Trump, Murakami, and Our Dark Selves

Photo by Ralph Ford, Ohio Theater's "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"

Photo by Ralph Ford, Ohio Theater’s “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”


This past summer, while rereading Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in preparation for a course on the Japanese novelist, I wrote two posts comparing the novel’s villain to Donald Trump (here and here). I said then that I was unclear whether protagonist Toru Okada defeating Noboru Wataya provides any guidance for stopping Trump.

Now that I’ve taught the book, I have a better sense of Murakami’s project: he seeks to understand the resurgence of rightwing nationalism in 1990s Japan, the so-called lost decade. While the Japanese rightwing isn’t exactly like America’s—Wataya is an intellectual whereas Trump is just the opposite—Murakami grasps how demagogues tap into a reservoir of repressed rage and turn it to their advantage. Both serve as midwives to what Murakami describes at one point as a “gooy white thing like a lump of fat” that proceeds to possess the host.

Here’s one of the passages describing Noboru Wataya that I shared earlier when discussing his resemblance to Trump:

He knew how to knock his opponent down quickly and effectively with the fewest possible words. He had an animal instinct for sensing the direction of the wind. But if you paid close attention to what he was saying or what he had written, you knew that his words lacked consistency. They reflected no single worldview based on profound conviction. His was a world that he had fabricated by combining several one-dimensional systems of thought. He could rearrange the combination in an instant, as needed. These were ingenious—even artistic—intellectual permutations and combinations. But to me they amounted to nothing more than a game. If there was any consistency to his opinions, it was the consistent lack of consistency, and if he had a worldview, it was a view that proclaimed his lack of a worldview. But these very absences were what constituted his intellectual assets. Consistency and an established world view were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media’s tiny time segments, and it was his grteat advantage to be free of such things.

 He had nothing to protect, which meant that he could concentrate all his attention on pure acts of combat. He needed only to attack, to knock his enemy down. 

In Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Wataya is shown to access a slimy substance inside people. Here he is violating Creta Kano, a violation that involves tickling her pleasure centers while causing unimaginable pain:

In the midst of this pain and pleasure, my flesh went on splitting in two. There was no way for me to prevent it from happening. Then something very weird occurred. Out from between the two cleanly split halves of my physical self came crawling a thing that I had never seen or touched before. How large it was I could not tell, but it was as wet and slippery as a newborn baby. I had absolutely no idea what it was. It had always been inside me, and yet it was something of which I had no knowledge. This man had drawn it out of me.


Like a crowbar, the pain was prying open the lid of my consciousness—prying it open with an irresistible force and ragging out the jellied contents of my memory without reference to my will…Strange as it may sound, this was like a dead person watching her own autopsy. Do you see what I mean? I felt as if I were watching from some vantage point as my body was being cut open and one slimy organ after another was being pulled out of me.

I continued to lie there, drooling on the pillow, my body racked with convulsions, and incontinent. I knew that I should try to control myself, but I had lost the power for such control. Every screw in my body had not only come loose but had fallen out. In my clouded brain, I felt with incredible intensity exactly how alone and how powerless I was. Everything came gushing out of me. Things both tangible and intangible turned to liquid and flowed out through my flesh like saliva or urine. I knew that I should not let this happen, that I should now allow my very self to spill out this way and be lost forever, but there was nothing I could do to stanch the flow. I could only watch it happen. How long this continued, I have no idea. It seemed as if all my memories, all my consciousness, had just slipped away. Everything that had been inside me was outside now. Eventually, like a heavy curtain falling, darkness enveloped me in an instant.

Think of this as the bile that flows from one of those Trump supporters shouting racist, anti-Semitic, or misogynist at a rally or indulging in such sentiments from afar.

We get a better sense of what this slimy substance is from the account we get from Kumiko, who is Wataya’s sister and Toru’s wife. It appear to involve removing all inhibitions

[Wataya] may have opened some kind of drawer inside me, taken out some kind of incomprehensible something, and made me give myself to one man after another. My brother had that kind of power, and as much as I hate to acknowledge it, the two of us were surely tied together in some dark place.

Thus the self that should control the dark impulses gives way to those impulses:

My brother held me with yet stronger chains and guards—chains and guards that were myself. I was the chain that bit into my ankle, and I was the ruthless guard that never slept. Inside me, of course, there was a self that wanted to escape, but at the same time there was a cowardly, debauched self that had given up all hope of ever being able to flee from there, and the first self could never dominate the second because I had been so defiled in mind and body…

Although not a victim of Wataya, another character also discovers something dirty within herself. May Kashara is a precocious 15-year-old who has inadvertently caused the death of her boyfriend by playing games while they were riding his motorcycle. When she takes the opportunity to reflect, she sees the source of her problem:

Sitting still down there in the darkness, I could tell that something inside me—inside my body—was getting bigger and bigger. It felt like this thing inside me was growing, like the roots of a tree in a pot, and when it got big enough it would break me apart. That would be the end of me, like the pot splitting into a million pieces. Whatever this thing was, it stayed put inside me when I was under the sun, but it, like, sucked up some special kind of nourishment in the darkness and started growing sooo fast it was scary. I tried to hold it down, but I couldn’t. And that’s when I really got scared. It was the scaredest I’ve ever been in my life. This thing inside me, this gooy white thing like a lump of fat, was taking over, taking me over, eating me up.

A few paragraphs later, May theorizes about what it means:

Everybody’s born with some different thing at the core of their existence. And that thing, whatever it is, becomes like a heat source that runs each person from the inside. I have one too, of course. Like everybody else. But sometimes it gets out of hand. It swells or shrinks inside me, and it shakes me up.

Think of Trump accessing that heat source for his own purposes.

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, Toru has his own issues, a pent up rage that comes out when he is attacked by a man he is following. Toru wrests the baseball bat from the man and then, to our surprise and horror, turns defense into an all-out assault. Our easy-going protagonist has a dark side we did not expect.

What saves him is his love for Kumiko and his concern for May. He is willing to face up to the dark side of himself and imagine a future where he cares for others. Empathy and love, in other words, are the keys to defeating Wataya. As his wife writes to him,

At least I still had the power to dream, I knew. My brother couldn’t prevent me from doing that. I was able to sense that you were doing everything in your power to draw nearer to me. Maybe someday you would find me, and hold me, and sweep away the filth that was clinging to me, and take me away from that place forever. Maybe you would smash the curse and set the seal so that the real me would never have to leave again. That was how I was able to keep a tiny flame of hope alive in that cold, dark place with no exit—how I was able to preserve the slightest remnant of my own voice.

 Toru battles with Wataya in his dreams the way that Beowulf battles with Grendel’s Mother, who functions as a symbol of humankind’s depression and vengeful grief. The baseball bat that he swings to fight off the knife in the dark is the solidity of his belief. His love for Kumiko never falters and, in the end, he will wait patiently for her to return home.

Perhaps this is what we must do in the face of Trumpism: hold fast to our belief in American democracy and our faith that our fellow citizens will make the right choice. Maybe standing strong in such faith–and acting on the basis of it–will defeat the forces of fear and chaos.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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