way. The light and the sounds and your emotions. That's the way writing is for me. I'm forty-six and married, but when I'm writing I can become twenty-five and unmarried. I can walk around in somebody else's shoes-and feel those shoes. Writing becomes your second life. That's good.

LM: Some critics, both in the U.S. and Japan, have said that your work is not really Japanese. Do you yourself think of yourself as having a distinctly Japanese sensibility--or as writing specifically about Japanese experience versus just writing about universal experiences?

HM: The opinion that my books are not really Japanese seems to me to be very shallow. I certainly think of myself as being a Japanese writer. I write with a different style and maybe with different materials, but I write in Japanese, and I'm writing for Japanese society and Japanese people. So I think people are wrong when they are always saying that my style is really mainly influenced by Western literature. As I just said, at first I wanted to be an international writer, but eventually saw that I was nothing but a Japanese writer. But even in the beginning I wasn't only borrowing Western styles and rules. I wanted to change Japanese literature from the inside, not the outside. So I basically made up my own rules.

SG: Could you give us some examples of what you mean?

HM: Most literary purists in Japan love beautiful language and appreciate sensitivity rather than energy or power. This beauty is admired for its own sake, and so their styles use a lot of very stiff, formal metaphors that don't sound natural or spontaneous at all. These writing styles get more and more refined, to the point where they resemble a kind of bonsai. I don't like such traditional forms of writing; it may sound beautiful, but it may not communicate. Besides, who knows what beauty is? So in my writing, I've tried to change that. I like to write more freely, so I use a lot of long and peculiar metaphors that seem fresh to me.

LM: I think that sense of freshness is one thing that makes your books appeal to Western readers; and I suspect that American readers may also be drawn to your works because they're familiar with many of the literary and pop-cultural references you make--which are usually to Western works. On the other hand, it also strikes me that when people in non-Western countries receive our pop-culture, it also means something very different.

HM: Yes, of course such things mean something different when they're taken out of their original context. For a long time I made many references to Western culture in my books because that's the culture that surrounded me and I liked. I am of the generation of Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, and television shows like Peter Gunn. Most Japanese people during the sixties were impressed by American culture because of what we saw on TV. When I was a boy, I was especially impressed when I saw American TV shows like Father Knows Best. The lifestyle of those people seemed almost unimaginably rich to the people in Japan of that time. These Americans had big cars and TVs and so many other gadgets. It was like heaven. Jazz, detective fiction, television, rock music--these were parts of the world I was most familiar with, and so when I began writing, I naturally made references to them. But such references in my books are not really very complicated. When I write, it's just like a Bruce Springsteen tune--there's a certain sense in which the meaning is right on the surface, so you know what it means. It hurts. But to be honest with you, I'm finding that I don't need these sorts of pop references in my writing anymore. I can do without those things. So I have changed my ways.

SG: What's been the reaction of American readers to your work? I'm wondering especially about younger readers.

HM: I found it very interesting when I visited universities in the U.S. that many students are interested in Japanese literature and culture. What I noticed was that they seemed to be reading contemporary Japanese books simply as novels rather than as "Japanese novels." They're reading my books or ones by Amy Yamada or Banana Yoshimoto the same way they had begun to read Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa and other Latin American novelists a few years ago. It takes a while for this kind of a change to take place. Writers from different countries are changing each other and finding global audiences more easily nowadays; it's a small world and a world which is getting smaller. I think that's a great thing.

LM: Your early books up through Norwegian Wood all concerned themselves with that sixties generation of young people. There's a sense of idealism and lack of jadedness in your descriptions of these people that seems anachronistic today, that's been replaced by irony or cynicism.

HM: As I said earlier, things were much simpler in the sixties. It was easier to be idealistic. I belong to a generation of Japanese people who grew up during the counterculture era and the revolutionary uprisings of 1968, 1969, and 1970. The Japan when I was a child was poor, and everybody worked hard and was optimistic that things were getting better. But they are not. When we were kids, we were a poor country but very idealistic. That began to change in the sixties; some people just got rich and forgot their ideals, while other people struggled to save idealism. Many of us were very political during that time, and for a while everything seemed to be changing; there was a lot of promise and optimism. Then, very quickly, all that simply disappeared. The uprisings were all crushed by the cops and the mood became bleak. The whole sense of the counterculture rebellion seemed finished.

SG: It's difficult to sustain a revolutionary spirit during economically good times like Japan began to enjoy in the seventies. Beginning with A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance, you seemed to begin writing less about the sixties era and more about what's been going on in Japan in the aftermath of the success of late capitalism. Overall, you portray what's going on very negatively--you tend to suggest that all this money and prosperity and information and hyperstimulation have a very sinister, corrupting effect. Everybody's idealism has been bought off. And yet people in your books are still lonely; all the consumer goods they own don't make them happy and there's a tremendous sense of nostalgia for the sixties.

HM: That is one of the reasons I think Norwegian Wood sold so many copies. Japanese readers still yearn for that kind of world where there could be idealism. But after that book, I decided I wanted to write about a character who is lonely and alone in this big, very sophisticated and very complex society of information and money--which is what you find in A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance. People in Japan today are taught to believe that having a BMW and a new computer will make you feel happy and not isolated; that's not true, but this is not spoken about truthfully. So everyone retreats into cynicism and hypocrisy. The big problem is that this new society seems so big and powerful that it is difficult to know where to even begin to attack it. But things are changing.

LM: Do you see your writing being more directly interested in politics?

HM: I don't write political novels--or at least when I write, I don't think of politics except subconsciously. But I agree with you that all my books, even the early ones, have all involved political factors; it's just that these factors were never treated directly. So these political issues were present in my books only in the background; even though it is undeniable that politics and economics have helped produce the circumstances that my characters find themselves in; I have never been interested in writing about such things directly. I suppose my earlier books were responding to that sense of disappointment and frustration that my generation went through; they probably reflected the fact that it just didn't seem possible that political change was really possible, and so providing any sort of political analysis in my fiction seemed boring, a waste of time. As I said earlier, though, the political change that seems to be happening in Japan may be encouraging writers to write more directly about politics.

LM: When we lived abroad--we lived in France for a year, and we lived in China for a year--it always seems that being exposed to these other cultures actually makes us think about our own country even more. Have you found that to be true? Is there a way that being away from your country lets you see it even better?

HM: To a certain extent, yes. Living abroad has let me test Japanese culture from the outside. Many Americans have asked me why don't I write about this country, but the truth is that I'm not really interested in writing about this country. I want to write about Japan. I've been living in this country for several years now--mainly at universities like Princeton and now Harvard, which I need to do for my visa, but I don't have any real obligations--and I have really enjoyed life here. But somehow I am so impressed with this country that I don't want to write about it. I would rather write about Asia. So I am now writing a book (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) about what the Japanese people did in China in 1930. I began writing this while I was in a library in Princeton. I read a great many books about the war, and I was wondering at that point about who the Japanese people really are. What did we do there? That's a very big question. I'd like to know what my father did in China. He was there in the thirties, and when I was a little kid he used to talk about the war. There were some scary stories that shocked me--not big stories but very bloody. Now, about forty years later, I found that I wanted to write about this.

LM: You mentioned that with A Wild Sheep Chase you wanted to write about people's lives in the seventies and eighties rather than about the sixties. But there was also a change in your style with this book--you also appeared to turn away from the basically realistic approach you used in your first couple of novels. Was that a conscious shift--a desire to find a way of writing that gave you more freedom?

HM: By the time I was writing A Wild Sheep Chase, I knew that I wanted to be a storyteller. That's the most important thing that happened to me as a writer. The first two books are shorter and didn't require a story; they were both really collections of fragments. But as I developed as a writer, I began to see that stories have many possibilities--so much so that I think that the most important question I ask myself now when I am writing is whether my story is alive or not. I also understand better now that there are many different kinds of stories; sometimes just creating a metaphor can wind up telling a kind of story. Anyway, by the time I began A Wild Sheep Chase I knew I wanted to tell a continuous narrative-a big, long story. And when I tried to write this story, I found that I needed some supernatural power to tell a story. I wasn't interested in writing a realistic story, but one that was a supernatural, fantastic story. In these days it's not easy to tell a story using traditional realistic methods of storytelling. Somehow you need something else--something supernatural or fantastic--to make it become truer. I know that in A Wild Sheep Chase the story seemed to become more realistic when the sheepman appeared, even though the sheepman himself is not realistic. I like that.

The complete interview with Haruki Murakami can be accessed at www.centerforbookculture.org.

SINDA GREGORY published an interview with and essay about Rikki Ducornet in the Fall 1998 issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction; the author of Private Investigations: The Fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s, she currently is Professor of English at San Diego State University.

LARRY McCAFFERY's most recent publication was Federman, A to X-X-X-X--A Recyclopedic Narrative (San Diego State University Press); currently a Professor of English at San Diego State University, his main activity is hiking near his home in the Anza Borrego Desert.

Currently teaching English at Tokyo's Seikei University, TOSHIFUMI MIYAWAKI received his M.A. from Sophia University and was a visiting fellow at Brown University. The editor of a collection of essays, The Impact of Puritanism on American Literary History (Shohakusha Publishers, 1999), he is currently working on a comparative study of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Haruki Murakami.