EXHIBITION REVIEW: HARUKI MURAKAMI AND ILLUSTRATORS (2016)
Originally published in Metropolis Japan on June 23, 2016 (Link)
Haruki Murakami is arguably Japan’s best-known living author. Works like Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84 have sold millions of copies and amassed a diehard fan base intimately familiar with his decades-long career and eccentric literary tropes including urban ennui, alternate universes, and an endless assortment of cats.
But fans may be less familiar with the visual byproducts of Murakami’s canon. There's the iconic Chip Kidd book covers and the 2010 cinematic adaptation of Norwegian Wood … but what else? Quite a lot, it turns out. Chihiro Art Museum’s new exhibition, “Murakami and Illustrators,” reveals a solid collection of visual companions to the author’s considerable oeuvre.
Located a short walk from Kami-Igusa Station, Chihiro Art Museum was established to showcase the late Chihiro Iwasaki’s illustration work but also features rotating exhibitions. A modest entry fee (¥700-¥800) grants access to everything onsite, including a café and a gift shop where you can pick up a few Murakami books on your way out.
Murakami and Illustrators is pure Murakami right from the start: upon entering the exhibition’s wing, you’re first greeted by the sounds of improvisational jazz (the author has described his own writing style as a kind of “free improvisation” and ran a jazz bar before becoming an author). Along the entrance hallway runs a timeline detailing how the exhibition's collection coincides with bigger Murakami benchmarks that fans might be more familiar with.
It's worth noting that all of the exhibition signage is in Japanese. If you’re looking for the warm, comforting words of curatorial context but don't know your kanji, you're out of luck. A small English brochure is available in the lobby, but doesn’t indicate more than a focus on the “harmonious relationship achieved between Murakami’s prose and the accompanying illustrations.” Apart from that, you’re on your own.
It's an appropriate challenge. Murakami’s literary work is full of cryptic satellite images that don’t explain much when viewed apart. It’s only after experiencing all of these strange visions that you begin to discover the story in what you’ve seen. Half the fun is guessing how it all connects together, even if you never really know.
Viewed through this lens, Murakami and Illustrators is right on point. The single-room exhibition is made up of mixed-media work from Maki Sasaki, Ayumi Ohashi, Makoto Wada, and Mizumaru Anzai, all of whom have collaborated with Murakami to visualize his essays and short stories.
What’s on display ranges from draft sketches to published books, and it’s interesting to see how early ideas ended up being included in the final product. One standout is a gorgeous set of hand-drawn maps that became book jackets for a canvas-bound set of Murakami’s collected works.
Other illustrated subjects include the author’s requisite jazz records, feline companions, and curious women with Mona Lisa smiles. There's plenty to see and, even if you don't know Murakami from Miyazaki, the pieces all tell a story. Makoto Wada’s playful depictions of jazz greats commissioned for Murakami’s Portrait in Jazz series are sharp and full of personality, and Mizumaru Anzai’s rich silk screen prints for 2001’s No Idea recall the visceral work of Saul Bass. Another must-see is a knockout edition of Murakami's translation of The Great Gatsby, covered in a thick splash of bold, colorful shapes that recall one of Gatsby’s own decadent parties. There's a retro feel to all of the work on display, something oddly nostalgic echoing from the past to the present—which feels a bit Murakami, too.
When you leave Murakami and Illustrators, the last thing to linger is the music, now a smokey standard about young love. The images swirl in your mind like a dream from the night before, one where the plot has vanished but the visions remain: a bottle of whiskey, the eyes of a cat, and that familiar stranger you used to know.