After drifting away from it for a time, diving back into the world of Haruki Murakami is like going home again. That is, if home consists of heartache, jazz, Western literature, talking cats, whiskey, pasta-making, and classical music. Which, apart from the talking cats, is not too far outside the realm of normal.
Murakami, born in 1949, is arguably Japan’s most popular, important living author. His work is known throughout the world and only seems to become more popular as time marches on. There is something so absolutely, intangibly wonderful about his books. They put you in a certain mood.
Often, it’s the mood to stay up late, pour yourself a glass of something smooth and amber, and dive into one of his stories. Maybe then, you’re in the mood to grab a notebook and start jotting thoughts and stories down of your own. Maybe the books cracked open something inside of you that you know is important, you’re just not sure what it is yet.
His stories are spread over a wide spectrum of genres, with some leaning towards straightforward mystery or romance, while others tread into the realm of bizarre science fiction. Some have a delightful, unique mix of all of these elements.
Below, in no particular order, I have the top five books of his that put me in that night owl, pensive frame of mind that I crave from time to time. The list, of course, is best paired with a drink of your choice, but if one isn’t on hand, some jazz might do nicely.
Five Essential Haruki Murakami Books
1. Sputnik Sweetheart (スプートニクの恋人 – Supūtoniku no Koibito) (1999)
When doing a bit of sleuthing around online, I noticed that this title is often missing from other Murakami top book lists. Am I crazy, or was this not one of Murakami’s most intriguing, romantic novels? This is one of the shorter, quicker reads of his, which is why I often recommend it to those beginning their journey into Murakami Land.
The story follows a twenty-something elementary school teacher, who is simply known as “K,” and his journey of falling in love with a young, aspiring writer, Sumire, who, it turns out, meets and falls in love with a woman, Miu, who is seventeen years her senior. Scandal! So many people in love.
Sumire becomes Miu’s personal assistant and they travel from Japan to Greece together (maybe they had just seen Mamma Mia! and felt inspired?). One night, Sumire tries to show her affection towards Miu, and Miu rejects her. It’s a failure to launch (trying to fit in as many space-exploration puns as I can), and the next morning, Sumire mysteriously vanishes. Miu calls K and asks him to (very casually) hop on the next flight to Greece to help search for Sumire. He immediately (very casually) does.
This book stands out for me so much for the quiet sadness it carries. There are some wacky shenanigans that go on, but at the heart of it, it’s about three people struggling to connect with the person they’re in love with, and they all seem doomed to never make that connection. They’re always passing each other, set on different trajectories, never able to meet- not without painfully crashing, anyway.
I would hate to give too much of the story away, but suffice it to say, if you’re looking to dip your toes into Murakami to see if his stories are for you, this is a great one to try. Here are the opening lines to give you a taste.
“In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains—flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits.”
As far as opening lines go, that’s not too damn shabby.
2. The Elephant Vanishes (象の消滅 – Zō no shōmetsu) (1993), and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (めくらやなぎと眠る女 – Mekurayanagi to nemuru onna) (2006)
It would be absolutely devastating if I didn’t mention Murakami’s short stories. He said it best:“If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.”
Murakami’s short story collections are what first drew me to his writing. They were like warm chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven, sitting on the cooling rack, waiting to be devoured. I couldn’t get enough of them. I couldn’t get over these bizarre, lovely stories. Sometimes they baffled me and gave no satisfying conclusion, just a mood to be pondered or even borderline dismissed.
Other times, I felt something in me shift from how profound the story was. I’d read a story like On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning and knew instantly that I’d come back and read it many times over in the future for how much I loved it.
If you want Murakami in bite-size servings, these collections are perfect.
Some stories that stand out as highlights for me are:
The Elephant Vanishes
- The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women (the opening chapter from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1995)
- On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning
- A Slow Boat to China
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
- A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Compilation
- A “Poor Aunt” Story
- The Year of Spaghetti (You’ll never guess what food is featured in this one)
- Chance Traveller
- Hanalei Bay
- The Kidney-Shaped Stone
“I sometimes think that people’s hearts are like deep wells. Nobody knows what’s at the bottom. All you can do is imagine by what comes floating to the surface every once in a while. – Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
- Haruki Murakami
- Kindle Edition
- Edition no. 0 (10/09/2007)
3. South of the Border, West of the Sun (国境の南、太陽の西 – Kokkyō no Minami, Taiyō no Nishi) (1992)
Bring out the whiskey- you’re gonna’ need it for this one.
If you’re in the mood for it, this is one of Murakami’s books that can break your heart and wreck you. And who isn’t always in the mood to dive deep and be really, truly twisted up like a wet rag? Such fun!
Hajime, a man in his thirties, is married, runs a jazz club (#dreamlife), and has two young daughters. From the outside, he seems to be living an ideal, happy life. But one day, he runs into his first love, Shimamoto, and his whole world tilts, never to be righted again. He’s confronted with his past in a way that’s all-consuming. He is forced to face the choices he made in the past and realize how those choices had a butterfly effect on people’s lives, his own not excluded.
This story of Murakami’s touches on a painful life lesson: no matter how much we may wish it, we can’t go back to the past. Shimamoto said it best to Hajime.
“The sad truth is that certain types of things can’t go backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”
Hajime explores his inexplicable hunger and desire to reclaim his youth and to live the life he once had, with the girl he once loved. Whether or not that’s possible, you’ll have to read for yourself to find out. But did I mention you might need a strong glass of whiskey to do so? Duke Ellington in the background wouldn’t hurt, either.
- Haruki Murakami
- Kindle Edition
- Edition no. 0 (08/11/2010)
4. Underground (アンダーグラウンド – Andaaguraundo) (2000)
Underground stands out against the rest of this list as a nonfiction piece (though much of the telling reads much like some of Murakami’s bizarre tales- a testament to the surrealness and terror of the event covered).
On March 20, 1995, doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo launched a deadly, silent attack in the underbelly of Tokyo. Members of the group boarded busy trains in the early hours that were filled with commuters, and released sarin gas. Twelve people died, and thousands more were affected by injury, aftereffects, and post-traumatic stress.
Underground lays out interviews with victims of the attack, people who lost loved ones, as well as interviews with Aum members, current and former. The interviews with the victims act almost as Rashomon-style accounts, with each explaining their unique point of view of the same event.
Although this is nonfiction, a theme that is common in Murakami’s novels permeates: disappearance. On that early spring morning, some people woke up to go to work, and never returned home. Others, members of Aum, had already “crossed over” to some other place in their minds, discarding the person they once were in Japanese society. One member confessed, ”My consciousness had gone over to the other side and I couldn’t get back.” A place under the surface, underground, of the life they’d known before.
It sort of makes you start to miss the more light-hearted stuff, like lost love and jazz, doesn’t it?
Because it’s lodged in reality and isn’t a story wrought from Murakami’s imagination, this continues to be, for me, Murakami’s most haunting, thought-provoking piece of work. It’s heart-wrenching to read the stories, but understanding them allows us to connect to those who were affected, and also to face an important idea that Murakami presents: that the veil between the “us” (those in every-day society) and “them” (those who throw their identity away) may not be as transparent as we may think.
- Haruki Murakami
- Kindle Edition
- Edition no. 1 (08/11/2010)
5. Dance Dance Dance (ダンス・ダンス・ダンス – Dansu Dansu Dansu) (1994)
Ok, are we ready to move on to yet more vanishing girlfriends, pasta, and ear fetishes?
In my favorite of Murakami’s hard-boiled detective style novels, we follow an unnamed protagonist, a 34-year-old freelance writer. It’s the same main character from another book of Murakami’s, A Wild Sheep Chase, at the end of which his girlfriend, Kiki (a former ear model- no, really), suddenly disappears. This book acts as a continuation of the story, with the narrator shuffling his way through the mystery of her absence, a potentially related unsolved murder, and meetings with all sorts of bizarre, compelling characters.
One of those characters is the Sheep Man, who appears to the main character when he enters an alternate, darkened version of the hotel where he and his girlfriend were staying at in Sapporo when she went missing.
This version of the hotel (which only manifests in the middle of the night) may or may not just be in his head, but either way, the Sheep Man, a strange man dressed in sheepskin and who talkslikethisinrun-onsentences, is somehow connected to Kiki’s disappearance and must be reckoned with.
The protagonist returns to Tokyo, where he continues to look for clues. A smart, snarky yet lonesome 13-year-old girl he meets along the way becomes a sidekick of sorts. The Short Round to his Indy. She helps him connect the dots with the mysterious, sometimes devastating, events that build and weigh down on him.
In the story, the narrator comes to question so much about life, reality, love, and death, all things we, as humans, inevitably struggle with.
Murakami once again puts the theme of disappearance center-stage in the tale. The terror of the unknown that follows when people we love have gone (whether they’ve died or they’ve simply left our lives) is something we can all relate to. Where do they go? That, and the thought of our own, inevitable vanishing, is something that sits in the back of our minds, waiting to be wrestled with.
Scary as that may be, though, as the Sheep Man says, “Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays.” Just dance, dance, dance.
I’ll cheers to that.
Norwegian Wood (ノルウェイの森 – Noruwei no Mori) (1987)
This is, undoubtedly, Murakami’s most well-known piece. It’s what catapulted him to fame in the late 1980’s, which drove him to leave the country in a bid to escape the unwanted recognition. It’s a beautifully written piece of work and deserves your time. It’s a unique novel of his in that there are no science fiction elements whatsoever, hardly any of the typical Murakami tropes, and is based loosely off of his own college experience in the late 1960’s.
While, in a way, it serves as required reading of his, it’s incredibly heavy and not one I find myself going back to very often like I do with his other stories. While it evokes nostalgia for a very specific time and place, it feels almost smothering in its sadness. It’s not a bad launching pad, however, as introductory Murakami books go.
1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (ねじまき鳥クロニクル – Nejimakitori Kuronikuru) (1997)
2. 1Q84 (いちきゅうはちよん – Ichi-Kyū-Hachi-Yon) (2011)
3. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年 – Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to, kare no junrei no toshi) (2014)
4. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること – Hashiru Koto ni Tsuite Kataru Toki ni Boku no Kataru Koto) (2008)
What did you think of the choices? Do you have any Murakami favorites of your own? Let us know in the comments below!