An acclaimed Japanese author, Haruki Murakami has created an immense literary and non-fictional oeuvre during his lifetime. Most of his short fiction and novels have been translated into English, rendering him a global best-seller, and, aside from the Nobel Prize for Literature, he has been awarded an abundance of prestigious literary prizes. The main focus of this article is his novel Kafka on the Shore (2005), which has received high critical praise.
Magical realism aptly describes the generic qualities of Kafka, and Murakami’s fiction in general. This genre may be usefully defined as “fiction in which the setting is realistic yet contains definite elements of the supernatural that call attention to themselves, but must be accepted by readers as part of a ‘normal’ world” (Strecher, 15). Murakami’s own definition conveys his sense of humour. The protagonist in A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) describes his world as a “worm’s universe” in which “symbolic dreams” symbolize some realities and “symbolic realities” symbolize a dream. “In the worm universe”, he says, “there is nothing unusual about a dairy cow seeking a pair of pliers. A cow is bound to get her pliers sometime” (67). As quirky and oxymoronic as this conceit might be, the expectation in magical realism is that a cow should naturally want some pliers. Another feature of magical realism is its mixing of many cultural, literary and non-literary influences from the past and present. Murakami’s eclectic knowledge of world literature, popular culture and music of all kinds, together with his accomplished transformations of multifarious sources, gives Kafka a rich intertextuality.
From another angle, Rubin argues that Murakami was shaped by his regional heritage (Rubin, 13). He was born in Kyoto (the old southern capital) and spent his childhood in Kobe, both cities within the Kansai region of Japan, before moving to Tokyo in 1968 to attend university. In his formative years, therefore, Murakami was surrounded by a culture different from the Kanto region of Tokyo. Kansai has its own distinct dialects and legends, and is the originating home of traditional Noh and Kabuki plays. Although as a young man Murakami embraced western culture in full, a connection with his motherland returned as he grew older, especially after the devastating Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which flattened Kobe and claimed thousands of lives. Although much influenced by having lived in America, the distinctive culture of Kansai, whether orally or through literature, film and theatre, continues to inform Murakami’s work.
Murakami’s global reputation as an author defies early expectations of the Japanese literary establishment. He claims that, when writing his first novella, “I had never taken a serious look at contemporary Japanese fiction” (Hear the Wind Sing, 1979, x). Instead, as a young man, he read Russian nineteenth-century novels, modern American crime fiction, and authors such as Chandler, Capote and Salinger. Struggling to find his own literary voice for Hear the Wind Sing, he wrote in English and then translated back into Japanese, thus shedding the linguistic timbre and semantics inherent in his mother tongue. Critics found it difficult to place him alongside contemporary Japanese writers, because his style was idiosyncratic and his fictional worlds non-realist. In an interview with Burkeman, he asserts: “I was a black sheep in the Japanese literary world” (Guardian, 11 October 2018). However, Strecher argues that he began writing within a contemporary non-realist literary context in the 1970s, in which the genres of the grotesque, surrealism, and magical realism were familiar to a Japanese readership in contemporary writers such as Kōbō Abe, Kenji Nakagami and Kenzaburō Ōe (4). Although critical acclaim was slow in coming, his prolific intertextuality and the ease with which his work is translated into English have earned him a worldwide audience.
By virtue of its agglomeration of motifs and narratives from oral, literary, musical and visual sources, and from the influence of classical, Arabian, European and American literatures, Murakami’s magical realism is sui generis. In Kafka he reveals that he is fully conversant not only with Franz Kafka’s novels but also with international fairy tales, including “Aladdin”, “Abu-I-Hasan”, “The Frog Prince”, “The Three Little Pigs” and “Hansel and Gretel” (60-61, 39, 41, 333, 347, 412). In addition, he re-visions the Japanese tradition concerning living spirits, which leave human beings’ bodies without their knowledge or permission, to act in the material world. Murakami makes many allusions to these spirit beings in Kafka, for example in the eleventh-century Tale of Genji by Shikibu Murasaki, a lady-in-waiting at the court of the old capital of Kyoto (Kafka, 70). Part of this tale describes the deaths of Prince Genji’s wife, the pregnant Lady Aoi, and one of his mistresses, at the hands of living spirits. It is Lady Rokujō’s living spirit who kills Lady Aoi. Although jealous of Genji’s wife, Lady Rokujō is shocked to find that her spirit has independently perpetrated murder. Similarly, Murakami refers to spirits of the living and the dead in “The Chrysanthemum Vow” and “The Kibitsu Cauldron” in Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain (1776) (Kafka, 243-244). As well as these literary references enriching Kafka, the Japanese folklore of living spirits underpins its plot and provides a partial explanation of irrational events. Also featured in Kafka are anthropomorphized cats which derive principally from European fairy tales, but also fuse with Japanese folklore in which cats and foxes take on human form.
Murakami’s brand of magical realism syncretises different mythologies, presenting them as if entirely natural and contemporary. For example, the two alternating, and finally converging, plots of Kafka combine European and Japanese elements with Greek Oedipal myth. In one plot, the father of Murakami’s main character prophesies that his son, the fifteen-year old Kafka Tamura, will murder him and commit incest with his own mother and sister (219). Kafka’s mother and adopted sister depart the family home when he is four years old, leaving him psychologically vulnerable. Introspective by nature, he discards his forename and renames himself Kafka, meaning “crow” in Czech. After long conversations as a teenager with his alter ego, whom he calls Crow, he tries to evade the prophecy by running away. Despite this, he meets his mother, initially known to him as Miss Saeki, Head Librarian of the Komura Memorial Library, and Sakura, a proxy sister. By the end of the novel Kafka fulfils his father’s prophecy, but not in a way Sophocles would recognize. The patricide is steeped in mystery of living spirits, and a magical realist world surrounds his sexual encounters with Miss Saeki and Sakura. In the second plot, a pensioner called Nakata supplements his income by finding lost cats for their distraught owners. Though inadequate in many respects, he has a special ability to converse with cats, an ability which he passes on to his friend Hoshino before he dies. In Kafka, ancient ideas from different countries and cultures combine and transfer to the context of modern twenty-first-century Japan.
The two alternating plots of Kafka carry equal weight. The plot pertaining to the book title is a coming-of-age story of the teenager Kafka. Oshima, the Assistant Librarian in the Komura Memorial Library, is his guide and mentor. During Kafkas’s period of adolescent crisis, Oshima offers him refuge in the library, where he reads his way towards self-understanding by immersing himself in erotic translations of The Arabian Nights, and all of Sōseki Natsume and Franz Kafka’s novels. Oshima always stresses the importance of individuality and encourages him to perceive the world around him as metaphoric as well as material. He introduces him to the pop song “Kafka on the Shore”, which Miss Saeki, the Head Librarian, and her brutally murdered boyfriend composed together when they were young and deeply in love. Significantly, the lyrics of the pop song, such as “You sit at the edge of the world”; “Little fish rain down from the sky”; “Search for the entrance stone” and so on (244-245) connect the two plots, of which more below. Characters from the second plot, Nakata, the old man who talks with cats, and his companion, Hoshino, also visit the Komura Library. There Oshima engages in conversation with Hoshino about his (Hoshino’s) growing love for Beethoven’s piano trios, and broadens his education with regard to the Romantic composers Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt and Schumann. In the age of Romanticism, Oshima explains: “the individual ego was liberated to express itself” (407). Both Oshima and his brother, Sada, link the realist and magical worlds of the novel. As a thoroughly credible, non-magical character, Oshima identifies himself as male, although he is transgender, which is appropriate for a novel genre which deals with different liminalities.
When the police close in on Kafka, the teenage runaway, Oshima drives him to a forest, which, although real, is a magnificent example of magical realism. Oshima and Sada’s father had owned it, and had authorized the Japanese Imperial Army to use it for manoeuvres during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (begun in 1931). Oshima twice leaves Kafka at their log-cabin, warning him not to stray deep into the trees. On his first visit, admiring the morning light through the tree canopy, Kafka observes “sunbeams everywhere and mist floating like freshly minted souls” (140). The simile prepares the reader for his second visit to the forest when he purposely gets lost and meets two Japanese soldiers, deserters from the Imperial army seventy or so years earlier, who offer to take him to the world of the living dead while an Entrance Stone is open (432). The Entrance Stone is alluded to in the lyrics of the pop song “Kafka on the Shore”. In this metaphysical world beyond the forest, Kafka meets fifteen-year-old Miss Saeki, who prepares his meals, and his mother, the older Miss Saeki herself, who has just died. She (his mother) finally brings some closure to Kafka by asking forgiveness for abandoning him as a child. Throughout the novel there are many references to blood: homicidal, menstrual, haemophiliac, and that which is sucked by leeches out of the skin. These variants, or “metonymic connections between objects and words” to use Strecher’s descriptive phrase (45), prefigure Miss Saeki’s act of contrition when she pierces herself with a hairpin and allows Kafka to suck her blood. The living spirit, or soul, of Miss Saeki then encourages him to leave the world of the living dead while the Entrance Stone remains open, and to resume his life, recharged with her blood (477). On the young boy’s return from the forest, Oshima gives him a painting bequeathed to him by his mother. It had hung in Kafka’s bedroom in the library and was called Kafka on the Shore. The recurring variations on the book’s title all illuminate the gradual progress Kafka makes as he matures. At their parting, Oshima makes the observation that Kafka now smiles and has clearly grown up (501-502).
The whole episode of the forest, the Entrance Stone and the other world could be seen as Kafka’s hallucination, explicable in psychological terms, but Murakami renders it real to touch, sight and hearing. Both Nakata and Miss Saeki have faint shadows, an indication that they have crossed over to the world of the living dead and returned to the material world, having left part of their souls behind. Kafka makes the same journey. The final verification that the town beyond the forest is not merely imagined by Kafka occurs when Oshima’s brother asks Kafka whether he has met the two Japanese soldiers. In other words, Sada has been there himself. Murakami’s other world in Kafka is distinctly modern and mundane. When Kafka expresses surprise that the town beyond the Entrance Stone has its own electricity supply, the soldier matter-of-factly replies, “No electricity and you can’t use the fridge” (450). As Oshima comments, this metaphysical world is not a “romantic getaway” (124).
The alternating plot in Kafka features Nakata, the savant who converses with cats; his friend Hoshino, a lorry driver; and Sakura, whom Kafka meets while fleeing from his home city, Tokyo. Two other agents in the Nakata/Hoshino plot are spirits who take the bodily forms of popular consumer items: Johnnie Walker of whiskey fame, and Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Colonel Sanders, who smooths the way for the resolution of the magical realist plot, declares himself to be a manifestation of an idea, rather than a person. He insists “I am a metaphysical, conceptual object” which uses a tangible human form while “checking the correlation between different worlds, making sure things are in the right order” (306). Johnnie Walker, on the other hand, is a living spirit. In a horrific, visionary sequence, Kafka, in the form of a crow, his alter ego, pecks out Walker’s eyes and pulls out his tongue so that he is silenced and can no longer play his flute (466-468). This violent action replicates Nakata’s murder of Johnnie Walker in Tokyo.
Johnnie Walker has been killing cats, eating their still beating hearts, decapitating them and freezing their heads. His professed aim is to make “a special kind of flute” from the dead cats’ souls in the world of the living dead beyond the forest (151). When preparing to disembowel the next anaesthetized cat, Walker goads gentle Nakata into killing him with a kitchen knife. Simultaneously, Kafka’s father, Koichi Tamura, is stabbed to death. Also simultaneously, and miles away from Tokyo in Takamatsu, Kafka passes out and regains consciousness to find himself covered in blood. Kafka’s alibi at the time of his father’s murder is irrefutable and the specificity of detail when Sakura washes his clothes keeps events anchored in the real world. Thereafter, Nakata gives himself up at a police-station – a very comic scene. He has not a drop of blood on him, and sounds like a rambling old man when he warns the incredulous police officer that he will need an umbrella the next day because a shoal of fish will fall from the sky (180). This is anticipated in the lyrics of Miss Saeki’s pop song. The prophecy comes true with great slippery and smelly effect, raising two questions: did Kafka’s own living spirit kill his father using Nakata as an agent? or is Johnnie Walker a living spirit of Kafka’s father? Whatever the explanation, the genre of magical realism guarantees that the father’s murder is literal. Maternal incest is literal as well. Even though intercourse between Kafka and Miss Saeki takes place in an otherworldly, liminal atmosphere, it has actual physical effects on Kafka’s adolescent body far different from a mere wet dream. Thereafter he rapes Sakura in a dream, but finds out later that she simultaneously knew he was entering her in her own simultaneous dream and tried to stop him. As Updike observes – there is “violence, sex . . . oral and otherwise, and a bewildering overflow of possible meanings” (The New Yorker, Jan 2005).
Two major motifs from fantasy literature which Murakami transforms and blends into the magical realism of Kafka are talking cats and a magic gateway between two worlds. With regard to cats, he draws more on the European fairy-tale tradition of guardian cats than the Japanese folklore of monstrous supernatural cats, or kaibyō (Davisson, 31-33). Their attributed viciousness may stem from the creation myth that the snake and the cat did not cry when Buddha died. The cats with whom Nakata converses philosophize on the human condition and are unfailingly helpful towards him. Murakami also strips the motif of the gateway between worlds of any legendary mystique. In comic mode, Nakata and Hoshino, his apprentice and successor, drag the magical Entrance Stone, a huge flat boulder, into their apartment, and both stroke it as if it were a cat (Kafka, 323 and 459). When Nakata says he is having difficulty talking to it, Hoshino quips “It doesn’t strike me as the talkative type. I don’t imagine it’s much good at swimming either” (390). Mundanely, and most suitably for the magical realist genre, the truck-driving “hero” needs no magical strength to heave the stone over in order to open the entrance into the forest town. Nakata learns to talk to the stone before he dies, and Hoshino is shocked to find he acquires the ability to converse with cats. In a long dialogue, a fat black cat named Toro warns him that Nakata’s corpse has become a conduit through which an evil agent will attempt to enter the world of living spirits beyond the forest: “I thought I would lend you a hand”, he says, “ . . . Show you what to do . . . It’ll be trying to get in through the entrance . . . So you have to kill it . . . So do it for him . . . You’ve taken on his role now” (483-486). And, indeed, in a comic horror scene, out of Nakata’s mouth squirms a mollusc-like creature, which Hoshino hacks to pieces and then seals in a double bin bag. This ending fuses both magical realism, in which banality is an equal partner with the fantastic, and Japanese folklore, in which living spirits and the supernatural are a normal part of everyday life.
Kafka on the Shore is a densely woven novel with many motifs and themes threaded through it. They are drawn from multiple cultural sources, which ignore any false notion of “high” and “low” genres. The title itself recurs in many forms throughout, for example Kafka literally sitting on a shore; in his mother’s pop song; and in her bequeathed painting. An obvious interpretation of this is that the teenage protagonist is standing on the edge of adulthood, ready to cross. However there is another kind of liminality present in the novel. It concerns Murakami’s suggestion, implicit in the plots and embodied in the touchstone character Oshino, that human beings should strive towards self-determination when in contention with group or corporate pressure of any kind. The shore, in this case, is the edge, threshold, or liminal space that individuals need to maintain to safeguard their individuality.
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Citation: Scullion, Val. "Kafka on the Shore". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 09 August 2019 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=20091, accessed 19 May 2022.]