COMMENTARY/ Hanshinkan Kid: Haruki Murakami's love for cats comes through in his works
July 13, 2014
The Asahi Shimbun By KOJI KONISHI/ Special to AJW
Editor’s note: This is part of The Asahi Shimbun AJW’s series on internationally acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami and the seventh of Koji Konishi’s “The Hanshinkan Kid” commentaries.
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Haruki Murakami is known for his fondness for cats because he frequently includes felines in his works.
In “Murakami Harukido wa ikanishite kitaeraretaka,” a collection of essays, Murakami tells an interesting story about a cat in its old age he once kept.
In a piece titled “Choju Neko no Himitsu” (The secret of an old cat), Murakami described how he asked a senior executive at Kodansha Ltd., a publishing company, to take care of his cat while he and his wife were away from home for a long period. In return, Murakami promised to the executive to write a novel for the company. The writer kept his promise and wrote “Norwegian Wood,” which turned out to be a phenomenal bestseller.
Murakami named the cat “Fuku Neko” (Lucky Cat). In his childhood years, Murakami would play at Nishinomiya Shrine in Nishinomiya, a city within the so-called "Hanshinkan" area between Osaka and Kobe. I’m familiar with the shrine because it was also my favorite place to play when I was a child.
As a Hanshinkan kid like Murakami, I suspect that the name the author gave to the cat was inspired by the famous “Fuku Otoko” (Lucky Man) race, held early on Jan. 10 as the main event of the shrine’s annual Toka-Ebisu festival. A legion of participants sprint perilously more than 200 meters from the shrine’s main gate to the main hall to be chosen as “Lucky Men.”
In the same essay, Murakami also describes how the cat was sitting on his lap while he was writing his debut novel, “Hear the Wind Sing.”
“I still remember well the days when I was writing my first novel at night, with the cat on my lap and sipping beer. The cat apparently didn’t like me writing a novel and would often play havoc with my manuscript on the desk.”
MISSING CAT, MISSING WIFE
Unlike a dog, a cat kept as a pet in a house is not chained outside. While its whereabouts is often unclear, the furry animal occupies an important place in the owner’s heart. If a cat, which always returns home even if it is away for a while, goes missing, that should be taken as an ominous sign indicating that something serious is going to happen.
Such mysterious and symbolic felines often appear in Murakami’s novels in exquisite timing. In “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle,” which revolves around the protagonist’s search for his missing wife, their cat runs away first, and then the woman mysteriously disappears as if prompted by the cat’s disappearance.
Cats also play an important role in his long novel “1Q84,” which contains a tale about an imaginary “Town of Cats” where cats are the only residents.
A traveling young man gets off the train at a station and finds the town completely deserted, with no one to be seen. But it was, in fact, a town of cats. When the sun starts to go down, many cats comes into town and go about their business like human beings. When he attempts to take the train away from the town, the train doesn’t stop at the town's station and passes by without slowing. The young man knows that he is irretrievably lost.
The New York Times applauded the fantastic description of the town of cats, while the New Yorker magazine carried an article only about this story. In the article, Murakami said the following:
" 'Town of Cats' is a story that I made up. I think I probably read something like it a long time ago, but I don’t have a very precise recollection of whatever it was that I read. In any case, this episode performs a symbolic function in the novel in many different senses--the way a person wanders into a world from which he can never escape, the question of who it is that fills up the empty spaces, the inevitability with which night follows day. Perhaps each of us has his or her own 'town of cats' somewhere deep inside--or so I feel."
POSSIBLE INFLUENCE FROM NATSUME AND TANIZAKI
There are at least two famous Japanese writers who wrote stories about cats before Murakami. One is Soseki Natsume, whose “Wagahai wa neko de aru” (I Am a Cat), depicts Japanese society and people during the Meiji Era (1868–1912) in a satirical way from the viewpoint of the speaker, which is an anthropomorphized domestic cat. (See bottom of post)
The other is Junichiro Tanizaki, who wrote “Neko to Shozo to futari no onna” (A cat, Shozo and two women), which describes how cats live their lives. It is arguably the best Japanese novel about cats ever written.
In an open interview he gave in Kyoto in May 2013, Murakami said his favorite Japanese writers included Natsume and Tanizaki. One character in his “Kafka on the Shore,” Satoru Nakata, is an old man who has lost the ability to read and write through a bizarre childhood incident but gained the ability to communicate with cats. This strange character probably reflects an influence from the two master writers.
Both Tanizaki and Murakami once
lived near the Shukugawa river, which
runs through Nishinomiya. Located on both sides of the river, Shukugawa Park is
a hangout for stray cats in the area. They don’t care at all for passers-by.
|The Shukugawa River in spring|
Both Tanizaki and Murakami may have been intrigued by cats playing in the park and gotten some ideas for their works.
“Fuwa Fuwa” (Furry) is a picture book jointly created by Murakami, who wrote the text, and Mizumaru Anzai, who painted the pictures. Anzai died in March 2014.
The book begins with this passage: “I like most cats around the world, but of all the kinds of cats living on this planet, I like an old, large she-cat the most.”
Even though “Fuwa Fuwa” is a picture book, it is not an easy read as the text is littered with Murakamiesque metaphors.
The cat was kept at a doctor’s house before it is given to the protagonist, a boy. But the cat returned to its former owner’s house by crossing two railway lines and a river. The cat is then brought back to the boy’s house and given the uncatlike name “Dantsu.” It eventually becomes the boy’s good pal.
If I assume Dantsu is modeled on a cat actually kept by Murakami, as it is believed, I, a Hanshinkan kid who has been living close to the Shukugawa river since my boyhood, cannot help but to think of an actual bridge and two train lines that the cat should have crossed--a stone bridge across the Shukugawa river and the Hanshin Electric Railway line and the JR Tokaido Main Line, which have railroad crossings and underpasses in the area.
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