On 17 January 1995, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale hit the city of Kobe, the largest earthquake to have devastated the region since 1923. In merely 20 seconds, the disaster killed more than 5000 people, injured tens of thousands, and rendered more than 300,000 homeless. The house that belonged to the parents of writer Haruki Murakami were among those destroyed by the Kobe earthquake (also known as the Great Hanshin earthquake). At the time of the event, Murakami himself was not in Japan. But in the aftermath of the disaster, he returned to his homeland after years of self-imposed exile. After the Quake, a series of short stories, was the result of Murakami’s return and his attempt to come to terms with the catastrophe. Like the author, the characters in these poignant stories were absent from the scene of the disaster; the catastrophe exists on the periphery of their consciousness, even as it continually haunts them.
All six stories are set roughly one month after the Kobe earthquake, and the characters reflect on the disaster in their individual ways, mostly through their losses and the vacuity of their daily lives. As with his other works, Murakami seems fascinated by characters who experience existential emptiness. In ‘Landscape with Iron’, a runaway girl befriends a painter who had abandoned his wife and children in Kobe; next to the bonfire she experiences a sudden realization: ‘There’s really nothing at all in here […] I’m cleaned out. Empty’. The first story in the series, ‘UFO in Kushiro’, follows the journey of a man whose wife leaves him suddenly in the aftermath of the earthquake; she leaves a note reading ‘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’. The abandoned husband, Komura, then goes on a strange voyage to Hokkaido where, watching images of ‘tilted buildings, buckled streets, old women weeping, confusion and aimless anger’, he tries to figure out the state of his own life. In a conversation with a companion he met in Hokkaido, Komura denies that his wife’s departure had anything to do with the earthquake, to which his companion replies, ‘I wonder if things like that aren’t connected somehow’. That is precisely the idea that Murakami is suggesting subtly with these stories of loss, betrayal, confusion and regret – that all these things are connected somehow, and that the human heart is linked to seismic activity.
Beneath the complacent surface of life, tremendous subterranean forces are threating to disrupt the calm, to change the world irrevocably. In that sense, disaster is always just around the corner. As Murakami writes in ‘All God’s Children Can Dance’:
‘And then it struck him what lay buried far down under the earth on which his feet were so firmly planted: the ominous rumbling of the deepest darkness, secret rivers that transported desire, slimy creatures writhing, the lair of earthquakes ready to transform whole cities into mounds of rubble.’
Disasters are reminders not only of the physical fragility of our cities, but also the fragility of love, of human connections. Murakami’s characters are concerned about connections, even if they remain isolated and their lives are continually fraught by the difficulties associated with those connections. In the beautifully written ‘Honey Pie’, short-story writer Junpei is caught in a love triangle involving his two best friends. Like the painter in ‘Landscape with Iron’, Junpei has family in Kobe, whom he failed to contact after the earthquake; he tried to resume life as if nothing happened, and avoided news about Kobe. But denial does not work. Junpei is forced to admit that
‘Whenever anyone mentioned the earthquake, he would clam up […] He hadn’t set foot on those streets since his graduation, but still, the sight of the destruction laid bare raw wounds hidden somewhere deep inside him. The lethal, gigantic catastrophe seemed to change certain aspects of his life – quietly, but from the ground up. Junpei felt an entirely new sense of isolation. I have no roots, he thought, I am not connected to anything.’
Internal upheavals, not unlike earthquakes, cannot be averted, and require tremendous time and effort to recover from. In many ways, the emptiness and isolation experienced by Murakami’s characters are a result of their own frailties, their lack of social responsibility towards others, particularly those whom they love. As with Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’, there is much here about the possibility or impossibility of human community, about what people do to one another, and the emotional or social catastrophes that wreak havoc upon our mental lives. (It is of interest that a European story and one set in Asia should both ask questions about community and disaster.)
The connection between the heart and the earthquake is made even more explicit in ‘Thailand’, in which the main character, a pathologist, vacations in Thailand and through conversations with her driver, reflects on her past. When asked about the Kobe earthquake, she recalls how the man who had abandoned her lived in Kobe:
‘She had spent thirty years hating one man. She had hoped that he would die in agony. In order to bring that about, she had gone so far as to wish in the depths of her heart for an earthquake. In a sense, she told herself, I am the one who caused that earthquake. He turned my heart into a stone…’
The suggestion that a single thought could cause an earthquake is compelling, if not terrifying. The mind is responsible for much. And the psychological and the geological are inextricably intertwined. But if the mind can cause earthquakes then, theoretically, it can also avert disaster. This is one of the suggestions behind ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’, the most surreal and fantastical story in the collection, featuring a giant frog who enlists the help of Katagiri to save Tokyo from a devastating earthquake by battling a giant worm that lives underground. Absurdity aside, the fact that Worm could be stopped suggests that disasters can always be averted, even if nature itself cannot be controlled. After Tokyo is saved, Frog tells Katagiri something that could be seen as the kernel of the collection: ‘The whole terrible fight occurred in the area of imagination. That is the precise location of our battlefield. It is there that we experience our victories and our defeats.’ The fight – and the disaster – is entirely internal, a psychomachia, and without defeating ‘the me inside me’ – what Frog calls the enemy – then there can be no hope for community, for the ‘intensive collectivity known as “city”’.
After the Quake ends with an affirmation of the possibility of change. Junpei, the writer, decides at the end that change is needed, that responsibility needs to be taken in the aftermath of catastrophe, and from the ruins something new can emerge. In Junpei’s words, ‘I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far […] I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.’ Of course, such change is never easy, and the problems of human community continue unabated, as Murakami discovered. Two months after the Kobe earthquake, Japan faced another catastrophe: the gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, which claimed the lives of fifteen people and injured thousands of others. In Underground, which resulted from interviews with survivors and members of the Aum cult, Murakami sought to analyse the Japanese psyche, and what he found were multiple fractures in Japanese society. The gas attacks, like the Kobe earthquake, are indications of the precariousness and violence that will continue to complicate processes of building communities and forging connections. Like the reconstruction work that takes places after earthquakes, such processes are always painstakingly drawn out. But at least we know that in these instances of difficulty, human beings – not God, and not the stars – are largely to blame.