Tag Archives: Tokyo

Book: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Lungs, subway lines and sarin.

Cult mentality at its worst. An appendix to Cults.
366 pages, ★★★

In March of 1995, agents of a Japanese religious cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin, a gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. Attempting to discover why, Murakami conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved, from the survivors to the perpetrators to the relatives of those who died, and Underground is their story in their own voices. Concerned with the fundamental issues that led to the attack as well as these personal accounts, Underground is a document of what happened in Tokyo as well as a warning of what could happen anywhere. This is an enthralling and unique work of nonfiction that is timely and vital and as wonderfully executed as Murakami’s brilliant novels.

Underground is divided into two parts. The first, larger part focusses on the victims of the attack and their families. Author Murakami does this because he feels the media focussed too much on the perpetrators, and neglected coverage of the victims.

The second part consists of interviews with cult leaders. His conversations make the fictional cult/gang in 1Q84 very believable.

Translator’s footnotes describe the fate of the attackers throughout Underground. Some of the attackers were sentenced to hard labour, some received the death penalty, and a small number were still awaiting trial.

The line between ‘cults’ and ‘charismatic groups’ is a fine one. Arguably, ‘cults’ are just the products of ‘charismatic groups’ gone awry. They exist in every country and need to be kept in check. This book made me wonder: what if Scientology, with all its resources and influence, were to turn violent?

I recommend Underground for anyone interested in cults, and for all die-hard fans of Haruki Murakami. ★★★

Book: After Dark

After Dark
A hooker.

Dark, deeply descriptive account of one eventful night in Tokyo.
256 pages,
★★★★★

At its center are two sisters—Eri, a fashion model slumbering her way into oblivion, and Mari, a young student soon led from solitary reading at an anonymous Denny’s toward people whose lives are radically alien to her own: a jazz trombonist who claims they’ve met before, a burly female “love hotel” manager and her maid staff, and a Chinese prostitute savagely brutalized by a businessman. These “night people” are haunted by secrets and needs that draw them together more powerfully than the differing circumstances that might keep them apart, and it soon becomes clear that Eri’s slumber—mysteriously tied to the businessman plagued by the mark of his crime—will either restore or annihilate her.

Murakami’s thriller After Dark is similar to his epic 1Q84 trilogy. Both books have a small number of characters, are slightly surreal, and both are set in Tokyo. Both After Dark and 1Q84 are highly addictive reads.

After Dark goes further than 1Q84 in one respect. In 1Q84, Murakami writes that good authors “omit description of the familiar”. The gun in 1Q84 was only described in great detail because, according to Murakami, “it is going to be fired”. After Dark, However, is different—every minute details is given excessive description—the wrinkles on someone’s face, the texture of a paper coffee cup, the lyrics playing in 7-Eleven. I like this slowed-down version of time that After Dark‘s excessive description creates. Amidst chaos, the reader (and Eri, who is sleeping somewhere in suburbia) are the only two people who have time to appreciate fine details in this hectic, dystopian novel.

We see detail from every angle. When a prostitute has been hurt by a client, we learn all about that client and his job, his actions and his alibi for that night, even his relationship with his wife. Murakami writes explicitly that the reader’s perspective is “a camera, observing momentarily from each of many different angles”. After Dark‘s tangled plot would take any of its characters years to unravel, but our ‘magic camera’ perspective is granted access to all angles, to every missed encounter, and sees all the coincidences in the story. All the book’s characters, meanwhile, are blissfully oblivious.

After Dark Character Map
After Dark Character Map. Click to enlarge.

I love this book. It’s one of few short novels to rival 1Q84 in quality. I recommend After Dark for anyone who loves being gripped by fiction. ★★★★★

Book: 1Q84 (Volumes I, II & III)

1Q84
The cover consists of three partially-transparent pages, which elude to the bizarre, multi-layered, quasi-real world of 1Q84.

The most gripping book I’ve ever read.
926 pages, ★★★★★

The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo. A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.

As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.

A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s—1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers.

1Q84 is unmistakably Japanese. It’s laced with assassins, quasi-religious cult leaders, underage sex and kidnapping. This bizarre (yet real) world is made even stranger when some of the characters are shifted into an alternate world—subtly different from the real world—called 1Q84.

Aomame (青豆) leaves 1984 and enters 1Q84 when she walks down the emergency stairway of a Metropolitan Expressway. She notices nothing at the time, but throughout the first few hundred pages, the reader (and Aomame) slowly realise that something isn’t right. Police uniforms have changed; a logo on a billboards is the wrong way around; and the stairway by which she entered this alternate world no longer exists. She doesn’t recall major news events, such as an unforgettable murder, or that the US and the USSR are co-operating to build a base on the moon.

In addition, on page 610, Aomame describes 1Q84 is an “…unreasonable world where there are two moons in the sky, one large, one small, where something called the Little People control the destiny of others—what meaning could it have anyway?”

The Little People, introduced slowly, will become increasingly important.

Pages 440 to 610 were the most exciting. Aomame acquires a loaded gun, and intends to use it, and Tengo (in a separate storyline) has sex. This entire 170-page section is constantly tense and revelatory. The plot twists, and we realise the world is entirely different, and more connected, than we were led to believe. Everything clicks into place.

Imagine the thrilling feeling of the 2-minute Changeover scene in Fight Club, maintained for 170 pages. I’ve never been so gripped by a book before. Haruki Murakami is a genius.

Despite the alternate-world, telekinesis, double-moon fantasy world in which most of the story takes place, there are some repeated reminders that everyday life is still happening in 1Q84: a rubber plant (on Aomame’s old balcony), her breasts (being small and of different sizes) and the NHK fee-collectors (knocking furiously at people’s doors) are mentioned briefly, throughout the story dozens of times.

From the furthest perspective, 1Q84 is a book about two childhood lovers (Aomame and Tengo) being pulled closer together via alternate worlds and some highly unforgettable characters. Maybe the Little People pulled them together? ★★★★★