what is the wind up bird chronicle about

Having finally got all of my posts on 2021 out of the way, I’m now free to start a new year of reviewing, and as most of you will be aware, round these parts that means only one thing – #JanuaryInJapan! Yes, as has been the case for many years now, I’ll be focusing on Japanese literature for a month or so, and I’m looking forward to this annual opportunity to indulge my love of J-Lit immensely. I’ve got a lot of books lined up (too many, if I’m honest), and I think you’ll all be interested in my selections, even if they’re probably slanted more towards older, even classic, works.

To kick the month off, though, I’m looking at a book I’ve read several times before, albeit in pre-blogging times, so it’s a perfect opportunity to rectify what looks like a surprising oversight in my catalogue of reviews. It’s a book you will almost certainly have heard of, by a writer you can’t possible be unaware of, and as well as being a work that launched a thousand memes, it’s actually a very, very good read

***** Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (translated by Jay Rubin) begins with the epitome of the everyman, Toru Okada, making pasta and listening to Rossini in his suburban Tokyo home. While waiting for his spaghetti to get to just the right texture, he’s interrupted by a telephone call, in which a seductive female voice urges him to give her ten minutes of his time. He soon hangs up, but this odd intrusion into a very ordinary day is merely the start of a string of unusual occurrences.

You see, Toru’s wife, Kumiko, is upset about the disappearance of their cat, and this seemingly simple concern soon spirals into something rather strange. Kumiko arranges for a psychic, Malta Kano, and her beautiful sister, Creta, to get involved, and from the start the unusually-named Malta has a clear message for Toru:

“Mr. Okada,” she said, “I believe that you are entering a new phase of your life in which many different things will occur. The disappearance of your cat is only the beginning.” “Different things,” I said. “Good things or bad things?” She tilted her head in thought. “Good things and bad things. Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.” p.44 (Vintage, 2003)

However, the sisters are far from the only new acquaintances he makes on his search for the cat. There’s his precocious sixteen-year-old neighbour, May Kasahara, and Lieutenant Mamiya, an elderly man with stories of Japanese atrocities during the continental war in the 1930s and 1940s. A more familiar, if unwelcome face, is his nasty brother-in-law, prospective politician Noboru Wataya, but Toru is forced to meet him several times when Kumiko also goes missing. Steeling himself to the task of tracking down his wife, Toru decides that he’ll do anything to get her back – little does he realise what kind of adventures he’ll have along the way…

When people speak of Murakami as a potential Nobel Prize in Literature recipient, this is the book they have in mind, a mesmerising epic that enthralled readers and won over critics. In many ways, this is peak Murakami, an expansive work containing all his ideas and tropes and managing to put them together in a way later books can only echo, usually unsuccessfully. The novel uses its surreal plot to cleverly examine both the soul-crushing nature of modern life and a dark side of Japan’s recent history, showing how individuals and society alike have dark secrets that need to be brought into the light to be properly addressed.

Of course, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is peak Murakami in another way, too, as this is undoubtedly the book that spawned the ubiquitous Murakami Bingo meme. Yes, there are cats and wells, a precocious girl/woman and shapely ears, dream sex and attention paid to breasts, Cutty Sark scotch and classical music. However, none of it seems forced here, every element playing its role if you’re patient enough, and even if the book, with multiple stories, diary entries and newspaper reports, can seem unwieldy at times, the writer slowly brings everything together to finish with a bang.

Completing our Murakami bingo square is the book’s traditional antihero. Toru is the star of the show, married, yet strangely alone, and often seen by himself at home, with his wife only making fleeting appearances before disappearing. The writer emphasises his ordinary, everyman nature from the start:

I might say I have a real talent for the execution of practical duties. I’m a quick learner, efficient. I never complain, and I’m realistic. (p.9)

The book is all about what happens when Mr. Practical is faced with the impossible, the unreal. During the lengthy search for his wife (and the cat…), Toru is forced to re-examine himself and the life he’s been living while confronting enemies who could annihilate him with a single phone call, or a click of a finger. Does he have the strength to go through the trials he faces?

Many of these trials, though, aren’t quite as you might understand them, often involving patience, waiting and then facing his inner demons. Most of the pivotal events of the book take place in a kind of dream world, with Toru slipping into another dimension, accessing his psyche, in an attempt to uncover what’s hidden deep within. It’s this inner self, both his own and his wife’s, that he needs to access if he’s to save his marriage.

Many reviews of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle praise the historical side of the novel. Several stories from the war in China before and during World War Two underpin the plot, and Toru’s discovery of these tales can be seen as a veiled critique of his country’s refusal to reflect on its behaviour during the thirties and forties. Despite his laidback style, Murakami manages to hit a nerve in his inimitable fashion. There are a number of powerful scenes included in his look at the war, including a particularly memorable one that I wouldn’t want to be trying around dinner time…

The main connection between Toru’s experiences and these historical events is Lieutenant Mamiya, the elderly man who appears to deliver a legacy to Toru and then reveals his own story. It involves (naturally…) a well, but it proves to be the key to unlocking the mystery of Kumiko’s disappearance:

But something begins to appear there. In the midst of my momentary blindness, something is trying to take shape. Some thing. Some thing that possesses life. Like the shadow in a solar eclipse, it begins to emerge, black in the light. But I can can never quite make out its form. It is trying to come to me, trying to confer upon me something very much like heavenly grace. I wait for it trembling. But then, either because it has changed its mind or because there is not enough time, it never comes to me. The moment before it takes full shape, it dissolves and melts once again into the light. (p.208)

Several characters experience this sense of there being something inside, a presence they’re usually unaware of, and when it reveals itself, it can destroy the life they’d been living up to that point. Toru eventually manages to find his own well, his own door to this other place, and it proves to be a dangerous experience, even if it’s all (literally) in his head.

Another integral part of Murakami’s worlds is sex, with plenty on offer in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (which may dismay some readers), yet there’s always a sense that the physical act only scratches the surface of true intimacy. Kumiko admits that there’s always been a part of her that is inaccessible to Toru, and in a similar manner, in Creta Kano’s stories of her time as a prostitute, she outlines her ability to separate her ‘true’ self from her physical form in the real world. Then there’s the concept of sex of the mind, in dreams, and in Murakami’s world, this psycho-sex can be every bit as real (and often more so) than the ‘normal’ kind.

However, where in later books (1Q84, for example) the sex can be laughable and gratuitous, here it’s never awkward or off-putting, but an integral part of the story. In fact, it evolves cleanly into the concept of prostituting oneself, both physically and mentally. There’s Creta Kano’s tale, of course, but the theme goes far beyond this, exploring how any situation where you sacrifice something, even the 9-to-5 grind, involves a similar betrayal of oneself. Toru himself has tried to avoid this, but over the course of his adventures, he unwittingly finds himself having to compromise his lifestyle, eventually ending up in a very similar situation to Creta.

Of course, this theme of the tedium of the modern working life is one of the more common Murakami tropes, and Toru isn’t the first of the writer’s protagonists (or alter-egos) to take time out to find themself. Here, though, it’s done in a more nuanced manner than in earlier works (such as A Wild Sheep Chase, for example) as he discovers how anonymous you can be simply by taking a step back and allowing society to flow by. There are also doubts. As much as he might hate him, Toru can’t help but acknowledge that Noburo Wataya isn’t completely off the mark with his dismissive criticisms of Toru’s wasted life, and there’s always the sense that our hero’s period of mental wanderings will end with a return to ‘real’ life.

Overall, there’s a nice steady flow to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, with the story meandering at times, but never enough to distract the reader from the main thread. Murakami sets up Toru’s predicament and then sets him off on his journey, one he has to go through in order to be able to continue with his life. Although the book is divided into three parts, it’s really a book of two halves: in the first, May Kasahara and the Kano sisters help him set out on his journey, while the second sees the memorable mother-son combination of Cinnamon and Nutmeg enable Toru to work towards his goal. These are the many guides along the dark path Toru is forced to take, one he’d rather avoid if possible. Sadly, it’s not…

Running to over six-hundred pages in English, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle may be an epic work, but it’s actually shorter than the Japanese version (there are rumours that a translator’s cut will see the light of day at some point). While it’s not my absolute favourite Murakami book, from a literary perspective it’s hands down his finest moment. It’s an absorbing tale of how we sleepwalk through our lives, and how much effort it takes to wake up from that sleep and make a change – but also of how there’s something ever so wrong with the society we live in, something we rarely consider (today, I suspect we’re all that little bit more aware of the dark side of capitalist living…). I’m not convinced that Murakami will ever get the call from Sweden, but if he does, this is the book that will make it happen, so I’d strongly recommend that you give it a try, just in case

Themes edit

  • Desire: Throughout the book, a number of characters experience feelings of desire. Desire seems to express itself negatively and in ways that are almost repulsive throughout the entire book. One example, is displayed through Noboru Wataya, who desires power. Because of his lust for power, he engages in incestuous relationships with both of his younger sisters—one of whom is still alive and the other is deceased. At first, Toru goes on lengthy day trips in an attempt to find his wife’s missing cat in an effort to make her happy. His longing for her takes him to odd places where he learns more about himself on the inside. Due to her numerous sexual cravings, Kumiko betrays Toru and contracts an STD as a result. Throughout the novel desire leads the characters to dark places. [4].
  • Power: The story revolves around the characters in the book’s ever-changing dynamic as they acquire or lose power. Noboru Wataya’s primary goal is power, which makes his younger sister Kumiko a victim of his thirst for power and causes her to lose power to him. Toru gains power as a result of Kumiko’s loss of power. When Kumiko disappears, Toru is forced to find the strength to leave his comfort zone and return to Kumiko in order to find her and save her from her brother. This sets him on a quest to release Kumiko from the bonds her brother has placed around her. Translating to a gain in his sense of power. He discovers strength within himself and is driven to free Kumiko. The characters’ attempts to master their own emotions also display power. [5].
  • Polar opposites: There are numerous instances of the characters in the book being polar opposites. At the start of the book, there is a major contrast between the two women in Torus’s life. The enigmatic caller Toru initially presents herself as a very strong and seductive woman. Even though Toru is unwilling to listen to her, she is quite confident when she speaks with him. In contrast, Toru’s wife Kumiko is quite reserved and soft-spoken when he’s around her. Another instance of polar opposites is the relationship between Toru, Kumikos Brother, and Noboru Wataya. Noboru Wataya is portrayed as a strong, rude character who is lustful for power. On the other hand, Toru comes across as a modest, reserved, polite, and grounded character. Within the book, Creta Kano highlights this stark contrast by saying, “Noboru Wataya is a person who belongs to a world that is the exact opposite of yours.” [6] The contrast between diametrically opposed characters gives each character more complexity and uniqueness on their own
  • Alienation: Although the characters are clearly related to one another throughout the book, they never seem to click. Each character grows on their own and has a propensity for living alone. This can be presented in Toru and Kumikos marriage. Toru portrays himself as someone who wants to be alone throughout the entire book. He gives one instance as he finishes a routine task: “I went swimming at the municipal pool.” Mornings were the best, to avoid the crowds”. [7] He resigns from his job to take care of the house by himself while Kumiko leaves for work, demonstrating his need for isolation. He enjoys being home alone. Both Kumiko and Toru’s characters appear to be growing apart in their relationship. Toru muses on the possibility that he may not know much about his wife despite the fact that both characters keep many things from one another. [8].

Main characters edit

Among the numerous significant and supporting characters in this book are the following:

  • Toru Okada: The protagonist and narrator, Toru is a young man from suburban Japan who is generally uninterested and passive. He is Kumiko’s spouse and consistently complies with other people’s directives. Toru is portrayed as a typical man who personifies passivity. He is a legal assistant who left his position at a law firm to pursue a law degree. He cooks pasta, cleans the house, listens to the radio, and looks for their missing cat during the day. At the beginning of the novel, his life is mundane. Toru spends a lot of time by himself, and it is evident to the reader that he lacks control over many areas of his life. His quest to find their lost cat takes him on intriguing adventures. [2].
  • Kumiko Okada is Torus’s wife and the pair’s breadwinner, making her the more independent of the two. She works in the publishing business. Following the disappearance of their cat, she disappears as well. Kumiko’s parents wanted her to replace an older sister who had committed suicide at a young age, an event that became an obsession for their older brother, Noboru Wataya, making Kumiko’s childhood oppressive.
  • Noboru Wataya: Noboru is Kumikos older brother. He is portrayed as a mediagenic figure, beloved by the general public but despised by Toru. During the course of the narrative, Noboru transitions from being an academic to a politician and doesn’t seem to have a personal life. It is said that he is all style and no substance, concealed behind a façade. He is the antagonist. To beat his opponents, Noboru is always adjusting, but nobody else but Toru seems to notice his inconsistencies. One may compare the dynamic between Toru and Noboru to that of good versus evil. [3] (“Family Affair” and “The Elephant Vanishes,” both translated by Jay Rubin, in the Elephant Vanishes collection; the character name also appeared in “Noboru Wataya,” the name Toru and Kumiko gave to their pet cat, whom Toru later renames Mackerel. ).
  • May Kasahara is a teenage girl who, although she should be attending school, chooses not to. For the most part of the book, Toru and May communicate frequently; when May isn’t there, she sends him letters. When they speak in person, their discussions are frequently strange and center on death and the decline of human life. The happy and distinctly nonserious atmosphere in which these conversations occur makes them even stranger.
  • Lieutenant Mamiya: During the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo, Lieutenant Tokutaro Mamiya served as an officer in the Kwantung Army. He meets Toru while carrying out the particulars of Mr. Hondas will. (As Honda was a Corporal, Mamiya was his supervisor.) He spent several nights in a dried-up well and saw the murder of a superior officer, which left him emotionally traumatized. He writes letters to Toru and tells her his story in person.
  • Malta Kano: A sort of medium, Malta Kano adopted the name “Malta” after engaging in certain “austerities” on the island of Malta. Kumiko enlists her to assist the Okadas in finding their missing cat.
  • Creta Kano, the younger sister of Malta and a kind of apprentice, refers to herself as a “prostitute of the mind.” ” Her real given name is Setsuko. She had worked as a real prostitute while attending college, but she left after being sexually assaulted by a young man named Noboru Wataya. To Toru’s dismay, Creta’s body almost exactly resembles Kumikos’s from the neck down.
  • Nutmeg Akasaka: Every day in Shinjuku, Nutmeg observes people’s faces from a bench. This is how Nutmeg first meets Toru. She finds something attractive about the blue-black stain on his right cheek when they first meet. She and Toru have a few strange coincidences in common: Nutmeg’s father and Lieutenant Mamiya, a friend of Torus, are connected by their experiences with violence and death in Manchukuo and the rise and fall of the Kwantung Army during World War II. Additionally, the wind-up bird in Torus yard and the blue-black cheek mark appear in Nutmeg’s World War II-related stories. She decided to go by the pseudonym “Nutmeg Akasaka” for herself after telling Toru that her “real” name didn’t matter.
  • Cinnamon Akasaka: Due to incidents involving the cry of a wind-up bird and the shock of discovering a live heart buried beneath their garden tree, Cinnamon, Nutmeg’s adult son, has not spoken since he was six years old. He uses a system of mouthed words and hand gestures to communicate. Somehow, he seems very understandable to those who have just recently met him (who have probably never lipread or used sign language). “Cinnamon,” too, is a pseudonym created by Nutmeg. He is compared to his well-groomed mother in every way.
  • The Cat: Known as Noboru Wataya after Kumiko’s elder brother, the cat represents Toru and Kumiko’s happy marriage. The cat’s departure represents the end of happiness in Kumiko and Torus’ union. When the cat returns, albeit somewhat altered and renamed Mackerel, it indicates that Toru is now prepared to speak with Kumiko and rescue her from the trap her brother has put her in. Kumiko and Toru endure a great deal of hardship after the cat leaves. [3].

A number of characters feel as though there is something inside of them that they are generally unaware of, and when it manifests itself, it has the power to end the life they have been leading up to that moment. Even though it’s all (literally) in his head, Toru eventually finds his own well, his own door to this other place, and it turns out to be a dangerous experience.

***** The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (translated by Jay Rubin) opens with Toru Okada, the personification of the common man, preparing pasta and enjoying Rossini in his suburban Tokyo house. He’s waiting for his spaghetti to reach the perfect consistency when he gets a call from a seductive woman who wants to talk to him for ten minutes. He quickly hangs up, but this strange interruption of an otherwise typical day is only the beginning of a series of strange events.

You see, Kumiko, Toru’s wife, is upset about their cat going missing, and what starts out as a straightforward worry quickly becomes quite strange. Malta Kano, a psychic, and her stunning sister Creta are brought in by Kumiko, and right away, the oddly named Malta has a message for Toru:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is over six hundred pages long in English, is actually shorter than the Japanese version (there are rumors that a translator’s cut will be released eventually). Although it’s not my all-time favorite Murakami book, it is without a doubt his best work ever written from a literary standpoint. It’s a compelling story about how we sleepwalk through life and the struggles we face when trying to wake up and make changes, but it also highlights how there is something seriously wrong with the society we live in that we hardly ever think about (though I think that today, we’re all a little bit more aware of the dark side of capitalist living…). Though I’m not sure if Murakami will ever receive a call from Sweden, this book is what will make it happen, so you should definitely give it a shot just in case .

Naturally, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is also the pinnacle of Murakami in another sense, as it is without a doubt the book that gave rise to the wildly popular Murakami Bingo meme. Yes, there are wells and cats, a girl/woman with perky ears and precociousness, dream sex with emphasis on the breasts, classical music, and Cutty Sark scotch. Nevertheless, nothing feels forced in this instance; everything has a purpose, if you can wait patiently. Although the book’s numerous stories, diary entries, and newspaper articles occasionally seem jumbled, the author skillfully weaves them all together to provide an explosive conclusion.


What is the meaning of the wind-up bird?

The wind-up bird is the most prominent symbol in novel, and it represents the possibility that free will is an illusion. The wind-up bird is a bird in Toru’s neighborhood that makes a mechanical squawk. Toru’s wife, Kumiko, gives the bird its nickname, and also speculates that the bird winds the spring of the world.

What is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle about short summary?

Set in Tokyo, the novel follows the protagonist, Toru Okada, as he embarks on a surreal journey to find his missing wife. Murakami weaves together multiple storylines and characters, delving into themes of war, trauma, and the search for identity.

What is the premise of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?

In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo.

What is the theme of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?

Social alienation is a pervasive theme in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, as many characters grapple with feelings of detachment, isolation, and a sense of disconnection from society. Toru Okada, in particular, is the archetype of the socially alienated person.