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The Strange and The Unusual: The Complexities of a Bildungsroman in 1960’s Tokyo

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Thrusting into the world of Tokyo in the 1960’s, Norwegian Wood is a novel by Haruki Murakami, which was published in 1987. At first seeming very foreign and obscure, Norwegian Wood proves that even over a span of nearly five decades, not much changes socially. Toru Watanabe is a college student in Tokyo, who falls in love with the attractive, but unsettled Naoko, and later on with the demonstrative, lively Midori. Watanabe is a serious person by nature, but like most things in life, looks can be deceiving as he cares more than he allows himself to show. Naoko, plagued and bedeviled by mental illness, serves as the entrance into Watanabe’s life as she is the only woman Watanabe takes an initial liking to. Midori, the latter of the two main love affairs is too plagued mentally by the deaths of loved ones, yet seems to be more compos mentis than Naoko. Both Naoko and Midori take a liking to Watanabe for different reasons, with one being more of comfort and the other being more for actual physical attraction. 1960’s Tokyo serves as the background for Norwegian Wood as Watanabe navigates love, life, and death; however, familiarity breeds contempt and the things worth cherishing in life are always fleeting.

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Toru Watanabe, the protagonist and narrator of Norwegian Wood faces complicated circumstances as he tries to discover who he is and what his place in the world means. The truth of the matter is, and Watanabe states it himself, “In the ten months between Kizuki’s death and graduation, I was unable to find a place for myself in the world around me” (24). Watanabe is deeply hurt, taking him two chapters to admit it, and ten chapters to show it. Reiko, Naoko’s roommate at Ami Hostel, notices the distress of Watanabe and gives him advice: “If you want to take care of Naoko, take care of yourself, too” (116). Watanabe, at first unwaveringly in love with Naoko, finds himself between a rock and a hard place loving both girls for different reasons. Watanabe bonds with Naoko after the death of Kizuki, only to find himself at her mercy, when she desperately needs comfort. Midori on the other hand comes into Watanabe’s life out of the blue, lively and outgoing, with an inventive imagination accompanied by her hidden, but depressing past. Watanabe is complex at his core because he is desperately trying to find himself. Watanabe went to Tokyo, over 600 miles away from his home, to find a new environment and discover the meaning of his life, which ironically, seems to be the same for Naoko.

Watanabe portrays the 1960’s thoroughly with his description of his roommate’s radio calisthenics and the naked pictures in his dormitory, as well as the use of pay phones, repeated mentioning/singing of The Beatles’ songs, and even the treatments for mental health. Thankfully Watanabe is a very visual person and observant by nature, making sure to pick up on very minute details and calling things the way he sees them. The environment around Watanabe seems very strange to him, and to me as well, considering I had no idea what 1960’s Tokyo was like, and neither did Watanabe prior to going to school there. Even as the story progresses, the differences and similarities between modern day New York City, where I go to college, and 1960’s Tokyo where the novel takes place, eventually became similarities. Watanabe’s room is the exact same set-up as my own and his friends are a lot like my own as well. All of the walking, going out for drinks and coffee, late nights studying, romance issues, troubles finding oneself, and suicide/deaths of loved ones, are all factors of Toru’s reality, as well as my own. Although not an intention of Watanabe, Tokyo’s psychiatric treatments in the 1960’s are shown very clearly as many people that Watanabe and other characters in the story know, commit suicide, probably out of a lack of access to helpful resources, or support.

Naoko, still grieving the suicides of her boyfriend Kizuki and older sister, cannot determine her own existence in the world. Naoko’s emotional stability is severely damaged and this results in an extended stay at Ami Hostel, a mental institution for psychiatric patients. Naoko’s illness brings with it deep feelings of regret and guilt as she is distraught by the death and memory of Kizuki: “So if Kizuki had lived, I’m sure we would have been happy together, loving each other, and gradually growing unhappy…Because we would have had to pay the world back what we owed it” (128). Naoko feels as if her and Kizuki avoided facing the realities of life and did not “pay the bills when they were due” (128), resulting in Kizuki’s suicide and her stay at Ami Hostel. When Toru confesses his love for Naoko and his determination to be there for her at her disposal, Naoko’s only reply is “You’re wasting your life being involved with me” (146).

The love between Naoko and Kizuki is important to consider, because it is drastically different than the love that forms between Naoko and Watanabe. Naoko and Kizuki’s relationship is built off of many years of trust and feelings and is built organically since they were both three, as opposed to Naoko and Watanabe, which feels like more of a doctor-patient relationship as Watanabe is there for the sole purpose of comfort. Naoko and Watanabe having sex made things more complicated as it resulted in Naoko crying on all fours because Naoko did not get to enjoy sex with Kizuki, resulting in some of her guilt. I find that Naoko contradicts many of the things she says, possibly due to the circumstances of her “illness.” It is ironic that Naoko tells Watanabe, “the dead will always be dead, but we have to go on living” (111), knowing the outcome of her life.

Midori, the opposite of Naoko is more of an actual partner than Naoko because her relationship with Watanabe starts as friends, without a bond formed out of the memory of a lost loved one. Midori, often expressing the sexual thoughts she has about Watanabe, wants to date Watanabe and have a real relationship with someone, something that Midori has been missing her whole life. Midori took care of her grandparents, mother, and father before they all pass away. Midori does not have great relationships with these people seeing as how she treats them all with a little disdain and derision. Midori, sexually frustrated by the boyfriend she has when Watanabe first meets her, is all the more willing to do carnal acts with Watanabe. Midori expresses how the people in her life accumulate her personality: “My father, my mother, they never paid the slightest attention to me, and my boyfriend, well, he’s just not that kind of guy” (227). However, there is more to Midori than meets the eye as her reaction to the death of her father is not of sobbing or some other natural reaction, but of saying “we’re used to funerals” (196).

The main characteristic drawing Watanabe and Midori together is their ability to act apathetically towards things, when they care a lot more than they vocalize. For example in chapter two, Watanabe says “when it took the seventeen-year-old Kizuki that night in May, death took me as well” (25), confirming that Kizuki’s suicide has a more profound impact on Watanabe’s life than he acknowledges. The death of Kizuki results in the breakdown of Watanabe in chapter ten and eleven where he gathers his belongings, withdraws all of his money, and flees to wander around Japan aimlessly, sleeping on random properties and appearing emaciated due to poor nutrition.

Before reading Norwegian Wood, my knowledge of Tokyo in general, not just the 1960’s was very limited. I had no idea what radio calisthenics were, or that people practiced them. I also did not know about Tokyo’s mental health treatments or that institutions like Ami Hostel would have existed back then. Being that I was institutionalized myself for trying to commit suicide in 2009, when I was 13, Norwegian Wood resonates with me deeper than it probably does with most readers. I say that not out of seeking pity or empathy, but out of my personal relations with the novel as well as my interpretations of the actions that characters take as well as their reasoning for those actions. Although others may disagree, I do believe every character had good intentions, but with some of the characters in the novel, it is much easier to let go than to fight your surroundings, because how can you hold you ground, when everyone around you is trying to bury you beneath it? It’s inquiries like this that skew my perception of Norwegian Wood.

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As 1960’s Tokyo has shown through the eyes of Watanabe, now thirty-something in Hamburg, Germany, everything is not what it seems. Norwegian Wood poses the question of, “do things really change over time?” As Norwegian Wood shows, things are not all that different from the present day. Naoko and Midori influence Watanabe’s perception of the world around him, as he tried to find a place for himself in the world around him after all the death. If Watanabe has learned any lesson, it is not that Naoko never loved him, but that “death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life” (25). Familiarity breeds contempt and it is the familiarity of Tokyo that breeds Watanabe’s contempt for the world, post-Kizuki’s death, and in the beginning, post-Naoko’s death. The things and people Watanabe treasures most in life were fleeting, which is why his perception of the world is the way it is. “Wasn’t it good, Norwegian Wood?”

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