The Success and Failure of Haruki Murakami

The Success and Failure of Haruki Murakami 

Haruki Murakami, the world’s best-known Japanese author and likely candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, is not known as a political author. His tales of talking cats and vanishing elephants – for which he is most known in the West, and hence the world – usually do not seem to suggest anything about the heavily oppressive nature of contemporary capitalism in Japan, one of its foremost outposts.

Neither does Murakami claim himself to be political. When pressed to honor the cultural boycott of Israel by declining the Jerusalem Prize in 2009, he complained that he was “being told what to do” by Palestinian activists: “As a novelist, I usually do the opposite of what people tell me to do,” he said, seemingly ignoring that the Israeli apartheid state was also “telling him” to accept the prize. This matches a heavily superior, ironic attitude to left-wing politics that runs throughout his books.

In the West, Murakami’s work is not taken as political either, but rather as an expression of an “individual’s search for identity” that tends to involve numerous encounters with ghosts, monsters and other aspects of the supernatural and paranormal, stories which are in fact easily consumed in a neoliberal mass market, in which readers define themselves by the books they read just as Murakami’s characters define themselves by the brand of whiskey they drink or the jazz records they listen to.

This essay will challenge that perception from a critical Marxist perspective. I will argue that the predominant theme of Murakami’s novels –an anxious search for identity emerging out of urban ennui – only becomes comprehensible in light of the deeply alienating environment of contemporary Japanese capitalism. Japan is the exemplar of today’s world economy in that it reduces the individual to an anonymous consumer of products and producer of “fluff” even in highly intellectual professions.

Murakami’s success in appealing to the world’s readers – his novels have been translated into over 40 languages, and is a bestseller in many of them – relies on a unique ability to grasp the terrifying and totalizing nature of the world capitalist system. The supernatural or paranormal elements of his work, in turn, are only understandable as a product of an economic system that reduces human beings to seeming powerlessness and gives control over their lives to alien forces. The success or failure of Murakami as an author – and he has many of both – is in the end a question of his ability to get across both the boredom and the terror of life under late capitalism.

I will focus here on two novels by Murakami. One – A Wild Sheep Chase – I consider a success, while the other – Dance Dance Dance – I think is a failed effort, an opinion that seems to be matched by readers and critics of contemporary Japanese literature. That the second is, in form at least, a sequel to the first should aid for purposes of comparison.

A quick word first about my own background: I am not a professional scholar of literature, and I do not know Japanese. What I can offer as a critic is a long love affair with Murakami’s work in translation which took up the greater part of my college years. I have read all his work that has appeared in English, and most of his novels several times. In approaching his work, however, I have found that while I identify with the characters more than those of any other author, their path of alienation and detachment from life, especially from the desire to change how we live it, was never for me. I found that collective struggle for social change was a way out of their predicament.

“Lord knows it has to be something about sheep…”

On November 25th, 1970, the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima with a group of followers entered a Tokyo compound of the Self-Defense Forces. Arms in hand, they took the commanding general hostage while Mishima proceeded to address the soldiers, calling on them to overthrow Japan’s democratically-elected government and return Emperor Hirohito to power. The soldiers, instead of being roused, were irritated and mocked him. Mishima, who seems to have expected this outcome and had sent the draft of his last novel to his publisher just that morning, returned to the commander’s office, where he committed ritual seppuku.

Mishima’s theatrical coup attempt and suicide is the event that marks the beginning of Murakami’s novel A Wild Sheep Chase. In a university lounge, the narrator, a former left-wing radical, and his girlfriend eat hot dogs.

It was two in the afternoon, and Yukio Mishima’s picture kept flashing on the lounge TV. The volume control was broken so we could hardly make out what was being said, but it didn’t matter to us one way or the other (9).

Earlier in the year, Murakami’s narrator, who is only ever referred to in the first person, had had his nose broken in a confrontation with police at a student strike. This was only one of the last events in a long tradition of student radicalism in Japan that began before the Second World War. After the war, revolutionary and socialist students had rallied together for the removal of right wing professors and administrators. Their collective efforts led to the establishment of self-governing student associations across Japan’s deeply bureaucratic and conservative university system.

The student movement was the major participant in the struggle against the Vietnam War in Japan. To young people who had grown up being told of Japan’s peaceful constitution – supposedly the only one in the world that forbade declaring war – it was a show of open hypocrisy that their country’s leaders allowed it to be used as a forward base by the United States in imperialist war.

When Tokyo University medical students went on strike in 1968, demanding pay for serving as interns in the university hospital, it was the spark that ignited a powder keg. Students from every department across universities in Tokyo barricaded their buildings and went on strike demanding lower tuition, more student participation in university administration, the removal of US military bases and – in some cases – socialist revolution.

The student strikes, unfortunately, were plagued by a number of problems. Confrontations between different political factions weakened the movement overall, while violent attacks against professors and administrators gave the police the excuse they needed to intervene. By the time the school year started in the fall of 1970, no trace of the big-character banners, barricades or hard hats worn by the student radicals was visible. The foremost activists, having been worn out by years of participation in a vibrant struggle for social change that did not result in the revolution or even an intermediate project to further that aim – largely dropped out of political life and accepted jobs in the stifling world of corporate life.

Murakami’s narrator is a case in point. Once a student radical, he now finds himself at the helm of a successful advertising business. Though he keeps his cool for the most part, it is as his business partner says: “in the old days we did work we believed in, and we took pride in it… [today] we’re just tossing out fluff” (57). Boku (the narrator refers to himself in this familiar form of the Japanese first person) remarks privately, “I just can’t get it through my head that here and now is really here and now. Or that I am really me… for the last ten years it’s been like this” – or, in other words, since the collapse of the student strikes. The alienation from himself is complete.

Soon enough, Boku is contacted by the secretary of “the Boss” (sensei). The Boss is a shadowy figure, but known as a very wealthy man with stakes of ownership in both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the mass media, which he uses to the benefit of the political far right. The Boss, who amassed his riches in Manchuria during the war, represents in the novel the continuity of the Japanese ruling class. The same forces that led Japan into a barbaric imperialist war in the 1930s, Murakami suggests, are alive and well in contemporary Japan, where they nurture and are nurtured by Japanese capitalism.

Boku is commanded by the Boss’ secretary to discover the location of a very curious thing – a white sheep of indeterminate breed with a coffee-colored star stain on its back. This creature, we discover, is what has “sheeped” the Boss in the late 1930s, the source of the “Will” his secretary refers to – “a concept that governs time, governs space, and governs possibility” (141). It is this terrifying creature that embodies the source of Japan’s murderous imperialist expansion in the war – and threatens, as in the case of Yukio Mishima, to raise its head again.

We find the sheep, at the end of the novel, to have left the Boss and taken up residence inside of Boku’s college friend, “the Rat.” Like Boku, the Rat was a student radical who, like the former, faces the prospect of adapting himself to the boring career of the salaryman – but who, instead, chooses to drop out of college and run as far away as he can get from the stifling urban landscape – to northern Hokkaido. Even here, however, the Sheep finds him and plans to put him at the top of the Boss’s empire. The Sheep asks the Rat for “everything… my body, my memory, my weakness, my contradictions” in return for the vital force it offers, “a thing of such beauty, it drives you out of your mind. But it’s hair-raising evil” (334-5).

The Rat however, declines the offer. “I guess I felt attached to my weaknesses,” he says. “My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas – if I like these things, why should I apologize” (336). He hangs himself, thus striking a deep blow against the Sheep and the forces it represents – he does the same thing, in other words, that Boku, who finds himself completely integrated into the system, finds himself to weak to do. Boku’s final contribution is to connect the wires that ignite the bomb which blows up the Rat’s home – along with the Boss’ secretary when he arrives there in search of the Sheep.

A couple things should be noted before we move on to the next work by Murakami. A description of the plot of A Wild Sheep Chase as I have laid it out here cannot possibly do justice to the novel, which not only is more intricate, but makes an advantage out of the very intuitive logic which it seems it would run aground on. The extent of the connections between Boku, the Rat, the Boss and his secretary, for instance, is a loose end that Murakami leaves untied. Similarly, the exact nature of the Sheep – surely a bizarre reversal of the Christian Lamb of Peace – is never actually revealed. “I have almost nothing to say about the sheep itself,” says the author. The Sheep merely exists, without any deeper explanation.

A Wild Sheep Chase works as a story because of, not despite, all the things it leaves unexplained. To the reader living under late capitalism, an author does not need to spell out the constant tedium of life or the sense that monstrous forces beyond our control dominate the world. That militarism – the form of capitalism that Japan has supposedly moved away from – takes the form of a sheep does not particularly tie the story up. The Japanese reader will understand this intuitively, as readers elsewhere understand intuitively the general concepts Murakami is dealing in.

“I made no story outline for A Wild Sheep Chase other than to use “sheep” as a key word,” Murakami writes. Though the novel draws on the form of a Raymond Chandler detective story, this much is representative of Murakami’s style, with a few notable exceptions. Murakami’s stories have a way of meandering along. Paranormal events, lacunae in the plot and dead time are integral to his world in that they reflect something that is frighteningly real about contemporary life. This method can delight or madden depending on the reader – but it can also succeed or fail on its own terms.

“Dance as long as the music plays…”

We leave Boku on the shore of his hometown at the end of A Wild Sheep Chase, and return to him several years later. Little seems to have changed in his life. He continues to perform dead-end journalistic and advertising work, he continues to have romantic encounters without any outward or inward signs of affection for his partner, he continues to play it cool about all of this.

Much like its prequel, Dance Dance Dance centers around a search, in this case for the woman with marvelous ears who abandoned Boku near the climax of A Wild Sheep Chase. She, however, slides in and out of the action without the least explanation. On a search for her, Boku falls in love with a hotel receptionist, and is charged with the care of a precocious adolescent girl. Boku meets a movie star he went to middle school with, hoping that this will lead to his ex-girlfriend, but before we know it he is off with the young girl, Yumi, and her dysfunctional family. His ex-girlfriend’s fate remains unclear except for a vague note that she may have been murdered by Boku’s movie-star classmate.

If the action seems random and half-thought out, it is because the main point of Dance Dance Dance is in the pauses, dead time, and descriptions. The language of commodity fetishism and alienation is intense, much more so than in A Wild Sheep Chase or any of Murakami’s other novels. At one point, for instance, Boku and a prostitute reflect on the common nature of their work:

She asked me about my work, what kind of things I wrote. I explained briefly and she said, how uninteresting. Well, it depends, I told her. What I did was shovel cultural snow. To which she responded that her work was to shovel sensual snow. I had to laugh. (154)

“Shoveling snow” – when applied to writing, one of the highest creative functions of homo sapiens, and lovemaking, the most intimate and joyous of our experiences in life – surely there could not be a better expression of what Marx means by alienated labor.

In the character of Yumi’s father, Hiraku Makimura (an anagram, of course, for Haruki Murakami), the author even manages to reflect on the status of his own books as commodities. Makimura, we are told, began by writing stories and books with “fresh prose,” then in response to criticism of staleness turned to the avant-garde and travel writing, eventually becoming famous for being famous. So much was said about Murakami himself when he broke with his earlier style by producing the startlingly realist novel Norwegian Wood. Murakami has us understand that he, just like us, is shoveling snow.

This is a good point, and one that fully deserves to be made. However, one good insight does not make a novel, no matter how many familiar characters and alienating strangeness Murakami throws at us. In the end the novel does not fully cohere. What makes Dance Dance Dance fail where A Wild Sheep Chase succeeds?

Jay Rubin, one of Murakami’s translators who has written a popular introduction to his work, writes that the problem with Dance Dance Dance is that “the reader has to wait with Boku while Murakami waits for something to come to him… [Boku] strolling through the city streets, making light meals, going to the fridge for cold beers.”

However, there is plenty of dead time in A Wild Sheep Chase as well – or, for that matter, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, another novel Rubin seems to approve of. It is, as I have tried to outline, part and parcel of Murakami’s intuitive writing style. Rubin is right to point out that Dance Dance Dance never manages to cohere as a novel, but here again it is among good company in Murakami’s work.

I believe, as does Rubin, that the elements of Dance Dance Dance that are supposed to get us going as readers – his affair with the receptionist, and the literal skeletons in his closet – are completely artificial. But why? In one respect, it is hard to imagine the same character who watched his marriage draw to such a speedy conclusion practically without blinking in A Wild Sheep Chase, fall head over heels in love with a nondescript and newly introduced character. As it is to try and understand why Boku is so obsessed with finding Kiki – the woman he accepted was gone at the end of the first novel.

At the end of A Wild Sheep Chase, Boku returns from his encounter with his past to the world of the living: “No matter how boring or mediocre it might be, this was my world.” “One day at a time,” he writes, “I learned to distance myself from memory” (348, 350). When we leave him at the end, there is little indication how he will go on.

A Wild Sheep Chase is a novel that reaches to the full limits of experience of the student radicals of Murakami’s generation. While there were those like Boku who chose integrating into the system they hated, there were also those like the Rat who managed to deny the system a grip over their lives – though, in Murakami’s pessimistic universe, the only way to do this is suicide.

How would someone like Boku go on? If A Wild Sheep Chase is, as I have suggested, the story of an instinctual, private rebellion against a deeply alienating and violent economic system – brought to a climax in the suicide of the Rat – what future does his friend and alter-ego have?

In a world which commodifies the product as well as the creator – no Murakami novel captures this more acutely than Dance Dance Dance – the reader cannot empathize unless we are shown something that lies outside of it, some basic human feeling or impulse that shows the possibility of resistance. Boku ends this novel by consummating his affair with the receptionist. It does not quite convince in a novel that has shown so relentlessly how even basic human desires are subject to ruthless commodification.


It is a well-worn cliché of leftist cultural supplements that so-and-so novel, or movie, is great, but that “it does not offer any solutions.” As China Miéville so brilliantly quips, it is not the job of art to offer solutions. In that spirit, I hope that my interpretation of Murakami has shown why his novels fail or succeed on a thoroughly political basis without judging them for not explaining the necessity for the revolutionary party.

While I have chosen to focus on only two novels here, the same criteria might be applied to Murakami’s other work. At his best – (A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) he crafts stories that show humans, with all their faults, pitted against a deeply dehumanizing system. These novels strike home with readers on that fundamental level. An individual’s search for identity, in the end, cannot be divided from the instinctual struggle against the system that puts bar codes on even the greatest intellectual efforts we produce.

His failures (Dance Dance Dance and Kafka on the Shore) are not devoid of interest to the reader. But in these novels, where his characters search for – and often find – an identity that does not involve resistance to the system that crucifies the individual, even at the most basic level, the stories fall flat.

Murakami’s work is a great expression of the current era of capitalism. If he wins a Nobel Prize this year, it will be fully deserved. But if he does, let us remember that there is more to his work than the talking cats and vanishing elephants would suggest.


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