Cultural articles and opinion pieces for Itcher Magazine
Is Haruki Murakami Overrated? Absolutely.
There’s no doubt he’s highly-rated, both in his native Japan and across the globe. But is Haruki Murakami overrated? I believe so… read on to find out why.
You only have to look at my other articles on Murakami – on the best books to tackle if you’re new to his work, or some other authors to try if you like him – to realise that I’m a fan of his novels. Indeed, you don’t read someone’s entire back catalogue without enjoying their fiction.
However, although I do find myself deriving a unique kind of pleasure from Murakami’s work which other authors simply can’t provide, I also derive a unique kind of frustration.
The man is clearly gifted in his ability to create vivid landscapes that seem at once both familiar and foreign and to evoke sympathy for the tangible loneliness of his melancholy protagonists.
There is something about his books which keep you turning page after page, hungry for more details about the loners of his novels and the unlikely situations they find themselves in, which seem to alternate between the outlandish and the mundane.
However, I also feel that the whole world is so wrapped up in their love for Murakami that the author gets away with quite a few basic transgressions, which, in my opinion, are pretty much inexcusable in an author of his calibre.
Why is Haruki Murakami Controversial?
For the most part, Murakami is not controversial, and that’s my beef: I believe he deserves more criticism.
Those who have taken to disparaging his work have done so for reasons other than myself. Back in 2012, JapanToday ran a scathing attack on Murakami’s lack of Japanese-ness (excuse the awkwardness of the phrasing). The article cites his pandering to Western culture, his preference for New York translators who apparently butcher his work and his alleged refusal to tackle “the difficult, unrewarding work that surmounting cultural barriers demands”. Such criticisms may or may not be valid; to be frank, I simply do not care about them. Whether Murakami is “Japanese enough” or not does affect my enjoyment of his texts one iota.
One internet forum debates whether or not Murakami has stolen his style from other writers, namely Ryu Murakami; though it seems the only thing the two really have in common is their surname.
Finally, one rather bizarre allegation levelled at Murakami concerns his defamation of the residents of Nakatonbetsu, a small town in Japan, whom he suggests all throw cigarettes from their cars. Defamatory and comically unfair such an accusation may be; but does it affect my enjoyment of his work? Nope.
In my opinion, the problems with Murakami’s writing are far more deeply-rooted, far more serious and far more worthy of discussion. That they have yet to be addressed by the cyberspace hordes baffles me; so here I am, leading the charge into battle, samurai sword-shaped pen flailing dangerously about my ears as I attempt to cut Murakami down to size using my own flawed writing.
Reader beware: some story spoilers are contained within… as is some vitriolic criticism.
Recycled Images and Phrases
Of all my criticisms of Murakami’s work, this is definitely the weakest and the one about which I feel least strongly.
Indeed, many authors (including Murakami) have forged their reputations by recycling images and leaving their “stamp” on a novel as it were, and the Japanese is certainly adept at this.
Food – both its preparation and consumption – appears prominently in pretty much every single one of Murakami’s books, as does cold bottles of beer and stronger liquor, especially the whisky Cutty Sark.
Western culture – pop songs, films and books – crop up more than a few times, with the Beatles’ song Norwegian Wood even being chosen for the title of one of his novels.
Cats and birds often play leading roles in his work, and he dabbles in the idea of a shamanic or supernatural dimension; an alternate reality to the one that we live in.
Writing, sex, love and its loss and loneliness in particular are recurrent themes, which Murakami revisits repeatedly. As aforementioned, having favourite themes and topics is not necessarily a negative thing and could even arguably be unavoidable for any author… but I do get bored of reading the phrase “simple meal” over and over again. Why can’t one of his characters cook something complicated once in a while?! (Indeed, therein lies the joke, since these supposably simple meals are generally anything but – often extravagant four course affairs – but the joke wears thin after the fourth hearing).
Reusing images? Fine. Reusing characters… hmmm.
One of the things about Murakami’s novels that suck in a lot of readers is the way in which his characters speak to them, allowing them to identify easily with the protagonist and to recognise aspects of his (invariably it’s a he, with the exception of Aomame in 1Q84… although her persona was offset by the other protagonist, Tengo) personality in themselves. Which is great… but surely you can’t build a career on just one protagonist, can you?
Well, in my opinion, Murakami has done almost exactly that. In almost every novel I have read by him, the main character is a shy, somewhat lonely thirty-something male, often who likes to write, often whose wife has left him, and almost always with an enormous penis.
This last detail seems particularly humorous, and yet important enough for Murakami to include a mention of it in most of his books. He sometimes how manages to do so without sounding arrogant or boastful; but the declaration remains there all the same.
Another (normally female) character will often comment on the protagonist’s reticent manner of speech as well, drawing attention to his shy and retiring nature. A decent poetic trick, but surely not one that should be repeated with every new novel.
And it’s not only the differing protagonists who bear striking similarities. Take Murakami’s women, for example.
Almost all of the women in Murakami novels fall into two categories. There are the quiet, mysterious types, such as Fuka-Eri in 1Q84, Naoko in Norwegian Wood, Creta Kano in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Miu in Sputnik Sweetheart. The reticence of these characters can sometimes take alarming forms, such as Fuka-Eri or “the chubby girl” in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; and their behaviour will be erratic, off-beat and often informed by depression.
The other type of female character is much more headstrong; more sexually-liberated; more free-thinking; often more humorous. For examples, see Reiko Ishida and Midori Koboyashi in Norwegian Wood, May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Sumire in Sputnik Sweetheart, Aomame and Ayumi in 1Q84. These too will commit unexpected actions, but normally in a more quirky and less alarming manner.
Of course, these are generalisations, and not every single one of Murakami’s females fit into these categories perfectly… but a concerning amount do.
With Haruki Murakami, recurring images are par for the course. Recurring character types are also to be expected, and can be excused to an extent; though I still personally believe it betrays a sloppy laziness that someone of Murakami’s talent should not bow to. But what is probably most inexcusable is the recycled storylines.
Awkward sex is a big part of many of Murakami’s novels, usually involved the well-endowed narrator and the majority of females who appear in the book.
Both of the types of women outlined above will more than likely allow the protagonist to probe them with his enormous penis, often initiating the sexual encounters themselves (including the more inhibited first class).
Indeed, in one unforgivable instance, Murakami pretty much word-for-word lifts a part of his own text from Sputnik Sweetheart and places it into Norwegian Wood when the respective females Sumire and Naoko walk into a room in the middle of the night (apparently sleepwalking), remove all of their clothing and then hover majestically in the moonlight for a prolonged period of time. A variation of this occurrence is also repeated in Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84… which rankles with me. If you steal your own ideas from other books, it’s certainly not plagiarism… but it is very sneaky.
Sex scenes aside, the structure of Murakami’s novels, when analysed, also follows a distinct pattern.
First, we are introduced to a shy, lonely protagonist. This protagonist, invariably male, is searching for something; though he himself is not quite sure what. Love; fulfilment; a meaning to his life; something along those lines.
More often than not, this search will be interrupted by several things. Beautiful, unusual women, like those listed above, will enter his life and he will enter them. A dastardly villain, often outlandish, obscure and opaque in their fiendishness, will also threaten the protagonist in some way or other.
Regardless of these distractions, the protagonist’s undefined search will continue, normally taking a weird direction. This could involve going off into the forest to find himself, searching for a mythical object, venturing into a parallel universe, chasing sheep, tracking down antique games machines or literally sitting at the bottom of a well for days on end.
Whatever the method of the search, the outcome is also always the same: inconclusive.
Murakami leads us on a magical journey, filled with glorious imagery, unlikely characters and implausible situations… and then leaves us teetering on the brink of insanity.
Of course, for many readers, the journey itself is enough, regardless of whether or not it actually arrives at a meaningful destination. I too certainly enjoy such journeys. I just wish that Murakami wouldn’t let his imagination run away with himself and his readership quite so much; often, his plotlines seem like those of a four-year-old child, ranting deliriously about increasingly implausible events and people until finally his imagination exhausts itself and he gives up, drawing a line under the whole bizarre episode. Finishing one of his books is like sitting through seven series of Lost, only to realise the writers hadn’t a clue what they were on about along. An entertaining but pointless ride.
As I say, maybe this type of writing is enough to captivate you in itself, and that’s great. For me, it simply betrays a compromise of style over substance. In the end, Murakami has a beautiful way of saying things… I’m just not convinced he has an awful lot that is worth saying.
There. I said it. I love Murakami’s writing… I just think I could definitely love it more, if it actually went anywhere. What about you? What do you think about his writing? What do you think about my writing? Let me have it below.