A Reader’s Perspective: Interpreting “Kafka on the Shore” 

Reading Murakami is an otherworldly experience, both metaphorically and literally speaking. His books can take readers to a completely different reality, yet keeping their feet on the ground with relatable events and in-depth perspectives on life. He is known for his faithfulness towards fantasy-like elements, and he used the same image in writing “Kafka on the Shore.” But depending on your age or your experience with Murakami, interpretations of this book may vary. Here's a take on it, to which you can relate or not!


“Kafka on the Shore” is one of Murakami’s most famous novels. The author manages to win many people’s hearts, although he does not always provide clear endings or interpretations of his writings. And that’s exactly what makes him so intriguing. Even when he’s asked in many interviews about the meaning behind his characters or quotes, Murakami prefers to leave interpretation to the reader’s perspective. 

My perspective on “Kafka on the Shore” particularly was mixed. I read the book twice, holding my breath and turning the pages many times to see if I really understood the context. It’s like you want to make sure you memorize the plot because, basically, most of your life seems reminiscent of what happens in the book.

Kafka Tamura is a young boy who runs away from home to escape from his father’s oedipal prophecy. The book starts off with “The boy named Crow” telling him to toughen up, as he has got to be the bravest 15-year-old on the planet. Soon, we understand that, in fact, the boy named Crow is to Kafka the same as the inner voice that we have inside our heads. It sometimes pushes us to do our best, whereas sometimes it really brings out the deepest, darkest corners of our selves.


The Dream-Like Narrative

You cannot rationalize while reading “Kafka on the Shore.” You simply get exhausted if you try. That’s because the book is led by a dream-like narrative. Kafka is bound to be living in two different dimensions. One is made of his consciousness and the other is made of his unconsciousness. All the time while you’re reading the book, you get the feeling that he (and you, the reader) are being pulled out by two parts of a rope. There’s the present and an alter parallel reality that connects Kafka to Nakata, an old man who talks to cats and who lost his wits when he and his classmates lost consciousness during a school outing in the hills. It seems that Nakata’s only mission throughout the whole book is to help Kafka understand what he really wants from life.

They both start their journeys in completely different poles, repeatedly drawn back to one another through their actions. Their different journeys teach us so much about our nature as human beings. Nakata is as empty as a blank canvas, picking things up from the people he meets, with no judgments, opinions, or attachments. However, Kafka’s world is so complicated with overwhelming thoughts about his life and origins that we can’t help but relate.

He constantly wonders what his future will be like, and if it has already been determined by the past. This is a stage that we all go through, specifically when we have entered adulthood. Psychologically, most of us tend to think that maybe we won’t achieve most of our dreams in the future and that we are limited due to the unpleasant experiences we’ve had in our childhood. Maybe we have memories holding us back, and we think that our destiny is pretty much prescribed considering the elements that have shaped us throughout the years, the level of love and affection we got from our parents or our loved ones.

Young Kafka pretty much shares the same struggle. He constantly seeks his mother figure, so that he can ask her the reason why she abandoned him. This creates a bridge for us, as readers, to understand more about human nature. We seek validation and affirmation from the people we love, because that’s how we consider ourselves worthy.


The Labyrinth of Unconsciousness

Kafka’s journey is filled with books, vivid interpretations of music sounds, and the sounds of nature. It’s like he speaks through the voice of his unconsciousness. Along the way, he meets Oshima in the library where he seeks shelter and also finds the love of his life – Mrs. Saeki, whom he also thinks of as his potential mother. Paradoxical, right? Try reading the whole book, and paradox is all you will find. But Kafka’s mind as a whole, represented through this book, resembles a labyrinth.

Choosing from the many events that occur in the book, I would certainly give some specific attention to the part where Kafka decides to enter into a deep, deep forest and a wooden cabin, despite Oshima’s warning that people who have gone there have not returned. Once he enters through the bushes, all prepared, leaving behind all belongings, your heart starts racing fast, and you immediately know there’s something else in that forest that is beyond our understanding.

Kafka is awaited by “two soldiers” who seem to be guarding a “world in-between”. Murakami never reveals why this world is called the world in between. According to his description of it, and of what Kafka experiences there, we understand that it is a world filled with a void. Not much feeling, joy, or dynamic goes on there. Everything exists in a dull, perfect order.


The Wolrd In-Between

Kafka has to make a choice. He should either choose to remain there or leave and never look back. Whoever has experienced emotional trauma and tends to get sometimes overwhelmed by patterns of overthinking, will know that this is, in fact, the moment when Kafka decides whether he wants to live inside his own head, or outside in the outer world.

As we go on with our lives, sometimes our negative thoughts can be so triggering that our mental health gets shattered to pieces. That’s why many people, diagnosed with different mental illnesses, may decide to remain “in the world between.” Depending on their circumstances, in reality, that world can either be a comfort or a misery. And although Kafka, in his case, makes a choice, many of us, in reality, do not have the same luxury.

And then there is Mrs. Saeki’s mysterious story. Apparently, she lost her lover in her early twenties, at a time when she sought much more from life. Ever since, Oshima explains that her spirit has left her body, and that what we see and hear from her is only a manifestation of her mortal body but not her soul. This is a metaphor for the lives that people lead when they’ve lost their meaning, or they’re still searching for one.

“A search for meaning” seems to be the most important thing for young individuals nowadays. There is so much pressure behind the notion that we can really achieve anything we want to, that sometimes with all the freedom that is preached to us, we remain utterly lost and under the pressure of so many choices. This process can be very painful if people fail to find glimpses of passion and willingness. The scenario for these failed attempts is presented to us daily through what we know as depression.


The Lifetime Lessons

There are so many hidden meanings behind this extraordinary book. Really, even descriptive words can be underrated when referring to Murakami’s work. That explains why shortly after “Kafka on the Shore” was released, Murakami’s Japanese publishers launched a website soliciting clarifying questions about the novel from its readers. The feedback and interest were immense, and Murakami did reply to many of the questions. Murakami describes the “shore” in “Kafka on the Shore” as the border between the conscious and the unconscious minds.

“It’s a story of two different worlds, consciousness and unconsciousness. Most of us are living in those two worlds, one foot in one or the other, and all of us are living on the borderline. That’s my definition of human life”, he observes.

This can well be understood right at the beginning of this book, as we mentioned, with the inner voice of Kafka, the boy named Crow, as he unpacks the ways through which Kafka should confront his unconsciousness.

“The storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears, so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.”

One can find this paragraph and all the novel so relatable that it will make you reflect and want to read all the rest of Murakami that there is. Or, at a minimum, it will make you re-read this masterpiece. And the result will be highly rewarding, with lessons for a lifetime!


Read more from the author here.

Photo: Shutterstock – rob zs

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