Magical Realism in Murakami’s Kafka on The Shore

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About this sample


Words: 2913 |

Pages: 6|

15 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 2913|Pages: 6|15 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021


This research focuses on Haruki Murakami’s fantasy fiction, Kafka on the Shore, that chronicles the adventurous and metaphysical journey of a fifteen-year-old boy Kafka Tamura who leaves his home and his father behind in search of his identity which was turned void as his mother and the sister deserted him in the early childhood. Another of the key protagonist in the novel, Nakata, is a strange character with a lapse of memory and a bizarre ability to talk with cats. This exemplary and perhaps experimental narrative takes us through the two unique and strange characters through two parallel courses of plot which ultimately collides and gracefully concludes the journey of both.

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This project explores the Murakam-ish style of magic realism which is characterized by the amalgamation of time boundaries and dreams versus reality, within the context of Kafka’s and Nakata’s search for individual identity amidst the consumerist crowd which is characterized by the imprints of rich folklore and culture. But at present, it is intermingled with the hustle and bustle of contemporary urban life imposing their own dimensions of identity loss. This paper dissects the elements of magical realism and Lacanian surrealism employed in the text, in connection with the core theories of identity crisis and oedipal complex in the context of consumer society. The paper further explores the realms of identity formation, with respect to aforementioned two major protagonists and describes what turn of events ultimately led them to rediscover their identity before coming back to the real world they initially left behind.


The term “magical realism” has been tossed around rather freely in recent times, especially since the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). A lot of contemporary scholars refused to use the term primarily because it was not well defined. Scholarly articles and collections such as Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (1995) and Magic realism: Social Context and Discourse (1995) successfully created groundwork for forth coming generation by establishing an extensive reference. Magic realism, despite being heavily used in the contemporary international literature, was believed to have its roots in Latin America which was falsified through one of the basic tenets and asserted that it was rather universal in scope.

To define the concept, magic realism is a piece of literature or an art form characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion or mythical element into seemingly realistic fiction. Matthew Strecher defines magic realism as 'what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.

As Rogers proposes, there are three main elements (or effects) characterized in magical realism which conveys the different worldview and those effects relate to the ways in which this world-view is different from the ‘objective’ view. In a text portraying magic realism: time is not linear, causality is subjective and the magical and the ordinary are one and the same. Some other perspectives on this style rather focus on the readers and their surroundings. As the editors L. P. Zamora & W. B Faris write: “Magical realism often facilitates the fusion, or coexistence, of possible worlds, spaces, systems that would be irreconcilable in other modes of fiction” (Lois Parkinson Zamora 5), the basic tenet of this technique involves assimilation of time differences, ambiguous boundaries between reality and dreams, and magical appearances of strange characters and events, which are abundantly present in Kafka on the Shore. In one of the essays presented in the afore-cited source, “textualization of the reader”, a process, according to Jon Thiem, whereby the boundaries between the readers’ and the characters’ worlds are magically erased”.

Most of the prominent writers in this genre have set their visionary tales in the third world locales where myth and folklore loom large over the cultural landscape (Gioia n.p.). In these tales, magic realism somehow blends into the literary landscape as its natural extension, and hence gets dissolved. One of the first noticeable evidence observed in The Kingdom of This World is Carpentier’s use of the literary form known as magical realism, which was actually a form adapted from Franz Roh’s European art aesthetic (Lois Parkinson Zamora 19). In the prologue of his The Kingdom of this World, Alejo Carpentier says: '[T]he Marvelous…does not depend on the notion that the marvelous is admirable because it is beautiful. Ugliness, deformity, all that is terrible can be marvelous. All that is strange is marvelous. Now then, I speak of the marvelous real when I refer to certain things that have occurred'. This indicates that the coinage and origin of this style is not a sole work of Carpentier, but also a number of his contemporaries such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez. In Carpentier’s work, we witness the juxtaposition of magical realism with a literary rendering of Roh’s magical realism, where he refers to it as “lo maravilloso real”, meaning “the marvelous real”.

Surrealism began in the 20th century France when the few literary figures experimentally proposed the idea of constructing reality from the dreams. This notion is heavily influenced by the Freudian psychoanalysis, where the meaning is observed to be existent beyond what is real, more into the unconscious dimensions of reality. It is also considered to be an avant-garde movement in art and literature which expected to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. With intent to liberate thought, language, and human experience from the oppressive boundaries of rationalism, surrealism took pace from (Mann n.p.). Founded by the poet André Breton in Paris in 1924, surrealism intended to be a revolutionary movement capable of unleashing the minds of the masses from the rational order of society. In this sense, the surrealism movement closely rhymes with the magical realism where the rational boundaries are dissolved rather unnoticeably.

In construction of identity, the notion of I and being aware of oneself plays a pivotal role. According to Jacques Lacan, an infant initially perceives itself as a partial organism unified with its mother. This consciousness is altered in the mirror stage when the infant sees its reflection in the mother’s eyes and recognizes itself as a whole being separated from her. Lacan suggested in his famous “Mirror Stage” (stade du miroir) theory that the structure of the Ego itself was constituted through a disjointed montage comprised of the infant’s identifications with alluring and threatening specular images of totality that reflected but contrasted sharply with her fragmented and uncoordinated body. It is thus useful to think of Lacanian psychoanalysis as assertive to many of the goals of surrealism. By asserting the lived realities of the drives, Lacan asserts that life is lived through the structures and logics of montage. Put differently, from a Lacanian perspective, reality is inherently surreal. With psychological realism being one branch of realism dealing with real life experiences deeply interrelated in the chamber of human consciousness, surrealism goes far beyond that, and hence sinking in the pool of the unconscious and sub-conscious augmenting the human hidden territory. The surrealists were particularly interested in the study and effects of dreams and hallucinations and also in the interpretation of the sleeping and working conditions on the threshold of the conscious mind. This phenomenon is beautifully employed in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

Published in 2002, Kafka on the Shore written by novelist Haruki Murakami revolves around the story of Greek looking fate and prophecy. Murakami mostly uses the techniques of magical realism to assert the importance of individual identity in the social flow of modern civilization. In doing so, he explores several dimensions of identity that sprouted and is cultivated in the modern day Japan, especially in the aftermath of the World War II. The novel which is divided into forty-nine chapters drive through the two parallel plot lines originating in two different time and space which beautifully coincides towards the end. The odd-numbered chapters are first person narrated and tell the story of a fifteen-year-old boy named Kafka, who escapes his hometown in order to avoid the oedipal prophecy given by his father Koichi Tamura, a famous sculptor. Delivering the prophecy, the father tells that Kafka would be sleeping with his mother and sister. Kafka himself appears to be a determined and special natured boy who is lonely and ready to be released away from the society except with the companion of Crow – who is nothing but his imaginary friend or alter-ego, who advises him of becoming the toughest man in the world.

In a seemingly impossible mission, the self-proclaimed toughest fifteen-year-old boy Kafka, decides to leave everything behind to look for his mother and sister, whom he remembers well but had no clue about their whereabouts. In a spontaneous move, he travels to a city named Takamatsu and meets a young girl – Sakura on the way, who he thinks is his sister. With a deep interest in reading and books, he ends up living in a library with the help of a twenty two year old gay librarian Oshima. Kafka also meets Miss Saeki in the library, the owner of the establishment, who lost her lover at the age of fifteen years. Kafka assumes and believes that she could be his mother. In mysterious circumstances, his father back in the hometown is murdered, triggering a series of search operation for him. He then moves to a remote cottage owned by Oshima where he explores the timeless jungle meeting strange solders lost from the time of the Second World War.

Even numbered chapters narrated in a third person style, tells the story of Satoru Nakata, a boy injured in a mysterious accident during the Second World War. The accident happens to have severe impacts on the health and well-being of Nakata. He sustained mental deficiency and also resulted in strange characteristics where he is shown being able to talk to cats but strangely enough not being able to read or write. Nakata is presented in the novel after fifty years making his living as a cat-catcher. Through mysterious channels, he is shown to interact with Kafka, and even kills Kafka’s father who kidnaps cats, cuts their heads, and takes their souls to create his divine Flute. Once getting involved with this unusual twist, Nakata realizes that he has a mission to fulfil – a mission that demands exploration and extensive travel towards the location about which he has no single clue. This mission serendipitously leads him to Takamatsu with the help of a highway truck driver Hoshino. They work together to locate a mysterious object called Entrance Stone which transcends them all to a new world. At the end, Kafka is set free form the prophecy and he goes back home to resume his life, albeit as a rejuvenated young man.

Apart from the elements of magical realism (to be discussed in depth later), realist elements are also employed in the novel, though not in details. A mysterious event of the appearance of a metallic body in the sky during the period of the world war is presented in Nakata’s timeline where the small children are hiking into the jungle in search of edible mushrooms. The appearance of the strange object causes coma to sixteen of those students among whom Nakata is one. The war time report says:

'The following document, classified Top Secret by the U.S. Department of Defense, was released to the public in 1986 through the Freedom of Information Act. The document is now kept in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and can be accessed there'.

Murakami plays with caution while detailing these situations and as no names or towns are realistically mentioned, rather just a vague and scary description of war engulfed scene is portrayed. The scene is aptly explained through the words of Nakata’s teacher when studying mushrooms becomes a valuable lesson to be taught to the children, “So the children were encouraged to hunt for food wherever they could find it. The country was at war, after all, and food took priority over studying”.

As the novelist lays out the scene of war, hunger, homelessness, depravity and starvation, it is also indicated that Japan at the time was in a unique position escaping from the colonizers of Korea, China, and others while persistently moving forward under the shadow of American supremacy. All that while, Japan persisted strongly, without surrendering, and used all its power to transcend itself into the new era of industrialization while preserving its heritage and culture. Amidst this transformation from the historic culture center to the industrialized power center, Kafka’s story paints a portrait of contemporary society and its persona which is nothing less than surrealistic dream. The society which was pushed by effort to the new era while struggling and rediscovering itself in various forms inhibits the long engrained tradition of resilience and strength which is magically reflected in the characters and context of Kafka on the Shore.

The major plot line of Kafka on the Shore, at least the half of it, is driven through the oedipal complex, and is often expressed in the form of dreams. Dream has been used as the tool to represent the imaginative world which at times merges seamlessly and surrealistically with the realistic world throughout the novel. As the protagonist suffers from the temporal memory loss, possibly due to the traumatic experience faced earlier, Murakami employs this situation to inject dreamy and magical sequences which takes place in the dream and imagination rather than the factual history or actual happenings. On the other hand, the dreams rather are having influence on the real life. This creates a beautiful juxtaposition where dreams contribute in tracing and building the plot of the novel and hence makes it possible for the totally unrelated characters in different timeline to converse with each other magically. This magical connection, with the use of constructs of magical realism elucidates how the story is unfolded through dreams rather than planned actions. As Burroughs writes, magical thinking is 'a schizotypal personality disorder attributing to one's own actions something that has nothing to do with him or her and thus assuming that one has a greater influence over events than is actually the case' (Burroughs XV), this aspect of magical thinking seems to be well employed by Murakami throughout the novel.

In conjunction with the magical elements, surrealistic elements are illustrated in dreams, wet dreams in particular, as Kafka, a fifteen-year-boy, who is engulfed into puberty is haunted by sexual prophecy that resulted in getting involved with an incestuous acts. As with other similar Japanese literature, the flow becomes vague and readers often fail to know the demarcation between dreams and reality, making it a true example of magical realism. The dreams, no matter how vague and conspicuous they are, still drive the plot in order to satisfy the oedipal drive of the protagonist. Dreams are often a manifestation of repressed thoughts, bringing out the longings and desires of the hidden human mind. Magical realism thus portrays the personas and desires conjured within the hidden mind which could have had an influence by the history, culture and dialect of the local circumstances. Despite having such prominent dream sequences, it is ironic that Kafka denies having them: “I don't dream. Come to think of it, I haven't had any dreams in a long time”.

Dreams in this novel are of significant importance, with extraordinary power that surpasses the ‘normal’, and swings right through the unconscious of the dreamer, and while doing so, also goes beyond the magical thinking between the characters. Kafka, in one instance, says to himself:

You might dream about raping your sister, your mother. It's not something you can control. It's a power beyond you – and all you can do is accept it. You're afraid of imagination. And even more afraid of dreams. Afraid of the responsibility that begins in dreams. …. you can suppress imagination. But you can't suppress dreams.

As mentioned earlier, Oedipal prophecy is a driving force in this novel, so much so that Kafka thinks every young lady he meets is his sister, and every middle-aged woman as his mother. This prophecy is found to have manifested in the form of dreams as well. The response of Kafka to the prophecy is that he completely surrenders himself to it. Kafka in this way creates his own reality by fulfilling the prophecy, literally, as his father had said. From his father’s perspective, it is a tool to threaten and terrify his son about the future and keep him shadowed under his repressed control. However, while Kafka undergoes the dreamy life of this prophecy, he also makes a clear exit from it with life-changing revelation. The adventure he has through this magical realistic tunnel is something that transforms and frees himself from that eternal subjugation. With the help of Crow, he constructs a world in which he rebuilds not only his mother and sister, but at the end, his sense of identity as well.

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The chase for his mother and sister overlaps with the story of his meeting two ladies Miss Saeki and Sakura, and he makes them his tool of dreaming. Since they are the only two ladies he meets during his adventure, the identities he had preconceived in his mind about his mother and his sister are manifested in the form of Miss Saeki and Sakura. As Freud says, “the dream content does not, however, consist exclusively of scenes, but it also includes scattered fragments of visual images, conversations and even bits of unchanged thoughts”, this is also known as the dramatization of the dream.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Magical Realism In Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
“Magical Realism In Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
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