Haruki Murakami is not
Murakami’s works make reference to Western culture, particularly music, and his characters are cosmopolitan. Much of his work seems to focus on globalization, and the influence of the West on Japan. But, despite not being obviously so, do his works of fiction feature elements of ancient Buddhism?
Certainly, his sparse minimalism can be thought of as an art of Zen subtraction. Although his popular novel IQ84 is almost 1,000 pages long, the writing is simple. There are snippets of small, conversational moments that make you feel as though you are really there to witness them. And many of his characters are on spiritual and personal journeys, sometimes ones they take in solitude.
His latest book, Killing Commendatore, could provide further clues: It references the ringing of an old Buddhist bell. This allows the protagonist to step into a magical new world.
The craving to live
What are these other worlds represented in Murakami’s fiction? In Norwegian Wood, the novel ends with the realization that the narrator has been occupying no space at all, in between life and death. Midori—a free-spirited girl who’s in love with Watanabe (a young university student with decisions to make regarding two girls, but for whom choosing who to love is not always easy)—has a thirst for the former.
Steve Hagen, an experienced Zen monk, explains that one of our desires is the craving to live. We want to be able to persist with this thing called ‘life’ forever. Midori certainly embodies that.
In that case, does Naoko, the beautiful woman who dated Watanabe’s best friend before he committed suicide, and who fills Watanabe with longing, embody the opposite? Her desire is for non-existence. She wishes to join her late ex-boyfriend, and this wish is granted when she commits suicide.
Hagen notes that some of us have a wish to leave this world, for even when we think we do not desire to live fully or otherwise, we desire death instead.
Murakami’s tackling of this tough topic is
Similar to characters in many other Buddhist works, Watanabe becomes infused with gratitude for life. After mourning two people close to him, he first becomes
Love, beauty, art and music
There are many spiritual elements in Murakami’s fiction. An appreciation for love, beauty, art and music underpin many of his works.
Murakami asked him why he offered long prayers to the Buddhist altar in their house every morning, and his father replied that he was praying for those who died on a Chinese battlefield. He had been sent there while in the army, and he was praying for allies and enemies alike.
Indeed, there are many spiritual elements in Murakami’s fiction. An appreciation for love, beauty, art
And it cannot be missed how often Murakami talks of jazz. It’s more than just a countercultural reference to traditional Japan. His deep appreciation of music is evidenced by his encyclopedic knowledge.
Songs appear meaningfully in the narrative whenever a spiritual or personal journey is about to be embarked on. For instance, Norwegian Wood is named after a Beatles song, and many of Murakami’s short stories feature men who run jazz bars. His characters have
Choosing to identify or blend
It may seem, at first, that Murakami does not preserve enough of the classic or modern Japanese traditions in his literature. But by embodying Buddhist themes, and suggesting that postmodern identity lies at the intersection of the Western and Asian worlds, is he not looking forward to a time when identity is more blurred, yet self-defined?
Isn’t he suggesting that the world, in its more globalized and interconnected form, looks towards peace?
All of his characters have the choice to identify with either their national identity or a kind of blend of cultural identities. Contemporary Japan is described beautifully, for all of the stylish and postmodern references to popular culture, Asian and Western alike.
This modern Japan is preserved in the author’s descriptions. If at the heart of Murakami lies Buddhist inclinations, his works are amongst the most Japanese of this postmodern age.
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