Haruki Murakami: “U.F.O. in Kushiro”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Haruki Murakami’s “U.F.O. in Kushiro” (tr. from the Japanese by Jay Rubin) was first published in The New Yorker‘s March 19, 2001, issue and then republished in their March 21, 2011, issue.

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Much of this issue is devoted to the recent earthquake in Japan, which is why they republished an older Murakami story.  “U.F.O. in Kushiro” opens just after the major 1996 earthquake in Japan.  Images from the quake are all over the news, and Komura’s wife does not leave the television.  He can’t quite understand her extreme fascination to the quake: she’s there when he wakes up, when he gets home from work, and when he goes to bed.  He doesn’t think she eats or uses the bathroom.

Komura’s relationship with his wife is interesting but hard to pin down.  Though Komura was enjoyed fast relationships, he has been totally faithful, though his wife is apparently not attracitve physically and does not have an attractive personality.

Still, though he himself did not quite understand why, Komura always felt his tension dissipate when he and his wife were together under one roof; it was the only time he could truly relax.  He slept with her, undisturbed by the strange dreams that had troubled him in the past.

Every once in a while his wife leaves him a letter telling him that she’s going to stay with her parents for a few days or weeks.  She always comes back, a bit more at ease.  But something is different after the earthquake:

But the letter his wife had left for him five days after the earthquake was different: “I am never coming back,” she had written, and gone on to explain simply but clearly why she no longer wanted to live with Komura.  “The problem is that you never give me anything,” she wrote.  “Or, to put it more precisely, you have nothing inside you that you can give me.  You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.  It’s not your fault.  There are lots of women who will fall in love with you.  But please don’t call me.  Just get rid of the stuff I’m leaving behind.”

Alone and distracted, he decides to take a bit of time off work.

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Hearing Komura’s plan, a colleague at work recommends Komura take a trip to some out of the way place.  When Komura says that he thinks that is just the ticket, his colleagues asks him to transport a small box for him, promising that it is nothing dangerous and would not get him in trouble even if the police scanned it.  He just doesn’t want to mail it and doesn’t want to take the time for the trip himself.

I found it a strange device, but it gets Komura away and to Shimao, the intended recipient of the box.  Ultimately this gets him to his strange discovery.

Personally, I was underwhelmed, as I have been when I’ve tried Murakami in the past (I must admit here that I’ve never given his work a fair shot and haven’t read his more reputable works).  I didn’t buy the devices and was unsatisfied by the revelation at the end, probably because it is abstract.  I imagine others won’t have these same issues with the story, since I know his popular titles have similar abstractions that make them work. 

On the plus side, it is certainly interesting to read throughout, and I never got bored as the story unfolded.

14 thoughts on “Haruki Murakami: “U.F.O. in Kushiro””

  1. Rob says:

    There was a time a few years ago when I read a lot of Murakami. I must have gone through six or seven of his books in the space of a few weeks, and then I suddenly stopped. Like a switch had been flicked, I just completely lost interest, and found him maybe a little precious and pointless. I left two books on the go, and never went back. (I think one of them was The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Somewhere in the back of my mind, in a room marked ‘unfinished reads’, the narrator of that book is frozen forever, gradually turning blue at the bottom of a well.)

    I’ll look out for this when my copy reaches the UK. It’ll be interesting to revisit him.

  2. Trevor says:

    Nice metaphor, Rob!

    When you read this one, I’d love to know how it confirms or changes your current views.

    Also, any plans for 1Q84? I admit I’m interested, though probably primarily to be in on the next popular event in world literature.

  3. Jon says:

    Rob, you had the same reaction to Murakami that Komura wife’s had to him.

  4. Aaron says:

    Rob, Trevor, you both had the exact same reaction as I to Murakami and this particularly bland (and opportunistic) reprint of a story. And Jon, you articulate exactly what I spend a lengthier reply (http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/2011/03/short-day-haruki-murakamis-ufo-in.html) going on about: this is a chunk of air. (And not particularly good air.)

  5. Rob says:

    I don’t know, Trevor. I think 1Q84 might be one I’d pick up if I was staying overnight at somebody’s house, and they left a copy in the guest bedroom. (There’s one you don’t often see in all those lists of ‘how to market your novel’.)

  6. Rob says:

    My New Yorker arrived today, so I gave the Murakami a try. Couldn’t get into it at all. I was skimming before the end of the first page. Ah, well. I’m glad I enjoyed him back in the day, and now I’ve other treats lined up to read.

  7. Betsy says:

    “U.F.O. in Kushiro” is my first Murakami. The story interests me deeply, as I lived in Tokyo for two years long, long ago. My husband and I bought our first toaster and tv in Akihabara, the place where Komura works as a salesman of high-end electronics. At the time, it had the atmosphere of a cut-rate bazaar; it was a jumble of businesses. It did not feel like our quiet university neighborhood. Of course, we still buy our tv’s and cameras from Japan. I think Murakami is making the point up front that Japan itself may have become a giant Akhihabara. When Komura’s wife says that he has “nothing inside” that he could give her, Murakami is questioning Japan itself about its soul.

    Speaking of the role of places in the story, Komura’s wife is from Yamagata, a western mountainous place very distant from the sophistications of Tokyo. It is the kind of place where time stands still. Her parents run a ryokan, an inn, which is very successful. A ryokan would be the essence of old Japan: the comforts, the quiet, the ease, the beauty. The mere presence of his wife gives Komura the feeling a traveler can experience at a ryokan – he is at ease. It is as if she stands in for the ancient way of life that had existed for centuries before western commerce became the new way of life. Komura “sleeps well” with her. He no longer needs the fast life that had been his before his marriage, although he hasn’t given up his easy money.

    Another place of importance in the story is Kushiro, a town in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the New England of Japan – known for its fall colors, its cold winters and its snow. For Komura to take a journey that might change or awaken him, Hokkaido is perfect.

    Murakami is quite open about the change he wants Komura to experience. What was it that had moved his wife to commune with the people of the earthquake for five days “with such intensity”? (I think it is her connection to the past that she had brought with her from old-fashioned Yamagata.) “What had she seen that he didn’t see?” he wonders. I think it is that Komura doesn’t care about his fellow countrymen whose lives have been wrecked. He feels that the earthquake stories are “oddly lacking in depth.” He has no empathy. He has no heart. As charming as he is, as good at making money, as kind, there is no “there” there. Komura has “nothing” where his heart should be.

    Another key place in the story is the fall woodland of Hokkaido – where Shimao has gone with her boyfriend to have sex. They have to ring a bell the whole time, however, to ward off the bears. In actuality, bells have a profound and ancient role in Japanese spiritual life, and their have a size and sonorous tone to match their role. These jingle bells that the couple use to control the bear and natural world feel silly – to us and to her. She thinks the story is funny. Again, the sex that should be relaxed and pleasant has become forced and ridiculous. I get a whiff of history, too, in this bear story, being as the vegetarian bear only attacks when it is surprised by “people in their territory.” It is as if there is a slight reminder here of the generals who expanded Japanese territory profoundly beyond its natural bounds, thus changing the nation’s originally peaceful nature. He’s trying to make a pass at the current situation – where commercial Japan has once again expanded its territory and nature profoundly.

    We should also note the title-place: “U.F.O in Kushino”. This is a story within a story. A married woman in Kushino is transfixed by her vision of a U.F.O. to the point that she runs off … and disappears. So in Kushino, there is the yearning for something other than mad-crazy money-making. Of course, Komura is actually the unidentified flying object of the title – seeing as he has flown to Hokkaido – or been sent to Hokkaido – to seek his identity.

    Or rather, the u.f.o. is the box that Komura has been given to deliver to Hokkaido. Packages in Japan are always a work of art (or used to be); but Komura notes that this box is “like the ones used for human ashes”. It is as if Komura is carrying the dust of his identity to Hokkaido – the girl he spends some time with even says so: “that box contains the something that [used to be] inside you.”

    Finally, the most significant place in the story is Komura’s heart. When the girl jokes with him that the interior of the box was what had been within him, Komura suffers a kind of earthquake himself: “his heart beat with a lound dry sound. His bones cracked as he leaned forward, for a split second…”

    The girl could have been referring to the last of Komura’s memories of his wife – what he had held within him. What matters is that without her (the ancient stolid secure essence of Japan) he not only cannot sleep, he is impotent.

    What moves me about this story is that the editor says “it was inspired by the 1995 earthquake in Kobe” -a time of great suffering and loss. Confronted by such monumental suffering, Komura feels nothing – much as we might as we view the current Japanese tragedy on our tiny screens. Tiny, our screens and our vision, in comparison to the vast sweep of terror that was the tsunami.

    I think we have heard echoes on the news of this story – that many Japanese people wonder if they have sold their souls to the devil in their race to the top. But of course, here I sit tapping on my Japanese computer – an enthusiastic player in their whole enterprise.

    Does this slight story have the reach to stand up to the “vastness of the universe”? I would say it makes a wonderful try. He comes at us sideways, and he specifically says – I’m going to tell you a few stories, maybe to comfort you while I try to get you moving. As a story teller, he tries to wake us up with tales and mystery, and at the same time touches our ancient fears – that modern civilization is marking humanity and community for ashes. It remians to be seen what response Murakami takes to this present tragedy, but we have to assume that he is comfortable with this story in the interim.

    What I do know is that for two years I loved living in Japan. I loved my middle school, my students and my fellow teachers, I loved the traditions, the ryokans, the baths, the temples and the mountains, I loved the beauties of the land and people, I loved the art and literature, I loved the sea-side, I loved the mighty life that is Tokyo. I mourn for my friends and their sorrows in these days of terrible struggle. I am glad to hear Murakami speak.

  8. Betsy says:

    What was missing from Komura’s being? I suggested “compassion”. On reflection, I think it is far more than that. Some of what Komura’s wife was seeing during the five days she couldn’t turn off the TV were the isolated old people that we, too, have seen stranded by this 2011 quake. Traditionally, though, these people would have been with their families. Modern commerce and modern ways have changed all that. Not so long ago, most old people in Japan lived with their married children. After all that watching, the decision that Komura’s wife takes is to return to her family. Komura himself never thinks of his family and pointedly doesn’t return to them. There are probably other traditions that Murakami has in mind that are now “ashes”, but he leaves it up to the reader to fill in the flesh. This reminds me of the difficulty of reading fiction from another culture – it is easy for the foreigner to miss what the culture can read in full. (I am put in mind of the Matar story of the displaced Libyans, in particular.) And that might be part of Murakami’s simplicity, knowing that he has a world-wide audience. What is missing from Komura’s life? For one, respect for family – but myabe that’s just the beginning.

  9. Naoko says:

    Love the analysis Betsy. You should read more of Murkamai Haruki’s fiction. His writing is not as vapid as the earlier posters suggest; instead, it is a vast symbolic landscape.

  10. Trevor says:

    Though I don’t think it is a failing, I do believe it is the vast symbolic landscape that doesn’t match my tastes. The box in this story, for instance. I’m not sure why; after all, I am a fan of, say, Bolano, who has a vast symbolic landscape that is incredibly fragmented and full of false starts. I guess I like how he does it and what he’s doing with it. I have read from other Murakami fans that this is a weak story, so perhaps I shall someday give his novels another try.

  11. Trevor says:

    An interesting post at the Paris Review Blog where there’s discussion of a slight relationship between Murakami and Bolano (whose “The Third Reich” had its first of four installments published in the most recent issue of The Paris Review (I have it, but haven’t read it yet)).

    (Click Here)

    As an aside, I didn’t like Delillo’s White Noise much and haven’t tried any of his other stuff. Why does it seem I just like one of the authors in this post (I do like David Lynch films, too)? I know I’m very attracted to Bolano’s themes of politics, poetry, and violence in Latin America, so perhaps that’s why I revere him and dislike Murakami and Delillo, despite any other similarities the three share.

  12. Ken says:

    I thank Betsy for every insightful thing she said. I would agree with her about this story. I also like the quiet surrealism and mystery of it. It is also unpredictable and I found it fun to read and follow. Even if it had no more meaning (which it does) than the story by Marcus last week, I would still mark it above that because I enjoy being with Murakami in his world whereas the previous week’s story was a nasty, mean place full of dufuses.

  13. Stycki says:

    After reading this short story I was looking for other people’s impressions and found this post and its comments. And even though I’m almost 6 months late for the party I just wanted to say I’m really impressed with Betsy’s analysis. Thanks for this valuable insight.

  14. Betsy says:

    Thanks, Stycki. Your note reminds me I need to get back to my Murakami reading list. A lot of people are way ahead of me on that. My reading list will now barely fit on the refrigerator, given all the titles Trevor has introduced me to on Mookse and Gripes. Thank you, Trevor! I have added many from the Mookse and Gripes New Yorker Forum list, as well as from Trevor’s prize listings, not to mention his regular reviews.

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