After the Quake

April 10, 2008

Each of the six stories in Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake is set against the backdrop of the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan. The stories deal with tragedy, loss, and trauma, and are permeated with a sense of mystical undercurrents and the absurd. In nearly all, there is a symbolic mirroring that threads through each story in the form of nature and wild animals. Stories feature reoccurring animals both in their wild natural form and as anthropomorphized characters. The stories explore the psychological trauma when the world and nature unexpectedly do not behave how society thinks it ought: when marriages fall apart, a parent finds a new partner, or we grow old. These smaller quakes mirror the larger event exemplified in the Kobe quake. Satsuki’s driver in Thailand said it best.

“Strange and mysterious things, though, aren’t they—earthquakes? We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. We even talk about people being ‘down to earth’ or having their feet firmly planted on the ground. But suddenly one day we see that isn’t true. The earth, the boulders, that are supposed to be so solid, all of a sudden turn as mushy as liquid. (76)

Animals in these stories often behave in irrational ways, but offer resolution to underlying psychic trauma. Here animals are of nature, but also something else. Super-Frog discusses how he is both an animal and a symbol. These stories are populated with bears (both wild and storybook versions), snakes that consume the white hard rocks of despair, gigantic worms capable of causing earthquakes, and super-frogs that dance or save the city. In many ways these stories remind me of Marcel Dzama’s drawings, which often feature sharp society women or uniformly dressed soldiers interacting with large brown bears or other strange creatures in absurd situations. These animals behave in sometimes benign or violent ways, underpinning a tension between nature and society, as the humans behave according to culture (often sipping martinis or soldiering on). The images depict problem situations. In Dzama and Murakami animals are the storybook version that help individuals put a face on the dangers and unknown that are too big to handle. In traditional folk tales and teaching stories, animals help or hinder the protagonist as they trudge through moments of crisis.

In the first story in the collection UFO in Kushiro, a wife leaves her loving and respectable husband after watching the trauma of the quake on television. The husband decides to deliver a package for a coworker as a vacation away from the city. Through the course of the tale he meets a woman who tells him a story about a sexual escapade in nature where she had to ring a bell to scare bears away during an encounter. Another bear is featured in the final story of the collection Honey Pie, in which a man tells stories of bears named Masakichi and Tonkichi to the young daughter of his closest friends. The story parallels the changing dynamics between the love triangle of the two men and the woman as one relationship ends and the other begins. The story of the bears offers a resolution for the daughter between the man who was her father, and the man who was his friend, as he becomes romantically involved with her mother. In the first story the bear is wild and seen as a danger that is warded off with a bell. In the latter story the bears are a stand in for the traumas undergoing a relationship.

Super-Frog also appears twice in these stories. First we encounter him in the story of All God’s Children Can Dance in which Yoshiya goes on a late night quest to discover if a man he sees walking on the street might be his unknown father. In this case Super-Frog is a pet name for Yoshiya.

Yoshiya’s girlfriend throughout his college years called him “Super-Frog” because he looked like some kind of giant frog when he danced. She loved to dance and would always drag him out to clubs. “Look at you!” she used to say. “I love the way you flap those long arms and legs of yours! You’re like a frog in the rain!” (65)

When he lets go and dances he can “feel that natural rhythm inside him [that] was pulsing in perfect unison with the basic rhythm of the world” (65). He can feel the natural ebb and flow of nature. After losing the man he is following, he stands alone in the middle of a dark field in the rain and begins to dance. Super-Frog is tied to this letting go.

In the story Super-Frog Saves Tokyo we again encounter a character named Super-Frog, now quite literally in the form of a giant frog that battles against a giant worm to prevent an earthquake. This time he enlists Katagiri to be his cheering section, while Katagiri has some sort of psychological breach and ends up in the hospital. Perhaps this time Super-Frog is also tied in with letting go, but in this case it is letting go of one’s sanity and slipping away from the anchoring of life. After drawing the battle out to a draw, frog returns to Katagiri’s hospital room and graphically rots and decomposes, illustrating that life is a natural cycle.

All of these stories search for healing from the traumas of life and natural disaster. They are the stories making sense of cataclysm and change. The animals humanize the unknown as the characters seek to resolve psychic pain and put the pieces back together. What happens when the earth shakes and our lives turn upside down?

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