15 March 2019

Murakami and Music in Sputnik Sweetheart

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is renowned for his unexpected mystical stories that contained within them many symbols and musical references. His writings are well-known to be influenced by his affection for every genre of music, jazz and classical in particular, and partly due to his once owning a jazz bar named Peter Cat and collecting over 10,000 records of various musical genres that helped to sustain and deepen his musical tastes. Murakami himself believes that rhythm has a significant influence on literature, whether from music or fictions. He always artfully and blatantly applies his knowledge and preoccupation in music, accumulated from years of passions in his writings.

After many years of writing mystical surreal stories, Murakami decided to take a break and explore a new style of writing. He still retained his simple witty sentence structures and the musical references in the story. He came up with Sputnik Sweetheart (2002), a compact-size realistic and romantic novel, full of myriad musical references, mainly classical music, jazz, rock n’roll and bossa nova.

The story is generally told from the eyes of Boku, the term used to call Murakami’s male narrator, identified in the story only as "K," a middle-class primary school teacher. Boku, or K, secretly harbors feelings for Sumire, an aspiring Bohemian writer who dreams of becoming one of the characters in a Jack Kerouac novel. Later, Sumire falls deeply in love with Miu, a beautiful, independent, high-class, and sophisticated former concert pianist and a wine importer. Sumire adopts Miu's high-society world, trading her indulgent life to get closer to Miu. For Sumire, Miu is everything she wants to be. Throughout the story, Boku watches and perceives Sumire's transformations through his listening to her deep thoughts and feelings as well as his reading of her writings and hidden letters.

The three characters share common interest in music, but they prefer different genres of music, songs and musicians. Each character uses musical references in the story to refer him/herself, describe his/her situations or refer the other characters differently. Sumire herself mostly mentions classical music, but hardly mentions other genres. All scenes describe her daily life are only mentioned in classical music, but other genres of music that referred to Sumire are used when Boku casually talks to her. Meanwhile, Boku is a big fan of jazz, bossa nova, pop and rock n' roll. Many times, in the story, Boku always uses these genres of music as a means to metaphor or enhance the atmosphere of the particular scenes. However, Boku uses classical music whenever he wants to mock Sumire's changing lifestyle and appearance or Miu's extravagant lifestyle. For Miu, the musical genres that she always refers or uses to describe herself in the story is only classical music. Murakami might use the reference of music to his characters in order to help the readers, especially those who are share interest in music, enjoy and understand more about the social backgrounds, identities, norms and values that all the three protagonists adhere to in the story.

Moreover, the musical references in the story can somehow help to enhance the atmosphere and the understanding of the characters' feelings in the particular scenes. For example, Murakami mentioned Mozart in C minor to describe Miu's uneasy feeling in the Ferris Wheel and the atmosphere around her. Mozart's C minor work has a sense of despair, dark, implacable and fatalistic resignation. Compared to the scene, Miu already gives up searching for someone to help her out. Staying alone at the Ferris Wheel at night frightens her out, so she mentally plays Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor in order to sooth and express her feeling.

Murakami does not only use the reference of music as a mean to enhance the atmosphere and the understanding of the characters’ feelings, he also uses musical reference as a metaphor in his stories. Take the song "Violet" by Mozart for example. Murakami cleverly uses this song in chapter 1 to talk about Sumire's background and the origin of her name. Sumire means Violet in Japanese. The background and lyrics of the song is about a callous shepherd's daughter who happened to trample down a little violet in the field. Although the violet would get heartbroken by a shepherd's daughter, it was delighted. The lyrics and the title of the song foretells the unrequited love fate of Sumire. She falls head over heels with Miu. In the end, Sumire has never received affection from Miu in return. Both the lyrics of violet and the color itself also hint homosexual relationship, which strangely fits with the plot Murakami intends to write.

Another example is when Boku tries to negotiate with the security guard to help Carrot out from being caught shoplifting. The security guard intentionally satires Boku’s statement by mentioning "Auld Lang Syne." The lyrics of the song in Japanese describes the hardships endured by students during their school years to gain knowledge and to serve Japan. Although there are no words that mention of goodbyes in Japanese, the lyrics of the song subtly implies forgiving and forgetting all the bad feelings. Literally, the security guard mentions this song as a metaphor to mock Boku's statement that the guard should blindly forgive the crimes of Carrot and let the kid go as if nothing ever happened. Most of Murakami’s fans are Japanese, so the song in Japanese version will be helpful for the readers to understand and relate to the satirical metaphor.

In short, Haruki Murakami has often mentioned musical references in his writings, out of his liking to music all genres and to add depth and insight to his narratives and characters. Although the book Sputnik Sweetheart (2002) is a small-scaled, light, romantic and realistic novel, unlike Murakami's other surreal detective stories, it not only represents a wider range of musical references- genres, lyrics, musicians and brands- than some bigger volumes but also contain unique applications of such references hardly found anywhere in Murakami's novels: socio- economic, class-related musical, figurative device.

[Juthamas Chavanapanich studied Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, graduating with a B.A. in 2018.]

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