Kafka on the Shore is often described as a metaphysical novel. It is deeply concerned with the nature of consciousness and the gap between thoughts and actions. This theme is enhanced by the form of the novel itself, which slips between perspectives and tenses, allowing the reader to inhabit the minds of different characters and experience their inner thoughts and dream sequences as well as reality. Through his writing, Murakami envisions the mind itself as inextricably linked to the body, despite the ways in which the body can feel frustratingly limited or disconnected from the mind.
To varying degrees of literality, characters in Kafka on the Shore experience their bodies as imperfect containers for their minds or selves. Most characters have a strong sense of their own consciousness as something distinct from, yet trapped in, the body. Ultimately, this awareness makes many of them feel as if they are experiencing the world from within uncomfortable containers. For example, Kafka is extremely focused on developing his physical strength, practicing a strict workout regimen. Working out makes him feel that his mind is at home in his body, even if only temporarily. However, he also believes that his body itself is tainted and evil because it is the product of his parents, who abandoned him in his childhood. As much as he would like to escape from his body and the reminders it carries of his parents, he feels like he is trapped with his past by virtue of being trapped inside his body.
Oshima is a transgender man who sees his gender identity as disconnected from his body (or his biological sex). He also suffers from hemophilia, which means that any accident could be fatal. In these ways, he describes his body as an imperfect vessel for his heart and mind, which has brought him frustration and made him feel isolated. But he has also learned how to be at peace with his limited body, an outlook he attempts to share with Kafka. Nakata experiences a similar disjuncture between mind and body. As a child during World War II, Nakata was involved in a freak accident that put him in a coma-like state for several weeks. He believes that during this time, his mind left his body to wander another world, and returned as a blank slate. Because of this, Nakata no longer feels totally at home in his body. Like many characters in Kafka on the Shore, Nakata demonstrates that the body may feel like an uncomfortable home, but ultimately, there is no escape from it. Therefore, characters must learn to be at peace with their bodies despite the body’s limitations.
The power of the mind itself to create a physical impact is also a subject of frequent concern in Kafka on the Shore. Kafka worries about the extent to which dreams and thoughts can have physical manifestations, or influence real-world events. Murakami demonstrates that subconscious thoughts may make it feel as if the mind is acting independently of the body, but shows that his characters are responsible for their actions whether they understand their motivations or not. Kafka envisions his thoughts as a separate being in the form of the boy called Crow. Crow represents a more confident, knowledgeable version of Kafka, who stands behind him in times of stress, offering advice. Kafka feels as if Crow is stronger than him—but, since Crow is actually a part of Kafka, this cannot be true. At several points during the novel, Kafka worries that actions he carries out in his fantasies and dreams will have real-world consequences. Kafka feels that he has no control over his dreams, but that he is nevertheless responsible for the terrible consequences he believes they will have. He is especially concerned when his dreams concern sex or violence. Frequently, he expresses guilt over the things he imagines because he believes that imagination is as powerful as action. When Kafka’s father is murdered, for instance, Kafka tells Oshima, “maybe I murdered him through a dream,” because he has thought about killing his father so often. Nakata also feels that he is impelled to violence by a force that both inhabits him and yet is outside of his control. When Nakata murders Johnnie Walker/Mr. Tamura, he feels as if a foreign consciousness has seized control of his body and acted against his will. Still, he sees himself as responsible for the murder and attempts to turn himself in to the police. Nakata, like Kafka, demonstrates that even if he does not understand his motivations, he is still responsible for his actions. Ultimately, the characters acknowledge that it is impossible for the body to act independently of the mind, or vice versa.
In Kafka on the Shore, the line between thought and action, mind and body, imagination and reality, is always in question. Characters grapple with the nature of consciousness by thinking about the disconnect between their minds and the world around them. Ultimately, many feel that their minds are powerful forces independent from their physical selves—but in order to lead fulfilling lives, they must each learn and make peace with the fact that the spirit and mind are inextricably linked to the body.
The Mind vs. The Body ThemeTracker
The Mind vs. The Body Quotes in Kafka on the Shore
Sometimes fate is like a sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change directions but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you.
It might sound strange to put it this way, but it seemed like the real Nakata had gone off somewhere, leaving behind for a time the fleshy container, which in his absence kept all his bodily functions going at the minimum level needed to preserve itself. The term “spirit projection” sprang to mind.
I didn’t cry at all. I already knew that somewhere, on some distant battlefield, my husband would lose his life. Ever since the year before, when all those things I just wrote about took place—that erotic dream my period starting ahead of time, hitting Nakata, the children falling into that mysterious coma—I’d accepted my husband’s death as inevitable, as something fated to be. So news of his death merely confirmed what I already knew.
“If I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I’m driving, I might want to close my eyes and die right then and there. But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of—that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging.”
“But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T.S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing.”
“My father told me there was nothing I could to escape this fate. That prophecy is like a timing device buried inside my genes, and nothing can ever change it. I will kill my father and be with my mother and sister.”
“I used to be normal, just like everybody else. But something happened and I ended up like a container with nothing inside.”
“Yeah, but if you look at it like that we’re all pretty much empty, don’t you think?”
“There are a lot of things that aren’t your fault. Or mine, either. Not the fault of prophecies, or curses, or DNA, or absurdity. Not the fault of structuralism or the Third Industrial Revolution. We all die and disappear, but that’s because the mechanism of the world itself is built on destruction and loss.”
What makes sense, what doesn’t, it’s all mixed up. Above me, a crow gives out a piercing caw that sounds like a warning, it’s so jarring. I stop and cautiously survey my surroundings.
“I think that whenever something happens in the future I’ll always wonder—What would Mr. Nakata say about this? What would Mr. Nakata do? I’ll always have someone I can turn to. And that’s kind of a big deal, if you think about it. It’s like part of you will always live inside me.