BRUTUS June 1, 1999

Haruki Murakami’s Best Friend

September 10, 2021 By mk

Setagaya Literary Museum in Tokyo is currently holding an exhibition on Mizumaru Anzai (1942-2014), an illustrator and best friend of Haruki Murakami. In addition to the numerous illustration works, the exhibition includes books of Murakami’s that Anzai designed.

Setagaya is the setting place of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The illustration “Unagi (eel)” made for Murakami’s short story collection

In 1980, an editor introduced Anzai to Murakami, who ran a jazz bar in Sendagaya. Since then, they have closely worked together until Anzai’s demise in 2014. In 2016, Murakami wrote a tribute to Anzai for his retrospective exhibition.

Even though I know he is no longer here
It’s been two years since Mizumaru Anzai passed away. After losing him for the past two years, I personally felt again that there were many spaces in this world that only he could have filled.

Of course, there are many other excellent illustrators out there, but as I work on various projects, there are often cases where I feel that I have no choice but to ask Mizumaru-san to do this part. But when I look around, I find that Mizumaru-san is nowhere to be found…

Noboru Watanabe

Mizumaru Anzai’s real name is Noboru Watanabe. Murakami used his name in his early short stories and mentioned the background in 1989. [Bungei Shunju (magazine interview), April 1989].

“It’s a strange thing, but in ‘Hear the Wind Sing (1979)’ there’s no love triangle at all. It’s all one-on-one relationships. So there are no conversations between the three of the characters. That’s because I didn’t give them names. If I don’t name the characters, it’s very difficult to let them talk to each other”

I had a very hard time naming my characters. Until “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985)”, I couldn’t name the characters. The “J” stood for “J” because he’s the guy from the J’ s Bar, so it’s like a symbol. There’s no name. If the character didn’t have a name, they couldn’ t talk to each other.

I got character’s name for the first time in a short story collection in which the name “Noboru Watanabe” appeared (in The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women and Family Affair) in 1986. I was saved by that. I thought, “I can give a character a name, then I can write a conversation among three characters, then I can write a more extensive story, then I can write a piece of realism. That’s the idea (to write Norwegian Wood, published in 1987)” 

Noboru Watanabe is the real name of the illustrator, Mizumaru Anzai. When I asked him what his real name was, he said “Noboru Watanabe”, which was very refreshing. I thought, “Oh, he’s Noboru Watanabe”. In my mind, his name was Mizumaru Anzai. But when suddenly I was told that his name was Noboru Watanabe, it was new. That fresh symbolic pleasure was contained in the name “Noboru Watanabe””.

If I hadn’t talked to Mizumaru Anzai, I don’t think I would have reached that point. I’m rather stubborn, and if I didn’t like giving a name to a character, I wouldn’t have done so. I don’t think there are many writers who haven’t been able to give a character a name for nine years. But when I could get that, the pleasure was huge.

Anzai’s studio in Kamakura was restored for the exhibition.

The English version of the short story collection “The Elephant Vanishes” includes “The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women” and “Family Affair”, in which Noboru Watanabe appears.

The name, Noboru Watanabe, remains a special name and a source of inspiration for Murakami; Noboru Watanabe’s first name is used for “Noboru Wataya” as the name of the cat in “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1994)”, and his last name is used for “Toru Watanabe” in “Norwegian Wood (1987)”.

Anzai’s illustration was used as the cover of the Murakami special issue of Uniqlo magazine when the Murakami T-shirt was launched.

The charcters got their names and…

In Murakami’s novels, the protagonist is given a name for the first time in “Norwegian Wood” (1987). In “Dance Dance Dance” (1988), the sequel to the first trilogy, the name is left unspecified, although the protagonist gave his name at the hotel.

In his later works, from “South of the Border, West of the Sun” (1992) onwards, all have names, and in “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” (2013), even the title includes the protagonist’s full name.

On 17 March 2014, Mizumaru Anzai fell ill while working, and was taken to hospital for treatment and passed away from a brain haemorrhage on 19 March.

The short stories collection, “Men Without Women”, was published in April 2014 and contained five stories previously released in magazines between December 2013 and February 2014, plus a newly written piece.

The protagonists of the first five stories published before Anzai’s demise have names, but the protagonist of “Men Without Women (story)”, released shortly after his demise, has no name; and since then, the protagonists in “Killing Commendatore” (2017) and short story collection “First Person Singular” (2020) remain nameless.

Aomame Tofu

Left: “Aomame Tofu” by Mizumaru Anzai and Makoto Wada with an afterword by Haruki Murakami
Center: Postcard of the painting of Mizumaru Anzai
Right: Firefly, Barn Burning and other short stories by Haruki Murakami with an illustration by Mizumaru Anzai

In 2001, Anzai was to start a series of articles in a magazine with Makoto Wada (1936-2019). Makoto Wada was also a great illustrator and a mutual friend of Murakami and Anzai.

Anzai wondered what to title the article, so when he had dinner with Murakami at a restaurant in Shibuya, he asked Murakami to think of a title. Murakami said, “very difficult”, but then he happened to say “Aomame Tofu (Blue Bean Tofu)”, which he was eating at the time. Anzai was very pleased and took “Aomame Tofu” as the title of the article.

Eight years later, the name appeared in Murakami’s novel as that of the female protagonist of 1Q84.

From Town of Cats

Chikura, Chiba prefecture

Anzai’s home town is Chikura in Chiba Prefecture. Chikura is a small town facing the Pacific Ocean, and Anzai’s work is painted on a wall by the sea as legends of Chikura.

In 1Q84, Chikura appeared as a “Town of Cats” where Tengo repeatedly visited his father in the sanatorium.

“My text, accompanied with Mizumaru-san’s illustrations,
is considerably happy text.” -Haruki Murakami

[Langerhans Tou no gogo (1986)]