Analysis: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

First log post with an explanation of what this train wreck is


Log 6 – Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore

A good place to start would be a vague one. It’s a bit more on a broader scale. I find that many books I’ve read with the intent to analyze them(i.e. Log books) have given me a general feeling, or evoked a general image. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, has a sepia tone for me, a lot of earthy colors with extreme, dramatic lights and darks. Tom Stoppard’s“Arcadia” kind of just felt pink the entire time, as if you were peering through a rose colored lense into a nice, soft candle lit room. Joseph Conrad’s A Heart of Darkness was predictably dark and surrounded by a variety of cool hues. With Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, it’s a light baby blue, with a tint of grey, like I would imagine an overcast sky on a beach would be, or the type of blue on a children’s sailor outfit they would wear on an outing to said beach. It’s a filled with washed out colors and a certain calmness.

A lot of that comes from Murakami’s language(and his content, but like the book, we’re going to take it a slow and get to that later). His descriptions contain fanciful comparisons and musings, and there’s kind of frivolity to those thoughts. They seem to be random, sometimes intriguing and amusing. Kafka observes that Sakura’s “earrings jingle back and forth like two precarious pieces of ripe fruit ready to fall,” and imagines her ear peering out of her hair like a little mushroom. This kind of description is more prevalent earlier on, as Kafka’s reflections and comparisons become more more contemplative, or at the very least, a little less random-seeming. Eventually, we progress to wind blowing through the forest like a crowd of people sweeping the floor, Miss Saeki taking a deep breath “like someone rising to the surface of the sea from deep below,” and the record Kafka on the Shore “cleansing” him “like spring rain washing stepping stones in a garden.” It’s as if Kafka, during his maturation, subtly begins to change his interpretation of the world.That sheds some light on the last line of the book, “you are part of a brand-new world,” where it’s implied that Kafka’s new world isn’t necessarily a physical one, but a mental one. And really, that’s what matters. Murakami constantly blurs the line, first between reality and imagination, then between imagination(which I mean to be willful in this case) and whatever illusion the universe or fate wills him to have at the moment.

This is achieved, in Kafka’s narrative, most noticeably through this constant evocation of imagery when examining the world around him. From the ripe pieces of fruit to the image of a spring rain washing stepping-stones, these images, though mundane and not wildly fantastical, are still vivid enough and removed enough from the context they’re used in(of all the cleansing metaphor or similes available to him as he listened to the music, he saw stepping stones in a garden, almost as if it was a specific image from a memory), that they temporarily transport us to another place. It also provides a little more intimacy, as we relate to that experience of experiencing something that brings to mind a brief flashing image from last week or distant childhood. In fact, the fact that the imagery is almost intentionally mundane or doesn’t provoke strong feelings(compared to that in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) also contributes to this overall calm effect. It’s another way to further blend reality and illusion, as well as make these image shifts smoothly. For example, besides garden steps we also have an image of “fresh water secretely seeping out between rocks” when Kafka thinks about Miss Saeki and a “crater lake” when he thinks of the young Miss Saeki projection in his room.

In fact the whole flow of the book, on Kafka’s part anyway, is kind of wave like, in its inevitability and the smoothness with which it conveys that inevitability. To further emphasize this quality to his text, Murakami has us see the world through Kafka’s eyes. With the first person perspective so the reader has a more intimate relationship with him. Yet, for at least a good solid first half of the book, there is also a kind of distance between us and him. He describes boring mundane things, and the only thing occupying his thoughts are his actions. He doesn’t reflect on them and although we have access to his thoughts, there aren’t any thoughts to pull us in and invest in him. Especially near the beginning, Kafka likes to go into great, yet also restrained detail when describing people’s clothing, the objects around him, and his actions. Oshima is wearing x, y, z and each has a particular color. Miss Saeki is wearing x, y, z, with these colors. And he feels the need to describe that every time he runs into them again. Upon first reaching Takamatsu City, Kafka tells us: “I go out the torii gate at the entrance…head for the main road…It doesn’t take long. I ask the driver if he know the Lawson’s on that corner, and he says he does. When I ask if it’s far, he says no, about a ten-dollar ride.” An almost completely pointless exchange. But at the same time it makes sense, because at this point, early on, Kafka’s experiences have not strayed into the weird quite yet, and he seems fine being preoccupied with the minutiae of ordinary life, with the occasional reflection on whether these people are his mother and sister, or a moment of panic when his ruse seems to be up. In fact, it serves to normalize the story at first, because we are starting on a rather strange premise. The first chapter is “The Boy Named Crow”. It’s a kaleidoscope of weird, and then there’s this haze of ambiguity over his reasons for leaving. It makes sense that to begin the journey in the first place, Murakami has to create a place to start, and thus grounds us with the mundane and routine at first.

Returning to point of view, first person is only occasionally broken by the intrusion of the boy named Crow, who speaks in 2nd person, and has a kind of bewildering habit(at first) of swooping into Kafka’s mind, in the form of thoughts, and our faces, literally as a change in point of view and text formatting. There’s often repeated words and phrases between these transitions, as if we’ve suddenly left our current place, relocated, and need to be reoriented by an echo of what we just experienced.

The boy named Crow is not simply Crow; he is a boy named Crow(amazing insight I know). He is a metaphor for Kafka’s something. What that is, is not entirely clear, and even if it was, words probably wouldn’t do it justice. The boy named Crow appears to be some combination of Kafka’s alter ego, his subconscious, and his conscience or judgement. By emphasizing that he is “not Crow” and rather “the boy named Crow,” Murakami creates another bit of distance, this time between the identity of Crow and the boy. And it’s the boy, not a boy, because there is really only one boy who can have the name Crow and he is of special importance because of his significance in Kafka’s thought process. As an overall effect,the repeated use of this phrase “the boy named Crow” also adds a layer of mysticism to him, as if it’s a kind mantra chanted, or some magic words that signify something significant is about to happen. If this were a screenplay, or theatrical play(it seems that Kafka is rather fond of this kind phrase early on too), the stage cues would include a dramatic flourish like “the boy named crow appears.”

What Murakami also does here as he creates distance everywhere–between the characters, between the story bits, between the identities within Kafka himself, between us and all of the aforementioned–is create nothing. He creates more nothing. There is a definitive lack of something in many places, and the greatest quality to the book is not the sum of its present parts, but the sum of its missing parts.

I went somewhere with the boy named Crow and now I shall return. Murakami brings the boy named Crow even closer to the reader, with the combined impact of a second person perspective and bolded text, so we feel his presence and influence a bit more like Kafka does–suddenly being overtaken by a strong other entity. As the reader, we might not even be occupying Kafka’s space; maybe this whole story is told from the boy named Crow’s perspective, and we’ve been unwillingly taken along for Kafka’s ride, rarely able to re assert our dominance, and making sure to do so when he’s in his most dire straits–when he’s about to head into the dangerous parts of the forest, or unable to find the right words. Perhaps I did just pull that out of thin air, but Murakami’s story lends itself to that. There’s so many little pieces to speculate on that it’s difficult to form a focused or semi-confident picture of his message without a larger understanding of his book, which is basically impossible without reading it more than once (at least one time through , each, for 1.getting the overall feel and overarching messages and seeing where the plot yarns end up and 2. Looking at the subtle details).

And that is the way Murakami intended his book to be understood. For Kafka on the Shore in particular, Murakami personally responded to a number of questions sent in about the work, after his publisher encouraged readers to send in what they thought the book meant. In one interview, Murakami says: “Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.”

Murakami grew up in Japan’s post-World War 2 baby boom, with two parent from humble backgrounds who then both taught literature. Growing up, he was exposed to many works of Western literature, most notably in this case, Franz Kafka, and drew many influences from them. He attended college in Tokyo, where he met his wife, and then eventually settled down with the Peter Cat, a coffee house and jazz bar he opened. This was all before he eve began writing. Apparently, one day in 1978, he was at a baseball game and as the batter hit the ball, Murakami had a sudden realization that he could write a novel (because….reasons? It sounds almost like something that might happen in one of his books). By the time he began writing Kafka on the Shore, he was already a renowned author, whose works, among those written by other Japanese writers, are some of the most read outside of Japan. He’s not unanimously loved by critics in Japan, but it seems there’s a universality to his work that must contribute to his success.

Murakami once said something along the lines of his writing coming from his experiences, and if you take that phrase a different way, that may be the reason for his tendency toward meta-ness. Whatever the case, meta comments are sprinkled in all over the place.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but this log and the last have been written in pieces, then connected together. I have an amazing, wonderfully brilliant idea and I have to take a pause and start a new paragraph. Then I return to the last paragraph I was working on and find that I’ve lost my train of thought. And then I eventually return to the then new paragraph and find that the idea was perhaps not as amazing and wonderfully brilliant as my epiphany moment lead me to believe. I have just described the events that will transpire immediately after the end of this paragraph. If that feels meta, then perhaps you have a better idea of the flow of Murakami’s book for me. Sometimes it’s a character’s’ words or one of Kafka’s realizations, or even an idea that Murakami brings across. The dream sequence involving Kafka and Sakura for instance, conveys a feeling being unable to control the course of events and having to just accept it, and that’s basically the experience of reading. It could be said that Murakami has the reader go through the same motions as Kafka, Nakata, and the other characters, by not only taking us through their story, but evoking the same motions in us as we are doing that. When we connect whatever we glean from the story to real life, it’s not just applying another character’s story to our own, but connecting a literal experience we’ve just had to past experience.

Somewhere earlier I said something about returning to some point about the content contributing to the colors and impressions surrounding Murakami’s book overall some time. This is that time. And if only Murakami could have been as forward as this when he returned to some point. On content, one thing to note is its relationship with language. Because of the way Murakami describes things and paces his descriptions, the narrator, whether it is during Kafka or Nakata’s chapters, there’s this feeling of inevitability, similar to that conveyed by Kafka’s comparisons filled with imagery, as if these events were alway meant to happen, no matter how shocking (like Kafka’s dream rape of Sakura–though it was kind of consensual maybe?). The pacing makes you feel like you’re going somewhere, but you don’t know where and don’t have any idea what to expect when you get there–because you don’t know what the problems are in the first place. Part of that comes from the ambiguous context given in the beginning, especially since Kafka’s goal isn’t articulated until later, and at the beginning we’re just along for the ride waiting for answers. When questions of half-shadows, talking cats, dreams, fait, forests, literature, and music come, Murakami sets up all these things that eventually pay off, if you notice them. At some point it becomes so overwhelming how many small details feel important that you kind of want to surrender what little control you have over the text, and stop speculating how each new development sets up a new thread or connects to another one. And again we’ve reached a general feeling of inevitability of…..something.

I realize I’ve spent more than half the log driveling on about the writing detached from any real mention of the content, symbols, themes, the “something.” It would seem that this is the part that required a little more reflection. A few of the most prominent recurring images (that then oscillate between descriptive imagery and metaphor in wave like motions themselves) include the crow, water, the ocean and seashore, rain, and forests. Rain shows up with the thunderstorms that mark the opening of the entrance. It’s the occasion that brings down leeches and fish from the sky. As Nakata stakes out the vacant lot, the narrator notes that “at least it wasn’t going to rain. The cats all knew it. And so did Nakata.”The common theme seems to be that actual physical rain signals a large change, or period of more chaotic events that those that occur when it’s not raining. At the very least, it’s a constant reminder that just like the sky, a temporary calm may belie storms that follow soon after.  Kafka notes that it “rained hard a couple times” as he was forging into the forest by Oshima’s cabin, and it rained periodically while he was inside Oshima’s cabin. Some of the imagery he interprets the world with involve rain. Whether it’s physical rain or some image of rain from Kafka’s subconscious, the coming and going of these descriptions emphasizes the shifting and instability that lies below the general calm throughout the book. They’re made as little offhand comments, small images that you can’t necessarily pull into one strong conclusion because they are best understood as a group of parts, not just one. Rain’s importance to the story lies in the very fact that it’s sprinkled throughout the story like rain itself–in little drops–because that feeling of flux is needed to bring more life to the story and remind us that even if we feel like we’re going nowhere, we are still moving along. Like many other authors, Murakami gives rain a cleansing effect, especially when Kafka’s listening to “Kafka on the Shore” and describes it with that garden stepping stone image, and in the end, when his single tear feels less like his and “more like part of the rain outside.” Throughout the story, the rain is technically the physical thing that every single character probably came into contact with, literally, physically came into contact with. It connects all the characters, and Kafka’s final tear, a kind of symbol of his suffering, finally feels like it’s part of the larger universe. Though he was already well on the way to this realization, it is that moment where he truly and wholly understands that his struggles, past, and angst are simply part of the natural order around him, as natural as the buildings in the city, the trees in the forest, Nakata, or anything the rain touches. They’re all part of one entity and Kafka’s finally able to find peace and become “part of a brand-new world” because he detaches himself from his struggle and can let go of his anger and other strong negative emotions.

“There’s something you can’t do unless you get there,” to the “edge of the world,” Kafka realizes at the end. There’s something we can’t do unless we get there, to the end of the book–understand it that is. And for Kafka, I suspect it’s the same thing with the world and his place in it. To understand the entity we’ve become part of, we have to “keep on moving” and get to the very edges of its existence, where we contemplate the many parts we’ve slipped pass along the way. Little threads here and there, conversations about literature or music that seem to have gone nowhere. These things push us in different directions, weighing us down, just as the past, developing events, and the future weigh Kafka down. But at the end, we need to keep going, make it to the end, and then be able to take a truly holistic view of the journey we’ve just taken and understand the entity we’ve just traversed through. Kafka had to let all the events prophesied run their course and tie up their ends–he had to reach the end of the story arc laid out for him–before he could become part of this brand-new world where he might have a chance at real love and contentment, just as we needed to push through Murakami’s work before we could begin to understand it. It’s an obvious observation yes, but Murakami brings a special layered meta quality to it. Did he intend that? To be honest I couldn’t say for sure, but if I felt a sense of meta more than a dozen times throughout the book, I have to assume he did.

Following up on the rest of that list, crows are very abundant as well, even when the boy named Crow does not make an appearance himself. For example, Nakata observes crows rummaging through garbage as he’s leaving Nakano Ward. A crow “far away” caws as Kafka puts his hand around MIss Saeki And sometimes the crows preceded Crow’s appearance, which is what they do in both of Kafka’s forest treks, uttering warning squawks as he goes deeper. Similar to the rain, it’s a kind of subtle reminder that Crow is always there beneath Kafka’s surface.

Then we also have the waves and wind of a beach shore, and ocean imagery in general, which repeatedly pop up in imagery used to describe sensations. When Kafka thinks about the change between 19 year old Miss Saeki and her current form, as he takes a “deep breath of fresh air, catching a whiff of the sea on the breeze that’s come through a pine forest.” Later, the room is “breathing out” and “the windowpane shivering.” And the “chorus” “slips out like a delicate dreamy fish.” Then of course it rained fish that one time. After the last time Kafka has sex with Miss Saeki, he imagines blankets becoming part of him, wending in “like fog from the sea.” Besides being an important setting that “Kafka on the Shore” would never have been recorded without, the sea reflects the flow of Murakami’s language and the events that transpire, a rolling motion that goes through calm and rough moments, but always inevitably returns to calm. It’s also basically the edge of the setting and it makes sense that so much should happen in the physical setting that represents the edge of the world that Kafka claims you need to be situated at in order to get something done. Nakata and Hoshino also take a trip to the beach, and Nakata himself said he would have preferred the great void beyond the edge–another reason he would be drawn to that setting. For all its presence in the book, the sea is never really a setting, unlike the forest. Characters walk along the beach, pose in front of it, smell, see, and hear it, but never touch it. It is forever in the background and as inaccessible as the space beyond the edge the edge of the world.

It seems that unlike Murakami’s story, everything begins to diverge instead of converge from this point on in the log. Now, as I still have not teetered into the throes of sleep deprivation, it seems an apt time to discuss sleep in Kafka on the Shore, Many of the chapters end with someone falling asleep. It’s somewhat meta in its own way, as we’re technically putting  this plotline to rest, and all the characters with it, as we move over to another one. Because Murakami gives sleep a special power, like the ability to project your spirit(supposedly how Nakata lost part of himself) or go into someone’s dream, this repeated use of sleep as a transition suggests that either Kafka and Nakata are the same person split between containers perhaps, or Kafka’s in someway projecting himself into Nakata when he(Kafka) sleeps. It’s interesting that the timelines of the two main stories are also out of sync at first, and gradually become more in sync as we reach the end, so every time Kafka ends his chapter by sleeping, we get the impression that he projects himself across space and time into Nakata, to get bring him up to speed with what happened. And with the case of Johnnie Walker’s murder, the order in which we find out details–first we get Kafka’s point of view, then an explanation through Nakata’s actions–turns this event into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kafka wakes up to find blood on shirt, and then sometime later, he falls asleep, goes into Nakata, and experiences his past self inhabiting Nakata and killing Johnnie Walker. In this theory, in the moment Nakata is facing Johnnie Walker, there’s actually two souls controlling him–one that allows this narration to happen and one from the past that slipped into Nakata and left an unconscious Kafka to wake up with a bloody shirt.

But of course, like many other theories that could be drawn from Murakami’s content, the there’s enough stuff to contradict that–Hoshino for example. If we assume Kafka is connected to Nakata to such an extent that he is the reason the narration of Nakata’s narrative is possible, where does he take on a third person omniscient role and begin to see Hoshino’s thoughts too? The best conclusion I have for that is that this theory falls flat, and does so in an infuriating way, because it seemed to make sense until Hoshino shows up, almost halfway in. Such is the nature of Murakami’s novel, where it is pointless to speculate as you read because new evidence constantly comes up and changes or contradicts things.

Nakata’s role as a character, and Hoshino’s to some extent too, is to come upon profound ideas and be forced to face them, but relieved of any responsibility of discussing them because 1)Nakata’s not very bright, as he tells us so often and 2)Hoshino isn’t either and has never been one for such things. Actually, Hoshino is a particularly intriguing characters, as he’s the most grounded of all of them. He reacts with wonder and disbelief, before resigning himself to the flurry of weird surrounding him, while Kafka, Miss Saeki, Oshima, Nakata, and even Sakura, take it in stride eventually. He’s the only one who continues to question the sanity of everything happening, even after he decides to accept it as reality. He’s the least in sync with the flow of events, something that his more simplistic and crude language and descriptions add to that–his sports shirt and “man alive” catchphrase for example. Contrast this to Kafka and Oshima’s exchanges on metaphors and literature, which is also complemented by the more figurative and elegant language used in Kafka’s chapters, compared to Nakata’s, and we have two halves of a shadow in a way. They contribute to that feeling of going back and forth, like interweaving lines. It has some tangles, with the reports in the beginning and the correspondence to the professor, but the predictability of the narrative structure, once again, emphasizes the inevitability of reaching a certain end result.

Returning to a point about sleeping, there’s a lot of attention paid to this idea of a human body container. When Kafka observes Oshima sleeping, he think “he looks like he’s gone back to being a woman,” and later the bed showed “signs of oshima having been there. Not him really–more like his sleep.” When Oshima sleeps, his soul, or part of it, leaves his body, and the presence that give him is maleness is diminished, leaving only his earthly container, which is biologically female. The words used to describe this scene are similar to those used to describe a sleeping Nakata: “It seemed like the real Nakata had gone off somewhere, leaving behind for a time the fleshly container.”

On fate, Murakami makes many different statements. It could be “like pieces of a puzzle that fit together,” which Kafka understood while listening to Kafka on the Shore. “…I was drawn to this library, like fate reeling[look a fish/ocean reference] me in a straight line from nakano to Takamatsu. Very strange when you think about it.” Oshima responds, “Like the plot of a Greek tragedy.” Later there’s a mention of a chorus too, in addition to the Oedipus prophecy given to Kafka by his father. Greek tragedies often draw their tragic stories from heroes attempting to resist fate, and it seems that Kafka fell into a similar trap, but the actual events that fulfill this prophecy occur in dreams, or are not physically done by him: his dad’s murder, his kind-of-rape of Sakura, and his intercourse with Miss Saeki. Although this is supposedly his fate, his day to day life in the library, reading books and discussing the questions literature raises with Oshima, dominates the story. In a way, having this prophecy fulfilled in such a way makes it seem even more inevitable, because we have far less control in the metaphysical realm of dreams and our subconsciousness. But it’s also a statement on the way fate manifests itself. Fate is something that’s decided when you’re born, and usually, the things that last with you from the moment you’re born are your mental attributes, not your physical ones. The force pushing Kafka through his dreams the fulfill his prophecy seem to have been dormant within him this whole time, and it only really manifested when when the time was right, kind of like Crow.

Earlier on I said something about containers, and I want to briefly touch on the Japanese folktales of spirits temporarily leaving bodies, that one of the characters was speculating on. Murakami explicitly makes his setting Japan, but the issues dealt with are not decidedly Japanese(like Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and its distinct Irish-ness) and the way characters all interpret the world in a secular way, make it seem like it could take place anywhere if you just replaced the names. The one thing that is more reflective of Japanese culture is the concept of nature, especially forests, having special power, and the depiction of spirits, both the ones of normal people who leave their fleshly containers and “concepts” like Colonel Sanders. By referring to actual Shinto and other traditional religions in Japan, Murakami emphasizes the spiritual quality of the story and events. His language makes them poetic and lyrical, but this undercurrent of religion and spirituality accentuates the concepts of unfathomable depths and unavoidable fate, because religion is often associated with this sense of a greater force propelling everything forward. Although Murakami could have conveyed the same thing just fine without religion, it also makes sense for the characters, who are at least somewhat familiar with Japanese folklore, to be affected by the events more. Even if they don’t study religion, they’ve undoubtedly been exposed to it through pop culture and just growing up in Japan, and are familiar enough with it that when something bewildering happens, like coming across the two lost soldiers in the forest or finding an “entrance stone,” the characters, and we as well, can’t help but feel like a spiritual event is taking place, and feel like we should internalize it accordingly.

In retrospect, I would have liked to get into the exploration of humor, sex, love, music, religion, and the ending (with the deaths of Nakata and Miss Saeki) more, but “time cannot be regained” and what happened happened. Murakami intentionally puts all these different themes and briefly explores each, always hinting at more depth but never explicitly delivering on it. There’s such a great quantity of concepts and connections to contemplate that one begins to feel like as Nakata always does, something that Kafka and Oshima often talk about too–that for all we attempt to understand the world and its course, as well as our course in it, in the end, it’s unfathomable. We reach the edge and we have to get there to understand ourselves slightly better, but in the end, the true essence remains beyond you, past the edge, in the void. I think I was a little too preoccupied with the container in which Murakami brought us his message and themes–his language and how he crafted the story–and neglected to fully appreciate the actual soul of his piece.

Works Cited

“Haruki Murakami.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

“Kafka on the Shore.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Murakami, Haruki. Kafka on the Shore. London: Vintage, 2014. Print.


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