Friday, 14 June 2013

Haruki Murakami- Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
 Haruki Murakami
1998 (Japanese)/ 2000 (English)

Translated by Jay Rubin

“I feel very strongly that all Japanese at that time had the idea drilled into them of 1999 being the end of the world. Aum renunciates have already accepted, inside themselves, the end of the world, because when they become a renunciate, they discard themselves totally, thereby abandoning the world. In other words, Aum is a collection of people who have accepted the end. People who continue to hold out hope for the near future still have an attachment to the world."

Okay, I'm not exactly a consistent blogger. These these gaps are unavoidable, I'm afraid; I'm such a willing slave to pop culture that my attention drifts between film, music, comics, games, and, of course, books with such gleeful abandon that sometimes I'll float away from one medium for a little while. Recently the mostly-unloved distraction of computer games jumped back into my life with the acquisition of a Nintendo DS and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which consumed my life for a little while. Since I finished it's been sheer willpower that's held me back from slotting in the sequel cartridge and merrily continuing the saga, and so I'm going to do my best in that time to try and catch up on my book reviewing. So let's talk about that.

Old pal of mine Haruki Murakami's Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is perhaps the most curious and unique of all his bibliography. While the celebrated author captured my literary heart through his collection of brilliant works of fiction, Underground is, alongside What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, one of his only forays in to non-fiction. The autobiographical nature of that book and its peaceful and often lighthearted nature made it very easy to swallow and enjoy (although it lacked Murakami's usual powerful narrative), but Underground has a far more difficult premise to gravitate towards, at least for me, anyway. It's perhaps best described and categorized as an example of investigative journalism, and was originally published in two installments; although every Western example I've seen has it collected entirely in one piece.

Underground studies the Tokyo subway system terror incident, where religious cult (slash political party) Aum Shinrokyo sent a number of agents to release deadly sarin gas on five different subway trains on March 20th, 1995. Despite the potency of the gas and the planned co-ordination of these acts of domestic terrorism, 'only' thirteen people were killed, but another fifty were severely injured, and literally thousands of others experienced temporary health problems, most of these with their eyesight. The first portion of the book, is about the people who found themselves unwittingly experiencing probably the most harrowing and dangerous experience of their lives, many of whom continued to suffer mentally and physically ever since.

Other critics more professional than I attribute this impassioned attempt by the author to portray the true extent of the tragedy to Murakami's own return to Japan; having lived in the United States for some time, the author wished to reconnect with his grieving homeland. In this book he does this by compiling a detailed look at many varying perspectives of the incident through interviews with victims and unassuming heroes of the day; each giving detailed accounts put into form by Murakami to comprise a fuller picture. The different voices and experience provide the reader with a clear view, offering pictures of bravery, tragedy, and every other human emotion when experienced amongst chaos and danger.

For this reader, such presentation came with both positives and negatives as a reading experience. The problem I faced was simple; despite Murakami's talents and despite his efforts to interview a wide variety of personalities, there were only so many times I could read about variations upon the same theme and settings without losing interest. To be honest this is probably true of most non-Japanese readers, and perhaps a somewhat inevitable problem with such a specific genre of book.

As a result, I took my time (and thus my blog stayed silent), and it was a while before I finished the first portion (the longer portion, I must add). When I started part two, however, the change in tone hooked me and I flew through the rest of the book with renewed vigour. Part two of the book is subtitled The Place That Was Promised, and was originally published a year after the first. It continues the interview format with one crucial difference; while the first section only spoke with victims of the subway sarin incident, the second only talks to members of the perpetrating group; Aum Shimrokyo. To be honest, after reading the testimonies of the victims became somewhat of a repetitive slog, learning more about Aum, it's origins, philosophies and inner-workings was far more interesting. Needless to say, they seem to be a pretty crazy group of people, combining elements of religion and politics under the command of a single leader, awaiting armageddon. When interviewing these people, Murakami is far more inquisitive and challenging, making things even more interesting.

For me, Underground really was a challenge through the middle segments. While I'm familiar with Murakami's portrayal of Japan in his fiction, there's still a massive culture gap in reality, and as such it's difficult to truey invest in the accounts. Murakami's intentions of encapsulating the horror of suburban terrorism upon daily lives only intrigued for a certain length of time. The second part of the book was a lot better to me; partly because the depiction here of Aum strikes me as the definite inspiration for the plot of Murakami's magnum opus (well, in my opinion) 1Q84, but mostly because insane death cults are a lot more interesting than normal people. Ultimately though, Underground won't stay with me as a book by one of my favourite authors, but as an interesting curio; an experimental non-fiction that left me with a lot to think about.