After Dark was my introduction to Haruki Murakami’s work, and since then having read nearly his entire catalog – including those novels considered by critics vastly superior like Kafka on the Shore and his most recent masterpiece 1Q84, it remains my unquestionable favorite Murakami. After Dark blends the metaphysical and otherworldly with the gritty realism and familiarity of Tokyo to create an atmosphere that disrupts and entangles the reader’s senses. In the time between the last train at midnight and the first train at dawn, Murakami guides us into an alternate universe – or, really, a multiverse – that exists in the corners and alleyways of what in daylight was an unassuming and ostensibly understood city. It is science fiction with elements of Murakami’s own personal folklore and mythology peppered throughout to remind us, just when everything seems relatively “normal” and “real” that something wholly different and unknown is happening beneath the surface.

But to a Western audience, Murakami’s work is rarely considered science fiction. His novels have made it onto the top 100 list of Japan’s SF Magazine, however, and even his most “realistic” fiction contains elements of the metaphysical and surrealist qualities. After Dark begins with disruption – it is told in the first person plural, from a perspective that hovers over each scene like a movie camera or a disembodied dreamer: “Eyes mark the shape of the city. Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair” are the first two lines of the novel. Later, we watch as Mari enters and leaves a bathroom, lingering after her departure long enough to see her reflection still standing there in the mirror with a smile on her face. Her sister is in a state of perpetual sleep – not a coma; she sleep walks to the toilet and she sleep eats the food brought up to her room – but is fully awake in a sealed, other reality into which bits of Tokyo after dark (a pencil that rolls off the desk of a man marked by a Chinese triad) begin to slip in. Something is happening in this novel – Murakami never makes an effort to explain any of it; but he doesn’t need to. Anyone who has walked through Shinjuku or Shibuya at two in the morning has felt that same sensation: something is happening somewhere. There is a world – a secret world – that is never more than a shadow sprite in the corner of our eyes.

So to understand After Dark as a science fiction novel and Murakami as an SF author, we have to first put the novel into the context of Japanese science fiction. Our “Western” coded modalities invite ethnocentrism at worst and things get lost in translation at the very least. So-called “proto-SF” existed in Japan as early as the 7th or 8th centuries with stories of time travel like Urashima Taro or the 10th century Taketori Monogatari, but “Western” science fiction arrived in Japan at exactly the same time as every other “Western” influence – the Meiji Restoration. Beginning in 1868, Emperor Meiji ushered in an era of dramatic modernization and industrialization, including the import of a large amount of “Western” technology, literature, culture, and products. The novels of Jules Verne were the first science fiction to be translated in Japanese, with Around the World in Eighty Days reaching Japanese audiences five years after its original publication.

But while science fiction in the “West” went through an intense degree of specialization and categorization throughout its development, science fiction in Japan enjoyed both equal treatment as a literary genre and also a peaceful coexistence with all of its various iterations. Fantasy, aliens, robots, cyborgs, androids, zombies, ghosts, yokai, samurai, Buddhist deities, and psychic detectives were not only all “science fiction,” they could all inhabit the same work of fiction without friction. This is easily observed in the most popular forms of science fiction – anime and manga, where robot ninjas fighting psychic ghost aliens for control of an ancient treasure from Japanese folklore would be considered “pedestrian” and wanting perhaps a mecha and well-endowed time-traveling sorceress. An attempt at explanation would be purely speculative: criticism and critical theory could have surely played a part in the deep rifts that exist in “Western” science fiction, with its fervent arguments over whether one work is truly science fiction or a space opera or just a work of fantasy with star ships. Alternatively, one could look to the introduction of science fiction to Japan – at that point in history – for a possible answer to why the genre enjoys such fluidity and widespread acceptance. The Meiji restoration saw a dramatic shift towards technological and industrial progress, but the “traditional” Japanese spirit never died: even facing cannons and rifles, there were still samurai staging rebellions with swords and spears and committing ritual suicide when they failed. To this day women wear yukata or kimono (depending on the season) to do their shopping around Gion in Kyoto at the upscale department stores for foreign designer goods and luxury imports before popping into their ancestral shrine to pray to the kitsune fox spirit protecting their lineage for good luck. They might even buy an omamori amulet and have their fortune read, while they’re there. The traditional/mystical/metaphysical and the modern/technological – despite the “Western” understanding of Japan as a mostly secular country – coexist in an uncomplicated harmony.

After Dark, for all of Murakami’s posturing as a totally “un-Japanese” author with his Jazz obsessed main characters and “Western” references, is an incredibly Japanese piece of science fiction. There are alternate realities, metaphysical explorations of dream states, and the dangers of technology that have gone from being tropes to conventions in the genre. But there is also a sense of magic, of fantasy, of a spirit world that exists in the “witching hours” between the last train and the first. It is a different world into which those lonely few who get stuck out in the city center overnight – because no one lives downtown – get spirited away (kamikakushi.) The camera from which we view this world allows us to see ghosts and alternate realities and spirits and demons that are hidden from even the people who inhabit this dimension. After Dark is as much a meditation on dreams and darkness as it is a modern folktale in the very long tradition of Japanese yokai monogatari (fairy tales is the best idiomatic translation I can think of, but the dark and morbid versions; not the Disney sugarcoats.) It exists perfectly in the tradition of Japanese SF: a tradition where anything goes – where anything fits the genre as long as it’s (hen, weird.)

For me, I think that is why After Dark will always be my favorite Murakami. It was written in 2004 but only translated in 2007, when I first visited Tokyo. I read it for the first time on the flight from Incheon to Narita (it’s a quick read) and then spent the next few nights wandering the neon streets of the entertainment districts after the trains had stopped running and there was time to kill. Something was happening. Somewhere. Just a flicker of a shadow sprite in the corner of my eye. And I knew that there was this whole world just hiding there in the darkness, in secret, that I would discover if I just kept looking. I officially moved to Japan a few months later and stayed for four years, wandering the streets at night after dark every weekend looking for a way into that world. I never found anything quite like After Dark, but I never shook that feeling – there was something there. If only I could have taken it all in from the eyes of a high-flying night bird midair.

Sources:

Review by Nathaniel Katz, Strange Horizons, 04 February 2011

https://web.archive.org/web/20110525163730/http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2011/02/after_dark_by_h.shtml