Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Murakami Haruki: Godfather of Moé

Yes, I've touched on this before, but lately I've been thinking it deserves expanding upon. Nevertheless, before I begin, some caveats. Firstly, I am a fan of Murakami Haruki, although (as will no doubt become clear) I think his writing has several limitations. Secondly, I am not a fan of moé, although (as readers of this blog will perhaps already have figured out) I remain open to being impressed by shows touched with its fell mark. Now onto the meat of the piece...

One of the key recurring themes of Murakami's female characters is the way that all of them are presented as a mixture of quirky and vulnerable, in just the right balance that lets the (male) reader admire their unique and independent mind, but also fills the (male) reader with the desire to protect and care for her. This is a fundamental quality of moé, and Murakami codified a lot of these characteristics while anime was still struggling, lobe-finned, out of the prehistoric swamps of 1970s/80s kids' cartoondom.

Murakami's women appear in various shades of male fantasy, but the main types have traditionally fallen into three basic categories:

First, there is the whore with a heart of gold. She is usually a college student who sells herself willingly, which is a neat way of circumventing a lot of the less pleasant aspects of the trade, and she uses sex in a therapeutic way, healing the metaphysical wounds of her clients. She is probably the most well-balanced of the Murakami femmes, and her vulnerability stems from the fact that for all her independence, she is nevertheless being exploited (by bad, or at least morally ambiguous people, not by good people like the guy actually fucking her). The girl with the ears (Kiki) from A Wild Sheep Chase, Creta Kano from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, any one of a number of characters from Dance Dance Dance, and the girl Colonel Sanders provides for Hoshino in Kafka on the Shore are all variations on this.

The second type is the ethereal beauty, disconnected from our reality, but who hints at vision beyond our realm. She is often vulnerable through an innate fragility and an inability to relate in a normal day-to-day manner with our world. Naoko from Norwegian Wood is the archetype for this character, although variants on her could include Shimamoto from South of the Border, West of the Sun, Sumire from Sputnik Sweetheart, and the "End of the World" librarian from Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Thirdly, we have the spunky, boyish, inquisitive, female take on Holden Caulfield. Her brash, self-confident exterior usually masks a sensitive, easily damaged soul. She will invariably mock and feign scorn for the main character, but gradually come to care deeply for him. In some of Murakami's books this character is presented as a child, explicitly out of the hero's sexual strike zone, and on others she will be of equal age and a valid romantic partner. Midori from Norwegian Wood, May Kasahara from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Yuki from Dance Dance Dance, and the "Hard Boiled Wonderland" librarian from Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World all fit the bill here.

Finding a foreshadowing of moé in this is not a chore. One could loosely summarise these three character types as (1) Misato Katsuragi, (2) Rei Ayanami, and (3) Asuka Langley Soryu, although Misato is a rather more well-rounded character than Murakami ever managed, and no Murakami heroine ever scaled the heights of melodrama that Asuka attained. Looking more deeply into moé as developed through the 2000s via the media of visual novels and light novels, you nevertheless find Murakami's character formulae cropping up again and again.

The Naoko type is frequently re-conceived as the terminally ill girl that forms the mainstay of visual novel trauma-porn, and the May Kasahara type is a simple variation on your boilerplate tsundere. The Kiki/Creta Kano type is a rarer proposition thanks to moé culture's inability to deal with the idea of sex in any post-pubescent manner, but she is nonetheless present in some form, often in the "big sister" role.

A recent, explicit example of Murakami-as-moé is the incorporation of the 12 year-old Yuki from Dance Dance Dance into the dating simulator/girlfriend tamagotchi phenomenon Loveplus as the character Rinko. Yuki was introverted, Rinko likes books; Yuki was a fan of Talking Heads and, erm, The Police (and, most tragically, Genesis), Rinko likes punk; Yuki doesn't mention anything about fighting games, but, hey, you gotta keep up with the market. What it says about the Loveplus creators that they chose Murakami's most utterly un-sexual character as a template for one of their date-models I humbly leave up to the reader's imagination (clue: either (A) they think their customers are paedophiles, or (B) they think their customers can't deal with a character with any sexual motivation of her own).

Another example of Murakami's world intruding directly into the land of moé is in Abe Yoshitoshi's Haibane Renmei, which recreates "End of the World"'s mysterious walled town (sadly sans library) and puts its heroine down a well for a couple of days a la Wind-up Bird Chronicle (there might be some debate about its moé credentials, but the fact that my wife hates it with a passion puts it very powerfully in the moé category). Here none of the characters particularly fits any of the Murakami archetypes, but the format of the show fits each girl up with her own hidden weakness or vulnerability, from something as simple as Nemu's sleepiness through Kuu's loneliness, to Reki's more complex issues. This is essential to the progression of the plot, and the viewer's task is to dig up and reveal the source of each girl's vulnerability throughout the series.

The existence of the specific character types Murakami created is in many ways irrelevant. What matters is the combination of quirkiness and vulnerability, and the protective response that they evoke in the reader. What Murakami makes clear, and what moé culture shies away from (or rather pretends to shy away from), is the explicit sexual appeal of these characters. Even where the narrator of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle distances himself from any sexual feelings for May Kasahara, May herself is undeniably a sexual being, and by in this way making her existence independent of the male protagonist's gaze, this is partly why she is Murakami's best female character.