Going on a trip with Murakami: a review of Kafka on the Shore

“‘In travelling, a companion, in life compassion’. So what does that really mean? In simple terms.”

“I think it means that chance encounters are what keep us going. In simple terms.”

— Sakura and Kafka

In Kafka on the Shore, Murakami brings us into the world of a fifteen-year-old Japanese teenager Kafka Tamura, as he runs away from home to escape an omen. Kafka finds refuge at a library on the island of Shikoku, although he seems to be running towards his omen rather than away from it. Running parallel to Kafka’s story, Mr Nakata, an elderly man who can talk to cats but seems to be missing half his shadow, seems to trace Kafka’s path.

While I enjoyed this story, I can also see how it wouldn’t appeal to other kinds of readers. There’s no clear outcome or plot. In Kafka on the Shore, we follow two main story lines that run next to each other and get ever-so-slightly closer, even touching at certain points. One story line seemed to be driven by an Oedipus-like omen which gets fulfilled halfway into the story, and after which the plot seems to freeze in place before reversing. The other story line appears to play a supporting role in allowing the events in the first story line to progress, but at least here a final outcome seems to exist. However, this goal is doled out to us slowly, because the characters themselves don’t know what they’re working towards until each step is completed. Perhaps inanely, it sometimes feels like progress can only be made by chance.

This kind of plot can be frustrating at times, but I argue that Kafka on the Shore’s strength isn’t in its gripping plot, but rather in the atmosphere surrounding each chapter. It almost feels like Murakami had a particular feeling or idea he wanted to explore each chapter, and he’d put us in the right environment to experience it for just long enough. These experiences would then incidentally, and almost unwillingly, drive the plot forward.

As a result of this, character growth is quite a dubious thing in this novel. Only one character — Mr Hosino, seems to have undergone quite a change in tastes and mindset throughout the novel. Most other characters had mindsets that were amorphous in the first place, and remain amorphous at the end. In an almost meta manner, Kafka had a conversation with the librarian Oshima on The Miner by Natsume Soseki. Kafka points out that the hero of the story watches things happen, broods over his love affair, and comes out of the mine about the same as when he went in. Oshima asks if Kafka sees himself as someone like the hero of The Miner, which Kafka denies. But retrospectively, there might be some truth to this.

On another note, language-wise, this English translation is very interesting. Language almost seems like a character on its own. The text sometimes switches between normal narration and bolded, almost omniscient and prophesying narration, and tenses also seem to change from chapter to chapter, character to character, paragraph to paragraph, in a seemingly deliberate manner to achieve certain effects. If I could understand it, I would’ve loved to read the novel in its original Japanese, just to see how these tools were employed, and to observe the decisions that Philip Gabriel made in translating this text.

Overall, I had fun with this story. This was probably largely thanks to Mr Nakata, whose way of interacting with other characters felt so pure and transparent. I also enjoyed the mysticism that surrounded the story, especially because it detracts from Western systems of magic, and instead had a more East Asiatic quality to it, with its shadows, and entrance stones, and worlds hidden within forests. Many aspects of this mysticism ultimately go unexplained, which I feel was the most appropriate way to handle them. I’m definitely looking forward to reading another story by Murakami.

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