A Ranking of the Best Books by Murakami

by | Books, Japan

I have to admit that the first Murakami novel I read, I hated. It was Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. But let me explain something: before I had read it, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew nothing about the kind of magical realism Murakami uses, so while I was reading it, my main thought that this story didn’t make sense. And it violated one of my biggest book pet peeves: I couldn’t figure out where the story was taking place. If it’s supposed to take place in Japan, why is everyone eating western food and listening to western music? Where’s the sushi and ramen? Where’s the Japanese culture?

But several years later, I was doing my usual preparation for a trip to another country—that time it was Japan–when I decided to give Murakami another shot. This time it was Kafka on the Shore but I was also prepared for what I was getting myself into. I expected the magical realism, and there was tons of it in Kafka on the Shore. It was good, but I’m not sure it was

I decided to try another one. Norwegian Wood. And that’s when I really fell in love with his writing. The characters, the themes, the tone, the symbolism, the love story, the setting. Here is a great writer whose writing can cross borders.

So here is my growing list of books by Murakami. I’ve ranked them from my least to most favorite.

If you want more books on Japan, then check out my list of 27 Great Books on Japan.

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9. The Strange Library

Published: 2001

Number of Pages: 96 with pictures

Setting: in a library before the Internet

My Ranking: 4 out of 5 Stars

The Strange Library is a short story about a young boy and a strange library. It’s the craziest and perhaps most chilling Murakami story I’ve read.

The book starts out with a young boy at a library asking a librarian for a book on the Ottoman tax system. She sends him to room 107, where he meets a very creepy old man who takes him through a maze of hallways to another room where he can read the book. All this time the young boy is telling the creepy man that he needs to get home soon as his mother is waiting for him and will be mad if he’s late. I don’t want to give too much away, but just know that this is one heck of a library that you don’t ever want to visit.

The Strange Library is a creepy and sinister story. While reading the novelette, I kept on thinking about Franz Kafka’s book, The Trial—the nightmare of being punished for some unexplainable bureaucratic reason. I got that same frustrating and unnerving feeling that I got reading The Trial. Murakami has said that Kafka is his favorite writer.

The Strange Library is the eighth best book by Murakami. It was good, but I wouldn’t spend my money on it. It’s only 96 pages and a lot of those pages are pictures. I just don’t think it’s worth spending money on unless that is you’re a huge fan of Murakami or you’re loaded. For most of us, borrowing it from the library is enough.

8. 1Q84

Published: 2011

Number of pages: 998

Setting: Tokyo, 1984

My Rating: First 50% of the book: 5 out of 5 stars | Last 50% of the book: 2 out of 5 stars

“I’m a very ordinary human being; I just happen to like reading books.”

1Q84, a story about mystical cults, child abuse, and two long-lost soulmates, centers around the lives and losses of two characters: Aomame and Tengo.  

On her way to an important appointment, Aomame ends up stuck in a traffic jam on the Tokyo expressway. Upon the suggestion of her taxi driver, she hops out of the car and goes down an emergency staircase to her destination. Over time she realizes that by climbing down the staircase, she has entered an alternate reality called 1Q84.

Meanwhile, Tengo, a mathematics teacher and aspiring writer, is hired to rewrite a strange but compelling book written by an odd dyslexic teenager with ties to a religious cult. Tengo’s decision entangles him in this cult and pulls him into the alternate world of 1Q84.

Eventually, Aomame and Tengo’s stories converge. Along the way, we meet a repulsive private investigator, a woman who protects abused women, a sex-crazed police officer, a bunch of miniature beings, two ruthless bodyguards, and a persistent NHK fee collector.

I don’t want to give too much away here as I think the most enjoyable part of the book is discovering the many layers and backstories of the characters. Discovering where Aomame is going at the beginning of the book and who she is are the two most fun things about this book.

What do I think?

I absolutely loved the first half of 1Q84, The characters and mysteries were what pulled me in. Out of all the books by Murakami, has by far my favorite characters: Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa. One of the biggest joys I got out of this book was the unexpected twists and turns. It took me only a few days to get to the 50% mark of this 1,000-page novel.

But then, it went off the rails, going in one crazy direction after another. My interest lagged and it ended up taking me over a month to finish it. If I could have gotten rid of the little people, this would be a much better book.

1Q84 would rank in position #3 on my list of best books by Murakami if it weren’t for the last half of the book.

If this were your first time reading a Murakami book, I would NOT start with 1Q84. It’s just way too long!

7. Wind-Up Bird Chronicles

Published: 2001

Number of pages: 607

Setting: Tokyo, 1984

My Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars

“Curiosity can bring guts out of hiding at times, maybe even get them going. But curiosity usually evaporates. Guts have to go for the long haul. Curiosity’s like a fun friend you can’t really trust. It turns you on and then it leaves you to make it on your own—with whatever guts you can muster.”

Toru is married to his soulmate Komiko. Feeling unfulfilled in his job as a legal assistant, he quits his job. He spends his days cooking, listening to classical music, looking through job ads, and searching for the couple’s missing cat. Meanwhile, Komiko is working long hours, most nights not coming home until late at night. Toru thinks nothing of it. But then one day Komiko fails to come home. Where did she go?

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the story of Toru’s search for Komiko. Where is she? Why did she leave him? In his quest to find her, he meets a cast of characters that only Murakami could come up with: Malta Kano and her sister Creta Kano and their odd relationship with Komiko’s brother, the politician and Toru’s nemesis: Noburu Wataya, Mr. Miyami and his stories of survival in Manchuria, China during World War II, his neighbor, sixteen-year-old May Kasahara, and her odd job counting bald men, and the mother and son duo of Nutmeg and Cinnamon and their stories of the last days in Manchuria during the war.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is a sad story about whether we really can ever truly know another person and what happened in Manchuria and the Russian prison camps during and after the war.

What do I think?

Wind-Up Bird is the book that made Murakami famous. At times, I loved it. I loved its sad and melancholy feel, the scene in the hotel room, and the stories of the war in Manchuria and the Soviet labor camps.

But at other times, I was just simply bored. Toru is one of the most boring characters in a Murakami novel and after the little people in 1Q84, Cinnamon and Nutmeg are my least favorite and most annoying Murakami characters.

I’m ranking this in position #6 on my list of best books by Murakami.

6. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Published: 1985

Number of Pages: 400

Setting: Tokyo in the future, a mythological Town

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Once, when I was younger, I thought I could be someone else. I’d move to Casablanca, open a bar, and I’d meet Ingrid Bergman. Or more realistically – whether actually more realistic or not – I’d tune in on a better life, something more suited to my true self. Toward that end, I had to undergo training. I read The Greening of America, and I saw Easy Rider three times. But like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.”

What would you do if you were told that you had only 48 hours to live? Wanna know what Murakami would do? Read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

The book is two stories told in alternating chapters. The first, The Hard-Boiled Wonderland, is a sort-of sci-fi novel about a Computec (we never learn his name), who works for the System, a quasi-governmental organization that stores people’s data. The Computec’s job is to shuffle the data so that it can’t be stolen by a mafia-like organization called the Factory. To do this shuffling, the System has altered the Computec’s mind.

The second story, The End of the World, is a sort of a mythological / dystopian story involving a nameless protagonist who arrives in a Town surrounded by an impenetrable wall. Upon arrival, his memory is taken away, his eyes are pierced, his shadow is cut away from him, and he is assigned a job working in a library as a dreamreader. The rest of the story is about how the dreamreader tries to get his shadow (memory) back and escape from the Town.

You won’t really find out how the two stories are connected until towards the end of the novel.

What do I think?

Hard-boiled Wonderland has the same smooth-flowing language found in most Murkami novels. Like all other Murakami novels, the main character is an apathetic, laid-back, take-what-comes kind of thirty-something guy and the side characters are all quirky and endearing.

What I liked about this one is that compared to his other more recent books the story seems to be well-plotted out with a nice clear-cut ending that would give even Sheldon Cooper some peace of mind.

The theme of what is our unconscious selves is an interesting one that takes some background reading of Jung and Freud along with a second reading of Hard-boiled Wonderland to really grasp what Murakami is saying.

What would I do if I had 48 hours to live? Before Corona, I’d say I’d hop on a plane and spend it in Mexico or some country I’d never been to but that could be reached quickly. In a post-Corona world, I couldn’t come up with much of anything.

5. Killing Commendatore

Published: 2017

Number of Pages: 544

Setting: present day Odawara

My Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars (audio version is brilliant!)

“None of us are ever finished. Everyone is always a work in progress.”

Killing Commendatore is Murakami’s most recent novel. Mostly set in the mountains of Odawara, it’s a story about love, loss, and art.

Murakami has called the novel his homage to The Great Gatsby (my all-time favorite novel).

The marriage of the nameless protagonist, the portrait painter, has just ended after his wife admits to having an affair. Devastated by the breakup, the painter leaves Tokyo and moves into the former home of a friend’s father, Tomohiko Amada, a famous painter of Japanese traditional art.

One night, the portrait painter hears a noise coming from the attic, so he goes to investigate and finds a painting hidden away in the attic called Killing Commendatore. Unbeknownst to the portrait painter, the uncovering of the painting unleashes a series of bizarre events that eventually lead him on a journey through an underworld.

What do I think?

I love the characters, especially the portrait painter and his eccentric and wealthy neighbor, Wataru Menshiki (Jay Gatbsy).

I love the setting of the novel–the mountains of Odawara. I’ve been to this beautiful area with its views of Mt. Fuji, its hot springs, and its winding roads through forested mountains. You can read about the area in my Hakone travel post.

I found myself completely absorbed in the mysteries of why Tomohiko Amada left Vienna, what the Killing Commendatore really means, what will happen with the shrine behind the house, and what’s up with Menshiki.

I listened to this book as an audio book and the reader had the perfect tone and cadence. If you’re looking for a good audio book, get Killing Commendatore.

4. Sputnik Sweetheart

Published: 2002

How many pages: 229 pages

Setting: Tokyo and Greece in the late 1990s

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

Sputnik Sweetheart is a story of unrequited love, loneliness, and conformity.

It’s narrated by a young man, a teacher, who is in love with his friend Sumire, a free-spirited writer. Sumire is an odd character who dresses in her own way and who doesn’t conform to what society wants her to be.

He hasn’t told her how he feels about her. Mainly because Sumire isn’t in love with him. Instead, she’s fallen for her employer, Miu, a successful and glamorous woman seventeen years older than Sumire.

One day, K gets a phone call from Miu telling him that Sumire has disappeared. They were on a Greek island and for some unexplainable reason no one can find her.

What do I think?

I really loved Sputnik Sweetheart. The story just had an effective amount of magical realism that fit perfectly into the story. Not too much and not too little. And it came at the perfect point in the novel.

At less than 300 pages, it’s a short novel for Murakami so I felt there weren’t too many slow parts.

K’s story really touched me as well. Here is a guy who’s lost something of himself by trying to mold himself into what society sees as acceptable. It’s a great theme that reflects issues that give you a deeper understanding of the culture of Japan.

I find that a lot of Japanese novels are about loneliness—a feeling that many of us experience in this world of social media and now (if you’re reading this in 2020) of being isolated in a pandemic. I wish American and British writers would write more about it as I think it’s universal.

More Books to Read to Take You Around the World

3. Kafka on the Shore

Published: 2006

Number of pages: 505

Setting: Shikoku

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“What I think is this: You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow.”

Kafka on the Shore is one of those novels that you need to be prepared for. Its magical realism at a level 8. The story revolves around two central characters: the young Kafka Tamura and the elderly, illiterate Nakama.

In order to escape a prophecy that he will murder his father and to search for his missing mother and sister, Kafka Tamura runs away from home. He ends up in a private library on the island of Shikoku. There he meets the beautiful but odd Miss Saeki, who he believes may be his mother and the even odder but more helpful Oshima.  

A parallel story centers on the eccentric Nakata, an illiterate old man who makes his living finding lost cats. One day he’s hired by the mysterious Johnnie Walker to find a lost cat. But it turns out the Mr. Walker is actually a cat killer. Nakata is forced to leave Tokyo and goes on a journey where he is joined by the trucker driver, Noshino, who inexplicably becomes attached to Nakana. The journey takes him to Shikoku where events conspire to bring him and Kafka together.

What do I thinK?

I enjoyed Kafka on the Shore for its cleverness, its metaphors, and its utterly strange but fascinating characters. I also love the setting—I mean of all the places to run away to and hideout in a library for me would be perfect!

Whereas other Murakami novels start out with some semblance of normalcy before eventually meandering into a series of surreal events, Kafka on the Shore starts out that way from the very beginning. It’s a book in which you need to let go of all reasons and just go with the flow. If you need a book with concrete characters and a straightforward plot where everything makes sense, then I’d suggest holding off on this one.

I highly recommend purchasing this book over borrowing as it requires more than one reading to really grasp the meaning of everything.

You can read an interview with Murakami on the book here.

2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage

Published: 2013

Number of pages: 386

Setting: Nagoya in the 1990s and Tokyo in 2000s

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Maybe I am fated to always be alone, Tsukuru found himself thinking. People came to him, but in the end they always left. They came, seeking something, but either they couldn’t find it, or were unhappy with what they found (or else they were disappointed or angry), and then they left. One day, without warning, they vanished, with no explanation, no word of farewell. Like a silent hatchet had sliced the ties between them, ties through which warm blood still flowed, along with a quiet pulse.”

Set in modern-day Tokyo, Colorless Tsukuru is the story of Tsukuru Tazaki and his journey to find out the truth of a loss that deeply impacted him his whole adult life.

As a teenager in Nagoya, Tsukuru Tazaki was blessed with four friends whose friendship was so perfect that it could only have come out of a Hollywood movie.

Then after graduating from high school, his friends stay in Nagoya, while he moves away to go to school in Tokyo. In his sophomore year, without any explanation, his four friends abruptly and without any explanation cut him off. During that same year, another friend does the same. These inexplicable losses devastate him to the point where he contemplates suicide.

Later while in his mid-30s, Tsukuru is encouraged by a new girlfriend to confront his past and find out what happened years ago between him and his friends. Tsukuru goes on a journey to discover the truth and to recover his happiness.

Why do I love this book?

Colorless Tsukuru is pretty much a purely realistic novel by Murakami. I don’t think there is an ounce of magical realism in the whole book.

I loved this book because having just experienced something similar to what Tsukuru went through, I could really relate.

I love mysteries, and this novel had a compelling mystery. I really wanted to know why his friends stopped communicating with Tsukuru kept me glued to my couch on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

I had a difficult time arranging most of these books by Murakami in order from most to least favorite except for this one. Colorless Tsukuru is definitely my second favorite book by Murakami.

MORE BOOKS FOR THE ARMCHAIR TRAVELER:

1. Norwegian Wood

Published: 2000

Number of pages: 296 (U.S.); 400 (U.K.)

Setting: Tokyo, 1969

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age story about love and loss set in Tokyo during the student strikes of the late 1960s. Toru, a young college student in Tokyo, is torn between his love for two women: the quiet and emotionally-fragile Naoko and the confident and outgoing, Midori.

Naoko was originally the girlfriend of Toru’s best friend who had killed himself a few years earlier while they were in high school. Toru had always been in love with Naoko.

Toru and Naoko are now both at university in Tokyo. They start to spend time with each other. They can feel a strong connection between each other, but the feelings are never verbally expressed. Then Naoko leaves Tokyo.

Toru starts to spend time with his classmate Midori—outgoing and confident, the complete opposite of Naoko. Toru finds that he and Midori understand each other in ways that he’s never had with Naoko.

Why I absolutely love this book?

Norwegian Wood is my favorite Murakami novel. It’s the most straightforward and least magical realism-like book of his. The characters, the writing, and the deep layers of meaning are Murakami at his best.

This is one of the best books on Japan.

That is my growing list of best books by Murakami ranked from least to most favorite.

If this is your first time reading Murakami and you’re not into magical realism, start with Norwegian Wood or Colorless Tsukuru.

If you love magical realism, then start with Kafka on the Shore.

If you want to read more books on Japan, check out my list of some great books on Japan.

And if you’re looking for information on traveling to Japan, check out my travel guide to Japan.

A Ranking of the Best Books by Murakami
9 book covers of books by Murakami

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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  Travel addict and bookworm! This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore the history, heritage, and culture of Asia and beyond. On this site, you’ll find itineraries to help you plan your trip, reviews to help you make better-informed decisions, lots of history and cultural information to help make your travels more meaningful, and book recommendations to help you understand your destination more deeply.

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