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Tracking Murakami

by Alyson Roux

The son of a Buddhist priest and a Japanese literature teacher, Haruki Murakami’s stories are driven by the senses and by complex thematic imagery which subtly connects his stories in unexpected ways. Here’s a primer for the strange and beautiful world of Murakami: Disappearing Cats Whenever a cat disappears in a Murakami story, something very strange is about to happen. For example, in Kafka on the Shore, the main character, Nakata, can literally communicate with cats. After a neighborhood family charges him with the search for their beloved missing cat, Goma, his simple search takes a surprising turn, leading Nakata to encounter evil in its purest form. Murakami uses disappearing cats in many of his stories, and the simple search for a cat always turns into a journey toward destiny for anyone involved. Ethereal Male Guides Murakami’s protagonists are often ordinary people trying to get by in life, until some type of real/unreal male guide steers them into a new direction, sometimes quite literally. In the story all god’s children can dance, Yoshiya, a young staff member at a publishing company, wakes up with a crushing hangover and heads to his office hours later than usual. On the train coming home that night, he sees an older man who has the distinguishing feature that his absent father had – a missing earlobe. Yoshiya follows this man on the train, through darkened, empty streets, only to find himself in a deserted baseball diamond at night. The man vanishes, and Yoshiya stands on the pitcher’s mound in the cold wind and simply dances. In every one of Murakami’s stories where they appear, these guides lead the protagonist to a new way of thinking. Alcohol Murakami uses alcohol as a signifier of the petty, the negative and the evil. When a character is identified with alcohol, there is always an emptiness about them. In Kafka on the Shore, the cat-killing, soul-stealing sculptor is named Johnny Walker. While searching for the missing cat, Nakata meets Johnny Walker dressed exactly as the figure on the whiskey bottle label – silk hat, black boots and cream riding pants. He is the essence of evil, eating the hearts of cats for his own nefarious reasons. It must be noted that Murakami is far from being a teetotaler – many of his protagonists drink alcohol. Nonetheless, alcohol remains linked to the negative aspects of humanity in all of his stories. Ordinary Men Consumed by Extraordinary Relationships Murakami’s protagonists tend to be incredibly ordinary men thrown into bizarre situations. Many are consumed by the love of a highly unusual woman, or forced into accomplishing an epic, unthinkable task. Once these unusual situations find resolution, the protagonist discovers a new identity. In Norwegian Wood, Toru struggles to understand his obsession with Naoko. "I’m just an ordinary guy – ordinary family, ordinary education, ordinary face, ordinary grades, ordinary thoughts in my head." It is Toru’s encounter with Naoko that will alter his life forever, releasing him from his ordinary existence.