Book Review: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

After Dark is a novel by Haruki Murakami, a novel which on the surface seems to be simply a fictional book which does not lend itself easily to analysis of any historical significance. But if one looks in the right places, and with the right mindset, one can draw quite a few comparisons to the history of Japan, and perhaps more broadly that of East Asia.

The novel centers around the main character, a girl whose name is Mari. She is up very late at night at a Denny’s reading, and from this location in the metropolis of Tokyo, a strange series of events unfolds for her that keeps her up till dawn and leads her to very different and interesting parts of the city. Meeting all kinds of people, from silent Chinese gangsters, to prostitutes, hotel owners, and a friend who practices jazz late at night, she experiences the oddness of night and the surrealism of the city.

The main plot for this story does not center on any historical characters, yet the background and experiences of the people in the novel are grounded in historicity and lend itself to historical analysis. Our very first locale in the story strikes us (Americans) as strange and contradictory in what we might imagine as a stereotypical Japan. A Denny’s might remind us of a suburban blue-collar breakfast, not something we can easily transport to Japan. Here is our first clue to the transferability and colonialism of Western, and particularly American culture in East Asia. Our main character wears a Red Sox baseball cap, references to Western writers abounds, and Western music comes up throughout the novel, with nods to musicians such as Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Fuller, and Burt Bacharach. The characters even reference Western fashion with names like Prada and Gucci, and even pay homage to the American painter Edward Hopper with a reference to his painting Loneliness. The characters are Japanese, but the stage is American. One can trace this cultural colonization of Japan as far back as the Meiji period (its famous slogan “Eastern ethics, Western techniques” seems to hold particularly true for this book) and more importantly to post-World War II Japan. During American occupation, MacArthur used the opportunity to remake Japan in America’s image. Economic reforms allowed for the future giant export companies such as Panasonic and Sony. Education was remade to mirror the American model and anti-union policies by the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers quelled any dissent among workers. Additionally, an American committee drafted a constitution for Japan that was decided to be the “will of the people”. The Americanization of Japan was total, leading to the massive industrialization and modernization of present-day Japan.

We can see another aspect of colonialism in this novel as well, that of alienation. Soseki’s character in one of his novels could easily find himself in After Dark with the phrase “loneliness is the price we pay for being born in this modern age”. The sister of Mari, the main character, reflects this sentiment well when, “She knows she will end up as a mere convenient conduit used for the passage of external things”. The cultural problem within the rise of Japan in the Meiji and later in post-occupation Japan are mirrored in this novel. The problems that an endangered Japanese culture (and East Asian culture) faces under the shadow of Western imperialism, and later a global Capitalism seem to be a common experience for Japanese novelists and artists, and one that is shared by Murakami. The trend of industrialization started in the Meiji in Japan has led it to be one of the greatest economic powers in the modern world, yet at what cost? The history of East Asia is one of tradition and culture, which turns into one of colonization and eventually economic inequality and individualization. Ultimately Murakami describes this question in surrealistic terms, drawing on Western literature elements and Western philosophy to bring a modern East Asia to light. An East Asia that is global and Western, one that struggles with similar problems, and yet an East Asia that struggles to retain familial ties under the long history of Westernization that has occurred.


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