Monday, February 29, 2016

Murakami with a Fake Accent?

Recently somebody told me that the audiobook of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Random House Audio 2014) is read with a fake Japanese accent.  I couldn't believe my ears. It seemed absurd and impossible: how could such an Orientalist practice still be condoned today?  It's not the 1930s, after all.

So I ordered the audiobook from my local library and started listening.

I am sorry to say, Dear Readers, that it's true: Tazaki Tsukuru and all other characters in the novel are characterized with artificial Japanese accents.  (One notable exception is Kuro's Finnish husband, whose voice is read in an attempted European accent.)  The reader, American actor Bruce Locke, is of Japanese ancestry, but was born and raised in the United States, and to judge from his other work speaks without much of an accent.  So why impose a Japanese (or rather, pseudo-Japanese) accent upon the dialogue in the narration?

If the story featured Japanese characters in non-Japanese settings, where they would be speaking in languages other than Japanese, one might still understand the decision to voice characters with an accent.  But in this case most of the plot takes place in Japan, and the characters speak unaccented Japanese to each other.  No accent is called for.

I can think of only one explanation, which is that someone -- the publisher? the producer? the actor? -- decided that the book was otherwise insufficiently "Japanese" and wanted to ensure that the reader wouldn't forget that s/he is listening to a Japanese novel.  This is no small irony, given Murakami's widely acknowledged position as a writer who just happens to write in Japanese and who has spent much of his career deliberately seeking to undermine the cliches surrounding modern Japanese fiction.

Beyond this, it is really discouraging to think that in this day and age somebody thought this was a good idea.  Does Shakespeare have to be performed with phony British accents? Does a performance of Molière require actors to sound like Inspector Clouseau? Or is it because Japan is more "exotic" that Tsukuru, Sara, Ao, Shiro, Kuro, and Aka are voiced as Japanese-y caricatures of real people? I used to think that only Hollywood did this, but clearly I was wrong.



I started wondering whether other Murakami novels are also read with an accent in their American audiobook versions, so I borrowed 1Q84 and after dark.  I am happy to report that no such experiments were made in either of those. after dark (Random House Audio, 2007is read by Janet Song, and 1Q84 (Brilliance Audio on MP3-CD; Unabridged edition, 2011) by Alison Hiroto, Marc Vietor, and Mark Boyett.

Curious to see if others shared my negative feelings about the accent, I checked the reviews on Audible.com. It looks like I am not alone in my dismay:  



Reviews like this continue for a few pages. One person compared the narration style of Bruce Locke to the Charlie Chan accent: "The narrator has the worst fake Japanese accent. Sounds more like the old racist Charlie Chan movies. It was astoundingly bad. There was absolutely no need for that fake accent. It was as though the narration was making fun of Murakami being Japanese. I stopped listening because it was so distracting to the story. Why didn't anyone else notice ? Amazing. As a Japanese I felt insulted." 

To see more comments go here.

Let's just hope that when the time comes to produce and direct the audio performance of the next Murakami novel no one makes the same mistake again.

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