Murakami startles with Dark themes

By Seth Satterlee

In his latest novel, After Dark, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami delivers a risky split from his normal style. But don’t worry—it isn’t a complete turnaround, just a refreshing break. Diabolical businessmen, inexplicable other worlds, and jazz enthusiasts still litter the pages.

From the first page, Murakami delves into the character of his third- person narrator as if he were manning the camera of a film. He places the readers in the story with the constant use of “we” in describing scenes—we are “a high-flying night bird” or “a midair camera”; it’s as if “we” are on a ride, sitting right next to Murakami, all watching After Dark unfold. The strange characters and the pulsating city scene are inspected like specimens under a microscope. The novel starts at a very low magnification, examining the “gigantic creature” that is Tokyo, and we slowly zoom in, focusing on our heroine, Mari Asai. She sits alone, reading at an all-night Denny’s. It’s midnight, and the night begins.

Haruki Murakami has always been loved by the public and hated by his peers—mostly fellow authors and critics. He is well known for controversy and is unafraid to speak out against Japan. And recently, he has focused his efforts on the corporate society that is taking hold of Japan. Since the “bubble economy” of the late ’80s, the country has drifted into corporate domination, leaving most citizens trapped by homogenized office jobs. What flies under the radar, though, are those peope left out of the system, scrambling to survive.

The situation is getting so bad that even educated professionals are becoming virtually homeless. The more fortunate find housing in the famous “plastic tube” apartment complexes, while the rest find beds anywhere they can—all-night cafés and pay-by-the-hour motels. It’s no coincidence, then, that After Dark is set in an all-night Denny’s and a love motel.

On surface level, After Dark is a tale of two worlds: that of Mari Asai and her late-night ramblings and that of her sister, Eri Asai, and her inexplicable coma. But, just like in every Murakami novel, the story is open-ended. The only link between the two worlds is a seemingly normal—yet psychotic—office worker. He is a concise representation of a stereotypical corporate rat: late hours, clean suit, unshakable work ethic. Yet, outside the office, he is a different person; his inner evil is allowed to seep through. Similar to Noboru Wataya of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, this office rat showcases the trials that arise in a corporation-centric society.

Following late-night drifters, After Dark paints Japan’s problems through the disillusioned, confused eyes of Japanese youth, and although the novel is fictional, it effectively becomes a powerful social commentary.

Haruki Murakami occupies a unique position in the literary world, one only a few can claim to have: He is an influential cultural link between the East and the West. One only has to look at his numbers to understand this strange connection. He has sold millions of books in nearly every country around the globe, and with such a massive and widespread readership, Murakami brings Japan’s struggles to the world.

Because of its new style, After Dark may turn off some of his trusted readers, but Murakami’s constant innovation is what makes him so brilliant. He has become a voice of underrepresented and underappreciated Japanese youth, and this latest work is a solid and entertaining account of their struggles.