Haruki Murakami’s Kakfa on the Shore is a strange, lurid book. You float through this dreamscape of modern Japan, effortlessly switching between the real, the fantastic, and the absurd. The characters drift through their story, unquestioningly, directed by powers outside of their own will. Everything in the book is subject to its own strange, internal logic—or lack thereof. You cannot question it, you must simply go with it.
The book feels profound and evocative. But you don’t really know why, exactly. The plot isn’t relatable. You wait on the edge of your seat for some deeper meaning to reveal itself, but it never does. It all feels strangely inhuman. Everything, from the supernatural to the downright disturbed, passes the characters by without examination. Labouring under an illusion they’re simultaneously aware and unaware of.
There’s a lot to unpack with this one. There are some truly amazing descriptions of nature and of that place being outside what’s real and tangible—of the ethereal. It’s all kinda lofty, yet so direct that it all just works. It straddles the real and the surreal. It’s Murakami, I guess.
Anyway, hello, and welcome to another one of to another of my book reviews!
Ok, but what’s this novel actually about?
The book opens with our unconventional protagonist, Kafka Tamura. He’s a fifteen-year-old boy who’s running away from home. He heads from Tokyo into the rural periphery of Japan to evade an Oedipal prophecy from his father. Not much is said about his upbringing, and nothing much on how he feels about all of this strangeness. He’s a character that seems kinda hollow and vague, yet intriguing.
Kafka winds up in Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku in Japan, where he spends almost all of his time in a private library. He makes some friends, and does some other crazy stuff that I can’t go into too much depth on without completely spoiling the novel.
There’s a second storyline running in tandem. Here, you find Satoru Nakata. He’s an old man who can talk to cats (the way Murakami writes cats is charming—he’s clearly spent a lot of time with them!)
He’s also a very simple man. Nakata lost most of his childhood memory in a fascinating incident while young—and with it, most of his faculties. Now, he makes his living through a government subsidy and searching for lost cats, collecting rewards in turn. After a, uh, disturbing event, he finds himself on some kind of vision quest, minus the vision. He just has a strong urge he has to do some particular thing, and that also takes him to Takamatsu. He makes some friends too.
Nakata is one of the most earnestly endearing characters in a book I’ve read to date. His straightforward speech and syntax, his earnest questioning of everything, his simplicity. The way he refers to himself purely in the third person. You have to read it to appreciate it, but he’s one of those characters that’ll stick with you even after the book is closed and shelved.
Nakata and Kafka each has only half a shadow.
Let’s leave the plot there for now.
What defines Kafka on the Shore?
It’s the type of book that makes you feel as if the author’s gonna start mainlining the secret truth of the universe. As if they’ll finally reveal some logical underpinning to what we’re all doing on earth. But Murakami doesn’t. It’s just a dream, after all.
Maybe it was your dream, or my dream? I hope not. Some of this book is disturbing.
Anyway, Murakami writes a style of magical realism. It’s clearly influenced by Kafka-esque absurdism, in the way that no one acknowledges the irrationality surrounding them. It’s got a real I’ve-just-woken-up-as-a-bug-and-no-one’s-acknowledging-it vibe (no surprise, given the main character here is called Kafka…)
As I said, Nakata can talk to cats. By introducing this absurdism immediately, Murakami’s letting you know that anything can happen. There’s no descent from realism into unrealism. You’re expected to go with it from the start. But by freeing himself from standards of believable fiction, of laws and norms and rules, he creates some really cool and unique work.
It reads like a dream because the characters don’t stop to question what’s happening. Hoshino, like Nakata and Kafka and everyone else, never really question the absurdity of the situation. This is what I mean by them not behaving like “real characters”. It’s like they’re so close to being three-dimensional—they’re 2 and three-quarters-dimensional characters. There’s a distinct lack of inner monologue. Just a fantastical, even nonsensical sequence of events that you just float through.
You know how in a dream, your brain connects random aspects of the subconscious—what you’ve seen, felt, and thought, either on that day or in a distant past? Well that’s kind of what it feels like here. You can’t question dreams, you can only experience them. And then wake up and think: “what the fuck?” That’s what a Murakami novel is like.
To give an example: a truck driver named Hoshino encounters Nakata after a storm of fish and a flashflood of leeches have fallen, at separate times, from the sky. Nonetheless, Hoshino takes little notice of these storms but takes kindly to the old, simple Nakata, deciding to join him on his aforementioned vision-without-a-vision quest, following him across Japan. You know, as you do.
His adventures with Nakata lead to him to encounter an “abstract concept without substance”. This abstract concept assumes the form of Colonel Sanders, who is also… a pimp. He follows him to find the “entrance stone” which is referred to as Chekhov’s gun. You ever read a book in which the writer mentions Chekov’s gun while they’re introducing it? Murakami tells you the trick as he performs it, but it still works.
Kafka on the Shore is hard to define. But what’s for certain, is that it’s refreshing to read something that’s not so relentlessly tied to the real world.
What did I like and what didn’t I like?
Because—as I’ve repeated over and over—the book is dreamlike, it’s just kind of easy to read. Instead of writing in the authoritative mood or the X-whatever-mood, it’s like Murakami has invented the lucid-dreamlike-mood. Where you’re lucid, yet dreaming, and because you’re dreaming, you don’t (or can’t) question it until you wake up—if you remember any of it, that is. It’s skilful. And it’s engaging. And it has a strong interwoven storyline. Oh, and the prose is great at times! Murakami’s writing is at his strongest when he’s describing nature. He must have grown up around some beautiful places, or had some transformative experiences in nature. Or maybe he’s just a good writer… yeah, could be that.
The sex stuff is weird, plenty has been said about that by many before me. So I won’t go into it here. I guess if you’re writing dreams, why not stick some Freudian stuff in there? I don’t know, I haven’t read enough in that area to analyse the psychological aspect, but I did come across an interesting paper on it (which is too long for me to anything more than a quick ctrl+f and skim-read, but it’s there for any hardcore fans).
I just kind of let the Oedipus stuff slide, thinking maybe it would hold some significance later in the novel. I don’t know why I thought that, seeing as I’ve read a fair bit of Murakami before, like A Wild Sheep Chase (which I may actually prefer to Kafka). Perhaps it does actually hold a load of meaning, and I just don’t understand it. Gotta step my Freud and Jung game up, son. Either way, I don’t think it added that much to the book.
Murakami writes scenes with a certain objectivity, through characters who see the world in this matter-of-fact, unreflective way. Yet the subject matter is fantastical, begging reflection. Begging the character to say “what the fuck is happening?’ But they don’t, of course. If I was writing it, that’s sure as hell what I’d be penning the dialogue as. Maybe that’s why he’s the one writing novels and not me, though.
Instead, the characters and scenes float along effortlessly, and you float you along with them. This makes the novel kind of appealingly bemusing. And while it sounds strange, I think this is one of the key strengths of Murakami. He’s writing from this kind of inhuman perspective. Not psychopathic or anything, but untied, free-floating, arresting, and, well, weird—and often even beautiful. He captures something immaterial.
I think Murakami just likes to go outside of what’s normal and conventional—or at least to the boundary, the edge. I mean, he’s pretty on the nose about this aspect—talking about “being on the boundary of worlds” that allows humans and cats to speak the same language.
I mentioned a certain sterile aspect of the book. How, then, is it also supremely moving? Well, unlike a Franz Kafka novel, the story has a strong internal logic (even it makes for little external logic). Everything ties together beautifully, even if you just have to accept that he’s blending the fantastic with the real. And we’re all moved by a story, whether it’s based in reality or not (sometimes even more so because it’s unreal). All he has to do is bring it round to get our emotions firing, and that’s exactly what he does. It’s no Flowers for Algernon, but it’s evocative, distinct, and vivid.
Ultimately, there’s no solution, no neat ending. Just like all Murakami novels, it’s open-ended. But there’s a story. And it’s kinda impressive how Murakami can write such powerful stories without them making any immediate, clear sense. Murakami is a surrealist artist who tugs at your heartstrings in unconventional and unexpected ways. Yes, it’s surreal, but you feel like you’re there. The real and unreal coexist. Just go with it. Embrace it.
It’s an obscure trance. A dance.
Dance, Dance, Dance.
What’s the meaning behind Kafka on the Shore?
I think Murakami places his style very much within that modern, detached context. It’s a hyperreal reflection of what he sees in modern life—people moving on without a care, without a glance, surrendering placidly to the barrage of outside forces. His characters use simple sentence constructions, they drink Pepsi, they smoke away and scratch their head. But they never question. It’s modern pop culture estranged.
There’s an overarching sense of “fate” in the novel, an overbearing power that guides the characters. Though I don’t think Murakami sees it as fate.
If I had to put on my ever-useful (or perenially useless) English Lit hat and analyse what it all means, I’d guess Murakami writes these hazy tales, filled with characters devoid of inner monologue and subject to overarching forces—or “fate”—as a commentary (or reflection) on contemporary society, where power structures have become more diffuse and the lines between everything are far less overt, visible. Fate is really just a reference to all of those forces we feel subtly nudging us to do certain things and act a certain way, to consume, to submit—but taken to its logical extreme.
As Murakami wrote:
Even the standard of right and wrong has been subdi-vided, made sophisticated. Within good, there’s fashionable good and unfash-ionable good, and ditto for bad…
It’s the way of the world—philosophy starting to look more and more like business administration. Although I didn’t think so at the time, things were a lot simpler in 1969. All you had to do to express yourself was throw rocks at riot police. But with today’s sophistication, who’s in a position to throw rocks? Who’s going to brave what tear gas? C’mon, that’s the way it is. Everything is rigged, tied into that massive capital web, and beyond this web there’s another web. Nobody’s going anywhere. You throw a rock and it’ll come right back at you.
—Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance.
Or maybe I’m just reading that critique where it doesn’t exist. There’s a section of the novel where he uses a storm metaphor to represent fate:
You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm
And this sounds like a more logical understanding of fate to me. Ultimately what I’m saying is: I honestly don’t know.
There’s definitely some Japanese memory and guilt stuff going on here, referenced by World War II soldiers that exist in a forest of memory, outside of the real and unreal, between one world and the next. But I’m not well-read enough to write about all of that. Murakami is a cryptic writer that’s for sure. Maybe he’s not even certain himself. Are any of us “sure”? Lol, nope.
Truthfully, I don’t know what this book is “about”. Perhaps I could write a step-by-step analysis of what it all means after leaning into its body of criticism, but that’s not what these blogs are about, really. They’re knee-jerk reviews of how the book made me feel, the impression left, and the insights I drew from them.
I didn’t enjoy Kafka on the Shore because I thought, “wow this is so profound!”, necessarily, but rather because I just loved the atmosphere Murakami created. I liked living inside of the novel while I was reading it.
Not all of it is great. The main character, Kafka, is a little boring. Nakata steals the show, along with the side characters like Hoshino and Oshima. Some of the book is gratuitously disturbing. But it’s very unique, and engaging. So, if you want something a little different, I’d recommend this.
I think a lot of people get upset by Murakami novels because they aren’t tied up neatly like a ribbon. It’s not all explained to the reader. But life isn’t neatly tied up, and it doesn’t often make sense. Exploring the dreamed nature of our reality may seem pretentious or abstract, but I liked it. Nothing gets in the way of Murakami’s stories—not even reality!
All I know is that I enjoyed it. It’s the first page-turner I’ve read a while. most recently it was the dense yet essential Life and Fate.
I’m excited to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland next—apparently, his best work.
Overall, I liked it for reasons I can’t explain that well. I guess that’s just Murakami though, right?
Just as Kafka Tamura says at the end of book: “it’s not something you can get across in words. The real response is something words can’t express”.
Or something like that.
Time weighs down on you like an old, ambiguous dream. You keep on moving, trying to slip through it…
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this book review, be sure to check out my other writings on books here—particularly my piece on the best 5 science fiction books, and my write up on cognitive estrangement, and Ursula Le Guin.