‘Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche’ is a non fiction work by Haruki Murakami about the terrorist attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995 by members of the Aum cult. I am a big fan of Murakami’s fiction and admit that I only picked up the book from the library because it had his name on the cover. I also didn’t know too much about this particular incident before reading about it this week but ‘Underground’ seems to have been the best place to start as it is a balanced and insightful view of the dreadful events of 20th March 1995 whilst also exploring further questions about the Japanese mentality towards their everyday lives.
Even though most of the first part of the text is drawn straight from transcripts of interviews with the survivors, Murakami still makes his mark on it through his thoughtful portraits of each survivor before they tell their story. These careful presentations of each individual prevent the thirty or so interviews from becoming too repetitive. The second part of the book consists of interviews with former and current members of the religious Aum cult. This section was originally published separately after the survivors’ interviews but bringing the two together in one volume was a sensible move. In the preface of the second part, Murakami’s writes ‘What I am trying to provide here is [….] not one clear viewpoint, but flesh-and-blood material from which to construct multiple viewpoints; which is the same goal I have in mind when I write novels’. The second part answered a lot of the questions that I found myself asking about Aum whilst reading about the survivors’ experiences making this ‘documentary’ of sorts a more rounded and balanced work.
I believe that Murakami is more skilled as a novelist than a journalist but ‘Underground’ is still a worthwhile if slightly chilling read. In particular, the sensitively handled research is a welcome contrast from sensationalist media reporting about similarly tragic events.