The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

In which I review The Wind-Up Chronicle, Haruki Murakami’s 1997 novel about a man whose marriage is in crisis, sending him on a surreal journey into his own subconscious and the traumatised soul of post-World War II Japan.

What it’s about: Tokyo, the 1980s. Toru Okada, a meek unemployed clerk in his early 30s, is married to Kumiko, the sister of the powerful politician Noboru Wataya. Toru goes in search of his missing cat, leading him to meet a series of mysterious and eccentric characters: May Kasahara, a teenager in his neighbourhood; a psychic named Malta Kano who tells him he must “find the deepest well and go down to the bottom“; and Lieutenant Mamiya, who describes a nightmarish military mission in Manchuria during World War II, in which he was forced to watch a comrade being skinned alive and was left to die in a well. Kumiko disappears without explanation; the bullying Noboru tells him that Kumiko has been having an affair and wants a divorce. Toru climbs into a well in an abandoned property and has dream-like visions of entering Room 208 of a hotel room. Emerging from the well with a blueish mark on his face, he meets a wealthy woman named Nutmeg who pays him for sexual favours, and buys him the abandoned property, installing him in a house managed by her mute son Cinnamon. Toru spends more time in the well, where he slowly reaches “that place where the core of things is located“. He succeeds in transporting himself to Room 208, where he commits a violent murder, then wakes up in the well which is filling with water. Saved from death by Cinnamon, he learns that Kumiko has pled guilty to murdering Noburu. The novel ends with Toru visiting May at a wig factory, while waiting for Kumiko’s release from prison.

Why it’s a classic: In the world of Japanese literature, it doesn’t get much bigger – or stranger – than Murakami. The publication of his fifth novel, Norwegian Wood, in 1987 made him a national celebrity, an experience so disturbing that he moved to America to find some anonymity. He took up writing fellowships at Princeton and Harvard, which much of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was written. Published in Japan in three volumes between 1994-5, it was rapturously received, winning the Yomiuri Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Booker or the Pulitzer.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published in English in 1987 by Murakami’s regular translator Jay Rubin, who trimmed around 25,000 words and shifted a few chapters around to make its structure slightly more coherent. It became a break-out international success, one of very few novels not written in English to become a bestseller in the Anglo-American publishing world. Critics praised Murakami’s uncanny ability to blend psychological realism with surrealist and magic realist influences, drawing comparisons with the work of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Pynchon and Vonnegut. The novel was also viewed as a turning point in Murakami’s work, becoming less introspective and more outward-facing and “political”, particularly in his anti-imperialist critique of Japan’s treatment of China during WWII, and in his interest in big existential questions about freewill, fate, the liminal nature of identity and the return of the repressed.

For many of his fans, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is considered Murakami’s masterpiece. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly one of his most accessible works. Though hardly a short novel, it’s definitely an easier read than some of his later works, including 1Q84 which clocks in at 900 pages, and provides a good point of entry into his meandering narrative style and deeply strange world view. By the early 2000s, he’d become an essential hipster accessory (or whatever hipsters were called in the 2000s), coinciding with a millennial-era interest in Asian culture, like the films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet in the shape and colour of Creta Kano’s red hat (and not, as a friend suggested, a nice wall hanging made of human skin). Towards the end of the novel, Toru ponders the crazy occurrences in his life: “Everything was intertwined, with the complexity of a three-dimensional puzzle,” he muses, “a puzzle in which truth was not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth.” I fell on these words with some relief, as if Murakami had taken pity on his readers and decided to throw them a bone. “Confused as fuck?” he seemed to be saying. “Don’t worry! You’re meant to be! Just go with the flow!” Having read it twice now, I also wonder whether those lines are something of a cop-out, as the author desperately tries to knit together the fraying strands of an increasingly labyrinthine narrative before his readers give up or commit ritual suicide.

Part of the great pleasure and the immense frustration of reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the way in which Murakami shifts between banal everyday realism – Toru’s day-to-day routine of eating, drinking, picking up Kumiko’s drycleaning and cat-hunting – and bizarre unexpected plunges into the fantastic. It’s striking how passive Toru is – less an Everyman than the faceless man from the dream hotel, a man with no apparent ego or desire who is continually acted upon by the other characters to further their (largely unknown) agendas. It’s also made clear that this is a world where fortune-telling and the supernatural still count for something, rendering Toru even more powerless.

So why then are we interested in a character who has so little agency? Because of the crystalline prose and dazzling insights that Murakami puts in his mouth. Toru is, we learn, a man with a rich inner life and keen perceptions. “Every now and then I would feel a violent stab of loneliness,” he writes, not long after Kumiko disappears. “The very water I drink, the very air I breathe, would feel like long, sharp needles. The pages of a book in my hands would take on the threatening metallic gleam of razor blades. I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o’clock in the morning.” His tragedy is that there’s no one in his life who particularly cares about him or what he has to say, not even May, who seems to be his only friend. It’s the clarity of Toru’s vision, his matter-of-fact forensic examination of everything that comes across his path, that buoys our reading experience, as the story slips further and further into surrealism and violence.

On the downside, Toru’s lack of knowledge about the events that comprise the story require a lot of patience from his reader. As he’s unable to discriminate between what is or isn’t significant, everything must be paid attention to because everything is potentially important. Reading becomes an exhausting experience as we try to hold everything in our minds, bracing ourselves as yet another character is introduced or we fall down yet another narrative rabbit-hole, and hoping that it’ll all make sense in the end. The trick to reading the book, it seems, is to be like Toru – go with the flow, accept that you are in the grip of sinister forces beyond your control and allow things to reveal themselves. Even when we reach the finale, in which Toru finally achieves a degree of emancipation, much is still left unexplained – we never find out precisely what the women do to Toru in the fitting room, exactly what Nutmeg’s or Noboru’s powers are, or what Cinnamon sees being buried in the garden. Far from tying up his loose ends, Murakami is happy to leave us no clearer as to the rules of this strange and violent world we’ve inhabited – all that we know is that we’ve survived.

Like Japan’s last great literary celebrity, Yukio Mishima, Murakami’s writing counterbalances an obsessive interest in orderliness and control with episodes of horrendous violence. There are graphic descriptions of rape, a man being skinned alive, a skull being crushed with a baseball bat, animals being shot by a firing squad, and an explanation of “the proper way” to kill a man with a bayonet (“First you thrust it in under the ribs… Then you drag the point in a big, deep circle inside him, to scramble the organs. Then you thrust upward to puncture the heart“), all rendered in precise, clinical detail and a chilling lack of affect, like an instruction manual for serial killers. Murakami doesn’t strike me as a sadist, though he realises that the violent scenes will be more horrifying when related so matter-of-factly.

While many readers and reviewers found the violence gratuitous, I’m prepared to defend it as a fundamental part of Murakami’s poetics and politics – violence as a means of social control, and the hidden electricity crackling beneath the veneer of civilised life. Murakami is also interested in how violence regenerates itself. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria is the great elephant in the room, a collective act of evil that leeches into the atmosphere, polluting everything with as much force as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Noboru inherits not only his uncle’s seat in government but his tendency to cruelty and domination. For other characters, violence has a dynamic, even galvanising energy that could almost be described as positive. Creta’s rape brings an end to her years of pain; the trauma of Nutmeg’s husband’s violent deaths seems to trigger her extra-sensory powers; and Toru’s suffering, both physical and emotional, snaps him out of his waking coma and allows him some insight into his life.

The characters’ willingness (or not) to confront uncomfortable truths, and the selective and self-serving role of memory in human consciousness is another key theme. Toru and the others talk continuously about not being able to remember, and the desirability of forgetting unpleasant things. “Forget me”, Kumiko (and nearly everyone else) says to Toru about his marriage, but still he insists on the truth of his relationship. Accordingly, the ugly truths of Japanese military history insist on belching to the surface, demanding to be heard. These days, we’re fairly fluent in pop-psychology ideas of a “the cycle of violence” and inherited trauma, this was pretty radical stuff in the 1990s, and Murakami drew some criticism in certain quarters for his unflattering depiction of Japan’s role in WWII.

What’s perhaps most satisfying about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is that Murakami doesn’t offer simple solutions for the personal and systemic horrors on display. It’s not simply a matter of speaking one’s ugly truth, Oprah style, and then having your epiphany arrive in the mail. Knowledge doesn’t necessarily bring absolution – Mamiya is forced to carry his ugly knowledge to his grave, cursed to live a long life in which his is loved by no one. The novel breaks off just before we know whether Toru will have a similar fate, or whether he and Kumiko will be reconciled. The world we leave is a violent and frightening place, in which the barriers between the real and unreal are blurred and where logic and reason offer little protection. The only thing to do, it seems, is to go on and endure.

Ultimately, though, all of this trauma and violence and existential searching and shamanic time transportation doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying read. I admire Murakami for his seriousness and ambition, but I’m with Michiko Kakutani, who wrote in her New York Times book review: “In trying to depict a fragmented, chaotic and ultimately unknowable world, Murakami has written a fragmentary and chaotic book…. for most of us, art is supposed to do something more than simply mirror the confusions of the world.”

The book’s sexual politics also feel a bit dated, even for the 1990s. Every female character, even May, is sexualised, especially the trio of femme fatales Creta, Malta and Nutmeg, who are buffered to an unattainable level of conventional feminine beauty, and used to offering sex as another form of currency. While there is something vaguely subversive about Toru becoming a passive sexual partner and prostituting himself, there’s very little space available in the book for women except as another of Toru’s sexual fantasies.

Despite my qualms, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle deserves its place as a modern classic – one that I’ll be happy to return to my bookshelf and re-read in another 15 years or so.

Quotable Quote: “Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?”



  1. Just re-read (audio version, actually) after about 6 or 8 years. I guess I’m a sucker for surrealism. Some thoughts – are Toru and Kumiko the ONLY characters in the book, with the possible exception of some, not all, of the characters in the historical chapters? Toru = the vet; Cinnamon (he was also an encyclopedia reader as a boy); the guitar player; Noboru Wataya; maybe even Boris the Manskinner. Kumiko = phone woman, Malta, Creta, May, Nutmeg – objects of lust and/or affection and respect. And then there are the unnamed ghosts – Kumiko’s sister, May’s boyfriend, Nutmeg’s husband. Do they mostly resolve into their essences at the end? May Kasahara is the only other character left standing at the end of the book – is she hope for the future? (Toru’s comment about May looking good in a bikini does NOT stand the test of time.)


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