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.


Martin said... excellent post.

The very mention of moe puts you on shaky ground (as in, even if you're right you'll have a load of people disagreeing with you) since it's such a contested/nebulous term these days. I'm reluctant to say anything about that.

HOWEVER...I really admire the thought you've put into categorising the Murakami heroines here. I will say that he does compose his heroines along a given set of similar lines, and you've done a really neat job of clarifying them.

I recall someone telling me that Murakami can't write 'good' female characters, which I thought was a bit harsh. Many of them do indeed fit into certain 'types' - mainly those you mention here - but that makes them no more or less derivative than in any other writer's CV.

I must admit that I have an irrational weakness for the tragic heroine, but after being heartbroken by Murakami's take on that character type (Norwegian Wood earns the honour of being the first novel that reduced me to tears by the end) I've felt a bit wary of getting too sentimentally attached to them.

The ones I really enjoy reading now are his quirky, kooky ones...Sumire is brilliant, and Yuki from Dance, Dance, Dance is the kind of younger sister figure who I felt a real (completely non sexual!) attachment to. If that's a demonstration of moe, I'll go with your assessment on the subject. ^_^

May Kasahara's an interesting one. It's been absolutely ages since I read the Wind-up Bird Chronicle but I recall her being very fascinating indeed. She struck me as quite complex and thoughtfully written too, which is one of my arguments for Murakami's ability (or lack therof) to create female characters.

This comment was longer than I planned so apologies for that. Since it's been a while since we've seen any new stuff from Murakami, not many people are writing about him at the moment. Looking forward to IQ84 or whatever the new 'un is called though.

omo said...

Like Martin, I have the same reservation in that you slabber this "fell mark" across some kind of grouping that is probably too nebulous and meaningless to say exactly what.

But the treatment of sexuality is one of those elements that will alter the nature of a work. Within the genre, Murakami applies them as appropriate, I believe.

It could be interesting to examine those female characters with a characterization that is more sexualized.

Also, I'm left to wonder "who started this?" Surely it is not just him...

dotdash said...

I think Azuma Hiroki's book does a good job of pinning down the structural background of moe via his "database" model, but here I'm just using the term in its most common iteration (which I think is in any case an inevitable consequence of the structural model that Azuma describes, given the sociological makeup of otaku culture generally).

I don't think there's anything too controversial in suggesting that in its most common usage moe is concerned largely with evoking feelings of protectiveness in its viewers. That I follow this up with the assertion that this feeling necessarily contains a sexual element that many moe fans seek to deny and which Murakami is more willing to make explicit is an area for debate that I'm happy to visit.

As for Martin's points, I agree that many writers recycle character types. If we're talking about Japanese writers creating female characters as cyphers for their male-centred musings on sexuality, then I'm happy to submit one of my literary heroes Abe Kobo. Nevertheless, I think a comprehensive list of writers who "do women" better than Murakami would make humbling reading for his apologists.

I could write so much on May Kasahara, but I shan't here.

As for Omo's "who started this?" Your guess is as good as mine. These things evolve in a fluid way. I guess what I'm saying is two things:

1. Murakami (largely respected) is as bad at writing women as much (largely disrespected) trash manga of the moe variety.
2. There is a thread within moe culture that is perhaps directly influenced by Murakami, perhaps partly down to creators having read Norwegian Wood when they were in their second year at university.

Martin said...

Yeah, I can see where you're coming from there. Taking the 'traditional' definition of moe (as opposed to, say, the myriad of altered ones that create the misunderstandings and nerdraeg that blights the fandom), it makes a lot more sense. I think Muakami limits himself a bit by sticking to his own archetypes in that you can sometimes guess what will happen to a character just by her personality traits.

Whether or not Murakami has influenced the moe thing as a whole I don't know, but I think you're right that his influence on current writers and filmmakers must be considerable. I know for a fact that Makoto Shinkai falls into this area - the whole lost love/lack of connection concept, not to mention the parallel universes of Place Promised and the portrayal of female characters being sometimes lonely and distressed yet often admired from a distance, are very much Murakami. ABe drew a lot of inspiration from The End of the World setting for Haibane Renmei too, but I'm not sure about the characters. Every scene I read of the Librarian made me think of Nemu, but that's just my own mind making connections on its own accord!

Abe Kobo is added to my ever-growing list of 'authors I need to check out soon' then!

dotdash said...

I don't want to harp on about moe and its definition, but I do feel that if the word is going to exist in the first place, it ought to mean something. As I said before, Azuma has made a good structural definition, but here, in the world where we consume and experience moe, there is also the undeniable fact that there are recurring themes and attitudes that are expressed by its proponents and which are worth detailing.

The fact that there are those within moe fandom who are so eager to deny and cut down any attempts to define it suggests to me a fear on the part of those fans of the conclusions that might be drawn from any clear definitions. That said, I understand that it can be very annoying to have ecternally applied definitions define something that is a fluid, constantly evolving internally driven phenomenon.

>Whether or not Murakami has influenced the moe thing as a whole I don't know

I can give you a simple answer to this: certainly not! He has influenced a limited strain of pseudo-literary moe, largely confined to the light novel and some elements of the visual novel media. The moe thing as a whole does not need Murakami.

dotdash said...

I should add that yeah, I can see that Makoto Shinkai is shooting from a similar place generally (it's an atmosphere that you saw everywhere in the Japanese music scene in the early 2000s as well, thanks to the likes of Supercar, Quruli, Number Girl and their followers).

I don't remember any specific connections between the Haibane Renmei characters and Murakami, rather that the arena was clearly influenced by him, but it's such a long time since I've read Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World that I can't remember properly. My copy is in a box somewhere back in the UK, and I haven't been near it for ten years or so. If you can see a connection, the chances are that it's there in some fashion.

Jack said...

I had meant to common on your post when it came out, but I was busy revising. Now I've finished I can get down to business.

Nice post. As usual.

(Yeah, maybe I'm still tired from exams).

I have no doubt that I'll need to link to this post at some point, in a future discussion about Moe.

Enders said...

I always thought that the male characters got way more attention than the females, even though the females exist to be ogled and coddled. I mean, how many times did a female get Watanabe off whether by her hands or her mouth? And what did she receive in return? Granted, it's more complicated than that. But these stories are very much written by a man for men, with a heavy dose of male gaze.