What makes the novels of Haruki Murakami — originally written in Japanese and almost unfailingly filled with some odd but deeply characteristic mixture of cats, wells, parallel worlds, mysterious disappearing women with well-formed ears, and much else besides — so beloved around the world? A large part of it must have to do with Murakami’s cultural references, sometimes Japanese but most often western, and even more so when it comes to music. “Almost without exception,” writes The Week music critic Scott Meslow in an extensive piece on all the songs and artists name-checked in these novels, “Murakami’s musical references are confined to one of three genres: classical, jazz, and American pop.”
Even the very names of Murakami’s books, “including Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance, and South of the Border, West of the Sun — derive their titles from songs, and his characters constantly reflect on the music they hear.”
You’ll hear all these songs and many more in Meslow’s three streaming mixes, totaling seven hours of listening, that just this month made up “Haruki Murakami Day” on London-based internet radio station NTS. (We previously featured NTS here on Open Culture when they put up a twelve-hour “spiritual jazz” experience featuring John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock, and many others, a fair few of whom surely appear in Murakami’s own famously large collection of jazz records.)
Haruki Murakami begins with Brook Benton’s 1970 ballad “Rainy Night in Georgia,” the first song Murakami ever included in a novel. In fact, he included it in his very first novel, 1978’s Hear the Wind Sing, which he wrote in the wee hours at his kitchen table after closing up the Tokyo jazz bar he ran in those years before becoming a professional writer. He even created a radio DJ character, whose voice recurs throughout the novel, to announce it and other songs (though his techniques for including his favorite music in his writing have grown somewhat subtler since). “Okay, our first song of the evening,” the DJ says. “This one you can just sit back and enjoy. A great little number, and the best way to beat the heat” — or the cold, or whatever the weather in your part of the world. Wherever that is, it’s sure to have plenty of Murakami fans who want to listen in.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.