Comparative Literature Studies 39.4 (2002) 305-313
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Murakami Haruki And Anna Deavere Smith:
Truth By Interview
Although they come from very different cultures and hope to achieve different objectives through their literary work, Murakami Haruki and Anna Deavere Smith both draw on documentary and oral history approaches to literature. Murakami was deeply influenced by the methods of Studs Terkel and Bob Greene in writing his first work of non-fiction, Andaguraundo (Underground). 1 After interviewing the victims of the Aum sarin gas incident of 1995, and later the followers of the Aum Supreme Cult, he presents us with their individual stories as a counterbalance to the stories by the government, the police, and the media. His purpose, as he states in the preface to Underground, is to understand present-day Japan. 2 Anna Deavere Smith, a contemporary American playwright, calls Terkel a great Americanist, interviews him in her latest work Talk to Me, and also follows his steps. 3 She has written and performed documentary plays that consist exclusively of interviews she conducted concerning controversial incidents, such as Fires in the Mirror, 4 about the Jewish-Black confrontation in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York, in 1991, and Twilight, 5 about the Rodney King incident and the ensuing Los Angeles riot in 1992. Both Murakami and Smith base their works on the numerous interviews they conduct, and their goals are to understand their societies. Through their works, we find that the line dividing "us" and "them" in extremely confrontational situations begins to disappear, and we are left facing our own inner darkness. 6
Shedding Light on the Underground
In Underground, Murakami focuses on the March 20,1995 incident, when five agents of the Aum Shinrikyo group, a new religion distantly related to [End Page 305] Buddhism with some Hindu touches, punctured plastic bags of liquid sarin with sharpened tips of umbrellas in five different cars of major Tokyo subway lines during the morning rush hour. The nerve gas killed twelve people and injured over five thousand others, some of whom are still suffering from serious physical and mental damage. Murakami was dissatisfied with the simple dichotomy of the "evil" Aum versus the "innocent" victims, which the government, the police, and the media offered in explanation of the unprecedented act of terrorism, and with the enormous amount of coverage of the Aum Cult and the perpetrators, which became emotional and sometimes hysterical. Therefore, he decided to interview the victims first in search of the truth.
In the preface to Underground, he explains in detail how he conducted, edited, and published the interviews (4-8). Murakami's objective was to reconstruct the incident in the Tokyo underground on the morning of March 20, 1995 as experienced and as perceived by people. The interviews have two focuses. First, he attempts to recreate the incident through the interviewees' testimonies, and second he provides a short sketch of the lives of the interviewees before and after the incident. According to Murakami, the personal background is necessary, because it was not his intention to settle for generalizations about these victims, as was done in the media. He and his assistants created a list of victims based on TV and newspaper reports. They started with 700 names and managed to contact 140 people. Many, however, refused to be interviewed, because they did not want to remember the incident, did not want to be associated with the Aum Cult Group, and most often because they were suspicious of—even hostile to—the media. The final list was only 40 percent of the original 140. Through personal connections, they found a few more victims willing to be interviewed. Finally, they conducted sixty-two interviews, albeit two interviewees refused permission to publish their interviews at the last minute. These interviews are arranged in the book according to the five subway lines targeted. From his start in January 1996, nine months after the incident, it took him one year and nine months altogether to compile 727 pages in Japanese.
One year later, in 1998, Murakami published a...