Kafka on the Shore

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1815

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...

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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 in interviews that he rarely knows where his characters will lead him. Kafka has conversations with an alter ego named Crow (roughly the translation for Bohemian writer Franz Kafka), who warns him, “Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions.” In quite different ways, Kafka and Nakata struggle to overcome the pull of fate.

Libraries, important in several Murakami novels, offer Kafka a refuge from his life without friends or parental affection: “no entrance fee, nobody getting all hot and bothered if a kid comes in. You just sit down and read whatever you want.” Libraries are better than his real home, and he is always treated with respect in them. The Komura Memorial Library “makes me feel like I’m in some friend’s home.” It is “exactly the place I’ve been looking for forever.”

What unites Kafka, Nakata, Oshima, Miss Saeki, and Hoshino is that each is incomplete. Oshima explains how the ancient Greeks believed all people are searching for their missing halves. It is important that the friendless Kafka and Nakata develop relationships during their quests because, in Oshima’s words, “it’s really hard for people to live their lives alone.” Murakami suggests the necessity of both individual freedom and responsibility to a larger good.

Another theme is the Western influence on Japan, the intermingling of cultures. In the library, one parlor or reading room is furnished in the Japanese style, while another parlor is Western. Kafka employs an Eastern discipline to maintain his workout routine while listening to Western artists Prince, Radiohead, and John Coltrane in order to maintain his sanity. Kafka and Nakata retreat into habit, repeating daily tasks, to establish order in a disorderly world.

Literature is extremely important to Kafka. When he feels tense, he tries to relax by thinking about all the books waiting for him to read them. Literature provides an order missing elsewhere. Oshima uses Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933) by Murasaki Shikibu to explain how Miss Saeki’s younger spirit can exist. When Kafka first goes to the library, he reads a rare edition of Richard Burton’s 1885-1888 translation of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments: “Compared to those faceless hordes of people rushing through the train station, these crazy, preposterous stories of a thousand years ago are, at least to me, much more real.” When he reads, “Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I’m alone, inside the world of the story. My favorite feeling in the world.” He renames himself after Franz Kafka because of his admiration for the writer’s ability, in such works as “In a Penal Colony,” to create not metaphors or allegories but a greater reality. In discussing Kofu (1908; The Miner, 1988) by Sseki Natsume, however, Oshima suggests that literature provides metaphors onto which people can cling.

Nakata describes his intellectual emptiness as being “like a library without a single book.” He dreams about being able to read, and Murakami constantly suggests that the dream world is as vital as reality.

Murakami has translated J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and Kafka, especially early in the novel, resembles a less neurotic Holden Caulfield: “Maybe I should tell Oshima everything. I’m pretty sure he won’t put me down, give me a lecture, or try to force some common sense on me.” Both novels romanticize the anguish of adolescence. Before meeting Oshima, Miss Saeki, and Sakura, Kafka has had difficulties communicating with people, making his feelings known. Nakata has had the same problem, except with cats. One cat, Mimi, tells him “it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to communicate with a sensible human being such as yourself.” Hoshino struggles to understand Nakata but concludes that unusual people are more interesting than the ordinary.

On two occasions, to avoid discovery by the police, Kafka retreats to a remote mountain cabin owned by Oshima’s brother. The solitude he finds there corresponds to that which Nakata has known all of his life, though Kafka’s is much more reflective. This setting allows Murakami to engage in the descriptive writing at which he excels, and he turns the mysterious forest surrounding the cabin into another major character.

Oshima uses Franz Schubert’s Sonata in D Major to make the point that sometimes imperfect art is more satisfying that perfection: “You discover something about that work that tugs at your heartor maybe we should say the work discovers you.” Hoshino is a pony-tailed slacker but becomes transformed by his experiences with Nakata and through hearing classical music in a coffee bar. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Archduke Trio discovers and changes him. The ways in which art comforts and transforms is a major Murakami theme.

Many of Murakami’s works have elements of science fiction and fantasy. Losing some of his mental abilities results in Nakata’s possessing other powers he cannot understand, so he causes the skies to rain down sardines, mackerel, and leeches. Miss Saeki’s “Kafka on the Shore” refers to fish raining from the sky, and she thinks she recognizes Nakata as a figure in the background of the painting. Nakata discovers he is looking for the entrance stone mentioned in her song. Hoshino is helped in finding the stone by a metaphysical concept taking the form of Colonel Sanders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken icon. Two soldiers who disappeared during World War II lead Kafka to a secret world within the woods. Hoshino battles a creature like something out of the 1979 film Alien. By placing such incidents within the context of everyday life, Murakami makes them seem both startling and melancholy, recalling the Magical Realism of Latin American fiction. In Murakami’s universe, emotional truth outweighs literal truth: “It’s hard to tell the difference between sea and sky. Between voyager and sea. Between reality and the workings of the heart.”

All of Murakami’s novels deal in some way with the power of the imagination. Kafka finds a note Oshima has written in a biography of Adolf Eichmann: “Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine.” Alone in the remote cabin, Kafka discovers he is afraid of imagination, responsibilities, and dreams. Once Kafka understands the difference between letting things happen and trying to exert some control, he is on his way to discovering his identity. With its insights into the elusiveness and intangibility of life, Kafka on the Shore is about much more than its protagonists’ personal quests.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68

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.

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