The music universe of Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore”

I have said it multiple times and I will say it once more. Every book has its own soundtrack. This can be comprised by music mentioned in the book, or music inspired by the book. Music characteristic of the time the story is set in, or music that thematically represents what is taking place in the pages. Music that represents the places, or music that represents the faces. The options are countless, and you can have your pick. The truth of the matter is, every book has its own soundtrack.

And then there are these books that have their own music universe, the books that are written in a way that turns music into a writing technique, that use music to move the plot forward, to paint the characters’ dispositions, or to portray the character development.

Many authors have been using music in such ways, as a previous study of mine has shown. But few have done it like Murakami, fact not so surprising, considering the author’s deep love and broad knowledge of music. Having just finished reading his Kafka on the Shore, I am fascinated by the fact that, in its pages, Prince and Radiohead co-exist with Beethoven and Schubert, Haydn and Inoue Yōsui, in ways that provide multi-sensory elements to the story. After all, the mysterious title itself is also related to music – but that’s as far as I am going to get in regards to spoilers. You can keep scrolling to hear a few of the artists/pieces/songs that fill in the music universe of Kafka on the Shore.

  1. “Mi chiamano Mimi” from the opera La Bohème, Giacomo Puccini

Have you met a cat named Mimi? Well, you will in the pages of Kafka on the Shore. Murakami makes sure to inform us that the source of the name is, in fact, Puccini’s protagonist. In this way, he uses the cat owners’ music tastes as an additional way to allude to their cultural background and their social status. A few more comments on their car and their house, alongside the fact that Mimi is a Siamese cat, complete that image.

2. Piano sonata in D Major (No 17 D 850), Franz Schubert

Murakami dedicates more than two pages exploring this specific sonata, by means of a conversation between two of the main characters. Emphasised in the conversation is the sonata’s “imperfection” as a composition, that leaves the performers with the task (or the freedom) to add their personal touches in order to “complete” it. But they should always beware to keep this freedom within certain limits, in order not to change the work beyond recognition. It is only later in the book that we realise that this character’s reading of the sonata is a reflection of their own life and being: being imperfect according to the norms, adding their personal element to the construction of self, but always remaining within certain limits as to not disrupt neither the self, nor the role, nor the norms.

3. “Crossroads”, Cream

The point where this song is chosen by the protagonist, both in terms of place and time, proves to be a crossroads in more ways than one in what is to come later on. In a way, it seems that Murakami not only uses music to develop and enrich the story, but also to prepare the ground for what is going to come.

4. “Little Red Corvette”, Prince

An uneasy song at an uneasy moment of an uneasy teenager.

5. “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, The Beatles

A connection with the teenage years of an absent figure that is constantly present in the book.

6. “Sexy Motherfucker”, Prince

An element among many in a confused mind who is processing and exploring life and sexuality.

7. Piano Trio No 7 “Archduke” – I (Rubinstein, Heifetz, Feuermann), Ludwig van Beethoven

Probably my favourite in the book, both as a music work, as well as an element that is used for taking the plot further. The “Archduke” trio (mind you, specifically as it is performed by the Million Dollar Trio, aka Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Feuermann) becomes both the symbol, as well as the catalyst for the development of one of the characters. Through the trio we see his journey from the superficial to the esoteric, from the disengaged to the connected, and from the cynic to the emotional.

8. Cello Concerto No. 1 (Pierre Fournier), Joseph Haydn

Indicating the subtle promise of unpredictability within a pre-ordained reality, as it awakens within the character a sense of nostalgia and an understanding of change.

9. Serenade in D major, K. 320 “Posthorn”, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A cheerful backdrop to a serious conversation. Irony or reassurance?

10. Kid A (full album), Radiohead

One of the music preferences of the main protagonist, depicting both an attunement to his age and contamporaneity (the album had been released in 2000 and Murakami’s book first appeared in Japanese in 2003), as well as to the global cultural reality. It is also an album with a dystopian and outworldly undertone, that suits the mood and the story of the book.

These were ten music instances of Kafka on the Shore. More exist in the book, adding layers of meaning and multi-sensory experiences to the plot. And, as an avid reader and avid listener, I have much enjoyed the multiplicity of feelings and symbols created by this music universe.

p.s.: Stay tuned for the next exploration of the soundtrack of a book!

** Cover photo by Simone Imurah