Kafka on the Shore
By Dennis Abrams
I so love this book. And after this reading, even more so.
Kafka, asleep in bed gets a call from Oshima who tells him to get dressed and packed and ready to go. He drives Kafka to the cabin in Kochi, telling him that the police are searching the city every since word broke of Nakata’s confession to the stabbing – police suspect that Kafka may have hired him to commit the crime. AS they drive, Oshima asks Kafka to stop seeing Ms. Saeki, at least for the time being, fearing that her deluded sense that Kafka is the reincarnation of her husband is dangerous.
When they arrive at the cabin, Oshima lays down for a nap while Kafka puts away the groceries and reads for awhile. When Oshima wakes up, he once again warns Kafka about the dangers of wandering too far into the woods – it seems that during the War, a regiment of soldiers trained in these woods, and two disappeared, never to be found.
But despite Oshima’s warning, Kafka wanders into the forest, carrying survival supplies and going deeper into the woods than ever before. That night, he dreams about raping Sakura despite her pleas not to, telling him that although it is a dream, she is his sister. He orgasms and wakes up.
Kafka once again goes into the woods, forging a trail with an axe, all the while arguing with Crow. He has been fighting against his father’s curse all his life, culminating in the previous night’s metaphysical rape of his “sister” Sakura. Believing the war within him is destroying him, he throws away his survival supplies (except his father’s hunting knife) and goes farther into the forest. He is, in effect, committing suicide.
Wandering through the woods, Kafka feels so connected to the rhythms of nature that he is not afraid of being lost, but still feels despair that his mother hated him so much that she abandoned him and confusion about his feelings for Ms. Saeki. Indeed, he seems to doubt the possibility of actually feeling love for anyone. And then…the two Japanese Imperial soldiers who disappeared in the woods during the War approach him, telling him that they have been waiting for him for a long time, and inviting him to come with them through the “entrance.” He agrees to do so.
But as the soldiers lead Kafka through an increasingly treacherous woods, he tires and is starting to fall behind when they reach a ridge overlooking what looks like a deserted village. They descend, and take him to a hut that in the inside looks like Oshima’s cabin. There, he is told to adjust to his surroundings (much as Oshima told him to do) and is left alone. He turns on the TV and watches part of The Sound of Music before falling asleep. When he wakes up, the spirit of the teenage Ms. Saeki is cooking him dinner. They sit and talk; she tells him she has no name and will appear whenever he needs to see her. Kafka tells her that he feels he has come to this place to see her and one other person.
And then…we see The Boy Named Crow, who comes upon Johnnie Walker in the woods??? He shows Crow the flutes made from cat’s souls, and complains that since dying he’s been stuck in limbo and is struggling to find a way out. Walker invites Crow to try and kill him; Crow leaps on him, gashing his skin and cutting out his eyes and tongue, but Johnnie just laughs. (What was that all about???)
Kafka wakes up in the lonely village, wanting to read a book, but there are none there. The spirit of the young Ms. Saeki returns to sit with him, telling him that she feels completely one with him. She also says that this village, a place where time is meaningless, is also a place where memory ceases to exist, along with hunger. (Not unlike the End of the World?) After the 15 year old spirit disappears, the real Ms. Saeki enters the hut. Kafka prepares her tea and they talk her about their relationship. Ms. Saeki explains to him how much she lost trying to ‘freeze time’ when she feared she would lose her husband, and begs him to return to the real world immediately, telling him to take the picture of the boy on the beach and to always remember her. Kafka forgives her for leaving him as a child. The two soldiers lead Kafka out of the village, warning him, a la Lot’s wife (or Orpheus?) not to look back. He does once, at the top of the ridge, and comes close to not leaving. Finally, though, he makes his way back to Oshima’s cabin.
(My take on this extraordinary section? The village is the place that each of the book’s main characters – Nakata, Ms. Saeki, the evil spirit – has been trying to reach – a place free from time and desire – limbo.
And this it seems is what Kafka has desired as well. He has experienced pain and love and hope and loss almost comparable to Ms. Saeki’s, and now he is the place where she has actually lived since she was twenty. And the two Imperial soldiers? They serve the role of Chiron on the River Styx, leading Kafka from one life to the next. And they also serve another role as well – as an image of two men who have avoided a life of pain and torment while giving up a life of happiness as well.)
Oshima’s brother Sada comes to the cabin to retrieve Kafka. As they drive back to Takamatsu, Sada says that the cabin is the one thing that unites him and Oshima. After discussing surfing, Kafka tells Sada that he went into the woods – Sada asks if he met the soldiers, although neither one will acknowledge what the soldiers told them. At the library, Oshima tells Kafka that Ms. Saeki has died, and gives him the picture of the boy on the beach along with a copy of “Kafka on the Shore.” Kafka says that it’s time to return to Tokyo to finish school and to talk to the police, Later, he might come back to work with Oshima at the library.
At the bus station, Kafka calls Sakura to tell her he is leaving Takamatsu. She tells him that she had dreamed of him a couple of nights earlier, but it was not the same rape dream he had – she dreamed that she was protecting him. On the bus back to Tokyo, Crow tells Kafka that he did well on his journey, but Kafka is worried that he learned nothing about himself. Crow tells him to sleep and when he wakes, he will be in a whole new life.
Hoshino rents a car that won’t stand out and brings it back to the apartment. There, Nakata talks to him about the stone, which he says is telling him that someplace nearby has what they need. The next day, the pair begin driving around Takamatsu, looking for the mysterious location, but after a full day of looking, Nakata doesn’t find it, and the normally patient Hoshino is getting pissed. The same thing happens the next day, but on their way home, they got lost in the neighborhood surrounding their apartment and come across the Komura Library, which Nakata is sure is his destination. But since it’s Monday the library is closed and the play to return the next day.
The intrepid duo return to the library where they are greeted by Oshima. Hoshino reads a book about Beethoven and at lunch, he talks with Oshima. In the afternoon, Nakata and Hoshino take Ms. Saeki’s tour of the library; Nakata mentions that he is from the area where Kafka’s father was murdered, which makes Hoshino nervous, but Ms. Saeki continues with the tour. Afterward, the pair go back to the reading room, but suddenly, Nakata runs out and into Ms. Saeki’s study, where he tells her he wants to talk to her about the entrance stone. She agrees and closes the door so that they can speak in private.
And here’s where it gets interesting: they realize they are companions with incomplete shadows: he can’t live anywhere except in the present; and she can’t live anywhere except in the past. We learn that she opened the entrance stone when she was twenty to try to save her husband but was punished for doing so: first with his death, and then with her inability to forget their love. Now, she understands why Nakata is doing the same. She points out to him that HE Is the boy looking out at the water in the painting, and when they touch hands his mind suddenly floods with memories. Ms. Saeki gives Nakata a pile of papers that she says tells the story of her life and asks him to burn them. (She restores his memories, he destroys hers.) Nakata and Hoshino leave to find a place to burn them; Oshima is so busy manning the front desk that is not until late afternoon that he realizes that Ms. Saeki has died. While he waits for the ambulance, Oshima makes note of the time to tell Kafka.
After Nakata and Hoshino burn Ms. Saeki’s memoir, Nakata once again is very tired, so Hoshino calls a cab to take them home. In the cab, he tells Nakata how much the ten days he has spent with him have meant, and how Nakata has made him a better person. Nakata falls asleep in the cab, Hoshino carries him to bed, where Nakata dies peacefully in his sleep. Hoshino, afraid of complicity in the Tokyo murder, thinks about calling the examiner and leaving, but stops short, when he realizes that the entrance stone has not been closed. He wants to do that for Nakata but doesn’t know how, so he waits for word from Colonel Sanders.
While waiting to figure out what to do with the stone, he turns the AC up to keep Nakata from smelling. The weather slowly gets better; the opposite of the storm when Hoshino flipped the stone for the first time. He can’t sleep, and the next morning he sits with the stone (a la Nakata) and tells it his failings, feeling that his life has largely been a waste. A cat goes by the window and tells him “hello.”
Hoshino is now able to speak with cats, and the cat warns him that a being of pure evil will try to sleep through the entrance before it closes – this is the time when Hoshino must flip the stone and kill the being once and for all. Hoshino is worried, though, that he doesn’t know what this being even looks like: the cats gives him the clue that it only moves by night. So, that night, Hoshino waits by the stone with an arsenal of kitchen knives and mallets. At midnight, he sees a creature that looks like a slimy white salamander crawl out of Nakata’s mouth and head straight for the stone. His knives and mallets have no effect on it, so Hoshino concentrates all his energy on flipping the stone: after he does so, he easily kills the creature with a knife. The next morning, Hoshino says farewell to Nakata and takes the creature’s body away to be burned.
And Kafka has learned the lesson that he ran away from home to discover. Ms. Saeki, who squandered her life after twenty, had begged him that he had to accept the pain of his own early live and keep on living. Oshima seconded that in Chapter 49, telling Kafka that we store memories inside of us like books in a library, and only every now and they do we need to dust them off.
The novel, then, ends like it began, with Kafka and Crow talking. At the beginning, Crow had cautioned Kafka that the only way he could survive was by becoming the toughest fifteen-year old in the world. And as the story ends on the bus back to Tokyo, Crow assures Kafka that he is a survivor.
From Matthew Carl Strecher’s extraordinary new book, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami:
“…Saeki and Nakata actually share the same crippling debilitation: like the protagonist who is trapped in ‘the Town’ in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, both have lost their shadows and must now live in the conscious world – on this side – while their other halves go on existing ‘over there.’ Nakata’s story begins in the closing days of World II. For reasons that are never made clear – perhaps it was to escape the rampant violence that surrounded him in his own world – Nakata entered the ‘other world’ as a child, emerging some weeks later without his ‘shadow.’ Along with his shadow, he has lost the ability to remember anything from his past or to form new memories. Put in a slightly different way, he is no longer a being in ‘time,’ divided into past, present, and future, but of Time, that unified eternity in which past and future are bound up in an endless present. Saeki, on the other hand, having once entered the ‘other world’ as a teenager in the mid-1960s, appears to have returned without her complete physical self. Today she has the appearance of a woman in her midforties, but she is, almost literally, a mere shadow of herself with nothing but memories to sustain her. Much like Cinnamon, she spends her time writing memories in a notebook.
Owing in part to his liberation from the snares of the human construct of time, like Yuki in Dance Dance Dance, Nakata is able to sense when certain things are going to happen. And yet, again like Yuki, he cannot be certain whether he is merely seeing what will happen or is actually making it happen. Following his murder of the spirit known as ‘Johnny Walker,’ Nakata visits the nearest police box and confesses what he has done, but he is taken for a senile old man and told to go home. As he prepares to leave, Nakata helpfully suggests to the officer that he bring along an umbrella should he be on duty the next evening, even if the sky is clear, because ‘fish will fall from the sky like rain. A lot of fish. Probably sardines, though there may be a few mackerel mixed in among them.’ The following day, as he predicted, a great plague of fish rains down upon that section of Tokyo. Somewhat later, at a rest area on the way to Shikoku, Nakata observes a man being beaten to death by a biker gang in a parking lot. As when he witnessed Johnny Walker’s cruelty toward the neighborhood cats, Nakata’s inner self reacts to this brazen violence and rises to the surface of his consciousness, incensed:
‘Nakata closed his eyes. Something in his body was quietly boiling over, and he was powerless to hold it back. He felt faintly nauseated…Nakata looked up at the sky, then slowly opened his umbrella above his head. Then, carefully, he took several steps backward…At first it was just a few spatters, but soon the numbers swelled and it became a downpour. They were pitch-black and about an inch long. Beneath the lights of the parking lot it looked fascinating, like black snow. This unlucky snow struck where it landed on the men’s shoulders, arms, and necks. They tried to pull them off, but this was not easily done.’
“Leeches,’ someone said.’
Does Nakata open his umbrella because it is about to rain leeches, or does it rain leeches because Nakata opens his umbrella? Even Nakata appears uncertain. Later in the novel he confides to Hoshino that he is afraid of being used for some terrible evil. ‘Suppose, for instance, that what falls from the sky next time is ten thousand knives, or a huge bomb, or poison gas/ What would Nakata do then?’ The truth is that Nakata, by his own admission, is an ‘empty shell’; we might say he is a mere vessel through which ideas – words – pass at the whim of others, and it is this, rather than any willpower of his own, that brings these new realities into being. He has never truly been in control of his life or of the things that happen in this world through him.
It is, instead, Saeki who represents the more active aspect of the two characters, for in contrast to Nakata’s ‘pure flesh’ existence, Saeki is something closer to ‘pure thought,’ or ‘pure spirit.’ Like all Murakami’s characters – like the ‘poor aunt’ – she has a corporeal form but one that can change; her true existence is bound up in the pages of manuscript paper on which she scribbles, virtually non-stop, with her fountain pen. In response to Nakata’s admission, late in the book, that he understands nothing but the present, Saeki declares to him that she is the opposite, that ‘I haven’t had anyone I could call a friend for a long time…except for my memories.’
But what exactly has Saeki been writing on her manuscript paper, so much that it fills many large file folders? ‘Since returning to live in this town, I have been sitting at this desk, writing this manuscript,’ she explains to Nakata. ‘It is a record of the life I have followed.’ Her final request to Nakata, before he touches her hand and sends her ‘over there’ for good, is that he burn the entire manuscript, so that not a single fragment remains. This collection of manuscript pages thus stands in for the physical remains of Saeki; its burning will be her cremation.
Though he is unable to read or write himself, Nakata intuitively grasps the importance of both, for as Saeki tries to explain to him, the process of writing is synonymous with the act of living, of existing meaningfully, something about which Nakata has no firsthand knowledge since his childhood:
‘It’s a very important thing, the act of writing, isn’t it’? Nakata asked her.
‘Yes. That’s right. It is the act of writing that is so very important. There is nothing meaningful in what has been written, in the result itself.’
‘Nakata cannot read or write, so I cannot leave any records behind,’ said Mr. Nakata. ‘Nakata is just like a cat.’
Stated another way, words – spoken or written – create a new reality for themselves. The act of writing, rather than what is written, is important because through this means we create a new, often tangible, reality. And Saeki is correct is stating that what is written is meaningless, but fails to add, ‘until it is read by another.’ It is the acknowledgment of another that brings the reality of all words to fruition. For Saeki, however, the only person she might wish to read her words is long gone from this world, so she directs Nakata to destroy them.
The most important reality generated through words in this novel, of course, occurs for the title character, Tamura Kafka himself, whose solution to the Oedipal prophecy/curse that governs his life is to create the reality he desire by fulfilling every last detail of that prophecy as it was spoken by his father. In so doing, as we will see [below], Kafka uses his oracle to construct a world in which he regains not only his mother and sister but a renewed (and for him, more acceptable) sense of identity.”
“In Kafka on the Shore, the forest plays an even more central role as a narrative setting, not only in terms of the detailed description it receives but also for its function as a repository of the collective memories of humanity and a meeting place for those memories. In its role as the ‘other world,’ reprising the metaphysical hotel in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the forest also serves as a conduit between worlds and as a sort of ‘changing room’ wherein the inner self may leap from one physical vessel to another Access to this forest, as always, requires a journey, yet the ‘other world’ of the forest also seems to lurk always just beside us, waiting for us to take that one step farther across the boundary into oblivion.
This journey, in the case of Kafka on the Shore, is made by the title character, Kafka himself. As will be recalled…Kafka having fled from his father’s prophecy to Takamatsu City in Shikoku, Kafka lays low at the Komori Memorial Library, where the cross-dressing Oshima provides him company, counsel, and, when necessary, an escape route. As detectives hunt for Kafka as a ‘person of interest’ following the murder of his father, however, they track him to Takamatsu, eventually coming across the library, and Oshima, fearing that Kafka may be implicated, takes him deep into the forested mountains of Shikoku outside of Takamatsu City. There, at a tiny, secluded cabin owned by Oshima’s easygoing surfer brother, Kafka spends a few days in seclusion, warned by Oshima not to wander too far into the forest, as he might never find his way back. As a cautionary tale, Oshima tells him about two deserters from the Imperial Army during World War II who escaped into the forest, never to be seen again.
In time, of course, Kafka does enter the forest, marking trees with spray paint as he goes, like Hansel and Gretel dropping bits of bread. During his initial stay at the cabin he explores slowly and methodically, venturing slightly farther each day into its murky depths. Even here, at the edge of the metaphysical world, he senses something powerful and mysterious. The description is remarkably like that of the protagonist in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World:
‘Like yesterday, the forest is dark and deep. The towering trees surround me like a wall. In the gloomy hues, something hidden among the trees, like in an optical illusion picture, is observing my movements.’
Not until the end of the novel, however, does Kafka finally penetrate deeply enough to discover those who actually reside in the metaphysical realm of the forest. Initially, he meets up with two soldiers – the same two who disappeared during World War II, and although the war has been over for decades, both appear exactly as they were the day they deserted from the Imperial Army. They lead Kafka into a dense part of the forest, eventually coming upon a small cluster of cabins deep in the woods. One clever narratological detail worth noting here is that although the soldiers speak to Kafka and he asks them questions, Kafka’s utterances are not set off by quotation marks; we may conclude from this that Kafka’s utterances are really thoughts, for his mind is directly hardwired into the collective unconscious represented by this forest. Much as we see in the latter pages of Hear the Wind Sing, as Kafka converses with others, he is also conversing always with himself.
When Kafka finally does reach the village, he is mildly surprised to find that it has electricity supplied by wind power, and even electrical appliances, though they are uniformly fifteen to twenty years out of date and look as though they have been taken out of trash dumps. This suggests that the metaphysical world – or at least this little part of it – has been closed off since the 1960s, presumably when Saeki and her boyfriend opened and closed the ‘Gateway Stone.’ Since that time, the village has remained isolated, blocked from receiving fresh input (The repetitive showing of The Sound of Music on the television Kafka discovers would seem to suggest the year 1965.) That fresh, current input (memories) from the physical world is supplied by Kafka himself, and thus the ‘Saeki’ whom Kafka meets there is, simultaneously, the middle-aged woman he fantasizes to be his mother (and with whom he has by now had sexual intercourse) and also the fifteen-year-old girl who first entered that world more than twenty years earlier. The forest will preserve both versions of Saeki forever.
EXPLOITING THE MIND-BODY SPLIT
In addition to its function as a repository for memory, the ‘other world’ in Kafka on the Shore serves as a conduit by which characters may cross vast distances in this world without ever leaving. This is accomplished through the mind-body separation we have already seen in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. In this later work, however, the phenomenon is used to open up the narrative structure to virtually endless possibilities as each character’s true identity grows less and less clear. This is, on the one hand, liberating, as our potential readings of the text increase exponentially depending on how we choose to confront each character; at the same time, much of the complexity – and confusion – in this novel arises from its use of a kind of latticed structure, in which characters with intact inner selves are juxtaposed with those who have no inner self, as well as some who appear to have multiple inner selves. When this inherent confusion of character identity is combined with the overlay – like transparency films placed atop one another – of multiple historical eras in physical time, the tangle grows even worse.
Among the trickier characters in this text is Tamura Kafka’s father, Tamura Koji, a sculptor who is, for at least part of the narrative, possessed by the spirit taking the form of ‘Johnny Walker.’ But is Johnny Walker actually Kafka’s father, or has he joined the party, so to speak, at some later point? Kafka’s loathing of his father brings this dilemma into sharper relief; is the man Kafka detests Tamura Koji himself, or is the spirit we know as Johnny Walker? Kawai Hayao is also drawn into this slippage between identities within these father figures:
‘Kafka’s real father, Johnny Walker, Colonel Sanders, Hakata – they are all father figures. This novel is full of fathers. So it is not so simple as just killing the father and having done with it; no matter how many times the father is killed, he just keeps reemerging in different guises.’
Further, Kafka’s father is not the only tricky issue in this story. Whether Kawai means to argue for shirting core identities, this is precisely what leaves us in so much doubt about who is really who.
One approach to this dilemma is to explore the historical layering of the novel. Each of the three principled characters we meet – Nakata, Saeki, and Tamura Kafka – represents a distinct generation, a discreet historical era, and each at some point in his or her youth, for various reasons, enters the metaphysical world. Beginning chronologically, Nakata first enters this world as a child in 1944, the closing days of World War II, whereupon he loses his ‘shadow,’ in effect, his mind. Saeki, a musician who shared a relationship with a young man…entered the ‘other world’ during the turbulent 1960s, seeking a place where the chaos of the outer, physical world could not threaten the perfect enclosure in which she and her boyfriend lived; she, too, emerged from this world without her other half – her boyfriend. Kafka, finally, goes ‘over there’ near the end of the novel’s present (concurrent with the novel’s writing), but, unlike the others, escapes with more than he possessed when he entered. The one thing each character’s foray into the ‘other world’ has in common with the others is that it occurs at a moment of chaos and fear: Nakata’s during the conclusion of a disastrous war, Saeki’s during the rising tide of violence attending the antigovernment student movements in the 1960s, and Kafka’s in the face of a more personal crisis, namely, his association by blood with a man he considers to be evil.
Despite their distinct historical epochs, however, these three cases are also linked obliquely by a voice in Kafka’s head, whom he knows as ‘the Boy Called Crow’ (karasu to yohareru shonen) who guides Kafka in nearly all of his movements away from his father and the prophecy he has received from him. For purposes of this discussion, it is useful to state at the outset that this ‘voice’ very likely represents the shadow lost by Nakata as a child. [MY NOTE: Really? Interesting…] As such, we will focus our attention chiefly on what actually happened to Nakata on that day in 1944.
Nakata’s entry into the ‘other world’ takes place during something that comes to be known as the ‘rice bowl hill’ incident. Although this incident is narrated through chapters that occur far apart from one another in the text, the narrative may be reconstructed as follows: Nakata’s teacher, a woman whose husband has been killed fighting in the Pacific theater, has a vividly erotic dream about her husband one night. The following day, as she leads her class – Nakata’s class – into the mountains to hunt for wild mushrooms, her menstruation suddenly begins, her blood flow unusually heavy. After cleaning herself as best she can, she buries the bloody towel far from the group, yet not long thereafter finds Nakata standing before her, presenting her bloody towel to her in silence. Possessed by a sudden, uncontrollable rage, she beats him savagely about the face. Shortly after this, a silvery glint is seen in the sky – the teacher assumes it is a lone B-29 bomber, perhaps on reconnaissance. Suddenly all the children collapse in a collective faint. All awaken some hours later, with no apparent ill effects, save Nakata, who remains in his coma for several weeks. When at last he awakens, he has not only lost his memory but the ability to construct new memories as well. He has, however, acquired the ability to speak the language of cats. He spends the rest of his days a ward of his family, and later the state, unable to read or write but useful to the families in his neighborhood in locating lost pets.
If previous Murakami fiction is any guide, we may conclude that like the protagonist of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Kumiko in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he simply remained for too long in the ‘other world,’ to the point that he could no longer maintain connections with his shadow. In fact, more than once Nakata explains to other characters that he is without a shadow, and so we may view in him an idea of what might have happened to the protagonist of that earlier work if, rather than remaining in the forest that stands between the physical and metaphysical worlds, he had instead managed to escape the Town and return to the physical world without his shadow – one of four possible scenarios Murakami identifies for the earlier novel.
But what actually happened to Nakata’s shadow after its separation from him in 1944? Did it die? Did it remain in the ‘other world?’ Or did it perhaps find other hosts – other physical beings – with which to join when they happened to wander too far into the forbidden forest and found themselves in the metaphysical world? This appears to be what has happened with Nakata’s shadow, not just once but several times.
If the inner mid or spirit is indeed capable of moving from one body to another, as previous Murakami texts have clearly suggested to be the case, it is not implausible to suppose that Nakata’s shadow originated with the husband of his childhood teacher (which is why he so unerringly located her menses, a silent communication to her from the dead), and later inhabited not only Saeki’s boyfriend at one time (which would go far in explaining the question of why Saeki tells Nakata that ‘I have known you from a long time past’ but also Kafka himself in the form of ‘the Boy Called Crow’? Having taken our (admittedly speculative) reading this far, why not supposed that Nakata’s shadow at one time inhabited Kafka’s real father, Tamura Koji, as well? If Saeki actually were Kafka’s mother, this would help us to understand why she was drawn to him in the first place.
The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, the trickster spirit now calling himself Johnny Walker, for if Nakata’s shadow can move from body to body, so too can Johnny Walker. If we imagine in this work a sort of pursuit, in which the Johnny Walker spirit and Nakata’s shadow chase one another through time, across generations, driving each other from one body to another, we might gain insights into several of the riddles Murakami sets up in this story, among them (a) why Saeki’s boyfriend was killed in Tokyo, and (b) why Saeki left Kafka and his father behind, if indeed she is his real mother.
It may also mean, of course, that Kafka is his own father.
This reading is but one of many, intended not to offer a definitive explication of Kafka on the Shore but rather to highlight the extraordinarily open-ended text that results when the fixed nature of the ‘self’ – combining flesh and spirit – is disrupted and the two become separable. But what is the role of the ‘other world’ in this instance? To answer this, we need to look at the moments at which flesh and spirit break apart. This occurs most notably in the chapters in which Nakata, led to the home of Tamura Koji and Kafka in Tokyo by a large black dog, is confronted with the horror of Johnny Walker’s harvest of cat’s souls.
The sequence, which stretches across three chapters, begins in a vacant lot where Nakata has been waiting patiently, seeking information about a missing cat named ‘Goma.’ While he waits, an enormous black dog approaches him and, without actually speaking, communicates to him that he must follow it. This he does and soon arrives at the home recently abandoned by Kafka. The house itself is protected by an ‘old fashioned gate,’ and upon being led into what appears to be the study, Nakata find it quite dark. In the dim light admitted through the closed curtains, he can see only that there is a desk in the room and the silhouette of someone seated beside it. The atmosphere of the room, reminiscent once again of Room 208 in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and the living room of Rat’s villa in A Wild Sheep Chase, marks it as a part of the ‘other world.’
There he meets Johnny Walker (but not being a drinker, does not recognize his iconic costume), whose description is equally otherworldly, a mass of negatives: ‘His face had no distinguishing characteristics. He was neither young nor old. He was neither handsome nor ugly’ He is, rather, just ‘in-between’ all descriptors, marking his place as something belong neither to ‘this side’ nor to ‘over there’ but to both. He is, however, at present located in the ‘other world,’ and it would seem that the only way he can break free of the metaphysical realm and emerge into the physical is through his own death. This is why he has summoned Nakata.
His choice is an apt one, for mild-manner though Nakata appears, his self-description as a ‘man without a shadow,’ an ‘empty shell,’ makes him the ideal tool for the job. Nakata’s physical self is, finally, a mere portal, a conduit between the physical and metaphysical worlds, and into his body virtually any force of Will may lodge. However, he must be brought to the proper ‘temperature’ before this may occur. Johnny Walker brings Nakata to his boiling point by committing acts of brutality – of war, as he himself terms it – against the very cats who form Nakata’s circle of attachment. He urges Nakata, likewise, to do his duty as a soldier:
‘You have never killed anyone, nor have you ever wished to kill anyone. You don’t have that tendency. But listen here, Mr. Nakata, there are places in our world where that kind of logic doesn’t work. There are times when no one cares much about your tendencies. You need to understand that. Like in war…When war starts, you get taken to be a soldier. When you’re taken as a soldier, you sling your rifle and head off to the battlefield, and you have to kill enemy soldiers. You have to kill a lot of them. No one cares whether you like it or not. It’s what you have to do, and if you don’t, you get killed instead.’
In this statement, Johnny Walker reveals his true character as a spirit: he is a force of chaos, of bloodlust, the madness that possesses ordinary people in times of war. If we consider his function in terms of history, we recognize that the moments of chaos and struggle in our world are precisely those in which he has been released from the ‘other world’ to play his role on ‘this side.’ Within this context we may understand better why Nakata’s shadow chose to remain in the ‘other world’ in 1944; like Kizuki and Naoko in Norwegian Wood, and indeed like Saeki and her lover (who, I maintain, actually was Nakata’s shadow) in this novel, he sought to escape the ravages of violence that had gripped the physical world, to find a place of perfect, utopian peace. Herein we discover the cause of the inherent, incessant conflict that exists and always will exist between this spirit and Nakata’s shadow, the former seeking to foment chaos and destruction, the latter to stamp it out. This is why, in the face of Johnny Walker’s acts of brutality – indeed, witnessing any acts of brutality – Nakata’s ‘empty vessel’ connects with its inner core and is overcome by the urge to return violence for violence. ‘Something was definitely beginning to happen inside him. A violent confusion was attempting to change the constitution of his flesh.’ And at last, unable to bear any more, ‘Nakata stood up from his seat without a word. No one – not even Nakata himself – could have stopped him. He advanced with great strides, and without hesitation snatched up one of the knives on the desk.’ He then plunges the knife into the breast of Johnny Walker, right up to the handle. Johnny Walker laughs hysterically throughout his own murder, for he knows that this killing is the key to his release into the physical world.
This explication of the role of the spirit taking the form of Johnny Walker gives us insight into the nature and role of the other important spirit in this novel, that taking the form of Colonel Sanders. Moving beyond the obvious dichotomy their forms represent as “spirit’ and ‘flesh’ (whiskey and meat), we note that Colonel Sanders’s character is, on the whole, marked by the pleasures of the flesh, not only of eating but of sex. When Nakata and his young sidekick Hoshino reach Takamatsu, the latter takes a stroll around town and meets up with Colonel Sanders, who, in addition to promising to help him locate the Gateway Stone that blocks the portal between the physical and metaphysical worlds, procures for him a stunning prostitute – significantly, a university student majoring in philosophy, thus representing the rational, ordered nature of the universe. From this we conclude that where Johnny Walker is a force of destruction and death, Colonel Sanders is a force of life, plenty, fertility, and pleasure.
It would, however, be a mistake to assign value judgments to these two sides of the dichotomy, for the two spirits transcend such human considerations. Rather, both are necessary, both forces of nature, each defining the other. Johnny Walker’s behavior is undoubtedly disturbing, disruptive, but he is not evil; rather, he serves to awaken a destructive impulse that lurks beneath the surface, both for Nakata and for Kafka. Jung’s model would suggest that both Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders represent ‘archetypes’ of the inner mind, each with an equal capacity to guide or to deceive. Both transcend human emotions, and this is why neither of the two spirits betrays what Colonel Sanders (somewhat disdainfully) terms ‘feelings,’ and yet each is indelibly linked to our human minds as well. When Colonel Sanders dominates, we behave in a manner that leads to order and tranquility; when Johnny Walker takes over, we lose our cool and act as beasts. For Jung, the latter would be considered the darker, more primitive side of the inner shadow, emotional and predictable. ‘Closer examination of the dark characteristics – that is, the inferiorities constituting the shadow – reveals that they have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly an obsessive or, better, possessive quality,’ writes Jung. ‘On this lower level with its uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions one behaves more or less like a primitive, who is not only the passive victim of his affects but also singularly incapable of moral judgment.’ This is essentially the transformation that overcomes Nakata when he witnesses brutal acts: his dark inner self rises to the surface, forcing his surface persona into a subordinate position, and lets loose its destructive urges. The question, as always, is one of balance between our own inner forces of nature, between the inner and outer minds, the flesh and the spirit, the physical and the metaphysical aspects of our selves. The balance is achieved through control (or, at times, the lack of control) over the flow of psychic energy between the two realms. Nakata’s role, as Iwamiya also notes, is to facilitate the flow these elemental forces from one realm to the other, keeping them balanced in their respective realms. ‘When overwhelmed by the power of the other side, life in this world loses its weight and becomes distorted. When the distortions of the world are corrected, these distortions are also corrected. The burden of correcting these distortions falls to Nakata.’ He does this, as we have seen, through the violence that is released when his own psychic energy is ‘brought to a boil,’ so to speak, but also by opening the Gateway Stone, permitting the necessary flow and equalization of energy between the physical and metaphysical worlds.”
So…what did you think of the book? Of Strecher’s reading of it? Share your thoughts and questions with the group!
My next post: Tuesday, September 2, my introduction to our next book, Murakami’s broadest vision to date: 1Q84.