Connections and Disconnections
In the ambit of contemporary Japanese literature, one name that looms above everyone is Haruki Murakami (村上 春樹, Murakami Haruki). He is a name that readers will inevitably encounter when they foray into Japanese literature. His brand of magical realism has re-established the stature of Japanese literature as one of the foremost segments of the vast world of literature. With a prolific career that spanned nearly five decades, he produced some of the most memorable works of fiction, such as Kafka on the Shore, A Wild Sheep Chase, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. His works have also been recognized by several prestigious literary award-giving bodies, earning Murakami accolades such as the Gunzo Prize for New Writers, the World Fantasy Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Franz Kafka Prize, and the Jerusalem Prize.
With the popularity and diversity of his works and the critical acclaim they have earned him, it comes as no surprise that Haruki Murakami is always a part of conversations vis-a-vis the Nobel Prize in Literature. According to betting sites, Murakami is again within striking distance of being recognized by the Swedish Academy this year. While his brand of magical realism was seminal in breathing new life into Japanese literature, his fiction has often been met with disapproval by Japanese literary circles who viewed his works were not representatives of Japanese schools of literature. His earlier works were dismissed as entertainment pieces while his overall nonconformist attitude earned the ire of “serious novelists”, among them Nobel Laureate in Literature Ōe Kenzaburō. Nevertheless, Murakami is viewed by international literary pundits as one of the greatest living novelists.
The rise to the top, however, was not straightforward. Not one to be easily shackled to the ground, he quit his corporate job and, along with his wife, pooled all his funds to open their small coffee in Kokubunji, a popular student hangout in suburban Tokyo. It was later that he was seized by a literary inspiration. It all started with a baseball game he attended in 1978. Following the game between his favorite team Yakult Swallows and Hiroshima Carp, he started working on the manuscript for his first novel in his kitchen. In June 1979, Kaze no uta o kike (風の歌を聴け) was published by Gunzo magazine. A month later, it was published in its book form. A year later, it was translated into English as Hear the Wind Sing. It was a critical success and was immediately followed up by his second work, Sen-Kyūhyaku-Nanajū-San-Nen no Pinbōru (1973年のピンボール, Pinball, 1973) in 1980. Hitsuji o meguru bōken ((羊をめぐる冒険, A Wild Sheep Chase, 1982) completed what would be known as the Trilogy of the Rat.
“My peak? Would I even have one? I hardly had had anything you could call a life. A few ripples. some rises and falls. But that’s it. Almost nothing. Nothing born of nothing. I’d loved and been loved, but I had nothing to show. It was a singularly plain, featureless landscape. I felt like I was in a video game. A surrogate Pacman, crunching blindly through a labyrinth of dotted lines. The only certainty was my death.”~ Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance
The success of the Trilogy of the Rat catapulted Murakami to both local and international prominence, with A Wild Sheep Chase becoming his first major international success. Just when everyone thought that the trilogy has concluded, Murakami published ダンス・ダンス・ダンス (Dansu Dansu Dansu) in 1988 which was a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase. Murakami’s sixth novel, ダンス・ダンス・ダンス was published six years after the success of its predecessor; Murakami has also published two standalone novels in between. The novel was eventually made available to anglophone readers in 1994, with an English translation by Alfred Birnbaum. The English title of the book was Dance Dance Dance.
Dance Dance Dance was set four and a half years after the events that transpired in A Wild Sheep Chase and picked up where its predecessor ended. Steering the narrative again was the anonymous narrator who came back from his sheep chase on the island of Hokkaido. He was now in his mid-thirties and was currently residing in the nation’s capital, Tokyo. He has cut ties with his long-time business partner and started working as a freelance journalist, writing various pieces and articles, mainly restaurant reviews, for different magazines. He likened his present occupation to “Shovelling snowy – you do it because somebody’s got to, not because it’s fun.” It was not an ideal occupation but he, nevertheless, found some level of satisfaction in his new endeavor. After all, he was making a decent living.
On the surface, he seemed to epitomize success but despite all of these, he was still feeling a little unsatisfied. There lingered a feeling that something was missing. This sense of emptiness was exacerbated by burgeoning personal issues. He was recently divorced and was now living alone. He had very few friends. He also lost his cat; cats are ubiquitous in the universe of Haruki Murakami. His lovers kept abandoning him. Amidst this impasse, a strong urge was drawing him toward a place readers are familiar with: the run-down Dolphin Hotel. “I often dream about the Dolphin Hotel,” he opened the novel. “In these dreams, I’m there, implicated in some kind of ongoing circumstance. All indications are that I belong to this dream continuity.” During his “wild sheep chase” in Hokkaido, he stayed at the Dolphin Hotel along with his girlfriend but his girlfriend disappeared without any trace during their stay.
To seek closure for the sudden abandonment he experienced, the unnamed protagonist traveled back to Dolphin Hotel, thus, commencing a new adventure and misadventure for the unnamed protagonist. The hotel, however, was not what it was back then. A new high-end structure has replaced the old run-down establishment. The hotel now goes by the name l’Hôtel Dauphin. The hotel’s old owner, like his girlfriend, has also disappeared. His inquiries as to what happened to the old hotel were met with equally mystifying responses. It seems that no one had any inkling about what happened. That was until a receptionist approached him telling him about a supernatural experience. One thing led to another and rather than being embraced by nostalgia as he trudged down memory lane, the unnamed narrator found himself yet again in the midst of a string of strange events.
“There in the dim light, staring at the shadow on the wall, I poured out the story of my life. It had been so long, but slowly, like melting ice, I released each circumstance. How I managed to support myself. Yet never managed to go anywhere. Never went anywhere, but aged all the same. How nothing touched me. And I touched nothing. How I’d lost track of what mattered. How I worked like a fool for things that didn’t. How it didn’t make a difference either way. How I was losing form. The tissues hardening, stiffening from within. Terrifying me.”~ Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance
Walking into a strange world is one what would expect when reading the works of Haruki Murakami. As the old adage goes, expect the unexpected when opening a work of Murakami; strange is even an understatement. In this new adventure, the unnamed protagonist crossed paths with a familiar character during his stay in the Dolphin Hotel. The Sheep Man, a mysterious and supernatural character, cautioned the narrator: “Dance. Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougotta dance. Don’teventhinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you’restuck. Sodon’tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. Yougottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhatyoubolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou’re tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon’tletyourfeetstop.” Yes, the English translation has no spaces between words.
So dance along he did. His encounter with the Sheep Man, however, would not end in Hokkaido as the Sheep Man and Kiki – a character from A Wild Sheep Chase the narrator retroactively named in Dance Dance Dance – would haunt him in his dreams, further unlocking more doors for the protagonist to explore. With new doors opened are new characters. On his return to Tokyo, the protagonist was asked to look after Yuki, a thirteen-year-old girl who was left behind by her flighty photographer mother, Amé, to travel abroad. Amé has separated from Hiraku Makimura – an anagram of the author’s name – Yuki’s father. Interestingly, Makimura was a writer. Yuki, however, was no typical teenager as she had clairvoyant qualities. As the protagonist and Yuki got to know each other – Yuki also admitted to meeting the Sheep Man – they slowly started building a paternal relationship.
The exploration of human connection was one of the novel’s more affectionate and heartwarming aspects. The protagonist, a drifter typical of Murakami’s main characters, felt alienated but as he did the proverbial dance, he was starting to find meaning. Some of the connections he established were typical, like the friendship he struck with Yumiyoshi, the Dolphin Hotel’s receptionist. There were also unusual connections such as the connection he made with June, a prostitute hired by Yuki’s father. Yuki, like the protagonist, was also virtually abandoned by her parents. These new connections gave both the protagonist and Yuki new motivation. Connections also entailed reconnecting with the past. In his adventure, he reconnected with Ryoichi Gotanda, his high school classmate who was now a movie actor.
Beyond its exploration of human connections and alienation, the novel explored subjects that are ubiquitous in Murakami’s oeuvre, such as gender, sexuality, and the perpetual search for the meaning of life. The existentialist undertones of the novel were underlined alongside another subject commonly found in Murakami’s work, death. Death permeated the story, even giving the story a layer of mystery and suspense. Thinly veiled commentaries on consumerism – prostitutes and sex were ubiquitous in the story – and capitalism were woven into the novel’s lush tapestry. The story, the quintessence of magical realism, also straddled the boundaries between reality and illusion. Disturbing and shifting reality was commonplace. The novel, like Murakami’s other works, requires suspension of belief as the absurd swirls with the mundane.
“All you have to do is wait. Sit tight and wait for the right moment. Not try to change anything by force, just watch the drift of things. Make an effort to cast a fair eye on everything. If you do that, you just naturally know what to do. But everyone’s always too busy. They’re too talented, their schedules are too full. They’re too interested in themselves to think about what’s fair.”~ Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance
In a way, in Dance Dance Dance, Murakami was exploring a new world. Murakami would later mention that writing the novel constituted an act of healing. This was after a whirlwind brought about by the unexpected global success of Norwegian Wood; it was the book that directly preceded Dance Dance Dance. There were also elements that set the novel apart from its A Wild Sheep Chase. Unlike its predecessor where characters were generically named, the characters in Dance Dance Dance carried names, except for the narrator of course. But even in this aspect of the novel Murakami was playful. This playfulness contrasted the heavy subjects and themes that the novel addressed. Haruki Murakami’s anagram was a fine example. Kiki, on the other hand, was described to have beautiful ears. Her name literally means “hearing”. The protagonist also encountered two detectives he named Bookish and Fisherman just because of their appearances.
A Murakami novel, however, would not be complete without familiar elements such as music and cats, both of which are dear to the narrator. Even Yuki was an ardent consumer of rock music such as Bananarama, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Genesis, and Iggy Pop. After all, what is a dance without music? But as the narrator got deeper and deeper into this dance, it was increasingly becoming palpable that some of the plotlines are not going to be resolved. Again, loose ends are not uncommon in the many universes that Murakami conjured. The story was well-constructed and it kept the readers riveted while striking a balance between reality and the supernatural.
Overall, Dance Dance Dance is a hallmark of the Murakami prose. It had the finely defined blueprints that Murakami’s works would be renowned for. His sixth novel explored seminal subjects such as the meaning of life, loss, sexuality, alienation, and even capitalism. The book’s most affectionate writing, however, was reserved for its exploration of the beauty of human connections. At the same time, writing the book was a pivotal point in Murakami’s career as he incorporated new elements in his works. Murakami’s mastery of the genre enabled him to write a riveting and interesting work that tickled the readers’ imagination with the convergence of reality and surrealism without making the story seem silly. Dance Dance Dance was a fine and welcome addition to an oeuvre already brimming with captivating works.
“Latter-day capitalism. Like it or not, it’s the society we live in. Even the standard of right and wrong has been subdivided, made sophisticated. Within good, there’s fashionable good and unfashionable good, and ditto for bad. Within fashionable good, there’s formal and then there’s casual; there’s hip, there’s cool, there’s trendy, there’s snobbish. Mix ‘n’ match. Like pulling on a Missoni sweater over Trussardi slacks and Pollini shoes, you can now enjoy hybrid styles of morality. It’s the way of the world – philosophy starting to look more and more like business administration.“~ Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance
Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%
It has been nearly two years since I read a work by Haruki Murakami. Because of this, I resolved to read one of his novels this year. I wanted to read his newest novel, 街とその不確かな壁 (Machi to Sono Futashika na Kabe, The City and Its Uncertain Walls). Imagine my disappointment when I learned the book has not yet been translated into English. Plan B then: read his other novels I have not yet read. Dance Dance Dance was the first one that came to mind. I initially wasn’t too keen on reading the book because I had this misplaced notion that it was one of Murakami’s nonfiction works, in the same vein as What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I might have encountered it before but I was reminded that Dance Dance Dance is a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, making it effectively an extension of Murakami’s The Trilogy of the Rat. Many readers and pundits, however, consider Dance Dance Dance a standalone work, and indeed, it can be read independently of the three other works. As always, Murakami was scintillating although I did find Dance Dance Dance a little less complex than most of his works. It was a novel that I had a far easier time dissecting and understanding compared to other Murakami works. Nevertheless, I had a great time losing myself in Murakami’s vast Cinematic Universe. I am still looking forward to the English translation of The City and Its Uncertain Walls.
Author: Haruki Murakami (村上 春樹, Murakami Haruki)
Translator (from Japanese): Alfred Birnbaum
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: 1995 (1988)
Number of Pages: 393
Genre: Magical Realism
Dance Dance Dance – a follow-up to A Wild Sheep Chase – is a tense, poignant, and often hilarious ride through Murakami’s Japan, a place where everything that is not up for sale is up for grabs.
As Murakami’s nameless protagonist searches for a mysteriously vanished girlfriend, he is plunged into a wind tunnel of sexual violence and metaphysical dread In this propulsive novel, featuring a shabby but oracular Sheep Man, one of the most idiosyncratically brilliant writers at work today fuses together science fiction, the hard-boiled thriller, and white-hot satire.
About the Author
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