Haruki Murakami has always been insistent that he has been very little influenced by Yukio Mishima and far prefers Japanese authors like Natsume Soseki, Junichiro Tanizaki and Ryunosuke Akutagawa. That may be true, but when I read the early novels of Murakami I see the influence of Mishima everywhere.
For example, the beginning of "Wild Sheep Chase" notably describes Nov. 25, 1970, the day of the Mishima Incident in which Mishima sensationally took a general hostage at the Ichigaya Military Base, before committing ritual suicide in the most sensational act of postwar Japanese history. In Murakami's novel, the disaffected narrator Boku and his girlfriend are not paying proper attention to any of this and yet even so they cannot fail to notice that Mishima's face keeps flashing on the television.
"Hear the Wind Sing," Murakami's first novel, is set three months earlier, in August 1970, though written from the perspective of 1978. By 1970, the anti-Vietnam War student movement had collapsed and Murakami's creative universe takes its start in the disillusioned, disappointed aftermath with nothing but the torpid conformity of the everyday to look forward to.
Murakami frames "Hear the Wind Sing" with a description at the beginning and end of a fictional American author called Derek Hartfield, a prolific writer who suddenly ends his life in a bizarre act of traveling to New York and jumping off the Empire State building in 1938 holding a portrait of Adolf Hitler. It's difficult not to think of this bizarre, seemingly fascist suicide in relation to Mishima.
Murakami was born in the same year 1949 that Mishima made his professional debut with "Confessions of a Mask," and for the first 21 years of Murakami's life -- those defining, formative years -- Mishima was the greatest star in the Japanese literary firmament.
How did Murakami cope with the giant elephant in the room that was Mishima? Answer: he did exactly the opposite of Mishima. Mishima's writing is purely, distinctively Japanese -- complicated, phenomenally erudite. Murakami started off by contrast in writing prose that reads like American English translated into the simplest of Japanese with scarcely a Japanese reference anywhere.
The contrast could hardly be greater. Yet when Murakami stepped out of Mishima's shadow and achieved worldwide fame in the 1990s, Murakami underwent something of a Mishima-esque transformation, leaving behind #detachment" in favour of political and social "commitment," of starting to load his prose with dense historical allusions, of claiming in Mishima-esque style that a writer must have a physically fit body to go with a mentally fit mind.
(By Damian Flanagan, writer, literary critic and expert on Japan. Twitter: @DamianFlanagan)
This is the third instalment of a three-part series on famous Japanese and UK authors.