Murakami Ryū (who is sometimes unkindly called ‘the lesser-known Murakami writer from Japan’) was actually the first Murakami to achieve fame with his 1976 novel of disaffected youth ‘Amost Transparent Blue’. [By comparison, Murakami Haruki’s achieved national recognition with ‘Norwegian Wood’ – not his debut – in 1987.] He has continued with this exploration of the excessive materialism of Japanese society and its increasing indebtedness to Western (mainly American) culture in virtually all of his subsequent novels. His very pessimistic view of contemporary society leads all of his characters to feel like outsiders, alienated, baffled and often resorting to extreme sexual or violent behaviour.
After reading some of his previous novels, I considered Murakami Ryū to be the merciless sociologist and realist of his time and his country, while the other Murakami (whom I also like) chronicles more personal, nearly surrealist journeys. Yet this novel, ‘Audition’, feels much lighter and more personal. It also feels very much like a novel of two parts: the satire of celebrity culture and wannabe film stars in the first half, and then the story of falling in love, obsession and horror in the second half. Sometimes the two parts just don’t seem to mesh, although the author does drop heavy hints throughout that the story is not going to end well.
Aoyama is a moderately successful documentary film-maker, a widower approaching middle age, who lives in moderate contentment with his teenage son Shige. One day his son suggests he should remarry, and his streetwise, rather bullying friend Yoshikawa suggests they should organise an audition for wannabe actresses to star in a film they never intend to produce. Simply so that they can find the most beautiful and suitable wife for Aoyama. There was a lot I liked in this part of the book: some social commentary on the cult of celebrity, sharp satire about casting couches and a rather touching father/son relationship after the death of a loved one. But none of it was explored any further in the rush to get to the ‘exciting’ part.
Initially reluctant to go along with this dubious venture, Aoyama finds himself hopelessly attracted to the letter of one of the applicants, the winsome Asami, who had to give up her dreams of becoming a ballerina due to an injury. The book then shifts gears and we are in the more familiar territory of shock and horror. Against the advice of his family and friends, Aoyama plunges into a love affair with the gorgeous young woman… who is, of course, not quite as sweet and wholesome as she seems. This second part of the book was great in its build-up but then reached the finale a bit too quickly for my taste. Or perhaps I prefer my horror to be implied rather than explicitly shown.
I have heard that the film version resolves some of these quibbles, and that Murakami himself (who is also a film-maker) thought the film version was almost an improvement on the book. Personally, I thought that Asami had no depth as a character. The childhood abuse motivation was almost sidelined and in many ways she was a typical product of male fantasy: the demure angel of the house who turns into a devil in bed. The manga-type cover of the edition I read only strengthened this perception.
In conclusion, I’d say for those who read Murakami Ryū for the shock factor (and he is a master at piling on the sex and gore) it will feel like there is not quite enough of it until the very end. Meanwhile, for those like me who prefer the rather downbeat social commentator, this book feels too lightweight.
I am linking this to Tony’s wonderful reading initiative January in Japan. For more (or better) Japanese reads, see what Tony and his other friends recommend.