Book Review | Haruki Murakami’s “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche”

To say that ‘Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche” is a book about the Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is to do it a severe disservice. “Underground” takes accounts from victims of the gas attack, conversations between Murakami and members of the cult responsible for the attacks, and pieces of Murakami’s own opinions and weaves them together into a work that is fiction and non-fiction, truth and lies, right and wrong, but always reality.

Murakami asks questions about what “caused” the gas attack, showing threads of similarity that run between cult members and outsiders, between “they” and “us.” If you’re looking for explicit answers then this isn’t the book for you; he doesn’t come out and say “X and Y is the reason why the attacks occurred and Z is the way to prevent them from happening again.” Almost ironically, the book seems to show that it’s the very willingness to understand and accept catch-all statements of facts as law from any source as the very reason the attacks took place at all. “Underground” is a “non-fiction” book written by a novelist; at its core it is a story we are meant to travel through, learning more about ourselves than anything else by the time the back cover is reached.

As someone who has always felt like an outlier in society, the second part of the book stands out in particular for me. Accounts of the Aum cult members resonated with me in ways that I didn’t expect, and I often found myself having a hard time rationalizing the anger and sadness I felt when reading the victims’ accounts with the empathy and sorrow I felt when reading about the cultists’ desire for enlightenment and feelings of alienation… perhaps that’s exactly why this book exists. Our 24-hour news-cycle world polarizes every debate, cuts every opinion into a 3-second good-or-evil sound byte, and as our minds conform to the mould these pundits cast, we leave out the fact that real, earnest people are the ones committing every single one of these acts, for better or for worse. I was originally tempted to give this book a 4-star rating because I felt like some of the narratives in the first section went on too long, but the opinions, the mixed feelings of hate and love and apathy and discontent that run throughout the victims’ accounts are echoed by the cultists, only serving to heighten the effect of the book once you reach its end.

“Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche” is, by extension, a book about every “terrorist” attack and every country’s psyche. In an age where people can’t step into a midnight premiere of a superhero movie in the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” without being gunned down in cold blood, where mass murder and rape are used as weapons of everyday combat, where subway tunnels are blown to bits by suicide bombers and people are put to death simply for being part of the wrong faction of the “right” religion, it only seems natural to ask “Why? What is happening to our society that breeds this kind of ill-will, this kind of violence and bloodshed?” There is no specific answer, no one magic potion that could have prevented those attacks, but the more we reflect on the past and on ourselves, the better chance we stand to stop our world from falling into the chaos of those events in the future.

Review: 5/5 stars. Review can also be found using the Goodreads app on Facebook or by going to www.goodreads.com.

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