The original version of this article was published in the Manila Bulletin on October 25, 2008.
“Don’t you mean HARUKI Murakami?”
“Oh! Is he related to Haruki Murakami?”
Those are the usual reactions that I get whenever people ask me about Ryū Murakami, and I really wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t know who he is either. Interestingly, he and Haruki have a lot in common, and I’m not just talking about their last names.
Ryū Murakami – born Ryūnosuke Murakami – is a Japanese novelist and filmmaker, best known for his novels Almost Transparent Blue and Coin Locker Babies along with his film, a cult classic titled Audition. Almost Transparent Blue won the Atukagawa Prize, a prestigious semi-annual literary award in Japan, in 1976: it was noted for its dizzying, episodic (what some critics have, in fact, called “totally plot-less”) portrayal of Japanese youth caught up in the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll of the period. A few others have called the work the Trainspotting of Japan, but I don’t think I’d be doing either work justice by making comparisons.
One thing to note about the writings of both Ryu Murakami and Haruki Murakami is that they are, indeed, products of their generation. I confess that I have only read two works from Ryu Murakami so far: Almost Transparent Blue, the work I’ve just mentioned, and In the Miso Soup, published in 1997. On the other hand, I’ve read two of Haruki Murakami’s novels (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood) and The Elephant Vanishes, a compilation of his short stories. From what I have seen so far, however, both of them make a genuine attempt to talk about what life was like for the generations of Japanese youth that are still haunted by the effects of World War II on the country but unable to speak due to the restrictions that Japanese society as a whole place on them, especially when it comes to subjects that are popularly jugged as taboo. If you want to know what Japan was really like for the common people after the war, read both Murakamis.
These aren’t their only similarities, of course. Both Murakamis make gratuitous pop culture references in their works – this helps situate the context and setting of the work and it makes it easy for both their local and foreign audiences to connect to the characters at hand. Their notable attention to detail is also commendable: they have the propensity for putting the world under a microscope, and dissecting even the smallest realities for their readers. Finally, something that both of them, most especially Haruki, is known best for would be their beautiful portrayals of loneliness and intimacy.
Now that we’ve tackled their similarities, though, let’s look at what sets Ryu apart from Haruki. I just mentioned how both Murakamis put the world under a microscope.
Haruki Murakami’s microscopic visions delve into the small, insignificant details that make the mundane look beautiful. Ryu Murakami, on the other hand, is beyond brutal with his method: he seems to deliberately focus on what would normally disgust us, searching for the beautiful in drug-induced orgies, friends puking in gutters together and squishing cockroaches amidst unwashed plates and rotten food.
Ryu Murakami’s writing is edgier, with his style and wordplay matching the sort of literary brutality that comes with having a no-nonsense, no-such-thing-as-taboo attitude when it comes to subjects and descriptions that most other authors would avoid writing about like the plague. Most writers, for example, don’t bother mentioning the fact that their characters take bathroom breaks in the middle of all that action. For Ryu Murakami, it’s those very annoying bowel movements and the shakiness that comes with the need to piss that make us fully human.
A lot of literary works attempt to sanitize reality, to gloss over the little details in favor of highlighting the bigger picture. Haruki Murakami puts the bigger picture forward by reminding us of the unique color of dust motes in the sunlight, or the smell of freshly cut grass at the peak of summer. Ryu Murakami puts the bigger picture forward by focusing on the little details, especially if they make us squirm in our seats or want to turn our eyes away from the page.