Since writing his first novel in 1979, Haruki Murakami has garnered international fame for his uniquely mesmerizing stories. He’s won prestigious literary accolades, including the Franz Kafka Prize and the World Fantasy Award, and generated an extensive fanbase in the process. These fans, dubbed “Harukists,” have made their support of the prominent Japanese author apparent every year when the Nobel Prize in Literature rolls around. Long-expectant for the author’s shot at snagging the big prize, “Harukists” have gathered annually for the better part of a decade in hopes of setting off their streamers in celebration. Alas, each year has proved a disappointment, as the Nobel continues to evade Murakami’s grasp, despite his loyal follower’s wishes.
Last year, if you had asked me if I considered myself a “Harukist,” I probably would have said yes without much hesitation. Let’s just say I was quite obsessive about his writing at first. It was unlike anything I’d ever encountered, and I quickly devoured nine of his works in quick succession. That said, I have now become increasingly aware of a lingering hang-up surrounding his stories that have made it hard for me to fully commit to his world. Thus, in the mind of facing up to an unresolved issue pertinent to the world of fiction as a whole, let’s discuss Murakami’s writing of female characters.
If you’re familiar with Murakami’s storytelling, you’ve likely picked up on his narrative patterns after a book or two. For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick summation of the elements he consistently favors: a lonely male protagonist, a transitory yet hypersexualized female character, and some sort of bizarre journey blurring dreamscape with cold, hard reality. On top of that, he also has a preoccupation with wells, cats, and jazz music.
Admittedly, his established pattern for storytelling has felt oddly comforting to me. I live for bookish escapism, and he truly has a gift for crafting stories that feel like one big fever dream. However, there are certainly times when Murakami’s world can strike aversion – especially for feminists like myself.
Preliminarily, we must acknowledge that all of Murakami’s narrators are men, and we only experience the journey through their eyes. In other words, his writing undeniably revolves around the male gaze. Therefore, it is not that much of a surprise that his depictions of female characters have been repeatedly called out as misogynistic and objectifying. Broadly, the “male gaze” in film and literature depicts women as “inactive, often overtly sexualized objects of male desire.” Murakami’s male characters are a perfect example of this in that their sexualization of every female protagonist is arbitrary, over-the-top, and adds nothing to the plot or character development.
A One-Dimensional Role
You may be wondering whether these claims of misogyny have ever been brought before the author and what he may have to say in defense. In one notable Art of Fiction interview from 2004, Murakami attempts a clarification:
Women are mediums – harbingers of the coming world. That’s why they always come to my protagonist; he doesn’t go to them.
This notion cements both Murakami’s character prototype for women and the root of its offense. By designating his female characters as inherently mystical, he allows them to remain one-dimensional and, well, unrealistic. I picked up on this after my first few Murakami reads, which compounded my disappointments about the nature of the female character’s role in his novel’s metaphysical plots. Murakami’s women act as bridges to another realm or world and often exit as mysteriously as they appear. Yet, their entire function is dependent on the male protagonist, reduced to empty vessels rather than having complex personalities. This backfires immensely whenever there is a sexual component to the protagonist’s relationship with one of these so-called “mediums.”
On the surface, immersed in the sheer whimsicality of his stories, the otherworldly female trope may seem to fly per his narrative patterns; however, the more Murakami novels I read, the more I’m irked by the fact that he doesn’t write women like they’re actual people. A point of contention I know many other readers share.
Dance Dance Dance
At this point, you may be expecting some examples. I mean, how problematic are these characterizations? To that, I say there are simply so many that it is hard to nail down just one. Famed Murakami reads like IQ84, and Norwegian Wood both have some questionable sections in terms of objectifying female characters. Though, when I considered which book really cinched my criticism of Murakami’s plot patterns, it was his sixth novel: Dance, Dance Dance.
As the final installment in his Trilogy of the Rat, I was well accustomed to this particular male protagonist by the time I picked up the book. However, I was really unprepared for and uncomfortable with the narrator’s connection to Yuki, a thirteen-year-old girl with whom he spends a lot of time. In Murakami’s books, there are some instances where the weird factor feels easy to reconcile, but this was not such a case.
The narrator here walks a thin line between the unconventional and the predatory. Indeed, there are many uncomfy lines by the male protagonist when talking to her. One of which involves him saying: “Okay, of all the women I’ve gone out with, you’re probably the cutest…If I were fifteen, I’d fall in love with you just like that. But I’m thirty-four, and I don’t fall in love so easily.” See what I mean? It’s so incredibly creepy. In instances like these, Murakami’s male characters become particularly concerning to read, as his plots involve these unnecessary companionships with minors.
A Broader Issue
Though I could certainly continue chronicling the problematic side of Murakami’s storytelling, I think it best to circle this discussion back to the broader issue of the portrayal of women in fiction today. Take this extensive list of cringe-worthy examples of male authors writing about and describing women as a baseline. Undoubtedly, Murakami is not the only author to take issue with in regards to this longstanding problem! If anything, his work warrants a wider examination of the male gaze in literary history and how it has reinforced societally-imposed constraints and conceptions of femininity. Such is well explored in this opinion piece by Lily Boag.
In all, I’m by no means propounding that Murakami should be “canceled.” I’m simply imploring that his international fame should be accompanied by critical discourse about issues of sexuality and gender in literature. Thus, despite being wholly fascinated by many of Murakami’s works, I wouldn’t call myself a “Harukist” without adding a lengthy asterisk about my fixed number of concerns, as I’ve found it increasingly necessary to move forward in his literary world without the rose-colored glasses.
For more bookish content on controversial literary figures, check out our Awful Authors series here. For Bookstr content spotlighting female voices, click here.