by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin
Published by Knopf
208 pages, 2007
Reviewed by David Dalgleish
If it weren’t for the printed, bound object in your hands, it would be tempting to call After Dark a movie, not a book. Haruki Murakami has deliberately, explicitly written his 11th novel by using techniques borrowed from the cinema. The story is told in the present tense by an unnamed, unknown “we” who, like the angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, can observe humans and their problems, but are unable to intervene: they are, in their own words, “pure point of view.”
The filmic quality of After Dark is evident from the first page, when we are presented with a panoramic establishing shot of Tokyo, and the camera eye then zooms in on a point in the great metropolis, where most of the action will unfold. (Although never named, readers familiar with Tokyo will identify the location as Shibuya.)
Murakami relies for the most part on dialogue and description of sights and sounds to convey information; only occasionally does the observing consciousness dip into the minds of the characters. He is so scrupulous about telling us what music is playing in the background of each scene that you could compile a soundtrack. There are references to Alphaville and Love Story. Even the plot, while not intrinsically cinematic, resembles those movies which follow the stories of several characters in one city whose paths criss-cross through chance and coincidence (think Short Cuts, Magnolia, Crash).
More often than not, books which rely on cinematic techniques are not very good, or at least not very literary. They use dialogue and action to make their points without subtlety, cross-cutting frequently between carefully paced scenes in the manner of a Hollywood movie. This approach is the bread and butter of airport bestsellers, and it makes for a smooth, simple read, easily digested in the uncomfortable conditions of a plane, easily turned into a screenplay. But it sacrifices the novel’s possibilities -- complex psychological interiority, omniscient auctorial voice, layered language -- for a by-the-numbers approach which often amounts to little more than glorified screenwriter’s directions.
There are times in After Dark when Murakami does indeed sound like he’s writing directions for a script, especially when establishing the scene at the beginning of a chapter. “Shirakawa’s office.” “The Skylark [a restaurant]. Big neon sign. Bright eating area visible through the window.” Etc. But the novel would not in fact make for a very good movie -- it would be comprised of long conversations between people sitting around doing nothing, alternating with enigmatic long takes of people doing mundane things, sleeping, eating, working. It works better on the page than it would on the screen. Murakami has managed to harness cinematic techniques and use them to enhance, not limit, the formal possibilities of the novel.
There is a downside, though. The attempt to write an almost purely representational novel sacrifices a certain amount of linguistic richness and possibility. The somewhat plain descriptive style creates a degree of tension when Murakami presents us with his trademark eerie, mysterious, or quirky scenes, but when dealing with more mundane matters the writing can come off as rather pedestrian and lacking in vigor. This problem is highlighted by the cinematic approach, but is by no means new: throughout his career, Murakami has struggled to find ways to present the banal without being banal. It is a battle he loses as often as he wins.
After Dark does, nonetheless, reveal signs of Murakami’s continuing growth as a writer. For the first two decades of his career, he used for all intents and purposes the same narrator for his fiction: a young, somewhat disaffected man in his 20s or 30s with a particular worldview, a tone of voice, and a set of likes (jazz, whiskey, cigarettes, foreign movies) which changed very little from one book to the next. This persona gave his books a distinctive flavor that won him many devoted admirers --- myself included -- but after nine novels and dozens of stories, it had become something of a crutch, an artistic dead end. Murakami finally entered new territory in his previous novel, Kafka on the Shore, which gave us two narrators, neither of whom was his habitual alter ego. In After Dark, he abandons the first-person voice entirely, allowing him to present us with a broader range of people from a more neutral perspective. It is a welcome change: his world seems to have opened up.
If After Dark has a protagonist, it is Mari Asai, whom the camera focuses on at the end of the opening shot. This too marks a departure: it is the first time Murakami has focused on a female lead. Mari is a serious, somewhat reserved college student, mature for her years but not quite an adult. She is, we learn, a virgin, and, at 19 years old, not yet legally allowed to drink or vote in Japan. The events of the night will prove, on some level, a rite of passage for her.
All of After Dark takes place during the course of a single night, starting moments before midnight and ending at dawn. The plot -- or, rather, the series of linked encounters which make up the book, which is more about atmosphere and personality than story -- is kicked off by a random encounter between Mari and Takahashi, a chatty and endearing young musician who remembers meeting her once before and draws her into a long conversation. From this chance meeting, Murakami’s prowling camera follows Mari as she is drawn into various meetings with denizens of Tokyo’s night world: an ex-female wrestler who manages a love hotel, a young woman on the run from a shady past, a Chinese prostitute. In parallel, we witness scenes of Mari’s beautiful and emotionally troubled sister, lost in a deep, ominous sleep and in danger of being swallowed up by an enigmatic nocturnal force, and a superficially normal salaryman who is capable of brutality.
Most of the chapters are effectively unbroken takes showing us these characters in real time, awake and troubled while most of the city sleeps. Murakami cuts from an overbright restaurant to a dingy love hotel office to a cab to a darkened bedroom to an office after hours. In less than 200 pages he builds an intimate panorama of the city by night. He insinuates connections between some seemingly unrelated strands, but as usual in his work, the links are tenuous, elusive as dreams. There is no rational explanation that explains everything, although one senses that, on an unconscious level, it is all fundamentally related.
Night is more than just a backdrop here: it is an almost active presence. “Between the time the last train leaves and the first train arrives,” says Takahashi, “the place changes: it’s not the same as daytime.” This is true of all cities, but especially of Tokyo. Murakami expertly conjures up the city’s shadow side: the love hotels, the family restaurants, the little parks where cats prowl, the fluorescent glow of the 24-hour convenience store, the rumble of trucks on the expressways. As a former resident of the city who missed the last train home more than once, I recognized these details, and they vividly recalled the ambience of Tokyo after dark.
However, the book is not just about night in Tokyo. In a wider sense is is about night as a metaphysical notion, an entity, a time with its own rules and possibilities, and what it can do to people:
After Dark likewise opens secret entries into the hearts and minds of its characters. Not so much malevolent as indifferent, the night brings out the inner darknesses of Mari, her sister, Takahashi, the salaryman Shirakawa, and others. They are all lonely souls, somehow lacking or cut off from a family, struggling with some inner despair. They belong to different worlds, but the night brings them together, and their brief encounters are, for the most part, flickers of light, warmth, humanity amid the “deepest darkness of the night” that threatens to engulf them.
Much of Murakami’s fiction is about people struggling with some form of this darkness -- isolation, depression, social indifference. In the past, the narrator’s response was often the equivalent of a hopeless shrug: Murakami’s voice was tinged with a fatalism and solipsism that verged on apathy. But the appearance of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Underground in the 1990s marked a turning away from resignation toward a more active, sympathetic engagement with the Japanese condition.
After Dark continues this trend -- indeed, it is almost a checklist of current Japanese social ills, touching on gangs, violence, illegal immigration, hikikomoris, overworked salarymen with no time for their families, the stagnant economy. While there are no illusions about the difficulties faced by the characters here, there seems to be, for all the book’s veneer of detachment, a curiosity toward them, a concern for their plight. Murakami refuses to retreat into deadpan irony, as he might once have done. Instead he chooses to look, and keep on looking, all night long, watching over these wounded souls like a guardian angel until the morning light, when the shadows, at least for a while, retreat. | July 2007
David Dalgleish is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver and a contributing editor to January Magazine.