Reverently true to Haruki Murakami’s 480 page novel, Yukio Ninagawa’s ambitious production of Kafka on the Shore (which stopped by the Lincoln Center Festival this weekend) sees the merging of two disparate individuals happen in parallel to their merging experience of real and spiritual worlds. The play makes such an effort to capture the essence of the book’s shifting, asynchronous narrative that it’s designed around stunning, moving dioramas. This allows the book’s oscillating storyline, varied settings, and army of apparitions to come to life. Among many forms of poetic (but banalized) uncanniness within the tome/three-hour play, two particular symbols — seemingly belonging to this liminal space between spirituality and deadening urban reality — stand out, even in a world of talking cats, “entrance stones,” fishy rain, and the spirits of WWII deserters.
The two symbols are memorable, not just due to their ostentation, dandyish masculinity and pseudo-gourmandize, but because we (and by we, that’s to say nearly the whole globalized world) actually know them quite well. For they are two of many deities of Western — and thus, everyone’s — food and beverage. They are Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker, and what’s unsettling is — despite seeming out of place — just how much they historically fit in.
Sanders and Walker both emerge as presences throughout the story within its two parallel narratives. The first narrative is that of a boy, Nakata, who, in 1944, was foraging for mushrooms with his classmates and teacher when a flash of silver in the sky paralyzed them. Unlike the rest of his classmates, Nakata stayed comatose for a while, and when he woke up, his mind had been vacated — transferred elsewhere, to a spirit realm — and he was left with the ability to talk to cats. Now an old man, that’s how he passes his time — until one vociferous cat leads him to the home of the sculptor Koichi Tamura, appearing in the form of Johnnie Walker, who, within his strange, essentialized spirit-form, is constructing a flute made from the souls of cats he decapitates.
This man (or some other version of him), also happens to be the father of Kafka, the central figure of the story — who has run away from home. After Kafka’s father/Johnnie Walker/whatever he is is murdered, both Nakata and Kafka (who likewise experiences that feeling that part of himself lies in another realm) move toward a perplexing convergence of all things real and spiritual, and the meeting of contemporary and past Japan.
In his review of Kafka on the Shore on its initial release in English translation in 2005, the late John Updike noted the extent to which Murakami’s form of slipstream literature seems derived from a more ancient notion of earthly mythology. He also pointed out how deeply this particular novel mirrors elements of Shintoism, the (very) polytheistic Japan-indiginous religion devoted to worship of Kami, put most basically, any divine quality in anything from rocks to trees to people.
Updike references Colonel Sanders in his review, as Sanders is the character who delivers some of the most succinct bits of wisdom (though he also happens to be a superlatively seedy pimp) on the subject, saying that “in Japan, God’s always been kind of a flexible concept.” This Colonel Sanders isn’t exactly the man who made it big by pressure-frying chickens — instead, he’s whatever spirit that inhabits that crusty, fried simulacrum, “kind of like a fart” who’s “decided to take on a familiar shape, that of a famous capitalist icon.”
“I was toying with the idea of Micky Mouse, but Disney’s particular about the rights to their characters,” Colonel Sanders says in the book. Interestingly, it is both “Sanders” who embodies notions of a Shintoism as it would apply itself to commodity culture, and “Sanders” who brings up General MacArthur, who outlawed State Shintoism in Japan following America’s victory in WWII — the period, as with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, to which Murakami harkens back in his visions of commercially saturated contemporary Japan.
According to History, while “step one” in America’s occupation/reformation of Japan was to “demobilize [the country’s] armed forces… step two was the dismantling of Shintoism as the Japanese national religion,” due to its tenets of emperor worship. Meanwhile, MacArthur also tried to reorganize business structures in Japan, breaking up preexisting conglomerates in an attempt to establish free market capitalism in the country. Through the Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker characters, Murakami seems to trace how, in two similar images of overdressed Western mascots, the stifling of Shintoism, coupled with imperialist economic reconfiguration, changed Japan fundamentally. Sanders, as the character who leads Nakata directly to the spirit world, works as a global-capitalist imposition on Shinto thought, a projection both of the attempted erasure of the religion and of that erasure’s accompaniment of a deluge of Western commercial signifiers.
The fact that both figures — who come to life as scheming, cartoonish non-characters in the play — serve as figurative gateways to both Kafka’s and Nakata’s spiritual arcs is telling, because the literal gateway is, itself, a stone that, in the play, is directly linked to WWII by a harrowing sound effect. When the stone is flipped, the blaring sounds of fighter planes, sirens, bombs and guns abruptly fill the theatre. It’s obviously crucial that the plot of Kafka on the Shore chronologically begins with the prophetic moment — highly evocative of the A-bomb — of a child picking mushrooms before being changed forever by a flash. The two characters/symbols of Sanders and Walker pertain simultaneously to the contemporary, globalized commodity fetishism that anthropomorphizes the likes of fried chicken and whiskey, as well as to the shintoist thought that objects have spirits. Alas, both the play and book assert that between present and past Japan, between the spirit world and the every day, stands Colonel Sanders.