It wouldn’t be a Haruki Murakami novel without a sex scene, and that’s exactly how “Killing Commendatore” (2017) opens up.
The unnamed male narrator describes sex with two women he slept with after separating from his wife. The first woman experiences terrible pain when they have sex.
The narrator’s reaction is observant, concerned, indifferent. 「いつも性器の湿り気が足りず、挿入しようとすると痛みを訴えた」Murakami writes, translated by Ted Goossen and Philip Gabriel with an accurately scientific coldness: “Her vagina was never wet and penetration was painful for her.” 「痛みは激しく、なかなか収まらなかった」Murakami writes, or, per Goossen and Gabriel, “The pain was furious, and it did not abate.”
The narrator doesn’t connect the dots and suggest that the painful sex might stem from the woman’s previously mentioned experiences with an abusive husband. Instead, he ponders about what on earth the young woman was after.
“Maybe she wanted to feel pain,” he writes. “Or was seeking the absence of pleasure. Or perhaps she was after some sort of self-punishment.” The narrator stews in his own self-created mystery like a lukewarm bath.
This is sex in Murakami in a nutshell. His male narrators undergo unusual, mysterious, surreal sexual experiences. The men are observant, passive recipients of sexual acts initiated by beautiful, unknown women. Description hones in on the female body, the male erection, and the male orgasm. Unsurprisingly, Murakami has received criticism for bad descriptions of sex and shallow depictions of women in his work.
We’re left with a simultaneously basic and profound question: why does such an amazing writer have so much bad sex?
A brief history
Stephen Snyder, Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College, said that in order to understand sex in Murakami, you have to look at the larger history.
“His treatment of sex and women has evolved over time,” Snyder said. “In earlier novels, it was more utilitarian and problematic, but that’s fits in with the historical norm. Recently, he’s shifted to a more progressive mindset, using more female characters. But still, a Murakami book will always be about some schlubby 30 year old guy.”
From Toru Watanabe in “Norwegian Wood” to the unnamed protagonist of “Killing Commendatore,” there’s always some schlubby guy, and always the strange sex. In “Kafka on the Shore,” the older Miss Saeki mysteriously visits Kafka’s room in the night, undresses him, rides him until he comes, and disappears. In “The Windup Bird Chronicles,” the clairvoyant Kreta Kano gives Toru Okuda a blowjob while he sits completely paralyzed. She undresses him. She rides him until he comes. She disappears. There is a parallel scene in “Killing Commendatore” too, where, out of nowhere, a woman suddenly strips naked. She mounts Menshiki. She rides him until he comes. She disappears.
You don’t have to be a literary scholar to see the pattern here. Laidi Kirsta analyzes on BookFury the recurring sexual encounters in Murakami’s work. She concludes that sex in Murakami is “something that men passively receive from women, who do not have sex for their own pleasure but for other motives… often with some kind of incest motive, often with some kind of prostitution.”
“The sexuality is rooted in 60s promiscuity,” explained Ginny Takemori, translator of Sayaka Murata’s best selling “Convenience Store Woman.” “Along with promiscuity comes spiritual and emotional emptiness. This is the heart of Murakami’s work—the theme of alienation.”
When it comes to generating a sense of alienation in the reader, Murakami’s sex is highly effective. The sex scenes are half-dreams that evoke of out-of-body experiences. Murakami undercuts sexuality with a current of doubt caused by the surreal nature of the sex as well as the obscure intentions of the women that initiate the sexual act.
Of course, the vehicle through which all of us English-readers experience Murakami is not Murakami himself, but the translated work. So it’s worth understanding how we end up with the sex that we do–in English translation.
Sex that’s made to be translated
While Japanese literature famously demands inventive, non-literal translations, Goossen and Gabriel’s translation in the early sex scenes of “Killing Commendatore”—and throughout the book more broadly—tends to be fairly literal. Their translation tends to match grammatical structures and avoid changing the order of clauses. I experimented with writing literal translations of sample sentences in “Killing Commendatore,” and plenty of them already made quite a lot of sense in English. That’s a far cry from what happens with literal translations of some of Murakami’s contemporaries, like Yoko Ogawa and Banana Yoshimoto.
But Murakami’s translatability isn’t a feature so much of Goossen and Gabriel’s translation so much as it is an essential feature of Murakami’s writing style.
“Murakami is born in translation,” Snyder said. “He is constantly translating his own works back and forth and his works seek out translations in various ways.” Snyder is referring to a variety of translatable features in Murakami’s work, from Murakami’s self-stated preference for English, to the overt influences of American authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver, to the many familiar Western cultural touchstones in his work, like jazz and classical music.
Goossen told me that there is, whether conscious or unconscious, a consistency in how translators across the years have approached Murakami. “If you look at the various translators, you wouldn’t know right away which person translated which work,” he said. “They seem to all have heard Murakami’s voice.”
But just because Murakami’s writing is biased towards translation into English doesn’t mean that translating the sex in his work is any easier or more comfortable. Translating a scene takes more time than writing or reading it, so translators have to spend many hours or even days with acts of sex or violence that readers or writers can skim or scurry through.
“To do a translation properly and enter a sex scene, you have to become aroused,” Goossen said. “Some translators might feel that you should stay detached, but I believe that you really have to participate in the scene in order to make it work in English.”
He compared the act of translation to walking on a tight-rope with a long pole. “At one end of the pole that you’re carrying is exact meaning, and on the other end of the pole is the emotive, atmospheric responsive.” The emotive response is the shock, the disgust, the curiosity, the arousal. “You need to keep the two ends balanced.”
The translators all agreed that it was essential to avoid massaging or altering the language to cater to the sensibilities of a foreign audience. “I never felt there was anything in Murakami’s sex scenes that an American audience would find any more puzzling than a Japanese audience,” said Murakami translator Jay Rubin. “And I certainly never saw a need to modify the content specifically for a non-Japanese readership.”
More than Murakami
The mystery and surrealism of Murakami—in sex and elsewhere —has been astoundingly popular in Japan and worldwide. But the world’s laserlike focus on Murakami obscures the full picture. Not just of Japanese literature, but also of the nature of sex in Japanese fiction.
Takemori suggests Sayaka Murata as a counter example to Murakami as a woman writer who explores sexuality from the female experience, which can often be unsettling and not exactly pleasurable in the way we are used to. Meanwhile, Murakami doesn’t come close to topping the charts when it comes to disturbing sex in Japanese fiction. Kirino Natsuo is one example. Murakami Ryu is another.
“Murakami Ryu’s take on sexuality and violence is far more extreme,” Snyder said. “He said of his own work that he always tried to depict something that would surprise Japanese readers and take them out of themselves.”
There are worlds beyond Murakami, in sex and elsewhere. The overwhelmingly male Japanese literary canon also misrepresents the current literary scene in Japan, as women have swept the last several rounds of major literary awards. “It’s really necessary to get these female Japanese writers out there,” Takemori said. “Traditionally, publishing fiction in translation is a risk, but we’ve been seeing a breakthrough into commercial success with more authors.”
But ultimately, what do we make of that mysterious duo itself — sex and Murakami, Murakami and sex?
Snyder said he would warn a reader against interpreting sexuality in Murakami as representing a unique or exotic element about Japanese sexuality. “Global fiction has a strong erotic element in general,” he said. “I resist seeing this as anything strange or unique about Japan.”
On the other hand, sex in Murakami clearly represents an outdated norm to move beyond by reading contemporary women writers. While the individual scenes are not problematic, when taken together, they represent a troublesome pattern to explicitly reject.
But sex in Murakami points to larger historical and thematic messages. By reading Murakami’s sex with the history and broader themes of his work in mind and recognizing that social norms have changed, we can still learn from the unique discomfort and revelation of the sexual experience in his work.
“He’s not an amoral flesh-peddler,” Goossen said. “There are huge differences between Murakami’s generation and the way things are now. When “Norwegian Wood” came out, many readers in Asia learned about relationships and sexuality through Murakami’s writing. In his own way, he’s a very moral writer.”
The pleasure of sex. The pleasure of translation. The pleasure of reading. They all collide in Murakami in a way that’s unlike any other author. We can only hope that forthcoming translations of diverse Japanese authors can show us new and different cultural and other pleasures.