Book Review: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

This will be my second submission for Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge 7.

After DarkTitle: After Dark
Author: Haruki Murakami
First Published: 2004 (Japan; English translation 2007)
Rating: 5/5

After Dark by Haruki Murakami reminded me of carefully-shuffled cards. Two decks representing two separate (yet ultimately and intimately related) stories are slowly merged, chapter by chapter, until they make one cohesive whole that is far more beautiful and evocative than either story would be if taken alone. Murakami is a master of this technique, and he is in fine form here.

Story one: It is midnight in downtown Tokyo. An introverted, bookish, somewhat cynical young woman drinks coffee and reads in an all-night diner, escaping into her book, retreating from the world, hiding from phantoms. She encounters several quirky and unexpected other late-night souls and has conversations and adventures, forming serendipitous attachments and revealing more about herself as the story progresses.

Story two: A beautiful young woman sleeps…and sleeps…and sleeps, still as stone in her bed. A quiet (David) Lynchian drama unfolds which may be literal or metaphor, dream, hallucination or reality, or a bit of each. Any details I could give might spoil the story for potential readers, so I’ll simply say it is subtly surreal, atmospheric and rich in symbolism.

I mentioned David Lynch, and although he is a bit more in-your-face than Murakami, I feel the points of comparison are strong. There is a magical realist air all through the book, where the mundane takes stranger and less expected turns as the story progresses. This is not a work of horror fiction, yet there are several instances of imagery that would be right at home in one of the finer, more understated Japanese horror films. This book felt very cinematic to me, and I can very much see it being adapted for the screen by one of Japan’s avant-garde and visionary auteurs. (I’d suggest Katsuhito Ishii, or perhaps Takashi Miike in one of his thoughtful, introspective phases.)

Murakami has created a lovely, unusual book full of surprises, wry humor, gorgeous prose, artful dialogue, poetic metaphor and cinema-worthy scene-building. Read this if you love the author or Japanese literature in general, multi-layered meaning that will keep you thinking and re-evaluating long after you have finished reading, deftness of language, colorful and theater-quality casts of characters, or plots that coil labyrinth-like back and around and onto and into themselves. Read this if you are looking for the perfect book to escape into over coffee, in an all-night diner, after dark.

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Book Review Rewind: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Japan Lit Chal 7 - DolBelDolce Bellezza is currently hosting the 7th incarnation of the Japanese Literature Challenge.  As this challenge started in June and runs through January 30, 2014, I’m quite unfashionably late to the party.  But as I am currently reading (or rather, rereading) a Japanese work, the time seems right to get involved.

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I originally read and reviewed Kitchen in 2012, and I found it both engaging and emotionally satisfying. Currently, a book group I am part of is reading/discussing the book, so I’m re-reading – something I don’t often do.  I am loving it all over again and will post an update with any new thoughts I have on this second go-around.  This is my original review from my first read, so I have something to compare with my thoughts with after the re-read.

 

KitchenTitle: Kitchen
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
First Published: 1988 (Japan; English translation 2006)
Reviewed: 2012 (original; rereading now & will update with thoughts on 2nd read)
Rating: 4.5/5

Reading this brief duet – a novella and a companion short story – brought me a breath of fresh literary air. The emotions were so authentic and the characters so delicately-drawn that I felt cleansed by my reading. After many heavy, word-thick reads, Banana Yoshimoto’s clean, bright prose was refreshing and heart-lifting, and she never veers into the maudlin or the saccharin.

The novella, Kitchen, is the real star here, and the paired story, Moonlight Shadow, serves to follow up on related themes. In Kitchen, we meet Mikage, all alone in the world after losing her parents as a child, her grandfather as a young teen, and finally her grandmother now that she is in her university years. Her path crosses with that of Yuichi, who trains in biology while working at the floral shop Mikage’s grandmother loved to frequent, and Yuichi’s mother, who has led a colorful, many-layered life. Together, they explore several shades of grief, regret, longing, and hope, and woven through it all are kitchens, both literal and symbolic, which are where Mikage truly feels at home.

This book could have been a terrible downer, but Yoshimoto somehow manages to make a study of grief and loss feel hopeful and uplifting, with a strong sense of rebirth. The effect is actually a bit magical, and there is a touch of the sort of quirky, bittersweet magical realism that graces the movie Amélie and the other works of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There is also some kinship with the quiet side of Haruki Murakami’s work. The story’s form takes shape on a framework of the sort of placid strength and quiet resilience that is to me, if not uniquely, then certainly distinctly Japanese.

Taking Kitchen together as a pair with the short story that shares the volume, Moonlight Shadow, my overall rating would be  4.5 out of 5. I didn’t love the hard jolt of the transition between the novella and the paired short story. I would grant the novella Kitchen 5 stars as a standalone work and Moonlight Shadow 4 stars as a self-contained entity. The story – of a girl whose lover died far too young and who has a strange, transformative experience – also deals with loss and grief and longing, but the abrupt stop between the two story worlds, which do not share characters, didn’t fully work for me.

All in all, I highly recommend this quick read, and I will enthusiastically seek out more of the author’s work. There is something indescribable at play between the lines of Yoshimoto’s prose, and I find its pull irresistible.