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“Kafka on the Shore follows the fortunes of two remarkable characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home at fifteen, under the shadow of his father’s dark prophesy. The aging Nakata, tracker of lost cats, who never recovered from a bizarre childhood affliction, finds his pleasantly simplified life suddenly turned upside down. Their parallel odysseys are enriched throughout by vivid accomplices and mesmerizing dramas. Cats converse with people; fish tumble from the sky; a ghostlike pimp deploys a Hegel-spouting girl of the night; a forest harbors soldiers apparently un-aged since WWII. There is a savage killing, but the identity of both victim and killer is a riddle.“
Here I am again, reading a book at the gifting/recommendation of a friend with the warning of ‘it’s definitely weird, and the author has some issues‘ and trusting the person who gave the warning, but apparently not taking them seriously enough? Or maybe just not realizing it’s going to be so much weirder than I ever thought.
I was told by multiple people ‘So the writing is excellent, it’s super mind-bending, but hoo boy does Murakami have some serious hangups with women and sex’ and boy were they right – and yet this is my first/only foray into Murakami.
Now I don’t want to scare anyone off here, but this is a segway to warn any readers of the following: CW for incest, rape, underage sex, graphic depictions of sex/genitalia, rape of a minor, child abuse, and animal abuse.
I have to say that after the mostly negative beginning here, Kafka on the Shore [KotS] was one of the best novels I’ve read in quite awhile. Murakami has an incredible writing style, and honestly for the majority of the book I was completely entranced and couldn’t stop reading. I felt completely submerged into the book and was swept away with the writing most of the time. It’s been awhile where I had to really fight myself with the ‘but just one more chapter’ and then realizing it was 3am and forcing myself to go to bed because I had work in a few hours.
KotS is very surrealistic and dreamlike, which matches how the story itself feels like someone explaining a strange dream they had, where some parts were completely nonsensical and humorous, others very sharp and detailed, and yet others a straight up nightmare.
The story is split up into mostly two main parts, the main being from Kafka, a runaway teenager who is drawn to certain locations and people for reasons he can’t quite put his finger on. The other part is from the perspective of Nakata, an elderly man who was left illiterate and ‘not very bright’ after a strange, paranormal accident when he was young that also left him being able to speak with cats. Their stories eventually merge in strange and mysterious ways, but I don’t want to get too much into the details of the story, because 1. it won’t make sense if I were to try and explain it and 2. it’s really just something that needs to be experienced
So let’s get into the weird shit. [The especially weird shit, because really the entire book is weird] Partial spoilers from here on out.
Kafka is running away from a sort of prophesied curse put upon him – that he would end up being like Oedipus – he would murder his own father, and also have sex with his mother and sister who left he/his father many years ago.
Spoiler Warning: All of those things happen in some way or another, but the story tries to spin some of them in weird ways, like if incest was okay if it wasn’t biological, or questioning if someone is really guilty of something if it’s done in a dream state and don’t remember. [This only made me raise an eyebrow even further in Murakami’s direction]
I don’t want to give away the who is who and when is where/whatnot, but this one of the [multiple] parts of the book where I was very uncomfortable. I went from feeling submerged and swept away to almost drowning.
Kafka rapes someone [and let me be clear here, even though it’s unclear if it happened in reality, the victim outright tells him ‘I don’t want this, and if you continue this you will be raping me’ and he continues anyway], and that victim also had molested him earlier in the book [Reminder: He’s 15, and all of his sexual experiences are with people who are adults, some much much older than he is]. Then he also is molested by someone who is sleepwalking that is over three times his age??? [That’s… double criss-cross sexual assault???] and these experiences are all with people who he is in some way related to, both biologically, and through marriage/raised in that way.
This is after the entire book of Kafka describing being attracted to certain women and people sexually, but whole also constantly thinking about that they could be his relatives. It literally felt like the anime pigeon/butterfly meme, except that during any sexual fantasy or sexual experience, he’s just ‘is this my sister/mom????’
Freud would have a fuckin’ field day with this book. I’m genuinely relieved he was already long dead when this book came out lol
But even if you remove all of the incest from the book [sidenote: …the incest is a pretty book-long component in some way or another, even if it’s not the graphic parts] the graphic sexuality and depictions/explanations/descriptions of people’s genitals and what they’re doing in given moments is also… frequent. There was one segment where a woman is writing to a professor and goes in great detail about a carnal sex dream she had, how wet/aroused she was around children [wtf Murakami], great detail about her husband’s semen still being inside of her, and then also her explosive menstruation, that also apparently caused her to literally beat the shit out of a small child when he found her blood rags and tried to return them to her.
Like… I get we all think about sex and all get horny in our lives, but the majority of these scenes had me like this during the book: What the Hell?
It got so uncomfortable for me in some parts that I just kept internally begging for the chapter to be over so we could get back to Nagata’s adventures with finding lost cats and talking to them. [Which, eventually he becomes friends with a trucker named Hoshino, and they go on adventures together and it’s honestly wholesome. Completely opposite of what the parts with Kafka eventually become]
Speckled among the two main storylines are also some other very interesting characters, including a Cheshire-Cat like character who leads and gives clues and guidance to Kafka that may or may not be an actual crow, a back-alley pimp that is also a paranormal figure of some kind that takes the form of Colonel Sanders [Yeah… the KFC one], and also a cat-murdering man who dresses/acts/and goes out of his way to take on the persona of Johnny Walker [yeah… the whiskey guy] to collect cat souls. Again, what the hell?
I also wanted to put aside to talk about an interesting character that stood out to me that isn’t wacky in any way – and that’s Oshima. Oshima is one of the most interesting and likable characters in the entire book, and also is probably one of the best written trans characters I’ve ever read, especially being written by a straight cis man. Not only is Oshima a trans man, but also openly gay. He’s never made to be creepy or predatory, is incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and kind, loyal, and dependable. Most of the times his sexuality or gender is brought up, it’s sort of just a side thought and just to clarify some issues. The characters around him all use his proper pronouns [though his brother kinda/sorta slips up once but corrects himself] and I was just genuinely impressed to be completely honest. There is one part where he for some reason Murakami felt the need to have him express the kind of sex he prefers and how his genitals are used/his flat chest but it’s used in a strange way that I guess could seem realistic? He’s essentially challenged and insulted that he is a misogynist [because the building he works in doesn’t have separated restrooms] by over-the-top feminists who have nothing better to do and tell him he doesn’t know the hardships or issues that women experience… when in fact he does and throws this back in their face. I feel like the majority of trans people usually avoid any discussion of their bodies due to the abuse they experience due to it, so that specific scene was a little questionable, but this book was also published in the early 2000’s and things were definitely different then, especially in Japan.
Let’s also talk about a part that I both loved, and horribly disliked.
Liked: Nakata speaks to cats. Different kinds of cats can speak more/less clearly depending on their breed, as long as he can get on their wavelength. Tabby/striped cats are the hardest to communicate with. Conversations with black cats are middle of the road, and apparently Siamese cats are the easiest to speak to, though there are rarely stray Siamese cats, so it’s hard to have the ability to speak with them. Nakata’s strange and surreal adventures and conversations with cats were a delight. Because he can speak to cats [though no one realizes he can] he’s become well known for being an expert cat finder, because he can actually ask around and talk to cats/ask them for help for finding missing cats. How adorable is that? During the main timeline of the story, he’s working for a family to find a missing tortoiseshell cat named Goma. Now to those that know me personally, I also have a tortoiseshell cat, and she is my moon and stars.
Disliked: As the ‘missing cat’ storyline continued, we realize that Goma is in grave danger, as she’s been catnapped by a strange cat catcher. This whole sub plot had my anxiety through the roof, because I kept imagining my cat in Goma’s place and because I love cats so much, the sort of ‘peak’ to the cat subplot had my blood pressure spiking and actually made me cry. The cat catcher is actually a cat torturer, and we learn in great detail as to how he tortures and kills the cats, as well as to the why. He demonstrates this to Nakata as well. I felt fucking awful during/after this scene. While it says something about how well the writing is to elicit such an emotional response, when I was done with that chapter I actually had to put the book down for a few days and go hug my cats. For those who are invested – Goma does survive, though. [I would have thrown the book across the room and stopped reading if she hadn’t]
So all of this weird/bad stuff out of the way – surprisingly I’d still recommend this book to anyone that likes the surreal and dreamlike. Over the years [mostly because of a lack of space] I haven’t kept books just to collect them for my quaint little library and often trade them into the local Half Price books, but KotS is definitely a keeper and I’ll gladly let others borrow it if they want to experience it… but I absolutely will warn others about some of the less palatable aspects of the book.
And to all the boys out there that state that KotS is your favorite book of all time? Side-eyeing you real hard.
And once more: What the Hell?
PS: Cat Tax:
I give Kafka on the Shore 4/5 raining leeches
“Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.”
“When I open them, most of the books have the smell of an earlier time leaking out between the pages – a special odor of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers.”
“Things outside you are projections of what’s inside you, and what’s inside you is a projection of what’s outside. So when you step into the labyrinth outside you, at the same time you’re stepping into the labyrinth inside.”