Unraveling the Male Gaze in Haruki Murakami’s Novels

The Enigma of Murakami’s Female Characters: A Deep Dive into Representation and Narrative Patterns

Haruki Murakami, known for his surrealism and vivid descriptions, weaves a recurring narrative pattern throughout his works, capturing readers’ attention with compelling and enigmatic male protagonists who embark on introspective journeys in their own self-constructed worlds. His narratives are undoubtedly captivating and intuitive. However, when it comes to portraying women, Murakami’s creative energy falls short, often relegating them to the role of sexual accomplices for his male characters. As we grapple with questions surrounding female representation and the depiction of women’s bodies in literature, the reinforcement of outdated gender roles in Murakami’s novels has become a topic of extensive discussion in recent years. This issue was briefly touched upon in a previous article that explored Murakami’s adaptation to the cinema.

Murakami’s mesmerizing narratives often follow a familiar formula: a solitary male lead, an ephemeral yet intensely sensual female presence, and a surreal odyssey that blurs the boundaries between ethereal realms and reality itself. The encounter with sexualized female energy serves as a moment of transcendence, as if women were catalysts for the male characters’ spiritual journeys, with their bodies acting as chaperones into these fantastical worlds. This has led many to label Murakami’s female characters as “vessels of liberation” for his male protagonists.

However, the issue of representation extends beyond the role of women as sexual objects. Murakami’s storytelling invites readers to view these extraordinary worlds through the lens of a cisgender man, with the narrator experiencing the narrative through a male gaze that feels entitled to fantasize about the intimate lives of women. In “Killing Commendatore,” for example, an unnamed 36-year-old portrait artist encounters Mariye, a 13-year-old girl who openly discusses her insecurities about her small breasts. But how can a young girl share such concerns so candidly with an older man she barely knows?

In a recent conversation between Murakami and Mieko Kawakami, author of the internationally acclaimed “Breasts and Eggs,” they discuss the relatability of this excerpt. Murakami explains that Mariye’s obsession with her breasts reflects his perception of how girls feel and communicate about these concerns. However, one must question whether women genuinely express themselves in such a manner, amicably and detached from societal prejudice, or if these conversations inadvertently invite sexual objectification. Is Mariye portrayed as unnaturally mature for her age, lacking character and the ability to make sound judgments?

Regrettably, many of Murakami’s female characters seem to contribute little to the plot and undergo minimal character development. They often come across as predictable, uninspiring, and almost lifeless, serving only as companions to the male protagonists. For instance, in various stories, male narrators entertain dreams of non-consensual sexual encounters, as seen in “Kafka on the Shore.” Yet, irrespective of how unreasonably available women make themselves in Murakami’s tales, this pattern of sexualization provides comfort, escapism, and fantasy to many readers. In fact, during online discussions on this topic, numerous individuals claim that they find Murakami’s portrayal of women realistic and convincing. While literature has the power to reveal, it can also reinforce systemic structures.

As the passage of time brings female representation to the forefront, many authors are becoming increasingly mindful of avoiding objectifying depictions of the female body, recognizing them as adversaries. However, regardless of their intentions, such portrayals perpetuate inaccuracies to varying degrees, offending audiences and sparking backlash. Yet, can the omission of female body representation truly address the underlying issue of the male gaze?

*Header image: Burning, directed by Chang-dong Lee (2018)