Monday, December 28, 2009

Books: Call backs.

The most unsettling thing about the English translation of Ryu Murakami's Audition, the novelistic source for the flagship Asian-extreme cult hit of the same title, is the curious sense of déjà vu. This is, of course, partially due to the face that, unlike the book's original readership, you've most likely seen or heard of the flick long before any exposure to its source material. Though another source of your déjà vu is the book's cover: A minimalist eye in a circle pattern that recalls Chip Kidd's early, non-collage, J-pop themed work, the instant reaction on seeing it is to ask, "Didn't Vertical publish this four years ago?"

In fact, this is the first time Murakami's novel has appeared in English and it's coming out with the Norton colophon on the spine.

It's hard to imagine that this particular tome has much of an audience outside of the curious cultists of the widely praised 1999 Takashi Miike adaptation, so I'll state that the plot of the flick and the book are essentially the same. The book includes more preliminary meetings between love-seeking widower Aoyama and the mysterious Asami. The book never shows were Asami lives, so the who subplot abut the previous victim now living in a bag happens only in the film. The film also shifts plot points around, getting to the confrontation scene quicker. Curiously, the film chooses to make a image of Aoyama's last wife the thing that focus's Asami's vengeful rage on Aoyama. In contrast, the book makes a mention of Shige, Aoyama's teenage son, the thing that drives Asami into a murderous rage.

The real distinctions between the book and the novel come in 1) the characterizations of the two main characters, 2) Murakami's aesthetic philosophy of tell don't show, and 3) an almost aggressively retro sexuality that's so misogynistic I would have been tempted to view it as satirical if I detected even the slightest hint of smirk from Murakami.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the book and its adaptation is the way the author originally conceived of the two main characters. Miike ran with a haunted, somewhat fragile Aoyama. Until his interest in Asami is awakened, the viewer got the feeling that he was being frog-marched through the motions of the wife-finding process by his friends and family. As Murakami wrote him, Aoyama is a more confident character. He's made peace with the passing of his first wife by throwing himself in his work. His sexual needs he's met through the judicious use of bar wenches and professionals. At the opening of the book, Aoyama realizes that he's gotten the business to where it needs to go and he is finally ready to consider remarriage. Instead of situating the emotional core of the character in conflict between the memory of his first wife and his growing passion for a new woman, Murakami built the character around his sudden, irrational, obsessive interest in Asami. He's not torn some much as head over heels.

The biggest surprise for fans of the film will be Asami's original. Unlike the film, with its sinister scenes of Asami living in her psycho-spartan living quarters with the mauled near-vegetable previous victim, Asami in the book seems like a fully functioning individual. She's talkative, charming, and out-going. She's more sexually aggressive and engaged with the world around her. She's up front about her grim background, which is revealed in conversation in the book well before we get it in the film. In contrast to the film, Asami is mysterious only in that not all the details of her reported backstory line up. She's still mighty crazy, as Aoyama learns to his great dismay, but she seems less like a utter psycho with a thin layer of sane than a most sane person with a overly powerful crazy trigger. The difference this makes is notable. From the book, one gets the sense that Asami was actually in-it-to-win-it before her jealousy over Aoyama's son flipped her crazy switch. This potential for happiness is something the movie, with its considerably more insane Asami, dismisses fairly quickly.

Though I actually prefer the leads as Murakami conceived them, the book doesn't quite impress the way the film does for two major reasons. The first of these is Murakami's style.

Murakami (the other Murakami of Japanese lit fame) is, if his press is to be believed, something of a minor god in the Land of the Rising Sun. Called the "Maradona of Japanese literature," a rock star who cranks out novels as well, he won his first major lit award when he was still a college student. His books regularly chart and, as of this writing, six of his 15 novels are translated into English. In '05, The New Yorker featured one of his short stories. So, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the ham-fisted voice of Audition was some sort of one of experiment of his and that he's not usually this bad. I've never read anything else, so I'm just taking that on faith. But I find it hard to believe that a writer whose style evokes allusions to Dan Brown at his most tour-guidey cast such a large shadow. Maybe the Japanese mean that Murakami is to literature was Maradona is to literature. To be fair, Murakami's writing is considerably more brisk than Brown's: Audition weighs in at a slender 180-odd pages and it can be easily read in a sitting. Still, both show a weird tendency to give brand names and exact measurements where more qualitative description is needed, replace figurative language with Google harvest, and use exposition to such a degree and in such a way that you get the feeling neither trusts the reader to make the correct mental links. For example, Murakami's idea of foreshadowing is to simply break the flow of the story and explicitly tell the reader that Aoyama did not know the "unspeakable doom" that is going to befall him. Thanks for the heads-up, Ryu. Murakami is careful to leave no stone unexplicated.

If the prose can sometimes seem graceless, it's downright nimble compared to the book's thematic engagement with gender politics in modern Japan. Murakami has a theory about the anxious relationship between the sexes in modern, post-economic miracle Japan. It goes like this: Bitches is crazy.

Many critics tried to draw feminist gold out of the violent arc of the protags' ill-fated affair when Miike's adaptation hit American shores. It's a doomed project that even Miike warned against, but the temptation to try read Asami's gore-soaked rampage as poetic vengeance for the phallocratic dominance of the male gaze is too strong to condemn critics who copped that easy out. These film studies degrees aren't going to give themselves out, after all. But the truth is that Miike's Aoyama is simply too much of a nebbish fool to take seriously as the symbol of the patriarchy. From the moment he meets Asami, it is immediately clear that he's out of his league and under her control as assuredly as the chopped-up sack dweller she keeps at her flat. As for the moral complexity of the issue, while Aoyama's methods were insincere, so was Asami's presentation of herself as anything other than a psycho who keeps crippled victims back at the pad to torture. The only the juvenile moral absolutism that holds Asami, as the oppressed, can do wrong would suggest the scope of their crimes are in any way commensurate. The despised sometimes become despicable. Anyway moral vision that can't accommodate that fact of human nature is as much an exercise in projection as Aoyama's love-blind fetishization of Asami is.

But I digress. Murakami's vision at least has the benefit of being unambiguous. Aoyama's first wife is a distinctly Pacific Tiger reworking of the Madonna archetype. She was Aoyama's link to a wealthy family. She supported his career. And when it came time for Aoyama to scratch that itch with a extracurricular nookie, his sainted dead wife took it with the dignity and class and stoicism that, the reader is meant to believe, was the true measure of Japanese womanhood. She put up with his adultery without complaint and dedicated herself to the raising of their son.

In contrast to his dead wife, the women Aoyama meets in his quest to find a new wife are shallow, psycho, slutty, gold-diggers. When Aoyama first broaches the idea of finding a new wife, his friend proposes the audition system partially because he's convinced that a good hearted doofus like Aoyama would be eaten up by the girls that prowl the streets these days. When Aoyama's son is told that his pops is back on the market, he warns him about a 15-year-old girl at his school who turned out to be running an after-school sideline as an S&M dominatrix. The repeated refrain of these warnings is, "What the hell is wrong with women these days?" Shige repeated discusses how he plans to get his bride mail order from some Eastern European country that can be take the adjectival form of "breakaway." They'll at least be grateful. Lest we think this is some sexist observation, Murakami puts this same warning in the mouth of one of Aoyama's female employees. A young woman whose success as a buyer of foreign media rights, Murakami notes, has been her ability to suppress her own opinion and reflect the opinion of the masses. (With profound insight in the psyche of the female of the species, among the four non-vile women in the book are Aoyama's corporate lackey and his maid: both women he employs. The third is maternal barmaid figure. The fourth's dead before the novel begins.)

Notably nobody says anything like, "Who are these sick guys who are shelling out yen to get nasty with an underaged dominatrix?"

The British edition of Audition, by Bloomsbury, was released with the cheeky tagline, "Where have all the good girls gone?" Norton has the good sense not to go that route. And that's the best sense on display here.


Oliver said...

I'm afraid all of Ryu Murakami's books (or the ones translated into English anyway) are like this. He treats the reader like an idiot and is ideologically dur-brained.

CRwM said...

That's unfortunate.

Al Bruno III said...

Your article and your opinions are thought provoking. I think I'll stay away from the book and just keep reading your blog!