Book Review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

kafkashoreSUMMARY from GoodReads:

Kafka on the Shore, a tour de force of metaphysical reality, is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom.

Their odyssey, as mysterious to them as it is to us, is enriched throughout by vivid accomplices and mesmerizing events. Cats and people carry on conversations, a ghostlike pimp employs a Hegel-quoting prostitute, a forest harbors soldiers apparently unaged since World War II, and rainstorms of fish (and worse) fall from the sky.

There is a brutal murder, with the identity of both victim and perpetrator a riddle – yet this, along with everything else, is eventually answered, just as the entwined destinies of Kafka and Nakata are gradually revealed, with one escaping his fate entirely and the other given a fresh start on his own.


Finished my reading assignment for myself for this month. Actually I started reading this book some months ago, around July in fact, but only got serious with it late last week, and finished it just now. My head’s still spinning. I feel like I can’t think properly, but I also feel like I’ll forget all my thoughts and feelings about the book now. When I finished reading, my immediate reaction was ‘There is no way I can possibly write a review of this’. Mostly because I could not even dissect my own opinion of the novel.

*SOME SPOILER ALERT*  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Kafka on the Shore has two ongoing plots that seem to parallel, yet seem to have nothing to do, with each other. Kafka on the Shore opens as 15 year-old Kafka Tamura, who is described by one of the characters in the book as a “cool, tall, fifteen-year-old, lugging around a backpack and a bunch of obsessions.” He prepares to run away from home. Living in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, Kafka is fleeing his father’s twisted, Oedipal prophecy – a prophecy that predicts Kafka will kill his father, and sleep with his mother and sister. Although both mother and sister left home when Kafka was just 4 years-old, Kafka is resolved to ensure that the prophecy has no chance of realization. At times, Kafka is accompanied by a spectral alter-ego named Crow, who encourages him by spouting the mantra: “You have to be the world’s toughest fifteen-year-old” but often he is alone though he never seems to have any trouble getting help from benevolent strangers. He flees to Takamatsu, where he establishes himself as an assistant in the Komura Private Library, thanks to the help of the librarian Oshima. When Kafka’s father is murdered, however, the threads of reality begin to unravel and time oscillates. As the narrative of Kafka’s journey progresses, the plot is intersected with the parallel odyssey of the elderly Nakata. After undergoing a strange childhood experience during the Second World War, in which he fell into an inexplicable coma after seeing a flashing light in the sky, Nakata was left with a blank memory and the loss of his reading and writing abilities. Now designated mentally-impaired, Nakata’s old-age is distinguished only by his strange talent for talking to cats. After a run-in with the mysterious Johnnie Walker, a man who murders cats and eats their hearts, Nakata sets out on his own journey across Japan – a journey that sees fish raining from the sky and a pimp modeling himself on Colonel Sanders (of KFC fame). As Nakata’s and Kafka’s fates look set to collide, it is clear that resolution for both cannot be achieved without further bloodshed. And the closer the plot comes to its conclusion, the more reality loses its shape to the riddle of existence.


Just like Kafka, and most of the characters in the book, he has lost something and is trying, in his own way, for the most part without realizing it, to get it back.

“Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.”

First things first: I’d be lying if I said I understood this book. I don’t, for the most parts. I’m not even going to attempt to summarize it, because I don’t think I can. It just isn’t that simple. This novel is weird. Really weird. But in a good way. My reading experience of Kafka on the Shore was full of confusion – in fact, I’ve finished it now and I still don’t understand what the hell was going on. There’s a man who collects cats’ souls to make flutes, fish falling from the sky, a ghost of a woman who’s still alive. I mean, I should have expected this sort of craziness from Murakami, but this was definitely beyond the level of crazy that I’m used to. All I can say is that it’s brilliant, and thought-provoking.

Nevertheless, the story was strangely addictive. Despite my constant state of confusion – and the many times I flinched at something horrible or eerie – I did actually enjoy the book. Kafka on the Shore is not a book that offers answers. Kafka is a labyrinth of metaphors and whether you ever make it through this labyrinth and get to the centre is not a certainty. I’m certainly not there yet. Every time you turn a corner and think “ah-ha!” thinking you have finally got it, Murakami sweeps out of your way and you’re left puzzled once again.

I keep getting the feeling that understanding what the story is about, what all the metaphors and symbols are trying to tell me, is just around the corner. But the above quote, spoken by Oshima, stuck out to me as perhaps the best explanation of what Murakami is trying to do. You know that underneath the randomness, the weirdness there is a depth hidden like a yet to be explored world.

Both narrative paths were quite interesting to read and both Kafka’s and Nakata’s paths introduced a number of other characters that were equally interesting and amazingly well developed.

The characters in Kafka on the Shore are amazingly well written. I felt like I could see each and every character so clearly in my mind’s eye. On top of great characters, Kafka on the Shore is a book this is easy to get lost in. This is a novel that has incredibly blurry lines between reality and the fantastical.  It challenges the reader to decide what is real, what is imagined, and what is possible within the bounds of reality that is represented in the story.

“And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others. And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm is all about.”

Kafka on the Shore is a book that pushes the limits of imagination by twisting experience within the boundaries of reality. It is not set in a world invented entirely by the author’s mind but is, instead, grounded in contemporary Japanese society and culture. As a reader, I found this abstraction uncomfortable – but not in a bad way. It is uncomfortable because it naturally sends you looking for answers, trying to work out why. But as the above quote illustrates, Murakami did not write this book to offer a simple plot with eventual resolution. Rather, Kafka on the Shore is comprised almost entirely of riddles, few of which are given any kind of answer.

I believe everyone’s journey from youth into adulthood has a little bit of magic in it no matter what. There’s no doubt that relationships, love and life can take on a magical quality during those times. There’s some beautiful moments, some brutal moments, and some that are just flat out weird. This blend of fantasy-literature/magical realism made for an enjoyable read.

My main problem with the novel, though, is the same one I had with 1Q84. There are no explanations, no conclusions. The hundred-and-one weird and wonderful events in the novel remain a mystery to all involved. Sure, a lot of people might like that in a story, but for me it’s a little annoying – if a fantasy takes place in the real world, I want to know why and how it happened as it did. Why did the man want to make souls? How did Nakata make it rain mackerel? Why did the ghost appear?

Obviously, I really enjoyed this book, but it’s one of those books that is hard for me to articulate why I found it so enjoyable. Sure, this is a fantastic book on a technical level.  And it’s a great book on a readability level.  But it’s frustrating when I can’t point to why I like something so much.  Maybe it’s that combination of technical skill and storytelling that makes this book feel so different and special to me.

Overall, I would highly recommend this novel. If you like fantasy and are looking for something thrilling and addictive, give Kafka on the Shore a read. I know this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but even so, I would still recommend that people give this book a try. The book is weird. Really weird. But it’s a powerful story that will, at the very least, challenge one to think about this very strange, very familiar world. But if you want a light-hearted read, or are easily confused, this is not the book for you.


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