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Magical Realism in Japanese Literature

Talking cats. Psychic powers. Characters with wings. These are things we don’t normally associate with real life.

But what if they didn’t only exist… but were actually taken as normal?

Welcome to a magical realism novel: instances of magic appear in the real world in a way that demands no questioning or explanation. Put simply, the extraordinary is made ordinary. The unbelievable made believable.

 

What is magical realism?

Magical realism is often misinterpreted (see what magical realism isn’t).

It can be confused with fantasy novels: which are set in a different world, often filled with orcs, wizards, and mythical creatures (like in The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia); and surrealist novels ­– where the fantastical elements occur in one’s subconscious mind or imagination.

In contrast, magical realism takes place in this world. The real world containing human beings rather than trolls, fairies and dragons. It’s aptly described as ‘integrating magical events into a framework of incredibly mundane daily life’ – and Japanese authors pull it off with notable finesse.

 

A brief history:

Back in 1925, German artist Franz Roh first used ‘magical realism’ to describe a new art movement that celebrated the mundane. But Latin American writers Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel G. Marquez spearheaded the literary movement in the 1970’s.

Marquez’ story (A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings) shows a ‘angel’ with wings. But this isn’t a heavenly creature from another world. It’s dirty, toothless, and smells terrible – and consequently shoved into a chicken coop. This is realism, with a dash of magic.

Since, it’s been adopted by authors all over the world. From Japan, authors like Haruki Murakami, Kazuki Sakuraba, Yasunari Kawabata and Banana Yoshimoto stand out.

Intrigued? Here are some of the characteristics.

 

Unexplained magic

magical realism Murakami

 

There’s a subtle beauty to magical realism in Japanese literature. Weird things happen with no logical explanation; as literary critic Luis Leal says: 'If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.' There’s no extreme emphasis on the bizarre, and no shock reaction (of the kind we would expect).

For example, the raining fish in Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore is documented in the news but then quickly forgotten the next day. This brings up an interesting point about magical realism: the realism’s arguably bigger than the magic. The fantastical elements are remarkable (for us, yes!), but not in the context of the story. At times, no one bats an eyelid. The narrator is often indifferent and life continues as normal.

 

Floating through a dream

An atmospheric, dream-like quality characterises these works, often enhanced by nonlinear plots and time frames. How many times have Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto made us feel as if we’re floating through a dream with their soothing, poetic prose? Yoshimoto’s Amrita (meaning ‘immortality’) is a shining example of this. Her narrative – featuring a psychic character who predicts an air crash and UFO appearance, and protagonist that interacts with ghosts – has earned critical-acclaim for its ‘weightlessness’, and stands out as one of must-reads of Japanese magical realism.

 

Holding up a magnifying glass to reality

‘People say it's magic realism – but in the depths of my soul, it's just realism.’ - Haruki Murakami

Japanese authors use magic to magnify reality and hint at something deeper. Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings zooms in on the effects of childhood trauma, societal expectations of women, and extreme social withdrawal through Piyyut: a talking hedgehog plushie with magical powers. As the narrator says:

‘Piyyut had taught me the magical power of invisibility. I didn’t actually become invisible. I just held my breath and could make myself go unnoticed’.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Similarly, Yasunari Kawabata’s short story One Arm on a man who borrows his girlfriend’s arm and switches it with his own highlights themes of mortality, eroticism and solitude. After ‘I removed my right arm and substituted the girl’s’, the narrator wallows in his ‘lonely apartment’, struggling to control his thoughts.

Lastly, Banana Yoshimoto uses sleep to emphasise the effects of past personal tragedy on the present in Asleep, (3 novellas of three female protagonists with sleeping difficulties). One sleepwalks, one is haunted by disturbing dreams, and one simply cannot stop sleeping. All have lost a friend or lover in sad circumstances (including one who drank herself to death) – and try to escape or find some sort of fleeting reunion with the dead through sleep.


What’s the appeal?

Magical realism holds a powerful grip on the human imagination. Its universal appeal is boils down to our love for the extraordinary: like the characters, we enjoy suspending our disbelief and embracing a new and exciting reality.

Those Japanese authors who weave pieces of magic into the contemporary, real-world settings of their novels do so with particular skill and guile; and must deserve some credit for the booming popularity of Japanese novels in translation.

 

Keep an eye out for more blogs on Japanese Literary Themes. Want to dive into some reading? Check out our range of book packages. We send the best of translated Japanese literature straight to your doorstep!

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