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A Boy Finds Himself on a Beach, the Tide Turning from Low to High, from Boy to Man

By Chris King

A safe argument can be made that passionate writers do not tell their stories to impress
others. Good writers do not pore over their thoughts and struggles with the intention of selling
hard copies. The few who do find success on a best-selling list do not end up there because of
their selfish desire to collect royalties on every book thrust into the hands of a fiendish audience.
No. Best-sellers are best-sellers because they communicate themes, motifs, and perspectives that
an average person may not know how to articulate. A writer is simply a glorified historian — an
architect of culture — one who designs a perception-driven thought into the minds of those who
are willing to listen, not for fame and fortune, but for the diversification of understanding.
Effective writing stays with a reader for their lifetime, enabling them with the necessary
intellectual tools to reconsider their personal ideologies and form new webs of knowledge that
were once inaccessible. Literature as I just described usually takes decades to solidify its place
as classic. However, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore achieved status of similar prestige
in under fifteen years. Many critics would agree that Murakami, already an acclaimed novelist,
strayed from his typical style to write Kafka on the Shore in 2002. He coincides two stories that
eventually intersect, creating a multi-layered and intellectually challenging struggle with what it
means to be imperfect. Murakami’s management of otherwise dominant perspectives sends
major literary subjects of criticism such as Feminism or Marxism to a backseat, not because he
deems them unimportant, but because he writes on a metaphysical level that transcends popular
human concepts. Murakami is less concerned about the gender binary, or the socio-economic
caste system and instead focuses his storytelling abilities on the paradoxically primal human

The first plot line Murakami introduces is that of the protagonist, a fifteen year old boy
self named Kafka Tamura. Instantly, Kafka’s name is suggestive of not only a Western
education, but a love of Western writing and culture. Kafka would later explain that he chose to
rename himself so due to the literary achievements of Franz Kafka, a German existentialist with
whom the boy identifies. Just as Murakami expertly blends Western culture with Japanese, he
effortlessly integrates Kafka’s reality with what could only be described as a Platonic world of
being where virtuous concepts such as maturity and justice were merely figments of an
unachievable reality, a theme that Murakami would later explicate through a musical analogy.
Kafka’s character is a real boy facing real struggle, but by adding an additional dimension of
being vs. becoming, Kafka transcends the physical realm and develops into a universally
relatable character with which every reader in any audience can share a connection. Imagine
Kafka’s virtues and vices are a Wikipedia page and every person who reads his article could
borrow fragments of himself to help establish their own identity.

Already, there are two layers to Murakami’s story that bleed into each other like blood
mixes with water. Kafka’s physical presence in the world is easy to understand. He eats, sleeps,
and exercises like any other person. His metaphysical existence is much harder to decipher,
however. To aide in understanding exactly what the other side of Kafka represents, Murakami
writes a second plot line, one that follows Nakata, a simple old man with a strange gift. Nakata’s
gift enables him to communicate with cats, as I could communicate with you. Many of the
scenes involving Nakata depict him speaking to a cat, for they make better company than
humans. It is his connection with cats and Kafka’s symbolic link with Nakata which sets up an
alliance between three aspects of every day life. Kafka is the physical presence in the world,
pragmatic and intentional in his way. Nakata is a symbolic representation of the world of being
where life is uncomplicated and refined. Cats, in Japanese culture, represent wealth, health, and
fortune. By linking all three facets of this specific arc together through different characters,
Murakami communicates the necessity for three very different, yet tightly connected, aspects of
life. Without one, the other fails, evident in Nakata’s behavior when Johnny Walker begins
slaughtering his cat friends before his eyes. As he sliced the bellies of Nakata’s cats, Nakata
pleads for an end, crying out, “I don’t feel like myself anymore,” (Murakami, 148) which
reinforces the shared interdependent relationship. By using an alcoholic allusion as the disruptor
of the relationship, Murakami also comments on the manmade vices that can prevent the
harmony of natural life.

To strengthen the network between the three facets of life, Murakami adds yet another
dimension of interconnectedness by seemingly mirroring Kafka’s significant actions with
Nakata’s. For example, Kafka wakes up bloodied in a bush, having lost all recollection of the
last eight or so hours. Just a couple chapters later, Nakata murders Johnny Walker, the killer of
cats — the killer of good fortune — and becomes soaked with blood, waking up in a similar
manner. It is later discovered that Kafka’s father has been murdered. Many literary critics agree
that Nakata is the physical presence of Kafka’s spiritual character. His actions coincide with
Kafka’s thoughts. Lai writes in her literary criticism explicating the creative alliance between
Kafka and Nakata, that Nakata searches for cats and murders Johnny walker “to make his
selfhood become whole again” (Lai).

A character key to Kafka’s development, Oshima, explains that people were once born
complete: male/male or male/female or female/female. One day God became bored and split
each identity up, and set them on a lifelong quest to reunite. Murakami puts this theory into
practice by setting Kafka, the physical being on a path to rediscover his other half — his spirit —
represented by the simple Nakata. On the other end of the spectrum, Nakata experiences the
same desire. Nakata constantly announces that he used to be bright, and a cat tells him that his
shadow is “faint” (Murakami, 83) insinuating that something from his identity is missing. While
Kafka misses Nakata, he is without a natural connection to the world and cannot communicate
with nature as peaceable humans do. Contrarily, while Nakata misses Kafka, he is without his
once youthful physical presence in the world. The two characters could not be more different.
One is youthful and wiser than his times, one is old and has the education of a fourth grader.
However, both are united spiritually by a constant curiosity and acceptance of the struggles
placed in front of them.

The end of the novel frames Kafka’s and Nakata’s journeys with an exposition given by
Kafka’s stronger alter ego, the Boy Named Crow. Referencing the physical and spiritual struggle
Kafka faced in his own bildungsroman, Crow tells an enlightened Kafka, “you are part of a brand
new world” (Murakami, 467). Although Nakata dies, it can argued that his shadow once again
found itself under Kafka’s youthful body. Their paths crossed and their realities blended, just as
Oshima foretold in his tale of the male/male, male/female, female/female reunion. As Kafka’s
soul coalesced with Nakata’s he discovered peace within himself. The inner turmoil boiling over
like a pot of salty hot ramen came to a simmer and Kafka was finally to sip it gently. He was no
longer fighting himself. He body, mind, and spirit became one human being and to that end,
completed Kafka Tamura’s shift into adulthood.

Murakami stated himself that Kafka on the Shore is full of riddles and is a novel that
cannot be fully appreciated unless read multiple times at different times in a life. Variable
perspectives will garner variable reactions; Murakami’s ability to write infinitely many meanings
into the same story is what makes Kafka on the Shore a prominent piece in the reevaluation of
one’s own life. He forces the reader to look past the materialism of the contemporary world, to
ignore the trivial issues that plague routine, to reconsider the sign presented by a seemingly
unorganized society. Kafka on the Shore is a vehicle for Murakami’s plea with his audience to
contemplate the philosophical concepts that transcend human existence in order to determine the
true meaning of human existence. He takes his readers to an extreme in order to better define
mortal limits. In doing so, he creates a spiritual bridge between reality and fantasy — a bridge
that may not always be visible, but is constantly being traveled.

Works Cited

Galati, Frank. “Adapting ‘Kafka on the Shore’.” TriQuarterly 134 (2009): 29+. Student Resources
in Context. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
Hensher, Philip. “Curiouser and curiouser.” Spectator 1 Jan. 2005: 23+. Student Resources in
Context. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
Lai, Amy Ty. “Memory, hybridity, and creative alliance in Haruki Murakami’s fiction.” Mosaic: A
journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature 40.1 (2007): 163+. Student Resources in
Context. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
Murakami, Haruki. Kafka on the Shore. New York: Vintage, 2005. Print.
Yeung, Virginia. “Time and timelessness: a study of narrative structure in Murakami Haruki’s
Kafka on the shore.” Mosaic: A journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature 49.1 (2016):
145. Student Resources in Context. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.