Murakami masterpiece takes the stage

Kafka on the Shore is spellbinding in its complexity. Murakami explores everything from post-war Japanese culture, to a young man’s search for identity, to time, memory, matter—you get the idea.

By Ben Rossi

“It’s a story of two different worlds, consciousness and unconsciousness.” That’s how Haruki Murakami described his 600-page novel, Kafka on the Shore, which has been adapted to the stage by Steppenwolf Theatre’s veteran director Frank Galati. It’s an apt description, but it hardly tells the whole story.

Kafka on the Shore is spellbinding in its complexity. Murakami explores everything from post-war Japanese culture, to a young man’s search for identity, to time, memory, matter—you get the idea. The author lends his inimitable voice to speak for a multitude of themes, a voice that brings together an appreciation for wry dialogue and brutal violence with a profound quietness and tranquility.

None of Murakami’s books offer an easy transition from page to stage. But Galati has another very successful Murakami/Steppenwolf collaboration under his belt. Based on two Murakami short stories, the theatrical adaptation of after the quake received critical acclaim for its use of live music and lyrical staging. But after the quake may as well have been a dress rehearsal for Kafka on the Shore; the latter offers such a strange mingling of emotions that audience members may come out of Kafka more bewildered than satisfied. But I’ll bet most of them won’t stop thinking about the show after they leave the theater.

Kafka on the Shore tells two loosely related tales. The play begins with Kafka (Christopher Larkin), a 15-year-old boy who runs away from Tokyo and his unloving father to the far-flung city of Takamatsu. He is accompanied by his shadowy doppelgänger, Crow (Crow is the English translation of Kafka). In Takamatsu, he meets a cavalcade of strange and exciting characters and eventually lands at a private library, the former estate of a noble family. There he encounters Miss Saeki, a haunted woman who becomes the object of his desires—Oedipal and otherwise.

The second story revolves around Nakata, a brain-damaged mystic wandering the provinces in search of a house cat. In some of the most bizarre scenes of the play, Nakata comes across Johnnie Walker (of the whiskey fame), who has morphed into a dapper, cat-killing madman. Later, he joins forces with a plain-talking truck driver named Hoshino, played to great comic effect by Andrew Pang.

In his explanation of the novel, Murakami wrote, “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.” In the play, the line between dream and reality, conscious action and unconscious impulse, is blurred. What is Colonel Sanders doing selling a prostitute to Nakata’s companion? Is Johnnie Walker an avatar of an evil spirit, a stand-in for Western values, or a projection of unconscious rage? Is Miss Saeki Kafka’s mother, and are they really lovers? None of this is clear.

But one theme does emerge from the murk: the dangerous, dark quest for self-knowledge. Kafka’s shore is the boundary between his conscious and unconscious minds; he must traverse both worlds before he can be truly mature. We learn Kafka has a tendency to black out under extreme stress and commit horrible, though unnamed, acts of violence without knowing it. But when Kafka reads Yeats’s line, “In dreams begin responsibilities,” it becomes clear that people have to account for their unconscious lives as well as their conscious ones. Kafka on the Shore, both in novel and play form, is at heart a story about achieving harmony, or at least an uneasy truce, between these two worlds we inhabit simultaneously. It’s a coming-of-age story for Joseph Conrad fans.

Galati wisely decided not to use on-stage narration to move the story along, as he did in after the quake. Even so, the script demands much of Larkin, a young actor who needs a little more time for his talent to germinate. Larkin apparently thought a kind of sullen taciturnity was the proper mien for a troubled 15-year-old, but I didn’t see the turmoil underneath. When he finally struggles, quite literally, with his own psyche, his rage seems to come out of nowhere. Guinan is excellent as Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker, but his are the only gloriously outré performances in a very subdued production. David Rhee is quite touching as Nakata, and Lisa Tejero gives a haunting turn as Miss Saeki. But the most interesting character by far is the enigmatic Oshima, a library assistant who offers help to the wayward Kafka. In the book it is revealed that Oshima is actually transgender, but Gerson Dacanay gives the character enough coy charm that this revelation becomes unnecessary.

The best thing about Kafka on the Shore is that it refuses to supply easy answers for the questions it raises, and Galati doesn’t diminish this sense of equivocation. But this isn’t a play for everyone. It’s quiet, spare, and doesn’t loudly proclaim its emotions. This show should be seen two or three times, if it is to be seen at all. But Galati has proved, yet again, that a rambling philosophical text can be turned into compelling theater.