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  • Parallel Universes, Vertical Worlds, and the Nation as Palimpsest in Murakami Ryū’s The World Five Minutes from Now
  • Kendall Heitzman (bio)

In Murakami Ryū’s stunning novel Gofungo no sekai (1994, The world five minutes from now), Odagiri Akira, an aging adult-film producer, goes out jogging one day near his weekend home in Hakone and suddenly finds the world around him transformed into a war zone, a parallel-universe Japan five minutes in the future. In this alternative world, rather than accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration to end World War II, Japan instead continued to wage a guerilla war against the Allied Powers. In a social-studies textbook, Odagiri finds a bleak history that diverges from our world’s on August 15, 1945: Japan refuses to surrender on that day, despite the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war, and three more atomic bombs are dropped in August and September of that year, on Kokura, Niigata, and Maizuru. In November 1945, the Americans invade Southern Kyushu, while the Soviet Union invades Hokkaido the following March. The military government collapses, but the population reorganizes and continues a strategic resistance.

Nearly half a century later, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China control various parts of the surface of the country. The remaining Japanese, their population decimated, have survived by digging a massive network of [End Page 252] tunnels under a vast stretch of the country, to which they refer simply as “the Underground.” These “pure” Japanese stand in contrast to those who remained on the surface, giving birth to “half-breeds” with foreign soldiers and, later, the surplus population of various countries that find in Japan a convenient place simply to dump their undesirables. The “noncitizens” (hikokumin) swarm in the urban slums of Old Tokyo and Osaka, while the Japanese live in the Underground and fight the United Nations peacekeeping forces using “semicitizen” (junkokumin) mercenaries of mixed heritage.1 Twice a year, the “pure Japanese” review applications for “semicitizens” of meritorious service to receive admission to the Underground—the gateway is narrow, but the Underground is proud of what it hails as its nondiscriminatory policies, and the oppressed peoples of the world admire and respect the spirit of resistance in the Underground.

What is Murakami up to here? Should we be nervous about a text that valorizes the war, that finds a way to redeem the Japanese war effort, and that posits a Japanese society with continuing obsessions with self-destruction and ideological, if not racial, purity? Murakami has brought fantastic elements into contemporary Japan before and since: In Coin Locker Babies (1980, Koinrokkā beibīzu), set in the (then) near future, the title protagonists end up in a bleak-but-imaginable Tokyo. From the Fatherland, with Love (2005, Hantō o deyo) is set in an alternate universe in which Murakami presciently predicts the global financial crisis of 2007–8: the Japanese government plunders its citizens’ bank accounts, liquidity dries up, and the country declines to such an extent that North Korea under Kim Jong Il attacks it in an attempt to escape its own longstanding political conundrum.

Gofungo no sekai, however, appears to be in a different category altogether. Published just before the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, the novel was Murakami’s salutary shot over the bow of the barrage of publications that commemorated the occasion. Parallel-universe narratives that posit a dystopic postwar Japan have only proliferated as memories of the war have receded into the past and second-generation authors and artists have mined it for material for popular fiction, manga, and anime. Anime developed from manga such as Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s iconic Akira (1988) and Okiura Hiroyuki’s Jin-Roh (1999, Jinrō), as well as more recent original material such as Shinkai Makoto’s The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004, Kumo no mukō, yakusoku no basho) and Kamiyama Kenji’s Eden of the East (2009–10, Higashi no Eden), have explored parallel-world postwars with various departure points: in the present (Akira), the near future (Eden), the 1950s (Jin-Roh), and the 1970s (Place Promised).2 Gofungo no sekai is...


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pp. 252-266
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