Tag-Archive for ◊ Kobe ◊

• Friday, April 30th, 2021

Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most famous and acclaimed contemporary writers, was born in Kyoto in 1949 but grew up in the Osaka – Kobe area, an only child whose father was a Buddhist priest’s son and his mother, an Osaka’s merchant daughter. Both his parents taught Japanese literature.

Murakami spent his young years reading an array of European and American literary works, which later influenced his writing. He majored in theatre arts at Tokyo’s Waseda University in 1975.

He loved classical and jazz music to the extent that, while still at university, he worked at a record shop before opening his own coffee/jazz bar, “Peter Cat”, with his university girlfriend, Yoko, who later became his wife. He ran the bar from 1974 to 1981 and sold it when he started earning a living from writing.

Haruki Murakami translates books from English to Japanese. He is also a novelist, writing non-fiction, short stories and essays. Several of his novels have been made into films. Norwegian Wood, Murakami’s fifth novel, was published in Japanese in 1987 and English twice: by Birnbaum in 1989 and Rubin in 2000. Moreover, it was released as a film at the end of 2010.

While his fame was increasing, Murakami left Japan, discontented by Japanese social mentality in the late 1980s. He first moved to Europe, where he lived for a few years before going on to the USA in 1991. He taught at Princeton University from 1991 to 1993, followed by Tufts University from 1993 to 1995.

Because of the Kobe earthquake and the Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo underground by a Japanese religious sect, Murakami felt the need to return to his native country in 1995. He now lives in Oiso, in the Kanagawa prefecture, and has an office in Tokyo.

Murakami’s books have been translated into several languages and are bestsellers worldwide. He has received many awards for his work in addition to The World Fantasy Award, The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, The Franz Kafka Prize, Hans Christian Andersen Literary Award, Yomiuri Prize and The Jerusalem Prize.

The story of Norwegian Wood is narrated in the first person by the thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe. Watanabe’s plane had just landed at Hamburg airport, Germany, when “Soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood”, Naoko, Toru’s first love, liked this song, which is often mentioned in the story. The melody triggered old buried memories of eighteen years earlier when Toru was a nineteen-year-old student in Tokyo and loved Naoko.

Toru, now an adult, is reminiscing on his college years in the sixties and his relationship with his high school friend, Kizuki, and his attractive and emotionally unstable girlfriend, Naoko. However, the seventeen-year-old Kizuki unexpectedly commits suicide and Naoko, who feels helpless, lost and depressed after her premature boyfriend’s death, turns to Toru for help.

Naoko likes Toru, who, in return, loves her. Nevertheless, due to the enduring impact of Kizuki’s suicide, things do not go the right way between them. Naoko shows signs of schizophrenia, abandons her studies and is admitted to a sanatorium. Her stay there becomes long and her leaving unforeseeable.

While Naoko is in the sanatorium, Toru meets his extroverted, lively classmate, Midori Kobayashi. She is the complete opposite character from the introverted, dispirited Naoko. Furthermore, Toru falls in love with Midori but suppresses it because of his commitment to Naoko. Naoko ends up taking her own life to end her sufferings, like her boyfriend, Kizuki and her older sister, who both committed suicide at seventeen. Toru is devastated after hearing the news.

Murakami’s Norwegian Wood was inspired by the eponymous Beatles song released in 1965:
“I once had a girl
Or should I say she once had me?
She showed me her room.
Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay.
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn’t a chair
And when I awoke, I was alone
This bird had flown…”
(The Beatles, 1965)

Another song, also released in 1965 by the Who, could have influenced Murakami, who was a teenager at the time:
“People try to put us d-down (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old”.
(The Who, 1965)

These songs convey the pain of living, the feeling of loss, angst, and painful existential feeling, struggle for recognition and yearning for independence from established adults’ rules and regulations perceived by adolescents coming of age.

The author also writes about the Japanese students’ street demonstrations in revolt against long-established traditions in Japan in the late sixties. The demonstrations were likely inspired by the enormous French student protests of May 1968, which reverberated among students worldwide.

The subject of the novel is a worthy issue on its own. Combining it with the need to experiment with sexual desires when coming of age is not uncommon to broaden the subject perspective. However, adding multiple recurrent sexual scenes lessens the main subject’s importance and weakens it.

Norwegian Wood is an absorbing, dark story. Fortunately, the end brings a glimpse of hope, a ray of sunshine as an incitement for a promising new start leaving the past behind. The characters are touching in their sufferings. Their “mal de vivre” convey an overwhelmingly depressing atmosphere of isolation leading to oppressive loneliness. They are undoubtedly intended by the author, whose books are often fatalistic, melancholy or even surreal and nightmarish, as illustrated in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”, which we discussed in our Book Club in 2011.

In one of his interviews, Murakami says that he likes to write weird stories despite being a very realistic person. Maybe it is a sort of 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.”

Murakami mentions that even though Norwegian Wood’s story takes place in the late sixties when he was a university student, it is not an autobiography. He says: “I borrowed the details of the protagonist’s university environment and daily life from those of my own student days. As a result, many people think it is an autobiographical novel, but in fact it is not autobiographical at all”.

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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.