A sheep with a star shaped mark on its back and possibly nefarious designs for the human race. A girl with supernaturally dazzling ears and a sixth sense. A dying right-wing power broker. A narrator haunted by a whale’s penis. A slurring dwarf in a sheep outfit. What could they all have to do with each other? Why, they’re all part of the plot of one of Haruki Murakami’s earliest novels, A Wild Sheep Chase. Naturally.
Of course, we start with a typical Murakami narrator. Think Philip Marlowe with preference for bar stool philosophy, and pit his nonchalance and cynicism against Carroll’s Wonderland. This narrator is also joint owner of a translating and advertising business, and has a girlfriend whom he describes as having ears that are so beautiful that they “transcended all concepts within the boundaries of my awareness” who is “a part time proofreader for a small publishing house, a commercial model specialising in ear shots, and a call girl in a discreet intimate friends-only club. Which of the three she considered her main occupation, I had no idea. Neither did she.”
The narrator is recently divorced and going through the motions of life until a strange man in a black suit, who represents “The Boss”, a major right-wing figure, makes him an offer he can’t refuse: find the sheep with the star shaped mark on its back, or his life will be destroyed. Thus begins (da da dum!) a wild sheep chase.
While it should be obvious that I deeply enjoy Murakami novels from the sheer number I’ve reviewed on this site (he’s my most read author), I have to confess that I’ve previously dismissed the idea that they have serious underlying themes. When I reached the end of A Wild Sheep Chase, I had a strong suspicion that there was alot more going on under the surface. So I read it again, this time taking notes on the characters, recurring motifs and themes.
But it wasn’t until I was almost finished writing up the first draft of this book review, dismissing Murakami’s magic realism as merely fun smoke and mirrors, that I finally got it.
At its heart, A Wild Sheep Chase is a defiant declaration of humanism against the forces that have shaped twentieth century Japan, a celebration of the little guy, the simple life, and good old mediocrity.
This interpretation emerged when I examined the lives of a trinity of characters whose life histories are briefly recounted in the text: The Boss, the Sheep Professor, and an Ainu (Hokkaido’s indigenous people) youth. Central to these character’s lives are sheep, and in the case of the former two, the titular supernatural sheep with the star on his back, who enters people’s bodies and works its will through them Trust me, this stuff makes sense in the context of the novel. Kind of. Not really.
The Boss was a mediocre right wing youth until he was “possessed” by the sheep whilst in prison. He emerges as a new man, with “charisma, a solid ideology, powers of speech making to command a passionate response, political savvy, decisiveness, and above all the ability to steer society by using the weaknesses of the masses of leverage.” Using gold and silver plundered from Japanese occupied Manchuria, he builds a “powerful underground kingdom” that controls “[p]olitics, finance, mass communications, the bureaucracy, culture, all sorts of things you could never dream of.” He’s also linked to war crimes and drugs.
Then there’s the Sheep Professor. As a child, he was a scholastic prodigy with an unusual passion for agricultural administration. He graduated at the top of his class at Tokyo University (Segoi! Todai!) and entered the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. He looks set to fulfil his promise until, while conducting field work in Korea, he is possessed by the sheep. His superiors are understandably perturbed by his claims of having a sheep inside him (yes, his superiors also question the dodginess of that phrasing), and he is sent back to Japan in disgrace, with the sheep hitching a ride. The sheep then abandons him, leaving him “sheepless”, and he enters the story an old man, a filthy, embittered, shut in with a monomaniacal obsession for ovine, hunting for the supernatural sheep like Ahab hunting Moby Dick, which is referenced multiple times in the novel.
Finally, there’s an unnamed Ainu youth, who, at the turn of the 19th century, drew on native lore, not to mention his blood and sweat, to help a band of Japanese settlers survive the harsh conditions in Hokkaido, and establish Junitaki-cho, a town central to the plot. He takes a Japanese wife and name, and becomes a shepherd after he is gifted sheep by the government. Unbeknownst to him, the sheep are intended to produce thermal wool for soldiers in the Russo-Japanese war. When, in a cruel irony, his eldest son is killed in that same war, he becomes embittered and dies alone, heralding the decline of his town.
What do all of these stories have in common? Wars, specifically wars of Imperial Japanese expansion, are pivotal in all of them. The three men are all extraordinary. They’re cautionary tales: the Sheep Professor and the Ainu youth become old, isolated and embittered, while the Boss is just an out-and-out bad guy. And of course, there’s sheep. Sheep are central in the downfall of the Ainu youth. The supernatural sheep drives the Boss build a vast evil empire, while it ruins the Sheep Professor’s prospects, leaving him an insane recluse.
Contrast the stories of the three great men above with out hero, the narrator. He is completely without ambition and believes the story of his life is “so utterly orderly, you might doze off in the middle of it.” He refuses an offer of worldly success based on a hunch, then leaves a successful business without blinking an eye. And he casually gives away what is probably the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Now, he seems so disconnected from the world that a reader can be forgiven that nothing is important to him. But I believe that the characters close to him act, in a way, as aspects of his personality. His business partner expresses uncomfortableness with how quickly their company has grown, and wants to go back to basics. The Sheep Man (too much to explain. And I’m sure those who haven’t read the book have tuned out by now anyway) explicitly says that he fled to the mountains to escape war. And [MAJOR SPOILER] The Rat, who is most heavily implied to be an aspect of the narrator, would rather kill himself than be possessed by the sheep. Significantly, he says:
“I guess I felt attached to my weakness. My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas – if I like these things, why should I apologise. The same with having a beer with you…”
This also puts all of Murakami’s focus on the minutiae of mundane life – cooking, smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, travelling on a train – into a different light, and I’d venture to say that there’s an element of Buddhist philosophy influencing the author, albeit an unconventional beer and sex and cigarette friendly type strain of Buddhism.
Put simply, the bad guys or tragic figures stand for ambition, imperialist expansion, and war, whilst the good guys just want to quietly go about their lives without having to buy into the whole mess.
It’s also worth noting that the symbol of dangerous ambition is an introduced animal, livestock that was brought to Japan during the Meiji era, when Japan was scrambling to Westernise and modernise, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the author feels, consciously or unconsciously, that the corruption that has taken hold in Japan is a result of foreign influence.
This is the deepest analysis I’ve done of a Murakami text, and there’s alot more buried in A Wild Sheep Chase, especially in relation to the elastic nature of time in the novel, and the conspicuous absence of names. But I need to save some fun for next time. And the insight I’ve gained here will definitely add to my reading of Murakami in the future, and cause me to go back and reread books I’ve already read.
Oh, the book is good, by the way. Recommended.