The progression toward modernity serves as the catalyst behind the general state of disorder and meaninglessness that abounds in “The Elephant Vanishes.” The story takes place in 1980s suburban Tokyo, where towns were still in the midst of the economic boom and technological advancements that characterized post-WWII societies. The consequences of modernity are evident in the expansion of the story’s town as well as in the public relations career of the narrator. Murakami’s focus on progress, urbanization, and consumerism throughout the story reflects modern life’s tendency to create a sense of meaninglessness both in society and within the individual.
Whereas Japan is a nation that has historically held a strong sense of tradition and group identity, the townspeople in “The Elephant Vanishes” lack a stable sense of community. The increasing modernization of the town and its values lead its people to prioritize economic gain and pragmatic motivations over emotional concerns such as empathy for the elephant and zookeeper. The narrator comments that before the town took ownership of the elephant, an opposition group was starkly opposed to the idea, citing the financial and security costs of housing the animal. He believes that the elephant was only saved from euthanasia because its death would have been “too hard to cover up.”
This prioritization of economic concerns over empathy toward an elderly creature in need indicates a shift in values brought on by modernization. The zoo in town was forced to close and was bought out by a high-rise developer, suggesting a contemporary mindset that values commodification and expansion over traditional pastimes. The townspeople are concerned with urban development above all else and lack connection with the ethos of their community and the elephant’s status as its proposed symbol. The townspeople are also quick to forget about the elephant’s disappearance despite the initial hysteria toward the situation. The narrator notices that “people seem to have forgotten that their town once owned an elephant,” reflecting the increasingly distracted, unsentimental attitude of modern society.
Modernity’s negative impact on human life also appears in the story through the business world. Like the collective community’s economic concerns, the narrator is preoccupied with money in terms of how much product he can sell—a lucrative but ultimately unsatisfying pursuit. The narrator openly acknowledges the fact that “things you can’t sell don’t count for much.” This directly parallels the community’s attitude toward the elephant, as the animal is largely resented, alienated, and ignored due to its lack of “merit” or lucrative potential. The narrator is also plain about the fact that his distinctively modern public relations career (a relatively new field in the twentieth century) is shallow in nature. After making the empty claim that the world is “pragmatic” in conversation, he admits that you can “play games” with language and manipulate expression in order to sell product. This skepticism toward modern consumeristic culture deepens the narrator’s feelings of discontent in his personal life. As in his advertising work, he falls back on superficial platitudes, unable to truly connect with anyone or find meaning in his experiences.
Beyond the corporate sphere of the narrator’s career, modernity also influences how the media operates in the wake of the elephant and keeper’s disappearance. As Japan became increasingly modernized and less insular during the twentieth century, local and mass media usurped word of mouth as the means by which people acquired information. This context has a direct influence on how the narrator navigates the mystery of the disappearance, as he is socially disconnected from his community and can only hope to glean more information from the speculative secondhand accounts of journalists. Society, as the narrator notes, has become more pragmatic and less emotionally invested over time. As a result, the journalists cover the event superficially and neglect to investigate the surrounding circumstance and deeper meaning behind the disappearance. The narrator admits that he meticulously reads and saves every newspaper article and cartoon about the elephant he can find, but reflects that “despite their enormous volume, the clippings contained not one fat of the kind that I was looking for.”
The narrator goes on to remark that reports of the disappearance were “either pointless or off the mark” and that coverage of the event fizzled out almost entirely after a week. According to the narrator, the newspapers and readers in the town “shove the elephant case into the large category of ‘unsolvable mysteries’” that are unimportant and have no impact on society. He reflects that “the earth would continue its monotonous rotations” and that the mundanity of everyday life would continue on as if the event had not taken place. Amidst the fast-paced flurry of modern life, even the seemingly miraculous nature of the elephant’s disappearance is largely irrelevant.
This nonchalant coverage and dismissal of the “elephant case” by the media reflects the impact of modernization of the town’s values. Whereas the narrator’s unique proximity to the elephant and keeper’s disappearance causes him to become emotionally invested in the events, the disconnected community fails to unite their interest around the elephant and the story fades into obscurity. Through his cynical portrayal of various intersecting spheres of the community in “The Elephant Vanishes,” Murakami examines the challenges of modernity and downfalls of contemporary culture, arguing that the progress and prosperity of modern life have ultimately robbed society of meaning and left individuals discontented and disconnected from one another.
Modernity Quotes in The Elephant Vanishes
The longer the elephant problem remained unsolved, the more interest the developer had to pay for nothing. Still, simply killing the thing would have been out of the question. If it had been a spider monkey or a bat, they might have been able to get away with it, but the killing of an elephant would have been too hard to cover up, and if it ever came out afterward, the repercussions would have been tremendous.
Riddled as it was with such perplexities and labored circumlocutions, the newspaper article as a whole left but one possible conclusion: The elephant had not escaped. It had vanished. Needless to say, however, neither the newspaper nor the police nor the mayor was willing to admit—openly, at least—that the elephant had vanished.
It seemed that people were beginning to shove the elephant case into the large category of “unsolvable mysteries.” The disappearance of one old elephant and one old elephant keeper would have no impact on the course of society. […] Amid the endless surge and ebb of everyday life, interest in a missing elephant could not last forever. And so a number of unremarkable months went by, like a tired army marching past a window.
“The most important point is unity,” I explained. “Even the most beautifully designed item dies if it is out of balance with its surroundings. Unity of design, unity of color, unity of function: This is what today’s kit-chin needs above all else.”