A Feminist Critique of Murakami Novels, With Murakami Himself

Mieko Kawakami Interviews the Author of Killing Commendatore

Photo ©SHINCHOSHA

Lately, Haruki Murakami doesn’t give many interviews. But in 2017, he made an exception for the novelist Mieko Kawakami, whose work he admires, and who has written of the influence Murakami has had on her fiction, which is just beginning to appear in English. They apparently hit it off. The pair spent 16 hours together across four occasions in Tokyo, resulting in the book, The Owl Spreads Its Wings with the Falling of the Dusk, published in Japanese by Shinchosha in 2017. In this segment of the conversation, Kawakami asks Murakami why his female characters play the roles they do, and behave like they do, and Murakami responds.

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Mieko Kawakami: I’m curious about the character Mariye Akigawa from Killing Commendatore. I could tell how stressed she was by the way that her identity is so connected to her breasts. This hasn’t been the case for the young women in your other novels. I can easily relate to characters like Yuki in Dance Dance Dance, or May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I’m thinking of the scene where May Kasahara talks about “the lump of death…round and squishy, like a softball.” Discussion of the protagonist aside, May has these incredibly powerful lines throughout the novel, about the murky distinction between hurting yourself and hurting others, or your own death and the death of others. The prose is fantastic. It captures the spirit of exactly what it’s like to be a girl. I love those passages so much. Yuki and May don’t talk much about their breasts or their bodies. But Mariye in Killing Commendatore

Haruki Murakami: She’s really fixated on them. It’s almost an obsession.

MK: Sure, but don’t you think she’s a little too fixated, though? The second she’s alone with the first-person narrator, this guy she’s never met before, the first words out of her mouth are something like, “My breasts are really small, don’t you think?” I found this pretty surprising. Where does this obsession with breasts come from?

HM: I wouldn’t really say it came from anywhere. I just imagine there are girls out there who feel this way.

MK: But what about the gap between her and the narrator?…When Mariye starts asking him about her breasts, did you struggle at all over how he should respond?

HM: I know what you’re saying. But the fact that she asks him for his opinion on her breasts suggests that she doesn’t really see him as a man. She doesn’t recognize him as a sexual object. This strengthens the introspectiveness, or philosophical nature, of their dialogue. That’s the sort of relationship that Mariye wants from him. I have a feeling she’s been searching for a while for a person she can ask about this stuff. I think we can agree that, generally speaking, if you see a chance of becoming a sexual object in someone’s eyes, you don’t start off by talking about how your breasts aren’t growing, or how small your nipples are.

MK: I see your point, though actually I saw the opposite possibility. As in, Mariye starts things off that way to make him view her sexually. But you’re saying that it purges the air of any kind of sexual tension between them, and strengthens the philosophical aspect of their interaction?

HM: Right. As a result, the dialogue between Mariye and the narrator becomes one of the driving forces of the novel. Their exchange sheds new light on the story.

MK: In other words, the conversation provides us with more information on the personality and demeanor of the narrator—who would otherwise remain something of a mystery to readers.

HM: That’s right. He’s the sort of person who a twelve-year-old girl would feel comfortable talking to about her breasts. He has that kind of personality.

MK: That brings me to another question about the women in your novels. Something that comes up rather often when talking about your work. I’m thinking of the way that women are depicted, the roles they’re assigned.

It’s common for my female friends to say to me, “If you love Haruki Murakami’s work so much, how do you justify his portrayal of women?” The notion being that there’s something disconcerting about the depiction of women in your stories. It irks some people, men and women alike.

A common reading is that your male characters are fighting their battles unconsciously, on the inside, leaving the women to do the fighting in the real world.

HM: Really? How so?

MK: It goes beyond whether they’re realistic, or come across as “real-life women.” It has more to do with the roles they play. For example, as we were saying earlier, the woman functions as a kind oracle, in that she’s made to act as a medium of fate.

HM: She takes you by the hand and leads you off somewhere.

MK: Exactly. She triggers a metamorphosis in the protagonist. There are many cases where women are presented as gateways, or opportunities for transformation.

HM: Sure, I can see there being elements of that.

MK: In these transformations, as long as sex is being posited as a way into an unfamiliar realm, the women, when faced with a heterosexual protagonist, have basically no choice but to play the role of sexual partner. Looking at it from a certain angle, I think plenty of readers would argue that women are forever in this situation, forced into an overly sexual role, simply because they’re women. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

HM: I’m not sure I follow. When you say more than the necessary role, you mean…?

MK: I’m talking about the large number of female characters who exist solely to fulfill a sexual function. On the one hand, your work is boundlessly imaginative when it comes to plots, to wells, and to men, but the same can’t be said for their relationships with women. It’s not possible for these women to exist on their own. And while female protagonists, or even supporting characters, may enjoy a moderate degree of self-expression, thanks to their relative independence, there’s a persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads. So the question is, why is it that women are so often called upon to play this role in Murakami novels?

HM: Now I see, okay.

MK: Would you mind sharing your thoughts on that?

HM: This may not be the most satisfying explanation, but I don’t think any of my characters are that complex. The focus is on the interface, or how these people, both men and women, engage with the world they’re living in. If anything, I take great care not to dwell too much on the meaning of existence, its importance or its implications. Like I said earlier, I’m not interested in individualistic characters. And that applies to men and women both.

MK: I see.

HM: I will say that 1Q84 was the most time I’ve spent engaging with a female character. Aomame is incredibly important to Tengo, and Tengo is incredibly important to Aomame. They never seem to wind up crossing paths. But the story centers on their movement toward each other. They have shared status as protagonists. At the very end, they’re finally brought together. Two become one. There’s nothing erotic, up until the end. In that sense, I’d say they’re equals, in the broad scheme of the novel, since the book depends upon them both in equal measure.

MK: Your longer novels often revolve around some kind of battle against larger forces. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle pits Toru and Kumiko Okada against Noboru Wataya, and 1Q84 has Aomame and Tengo fighting a mighty evil force. What these two novels have in common is that the men are fighting in the realm of the unconscious.

HM: When you put it that way, sure. Maybe it’s a matter of the usual gender roles being reversed. How would you see it from a feminist perspective? I’m not sure myself.

These women aren’t just novelistic instruments for me. Each individual work calls for its own circumstances. I’m not making excuses. I’m speaking from feeling and experience.

MK: A common reading is that your male characters are fighting their battles unconsciously, on the inside, leaving the women to do the fighting in the real world. For example, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, it’s Kumiko who pulls the plug on the life support system, kills Noboru Wataya, and ultimately pays the price. And in 1Q84, the Leader is killed by Aomame. Granted, it isn’t necessary to apply a feminist critique to every single novel, and a pursuit of rectitude is not why any writer turns to fiction, but reading these books from a feminist perspective, the common reaction would likely be: “Okay, here’s another woman whose blood has been shed for the sake of a man’s self-realization.”

Most women in the real world have had experiences where being a woman made life unlivable. Like victims of sexual assault, who are accused of asking for it. It comes down to the fact that making a woman feel guilty for having a woman’s body is equivalent to negating her existence. There are probably some women out there who have never thought this way, but there’s an argument to be made that they’ve been pressured by society into stifling their feelings. Which is why it can be so exhausting to see this pattern show up in fiction, a reminder of how women are sacrificed for the sake of men’s self-realization or sexual desire.

HM: I think that any pattern is probably coincidental. At a minimum, I never set things up like that on purpose. I guess it’s possible for a story to work out that way, on a purely unconscious level. Not to sound dismissive, but my writing doesn’t follow any kind of clear-cut scheme. Take Norwegian Wood, where Naoko and Midori are respectively grappling with their subconscious and conscious existences. The first-person male narrator is captivated by them both. And it threatens to split his world in two. Then there’s After Dark. The story is propelled almost exclusively by the will of the female characters. So I can’t agree that women are always stuck playing the supporting role of sexual oracles or anything along those lines. Even once I’ve forgotten the storylines, these women stay with me. Like Reiko or Hatsumi in Norwegian Wood. Even now, thinking about them makes me emotional. These women aren’t just novelistic instruments for me. Each individual work calls for its own circumstances. I’m not making excuses. I’m speaking from feeling and experience.

MK: I see what you mean. As a writer myself, I’m thoroughly familiar with what you mean by feeling. At the same time, I can see how readers might come away with the kind of reading experience we’ve been discussing.

There’s something really important to me about what you’ve been saying, this idea that in your opinion, women can go beyond sexualization, or exist wholly apart from it, and take the story in an entirely different direction.

I can only tackle these complicated questions through fiction. Without demanding it be positive or negative, the best that I can do is approach these stories, as they are, inside of me.

HM: Right. I do feel that women have rather different functions from men. Maybe it’s cliché, but this is how men and women survive—helping each other, making up for what the other lacks. Sometimes that means swapping gender roles or functions. I think it depends on the person, and on their circumstances, whether they see this as natural or artificial, as just or unjust. Whether they see gender differences as involving stark opposition, or being in harmonious balance. Perhaps it’s less about making up for what we lack, so much as cancelling each other out. In my case, I can only tackle these complicated questions through fiction. Without demanding it be positive or negative, the best that I can do is approach these stories, as they are, inside of me. I’m not a thinker, or a critic, or a social activist. I’m just a novelist. If someone tells me that my work is flawed when viewed through a particular ism, or could have used a bit more thought, all that I can do is offer a sincere apology and say, “I’m sorry.” I’ll be the first guy to apologize. 

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MK: In the hardboiled novels of Raymond Chandler, women usually show up with a mission, or a job for the man to perform. To some extent, your work must draw from a reserve of how women are depicted in the novels that you’ve read, since what we read is hugely influential on what we write.

But of all the women that you’ve written, the one that stays with me most persistently is the protagonist in the short story “Sleep” (The Elephant Vanishes, 1993). I’ve read lots of female characters written by women and lots of female characters written by men, but to this day, I’ve never encountered another woman like the character in “Sleep.” It’s an extraordinary achievement.

HM: That story was published in the New Yorker, at a point when I was basically an unknown writer in America. Most of the people who read it evidently thought that “Haruki Murakami” was a woman. I’ve actually received a lot of letters from women thanking me for writing it so well. Never saw that coming.

MK: Am I correct that “Sleep” is the first time you wrote a story from a woman’s perspective?

HM: Yes, I think that’s right.

MK: What was it about that moment that made you want to focus on a female character? Did it just sort of happen on its own?

HM: I wrote that story when I was living in Rome. Not exactly verging on a nervous breakdown, but seriously agitated by the publicity surrounding Norwegian Wood, which was a runaway bestseller in Japan. I’d had enough, and wanted to escape into another world. So I left Japan for Italy and laid low for a while. I got sort of depressed, which made writing impossible. But one day, I had the urge to write something again, and that’s when I wrote “TV People” and “Sleep.” I remember it was early spring.

MK: Which story did you finish first? “TV People”?

HM: I think “TV People” came first. I saw one of Lou Reed’s music videos on MTV, and I was so inspired that I basically wrote it in one go. Then I turned to a female narrator for “Sleep.” That felt like the best way of expressing what I was feeling at the time. I wanted some distance, perhaps even from myself. Maybe that’s why I went with a female protagonist. From what I can recall, I wrote that one pretty quickly too.

MK: “Sleep” is stunning. Not being able to sleep is like living in a world where death doesn’t exist. The disquiet, that distinct brand of tension that never lets up for an instant. It’s the perfect metaphor for a woman’s existence… I’m assuming it took you a few days to write? Considering it’s a short story.

HM: Sure, but I’d say it took about a week to polish.

MK: I know that I’ve spent more than a few days working through “Sleep” line by line. I’ve really never read a woman like this before. As a woman, it was such a joy to encounter a “new woman” in a text. All the more surprising because she was written by a man. Reading it was such a wonderful experience for me.

Out of all the female characters in your fiction, the woman in “Sleep” stands above the rest for me. As a feminist, when I found this character, it built a sense of trust between me and your work—and a tremendous sense of trust at that. In practical terms, this means a confidence in the writing, in the words themselves… I know you’ve done Japanese translations of short stories by the female writer Grace Paley, so maybe there’s some kind of connection there. In terms of how you create female characters.

HM: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I decided to translate Grace Paley’s fiction because I find it really interesting. I wasn’t really conscious of how she depicted women. When I was writing “Sleep,” I just wrote down whatever I was thinking, figuring this was what a woman would be like under the circumstances. The narrator just happened to be a woman that time around. I wasn’t making any conscious effort to explore the female mind.

As a woman, it was such a joy to encounter a “new woman” in a text. All the more surprising because she was written by a man.

MK: When writing a female character, there are certain motifs that can be used to satisfy the expectations of male or female readers about what makes for a believable woman, but this story doesn’t have any of that.

HM: Except for the ending, when she parks her car at the waterfront at night. In that one scene, I was keenly aware of the main character being a woman. Two guys surround a woman’s car on a dark night and start rocking it back and forth? That must be really scary.

MK: It would be pretty scary for a man too, but maybe more so for a woman.

HM: In every other respect, I wrote the character to be a human being, without really being conscious of her as a woman.

MK: Right. I think it’s this way of creating distance, focusing on the human—because that’s what it is, the human aspects of the female character—that illuminates her status as a woman, at least in my mind. I’ve never read a woman like this anywhere else. What a wonderful story.

HM: Looking back, I think it could have worked equally well if the main character was a househusband and the wife was a female doctor or a dentist, and the husband can’t sleep and is awake all hours of the night, cooking and doing laundry or what have you. Still, that would have been different in some ways, I suppose.

MK: I think it’s important that the couple has a son. It’s the woman who gave birth. Her awareness of this gives her a sense of despair that the father can’t exactly share.

HM: There’s also the resentment that she feels toward her husband. I feel like that kind of resentment is unique to women.

MK: It goes beyond resentment, but there’s definitely something there.

HM: Yeah. Sometimes when I’m walking around the house, I can feel it behind me. Seeping into the room.

MK: I’ll take seeping any day. In most marriages, it’s a flash flood! So, I’m thinking about how the son and father are depicted doing things in similar ways, like how they wave to her. Because the resentment isn’t spelled out for you as such, the reader gets to process it as this unnamable sensation. Having her read Anna Karenina is a good touch too.

HM: Anna Karenina. Another classic example of resentment toward a husband. Maybe Tolstoy, in his home life, felt the same kind of tension seeping into the room.

MK: You’ve written lots of male characters in your career, but do you think it’s possible that in future books there will be female examples of characters like Menshiki in Killing Commendatore, who are a little bit mysterious or unfamiliar, characters who make you say, “Whoa, this is new”? Or do you suppose the female characters will continue to play this sort of mythological role, more of a pragmatic function?

HM: I’ll continue creating new characters, different from the ones that came before, which certainly applies to women too. Like Shoko Akigawa, for example, who may be a supporting character, but in my view is a departure from most of the characters I’ve written. There’s something really special about her to me. I have this desire to learn more about her. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

MK: I’d be curious to know what she’s been reading. What do you think is on her nightstand? The grittiest hardboiled novels she can find? I’m dying to know. Like, when she sits down with a book, what would it be? I’m coming up short.

HM: Probably something epic, like Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

MK: Shoko’s a tough cookie, huh? Some novels give you all the details on a female character, her hairstyle, her clothes…like in Chandler, where the first time we see a woman we get a head-to-toe description, giving you a clear image of her. In your novels, the characterization has a tendency to start off with minute details about clothes. Where do you go for information about women’s clothing?

HM: I don’t go anywhere. I just write what I’m thinking. I don’t spend my time researching that sort of thing. As I form the image of a female character, what she wears naturally falls into place. Although I will say… perhaps I do pay close attention to women’s clothes in real life. I’m something of a shopper myself.

MK: The wife in “Tony Takitani” (Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, 2002) is a compulsive shopper, which is how she ends up dying in a car crash at the end. Every time she thinks about clothes, she gets the shakes, a detail which I absolutely love.

As we talk things over, I’m reminded of the variety of female characters you’ve written. I wouldn’t say that all the women fit into a single category. Though of course, writing a female character is not the same thing as making her important to the story.

HM: To be honest, I don’t understand this idea about there being any kind of pattern. We can talk about the women in my novels as a group, but to me, they’re unique individuals, and on a fundamental level, before I see them as a man or woman, I see them as a human being. But all of that aside, what about the wife in “The Little Green Monster” (The Elephant Vanishes, 1993)? She’s a scary one, isn’t she?

MK: Yeah, there’s her too.

We can talk about the women in my novels as a group, but to me, they’re unique individuals, and on a fundamental level, before I see them as a man or woman, I see them as a human being.

HM: I was exploring a kind of cruelty that women seem to possess. I can feel it when it’s there, but can’t claim access to it. I don’t want to get in trouble for going back to differences between genders, but I think this sort of cruelty is rare in men. Men can of course be cruel, but I think they go about it in more structured ways. They come at you with logic, or like a total psychopath. But the cruelty of women is more ordinary, everyday. Now and then, they catch you unawares. Surprisingly, a lot of female readers seem to have enjoyed “The Little Green Monster.” Or maybe that’s not surprising at all?

MK: Yeah, a lot of my friends love that one. It’s definitely one of my favorites too. How can I put this. It’s like the scariness doesn’t register as scary, which allows the reader to accept it as completely normal. It’s a familiar kind of cruelty.

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Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and now lives near Tokyo. His work has been translated into more than 50 languages, and he has been the recipient of a host of international awards and honours including the Franz Kafka Prize and the Jerusalem Prize. He has also received honorary doctorates from the University of Liege and Princeton University in recognition of his works. 

Mieko Kawakami was born in Osaka prefecture in 1976 and began her career as a singer and songwriter before making her literary debut in 2006. Her first novella My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, published in 2007, was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize and awarded the Tsubouchi Shoyo Prize for Young Emerging Writers. The following year, Kawakami published Breasts and Eggs as a short novella. It won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary honor, and earned praise from the acclaimed writer Yoko Ogawa. Kawakami is also the author of the novels HeavenThe Night Belongs to Lovers, and the newly expanded Breasts and Eggs, her first novel to be published in English. She lives in Japan.

The above interview has been translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd.






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