Magic Realism in Japanese Literature: Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Dream

I must begin this piece by stating the evident: that dreams are shapeless clouds which contents smoke up once we try to trace them. No matter how hard we try, they simply vanish, leaving us behind with the disquieting feeling that something’s happened, but we just don’t know what. It is this uncanny feeling, of trying to map the unseen, what’s at the centre of Hiromi Kawakami’s writing: stories that warp and give way to gods and shape-shifting creatures; scenarios that quickly melt and leave us facing new dimensions, where the unfamiliar becomes a poetic expression of the more abstract aspects of the mundane. There in Kawakami’s stories, the chimerical becomes viscous and tangible — and it little by little spreads across our skin and takes over us.

“What was that itch on my back? I wondered. And then I realised it was the night – the night was nibbling into me.”

This opening is not the beginning of an agonising dream.

It’s the beginning of Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a night too brief, a collection of three short novels imbued with light, strength, sense of humour, audacity and a whole deal of unconventionality that points to the enigmatic nature of human relations and the mysterious world of spirits. Or simply put, in the case of the first story, that captures the essence of what it’s like to float through dreams; to be aloof from our bodies, seized by the liminality between our day-to-day reality and the remoteness of our subconscious.

The first tale of the collection, which title is the same as the book’s, is made up of nineteen short chapters, and its random endings and abrupt transitions seem equivalent to the jump cuts we have in dreams. In this particular story, animal- and god-like characters with underlying human-like attributes embody our bizarre relation with the spiritual and natural worlds.

“It was a large Japanese macaque.
It was laughing loudly, baring its teeth, exposing its gums. I was surprised that a monkey was laughing just like a human being: so I gave it a poke with the end of a mop to see what it would do. At this, the monkey abruptly stopped laughing.
“Do you have to be so rude?” it demanded, in a terrifying voice.
I tried to apologise but my tongue seemed to stick to my palate, and no sound came out.” (p. 22).
Magic Realism in Japanese Literature: Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Dream
©Rinko Kawauchi via The Straits Times

This bewitching strangeness isn’t exclusive to Kawakami’s writing. The poetic prose of magical realism, initially employed by Latin American writers as a way of escaping a stifling reality that’s engulfed in a context of colonialism, violence and conflicted identities, is recognisable across the narrative of different contemporary Japanese writers, such as Banana Yoshimoto, Yoriko Shono and Hideo Furukawa. In the context of Japanese folklore, women are often transgressive threats to the symbolic order, and that may be why are female writers the ones exploring the genre, claiming the authorship and course of these fantastic tales in turn.

Integrating magical twists into our mundane daily life is, I think, a way to repel seeing reality from the eyes that have been given to us. It’s to put on our own lenses and produce our very own narrative — one that doesn’t necessarily follow linear events and timeframes, one that transcends dimensions. After all, our reality is never a homogenous one — it can be strange but beautiful, and the atmospheric, dream-like quality of Record of a night too brief achieves that with great finesse.

“Not only was I there, the girl was there with me, right by my side. She didn’t have any mass either. I knew she was there because I could hear her moving about in places where nothing could be seen.” (p. 26).

The next two stories continue to dive into the ephemeral and the fragmented. “Missing” is a parody of traditional Japanese culture, where family traditions get twisted and uncanny events take place but everyone continues to carry on like nothing’s happened — a quality that I’ve come across in various Japanese creative productions such as Murakami’s screen adaptation Drive my car and Yōko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police. In this story, the narrator’s brother disappears and her middle brother marries his brother’s fiancée, and with that, things get stranger by the day.

“Lately, things just keep going missing. Most recently, my eldest brother—that is, of my two elder brothers, brother no. 1. It’s been two weeks now since he disappeared.” (p. 93).

And the last one, “A snake stepped on” is the most surreal one, and it tells the story of a girl’s relationship with a shape-shifting snake who infiltrates her life, incorporating an almost biblical theme of temptation and enticement.

“After polishing off another dumpling, I drank some beer, then ate some beans, and then had another gulp of the beer. But I couldn’t bring myself to touch the sashimi. The thought of raw fish prepared by a snake was simply too creepy to take.” (p. 161)

The three pieces have in common a female narrator, who keeps up with the events no matter what, even though the feeling of ‘something’s wrong’ is undeniably palpable. When the world turns upside-down, you might hope for the best. But in her book, Kawakami doesn’t aim for moral standards and instead, pursues the consequences of living in a misty world of magic, away from answering — what’s in here to do?

*Header image: ©Izumi Miyazaki