April 10, 2024

From Earthquake to Eclipse with Murakami and Kurosawa

By Stuart Mitchner

Last Friday when news of the local earthquake hit, I was at the library checking out the Criterion DVD of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dogs (1949). At home I returned to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Vintage International 1997) to find my place bookmarked at page 217, just as Toru Okada, “Mr. Wind-up Bird,” was packing a knapsack “kept for earthquakes and other emergencies.” When the late-afternoon aftershock rumbled through the house, I was on page 245 just as Okada was experiencing “a strange reverberation.” Call it what you will, a minor coincidence or magical realism in action, these things happen when you’re reading Murakami, not to mention the name game connection wherein the hero of Stray Dog is a detective named Murakami and the older detective showing him the ropes is Sato, a name he shares with the yakuza hero of Tokyo Vice, the exciting new series I hope to write about in a future column.

The American Occupation

Stray Dog was filmed less than four years after the war’s end, with Tokyo like a devastated ghost town haunted by the American occupation, with ration books serving as black market currency. By contrast, Tokyo Vice’s vast, glittering 21st-century metropolis looms like a prodigious hallucination. As Murakami, a veteran of the lost war reborn as a cop whose gun was lifted by a pickpocket on a hot, crowded bus, Toshiro Mifune spends most of the film in a white suit that enhances his resemblance to the gangster played by Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967). The only exception is when he haunts Tokyo’s underworld looking for his gun in the guise of a destitute soldier; the eerie sequence establishes what film critic Terence Rafferty calls “the film’s real story” in an essay accompanying the Criterion DVD. As detectives Murakami and Sato (Takashi Shimura) “narrow the search to a likely suspect, the object of their pursuit proves to be someone very much like Murakami himself: a veteran, about the same age.” As he prowls through “the ravaged city,” Murakami is experiencing the “life he might have led,” these mean streets “a collective image of the road not taken.” For Rafferty, Stray Dog “is the story of a young detective chasing his own shadow.”

Bonding Through Baseball

For me, one of the film’s most moving scenes comes when Murakami and Sato trail a suspected purveyor of stolen weapons to a baseball game, filmed in progress with shots of star players who were the Japanese equivalent of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. As someone old enough to remember when Japan was the enemy, I felt a poignant mixture of wonder, regret, and sadness at the thought of all that the two nations have, and have always had, in common. How strange, to come to that scene when the star players I admire today are actors like Shimura, so memorable as the dying man in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and Mifune in his glory as the samurai hero of Kurosawa films like The Hidden Fortress, Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai.

As for Murakami the novelist, I’m thinking of his memoir, Novelist as a Vocation, where baseball and writing come together the day he attended the April 1978 season opener between his team the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. When “a rangy newcomer from the United States” steps to the plate and slams the first pitch into left field for “a clean double,” the “satisfying crack when bat met ball” resounds through the stadium and in that instant, Murakami is electrified by the thought, “I can write a novel.” And so he does, publishing his first book, Hear the Wind Sing, a year later.

Heavy Weather

Last week’s earthquake came to mind again while I was reading about the filming of Stray Dog in Kurosawa’s memoir, Something Like An Autobiography (1982). After discussing the impact of the oppressively hot weather stressed throughout the film, including the occasion when rain was needed for a particular scene whereupon “a terrific real rainstorm began,” Kurosawa recalls, “When we had a great deal left to shoot on an open set, a typhoon approached … We rushed the shooting through with one ear glued to the radio for the storm reports. Second by second the typhoon bore down on us and the set took on a battleground atmosphere. We wound up shooting the very evening the storm was scheduled to hit full force. Sure enough, when we went out to look at our open set that night, we found the whole street smashed to bits by the high winds. Gazing out over the rubble of what we had been filming a few hours before gave me a peculiarly clean, rewarding feeling.”

Earthquake and Eclipse

Variations on the way Kurosawa’s “rewarding feeling” links devastation with the joy of creation are played out again and again in Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a book conceived on a scale large enough to encompass any number of earthquakes, eclipses, and other acts of nature and the unnatural. I thought of both Kurosawa and Murakami as I read the coverage of the eclipse in Tuesday’s New York Times, which ends with a quote from a viewer who took four different flights to experience two minutes of perfect “totality” (“It feels like you need a poet or something to describe it”). In fact, Murakami creates multiple passages that deliver something equivalent to an eclipse, total or, so much the better, imperfect or incongruous. During Okada’s three days at the bottom of the well in which he experiences the “strange reverberation” that coincided with our 4.8 Princeton Ridge earthquake, he looks up to the circular portion of sky way up at the top: “As time passed and the sky came increasingly under the sway of the bright morning sun of summer, one star at a time would obliterate itself from my field of view. They did this with the utmost gentleness, and I studied the process of obliteration with wide-open eyes. The summer sun did not, however, erase every star from the sky. A few of the strongest ones remained. No matter how high the sun climbed, they took a stubborn stance and refused to disappear. This made me very happy.”

Our street’s eclipse has come and gone, all that “totality” hidden behind cloud cover that can create a magnificence of its own, as we witnessed during last Saturday’s astonishingly prolonged and thrilling sunset — a spectacle easily worthy of a place between an earthquake and an eclipse. Such rare sunsets evoke extremes on the grandest and ungrandest of scales, everything from whodunits to grand opera, and just when you think the spectacle is played out and the show’s over, something that began with a long thick streak of gunmetal grey streaming across the firmament, releases gushes of red out of nowhere, surely it’s the end of the story, everything fading to black, until suddenly the sunset sky goes deeply, totally sunrise red.

Times Square Eclipse

The unseen second-hand eclipse I had to settle for is the one a group of servicemen are watching, shielding their eyes, on the front page of Monday’s New York Times. The date is July 9, 1945, in the heart of Times Square, the month before the Japanese surrender. Ten years later I was haunting this crossroads of cinema, a paradise of first-run movie palaces like the Paramount to the south and the Capitol to the north (not to mention the Roxy and Radio City to the east). I know these giant movie billboards well. That’s Clark Gable’s immense face grinning over the shoulders of the eclipse watchers, on a Victoria Theatre billboard advertising Jack London’s Call of the Wild, a wintry film for summer in the city. Slightly obscured, the billboard above the Astor Theatre is for Danny Kaye’s comedy Wonder Man, which I was able to identify with the help of the New York Times’ “Time Machine” scan of the first page on July 9, 1945.

Here’s a sample of the headlines: “Fighters Rip Tokyo Airfields, Smash 45 Planes”: “The War in the Pacific Moves Ahead on Land and Sea as Taps Echo over the Water”; “Eight Germans Slain, 20 Shot by Guard at Prison Camp”; “GI Killed in Arms Blast”; then this, given a prominent place among the front page heads: “1 Killed, 3 Felled in Theatre Blast, Orchestra Members Startled.” The theatre is the Capitol, located a few blocks away, where a live orchestra is playing for a stage show featuring the singer Rose Marie (a bonus Manhattan movie theatres offered in those days). The explosion in the air-conditioning unit happened while the audience was laughing at the forgotten jokes of a forgotten comedian. As a rescue unit is fighting to save the dying fireman on the sidewalk outside the theater, hundreds of patrons continue buying tickets at the box office on Broadway. The feature attraction is Blood on the Sun, “a drama of Japanese intrigue.”