David Boyd’s translation of Hideo Furukawa’s novella Slow Boat was published in 2017 by Pushkin Press. Here he discusses the book’s literary and musical influences.
Hideo Furukawa named his novella Slow Boat (2003; trans. 2017) after Haruki Murakami’s short story “A Slow Boat to China,” but the title has been around for years.
Originally, it comes from Frank Loesser’s hit song “On a Slow Boat to China,” which charted in five versions (by Kay Kyser, Freddy Martin, Benny Goodman, Art Lund, and Larry Clinton) within six weeks of its first release in 1948. Furukawa’s story has a lot to do with Sonny Rollins’s later take on the standard. But, as Furukawa makes clear in his “Liner Notes” (the afterword to Slow Boat), Murakami was on his mind when he wrote his book. He’s a big Murakami fan and, in Furukawa’s own words, Slow Boat is a Murakami “remix.”
That said, the two stories have little in common. Furukawa “samples” a few key lines from Murakami’s “Slow Boat” and uses them as chapter titles in his novella, but the worlds constructed around those words are radically different. Different stories, different genres.
Murakami is jazz and Furukawa is punk.
Punk is rampant in Furukawa’s writing, but it’s most obvious when he reads. I’ve never seen a more explosive reader. I recently saw him in Tokyo, reading with Kou Machida, another of Japan’s greatest living writers. This pairing, Furukawa and Machida, was no accident. Machida’s a genuine punk rocker. He began his career in the late seventies, singing for the punk band INU.
Furukawa was first to read. Within seconds of walking up to the microphone, he erupted. He screeched, he hummed, he almost sang. He blew into the mic, mimicking a hard wind. The only thing I don’t remember him doing was stopping to breathe. He was a force of nature.
That was when it really hit me. Furukawa is Japan’s foremost literary punk.
Slow Boat has a lot of punk in it. It’s the story of a man who believes he can never leave Tokyo. He thinks he’s trapped. He thinks he’s cursed. So he fights back. He fights against Tokyo with everything he has. He fights against the Japanese language, which he thinks is “full of shit.” He fights against fate.
For me, this is what separates Furukawa’s writing from Murakami’s. Murakami’s heroes dance, dance, dance through life. Furukawa’s fight with bloody knuckles. They take on the world, over and over, even though they don’t stand a chance. As the narrator of Slow Boat puts it:
We need to keep on fighting, right? Even if we’re just marching toward death.
No—that’s exactly why we need to stay in the ring.