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"You know what I think?" she says. "That people's memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive."
February 26, 2012 2:47 PM   Subscribe

In Search of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s Great Postmodernist Novelist, a 50 minute documentary exploring Murakami's Japan and culture. via.
posted by timshel (28 comments total) 84 users marked this as a favorite

 
thanks for posting this! murakami pretty much saved my life at one point. i spent a couple weeks holed up in a room in a friend (now husband)'s apartment - drinking, getting high, reading wind up bird, and playing jezzball. it was a weird couple of weeks but exactly what i needed at the time.
posted by nadawi at 3:32 PM on February 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


I bought Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World in a bookstore in the old Stapleton Airport before I went to Japan in 1992, because it was the only book I could find by a Japanese author. I've been hooked ever since. I can't wait to watch this.

Related: a pie chart breaking down common Murakami themes.
posted by heurtebise at 3:51 PM on February 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


and now I've discovered jezzball…goodbye productive evening.
posted by saul wright at 3:55 PM on February 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've read Murakami's books and I'm pretty sure its all part of a cruel inside joke to make it easier for literati to identify folks with mediocre tastes.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 4:03 PM on February 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The thing you like sucks.
posted by panaceanot at 4:11 PM on February 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I read Wind Up Bird shortly before taking a lit translation class. The prof was going on about the difficulty of translating culture-specific things. I was like, 'Is that the deal with Murakami' and the prof laughed at me. He was a kindly sort; I like to imagine him reading Wind-Up Bird stoned.
posted by angrycat at 4:19 PM on February 26, 2012


i'm glad to proclaim my love for murakami because then i can identify people who think "taste" is something with right and wrong answers and not just a set of opinions. it's nice to weed those people out of my life as quickly as possible.
posted by nadawi at 5:48 PM on February 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm not a fan of Murakami, though I do admire his writing I have to say.

I did read his book Underground - a very very good take on the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks in 1995. A painstakingly researched and written book, and one that I'd recommend to anyone.

But of his fiction - no, just can't get into it.
posted by chris88 at 5:58 PM on February 26, 2012


In fact, a great rundown of Underground can be found here.

The thing that really stood out for me in reading the book were the feelings of disillusionment, isolation and hopelessness many people experienced. That and the constant "must work, must work" attitude as well.
posted by chris88 at 6:06 PM on February 26, 2012


I've read Murakami's books and I'm pretty sure its all part of a cruel inside joke to make it easier for literati to identify folks with mediocre tastes.

Life is super hard for you, isn't it.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:24 PM on February 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm a huge fan of Murakami, although I'm well aware of some of his shortcomings (nearly every narrator is a stand-in for Murakami at the stage of his life when he wrote the book, he's in love with certain themes), but I love his work. I recommend Hard Boiled Wonderland to pretty much anyone who asks for a book to read. After that, I'd say The Wind-up Bird Chronicle*, which is just an astounding story.

The thing is, Mrs. Ghidorah, like many, many Japanese people, just don't like him that much. His Japanese is very distinct, even outright odd to many native speakers. I've met very, very few Japanese fans of Murakami.

As for Underground, it's a powerful book, and I'd argue that writing it, and conducting the research and interviews to do so seems to have changed his writing a bit. His post-Underground novels seem quite a bit more detached, and a good deal darker.

*One pet peeve with having to read the translations: The English version of Wind-up Bird is missing an entire chapter that's present in the Japanese version. I keep telling myself that some day I'll know enough Japanese to read it in the original, but yeah, probably not.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:31 PM on February 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


I couldn't read Underground. But liked Bird, Sheep, and 1Q84. Don't judge me, man!
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:49 PM on February 26, 2012


The English version of Wind-up Bird is missing an entire chapter that's present in the Japanese version.

Apologies if the linked doc covers this, but, why is this? Did his editors deem the entire chapter 'untranslatable' for some reason?

One of Murakami's translators, Jay Rubin, was interviewed in the New Yorker last year and the one thing I remember from that interview was his basically saying 'don't read the translations.' Funny considering the source, but I can respect the purity of it, even though it's impractical for most people. Especially for native English speakers, for whom Japanese is one of the hardest languages to acquire just for daily use... worse if Murakami's Japanese is 'odd' even to natives. I do think people in general don't give translation enough credit as a creative work in itself... I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's in the same creative class as full-blown adaptations of other works, like the plethora of reinterpretations of, say, Shakespearean plots that we see in the Anglophone world, but it's definitely transformative, something more than simply re-rendering the prose in another language (assuming that such a thing is even possible--I don't think so, outside of the simplest expressions.)

I considered myself pretty privileged for having been able to read Don Quixote in Spanish, but realized that without the cultural context of being someone who had lived in in Cervantes' Spain even that is, to a certain degree, 'reading in translation' (not to mention that the orthography in the edition I read had been modernized and cleaned up over the conventions in use at the time). Murakami, being a contemporary author, doesn't face quite the same problem, but without having grown up Japanese in Japan, with the full cultural palette that that gives you, can you truly access him in the same way that someone who has would? Maybe you don't have to; he's certainly accessible enough in translation that he's garnered a passionate fan base, and the fact that his English is good enough that he can read his translators' work and provide them with insight, direction and clarification is helpful, but I think the experience will always be, necessarily, different. And I don't think that's a bad thing, either, but it's worth acknowledging.

I've had 1Q84 sitting and waiting for me for a couple of months now, but I've been on a nonfiction kick. Now I'm feeling like I should dig in...
posted by Kosh at 6:57 PM on February 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


The thing is, Mrs. Ghidorah, like many, many Japanese people, just don't like him that much. His Japanese is very distinct, even outright odd to many native speakers. I've met very, very few Japanese fans of Murakami.
This may be true, but he's nevertheless one of the best selling authors in Japan. Norwegian Wood sold over 10 million copies in Japanese (from a quick web search; no time to go digging for original sources) which equates to about 8% of the population.

I do hope that one day I can read the originals. The differences I've noticed between translators is significant (I much prefer Birnbaum to Rubin) and I wonder which is truer to the spirit of source material.
posted by dickasso at 7:05 PM on February 26, 2012


In fact, a great rundown of Underground can be found here.

The thing that really stood out for me in reading the book were the feelings of disillusionment, isolation and hopelessness many people experienced. That and the constant "must work, must work" attitude as well.


Yeah, that is not at all what it's about. I wrote my senior thesis on Underground, before it was ever translated into English. I was surprised when the English edition came out, which was totally different than the original.

The original edition's climax was an lengthy essay by Murakami. It was stunning. He described how he was at Princeton teaching literature in translation (where some of my teachers studied with him) when he heard of the sarin gas attack, and decided he was going in the wrong direction. He had sought what he needed outside Japan, in foreign literature, and now he felt disconnected from his homeland. So he rushed back and started working on interviews for Underground.

Then he launched into a rambling exposition about how Aum Shinrikyo happened. To do this, he gave a lengthy explanation of the Japanese condition. With an amazing lack of self-awareness, while trying to analyze the national consciousness, he became the thing he most despised: a nihonjinron.

Murakami described how Aum had worked itself around the edges of society, being invisible in plain sight. Long before the sarin incident, Aum ran candidates for political office, Murakami described seeing a demonstration by Aum in the street, and everyone (including him) walked past, trying not to notice their antics. He ascribed this to the Japanese national trait of personal relationships. If you had a personal relationship, you dealt with that person or group as an equal, above you, or lower than you. But if you had no relationship, particularly with a fringe group like Aum, it was easy to ignore them. They became unpersons. So they flourished while people tried to ignore them.

Then Murakami went insane, right in print before my eyes. He started defining Japanese-ness as "ishiki no arikata," "the mindset people ought to have," or "the way people ought to think about things." The Japanese people had a sort of common cultural mindset, and new groups like Aum are a threat to the nation, since they threatened to unbalance the mindset of "normal" people. Then, incredibly, he started denouncing subculture groups like various gyaru (young girl subcultures) as a threat to the very concept of Japanese-ness.

The English translation of Underground is startlingly different. I haven't compared it directly, but it seemed much shorter and abridged. It has a whole different essay at the end, it seems like an attempt to divert attention from the ridiculous final essay of the old edition.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:08 PM on February 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


I do hope that one day I can read the originals. The differences I've noticed between translators is significant (I much prefer Birnbaum to Rubin) and I wonder which is truer to the spirit of source material.

Give it a shot. One of the criticisms of Muramaki is that his language is too simple to be "literary," people even say it sounds too much like English translated into Japanese. I suspect that's because most Japanese peoples' knowledge of English (which is mandatory in High Schools) is rudimentary.

Anyway, Japanese language instructors often use Murakami short stories as an introduction to reading stories in the original language, because his language is so simple and free from complex idioms. Most cultural references would be understood by Westerners, since the are references to Western ideas, music, etc. There's an anthology of early stories with "TV People" and "The Elephant Vanishes" that would be a good start for reading Murakami in the native language.

BTW, I have just finished watching that documentary. What a piece of crap. I've never seen anyone turn an email interview with like 3 paragraphs of response, into a 50 minute show like that. It's loaded with quotes from the books, and even some short scenes re-enacted, with interviews from Rubin and Birnbaum, and it all goes nowhere. If I had to pick one scene that epitomized the documentary, it's a scene where the narrator is stepping off a subway, he moves out into the walkway and barges right in front of a woman walking by, who glances at him with a look of slight fear, "hey what in the hell is he doing?" And that is what the documentary is about, bug dumb gaijin barges into places all around Tokyo and films it as his little Orientalist adventure. I have seen this sort of dreck too many times.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:24 PM on February 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


He is like the Starbucks of Japanese fiction: impersonal, cosmopolitan, formulaic.

Funny that he frames his resistance to Mishima as a flight from "the Japanese condition." Mishima was similarly ambivalent, despite his nationalism, and found refuge in foreign literature just as Murakami has. I wonder whether wanting to escape the Japanese condition is the central characteristic of the Japanese condition.

Even so, when Murakami engages with American culture it feels, to me, as if he's just abjectly cataloging attractions at Disneyland or something. Mishima, on the other hand, seemed capable of internalizing and owning his foreign influences.
posted by incandenza at 7:34 PM on February 26, 2012


I just finished the translated version of 1Q84, which I enjoyed quite a bit. The discussion about the language and translation here is pretty interesting to me because I thought the language choices were a bit ... weird? I guess in places and couldn't decide whether that was a translator choice or a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of the narrator. I'm probably going to need to explore his oeuvre further, although I doubt lightning is going to strike with his other books the way it did with this one because everything can't be about the 80s as well as all the other bits I liked.

(I have no shame about my mediocre taste, although normally it's mediocre because it's SFF genre crap instead of "literary" genre crap.)
posted by immlass at 7:46 PM on February 26, 2012


charlie don't surf, that's an interesting point about Murakami as Japanese learning practice. I've got a copy of Read Real Japanese, which is essays from Japanese writers, and Murakami is right there at the beginning, which kind of caught me by surprise. And no, I haven't really read it. The book sits there, taunting me with my own poor reading ability.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:54 PM on February 26, 2012


Well, charlie don't surf's perspective is certainly the most provocative post so far.

I am not a Nipponophile, but I happen to have spent many months in the country, as a musician, and English teacher, and a school chaperone. My wife was born there. And I am Murakami's biggest fan (Kafka and Dick are my other obsessions).

The xenophobia of Japanese people is hard to deny. Now, this is a pot vs. kettle accusation, living as I do in a nation built on genocide and slavery. But Japan has had thousands of years of believing they were the most special people on the planet, unlike the USA, which, despite its despicable history, happens to be a country which has often existed in a position of welcoming and assimilating (loaded word) people from other countries. It also has a tradition of murdering and excluding people like the Japanese and Chinese; and the present attitude toward Hispanic immigrants is certainly troubling.

But, I don't care. Murakami is the shit. I read everything he writes and even obscure books about his writing. I am assuming, that like Kafka and myself, Murakami sees the everyday world as ineffably gnomic, enigmatic, hermetic, and just plain strange. Every. Day.
posted by kozad at 8:38 PM on February 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


P.S. I can't wait to watch this video, but I have to grade twenty more papers before I sleep.
posted by kozad at 8:40 PM on February 26, 2012


I got incredibly frustrated with 1Q94. I thought the vol. 1 translation was terrible, but it got better after that. (I've heard there were two different translators, but I don't know who did what.)

The other problem was repetition. In Japan, where it was release as three books over three years, a little repetition makes sense. As a single volume, it could safely lost at least 100 pages.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:07 PM on February 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


incandenza: I wonder whether wanting to escape the Japanese condition is the central characteristic of the Japanese condition.

A while ago, I translated some Japanese government white papers with surveys of lifestyle satisfaction. It universally reported that Japanese life satisfaction was higher when the people reported they were living a "traditional Japanese" lifestyle. That lifestyle was self-defined, whatever the person being surveyed thought it was. So no, it's definitely not about escaping the Japanese condition, it is about embracing it. The problem is, what is it?

As far as authors like Mishima and Murakami, I would say, it is more about wanting to redefine the Japanese condition around the author's own condition.

kozad: Murakami is the shit. I read everything he writes and even obscure books about his writing.

I often recommend Murakami devotees read his essay "No Bringing in Japanese Lunch with a Pickled Apricot." It has disappeared from the web so I had to link it from an archived copy at the Wayback Machine. Murakami muses about racism in Japan and America, and decides that discrimination is not really so bad, it's merely "disagreeable." The Japanese are xenophobic even about other classes within Japan, what's so bad about that?
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:16 PM on February 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Norwegian Wood was the first book I read in Japanese. I didn't finish it in Japanese, but I count it as the first book I read in Japanese.

I had asked my high school Japanese teacher to bring it back from Japan, knowing only that Murakami was a well-respected contemporary author and I liked the Beatles song. If you want more substantial criteria than that, you will have to ask someone older than 16. I wanted to see if my meager Japanese knowledge was up to reading authentic prose.

To my own astonishment, I started reading it. I had to look up a lot in my dictionary, but for the most part I was able to figure out what was going on. Looking back at the book now, I see how simple Murakami's prose is. There's definitely an American influence there, and now that I've read some Raymond Carver I can see where the comparisons come from: the short declarative sentences were essential to my being able to understand the book, but they also reveal such vast melancholy.

I read Norwegian Wood for several months. Gradually I became too anxious to continue with it -- I overidentified Naoko with a certain friend of mine, and became more and more panicky about her eventual fate.

Later, I was at school in Japan. I ended up on the brink of failing a literature class for reasons that don't bear going into. My advisor told me I could write an essay to make up the grade. "Write something about Norwegian Wood," he said. "You've read that, right?"

Sobbing at the prospect of failing a class, I went to the bookstore and bought the English translation. I speed-read it over a bowl of udon. That night I wrote my essay about how Murakami describes a bleak world in which no one is ever really capable of change, and that's just how things really are, and managed to squeak my grade up to a pass.

Murakami is not my favorite Japanese writer. I don't think he has yet managed to write a truly believable woman, though I think Wind-up Bird Chronicle is strangely and accidentally feminist in places. But he is the Japanese writer who is unbelievably close to my heart -- for those strange hard days in Japan, for my friend who managed not to be Naoko after all.
posted by Jeanne at 9:34 PM on February 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


Reading what people are writing here, it's so interesting that every single person here seems to describe Murakami in an entirely different way. I respect everyone's comments but I haven't found one that I really agree with yet. It's like everyone's watching the sun rise from another direction and commenting on the angles, rays, colors that we all can't see.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:10 AM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


The English version of Wind-up Bird is missing an entire chapter that's present in the Japanese version.

Apologies if the linked doc covers this, but, why is this? Did his editors deem the entire chapter 'untranslatable' for some reason?


I've been told the missing chapter develops the relationship with Kreta Kano. Hard to see what translation issue could possibly justify leaving out an entire chapter like that.

Can't help sort of suspecting it was an error of some kind which the translator decided to tough out retrospectively as a conscious choice...
posted by Segundus at 1:22 AM on February 27, 2012


About the student's finding whole chapters missing from the translation of WIND-UP BIRD. It's true. I felt that Book 3, which came out a year after Books 1 and 2, rendered much of the ending of Book 2 irrelevant, thought that, as long as major cutting was being required by the American publisher, that part of the book was the best candidate for cutting. I still think the translation is tighter and cleaner than the original, but I suppose that very tightness can be viewed as a distortion of the original, an Americanization of a Japanese work of art. I had a great time doing it, though. It turned out to be a MUCH more complex process than I had imagined, and I'd probably have trouble myself now trying to reconstruct the steps I went through.
posted by hototogisu at 1:46 AM on February 27, 2012


I'll share my Murakami story since everyone seems to have one. About 4 years ago my best friend was shopping for me for Christmas. She knows I love books but was unsure of what to give me as my preferences are varied. She ran into my one of my favourite English professors at the book-store and asked him what would be good. He walked over to Murakami and picked up Hard-Boiled Wonderland. She even had him write a little note on the inside. I've been hooked since. The fact that I recently started running this past year and knowing that Murakami runs ultra-marathons only makes him even cooler in my book. This is an excellent post.
posted by Fizz at 5:25 AM on February 27, 2012


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