Date finished: 1st April 2015
Japan has produced some thoroughly amazing things over the years, not least Pokemon (an amazing game but somewhat lackluster TV show) and Digimon (a terrible game but an awesome TV show), Godzilla, and George Takei.
But one thing I’ve always looked for and never found is a novel or film or TV show that can recapture the sense of childlike awe I experienced when watching Hayao Mayazaki’s incredible film Spirited Away. To this day I’m not sure what it was that so resonated with me, but somewhere between the gorgeous animation, the boundless imagination, and the incredibly rich plot was the spark that captured my intrigue.
Mayazaki’s other films are gems too, notably Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle. He’s a master of blending fantasy with real emotion and pressing social issues and no animator can come close to his inimitable style, but there was something about the magical realism of Spirited Away that captivated me and I’ve been searching for something similar ever since.
My search took me into the world of magical realism and introduced me to one of my favourite novels, Mikhail Bulgakov’s flawed masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. Eventually my intrigue led me to Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most popular authors and an employer of magical realism.
Kafka on the Shore centres on two characters on two different, subtly intertwined journeys. Firstly we have the titular Kafka, a teenage boy who runs away from home to escape a strange Oedipal prophecy. Next we have Nakata, a simple old man who has the strange ability to talk to cats.
It would take far too much time to recount the events that follow from thereon but, as is the way with magical realism, the plot is furthered by strange events – some explained and others not – and the story is peopled with a plethora of strange and ephemeral characters from an evil Colonel Kentucky clone who eats cat hearts to the ghost of a woman who’s still alive.
At times, Murakami is imaginative, lucid and gripping. Particular scenes within the novel were particularly intriguing and absorbing, but often the plot becomes stodgy, too bogged down in its own fantasy, and the events can be too incongruous and random to be of interest. The plot, the characters, the pace – at times, everything about this novel is perfect, but too often it loses the thread of itself, puttering to a stop before starting up, only to wind down once more.
It’s a shame because Murakami has so much potential to be the Miyazaki of literature. It’s possible Murakami’s other novels are better. Certainly, others like Norwegian Wood, the IQ84 series, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are among his more touted works, but a lifelong love affair was not to be kindled over Kafka on the Shore. One day, I’ll try another of his novels and I hope, on that day, Murakami can win me over.