Art by Kim Jakobsson (IG: @kimjakobssonart)
The instant I placed my hand on the first pages of the book, a decision was made in the intricate paths of my existence.
A couple of weeks ago, I was scanning the Fiction and Poetry tab on The New Yorker’s website as I do every Sunday morning. Straight away, a headline near the top stood out: “New Fiction by Haruki Murakami: ‘Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey.’”
My interest having been piqued by more reasons than one, I clicked on the piece and read it immediately, rather than letting it sit in an open tab until bedtime like usual.
Written as a first-person journal, “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” drops its readers into the mundane experience of spending a night at a hotel—that is, apart from one key exception. Soon after arriving at the “small Japanese-style inn in a hot-springs town in Gunma Prefecture,” our unnamed lead character, who is perhaps an extension of Murakami’s psyche, meets a peculiar concierge—a monkey able to speak his language. The monkey inquires about the bath’s quality and offers to scrub the lead’s back. Intrigued, the unnamed man asks the monkey to drink and chat with him in his hotel room.
Later that night, the monkey arrives at the suite fully clothed and holding two large bottles of beer.
I've heard that therapists recommend pausing and scanning one’s surroundings to reduce anxiety, and this advice is what led me to my first experience with Haruki Murakami. I had just completed the Evidence-Based reading portion of my freshman year PSAT and was unsure of my answers to questions 42, 45, and 47. As I thought about how that last passage was standing in the way of a perfect score, my mind went a million miles an hour. Trying to remain calm, I put my hands on my desk. This is a brown wooden desk. My hands lowered. This is a metal chair leg. When I was done inspecting every object in my vicinity, my eyes moved a little farther. To the right was a cabinet filled with books that my English teacher had recommended. I started mentally noting the names and authors of these. Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, It’s Ki- wait. I did a double take.
Now, I must confess that I am complicit in the act of judging a book by its cover, and everything about 1Q84’s cover commanded attention. Apart from the book’s sheer size—928 pages of fiction, with an extra ~100 pages of commentary—the cover’s white background featured a woman gazing through the characters “1Q84.” She looked too calm for someone trapped behind another's words.
In our break before the Writing and Language section, I dashed over and grabbed the book, storing it in the cubby under my chair. In between testing sessions, I found myself immersed in 1Q84’s first couple of chapters. Aomame—our protagonist and badass killer of corrupt abusers—falls into the parallel world of 1Q84, in which Tengo—an aspiring writer who takes on a mysterious ghostwriting project—may or may not reside. Having never read serious adult or international literature before, I was mystified by everything: the writing style, the Japanese setting, and most of all, the significance of Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta as a motif propelling the story.
I learned later that Murakami only picked Sinfonietta because of its eccentricity; in fact, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra describes it as busy, upbeat, [and] dramatic, like five normal songs fighting for supremacy in an empty paint can. In Murakami’s eyes, it was worthy of attention, if only for a moment.
Back in the Ariso suite, the man asks about the monkey’s story, and after a little small talk, the latter gives his first confession. Having been raised by a professor, the monkey had learned how to speak to humans. As he grew older, the monkey tried to assimilate back among his biological peers, but he was shunned due to his unusual talent. When asked about his interest in any female monkeys, the monkey hesitantly divulges that he can only fall in love with female humans.
With harder classes, clubs, competitions, and the general sense of impending doom that every teenager faces around that age, I had gotten quite busy in my final years of high school. By then, Murakami had established himself in my mind as the greatest fiction author of our time; even so, he was low on the priorities list.
But when our principal introduced mandatory reading time in a bid to join the Georgia Board of Directors, I was able to resume my discovery of Murakami’s works. I first had my eyes on his more well-known works, such as Norwegian Wood or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but minutes after arriving at my local library, I found that I had only one option: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
Despite binge-watching Murakami review videos to satisfy my literary cravings through short-form content, I had never once encountered this title. Walking back to the car with book in hand, I imagined myself as the loner lurking around the corner of a dimly lit Tokyo bookstore, waiting to cash in my Win a Midnight Premiere for One ticket.
Life can be unpredictable, however. And the instant I placed my hand on the first pages of the book, a decision was made in the intricate paths of my existence.
In the author’s own words (or, more likely, the words of whoever wrote the synopsis on his website), Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is “a journey into the past that is necessary to mend the present.” In it lies the story of a young man whose traumatic emergence into adulthood haunts him in his nondescript present. During high school, Tsukuru doesn’t quite fit in with his four best friends, all of whom curiously have a family name that corresponds to a color; there are two boys, Akamatsu (red pine) and Oumi (blue sea), and two girls, Shirane (white root) and Kurono (black field). Occasionally, his colorlessness bothers Tsukuru. Yet feeling that all five of them were equally indispensable to one another, as five points on a star or five syllables in a haiku, he remains with them. Then one day after moving to Tokyo for college, he is cut off from the group without explanation, and after meeting a new woman who refuses to date him until he confronts his past, Tsukuru must go on a journey of confusion, guilt, and self-discovery to find out what really happened.
I carried this book around everywhere I went. Much like Tsukuru, I was undergoing a tumultuous split at the time from the people who I thought would be lifelong friends. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage felt like a guide written just for me, a magic shop of sorts in which I could exchange my depressive and euphoric episodes for some comfort and reprieve.
One day, the silent boy who sat next to me in my computer science class tapped me and asked if I also read Murakami. My head, previously lowered in defeat due to a particularly frustrating test, shot up in excitement. Sure, from the outside, this may seem like a question asked in passing, but to me it was very important. I had just met someone who probably shared my view of the world: a blend of romantic wistfulness and fragile realism with a sprinkle of cynicism. When I felt like I didn’t know anyone anymore, this was significant.
The dialogue had begun. The gears were in motion.
Things would change from now on.
Seemingly disturbed by the monkey’s tale, the main character swigs down all of his remaining beer. The monkey goes on to describe how he fulfilled his unsatisfied cravings.
“You may not believe me,” the monkey said. “You probably won’t believe me, I should say. But, from a certain point on, I started stealing the names of the women I fell for.”
Murakami’s A Shinagawa Monkey (not to be confused with the sequel, “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey”) elaborates on this concept from the perspective of one such unknowing lover, Mizuki Ozawa.
Mizuki started to forget her own name a few years after getting married. With her memory loss increasing, she started to worry she had early-onset Alzheimers’ and decided to visit a doctor. Clearly overworked and looking “more like a patient than a physician,” the doctor refers her to psychiatry. She decides to follow the doctor’s advice when she sees a newspaper ad for a new counseling shop with competitive rates.
When Mizuki arrives at the center, a woman reminiscent of sideshow clairvoyants named Tetsuko Sakaki tells her that she is their first client and can take as much time as she needs. Despite her initial doubts, Mizuki shares the story of her life and curiously finds herself feeling relieved by the genuine concern that seems to emanate from Mrs. Sakaki’s faint smile, which, “like a spring moon at dusk,” never wavers.
I always found coming-of-age movies a little pretentious. The innocent beauty who can’t see her worth meets the edgy bad boy who has no qualms speaking his mind but can’t express his emotions (feel free to swap genders). It’s a dated concept.
So naturally, that comprises the majority of my favorite movies list.
I just can’t help but love seeing reflections of myself through rose-colored glasses. In these movies, past trials and tribulations lead to glossy lip tint, starlit gazes, chance occurrences, cuddles that smell of fresh laundry, wholesome commitments, and most importantly, a satisfying feeling of closure regardless of the ending.
Looking back on days spent with that Murakami-esque boy, I feel as if I was in my very own coming-of-age movie. We matched like puzzle pieces. Yes, he could never come to my house, nor I to his, but why would that stop us? Our bond was simply too strong for such a simple issue to stop.
The first time we were alone together was at my favorite cafe. I ordered a matcha milk tea, and he a standard coffee. It was my idea to take a walk around our little town. The morning frost was beginning to melt, and I wanted to feel the sun on my skin before my move to Michigan. But as we wandered the streets aimlessly, the cirrus clouds amassed and shed their bullet casings down at us. In a moment of euphoria and caffeine, I grabbed his hand and ran. Just like in the movies. When we made it to cover, he gave me his hoodie.
It was a rather surreal period of my life. I never liked him, but he won me over with his words. “I don’t believe in true love or anything like that but something like this comes once in a blue moon and it feels like hell knowing you’ll be going to another place soon. I’m gonna miss you for a little too long and it might hurt a little too much to see you go.“ The next time we met, my cheeks were rouge and my curves accentuated.
Everywhere we went together, our fingers, lips, and hips entwined in a desperate attempt to make the most of the moments we had. In a sense, I suppose the clock stopped ticking for us to catch up on the future that we could never have. He said he loved me, and I said it back. The feeling of floating, of those uncorrupted, out-of-body affairs, was new for me. Driving through town now, the remnants of those feelings still whisper to me. Remember, they say. This park bench was where you had your first kiss. That table is where you introduced him to your friends. This bleacher marks the day I became yours. The same day we said goodbye ‘til Christmas!
I digress. This is not a love story.
At their next session, Mrs. Sakaki asks Mizuki to think back to any memories she has related to names. Mizuki recalls a conversation that took place in her former all-girls high school between her and a junior named Yuko Matsunaka.
Before giving details, Mizuki provides some background about how their high school had a nametag system to keep track of each student. Each tag had 2 sides, with a name written in black or red; if a name was in black, the girl was available in the dorm, and if it was in red, she was out. If the nametag was placed in a bin rather than being hung up, this meant that the student was going to be gone for a night or longer.
Yuko had come to Mizuki that night asking if they could talk. Following a puzzling series of questions on jealousy, the junior asks if she can entrust Mizuki with her name tag for a night because she “[doesn’t] want a monkey running off with it while she’s gone.” Though she wonders what Yuko means by this, Misuki agrees.
When Yuko does not come back to the school on Monday, the teacher of her class calls her family. They find her body a week later. She had slit her wrists in the woods and died alone.
A little later, the nametags go missing.
The blots, far greater than the tendrils of ruby ink seeping out of his veins and running down his arms, were easily identifiable. Especially at the start of it all.
The first warning sign was my nickname. He called me his Sakura, after a character from Murakami’s books Kafka on the Shore.
Oedipal prophecies aside, Kafka himself is a deeply troubled teenager with an equally troubling upbringing. On the run away from his home to search for his missing mother and sister, he meets many people (and many, many cats), one of whom is Sakura. Despite Sakura being a minor character, Kafka is sexually obsessed with her to a disturbing degree, going so far as to have a rape fantasy of her.
Sakura seems to think of Kafka as a younger brother and helps him through his moments of weakness. For most of the story, they communicate through calls, apart from some chance occurrences that they agree are “results of karma and that things in life are fated by [their] previous lives. That even in the smallest events there’s no such thing as coincidence.”
Since I hadn’t read Kafka on the Shore, I thought this nickname was sweet. Sakura translates to cherry blossom, so I just figured he was calling me his flower. When he described her, Sakura sounded like a beautiful, intelligent woman who could stand her own ground. Imagine my surprise when I learned that she was merely his physical and mental dumpster. Though I saw this boy as my Murakami—a creator of unexplored magical worlds that are just real enough—now I believe that he saw himself as Kafka and I his Sakura.
The rest of the warning signs came in waves.
He couldn’t sleep. Nightmares wracked his mind when he tried, so we would text until late in the night. I always fell asleep first.
He swore not to get into a relationship until he was completely content. This promise was broken.
On again, off again relationships do not work out.
Prevalent sex, even more prevalent tears, but no sense of responsibility or maturity.
Jealousy over your partner making friends and settling into a new life is not the same as caring.
The line was always crossed.
A quote from Kafka on the Shore states:
Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on…. Keep your eyes wide open. Only a coward closes his eyes.
And I closed my eyes.
Mrs. Sakaki, with the help of both implied magic and her husband, finds both Mizuki’s and Yuko’s nametags in the hands of a monkey—the Shinagawa Monkey. While reassuring Mizuki that she will no longer have to face the problem of forgetting her name, the therapist suggests she talk to the monkey to find out more.
And after her initial shock, Mizuki and the monkey do have a conversation about the stolen nametags. When the others in the room (Mr. Sakaki, Mrs. Sakaki, and another man named Sakadura who works with the former) bring up possibly killing the monkey as punishment, the monkey begs them not to by saying that some good has also come from him stealing names. He posits that when he stole Mizuki’s nametag, he also stole some dark aspects that had attached themselves to her name as well.
“All right, then, why don’t you tell me what evil things have stuck to my name?” Mizuki said, staring right into the monkey’s small red eyes.
“If I tell you it might hurt you.”
“I don’t care. Go ahead.”
And so began Mizuki’s disillusionment.
I like to think that people’s souls are akin to old noir films: black and white. Consequently, I was vulnerable to all the gray situations full of nuances and what-ifs put in front of me the day we met again.
Fearing his reaction, I never said that my heart no longer belonged to him. We had agreed to cut our romantic ties anyways.
My roommates advised me to meet in a public place, so I asked to meet at the same cafe as before. I dressed down—loose jeans, a baggy sweater, and my hair undone.
When he walked in, I awkwardly smiled and scooted over. He sat down and placed a book on the table. “I found it for you.” It was his old copy of Kafka on the Shore. Appreciative of the gesture, I accepted it. We ordered the same drinks, a matcha milk tea and a coffee, and got to talking. Or rather, I got to talking. Any question I asked was either evaded or given a vague answer. I felt this elusion to be a warning of what was to come, a rebuke even for hurting him.
This time, it was his suggestion to take a walk. The places we went got increasingly less populated, from a neighborhood park to the lake.
Every place we went, my body felt violated. In the park, I gently pushed his hand off of me. He put it back on my lap. He put his head on my shoulder. I scooted away. He would talk a little until I felt comfortable, then try something else. At the lake, he lifted me off the ground. Playful, but an exhibit of his strength nonetheless. It was uncomfortable enough to make me call someone. I never did shy away from my morbid curiosities, though, so I stayed. Anyway, I still cared about him and wanted to get my questions answered.
Finally, we came to an isolated table in the middle of the woods. That was when he went for it. He put his arms around me so I could not move and started kissing my neck. “No. Please.” I tried to say it calmly. No response. I tried to shake free. “NO, GET OFF” I cried, aggressively shaking to break his hold. He looked up.
“Why? We’ve done this a million times.”
And that was that. We walked home.
Later, he asked if he could have the book back, so I never got a chance to read it.
Like the Shinagawa monkey, I too have lowly confessions. I confess that I should have been more honest. I confess that I should have struggled from the start. And finally, I confess that I felt dirty that day, like a slut, a whore, dispensable, usable. I showered twice that day. It’s my fault.
In my head the timeline is still all jumbled up: the waning moon, peeking through the clouds as we lay upon our backs and got drunk off of one another with the bright sun blinding me as I tried to break free from his grasp; the heartbeat I heard when I fell asleep on his chest with the blood, staining the sweatshirts he let me wear; the playful exclamations in between movie scenes with the deafening silence and he walked me back home and left without even hugging me goodbye.
Why did I meet up with him in the first place? Closure.
Earlier this week, he reached out after 6 months of mutual silence. When I asked what thoughts made him do so, he responded that he had been cleaning his room and found his Murakami books. It was eerie, the timing. I read a Murakami piece for the first time in months and within days, the past returns. I would say it’s a coincidence, but Kafka and Sakura would disagree.
It got me thinking about Murakami himself. At one point or another, a majority of the literary crowd fall in love with his work. He creates a whole fictional world for his readers, complete with soundtracks, personal Q&A sessions, and reading guides on his website; he creates a world that one can easily slip into without recognizing the potential dangers of cognizance that lie forth. And when these dangers are recognized, criticisms emerge, the most common being his blatant habit of sexualizing every woman (and the occasional man).
Though his writing dispels lazy cliches, it brings forth a whole new concern in making every woman’s body—my body—into a personal vessel of perversions. Murakami’s self proclaimed tour de forces of love end up as unintended antagonists of a worldwide feminist manifesto. This is brought up to Murakami himself in Mieko Kawakami’s interview.
“It comes down to the fact that making a woman feel guilty for having a woman’s body is equivalent to negating her existence. Which is why it can be so exhausting to see this pattern show up in fiction, a reminder of how women are sacrificed for the sake of men’s self-realization or sexual desire.”
In response to this, Murakami says any patterns in his novels are by chance, and he does not view women as simple-minded novelistic instruments. He also discusses the different roles that men and women play in the real world.
“This is how men and women survive—helping each other, making up for what the other lacks. Sometimes that means swapping gender roles or functions. I think it depends on the person, and on their circumstances, whether they see this as natural or artificial, as just or unjust.”
Reading this, I found myself in a paradox. Often, I would wonder if Kafka’s obsession with Sakura had made harm come my way. Would a young man who was a self proclaimed “Harukist” view females the same way that they were presented in fiction? If these works were stripped of their erotica, would important themes be tarnished? Would I have been happier? Safer?
Through a great deal of introspection on my past, I have learned how to recognize a gray situation when I see one.
A Shinagawa Monkey ends with Mizuki coming to terms with the darkest aspects of herself. In the past, she may have lived a washed-out life, but now she knows who she is and what she wants. This could never have come from denying pain’s demands to be felt. “She had her name now, a name that was hers, and hers alone.”
Perhaps this piece of writing is my nametag. Like Mizuki, Aomame, Shirane, Kurono, or Sakura, I allowed a part of myself to reside within a man, deserving or not. But a part of him lives in me too. Whether that makes the two of us whole, I do not know.
What I do know is that I, as a Murakami reader, as a female, and as a human, am more complex than anyone’s interpretation of me.