In the collection of short stories “The Elephant Vanishes,” Haruki Murakami uses a variety of motifs to illustrate points relevant to Japanese society and the divisions within it. The motif of characters that smoke emphasizes the apathy of the youth in Japan and their need for the appearance of social maturity.
Murakami attacks the constructed understanding of the nature of dreaming, perhaps to emphasize the state of polarization between the youth and the older generations in Japan. Murakami rarely gives personality or unique qualities to his characters, thereby focusing the reader’s attention on the themes of the stories.
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Most of the themes in the stories are related to deep divisions in the culture, and these ideas are then reinforced with motifs that relate to them. For example, several of Murakami’s main characters smoke cigarettes, and this motif helps develop a variety of themes in the stories. For example, in “The Dancing Dwarf,” the main character’s second encounter with the dwarf is in the forest where the dwarf is sitting and smoking a cigarette.
This is a subtle point in the encounter, but it helps create the image of an older and more suspicious dwarf. The encounter with the old man in the passage before the main character’s second encounter makes the main character question the dwarf and become curious about the legitimacy of his good-heartedness. This new image of the dwarf re-enforces the skepticism and builds toward the climax of the dwarf’s betrayal. “He was sitting on a log in the middle of the clearing in the forest smoking a cigarette…
There were signs of weariness in his face…look a little more advanced in years than when I first saw him.” (Page 255) Several new things appear about the dwarf, including altered characteristics, the most significant of which may be the cigarette in his hand. Smoking is highly prevalent in Japan, and the nation is one of the largest tobacco markets in the world. It symbolizes maturity, and when the dwarf smokes, it resonates with the main character in creating an intrigue that opposes his skepticism.
The main character is presumably in his late youth, and this symbol shows the dwarf in a more socially mature way. Smoking shows a social maturity in many cultures, but it is more of a phase of social maturity as tobacco is a restricted material to those above the age of 18 or 20 in most nations. Naturally, the intrigue of the illegal creates an allure for youth who are near that age. The dwarf appears rebellious, in a similar way that the main character from “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon” appears when he smokes. A re-occurring theme in Murakami’s stories is that of the seemingly lost Japanese youth.
Many of these characters are unsure of their futures and, as a result, are more concerned with other aspects of life, if concerned at all. The character in “Last Lawn of the Afternoon” is struggling with a financial dilemma at work, and he generally feels apathetic towards education and his plans. Smoking re-enforces the same social maturity from the rebellion seen in the dwarf and this theme of being lost. Smoking is not a productive activity.
Nothing meaningful or worthwhile comes from smoking, even though it takes significant time out from one’s life. Smoking, in many ways, can give a person something to focus on and strive towards, namely the need for the next smoke when they have nothing else to strive for. The main character, in this case, behaves in a very rebellious way, yet he never references his behavior to be a result of a need to be rebellious. It would seem that his lack of excitement and engagement in his own life has led to him now doing acts of rebellion, such as smoking, to provide his life with interest more than anything.
The dreams of characters in these stories are often not as surreal as the waking time. For example, in “The Dancing Dwarf,” the main character’s dreams are the only times he can meet the dwarf. It is a strange contrast that a dreamed character becomes such a massive factor in his life and is responsible for what could be considered a near-death experience. The conversation that the main character has with the older man also questions the validity of what is commonly understood to be a dream.
Many of Murakami’s stories are dream-like in the way that they deal with conflicts that could not physically occur in the realm of this universe. The stories where dreams are occurring may attack this very notion of the other stories being surreal. In “Sleep,” The main character states that he begins on what he describes as, “My seventeenth day without sleep.” (74). This is, of course utterly impossible for a human being to accomplish, assuming he is not studying at a United World College or something else ridiculous of that nature. Nonetheless, this issue and the conflicting realities from “The Dancing Dwarf,” are questioning the premise of dreaming and sleep in general.
This questioning may be a metaphor for an aspect of Japanese culture. There are several ways in which dreaming, not sleeping, and the crossover between life and dreams can be applied to issues in society. Still, the clearest symbolism could be to describe the new generation as being asleep or in a dream. The theme of apathy amongst the characters and a sense of being lost is common in many characters. These direct references to sleep and the conflicting ideas around it may symbolize this apathy above.
Murakami may be envisaging the young generation of Japanese citizens as being asleep. While the older generation is “living the dream,” as they control the democratic system and reap huge rewards from social welfare funding. This polarization is present, and while one generation sleeps or sleepwalks through life, the other lives the dream. They interact with a great deal of difficulty and fogginess, much like the old man and the main character interact in “The Dancing Dwarf.”
Characters in Murakami’s stories are often nameless and without concrete gender roles in other cases. In, “The Elephant Vanishes,” the main character has no name and has little uniqueness to him. His job is described with the most boring language possible. “I work for the PR section of a major manufacturer of electrical appliances.” This sounds like the utmost mundane profession conceivable. The man has no spark or interest to him and to top it off he has “coffee and toast,” (308) for breakfast. Murakami’s characters often exhibit apathy towards their own lives but they also are rarely given any personality or uniqueness to them. “The Elephant Vanishes,” as a story, does a brilliant job of metaphorically highlighting aspects of Japanese culture.
Perhaps Murakami intends to keep his characters as mundane and uninteresting as possible in order to highlight the themes and messages he wishes to portray through their actions. The characters are normally distanced from the story in some way. This is certainly the case in “The Elephant Vanishes.” However in “Lederhosen,” the actual story has nothing to do with the main character. In “Lederhosen,” the character telling the story is the daughter of the woman who travels to Germany and has the epiphany that is the crux of the story. However, the actual narrator is a man who happens to be in the same room as this daughter and is simply the husband of a friend of the daughter.
The story is incredibly distant to him and he establishes an apathetic attitude to it. In contrast to the character from, “The Elephant Vanishes,” who is incredibly interested in the story that is occurring before his eyes? The distance experienced by the former is one that portrays an aspect of Japanese society. Japanese people have grown increasingly impatient with their lack of ability to drastically change their society, which is due largely to economic and political stagnation.
This impatience has grown into a general apathy and a feeling of the people being distant from the culture and society itself. Like the character from “The Elephant Vanishes,” watches without any ability to intervene as his society’s old culture metaphorically vanishes away, the character from “Lederhosen,” listens to a story of grand cultural epiphany from a distant and now apathetic position. The distance and apathy experienced by Murakami’s characters is a common thread through the stories that re-enforces the distance within Japan and the polarization of its culture and society.
The polarization of Japanese society is presented through the many motifs in the stories of Murakami. The divisions in Japanese society are evident in politics, economics and the everyday life of Japan. Murakami presents the youth of Japan as a lost, rebellious generation in search of a purpose for their lives. He emphasizes their divide from a society, which has simultaneously lost interest in helping them. The characters of these stories are set up in near-surreal situations where they themselves have little unique significance. The lack of personality to the characters is balanced by the overbearing personality of the stories and creates the image of the struggling, modernizing, Japanese society that Murakami envisions.