Haruki Murakami’s prose is typically unadorned and straightforward, though his storylines seldom are. His penchant for the bizarre — otherworldly visitations, ghost-like specters, uncanny coincidence — has helped earn Murakami more than a little international praise, but also some harsh criticism. While his shirking of conventional genres is perhaps the author’s great strength, it’s also probably the largest contributing factor to his most frequently cited criticism: that his tales are too heavily influenced by and interested in western culture. To chalk-up the author’s immense international popularity to a preoccupation with western culture is to overlook one of Murakami’s most overt obsessions: his native Japan.
After Dark is his latest novel, and in it Murakami doesn’t stray far from the familiar themes of urban isolation, dubious sexual tension and capitalism, nor does the author shy away from western references to jazz, and that great American export, Denny’s. Still, the book paints a vivid, if perhaps hyperbolically colorful, portrait of Tokyo after dark, while managing to be one of Murakami’s quieter, sweeter novels. In many respects, the book recalls 2001’s Sputnik Sweetheart, a similarly short work wherein the love story at the center of the tale is not upstaged by the sci-fi-ish weirdness of the plot. In After Dark Murakami again puts relationships center-stage, presenting three characters whose lives are (you guessed it) complicatedly, metaphysically linked.
Takahashi is a trombonist about to quit his jazz band; Mari is a bookish 19-year-old whose beautiful older sister has mysteriously fallen into a deep sleep; and Shirakawa is an emotionless businessman, more automaton than human. Their interconnectedness as each navigates a damp Tokyo night is explored in bold cinematic language.
“Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair,” writes Murakami on the novel’s first page. “In our broad sweep, the city looks […] like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms.”
208 pages later, as Murakami’s narrative lens backs away from the city, the reader feels something akin to what one of his characters might: that we’ve experienced something strange and important, something memorable.