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Literature: Kafka on the Shore

On my fifteenth birthday I'll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in a corner of a small library. It'd take a week to go into the whole thing, all the details. So I'll just give the main point. On my fifteenth birthday I'll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in a corner of a small library.

Kafka on the Shore (Japanese: 海辺のカフカ, Umibe no Kafuka) is a 2002 novel by Haruki Murakami that features two distinct plots that are nonetheless intertwined. The first is about fifteen year-old "Kafka" Tamura who runs away from home in order to avoid fulfilling an oedipal prophecy. The second follows Nakata, a mentally slow old man who has the ability to talk to cats, as he gets dragged into a journey across Japan running parallel to Kafka's own. It begins realistic enough, but soon takes a turn for the surreal and it becomes clear that neither will be having a normal journey.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Arc Words: Cryptic references to an "entrance stone" start showing up about halfway into the book.
  • Asleep for Days: When Hoshino and Nakata arrive in Shikoku, Nakata promptly goes to sleep for 34 hours. He pulls this off at least two more times.
  • Astral Projection: Ever since a strange event during World War II, people from Kafka's and Nakata's town have been known to do this randomly. Itís never truly voluntary and they often don't remember that they even left. Some are worse afflicted than others.
    • Also a Discussed by Oshima and Kafka when Kafka realizes that the ghost girl is probably the still-alive Miss Saeki. The conversation also opens Kafka to the possibility that he killed his father via astral projection.
  • Author Appeal: As usual in the case of Murakami; music, especially classical music and opera.
  • Beat Still, My Heart: With cats.
  • Bishōnen: Oshima is described as "pretty, rather than handsome" with a clean look and a charming smile.
  • Big Bad: While unexpected due to the somewhat dreamlike flow of the story, on a second reading one can see that Johnnie Walker was pulling the strings from the start, and may in fact be Kafka's father.
  • Blood-Splattered Innocents: A few days after running away, Kafka blacks out for about four hours and wakes up with his shirt stained with someone else's blood. Despite apparently no one being around for him to have attacked, Kafka comes to fear that he may have killed his father via Astral Projection.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Colonel Sanders claims to not know what "right" or "wrong" are and only cares about keeping the timeline/universe in order.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: When Nakata is describing Johnnie Walker, he makes some general observations about his clothes before adding that Johnnie Walker is collecting cats so he can steal their souls.
    • This really isn't that "squicky", except the reader knows how Johnnie Walker gets those souls.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Sakura might be Kafka's sister.
  • Brought Down to Normal: Nakata loses the ability to talk to cats after killing Johnnie Walker. Ultimately subverted for a possible Discard and Draw—he may have already had these abilities, but after that incident he displays the ability to make it rain animals, the ability to speak to the entrance stone, and some kind of sixth sense that allows him to find the stone and the Komura Library.
  • Catchphrase: Nakata, with "[food item] are one of Nakata's favorites."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Directly discussed by Colonel Sanders and Hoshino.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Miss Saeki had one...it ended badly.
  • Discard and Draw: Nakata loses the ability to talk to cats but gains the ability to make it rain animals, to detect and talk to the entrance stone, and to locate Komura Library when he cannot even read street signs.
  • Dogs Are Dumb: "Cats know everything" says one cat, "unlike dogs."
  • Dream Land: Near the end of the book, Kafka subconcious drives him to infiltrate a dream of Sakura's to fulfill the other half of the prophecy even though he doesn't want to.
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: Near the end of the book, Kafka initiates sex with a sleeping Sakura in a mutual dream. She wakes up during and informs him that even if they're dreaming, this is definitely rape. Kafka continues anyway.
  • Everyman: Hoshino.
  • Erotic Dream: Nakata's teacher has one which sets off a bizarre chain of events, and Kafka himself has a few. its slowly revealed that both people were more likely astral projecting and what they did was "real"
  • Eye Scream: The boy named Crow delivers a pretty nasty one to Johnnie Walker.
  • Faux Symbolism: Kafka's in-universe reaction to the lyrics of "Kafka on the Shore", not that he considers it a bad thing.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Colonel Sanders is actually a sort of conceptual being. He considered taking on the form of Mickey Mouse, but decided against it. This may also be the case with Johnnie Walker.
  • Gaydar: Hoshino quickly pegs Oshima as a homosexual.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Oshima and Kafka frequently compliment each other's looks, Kafka blushing in response a few times.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: Johnnie Walker has to request that Nakata kill him, since "the rules" prevent him from simply committing suicide.
  • Ill Boy: Oshima is a hemophiliac.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Something like that.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Nakata and Hoshino, a truck driver in his twenties who thinks that Nakata resembles his own grandfather.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: Especially Nakata's side of the story, which is partly divulged through military documents and personal correspondence.
  • Kick the Dog: When Nakata was little, his teacher hit him in the head for seeing her clean up her period blood, resulting in him being mentally disabled.
    • Or, if you take the magical realism angle, it's the influence of the shiny thing in the sky. After all, blunt trauma usually doesn't qualify people to speak to cats, does it?
    • Two words: Johnnie. Walker.
  • Killed Off for Real: Johnnie Walker, Miss Saeki, Nakata, Some of the talking cats, and Kafka's dad.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Whether Kafka and Sakura actually are siblings or not, Sakura sees their relationship this way.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: Johnnie Walker and his quest for a cat soul flute are bound by very strict and specific rules.
    • He must kill the cat in a way that would have it experience pain.
    • He cannot cover his clothes from the blood splatter.
    • He is bound to complete the flute and cannot get out of it through suicide.
  • Magic Music: Presumably the case with Johnnie Walker's flute.
  • Magical Realism: It's by and large an average story, except for the talking cats.
    • And the fish. (Or not.)
    • And the whole dream thing.
    • Not to mention the Greek tragedy angle.
    • Of course there's the whole "Johnnie Walker" part as well.
    • Which leads us to the entrance stone.
    • And the soldiers.
    • And Colonel Sanders.
  • May-December Romance: Kafka and Miss Saeki.
  • Megane: Oshima.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Hoshino.
  • Mind Screw:
    • Dives headlong into this with Johnnie Walker's introduction. He's collecting the souls of cats to craft from them a human soul-stealing flute, which will escalate from there into a flute "big enough to rival the universe". He goads Nakata into killing him, after which Nakata passes out. Nakata wakes up back in the vacant lot conspicuously not splattered with blood and apparently having lost the ability to talk to cats. As he tries to turn himself in, he successfully predicts that it will rain fish. And when they finally find a body, it's nude and belongs to Kafka's father.
    • With the exception of the first time, whenever Kafka has sex with Miss Saeki, the narration switches to second-person, with inconsistent use of the boldface type that comes in whenever Kafka is normally talking to himself/the boy named Crow (who is Kafka's alter-ego; note also that the name "Kafka" itself means "crow"). The effect is rather confusing.
  • Missing Mom: Kafka's mom left when he was very young, taking his sister with her.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Miss Saeki, who might also be Kafka's mother.
  • New Weird
  • No Periods, Period: Averted for drama, rather than comedy.
  • Ooc Is Serious Business: While awake, Kafka is a troubled but fundamentally good person. Its therefore clear that unlike when he apparently killed his father (Whom he might have actually hated enough to kill) when he entered Sakura's dream to rape her, the prophecy was obviously manipulating him through his subconscious.
  • One-Hit Wonder: In-Universe. Miss Saeki, with "Kafka on the Shore". It was also her only song—there wasn't even a different song for the B-side.
  • Or Was It a Dream?:
  • Painting the Medium: In some ways more subtle than others.
    • Kafka's side of the story is written in first-person present tense; Nakata's is written in third-person past tense.
    • Kafka talks to himself/the boy named Crow talks to Kafka in unquoted boldface type, as does Johnnie Walker's dog.
    • A letter from Nakata's childhood teacher has the text left-aligned; the rest of the book is justified.
  • Parental Incest
  • Parrot Exposition: Oshima has some fun with this when the Straw Feminists come around.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Kafka.
  • The Runaway: Kafka runs away from his dad's home because he is afraid of fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother and sister.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Saeki's lover was killed by student revolutionaries who mistook him for a university official and refused to listen otherwise.
  • Shout-Out: Oshima quotes Macbeth and Electra and makes references to several other pieces of literature.
  • Shrug of God: Murakami specifically states in his blog that the interpretation of Saeki and Kafka being related, as well many other parts of the novel, are all up to the reader.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Oshima is charming, well-read, and physically weak. His older brother is an asocial surfer. Subverted when Kafka finally meets Oshima's brother. Oshima is really just as asocial, but Kafka is somehow able to tease conversation out of both brothers.
  • Sidetracked by the Analogy: Frequently by Nakata, the analogy given by Hoshino.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: Nakata uses his ability to find people's lost pets.
  • Starfish Alien: Johnnie Walker's true form is something like a vaguely serpentine blob.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: When Kafka encounters a ghostly girl in his room, he likens the atmosphere to being at the bottom of a crater lake. "Kafka on the Shore"'s lyrics also mention of a crater lake.
  • Surprise Incest: Kafka has sex with two women who might be his mom and sister.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: In-universe; Kafka finds "Kafka on the Shore"'s lyrics to be oddly prescient.
  • Thanatos Gambit: This may have been Johnnie Walker's plan - get killed by Nakata to hitchhike a ride with him so he could get to the entrance stone. The book is rather vague.
    • It still holds true, because even if he didn't hitch a ride, he would be stuck making the soul flute if Nakata had not killed him, and therefore unable to reach the entrance stone.
  • Third-Person Person: Nakata.
  • Title Drop: Dropped by Oshima when he reveals that "Kafka on the Shore" is a song in-universe.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Nakata brings up eel at every opportunity.
  • Transsexual: Oshima is female-to-male transsexual attracted to men. He's intersex as well, having underdeveloped breasts and no period.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting
  • Wham Episode: In chapter 38, Nakata and Hoshino finally find the place they're looking for. And where should it be but Komura Memorial Library?
  • Wham Line: Oshima certainly knows how to shut up Straw Feminists.
    "First of all, I'm not a male," Oshima announces.
    A dumbfounded silence follows on the part of everybody. I gulp and shoot Oshima a glance.
    "I'm a woman," he says.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Oshima corrects the Straw Feminists on their use of "gender".
  • Your Soul Is Mine: Johnnie Walker is killing cats so he can take their souls and make a flute from them, which he'll use to steal human souls and continue from there.
I Am a CatJapanese LiteratureKara no Kyoukai
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Iron CouncilWorld Fantasy AwardLunar Park
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Just After SunsetLiterature of the 2000sKate Daniels

alternative title(s): Kafka On The Shore
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