Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

“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

“Hanging Scroll Painting of Sugawara Michizane Praying on Tenpai-Zen” by Eitaku Kobayashi. The scroll is an example of “Japanese-style paining” (via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

One Japanese commentary links Double Metaphor to doublethink, as coined by George Orwell in 1984:

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.

Murakami, Haruki. Darkness and Forgiveness: Haruki Murakami Reflects on Power and Violence in the World and Literature (interview) in The Japan Times, 2019.

Suter, Rebecca. “The Artist as a Medium and the Artwork as Metaphor in Murakami Haruki’s Fiction” in Japan Forum, 2020.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A Reader-Friendly Guide, Routledge, 2014.

More by Haruki Murakami: After DarkAfter the Quake (short stories); Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: StoriesColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageDance Dance DanceThe Elephant VanishesHard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the WorldKafka on the ShoreMen without Women: StoriesNorwegian WoodSouth of the Border, West of the SunSputnik SweetheartTrilogy of the Rat (series); Wind/Pinball: Two Novels;The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Penguin Highway by Tomihiko Morimi

Famous Heroes of the Kabuki Stage Played by Frogs by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (via Wikimedia Commons)

One day, the residents of an exurban Japanese town wake up to find a field full of penguins. Aside from some gossip, the people in the town essentially dismiss the arctic birds as a fluke. Our 4th-grade protagonist, Aoyama, and his friend, Hamamoto, do some research—impressively coordinated, observation-based research, carefully following the scientific method.

Because of his research, Aoyama is the only person in town to discover that his favorite dental hygienist is making the penguins. From soda cans. And Penguin Highway gets stranger from there.

Wide swaths of readers (and viewers—it was made into a critically acclaimed anime in 2018) consumed the story as science-fiction. It won the Nihon SF Taisho Award in 2010, more or less the equivalent of the Nebula Award in the US. But I think it’s more rewarding to think about Penguin Highway as a work of magical realism.

Wendy B. Faris defines the genre: “very briefly, magical realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed.” Penguin Highway meets her five criteria:

  • Its magic is essentially “irreducible.” Even though the book proposes a kind of explanation, it isn’t one that comes from the ordinary rules of the universe. Aoyama’s scientific investigations ultimately turn up many “hows,” but very few “whys.”
  • The realism in the world of Penguin Highway is really real. Aoyama’s is a normal, exurban Japanese town.
  • Readers hesitate between “two contradictory understandings of events.” Especially at the beginning of the novel, we ask ourselves, “How much of this are we supposed to believe is actually happening?” The main characters are kids, after all, and kids are often unreliable narrators.
  • At the climax of Penguin Highway “we experience the closeness or near-merging of two realms, two worlds.” But no spoilers.
  • Finally, the novel brings up questions about time, space, and, to a much lesser extent, identity.

The reason I want to defend Penguin Highway as a piece of magical realism is because I think we get a better sense of author Tomihiko Morimi’s mastery this way.

We’ve come to think of magical realism as an especially appropriate post-colonial medium. Many of the genre’s most important works are, at least in part, political in nature. Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is, among many other things, a stinging rebuke of European and American intervention in South America. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a loose allegory for the partition of India. In Beloved, Toni Morrison presents a community almost torn apart by the long-standing trauma of slavery.

The history of Japan and colonialism is, of course, complicated. Unlike most of its nearest neighbors, Japan has never been a foreign colony and was only briefly occupied by the US after World War II, from 1945-1952. Nevertheless, Japan has also been fertile ground for magical realism. The most visible Japanese writer today in the West is almost certainly Haruki Murakami; many of his most notable works—Kafka on the Shore1Q84Killing Commendatore—are fine examples of the genre.

But post-colonial or not, from Japan or elsewhere, magical realist texts often share similar concerns. New versus old. “Western” versus indigenous. What we gain versus what we leave behind. Isolation. Loneliness. Marginalization. The tone of these works is often melancholic, remorseful, occasionally reproachful.

Penguin Highway takes up virtually none of these concerns. It’s almost entirely apolitical. Aoyama is about as sure of his identity as any character I’ve ever encountered. He isn’t lonely at all—and the magical events draw an even closer-knit community with him as the center. Old Japan is neither destroyed nor resurrected. The novel is simply a tale about a normal city that experiences a series of fantastical events.

And yet, it is a work of magical realism.

The real is magical in Penguin Highway because the novel is a joyful celebration of the possibilities of life. It is rich with what Franz Roh, the art critic who coined the term magical realism, describes as, “the possibility of feeling existence, of making it stand out from the void.”

Our hero is only in the 4th grade. He takes exploring the drainage ditch behind his school as seriously as he does solving the mysteries of the lady and the penguins. To him, they are all marvels. His attitude reminds us that there are discoveries to be made in the realistic world—why shouldn’t some of those discoveries also be magical?

That’s what makes Penguin Highway such an uplifting read. It reminds jaded readers of just how wondrous our world can be.

Credo, Kevin. “The Magical Realism of ‘Penguin Highway.’” The Crescent Magazine.

Faris, Wendy B. “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.

Napier, Susan J. “The Magic of Identity: Magic Realism in Modern Japanese Fiction” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.

Roh, Franz. “Magical Realism: Post-Expressionism” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.

More by Tomihiko Morimi: The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl