This post is for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading a Murakami book yet and can’t decide on which book to read first. It’s also for those of you who’ve already read one or two or three books by Murakami and can’t decide on which one to read next.
I’ve ranked all the Murakami books that I’ve read so far from least favorite to most favorite.
Why trust my opinion?
Good Question since maybe my tastes aren’t the same as yours.
To answer that question, first, let me explain what kind of books Murakami writes. There are two kinds:
- Magical realism books – Books with loads of weird stuff going on like people who can talk with cats, sheep that enter people’s bodies, paintings that come alive, and parallel universes.
- Realistic books – Books without any magical realism. Ordinary tales of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and then tries to get girl back. No talking cats or magical passageways to alternate worlds.
I prefer the realistic books to the magical realism ones. That’s not to say, I don’t dislike magical realism. It’s just that if I had to choose between the two, I’d prefer books with no talking cats to ones with talking cats.
If you want more books on Japan, then check out my list of 28 Great Books on Japan.
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14. The Strange Library
Translator: Ted Goossen
Number of Pages: 96 with pictures
Setting: in a library
“Why do I act like this, agreeing when I really disagree, letting people force me to do things I don’t want to do?”
This is the only Murakami book that was written especially for children. It’s also definitely the creepiest story he’s written. Plus the shortest book (96 pages with loads of pictures).
A young, lonely boy ends up imprisoned in the basement of a nightmarish library by a sinister librarian. The boy is not allowed to leave until he memorizes all three volumes of a book on the Ottoman Tax Code. Together with the help of a mysterious girl and a sheep man, the boy tries to find a way to escape the library and get back home to his mother.
Reading it gave me the same frustrating and unnerving feeling that I got when I read Franz Kafka’s The Trial—a story about being punished for some unexplainable bureaucratic reason. In fact, Murakami has said that Kafka is one of his favorite writers.
Even though it was written for children, adults who are huge Murakami fans will probably also get a kick out of the book. It is a fun, short read. But if you’re new to Murakami, start somewhere else. To really appreciate his books, read a longer book that can display his talent for developing characters.
13. South of the Border, West of the Sun
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Number of Pages: 219
Setting: a nameless suburban town, Tokyo, and Hakone, from the 1960s to late 1980s
“Day after day, you watch the sun rise in the east, pass across the sky, then sink in the west, and something breaks inside you and dies. You toss your plow aside, and, your head completely empty of thoughts, begin walking toward the west, heading toward a land that lies west of the sun. Like someone possessed, you walk on, day after day, not eating or drinking, until you collapse on the ground and die.”
South of the Border, West of the Sun is one of my least favorite books by Murakami. There are no mystical cats, moons, or hotel rooms. There’s also no riveting plot or subplots and no interesting characters.
It’s just a simple straightforward tale that’s been told a million times before. Hajime is a thirty-year-old man who’s bored with his perfect life (perfect wife, car, job, salary). Yet he still can’t get over his first love, Shimamoto—a girl he bonded with over the fact that both were only children and both loved music. Then suddenly she reenters his life. She’s beautiful and mysterious and they bond immediately. He’s now faced with the decision of whether or not to throw away his perfect life for his true love.
One thing I did like about this book is that it does have a thought-provoking message that I could relate to. It gets you to reflect on your own life and whether it’s all been worth it. I don’t want to give away too much, but I will tell you that the meaning is tied to the title of the book. South of the Border is from a Nat King Cole song and West of the Sun has to do with a Russian tale about a Siberian farmer.
The other thing I liked was how much the book captures Japan’s post-war society. This really feels like a book that could take place only in Japan. It sometimes feels that his other books could have taken place in any country (excluding the very Japanese World War II subplots found in books like Kafka on the Shore or Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).
If you’re looking for your first Murakami book to read, don’t start here. It’s not a good representation of what Murakami is all about. If you’ve already read one, two, or three books by him, look elsewhere as well. For those who are big Murakami fans, of course, read it.
12. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Number of Pages: 192
Setting: Japan, Greece, Boston, Hawaii
“Someday if I have a gravestone and I’m able to pick out what’s carved on it, I’d like it to say this:
Haruki Murakami 1949 to 20…
Writer (and Runner)
At least he never walked
At this point, that’s what I’d like it to say.”
There are two kinds of people that this memoir is written for: fans of Murakami and fans of running. If you’re one or both, then run (don’t walk) to the bookstore (or your laptop) and get this book.
As the title more than suggests, it really is a book about running.
I’m a fan of Murakami’s writing.
But, I’m not a runner. In fact, I loathe running.
So, much of it was kind of…boring.
Murakami does talk about other aspects of his life other than running. He talks about the moment he decided to start writing and the time he decided to sell his bar and write full-time. There’s an interesting story about him as a teenager standing naked in front of a full-length mirror and adding up his physical flaws. He’s very open about his character and personality (he thinks you wouldn’t like him if you really knew him). And his running is related to his writing. These parts were all very fascinating, BUT there just wasn’t enough of them to quench my curiosity.
I’m still waiting for a book that’ll tell me where he came up with his kooky ideas, what he loves about writing, what he hates about it, and how he got to be such a great writer.
If you’re a first-timer to Murakami’s books, of course, don’t start here.
11. Men Without Women: Stories
Translators: Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Number of Pages: 240
“Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. To lose all contact with women was, in the end, to lose that connection. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it entirely on the other.”
If you’ve already read a bunch of Murakami novels AND you like short stories, by all means, this is a pretty good collection.
For those who prefer his books with talking cats and alternative universes, you might be disappointed. as only one of the stories is crazy in that way.
If you’re just starting out with his books, short stories just don’t do Murakami justice.
The biggest joy I get from his books is getting emotionally attached to his idiosyncratic characters through their elaborate backstories and the intricate details of their everyday habits. With short stories, they’re just too short for characters to develop very deeply, and as a result I’m not ranking this book very high on my list.
That being said, there are a lot of stories in this collection that are a joy to read. Two of my favorite are “Drive My Car” and “Kino”.
As the title more than suggests, all of the stories are about the loss of an important woman in the main character’s life. The loss leaves them worse off—lonelier, emptier, and sadder. But each of these characters express their emotions in different ways: dying, running away, seeking revenge, etc. And for these men, what the woman means to them in their lives is not so much about the sex but about intimacy.
10. Wind-Up Bird Chronicles
Translator: Jay Rubin
Number of pages: 607
Setting: Tokyo, 1984
“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.”
If you’re looking for a book by Murakami that’s got plenty of magical realism and a lot to say about love and loss and the history of Japan during World War II, then Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is not a bad choice.
Uninspired by his career and unambitious in general, Toru quits his job. His wife, Kumiko, tells him, “Hey, no problem. I’ll work long hours to support the both of us.” He spends his days making sandwiches, lying on the couch listening to music, perusing the want-ads, looking for a lost cat, chatting it up with his teenage neighbor, and waiting for his wife to come home.
Kumiko, meanwhile, is coming home later and later, dropping hints that Toru doesn’t really understand her, and thinking up excuses to not have sex. Before Toru realizes it, his wife’s left him. No note. Nothing.
Toru’s heartbroken but is determined (in an apathetic sort of way) to find her and get her back. First, though, he must find the cat and uncover the hidden history of Japan during World War II, the mystery of the abandoned house, and the secrets of Kumiko’s sinister brother.
Lots of Murakami readers love this book. My feelings are mixed. On the one hand, I couldn’t wait to get done reading it not because I wanted to learn what happened at the end but mostly because I was simply bored by the story and characters.
On the other hand, I appreciate the symbolism, the underlying meaning, the great writing, and the feelings of being left by someone you thought you knew it evoked.
Translators: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Number of pages: 998
Setting: Tokyo, 1984
“I’m a very ordinary human being; I just happen to like reading books.”
It breaks my heart to rank this Murakami book so low. I absolutely adored the first half. Loved it so much that I got through the first 500 pages (out of 1,000) in four days. My favorite part of the first 500 pages is that it contains THREE of my all-time favorite Murakami characters, one of whom is a female assassin with a fetish for bald men. What’s not to love about a character like that?
There is a bit of magical realism and Murakami weirdness in the first half, but it adds to the story in a good way.
The second half goes off the rails, and it took me two months to finish the book. The magical realism overtakes the story. Subplots that are promising in the beginning eventually go nowhere. New and uninspiring characters are introduced. In the end, a hot mess.
There are two alternating stories. The first is about Aomame, a female assassin who works for a wealthy woman who runs a shelter for battered women. Aomi’s job is to kill the bastards who hurt these women. While on the way to an appointment, Aomi ends up in the alternate world of 1Q84.
The second story is about Tengo, a part-time novelist and part-time cram school math teacher. Tengo agrees to rewrite a bizarre story by an odd, dyslexic teenager with ties to a weird cult. Tengo’s decision entangles him in this cult and pulls him into the parallel world of 1Q84.
Eventually, Aomame and Tengo’s stories converge. Along the way, you meet a repulsive private investigator, a sex-crazed police officer, a gay assassin, a bunch of miniature beings, two ruthless bodyguards, and a persistent NHK fee collector.
For Murakami first-timers, don’t start with this book. Keep scrolling down. For those who’ve read three or four Murakami books, try 1Q84. There’s still a lot to like about the book.
8. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Number of Pages: 400
Setting: Tokyo in the future, a mythological Town
“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 dream reader. The rest of the story is about how the dream reader 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.
Hard-boiled Wonderland has the same smooth-flowing language found in most Murakami 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.
7. Killing Commendatore
Translators: Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Number of Pages: 544
Setting: present-day Odawara
“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.
I love the characters, especially the portrait painter and his eccentric and wealthy neighbor, Wataru Menshiki (Jay Gatsby).
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 audiobook and the reader had the perfect tone and cadence. If you’re looking for a good audiobook, get Killing Commendatore.
6. Sputnik Sweetheart
Translator: Philip Gabriel
How many pages: 229 pages
Setting: Tokyo and Greece in the late 1990s
“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.
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.
5. A Wild Sheep Chase
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Number of Pages: 299
Setting: Tokyo, Sapporo, and Hokkaido (1978)
“Body cells replace themselves every month. Even at this very moment. Most everything you think you know about me is nothing more than memories.”
This next book on our list is a good start for Murakami virgins who want a bit of magical realism.
Murakami novels can be unwieldy beasts. Too long (998 pages) jam-packed with loads of intricate subplots and characters with detailed backstories. A Wild Sheep Chase is short (299 pages) with one main plot and no detailed subplots and just enough backstory that doesn’t cause you to lose track of the main story.
Wild Sheep Chase is the third novel Murakami wrote and the third in the Rat Trilogy. You don’t need to read the first two to understand this one. Besides, the other two are out of print.
Our nameless protagonist is a newly divorced 30-something executive running a publishing company in Tokyo. A friend sends him a seemingly innocuous (at least to any sane person) photo of a herd of sheep that our protagonist inadvertently sticks in an article. Little does he realize is that the sheep in the photo are magical and evil. They can enter humans and take over their lives. Publishing the photo also gets the attention of a powerful right-wing politician. He’s given an ultimatum: find the sheep or face horrible consequences. Our protagonist goes on a search for some sheep and ends up all the way into the snowy mountains of northern Japan.
This is a fun book with enough magical realism and humor to keep you wanting to find out whether our protagonist ever finds the sheep. On the surface, a story about sheep doesn’t sound very compelling, but in the hands of Murakami, even a book about sheep is a hoot!
4. Dance Dance Dance
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Number of Pages: 416
Setting: Tokyo, Sapporo, and Hawaii (1983)
“So what can I do now?” she spoke up a minute later.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just think about what comes before words. You owe that to the dead. As time goes on, you’ll understand. What lasts, lasts; what doesn’t, doesn’t. Time solves most things. And what time can’t solve, you have to solve yourself. Is that too much to ask?”
“A little,” she said, trying to smile.
“Well, of course it is,” I said, trying to smile too.
“I doubt that this makes sense to most people. But I think I’m right. People die all the time. Life is a lot more fragile than we think. So you should treat others in a way that leaves no regrets. Fairly, and if possible, sincerely. It’s too easy not to make the effort, then weep and wring your hands after the person dies. Personally, I don’t buy it.”
This is another great book for those of you looking for the perfect touch of magical realism but not so much that it overtakes the story. Dance Dance Dance is the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase. I personally think you need to read one before the other to really appreciate this one.
The story begins four years after the end of A Wild Sheep Chase with the same nameless narrator. He’s as lost, unambitious, apathetic, and directionless as ever before, and he’s still searching for someone. This time it’s his missing girlfriend. As he looks for her, he ends up meeting up with a junior high classmate turned actor and taking under his wings a 13-year-old precocious girl with an attitude and mysterious powers.
I see the book as about two kinds of regrets: (1) you regret treating others unkindly (2) you regret failing to take charge of your life and doing something to change it. Don’t sit back and passively let the world come to you. Instead, you’ve got to go out and dance, dance, dance.
The book has all my favorite elements of a Murakami book: great writing, plot, and characters. It also has something that his later works don’t have and that is a tight plot without a lot of subplots that take readers off course.
3. Kafka on the Shore
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Number of pages: 505
“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 before reading. It’s magical realism at a level 8.
The story revolves around two central characters: the young Kafka Tamura and the elderly and 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 Mr. Walker is actually a cat killer. Nakata is forced to leave Tokyo and goes on a journey where he is joined by the truck driver, Noshino, who inexplicably becomes attached to Nakano. The journey takes him to Shikoku where events conspire to bring him and Kafka together.
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 hide out 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
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Number of pages: 386
Setting: Nagoya in the 1990s and Tokyo in 2000s
“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.
Colorless Tsukuru is 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. It 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.
1. Norwegian Wood
Translator: Jay Rubin
Number of pages: 296 (U.S.); 400 (U.K.)
Setting: Tokyo, 1969
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.“
Finally, we’ve come to #1. Stripped of all mystical and surreal elements, this is Murakami’s finest and funniest novel. If you’re looking for a novel filled with talking cats and two moons in the sky, this is not it. But it does have the other usual elements of a Murakami novel: beautiful writing and interesting, humorous dialogue, and well-developed characters.
This is the novel that made Murakami so famous in Japan that he had to leave the country and move to the United States in order to maintain his privacy and anonymity.
Toru Watanabe is a freshman at university in Tokyo in the late 1960s. His best friend committed suicide seven months prior. Toru is in love with two women: the emotionally unstable and sensitive Naoko (also the former girlfriend of his dead friend) and the confident and outgoing Midori. However, it’s not really a love story. It’s more a story of how Toru grows up emotionally and learns to deal with loss.
What makes this book so special is that it feels like we’re not just reading a story about Toru but a story about Murakami, himself. That’s how real it feels. Murakami has this ability to draw the reader into his story so much so that it almost feels voyeuristic as if you’re right there with Toru and Naoko as they walk the streets of Tokyo or Toru and Midori as they hang out on the rooftop of her family’s bookstore.
However, I have to admit that not everyone is going to like this book There is a lot of sex in it, and some of the sex scenes are disturbing to say the least. Some reviewers find Murakami’s portrayal of mental illness to be way off as well. If these aspects of the book don’t sound appealing, yet you’re looking for a less surreal book, then consider Colorless Tsukuru (#2 on my list).
That is my growing list of best books by Murakami ranked from least to most favorite.
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.
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