Kafka on the Shore is a 2002 novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. The 2005 English translation was among the “Top 10 Books of 2005” on the New York Times list and received the World Fantasy Award for 2006.
Summary and synopsis of the work
Kafka on the Shore describes the journey of a fifteen-year-old fugitive, Kafka Tamura, from his home in Tokyo to the shores of Takamatsu. Kafka flees because his father, a famous but violent sculptor, cursed him saying that: he will kill his father and go to bed with his mother and sister. Kafka’s mother fled with her older sister when Kafka was four years old because of this.
Kafka takes refuge in a small private library on the outskirts of Takamatsu, where she meets an understanding and intelligent young transgender gay man named Oshima. The enigmatic library director, Miss Saeki, may be her mother.
A young woman he meets on the bus to Takamatsu, Sakura, the hairdresser, may be his sister.
Each chapter narrated by Kafka alternates with a chapter about a mysterious older man named Nakata. As the novel progresses, her life story and her separate journey to Takamatsu intertwine with those of Kafka.
Victim of a strange childhood accident that changed him forever, Nakata navigates the world in a simple and organic way. As a result, you have no memories of the past or the ability to form memories in the present. He does not know to read nor to write.
In exchange for his memory and intellect, the accident left him with the ability to speak to cats. Now an elder, Nakata supplements his disability income by finding the lost pets of local families. His search for a cat leads him to find great evil and sets him on the path to reestablishing the universe, which has strayed from what it should be. A young trucker, Hoshino, is drawn to Nakata’s journey and helps him.
Nakata murders Kafka’s father, and follows him to Takamatsu, where he is guided by intuition to perform a series of magical acts, which involve opening and then closing the “entrance stone”. Which enables Kafka and others to pass from one world to another to gain knowledge and self-knowledge.
Both Kafka and Nakata flee when police encounter the missing teenager and old man for questioning about the murder of Kafka’s father. Oshima takes Kafka to his family’s cabin in the woods to hide.
Once there, he has a series of inexplicable encounters in the forest, and he must choose between succumbing to the curse that was imposed on him or going beyond a life of his own choice. Nakata and Hoshino then hide in an apartment on the outskirts of the city.
Nakata’s actions allow Kafka to move towards a future free from her father’s curse. Kafka chooses life, just when Nakata dies. Hoshino completes Nakata’s magical tasks, to honor his memory. Kafka decides to return to her world and decides to go home and face her future, which includes finishing school and dealing with the police and her heritage, both literal and figurative, from her father.
Kafka on the Shore demonstrates the typical mix of popular culture, worldly details, magical realism, suspense, humor, an involved plot, and Murakami’s powerful sexuality. It also places a greater emphasis on Japanese religious traditions, particularly Shinto. The main characters are significant deviations from the typical protagonist of a Murakami novel, such as Toru Watanabe from Tokio Blues and Toru Okada from Chronicle of the Winding Bird, which are generally in their 20s and 30s and have rather boring personalities. However, many of the same themes that were first developed in these and other earlier novels reappear.
- Kafka Tamura – The character’s real first name is never revealed to the reader. After running away from home, he chooses the new name “Kafka”, in honor of the writer Franz Kafka. He is described as muscular for his age and as a “cool, tall, fifteen-year-old boy who carries a backpack and lots of obsessions.”
- Satoru Nakata: He is one of the two protagonists of the story, and is the subject of half of the book’s chapters (although, unlike Kafka’s chapters, Nakata’s chapters are written in the third person).
- Oshima: A 21-year-old transgender man, intellectual, hemophiliac, and gay. He is a librarian and owner of a cabin in the mountains near the Library.
- Hoshino: A truck driver in his twenties. He befriends Nakata, due to his resemblance to his own grandfather, and transports him and helps him reach his uncertain goal.
- Miss saeki: the manager of a private library, where Oshima works and where Kafka lives much of the novel.
- Sakura: a young woman whom Kafka meets on the bus by chance. She helps him later in his journey.
- Johnnie Walker: A cat killer who plans to make a flute out of cat souls. His name is taken from Johnnie Walker, a brand of Scotch whiskey, and he is dressed to appear as the man who appears in the brand’s logo.
- Colonel Sanders: An ‘abstract concept’ that takes the form of a pimp or swindler. It is named after and takes on the appearance of Harland Sanders, the founder and face of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Help Hoshino find the “entrance stone” to “alternative reality”.
- Goma: a lost cat owned by Ms. Koizumi.
- Otsuka: An elderly black cat with whom Nakata communicates easily.
- Kawamura: a cat that got scared after being hit by a bicycle. Although they can communicate, Nakata cannot understand Kawamura’s strange and repetitive phrases.
- Mimi: a smart Siamese cat.
- Okawa: a tabby cat.
- Bull: a black cat that temporarily became an “abstract concept”.
Kafka is the victim of a curse released by her father, runs away from home to escape her and search for her mother and sister. Kafka’s story echoes familiar themes from the ancient Greek tragedy, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Kafka’s father cast a curse on Kafka that he says he will kill his father and sleep with his mother and sister; the same curse that is cast on Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother. The battle between Kafka’s fate, her father’s curse, and Kafka’s desire to live her life on her own terms are the central themes of the novel.
This is another of Murakami’s search novels, where none of the protagonists really understand what they are looking for. Kafka, Nakata, Oshima, Miss Saeki, and Hoshino seem incomplete. Sexually ambiguous Oshima tells Kafka about the Greek belief that everyone is looking for the missing halves.
Murakami uses actions throughout the book to explore themes such as individual freedom and the individual’s responsibility towards a greater good.