A Familiar Pain: Loss and Isolation in Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. I just haven’t had the time to analyze and write deep reviews of some of the novels that I’ve recently read but I do hope to get back in the groove soon. I’m doing something a little different for this post and I’ll even touch on something personal for the first time in this blog. A recent experience has led me to seek comfort in one of my favorite novels. From the title of this post, I will be examining themes of loss and isolation.

I’m normally a solitary person, confident and comfortable with being alone, yet I’m also sensitive to feelings of alienation and being unwelcome. I’m fairly certain that I exhibit some mild symptoms of social anxiety. Two weeks ago, I had a bit of an incident that made me feel excluded. It’s upsetting to be left alone to figure out what went wrong, not knowing whether you’ve made a mistake or not.

Currently, there hasn’t been actual closure of the incident and it looks like it may be left unresolved with no further discussion, at least in the near future. It’s really only a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. Misunderstandings are not uncommon but they are more prone to happen online, easily causing conflicts. It’s difficult to uncover meaning in online interactions, much more in reading the behavior of others through a screen. In this day and age where social media is highly prevalent, I just hope we don’t continually shy away from actual human-to-human interactions—I’m afraid that is being slowly phased out in lieu of more and more digital means.

I feel better now and I’m prepared to move on. I may have temporarily harbored negative thoughts that ranged from resentment, to embarrassment, to frustration, but at least I didn’t act upon them. Needless to say, the way this whole episode developed was rather confounding. I vented out my thoughts to a few of my friends and I’m very thankful for them for listening.

Aside from talking to friends that care, it was very therapeutic to revisit one of my favorite Murakami novels. Feeling upset, I decided to pick up Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage to read a second time. I fondly remember my first reading of this novel two years ago and how sympathetic I felt towards the protagonist, Tsukuru, who was suddenly ostracized without explanation from his group of friends.

It’s comforting to be able to closely relate to a character and his battles, which is exactly why this was the first book in my mind that I thought would help me cope with some heavy feelings. Though my circumstances aren’t exactly similar to Tsukuru’s, I don’t think I’ve ever had a stronger connection with a literary character, and that’s because the pain that Tsukuru feels is familiar to me.

Tsukuru doesn’t have lots of friends but he’s content with that. When he is inexplicably isolated from the only four friends that he knew, he experiences an overwhelming sense of hollowness. Feeling betrayed, he encounters despair while being left in the dark:

“That was the first time in my life that anyone had rejected me so completely…Searching for the reason, or correcting a misunderstanding, was beyond me. I was simply, and utterly, in shock. So much so that I thought I might never recover. It felt like something inside me had snapped.”

The pain of an unexplained rejection in his early twenties settles and hardens in his heart over the following sixteen years. One night, in the story’s present, Tsukuru confronts that pain once again when he sees his steady girlfriend Sara walking hand in hand with another man. Sara was so visibly happy and beaming at the man in a way she doesn’t with Tsukuru.

“All that remained now was a quiet sorrow…He hadn’t felt such pain in a long time, not since the summer of his sophomore year in college, when his four friends had abandoned him. He closed his eyes and, as if floating in water, drifted in that world of pain. Still, being able to feel pain is good, he thought. It’s when you can’t even feel any pain anymore that you’re in real trouble.”

Indeed, it’s the familiar pain brought about by rejection, abandonment, and isolation. It’s okay to let such acute pain wash over you—it’s natural and it will pass. Humans, after all, are social creatures.

As a student of Stoic philosophy, I try hard not to (in fact, I shouldn’t) be bothered by other people’s actions and opinions about me, as those are outside of my control. I should focus instead on bettering myself without seeking validation or approval. But sometimes, when one yearns for connection and acceptance, one can’t help but feel disappointed in being rejected and alienated. There is real pain there. When a connection you’ve made is suddenly severed, it hurts.

The feeling of isolation always unleashes a flurry of negative thoughts that rain down on me. When rejection is abrupt and unexplained, it’s a double whammy. You’re lost, bewildered, not knowing what went wrong, not knowing how to proceed. The sense of loneliness only becomes more oppressive. Relating to my personal experience, I cannot say that I felt the same intense sorrow that Tsukuru had, but I do understand and know very well his pain.

“One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”

Why does Tsukuru often experience loss and abandonment? He’s just a normal guy and not repulsive in any way. Perhaps there is something about him that other people only see as temporary. He entertains the thought that he might just be, in essence, a hollow person.

“Maybe I am just an empty, futile person, he thought. But it was precisely because there was nothing inside of me that these people could find, if even for a short time, a place where they belonged. Like a nocturnal bird seeks a safe place to rest during the day in a vacant attic. The birds like that empty, dim, silent place. If that were true, then maybe he should be happy he was hollow.”

Tsukuru’s search for answers leads him to visit one of the four original friends that he lost, Eri, also known as Kuro, in Finland. She encourages Tsukuru to fully embrace his innate characteristics, even if it’s his own perceived hollowness.

“Let’s say you are an empty vessel. So what? What’s wrong with that? You’re still a wonderful, attractive vessel. And really, does anybody know who they are? So why not be a completely beautiful vessel? The kind people feel good about, the kind people want to entrust with precious belongings.”

In real life, people come and go. Life is fleeting; friendships, more so. That’s the reality. Couples break up. Family members become estranged. Long-time friends may eventually drift apart. Most of the time, there are reasons behind these things. Sometimes, these things simply happen without explanation.

Eri’s words to Tsukuru, however, reassure us that no human connections we make in life are ultimately wasted:

“[It] wasn’t a waste for us to have been us—the way we were together, as a group. I really believe that. Even if it was only for a few short years.”

The emotional connection I made with this novel has always stayed with me since the first time I read it two years ago. I’m glad I picked it up again when I was feeling down recently. Writing this post was cathartic. I feel lighter now and satisfied with this creative output. Tsukuru, my friend, thanks again for keeping me company.

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Individuals, Juxtaposed: Shuichi Yoshida’s Parade

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Shuichi Yoshida (author), Philip Gabriel (translator), Parade, Vintage, 2015. 230 pgs.

Juxtaposition is arguably part of the big city charm. Tokyo in itself is already a city of juxtaposed buildings and streets and as Shuichi Yoshida zooms in on a handful of urbanite youths living together, we see that within the confines of an ordinary apartment, they too, are juxtaposed. Parade is a dark thriller that packs a discreetly hard-hitting plot and a thought-provoking picture of urban life, where social structures, just as much as physical ones, are essentially superficial and temporary.

The novel is an engaging immersion into the lives of five different Tokyo urbanites. Despite the confined living space shared by five individuals and their together-ness as roommates, themes of loneliness and detachment are prominent through each character’s narrations. While the characters deliver edgy monologues on interpersonal relations, city life, and apartment living, we almost forget that the novel is a psychological thriller. Yoshida’s prose, translated by Philip Gabriel, is gripping all throughout, making this a fast read with some sneaky misdirection on the novel’s plot to set up a sucker-punch ending that comes flying out of nowhere.

The story is told through five chapters, each with a different narrator. Kicking things off is the narration of Ryosuke, 21, a college student. He works a part-time job at a Mexican restaurant during evenings and is romantically pursuing Kiwako, the girlfriend of a university upperclassman. When he is not outside, he mostly hangs around the apartment with Koto, a 23-year-old woman from Sapporo. Koto, narrator of the second chapter, normally spends her entire day by the phone, waiting for her television drama actor boyfriend to call. Whenever they have a date, she and he would arrange for quick trysts in hotel rooms.

Early on, Ryosuke and Koto each sense something strange going on in the next door apartment. Ryosuke had seen on separate occasions at least two young girls emerge out of it in tears and Koto had spied a politician enter it as well. The two of them would devise a plan to investigate this while some more mystery builds up in the background. Reports surface on television of an attacker at-large within the neighborhood. Several women have already fallen victim to the attacks, with gruesomely bashed-in faces. Police have even started going door-to-door to issue warnings to neighborhood residents. This sub-plot silently brews as the characters barely take notice of this and continue on with their own businesses.

One morning, Koto encounters 18-year-old Satoru emerging from the bathroom, assuming he is one of Ryosuke’s university friends. Satoru plays along but when the roommates discover that he doesn’t seem to be who he says he is, they start suspecting that they had let a thief unimpeded into the apartment. It turns out that it was Mirai, a 24-year-old illustrator and manager of an imported goods boutique, who had ferried in this young wayfarer on one of her countless drunken nights out. Mirai is brutally honest and provides a refreshingly cynical perspective. She regularly hangs out at gay bars and this is how she encounters Satoru, who had been homeless until he ended up in the apartment.

Satoru makes a living as a male prostitute by night but by day, he occasionally shoots speed and breaks into other people’s residences. That much we know through his narration but as for what he tells the other characters, Satoru plays a bit of camouflage. Mirai however, sees right through his fraud: “He simply has no respect for the past…these false histories he was spouting were becoming way too convenient.” But having been homeless previously, Satoru knows that selectively molding one’s image to others is fundamental to survival in the city. “I mean it’s all made up anyway,” he tells Mirai when she suggests he talk about his childhood memories.

The eldest roommate and the novel’s final narrator is 28-year-old Naoki, a professional at a film company. He has been an original occupant of the apartment with his now on-off girlfriend Misaki, until Mirai, and then Ryosuke moved in. Misaki eventually moved out to live with a middle-aged boyfriend instead and that’s around the time Koto moved in. Naturally, the younger members treat him as an older brother figure. Other than that, Naoki is a protein-shake-drinking health nut and spends his free time jogging around the neighborhood.

The five roommates keep loose and casual relations with one another but surely, this was to be expected for any group of individuals living together. Each of them came to the city from different backgrounds, carrying different burdens and secrets, and fighting different personal battles. Koto compares their living arrangement to that of an internet chat room and as Mirai observes, everyone is merely putting on situation-appropriate faces. For Satoru, the apartment is all a stage for “people-playing-at-being-friends.” It’s true that each roommate, in a certain sense, role-plays for the sake of living in harmony but in doing so, they also foster indifference in their lack of emotional investment in one another.

The roommates merely share an apartment and the occasional meal; otherwise, everyone is left on their own. At this point, that simple two-bedroom apartment becomes a sort of microcosm of a city, at least on the level of the individual. Paradoxically, despite the city—an artificially vast landmass of a dense web of streets and lofty skyscrapers— being a space that lots of people populate and share together, indifference and loneliness hang heavy in the air. This becomes the norm in a place where everyone bustles along with his or her own agenda. In such environment, detaching oneself and alienating others become equally easy. In the story’s late stages, one of the characters feels heavy isolation, ignored by everyone else (“unjudged, unforgiven, null and void”). It’s in this scene where even the perceived sense of alienation is chillingly oppressive.

Quick Review – Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale

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Han Yujoo (author), Janet Hong (translator), The Impossible Fairy Tale, Graywolf Press, 2017. 214 pgs.

Underneath the brightly colored cover of this book is a satisfyingly dark novel. It was a little too meta for my brain, so I had to read other published reviews to wrap my head around this. I also listened to this interview with the author herself, found at this link.

The first part of the novel is a morbid story of young elementary school children, mainly focusing on a girl named Mia and another girl simply referred to as “the Child”. We then go to metafiction territory in the second part.

I like Han Yujoo’s creative style in this novel. It’s different and refreshing, though it might test the patience of some readers. Some paragraphs are deliberately repetitive and there’s also lots of wordplay going on. Ineluctably, some nuances will definitely be lost in translation, so credits to translator Janet Hong for keeping the English version as faithful as possible to the original in Korean.

One example of wordplay is the recurring references to dogs in the novel. In the interview I referenced above, Han briefly explains this: “Dog” in Korean is 개 (gae / geh) while “the Child” is 그 아이 (geu ah-ee). Say “그 아이” fast, over and over, and the resulting contraction becomes “개”. Interesting.

For now, this is all I can make of The Impossible Fairy Tale. To appreciate this more, I’ll be reading this again when my “pending-to-read” list becomes more manageable. Hopefully, I can write a more thorough analysis in the future.

LitHub has an excerpt here.

Review – Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

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Han Kang (author), Deborah Smith (translator), The Vegetarian, Hogarth, 2016. 188 pgs.

Cha: An Asian Literary Journal has published my review of last year’s Man Booker International Prize winner, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Full review is found here.

As a fan of Asian literature, I’m really glad that more and more Korean novels are being translated into English and being shared across the globe. By writing this review and having it published in a platform with a wider audience than this blog, I hope to have contributed even just a little to the overall worldwide discussion of Asian literature in translation.

It was quite challenging to analyze this novel and admittedly, this won’t be my favorite work by a Korean author. I will however say that The Vegetarian will go down as one of Korean literature’s most important works.

The Night Also Dreams: Haruki Murakami’s After Dark

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Haruki Murakami (author), Jay Rubin (translator), After Dark, Vintage, 2007. 244 pgs.

A few years back in high school, After Dark served as my official introduction to Haruki Murakami’s fiction. As a less mature reader at that time, it initially ran counter to my expectations of it being some edgy urban thriller. Reading it a second time a while back, I found a whole new appreciation to it, as it has easily become one of my favorite Murakami novels due to its simplicity and subtlety. Recently, I gave it a third read and thought I should write a review to gather my thoughts and make an analysis.

After Dark zooms, pans, and watches over late night Tokyo over a roughly seven-hour time frame, beginning just before midnight and ending at sunrise. Murakami observes and explores the urban setting during these nocturnal hours while digging for the surreal in deserted offices, bathroom mirrors, and television screens. His typical artful mix of realism and surrealism creates an overall dreamlike affair within a well-paced and efficient narrative. Elements of Murakami’s characteristic style—magic realism, pensive characters, jazz music—are ever present, if not subdued. In After Dark, it’s the night that takes center stage.

From the opening, the night is kept alive as the city pulses: “Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city’s moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.” Across the narrative, we get to tour around a certain city district, visiting places that contribute to that “basso continuo” of the nighttime: A Denny’s diner, a love hotel named Alphaville, an all-night convenience store, among others, not to mention the souls that stay awake during this time, for various reasons.

It’s also a rare Murakami novel that is narrated in the third person, with particular significance. The narrator is an abstract point-of-view, taking on a role equivalent to that of a camera director of a television broadcast. Like it or not, we are part of this abstract being comprised of the narrator and the reader. “We” and “our” are used often by the narrator/observer for emphasis: “Redundant though it may sound, we are sheer point of view. We cannot influence things in any way.” This sense of voyeurism (and our apparent participation in it) is a recurring theme in the novel.

The focal point of the narrative is the Asai sisters—nineteen-year-old Mari and twenty-one-year-old Eri—who couldn’t be any more different. We first encounter Mari reading a thick novel while sipping coffee at a Denny’s until an old acquaintance, Takahashi, joins her at her table. This young man Takahashi and Mari had been paired up in a double-date before, which also involved Eri and her then-boyfriend. The two of them briefly chat about Eri and other topics while Takahashi downs a quick meal. When he leaves, Mari  then gets sucked into a brief adventure of having to translate for a bloodied and beaten-up Chinese prostitute at a love hotel. This gets the ball rolling as Mari jumps around the late night establishments, with a revolving door of characters engaging her in dialogue, including the owner and an employee of the Alphaville love hotel.

In her several conversations across the night, Mari often mentions how she and Eri “live in different worlds.” To put it simply, Mari is the brainy type—studious, fluent in Chinese—while Eri is the pretty face with a modeling career. Though these differences in characteristics and personality are merely superficial, the rift between the two sisters runs a lot deeper, reaching into an emotional level. Both sisters yearn to close this emotional gap between them but both seem not to know how.

There’s reason for why Mari is out in the streets at nights. She couldn’t sleep and doesn’t want to go home because she couldn’t bear her sister’s condition—Eri has been sleeping at home for two months. As point-of-view, we get to observe Eri’s room every now and then. This is mainly where Murakami plays around with his signature surrealism. “Clearly, something here is incompatible with nature,” the narrating observer teases. There’s a mysterious television set in the room, where a masked man is displayed on screen, seemingly watching over Eri’s sleep. At one point, Eri gets transported into some other world inside the television. This whole sequence is cryptic, although its apparent metaphorical value is hinted at:

“Around us, cause and effect join hands, and synthesis and division maintain their equilibrium. Everything, finally, unfolded in a place resembling a deep, inaccessible fissure. Such places open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light.”

Perhaps it really is unnecessary to explain these strange events, just like how dreams also go beyond explanation. When we dream, an infinite number of realms open up and arbitrariness is imposed upon us. In After Dark, Murakami tastefully imagines this notion into the nighttime setting. There’s something about the night’s own spirit that welcomes the uncanny and the surreal during the most untimely hours, lurking around both those asleep and awake. As one character mentions, “Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can’t fight it.” In Murakami’s nocturnal Tokyo, the night also dreams.

Review – Keigo Higashino’s Naoko

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Keigo Higashino (author), Kerim Yasar (translator), Naoko, Vertical, 2004. 288 pgs.

Perhaps it is his engineering background that makes Keigo Higashino a great writer, with his masterful ability to engineer intricate plots that frame mind-bending mysteries. His craft in plot-making is why he has countless works that have been adapted for TV dramas and movies in both Japan and Korea. It seems his stories are just too good to not be made into screenplays that are just as equally good. His standalone novel Naoko, his first work to be translated to English, has both film and television adaptations in Japan, not to mention also being a winner of the Japan Mystery Writers Award at the time of its original publication.

Although Naoko isn’t as intricate as, say, Journey Under the Midnight Sun is in terms of plot, Higashino downplays the mystery aspect of the story in lieu of melodrama and poignancy, indeed proving his versatility as an author. While his novels aren’t known for literary depth and being more famous for his detective mysteries, Higashino goes on an excursion by working with a supernatural concept as his premise while keeping one foot within his mystery niche.

A middle-aged man Heisuke Sugita has his ordinary and quiet life rocked when he sees a television news report about a fatal accident involving a Nagano-bound bus his wife Naoko and daughter Monami had boarded. Everyone on board was killed except for Monami, who is in a coma. When she wakes up, she seems to have taken on her mother’s spirit—Monami mysteriously has Naoko’s memory and mind. Essentially, Naoko has taken over Monami’s body. Heisuke and Naoko become confused, living double lives as husband-and-wife in private, and as father-and-daughter in public. Meanwhile, Heisuke one day runs into Seiko Kajikawa, the bus driver’s wife, leading him to pursue the truth behind their family. It’s not a Higashino novel without a mystery to unfurl.

In essence, the novel focuses on Naoko’s “second go” at life, as she starts anew in a prepubescent body but carrying on her grownup wisdom. As a mother, she tries to live as fully as Monami would have wanted by pursuing a career as a doctor. There are quite a number of laughs as she and Heisuke come to grips with the new dynamic of their relationship as a couple. Eventually, they begin to struggle, first with the lack of physical intimacy. Naoko reaches Monami’s adolescent years while attending a co-ed high school, further straining her relationship with Heisuke as she starts a habit of coming home late and even flirts with a boy. Heisuke is left in a painful conflict having to choose between being a loving father or a loving husband to one person. It’s quite surprising for a mystery novel to evolve into such a touching story with tender moments and that’s exactly what has been achieved here.

Even though the melodrama lasts all the way to the late stages, the story goes full-circle at the end. Without giving away too much, an unassuming clue to the whole puzzle is the novel’s original title in Japanese, Himitsu (秘密), meaning “secret.” While the novel revolves around the character Naoko, at its very core is secrecy. Although the whole business of Naoko’s soul living in Monami’s body is an openly established secret between her and Heisuke, there’s a far less obvious one that brings a shock conclusion to the story. Higashino baits the reader with incredible misdirection in a similar fashion to the way he did in The Devotion of Suspect X.

Keigo Higashino is a true master of the Japanese mystery novel. In Naoko, he proves that he can do away with the usual affair of crime, genius professors, and detectives that most of his readers grew fond of. He exhibits versatility and stays true to his roots by delivering a tear-jerker and a mind-bender in one package.

Two new Higashino novels, Newcomer and The Name of the Game is Kidnapping are scheduled for release this year. The former is part of the Detective Kaga series (Malice) while the latter is a standalone. He’s a prolific writer in Japan yet only has six novels translated to English at the time of writing, so I’m anticipating the pair. While I wait, I might go check out those film and TV adaptations of his works.

Review – Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop

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My review of Hiromi Kawakami’s latest English-translated work has been published in the Ninth Anniversary Issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Read more here.


The Nakano Thrift Shop was a light read and as I implied in the full review, it’s a novel with a continuous plot told in a short-story-collection-like structure, which is very similar to Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo / The Briefcase. This is a novel brought alive by eccentric characters, often in peculiar circumstances. While the plot may seem aimless, it nonetheless meanders smoothly with great execution by Kawakami and translator Allison Markin Powell.