TA Margaret Z. ’17 reviews Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.
“Kafka on the Shore 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.
As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.”
This inside cover summary does not begin to display the metaphysical and surreal nature of the book. Kafka on the Shore is a winding, complex, confusing, philosophical adventure that will keep you turning the pages. However, despite its intriguing and original premise, a few flaws that made it hard for me to put the book on an all-time favorites list.
The only two prominent women in the novel are viewed almost entirely through a sexual lens, not serving much purpose in the plot other than their sexual encounters with the men. In the second half of the novel, another woman — a prostitute — makes an appearance. Her only significance in the story is that she has sex with one of the men. This detail doesn’t change the course of the plot at all, and her character never appears again. The scene is arbitrary and does not add much to the novel except — well, a sex scene.
Also, every time Kafka runs into his love interest, Murakami feels the need to describe each article of clothing that the love interest is wearing. Yes, I get it — she’s wearing the same blue blouse and pearl necklace and skirt from last time. No need to repeat it every single time.
Additionally, there’s a transgender character in the novel, and while I was originally ecstatic to see this, the way Murakami portrays the character confuses me. Oshima, the transgender man in the novel, is described to never have gotten his period and to never to have developed breasts. To me, this setup felt like Murakami was trying to almost make him “less transgender” and make readers think of him as “more masculine” in order to justify his identity. However, I also understand that Kafka on the Shore was originally intended for a Japanese audience, an aspect that likely affected the portrayal of Oshima. Furthermore, Oshima may have been intersex, but if so, the novel did not make that clear.
Lastly, the resolution of Kafka on the Shore felt anticlimactic. Much of Haruki Murakami’s work is open-ended and leaves room for interpretation and conjecture, such as Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage. However, Murakami doesn’t reach a point in this story that gives the reader enough material to actually interpret; instead, he leaves readers grasping at tendrils of smoke. Kafka on the Shore contains too many arbitrary details whose purposes are unclear. While I normally love bizarreness if it plays even a small role in the plot, many central mysteries of the novel that kept me reading — the fish falling from the sky, the ability to talk to cats, the mysterious flute — are never resolved or explained.