Recently divorced, Taro lives in a small apartment complex in a Tokyo neighborhood on the cusp of redevelopment. The complex is doomed, fated to be torn down as soon as the current residents’ leases run their course.
To the extent Tomoka Shibasaki’s Spring Garden(trans. Polly Barton) has a central narrative, that narrative revolves around Taro’s budding friendship with a fellow resident who is preoccupied with a house their complex overlooks. Decades before, the home was the setting of a book of beautiful photography.
Pushkin Press describes Spring Garden as “photorealistic.” You can feel Shibasaki’s love of place as she describes Taro’s neighborhood in painstaking detail. (In a conversation with scholar Kendall Heitzman, Shibasaki described how one of her favorite activities “is to conjecture about streets and buildings.”) According to Heitzman, Shibasaki’s work is “nearly always hyperdetailed.”
The way Shibasaki approaches her narrative worlds is very different than, say, Murakami or Morimi. Murakami and Morimi are interested in using narrative to construct meaning; Shibasaki is not. Taro tries and fails to make a cohesive story out of the abandoned buildings in his neighborhood:
The people who constructed these buildings must have had some kind of mission they wished the buildings to fulfil, some form of hope for them, but looking at the area in general, it was hard to see any kind of communality or purpose at all. It seemed more like the place was the result of everyone’s individual ideas and contingent circumstances commingling, all their little details then driving them further from one another over time.
As it is for the narrator of Shibasaki’s short story “Right Here, Right Now,” Taro’s “way forward” is “not in the ability to create a unified narrative, but in the act of remembering and practicing empathy in multiple times and multiple places at once” (Heitzman).
The Night Is Short… is a wonderful novel. It has two strengths I’d like to focus on.
First, The Night Is Short… takes up some of the same themes as Japanese novels more widely recognized as “literary.” In particular, it shares with Harumi Murakami’s Killing Commendatore reflections about the narratives we make of our own lives. As Rebecca Suter writes of Murakami, “the characters are invested with the task of rearranging fragments of reality into narrative form.”
Unlike the unnamed narrator of Killing Commendatore, Morimi’s unnamed hero isn’t tasked with making meaning out of another reality. He must make sense of four separate and interrelated incidents in the course of a college student’s academic year.
In the novel’s opening words, the hero tells us, “This isn’t my story, but hers.” It’s the story of the black-haired maiden with whom he has fallen in love.
We soon learn that the hero isn’t satisfied staying outside of the heroine’s story. He wants to become more than “a pebble by the wayside”—a minor, almost invisible prop in someone else’s tale. He concocts convoluted scheme after scheme to bring himself closer to the woman of his dreams. To him, the events of the novel, particularly at the beginning, are merely random occurrences that get in his way.
Compare the hero with our heroine. While the hero continually tries to “seize [his] happy ending,” the heroine allows events to unfold in front of her. Through her openness to experience, “some wind of fate” has “placed her in a major role.”
You could perhaps call The Night Is Short… a lighthearted romp through Buddhist principles of interdependence, impermanence, and interconnectedness. (Japanese-American author and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki takes up these same themes in her work, including her extraordinary A Tale for the Time Being.) Each event that takes place, each character our romantic leads encounter, brings them together in improbable, fantastical ways.
If the novel has a moral, it is this: life is the chaos that ensues when what’s in our control crashes into what isn’t. To find meaning in life is to find meaning in this chaos. The task of human life is, in the hero’s closing words, “Do all you can and then wait for providence.”
(Of course, in a fictional world, there are no real coincidences, only what Morimi playfully calls “plot conveniences.” The author himself is the “god” Mr. Higuchi describes who is “orchestrating all these mysteries.”)
(And why, we might ask, do all of the novel’s magical elements revolve around a mysterious Mr. Rihaku, who shares his name with one of China’s most celebrated poets?)
A second strength, at least to a Western reader, is the novel’s profuse Japaneseness. I’m hard pressed to think of other Japanese novel so tightly tied to its particular time and place. The Night Is Short… is full of more and less obscure (to a Westerner) references to facts of life unique to Japan and Japanese culture. It’s a novel that demands a certain investment in Japan.
Readers will encounter such features of Japanese life as…
404 Recognized Diseases—A Buddhist idea. The 404 diseases break down into four groups: untreatable diseases resulting from a person’s karma, diseases caused by evil spirits, diseases resulting from childhood experiences, and superficial diseases. As our hero notes, lovesickness isn’t a recognized disease.
Asada Ame—A popular Japanese cough drop brand.
Benkei Musashibo—A late Heian Era warrior monk who withstood an onslaught of hundreds of arrows before dying on his feet (i.e., falling over dead).
Benzaiten—The Japanese goddess of everything that flows. Examples include water, music, and eloquence. She is also associated with femininity and love.
Daruma doll—One of the novel’s most important recurring images, a daruma doll is modeled after the founder of Zen Buddhism. It is a symbol of perseverance and good luck, both of which the hero needs to enter a relationship with the girl he loves. Note the resemblance between the doll and an apple, another important motif.
Duralumin—An alloy of aluminum and copper.
Glass Mask—A highly popular shojo manga about the metaphorical masks actors wear to express emotions that are not their own.
Goemon Ishikawa—A semi-legendary outlaw hero portrayed in many classic kabuki plays.
Hibonsha World Encyclopedia—Now entirely online, this encyclopedia was first published in 1988. It is supposedly the world’s most complete, up-to-date encyclopedia in Japanese.
“I intended to take them with me as a souvenir”—An old samurai saying equivalent to, “If I die, I’m taking you with me.” Side note: souvenirs are an important part of Japanese culture. Vacationers are expected to return home with small tokens for family, friends, and co-workers.
Junpairo—I can find no evidence such a medicine has ever existed.
Kabuki—Popular Japanese theater perfected in the late 17th and mid-18th centuries. It has special ties to Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and the setting of The Night Is Short…
Kamen Rider V3—A 1974, one-season Japanese TV show about a motorcycle-riding cyborg.
Kami—Not explicitly mentioned in the book, but implicit throughout. A kami is a sort of divine presence that infuses everything. Rivers. Lakes. Forces of nature. Used book fairs…
The King of Demons—I’m guessing the Japanese word here is mao. It’s a word Japan’s first “Great Unifier” Odo Nobunaga used to describe himself. It is also the word used for Satan in Japanese translations of the Bible.
Koi—Basically big goldfish. Koi are closely associated with Japanese culture as symbols of prosperity and good fortune. They are not normally sucked up by tornados, which do, believe it or not, strike Japan on occasion.
Lucky cats (maneki-neko)—The little cat statues that beckon you into Japanese restaurants. In modern Japanese superstition, these waving cats are talismans of good fortune. Maneki neko are also popular with many Chinese merchants, leading to the misnomer “Chinese lucky cat.”
Namahage—Demon-like beings who visit children at the New Year to encourage good behavior. The best cultural equivalent is probably the threat of coal in a Westerner’s Christmas stocking. Or the Krampus. Creepy as hell.
Namu-namu—As far as I can tell, a pseudo-religious invocation unique to The Night Is Short… reminiscent of the Nichiren Buddhist prayer “Namu myoho renge kyo” (“devotion to the mystic law of the Lotus Sutra”). Namu-namu also calls to mind Pure Land Buddhism; adherents chant the name (in Japanese) of Amitabha Buddha as a form of meditation. Japanese religious practice is syncretic in the extreme, but Pure Land is considered the most widely practiced tradition by the 70% of Japanese who self-identify as Buddhist.
Netsuke—One of the only “Japanisms” Morimi describes in context: “a small sculpture.” The netsuke was invented in the 17th century to serve the same function as a man-purse.
Obon or Bon Festival—One of Japan’s most important holidays, a kind of Buddhist-Confucian reunion with family, both living and dead.
Ozaki Yutaka—A Japanese pop sensation active in the 80s. He “represented the angst of adolescence” for Japan’s young people until his mysterious death in 1992.
Pocari Sweat—A Japanese sports drink never marketed in the US, perhaps because the name sounds nauseating in English.
Rihaku—The Japanese name for the Classical Chinese poet Li Bai, who lived from 701-762. Many of the novel’s magical elements revolve around the mysterious, bigger-than-life Rihaku. (Incidentally, Rihaku is also an absolutely delicious Junmai ginjo sake sold in the US as Wandering Poet.)
Shayokan—A museum dedicated to the life of Osamu Dazai, one of Japan’s most celebrated modern writers. Like many of Japan’s celebrated writers, Dazai committed suicide at a relatively young age.
Shochu—A Japanese distilled beverage less potent than vodka, but more potent than wine or sake. It’s typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or brown sugar.
Shunga—Naughty pictures. Proto-porn. Magazines sold behind the counter. Definitely NSFW.
Tatami—Straw mat flooring in Japanese-style rooms. Tatami come in standard sizes, twice as long as they are wide. It’s normal to give square-footage of Japanese rooms by the number of tatami a room would fit.
Tengu(“heavenly sentinel”)—A yokai, or supernatural monster. In most accounts, the tengu has the power to stir up great winds.
Ukiyo-e—“Pictures from the floating world” or maybe “Japanese-style painting.” Subjects include kabuki actors, geisha, landscapes, and shunga (see above).
Yukata—A thin cotton, kimono-like garment worn in the summer. When in Japan, a relatively inexpensive souvenir.
Yuzu Bath—A traditional treat for the Winter Solstice. Yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit resembling a small grapefruit. Bathing with yuzu is supposed to bring good fortune and ward off evil.
“I am a Metaphor, nothing more… I only follow orders—acting as a link between phenomena and language. Like a helpless jellyfish adrift on the ocean.”—Long Face
As in many novels by Haruki Murakami, 2017’s Killing Commendatore doesn’t have an obvious antagonist. Yes, there are characters with ominous secrets, but, for most of the novel, there isn’t really a “bad guy.” The unnamed narrator doesn’t encounter any serious threats until he undertakes one of Murakami’s signature journeys through a surreal underworld along “the Path of Metaphor” at the novel’s climax.
The narrator’s Beatrice takes the form of Donna Anna, a character from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, as represented in a painting by the fictional Japanese-style painter Tomohiko Amada. She warns the narrator to
Make fast your heart… Do not let it flounder. Should that happen, you will surely fall prey to a Double Metaphor… they are within you… they grab hold of your true thoughts and feelings and devour them one after another, fattening themselves. That is what Double Metaphors are. They have been dwelling in the depth of your psyche since ancient times.
So what the hell is a Double Metaphor?
Looking to the Japanese provides little clarity. Killing Commendatore was originally published in two volumes—顕れるイデア編 (The Idea Made Visible) and ろうメタファー編 (The Shifting Metaphor). Note that both the idea and metaphor are spelled out in katakana; Murakami is invoking two words in English, not referencing native Japanese concepts. What the translators give the reader as Double Metaphor (二重メタファー) is the Japanese kanji for double, followed by the transliterated English word metaphor.
Double Metaphor is hardly a common phrase in English, either.
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.
(We know Murakami is familiar with 1984 because he plays with his own dystopian ideas in his novel 1Q84, published in 2009-10. Read more about 1Q84.)
It’s a compelling hypothesis. Central to the plot is the role Tomohiko Amada played in an assassination conspiracy against a Nazi figure in Vienna in the 1930s. By bringing WWII and its antecedents into the narrative, Murakami calls to mind Japan’s wartime propaganda. As is characteristic of propaganda, slogans were rife with doublethink. “With the help of Japan, China, and Manchucho, the world can be in Peace.” “One Hundred Million with One Spirit.” “We are all equal”—probably an unintended reference to Orwell’s most famous doublespeak of all, “…but some animals are more equal than others.”
Many of Japan’s most distinguished minds actively supported Japan’s war machine in the lead up to WWII, much like some of America’s Hollywood elites threw tacit support behind German Führer Adolf Hitler.
Especially after Japan’s Peace Preservation Law of 1925, many artists promoted Kokutai, or the uniqueness of Japanese people and emperor-centric culture. Hundreds of fine artists like Tsuhuharu Foujita, Goro Tsuruta, and Ryohei Koiso joined the government’s war art program. Writers, too, joined the cause; for example, poet Yosano Akiko wrote pro-war poetry, including “Citizens of Japan, A Morning Song,” in which she coopted the samurai ethical code Bushido to praise a Japanese soldier for dying for his emperor.
(Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1986 An Artist of the Floating World deals with one artist’s need to accept his small responsibility for the buildup to WWII.)
If the Double Metaphor we are supposed to beware is indeed Orwellian doublethink, Murakami’s warning is a timely one in Japan and abroad. A 2019 survey found that 79% of Japanese people no longer believe Japanese statistics, which the current government has no apparent qualms about fabricating at its convenience. The Reiwa (令和) imperial era began that year; the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers the English translation Beautiful Harmony in place of the more literal and Orwellian Commanded Peace.
In the US, President Donald Trump famously spouts “alternative facts” while calling into question the legitimacy of the country’s journalists. After a recent (summer 2020) spat with social media giant Twitter, Trump tweeted, “…We will strongly regulate, or close [social media platforms] down…”
The transactional reader-response theory of critics Louise Rosenblatt and Wolfgang Iser claims that a text’s meaning comes from the interaction between the text’s inferred meaning (what the author intended to say) and the reader’s unique experience. By experiencing a work (i.e., reading it or viewing it) the reader actively constructs meaning. Reader-response theory is highly fruitful for explaining the work of Haruki Murakami, and I think Killing Commendatore is itself a statement of—even an allegory for—reader-response theory.
In the novel’s first surrealist scene, the narrator finds a two-foot-tall man in the home he’s borrowing from a friend. The man resembles a figure from a painting the narrator has discovered in the attic several days before titled, like the novel, Killing Commendatore. The small man is not the Commendatore from the painting, only an Idea taking the character from the painting’s form. The Commendatore defines his own existence on the basis of “his friends’” experience:
I am no spirit. I am just an Idea. A spirit is basically supernaturally free, which I am not. I live under all sorts of restrictions…
As with Double Metaphor, here Murakami uses the transliterated English word for Idea.
I need some sort of shape in order to speak with my friends…
I can’t take any form I want. There is a limit to the wardrobe.
In other words, it’s the narrator’s experience of the painting Killing Commendatore that gives the Idea shape. Mariye, a young girl in the narrator’s art class, is the only other character to seriously consider the painting; she is also the only other character who meets the Idea as the Commendatore.
Dr. Rebecca Suter identifies characters in Killing Commendatore as “producers of text,” continues that they “invested with the task of rearranging fragments of reality into narrative form…” The narrator and Mariye give the Idea form out of their own experiences.
Murakami has explained that he approaches his work with this kind of reader-centric experience in mind:
The reader receives [a novel] as it is, and it must be chewed and digested by the reader. If the author, before passing it into the readers’ hands, chews it for them, the meaning of the text is greatly damaged.
It sounds a lot like the way in which readers construct meaning makes everything in the novel a potential Double Metaphor… or Triple Metaphor… or… Nth x Metaphor.
Then why does Donna Anna warn the narrator how dangerous Double Metaphors are? We take for granted that she is a reliable source of information about the “Path of Metaphor.” Is she?
To me, one of the great disappointments of Killing Commendatore is that the dénouement seems to undermine the climax. The narrator undertakes that journey along the “Path of Metaphor” so he can rescue Mariye, who has disappeared. After his own difficult trial, he finds out that Mariye was simply hiding in another character’s basement for four days. The Commendatore insinuates to Mariye that she may have been in danger, but there is no evidence to support his claim. Perhaps the Double Metaphor, too, is less dangerous than it seems.
If Double Metaphor isn’t sinister, if it comes from readers’ own experiences of the novel, the painting Killing Commendatore is the novel’s principle Double Metaphor. Consider Donna Anna.
Donna Anna is first and foremost a character from Mozart’s opera who looks on helplessly as the Commendatore is slain in cold blood.
She is also a figure in Tomohiko Amada’s painting, which transplants Mozart’s early modern Europe to early medieval Japan.
The narrator “has a hunch” that Donna Anna represents one of Amada’s coconspirators, with whom he was in love in his youth.
She might, at the same time, be Mariye’s mother, who died when Mariye was very young.
The narrator even wonders if Donna Anna is also his own long-dead sister.
As the narrator obverses, “Depending on who was looking at her, Donna Anna might embody many things.” I propose that we, the readers, have the right (responsibility?) to find our own meaning in Killing Commendatore as well.
Murakami’s novels are so elusive because he approaches his work with certain themes he wants to explore, perhaps even messages to convey, but he ultimately invites the reader to create meaning for herself.