“Kafka on the Shore” was released by Haruki Murakami in 2002, and, like many of his novels, it is a cryptic page-turner that doesn’t end with all the answers.
Having recently finished reading the book, I was left incredibly confused. There were so many things left unexplained, including all the mysterious supernatural phenomena, all the odd extra characters and the unnumbered chapter towards the end. After thinking on it for a few days, I think I have managed to figure out exactly what’s happening and what it all means thematically. This post will tackle the explanation aspect, while my next post will tackle the thematic analysis part. Needless to say, there will be spoilers ahead, so don’t read any further if you haven’t read the book (which, by the way, you really should.) Also, all of this is just my interpretation and I don’t claim to be a professor of literature or anything of that sort.
So let’s kick things off.
The first thing is to identify what the gimmick of the whole story is, the idea that facilitates symbolism, plot and the portrayal of themes. In ‘Kafka on the Shore’, it’s clearly one thing: spirit. Or rather, the duality and separation of the spirit and body. Spirits can leave the body as living spirits, enter other bodies and leave the world entirely. In ‘Kafka on the Shore’ , which I’ll be calling ‘Kafka’ from now on, most of the main characters don’t have a normal spirit to body relation, and that is what pushes the story forward.
Another thing to identify is the function of the entrance stone. One possible interpretation is that the entrance stone is what, when opened, enables spirits to travel from the human world to the spirit world. This means that at the end, when Kafka exits the entrance to the spirit the world, it is right before Hoshino closes the entrance stone in Colonel Sander’s apartment.
Now what I’ll do is briefly look at each character and explain the state of their spirit.
Nakata does not have a full spirit, and instead has one so irrevocably damaged it cannot be retrieved in the human world. This is why he always feel as if he is not what he was before the ‘accident’, and why only when he died could Hoshino wonder whether in death he would go back to being the normal Nakata. The most likely explanation for the damage of his spirit is that, during the ‘accident’, his teacher beat him so badly that his young body suffered unrecoverable brain damage. He lost everything he was before. He lost his entire identity, and as such his spirit itself was almost entirely destroyed. When faced with Johnnie Walker, the spirit of Kafka is what possessed him as a living spirit, and made him murder Johnnie Walker.
Johnnie Walker, which we find out to be Kafka’s father, is a man with an extremely damaged and twisted, minuscule spirit. One possible reason is that the lightning strike changed his outlook on life to the point where he lacked any sort of spirit. In an attempt to express this lack of spirit, he first became obsessing with sculpture, empty bodies with no spirit. Eventually, in an attempt to gain back his spirit, he started to murder cats. The ‘flute’ of souls is simply the sound of death, as was shown in the chapter “The Boy Named Crow”. For every cat he killed, he managed to find his own spirit, but it was dark and twisted, and it was this spirit that entered the spirit world upon his death, after which the boy named Crow killed his phantom spirit once in for all.
Kafka is born with two spirits, or rather one and a half spirits. With the entrance stone opened by Miss Saeki, he was able to obtain the spirit of her lover back from the spirit world, and the spirit was able to find a body to reside in through Kafka, Miss Saeki’s own son. However, Kafka’s true spirit remained in him, and this is what is referred to as the boy named Crow. This is why, in the unnumbered chapter, Kafka’s spirit, represented in its corporal form of a crow, lunged at and kill the twisted spirit of Kafka’s father. The spirit of Miss Saeki’s lover that remained within him is what compelled him to want to sleep with Miss Saeki, his own mother, despite his own body and spirit not wanting to. This is probably why at those moments, the boy named Crow takes over narration, narrating everything as a third person, unnaturally and painfully.
Miss Saeki, much like Nakata, is a half-spirit. But since she didn’t suffer the same mental handicap Nakata did, she was able to fully understand her lack of spirit, and she lived her life empty, a “hollow body”, with only half a shadow. This destruction of the spirit came when her lover died when they were twenty. The part of her spirit that died and moved on took the form of a fifteen-year old version of her, while the second part remained until Nakata meets her at the end of the book, after which it went to the spirit world and urged Kafka to come back to the human world. When faced with the tragedy of her lover’s death, she opened the entrance stone and guided his spirit outwards, eventually, unintentionally, planting it inside her own son.
Colonel Sanders is an extremely odd character, being described as merely a concept and nothing more, but yet having a human secretary (who could also possibly be the Philosophy major). It’s important to note that Colonel Sanders is described as a concept and not as a spirit, and he also mentioned that, since he is a concept, he cannot be killed. Spirits can be killed, as shown in the unnumbered chapter. So this can only mean that Colonel Sanders it the tangible, physical representation of an abstract concept. I would argue that what Colonel Sanders represents is the notion of the Living Spirit. He is unable to do anything physical or with substance. And his main job is to ‘check the accounts’, that is, to correct the flaws in the passing and possession of spirits. This is why he was so keen on helping Hoshino and Nakata on their quest. If so, then what’s the deal with the Philosophy major?
“And by exchanging self and object, we can project ourselves onto the other and gain self-consciousness”
This quote strongly suggests that the knowledge of one’s own existence is a direct result of one’s awareness of another’s awareness of oneself. The purpose of this philosophical idea in ‘Kafka’ is to suggest that only through the recognition of dualities of spirit and body can one attain self-consciousness. The spirit and the body are subject to themselves and object to each other, and with the union and recognition of both does self-consciousness arise. This leaves me to conclude that Colonel Sanders is the physical representation of the idea of the Living Spirit, which has to provide recognition of and for the corresponding body for self-consciousness, true knowledge and peace to be achieved. The secretary or Philosophy major, whether the same person or not, are probably servants to this idea, knowing that something is wrong with the spirits of the world and trying their best to correct it.
Oshima, as a transgendered gay man, is a living, walking metaphor of duality. In him is the duality of man and women both in spirit and in his body. And throughout all his appearances, he constantly reminds us of the importance in recognising these dualities in our quest for purpose and fulfilment.
Kafka on the Shore is the boy in the painting that was painted by a traveling artist that visited the Komura library when Miss Saeki and her lover were very young, and it is also the subject of Miss Saeki’s song “Kafka on the Shore”. In the novel, Kafka has claimed himself to be Kafka on the Shore, and Miss Saeki has labelled Nakata when he met her as the Kafka on the Shore. I feel that Kafka on the Shore is the representation of the search of one’s lost spirit and one’s own meaning, as the song states that he seems to be ‘thinking of the pendulum that moves the world’, the regularity and momentum of spirit and body that keeps everything in balance, that keeps the ‘account’ in ‘check’. Kafka thinks he is Kafka on the Shore as, because of his union with Miss Saeki, Kafka thinks that he has found his life’s purpose and meaning. However, Nakata is truly Kafka on the Shore, as through his gut feelings and impulses, he has truly managed to find his purpose, and the other half of his shadow. In the end, Miss Saeki instructed Kafka to look at the painting in order to remind him to constantly search for his true purpose, as being with her was definitely not what it was.
So now to discuss the more supernatural aspects of the novel. First would be the mass hypnosis of the children in the forest during World War II. Perhaps it was because of the rhythmic beating of the young Nakata. Or perhaps it was because, facing the trauma of the abuse of Nakata, they went into a state of shock, and the spirits of all the children entirely left their bodies. Without the projection of the self on the other and vice versa, there was no self-consciousness, and the children were immediately stuck in limbo, alive but not alive. The raining fish and leeches is inexplicable, but, just like Colonel Sanders, it is a metaphor made physical. It might be a metaphor for the then instability of the spirit world, with spirits being where they shouldn’t be, some unable to be at peace. Nakata talking to cats would probably be explained by his damaged, broken half-spirit being close to that of a cat’s, and when Nakata finally dies, before the entrance stone is closed, the remainder of his spirit goes into Hoshino, enabling him to speak with cats and kill the white blob that emerged from Nakata. As for the white blob, it’s the physical representation of the consciousness and will of Kafka’s father/Johnnie Walker, the one that makes him capable of causing leeches to rain. The destruction of the white blob finally destroys his presence in the human world, thereby facilitating the death of his spirit in the spirit world, as only with his will destroyed can the boy named Crow finally end his father and fulfil the prophecy.
At the end of the story, Miss Saeki and Nakata meet, and Miss Saeki’s spirit finally achieves peace. Nakata, having found the other half of his shadow, has also achieved peace, and dies soon after. After Miss Saeki’s remainder spirit visits Kafka in the the spirit world and encourages him to leave, Kafka goes through, and probably left the part of the spirit of Miss Saeki’s lover behind to be with the fifteen-year old part of Miss Saeki’s spirit. And then he woke up to a bright new day and a brand new him.
And that concludes the explanation section of this analysis. Coming up next: what does all of this mean for the reader? And what can we take away from this metaphor-filled novel of the new century? Until then, so long.
After much deliberation, I have decided to go back to this blog. I dabbled in Medium for a while, but ultimately, it felt contrived and quiet. It felt as if I had exchanged freedom of formatting to plain aesthetics. My Medium page is undoubtedly prettier than the wishy-washy homegrown design of my main blog, but I have so many great posts here, and it seems foolish to abandon it all. One important thing to note is that, from this point on, I will not be publishing any poetry. While posts on literature (such as this one) will come and go, my own works will solely be displayed on my alternate blog Drizzle Downwards.