A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (1982, tr. 1989)

On November 25th 1970 the most prominent Japanese novelist, Yukio Mishima, committed ritual seppuku after staging a theatrical protest/coup in favor of restoring the imperial system to power.  That event sent shockwaves throughout Japan and the Western literary world.  How could this writer, who was enthralled by many aspects of Western culture, take leadership in what the majority of the Japanese populace viewed as a farce of restoring the emperor’s authority?  The Japanese, who were trying to reconcile themselves to modernity and the West years after the tragedy of the Pacific War, now had to face the scrutiny resulting from that shocking event.  Is it any wonder that the country’s leading contemporary writer, Haruki Murakami, used that date as the starting point of his first three novels?

When Murakami published A Wild Sheep Chase in 1982, he already had two slim acclaimed novels to his name, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973.  Today, they are known as the “The Rat Trilogy” as all three narratives feature a person nicknamed “The Rat,” who has a friendship with the unnamed protagonist of the novels.  Although the preceding novels received notice by a number of critics, Murakami truly reached critical success with A Wild Sheep Chase.  Still, the road to his now-unrivaled status as the premier writer in Japan and a leading contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature was not without barriers.  Many leading Japanese critics viewed Murakami as inauthentic in regards to his Japanese writing style and his surreal subject matter that hinted at magical realism.  It was a different world from Mishima’s realistic fiction.  This didn’t bother Murakami as he disliked many aspects of Mishima’s character and views.

So why did he choose November 25th 1970 as a focal date for his early novels?  The legacy of Mishima was still lurking in the background.  The question lingered and still lingers for many Japanese thinkers and citizens: what does it mean to be both Japanese and Western?  It’s thus interesting that some critics believe that Murakami used one of Mishimas’s more obscure novels Natsuko’s Adventure (it hasn’t even been translated into English) as the basis for A Wild Sheep Chase.  While in Natsuko’s Adventure, a girl and a man seek to find a deadly bear, in Murakami’s work, the unnamed protagonist and his girlfriend seek to find a strange sheep.

What’s so strange about the sheep is that it has a star-shaped birthmark and it might have connections to the flow of 20th century Japanese history, particularly the rise of Japan as prosperous state post-World War II.  Thus, the protagonist journeys to discover the truth about the mystery, and weird events continue to mount along the way.  Eventually, he even encounters a sheep man, as well as his friend, “The Rat,” who has disappeared at the beginning of the narrative.

As in the majority of Murakami’s novels, the protagonist starts out as an unwilling, almost unmotivated figure.  It’s fitting that with the exception of his most-realistic novel, Norwegian Wood, all of his novels for the first decade of his writing career had an unnamed narrator.  The action falls on the character, and he is drawn away from his bored and depressing existence into a journey that he resists slightly at first, but then accepts for one reason or another.  In A Wild Sheep Chase, the protagonist is divorced, in a lackluster job with an even more mediocre partner, and spends his nights smoking and drinking.  He’s obviously in a rut, and the reader is glad that something fantastical has disturbed his “peace,” even if it’s something as strange as a woman with extraordinarily alluring ears.  Yes, his girlfriend who pushes him to accept the strange offer to search for the fantastic sheep has ears that makes people’s jaws drop; they’re that hot!

Why are sheep central to the narrative?  Sheep aren’t usually considered interesting creatures.  However, as brought out in the novel, sheep have an interesting history in Japan.  Sheep weren’t native to the country due to the climate.  However, in the nineteenth century, after the country opened up to the world, the government started importing sheep for farmers to raise as livestock.  The program was a disaster as the farmers didn’t know how to care for them, and the government failed to provide suitable information for the farmers to be successful.  Thus, the program was eventually canceled.  What does that have to do with Murakami’s view of modern Japan?  The special sheep the narrator is searching for is able to give power to even insignificant individuals by incubating in them; however, the individual is not in control, and once the sheep is done, the person is cast aside.  I believe that Murakami feels that there is some measure of incongruence between Western culture and Japanese society.  It’s not that he is anti-Western, as he has stated in interviews that Western literature has influenced him as much if not more so than Japanese literature.  Looking at his corpus of work, it’s apparent that American popular culture influenced his tastes.  However, he seems to hint that there they might be a feeling of uneasiness in the way that Japanese feel they are being viewed by Westerners.

Despite its strange elements, A Wild Sheep Chase is more grounded than his following novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, which was discussed back in April.  Its narrative is a bit more straightforward, and the length is not as daunting as that of some of his later works.  Even if you don’t want to search for meanings in the symbols Murakami uses, reading this work provides an enjoyable experience.  Honestly, much of contemporary serious literature can be a chore to plow through.  Perhaps, some of the writers feel similarly when writing their books.  Murakami, however, seems to enjoy what he is doing, and I hope he continues while the readers of his continue to see what he puts out next.