If you are a fan of Haruki Murakami’s novels, you already know about his surrealistic narrative of the malaises of modern life. To have one of his novel brought to life on stage is a real treat.
Japanese theater director, Yukio Ninagawa, took the helm for the stage production of Kafka on the Shore for the 2015 Lincoln Center Festival. Ninagawa brought some of the best actors and actresses from Japan: Rie Miyazawa (Miss Saeki/Girl), Naohito Fujiki (Oshima), Nino Furuhata (Kafka), Anne Suzuki (Sakura), Tsutomu Takahashi (Hoshino) and Katsumi Kiba (Nakata). The stage design echoes of an exhibition by Damien Hirst. Elements such as trucks, vending machines, trees, park benches and library book shelves were all individually places in glass containers with movable wheels underneath. The overall scheme created open but yet ‘unconnected’ effect. Even though all the elements of a scene were there, but somehow there is a yearning to be connected. Perhaps this is the undercurrent of the story.
Kafka is a 14 years old boy who lives with his father, whom he despises. He is estranged from his mother and sister. He struggles with an inner conflict of resentment and feeling neglected by his father. If you are familiar with Shinji Ikari from the Neon Genesis Evangelion series, you get the idea. He runs away from Tokyo. He is befriended by a hairdresser named Sakura. She helps Kafka overcome his social insolation by offering an ear to hear his story. Kafka ends up at a library in which is is befriended by the library assistant, Oshima, who just happens to be transgendered. Oshima’s boss, Miss Saeki, is distant, but yet she feels there is a connection between her and Kafka. Added to the mix is an elderly simpleton named Nakata, who has the ability to communicate with cats and dogs. He uses his unique ability to help locate missing cats in the neighborhood. When a calico cat went missing, Nakata goes on a journey to find not only the feline, but also himself. He is befriended by a truck driver named Hoshino, who accompanies Nakata on the journey. As it turned out, Nakata witnessed a bombing incident during WWII. His mental state became stunted as a result. Nakata was once told that only half of his shadow exists. He needs to find the other half to become whole.
This is one surreal journey even Jack Kerouac could not have imagined. During Nakata’s sojourn, he comes across people like Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker. Who knew Colonel Sanders is a pimp, promoting a philosophy student turned prostitute? Johnny Walker is a cat killing maniac? What will Kafka discover as he digs deeper within the library? Is Miss Saeki the long lost mother of Kafka? Why is Kafka lusting after Miss Saeki? We are talking about some serious Oedipus Complex here.
All this comes ahead as the characters realize how they are all related to one another. As the play went on, you will realize each character is dealing with their own problems of mental illness in one way or another. Miss Saeki’s long battle with depression, stemming from guilt of leaving her children behind long ago. Nakata has a problem relating to humans due to a childhood trauma. He finds solace in communicating with animals. Kafka fights with his inner demons as he plots revenge against his father and declares his immoral love for Miss Saeki. All three of these characters have an empathetic ally. Hoshino decides to take the road less traveled with Nakata, where he learns more about Hoshino’s trauma and a little more about himself. Oshima know of Miss Saeki’s tragic past and dark secrets. Being transgendered himself, he too understands what is it like to live with an inner turmoil. Sakura offers shelter and understanding when Kafka was in dire straits. It should also be noted the supporting characters never passed on any judgment towards the main characters. They are there to assist their journey onwards.
Kafka on the Shore is a study in how people deal with mental illness in modern Japan. In a society where such subjects are never discussed, many people suffer in lone silence. The beauty of Murakami’s narrative is the importance of friendship. As each character travel on their own path, they realize they don’t have to do it alone. Thus, this is the beauty of a road less travelled.