Haruki Murakami is one of the most popular and widely read contemporary Japanese writers and for a good reason. The best Murakami books are read by millions of dedicated fans.
While he’s a Japanese writer, he’s heavily influenced by Western culture. This makes his novels an interesting blend of Wester pop-culture references and Japanese culture.
What he’s most known for are his books of magical realism, which are full of weird, absurd and surrealistic elements. Yet, he often uses those to outline the problems of our contemporary society.
His strange, magical adventures often bring to light deeper themes, such as isolation, finding happiness and identity. Many of his novels center on our urge to explore ourselves and to understand the inner workings of human identity. They are a mixture of surrealistic fantasy and a discussion of human nature.
To do so, Murakami plunges his characters into metaphysical realms, dreamscapes, the unconscious and even the afterlife.
As much as I love Murakami’s works, I can be a bit divided on him. I’ve got a strange relationship with his works. While I enjoy some of his books massively, there are others I truly disliked.
Those are, however, a few outlines and I enjoy most of his works. It’s the strange mixture of easily digestible prose, serious topics and the myriad of strange, surreal and weird elements he employs. It’s a sense of otherworldliness that surrounds his books and that always draws me back to him.
If you’re looking for absurd novels or magical realism, you could do much worse than to pick up his books.
Murakami has written both fiction and non-fiction as well as short story collections. For this list of the best Murakami books, however, I want to focus solely on his fictional novels.
Table of Contents
- Dance Dance Dance
- South of the Border, West of the Sun
- Hear the Wind Sing
- Sputnik Sweetheart
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
- Pinball, 1973
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
- Norwegian Wood
- A Wild Sheep Chase
- After Dark
- Kafka on the Shore
- Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
1Q84 is probably Murakami’s most widely read book, reaching one million sales after publication.
While the setting might push it into the realm of science-fiction, it’s essentially a romance and mystery novel.
The book focuses on two different characters.
One is Aomame, a woman who works as a fitness instructor and doubles as an assassin who kills male perpetrators of domestic abuse. The other is Tengo, a math teacher and copywriter.
At the outset of the novel, Aomame realizes strange discrepancies in the world around her. She soon realizes she’s entered a parallel world, one she terms 1Q84, the Q representing a question mark.
Meanwhile, Tengo takes on another job as a copywriter. Because of this, however, he becomes entangled not only with the work but also with its unusual writer. Soon, his normal, mundane life changes.
Before long, our two characters’ lives converge.
Like other Murakami books, 1Q84 focuses on a variety of themes, but the most prevalent is that of religious groups, their power and the damage they can cause. 1Q84 focuses on a fictitious religious cult called Sakigake, which is trying to establish a connection with the spirits of the Earth, the Little People.
1Q84 is the single Murakami book I really didn’t enjoy. The story was typical Murakami and all his strange, unusual elements were there, yet the book didn’t work out for me.
The biggest problem was the length and the pacing. At almost a thousand pages, the book felt way too long, became tedious and repetitive. A lot of times, it felt like the plot wasn’t moving forward and instead, certain points were brought up again and again.
I still included the book, however. The first half of the book is fantastic and makes it a great addition to this list of the best Murakami novels. It’s only in the second half where the book becomes progressively weaker. Yet, this is merely my opinion, and I’m sure many Murakami fans will enjoy this book.
Dance Dance Dance is the sequel to ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ featured later on this list and is set four years after the events of said novel.
The book focuses on a lot of themes typical for Murakami: loss, abandonment and supposedly includes some of Murakami’s real-life experiences.
Dance Dance Dance is a deconstruction of the Japanese economy and advanced capitalism. It discusses the contemporary tendency to commodify and sell anything, including relationships, friends, and family.
Our narrator Boku’s more lost in life than ever. He’s unambitious, apathetic and directionless. Even worse, his girlfriend Kiki, an ear model he got to know in ‘A Wild Sheep Chase,’ went missing.
Boku’s quest leads him through the strange, multifaceted culture of modern Japan, but also turns mystical. He’s thrown into a strange world of sexuality and metaphysical dread.
The most notable element of the novel, however, is the mysterious Sheep Man. He’s a strange figure our narrator encounters in a dimly lit hotel room. The Sheep Man’s central to the events taking place, yet he only ever offers Boku cryptic explanations.
Dance Dance Dance can be best described as a suspense novel rich in surrealistic elements.
It is, however, a slowly moving book, and one I often found too slow and a tad bit boring. While I realize the book’s often regarded as one of the best Murakami books out there, it didn’t quite work for me.
This novel can be best described as a love story full of deep loneliness. While I think it can be a beautiful book, it’s not amongst the best Murakami books.
Our narrator Hajime’s much less likeable than those of Murakami’s other books. While he’s an unpleasant person, however, he’s also interesting. Yet, his decisions, behavior, and feelings of emptiness can be quite alienating to readers.
While most other children had siblings, Hajime grew up as an only child. He spent most of his time with Shimamoto, who was also an only child. Together, the two of them often listened to her father’s record collection. When her family moved away, however, the two of them lost contact.
In the present, Hajime is in his thirties and seems to have found happiness. He’s got a loving wife, two daughters and runs a successful jazz bar.
That’s until Shimamoto reappears at his bar. She’s beautiful, intense and mysterious and suddenly Hajime’s thrown into the past and puts everything he’s got at risk.
While Shimamoto has a secret, she’s unable to escape from, Hajime doesn’t seem to be able to escape her and soon joins her on a mysterious journey.
Yet, their affair doesn’t long, and Hajime has to return to his old life, one he thought he’d escaped from.
While I don’t think South of the Border, West of the Sun, is amongst the best Murakami books, it contains some interesting musings. The most prevalent of those are happiness and loneliness. The book makes you reflect on your own life and makes you wonder if it’s all worth it.
South of the Border, West of the Sun, is a story that begs the question ‘what if’ and showcases how much our childhood influences the rest of our life.
It’s not a bad novel, but again, it didn’t quite work for me. It’s also a book that’s rather atypical for Murakami, and doesn’t feature his usual strange and surrealistic elements.
Hear the Wind Sing is Murakami’s debut novel. While I enjoyed it a lot, it’s also got its problems.
It’s less a novel that follows a coherent, developing plot, but more a collection of anecdotes that play out when a university student returns to his hometown.
Even though Murakami’s non-traditional narrative and many of his usual themes are already at play here.
Our narrator, Boku, is a man who works here and there, slipping in and out of work to figure out what will bring him the most meaning in life. His best friend is known as The Rat, who follows Boku on many of his journeys. Amongst other things, the two of them develop a deep relationship with a Chinese bartender.
Each of these characters tries to figure out where their youth has gone, what happened to their childish idealism and how they should face the uncertainty of the future with confidence.
While the novel’s plot isn’t too deep, it makes up for it with its quick, light and simple writing style. It also offers us a deeper look at young man who are lost in our modern world.
While it’s far from one of the best Murakami books out there, I enjoyed it and I think it’s definitely worth reading.
Sputnik Sweetheart can be best described as a romantic detective story. It’s a tale about attraction, desire, and self-discover, but also sexuality and the psychology of love and loss.
Our narrator, K, is a teacher who’s deeply in love with his friend Sumire, a free-spirited writer. The two of them spend hours on the phone in which Sumire talks about the big questions of life. Yet, K’s never able to reveal his feelings for her.
Before long, Sumire meets and falls in love with Miu, a woman seventeen years her senior. The two of them soon take off for a vacation in Greece.
When K gets a call from Miu that Sumire disappeared, he sets out for Greece himself to help find her. It’s there he enters Sumire’s world and realizes there’s much more to reality.
Sputnik Sweetheart is definitely one of Murakami’s stranger, more confusing books and it will leave you with more questions than answers.
It’s a novel that focuses heavily on human nature, longing and loneliness. It’s a short, yet subtle and haunting novel that definitely deserves its place on a list of the best Murakami books.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is one of Murakami’s more recent novels.
It’s a novel concerning one Tsukuru Tazaki and tells us about his teenage years and his present-day life. In the 90s, Tuskuru had a group of friends from high school. Each one of them had a name related to a certain color. Only Tsukuru didn’t and thus became regarded as colorless.
Their friendship was deep, but ended when Tsukuru went to college. One day, all of his friends stopped talking to him, making him depressed and suicidal.
In the present day, Tsukuru is thirty-six years old and works as an engineer. Yet, even now, he’s still haunted by the mystery of what happened.
It’s his girlfriend who finally encourages him to reach out to his friends and to find out why they cut contact. Thus, a journey of self-discovery begins in which Tsukuru has to figure out who he really is as a person.
The novel gives us both an inward and outward look at the struggle of growing up and growing as a person. His quest for understanding brings Tsukuru back to his hometown, but also all the way to Finland.
The most prevalent themes in the novel are forgiveness and being true to oneself.
What’s interesting to note is that this novel is entirely realistic and contains none of Murakami’s usual surreal and weird elements.
It’s also less epic than some of Murakami’s other books, but also much more personal. It’s a great novel for Murakami fans and is very well worth reading. The absence of any weird elements, however, makes it hard for me to consider it amongst the best Murakami books.
Pinball, 1973 is Murakami’s second novel and the sequel to Hear the Wind Sing.
The novel explores our narrator’s relationship to a woman named Naoko who committed suicide during his college days.
While it might sound like a dark novel, it turns out to be much more lighthearted, comical and weird. This is mostly attributed to the twins. These two weird women turn up at and being staying at Boku’s apartment and help him deal with loss and loneliness.
The novel’s plot, however, centers on Boku’s quest to find his favorite pinball machine from his days with Naoko, the ‘three flipper starship.’ Yet, this quest isn’t so much about the pinball machine, but more about his reconciliation with Naoko’s memory.
While Pinball, 1973 is still somewhat unrefined, it’s full of Murakami’s usual themes and elements. The characters are quirky and the entire novel and the events taking place have an almost otherworldly feeling about it.
Similarly to Hear the Wind Sing, the book’s more a collection of different episodes in Boku’s and other character’s lives. They are, however, full of musings about life.
It’s an odd little novel, but one I enjoyed a lot and regard as one of the best Murakami novels.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of Murakami’s most celebrated novels, so it’s well deserving of a spot in the best Murakami novels.
It features a strange mystery that only gets stranger the longer the novel progresses. It’s an almost perfect surrealistic tale which combines quirky characters and alternate realities with suburban Japan.
Our protagonist, Toru Okada, is a man who recently quit his job and has become a house husband. His days are spent cooking, listening to music, chatting up the neighbors and waiting for his wife to return home.
When their cat goes missing, Toru’s sent out on a quest to find it. Soon enough, however, his wife acts strangely. She comes home later and later, drops him strange hints and refuses to have sex with him. Before he realizes it, she seems to have left him and so he embarks on a new search, this time for his wife.
Eventually, he learns his wife’s held in another world which has taken on the form of a labyrinthine, infinite hotel. And so, Toru has to find a way of entering this metaphorical place.
During his search, he comes across many weird characters. The standouts here are the nihilistic teenager May Kasahara and the military Lieutenant Mamiya. While May’s a fantastic character and her interactions with Toru are great, it’s Mamiya’s tale that sets him apart. He used to be a soldier during the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo and witnessed horrible things.
Yet, those are only two of all the characters Toru encounters and each one of them serves to be as weird and quirky as the next.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a novel full of awkward moments, of violence and tension. It features themes of sex, violence, and memories lost and regained. It also deals with Japan’s painful history during World War II. Yet, it also features many of Murakami’s other typical elements.
Overall, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a puzzle, one that only slowly comes together. It’s a detective story, but at the same time, comedy and menace. It’s, however, always weirdly imaginative and surreal.
While I liked the oddness of the plot, and many of the smaller stories, the novel itself felt a bit too unfocused and loosely structured. The mystery of Toru’s quest seemed less central and became almost a backdrop for strange, unrelated tales.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is still very much worth reading, both for fans of Murakami and those interested in surreal novels. While I had my problems with it, it’s hard to not consider it one of the best Murakami books.
Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s breakthrough novel and made him famous both in Japan and internationally.
What’s special about Norwegian Wood is that it lacks any of the absurd or weird elements so typical in his books. It’s not a work of magical realism, but one grounded entirely in reality.
The title of the novel is taken from a 1965 Beatles song. When our narrator, Toru Watanabe, listens to this same song, he reminisces about his college days back in the 60s. It’s a time in which the Japanese students rose against the government.
Yet, it’s also the time when his best friend committed suicide and he became infatuated with two women, Naoko and Midori.
Naoko was his former best friend’s girlfriend. She’s coping with her lover’s suicide and suffers from severe mental issues. Soon enough, Naoko tells Toru that she hears her former lover’s voice who’s calling to her from another world.
Midori is the complete opposite. She’s an energetic and friendly young girl, very much in love with life.
The novel centers on Toru’s feelings and his choice between saving Naoko and his desire for Midori.
Yet, Norwegian Wood is more than a simple love story. It’s a tale of growing up and how to deal with loss. It’s a very personal and tender book. We witness Toru walking the streets of Tokyo with Naoko, or spending the evening on a rooftop with Midori.
Overall, Norwegian Wood can be dark, and there’s an almost sinister undertone prevalent throughout the novel. Yet, it also offers hope and a chance to grow up.
The only real problem I had with the book was its heavy focus on sex and sex scenes and its portrayal of mental illness.
Still, it’s a fantastic tear-jerker and regarded as one of the best Murakami books for a reason.
A Wild Sheep Chase is the third installment of Murakami’s so called ‘Trilogy of the Rat’ after Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 and brings it to a close. It’s by far the best of the trilogy and even outshines its sequel Dance Dance Dance.
While it’s a book, that’s more straightforward compared to his later work, it’s heavy on magical realism.
Our narrator Boku’s now in his thirties and runs a publishing company in Tokyo. When his friend The Rat sends him a photograph of a herd of sheep, he uses it in an advertisement.
Unbeknownst to him, however, the photograph depicts a strange, magical sheep with a star-shaped birthmark. This soon gets him the attention of a powerful political and leader of a giant business syndicate only known as ‘The Boss.’
The man clarifies that Boku’s in trouble and gives him an ultimatum. He’s got to find the sheep or face dire consequences.
And so, our narrator sets out to the rural areas of Hokkaido to find not only the sheep but also his friend who seems to be entangled in the events at play.
From here on out the book serves to only get stranger.
What starts out as a detective novel in which one man takes on an all-powerful syndicate soon develops into a beautiful and sad tale of trauma and things lost.
A Wild Sheep Chase features many themes, such as Japanese culture and identity in post-WWII Japan, Japanese religious tradition and sexuality. At the center, however, is the conflict between individual will and the all-encompassing, impersonal power of the state.
While it features Murakami’s typical surrealist elements, it serves to be easily comprehensible, accessible and readable. Even though it’s one of his earlier works, I consider it amongst the best Murakami books.
After Dark is one of the more cozy Murakami novels out there.
We get to know Mari, a young woman who spends her nights at a Denny’s. One night, she encounters a young man who insists he knows his older sister. This event sets in motion Mari’s odyssey through the sleeping city.
It’s a tale set in a single night, but which sheds light on the lives of a diverse cast of Tokyo residents. It’s in this setting that fantasy and reality collide.
The book features some of Murakami’s usual surreal and strange elements, but they didn’t feel as central to the plot as in others.
After Dark’s plot, too, isn’t as gripping or extensive as that of other Murakami novels, but I found its atmosphere much richer. There’s just something about the night, those who populate it, and how they spend their time during these late hours.
At the center of the novel, however, is a deep feeling of loneliness. While we all share the world together, and we all interact and affect each other’s lives, we’re all isolated.
It’s an enchanting little novel, one I truly came to love and regard as one of the best Murakami books out there.
Kafka on the Shore is Murakami at his best, but also his most confusing.
It’s a novel that blends pop-culture references, cats, magical realism, sexuality and Japanese religious tradition into an utterly stunning and mind-boggling journey.
The novel revolves around two characters.
One is Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old boy who escapes from his father’s home to avoid an oedipal curse. After leaving, he sets out to find his long-lost mother and sister. His journey eventually leads him to a private library on the island of Shikoku. There he meets the beautiful, but odd Miss Saeki, who might or might not be his mother and the even odder Oshima.
The other character is Nakata, a strange and illiterate old man. What makes Nakata special is his ability to talk to cats. Because of this, he’s become a cat locator. His story beings when he’s hired by the mysterious Johnnie Walker to find a lost cat. As it turns out however, Johnnie Walker is a cat killer and Nakata is forced to leave Tokyo. He ends up traveling with a truck driver, Noshino, who grows fond of the old man. Eventually, their journey, too, leads them to Shikoku.
It’s there that the two narratives converge.
Kafka on the Shore features a variety of strange characters and even stranger events. While some of these might be comical, the book’s a serious tale. It’s one heavy with musings on both reality and the metaphysical world.
It’s a complex work, heavily layered with symbolism. Murakami himself once said, it’s a book full of riddles and their solution is unique for each reader.
While the book focuses heavily on spirituality and religion, it’s essentially a coming-of-age tale of a fifteen-year-old boy and his journey to become an independent adult.
Kafka on the Shore is without Murakami’s weirdest book and it will leave you utterly confused after your first read-through. Yet, it’s nothing short of a magical realism masterpiece, one that’s without a doubt one of the best Murakami books out there, if not the best.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is hands-down my favorite Murakami novel, even surpassing Kafka on the Shore.
It’s notable Murakami’s only pure science-fiction novel and features two seemingly unrelated narratives that couldn’t be more different.
The first focuses on a man who’s a ‘Calcutec.’ This means he’s a human data processor who specializes in using his subconscious mind for encryptions. His job is to shuffle and encrypt data so the agents of an organization known as The Factory can’t steal it. Before long, he finds himself at the center of an underground information war.
The second narrative is much stranger and set in a small town in a fantasy world. This town’s surrounded by a massive, impenetrable wall. Even more mysterious, all inhabitants seem to have lost their shadow and its only exit is protected by a fearsome gatekeeper.
After the narrator arrives in this town, his memories taken away, his shadow’s cut off from him and he gets assigned a job at the town’s library. From here on out, he tries to get back his shadow and to escape this strange town.
The most notable element of the town, however, are the many unicorns who live nearby.
These two plots are both as strange as they sound and are extremely unique to one another.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is an absolutely fantastic book which blew me away when I first read it.
It’s populated by a cast of characters as interesting as they are weird. While our narrator’s a human data processor, he’s far from the weirdest addition. We encounter deranged scientists, psychotic thugs, mysterious librarians and even subterranean monsters.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, however, also features deeper elements. Its themes, such as fulfillment, choices, as well as internal and external pressure and a good chunk of existential musings.
Yet, the most prevalent theme is without a doubt the relationship between conscious and subconscious mind. It’s this relationship that also inspired, at least in part, my short story The Special Dish.
It’s an extremely interesting book, my favorite and without a doubt one of the best Murakami books. I highly recommend it to any fan of Murakami, but also to those who like unique mysteries and science-fiction.