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Steffen Hantke

Murakami Haruki and Postmodern Japanese Noir

One of the essential means by which noir discourse in literature and film has always reflected upon its own status as a cultural construct, from the classic cycle on, is the motif of the spatial other. It postulates the existence of a space outside the noir universe, a universe that traditionally appears claustrophobic and deterministic, vast, unknowable, and of uncertain dimensions. The idea of a refuge from this nightmare serves as an object of utopian desire or postlapsarian nostalgia for characters weighed down by the existential pressures, chafing against the urban grittiness, and suffering from isolation and alienation. It is a place of vague memories or unfulfilled promises. In the attempt to escape, characters must cross the boundaries that encircle the noir universe, or at least bump up against them when the attempted escape fails, which is almost always the case. Through the attempted transgression, the boundaries are made visible. Once reified, they become available as a self-reflexive metaphor through which noir discourse examines its own origins and effects.

Examples of this trope in classic noir and hardboiled discourse abound, from the brief rural idyll at the end of Goodis’ Down There and the desperate dash across the border in Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, to Joe Gillis’ aborted attempt to go back to his native Ohio in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Dix Handley’s failed return to the Kentucky farm of his youth in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Neo noir is equally enamored of the trope. The final sequence of David Fincher’s Seven takes us out of the city with the promise of narrative and dramatic resolution. Alex Proyas’ Dark City features a place called Shell Beach, vaguely remembered by John Murdoch, the film’s protagonist, as a childhood sanctuary to which he tries to return. Other noir hybrids, like Josef Rusniak’s The Thirteenth Floor and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, features key-scenes that stage the literal breaking through of the boundaries around the noir space. In keeping with noir’s cynicism and determinism, most of these attempted escapes fail: Dix Handley collapses at the moment of arrival, Joe Gillis ends up floating in Norma Desmond’s pool, and Fincher’s two detectives are reeled back into the iron maw of the city. But even these spectacular failures shed light on the existence of boundaries and, paradoxically, confirm rather than cast doubts upon the existence of an outside, a spatial other.

Murakami Haruki’s two novels published, respectively, before and after Hard-boiled Wonderland handle this trope largely in accordance with classic American noir in film and fiction. A Wild Sheep Chase begins in Tokyo, presented as a space of postindustrial urban alienation worthy of Chandler’s Los Angeles or Wilder’s Hollywood. From there, the novel’s protagonist is sent on a mission that takes him to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido. The shift in location is accompanied with a shift in climate. Murakami draws attention to the cold, snow, and wind, all elements of a natural world that has been completely obliterated from the urban space in which the novel starts. But despite its remoteness, Hokkaido does not offer an escape from the corruption and political machinations in Tokyo. As in most noir discourse, the island merely promises an escape that it ultimately fails to deliver. It is merely an extension of the urban noir space, its periphery, not its outside.

The sequel to Wild Sheep Chase, in which Murakami explores the spatial logic of noir further, begins with the protagonist revisiting the locations of the earlier novel. But then Dance Dance Dance reverses the topographic sequence, as the more substantial part of the novel takes place not on Hokkaido but in Tokyo. This move from the periphery to the center suggests that there is no escape from the noir space. To the same degree that this is a sign of resignation in the face of an inescapable spatial and ideological totality, it also signals Murakami’s willingness to conform to the rules of the genre. The forces of postindustrial capitalism associated with the urban environment have extended their reach far enough that no uncolonized spaces are left; their control of the narrative universe is total.

Or so it seems, because embedded in this totality are small niches or lacunae exempt from the forces that dominate the noir city. These spaces, it turns out, do not follow the logic of center versus periphery, but presuppose instead a spatial model closer to that of the field. This field is humming with informational density and postmodern paranoia. It is organized through an infinite connectedness that signals vitality, agency, and emplotment (at least to the degree that noir cynicism permits). Any space exempt, consequently, is coded as dead, inert, static, and void.

A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance feature a building--the Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo—that functions as the novels’ primary metaphor of such exemption or spatial otherness.
“Its undistinguishedness was metaphysical,” the protagonist tells us when he first sets foot inside it in A Wild Sheep Chase (163). He calls it “incomprehensible” (166), uneasily noticing the grasp of entropic forces: “It wasn’t particularly old; still it was strikingly run-down.” When he revisits this postmodern haunted mansion in Dance Dance Dance, he is stunned to find that the old building has been “transformed into a gleaming twenty-six story Bauhaus Modern-Art Deco symphony of glass and steel, with flags of various nations waving along the driveway,” grandly renamed ‘l’Hotel Dauphin’ (21). Though, at first glance, the pressure-cooker of modernization seems to have eliminated the dead space that used to be the old Dolphin Hotel, the protagonist discovers that its essence has merely been condensed into a spatial ghost contained within the building. This ghostly shadow now lurks behind the gleaming façade that so stridently denies the existence of an unresolved past or of history altogether. The elevator stops on the wrong floor, the doors open, and a darkness that is “deathly absolute” will “entrap the unsuspecting guest” (74). Time, which had already slowed down in the Dolphin Hotel to an endless undifferentiated series of days and nights, comes to a complete standstill.

The urban landscape in Murakami’s novels is riddled with such holes, neglected or unexplored pockets and enclosures, which function in radical opposition to the social and economic bustle around them. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, a dry well in a neighbor’s back yard, abandoned and half-forgotten, becomes both a trap and a sanctuary to the protagonist. A dead alley behind his house has the same connotations. “It was not an alley in the proper sense of the word,” Murakami’s narrator tells us, but “then there was probably no word for what it was. It wasn’t a ‘road’ or a path’ or even a ‘way’. Properly speaking, a ‘way’ should be a pathway or channel with an entrance and an exit, which takes you somewhere if you follow it. But our ‘alley’ had neither entrance nor exit […] The alley had not one dead end but two” (12). The circumstances under which this dead space within the busy metropolis of Tokyo came to be are similarly charged with allegorical overtones.

[…] the story was […] that it used to have both an entrance and an exit […] But with the rapid economic growth of the mid-fifties, rows of new houses came to fill the empty lots on either side of the road […] People didn’t like strangers passing so close to their houses and yards, so before long, one end of the path was blocked off […] Then one local citizen decided to enlarge his yard and completely sealed off his end of the alley […] (12)
Jay Rubin, in his study of Murakami, has two interpretations to offer for these dead spaces. “Underground” is associated with “lack of rational understanding, forgetting, free association, [which] open the deep wells and dark passageways to the timeless other world that exists in parallel with this one” (33-4). As Murakami’s characters enter these spaces, they begin to explore their own inner space, recover what has been lost, and, in the process, address their sense of displacement and isolation. But in the process of recentering the self through voluntary sequestration at the bottom of the well, the protagonist of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle also discovers that his own narrative is bound up with suppressed memories of the Japanese atrocities in Manchuria. The psychological amnesia, which begins to dissolve as a result of the protagonist’s self-imposed sequestration, remains a collective cultural blind spot. Because the protagonist’s self-recognition remains an atypical event in the larger Japanese culture, Rubin concludes that the space functions as an allegory of the 1980s, “a vacant, stagnant, dissatisfying decade, just beneath the surface of which lurks a violent history” (213).

The collective aspect of Rubin’s reading strikes me as particularly relevant for the dead back alley that features so prominently in Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Postwar economic growth on one side and xenophobia on the other side are “squeezing down” this space. This condensation is not a process that ends in a moment of explosion. Instead, it squeezes, figuratively speaking, the air out of the space. It’s a dead space, hostile and uninhabitable. It is ejected from the Lacanian symbolic order and placed in the realm of abjection, Julia Kristeva’s term for the pre-linguistic space of the mother that must be rejected before the adult self can come into being. As a postmodern author, Murakami sees abjection less in Kristeva’s terms of psychological individuation, and more as a technologically mediated process that creates the self, “from the outside in,” as an extension of industrial capitalism. To be outside the economic order, cut off from the formative powers of circulation, constitutes abjection. Following this logic, the origins of the mysterious back alley are relegated to the realm of conjecture and myth. To the extent that the space does not altogether fall into the realm of the unspeakable, it appears as a piece of urban legend, passed on in an informal non-commodified oral tradition. Except for this form of transmission, which is either pre-industrial or functions largely outside the commercial mechanisms of industrial culture, the space has no existence at all. Its peculiar nature cannot be captured in language since it is nothing “in the proper sense of the word.”

Rubin’s psychological and historical reading of the topography is convincing, especially in its account of the opposition between the ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ nature of both spaces. But by the same toke, Rubin is unconcerned with the fact that Murakami borrows strongly from the generic conventions of noir film and fiction. These conventions, he himself, paradoxically, admits, appeal to him because of their “authenticity” (Miyawaki 114). Murakami’s neo-noir narrators are hardly authentic; rather they are masks the author wears in order to reflect back on his own social role and the limited range of his influence. As Murakami admits in an interview, “it isn’t easy to live in Japan as an individualist or a loner. I’m always thinking about this. I’m a novelist and I’m a loner, an individualist” (Miyawaki).

In the context of Murakami’s noir pastiche, social allegory takes its place next to individual psychology. The “dead spaces” in his fiction are reminiscent of Fredric Jameson’s description of postmodernism as the historical stage at which modernism’s project has finally been completed. “In modernism,” Jameson argues,

some residual zones of ‘nature’ or ‘being’, of the old, the older, the archaic, still subsist; culture can still do something to that nature and work at transforming that ‘referent’. Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good. It is a more fully human world than the older one, but one in which ‘culture’ has become a veritable ‘second nature’. (ix)

Jameson’s categorization places Murakami’s writing at the modern end of the spectrum of contemporary culture, which is surprising given Murakami’s reputation as a quintessential postmodern author. It raises the question whether Murakami intends these “residual zones” to stand for “‘nature’ or ‘being’, […] the old, the older, the archaic,“ as Jameson puts it. In Murakami, these zones require the kind of cultural labor Jameson regards as a prerequisite of their completed colonization by modernism. But it is doubtful whether this labor is progressive, pushing the entire field toward a state of completed modernization, or whether it is already part of a postmodern nostalgia that recuperates these spaces in the same manner Murakami “constructs” noir discourse. True, Murakami’s “residual zones” are associated with nature--the snowy countryside of Hokkaido, for example, to which the protagonist of A Wild Sheep’s Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance travels. Tokyo, by comparison, has “weather” or “climate” only in the figurative sense of the word, while Sapporo’s and the mountainous countryside of Hokkaido are under the sway of Nature, exposed to snow, wind, and rain. But the transformation of the Dolphin Hotel into ‘l’Hotel Dauphin’ transfers the scene of postmodern transformation from nature to culture. The “residual zone” survives behind the seamless postmodern façade of the hotel, cut off from the image-obsessed frenzy of what is already a post-industrial economy. Jameson suggests that these residual zones have been overlooked or temporarily neglected by the forces of social and economic development, or have successfully resisted invasion. But Murakami explains their existence by seeing them created by the pressures of “progress” itself; a kind of inadvertent secondary product of the process of postmodernization at the moment when it starts writing its own history as a struggle toward completion.


In its visual style, film noir accounts for this mood, and for the somewhat paradoxical meshing of the claustrophobic and the agoraphobic, in its use of deep focus shots and, especially in the work of directors like Orson Welles, in its use of wide-angle lenses. Both devices open the frame up so that more visual information can be included, and thus suggest a larger, less easily controllable field of vision. Simultaneously, however, both devices also crowd the frame, and especially the wide-angle lens brings objects so close that they are enlarged to the point of visual intimidation.

For a discussion of claustrophobia in noir and its origins, see Robert Porfirio, “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Alain Silver and James Ursini, Eds. (New York: Limelight Editions, 1996): 77-95.
A closer look reveals that there are spaces that function, so to speak, as secondary enclosures of this type. In A Wild Sheep Chase, for example, the protagonist is picked up by a limo the inside of which envelopes him “in near total silence” (66); being inside is “as quiet as sitting at the bottom of a lake wearing earplugs” (65). Hard-boiled Wonderland opens with a lengthy scene in which the protagonist is trapped in an elevator’s “impossibly slow ascent” so unnerving in its smoothness that there “was not telling for sure” whether it is ascending or descending—“all sense of direction simply vanished” (1). Clearly, these are transitory spaces—an automobile, an elevator—serving as a foreshadowing of the place to which they are transporting the protagonist.

It is fitting that Murakami has called his series of investigative interviews with survivor’s of the AUM gas attack on the Tokyo subway Underground (published as Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche in 2000).

For further information on the terminology used here, see Barbara Creed’s summary of Kristeva in “Kristeva, Femininity, Abjection” (64-71), and for a discussion of individuation within the socio-historical and cultural contexts of late capitalism, see Mark Seltzer, “The Serial Killer as a Type of Person” (97-111), both in Ken Gelder, ed., The Horror Reader (London/New York: Routledge, 2000).

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Miyawaki, Toshifumi, Sinda Gregory, and Larry McCaffery. “It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing: An Interview with Haruki Murakami.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction XXII.2 (Summer 2002): 111-9.

Murakami, Haruki. A Wild Sheep’s Chase. New York: Penguin/Plume, 1990.
---. Dance, Dance, Dance. New York: Vintage, 1994.
---. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. Berekeley: California UP, 1998.

Rubin, Jay. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. London: Harvill Press, 2002.