Considering some of Murakami’s stories involve dancing dwarves, talking cats and sheep with plans for world domination, you’d expect a novel in which he explores Tokyo’s dark side to be pretty damn strange. But surprisingly, After Dark is one of his less weird novels. Sure, a girl gets trapped inside a TV set for a bit, but that’s as mundane as a walk to the shops for this author.
Most of the action in After Dark takes place in an unnamed entertainment district, one of those places like Shibuya that lend themselves to stereotypical images of modern Japan, full of giant television screens, neon signs and pay-by-the-hour “love hotels”. Murakami perfectly captures the nightlife and atmosphere of Tokyo: the salary men rushing for the last train; the constant traffic of kids heading between convenience stores and karaoke bars; the scavenging rats, cats and crows.
The city is described as “a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms… sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old.” It’s not exactly sinister, but it is dehumanising. Later, a character describes the nation, or the law, in similar ways: “A giant octopus living way down deep at the bottom of the ocean… In its presence, all human beings lose their names and their faces. We all turn into signs, into numbers.”
Yet instead of being absorbed into the system, the characters in After Dark are outcasts. Mari, the protagonist, has fled her house and sought sanctuary in a 24 hour Denny’s and a heavy book. She crosses paths with Takahashi, who is having a final all-night jam session before hanging up his trombone and going to law school. He, in turn, brings her into contact with Kaoru, a former wrestler turned love hotel manager, and her staff Komugi (“wheat”) and Korogi (“cricket”). They ask Mari to translate for a Chinese prostitute, who has been badly beaten by her john, Shirakawa, an IT worker who uses the night shift to avoid his family. And then there’s Mari’s sister, Eri, who seems to have completely retreated from the world into an almost-mystical two month sleep.
Unusually, Murakami’s narrator employs the present tense, limited to a narrow field of vision that is directly likened to a shifting camera focus. Although it occasionally slips into a character’s thoughts or dictates the reader’s emotional response, the spotlight is on images.
Yet the central character’s natures contradict their appearances. Eri is a beautiful, popular teen model who, because of some secret anguish, turned to drugs, and finally dropped out of the world all together. Shirakawa, a normal looking salary man with a family, makes a habit of buying women and is capable of great violence. And the gruff and tough-looking Kaoru is, in reality, almost maternal in her protectiveness and generosity.
As is typical Murakami, there is a blurring of distinction between certain characters to explore a theme, in this case gender relations. Eri is a “sleeping beauty” who is watched over by a sinister “man with no face”, who may or may not be Shirakawa, making Eri analogues to the Chinese prostitute. This interpretation is strengthened by their mutual vulnerability and status as voiceless sex objects, and by the fact that Mari forms an unusually quick connection with the latter. This, in turn, implicates Takashi, who may or may not have had sex with Eri at the same love hotel used by Shirakawa. Later, Takashi is even mistaken for Shirakawa and threatened by the Chinese prostitute’s pimp. Taken together, this suggests an observation on men’s objectification of women.
Mari and Eri may also be seen to represent opposite approaches to society, Mari embodying intellectualism and disenfranchisement, while Eri stands for more superficial mainstream values. The novel notes that their names are only separated by a syllable, and the rift between them is the central conflict of the novel.
Mari’s encounters with the inhabitants of the night help her to understand herself and reconnect with her sister. She leaves the danger and quick comradery of the night and returns home to her daytime world. Her literal embracing of Eri may be seen to be an acceptance of this more mundane, secure reality.
But, as usual with Murakami, things are not so simple. Eri’s fulfilment of society’s image of success may have driven her into her sleep exile. Takashi is giving up late night jazz to study law and become part of the system because he seeks to understand that which terrifies him. Mari is leaving the country all together. And, as dawn breaks, both sisters sleep.
It is hard to draw a firm conclusion from all of this, but this ambiguity adds to the beauty of Murakami’s novels. What is clear is that he captures the feeling of alienation and longing in modern urban life better than any other author, in Japan or the rest of the world.