Michael Ackland, "The Existentialist Vision of Haruki Murakami" (Cambria Press, 2022)

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Haruki Murakami has often been accused of being a feckless, merely popular writer, but in The Existentialist Vision of Haruki Murakami (Cambria Press, 2022) Michael Ackland demonstrates that this is not the case, arguing that Murakami has not only assimilated the existentialist heritage but innovatively changed and revitalized it, thereby placing exciting personal possibilities within the reach of his worldwide readership.

Ackland’s study begins by tracing the troubled introduction of such alien conceptions as individualism, democracy and citizens’ rights, and self-interested autonomy into Japan. It argues that Haruki Murakami was seminally exposed to these ideas, and to their modern reconfiguration in French existentialism, during the student protests of the late 1960s, and that the dissent and radicalism of this period has been rechanneled into his fiction.

The first two chapters introduce readers to this formative period and to major, recurring concerns in Murakami’s fiction. Then modern existentialism itself is discussed in terms of its philosophical roots in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and of its fictional dramatization in the works of such authors as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka, and finally as it was received in Japan. Usually foreign conceptions undergo considerable recasting in Japan to heighten their relevance and innovative potential. This, too, is a hallmark of Murakami’s adaptations, and part of his virulent critique of Japanese socialization and conformity, which is traced initially in such important short fiction as “The Elephant Vanishes” and “Sleep.”

The bulk of this monograph focuses on the place of existentialism in Murakami’s major novels. It argues that much-maligned “Murakami man” actually represents a carefully calculated case of failed or partial socialization, which leaves him ripe for unconventional personal developments, and eventually to become an exemplary existentialist figure. In Japan, according to Murakami, the individual typically becomes a regimented, exhaustively worked foot-soldier of contemporary capitalism, or archetypal salaryman, with the potential for terrible excesses underscored by telling allusions to war atrocities and the holocaust. Or the individual can become a free-thinking agent and vibrant alternative to the Japanese consensual norm. Independent decision-making and action are all important, for as Sartre famously stated, “human freedom precedes essence.” In other words, we make ourselves—how this is possible is explored in three chapters, which examine in succession Murakami’s vision of childhood and formative years, his use of the supernatural and metaphor to disrupt social norms and to radically expand the challenges confronting individuals, and his evolving conception of what constitutes meaningful, accessible existentialist action.

Jingyi Li is a PhD Candidate in Japanese History at the University of Arizona. She researches about early modern Japan, literati, and commercial publishing.

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