Tag-Archive for ◊ Kobe ◊

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• Sunday, October 02nd, 2011

Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most famous and acclaimed contemporary writers, was born in Kyoto in 1949 but grew up in Kobe. His parents were both teachers of Japanese literature. He majored in theatre arts from Tokyo’s Waseda University in 1975.

Since his childhood, Murakami has always been influenced by Western culture and literature and loved classical and jazz music to the extent that while still at university, he opened his coffee/jazz bar, “Peter Cat”, with Yoko, his university mate, who later became his wife. He ran the bar from 1974 to 1981 and sold it when he started earning his living from writing.

Haruki Murakami became a keen marathon runner in his thirties and in 2008 wrote a non fiction about it called : What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Haruki Murakami is a translator of books from English into Japanese, a novelist, who also writes non fiction, short stories and essays.

In 2006 Murakami received the Franz Kafka prize from the Czech Republic for his novel, Kafka On The Shore and won the Yomiuri Prize for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, published in Japanese in 1995 and in English in 1998.

The title of the novel refers to “a mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring”. Kumiko, the wife of the main character, gave it this name. The protagonist-narrator says: “We didn’t know what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didn’t bother the wind-up bird. Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighbourhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world. An ominous cry.

Toru Okada, the main character, was also called Mr. Wind-Up Bird by May Kasahara, his eccentric, insubordinate, adolescent, death-obsessed neighbour.

Toru Okada is a young, unemployed married man in his early thirties, without ambitions, who is having problems finding his way in life. His quiet existence topple’s over when his cat, Noboru Wataya, named after the evil brother-in-law he abhors, who later in the story is named Mackerel, disappears and his wife, Kumiko, the bread winner of the couple, leaves him for no apparent reason. Pandora’s box is now wide open. There is a strange succession of happenings; people start coming his way with their bizarre stories and predictions followed by enigmatic occurrences and peculiar persons. Their stories or fates are sometimes interwoven to ease the plot by making it less complicated.

The procession of mysterious characters who start appearing and disappearing in Toru’s banal life are eerie. There is Malta Kano, who is a clairvoyant of sorts, Creta Kano, who was initiated by her elder sister and claims to be a “prostitute of the mind”, then there is Nutmeg Akasaka who is a clothes designer and becomes a medium, and her only child, Cinnamon, who becomes mute at the age of six. There is also Noboru Wataya, the malevolently weird and popular politician with diabolical powers, who happens to be Kumiko’s brother. And not to forget the odd Mr. Honda, an old friend of Kumiko’s family and his strange will and his colleague, lieutenant Mamiya, who is now an old man and was in Manchukuo during the second world war and his gruesome story while in outer Mongolia when he was captured by Mongolian and Russian soldiers and was forced to watch his colleague being skinned alive by the Mongolian soldier.

The second world war atrocities are described in detail in various parts of the novel, as is also the massacre of the animal zoo and the savage and inhuman baseball execution in Manchuria.

A world of Kafkaesque surreal events unfolds in front of Okada’s eyes and he finds himself fluttering between reality and make-believe in a very strange universe with a stifled, bewitching atmosphere. Especially that Okada is of a compliant disposition and lacking identity which makes him easily drawn into each character’s sphere. Like lieutenant Mamiya, Okada is going to experience the isolation of a dry well in a forsaken backyard of a deserted, cursed house near his home in order to try to get to his inner subconscious, search himself and understand things in the hope of saving his wife, Kumiko, and bringing her back.

Things start happening as he goes through the well wall in his “predawn dreamlike illusion in the well” and finds himself in a bedroom hotel. He comes out of this experience with a bluish black mark on his cheek which gives him psychic powers.

In one of his interviews, Haruki Murakami mentions that the subconscious is a subject of great interest to him, especially that it is a “terra incognita” for him. He also mentions that he is attracted to wells, not for going down them, but for looking inside them.

He goes on to say that he likes to write weird stories despite the fact of being a very realistic person himself. Maybe it’s a sort of an escapism from reality, being a “loner” as he typifies himself. Referring to his young readers, he says he hopes that his books “can offer them a sense of freedom – freedom from the real world”.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an entertaining rich story, abundant in intricacies and brimming with an outstanding literary imaginativeness. A modern fantasy tale that takes place in suburban Tokyo, a few years before the end of the twentieth century. Some parts of the novel are intense and others are perturbing historical scenes of the second world war, during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria.

Despite the untied loose ends, the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an easy to read page turner and a captivating novel.

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Author:
• Saturday, March 03rd, 2007

Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of the Belgian writer and former ambassador to Japan, Patrick Nothomb. She was born in Kobe in 1967. By the time she was five years old, she was perfectly bilingual.

After leaving Japan, Amélie spends her childhood in China, Burma and New York. Living as an expatriate combined with the feeling of loneliness, made her withdraw into her own shell. Especially after returning to Belgium at the age of seventeen and having the shock of finding herself a foreigner amongst her own people. The shock was brutal and this triggered in her the need to write as an escapade.

“Hygiéne de l’assassin”, her first book was published in 1992 and was an immediate success, with a French literary prize. In 1993 she published “Le sabotage amoureux”, then in 1994 “Les combustibles”, in 1995 “Les catilinaires”, in 1996 “Péplum”, in 1997 “Attentat”, in 1998 “Mercure”, in 2000 “Métaphysique des tubes”, in 2001 “Cosmétique de l’ennemi” etc…

Amélie Nothomb writes about three books per year, but decides each time to publish only one per year and every time it’s a commercial success.

Her eighth book “Fear and Trembling” was published in 1999 and was a winner of the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française and Prix Internet du livre. The book was translated into 14 languages and sold half a million copies. A big success. Two of her books have been made into films: “Hygiéne de l’assassin” and “Fear and Trembling”.

The main theme of “Fear and Trembling” is the clash of cultures between East and West. It was told in the ancient Japanese tradition that if anyone wanted to address the Japanese emperor, it had to be with “Fear and Trembling”, the emperor being the highest figure of authority. This belief is followed on all levels in Japan, as the author reveals the very rigid hierarchy in the typical headquarters of a Japanese international conglomerate in Tokyo called Yumimoto.

Amélie-San is reprimanded for not taking the right steps by going through the correct channels, despite the fact that her deed was very useful to the company.

What the author wants the westerner to understand, is that in the oriental mentality, it’s not the successful results that count, since achieving them the ‘untraditional’ way can cause more harm than good.

Consequently one has to follow the system blindly and not be an ‘individualist’, which is the worst betrayal to the traditional system: “Mister Tenshi didn’t want to sabotage the company. I begged him to let me work on the report. I alone am responsible.”… “Mister Omochi stood open-mouthed for a moment before coming up to me and bellowing right into my face.” Do you dare defend yourself?” “No, I’m blaming myself. I’m claiming all the wrong for myself. I alone should be punished.” “You dare to defend this snake!”

Then follows the arguments with Miss Mori Fubuki: “I’m twenty-nine years old. You are twenty-two. I’ve been in this position since last year. I fought for it for years. Did you think that you were going to get a comparable job within a matter of weeks?”

Due to not following the ‘correct’ system, Amélie-san has to endure the most degrading retrogression. Starting as an interpreter and ending in the humiliating job of a toilet attendant.

Like most of Amélie Nothomb’s books, “Fear and Trembling” includes some personal, real life experiences. A kind of an autobiography. The style of her writing is indicative of her own character; subtle, humouristic and extravagant. I recall her telling Bernard Pivot in the French TV programme “Apostrophe”, that she takes delight in eating rotten fruit.

Amélie Nothomb’s style is uncomplicated which makes the book easy to read despite the issue involved, being the relationships and methods of Japanese white-collars, and their entrapment in their uncompromising system.

Amélie Nothomb shows us very clearly her compassion for those people, but at the same time expresses her frustration at being unable to change anything, or even to reason with them:
“Le plus insupportable, c’était de voir mon bienfaiteur humilié par ma faute. Monsieur Tenshi était un homme intelligent et cosciencieux: il avait pris un gros risque pour moi, en pleine connaissance de cause. Aucun intérêt personnel n’avait guidé sa démarche: il avait agi par simple altruisme. En récompense de sa bonté, on le traînait dans la boue.”
She makes us aware of her concern with human relationships throughout her book.

Amélie Nothomb’s humouristic tone can be hilarious at times or even like a caricature, but nevertheless carries behind it more than what it suggests.

Unlike other books we read, in “Fear and Trembling”, the author doesn’t take us anywhere in Tokyo, apart from the restricted view from her office window. The year Amélie spends at the Yumimoto company is all devoted to a description of the Japanese headquarters, the people working for it, their devotion to their work and the hierarchical system. Not forgetting to describe at length, the uncompromising Japanese mentality.

At the end of her one year contract with Yumimoto, Amélie-San returns to Europe. And like a phoenix, after all the humiliation endured, emerges from the ashes, glorious and successful with her prize winning book “Hygiéne de l’assassin”.

She then receives a congratulatory letter from her former superior, Mori Fubuki acknowledging her success. The letter was written in Japanese as a sign of friendship which seems to have been accepted at last.

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