Magical Realism in Japanese Literature: A Portal between Fiction and Reality
Magical Realism is more than just a concept or a genre; it is the art of weaving stories out of our mundane reality, the art of venturing into the unknown and bending life in ways never explored before. What initially began as an inspection of the inherent wonder that exists in the objective world around us, transformed into magic and the incorporation of mystical elements into day to day scenarios.
Drifting away from the initial intention of political satire and societal issues, magical realism created a space to explore the ambiguity of our identities, through the intangible power of our imagination.
The history of magical realism in literature grounds itself in Latin America through the eminent efforts of Alejo Carpentier, the pioneer of this movement. The possibilities that can be conveyed through its techniques, owing to its native mysteriousness, contribute greatly to its adaptation across many contemporary art forms and lifestyles.
Tie between Magical Realism and Japan
To fully comprehend the beauty of this writing style in Japan, we need to familiarise ourselves with the intricacies that latch on to Japanese culture.
On paper, Japan seems like a fantastical country, filled with lush cherry blossom trees and picturesque backdrops that seem like they’re created especially for postcards.
In a way, magical realism helps tear down this notion through its illustration of the dark side of Japan, with all its political unrest and tangled narratives. It is through the characters that we get a glimpse of the underlying darkness of the so-called ‘land of the rising sun’.
It would be unfair to talk about this interplay without mentioning the contribution that the Japanese contemporary artists have had on this genre: Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzaburo Oe, and Haruki Murakami.
Fiction and Society
The line between fiction and reality blurs as we get entwined in the storylines of magic realism. What starts off as a simple, linear narrative soon transcends into obscure and vague meanderings. The characters of these novels, with seemingly content lives on the surface, are the guiding force of the stories. Their lives are grounded in normalcy, a beat down job, an obsession with American music and films, and consumption of copious amounts of nicotine and alcohol. Nothing is wrong with the way the days pass on, but there is a certain void that demands to be filled, a longing for something that breaks the monotony. And suddenly everything turns into chaos.
This emotional disconnect from the real world speaks volumes in its subtleties. The death of individuality in pursuit of the expected public persona is at the heart of every novel under this genre.
Magic in the Mundane
The appeal of magical realism is solely in the fact that it feels so close to home. It evokes an emotional response from the reader due to its simplicity and its emphasis on the individual’s temperament. We get to experience life through the eyes of a completely ordinary person, with no attributes that set them apart from the others. The characters in these novels are often university students, library caretakers and even small scale publishers. Just individuals living in their cramped up studio apartments and enjoying the little pleasures of life, no glamour or grandeur.
Although these stories are grounded in magic, they still have a bird’s eye view of the real world. They never lose touch with reality, although they do considerably alter and bend it to their favour. Everything that really matters to us personally, is in the actual world and would still exist without the requirement of magic.
When reality gets a little too overwhelming, we all need a safe space to escape to. Somewhere warm, and cozy, where we can hide from not only the world outside of us but also the one within us.
Magical realism provides us with the comfort we so desperately seek, with its homely imagery and artistic storytelling. We are no longer bystanders or passive observers. We are actively involved in the stories the author weaves, and experience the heartbreaks as well as the journey of self-identity along with the protagonist. The fourth wall is broken, although only metaphorically.
The non-descript, faceless narrator (protagonist) makes it easy for us to identify with them, however distinct we may be. Our perception blends with that of the narrator, and there exists a moment where the boundaries of fiction and reality no longer hold any meaning.
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Political commentary exists in the core foundation of magical realism, although it may be quite elusive. As this genre picked up in Japan after the Zenkyoto Movement in Japan (Japanese student protests), it is deeply rooted in separating the individual identity from the political. The characters are often seen conversing about liberal politics, and the right-wing is expressed as oppressive through its power-hungry motives and relentless pursuit for domination.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is a three-part novel based entirely on the existence of a religious cult with a totalitarian rationale.
Magical realist storylines seem to invite the readers to analyse and reflect on these outrageous happenings in the novel in relation to the outrageous crimes that have occurred historically.
With tangled narratives and vague descriptions, the endings of magical realist novels are anything but ordinary. Happy endings is not a concept that is realistic, and this is exactly what the novels aim to portray. There is no mystical experience that irretrievably alters the protagonist’s life for the better, no spiritual awakenings or happily ever afters. What the novel leaves us with, is an abyss of emptiness and more questions than answers.
Lost love, heartbreak, separation, loneliness and longing are recurring themes throughout the course of the novel. It is the holistic experience that this writing provides, which changes us as individuals after all, and not the ending.
The unexpected absence of closure at the end may frustrate the readers, but it also creates a spitting image of real life. We are expected to face the ghosts of our past and come to terms with the bleak reality, much like the characters we are thoroughly invested in.
Sometimes the universe calls out to us, asks us to slow our busy breathing, take a step back and marvel at its magic. Maybe magical realism is the gateway to the epiphanies of this universe.
“If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.” - Haruki Murakami