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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction


Murakami Haruki

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To purchase Underground

Title: Underground
Author: Murakami Haruki
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1997/8 (Eng.: 2000)
Length: 309 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Underground - US
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  • The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
  • Originally published in Japanese as two separate volumes: Underground (アンダーグラウンド, 1997) and The Place that was Promised (約束された場所で, 1998)
  • Part One: Underground translated by Alfred Birnbaum
  • Part Two: The Place that was Promised translated by Philip Gabriel
  • Part One consists of descriptions of the sarin gas attacks of Monday, March 20, 1995, by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in various Tokyo subways, foucssing on the victims
  • Part Two focusses on the Aum Shinrikyo cult itself
  • Note that a 1997 Time article, a review of the original Japanese edition of Underground, describes a book that is 727 pages long and features pieces on "62 commuters". The first part of the English volume (corresponding to the book under review in Time) covers only 209 pages and 35 interviews (of which not all are commuters -- they include two treating doctors, as well as an interview with the parents and the widow of a victim who themselves were not on the subways). Smells like some nasty editing has been going on in the translation -- though there is no indication or mention of this fact anywhere in the English edition. We don't appreciate that; neither should you.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an affecting collection of accounts

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age A 4/9/2000 Nicholas Jose
Berliner Zeitung . 18/2/2002 Arno Widmann
The Economist . 17/5/2001 .
Entertainment Weekly B+ 4/5/2001 Troy Patterson
The Guardian . 27/5/2000 Steven Poole
The Independent A 17/6/2000 Justin Wintle
London Rev. of Books . 19/10/2000 Ian Hacking
New Statesman A 26/6/2000 Julian Loose
The NY Rev. of Books . 5/7/2001 Ian Buruma
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/6/2001 Daniel Zalewski
The Observer A 4/6/2000 Jason Burke
San Francisco Chronicle . 29/4/2001 Leza Lowitz
Time . 14/4/1997 Satsuki Oba
TLS A 23/2/2001 Mark Morris
The Village Voice . 12/6/2001 Dennis Lim
Die Welt . 23/2/2002 Ulrich Baron
Die Zeit A 27/3/2002 Ludger Lütkehaus

(Note that the Time review refers to the original Japanese edition of this book.)

  Review Consensus:

  Enthusiastic, although the reviews tend to be descriptive rather than critical.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Murakami's novelistic talents are evident in the brilliant shaping and ordering of the material as it grows to a narrative as grainy and inexorable as Crime and Punishment." - Nicholas Jose, The Age

  • "Haruki Murakami hat keinen Roman geschrieben. Seine Zeugen erzählen von sich. Murakami fragt, wirft ein, aber seine eigene Geschichte ist nicht eingewoben. Er steht daneben als Berichterstatter." - Arno Widmann, Berliner Zeitung

  • "Like Mr Murakami's novels, Underground makes for an unsettling read." - The Economist

  • "The book is essentially a collection of compelling transcripts, reportage unmarked by the author's narrative skills." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Through Murakami's sensitive yet relentless questioning, it emerges that the people who joined Aum felt just as adrift in the world as Murakami's own characters do." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Brilliantly, Murakami's account is in the main composed of the victims' narratives. The reader is treated to an extraordinary cross-section of Tokyo citizenry, as it recalls the fateful day it boarded the doomed carriages. The composite result is not just an impressive essay in witness literature, but also a unique sounding of the quotidian Japanese mind." - Justin Wintle, The Independent

  • "Underground is a personal quest that prompts more questions than it can answer. (...) Murakami has a primary objective. Break down the 'them' and 'us', the attitude that holds that we are sane and they (those who launched the attack) are nuts." - Ian Hacking, London Review of Books

  • "(W)e are perhaps less persuaded by his analysis than by his openness (.....) He doesn't practise any form of editorial "triage"; unlike the emergency doctors, he has no need to prioritise, to pass over the less serious cases. Instead, he finds ways to accommodate them all. His attractively modest approach -- "words can be practically useless at times, but as a writer they're all I have" -- turns this account of a nightmare into a work of consolation." - Julian Loose, New Statesman

  • "But as with the parade of interviews conducted with Oklahoma City survivors, such stories begin to blur when amassed together. (...) The second, more memorable half of Underground, (...) consists of conversations with Aum members." - Daniel Zalewski, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is the juxtaposition of the mundane and the insane that makes this such an odd little book. The bright yellow dustjacket features an anatomical diagram of a flayed torso overlaid with a Tokyo subway map. It's a strange image - half Sixties retro-chic and half sci-fi - and strikes the right tone for this disconcerting work." - Jason Burke, The Observer

  • "Underground is the record of those candid and often emotional interviews. (...) What emerges here is the question of authority." - Leza Lowitz, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A) disturbing and compelling collection of interviews with the victims of the attack." - Satsuki Oba, Time

  • "(I)n this book Murakami has produced a human document far more potent than his often sentimental and fantastic fiction." - Mark Morris, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Underground's grand subtitle is out of proportion to its modest approach, but in his own characteristically sneaky way, the author almost lives up to it." - Dennis Lim, The Village Voice

  • "Verglichen mit der medialen Verarbeitung des 11. September wirkt Murakamis Darstellung verblüffend, aber angenehm unprofessionell." - Ulrich Baron, Die Welt

  • "Wieder begegnet man einem ganz anderen Murakami, diesmal aber einem, der sich, behutsam und zugleich engagiert, auf höchst verantwortliche Weise mit der gegenwärtigen gesellschaftlichen Realität Japans auseinander setzt. (...) Das Buch beeindruckt durch seine Einfühlsamkeit." - Ludger Lütkehaus, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       On Monday, 20 March 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth") cult dropped plastic pouches filled with liquid sarin in several crowded Tokyo subways. They pierced the pouches before fleeing, releasing sarin gas that injured thousands and killed twelve. The attack had a devastating affect on not only those who were actually poisoned, but on all of Japanese society.
       Murakami Haruki, the well-known writer of fiction, was as baffled as most Japanese by the bizarre terrorist attack. While he was in Japan at the time of the attacks he was still basically living abroad. He moved back soon after, after a total of seven or eight years abroad, and found himself trying to understand the great mystery that is Japan more deeply. The Tokyo gas attacks proved ideal material for him to do so.
       Underground is very much a documentary. Murakami carefully researched the attacks, focussing on the victims. He got in touch with as many as he could (finding it surprisingly hard to find many of them), and he interviewed as many of these as he could. A number of people were willing to talk to him, but many were not.
       The first part of the book presents the interviews, largely rewritten in narrative form, with Murakami himself only an unseen presence. After a brief preface Murakami presents these accounts, arranging them according to where the attacks occurred. Each of the seven different locales is briefly described, as are the perpetrators and their modus operandi.
       The Aum Shinrikyo members, many of them well-educated professionals (including numerous Todai (Tokyo University) graduates, doctors, and scientists), apparently did not question their master's orders. If Aum leader Shoko Asahara said do something -- even if it was criminal and insane -- they did it. When the order came they blindly followed. Many of those called upon to drop the poison were members of Aum's "Ministry of Science and Technology". The "plan" involved wrapping pouches of the sarin in newspaper, dropping these inconspicuously while in the subway, then jabbing them a number of times with an umbrella brought along for that purpose, to puncture the pouches and release the gas. The perpetrators then fled the subway cars, went to wash their umbrella tips, and then were whisked away in waiting cars driven by their accomplices.
       This was not very high-tech terrorism, nor was it particularly effective -- there were relatively few deaths, and several of the perpetrators managed to poison themselves as well (though they were at least prepared for this eventuality). Nevertheless, Aum managed to wreak some havoc.
       The accounts of those Murakami interviews are fascinating, as are his descriptions of the terrorist acts themselves (including the considerations that went into choosing which newspapers to wrap the poison pouches in). Some of these people were in close proximity to the gas, others only stumbled into the chaos afterwards. There are reports from subway workers, describing how they dealt with events, as well as from two doctors.
       The gas attacks were an odd type of catastrophe: victim after victim makes clear that most people had no idea what was going on. Subway cars that had puddles of sarin in them were allowed to continue on their journey. Subway attendants tried to mop up the sarin with newspaper (mops were apparently in short supply), and tried to keep the trains moving.
       Practically no one realized the severity or the danger of the attack, the symptoms initially leaving people thinking they had come down with the flu not that they had been gassed. People continued on their way -- to other trains, and to work -- before it dawned on them (their pupils shrinking in one of the classic symptoms of sarin poisoning) that something had happened to them.
       Most terrifying is how ill-equipped the Japanese authorities were to deal with a situation like this. The subway authorities had no idea what they were dealing with and, perhaps understandably at first, just cleaned up the poison spills and sent the trains on. Far worse is that once help was summoned, little came. Ambulances took forever to arrive, and the police didn't seem to know how to deal with the situation either. Most terrifying is Japan's health-care system: people were sent to hospitals, or somehow made it there on their own, and were not immediately treated. Only once the magnitude of the crisis was clear -- and what they were dealing with was known -- were people properly attended to. (Sarin poisoning, once recognized, is fortunately relatively easily to neutralize).
       A number of the accounts in the book are from people who were not directly at the front lines. Nevertheless, their observations and the way in which they were touched by the events is equally gripping. Murakami is also right to focus on the aftereffects of the poisoning -- what it means to these people now that they had been there on that fateful day.
       Murakami closes the first section of the book with a thoughtful afterword, "Blind Nightmare: Where are we Japanese Going ?" He correctly focusses on the question of how and why this could happen, and what the appeal of Aum was, emphasizing that Aum is only one extreme version of giving up a part of one's Self for a greater good (or evil), something that the Japanese seem to do very well. Murakami sees Aum as offering a good narrative -- a catchy story -- that appealed to many, and he wonders whether he (or Japanese society more generally) can offer a more viable narrative.

       Underground -- the first section of this volume -- focusses on the victims, and not the cult that was responsible for the terrorist acts. The second section, The Place that was Promised, explores the question that was on Murakami's mind after he had finished Underground: "What was Aum Shinrikyo ?" He conducted a number of interviews with former and present Aum member, making this collection. These are also presented more like interviews then the victim-accounts were, with Murakami much more of a presence and leading the dialogue.
       The Aum-narratives show that Aum too can not simply be dismissed as a nutty cult. It had (and has) a certain appeal to many, including some very intelligent and well-educated people. None of those interviewed here participated in any way in the subway gassings, but their susceptibility and devotion to Shoko Asahara (at least before the attacks) suggests how easy it was to convince Aum members to partake in even these ridiculous and contemptible attacks.
       Many Aum followers refuse to entirely acknowledge Aum's role in the gas attacks, still looking for some explanation behind it. Others -- notably the defendants in the gas attack trials -- have disavowed Aum and head-guru Shoko Asahara. However, Aum still has a following, despite its members being treated as pariahs. (They have renamed their cult Aleph, and deposed Shoko Asahara as leader (presumably on advice from their PR firm). And they continue to be particularly active in Russia.)

       This volume provides interesting insight into the Japanese psyche (an often confused place) and the state of the country from when its economic bubble recently burst to the present. The accounts and interviews present a very good picture, simple stories about common (and sometimes uncommon) lives in a bizarre situation. The book is well done, and a good read.

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Underground: Reviews: Aum Shinrikyo: Murakami Haruki: Other books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.

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