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North Korea and the maturity of Japan’s ‘enfant terrible’

Ryu_MurakamiRyu Murakami is apparently ‘the enfant terrible of contemporary Japanese literature’. I suppose I should start this review of his four books translated into English this year by making general comments about the strangeness of Japanese culture. Yet such observations have been made ad nauseum, and only reflect the Westerner’s shock that anything exists outside their sphere of influence.

Nevertheless it is worth mentioning how for Westerners Japan is intrinsically linked with neon-lights, karaoke, samurais and an opaque alphabet, sometimes pejoratively but more often than not with a sense of awe at its sheer otherness, an impression forged somewhere in the mix of Takeshi’s Castle, Hokusai’s erotic prints and the simple beauty of a haiku; a mishmash of the impossibly frantic and the impossibly serene. Any person who can stand out as an ‘enfant terrible’ in this mix is bound to be of interest.

Ryu Murakami is in no way related to either Haruki or Takashi Murakami, Japan’s other two chief contemporary cultural exports, though in spirit he is closer to the latter. Born in 1952, his first novel Almost Transparent Blue was released in 1976 when he was still a student, making its way to England in translation a year later. Since then he has written around two dozen novels and directed a dozen films, of which only a trickle have made their way into English, published here and there by different companies over the past 30 years. The release this month of Coin Locker Babies (first published 1980), 69 (1987),  Popular Hits Of The Showa Era (1994) and From The Fatherland, With Love (2005) thus form his largest import to England to date.

All four books have very different subject matters, though certain strands run through all four.Murakami has an uncanny ability to mix chaotic settings, psychopaths and grotesquely vivid violence with moments of touching insights into his characters’ interior lives, immersing the reader in even the more insignificant characters’ backstories and allowing a view inside their head – just before it is splattered onto the pavement. The indifference of authority comes up repeatedly in these books, and seems to at least partially stem from Murakami’s adolescence in the late sixties, when he and his fellow students set up a barricade at his high school in the summer of 1969, an event on which the plot of 69 is based.

In 69,the would-be young revolutionary Kensuke Yazaki (Murakami’s alter ego) decides to stage a protest, not for political reasons so much as because a schoolmate ‘had said she was attracted to boys who got involved in barricades and demonstrations’ (p. 43). After the barricade is dismantled, Kensuke is given only a mild telling off by his parents, interviewed by cordial police detectives who offer him soft-drinks, and eventually suspended from school for 100 days. In some countries Kensuke’s protests would have been enough to have him killed, but the mild-mannered reaction from the ‘Running Dogs of the Power Structure’, (as one banner deems them) shows that the attitude of these rebels is less ‘give me liberty or give me death’ and more ‘if it can be done, why not do it?’

The point Murakami seems to be pressing is that authority isn’t necessarily corrupt, just sometimesif you test it, it doesn’t exist. From The Fatherland, With Love, the longest, newest and most successful novel of the four, hypothesises an occupation of part of southern Japan by a defecting army from North Korea (DPRK). While it lasts, the occupation is successful because of the inertia of both the Japanese and the world authority; the Japanese government are over cautious of terror threats, the Americans don’t want to upset the Chinese, the Chinese don’t want to upset the Americans and the UN stays out of the mix completely.  Consequently, somewhere along the line the illegal invasion is allowed to continue, legitimised even, and is never officially seen as an act of war.

The ease with which the rebels in both books achieve their ends does not mean that the books are devoid of tension however. Even if Kensuke’s barricade is fairly superficial, it is still a symbol of a country at a turning point.Throughout the book the rifts between country and city, traditional and modern, Eastern and Western are shown to be part of the global social upheavals of the sixties. True to the spirit of ’68, the protestors at Kensuke’s college reject and resent the American military base on the edge of town, yet it is Western music, film and literature which inspires their dissent. In From The Fatherland, With Love, set in an alternative present in which Japan’s economy and global status has tumbled leaving it isolated in international relations, the inhabitants of occupied Fukuoka find themselves warming to the disciplined, virtuous communist soldiers who contrast with the excesses of Westernisation, and the loucheness of the American GIs shown in 69.

The characters who make up the invading Korean forces – the Koryo Expeditionary Force (KEF) – are fascinating in the credibility of the alternative they present to the Japanese government. Unlike Kensuke’s comrade who shits the desk of the principle, the KEF are a paradigm of cordiality, discipline and order. If you’re willing to overlook the improvised prison underneath their headquarters, that is.

Their command is so streamlined that by and large civilian life is able to continue as normal. It is here that Murakami showcases his ability. Though the situation is hypothetical, Murakami’s extensive analysis of every aspect of the crisis makes it alarmingly believable. The character list at the front of the book amounts to nearly 80 people, ranging from members of the Korean expeditionary force, doctors at the local hospital, members of both local and national Japanese government, news reporters, local gang members and more.

The range of characters is as vast and unwieldy as it sounds, Murakami manages to keep it all well-oiled, but only just. The tapestry effect works well over all, but it often feels as if the book should have been either 200 pages longer or 200 pages shorter. Many characters only appear once, such as the homeless Nobue from the first chapter (who also appears in Popular Hits From the Showa Era), and their absence from the rest of the novel leaves it with a few loose ends.

Even with a few loose ends, Murakami’s character exposition is wonderful, with some of the best scenes coming from the tentative contact between the occupiers and the occupied; a romance burgeons and falters between a Korean commando and a Japanese journalist, an elderly Japanese doctor forms a bond with a young commando who resents the Japanese because of her grandfather’s death at the hands of the Imperial Army in WW2, in which the doctor was enlisted.

In both cases the Koreans are surprised by the humanity of the Japanese and vice versa, as is the reader. The hysteria of the North Korean regime is depicted by the Western press with a hysteria to match.  Though this may be well-founded, Murakami draws attention instead to common humanity at a personal level. Indeed, the Japanese Government is attacked more rigorously in the book.

Yet this is not sentimental overload. Murakami is able to show both sides of the event with an equal measure of praise and scorn. The same can be said for 69, in which the teachers are more hurt than outraged or intimidated by the protestors. From The Fatherland, With Love could easily have been a book about vicious communist invaders and the rag-tag band of Japanese heroes who topple them (though the last part is true), but Murakami’s insight into the inner lives of everyone involved in the case makes for a much better book.

  • 69 by Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph F. McCarthy. Pushkin Press, 2013
  • Popular Hits Of TheShowa Eraby Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph F. McCarthy. Pushkin Press, 2013
  • Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami, translated by Stephen Snyder. Pushkin Press, 2013
  • From The Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph F. McCarthy, Charles de Wolf & Ginny TapleyTakemori. Pushkin Press, 2013

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