Kafka on the Shore

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Haruki Murakami is often described as the most popular novelist in Japan and the most popular Japanese novelist in the world. Murakami takes elements of popular fiction genres, such as detective stories, and bends them into new shapes, often with surreal results. He has said that he read American novels such as those by Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., before reading Japanese novels, and this influence shows. His books are crammed with references to American and European literature, music, films, and brand names. His best-known work, the epic Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (1995; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1997), was inspired by David Lynch’s quirky television series Twin Peaks (1990-1991). As with Lynch’s, Murakami’s postmodern universe is one where nothing is as it seems, where anything can happen at any time. While most Murakami protagonists are men in their thirties, Kafka on the Shore centers on a teenager and an elderly man.

Dissatisfied with his life in Tokyo, fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home. Kafka has had a bad relationship with his father, Koichi, a famous sculptor, and has not seen his mother since he was four, when she left with his older, adopted sister. Koichi predicts that Kafka will kill him and sleep with his mother and sister, a prophecy which haunts him.

Satoru Nakata, in his late sixties, lives in the same neighborhood, though he and Kafka have never met. When Nakata was a schoolboy in 1944, a mysterious accident led to the loss of his memory and his ability to read and write. As with Kafka, Nakata has been neglected by his family. Telling their stories in alternating chapters, these two characters recall the structure of Murakami’s Sekai no owari to h do-boirudo wand rando (1985; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1991).

Kafka spends most of his time reading, listening to popular music, working out, and thinking about sex. He has no friends and no close attachments. He longs to find his mother and sister. After working most of his adult life as a furniture maker, Nakata lives on a government subsidy and from the money he earns by finding lost cats. He can speak to and understand cats; these felines, who appear throughout Murakami’s fiction, are the closest Nakata comes to having friends. Murakami presents Nakata’s world, in which money and politics are abstractions, as being less limited than it appears. Nakata simply enjoys whatever comes along.

Kafka’s travels take him to Takamutsu in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four major islands. His need to seek solace in a library leads him to the Komura Memorial Library, the repository of a wealthy man’s personal collection. Kafka becomes friends with the sympathetic library assistant, the androgynous Oshima, and learns that the library director, Miss Saeki, was in love with the Komura family’s son, who died years earlier. Just before his death, Miss Saeki became famous for composing and singing a popular song, “Kafka on the Shore.” After losing her lover, she retreated from the world, only recently taking the position at the library.

Miss Saeki agrees to let Kafka work as Oshima’s assistant in exchange for room and board. Kafka lives in the former room of Miss Saeki’s lover, where he finds an alluring painting of a young man on a beach. The spirit of Miss Saeki’s fifteen-year-old self visits nightly to gaze forlornly upon the painting. Kafka finds himself falling in love with both the spirit and the flesh of the woman whom he suspects may be his mother. Kafka and Oshima discuss the Oedipal implications of this attachment. Kafka meets Sakura, a young hairdresser, on the bus to Takamutsu and is torn between sexual desire for her and wanting her to be his long-lost sister.

Meanwhile, Nakata discovers that a psychopath who calls himself Johnnie Walker, and dresses like the liquor trademark, is killing neighborhood cats. After Johnnie Walker, actually Kafka’s father, forces Nakata to kill him, the old man journeys to Takamutsu, the site of his childhood accident. He is accompanied by Hoshino, a young truck driver who abandons his job to help Nakata find his destiny.

Kafka on the Shore is an ironic quest novel because neither Kafka nor Nakata understands what he is seeking, only that he will recognize it when he sees it. Their method is much like that of Murakami, who has said...

(The entire section is 1815 words.)

Kafka on the Shore Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The Atlantic Monthly 295 (June, 2005): 124.

Booklist 101, no. 6 (November 15, 2004): 532.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 23 (December 1, 2004): 1110.

Library Journal 130, no. 1 (January, 2005): 99.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 23, 2005, p. 3.

The New Leader 88, no. 1 (January/February, 2005): 28-29.

New Statesman 134 (January 24, 2005): 52-53.

The New York Times 154 (January 31, 2005): E10.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (February 6, 2005): 1-10.

The New Yorker 80 (January 24, 2005): 91.

Newsweek 145, no. 4 (January 24, 2005): 67.

People 63, no. 2 (January 17, 2005): 55.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 49 (December 6, 2004): 42.

The Times Literary Supplement, January 7, 2005, pp. 19-20.