Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the ShoreAuthor: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Philip Gabriel
U.S. publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 9781400079278
Released: January 2006
Original release: 2002
Awards: World Fantasy Award

Haruki Murakami is an international best-selling author and one of the most recognizable Japanese novelists currently writing worldwide. Therefore, I find it somewhat surprising that I actually haven’t read much of his work. Before picking up Kafka on the Shore I had only read two of his books—1Q84 and Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche—in addition to a small selection of essays and interviews. 1Q84 was my introduction to Murakami; it was both an incredibly frustrating and invigorating experience. I loved parts of the novel but strongly disliked others. 1Q84 probably wasn’t the best place to start reading Murakami, and so I’ve been meaning to give another one of his novels a try. I settled on Kafka on the Shore, originally published in Japan in 2002, for several reasons. It’s one of Murakami’s best-known works. Philip Gabriel’s 2005 English translation won the World Fantasy Award. The novel’s young protagonist basically runs away to a library. But mostly, I wanted to read Kafka on the Shore for the sake of one character, Oshima, with whom I happen to share quite a bit in common.

Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura, though that’s not his real name, has just run away from home. He leaves behind his father in Tokyo just as his mother and sister left the two of them behind more than a decade ago. Kafka’s plan is simple—travel to a faraway town and make a place for himself in a library. That’s how he finds himself in Takamatsu, over four hundred miles away from the home, father, and life that he wants to escape. There he seeks out the privately owned Komura Memorial Library where meets Oshima, an assistant at the library who takes Kafka under his wing. Meanwhile, strange events are unfolding around Kafka and the people in his life. Back in Tokyo, a man by the name of Nakata with the ability to talk to cats finds himself pulled into Kafka’s story. Though the two have never met they share a strange connection with each other that neither of them are entirely aware of or expected.

The chapters in Kafka on the Shore alternate between Kafka and Nakata’s individual journeys. Kafka’s chapters are written in first-person present, giving them a very intimate and immediate perspective, while Nakata’s are written in third-person past, creating more distance. At first the two stories seem to be completely unrelated, but as Kafka on the Shore develops the tales steadily draw towards one another and connect  in shocking ways. Kafka and Nakata’s paths never directly cross but they do influence each other and those of the people around them. Ideas, concepts, and turns of phrase, not to mention actions and their consequences, echo throughout the novel, tying seemingly disparate events together into a cohesive whole. There is a lot of loneliness in Kafka on the Shore. The characters are searching and reaching out for these sorts of connections and relationships, both consciously and subconsciously. They are individuals yearning to find what is missing from themselves and from their lives, often disregarding time and reality in the process.

Much as with 1Q84, there were parts of Kafka on the Shore that I adored and other parts that I found immensely frustrating. In general, I preferred the earlier novel over its later developments. For me, Kafka on the Shore worked best when it was more firmly grounded in reality with hints of the unexplainable, mysterious, and strange rather than the other way around. As the novel progresses it becomes more confusing and dreamlike. That in and of itself isn’t problematic, but towards the end of Kafka on the Shore Murakami begins introducing bizarre elements seemingly out of nowhere that do very little to develop the plot or the characters. Readers looking for closure from Kafka on the Shore may be disappointed as there are plenty of threads left unresolved by the time the novel reaches its conclusion. Despite my frustrations with Kafka on the Shore I am glad that I read the novel. I appreciated the importance giving to books and the influence of music; I found the characters intriguing; and although the story goes a little off the rails, I liked Kafka’s peculiar journey of discovery and coming of age.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel
U.S. publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9780375725807
Released: April 2001
Original release: 1997/1998

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami is actually the English translation of two of Murakami’s books, Underground and The Place That Was Promised, which was serialized under the title Post-Underground. Underground, initially published in Japan in 1997, collects interviews Murakami held with victims of the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo while The Place That Was Promised, released in 1998, collects interviews with members and ex-members of Aum Shinrikyo, the religious group responsible for the attack. The English translation of the two books by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel was first published in 2000. The English edition doesn’t explicitly state so, but I believe that it is an abridgement. The first book in particular, Underground, seems to be a shortened version of original Japanese edition.

On Monday, March 20, 1995—a day falling between two holidays—select members of Aum Shinrikyo coordinated and executed a release of sarin gas, a highly toxic chemical weapon designed for military use, in various locations throughout the Tokyo subway system. Many people, including novelist Haruki Murakami, were frustrated and unhappy with the media’s coverage of the attack and related events. The media tended to focus on Aum and the more sensational aspects of the incident, often trampling or completely ignoring the personal experiences of the victims. Partially in response to this, Murakami decided to pursue and conduct interviews and collect individuals’ stories. Of the thousands of people immediately affected by the sarin gas attack, Murakami and his assistants were only able to positively identify around one hundred forty people. Still carrying emotional, psychological, and physical scars, even fewer were willing to be interviewed. In the end, only sixty people agreed to allow their interviews to be published.

Thirty-four of these interviews are included in the first part of the book, “Underground.” Murakami proceeds train by train, collecting similar stories together to create a more cohesive whole that allows the same events to be viewed from multiple perspectives. Each section of “Underground” begins with an overview of the Aum members who released the sarin gas in that particular location and a description of their actions. Before each individual interview, Murakami provides a brief introduction and personal commentary about that person. This allows their stories to not only be put in to the context of the events of March 20th, but into the context of their own personal histories and lives. These are not faceless individuals; they are real people who have lived through a terrible and traumatic episode, but this is not the only thing that defines them.

In “The Place That Was Promised,” Murakami interviews eight members of Aum Shinrikyo. Some of the interviewees were still members at the time while others had left or were excommunicated from the organization. None were directly involved with the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground. Neither did any of them condone the actions of their fellow members. It does help to already have some basic knowledge of Aum and its beliefs to fully understand these interviews. But even if you don’t, what is revealed through their stories is that they are normal people, just like anyone else, who turned to religion out of frustration with the society around them. Murakami does tend to be more argumentative while interviewing the Aum members. Before reading Underground, I knew very little about the Tokyo sarin gas attack. While the event is unquestionably tragic, Murakami handles the interviews with respect and is careful not to exploit the stories that have been entrusted to him. Underground is an compelling oral history.


Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
U.S. publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9780307593313
Released: October 2011
Original release: 2009-2010

Despite my deep interest in Japanese literature, I have somewhat surprisingly never read any of Haruki Murakami’s works until his most recent novel 1Q84. 1Q84 was originally published in Japan in three volumes, the first two in 2009 and the final volume in 2010. Already an international bestseller and nominated for a Man Asian Literary Prize, the publication of the single volume English-language edition was probably one of the most anticipated releases in the United States for 2011. I find it very strange, although I’m sure there are very good reasons for it, but two different translators worked on 1Q84: Jay Rubin translated the first two books and Philip Gabriel translated the third. 1Q84 was the November 2011 selection for the Japanese Literature Book Group which is why I finally got around to reading something by the world-renowned Murakami.

Tokyo, 1984. Aomame is a popular fitness and martial arts instructor at the gym where she works. She’s also an occasional assassin, able to send a man to the other side quickly and silently while making the death appear to be natural. But Aomame begins to suspect something isn’t quite right with her world when after her latest job she realizes that she seems to be missing memories. Elsewhere in the city, Tengo, a math teacher at a cram school and an aspiring author, has been somewhat reluctantly roped into ghostwriting a short novel called Air Chrysalis for a new writers competition. He doesn’t expect anything good to come from the scheme, but he still feels compelled to rewrite the story. But even Tengo couldn’t anticipate just how much trouble his acquiescence will cause for all those involved in the subterfuge.

For most of the novel, 1Q84 is told in chapters alternating between Aomame and Tengo’s perspectives. At first their stories seem completely unrelated but as the novel progresses the deep connection between the two is slowly revealed. However, I simply didn’t feel the inescapable draw that is supposed to exist between Tango and Aomame and that is supposed to be one of the driving forces behind 1Q84. Nevertheless, I did like the general structure of the novel and the use of repeated keywords, phrases, and cultural references that tie everything closer and closer together. I loved how what the characters initially believe to be fictional elements steadily encroach upon their realities. The change in the translator for the third book is noticeable but fortunately isn’t too jarring. The style might be slightly different, but it was a decent breaking point since a third perspective is also introduced in the final volume.

Air Chrysalis is described as a work that fascinates and delights just as much as it confuse and perplexes. In may ways, those words could just as easily be applied to 1Q84. The novel is wondrously peculiar. Even so, I found parts of 1Q84 to be extremely frustrating. For one, I’m not entirely convinced it needed to be as long as it was. While I appreciated the incorporation of musical and literary touchstones, Murakami has a habit of going off on tangents that aren’t always obviously justified. Characters frequently rehash plot points that have already been well established without bringing anything new to the story. Conversations tended to be incredibly cryptic or esoteric. And as the novel approaches its end, time becomes less linear, disorienting, and out of sync. While this had the potential to be effective, it didn’t quite work for me. I am glad I read 1Q84, there were parts of it I really enjoyed, but I do get the feeling it’s probably not the best place to start reading Murakami.