What do novelist Haruki Murakami and singer Shugo Tokumaru have in common? Ok, yes, obviously they are both Japanese, but there is more to it than that. Murakami and Tokumaru share a markedly easy ability to be translated into English. Unlike other Japanese exports in recent years, say…the whole Harajuku Lovers phenomenon, Murakami and Tokumaru make sense when placed in a western—more specifically, American—context.
In the 1980s Murakami caused an uproar amongst Japanese literary critics for abandoning traditional structures of grammar in favor of a more English style. Accused of abandoning the great history and legacy of canonical Japanese literature (like the works of Yukio Mishima), Murakami’s novels were considered as controversial for their form as they were for their content. As this was going on in Japan, Murakami’s work was very quickly being discovered and translated into English. By the early 90s Murakami was well established as the “modern voice of Japan” in the U.S.
Fast-forward twenty years. 2008, and Shugo Tokumaru has released his X album, Exit. Like Murakami, Tokumaru has become emblematic of a “modern Japan” by American critics. In October, Tokumaru made a brief tour of the U.S. to promote his recent album. He was featured in the CMJ Music Festival accompanied by members of Beirut and alongside Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos. Tokumaru also opened for the Magnetic Fields for two of their tour dates. Exit was hailed by Brooklyn Vegan as “ingenious and genius” and the songs “Parachute” and “Green Rain” were featured on RCDRLBL,com. Tokumaru translates well, but why?
Aside from his style of writing, Murakami is a very accessible Japanese author from an American perspective. This is, in part, due to the fact that Murakami’s books are really explorations of self. His novels focus heavily on mapping a kind of universal interiority. In Murakami’s work reality is subjective, founded in an individual’s consciousness. This concept transcends barriers of culture, geography, and even language. Murakami explores the very nature, the very essence, of what it means to be human.
Similarly, Exit is a close personal work. Like Murakami, Tokumaru explores an interior landscape, that of dreams. All of the songs on Exit are based off of Tokumaru’s personal dream log. Though he sings mostly in Japanese, the close dreamlike world of Tokumaru’s songs are certaintly not lost in translation. The playful and skipping instrumentals—characterized primarily by a joyful tinkley xylophone—paired with Tokumaru’s gentle and sweet vocals synthesize themselves into a soft harmony. The sweet simplicity of Exit works to create an overall album that is intimate. The emotion and meaning of Exit’s ten tracks are easy to read. It is exactly this intimacy, this closeness, that enables an American audience to understand and appreciate Shugo Tokumaru.