Kafka on the Shore Book Review
This Review Contains Mild Spoilers for Kafka on the Shore
Read from ~05/04/2021 - 05/26/2021
Before continuing, I suggest reading my review of Murakami’s Men Without Women. In reading Men Without Women, I had certain preoccupations going into Kafka on the Shore; preoccupations that affected my reading experience. Think of this as the conclusion to my Men Without Women review.
With that out the way, I’ll be frank with you. This has been one of the hardest reviews for me to write. This is largely because its forced me to look at Murakami in a new, unflattering light. It’s easy enough to talk about whether you like a book or not. In contrast, it's supremely uncomfortable and revealing to write about how you feel that one of your favorite authors has failed you.
In the conclusion to my Men Without Women review, I said I wasn't sure if Murakami was misogynistic or just weird. I'm still leaning towards weird, but I've found his weirdness often dips into territory I really can’t get behind. If something walks like a duck, talks like a duck, yet isn't a duck, at the end of the day, I'll still have to operate as if it were a duck. It's painfully clear to me now that Murakami cannot write women to save his damn life and it feels particularly bad here. Any time a woman shows up in Kafka I'm probably groaning. Even someone like Ms. Saeki who has a history of her own still ultimately feels like she exists narratively to serve main character Kafka. And that's a credible reading. At worst, she just serves as a lightning rod for the main character's incestous lust.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Kafka on the Shore is a novel split across two distinct narratives that affect one another, but rarely overlap in terms of characters. The odd-numbered chapters tell the story of a fifteen year-old runaway going by the name of Kafka Tamura. Kafka runs away from his Nagoya home in order to escape from his oppressive father and his stagnant life. He travels to Takamatsu in Shikoku where he happens across a quaint library. There, he meets Miss Saeki, a woman who may have the answers to his questions regarding his past — namely, where did his mother and sister go and why did they leave him. The even-numbered chapters follow Nakata. During the twilight of the Second World War, Nakata was an average child. However, a mysterious event left him in a coma. When he woke up, while he discovered he could no longer read nor write, he soon realized he could speak to cats. In the modern day, Nakata is an old man living in Nagoya thanks to subsidies from the government. While trying to track down a lost cat as part of his steady odd job, Nakata stumbles upon the gate to a mysterious world, a world that may threaten this one and contain answers to what happened to him as a child. Accompanied by Hoshino, a truck-driver, Nakata embarks on a journey through this world.
And here's the thing, moreso than The Shadow Rising, this book differs in quality wildly depending on the POV. Nakata's chapters were amazing, suspenseful, and touching displays of magical realism, reminding me of why I fell in love with Murakami all those years ago. On the other hand, by the middle of the book, Kafka's chapters are hot fucking garbáge. They're oversexed, creepy, plodding, self-indulgent and just plain hard to get through. Kafka's chapters forced me to reckon with my feelings of Murakami as I know him today.
I usually give praise before delving into criticism, but my critique is so glaring, so central to my reading of this novel that not diving headfirst into it feels like I'm beating around the bush.
Let's talk about women, shall we?
Kafka on the Shore features two, count 'em, two major characters that are women. That may not sound that bad when you realize there's only six major characters in total, but its striking that Murakami fumbles at writing women this badly when there are so few of them in the first place. A complaint lodged at Murakami in regards to his women characters is that they only exist to further the development of the male characters. Kafka on the Shore seems to prove this depressingly well. Characters Saeki and Sakura really only exist to revolve around Kafka. While, again, Saeki is given a history, it rings a bit hollow when she's described as living a sort of half-life until Kafka shows up, essentially saying that she has no meaning beyond Kafka. The little we know of Sakura might as well not even be there when she contradicts those details for Kafka's benefit. Sakura and Saeki feel less like realized characters and more like mere props to decorate Kafka's story. And then there's the sex, dear god there's the utter ocean of shudder-inducing sex. Because what better way to make it absolutely Pepsi Crystal clear that you don't respect the women you write by having them be glorified sex toys? I said that the users of r/menwritingwomen often accuse Murakami of being a horndog. If Kafka on the Shore is anything to go by, the man's a full-on hornwolf. The sad thing about it is I almost bought into it; my money was in my hand and I was smiling at the cash register. When we first meet Sakura, it seems like she's going to be a recurring character with her own wants and desires. Her and Kafka's initial interaction was surprisingly chaste given Murakami's reputation. The next time she appears, Kafka stays at her place for the night. She tells Kafka to think of her as a sister and warns him not to get any funny ideas since she has a boyfriend (she curiously doesn't mention the fact that she's an adult while he's fifteen, but don't you worry dear reader, that's a whole other mess that we'll get into soon enough). About thirty seconds of reading later, she's giving the guy a handjob — "platonically" of course, just so he can relax! Afterwards, she's largely out of the story, essentially showing that she only matters in-so-far as getting Kafka off. Later on, a similar song and dance occurs when the relationship with Miss Saeki also ultimately becomes little more than sexual.
The way the female characters are reduced to being essentially trophies is sleazy. The type of sex on display is downright nauseating.
Kafka on the Shore features a prominent Oedipus plot, wherein Kafka's father prophesizes that his son will kill him and sleep with his sister and mother. Naturally, we must stick with the classical understanding of prophecies wherein one won't be able to escape said prophecy despite their best efforts. So, Kafka does sleep with his sister and mother, he does kill his father (maybe, kind of). Making this even worse if the fact that, again, Kafka is fifteen. And it still manages gets worse. Somehow, Saeki sleepwalks whilst driving a car then proceeds to have sex with the underage Kafka, who is fully conscious. Given that Kafka doesn't try to stop a woman who's unconscious from having sex with him, he's raping her, but given she's middle-aged while he's still a child, Saeki is raping him. Does Murakami address this? Of course not! Because why think about your weird sex? Then later, the two of them start regularly having sex while Saeki is conscious. Kafka then forces himself upon Sakura in a dream, wherein she says "this is rape, you know," which I'm sure is a totally accurate representation of what someone would say in that in that horrifying situation.
And fans are sure to have a defense; believe me, I know — a few months ago, I might have been right beside them. One might excuse this by claiming that it makes sense, as Kafka's a hormonal teenager. That would be fine and dandy if the women weren't acting on his desire. One could say he might just be an unreliable narrator that blurs the line of reality and fantasy, but this ultimately doesn't make it fun to read, this ultimately doesn't leave us with any critique of this behavior and nothing leads us to believe it isn't real besides the Murakami Defense Squad saying it isn't. Need more evidence that the excuse of it being "just Kafka's perspective" is bunk? The takeaway from a female character completely separate from the lens of Kafka, Nakata's teacher, is that after she had an extremely erotic dream about her husband, she hid her period blood-stained washcloths in the forest during a school fieldtrip and then proceeded to slap a child senseless when he stumbled upon them. It's clear that Murakami writes women in a very sexual, bizarre manner in general. Others might defend the Sakura rape scene as being a dream, but this story routinely shows that dreams can blend into reality. Even if it wasn't, "I only fantasized about raping my sister" isn't quite the defense that some think it is. When they're not groan-inducing, the role of women in this story is downright uncomfortable, with little justification for it.
And I really shouldn't need to say this, but just to get it out the way, I am not a prude. Sex can be done well in books. One of my favorite books features copious amounts of sex. Hell, I often look for works with sex. So I don't shirk at the thought of sexuality itself, I just shirk when it's done tastelessly.
And if you thought you were out of the woods because you survived Murakami's bungling of women, wait until you see him tackle feminism and transgenderism! Because in Kafka on the Shore Murakami is of the belief that he can never make this reader groan enough!
There's a section in the novel where two women visit the library where Kafka, Oshima, and Saeki work. The woman state that they're from a feminist organization and declare the library sexist for various reasons. This is already annoying since most of the reasons given are minor and the women are presented as being irate and not open to discussion. If that wasn't enough, Oshima reveals that he's transgender (in this case, being biologically female whilst being a man) in the most awkward way possible, going into detail about having a vagina, being flat-chested, not having periods, and having anal sex with men. Oshima essentially says this to shut down the women, claiming that as a transgender man, there's no way he could be sexist against women.
I really, really don't want to try and parse through trans or feminist issues because I'm not equipped to do so — I'm neither trans nor am I a feminist. Really the only reason I feel comfortable talking about this section is because Murakami proves that he's even less equipped to talk about these issues than I am. The entire thing just proves how out of his depth he is when writing about things not in his immediate circle. Through the women, Murakami seems to create an annoying strawman argument against feminism. Years ago, I might consider it groundbreaking that Murakami features a trans character, but now I can't help but think that the Murakami-isms really don't do this character justice. Trans people aren't a monolith of course, but I'm pretty comfortable in saying they generally don't go talking about their plumbing to random people in public spaces. There's no scenario in which this section isn't terrible. This section reads like a poor attempt to dunk on feminism. It's also a poor way to reveal Oshima as trans because, again, this reads like an unrealistic scenario and him being trans doesn't mean he can't be sexist.
I can't even take solace in the characters of Kafka's sections offsetting Murakami's missteps. I've already gone into the problems with Saeki and Sakura. Simply put, Kafka isn't a very compelling lead. Oh, sure, there's a good framework for an interesting character — he runs away in part to get away from his twisted father, he desperately wants to be stronger than he is, and he has a destructive sex drive, among other things. But that's all that this is: a framework, a skeleton. There are decent ideas here, but little meat to these ideas. He's a character that seems to react very little to the oddities around him. He's someone that seems to shuffle to and fro wherever the story tells him to with very little reflection. He's initially horrified at the Oedipus prophecy his father tells him, but then he's perfectly fine with sleeping with women that he strongly suspects are his sister and mother because Reasons™️. More often than not, Kafka doesn't act like an actual person, let alone a fifteen-year-old. It's hard to buy this as a coming of age because Kafka hardly seems his age.
Kafka's relation with his father is also pitifully undefined beyond "rocky." While the prophecy that Kafka's straddled with is a weird, horrific thing to tell your son, I honestly still wanted more to go off of. We know little about Kakfa's relationship with his father beyond this. Is his father neglectful? Physically and verbally abusive?
I think the most real character in this section is Oshima. This ultimately isn't saying much, because he more often than not comes across as an obnoxious way to spout the classical literature Murakami wants to desperately tie this novel to.
Some might say that this is to be expected with Murakami's books. After all, the magical realism elements are at the forefront of the experience, that the characters are simply mediums for the bizarre events of the story. Unfortunately, I don't find bland, unrealistic characters compelling no matter the reason. More damningly, magical realism didn't grip me that much in Kafka's chapters.
On a more positive note, if someone defends Kafka's blandness, I'd raise them a Nakata, a Hoshino.
Make no mistake, my problems with Kafka's chapters make me dislike this novel overall, but Nakata's section is why I can still glean some enjoyment out of it, it's how I can still respect Murakami's craft and imagination instead of completely writing him off as a problematic hack. If this novel was just Nakata's section I wouldn't be nearly as disappointed as I am.
For one, I was a lot more invested in the characters in Nakata's section. I really couldn't assign a voice to Kafka, as he read so blandly. As weird as it sounds, I imagined a very distinct voice for Nakata's dialogue — Jim Cummings rendition of Winnie the Pooh. Nakata and Pooh both have similar mannerisms — from their excitement regarding their favorite foods, to their simple expressions of their feelings. It's an odd connection, no doubt, but a connection nonetheless, which is a lot more I can say for Kafka. Unlike Kafka, Nakata is lovably distinct and it's a treat to see his reactions to the world. Hoshino, Nakata's companion, is also a really interesting character, if only due to how well he's written in comparison to Kafka. Hoshino is essentially an everyman — your average, run-of-the-mill guy. Hoshino is satisfying in a way Kafka isn't because his averagenishness works as an "in" for the audience better than Kafka's blankness. In this way, he effectively shows how a normal person would react to the strange occurrences of the novel. Sure, his reactions may be a bit understated, but he still reacts, proving that normal people can work well in Murakami's style of magical realism. It's honestly amazing how Hoshino still comes across as being "average" while still being wonderfully defined. Hoshino had a good relationship with his grandfather, he was mixed up with the wrong crowd as a teen, said experience of being an outsider lead to him developing an ACAB mentality, he served in the JSDF, he's a truck driver, he has a problem with steady relationships, and he likes watching baseball a bit too much. I found Nakata and Hoshino realized and endearing in a way I never found Kafka. I mourned and feared for them while I could honestly care less about what happened to Kakfa and the rest of the library crew.
Nakata's chapters also inject the book with the magical realism that I know and love. They're in Kafka's chapters, too, but they're more prominent here and they're more fun, less gloomy. To wit, we have people that can speak to cats, a felicidal maniac who takes the form of an alcohol mascot, leeches and fish falling from the sky, a magical pimp with the likeness of Colonel Sanders, and magical stones. It's a simple thing, but I also just like the fact that the characters actually move in Nakata's section. While Kafka moves locales occasionally, he's mostly staying put while Nakata and Hoshino are constantly on a journey. Nakata's section proves that Murakami can be engaging, that he can amaze through his imagination which seems to know no bounds all the while drawing us in with colorful and/or relatable characters.
Part of this is the reason I ultimately don't hate Murakami. I still recognize that he's a very talented writer who has the capacity to craft stories I enjoy. It's just a shame that he has an utter blindspot when it comes to writing about women. I still attribute this to ignorance rather than malice, but given that he has no interest in evolving, this distinction gives me little solace. And if he really doesn't evolve, I question if I really want to follow Murakami as closely as I have been. I'm grateful for the stories I read but it seems there's a point where many fans stop respecting Murakami quite the way they used to. Unfortunately, Kafka seems like the marker of that point for me. Maybe I'll read Murakami again, but I fear I'll find his treatment of women distracting at best, supremely irritating at worst. At that point, for the sake of ensuring that my memory of him isn't completely tarnished, it might be better to just call it quits.
The biggest praise that I can give to Kafka on the Shore as a whole is that its split-POV perfectly exemplifies the duality of Murakami. When Murakami hits the ball, you're either going to see a spectacular homerun, or you'll see a ball hurtling toward your face at 110 miles an hour, making you question if it's worth going to the game at all.