Haruki Murakami holds the titles of both the most popular novelist in Japan and the most popular Japanese novelist in the wider world. After publishing Norwegian Wood in 1987, a book often called “the Japanese Catcher in the Rye,” Murakami’s notoriety exploded to such an extent that he felt forced out of his homeland, a country whose traditional ways and — to his mind — conformist mindset never sat right with him in the first place. Though he returned to Japan in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo underground gas attacks, he remained an author shaped by his favorite foreign cultures — especially America’s. This, combined with his yearning to break from established Japanese literary norms, has generated enough international demand for his work to sell briskly in almost every language in which people read novels.
I myself once spent a month doing nothing but reading Murakami’s work, and this BBC documentary Haruki Murakami: In Search of this Elusive Writer makes a valiant attempt to capture what about it could raise such a compulsion. Rupert Edwards’ camera follows veteran presenter Alan Yentob through Japan, from the midnight Tokyo of After Hours to the snowed-in Hokkaido of A Wild Sheep Chase, in a quest to find artifacts of the supremely famous yet media-shy novelist’s imaginary world. Built around interviews with fans and translators but thick with such Murakamiana as laid-back jazz standards, grim school hallways, sixties pop hits, women’s ears, vinyl records, marathon runners, and talking cats, the broadcast strives less to explain Murakami’s substance than to simply reflect it. If you find your curiosity piqued by all the fuss over 1Q84, Murakami’s latest, you might watch it as something of an aesthetic primer.