Contrasting Themes in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

It’s been a long time since a book has captured my attention the way The Wind Up Bird Chronicle has. Perhaps not since 6th grade when I would read the Redwall series by Brian Jacques back-to-back for days on end. An addictive page turner, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is beautiful, complex, and layered with history and social commentary. It’s a joy to read, so if you haven’t read the book, please consider doing so before you read this post, as the thrill of experiencing it for the first time is invaluable. Because this book is so deep, to do a proper analysis would be nearly impossible. For the purpose of this post, I will focus on three themes of contrast, East and West, the past and the present, and the young and the old.

Before delving into the novel, it’s important to briefly examine the life of the author, Haruki Murakami. Born after World War II to teachers of Japanese literature, Murakami was certainly endowed with a sense of Japanese culture and its relationship with a modernizing society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Murakami spent his youth reading western literature, the likes of Dickens, Vonnegut, and Kerouac, to name a few. In college, Murakami studied drama, and would proceed to run a coffeehouse/bar for 7 years. It was only until age 29 that Murakami first started writing at all. His first novel would win a literary competition and lead to a renowned career as an international best selling author.

Now considering Murakami’s background, it is easy to see how a novel like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle could come to fruition. The novel combines the East with the West, the past with the present, the young and the old, in a way that is born from Murakami’s life.

East and West

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is noticeably Western in its surreal and Kafkaesque style, blending reality and dreams in absurd situations that lead the reader to question what is happening in front of them. It does this in a way that closely parallels Western authors (the surrealism of Kafka, the absurdism of Vonnegut, the social criticism of Dickens, etc.), but without disregarding Eastern ideas. Wind Up Bird is also closely tied to Eastern beliefs such as Buddhism, Shamanism, and Confucianism. Frequently, Toru, the main character, finds himself at the bottom of a well in a state of meditation, trying to reach a different level of consciousness in order to find answers to his life, often through spirits and dream-world versions of the people in his life. When he does this, he avoids any worldly possessions, choosing to fast, not drink, and wear his most worn clothes. He repeats rituals in similar manner such as when he sits on a bench every day in order to follow his premonitions, and when he seeks help from psychics and mind readers, who are emblematic of the idea of sagehood, an idea of focus in Confucianism. By bridging the gap between Eastern and Western ideas, Murakami sheds light on the contrasting perspectives present in modern Japan, especially regarding the atrocities committed by the Japanese army during World War II.

Past and Present

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is rife with conflict, revealing a Japan that struggles to form a collective identity. The past is embodied by characters such as Lieutenant Mamiya and Mr. Honda, both soldiers in WWII. These characters are the last living link to the past, and deal with their experiences in strange ways that mirror Japan itself. Mr. Honda is entranced with the horrific battles he saw, choosing to replay the Battle of Nomonhan over and over again to his visitors, even though he has had experiences arguably much worse. On the other hand, Lieutenant Mamiya deals with his experiences by hiding them altogether. He agreed with Mr. Honda to never speak of an incident in Mongolia, and only reveals his story in order to keep it alive after he dies. In contrast, the rest of the characters of the novel are detached from Japan’s past, instead focused on goals inherent in a capitalistic society. One of the primary plot-lines is Toru deciding what he wants to do as a career, and the conflict present as his wife works long hours. These characters choose to ignore the past, but are faced with the identity of a people that has to deal with its effects. This brings up the question of how we should remember the past while focusing on the present, a problem modern Japan deals with closely, and one which the answer is obscure.

Old and Young

The three generations present in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle represent three distinct ideals. The old, mentioned before, are fading, and carrying with them the scars of the past. The middle-aged, including Toru, are trying to find themselves in a world where your identity is your career, and in tandem, how much money you make. The young is embodied in May Kasahara, a young girl who is also thrust into capitalist Japan, but skeptical of its goals. She avoids school and does not adhere to any expectations of a career. She works part-time as a surveyor, and only at the end of the novel commits to a full time occupation. Even then, she doesn’t do it for enjoyment but in an attempt to find answers. She constantly questions the way things are done, and through viewing Toru’s journey, decides that she doesn’t want the same things the previous generation valued. A normal life that suffocates excitement in exchange for complacency is not appealing to her, especially given the situations Toru’s circumstances created. Japanese youth are like May Kasahara, rejecting the salary chasing ideals of their parents in return for fun and deeper sources of meaning, reflected in the millions of young workers choosing to do odd jobs for a living.

Murakami is a genius in story-telling. Combining multiple elements of modern Japan in a gripping novel is a difficult feat, and Murakami does it to near perfection in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Hats off to you Haruki.

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