Kafka on the Shore
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Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami
Author – Haruki Murakami
Born January 12, 1949 in Kyoto, Japan.
Studied drama at Wasaeda University in Tokyo, where he met his wife Yoko.
Used to own a coffee shop and jazz bar with his wife from 1974-1981.
Began writing fiction when he was 29.
Known mainly for his surrealist and magical realism works. Considered to be a highly influential figure in postmodernism.
Received the Franz Kafka Prize for Kafka on the Shore (Har har).
Very politically outspoken against violence. He is also an avid marathon runner.
He donated nearly $130,000 to the victims of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, as well as the subsequent Fukushima disaster.
Other Works, Influences Murakami is strongly influenced by
Western culture, including Kurt Vonnegut and Franz Kafka (duh). He also is an avid fan of classical and jazz music, which shows in the work.
Has written a dozen novels, including
Hear the Wind Sing (1987), The WindUp Bird Chronicle (1995), and recently 1Q84 (2009). Murakami has also written many short stories.
Kafka on the Shore is partially
inspired by Oedipus, containing many of its core themes and principles.
Context World War II: Although this is written
significantly after the war, much of the novel was written in response to the violence of WWII as well as the Japanese government’s coverups of war crimes and atrocities.
According to Murakami, Kafka on the
Shore was also written partially in response to the poison gas attack in 1995 on the Tokyo Subway.
Setting: Most of the novel takes place in two locations in Japan: Nakano Ward of Tokyo, and Takamatsu, Japan. Many scenes also take place in the wilderness, particularly the mountains. The precise location of wilderness scenes is intentionally left ambiguous.
NOTE There are TWO main narratives in Kafka on the
Shore. They relate to one another, but are very divided for most of the story.
For the sake of coherency, I’m splitting up the
characters and synopses into two sections, “Kafka” and “Nakata”. I’m also introducing the characters first, because some of their characteristics are important to know for the sake of the plot.
Kafka Tamura: The main protagonist, Kafka is a troubled 15-year-old boy who runs away from home. His father tells him of an Oedipal prophecy that he will sleep with his mother and older sister, both of whom abandoned him as a child. Kafka is very intelligent and physically fit, but prone to brooding and is quite introverted.
The Boy Named Crow: Kafka’s alter-ego, who occasionally takes his place in narration when Kafka is uncertain or needs help. His narrative is told in second-person present perspective, often in boldface. (Note: Kafka means ‘Crow’ in German).
Miss Saeki: The main manager and keeper of the Komura Memorial Library. She is very intelligent, but also characterized as deeply sad and not entirely present, spending much of her time alone writing something. Despite her being middle-aged, Kafka falls in love with her and spends much of the tale internally conflicted over her. While it is implied that she is his mother, like much of the tale, this is left to the interpretation of the reader.
Oshima: A handsome, intelligent young man who works for Miss Saeki. He’s a hemophiliac, and must be very careful not to get injured. Part way through the book, it is revealed that Oshima is legally female, though physically genderless due to what may be a birth defect. He identifies as a gay man, however. Oshima mainly acts as a friend and guide to Kafka, helping him with his internal conflicts.
Sakura: A woman in her twenties that Kafka meets on the way to Takamatsu. She befriends Kafka and looks after him as if he were her brother. Whether or not she is his actual sister or merely a symbolic representation is left to the interpretation of the reader.
Characters: Nakata (here’s where it gets weirder…)
Nakata: A mentally handicapped man, having developed mental deficiency after a mysterious accident in his childhood during World War II. He serves as the story’s secondary protagonist, and is the harbinger of many of Kafka on the Shore’s magical realism aspects. He has the ability to speak with cats (which he loses part of the way through), and to make the sky rain various forms of wildlife (fish at one point, followed by leeches). After killing Johnnie Walker, he feels a sudden need to hitchhike to Takamatsu and find a mysterious artifact he refers to only as “the entrance stone”. His narrative is told in thirdperson past perspective.
Hoshino: A truck driver whom Nakata meets while hitchhiking. Out of an unfulfilled need to help his now-deceased grandfather, Hoshino takes a liking to Nakata and impulsively quits his job in order to help him. Despite the surreal and paranormal events that surround Nakata, Hoshino is not easily fazed and tends to take each event in stride. As Nakata’s narrative develops, Hoshino actually begins to take over as the secondary protagonist.
Johnnie Walker: A mysterious, somewhat mythological figure (modeled after the whiskey idol). He claims that he needs to collect the souls of cats by brutally slaying them in order to create a flute that steals the souls of humans. He appears toward the beginning, requesting that Nakata kill him. When Nakata does, he is believed to be dead, but reappears near the end in The Boy Named Crow’s narrative. It’s very likely that he is supposed to be a representation of Kafka’s father, as both are killed in similar ways and locations and are heavily implied to be the same person during one of the closing scenes.
Colonel Sanders: Like Johnnie Walker, a somewhat mythological figure (this time modeled after the KFC guy), though he explicitly claims to be “neither a god not a Buddha”. Hoshino encounters him on the streets, working as a pimp. Sanders eventually helps Hoshino locate the “entrance stone” and gives Nakata and Hoshino a place to stay while they try to figure out what the stone is for.
Kafka Tamura, a troubled 15-year-old boy, runs away from home, stealing some money from his father and boarding a bus for southern Japan.
He meets a girl named Sakura on the way, who takes a liking to him, giving him her number in case he runs into trouble.
Kafka checks into a hotel under a presumed name and wanders around town. He eventually discovers the Komura Memorial Library, meets Oshima, and settles into a daily routine of visiting the library to read.
One night, Kafka wakes up near a shrine, completely covered in blood. He panics, believing that he may have blacked out and hurt someone, so he finds a public restroom and cleans himself off. He calls Sakura, who lets him stay with her.
During the night, he sleeps with her. Feeling guilty, Kafka leaves the next morning and returns to the Komura Library to hide. He tells Oshima what happened to him the previous night.
Oshima decides to look after him, helping him buy food and offering to let him stay in a family cabin in the woods. Kafka takes him up on the offer. He spends four days in solitary reflection before Oshima returns, offering him a job and a place to stay at the Library.
More Kafka Synopsis…
On the way home, Oshima explains some things about the mysterious Miss Saeki, the manager of the Library. She found true love as a child, but her fiancée was killed during a student protest, leaving her a shell of her former self. She was well-known for writing and performing of a hit single entitled Kafka on the Shore, which is part of the reason Oshima took an interest in helping Kafka.
Saeki disappeared after her success, living off of royalties, then abruptly returned to become manager of the Komura Library, which her fiancé's family owned and dedicated to his memory.
The next morning, Oshima gives him a news article that reveals Kafka’s father, world-renowned sculptor Koichi Tamura, was found stabbed to death in his apartment. The police suspect Kafka and are searching for him, although he has a solid alibi. Kafka is also worried about the incident where he woke up covered in blood, and worries that somehow he is actually responsible for his father’s death despite their distance. Another article talks about fish raining from the sky (a reference to Nakata’s tale) near Kafka’s house.
That night, Kafka sees a ghost of a girl in his room. She’s sitting at his desk, staring at a painting of a boy standing by the ocean. The painting is, coincidentally, entitled Kafka on the Shore. She is seemingly unaware of Kafka’s presence, and soon disappears. The next morning, Kafka feels the need to listen to Miss Saeki’s song, and asks for a copy from Oshima.
That day, upon seeing Miss Saeki, Kafka realizes that the fifteen-year-old girl he saw in his room was a ghost of her. He also realizes he has fallen in love with both versions of her—the living and the dead.
Even More Kafka Synopsis…
Kafka listens to Kafka on the Shore. Many of the lyrics reference Nakata’s part of the story, “Little fish rain down from the sky… search for the entrance stone” (227-8), as well as referencing the Sphinx from Oedipus. He’s enamored with the song, especially two chords in the refrain, and ponders its meaning.
That night, he sees the ghost yet again. Upon his request, Oshima gives Kafka sheet music for Kafka on the Shore so he can study the two chords that intrigue him. He has a conversation with Miss Saeki, who appears to be hard at work writing something important. She tells him that he reminds her of someone she used to know, and mentions that once she wrote a book on people who survived lightning strikes. This reminds Kafka of something, but he cannot precisely remember what. He continues to obsess over the song that evening.
Kafka remembers that his father once survived a lightning strike. He tells Miss Saeki this, wondering if perhaps she interviewed him about it. He has come to suspect that perhaps Miss Saeki is his mother, and asks if she has any children. She doesn’t answer him definitively.
That night, rather than the ghost, Kafka opens his eyes to find the living Miss Saeki in his room, in a trance-like state. They end up having sex, but Kafka is overwhelmed with confusion and shifts to The Boy Named Crow’s perspective. The next day, he goes to talk to Miss Saeki, but she doesn’t appear to remember what happened.
GUESS WHAT? More Synopsis
Oshima picks Kafka up to return to the cabin. The police have apparently traced Kafka to his current location, so he has to go into hiding.
Kafka spends his time at the cabin thinking about who he is, and about Miss Saeki. He decides that, despite Oshima’s warnings, he has to wander into the woods to find out something about himself.
While he brings plenty of supplies, he soon abandons them and simply begins wandering, not caring if he gets lost. Kafka spends much of the time discussing who he is and what his purpose in life is with Crow, but his alter-ego abandons him part-way through the dialogue.
Out of seemingly nowhere, he encounters two WW-II-esque soldiers in full battle gear standing in the forest. They inform him that they’ve been waiting for him, and that the entrance (stone) has opened. He begins to follow them into the woods.
The soldiers, after a long hike, take him to what appears to be a town forgotten by time. While Kafka doesn’t see anyone, it is seemingly inhabited (it’s implied later to be some sort of limbo between life and death) They take him to a house and inform him that this is where he is to live.
After settling in a bit, a girl appears at the house. It’s the fifteen-year-old version of Miss Saeki, but she doesn’t seem to have any recollection of who she is. She fixes him breakfast and leaves.
The narration suddenly cuts to The Boy Named Crow’s perspective, who has taken the form of a crow. Near the entrance where Kafka met the soldiers is Johnnie Walker, from Nakata’s tale. He tells Crow that he’s made the flute to steal human souls, and challenges Crow to stop him. Crow attacks the man, ripping out his eyes (Oedipus reference!) and goring his face, but it doesn’t seem to have much of an effect, as Johnnie Walker just laughs at him.
The Last KAFKA synopsis bit..
Kafka encounters the real, middle-aged Miss Saeki, who has died (as described in Nakata’s narration). She informs him that she has burned up all of her memories (also tying into Nakata’s tale), but wants to talk to him before she forgets everything.
Kafka asks Miss Saeki if she truly is his mother, but her answer is intentionally (infuriatingly) ambiguous. He tells her that he forgives her for abandoning him as a child. She says goodbye, and wanders off, disappearing.
Kafka decides he cannot remain in the town, and has to return before the entrance closes. He encounters the two soldiers and thanks them for their help, and manages to stumble back to the cabin.
Oshima’s brother, a man named Sada, comes to pick Kafka up. Sada asks him if he saw the two soldiers in the woods, taking Kafka by surprise. He then offers to give Kafka surfing lessons, which he considers.
Back at the library, Kafka packs up his stuff and thanks Oshima for all he’s done, smiling. Oshima gives him a copy of Kafka on the Shore (the song) to keep, as well as the painting version, commenting that it’s the first time he’s ever seen Kafka smiling.
Kafka boards the train back to Tokyo, ready to face “a brand-new world” (467).
We are introduced to an old, mentally-handicapped man (Nakata) having a conversation with a black tomcat. He tells the cat that he’s looking for a young tortishell named Goma, and wonders if he’s seen her, but he hasn’t.
Later, Nakata encounters two cats named Kawamura (whom he can barely understand) and Mimi, a prim and proper Siamese. She tells him to go look in an abandoned lot for Goma, as many cats gather there and someone has been kidnapping them.
At the lot, Nakata encounters a large black dog, who commands him to follow. He’s eventually taken to an apartment, where he encounters a man named Johnnie Walker (dressed as the whiskey guy).
Johnnie Walker, while enigmatic and charismatic, is clearly pretty crazy. He informs Nakata that he is in possession of Goma, but unless Nakata is willing to kill him, he will kill her.
In a rather gruesome scene, Johnnie Walker takes Kawamura (one of the cats from earlier) out from a bag, and eviscerates him, cutting off his head. Nakata watches, bewildered, as Walker then takes out Mimi. However, before he can harm her, Nakata grabs a knife and stabs Johnnie Walker repeatedly, killing him, before passing out.
Nakata wakes up back in the lot (this is paralleled with Kafka waking up by the shrine covered in blood), with no evidence of what happened. Nearby are Mimi and Goma, but he is unable to communicate with either of them.
He returns Goma to her owners, then goes outside to turn himself in for murder. The police officer does not take him seriously, assuming he’s senile. Nakata then informs the officer that he should bring an umbrella the next day, because it would rain fish.
The police officer obviously doesn’t believe him… and is completely bewildered when it rains fish the next day.
Nakata gets a sudden sense that he has to travel south and find what is called “the entrance stone”. He hitchhikes with several people before encountering a truck driver named Hoshino, who takes a liking to him. Hoshino decides to drop his job and help Nakata out, because Nakata reminds him of his deceased grandfather.
After several chapters involving travel…The two arrive in Takamatsu (where Kafka is staying). Nakata falls asleep for a long time at the hotel, so Hoshino goes out and wanders around. On the streets he encounters a man named Colonel Sanders (who is quite literally dressed as the KFC guy), working as a pimp. He sets Hoshino up with one of his girls, and afterwards helps him to locate the entrance stone.
The entrance stone turns out to be… a stone (shockingly). The stone is very heavy and draining on Hoshino as he takes it back to the hotel and lays it by Nakata’s head.
Yet more Nakata…
The next day, Nakata and Hoshino go to a public library to try and figure out what to do next. Nakata can’t read, so he looks at a picture book filled with cats around the world while Hoshino does most of the research.
Hoshino later enters a coffee shop out of impulse and settles down. He finds he actually really likes the classical music that plays in the background. Hoshino thinks about all of the new experiences he’s had ever since encountering Nakata. He discusses classical music with the coffee shop owner (who is totally a self-insert of the author, just saying).
Back at the hotel, Hoshino gets a call from Colonel Sanders, who informs him that the police are searching for Nakata in connection to the murder of Kafka’s father. He informs them that he has an apartment they can stay at to hide from the police until they figure out what to do with the entrance stone.
They arrive at the apartment, and Nakata tells Hoshino that he must open the entrance stone by turning it over. Much to his dismay, Hoshino finds the stone to be suddenly impossibly heavy, and must use all his strength to move it. He barely manages to turn it over, but the entrance is now open in Kafka’s tale.
After settling into the apartment, Hoshino rents a car and drives around Takamatsu with Nakata, who’s searching for a particular location. They end up getting lost, but stumble upon the Komura Memorial Library, which is apparently what Nakata was looking for. (As a note, this is at the point where Kafka is wandering through the forest in his narrative).
The two spend some time in the library, Nakata looking at picture books while Hoshino decides to research Beethoven. Hoshino discusses Beethoven’s life with Oshima. Before they leave, however, Nakata suddenly stands up and walks up the stairs to Miss Saeki’s study. He tells her he wants to talk to her about the entrance stone; she seemingly knows what this is and asks Oshima and Hoshino to leave the two to talk about it.
More Nakata, wow…
Nakata and Miss Saeki discuss many things, including memory and desire. Miss Saeki reveals that she opened the entrance stone a long time ago in order to preserve her happiness, but was ultimately punished for it in the end.
Miss Saeki gives Nakata the huge volume she’s been writing throughout the novel, explaining that it’s a memoir of her life. She asks him to burn it so that she can be free. Nakata accepts it, and the two leave.
Later, Oshima goes up to check on Miss Saeki, and finds her lying dead on her desk, seemingly of heart failure.
Nakata and Hoshino find a dry riverbed in the mountains and burn Miss Saeki’s files, as per her request. They return to the apartment to sleep. The next morning, Hoshino finds Nakata dead, having passed away in his sleep.
Hoshino’s understandably sad about this, but realizes that his job isn’t done, and that the entrance has to be closed again at the opportune moment. He spends some time in the apartment reflecting on who he is and what he is supposed to do. He wanders out onto the balcony and calls down to a cat outside… and is surprised when he can understand its reply perfectly.
At this point it’s basically Hoshino…
The cat informs Hoshino that something malevolent is going to appear and try to stop him from closing the entrance stone. In order to prevent this, Hoshino will have to kill whatever it is that appears.
Early in the morning, Hoshino hears a rustling sound from Nakata’s room. Grabbing a hammer, he wanders in and discovers a strange white worm has crawled out of Nakata and has begun to crawl toward the entrance stone. He attacks it with the hammer, but it heals instantaneously.
Using all of his strength, Hoshino returns to the entrance stone and manages to flip it over, almost dying in the process. He then takes the hammer and manages to kill the worm.
Sitting back in exhaustion, Hoshino reflects on his experiences. He’s grown and changed a lot ever since he met Nakata, and feels ready to lead his life and try new things. He calls the police to remove Nakata’s body from the apartment and sets off on his own.
Themes and Motifs (as you can see, there are a bunch…)
Loss + Reclamation of Innocence (Coming of Age)
Sexual + Personal Identity
Taking on of Alternate Forms
The Value of Memory
Multiple Explanations for Everything
The Line Between Paranormal and Ordinary
Death of the Past, Birth of the Present
Living While Dead
Higher vs. Lower Intelligence
Crows and cats appear quite frequently, both as characters (sort of) and in more symbolic senses.
Alternate Forms (Out-of-Body Experiences, Reincarnation) The Boy Named Crow is an obvious one. Kafka takes on this
alter-ego in order to confront overwhelming experiences. “I turn into a theorizing black crow” (398).
Kafka is very heavily implied to be a reincarnation of Miss
Saeki’s former love, the one who was killed in the student protest, “She nods. ‘You were there. And I was there beside you, watching you. On the shore, a long time ago. The wind was blowing, there were white puffy clouds, and it was always summer.’” (441).
When Kafka wakes up covered in blood, a possible
interpretation is that he murdered his father. While this is physically impossible, Nakata performed a very similar act of stabbing on Johnnie Walker. It is implied that perhaps Kafka had an out-of-body experience, taking over Nakata’s actions and forcing him to stab his father.
Multiple Explanations Just about everything in this novel has an alternate
interpretation. Was Miss Saeki actually Kafka’s mother, or merely a symbolic representation? Who exactly was Johnnie Walker, and what did he represent? The author himself has actually stated that the overwhelming ambiguity is intentional, and that he wanted above all to “create a riddle” when he wrote Kafka on the Shore.
This serves as something of a commentary on real life.
Our perceptions are based very much on our own circumstances. Nakata murdering Johnnie Walker/Kafka’s father may seem like a mysterious cold-blooded murder to an outsider’s perspective, but to Nakata the situation appeared very differently.
Death of the Past, Birth of the Present It is only after Nakata dies that Hoshino is inspired to truly seize
his life. He states this outright, but it is also implied when he inherits Nakata’s ability to converse with cats.
Miss Saeki’s entire character arc centers around this idea, “‘My
life ended at age twenty. Since then it’s been merely a series of endless reminiscences, a dark, winding corridor leading nowhere’” (392). She is reminded of her past life when she meets Kafka, but it is only when she dies that she feels truly at peace, and Kafka truly begins to seize his future. As Kafka may be a reincarnation of her former love, this directly addresses the issue of inheriting the future.
This theme is actually exemplified in the shifts between point of
view. While Nakata is a representation of the past and its trials, Kafka represents the present and the possibilities of the future.
Multiple Perspectives! Kafka’s is in first-person present, Crow’s is in second-person present, and Nakata/Hoshino’s is in third-person past.
Imagery: “A canopy of trees towering above thick ferns, vines trailing down, gnarled roots, lumps of decaying leaves, the dried, sloughed-off skins of various bugs. Hard, sticky spiderwebs. And endless branches– a regular tree branch universe. Menacing branches, branches fighting for space, cleverly hidden branches, twisted, crooked branches, contemplative branches, dried up, dying branches- the same scenery repeated again and again” (396).
Symbolism and metaphor are both described explicitly in the novel, almost to the extent of leaning on the fourth wall: “Miss Saeki looks up, surprised, and after a moment’s hesitation, lays her hand on mine. ‘At any rate, you– and your theory– are throwing a stone at a target that’s very far away. Do you understand that?’ I nod. ‘I know. But metaphors can reduce the distance.’ ‘We’re not metaphors.’” (294).
A lot of the novel focuses on personal interpretation and multiple explanations, meaning that some things may be considered metaphors or symbols.… or are “just a cigar”, as Freud would say. Johnnie Walker, for example, may be the symbolic representation of Kafka’s father, but may also just be a crazy figment of Nakata’s imagination.
Kafka on the Shore lyrics You sit at the edge of the world. I am in a crater that’s no more, Words without letters Standing in the shadow of the door.
The moon shines down on a sleeping lizard, Little fish rain down from the sky. Outside the window there are soldiers, steeling themselves to die.
Thinking of the pendulum that moves the world, it seems. When your heart is closed, The shadow of the unmoving Sphinx, Becomes a knife that pierces your dreams.
The drowning girl’s fingers Search for the entrance stone, and more. Lifting the hem of her azure dress, She gazes– At Kafka on the shore.