All's not well on the home front
Renaissance man Ryu Murakami takes potshots at all things Japanese in his novels, writes Julian Ryall
Reading between the lines of From the Fatherland, With Love, it appears there's a lot in Japanese society that Ryu Murakami is not particularly enamoured with. Sure, the baddies get their comeuppance and meet their ends in grisly - and remarkably inventive - ways, but on the journey to their demise, it is the vacillating politicians, a weak military, opportunistic bureaucrats and bankers, and a public that has mislaid its personal pride that bear the brunt of his criticism.
And given some of the fractures and failings evident in Japan today, it is not too much of a leap to suggest that might be the genuine official and social response to a calamity on the scale that Murakami - who won the Yomiuri Prize for Fiction in 1997 for In the Miso Soup - posits in the book.
Set in a Japan of the immediate future, the parallels in From the Fatherland and modern-day Japan are showing signs of converging. The story starts in what is essentially a refugee camp for the unemployed and homeless in Kawasaki, reflecting the growing number of Japanese who can't find regular work and are living rough on city streets.
In the novel, Japan's influence in the region and the world has declined in tandem with its once-formidable economic might, while a similarly economically challenged America has backed off from the Western Pacific and its Japanese ally.
For anyone who calls Japan home, having these similarities pointed out can make for uncomfortable reading as we look into the future. Murakami might be taking his theories to their limits, but they are by no means infeasible. Given North Korea's recent aggression - detonating nuclear devices, launching missiles and threatening to turn Seoul and Washington into a "sea of fire" - Pyongyang makes a plausible enemy.
Seeking to take advantage of the demise of its arch-enemy (well, one of them anyway), North Korea hatches a plan to dispatch what it claims are dissidents fleeing the regime, but are in fact a nine-strong unit of its elite forces, to invade the city of Fukuoka, on Kyushu, where they declare they are setting up a new government while they await the main body of troops.
Evidence of their elite status - and it is here that Murakami could be accused of over-egging the pudding - are the number of scars the commandos appear to have suffered to their faces, while their leader Han Seung-jin's right ear is "a clump of scar tissue". While these guys - and two lethal female troopers, it must be pointed out - are good, they're ultimately no match for Japan's disaffected youth.
It's a motley crew of unlikely resistance fighters who come to the nation's rescue. They range from Tateno, a teenager who has learned how to decapitate a dog with a home-made metal boomerang at 100 metres, to 18-year-old Ando, who murdered and dismembered a female classmate, and Toyohara, who hijacked a train at the age of 12 and killed the conductor. And that's just three of the characters in the 21-strong mob of misfits, who also include satanists, an expert in making bombs, and a former terrorist.
A personal favourite, and one whose skills are critical to the plot, is Shinohara, who breeds poisonous frogs and insects, and who is described as having "a face as smooth as a hard-boiled egg". If these rebels are different from the accepted image of young Japanese, the politicians are much closer to what the Japanese have come to expect of their elected representatives. The cabinet wears grey suits and does not have a decisive bone in its collective body - and finding a scapegoat seems more important than securing a solution anyway.
Murakami also finds space to poke the media and those in the financial sector who prefer making a quick buck to restoring the nation's sovereignty.
Another telling passage comes when a group of middle-aged housewives turn up at the hotel the invaders are using as their headquarters to present flowers and biscuits to the handsome head of the propaganda unit. For anyone who thinks this is too much to swallow, recall that Fumihiro Joyu, spokesman for the Aum Shinri Kyo cult after it was thrust into the spotlight for releasing sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, was the object of adulation among a section of Japanese women.
More recently, Tatsuya Ichihashi, found guilty of the murder in 2007 of British teacher Lindsay Hawker, attracted a substantial online following for his "cool looks".
Amid the satire, Murakami also invests his characters with some interesting quirks and incorporates interesting twists and spot-on one-liners. Plus there are the savage and spectacular final scenes as the resistance movement puts into action a plan that does not go completely without a hitch.
It all makes for compelling reading from an author who has established a firm following for his award-winning books, but who has also played drums for a rock group, hosted a TV talk show and directed and written screenplays for a number of movies.
Born in Nagasaki, Murakami - now 61 - was exposed to Western culture from an early age, thanks to the US naval base at Sasebo. He was placed under house arrest in high school for barricading himself on the roof of his school with some classmates in protest at the arrival of the US warship USS Enterprise.
He later studied design and sculpture at Musashino Art University, where he wrote his first novel, Almost Transparent Blue, which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and the Gunzo Prize in 1976. Four years later, Coin Locker Babies was published to acclaim; it is widely seen as his best work. To date, he has written 23 novels and short stories.
From the Fatherland was published in Japanese in 2005, but is being released in English on Tuesday. To coincide with the launch, Pushkin Press is publishing new editions of some Murakami classics, including Coin Locker Babies, Sixty-Nine and the first British edition of Popular Hits of the Showa Era.
Translators Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf and Ginny Tapley Takemori have done remarkably well with a work that must have been a challenge. The translation reads swiftly and crisply, and retains a flavour of "Japaneseness"; they have not cluttered the text or encumbered it with over-explanation of matters that may not be immediately recognisable to a non-Japanese reader. It's a plus to be on that fine line of too much explanation that detracts from the flow of the narrative and too little, which may leave a reader not completely at home in Murakami's world.
Murakami has been called the "godfather to the dark heart of modern Japanese fiction" by The Guardian, and a great deal of his work is founded on reality in modern-day Japan. While Ando, Shinohara and Toyohara are products of his imagination, their real-life counterparts may well be bubbling below the surface of this society.
Let's just hope it does not take a North Korean invasion to test that theory.