Haruki Murakami is one of the most popular authors in Japan as well as one of the more familiar Japanese writers in the Western world. His novels are filled with references to Western culture, such as his protagonists' interest in jazz, which are not typical Japanese elements in the more traditional novel. Murakami's novels also often contain dream-like sequences or otherwise supernatural details. His novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997) is a perfect example of the author's tendencies to include both the supernatural and the Western influences.

The Wind-Up Chronicle takes place in Tokyo, Japan, during the 1980s. There are several flashbacks, however, to the war between Japan and Korea, a time when Japan took control of the Korean peninsula in the early part of the twentieth century.

Murakami weaves through these two time periods as he tells the story of how people either lose or gain personal power. This power is used both for the benefit and the detriment of other people. The protagonist, Toru Okada, is forced to develop an inner strength when his wife goes missing. She falls victim to her brother, a politician, who has mastered some sort of mind control over less mentally stable people. To bring his wife back, Toru must learn to outwit the brother and break the spell he has on Toru's wife. Much of the story takes place inside dreamscapes. Toru practices lucid dreaming, which consists of being consciously aware of one's dreams while sleeping. Another aspect of the story, the flashbacks to Japan's control of the Korean people, is graphic and arresting: details of torture are a major part of the historical material.

Themes of loss and isolation run through this novel. Every character is touched by a great loss, such as Toru's loss of his wife. However, there is also a strong discussion of how some people work at achieving a power over their emotions and subconscious thoughts.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Toru Okada is thirty years old and has just resigned from his job as a lawyer’s assistant. His wife, Kumiko, works for the publisher of a health food magazine. While cooking spaghetti one evening, Okada gets strange phone calls from a woman who seems to know details about his life; she solicits phone sex from him. Okada ignores the woman and goes out to look for his and his wife’s missing cat, Noboru Wataya, named for Okada’s brother-in-law. While searching for the cat, he meets May Kasahara, a sixteen-year-old girl on sick leave from school, who promises to keep an eye out for the cat while out of her house.

Meanwhile, the Okada’s marriage has become increasingly strained, as Kumiko returns home from work later and later. A woman named Malta Kano calls Okada and asks to meet him. She turns out to be a clairvoyant who researches the mystic elements of water. She tells Okada that her sister, Creta Kano, had been raped by Okada’s brother-in-law, Wataya, and claims that the disappearance of the cat marks the beginning of a series of life-changing events in Okada’s life. Okada remembers how another medium, Mr. Honda—whom Kumiko’s father had demanded Okada and Kumiko see—had warned him to be careful of water.

While again searching for the cat, Okada runs into May at the vacant house in their neighborhood. She calls him Mr. Wind-up Bird for the bird with a creaking call that Okada hears every morning. May reveals that she has been working for a wig company in Tokyo and asks him to join her on the job. She also shows him the dried-up well near the house, and Okada notes how he is attracted by the darkness inside the well.

Okada reflects on what Kumiko tells him about her difficult childhood, during which her sister, the favorite of the family, had died. Okada, in turn, reveals his hatred for his brother-in-law, a pompous academic with no real conviction and an increasingly prominent presence in the media.

Soon after Okada and Malta meet, Malta’s sister, Creta, goes to the Okada house to take a water sample from the tap. After Okada urges her to give him more information about his missing cat, she tells him that she does not know how everything will add up, but that she must tell him about her past. She recounts how, when she was young, she had suffered from physical pain so terrible that she decided to commit suicide at the age of twenty. She crashed her brother’s car into a wall but survived to discover that the pain had gone away. To pay for the damage to the car and the wall, she became a prostitute. Creta then reveals that Okada’s brother-in-law had been a client of hers. Surprised, Okada asks her why her sister Malta said she had been raped by Wataya. Creta leaves Okada’s house as he is fetching her more coffee.

Okada goes with May to work, and as part of their jobs, they survey men in Tokyo and label them according to their degree of baldness. They end up discussing how balding is so frightening because it is as if life itself is being worn away.

Okada hears from an uncle about the history of the vacant house, nicknamed The Hanging House, in Okada’s neighborhood. A former military officer and his wife had lived there. After fearing...

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has a studied, leisurely pace, even for a Murakami novel. Toru Okada is thirty, lives in a Tokyo suburb, and is unemployed. His cat, named for his brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya, goes missing. While searching for the cat, Toru’s wife, Kumiko, also disappears. Toru is another Murakami protagonist who loves music, literature, and films. The best thing about being unemployed is that he can read whatever he wants whenever he wants. Without ambition, he is content to drift through life.

The novel’s title is supplied by May Kasahara, a teenage neighbor Toru meets while searching for the cat. He tells her about hearing every morning a bird that sounds like it is winding a spring, so she calls him Mr. Wind-Up Bird. Because they do not know what kind of bird it is and do not even see it, the name suggests the unknowable, ineffable qualities of life. Life and art overlap when Toru hears “Bird as Prophet,” one of Robert Schumann’s Waldszenen (1851; Forest Scenes). A radio announcer explains that the piece is about a mysterious bird who foretells the future.

Because Toru’s life is in a bit more turmoil each time he hears the bird, he begins to associate it with chaos. A mysterious mark that appears on his face also suggests that his life is out of kilter.

The cat is named for the brother-in-law, even though both Toru and Kumiko despise him, an academic whose first book is hailed as a new perspective on economics, leading to his becoming a media celebrity with political potential. Toru and Kumiko see him as overbearing and...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Fisher, Susan. “An Allegory of Return: Murakami Haruki’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.” Comparative Literature Studies 37, no. 2 (2000): 155-170. Argues that The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the most Japanese of Murakami’s novels through 1999. Provides a useful overview of Murakami’s life, his fascination with Western culture, and the historical events that shaped the novel.

Japan Foundation, comp. and trans. A Wilde Haruki Chase: Reading Murakami Around the World. Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2008. A compilation of essays by Murakami’s translators as well as by writers and critics who reflect on his global appeal. Accessible to students and general readers.

Rubin, Jay. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. London: Harvill Press, 2002. Written by Murakami’s official translator, this book looks at Murakami’s use of music in his novels as well as the untranslatable nuances to his use of language. Useful for students interested in the gap between the original work and the translation. Includes a chapter on The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Seats, Michael. Murakami Haruki: The Simulacrum in Contemporary Japanese Culture. Plymouth, England: Lexington Books, 2006. Focuses on idea of the simulacrum (a representation of reality) as a mode of critique of Japanese culture in Murakami’s novels. Provides a useful overview of contexts for and critical reception of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Suter, Rebecca. The Japanization of Modernity: Murakami Haruki Between Japan and the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Asia Center, Harvard University, 2008. Examines Murakami’s novels in terms of how American readers and critics sense Japan as a new center of modernity and cosmopolitanism. A useful metacritical look at Western assumptions about Japanese culture.