“That’s all I think about these days. Must be because I have so much time to kill every day. When you don’t have anything to do, your thoughts get really, really far out — so far out you can’t follow them all the way to the end.”
To truly understand The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, we must first examine its author Haruki Murakami. The Japanese bestselling author is known for exploring themes of Kafka-esque proportions. These themes usually boil down into two twin elements: alienation and loneliness. Much to the chagrin of the Japanese literary establishment, Murakami is profoundly influenced by western literature, admiring writers from Chandler to Vonnegut. His work often takes the form of the surreal, following protagonists possessed by a fatalistic worldview.
Murakami’s work has influenced parts of popular culture, inspiring many of his contemporaries in film, television, and literature. For example, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai. Kar-Wai embodies Murakami as he finds the simple poetry in life and despair through long, cynical musings and hopeless searching and meandering.
Murakami wrote The Wind-up Bird Chronicle while living in the US. In a Salon interview, Murakami framed the way he combined his viewpoints.
“When I was writing my other books, in Japan, I just wanted to escape. Once I got out of my country, I was wondering: What am I? What am I as a writer? I’m writing books in Japanese, so that means I’m a Japanese writer, so what is my identity?”
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle exemplifies the hopeless protagonist, futilely searching for meaning in both real and dream worlds, neither of which he truly resides. And of course, there’s the cry of an undetected bird that foreshadows danger, rendering the novel with its title.
The novel follows Toru Okada as he recently quit his job as a legal assistant at a law firm. We first find him unemployed, possessing no real direction in life. Toru shares a small house, and a quaint lifestyle with his wife Kumiko. They have no children but share a cat who they jokingly call Noboru Wataya, after Kumiko’s brother, because it walks like him and they share similar eyes.
Toru resides in a purgatory-like suburbia, haunted by an old house with a dark history where those who have once lived meet horrible fates. The abandoned house’s backyard possesses a deep, dry well which strangely piques the curiosity of Toru. When Toru’s cat goes missing, Kumiko takes the news especially hard as the cat was gifted to them upon their wedding, and in many ways symbolizes their union.
One could surmise the cat was one of the few responsibilities that gave their relationship meaning. It’s also significant to note, Toru’s lack of ambition and career is especially taboo to Japan’s industrious culture where the role of masculinity is often defined by working long hours, making lots of money, and supporting a family. Toru does none of the above and, instead, finds himself staying home taking care of the domestic duties, cooking and cleaning, and relying on his wife, a magazine editor, to support their small household. The lack of meaning is prevalent in Toru as he realizes that he was easily replaceable in his job; but even after he quits, he shows no true signs of motivation or passion for anything substantial in life — outside of his relationship with Kumiko. In fact, Kumiko is the only true motivating force for Toru throughout the novel, leading him on a journey of self-exploration and ultimate transcendence of his worldview.
Kumiko comes from a highly esteemed Japanese family, who never supported her marriage to Toru. Her father was a respected government official, and her brother Noboru Wataya is a highly successful academic and political commentator who eventually follows his father’s footsteps towards public office. However, Kumiko and Noboru’s sister committed suicide years ago for an undisclosed reason that is only revealed later in the novel.
As Toru and Kumiko search for the cat, Kumiko reaches out to her brother, who in turn recommends the assistance of a clairvoyant Malta Kano, though, the cat remains lost. Toru is the exact opposite of Noboru in every way. He lacks ambition and possesses a small worldview, whereas Noboru is cruel, cold, and violent; not to mention, he also has a strange sexual perversion that is revealed he enacted on both his sisters and prostitutes such as Malta Kano’s sister, Creta.
It’s not long after when the cat disappears when Kumiko also vanishes. Used to his wife working long hours, Toru isn’t immediately worried. However, when she fails to come home that night, the next morning he retraces his wife’s actions and seeks out her brother and then the help of Malta Kano. Noboru relays Kumiko’s wishes to Toru which are a divorce and to never see him again. She had been having an affair with an older man leading her to contract a venereal disease and, as a consequence, unfathomable self-hatred. This drives Toru to the brink of chaos, some may argue, his life was always destined for.
This brings us to the dry well. Upon facing the chaos of separation, Toru’s mind races incessantly but there is no clear way to get Kumiko back, and therefore his life. It is only while sitting solitaire in the dry well where he is able to achieve a true awakening.
Let’s consider some of the physical qualities of the well. It’s deep, cold, and dark. All of these features close out the rest of the active world, allowing Toru to devolve completely into a meditative state. Toru also develops an inky, black mark on his face that gives him some mysterious healing power, which is ironic because he is unable to heal his own pain.
We must also note, Toru is not the only character to find himself within a deep, dried-out well. When Toru and Kumiko were still together, at the insistence of her family, they would visit a fortune teller, Mr. Honda, who was also a veteran of the Kwantung Army during World War II. He would retell the same story of a tank battle with Russian troops along the Manchurian border. When Mr. Honda dies, Toru is visited by Lt. Mamiya to bequeath an item to him. It is then we are thrust into a mystical wartime story where Mamiya relays how when he was a young soldier he had to accompany a Japanese intelligence officer. And while across enemy lines, they were caught and the officer was skinned alive. Mamiya only narrowly escaped becoming trapped in a dry well, much as the same as the one Toru occupies. When he does escape, Mamiya is left numb all over his body and is unable to sustain a relationship with anyone, and remains friendless and alone in the world.
The well can be deconstructed in a number of ways, however, the most relevant is the well’s symbolic nature to confrontation. Toru must confront himself to understand why Kumiko left. One could draw the comparison to Japan’s unwillingness to confront its war crimes during World War II, namely with the mass murder of innocent civilians and the use of comfort women — which you can learn about in Chang-Rae Lee’s novel A Gesture Life.
Dan Carlin covers the pursuits of Japan’s Kwantung army during World War II in his Hardcore History podcast in a series entitled Supernova in the East. As he puts it, “Unfortunately for all of them, there’s a massive amount of karmic debt that the Japanese military here is acquiring that’s going to have to be paid off at some point. It’s fashionable these days to castigate the allied populations in the latter part of the Second World War for being so willing to inflict such crushing damage to the civilian populations of the axis powers. But if allied powers had hardened hearts by that point in the war, it’s important to remember what happened in 1941 and 1942 to help harden those hearts in the first place…. But what goes up must come down. The worm will turn and all these karmic debts will be paid in full — with interest.”
Outside of this, there is also the loss of Japanese culture in many senses. During and after the American occupation, Japan shifted into a Westernized nation which much of the present day, including Toru’s mostly inactive, meager character, embodies. The natural and the unnatural world are at odds, and it seems the natural uses supernatural qualities to break into the world of the unnatural.
Even though the book is comprised of three sections, there are two parts that stand out above all else. I like to refer to them as the Malta and Creta Kano and the Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka epochs.
For all its splendor and dreaminess, the novel falls away from the first epoch only to manifest itself in a disjointed fashion in its second epoch.
Allow me to elaborate.
Both halves seem as if they were written at distinctly different periods by Murakami. Whether this is the case or not, or intentional, it comes off unbalanced in a few major respects. The clairvoyant sisters, Malta and Creta Kano, lose their significance within the narrative for no apparent reason other than what one could assume Murakami’s desire to introduce two additional characters — Nutmeg and Cinnamon — for the sake of more characters. Or to open up the plot to an extra layer. So, rather than establishing and creating meaningful characters that could be fully realized throughout the entirety of the novel, we are left with two sets of characters that conflict with one another.
You may think both sets of characters fulfill a unique purpose in the narrative or add to the mysticism of Murakami’s dreamlike world. Maybe. However, let’s try a mental exercise. Imagine Nutmeg’s wealth which could have easily been attributed to the Kano sisters, as well as Nutmeg’s father, the zookeeper in Manchuria. I would argue the significance of the characters, their arcs, and the connectivity of their paths would all align to create a more fulfilled plot with a greater payoff.
However, I digress.
The emergence of worlds and the confrontation of the self should be celebrated as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle opens a conversation for reflection, especially within a society that isn’t necessarily keen on the idea of it. As Toru Okado said:
“It was a narrow world, a world that was standing still. But the narrower it became, and the more it betook of stillness, the more this world that enveloped me seemed to overflow with things and people that could only be called strange. They had been there all the while, it seemed, waiting in the shadows for me to stop moving.”