Black Cats and Jazz Bars: The Novels of Haruki Murakami

One of my favorite authors of all time is the renowned Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. His novels fall into two distinct categories. The first are sensitive romantic dramas such as Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, West of the Sun, and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. The second are surreal fantasies such as A Wild Sheep Chase and Kafka on the Shore. He has also written numerous short stories, which are basically condensed versions of his novels. In total, I’ve read seven of his novels and one of his short story collections. In this essay, I will discuss some of these notable works.

The first Murakami novel that I read was Norwegian Wood. It was during my first year living in Japan, and the experience of reading it in this country added to the experience considerably. The story revolves around themes of romantic longing, tragedy, missed opportunities and existential crisis. What makes the novel such a deeply affecting read is Murakami’s unique ability to capture how it feels to be in love and to be alternately given and denied romantic affection in return. For the duration of the novel, the reader inhabits the skin of the central protagonists, feeling every moment of joy and searing pain as if it were their own.

The second Murakami novel I read was Kafka on the Shore, and it couldn’t have been more different from Norwegian Wood. It’s a mind-bending tale consisting of parallel storylines, bizarre characters and even more bizarre situations. One doesn’t relate to the characters in the same way as those of Norwegian Wood, but instead marvels at the author’s imagination in creating a universe containing numerous disparate elements.

South of the Border, West of the Sun follows a somewhat similar formula to Norwegian Wood, but ratchets up the feeling of frustrated romantic desire to an even greater extent. It’s a more sparse work than its predecessor in all respects, and essentially boils down to the tale of a love triangle. But it’s still not a conventional love story by any means, because a sense of mystery lies behind one of the characters and because of the lengthy time span over which the story takes place.

Overall, I have to say that I prefer Murakami’s romantic dramas to his surreal fantasies. The former have a relatable aspect that elevates them above the latter. One’s preference may ultimately come down to whether you value character or plot more highly. On the other hand, the high quality of Murakami’s writing is a constant across all of his novels, regardless of the genre.

Finally, I would like to mention two other points of interest regarding Murakami’s novels. Firstly, there are the recurring motifs of black cats and jazz bars that feature prominently as characters and locations, respectively. As the holder of a doctorate in philosophy, there is a considerable philosophical interest in Murakami’s novels, which contain numerous philosophical concepts and ideas, some of which are spelled out explicitly, while others have to be read between the lines.

In summary, Murakami is an author whose works I can’t recommend highly enough.


disparate (adjective) – different in kind, not able to be compared
ratchet up (phrasal verb) – to increase something repeatedly and by small amounts
motif (noun) – an idea or subject that is often repeated in a work of literature
read between the lines (phrase) – to guess something that is not expressed directly