An interview, sort
of, by Ralph F. McCarthy (from KJ#49)
Drawing by Rimi
sixty-nine was the year student uprisings shut down Tokyo University.
The Beatles put out The White Album, Yellow Submarine, and Abbey Road,
the Rolling Stones released their greatest single, "Honky Tonk Women,"
and people known as hippies wore their hair long and called for love
and peace. In Paris, De Gaulle resigned. The war in Vietnam continued.
High-school girls used sanitary napkins, not tampons.
first met Murakami Ryu in 1993, I think, when I was translating his novel,
69, which begins as above.
That's the sort of year 1969 was, when I began my third and
final year of high school. I went to a college-prep high in a small
port city with an American military base on the western edge of Kyushu.
We've worked together on a number of projects since then, and whenever
I'm in Tokyo I try to meet up with him. He's usually kind enough to make
time for me (and, typically, to treat me to an extravagant meal at the
fancy hotel in Nishi-Shinjuku where he spends a good chunk of each month
writing and doing business). I was hoping to interview him for Kyoto
Journal when I was in Tokyo last September. Ryu graciously agreed
to the interview and even brought (at my request) a small tape recorder.
But as we sat facing each other in the hotel's Japanese restaurant, I
suddenly remembered something: I'm an idiot. I can barely hold up my end
of a conversation even in English. I'm going to interview a world-class
literary genius for a serious publication? In Japanese?
Ryu seemed to realize the unlikeliness of it all at
about the same moment. He turned off the recorder and graciously suggested
I have the editors e-mail him some questions, to which he promised to
respond. I breathed a sigh of relief, asked for more beer, and started
whining about my latest failure to establish a steady girlfriend.
Now it's a couple of months later, and I have the results
of the e-mail interview. Whoops!
Your narrator in 69 seemed to think 1960s rebellion was simply
a prank, a childish scheme to attract women's attention. Do you share
Murakami Ryu: You
mustn't naively believe everything you read in a novel.
Sorry! But we do tend
to do that, don't we, especially with novels and stories that are blatantly
autobiographical. Here's the beginning of "La Dolce Vita," the first
in a series of linked stories in Ryu's Cinematheque (1995).
I was about
Enrolled in a college of fine arts. Thinking back on it now,
I'm not sure why I'd chosen an arts college. It's true my father was
an art teacher and I grew up watching him paint, but I'd never seriously
considered becoming a painter myself.
I guess I just wanted to keep the money coming.
If I hadn't entered some college or other I'd have lost my allowance.
For two years I was what this society calls a ronin, but the
life I'd led, near the American military base at Yokota, was worlds
away from that familiar image of the struggling "lordless samurai"
student cramming for his next crack at university entrance exams.
I'd been living with an older woman, hanging out with GIs, doing every
drug known to man, and getting myself arrested on suspicion of various
crimes. It was a totally immoral lifestyle, but I can't say I ever
derived much pleasure from it. Seems as if I was choosing, with unfailing
fidelity, to make only the worst possible choices.
fiction, Ryu's Cinematheque fills the gap between 69 and
Almost Transparent Blue, and the style is somewhere between the
flippant frivolity of the former and the dark obsessiveness of the latter.
Almost Transparent Blue was Ryu's debut novel. Published in 1976,
when he was 24, its success rocketed him from obscurity to fame—or infamy—virtually
overnight. More than 25 years later the book, with its graphic descriptions
of sexual orgies and voracious drug use, is still shocking to read.
KJ: You won Japan's most prestigious
literary prize with your first novel, which you wrote while still an
art school student. The book sold millions of copies, but it also polarized
people: many were repelled by it. What was it like to have that kind
of impact and success so early?
Ryu: For me, the biggest thing
was that I became financially independent.
Ryu used his independence
well. Being a man with a tremendous appetite for life, he began living
large, traveling the planet and savoring its various pleasures. But
he also began what has already proven to be one of the most prolific
and multi-faceted careers in literary history. In 1980, Ryu published
what many still consider his masterpiece, Coin Locker Babies,
a novel that became a sort of bible for Japanese punks and other disaffected
youth but was also an enormous critical and commercial success. Its
opening sentence ("The woman pushed on the baby's stomach and sucked
its penis into her mouth....") is now probably one of the best-known
sentences in all of Japanese literature.
In a conversation with the novelist Steve Erickson
a few years ago, Ryu explained what had inspired him to write this book.
the years before I started writing it, there were several cases in
Japan where babies were abandoned in coin lockers. Most of these babies
were already dead, and the parents or whoever were just looking for
a place to dispose of the corpses. But some of the babies were still
alive, and a few even survived. Now, what if these babies grew up
and found out that they'd been abandoned like that? Wouldn't it be
easy for them to build up a tremendous hatred for the world? Wouldn't
it be easy for them to want to destroy it?
When the Aum Shinrikyo
cult unleashed a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995,
many commentators saw Coin Locker Babies as having predicted
something of that sort, and suddenly the establishment was listening.
"For all these years I never got myself to fit into the mainstream society,"
Ryu told the Wall Street Journal, "and now people in the center
of the mainstream want to hear what I have to say."
KJ: Twenty years
ago, in the novel Coin Locker Babies, you wrote about two abused
and abandoned children. Nowadays in Japan, we hear news almost daily
about parents who abuse and even kill their babies or children. At the
same time, we read more about bullying and brutal killings committed
by young kids. What is happening to this society?
Ryu: It's not that
something is "happening" so much as that things which have always gone
on in society have started to come to the surface. Child abuse and the
cycle of violence are worldwide problems, not things that happen only
KJ: You have
an astonishing ability to create utterly bizarre or outlandish characters
who nonetheless seem absolutely believable and real .... How is it that
you're able to make such characters so easy to identify with?
Ryu: Beneath the
level of consciousness, we human beings have an entire universe of darkness
and chaos. The rational faculty is only one small part of us. We try
to control the dark parts with laws, morals, common sense, and so on,
but human beings are too deep, diverse, and free to be contained by
such things. Novels can sometimes depict the struggle between reason
and the darker regions of the heart.
In 1988 Ryu published
Topaz, a collection of stories told from the first-person points
of view of young female prostitutes, most of whom specialize in S&M.
Here's a sample from one of the milder stories, entitled "Eggs."
the chime at the room I'd been sent to, and a man in his fifties opened
the door and was kneeling there naked saying, "I'm at your service!"
I took the envelope he was holding out to me. There was 50 thousand
yen inside. I'd seen this man before. He was an "M" who managed a
vinyl factory for a company in Kobe and liked high heels and underarm
odor. He said, "I had the honor of making your acquaintance at a party."
At the end of the year doctors and businessmen and people like that
have a lot of parties. I often get called to parties for businessmen
from Osaka and Kobe.
After the man had taken two dumps and come twice
he scowled and spat phlegm into a flower vase and called somebody
who I guess works for him. "It's me. What's the deal on those futures?
Tell Kikuchi to send in an order from London. Not by telex, tell him
to call it in ...." As he was talking he looked at me. Now that he'd
shot his wad, he just jerked his chin, signaling me to leave, as if
I were a dog or something. This was the same guy who, the first time
he came, was crawling around on his hands and knees licking it up.
It takes all kinds. Some stay on their knees, bowing to you, from
beginning to end.
another big stir in Japan. And Ryu, who had been directing film adaptations
of his work since the early 80s, decided to use these stories as the
basis of the script for his next movie. The result, entitled Topaz
in Japan but Tokyo Decadence everywhere else, was a sensation
at film festivals around the world and remains a cult favorite in Europe
and the U.S.
KJ: In addition
to writing books, you've worked in radio, TV, and cinema. What have
you learned from your involvements in Japanese popular media?
Ryu: I think the
distinction between "academic" and "pop" is more or less meaningless.
I haven't learned anything in particular from working in TV and film.
KJ: Can a writer
be a media celebrity and maintain his creative work?
Ryu: I've never once
thought of myself as a "media celebrity." I become involved in TV projects
and what not only when the subject is of particular interest to me.
KJ: One critic
has written, "The primary concern of Japanese literary hotshots Haruki
and Ryu Murakami (no relation) is America. Not necessarily America the
chunk of land across the Pacific Ocean, but America the cultural influence,
America the trendsetter, America the quiet infiltrator of the East."
How would you comment on this?
Ryu: After World
War II, a tidal wave of American culture swept over Japan. It would
not be possible for anyone growing up here to be free of this influence.
That's true for people of other countries in Asia and Europe as well.
Since I came to know Cuba, however, my interest in America has changed—in
complex ways that would take too long to explain here.
I think Ryu started
going to Cuba in the early 90s. As happens to many visitors, he seems
to have been immediately captivated by the energy of the place and by
the incredible and ubiquitous music and singing and dancing. For years
now he's been bringing Cuban musicians and groups to Japan for concert
tours, recording them for his own record label, and using their music
in his films and TV documentaries. His 1995 film Kyoko was shot in Tokyo,
New York, various locations on the road to Miami, and Havana. Kyoko,
in Ryu's original screenplay and his subsequent novelization, is an
orphan who as a little girl was given hope and courage, along with lessons
in rumba, mambo, and cha-cha-cha, by Jose, a Cuban-American GI. Kyoko
grows up to become a beautiful young truck driver (played by the beautiful
Takaoka Saki) who has finally saved enough money to go to New York to
try to find Jose and thank him for teaching her to dance, which she
feels literally saved her life. She finds Jose eventually, but he's
dying of AIDS and has no memory of her. Kyoko volunteers to drive a
van bearing Jose and all his life-supporting medicine and equipment,
all by herself, all the way down to his family's home in Miami, and
between adventures on the road she tries repeatedly to jog his memory.
I for one am incapable of watching the moment when his memory clicks
in, without quietly sobbing (this though I translated the words myself—most
of the dialogue being in English). "Kyoko!" he says. "You grew up!"
Kyoko, produced by Roger Corman, was released
in Japan in 1995 and became Ryu's greatest domestic success as a filmmaker,
but the film wasn't released in the U.S. until four years later, newly
titled Because of You. It's worth checking out if only for the
music, boasting as it does an amazing soundtrack of Cuban standards
performed by top Cuban artists. And the footage from Havana includes
an elderly couple dancing a son that has to be seen to be believed.
Sharply contrasting the sweetness and sentimentality
of Because of You is a recent Miike Takashi film based on a 1997
Murakami Ryu novel entitled Audition. At this very moment, thousands
of people are watching Audition at theaters thoughout the United
States. And they are all, I promise you, shrieking and freaking. Here's
just the beginning of the novel's horrifying climax:
"You can't move."
A shadow behind the curtain shifted slowly,
and when Yamasaki Asami appeared Aoyama thought he was hallucinating.
Long time no see, he tried to say but couldn't produce the words.
All his senses were numb.
"Go to sleep for a while. I'll wake you
when I'm ready."
Asami walked over to him and pinched his cheeks together
with the thumb and index finger of her left hand. She was wearing
surgical gloves. Aoyama's mouth sagged open. She squeezed tight, her
fingers digging into his cheeks, but he felt no pain. All strength
was gone from his muscles, and drool spilled from the corners of his
mouth. She held up a very thin plastic syringe for him to see.
"Your body will be dead, but I'll make it so
you can still feel everything. It'll be a hundred times more painful
that way. Get a little sleep while you can."
She inserted the needle under Aoyama's tongue.
KJ: Many of your
characters are sick, damaged people searching for meaning in a society
that is increasingly materialistic and shallow. Do you identify with
Ryu: Every society
has people who can't adapt, and their "sickness," if you will, their
inability to adapt, can hold a mirror up to that society. But some of
my more recent novels, like Exodus from the Land of Hope and
The Last Family, are not about sickness at all.
KJ: You wrote
in Murder in a Lonely Country (an extended essay published in
a Japanese-and-English bilingual edition) that "There has never been
a Japanese person since the begining of our history who has experienced
the kind of loneliness enveloping the children of today," and you clearly
attribute this emotion to the end of modernization. What can be done
for these children?
Ryu: The important
point is precisely that you can no longer neatly categorize "Japanese
children of today." Japan is a country where group consciousness became
so highly developed that "loneliness" was not a concept that existed
for any but a very few, marginalized individuals. Just knowing what
loneliness is, therefore, is progress of a sort.
KJ: You've written
that the focus in Japan has shifted from the national to personal goals,
from the group to the individual. But what about the individual's role
within a community? Is there a middle ground that's missing here?
Ryu: For some reason,
the concept of the individual didn't exist in Japan. Maybe it was because
in the rush to modernize, too much emphasis was placed on creating a
sense of national unity, or maybe it was because of a lack of racial,
religious, or linguistic diversity. But the question of "the individual's
role in society" can only arise if the society has the concept of "individual."
Since there is no such concept here, really, the question itself doesn't
KJ: You detached
yourself at a young age from the illusion that the system would protect
you. How did you come to that decision so early? What has it meant for
Ryu: I didn't want
to be protected by the "system" (by which I mean corporate employment
and so on—I'm fine with being protected by the fire department and police),
because the system asks for loyalty in return. Perceptive young people
have always been able to see that the commonsense notion "the company
will protect me" was in fact an illusion. With the repeated downsizing
and restructuring of Japanese companies, even the illusion of lifetime
employment is starting to disintegrate. In times of change like this,
those who are quick to realize the truth—that the company will not protect
them—have an advantage.
Ryu is genuinely
concerned about Japan. I believe he sincerely wants to help people adjust
in a healthy way to the seismic sorts of changes that are rocking Japanese
society. When I met him in September, he brought me a copy of The
Last Family, which had just come out and which, he told me, he was
adapting as a TV drama that would begin airing in October. Ryu puts
out books faster than I can read them, and inwardly I groaned. But when
I got back to my hotel and read the first chapter, I thought it was
really special. I saw in the story all the clear-headedness and compassion
that Murakami Ryu projects when you meet him (his interest in you, his
concern for your comfort and well-being, his modest affability, his
regular-guyness when you've been expecting a wild man, his engagement
with the world, his generosity), not to mention his uncanny ability
to get under the skin of his characters—characters as outlandish as
Yamasaki Asami or as ordinary as the crumpled salaryman next to you
on the train—and to make them come alive. And the book has what Ryu
calls "a positive, happy ending": the four members of the household
end up living separately, taking responsibility for their own lives
and living as individuals, but in many ways more bonded than ever.
So I called Kyoto Journal the next day and said I'd blown the
interview but had a good idea for a translation ....
first chapter of Murakami Ryu's The Last Family was published
for the first time in English in KJ #49, preceding this interview.
McCarthy says: I'm still trying to write songs, , and have been working
on bilingual editions of classic Manga — The Genius Bakabon,
Akko-chan's Got a Secret!. GeGeGe-no-Kitaro. I also
have lots of Murakami Ryu stuff translated and waiting to be published.
Come on publishers! E-mail me! Zufelt2[at]aol.com
held by the author
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