“UFO IN KUSHIRO” 8/1999
3rd person. All the stories in this collection are. Follows Komura, a salaryman, whose wife leaves him right after the Kobe earthquake. She has no relatives or friends there, but spends every day watching the TV coverage, and then abruptly leaves him. Says he’s empty inside – like living with a chunk of air – and has nothing to give her.
Stunned, he takes a week off work. A coworker asks him to take a trip to Kushiro, if it’s all the same to him, and deliver a box to his sister. Komuro agrees. Has no idea what’s in the box. Is met in Kushiro by friend’s sister and sister’s friend Shimao. They joke and laugh at him, he’s stonefaced. They take him to dinner and then set him up in a love hotel, where Shimao seduces him. But he can’t get it up. His head is full of images of the earthquake.
He tells her how his wife left him, and what her note said. She says the earthquake must have triggered it – these things happen – a friend’s wife saw a UFO once and then just disappeared. He asks her what’s in the box anyway – she says, the something that should have been inside him. He looks at her murderously, then controls himself. She says she was just joking.
So what’s in the box? That seems like the obvious question – but just as in Pulp Fiction, I suspect it’s just a MacGuffin. What the story is really about is the way something like the Kobe earthquake can traumatize even people who aren’t directly affected by it. That’s what TV does to us. Komura’s wife’s abrupt decision to leave him is all too explicable – the UFO business is a great, if odd, metaphor, suggesting how a bolt from the blue can catalyze thoughts that we’ve never consciously entertained, and provoke major life decisions that seem abrupt but aren’t. Meanwhile Komura’s own impotence is a poignant example of how chain reactions from remote events can hit us where it really hurts.
This is Murakami at the top of his game. The specifics of this story are what make it work. Not that it’s such a detail-intensive story. Like most of his work it’s breezy and low-relief in its tactile detail. But the details that are there are so well chosen, so vivid, that they make it all work. Why Kushiro? But if you’ve been to Kushiro, you know it’s the perfect setting: forbiddingly cold and windswept, so that the unexpected warmth of Shimao and her friend is that much more erotic. And even if you haven’t been to Kushiro, but only know it through the Japanese mass media, it still works. You’d know it’s so distant and remote from major population centers (although hardly a small town in its own right) that it should feel utterly disconnected from the earthquake. But Komura’s still touched by it.
“LANDSCAPE WITH FLATIRON” 9/1999
Told from the point of view of Junko, a teenaged dropout in an Ibaraki beach town. She lives with her college-student wastrel boyfriend Keisuke, and (it’s February, like in the previous story) they hang out on the beach with a mysterious middle-aged guy named Miyake who collects driftwood and builds bonfires.
Miyake’s bonfires are magnificent, perfect, and pointless examples of craftsmanship (perfect yet pointless craftsmanship is one of the signal if minor themes in Murakami). The most they can do is afford you a space for meditation. And so of course Junko is hooked. She’s not a reader, but she keeps thinking of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” and thinking about how the point of that story was that the main character wanted to die. And at the end of the story, Junko has told Miyake that she, too, wants to die – they lightly, perhaps facetiously, agree to commit double suicide together when the bonfire dies out.
Junko’s depression: emptiness. Rootlessness. She’s a runaway: left home because her father was giving her weird incest vibes. She’s working in a convenience store. Has no future. Sense in Miyake some deep darkness.
Miyake’s depression: unexplained. He’s from Kobe originally, but drifted up here years ago to be a painter. Left his wife and kids behind. Regrets it, but won’t really talk about it. Tells Junko about his most recent painting: an iron in a room. But the iron isn’t an iron: it’s a way of talking about something else. (There’s Murakami trying to write about literary and psychological symbolism again, how it works, just like he was in Sputnik Sweetheart.)
The connection to the Kobe earthquake is more oblique here. Junko and Keisuke ask Miyake point blank if his people in Kobe are alright, and he says probably – they live way away from the danger zone. And while we can well imagine that he’s worried sick about them, there’s no indication that his depression is any deeper now than before. Nor that Junko herself is particularly affected by the earthquake.
But they talk about death, about ways they expect to die. Miyake’s always dreamed he’d die locked in a fridge. Junko has her cherished interpretation of the Jack London story. The story is soaked in a sense of mortality, and in the context of this series, it’s a supremely delicate response to the tragedy. And again, all the more powerful because its characters are so remote from it. Miyake is such a poignant figure precisely because he’s cut all ties with Kobe. All he can do is wonder; and even then he suspects his people are alright. But they’re not his people anymore anyway: he can’t participate in the tragedy. He’s just a bystander.
And Junko? What a finely realized character she is. This, after Sputnik, represents Murakami worrying about the Youth of Today. A major topic of media handwringing in Japan at the end of the century. The theme would preoccupy Murakami in Kafka on the Shore, and it was the aspect of that book I found most disappointing, even cloying (we’ll see how I react when I get to that book this time around). But here it’s handled beautifully: Junko is a perfect thumbnail sketch of a member of Japan’s economic Lost Generation, in which the lack of job opportunities and the failure (for some) of the educational system reveals other, deeper, problems that prosperity had obscured.
“ALL GOD’S CHILDREN CAN DANCE” 10/1999
I’m not too interested in pressing translation issues with Murakami. I think his translators have been great, by and large, and where I disagree it’s usually either in cases where they’ve cut something (and I suspect that’s the American editor’s fault), or just a matter of taste. The title of this, though, is an exception. In Japanese the verb is not in the potential form: it should be “All God’s Children Dance.” And there’s a big difference between the two, theme-wise. The translation as it stands posits a world in which all creatures are capable of dancing, but in which it’s possible to assume that some don’t dance, for one reason or another. Murakami’s title posits a world in which all those creatures do dance. Volition is the issue. And therefore, the issue is really one of what dancing means here. Is it a means of self-expression – thus dependent on the will? Or is it the very process of being alive? The story ends with a mystic vision: the protagonist, Yoshiya, dancing on a deserted baseball diamond at night, to no music but the rhythms of the wind in the grass, and as he dances he becomes aware of the life processes surrounding him, the “rhythm of the earth” that encompasses everything from subconscious sexual desires to the potentialities of earthquakes. Does the title mean that, by dancing, he is fulfilling a potentiality within himself that in turn allows him to become aware of the larger universe? Or does it mean that, in dancing, he is simply doing what the rest of the larger universe is already doing – and thus that he’s joining it? In the end, since mystic visions all tend to blur into one, maybe there’s not a huge difference. But there is a difference.
Yoshiya is a guy in his mid-20s with an active social and sexual life, but he still lives with his mother. She’s a member of a cultlike New Religion, and a single mother intensely attached to her son, and judging by how devastated she was when he left the sect, he dreads how she’ll react when he moves out, so he hasn’t.
His mother was sexually active as a teenager and had two abortions before becoming pregnant with him. It’s likely that Yoshiya’s father was his mother’s obstetrician, but since (a) the doctor insisted on the perfection of his contraceptive methods, and (b) the sect, which she entered just afterward, told her that the child was a sign from God, she doesn’t believe that Yoshiya’s father is the doctor. Rather, with the sect’s encouragement, she believes Yoshiya is the literal son of God – thus his name, written so as to mean “for it is good,” but also (the reader may notice) reminiscent of Yeshua.
In the present of the story, Yoshiya wakes up with a hangover one morning, and that evening on the train he sees a guy who matches his mother’s description of the obstetrician (who she never saw again). Yoshiya follows him on the train all the way out to Chiba, then by cab through darkened streets, then on foot through even darker streets, past a junkyard and into the deserted ballfield, where the man disappears. Was he Yoshiya’s father? Was he God? Was he just a stranger? Yoshiya realizes he doesn’t care anymore, and starts to dance. His college girlfriend had loved the floppy way he danced – used to call him Super-Frog. That’s when the epiphany comes.
Where’s his mother during all this? In Osaka with the rest of the cult: every day they walk to the disaster zone with supplies. This one detail, dropped casually into the middle of the narrative, is the only tie to the earthquake, but what a tie it is. By this point we’ve concluded that Yoshiya’s mother is a real kook: she’s so pure in heart that she hangs around the house naked, and likes to sleep that way with Yoshiya, tormenting him with incestuous feelings that he’s spent his whole life trying to escape. Not to mention, she’s raised him in a cult that demanded he go door-to-door proselyting with her as a child, and that saddled him with all the ridiculous contradictions of prayer (pray always, but not for anything specific, because that would be testing God).
But when we learn that she and the rest of the flock are down in Kobe doing good works, when so much of the rest of the Japanese system was unable to cope with the disaster, we can’t hate her. We have to admire her for her dedication and sincerity. And it becomes clear why Yoshiya doesn’t leave her: he loves her, despite all she’s put him through.
And what about that epiphany? Is this a suggestion that while it might have been necessary and right for Yoshiya to leave the cult, it bequeathed him a spiritual receptivity that benefits him anyway? Maybe all God’s children dance, but this kind of epiphany isn’t something everybody experiences.
Satsuki is a doctor, a pathologist, visiting Thailand for a conference, and then a vacation. She’s older – menopausal – and divorce. She lived for many years in the US, in Baltimore and Detroit. She returned to Japan because anti-Japanese sentiment in Detroit touched her (someone bashed in her Honda and wrote a racial epithet on the hood), and because her husband left her for a younger woman, partially because she never wanted to have kids.
In Thailand, after the conference, she hooks up with her driver/guide, a Thai man named Nimit recommended to her by an American friend. He takes her to an exclusive resort, and from there every day he drives her to a private pool so she can swim laps, one of her greatest pleasures. In the process they bond – Nimit is her age and quite gentlemanly, and listens to the same old jazz in the car that her father had once loved. He had worked for 33 years for a Norwegian, who left him the Mercedes and the tapes; Satsuki wonders if they were lovers.
Satsuki is nursing bitterness about life, and it’s only half revealed to us. It’s a couple of months after the earthquake, and when Nimit asks her if she knew anybody in Kobe, she says no, but really she does. A man. We learn nothing about him except that he hurt her long ago – it’s implied that he got her pregnant and she aborted the child – and that now she hates him so much she hopes he was killed in the earthquake.
At the end of her stay in Thailand, Nimit takes her to see an old woman in a nearby village, a spiritual healer who tells Satsuki that she has a stone inside her that she needs to let go of, or she won’t be able to die well. She’ll soon have a dream of a green snake, and she needs to let the green snake take away the stone. Later, Satsuki tries to tell Nimit something about her past, but he stops her, advising her kindly to wait for the dream. On the plane home, she waits to fall asleep.
The earthquake connection here is, again, tenuous but real and moving. Satsuki knows someone there, a guy who mistreated her badly – there’s an implication that he’s the one who left her incapable of having children, which in turn contributed to the breakup of her marriage. At least she blames a lot of what’s gone wrong in her life on him. Which obliquely, tartly reminds us that, despite the way the media deifies victims, no doubt some of the people who died in the quake were assholes. That doesn’t diminish the tragedy, but humanizes it: and makes life complicated for the survivors. She wants to mourn the dead, but the one victim she knows she hates: how does she mourn that? She even feels almost responsible for the quake itself, so vehemently had she wanted him to suffer. What she needs to learn is to let go, to accept her life, so she can accept death.
In mood this story is close to “Landscape with Flatiron.” Both Satsuki and Nimit have secret sorrows that are revealed to the reader only in hints and suggestions. Their interaction with each other is conditioned by these sorrows – their unspoken affection for each other is deepened by them – but healing depends in part on not speaking them. As Nimit puts it, speaking it would turn the words into lies. There are things that can’t be expressed directly, but only in dream-symbolism. It’s thus a very delicate story, one in which great emotional depth is imparted to the reader without much information with which to process that emotion.
“SUPER-FROG SAVES TOKYO” 12/1999
Katagiri is a sad-sack loan collection agent for a Tokyo S&L. Single, nearsighted, middle-aged, a total loser. One day a month after the Kobe earthquake, Frog appears – yes, a giant talking frog – and enlists his help in preventing an earthquake in Tokyo. Worm, the subterranean being who causes such things (hibernating, storing up hate until he shakes), is going to cause one on February 18, and only Frog and Katagiri can stop it.
But on the night before the appointed day, Katagiri gets shot in the shoulder. Wakes up in the hospital afraid he’s missed the fight, but there’s been no earthquake – and the nurse says he wasn’t shot, just found unconscious. Then Frog appears and says that in fact they’d defeated Worm, fighting desperately side-by-side – and Katagiri was a great hero. Then Frog tries to explain something about his existence to Katagiri, but falls asleep, and then disintegrates into all manner of vermin, which then crawl into Katagiri, who wakes up from another dream. Nurse gives him a shot again.
I don’t think that this ending is meant to be an “and it was all a dream” thing, at least not in the conventional, groan-inducing sense. Rather, Murakami’s doing what he’s been doing rather insistently for some time now, which is positing an existence in which dreams and reality bleed over into each other, and where the real battles take place in dreams, or in the subconscious if you prefer, only occasionally noticed by the waking or conscious world. So what was Frog trying to say? Probably something along the lines of: I am you, Katagiri.
This has always been my favorite story from this collection, but rereading it in context I can see how in some ways it really doesn’t fit. Tonally it breaks the mood: the first four stories are all gloomy, moody, delicate poised numbness. This one is riotously funny, and gleefully surreal.
But it’s brilliant, one of Murakami’s finest achievements. Here he’s addressing head-on the unspoken fear of everybody in Japan who wasn’t in Kobe: are we next? Twenty million Tokyoites trying their best to focus on the sufferings of Kobe while really, secretly breaking out in a cold sweat thinking about the Big One that’s been overdue for decades now. When will it hit? Why hasn’t it hit yet? And are we all gonna fucking die when it does?
To address this Murakami constructs a modern myth. He reaches into ancient Japanese myths of the type he’s scarcely evinced an awareness of up until now and gives us his own spin on the underground catfish myth. And then he creates a team of superheros to fight it. One is a Dostoevsky-quoting Frog, and the other is Murakami’s own vision of Everyman. Katagiri is the salt of the earth, Tokyo-style. He’s a complete loser, but look at what he’s already doing with his life, before he’s enlisted by Frog: collecting on bad loans. In other words, he’s cleaning up from the excesses of the Bubble. He’s the guy who swabs up the shit in the elephant house. The guy that the world never appreciates, but who keeps it going round.
As with any myth, this one includes a healthy amount of wishful thinking. We hope that Tokyo can be saved by people like this, for people like this. Because if it can’t be, we’re all gonna fucking die.
“HONEY PIE” 2/2000
The first five stories in this book were published in a magazine, one per month, under the collective title “After the Quake.” When Murakami issued them as a book he added this story and changed the collective title to All God’s Children Dance. (The translation reverted to the original title.)
This concerns a love triangle. Junpei, Takatsuki, and Sayoko are best friends in college. Then Junpei falls in love with Sayoko, but hesitates; meanwhile, Takatsuki marries Sayoko. Just before they marry, Junpei and Sayoko come close to making love, but back off. But Junpei never stops loving Sayoko, even after they all graduate and she has a daughter, Sala. And the three of them remain best friends, even as Takatsuki launches a successful career as a journalist and Junpei a semisuccessful one as a short-story writer. (Never novels: that’s not where his talent lies. This isn’t a self-portrait.)
Then Takatsuki and Sayoko separate: despite remaining devoted to Sayoko, Takatsuki has had an affair. Even so, the three of them keep getting together. Takatsuki suggests Junpei marry Sayoko, but he hesitates; Takatsuki then chides Junpei for never realizing what was really going on. But Junpei just doesn’t feel right about it.
Then the earthquake happens. While Junpei’s thinking. And Junpei – who grew up in Kobe, but was estranged from his parents after college and has never been back – is there with Sayoko, while Takatsuki has gone off to Okinawa for an interview. And, as so often, Junpei’s telling little Sala a story: about bears, Masakichi the honey-gatherer and Tonkichi the salmon-catcher.
Masakichi at first seems to be a stand-in for Junpei – he’s articulate and peaceful, while Tonkichi is a tough guy. But after a while we realize Tonkichi is Junpei – the salmon go away, and Tonkichi is up a creek, but can’t accept Masakichi’s help, and so he decides to go away. Gets caught and put in the zoo. Sayoko doesn’t like that ending.
They put Sala down, and then, after a ten-year wait, they embrace. Make love. Then Sala wakes up with a nightmare about the earthquake – she’s been having them regularly. And as Sayoko goes off to comfort her, Junpei realizes he has to grab this happiness and protect this family. No more hesitation. He thinks up a new ending for the story. Tonkichi learns how to make honey pie from Masakichi’s honey, and they sell it and live happily ever after.
After the heavy mythmaking of “Super-Frog,” we end in storybookland. Very appropriately. Confronting a child’s fears of the earthquake with cheerful yet wise stories. And, as with so much of Murakami’s work in the ‘90s, we also end on a note of renewed commitment. The love triangle self-consciously echoes those in Norwegian Wood and The Sputnik Sweetheart, but here the ending is pleasantly down to earth. The earthquake makes the protagonist realize that he can’t fuck around anymore waiting for everything to be perfect. If you want happiness you have to chase it. And having somebody you love so much that you’re willing to vow to protect them from earthquake nightmares: that’s happiness.
A few words about the collection. This is the first and to date only collection of Murakami’s short stories to appear in English complete and in the same format as in Japanese. (Strange Tales from Tokyo has been translated complete, but it’s buried in Blind Willow.) It’s easy to see why: these have even more cross-story cohesion than most of his collections, and collectively they make a greater impact than they would have individually. In fact this little volume is one of Murakami’s most fully-realized and artistically perfect works. He ended the decade on a very high note.