“Weird for the sake of weird,” said Moe Szyslak in his description of Postmodernism in an episode of “The Simpsons.” The same should be said of Haruki Murakami’s success as well.
Everyone with a casual eye for the arts knows that the translation for his most recent novel, “1Q84,” hit shelves on Oct. 22, 2011. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and countless other print publications have lauded it with praise and publishers are already planning translations in 40 different languages.
As many have observed, Murakami has grown into an international phenomenon—a Murakami gensho, if you will. What’s unusual is that someone of his popularity comparable to that of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King is matched by his literary appeal. He’s entered the speculative short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times. Furthermore, numerous literary criticism books are dedicated to his fiction to the point where an entire field of study—Murakami ron—is a part of Japanese lexicon.
Despite this, people unfamiliar with is fiction are left to wonder, “What exactly is his appeal? How and why did he become so popular?” Part of the answer dwells in “Japanese Postmodernism” and “1Q84’s” chronological setting: the 1980s.
Regarding Murakami, critics rarely acknowledge on the former matter that Postmodernism in Japan originated as a consumer trend rather than an academic discipline per se. A young critic named Asada Akira published a non-fiction book titled “Structure and Power: Beyond Semiotics” in 1983. The book, despite its esoteric topic matter, became an unexpected bestseller and sold 80,000 copies during its first few weeks on the market. The event swiftly became known as the AA gensho (Asada Akira Phenomenon) and critics hailed it as the coming of a “New Academism” for the younger generation.
It became clear, however, that it was little more than a “faddish media frenzy,” as Hiroki Azuma described, once the smoke cleared. “It was acclaimed outside universities as a fashionable mode of thought for the younger generation,” explains Azuma, author of “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.” “But then [it became]subsequently forgotten together with the era.”
“The whole movement was interpreted … as a lifestyle: breaking with tradition, redefining Japanese culture, and (rather polemically) a whole hearted affirmation of consumerism,” wrote Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. “The players in the movement — writers, critics, artists, and even advertising copywriters … were followed as celebrities and enthusiastically supported by younger generations.”
Murakami partnered himself with one of these leading copywriters earlier in his career. Murakami co-authored “Let’s Meet in a Dream,” a collection of stories, alongside Shigesato Itoi in 1981. Itoi is better known in America as the creator of the “Earthbound (Mother)” video game franchise. Before that, he wrote advertising copy during the 1980s. Copywriting transformed him into a national celebrity and enabled the Asahi Journal to declare him “god of the young.”
Academic Marilyn Ivy observed that Itoi’s copy and Asada’s writing bore similarities in their brevity and digestibility. An identical trait is present in “Let’s Meet in a Dream” and Murakami’s earlier novels: “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball,” 1973. Their chapters are short enough to read over meals, train commutes, and other short periods. In other words, they were previously written for quick consumption —almost like an advertisement.
The point is that Murakami’s nascent writing style was born from this consumer craze. His stardom formed after “Norwegian Wood’s” publication during the same decade as Japan’s consumer affair with Postmodernism. However, Murakami’s popularity continually swelled into an international phenomenon decades after the ’80s.
It’s because of this that I’m hesitant to attribute it as an extension of 1980s. There is definitely a highbrow understanding of his novel’s themes in academia. The problem is that I don’t detect that in his fan base.
Most of the people I’ve discussed Murakami with tend to adore him for his characters at best, while others appreciate the utter weirdness of his tales. Some admire him for his Postmodern tropes, but are unable to offer a definition for this literary genre or its respective philosophical “movement.” And from my own experience, it appears that Murakami’s writing is being consumed, not digested.
Bear in mind that this is only a proffered explanation as to where his popularity originated in Japan. In my opinion, cosmopolitan sensibilities and people suffering from modern ennui are “first world problems.” Again, this doesn’t diminish his literary credibility. I can’t think of many bestsellers that are able to passionately inspire the global academic world.
My main concern hearkens back to my previous remarks concerning Asada Akira. There’s evidence to suggest that many readers didn’t comprehend Asada’s writings. “Many people bought Asada’s text and only read the preface and the chart at the end of the book,” Ivy wrote. In other words, Asada’s ideas were read for trendiness’s sake but not understood for higher meaning.
Empty consumer trends have come and gone in the past from Japan, whether it is the Power Rangers, Pokemon, or anime. One just has to hope that such isn’t the case for Murakami.
Brett Fujioka can be contacted by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.