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Literature / Kafka on the Shore

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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:

  • Abusive Parents: Kafka's father was emotionally distant and abusive.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Kafka is attracted to women, but there's a great deal of subtext surrounding his friendship with Oshima, who is openly gay.
  • 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.
  • Asshole Victim: Nakata stabs Johnnie Walker to death...and we're cheering him on the whole way, since Johnnie Walker horrifically mutilates and kills cats which are paralyzed but feel the pain.
  • 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. It’s never truly voluntary and they often don't remember that they even left. Some are worse afflicted than others.
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    • Also a Discussed by Oshima and Kafka when Kafka realizes that the ghost girl is probably the still-alive Miss Saeki. Oshima brings up several examples of the phenomenon from Japanese classics. The conversation also opens Kafka to the possibility that he killed his father via astral projection.
  • Audience Surrogate: Hoshino is a pretty normal guy, especially when compared to Kafka and Nakata.
  • Author Appeal:
    • As usual in the case of Murakami; music, especially classical music and opera. There are several moments where the story takes a backseat to one character or another talking at length about various pieces of classical music.
    • Sexuality and gender are also discussed.
    • Also, cats get plenty of focus.
  • Bequeathed Power: After Nakata dies, it seems that Hoshino gains his ability to speak to cats.
  • Bishōnen: Oshima is described as "pretty, rather than handsome" with a clean look and a charming smile. This turns out to be entirely Justified; Oshima was assigned female at birth and is biologically intersex.
  • Big Bad: While unexpected due to the somewhat dreamlike flow of the story, on a second reading one can see that the person pulling the strings from the start is Johnnie Walker, who may 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.
  • Bookworm: Kafka and Oshima both read a lot and often discuss classics.
  • 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.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Sakura might be Kafka's sister. Doesn't stop her from masturbating Kafka on her bed nor Kafka from sleeping with her in a dream.
  • 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.
  • The Cassandra: Played with; Nakata goes to the police after he kills Johnnie Walker, but of course his story is so ludicrous the police don't believe it. However, when he has to go on a journey to open "the entrance stone", Hoshino takes everything in stride and does everything he asks.
  • Catchphrase: Nakata, with "[food item] are one of Nakata's favorites."
  • Cats Are Magic: They can talk, though only Nakata and later Hoshino can understand them, and they're somehow integral to Johnnie Walker's plans.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Directly namedropped and discussed by Colonel Sanders and Hoshino.
  • Chekhov's Skill: A subversion. Kafka mentions to have trained in Judo as part of his quest for toughness, but he never gets in a fight or uses it. At least on page, if we interpret that the blood on his shirt means he did get in a fight somehow...
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Miss Saeki had one... which ended badly.
  • Classical Music Is Cool: Hoshino is exposed to classical music during his journey with Nakata, and develops an appreciation for it, realizing that it's not the stuffy, boring sort of music he thought it was.
  • Cool Old Guy: Nakata is a bit strange, but he's an unambiguously good man.
  • Covert Pervert: Kafka is generally a formal boy, but he thinks on sex as much as as expected of someone his age.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Kafka, being a hormonal 15 year old, does this frequently.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Colonel Sanders has little patience for Hoshino's questioning.
  • 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.
  • Dub Name Change: The Spanish translation of the book switched Johnnie Walker for Johnnie Walken, as in Christopher Walken. Reasons are unknown, although copyright issues come to the mind.
  • 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.
  • Eldritch Location: The forest outside Oshima's cabin, which leads to a strange neighborhood which lies outside the normal flow of time and is guarded by the ghosts of two Imperial Japanese soldiers who went MIA.
  • Everyman: Hoshino is a thoroughly average young man, in contrast to the more fantastic other characters.
  • Erotic Dream: Nakata's teacher has one which sets off a bizarre chain of events, and Kafka himself has a few. It is 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, who is unfazed and amused by it.
  • 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 (and correctly) pegs Oshima as a homosexual.
  • Gorn: Not often, but there are a couple of extremely visceral scenes, mostly involving Johnnie Walker.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Oshima and Kafka frequently compliment each other's looks, Kafka blushing in response a few times.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Johnnie Walker and later Colonel Sanders. Judging from the latter's dialogue, they seem to be sentient "archetypes" of some sort that represent cosmic forces.
  • 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.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Nakata borders on this trope, being a kind, gentle, mentally handicapped old man with the ability to talk to cats, but his characterization is deep enough that he doesn't come across as a cliche.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Nakata and Hoshino, a truck driver in his twenties who thinks that Nakata resembles his own grandfather.
  • It's Personal: Initially Nakata is unable to stop Johnnie Walker as he begins horrifically killing cats right in front of him, but when he pulls out Mimi, a clever Siamese who helped Nakata earlier, he finally snaps out of his terror and attacks.
  • 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. Also probable is that it's the influence of the shiny thing in the sky, whatever it was, since he gained the ability to speak to cats afterwards.
    • Two words: Johnnie. Walker. He is almost clinical in his murdering of paralyzed cats, which just makes him look more despicable.
  • Kind Hearted Cat Lover: Nakata loves cats, especially since he's able to talk to them, and he makes extra money by looking for lost cats around the neighborhood. He's so kindhearted that the only thing that can move him to violence is the sight of Johnnie Walker gutting a helpless, sedated cat.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Whether Kafka and Sakura actually are siblings or not, Sakura sees their relationship this way, even although she sees nothing wrong in "helping" him to ease his sexual tension (she also claims to have a boyfriend).
  • The Lost Woods: There's something eerily magical about the forest surrounding Oshima's cabin.
  • 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 set in the present day, except for the talking cats, and the whole dream thing, and the Greek tragedy angle, and the "Johnnie Walker" part. There's also the entrance stone, the soldiers, Colonel Sanders. Not that any of this really gets an explanation.
  • May–December Romance: The fifteen-year-old Kafka initiates a sexual relationship with Miss Saeki, who is old enough to be his mother.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Hoshino is a thoroughly average third son of five.
  • 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.
  • Morality Pet: Nakata is this to pretty much everyone he meets in-story, as he's a kindly, illiterate old man who is a little senile, which leads people to pity him and give him extra food or a ride somewhere. Hoshino even states Nakata makes him think of his grandfather.
  • Missing Mom: Kafka's mom left when he was very young, taking his sister with her.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Miss Saeki sleeps with Kafka. She might also be his mother.
  • My Greatest Failure: It's strongly implied that Miss Saeki is Kafka's mother who walked out on him, and she's been living in isolation as a self-imposed punishment ever since.
  • Nice Guy: Nakata is unfailingly polite and good-natured.
  • No Periods, Period: Averted for drama, rather than comedy. As a child, Nakata sees his teacher cleaning up her period while the class is out on a field trip, causing the embarrassed and angered teacher to hit him.
  • 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, "Kafka on the Shore" was a runaway hit. It was also Miss Saeki's only song—there wasn't even a different song for the B-side.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: It's ambiguous as to whether or not Kafka actually raped Sakura. Given the way she behaves towards Kafka when he calls her the end of the book, it doesn't seem likely.
  • 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 Abandonment: Kafka never knew his mother.
  • Parental Incest: Kafka's father prophecies that he would do this with his mother. He eventually has sex with Ms. Saeki, who might be his mother.
  • Rousseau Was Right: Nakata ends up being helped along on his journey by complete strangers who help him out of the kindness of their heart, most notably Hoshino.
  • 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.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Try as he might, Kafka still ends up sleeping with his mother, even when he runs away from home in an attempt to avoid his father's prophecy.
  • 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.
  • 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: Kafka finds "Kafka on the Shore"'s lyrics to be oddly prescient.
  • Thanatos Gambit: This is implied to have been Johnnie Walker's plan - get killed by Nakata to hitchhike a ride with him so he could get to the entrance stone.
  • Third-Person Person: Nakata always refers to himself in the third person.
  • 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.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: It switches back and forth between Kafka and Nakata's stories, with occasional digressions for other characters like Oshima and Hoshino.
  • 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.
  • Whole Plot Reference: Kafka's story is one to Oedipus Rex, which gets pointed out in-universe.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Kafka runs away from home to escape a prophecy that he would kill his father and have sex with his sister and mother. It's because he runs away that he meets Sakura and Saeki, two women who may or may not end up being his sister and mother, and ends up having sex with both of them.
  • 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.