Kafka on the Shore

by Haruki Murakami

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura has a bad relationship with Koichi, his sculptor father, and his mother left with his sister when he was four. The insensitive Koichi has told the boy that one day he will have sex with both his mother and sister, a prophecy tainting his desire to find them. Kafka runs away from home, and Murakami alternates his story with that of Satoru Nakata, an elderly man from the same Tokyo neighborhood. Nakata has lost his memory and the ability to read and write following a mysterious accident when he was a schoolboy in 1944. He lives on a government subsidy and the money he makes from finding lost cats, with which he can communicate much better than with humans. Nakata is an extreme example of Murakami’s patented passive protagonists. He simply accepts what life offers, enjoying its simple pleasures.

Kafka makes his way to Takamutsu on the island of Shikoku and to the Komura Memorial Library, where a wealthy man’s collection resides. He meets Oshima, a library assistant, and Miss Saeki, the library director. She was once famous for composing and singing a popular song, “Kafka on the Shore,” but retreated from the world following the death of her lover, the son of the Komura family. Kafka becomes Oshima’s assistant in exchange for room and board and finds himself visited by the spirit of the younger Miss Saeki, whom he suspects may be his mother. He also meets Sakura, a young hairdresser, and is torn between wanting to have sex with her and wanting her to be his lost sister. Kafka and Oshima discuss the Oedipal nature of his quandary.

Nakata flees Tokyo after a psychopath calling himself Johnnie Walker, actually Kafka’s father, forces the old man to kill him. Nakata makes his way to Takamutsu, site of his accident, with the help of Hoshino, a young truck driver. There, his and Kafka’s destinies overlap. The characters are similar in their reliance upon daily routines to give the impression of order in a disorderly world.

Kafka on the Shore is another of Murakami’s quest novels, with neither protagonist truly understanding what they are seeking. Kafka, Nakata, Oshima, Miss Saeki, and Hoshino resemble each other in being incomplete. The sexually ambiguous Oshima tells Kafka about the Greek belief that all people are searching for their missing halves. Murakami uses quests to explore such themes as individual freedom and the individual’s responsibility to a larger good.

Kafka on the Shore is one of Murakami’s most whimsical novels, with several talking cats—or at least cats who talk to Nakata. Hoshino meets a metaphysical construct taking the form of Colonel Sanders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken symbol, and battles a creature out of a science-fiction film. Nakata, who has the power to make fish rain from the sky, discovers he is seeking an entrance stone mentioned in Miss Saeki’s song. As with Latin American Magical Realism, these fairy-tale elements seem logical within the context of the novel. More important, Murakami uses whimsy to delineate character and reveal themes.

The usual frequent references to Western arts appear throughout Kafka on the Shore. Kafka listens to such popular music acts as Radiohead to maintain his sanity. Kafka renames himself because of his admiration for Franz Kafka’s short story “In der Strafkolonie” (1919; “In the Penal Colony,” 1941). The novel’s fantastical qualities resemble those in Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights (1850), a rare edition of which Kafka reads at the library. Murakami departs from his usual practice by having Kafka read and discuss Japanese literature: Kof (1908; The Miner, 1988) by Soseki Natsume. The magic powers of the arts are illustrated when Hoshino, a bit of a slacker, is transformed by hearing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Archduke Trio (1810-1811) in a coffee bar.

With its allusions, libraries, librarians, and cats, Kafka on the Shore recalls other Murakami novels. Additional similarities include Kafka’s retreating to a mountain cabin, as in A Wild Sheep Chase. In this solitude, Kafka begins to find himself. Understanding the difference between letting things happen and exerting some control over his destiny, Kafka makes progress toward discovering his identity.


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Last Updated on May 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371

In her review of Haruki Marakami's novel Kafka on the Shore, Laura Miller, writing for the New York Times Book Review, stated that Kafka is a departure for the popular Japanese author. More often than not, Marakami's protagonists are middle-aged men. However, in Kafka on the Shore, the main character is a fifteen-year-old runaway, Kafka Tamura. He does not get along with his father and does not know where his mother is. She disappeared with Kafka's sister when the boy was only four.

It is through Kafka's adventures that the story unwinds. However, there is a slightly connected second story that is also being told. This other story involves Satoru Nakata, now an old man. But when Satoru was a youth, he lost consciousness while on a field trip with his schoolmates. Through this experience, which is not explained, Satoru lost all his memories but gained the ability to speak to cats. This new skill allows him to find lost cats (a theme that is a strong one in Marakami's most popular novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).

John Updike, in his review for the New Yorker, called Marakami's novel "a real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender." Updike was referring to the dream-like character of Marakami's writing. The major plotline is definitely dreamlike. The young teen boy, Kafka, and the old man, Satoru, separately are in search of a mysterious entrance to a special, spiritual land. Through their adventures, they encounter murders, a group of soldiers who have not aged since the end of World War II, and weird rainstorms that at times produce falling fish. These two characters, though their lives are entwined, never meet. There are hints that Kafka and Satoru are different versions of the same person. Sakura, a young woman Kafka meets on the bus as he is running away, may also be Kafka's missing sister. And the cat-killing Johnnie Walker could well be a disguised version of Kafka's father. Miss Saeki, the manager of the library where Kafka spends most of his time after he runs away, may be the young boy's mother.

Marakami has explained that the book contains several riddles that will become apparent only after the novel is reread several times.

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