Dogs and Demons, Underground, and Sputnik Sweetheart

By Alex Kerr
By Haruki Murakami
By Haruki Murakami

Should we be feeling sorry for Japan? In the 1980s the Japanese were on a roll. The capitalization of the Tokyo Stock Exchange had surpassed that of New York and American managers were desperately trying to learn the “Way of the Tiger.” The sun was rising in the East, and pundits like Gore Vidal felt confident predicting a future dominated by an industrious “Asiatic colossus.”

This was during a run of prosperity and speculation that is today simply referred to as “the Bubble.” Since the bursting of the Bubble Japan has been in a decade-long slump, and what was once touted as the world’s most advanced and efficient economy has now become a by-word for corruption, fraud and incompetence.

Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons is a harsh, wide-ranging indictment of today’s Japan and the mess it has got itself into. It is also an angry response to Western cheerleaders who still see Japan leading the way into the twenty-first century. In Kerr’s opinion, Japan isn’t leading the way anywhere:

Nothing could run more contrary to the trend of Western commentary on Japan for the past fifty years than the argument that Japan has failed in the pursuit of modernity. However, that is the truth. Instead of an advanced new civilization, Japan has tenement cities and a culture of cheap industrial junk. . . . This failure to achieve quality in the new is perhaps Japan’s greatest tragedy – and it lies at the very core of its cultural meltdown today.

In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union successfully transformed itself into the world’s greatest nineteenth-century economy – and paid the price. Entering the twenty-first century, Japan seems determined to fashion itself into one of the great industrial economies of the twentieth.

The results have been disastrous. An influential construction industry has transformed Japan into “arguably the world’s ugliest country” – its seashores lined with cement, its hills leveled to provide gravel fill for bays and harbours, its towns and villages poisoned by a sea of inadequately disposed industrial waste, and its cities “an apocalyptic expanse of aluminum, Hitachi signs, roof boxes, billboards, telephone wires, vending machines, granite pavement, flashing lights, plastic, and pachinko.”

Kerr is a passionate observer, at his best on environmental, political and economic issues. On cultural questions the results are mixed. I say this not from any personal acquaintance with the state of Japanese culture, but because many of Kerr’s complaints could be just as easily made about the North American scene.

Modern pop culture is a global phenomenon, and its failures are global. Japanese pop culture may be juvenile – dominated by trash like the Hello Kitty franchise, poorly drawn comic books, and wretched animation – but the same is the case in North America. Kerr seems to think it significant that of the 250 films put out annually by the Japanese film industry only 10 to 12 are any good, and that these are largely ignored. But of the 450 or so movies Hollywood produces every year no more than 20 are worth seeing, and these are usually ignored as well.

One of the biggest villains in Kerr’s account of Japan’s decline is the Japanese educational system, which encourages group conformity and submission to bureaucratic authority. In Underground, one of Japan’s best-known novelists, Haruki Murakami, takes a look at how that same submissiveness played out in the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack. In a collection of interviews with victims of the attack and members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult he paints a troubling picture of the “Japanese psyche.”

Murakami sees the cult members as having lost their sense of an autonomous self in pursuit of a higher spiritual reality. Surrendering their egos to a bogus guru, they allowed their lives to be dominated by a phony master narrative not their own.

That part of the story, which takes up the second half of the book, is soon told and easily understood. But Murakami goes further in suggesting that such a surrender of personality “to some greater System or Order” is common to the modern condition.

It is a surrender born of alienation and the need to belong to some kind of human community. The Tokyo subway is home to a lonely crowd, its passengers jammed together in isolation. Even after the gas is released there is little of the sort of group response we might expect in a crisis. Many of the victims have bitter words for the crowds of commuters who walked past the tragedy without stopping to ask if they could help.

Underground is a fascinating bit of first-person journalism that makes us feel all of the confusion, panic and anger of the people involved. The multiplicity of perspectives even leads to contradictory accounts of the same events, with the first three interviews providing three different versions of a simple encounter that the participants should have had no trouble remembering. It’s enough to make one wonder how history is ever written out of such chaotic first drafts.

But it’s easy to see what interested Murakami in the story of the gas attack. Loneliness and spiritual yearning are two of his favourite themes. In his new novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, he is back at both of them with his unique blend of Carveresque understatement and Twilight Zone supernaturalism.

The hero is a schoolteacher in love with an emotionally unavailable woman named Sumire. They remain friends, but soon Sumire herself falls in love with a sophisticated businesswoman who is – the tables turned – unable to return her affections. Frustrated desire leads to things taking a turn for the weird as Sumire goes missing on a Greek island. When the hero comes to the island to search for her, something very strange and mystical happens.

Murakami’s mysticism is born of longing. We are all incomplete, hollow beings in our daily lives. Somehow we have been separated from our real, inner selves and so have no way to connect to each other. Taking this idea one step further, Sputnik Sweetheart imagines a mysterious alternate reality that at one point beckons each of the main characters with the fulfillment of their desires. Is it a danger to give in? Or cowardice to hold back? And what happens when you cross over to the other side?

We don’t know the answer to that because the novel is finally a mystery without a solution, much like the Italian film L’Avventura (which Murakami must have had in mind). But that doesn’t diminish the experience in the slightest.

Murakami’s ability to conjure an image is unmatched by any living writer that I know of. Stylistically he always seems to hit the perfect note, especially when dealing with the intense and yet mostly submerged feelings of ordinary people. Restraint is all. In a scene near the end of Sputnik Sweetheart the hero is breaking up with his mistress while sitting in her car. In terms of the novel’s plot it is an almost superfluous moment, but Murakami handles such a weight of emotion so quietly and with such a fine sense of observation that it seems like magic.

We can’t ask an author for anything more.

Review first published August 11, 2001.


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