On the morning of January 17, 1995, I woke to find my bed floating, seeming to dip into and out of a wave of wooden floor. I was barely two months into a yearlong homestay in Torahime, Japan. I got up to run downstairs—completely forgetting that the top of the door frame came to the bridge of my nose. My black eyes lasted for weeks.
The Great Hanshin Quake had made itself known. In Kobe, the nearest large city, highways cracked in half, suspension bridges twisted themselves into tight pretzels, and tile roofs fell straight to the ground, with the splintered wood of ancient houses crushed beneath them. Over 6,000 people died in all.
The year got worse from there. Two months later, on March 20, during rush hour, members of the apocalyptic religious cult Aum Shinrikyo placed bags of sarin gas on the major subway lines in Tokyo. The poison killed 13 but blinded and permanently maimed many more. Had the attack gone as planned, the death toll would likely have been in the hundreds of thousands. That April, Hideo Murai, a member of the cult responsible for running the sarin gas production for the attack, was stabbed in the gut with a long chef’s knife on live TV; my homestay family and I looked on in horror.
I had come to Japan during a prolonged period of peace and prosperity. Yet these two disasters, followed by that public display of violent revenge, felt like a door swinging open to something new and unrecognizable.
Five years later, Haruki Murakami, already a major figure in world literature, would write the collection of stories After the Quake (ATQ), his attempt to come to grips with a year of surreal violence. Despite a rapturous initial reception around the world, today the book is largely ignored. Murakami’s most famous novels deploy an enormous range of American and global pop culture references. By contrast, the stories of ATQ are grounded in local Japanese landmarks and peppered with references to these two historical tragedies, all with a mix of fantasy and horror.
In ATQ, Murakami perfectly captures the disorientation and delirium of living through 1995 in Japan. Perhaps that is why the book’s hallucinatory qualities, so common in Murakami’s fiction, struck me—thanks to my tangential connection to that terrible year—as more like reportage than acid trip.
Murakami writes great first lines. They are memorable dodges of plot, leaning into the hyperbanal: cooking, answering the home phone, traveling for work, and always with music as the backdrop. But the first story in ATQ, “ufo in kushiro,” begins in relative quiet: “Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, several rail lines and expressways. She never said a word.” There is no travel, because the infrastructure for such things is in tatters, and music is replaced by the perpetual buzz of television news.
Suddenly the woman in question vanishes. Her husband, Komura, locates an analogy for his wife’s disappearance in the story of a UFO sighting that causes a woman to leave home. That element of the unexpected arrival of the inexplicable drives Komura to a forking road. One branch leads toward an act of violence, pointing subtly at Aum’s gas attack, while the other is fogged by uncertainty. Komura’s interlocutor in the story, Shimao, gestures rhetorically at the exhilarating idea of recovering from trauma, only to bring him back to earth: “You’re just at the beginning.” The search to locate his missing wife stalls out, and Komura is left feeling as though he is but a “chunk of air,” merely part of the traumatic haze in Japan’s year of crisis.
Murakami is constantly reminding his characters that recuperation, personal or national, is a process rather than a product, even when that process is surreal. In “all god’s children can dance,” a troubled man, Yoshiya, is convinced he is the son of God, but he decides to search for his human father anyway. This is new territory for Murakami, and Yoshiya is a challenging character—arrogant, delusional, lost. While Yoshiya torments himself with a forbidden desire and an uncertain faith, his mother delivers provisions to victims of the quake in Kobe. He begins to think of himself as analogous to the city. Like Kobe, he is crumpled and punished, but uncertain about why. The story ends in an extended scene of Yoshiya dancing, moving along with “the rhythm of the earth.” The abandon with which Yoshida dances stands in an eerie counterpoint to the temporarily stable “ground beneath his feet,” still laden with the potential for destruction and ruin.
Five years later, Haruki Murakami, already a major figure in world literature, would attempt to come to grips with a year of surreal violence.
In the penultimate story, “super-frog saves tokyo,” a six-foot tall frog enlists help from a collection agent named Katagiri. Together they must rescue Tokyo from a creature called Worm, which feeds off fear and hate. Katagiri battles alongside the giant frog in a place of phantasmagoric dreams. His eventual victory over the worm (a clear stand-in for Aum’s cult leader, Shoko Asahara) results in the disintegration of the super-frog, a willing sacrifice for millions of Tokyoites. What might be cartoonish instead reads as wish fulfillment, a means of warding off an actual calamity.
With scenes that evoke the aftermath of disaster and its emotional reckonings, the stories of ATQ disassemble the architecture of ideas about national trauma, leaving behind the amorphousness of feeling, brought to life in the form of giant frogs, talking bears, and misguided messiahs. Personal tragedies collide with national ones. Murakami presents what is left behind as “‘something’ deep down, a ‘wad’ of feeling … too raw, too heavy, too real to be called an idea.”
ATQ is wonderfully translated by Jay Rubin, a master at bringing out Murakami’s peculiar version of loneliness and alienation. The trick of translating Murakami involves handling the “underneath,” a place of parallel living dissonant with life above ground. With descents into subways, wells, and pits, Murakami’s previous works had been preparing the way for ATQ, dramatizing the fracture between what is seen and unseen, and exploring how the veneer hiding one from the other can suddenly crack apart.
Even so, ATQ is distinct, with its focus on a suddenly denuded Japan after the quake and subway attack, when there was no longer any distinction between above and below the surface. The stories are scaffolded by these twin disasters. They are plotted with omnipresent news accounts of the earthquake, missing loved ones, and allusions to the megalomania of the cult’s leader. And they are riven by formal/generic cracks, which appear in-between what might be called the weird of Murakami’s world—fantastic elements inharmonious with his characters’ everyday—and the accounting for how ordinary lives are lived: pots of spaghetti, missing cats, precocious children, jazz.
Murakami, who grew up on the outskirts of Kobe, helped his parents move to Kyoto after the earthquake destroyed their home. In an essay for Granta, he reflects on the quake and the gas attack: “To me, the two events weren’t separate and discrete; unravelling one might help unravel the other. This was simultaneously a physical and a psychological issue. … And I had to create my own sort of corridor connecting the two.” It is no great leap to hear that desire of the author’s reflected in the coda to the final story, “honey pie.” Here, the character Junpei thinks, “I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far.”
In fact, all of ATQ’s stories are suffused with Junpei’s desire: a hunger for fiction that can offer alternatives to the cycle of violence and revenge, within which characters remain trapped. How, Murakami asks, can community after the quake be structured around self-reflection rather than cruelty?
The cycle, though, cycles on. In 2022, the former prime minister of Japan Shinzo Abe was murdered by a man obsessed with Abe’s connection to a cultish church. Murakami would not be so bold as to assume that he was saving anyone, but the stories of After the Quake make space for their characters to consider, to ponder, and in doing so, to ask more of themselves than the simple binary of vengeance or disappearance.