69 by Murakami Ryu

by Murakami Ryu
translated by Ralph McCarthy
Pushkin Press (2013)

Review by Beau Waycott

For many -myself included-, the introduction to Japanese literature comes in the form of Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood, which seems to now epitomise the idea of contemporary Japanese prose (arguably mistakenly, given its distinctively American influences). Those wishing to delve further into Murakami often turn to novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. However, this poses a dilemma for readers disengaged by the magical realism and surrealism that permeates (or, if not, dominates) the rest of Murakami’s works. Strangely, the novel that comes closest to Norwegian Wood is written by another distinctly separate Murakami- Murakami Ryu and his work 69.

Both 69 and Norwegian Wood share the theme of Bildungsroman throughout their respective plots, but Murakami Ryu’s 69 is far more focused on the counter-culture seen throughout rural Japan in the titular year, with the seventeen year old protagonist, Yazaki Kensuke, aiming to win popularity and impress his female contemporaries with voguish -but never particularly individual- anti-authoritarian and pro-Western views. The differences lie with the two novels’ protagonists; whilst Kensuke is superficial and desperately provincial, Norwegian Wood’s Watanabe Toru is intellectual and slightly more anonymised by his urban setting.

Told through an extended period of analepsis, 69 introduces us to Kensuke -now in his early thirties- reflecting on his formative years in a rural town, Sasebo, consisting primarily of misunderstanding (and throughly patriotic) adults, sailors from the nearby US navy base and his scholarly contemporaries, all of whom are either deeply insipid or deeply attractive to Kensuke. Whilst in Tokyo’s numerous universities there is a movement of common love, leftism and the ever-playing rolls jazz music, not quite so much in Sasebo. Ken firstly barricades the school, bringing him a certain local fame, which even the most superficial of readings make clear Ken (perhaps even in his thirty year old self) wallows in with absolute pride. This leads him to host a cultural celebration of film, art and music, planning with no knowledge and the money of various expendable friends, whom provide the logistics to Ken’s epic visions.

69 really is an enjoyable read. Written with a relaxed and hugely entertaining register, Murakami deftly illustrates that adolescence is most certainly a matter of adult literature when executed with a believable, and fundamentally relatable, protagonist. Whilst Ken is sardonic and truly shallow, he represents two distinct parts of all of us: the overtly cynical and the hopelessly romantic, without patronising us. Although Murakami does rely heavily on archetypes, they are employed successfully, managing to convince the reader of Ken’s characterisation, with his friends also being presented adroitly.

The brevity of physical descriptions also works impressively to convey Ken’s genuine distaste, the most memorable the description of a chicken farmer looking ‘exactly as you’d expect a chicken farmer to look.’ Murakami’s more famous works of prose are entangled with nihilism, gratuitous violence and near-parasitic characters, but 69 is a fast paced and light hearted text that balances both the innocent and the political through logical description, juxtaposition and -at times- toilet humour.

But what does Murakami really want us to achieve with reading his novel? In spite of the fact he has described the work as a Roman à clef, he does appear to make undisguised criticisms of the student revolutionary movement of the late sixties, showing many to be concerned with need either to fill their ego or fill their wallets. Perhaps Murakami wants to persuade us to not lament the inadequacies of modern living in specious groups and via power-hungry leaders, but instead tackle such issues head-on.

Despite its first publication in 1987, 69 does touch on some issues close to home for all today; the deep longing of Ken’s to escape his communities conservatism might encapsulate many young pro-Europeans; the rejection of societal norms to seek tangible change can link clearly with the rise of populist figures in world politics.

I would recommend 69 firstly to any adolescent to show the ordinariness of what seem the most extraordinary feelings, but also to any adult who remembers their juvenescence and is unhappy with the world today. This is the kind of novel that, yes, is easily forgettable, but will provide enough of a stimulus to mourn the inevitable death that everyone’s youth will one day reach.


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