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A Japanophile in New York July 23, 2012

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Books, Food, Games, Manga, Personal, Travel.
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It’s a common habit of mine that no matter where I go on holiday, I always end up drawn to the Japanese stuff. New York, the concrete jungle where dreams are made of, was no different.

As one of the most famous and most cultured cities in the world it’s no surprise NYC caters well for the Japanophile. So where should you visit if you find yourself in the Big Apple in need of a Japanese fix? (more…)

1Q84 (Books 1, 2 and 3) by Haruki Murakami January 15, 2012

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#1Q84 #Murakami #WIN

Long anticipated, the English translation of Murakami’s latest novel arrived this autumn to the expected fanfare and hype (not least from myself). Split into a slightly indulgent three volumes (presented in two books), the novel is typical Murakami, though probably not vintage.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. The comforting, familiar tropes of a Murakami world always bring a certain warmth: elegant Japanese cities and quaint small towns; specific descriptions of music, drinks and food preparation; stoic protagonists with (relatively) simple lives shaken by events outside of their control. Not to mention the supernatural element behind it all that’s never fully explained.


Norwegian Wood (2011) April 3, 2011

Posted by ayasawada in Books, Film.
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It is, in many ways, the impossible adaptation. The popularity of his novels makes it surprising that there has been just one ‘Murakami’ film before. The fact that the plots often feature the oddly supernatural, or not very much actually happening, makes it less surprising. Yet, as Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani showed, capturing the essence of what makes the novels means capturing the inner-monologue, the feeling that drives the story, is what’s most important.

A friend said to me once that Tony Takitani was the “most beautifully pointless film” she’d ever seen. Slow-moving, but gorgeously filmed, and full of emotion (at least that that readers of the original short story would have interpreted), its point was perhaps lost on those who fell asleep during the snail’s pace.

So what of Norwegian Wood, the most eagerly awaited of Murakami adaptations? It is, in many ways, as faithful an adaptation as we might get —  like Ichikawa, director Tran Anh Hung captures perfectly the incredible feel of a Murakami novel. The whole thing is like a crisp, gorgeous dream, every scene dripping with angst and emotion. That it’s as slow as Tony Takitani perhaps again shows its faithfulness to the source material.

(SPOILERS AHEAD and some of this might not make sense to those who haven’t read the novel) (more…)

Manga and Medicine September 15, 2010

Posted by ayasawada in Books, Culture, Japan, Manga, Science.
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Tezuka's Black Jack casts a shadow on many medical manga

In June one of my dreams came true: I went to a comic book conference for work.

The first ever Comics and Medicine conference taught me much about how comics are being used to improve healthcare and patient (and doctor) understanding. And, much to my delight, manga came up a lot. (more…)

‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami July 7, 2010

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Murakami What I Talk About When I Talk About Running cover

I like Murakami’s fiction, but I also like his non-fiction. Underground was an unexpectedly brilliant take on the Tokyo Gas Attacks and, as I previously wrote, an interesting form of journalism.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running isn’t quite as polished as that. It’s a collection of random thoughts and essays loosely strung together by a narrative about Murakami’s training.

Sometimes he’ll stick with the standard narrative — his training for the New York Marathon — but he’ll veer off wildly in between that as he tells you what he thinks, well, while he’s running.

For Murakami fans like myself, this is brilliant. What we like about the author is his view of the world, his opinions, his perspectives. Murakami touches on almost everything, from his career change to writing, to his childhood, love, music, different world cultures as he’s experienced them. Sometimes this will be matter of fact, but interesting takes on life in Hawaii or Boston. Other times he’ll flirt a little with climate change scepticism. And on occasion he’ll say something really insightful, like his approach to writing, how it makes him feel, or what, to him, is really important about life.

It’s beautifully written (and translated) but not especially well structured. He says he didn’t intend to write a proper book, hence the slightly odd ending of a disappointing New York marathon and a couple of chapters on the triathlon, which offers more of a traditional uplifting (in a sense) finish.

It’s the usual philosophical/existential/slightly ponderous, a little morose, mostly matter-of-fact Murakami that we loves, and short enough that its shortcomings don’t annoy or distract too much.

And yes, it did kind of make me want to run more. Although I will never be that motivated!

After Dark by Haruki Murakami May 31, 2010

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After Dark
After Dark
was the last English-translated Murakami novel I had left to read, so it was somewhat disappointing that I found it rather slight.

It’s a short book — not necessarily a bad thing considering South of the Border West of the Sun is one of my favourite novels. But I found this ‘Murakami-lite’, much like I did Sputnik Sweetheart: mysterious, but ultimately unsatisfying. Like Sputnik, some of the plot strands don’t go anywhere and the supernatural things (like Eri’s mysterious slumber and experiences) go unexplained, at least in the context of the rest of the books events.

I realise how idiotic it sounds to be seeking ‘explanation’ in a Murakami novel — part of his charm is that ethereal quality that accompanies his stories; communication through empathy more than explicit explanation. When it works, as in Norwegian Wood, A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World or Kafka on the Shore, it’s very good. But when it doesn’t quite click it feels a bit like he’s trying too hard or going through the motions only to tail off as he realises it’s going nowhere.

That sounds like a very harsh criticism, but it’s because of the regard I have for Murakami as my favourite author and a writer I look up to. But his standards are head and shoulders above most writers, so when an effort is even a little below par, it’s noticeable.

This isn’t to say After Dark is unenjoyable or difficult to read, far from it. For the ‘real world’ bits of After Dark, the old Murakami charm is clearly there — Mari and Takahashi, for example, are wonderful rounded characters with an obvious chemistry. And given that it’s so short, it’s worth reading for those parts alone.

My opening sentence is the key to why I was so disappointed, I think. Having saved this one for so long as ‘the last Murakami novel I’ll have in a while’ part of me was hoping for a real gem. I guess I’ll just have to hold out for the translation of IQ84 (or really get serious about my Japanese study…).

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami February 7, 2010

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Wind up bird cover

I just found this post languishing in the bottom of my drafts folder. Goodness knows how long it’s been sitting there for. It’s not even that good an analysis (which is probably why I didn’t publish it right away). But it seems a waste to trash it, so here you go.

Last night I finished a book for the first time in months. I’m very pleased with myself, especially since I love reading but never seem to make time to do it these days. Such is the legacy of working in news — you never want to fricking read anything!

The book I finished was always going to be a Murakami novel. They’re the only things that can sustain my interest these days it seems! Wind-up Bird is supposedly Murakami’s opus. Certainly it feels pretty hefty at close to 600 pages, with multiple characters flitting in and out and lots of random changes of storytelling and viewpoint (though, yes, most Murakami is like that). And Kafka on the Shore was certainly as long as well.

Did I like it though? I did. Yes, I did feel that it was a tad too long — the story just seemed to drift for the final 200 pages or so, unlike Kafka, which built nicely to a crescendo. But the majority of the novel really sucks you in: the usual dreamy Murakami descriptions, the lonely, down-to-earth hero, the troubled woman he has to save. The quirkiness of the characters is also something to be admired. Sure, there are weirdo’s in all his novels, but few with the charm of May Kasahara, or the tangibility (is that a word?) of Creta and Malta Kano.

I was satisfied with the ending too. A good Murakami ending: happy, but not totally resolved.

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami April 10, 2009

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Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is in a way his foray into fantasy-type storytelling. There’s even a Lord of the Rings-style map at the start of the book!


The plot, well, there’s really two. One is set in a mysterious walled-off village where Unicorns roam the fields. An unnamed stranger arrives to work as a ‘dreamreader’. In the second,  a Tokyo man, some kind of data-manipulator for the government, does a job for a mysterious research scientist, which leads him into a world of espionage, intrigue and fable.

The second one will be familiar to Murakami fans. You can imagine the protagonist already, can’t you? Loner who likes jazz and old movies, very intelligent, knowledgeable, good cook. You can imagine the female characters as well, can’t you? Beautiful, sexy in a believable way, but ‘quirky’. There’s nothing wrong with that. Far from it, it’s what Murakami knows best, and what we as his fans enjoy.

What gives this novel depth and sets it apart from the Murakami novels is that first plotline, the mysterious fantasy world. It’s not until two-thirds of the way through the book that the connection between the two stories becomes clear. And even then it is accompanied by one hell of a scientific explanation (it even needs a flow diagram!). It’s an interesting, and I’m sure tried before, device. But Murakami executes it well. Both worlds are rich with the sort of everyday detail that make his prose engaging. The styles of the two worlds, one chapter of each following the other, complement each other well and stop you from getting bored.

As a science writer, I was immediately wary of the scientific content, coming from an author not normally associated with science fiction or a background in science. But Murakami represents the scientific community surprisingly well. Sure, the theory he describes is nonsense, but he picks up the language of neuroscience and psychology well and he nails the personality and drive of a researcher. And it’s interesting theory, almost plausible, even if it does hurt your head to try and understand it. How much more accurate does it get than that?

There’s a lot of interesting ideas here, which from the Wikipedia entry, seem to have been collected from his many different literary influences. From losing one’s shadow to the essence of consciousness, industrial espionage and Japanese folklore, it makes for fascinating stuff. It’s not my favourite Murakami novel, but I really enjoyed it. For me, the central theme is the point of life and what you’re looking to get out of it. The main character wrestles with issues of mortality and existence. He concludes that its the small things in life, the things that you enjoy and make you you, that are what makes life worth living. A simple, and unoriginal, point, but one always worth making.

‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ by Haruki Murakami October 28, 2008

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A relatively short Murakami novel at less than 200 pages, but I really feel brevity enhances a Murakami story. I’m a big fan of his short stories and having just previously finished his opus A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I have to admit I was suffering a bit of reader’s fatigue.

So maybe it’s the brevity of the story, but South of Border shot right into my favourite Murakami stories, heck, maybe even one of my favourite books.

(Slight spoiler warning. Maybe don’t read if you really don’t want to know) (more…)

‘Underground’ by Haruki Murakami September 10, 2007

Posted by ayasawada in Books, Japan.
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Underground cover


In short: The Japanese bury, Murakami uncovers.

Thoughts: I don’t read much non-fiction, and Murakami doesn’t write much of the sort either. But interesting things come from novelists who decide to do something different. (more…)