羊をめぐる冒険[1] by 村上春樹

A Wild Sheep Chase by Murakami Haruki

Essay by Michael Ignatov

A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) deals primarily with time, and specifically the past, as its central concern. Many of the other constituents of the thematic web of this novel are either subsumed in or directly related to the problem of the past.

The past must be understood as a place where time stands still—a frozen moment of time that can be accessed through the cottage in Hokkaido’s frozen landscape. Here time grinds to a halt (238-9), and it is here that Boku learns the dangers of letting himself be consumed by the past—by living in the past one fails to live presently. Murakami takes up this idea again a decade later in South of the Border, West of the Sun.

Murakami’s characters are often described as “incomplete” or “split in two” (40); a phenomenon underscored by Boku’s alter ego the Rat/Sheep Man. All three personages are in some way stuck in the past. The Rat is dead, thus he is no longer a part of the flow of time. The Sheep Man (putting aside his origin as the Rat’s incarnation) describes himself as a WW2 draft-dodger (263)—a character much like the woods guardians familiar to the readers of Kafka on the Shore. Therefore, if the past is understood as a period through which time no longer flows, and taking the Rat/Sheep Man as its representative figures, we can safely connect the past with the world of death.

How then does Boku fit into this paradigm? He is clearly not a dead man. The answer can be deduced from his “incomplete” nature. If Boku is split in two, one half is living presently and the other is stuck in the past. The adventure is not about chasing sheep, but about achieving a unity of self, which can only be achieved by leaving the past behind.

The reader is told from the mouth of Boku’s partner that in the past (here the late 1960s), they (read their generation) were proud of their work and found meaning in it. Whereas now (late 1970s) everyone deals in “fluff” there is “no honest work” (48-9). In other words, the idealism of the generation of college students in the late 1960s was replaced by jaded boom-time “exploitation” of the late 1970s (48). Boku brushes these accusations off as blithely as he claims relief at losing his hometown (86). He betrays his nostalgic (90) reverence for his hometown (Kobe) in his laments for the disappearing shoreline (91-2). The past means more to Boku than he lets on.

The past is important to Boku because he sees it as a key to the present. When his wife leaves him, she cuts herself out of all of the family photos, leaving Boku with the impression that he was always alone (20). His wife left him a revised past, by manipulating mementoes of their time together. She had told Boku on one occasion that the present reality was essentially a collection of memories, and through the manipulation of memory she almost altered Boku’s perception of the past, and consequently the present (167); positing the question: he is alone now, but was he always? If he does not remember a time when he wasn’t, does it make the condition of perpetual loneliness true?

These considerations bring us to two other major points of the novel: loss and the political implications of a revised past. Boku provides a litany of loss throughout the novel, so that some may argue that loss is the theme of primary concern. However, I think it, too, can be read in terms of the flow of time. Abstractly, we can say that the only thing that isn’t lost is what is presently held. In other words, as time flows forward everything that is left in the past may well be considered lost. Conceptually, loss is only realized after the fact, after the thing in question is no longer possessed. Boku loses his hometown (86) because he grows up and moves away, he loses his teens and twenties purely as a function of time passing (149). Thus we can classify loss as another phenomenon of the past that is felt in the present.

Boku also loses his wife (149), and we have already discussed her attempted manipulation of present reality by alteration of the past. The notions of a revised past and the past as key to the present coalesce in another major question of the novel—the question of power and evil.

I concede that this theme may well be dealt with as pure political commentary, but the past plays a crucial role in its execution. If we consider the past as key to understanding the present, we notice that the contemporaneous holders of power in Japan ascended to power through ill-gotten gains of the past. The historian Ishida Takeshi characterizes the period of late 1970s through early 1980s as the germination of concern with international opinion regarding the war and of academic writing on Japan’s wartime responsibility.[2] In addition, the breaking of the Lockheed Scandal in 1976 fostered distrust of the country’s leadership. It is safe to assume that Murakami did not escape the influence of this trend. The figure of Boss (sensei) is widely believed to be based on Kodama Yoshio, a behind-the-scenes powerbroker (kuromaku) and central player in the Lockheed Scandal.

Thus we observe Murakami develop the theme of oppressive, faceless power that is at odds with the individual. Here it is the Boss and his organization (55, 58), in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World it is the System or the Factory. However, in the novel under discussion the path to power is explicitly through wartime ill-gotten gains, underscoring the earlier claim that no one engaged in “honest work” anymore (49). These shadow organizations know their path to power may be exposed, but they truly have the means to carry out on a larger scale what Boku’s wife attempted—the revision of the past. If 95% of the information has been “preselected and paid for” by these loci of power, they can, in effect, change the perception of the present by altering the understanding of the past (58).

The major moral of this novel may be summarized in the Sheep Professors criticism of modern Japan: that she has “learned absolutely nothing from…contact with other Asian peoples” (188). In other words, Japan has not learned from her past mistakes. This indictment keeps us from suggesting that the past can be forgotten, in fact it ought not be. However, that is not to say that it is advisable to be controlled by it. The point of import resides at the intersection of coming to terms with the mistakes of the past on the societal level and letting go of the baggage of the past on the personal. The end of the novel may be read thus (298-9):

a)    Coming to terms with the mistakes of the past – handing over the money Boku received from the Boss’ secretary to J, a symbolic gesture of reparations.

b)   Letting go of the baggage of the past – final scene on the beach, a symbolic grief for all things lost (namely time) and a break with the past.

In the final analysis, if the past, that place where time stands still, is associated with death, and the present with life, Boku must chose the world of the living. No matter what shortcomings fill this world, ultimately the world of the living is preferable to the world of the dead (293). Living in the past is a danger to be avoided. This is precisely why Boku must leave the mountain before the ground freezes, symbolically freezing time thereby trapping Boku in the past. That is why he finally distances himself “from ‘memory’” (296). He choses life over death, the present over the past.


[1] Haruki Murakami, A wild sheep chase: a novel (New York N.Y.  U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1990).

[2] Kiyoto Imai, Murakami Haruki sutadi-zu 2000-2004 = Murakami Haruki studies (Tokyo: Wakakusa Shobo, 2005), 9.

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