women are presented as gateways, or opportunities for transformation
April 15, 2020 7:30 AM   Subscribe

A Feminist Critique of Murkami Novels, with Murakami Himself: Mieko Kawakami interviews Haruki Murakami. Kawakami asks Murakami why his female characters play the roles they do, and behave like they do, and Murakami responds.
posted by minsies (14 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
As a Haruki Murakami fan, who is well aware of and agrees with the valid criticisms of his work that Mieko Kawakami raises, this was fascinating. It doesn't surprise me that Haruki doesn't think about these issues in his writing, but that he reads in this interview as receptive to the criticism makes me think he will be receptive to thinking about these issues moving forward.

In a larger sense, I don't think a lot of male writers think about their female characters to the degree they think about their male characters. A lot of what Murakami does is not exclusive to him, and there are many writers who are far worse in their treatment of female characters. Those male writers also tend to respond to the valid criticism of those female characters with dismissal, or even anger. Every creator should be open and receptive to criticism of their work and to people pointing out their blind spots. The goal of this sort of criticism is that we want writers to do better.
posted by SansPoint at 7:59 AM on April 15, 2020 [7 favorites]

I was so happy to read this interview.

I've been a Murakami fan in the past (Norwegian Wood is the first novel I tried to read in Japanese, and I've hung onto those tattered volumes for 20 years!) and I think I've finally drifted from "I'm willing to tolerate his misogyny because he's just that good" to "NOPE" after being assigned 1Q84 in a class. The whole "sexual abuse of a prepubescent child but it's okay because it's a weird alien thing and not a sentient human being" - when you put it alongside Tengo thirsting after a teenager... nah. You might quibble about context, but ultimately, it turned into a book I really didn't want to keep reading.

(Man, that was a class, though: the weird reproductive horror in "Hull Zero Three," the sexual violence in "1Q84," "Hyperion" which I skipped on principle because Dan Simmons has written some viciously Islamophobic things, Gene Wolfe's "Calde of the Long Sun" which was assigned as the incomprehensible third book in a four-book series and had one character who kept being called "jugs"...)
posted by Jeanne at 8:44 AM on April 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'm so glad that they wrote a lot about the main character in Sleep. That was such a memorable and relatable short story for me, a time where he wrote such a memorable female character.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:17 AM on April 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

I hope the full book of interviews this excerpt is from gets translated. This is only a tiny fragment of something like 300 pages of them discussing this topic.
posted by star gentle uterus at 9:33 AM on April 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

Wow, this was fascinating, thanks for posting. This interview reminded me of every time I've ever had to bring up sexism to a male boss/authority figure, while still being seen as "easy to get along with" and "on his side". Kawakami performs a delicate dance of deference/reassurance as she poses her questions.

My first exposure to Murakami was with Norwegian Wood, which I read in my early 20's and loved. This interview articulates why I've instinctively steered clear of his work (now in my late 30's). As a reader, I can adapt to misogyny in books written in the past but I find it hard to stomach from modern-day authors. There's so much great literature that DOES see women as fully human!

From the interview - Murakami talking about the wife in "The Little Green Monster":

HM: I was exploring a kind of cruelty that women seem to possess. I can feel it when it’s there, but can’t claim access to it. I don’t want to get in trouble for going back to differences between genders, but I think this sort of cruelty is rare in men. Men can of course be cruel, but I think they go about it in more structured ways. They come at you with logic, or like a total psychopath. But the cruelty of women is more ordinary, everyday. Now and then, they catch you unawares.
posted by rogerroger at 9:34 AM on April 15, 2020 [6 favorites]

I loved Murakami as a teenager, but I'm not sure how well he'd hold up now.

But the cruelty of women is more ordinary, everyday. Now and then, they catch you unawares.

If anything, it's often men I see this from... I know a lot of great guys, but sometimes they'll show a flash of sexism, or just general assholeishness, and it breaks my heart a little.
posted by airmail at 9:57 AM on April 15, 2020 [15 favorites]

This thread by Grace Ting has been making the rounds on Twitter and might be of interest to people here.
posted by mustard seeds at 10:00 AM on April 15, 2020 [18 favorites]

1Q84 was the first book of his I started reading without any prior knowledge of his work, just a recommendation, and I got this bad feeling as I progressed in the book. It was like tinnitus, just a continuous static in the background, that got louder and louder. Until the characters do a statutory rape scene and I just noped right out mid sentence. My time here is just to short - I got a stack of other books to read.
posted by zenon at 10:55 AM on April 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

Until the characters do a statutory rape scene and I just noped right out mid sentence.

This was exactly my experience with Murakami! First book was 1Q84 and I stopped in the same place. To this day I can’t quite believe what I read and that he seems to be highly regarded.
posted by ukdanae at 11:24 AM on April 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

mustard seeds, thank you for posting that Twitter thread by Grace Ting. I'm definitely going to see if I can get my hands on some of the books she recommends at the end, along with Kawakami's Breasts and Eggs.

I have called Murakami my favorite author since I first read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, but I found Killing Commendatore an interminable slog and 1Q84 is (as already mentioned) deeply fucking problematic, whatever narrative justifications you want to try to make. This conversation fascinated me; it makes a lot of sense that he doesn't see any characters as being that complex and that feels really lacking.

The idea of resentment seeping in to a marriage (and also being a flash flood!) - yes, of course. I've been there myself. But I also feel that seeping resentment rising up practically anytime I engage with any kind of male obliviousness, whether in a relationship with a man or reading a book written by one.

He's the only author I've read so far in my life that has made my off-kilter head seem a little like it's not on its own out there, and yet, and yet, and yet. I think I'm giving up on favorite anythings; I just end up disappointed.

(Also really hoping the whole conversation gets translated, star gentle uterus!)
posted by minsies at 11:33 AM on April 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Although I was disgusted by the sex scenes in 1Q84 I'm still an avid reader of Murakami. I'm hooked by his writing and thoughtful outlook on humanity. In Kafka on the Shore he presents nontraditional sex identity carefully. He's a beautiful writer and I don't feel I can put the books down just yet.
posted by waving at 1:28 PM on April 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

I feel that, waving. Kafka on the Shore was my first exposure to trans male identity outside of Chaz Bono, and its sensitivity to feminine masculinity is sadly still quite rare. I mean, it's interesting that in KotS, Murakami does engage with femininity as an actual human quality, a bit, seemingly because this femininity is contoured over maleness. It is therefore an explicit illusion, over an illusion, over the basic illusion of sex/gender, and amid this irony, Murakami allows for some authenticity. Whereas when Murakami deals with femininity in women, it's wholly a lure or a trick; it's the waking-life guise for subconscious truth. Subconscious truth, about men. Oh, no, why, no. Murakami opens what could have been a promising vein in just such a predictable way. Surprise, the feminine is a gauze over an infectious wound of sexuality, etc.

I just don't find that kind of archetypal circuitry very engaging.

Yet Murakami does also offer some unusual ideas and unusual comforts, particularly for the lonely. These days, I just find the price of entry pretty steep. His depictions of women really bother me, and I don't find enough literary interest in the text to make up for that. I'll read his short work if I want to briefly wander a grove that is not my own. But I won't read his novels anymore. I don't find Freudian permutations of reality, or projections of male subjectivity, or irony, or allegory - or however else you might parse it - an adequate defense for how his work treats women.
posted by desert outpost at 5:09 PM on April 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

I read a lot of Murakami years ago, then stopped because book after book seemed to end up as pointless sequences of disconnected ideas and events with nothing to hold them together (except maybe Norwegian Wood).

... then a few months ago I started again after having read a bit of other Japanese literature, and it was a completely different experience - with a little insight into the meaning of the symbols that he weaves into his stories, they suddenly made a lot more sense. That character from Kafka on the Shore, Oshima, for example, appears to be a combination of Yukio Mishima and the character Sadako Yamamura from Koji Suzuki's Ring novels (Yamamura comes from the island of Oshima, and shares certain ... characteristics with Kafka's Oshima). Among other things.

The problem with Murakami's female characters, I think, is that while his male characters are symbols as well, they function as symbols in relation to each other and the world at large; his female characters only gain meaning from their relationships, usually sexual, with one or two of the male characters.

(Now I have to go and reread Sleep.)
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:20 PM on April 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

I found it so gratifying to read Murakami as saying "I don’t think any of my characters are that complex." I've always thought of him as the writer with the really boring protagonists, and now I I now feel so validated, in a sense he agrees!
posted by 168 at 7:31 AM on April 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

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