Haruki Murakami: Alienation as a Transformative Agent in “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki”

The Colors of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
The Colors of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

With the recent release of his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami has added yet another volume to his ever-growing collection of postmodern masterpieces. The titular protagonist finds himself, over the course of novel, confronting numerous emotional battles which stem from and produce a sense of alienation. Yet, this alienated themed-pilgrimage through which Haruki’s new narrator must traverse ultimately acts as a transformative agent, one that successfully manages to mold Tsukuru into an individual who holds a sense of positive autonomy.

Front Cover of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
Front Cover of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Tsukuru Tazaki’s troubled emotions and alienation is overtly Murakamian is nature. Murakami’s newest novel departs from his well-known, magical realism approach that influenced other works such as Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, yet his lead character nonetheless houses the same characteristics as Kafka and Toru Okada, respectively. Tsukuru’s sense of alienation stems directly from a negative sequence of events that the novel opens with. Indeed, while Tsukuru may be similar to some of Murakami’s other characters, his depressed and melancholy attitude appears much more severe, as evidenced from the opening paragraph of the novel:

From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying. He turned twenty during this time, but this special watershed — becoming an adult — meant nothing. Taking his own life seemed the most natural solution, and even now he couldn’t say why he hadn’t taken this final step. Crossing that threshold between life and death would have been easier than swallowing down a slick, raw, egg. (3)

This forlornness that Tsukuru feels is brought on by the fact that he is alienated from his close friend group — four friends that, interestingly enough, all have names which contain a color (red, blue, white, black) in the Japanese language. Tsukuru, however, is colorless; his name does not contain a color. Because of this, its as if Tsukuru was destined to be excluded from this group of friends, never fitting in to begin with, as the narrator describes:

The two boys’ last names were Akamatsu—which means ‘red pine’—and Oumi —‘blue sea’; the girls’ family names were Shirane—‘white root’—and Kurono—‘black field’. Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning. From the very beginning this made his feel a little bit left out. (9-10)

He is alienated from the group for a number of reasons that are wonderfully intriguing and utterly Murakamian — near the end of the book, one is left wondering if Tsukuru really did do the awful things that his friends said he did, thanks to Murakami’s slight employment of his traditional magical realism style. Regardless, he is cut off completely, immediately, and fails to ask his friends why they have decided to come to such a drastic conclusion. Indeed, Tsukuru’s sense of agency in this situation is minute at best. While the average individual may demand reasons for being cut off so suddenly, when his friends “announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again … Tsukuru didn’t dare ask [why].” (6) Furthermore, Tsukuru even fails to find the will to kill himself. While this may seem irrelevant, it only reinforces his lack of agency and control over his own life. Later in the novel, Tsukuru is alienated further when yet another friend abandons him. Once again, Tsukuru’s inability to influence his surroundings disables him from stopping this good friend from leaving. Murakami continues to illuminate Tsukuru’s undeveloped sense of agency through other realities. In the another example of the book’s small retaining of magical realism, Tsukuru cannot harbor any sense of agency even within his dreams, where he cannot manage to control who he has sexual relations with.

Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami

Yet, all the alienation that Tsukuru feels eventually manages to act as a transformative agent, an aspect of his life which, paradoxically, contributes to his development of agency. It is only through being alienated that Tsukuru is able to find the truth about his original ostracization from his close friend group. Consequently, the agency he displays through discovering the reasons behind of his original alienation, in turn, is fueled from the fact that he refuses to allow himself from being alienated once again, this time from his girlfriend. The transformation that Tsukuru experiences produces a magnificent character, one who has truly come full circle from a disempowered, alienated youth, to a confident adult, who, while still feeling alienated, now has the willpower to change his fate, as Alexander illustrates: “Tsukuru may be an empty vessel at the outset of the text, but over the course of a chain of conversations he’s filled up, measure by measure, to the extent that he has become one of Murakami’s most memorable leading men by the end.” Tsukuru’s newly found sense of agency, and the positive consequences that occupancy it, are displayed when he states, in regards to his girlfriend, “I’m going to propose to her right away. And give her everything I’m capable of giving — every single thing.” (385) While, in traditional Murakami style, the ending of the novel is open to interpretations and Tsukuru’s fate is left unknown, one can only assume that through this discovering of agency that Tsukuru will manage to avoid yet another encounter with alienation.

Works Cited

Alexander, Niall. “An Empty Vessel: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami.” Tor.com. N.p., 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

Murakami, Haruki. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A Novel. Trans. Philip Gabriel. N.p.: Knopf, 2014. Print.

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  1. I like Murakami without quite knowing why.

  2. Kum Teal

    I really need to start devouring this man’s work completely. He reminds me a bit of Kafka but to be honest, his work proficiency reminds me more of Dostoyevsky. How can someone be so prolific. Could also be the Saramago of our times.

    • Terry Adams

      It’s interesting that you mention Dostoyevsky; 1Q84 is often called Murakami’s version of The Brothers Karamazov.

  3. I find his work repetitive, juvenile, and trivial, and his constant references to western pop culture come over as nothing more than rather embarrassingly desperate attempts to show off how cosmopolitan he is (they are particularly jarring in the original Japanese).

    His running book was good though!

  4. Florentina

    I first read a Murakami novel in 2000. Since then, I’ve read almost all of them.

    And I love Tanizaki, Akutagawa, Kawabata, Enchi, Abe, and, of course, Murasaki Shikibu.

    • Terry Adams

      I’ve read Kafka, Wind-Up, Norwegian Wood, and Tsukuru since I first discovered him this past summer. 1Q84 and Hard-Boiled are next up on my list.

  5. Japanese is a language of feeling. Murakami creates a mood. It is not always about ‘getting there’, rather, enjoying the journey. Curiously, this reflects Japan, where you can travel several hours and arrive at a place that looks remarkably similar to the one you left!

  6. I’ve never been to Japan or had a conversation with a cat but I always feel strangely comfortable in Murakami’s world’s, a feeling close to homeliness. I imagine that I could very easily slip into the shoes of many of his protagonists, often young males, a bit shambolic or underwhelming, confused or lost in the world around them, drawn magnetically to strong and mysterious women.

    • Terry Adams

      That’s one of the things I like the most about him! His magical stories are just realistic enough to feel as though you’re really there, or you could at least experience it as well.

    • Yeah, you get the impression that there’s a strong autobiographical or wish-fulfillment streak in his male leads. Usually laid-back, socially awkward types who love jazz and ’60s pop music and have funky sexual escapades fall into their lap with little effort on their part.

    • Hye Kuhn

      And the cooking. Don’t forget the cooking.

      The sexual escapades bother me a little. He does write interesting women, but they too often feel like they exist for the none-too-convincing benefit of the male protagonist. The best counter-example is Sputnik Sweetheart, where the women are central to the novel, and their roles are definitely not to offer casual handjobs for the narrator.

  7. Never been impressed with this author, and I’ve read a few of his books trying to be moved by them.

    Someone said (cruelly) of Stephen Fry: ‘he’s a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is’. I have long felt that Murakami is the literary equivalent – a stupid person’s idea of what an amazing and intelligent novelist is. I just come away thinking he’s so… cardboard. No substance.

  8. I love Murakami. Most of his books are exactly the same, varying only in length, but I love the bizarre world he creates in a matter-of-fact way.

    He’s the Japanese Douglas Coupland (or Douglas Coupland is the American Murakami) and I like that.

    • I’m pretty sure Coupland is Canadian. I too love Murakami but mostly – (hipster alert!) – his earlier novels.

  9. At the risk of ‘doing a Murakami’ (repeating the same things over and over again), I have to say that I got less and less from his books the more of them I read.

    I absolutely loved the first couple that I read, much less so the last, and I don’t think it’s a reflection of the quality of the books individually. I suspect my response would have been the same regardless of the order.

    I think that may be why ‘Wind Up’ is generally regarded as his best, despite being quite indifferent to it myself – I think it’s just the one that most people read first, before suffering the inevitable diminishing returns from the rest of catalogue.

    • Terry Adams

      I feel as though Murakami’s “receptiveness” is something that he’s ultimately trying to achieve through his works. By only slightly altering the plot of each novel, but in fundamental ways, he appears to be saying, like his protagonists, we’re all connected through our similar feelings and journeys.

    • CoreyAquino

      Wind-Up is actually a bit disjointed, because the English translation is a bit of a mash-up.

      A Wild Sheep Chase got me into him, but you find that most of the rest of his books essentially rework the dream-reality ideas first visited there. They can still be enjoyable, but increasingly there’s nothing new.

      His best work is, I think, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. It’s the most original.

      Unlike JG Ballard, say, who also wrote the same books again and again – well, he’d write batches of four versions of the same book: the apocalyptic books (Drowned World, Drought, Crystal World…), the modern culture (High-Rise, Crash, Concrete Island…) books, the human pathology books (Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People…) – but had something new to say in each one, using the same metaphorical tools.


    I love Murakami’s writing. His imagination. He takes me on a profound journey with every novel he writes. 1Q84 was terrific. Looking forward to reading his latest.

  11. Murakami’s mysteries can only be resolved by the logic of dreams. If you require a coherent plot you should look elsewhere.

    • Terry Adams

      I think that’s definitely one of the aspects of his writing that makes his books so great. He often leaves his books open at the end, allowing the reader to imagine a multitude of possibilities.

  12. Jamie Tracy

    Now I have something else to read. You hooked me. Well done.

  13. I think western readers come now to Murakami, because of the mentions of the Nobel and the like, expecting something weighty and deep, a Japanese Coetzee or somesuch. And are then often underwhelmed by what they find. But this misidentifies him, I think – he is, in Japan, a genuinely popular writer and people wait for his books with a fervour only matched on this side of the world by Harry Potter fans. I’d happily re-read any of his books, but not in expectation of getting more out of them – as I would with, say, Kafka – only of re-experiencing the pleasure I had the first time.

    • Shaun Nunn

      Yes I’ve always thought of him as a champion middleweight, not the sort of heavyweight writer who would merit a Nobel Prize. A bit like Vonnegut? I really enjoy his books (with some sense of diminishing returns as I reach my mid-30s), but it’s unhelpful to talk of him in terms of Nobel potential, it just provokes a wholly unnecessary backlash.

  14. This is a well written piece. One can see that the author is familiar with Murakami’s works. While the thesis on “alienation” is certainly reasonable, it is also a bit generic as an interpretation and thus does little to help up understand and appreciate the subtleties of Murakami’s complex novel. Nevertheless, I appreciated this essay.

  15. remembrance

    He guides us through journeys that seem so simple at first and yet at the end feel like a tour of the entire spectrum of human feeling.

  16. In my view Murakami distracts the reader with detailed description of the banal and ordinary only to make her/him more responsive to the disturbing facets of life he talks about.

    That worked for me so far, less so in this book. Maybe because is remains indeed colorless to the end, or rather unresolved. Like jazz improvisations.

  17. Love the mood murakami creates with the mundane

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