After Dark by Haruki Murakami

afterdarkNight is where you hide from yourself, and where dark deeds are done. Murakami’s latest (published here in June, but available in Japan since 2004, where it was titled, in a Coca-Cola kind of way, Afutãdãku) is a short novel exploring the nightside of human existence: its characters are all either lost, hiding, caught up in or drifting through the dark regions of a city after dark. Covering the events of a single night between 11:55p.m. and 6:40a.m. (the chapters are headed with little clock icons), and taking place in a series of soulless city sets (all-night eateries, a love-hotel, an office after-hours), we follow a succession of rambling conversations between Mari Asai (whose beautiful sister, after announcing she was going to sleep for a while, hasn’t woken for several months) and Takahashi (law student by day, jazz musician by night, on the cusp of deciding which life he’s going to commit to), witness the aftermath of a characteristically Murakamian “act of overwhelming violence” in a love hotel, and get a glimpse of the even stranger, rather Lynchian psychodrama involving Mari’s sleeping beauty of a sister and the sinister Man with No Face.

I mention David Lynch because he (in films like Mulholland DriveLost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) as well as Murakami (in books like Dance, Dance, Dance and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, and many of his short stories) share an incredible ability to muster a sense of intense, looming psychological menace far more threatening than mere physical violence (though both Murakami and Lynch’s works feature sudden eruptions of over-the-top violence). Both also cast a cool air of light, quirky humour, as well as containment and composure over the surface of their works — Murakami’s prose is friendly, simple, almost innocent, Lynch’s films have an air of innocence that takes you by the hand, as a child would, only to lead you to places no child would ever go. This surface expresses, perhaps, the blank perplexity Murakami and Lynch’s characters feel towards whatever dark inner impulses they are forced to struggle with (a situation often captured through the contrast of a day-life as overbright and perfect as their night-life is sordid, dark and ugly — think of teen queen Laura Palmer’s nights of drugs and prostitution in Twin Peaks). Thankfully, both creators also take their excursions through the dark to the other side, affording at least a glimpse of redemption (Laura Palmer beatified as a glowing Christmas tree fairy at the end of Fire Walk With Me, providing an incredible feeling of hope to the end of one of the most harrowing films I’ve ever seen). Murakami’s moments of redemption are more low-key, but equally poetic in being felt rather than understood. By the end of After Dark there’s a sense that decisions have been made, paths chosen, freeing the two youngsters, Mari and Takahashi, from being stuck in the night-time limbo where the others they have met (the violent businessman Shirakawa, the love hotel cleaner Korogi) are hopelessly mired.

A definite improvement on the rather rambling and overlong Kafka on the Shore, After Dark is not just classic Murakami, I think it is a new a step in an already talented author’s work.

Tideland

Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits ends with the camera slowly rising away from the shocked young Kevin who, having just survived an encounter with Evil incarnate (David Warner), returns home a second too late to stop his parents from touching the last remaining fragment of Evil and disappearing in a puff of smoke. A brilliant twist on the usual formula of a child’s return from fantastic adventures to find everything exactly the same as when they left, it comes across as a parting joke, but always left me gobsmacked. Gilliam’s latest, Tideland, could be said to be a feature-length expansion of that final moment.

tideland

It starts with young Jeliza-Rose and her junkie father fleeing the city, where her drug-addled mother has just died, for her grandmother’s country farmhouse. The farmhouse proves to be semi-derelict and unoccupied. Jeliza-Rose’s father settles down in an armchair and administers himself a fix from which he doesn’t wake up. Suddenly, Jeliza-Rose is alone and parentless in a totally strange world. Most of the rest of film follows her imaginative ramblings as she plays with (and provides the voices for) the dolls’ heads that are her only toys. Apart from the occasional flight of cinematic fantasy where Jeliza-Rose’s imaginings take over, I found the rest of the film oddly unsatisfying. It just wasn’t saying anything, and in fact seemed to be deliberately avoiding trying to confront the emotional effect of Jeliza-Rose’s sudden dislocation. I suppose it could be said that, in this, the film was echoing its young heroine’s inability to face her own deeper distress, but, for my mind, it needed some growing, undermining sense of the encroaching darkness that must surely accompany such a crisis. I like Terry Gilliam, and would love to like him more, but for me his almost medieval love of the grotesque and superficially marvellous often comes at the expense of a deeper emotional connection with his characters — something that works brilliantly in a film like Brazil, which is all about human feeling being crushed by a dark, dystopian future. Perhaps it’s just that, in Tideland, Jeliza-Rose’s reaction to her parents’ death can’t come through in the paradisiacal surroundings of her grandmother’s farm, and it’s only at the end, when we see her wandering through the wreckage of a train crash, that her retreat into her own imaginative world makes sense. She wasn’t involved in the train crash, but is certainly as shellshocked and traumatised as any of its survivors.

The Future Goes Bleep

When the coldness of electronic music combines with futuristic imagery it can create something bleak, ominous, forbidding, but also beautiful, if some sort of human feeling manages to come through all those buzzes, twoops and bleeps. For a while I’ve been collecting soundtracks to science fiction films that use electronics in their score, but it’s turned out to be a surprisingly limited subgenre, no doubt thanks to the example of Star Wars, where, rather than spacey electronics, John Williams used an orchestra in full Romantic mode to humanise the film’s technological imagery. Star Wars is certainly a great score, and perfectly fits the type of film it was made for, but here I’m more interested in the music of dehumanising dystopias and isolating voyages into deep space, perhaps because finding the human element amidst so much visual and aural coldness is all the more rewarding.

barron_forbiddenplanetMother of all sf soundtracks is Bebe and Louis Barron’s score to Forbidden Planet (1956). It’s perhaps the most extreme, experimental soundtrack for a film of any era that’s meant for popular entertainment. Remade today, Forbidden Planet would certainly get the orchestral treatment. Its having an electronic score seems to be more down to the innocence of the times, and the idea that electronics would simply sound more spacey. In an era before even the most primitive of synths, the Barrons built their electronics from scratch, each track being played by a series of custom circuits. The result is something it’s difficult to sit down and listen to in one go — there’s no conventional music, but a soundscape of thuds, whines, swoops and alien growls — but when seen with the film, it provides a perfect destabilising influence on the 50s conventionalities of an otherwise rather mainstream horror-sf plot, making the final revelations about the dead Krel race and their technology that allows Morbius’s subconscious urges to come through all the more authentic and menacing.

vangelis_bladerunnerIf you have one electronic sf score in your collection, it’s most likely to be the one that started me off — Vangelis’ peerless Blade Runner (1982) soundtrack. Vangelis doesn’t use the harsh electronic sounds of the Barrons, but, while his score is often as lush and romantic as John Williams’, it doesn’t attempt to hide from the strangeness, and darkness, of the imagery it accompanies. Vangelis’ synths add an ethereal, fairy-tale magic to those spine-tingling opening sequences of a futuristic Los Angeles that would otherwise seem like nothing but Hell on Earth. His use of melody is exquisite. At times his music seems to be the lingering ghost of all that is essentially human but which Ridley Scott’s future-noir world has almost strangled from its characters. And who would ever have thought Demis Roussos could sound so lovely?

carlos_tronThere are two soundtracks that mix a traditional orchestra with electronic instruments to an equal degree. When recording the soundtrack to Tron (1982), Wendy Carlos (back then not Wendy but Walter) had the orchestra perform its part of the score on its own, not letting them know that an electronic part using some early synths would be added. Like the film, the Tron soundtrack is more about the action of the chase and the wonder of the weird digital otherworld it takes us through than the feelings of its characters, though there is of course that underlying quest for individual freedom that’s to be found in all dystopias, giving a triumphant note to its brassy synth fanfares. Jerry Goldsmith’s Logan’s Run (1976) score, on the other hand, uses its orchestral and electronic elements in somewhat the same way that black & white and colour film was used in The Wizard of Oz. Within the futuristic city where Logan is a Sandman gleefully despatching those poor Runners who try to live beyond the age of 30, Goldsmith uses unapologetically harsh electronics, particularly in the pulsing rhythm you hear when Logan is in the presence of the all-controlling city computer. As soon as we get out of the city, the music changes to orchestral, emphasising the difference between the two worlds.

goldsmith_logansrunGoldsmith is a prolific composer, and of course provided the score to many other sf films, though none as electronic as Logan’s Run. Alien (1979), wholly orchestral, nevertheless evokes a creepy weirdness with the skittering strings of its opening titles. (His score to Legend (1985) is one of my favourite film soundtracks, but it’s fantasy, not bleak sf.) He also provided the score for Outland (1981), that grimly futuristic remake of High Noon, which was again predominantly orchestral, apart from one notable musical cue. This piece, called “The Rec Room” on the CD, is a good way of introducing an obscure sub-subgenre within the already obscure subgenre of electronic science fiction soundtracks — the leisure zone sequence. Don’t ask me why, but there’s a scene in almost every sf film where the characters go into some sort of recreation room or centre — and the more dystopian the film, the more self-indulgent and sensual the recreation is likely to be. Quite often this provides the composer with an excuse to do something a bit more weird and futuristic, as with Jerry Goldsmith’s attempt at what future dance music might sound like in Outland‘s “The Rec Room”, or the distinctly Forbidden Planet-sounding whoops and tickles of his piece to accompany the “Love Shop” sequence in Logan’s Run. Of course, in Star Wars, John Williams takes this the other way, going completely retro with his aliens playing Big Time Swing Jazz, but mention also has to be made of the descent into funky sleaze in Soylent Green (1973) where Charlton Heston enters an apartment to find it full of lounging women. It seems to be a rule of late 60s/early 70s sf that, where there’s women, there’s wah wah. (Soylent Green‘s score is mostly orchestral, but gets some nasty electronics in for the sequence where Heston enters the Soylent Green factory and learns just what that foodstuff is really made of). Funky kitsch — sleazy or not — is another subgenre of sf soundtracks, mostly for films emerging from the groovy sixties, starting with Barbarella (1968), and including the soundtrack to La Planète Sauvage (1973), a film I reviewed in an earlier blog entry.

toto_duneSolaris (1972 & 2002) has managed to garner a weird soundtrack both times it was filmed, the first being electronic (composed by Eduard Artemiev, to be found on the CD Tarkovski par Artemiev), the second being orchestral but with enough glassy-sounding percussion to give it a haunting oddness. Rollerball (1975) uses Bach’s Toccata in D minor in such a way that the church organ it’s played on sounds like a futuristic instrument of oppression. By the time Toto did the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Dune (1984), synths were getting better, producing fuller, more lush sounds rather more like orchestral strings than the harsh early versions, but the Dune soundtrack is electronic enough to still sound weird in that spacey, futuristic way. (Some of the best examples of science fictional electronica, of course, aren’t to be found in the movies at all, but in the lower-budget world of TV, such as the BBCs Radiophonic Workshop’s music for such shows as The Tomorrow People and Doctor Who.)

Electronic music in sf films is sometimes used to simply accentuate the weirdness of the science fictional imagery — all those theremins in 50s alien invasion films trying to convince us that the wobbling plate on a string is, in fact, a menacing flying saucer (though the theremin was used to excellent effect to impart an unearthly grandeur to The Day The Earth Stood Still). But sf electronics are at their best, for me, when they evoke a sense of the numinous, the ethereal, the unearthly. I find myself wanting to include some non-electronic music which has the same effect. I’ve already mentioned a few (Cliff Martinez’s Solaris, Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien title sequence), but the ultimate example has to be György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna at the end of 2001. This is nothing but human voices, undulating in disturbing microtones, perhaps illustrating that, when it comes down to it, nothing sounds as strange or unearthly as the human voice doing what it isn’t normally heard to be doing. (See also the theme music for the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Day of the Triffids.)

In Search of a Distant Voice by Taichi Yamada

yamada_voiceI was prompted to buy In Search of a Distant Voice because Amazon recommended it to me and, for once, they seemed to have actually found the sort of thing I might like. The recommendation came because of the Haruki Murakami books I’d bought from them, and I thought Yamada’s novel sounded a bit Murakami-ish, so gave it a go.

I was wrong about that “a bit”. It feels totally Murakami-ish, right from the start:

“Tsuneo got up at four-thirty in the morning. He was in the Otemachi Multi-Office Government Complex in Tokyo, in the rest station on the third floor of Building One. Four-thirty was pretty early, it’s true, but that’s how it goes.” (p. 1)

The studied casualness of that “pretty early, it’s true, but that’s how it goes” sounds almost like a parody of the sort of stylistic tic Murakami employs, like a doctor’s bedside manner, to set his readers at ease, as if he’s trying to let you know that he’s just this, you know, normal kind of guy who somehow had this plain weird thing happen to him. In his homeland, Murakami is known for his casual tone. Though not the first to do so, he’s noted for using the most informal Japanese word boku, rather than the traditional, and more literary, watashi, as his narrator’s word for “I”. (I can’t speak Japanese; this comes from Jay Rubin’s book, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words). I don’t know how much of an impact Murakami has had on the culture of his homeland, aside from being very popular, so it’s difficult to tell if Yamada, in writing like this, is simply adopting a commercial style. Of the few other contemporary Japanese writers I’ve read, Banana Yoshimoto (yes, that’s a name, not a fruit drink) is another one who sounds very Murakami-ish. (Funnily enough, the only other contemporary Japanese author I’ve read, and the only one who doesn’t sound like Haruki Murakami, is the unrelated Ryu Murakami.) But aside from the style, one thing that links Haruki Murakami with these two is the dreamy strangeness of their plots, which was what I was after anyway, so I’m not going to complain about Yamada’s Murakami-ness. (The translator, Michael Emmerich, has also translated the aforementioned Banana, so maybe that has something to do with it.)

In Search of a Distant Voice is about Kasama Tsuneo, a young man working for Japanese immigration, who one day starts to hear a woman’s voice in his head. Tsuneo has a bit of a mystery in his past — something happened eight years before, in Portland, Oregon, which sent him running back to Japan desperately determined “to be normal”. Once he’s got over the shock of hearing this voice, and once he’s decided he’s not mad, he tries talking to it.

There are a few moments in the book which tread that wonderful line between dark and comic, moments both excruciating and disturbing, as Tsuneo tries to work out if the woman’s voice belongs to a real person (and not a dead or hallucinated one), but this dangerous tone isn’t kept up, and for most of the time the book doesn’t quite know (or let the reader know) what sort of story it’s telling. For instance, there’s an obvious mystery about Tsuneo — just what happened to him in Portland? — as well as about the woman — who is she? — and as, at the end, all is revealed about Tsuneo’s past, I expected to have the other mystery resolved, too. I don’t want to give the ending away by saying this, but I think I’d have enjoyed the book more if I had been prepared for the way it leaves some things unresolved. Now, I don’t mind unresolved. It can create quite a subtle and emotional depth to a story. But if you get unresolved when you’ve been led to expect resolved, that emotion tends to be frustration, which isn’t either subtle or enjoyable.

Having said that, I liked the book enough (after mentally readjusting my view of what it was, having finished it). At worst, it suffers from being a short novel with only the depth of a short story — though in that it could have been worse: too many books nowadays are much longer and don’t even have that depth (grumble, grumble, where’s my cardigan…) Read for atmosphere alone, as a sort of mood piece, or as a sort of Kafka-esque portrait of modern man in search of a soul, it has nevertheless intrigued me enough to give Yamada’s other novel, Strangers, a go.