Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hair = life, Samurai hair, Murakami and more

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by "Japan's most highly regarded novelist" (book jacket) Haruki Murakami, is a book steeped in magical realism, all-too-real history, and hair.

Hair? Well, yes. Men's baldness, toupees and wig-making take up some pretty prime real estate. When I went browsing for answers, I learned Murakami's references in his novel to wigs and wig-making elicited mainly questionmarks by his readers. Which got me wondering: For the Japanese, what does hair symbolize?

According to Kotaku.com, in ancient Japan, "a woman's hair transmitted life." Over the centuries, Japan has been influenced by hair styles from other parts of the world, for instance China in the 5th to 8th centuries and the Western world in the 20th century. Wigs are mainly used in the Noh theatre, by Geisha, and so on. It also seems to be a point of pride that a woman shows off her own locks, so that original notion that a woman's hair transmits life may still hold power.

Regarding the significance of hair and men, at Cracked.com, I also discovered the "chonmage" worn by the Samurai, who shaved the front and center of their heads so their helmets would have a better fit--a "badass" look in its day. But, except for this unusual instance, baldness is very unpopular in Japan, perhaps because losing one's hair is a sign one is losing his vitality.

I conclude, therefore, the hair = life symbolism is what earns such a big role for hair and wigs in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In character May Kasahara's ramblings about death, she says:
"Wigs don't last long. Bet you didn't know: toupees are good for two, maybe three years max. The better made they are, the faster they get used up. They're the ultimate consumer product. It's 'cause they fit so tightly against the scalp: the hair underneath gets thinner than ever. Once that happens, you have to buy a new one to get that perfect fit again. ... Once a guy starts using a wig, he has to keep using one. It's, like, his fate." (p.110, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

And when May Kasahara has trapped the protagonist Toru Okada in a deep well, she reflects on a the story of a man who lived 21 days underground: "He survived, but he lost all his hair and teeth. Everything. Even if he lived, it must have been terrible... If people lived forever, if they never got any older--if they could just go on living in this world, never dying, always healthy--do you think they'd bother to think hard about things, the way we're doing now? ... I mean . . . this is what I think . . . people have to think seriously about what it means for them to be alive here and now because they know they're going to die sometime. Right? Who would think about what it means to be alive if they were just going to go on living forever? Why would they have to bother? Or even if they should bother, they'd probably just figure, 'Oh, well, I've got plenty of time for that. I'll think about it later.' But we can't wait till later. We've got to think about it right this second. I might get run over by a truck tomorrow afternoon. And you, Mr. Wind-Up Bird: you might starve to death. One morning three days from now, you could be dead in the bottom of a well. See? Nobody knows what's going to happen. So we need death to make us evolve. That's what I think. Death is this huge, bright thing, and the bigger and brighter it is, the more we have to drive ourselves crazy thinking about things."

Hair and baldness being such a big deal in Japan, it is appropriate that it is Japanese researchers who have successfully performed the first hair-regenerating implants. Read all about it at the NY Daily News or watch the story on ABCnews. Is it just me who thinks that poor pink mouse sports a badass mohawk?