Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A note on Japanese literature: Murakami and Mishima

While I’m here in Japan, I’m doing my best to read as many books by Japanese authors as possible. It’s just another part of the culture I’m letting wash over me. I’ve never had a particularly discerning taste in literature. My taste in everything, books included, is pretty eclectic. I stopped studying English literature at school when I was 15, and most of the books I read thereafter until now were purely academic. I’ve never been able to hold a conversation about literature, nor could I articulate to myself what I think makes a “good book” in the abstract. Even now, I can’t.

My first fling with Japanese literature was with the Japanese author you’ll know if you know any, Haruki Murakami

It’s an obvious place to start, since he’s one of the first names you’ll get when you Google “Japanese authors”. I began with “Kafka on the Shore”, which was, well, a complete mindfuck. (I remember finding it in my apartment, and being intrigued by the blurb: “there is a savage killing, but the identity of both victim and killer is a riddle”). Although I finished the book not quite certain of what had just happened, I was more intrigued than turned off, and made my way through a few more of Murakami’s novels: 1Q84, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. If I were to return to “Kafka” now, I’m sure that – having adjusted to the atmosphere of the Murakami world – I could make a lot more sense of it. It’s a world that’s usually subject to a binary division: between a conscious, real world, and some kind of alternate, subconscious world. The parameters of the latter are never explicitly explained. If you were putting it simply, you might say that the latter world is “all in the character’s head”, but it’s more than that: it’s a shared subconsciousness in which multiple characters can exist, interact, and die. It takes a different form across each novel: a hotel, a village, or a fully realised world of its own. And the boundary between the two worlds isn’t watertight, either: a character’s actions in one are inextricably linked with their existence in the other. Usually, then, each novel is about a character straddling this binary division: how (and more significantly, why) they find themselves jumping the border, what they encounter in doing so, and how it invariably affects their previously innocuous lives.

My neighbour, who’s actually studied English literature, tells me Murakami is a “post-modern author”, and I like him for a lot of what that label represents: crudely, a reaction against the orthodox of what a novel is, or should be. Things don’t always make immediate sense in the Murakami’s world, and he’s not here to demystify them: he provides the building blocks, and it’s up to you to craft your own explanation out of them. Wikipedia says:

Postmodernism is based on the position that reality is not mirrored in human understanding of it, but is rather constructed as the mind tries to understand its own personal reality... in the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually.

The heavily interpretive approach necessitated by Murakami’s literature is, then, simply an expression of his post-modernist leaning.

The second Japanese author I’ve found myself reading whilst living here (and testament to the eclecticness of my taste when compared with Murakami) is Yukio Mishima

Again, he’s a fairly well-known figure in Japanese pop culture, as much for his controversial lifestyle (and death) as for his literature. Not a postmodernist like Murakami, Mishima was nonetheless progressive in the issues his works presented to the Japanese public; most notably, his works focusing on the lives of closeted gay men trying to reconcile their existence with the unaccepting, rigid Japanese society (“Confessions of a Mask” and “Forbidden Colours”, published in the late 1940s and early 1950s). After finding a tattered copy of “The Sound of Waves” lying around my house (perhaps something of a misleading introduction to his works), I proceeded to read “Confessions of a Mask” and “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace”. Mishima’s works are, generally, much shorter than Murakami’s, and much less cerebral. I’ve really only touched on the tip of the iceberg of his back catalogue, so these are great generalisations. But allow me to make a few nonetheless.

The overarching themes present throughout Mishima’s work thus far are an obsession with death and, occasionally, an incredibly dark, macabre tone, both of which are manifestations of an irrepressibly autobiographical approach to writing. Mishima himself being a homosexual with a difficult upbringing, he channeled his personal experiences into his work in numerous ways: both in creating characters who shared his personal turmoil, and in creating characters who reflected his idealized self. On the latter, it seems that Mishima’s work served as something of a personal escape for the author: allowing him to create the kind of hyper-masculine persona that he struggled, in the real world, to reconcile with his homosexuality. This is most latent in “Confessions”, the most directly autobiographical of Mishima’s works, where the narrator’s constant self-deprecation and reaction against femininity serve as a looking glass through which both Mishima’s conception of the ideal self, and his own repressed sexual fantasies, are illuminated. In “Waves” and “The Sailor” too, Mishima’s idealized self, although articulated not explicitly in terms of homosexual desire as in “Confessions”, is nonetheless personified by two unquestionably masculine sea-faring male characters, both sculpted and hardened by their experiences on the ocean.

It also appears that part of Mishima’s idealized self included an idealized death; this too manifested itself consistently throughout the novels of his I have read. Interestingly, in “Confessions”, the men who form the object of the narrator’s fantasies are imagined never in intercourse, but as experiencing perverse, glorious deaths. The male lead in “Waves” comes close to such a death, while in “The Sailor”... well, I’ll leave you to read that one for yourself.

Ultimately, just as Mishima’s literature mirrored his life, so too, in the end, did the reverse come true. Mishima died by ritual seppuku after an attempted overthrow of the Japanese government in 1970. It’s been theorized that Mishima never took the coup d’état seriously.  Mishima knew, the theory goes, that any attempt to topple the government was futile, and the whole affair was intended simply as a pretext, allowing him to experience the kind of glorious death he had been writing of for years. (Interestingly, the man who beheaded Mishima after he had disemboweled himself is said to now work at a priest on a shrine on my current home of Shikoku).

Next, I'm going to turn to Mishima's magnum opus, The Sea of Fertility series. It'll be interesting to see how the series sits alongside the overall themes I've extracted from his books so far. There are four books in the series, each at around 400 pages, so expect a report back sometime in 2013.

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