Why Bojack Horseman could’ve been written by Murakami

By Neeraja Srinivasan

“Dear Diane,

It’s me, your old pen pal Leo. It definitely isn’t Bojack Horseman writing this. You’re a good person, Diane, and that’s the most important thing. Even if no one appreciates you, it’s important that you don’t stop being good. I like how you always bring your own bag to the grocery stores and how you’re always organized to go places. I like how you always chew gum on the airplane so your ears will pop. A lot of people might not appreciate that about you, but I do.”

To say I’m always thinking about this quote from Bojack Horseman is a little bit of an understatement. I’m never not thinking about it. There, that’s a better way to put it. I started this show back in 2019 and still haven’t finished it – I simply can’t get myself to. Similarly, every time I close the last page of a book by Haruki Murakami, I’m left with a lingering unease. The kind that settles in the bottom of your stomach, entangled with feelings of loneliness, unworthiness, and grief. Power dynamics, drug abuse, mental health, and childhood trauma are all addressed in the show. Throughout its 6 seasons, we see characters’ behaviours and self-destructive tendencies being deeply scrutinised under a microscopic lens. By watching them attempt to overcome trauma responses and break cycles of their own toxicity, one thing is clear – these characters were not written to be loved and cherished by the audience. They were written to portray the inner battles of the human mind; how we’re always our own harshest critics.

When I say that this show could’ve been written by Murakami, I mean that he has a way of not just getting under the skin of his characters, but also getting into their minds, their psyche, what makes them who they are, why they think the way they do, and how their past, imperfect as it is, shapes them and their future – indefinite and uncertain. For example, I can’t help but think about the way Toru Watanabe, the protagonist of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, was written. In some ways, he is eerily similar to Bojack. On the outside, Toru is quite ordinary. But, as the novel progresses, we learn that he is practically a loner, riddled with self-doubt. His complicated relationship with death as a result of his best friend’s suicide is explored and used as reasoning for his commitment issues; how he avoids getting close to anyone so as to not get hurt.

Bojack is a severely depressed, retired actor from a former hit sitcom. He longs for a simple, loving life (like the one depicted in his show) but never really takes the steps to create it for himself. His untreated mental illness absorbs him like quicksand every time he tries to break himself away from the shackles of his own damaging, problematic instincts. Both Bojack and Toru sleep with many women, rarely seeking to form any sort of real emotional connection. Numbing their way through life, it’s almost like they find solace in loneliness. Like they fear being known or loved. 

Despite their inhibitions, one can’t help but feel bad for them. I was recently reading a book called ‘Maybe You Should Talk To Someone’ by Lori Gottlieb. In one section of her book, she explains how individuals often unknowingly sabotage a troubled person’s (in this case, Toru and Bojack’s) recovery. She goes on to explain how someone has to fill the role of the troubled person in order to maintain the status quo and ensure the homeostasis of society. Someone who blurs the lines between what is objectively moral and what isn’t, someone to feel sympathy for, someone to look at and think ‘I will not end up like this. I will be better.’ Which is why I’m left wondering if Toru and Bojack continue to be the way they are because society unconsciously resists positive change from people like them.

“Am I just doomed to be the person that I am? Diane, I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person…tell me that I’m good, Diane.” At this moment in the show, it’s almost like we’re the ones Bojack is talking to. In a strikingly alike scene, Toru says to Midori,

“I don’t want our relationship to end like this. You’re one of the very few friends I have, and it hurts not being able to see you. When am I going to be able to talk to you? I want you to tell me that much, at least. “It’s an undressing of emotions coming from two immature men who pride themselves in not talking about their feelings. They’re begging for love, but can’t explicitly convey that because they were never taught how to. Both of them expect forgiveness and seek validation from women whom they know do not have the heart to cut them off, despite their dangerous behavior. So, how do we forgive people who’ve caused so much pain? Are you a bad person for the ways you’ve tried to kill your sadness? Is anyone really capable of change?

Shireen Qadri coined the term ‘Murakami Bingo’, referring to the usual tropes that Murakami consistently resorts to in his novels. While many accuse him of being repetitive, it is undeniable that the fictitious worlds he crafts in his novels exist elegantly in a time warp between reality and fantasy. In these worlds, little things do not matter. You are instead allowed the space to introspect and ponder deeper questions, like the meaning of life and death. This genre of magical realism is one that Murakami has successfully mastered, which is another similarity between his work and the show. The creative team behind the show creates a dimension filled with goofy antics and animal puns, but also one where characters’ existential crises, caused by manifestations of their trivial worries, are addressed.

This is all to say that, at the end of the day, the media and literature we consume are all interwoven. Stories are meant to be consumed in relation to other stories, the people around us, and the world we live in. After an emotionally draining day of critically analysing Murakmi and re-watching some episodes of Bojack Horseman, I’m thinking about how we function normally and go about our day, eating breakfast, attending class, whilst casually carrying frightening feelings about ourselves in the pocket of our hearts. These feelings are hard to bear. How do they not wash over us completely, drowning us? How do any of us ever get out of bed? Maybe that’s why we read Murakami and watch Bojack; because they teach us how to go on living with these feelings without being suffocated by them.

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