More Than Murakami: Straying from Norwegian Wood

Haruki Murakami became a household name after releasing the ever-popular coming of age novel Norwegian Wood. This sensual and tragic story centers around Toru Watanabe’s life in Tokyo amidst the student movement that took place in the sixties. Norwegian Wood became a hit in the West, with 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. alone. Murakami demonstrates how a coming of age story is one that is nostalgic at its core and more than often harbors tragedy-stricken characters.

As a fan of both Japanese literature and the bildungsroman genre, as well as someone who quickly became a fan of Haruki Murakami, I finally decided to read Norwegian Wood, his most recognized work. The book had been recommended to me countless times and I began to ask myself just how great it is in comparison to his other works.

When I finished reading, I was surprised at how disappointed I was, despite still having enjoyed it. It was beautifully written, but something was still lacking. The book had become so glorified, most likely for its depth and beautiful prose. However, in comparison to his other books, something about Murakami’s portrayal of certain characters painted a picture of instability and insecurity, especially for the female characters. This isn’t always a bad thing, but I feel Murakami exaggerates a bit too much.

Despite a range of talented writers, Japanese literature had become dominated by Murakami and this one book is what the West most frequently associated the genre with. It’s almost a crime to limit yourself to one writer in a genre where the sky’s the limit.

The hangover from Norwegian Wood led me to order a few books from some of Japan’s finest modern authors. I decided on three books, although if I’m honest, choosing which three felt like Sophie’s Choice. I finally decided: Banana Yashimoto’s Goodbye Tsugumi, Ryu Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies, and Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor.

Goodbye Tsugumi follows cousins Maria and Tsugumi as they prepare to spend one last summer together in their sleepy coastal town, bidding farewell to their childhood home. I wasn’t a stranger to Banana Yoshimoto’s simplistic yet equally existential style, but Goodbye Tsugumi took me by surprise. Through the author’s minimalist imagery, the mundane is celebrated and appreciated. This narrative stayed with me long after leaving the page.

Next on my list was Coin Locker Babies. This postmodern novel follows the lives of two young boys abandoned by their mothers at a Tokyo train station. Known for his visceral horror stories, Ryu Murakami explores themes similar to those found in Haruki Murakami’s work. Ryu Murakami’s style deviates, however, in its exploration of the darker facets of life in Japan. Coin Locker Babies is an exceptionally told story for those who seek a coming of age account with a splash of dark comedy and surrealism.

Finally, The Housekeeper and the Professor centers around a brilliant mathematician who, due to an accident, suffers short term memory loss. The story follows his interactions with a lowly but irritated housekeeper and her son. Ogawa’s brilliant use of mathematical terminology is intertwined into the book, along with her usual earnest tone. This book is a much lighter read than the rest, but still manages to make the reader question the world they live in, even in the most ordinary moments. Ogawa leaves you wanting more each time, but that’s just part of her charm.

Japanese bildungsroman novels zone in on the psyche and moral growth of their characters, subjecting the readers to an often turbulent journey. They’re rewarding but also difficult to digest at times. Just as anyone would attest, no human life is devoid of adversity. If you’ve ever sought out the perfect coming of age story, one with a cut-and-paste happy ending, it’s simple: there just isn’t one.

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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