electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies
6 in 2009
Woman as Symptom and the Void at the Heart of Subjectivity
A Lacanian Reading of Murakami Haruki's 'The Wind-up Bird Chronicle'
Murakami Haruki's eighth novel, Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 1992-1995), is one of his most important and ambitious works to date, dealing as it does with familiar themes of domestic love and loss and also historical themes of violence and war. At the heart of the story is the psychological quest of a male protagonist whose search for a lost cat and wife eventually take him back not only into the historical past but also deep within himself to face the void at the heart of his own subjectivity. Earlier female companions in Murakami's works often offered a mix of compensation and direction as they tried to lead their male counterparts towards some vague promise of meaning. What one sees in this work, however, is a dramatic confrontation, through the search for a female other, with desire, violence, and ultimately the absence at the heart of subjectivity. In this way, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle offers an important shift in Murakami's writing and a radical response to his search for meaning in contemporary Japan.
This essay will start with a brief overview of the role women played in Murakami's novels preceding The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, focusing particularly on the major developments that have occurred. What one sees is a movement away from the compensatory females of Murakami's earliest works toward figures that are both more sexually enticing and anxiety provoking. This development can be understood in Lacanian terminology as a movement away from the compensatory appeal of the Imaginary toward the 'passion for the Real'.
In the next section, I will show how, despite this increased anxiety, much of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in fact places the central male protagonist in the role of healer. The male protagonist increasingly finds himself being taken away from his quiet, ordinary life and being forced to face the violence and fear he finds buried within himself and his country. Through his journey down a well and his encounters with violence and anxiety, he is able to find a source of temporary healing for many of the women he encounters in his life, a role that has many parallels with that of a shaman. What these women seem to be seeking compensation for is a system that has metaphorically, and sometimes literally, raped them, a system symbolised primarily through the male protagonist's brother-in-law.
Ultimately, however, this strategy fails, and rather than finding a way to heal others' pains and anxieties once and for all, the male protagonist finds himself on a dangerous journey within to face his own fears and ultimately to confront the void at the heart of his own subjectivity. The third section of this essay will argue that this risky inner journey can be understood through the terminology of a Lacanian act: an attempt to confront this void and, through this encounter, to begin the process of creation once more. The male protagonist is led to this encounter through his quest for the female other, and it his determination to keep pressing forward, despite the anxiety he feels and the threat of violence, that makes this journey different from earlier ones represented in Murakami's fiction. The discovery of the void at the center of himself through the female other also offers an exemplification of Lacan's seemingly bizarre formulation that 'woman is a symptom of man'.
Loss, Jouissance, and the Search for Fullness
Readers familiar with Murakami's literary oeuvre are never surprised when a somewhat solitary and emotionally troubled male protagonist meets a female, sometimes a troubled teenage girl, sometimes an older more sexually available woman, sometimes a mysterious lost love from the past, and starts to find a way forward again in his life. Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind Sing, 1979), Murakami's debut novel, is told from the perspective of a 29-year-old male narrator Boku (which, in Japanese, means 'I'—as a first-person informal pronoun), who reminisces about three former girlfriends and recalls meeting and developing a friendship with a woman who is unnamed but identified by the fact that she is missing a finger on her left hand. In Murakami's second novel, 1973 no pinbōru (Pinball, 1973, 1980), this same male protagonist becomes obsessed with his search for a pinball machine, a sublimated attempt, it later becomes clear, to mourn a lost love from his past named Naoko. In Hitsuji o meguru bōken (A Wild Sheep Chase, 1982), Murakami's third novel, and a continuation of Boku's narrative, it is a friendship with a female prostitute who also works part-time as a copywriter and a model specialising in ear shots that provides him with the clues he needs to embark on and continue his search for a mysterious sheep.
These mysterious female companions continue to emerge in Murakami's fiction beyond this early informal trilogy. His fourth novel, Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando (Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1985), introduces a younger female accomplice, a seventeen-year-old girl who is fond of wearing pink, the slightly chubby daughter of a mad scientist. Murakami's best selling novel to date, Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood, 1987), has another older male narrator, Watanabe Tōru, reflecting back on his relationships with two very different women: the life affirming and sexually curious Midori and the death-obsessed and increasingly frigid Naoko. It is Naoko who provides the first hints of a new type of female character that would appear in Murakami's later fiction. In Murakami's sixth novel, Dansu dansu dansu (Dance Dance Dance, 1988), a continuation of the Boku narrative, it is the call of the same mysterious woman from A Wild Sheep Chase (in this work she is finally given a name, Kiki), that starts his journey again. Along the way he meets other prostitutes and also a troubled young girl named Yuki, with whom he forms an unlikely friendship. It is Murakami's seventh novel, Kokkyo no minami, taiyō no nishi (South of the Border, West of the Sun, 1992), however, that most clearly contrasts the shifting roles of these female companions in Murakami's work.
The two key women in South of the Border, West of the Sun are an old classmate named Shimamoto and a woman simply referred to as Izumi's cousin. These two women respectively stand for the mysterious worlds south of the border and west of the sun suggested in the novel's title. The south of the border reference comes from a Nat King Cole song, one the male protagonist Hajime would listen to with Shimamoto as a child and that inspired for her images of 'something beautiful, big and soft' (Murakami 2003, Vol.2, p.191; Murakami 1990, p. 154). The west of the sun reference, on the other hand, comes from a story about hysteria siberiana, an illness supposedly suffered by some farmers living in Siberia who, working in the open fields day after day with nothing but the horizon of the land in all directions, would eventually lose their minds and head off in desperation in the direction of the setting sun. These crazed farmers would eventually collapse in exhaustion and die. It is this kind of search for impossible limits that Hajime experiences with Izumi's cousin.
From the first time Hajime had met Izumi's cousin, he had felt an irresistible attraction towards her. It is the same kind of attraction Watanabe has for Naoko when they first make love in Norwegian Wood, a desire that makes him literally want to reach out and try and touch something within her. Hajime describes the experience in these words:
This potentially destructive act of wanting to reach out and touch some mysterious thing within the other, as discussed further below, is a powerful recurrent motif in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. It is an attempt that, in Lacanian terms, can be understood as an example of the passion for the Real.
Lacanian psychoanalysis is built upon an acknowledgement of our Symbolic and Imaginary failures to capture the Real. The Imaginary, according to the Lacanian schema, derives from our first engagement with a world of images as we start to build models of our world and self. In a developmental framework, it is first formed in the mirror stage, when between 6 and 18 months a child is first able to recognise itself in a mirror and has its first intimations of an emerging gestalt or self. Later, however, it is the Symbolic, the world of meaning through difference as understood through the structural linguistics of Saussure and as exemplified in language, which comes to play the dominant role in the construction of meaning. While Imaginary constructions of self and world are never entirely eliminated, the meaning that language provides comes to dominate how we see the world.
For Lacanian psychoanalysis, however, these constructs of reality through the Imaginary and the Symbolic are never the complete story, and the remainder, the Real, always threatens to return. Kept at the right distance, objects which stand in for the Real can come to hold a mysterious power, a promise that some kind of pre-Symbolic lost fullness might return. When one gets too close to such objects, however, reality itself can threaten to break down, and tremendous anxiety is experienced. The passion for the Real, in this way, is the passion for some ultimate object or experience that could seem to offer the final guarantee of our ontological reality and significance, and this is what characters in Murakami's fiction often long to try to reach out and touch in others. Despite such compelling promises, however, what the Real often turns out to be in the Lacanian schema is not some ultimate reference point from which the true nature of reality could be grasped but, rather, a void, an impossible limit beyond which our Imaginary and Symbolic constructions of reality fail to go. In this way, what we are left with are strategies for dealing with the Real and for holding its destructive power at bay.
In trying to understand the way these Lacanian dynamics unfold in Murakami's fiction, this essay will primarily turn to the writings of Slavoj Žižek, the dominant Lacanian theorist in the world today and, more importantly, a figure who has updated Lacan's ideas to deal explicitly with popular culture and the experience of living in the late-capitalist societies of the modern world. Žižek, for example, has described the two main strategies for living with the so-called Void of the Real as follows:
This second notion of 'tarrying with the negative' is one that should be kept in mind in the discussion below about Tōru's journey down the well in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Hajime's desire for Izumi's cousin, on the other hand, is an example of the first way Žižek describes of relating to the Void of the Real. The danger for Hajime is that he will not be able to keep Izumi's cousin at the appropriate distance and thus will be consumed by his desire (or burned by the sun). In Lacanian terms what he is experiencing is jouissance, an intense enjoyment that offers the illusory promise of fullness, provided of course the object of desire is kept at the appropriate distance.
Shimamoto, on the other hand, is a compensatory figure. She re-emerges in Hajime's life just when things seem to have become most bland and meaningless and promises to return him to a state of lost innocence. These contrasting roles provide a first opportunity to consider the possible meaning of Jacques Lacan's seemingly absurd observation that woman is a symptom of man. What one needs to recognise here are the evolving definitions in Lacanian thought for what a symptom is. As Žižek (2001, p. 54) observes:
A useful example here is the role of women in many hard-boiled detective novels, a genre of fiction that had a direct influence on many of Murakami's earliest works. In a common pattern, a broken man, often cynical and seemingly beyond redemption, is introduced to a beautiful and mysterious woman whose own plight slowly draws him in and forces him to commit again. Her appearance and the feelings she inspires reawakens a lost intensity and signifies a return to action. This is also a common pattern found in many of Murakami's earliest works.
This can be contrasted with the second definition of a symptom found in the latter stages of Lacan's career, a definition he would later distinguish from the first by labelling it a 'sinthom'. As Žižek (2001a, p.98) explains:
Shimamoto can be seen as a symptom, a message that Hajime, by indebting himself to his father-in-law and becoming too fully enmeshed in the conditions of late-capitalist society, has somehow lost his way. On the other hand, Izumi's cousin represents a sinthom, a certain mode of jouissance with no guaranteed meaning. This woman as sinthom motif is first hinted at in Norwegian Wood, becomes more prominent in South of the Border, West of the Sun, and finally takes centre stage in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was originally published in three parts: the first two books in 1994 and the third in 1995. As Book One begins, the Okada's family cat has disappeared. The cat is a symbol of the domestic harmony that Tōru and Kumiko have established in their six years together, but their marriage quickly unravels with the cat's disappearance. Book Two begins with Kumiko's disappearance and a continuation of Tōru's search for answers. Near the start of Book Three, the cat comes back. Finally, near the end of Book Three, Tōru makes contact again with Kumiko, though the question of whether she will return to him remains unsettled. Interwoven into this domestic drama are a number of bizarre characters—spiritual guides and mediums—each with their own story to tell. These characters link the central protagonist's plight to find his missing cat and wife with past wartime atrocities committed on the Chinese mainland and on the Manchurian-Mongolian border. These various stories are shared through face-to-face storytelling, letters, magazine articles, chronicles stored on a computer, and dreamlike sequences. The effect is a mosaic of interconnecting storylines that combine historical fact and fiction, the resulting narrative being one of Murakami's most ambitious and complex to date.
The narrative begins with the main protagonist, thirty-year-old Okada Tōru, in his kitchen; he is cooking spaghetti while listening to the overture of Rossini's The Thieving Magpie. The telephone rings and, on the other end, is a woman asking for ten minutes of his time so that they might come to understand one another. Tōru is preoccupied with his cooking and asks the woman to call back later. The next person who rings is Kumiko who, amongst other things, asks whether the family cat has returned home yet. It has not, and so she asks him to go out looking for it later near an empty house at the end of a closed off alley near their home. This empty house, and particularly the dry well located on the same property, will later become central to the narrative as Tōru attempts a mysterious metaphysical journey to reconnect with his wife. Later in the day, the first woman rings again, asking again for her ten minutes of conversation with Tōru. The conversation soon turns sexually explicit and Tōru hangs up after six minutes. The idea of the telephone as a tool for connecting to the unconscious is evident in Murakami's fiction from his very first novel. The difference here is that what Tōru is offered is not some kind of message but a direct encounter with jouissance. Later in the novel, this jouissance infused voice is overlaid onto Kumiko. Though Tōru does not realise it yet, the Kumiko he knows has split in two. While he has continued to live with one part of her, in another metaphysical realm she continues to wait for him in a hotel room, opened up to an intense and destructive jouissance.
As Kumiko later confesses to Tōru, even while they had seemingly been happily married, she had been having an affair with another man. Kumiko describes the sex she had with this man as 'something close to madness' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 4, p. 407; Murakami 1999, p. 275). She later also confesses that he was not the only man she slept with (Murakami 2003, Vol. 5, p. 410; Murakami 1999, p. 602). At the same time she and Tōru were building a quiet life together, another part of her was searching for something destructive elsewhere. The unleashing of this devastating and consuming force is closely connected to the presence of her older brother, Wataya Noboru.
Early on, however, Tōru is still blissfully unaware of all this. He simply believes the family cat has disappeared and that, for whatever reason, there is a strange woman trying to engage him in telephone sex. Slowly, however, his everyday reality begins to melt away and he is increasingly confronted with intimations of what might be thought of in Lacanian terms as the Real. An early suggestion of this difference between reality and the Real comes in a confession Tōru shares with Kumiko about how he once came close to cheating on her with an office colleague. This woman had described to him how she felt low in electricity and how she needed the warmth of another human being to help recharge her batteries. The contrast offered is between what they are in their Symbolic roles in the office and what they become outside this frame of reference:
In the Lacanian schema, it is the Symbolic (backed up by the guarantee of the big Other) that creates the illusion of solid identities. Away from this world, however, Tōru begins to feel his Symbolic stability melting away. What is he outside of this everyday reality but an unstable, awkward lump of flesh? This encounter foreshadows the more dramatic retreat from the Symbolic that occurs later in the novel.
The main symbol in the novel for this step outside the Symbolic and the confrontation with the Real is the act of going down into the well. This is the place where Tōru finally comes to deconstruct his own identity and to confront the question of what he is in the Real. One time, while sitting at the bottom of the well, for example, Tōru begins to think about all those people still up on the earth's surface going about their daily routines: 'Beneath the pale autumn light, they must be walking down streets, going to the shop for things, preparing dinner, boarding trains for home. And they think—if they think at all—that these things are too obvious to think about, just as I used to do (or not do)' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 5, p. 85-86; Murakami 1999, p. 391-392). The first thing he loses in his trip down the well is this sense of the obviousness of the 'facts' of daily existence.
Tōru's attempt in the novel to find his missing cat and wife is an attempt to hold some semblance of reality together. The missing cat and wife highlight his underlying condition of lack and also provide the objects of desire that keep him searching. The Lacanian 'object a' is the placeholder for whatever seems to promise the return to mythical fullness. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, it is Kumiko that provides the main locus of desire. If Tōru could just find her and reconnect with her again, the story suggests, somehow his life might return to normal.
Strictly speaking, Tōru's gradual exposure to jouissance is not just through Kumiko, but also through other women who appear in the text. Even here, however, it is Kumiko that remains the centre of attention. One of these other women, for example, is Kanō Creta, the younger sister of Kanō Malta, a clairvoyant Kumiko engages to help find the missing cat. Creta is a 'prostitute of the mind', someone capable of engaging men sexually in a dreamlike, metaphysical realm removed from daily reality. When she begins entering Tōru's dreams, he at first believes he is simply having wet dreams. In these dreams, Creta sometimes wears Kumiko's clothing, and the voice of the telephone woman is also superimposed upon her. It is only much later that Tōru realises there is something more going on. In the second dream he has, for example, another woman begins to take Creta's place. As Creta later explains, 'I have no idea who she was. But that event was probably meant to suggest something to you, Mr Okada' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 4, p. 316; Murakami 1999, p. 212). Creta becomes a medium helping Tōru connect back to Kumiko through jouissance.
Indeed, the Kanō sisters mirror Kumiko's family in important ways. Kumiko, like Creta, is the younger of two sisters. Kumiko's older sister, however, has killed herself after being defiled by their older brother, Wataya Noboru. The Kanō sisters also have an older brother, but it is Wataya Noboru that damages their lives too. He does the same thing to Creta as he does to Kumiko and her sister; he takes something precious from inside them, destroying their sense of self. The Kanō sisters act as mediums between two different worlds and help Tōru in his quest to find Kumiko.
The questions Tōru ultimately faces are these: Is it possible to know another human being? Is it even possible to know ourselves? What are we outside the roles we play and the meanings that are guaranteed for us by the Symbolic order? Though he has been married to Kumiko for six years and though he feels they have been able to build a comfortable life together, he quickly begins to realise that there are depths they have not even begun to explore. His quest is to know his wife and ultimately himself, and the path he must take is through sexuality and violence. Through this struggle, he must also try to explore the possibilities for healing.
Healing and Wholeness: Yin/Yang and the Promise of Balance
While ultimately The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a novel that brings Tōru toward a dramatic encounter with the Real, throughout the narrative there are numerous encounters that suggest the more compensatory characteristics of the Lacanian Imaginary: the world of compensatory images and identifications that point toward illusionary wholeness. Binary opposites are introduced: good and evil, light and dark, wet and dry, male and female. The suggestion is made that the path to healing and wholeness is somehow to be achieved through the act of restoring balance. As Murakami explains:
Susan Fischer (2001), in her essay An Allegory of Return, highlights some of these healing motifs in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by drawing comparisons between Tōru's descent into the well and Japanese shamanistic practises. She draws on work by Carmen Blacker (1975), the author of The Catalpa Bow, to describe two types of shaman: the oracle and the ascetic. The oracle, as described by Fischer, is one who receives messages from spirits. The ascetic, on the other hand, is a healer. Blacker (1975, p. 72 cited by Fischer 2001, p. 341) describes the role of the ascetic as follows:
Karen Armstrong (2005, p. 24) traces similar shamanistic practises even further back in human history to the hunting cultures of the Palaeolithic period. As she argues:
Armstrong describes Palaeolithic cave paintings in France and Spain that depict huntsmen in the pursuit of animals and other figures wearing bird masks. She proposes that the figures in masks represented shamans assisting in the spiritual aspects of the hunt. A shaman was someone capable of leaving behind the constraints of the body and flying to another plane of existence. This journey, as Armstrong (p. 26) explains, was ultimately about confronting death:
These descriptions of the shamanistic journey fit aspects of Tōru's inner journey and emergence as a healer. The need to descend before ascending, for example, is suggested by Mr Honda, another spiritual medium in the novel. As Mr Honda explains:
Other parallels include the fact that when Tōru comes back from his other-worldly journey, he loses much of his physical strength and needs to be revived by colleagues. He is also closely associated with bird imagery in the novel, one of his nicknames being 'Mr Wind-up Bird'.
Fischer (p.341-342) traces other parallels between Tōru and the shamanistic journey of the ascetic healer. The parallels she draws include the following: in the same way that shaman often experience an 'ecstatic interior heat' to confirm their newfound powers, Tōru receives a mysterious blue and black mark on his right cheek that generates heat; in the same way shaman are aided by 'a retinue of assistant spirits' and 'a panoply of magic clothes', Tōru has a mysterious wind-up bird that no one ever sees, and he puts a favourite pair of sneakers on before climbing down into the well; in parallel to the shamanistic practise of komori or seclusion, Tōru has his well to which he retreats and has little contact with other people while preparing for his inner journey. Tōru is later picked out of a crowd in Shinjuku by another ascetic healer by the name of Nutmeg (her son is called Cinnamon). Her father, a vet in mainland China during the war, had a similar mark on his cheek to Tōru's, and so she immediately recognises his potential healing powers. She engages Tōru as a healer in a very exclusive operation serving upper-class women.
So what is one to make of Tōru's role as a kind of shamanistic healer? If Tōru is a healer, then what are the malevolent spirits that he is seeking to exorcise, and why do women seem to be the main benefactors of his powers? A useful starting point here is the relationship between Tōru and his brother-in-law, Wataya Noboru. Noboru plays a role in the novel similar to Rat in Murakami's early trilogy and Gotanda in Dance, Dance, Dance. He is a powerful alter ego, though he also brings a new maliciousness to the role. As Kanō Creta revealingly explains of the relationship between Tōru and Noboru:
The intensity of this manifestation of hatred marks a turning point in Murakami's fiction. It is evidence that the early detachment in his writing was beginning to break down and a new search for commitment was beginning. It takes Boku some time to listen to his alter ego Rat in the early trilogy, and even then it is unclear what message he has received. With Gotanda in Dance Dance Dance, while an acknowledgement of evil eventually comes, it is really too late. With Wataya Noboru, however, the antipathy felt is visceral and immediate and is finally carried through to a violent confrontation. As Tōru explains, 'I don't simply dislike him: I cannot accept the fact of his very existence' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 4, p. 144; Murakami 1999, p.434). The struggle for Tōru is that he realises how closely connected they really are:
As had been the case with Boku's relationship with Gotanda, it takes some time for Tōru to realise the damage Wataya Noboru is doing to significant women in his life. Noboru, like Gotanda, is also a figure skilled in maintaining his public image and projecting what he thinks others want to see. He starts as an academic economist, soon becomes a media pundit, and later has political ambitions on the national stage. He might be thought of as a new manifestation of a shadowy figure like the Boss in A Wild Sheep Chase, someone trying to control people through an ideological message premised on human lack and the deep desire for compensation. He represents the increasing power of the media in late-capitalist societies and the evil that can lurk behind seductive images and sound bites. While the public seems to warm to his superficial charms, however, they leave Tōru feeling cold and distant:
It is the Kanō sisters that first confirm to Tōru the reasonableness underlying his intuitive hatred. Malta reveals that Creta was violently raped by Noboru (Murakami 2003, Vol. 4, pp. 69-70; Murakami 1999, p. 41). As Creta later describes the experience, however, it becomes clear that this was something out of the ordinary. Creta had been working as a prostitute (of the flesh this time, not of the mind as she would later do) and Wataya Noboru had been one of her clients. She had sensed, however, that he was interested in something more than her flesh. She explains: 'He seemed to be looking through my flesh to something on the other side' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 4, p. 440; Murakami 1999, p. 298). This encounter has parallels with the experience Watanabe has with Naoko in Norwegian Wood, or Hajime has with Izumi's cousin in South of the Border, West of the Sun. He has seen something in her more than herself. Unlike these earlier examples, however, Wataya Noboru follows through on this desire to reach out and touch this thing itself. Having Creta lie face down on the bed, Noboru inserts something large and hard into her from behind. This is not his penis, however, for Creta suspects that he is impotent. Whatever it is, Creta begins to feel that she is splitting in two. Finally, something truly bizarre happens:
This can be seen as a reified example of the Lacanian passion for the Real. As Žižek (2003, p. 59) explains:
The imagery of this scene is suggestive of an abortion and, indeed, abortions and childbirth are important motifs in the novel, a theme that goes all the way back to Murakami's debut novel. Kumiko had become pregnant in the third year of their marriage but had later decided to have an abortion. Tōru had been away in Sapporo on the night she had finally gone through with it, and though he was outwardly supportive of her decision, he directs his unconscious anger at a folk singer he happened to hear perform on the same night. While people-watching in Shinjuku one Sunday evening, years later, he sees this same folk singer and begins to follow him. Slowly, he begins to realise that everything that has gone wrong in his relationship with Kumiko can be traced back to that night. Following the man into an old apartment block, he is suddenly attacked with a baseball bat. In the commotion, he gets the bat and begins to beat the folk singer senseless. The more he beats him, however, the more the smile on the man's face grows. As Kanō Creta has suggested, the more you strike at the other, the more you strike at yourself. In Toru's mind, this man is strangely connected to Kumiko's abortion and is thus also connected to Wataya Noboru who has ripped something precious out of Creta and also out of Kumiko. Tōru's role as a healer is to somehow restore balance to this situation.
On the night of the attack, Tōru has a dream in which the folk singer he beat senseless begins to peel away his own skin until he is nothing but a 'bright-red lump of flesh' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 4, p. 519; Murakami 1999, p. 337). The imagery is suggestive of Tōru's description of what he metaphorically became when stepping out of his Symbolic role with his office colleague. It is also suggestive of a violent and grotesque war scene described in the novel where a man is skinned alive that I will describe in the next section of this paper.
Seen in psychoanalytic terms, the precious something ripped from Kanō Creta is neither a symbol of her identity in the Symbolic nor her potential wholeness in the Imaginary. Rather, it is an example of what Lacan called a biceptor: the excluded intersection of two overlapping sets. It is something that belongs fully neither to Creta nor to Noboru. The Lacanian subject is a paranoid one. Though he searches for identity in the Symbolic and the Imaginary, he remains plagued by the question of who or what he really is. The closest thing to an essence in the Lacanian schema is the absence to be found at the heart of human subjectivity. Tōru has his identity in the Symbolic. He is Okada Tōru or "Mr Wind-up Bird," an unemployed husband who later becomes a spiritual healer. He is actively searching for something that can sustain him in the Imaginary, though his failure actually to find anything causes him some anxiety. As he explains, 'I can't find the image … I'm thirty, I'm standing still, and I can't find the image' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 4, p. 193; Murakami 1999, p. 125). The question the novel ultimately asks, however, is what he is outside his Symbolic or Imaginary identifications. As Hosea Hirata (2005, p.70) argues, 'Murakami's later works are an exhaustive effort to grapple with the issue of naming and the rediscovery of something that is irreplaceable, that is, if not singularity, his objet petit a - the gateway to the Real'.
What Wataya Noboru rips from Creta can be thought of as her "object a": that magical something that would finally seem to answer the question of who she is as a human being. The baby imagery is suggestive of this search for origins. Like other such objects, however, as Hirata suggests, this magical something can not ultimately deliver on the singularity of identity it promises. It is this which causes anxiety in the presence of the Other. Others seem to love or desire me, but what are they really after? There must be something in me more than myself that they really want.
Wataya Noboru can be viewed as a symbol of a system that literally tries to rape its subjects and to extract something precious from them. He is a symbol of the Lacanian Other of the Other: a personification of the paranoiac belief that behind the seeming decline of Symbolic authority in contemporary societies there is still, somehow, someone or something pulling the strings. The fear is that he is somehow going to be able to do to the population at large what he has done to the women in Tōru's life. As Tōru later explains to Kumiko:
It is significant that all of Tōru's clientele as a healer are wealthy middle-aged women. They are symbols of a consumerist ideology that is slowly destroying something precious within the individual. Touching the mark on Tōru's face that signifies his own inner journey and confrontations with history, violence and jouissance, these women find something within them restored. They are not provided a permanent cure but merely a temporary form of relief. The name Tōru, which can literally mean "to pass through", is suggestive of the journey Tōru makes through the wall of the well and into another world beyond. It is also suggestive of the fact that women in the novel desire to pass through him. As Creta explains, 'I want to pass through you, this person called Mr Okada … Then I will be saved' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 4, p. 461; Murakami 1999, p. 312). In other words, Tōru offers a counterpoint to the destructive and invasive presence of the system, a system personified by Wataya Noboru. Toru's own inner journey will ultimately take him to the void at the heart of subjectivity and to a violent confrontation with Wataya Noboru.
Entering the Well, Touching the Void: An Example of a Lacanian Act
Many critics in Japan have recognised the way The Wind-up Bird Chronicle offers an important turning point in Murakami's writing career and marks the beginning of his turn toward commitment. In particular, critics like Katō Norhiro (2006) and Shimizu Yoshinori (2006) see a major development between Books One and Two, originally published in Japan as a completed novel, and Book Three, which was published a year later. Shimizu, for example, see the introduction of a number of parallel narratives of which the central protagonist is often unaware as a major development in Murakami's writing (p. 190). Katō also sees Murakami breaking new ground in the novel by attempting to undermine the individual as the central unit of his storytelling project (p.184). In contrast, Kuroko Kazuo criticises Katō for being too focused on these subjective elements of the work and for failing to recognise that the truly radical development is the inclusion of a strong historical consciousness and focus on the larger themes of war and violence (2007, pp. 193-194). What a Lacanian reading can add to this debate, I would argue, is a psychological model for understanding the way the turn inward, the journey down the well, is simultaneously an attempt to turn outward, the beginning of a search for greater social commitment.
One of the first people in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to recognise Tōru's underlying sense of commitment is 16-year-old Kasahara May. As she explains to him:
Tōru first meets May while out looking for the family cat. Despite the difference in their age, they soon become friends and start spending time together. May, like Yuki in Dance Dance Dance, is someone whose depth of feeling and insight have alienated her from her peers and disconnected her from her parents. With Tōru, however, she finds someone she can begin to connect with again. Imamiya Keiko makes an interesting comparison between these young girls in Murakami's fiction and the enjo kōsai phenomenon in Japan in which older salarymen buy the company and even the sexual services of young teenaged girls. Imamiya (2004, p. 45) argues, 'I believe that many of the men who become addicted to enjo kōsai are in a position in their daily lives where they have come to an impasse'. She describes the 'chronic sense of emptiness' they feel, despite the outward signs of success in their lives. Imamiya (p. 46) continues: 'when the time comes that one wishes to restore the ever important innocence of the human heart, it becomes necessary to call upon the experience of youth'.
Gotanda offers an unhealthy model of how this works in Dance Dance Dance. He pays for the services of young prostitutes to satisfy his own sexual and psychological needs. His world is one in which everything is for sale. It is only much later that he begins to realise the costs that come with these counterfeit forms of compensation. Murakami's central protagonists, on the other hand, offer a more positive model of the benefits that can come through such relationships. These men do not engage in sexual relations with the young women they meet along the way, even though some, like the granddaughter of the mad scientist in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and even Kasahara May to an extent, make themselves available. Rather, they are interested in the intuitive knowledge these young women hold. These young women, in turn, need these older men for their ability to listen and to help them start reconnecting to society again.
May is an important aid in Tōru's quest and intuitively forewarns him of what he will be facing. Like many characters in the novel, she has a fascination with what might lie at the heart of subjectivity, an interest that grows out of her obsession with death. As she explains:
Her fascination again is a fascination with the Lacanian Real.
May's desire to get close to this 'round squishy something' drives her to extremes. At one point in the novel, for example, she pulls up the rope ladder from the well deliberately leaving Tōru stranded below. It is questionable whether this is an attempt to leave him for dead or whether she is simply trying to scare him. Kanō Creta turns up and rescues Tōru before he can find out how far she is really willing to go. May also confesses to Tōru that she once killed a boy by covering his eyes while riding on the back of his motorcycle. While killing the boy had not necessarily been the aim of her stunt, it was a by-product of her need to get as close as possible to that strange something within. As she explains:
For May, this 'gooshy' something is the closest thing to reality there is; everything else just seems fake.
One early model in the novel for the kind of inner journey Tōru must take is offered by Lieutenant Mamiya, a wartime colleague of Mr Honda's who makes contact with Tōru after Mr Honda dies. As it turns out, Lieutenant Mamiya has had his own dramatic experience down a well, which he shares with Tōru. Lieutenant Mamiya and Corporal Honda had been involved together in a secret operation on the Manchurian-Mongolian border during the war. When their group had been captured by a Mongolian border patrol, however, Corporal Honda had escaped, while Lieutenant Mamiya had been left down a well to die. In this well he received a revelation that would change his life forever. It came to him in the moment the sunlight from the sky above illuminated his dark world below. Mamiya describes:
In a letter to Tōru, Lieutenant Mamiya later offers his interpretation of this event. He believes that in this extreme condition when he had been left to die, his mind had focused to an incredible degree. When the light had entered the well, he had been able to descend to a place that he describes as 'the very core of my own consciousness' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 4, p. 309; Murakami 1999, p. 208). Something then began to take shape for him, something, he suggests, that was like heavenly grace. Put into Lacanian terms, what he seems to have found is the imaginary Real: that sublime something that would finally seem to deliver on the promise of fullness. As a consequence of this transcendent experience, however, the remainder of his life becomes empty and meaningless. Though he is saved from the well, he finds it difficult to live after such a dramatic event, and he soon comes to see his future death as a promise of salvation. In the meantime, he feels like nothing more than an empty container. Having lost his fear of death, his desire is simply to be freed from the prison house of life.
While Lieutenant Mamiya's encounter with this core of his own consciousness offers him a glimpse of the sublime, however, for most others in the novel the attempt to locate a similar core offers something more grotesque. In fact, it is the deadly desire to confront this something that provides one of the most common motives for violence in the novel. Žižek (2003, p.64) describes the two common ways this passion for the Real manifests itself:
The act of going into the well, as practised by Tōru and as forced upon Lieutenant Mamiya, is an example of subtraction. Slowly, as they enter their respective wells, they begin to subtract all the particular content of their identities until they can establish the point of difference between these things and that something which stands in for the void of their own being. For many others in the novel, however, their passion for the Real causes them literally to try to peel away the outer layers of the self until they can see what remains. One of the most graphic examples of this is the human skinning that occurs in the novel right before Lieutenant Mamiya is abandoned down the well.
The scene described is undoubtedly one of the most violent and grotesque Murakami has ever written. Another member of the group named Yamamoto, at the direction of a Russian officer called to the scene, is lashed to stakes and skinned alive. The method employed is described in excruciating detail, and even Murakami admits that it was a difficult scene to write (Interview with Murakami 22/11/05). The imagery evoked, of course, is similar to Tōru's dream, described previously, in which a man literally peels off his skin, leaving a red lump of flesh. This dream had been inspired by his encounter with the folk singer and the baseball bat, and this encounter, in turn, can be connected to another violent wartime scene offered in the text. This one involves Nutmeg's father, the man who had a mark on his cheek similar to Tōru's.
Nutmeg's father had been a vet in a zoo in mainland China when signs of the war's imminent end had become apparent. An order had been given to start slaughtering the animals in the zoo in case the probable resulting chaos allowed these animals to escape, causing even more havoc. While the scene describing this slaughter is gruesome in its own right, an even more gruesome one follows. Four young Chinese men wearing baseball uniforms are brought to the zoo and commanded to dig a hole. The bodies of another four dead Chinese men in similar uniforms are then uncovered and the command given to throw them in the hole. The four men are then tied to a tree and three are bayoneted to death: an attempt to save on bullets. Finally, the command is given to kill the last man with a baseball bat, a direct re-enactment of the ways these young men, cadets in the Manchukuo Army, had killed two of their Japanese instructors.
Tōru, of course, has already had a violent encounter with a baseball bat, and later in the novel he will have to face a shadowy figure directly connected to Wataya Noboru with the same weapon. The image of the bayoneting of the three Chinese men is also suggestive of the Lacanian passion for the Real, the violent desire to thrust something into the other to discover what is there. This scene offers a terrifying example of what can happen when the anxiety vis-ŕ-vis the Other is not managed. As the narrative describes, 'The vet watched in numbed silence, overtaken by the sense that he was beginning to split in two. He became simultaneously the stabber and the stabbed' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 5, p. 273; Murakami 1999, p. 516). This is another reworking of Kanō Malta's point that when we strike out at the other, we strike at ourselves.
The ultimate aim of Lacanian psychology is to 'traverse the fantasy'. As Sarah Kay (2003, p. 7) explains, this phrase refers to 'the outcome of Lacanian therapy, in which we glimpse that what we had taken for reality was all along an illusion masking the space of the [R]eal, and so have an opportunity to build “reality" afresh'. One important way of achieving this in Lacanian thought is through an act. Žižek (2001, p. 43) explains the nature of such a Lacanian act as follows:
This is what Tōru does when he withdraws into the well.
The whole idea of a Lacanian act is to become something entirely new. We do not discover a new self, but create a new self out of the encounter with absence. As Žižek (2001, p. 44) explains, 'The act differs from an active intervention (action) in that it radically transforms its bearer (agent): the act is not simply something I "accomplish" - after an act, I'm literally "not the same as before" … by means of it, I put at stake everything, including myself, my symbolic identity …'. Those who undertake such acts literally run the risk of losing everything. Again, it is Kasahara May who alerts Tōru to these dangers:
So what does Tōru discover? Late in the novel, he is finally able to communicate with Kumiko via computer messaging. While this contact is not the face-to-face meeting he desires, there is a feeling that he is getting closer to her. Tōru says: 'I'm getting closer to the core, to that place where the core of things is located. I wanted to let you know that. I'm getting closer to where you are, and I intend to get closer still' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 5, p. 226; Murakami 1999, p. 491). There is a sense of urgency and commitment here that was lacking in Murakami's earlier protagonists. Tōru has a desire to follow things through to their end, regardless of the consequences. Later, he travels back through the walls of the well to hotel room 208, the place where Kumiko, or at least a part of her, is waiting for him. In the dark they talk together and she asks him to pour two glasses of Cutty Sark whisky. She also gives him a present: a baseball bat. Someone, she explains, has already used this bat to crush Wataya Noboru's skull. Though still alive, he is in a critical condition. Suddenly there is a knock at the door, and Kumiko pleads with Tōru to leave before it is too late. Tōru, however, is determined to stay:
A man enters the room wielding a knife and Tōru engages in a fight to the death. In the dark, he feels the slashing pain of the knife slicing his shoulder. Another swipe of the knife hits his right cheek, where his mark is. He swings the bat but hits nothing. Another swipe of the knife comes near the collar of his sweater. Finally, he connects with the man, hears a gasp, and follows up again. He finishes him off with a perfect swing of the bat leaving nothing but 'the smell of brains and violence and death' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 5, p. 385; Murakami 1999, p. 586).
Tōru describes what happens next as follows: 'My body was losing all sense of mass and substance. But this gave me no anxiety, no fear at all. Without protest, I gave myself up — surrendered my flesh — to some huge, warm thing that came naturally to enfold me' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 5, p. 386; Murakami 1999, p. 587). In other words, he finds himself going back through the wall of the well to the world he originally came from. The final question that remains is what will happen to Kumiko:
Despite Tōru's efforts, his future with Kumiko remains in question. So has he simply come up empty handed? At this point, it is useful to return to Lacan's formulation that 'woman is a symptom of man'. As Žižek (2001, p. 155) explains:
While Tōru has been trying to rescue his missing wife, his has also been an ontological quest through jouissance to find some foundation to his own being. His stripping away of the layers of his Symbolic identity and his engagement with sinthoms, however, has literally caused him to lose the ground under his feet. So what could possibly follow such a harrowing experience?
The novel ends with an image of rebirth. The dry well Tōru finds himself in begins to fill again with water and, sapped of the strength he needs to escape, he accepts that he may die. As he explains, 'I had brought this well back to life, and I would die in its rebirth' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 5, p. 390; Murakami 1999, p. 589). Tōru has carried out a Lacanian act. He has killed himself in the Symbolic and has descended, through his quest for his female other, to the void at the heart of his own subjectivity. Eventually, however, he is rescued by Cinnamon and nursed back to life. Back in the real world, he gets a letter from Kumiko informing him that she must kill her brother, Wataya Noboru. Noboru has already collapsed and is lying in a hospital in Nagasaki. She will travel there and finish him off. This, of course, means that she will probably not be able to be with Tōru for some time. However, she is fully willing to accept the consequences of her actions. The novel does leave us with some hope. Talking with May in the final chapter of the novel, Tōru observes: 'If Kumiko and I have a child, I'm thinking of naming it Corsica' (Murakami 2003, Vol. 5, p. 415; Murakami 1999, p. 605). After all the defilement and after all the precious things that have been ripped from women's bodies, it now seems as if Tōru is willing to let something new be born.
This idea of an act—a Symbolic suicide and return to the Real that then allows the subject to begin again—offers an explanation for the experience Tōru has been through down the well. He has been brought to this point through his commitment to Kumiko: his desire to find her and be reunited with her despite the dangers involved. While earlier women in Murakami's fiction often acted as Lacanian symptoms, bearers of a message for the central male protagonists, in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, one finds sinthoms, bearers of a potentially destructive jouissance. By pushing forward and trying to find Kumiko despite the potential costs, Tōru risks his own ontological undoing.
At the same time, what he must confront is the violence of a system that literally tries to rape its subjects and tear something precious from them—a system most vividly symbolised by Wataya Noboru. The passion for the Real comes from the anxiety people feel at the heart of their own subjectivity, sensing a void there, and this often leads to violent attempts to tear away the layers of the self to find out what remains, or violently to thrust objects into others, hoping to see what lies within. In searching for an antidote to this anxiety, Tōru must dissolve his symptom, face his void, and risk losing all. It is only then that he can begin the quest of creating something new, a task that from the perspective of this novel still clearly lies in the future.
In this way, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a work that offers a radically different (and very Lacanian) view of the search for meaning in contemporary Japan. Rather than looking to ideologies or outside systems to save us, what this novel suggests must be done is to confront the real conditions of our existential condition, including the lack upon which our subjectivity is founded, and learn how to manage and live with this reality. The risk of not being able to do so will be the continuation of certain strains of violence created by the passion for the Real and a susceptibility to ideological systems which promise to compensate our lack in exchange for serving their questionable ends. In expressing this message, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle represents an important turning point in Murakami's career.Back to Top
Notes Book One was initially published serially in the magazine Shinchō.
 The relevant example in Hear the Wind Sing is the woman with the missing finger who disappears late in the novel to have an abortion.
 The section that includes the above text was edited out of the version found in Murakami's collected works. This could perhaps suggest that Murakami later found it too revealing a comment.
 Boku in Dance, Dance, Dance does sleep with prostitutes bought for him by Gotanda and Makimura Hiraku. With the prostitute Mei in particular, Boku emphasises the nostalgic nature of the encounter, almost as if he has gone back to high school. The fact that Mei is bought for him by Gotanda, however, suggests that this is more a case of him succumbing to temptations presented by this darker alter ego. This becomes even clearer when Mei is finally murdered. The young girls Murakami's protagonists typically associate with, however, are even younger than these prostitutes. While May is sixteen, Tōru describes her as having the body of a thirteen or fourteen year old. Yuki, from Dance, Dance, Dance, is only thirteen and is clearly off limits sexually. The girl in pink in Hard-boiled Wonderland is seventeen, and though she does make herself sexually available, Watashi never takes advantage of her. He is more interested in what these girls can offer him psychologically than sexually. They offer a more positive example of what this relationship between older men and younger girls might provide.
 May later insists that she never intended to leave Tōru to die; she only wanted to scare him. Tōru, however, is not so sure.
 Earlier in the novel Mr Honda leaves Tōru with an empty Cutty Sark whisky box. Here in the room he seems to have found the Lacanian object a, that precious something that would seem to fill the empty container.
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Dr. Jonathan Dil is a graduate of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand where he wrote his thesis on the topic of Murakami Haruki and the search for self-therapy. He is presently a lecturer at Chuo University in Tokyo, Japan.
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