The Japanese author Haruki Murakami is well known for his love of music. A former jazz bar owner, he has more than 10,000 LPs in his collection, runs his own radio show, and has even collaborated on a book solely about music. “I almost always work listening to music,” he has said.
Unsurprisingly, music plays a big role in his books. His characters always seem to be listening to something and the songs mentioned often provide cryptic clues to untangling his famously complex plots. Even the titles of some of his novels have been inspired by music, but as with everything in the Murakami universe, they’re not always as obvious as they may appear …
1. Hear the Wind Sing
Murakami shot to fame in 1979 with the short novel, Happy Birthday and White Christmas, first published in the Japanese literary journal Gunzo. “White Christmas” is a reference to Bing Crosby’s classic song, which is a favorite of the novel’s unnamed protagonist. (In fact, in a sequel to Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami has the protagonist play “White Christmas” on repeat 26 times.) When Murakami’s novel was published in book form, however, it took a completely new name: Hear the Wind Sing. Still, the original title appears on the cover page of various Japanese editions, and is written as the dedication in a novel within the novel authored by the protagonist’s friend.
2. Norwegian Wood
The title for Murakami’s breakout novel, Norwegian Wood, is taken from a Beatles song, which is referenced repeatedly throughout the book. The song refers to wood as a material—specifically, cheap wood panelling—but the Japanese title of Murakami’s novel is a play on words: The author uses wood to refer to a forest. Forests are significant in this and other Murakami novels.
3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
In Japan, novels are often serialized or published in volumes that are then combined into one book when published in the English-speaking world (and sometimes in Japan as well). The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for example, was three different books, translated into English as a single edition [PDF]; the first of the Japanese books was called Book of the Thieving Magpie, named for an opera by Gioachino Rossini. Interestingly, Murakami had never listened to the full opera prior to writing the book—he had only heard a certain overture. “I’m convinced he cited Rossini’s overture at the beginning precisely because it’s a piece of music that everybody knows without being able to name or analyse it,” the author’s translator, Jay Rubin, said in Murakami Haruki and Our Years of Pilgrimage. “I think Murakami’s drawing a parallel between the half-known music and the existence for most Japanese … of World War II as something that hovers on the edge of consciousness.”
4. After Dark
After Dark is one of Murakami’s lesser-known novels—an odd, ambiguous tale of nighttime coincidences. The title refers to the fact that the whole story takes place between sunset and sunrise, exploring nighttime Tokyo almost as another world within the one we consider reality, but it’s also named for trombonist Curtis Fuller’s “Five Spot After Dark,” which is a favorite song of a key character in the novel.
5. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Murakami’s 2014 novel is named for Franz Liszt’s set of piano solos, Années de pèlerinage (French for “Years of Pilgrimage”). The eighth work in the first suite, “Le mal du pay,” is repeatedly referenced throughout the book, becoming a sort of obsession for the protagonist, who can remember a childhood friend, now dead, playing this on piano. The song is also a symbol for the loneliness he feels, estranged from his past and his hometown. One secondary character tells him that the phrase le mal du pay is usually “translated as ‘homesickness,’ or ‘melancholy.’ If you put a finer point on it, it’s more like ‘a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart.’”
6. “A Slow Boat to China”
In addition to the novels he has named for songs, there are various short stories in Murakami’s repertoire that have taken their titles from music—including “A Slow Boat to China,” named for a 1948 Frank Loesser song that has been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Paul McCartney.
Murakami has long been fascinated with China and the violent history between his country and the one they so brutally occupied for part of the 20th century: His father, who was in the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War, was deeply traumatized by the experience—trauma that Murakami believes was passed down to him. The author has spoken about the guilt, once saying, “History is a collective memory. We have responsibility for our fathers’ generation. We have responsibility for the things our fathers did during the war.”
“A Slow Boat to China” deals very subtly with the idea of national shame, exploring ways a Japanese person might hurt a Chinese one on a personal level, rather than in war. Idiomatically, a slow boat to China means something that takes a long time, which is perhaps what Murakami intended as a reference to fading memories of wartime atrocities or the process by which Japan can hope to be forgiven.
7. “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema”
In 1982, Murakami wrote a short story named for a bossa nova song by Stan Getz called “Girl from Ipanema.” He has admitted that this, like many other stories he has written, “uses one of [his] favorite pieces of music to recall a certain mood and time.”
Like most of Murakami’s work, “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema” is an odd story: He talks about the imaginary girl from Getz’s song and how she hasn’t aged since it was written because she exists only in music. He then connects this with memories of his high school and its corridors, which in his mind smell of “mixed salads” even though there wasn’t a salad bar there. This takes him on a chain of connected ideas, surreal but humorous, that blend fantasy and memory. Rubin once called it “vintage Murakami.”
BONUS: South of the Border, West of the Sun and Kafka on the Shore
It’s not only real songs that Murakami uses for the titles of his books. Sometimes he even makes them up. South of the Border, West of the Sun is named in part for Nat King Cole’s version of the song “South of the Border”… except Cole never actually recorded this song. In keeping with his trademark blend of the real and the unreal, as well as a sense of nostalgia for an imagined past, Murakami created a fictional song for his characters to listen to. The non-existent recording also appears in another Murakami book, A Wild Sheep Chase.
In Kafka on the Shore, meanwhile, a boy called Kafka goes on an odd adventure and meets numerous characters, one of whom has recorded a song by the name “Kafka on the Shore” that seems to hold clues for the young protagonist. But does the book’s title come from this fictional song or is the song named for the book? In all of Murakami’s books, cause and effect are unclear and this is no different. Either way, the song has been recorded by various people since the book’s 2002 release, using Murakami’s lyrics to create reality from his fiction.