By Leah Chase
CW: Mentions of sexual assault
“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” performs the most delicate balancing act between what many of Murakami’s devoted readers describe as the two fundamental categories of Murakamian style: highly imaginative magical realism and subdued yet equally philosophical and introspective realism peppered with supernatural occurrences. With the central conflict hinging on a rather supernatural sleep paralysis experience, it refuses to be identified with either of the two established categories. One might be quick to compare “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” to Murakami’s 2004 novel, “After Dark,” which also incorporates supernatural dreams, yet the latter novel merely uses magic as a backdrop for metaphysical exploration.
This novel is centered on 36-year-old Tsukuru Tazaki, who seeks closure with the four friends who unexpectedly cut him off 16 years prior. Murakami paints him as introverted and extremely observant, yet more importantly, Tsukuru paints himself as lackluster or “colorless,” as opposed to his exuberant and “colorful” friends. Taking colorful in the literal sense, each friend has a color in their last name: Kei Akamatsu or Aka (Red), Yoshio Oumi or Ao (Blue), Yuzu Shirane or Shiro (White) and Eri Kurono or Kuro (Black). Tsukuru is the only friend without a color, his last name meaning “to build or construct,” which coincidentally aligns with his job at a Tokyo railway company. It is this separation that lays the groundwork for the novel.
As an adult, Tsukuru is prompted to track down these four friends by his girlfriend, Sara, to uncover the reason behind his sudden expulsion from their group. He quickly learns it is because Shiro, mainly referred to as Yuzu, claimed he had raped her in their sophomore year of college. At this point reality and dreams collide. Around the same time as the alleged rape, Tsukuru had had a violent and erotic dream involving the two girls, Yuzu and Eri, and a new college friend, Fumiaki Haida. At first, it seems to have been nothing more than a dream, but considering Haida’s unexplained leave of absence and Yuzu’s rape, he begins to question if he is to blame and suspects something supernatural had taken place. Further complicating the mystery, Tsukuru discovers that Yuzu had been murdered in her apartment six years prior to the present storyline.
Weaving complicated mysteries into the seemingly ordinary is undoubtedly Murakami’s strong suit, and indeed “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is yet another example of this. Tsukuru’s life takes on a hallucinogenic and somewhat disturbing quality mainly residing in his inner monologues, whose subject matter ranges from the mundane to the philosophical. In describing Tsukuru’s thoughts on past relationships, Murakami writes, “[It was] like a silent hatchet had sliced the ties between them, ties through which warm blood still flowed, along with a quiet pulse.” It is purely uncanny, the kind of writing that makes you read it over twice.
Of course, a Murakami novel would be incomplete without philosophical overtones, and in “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” philosophy comes in two forms. The first is more obvious, involving long conversations between Tsukuru and Haida, a close friend at Tokyo University and a philosophy enthusiast who, unlike Tsukuru, loves to “deconstruct” things. Back at Tsukuru’s apartment, Haida poses the metaphysical question of being, pondering the extent and limitations of free thought and existence, yet is unable to provide an answer when Tsukuru asks about the value of free will. This discussion, particularly Haida’s “respect for and exasperation with boundaries,” sets the stage for the rest of the novel. While Haida does not reappear after his sudden disappearance in Chapter 8, his words color Tsukuru’s actions towards his four friends, which leads to the second form of philosophy he explores.
The latter half of the novel takes a deep dive into Tsukuru’s human existence and guiding purpose. As Tsukuru is further entrenched in Yuzu’s mystery, Murakami contemplates his physicality. He blurs the lines between reality and the supernatural, and in doing so, Tsukuru becomes a character destitute of place. What is truly concrete? What is not? And what constitutes place? Tsukuru, a man without his four friends, without Haida’s companionship or Sara’s full commitment, has no roots. But perhaps it is being rooted in nothing that gives Tsukuru a sense of place. Regardless, Murakami never quite answers any of the philosophical questions he poses. To some extent, this greatly benefits the novel. Such mystery lends a “very sound curiosity,” as Murakami describes in an interview with The Guardian, that mirrors the complexity of Tsukuru as a character. Such complexities seek to flesh out even the most seemingly banal personalities, and while Murakami is often criticized for that exact banality in his other male protagonists, his deep exploration of the self here nullifies Tsukuru’s vapid nature. That being said, there are moments when curiosity becomes frustration, when certain unanswered questions make matters more confusing and narratives meet their abrupt demise.
The mystery behind Yuzu’s rape and death remains mostly unresolved. Upon meeting with Eri, the last of the three living friends, at her new Finland residence, he learns that Yuzu had a miscarriage and developed anorexia as a means of preventing all future pregnancies. Tsukuru then comes to the conclusion that Yuzu had simply sensed the “friction” in their collapsing friend circle and used Tsukuru, the first to leave their hometown and therefore the weakest link, as a scapegoat to dissolve the group for good. He explains: “But she was unable, at least on her own, to escape outside that circle. She didn’t possess the strength. So she set Tsukuru up as the apostate. […] To put it another way, he deserved to be punished.” While this conclusion is not entirely impossible, it comes off as almost lazy and a bit insensitive, particularly because of Tsukuru’s self-victimization. It leaves one to wonder: What was it all for? What significance does Tsukuru’s erotic dream have if we are lead to believe it was all fabricated by Yuzu herself? Why introduce the dream at all? Everything alluding to a more meaningful resolution — Yuzu’s appearance in the dream, the culprit behind her rape and murder, the things Murakami spent nearly three-hundred pages developing and reflecting upon — are all dropped within a few pages. Rape and murder are two very serious and shocking crimes, and for a more concrete discussion of such themes to be evaded in favor of an aesthetic ambiguity does not do them proper justice. All we are given is the cryptic image of a “dark shadow of violence,” an “evil spirit,” before the curtains close on her mystery for good.
Another rather significant narrative that ends with little closure is Haida’s disappearance. Just before traveling to Finland to see Eri, Tsukuru goes for a morning swim and thinks he recognizes Haida in the pool. Upon realizing it is not him, he leaves and decides that, in addition to his four friends, “Haida is also one of the things that’s blocking [him] inside.” This seems to imply that we will receive some sort of clarification regarding Haida’s sudden leave of absence, yet no such thing happens. In fact, Tsukuru never even seeks to contact Haida. With Haida playing a crucial role in Tsukuru’s erotic dream, it would make sense to continue his storyline, but like Yuzu, his outcome is unfortunately not revealed. “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is an incredibly meticulous investigation of the mind that demonstrates Murakami’s mastery of nuance. It is a phenomenological exploration of self and a powerful insight into the nature of relationships. While it faces the detriments of several misguided ambiguities, it is nevertheless important to celebrate the power of an open-ended question. Murakami ultimately leaves it to us to ascribe meaning to Tsukuru Tazaki’s life, as well as the greater reality surrounding him, and navigate the fine line between what is and what isn’t.
Contact Leah Chase at lachase ‘at’ stanford.edu.