Haruki Murakami and Cats. The Popular Author's Fascination with Our Feline Companion

Just like everybody else, my introduction to Japanese literature is through Haruki Murakami’s books.

I was enamored by his writing style which blends mysticism and realism. His writing is almost proud of its contradiction, his straightforward prose yet perplexing fictional world full of talking animals, super frogs, and reality-shattering earthquakes.

One animal Murakami has a special fondness for is the cat. Cats are a staple of many of his works from the heroic antics of Nakata in Kafka on the Shore (2002), an old mentally handicapped man who employs the help of cats to search for lost pets to a lost domestic cat in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) taking the center stage. Like everything literary, we as the audience are welcome to speculate and extract our own meaning from novels. So, what is up with Murakami’s cats?

Cats as Complex creatures

There is something captivating about a cat’s often contradictory behavior, its distant nature, and sporadic affections, one will never know what you are going to get, either a playful bump on the head or a scratch that will leave a lasting scar. These contradictions and unpredictability make cats the perfect medium to explore the nature of our own personalities that is perpetually in a state of flux.

Their anthropization in Murakami’s novel can be read as an attempt to gain an insight into our very own inclinations. His cats are rich in characterization, in possession of widely differing motivations and temperaments. They function therefore as conduits of the human psyche as a reflection of our very own elusive psychological makeup.

Cats as Symbols

Furthermore, cats’ mysterious mannerism makes them the perfect metaphorical vehicle. Due to their elusive nature, cats are the perfect medium for writers to evoke literary symbolization. There is a wide array of symbolization for cats; rebirth, resurrection, darkness, the unconscious, etc. Cats embody these attributes quite well.

Darkness for example can be elicited by how cats carry themselves around us, their precise and calculated strides, and their deep and penetrating gaze as if stalking their prey. While many of its traits are mere evolutionary traces that required them to hunt, (now they eat from cute pink bowls in the comfort of the AC), they seem to possess a certain darkness or a shadow, (think Freud) that is enchanting. They are metaphorically rich.

As a writer, I can think of numerous ways that cats can be used to serve a literary function. Murakami does not shy away from this darkness, in his short story Man-Eating Cats(2000), a short story about a love affair between two married couples, the narrator dreams of, “cats devouring my p----. Far away, I could hear them lapping up my brains.” (Murakami 56) The cats here in his story seem to be an expression of the narrator’s infidelity, the dissolution of both marriages manifesting in the narrator’s dreams. Even though Murakami’s fondness for cats is widely documented, he does not shy away from extracting the metaphorical potential of cats even if that image is dark.

Cats carry cultural weight.

In Japanese Culture, the symbol of the cat is shrouded by mysticism and allure. They are often portrayed as wise and a symbol of foreshadowing which Murakami uses in his novels liberally.

  • Their disappearance in his novels (something that happens often if I may add) often heralds a bad omen, whether a dissolution of a relationship or the death of a parental figure.
  • They also often symbolize good luck which is distilled in the very popular figure of Maneki-Neko, the waving cat we have all probably seen in convenience stores all around the world. Murakami evokes this explicitly in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a gargantuan novel, which began with the disappearance of the family’s cat in conjunction with the wife’s disappearance. They possess a meaning rooted in deep cultural signification.

Haruki Murakami’s personal attachment to cats.

Haruki Murakami opened a bar/ café called Peter Cat, named after his beloved cat who has passed. I like this personal anecdote. Sometimes we can be a little too analytical for our own good. We can speculate endlessly about the various academic persuasions that led to the cornucopia of cats in Murakami’s grand literary tapestry.

But what if he just really likes cats, plain and simple? He is fond of the feline companion, developed a special relationship with a couple of them, and just really wanted to litter his work with images of them as a sort of homage, like stickers of our favorite band plastered all over our room. Maybe that is all there is to it.

Conclusion

All in all, cats are primed for literary symbolism. They are creatures of both cultural and personal significance. More importantly, not only do they serve a literary function, but they are also an expression of our own attachments. At the end of the day, they remind us of companionship and affection and the duality of the human condition.

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