Murakami Haruki: Immortal Artist or Falling Star?


On the Verge

Thirty-nine years since he debuted with the novella Hear the Wind Sing, and 29 years since he broke into the global market with the novel A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami Haruki is now 69 years of age. Only days before his latest tome, Killing Commendatore, appears in English translation, Japan’s best-known living author is clearly on the verge of something, but it is hard to say exactly what.

On the one hand, the almost fanatical pitch of the hype that surrounds him suggests that he is about to ascend to the pure land of literary immortality. The international academic conference dedicated to his work in Newcastle, Britain, this spring gave the growing field of Murakami studies new legitimacy, while his withdrawal last month from consideration for the New Academy Prize—which was organized to supplant the Nobel Prize for Literature after its postponement due to sexual misconduct scandals—bespeaks an author with so many awards that he can afford to give them up. With his fiction translated into over 50 languages and hitting bestseller lists on every continent, Murakami’s immense commercial and critical success is undeniable.

On the other hand, having not yet reached said immortality, Murakami only has so many years of writing left in him, as the author has expressed keen awareness of in interviews, and the general perception of his work on the ground in Japan suggests that its quality is dropping steadily. In spite of annual rumors that he is a prime contender for the Nobel, he has been passed up repeatedly, and whether or not these rumors are anything more than marketing buzz, his reputation going forward may hinge on the global reception of Killing Commendatore, the Japanese version of which has so far received uncharacteristically lukewarm reviews.

Usually the Internet would be rife with speculation at this time of year about whether he might win—or deserves—the Nobel, so perhaps we can take the opportunity its hiatus affords to put this issue aside and hazard a guess as to what Murakami might have in store for his fans in the coming decade. As he enters his fortieth year as an author, thirtieth as an international success, and seventieth as a human being, is he set to wow us with a new literary masterpiece, or will he be remembered only for his days of former glory?

A Spartan Man of Letters

Murakami is known for maintaining a spartan daily writing routine. This consists of waking up at four in the morning or earlier, writing for five or six hours, translating in the afternoon, and running or swimming for an hour every single day as training for the marathons and triathlons he competes in each year. Decades of sticking to this routine have allowed him to churn out a large and steady stream of literary output. He currently has 14 novels (including novellas) and 14 books of short stories in print, as well as numerous essay collections and a handful of nonfiction works and picture books.

Counting only his original writing, he falls short of such prolific authors as, say, Charles Dickens or Stephen King, but a little-acknowledged fact outside of Japan is that he is also a voluminous translator of mostly American fiction, with over 60 books bearing his name. These include titles by such acclaimed authors as Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver. Even if we leave aside Murakami’s many essays that rehash the same old material and short works appearing in multiple collections, there remains an awe-inspiring corpus by any standard. If he continues at the same pace in the years to come, we can expect a total contribution to world literature that has rarely been surpassed.

However, rumors suggest that the famously reclusive creator is beginning to relax his routine and open up to media attention. Although he has made no statement to that effect, several developments in the last few months would seem to suggest that they are true.

A Passion for Automobiles

This summer Murakami was interviewed by the Japanese car magazine Engine. Although he has not been outspoken about this topic until recently, it turns out that he is a car aficionado who has gone through many different brands over the years but consistently drives both a convertible and an SUV.

The premise of the interview is that the Engine editorial team lent Murakami a Renault Kangoo minivan when his SUV broke down and wants to celebrate now that the odometer has reached 100,000 kilometers. This is largely an excuse to talk about the Kangoo in an article that reads like a 14-page long advertisement. He repeatedly praises the vehicle, demonstrating a connoisseur’s expertise and appreciation for a wide array of automobile brands even while ranking it above them.

“The Kangoo is great for city riding, completely up to the task for commuting on the highway between my home in Kanagawa and my office in Tokyo, and fun to drive. It also has great handling.”

His obvious passion for cars has been bleeding recently into his fiction as well. While they come up frequently in Murakami’s novels, his latest, Killing Commendatore, takes this to a whole new level. Not only is one minor character nicknamed after a white Subaru Forester, but a discussion between two of the central characters goes on at length about the finer points of different models of Jaguar and the Toyota Prius.

Elsewhere in the Engine interview, Murakami acknowledges that the Kangoo’s fuel efficiency is somewhat poor but sees this as a positive.

“Fuel efficiency has turned into a kind of righteous cause and is becoming more and more controlling, which is to say that we’re going in a really boring direction. An increasing number of new cars are no fun to ride. A car like the Kangoo is hard to come by these days.”

One cannot help wondering whether he feels any responsibility as a prominent public celebrity to address the dire issue of global warming rather than make light of it while promoting a high-emissions vehicle. It is also worth considering what the Swedish Academy, which is said to evaluate Nobel candidates on their political significance, might think of such statements when it reconvenes.

DJ Debut

The second development that suggests Murakami is relaxing his pace and opening up to the media is his debut as a radio DJ. Murakami Radio aired on Tokyo FM and 38 other stations on August 5. It was originally announced as a one-off, but two more episodes are already scheduled. The theme of episode one was music that Murakami listens to on his iPod while running. Tracks ranged from Disney’s “Heigh-Ho” to covers of well-known jazz, blues, and rock ditties, over which he provided running commentary and talked about his personal life. For example, Murakami claimed that he likes to listen to the Animals song “Sky Pilot” when cruising in his convertible.

For those who know his work well, his DJ patter sounded like a choreographed sampler of his essays and interviews, such as those found in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and the as yet untranslated Shokugyō toshite no shōsetsuka (The Novelist as a Profession).

The show was also reminiscent of the online advice website that he ran temporarily in 2015, Murakami’s Place, in that listeners could send in questions that Murakami answered on air. The text of his Q&As on Murakami’s Place was later published and marketed as an eight-volume series. So perhaps the radio show will also be packaged as some sort of product. MP3s? CDs? Or the author’s favorite medium, vinyl?

In August, Murakami also began writing a serialized column on his T-shirt collection for fashion magazine Popeye. Would it be too much of a stretch to wonder if he has plans for a new fashion line as well?

Only time will tell whether the Murakami industry cashes in on these merchandising opportunities. Either way, the author’s preferred songs and T-shirts will no doubt provide the background music and costume for future gatherings of his dedicated fans, nicknamed Harukists, while they eat such appetizing foods from his novels as hotcakes doused in cola, like the Rat in Hear the Wind Sing.

Retirement Hobbies or New Creative Stage?

Murakami’s stated reason for withdrawing from consideration for the New Academy Prize was to focus on writing and avoid media attention, and this would seem to fit with his persona to date. However, it clashes with his recent behavior, as he explores his various hobbies and flirts increasingly with the media and its sponsors. A more likely reason for his pulling out was to avoid jeopardizing his chances for the Nobel by winning a prize organized in protest against it. Then again, perhaps this shift is merely a sign that he is entering a new creative stage. Whether he is winding down and actively seeking to capitalize on his fame or getting ready for a late artistic blooming, one thing is for certain: Murakami’s status as a global literary popstar will ensure the sale of many more books and plenty of merchandise to come.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Murakami in Denmark in August 2010. © Polfoto/Jiji Press Photo.)

literature Murakami Haruki