If it is true that writers and artists should spend their entire lives and careers investigating, examining, and trying to understand the same themes, then Haruki Murakami (born January 12, 1949) is a prime example of how to do this successfully. Like a jazz musician building on the same note, Murakami has—from the start—been obsessed with issues of sexual identity and love, loss and detachment, history and war, and nostalgia and fate. He has been deeply influenced by Western culture, and his themes, in some ways, are distilled from his favorite writers and musicians. Murakami changed the face of Japanese fiction. He was the first to incorporate Western influences in such an immediate way and he introduced a broad, spare, and raw style that Japanese readers had never before seen. His flirtation with Magical Realism, surrealism, and the fantastic is evidence of his fearlessness as a writer. Never one to be pigeonholed, Murakami is that rarest of literary figures, a writer who revels in telling a good and exciting story without sacrificing his severe vision of what literature is and should be.
Notably, Murakami’s novels often have musical themes and often speak of the power and beauty of music. More than that, his titles are often taken directly from songs. The three volumes comprising The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle refer to works by Gioachino Antonio Rossini, Robert Schumann, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Norwegian Wood, possibly Murakami’s most famous work, is named after a song by the Beatles, and Dance Dance Dance, a sort of sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, is named after a song by the Beach Boys.
Murakami’s work is the highwater mark at the intersection of popular culture and serious literature. As a writer who has filtered such a variety of influences into his work, he is a complete original. He is also a writer who has sought to understand Japanese history (especially Japan’s role in World War II), but he has done so without attempting to make political statements. He examines, explores, and dissects history, war, love, and identity with the same complex (and sometimes confusing) gracefulness. Murakami, like Georges Simenon and Charles Bukowski, has become hisownbrand name. Though his work has been described in many different ways—as Magical Realism, surrealism, hard-boiled mystery, love story, cyberpunk—it is almost entirely impossible to identify one of his books as anything other than a “Murakami.”
Murakami goes where a novel takes him, where history takes him. He goes to the place where love and memory and fear take him. As an independent artist with a singular vision, he is unrivaled in this generation of world writers.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
A complex and playful novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World features two separate narratives. The odd-numbered chapters are set in the Hard- Boiled Wonderland and feature a narrator who is a Calcutec, a human data-processing system. The evennumbered chapters take place in a strange, walled-off village called The End of the World, removed from the rest of civilization. The narrator of this story becomes the village’s dream reader. Eventually, the two stories merge, and the deep influences here—American hard-boiled detective fiction, cyberpunk, Franz Kafka—come together to make this one of the most complex and yet accessible examples of Magical Realism in world literature.
Norwegian Wood, the book that made Murakami into a superstar, is a nostalgic story of love and loss. It is also Murakami’s most straightforward work. Told from the perspective of Toru Watanabe, who looks back on his days as a college freshman, the novel details Toru’s relationships with two beautiful, electric, and unusual women, Naoko and Midori. The title of the book is taken from a 1965 song by the Beatles—“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” which appears several times in the novel’s narrative (alongside other allusions to Western music and literature). Set in Tokyo in the late 1960’s, the novel also portrays a changing Japan, as students protest against the establishment. While Murakami identifies the student movement as naïve and phony, the setting is just the backdrop for a real and complex love story that—while not supernatural or fantastic like much of Murakami’s other work—nonetheless reveals a unique vision of how to live and survive in the world.
South of the Border, West of the Sun
South of the Border, West of the Sun also takes part of its title from a song, this time from one sung by Nat King Cole, “South of the Border.” The title comes to mean something wholly mystical and mysterious to the novel’s two main characters, Hajime and Shimamoto. The second part of the title is a psychological condition known as “hysteria siberiana,” which is, as Shimamoto explains to Hajime, something that happens to Siberian farmers when they lose their minds and walk west toward the setting sun until they fall down and die. A melancholic novel rooted in the same sense of nostalgia as Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, West of the Sun is a meditation on love, choices, and mystery.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
Widely considered to be Murakami’s finest achievement, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle tells the story of Toru Okada, an unemployed man whose cat disappears. Toru is married to Kumiko, who has a successful career in the publishing business. A bizarre chain of events leads him to strange encounters with May Kasahara, a young girl who is obsessed with death and deterioration, and Nutmeg Akasaka, a writer who shares a few strange coincidences with Toru. The novel explores typical Murakami themes, and it is also a story of war and history. Particularly relevant to the story are the Manchukuo war crimes before and during World War II and their deep significance in Japanese history. As always, Murakami revels in mystery—both the mystical and hard-boiled varieties—and his crisp, sharp, and accessible style is at its peak here.
Kafka on the Shore
Kafka on the Shore is another epic Murakami novel with two different narratives—told in alternating chapters— that eventually come together. The odd-numbered chapters tell the story of Kafka, a fifteen-year-old runaway bent on escaping an Oedipal curse, who takes shelter in a library until police arrest him in connection with an unsolved murder. The even-numbered chapters tell the story of Nakata, a mystical cat finder. Nakata and Kafka move toward each other until their stories combine in a thunderclap.
Murakami examines many of the prominent themes readers have come to expect from him—love, loss, spirituality, dreams, the power of music, redemption, and sexual identity—but he also further investigates Japan’s World War II heritage, the notion of reality, and the authority of prophecy, fate, and nature.
Other major works
Short fiction: The Elephant Vanishes, 1993; Kami no kodomotachi wa mina odoru, 2000 (After the Quake: Stories, 2002); Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, 2006.
Nonfiction: Andaguraundo, 1997 (Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, 2000); Hashiru koto ni tsuite kataru toki ni boku no kataru koto, 2007 (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir, 2008).
Amitrano, Giorgio. The New Japanese Novel: Popular Culture and Literary Tradition in the Work of Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana. Boston: Cheng and Tsui, 1996.
Japan Foundation. A Wild Haruki Chase: Reading Murakami Around the World. Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2008.
Napier, Susan J. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity. Florence, Ky.: Routledge, 1996.
Rubin, Jay. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. New York: Random House, 2001.
Seats, Michael. Murakami Haruki: The Simulacrum in Contemporary Japanese Culture. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2006.
Strecher, Matthew. Dances with Sheep: The Quest for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki. Flint: University of Michigan, Center for Japanese Studies, 2002.
_______. Haruki Murakami’s “TheWind-Up Bird Chronicle”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum International, 2002.
Suter, Rebecca. The Japanization of Modernity: Murakami Haruki Between Japan and the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Asia Center, 2008.