electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 7 in 2007
First Published in ejcjs on 24 October 2007

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Representations of Reality in Haruki Murakami's Fiction


Wendy Jones Nakanishi

Professor of English Literature
Shikoku Gakuin University

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About the Author

Seats. Michael (2006) Murakami Haruki: The Simulacrum in Contemporary Japanese Culture, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books,
Hardback, ISBN-13: 978-0-7391-0785-0, xviii and 365 pages.

At the outset of his challenging and provocative study, Michael Seats alludes to the so-called 'Murakami Phenomenon': a rubric attached to the astounding success of the Japanese writer and translator whose prolific and diverse output enjoys great popularity not only in Japan but also in Europe, America and East Asia, with his recent novel, Kafka on the Shore, appearing on the best-seller lists in China, Australia, and the United States. The global appeal of Murakami's work is matched by critical acclaim. Murakami, who was born in Kyoto in 1949, was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize in 2006 and is tipped as a likely contender for the Nobel Prize.

The professed aim of Seats's study is to demonstrate how selected texts of Murakami's oeuvre eutilize the structure of the simulacrum to develop a complex critique of contemporary Japanese culture' (p. 1). The works Seats chooses for this analysis are Murakami's two fictional trilogies: the first, consisting of Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973, and A Wild Sheep Chase, known as the 'Trilogy of the Rat' (1979-82) and the second, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1992-5). The first trilogy exhibits characteristics of postmodern fiction with its employment of parody, pastiche, metafiction, and allegory while the second trilogy, which deals in part with the difficult topic of war crimes in Manchuria, uses the structure of the simulacrum, according to Seats, 'to problematize the distinction between the discourses of "fiction" and "history" via the aesthetic modalities of the sublime' (p. xiii).

Seats is at pains to explain the notion of the simulacrum from a sociological, philosophical, and historical perspective. He draws heavily upon the work of the French cultural theorist and political commentator Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), who advanced the idea that Western society has undergone a process of evolving ideas of signification, from the era of the original to that of the counterfeit, from the era of the produced, mechanical copy to the current era whereby the copy has replaced the original.

Seats argues, however, that Murakami's deployment of the figure of the simulacrum differs in important ways from Baudrillard's negative depiction of it as a loss of authenticity in the Platonic sense of a 'copy of a copy'. He believes that Murakami exploits the potentially positive aspect of the simulacrum to celebrate a liberating notion of difference for its own sake that resembles the approach adopted by Nietzsche and Deleuze.

Seats describes Murakami as important as a representative of the world's most 'informationalized' and 'mediatized' (p. ix) society: Japan. Murakami's fictional representation of the real may, Seats believes, offer a more comprehensive survey of contemporary phenomena than history or philosophy allow. While Murakami has attracted criticism from detractors including even such compatriots as Kenzaburo Oe and Kazuo Ishiguro, who complain of shallowness they perceive in his work, Seats believes that there are good reasons why Murakami has emerged as one of the most significant literary figures in Japan, whose works have been widely translated and are read in at least thirty-five countries. In Seats's opinion, Murakami, who has his own home-page on the internet, who can understand and manipulate modern technology, is a writer whose modernity is reflected in his 'digital' capabilities (p. 33). Murakami's works and practices reflect current media and entertainment technologies.

Despite Murakami's global appeal, Seats places the author in a particularly Japanese context, an approach taken by Murakami himself, who once remarked that he could never forget that he was a Japanese writer who wrote in Japanese (p. 65). But Murakami is a subversive Japanese literary figure. A critic named Stephen Snyder, cited in Seats's study, goes so far as to claim that Murakami's intention was both to deconstruct and reinvent the most popular Japanese prose genre, the 'I' novel. Other critics argue that Murakami's earlier works represent fukei or depictions of scene or landscape rather than stories. There are also disagreements on whether Murakami can be characterized as a modern or a postmodern writer. But the issue of Japanese modernity is itself a vexed question, with Seats approvingly quoting a critic named Ivy who observes that 'the very search to find authentic survivals of pre-modern, pre-Western Japanese authenticity is inescapably a modern endeavor, essentially enfolded within the historical condition that it would seek to escape' (p. 56).

Seats outlines fundamental differences between Japanese and western novels. Whereas the latter are driven by recognized conventions – by action and plot, by characters, settings and themes – Seats characterizes Japanese writings as remarkable for their 'orality' (p. 71), for the centrality of a speaking subject in the typical shōsetsu. He comments on the unfairness of Japanese novels being judged by western standards, arguing that they should be regarded as a 'hybrid literary form' (p. 68) deriving from Japan's ancient tradition of long prose fiction. Japanese postmodernism is the result of the confrontation of traditional values with western culture, transcending both to achieve a unique synthesis that represents contemporary Japanese culture.

Murakami is seen as interrogating and shaking the foundation of Japanese literature in writing which invites the reader to become a character in the metafiction of the texts, not only liberating him from the tyranny of the 'I' novel's conventional narrator and challenging the subjective notion of the self, but also leading him to question the notions of truth, meaning and identity which traditionally have been enshrined in literary works. Seats believes that Murakami's works represent an exciting challenge to established tenets of Japanese literature and open up new areas of possibility for the representation of experience in writing.

Murakami's work is often described as easily accessible but profoundly complex. While Seats's study recognizes and expounds upon that complexity, his style hampers easy understanding of his observations. Murakami writes in free and fluid prose that often borders on the colloquial, but Seats's analysis is densely-argued and heavily-footnoted, depending upon familiarity with the philosophical propositions it presents to explain Murakami's achievement. Seats relies heavily on parenthetical asides. He seems unable to write with simple lucidity. But it is not necessary to employ difficult language to write of difficult things. One could be tempted to echo the complaint made by the protagonist of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle of his brother-in-law's scholarly text, that it was so difficult, so full of technical terminology, as to be nearly incomprehensible.

Too, Seats's book has not been edited with the care it deserves. The integrity of this work of distinguished scholarship is undermined by a disturbing number of spelling and grammatical mistakes and by typographical errors.

It is unfortunate that Seats's ponderous style and the complicated organization of his study can obfuscate arguments that are subtle and complex. In general, Seats is authoritative and convincing, but sometimes it feels as though even he has lost his way. His difficult style can lend itself to apparent inconsistencies.

Seats quotes Matthew Strecher, author of a critical study of Murakami's novels published in 2002, whose professed goal was to produce a work 'sophisticated enough to do justice to the complexities of Murakami's fictional world' but which would be presented at a level accessible to the general reader (p. 4). It is unclear whether Seats shared Strecher's goals, but his own book manifestly accomplishes the former while failing to achieve the latter aim.

About the Author

An American, Wendy Jones Nakanishi did her postgraduate work in Britain, earning an MA in 18th-century English Studies from Lancaster University and a PhD on Alexander Pope's letters from Edinburgh University. She has lived and worked in Japan for the past twenty-three years, employed as Professor in the Department of Language and Culture at Shikoku Gakuin University. She has varied research interests, with publications not only in her academic field of eighteenth-century English literature but also in Japanese studies and in creative writing. She is a member of Lancaster University's Ruskin Programme and of the Iris Murdoch Society of Japan.

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