When Haruki Murakami first burst into the Japanese literary scene with one of his best books, the Gunzōprize-winning Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind Sing, 1979), few would have predicted that in less than two decades, he would establish himself as a major voice of the contemporary era.

With works that dislocate realities and uncover the extraordinary in the ordinary, Murakami is a writer of unparalleled magnitude. His works often portray details about the arid landscape of Tokyo‘s suburbs, the serenity of Japan’s snowy mountains, and the wild frenzy of its train stations. Not to forget his occasional flirtation with magical realism and surrealism — be it the two moons appearing in 1Q84 or fish tumbling from the sky in Kafka on the Shore — readers are always left in awe by his enigmatic fictional worlds.

Murakami achieved global fame in 1987 with his fifth book, Norwegian Wood. Titled after the iconic Beatles song of the same name from the band’s 1965 album Rubber Soul, the book became a cult classic, selling more than four million copies in Japan alone.

Today, with his best-selling titles translated into around 50 languages, the Kyoto-born writer has millions of fans worldwide. Additionally, celebrities such as Emma Watson and Harry Styles have expressed their love for Norwegian Wood, while Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) appealed to Joe Jonas.

Although Murakami is not the first Japanese writer to have garnered global success — Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburō Ōe were both Nobel laureates — the acclaimed novelist has radically transformed the face of Japan’s literature for the world.

Murakami’s style of writing

For Murakami, first-person narratives were his signature style for years, until he transitioned to third-person in recent works such as 1Q84 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Additionally, themes of alienation, a sense of loss and exploration of sexuality are prominent in most of his books. From the character that sees her imaginary self in Sputnik Sweetheart to the boy who finds himself trapped amidst strange supernatural occurrences in The Strange Library (1983), his creations invoke unique journeys, dreamscapes, Kafkaesque underworlds, surreal creatures and unhinged settings.

And with a new book titled The City and Its Uncertain Walls releasing tomorrow, April 13 2023, the writer offers a lot to look forward to for his fans. This is Murakami’s first novel in six years since his 2017 hit Killing Commendatore.

Intriguing Haruki Murakami books to read

01
Norwegian Wood (1989)
Norwegian Wood (1989)

Synopsis: Set in 1960s Tokyo, this nostalgic story involves Toru Watanabe, his first love Naoko who’s the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, and a young woman Midori, who is Toru’s probable future.

The book is a well-balanced blending of Beatles music, a young man’s love, sexual desires and his dilemma of choosing between his past and future.

About the book: Considered the most popular amongst all of Murakami’s novels, Norwegian Wood was made into a film by Vietnamese filmmaker and director Tran Anh Hung in 2010.

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02
The Elephant Vanishes (1993)
The Elephant Vanishes (1993)

Synopsis: Murakami successfully gives the world a poignant collection of short stories with The Elephant Vanishes. Be it a man witnessing his favourite elephant vanish into thin air; a newlywed couple suffering hunger pangs and holding up a McDonald’s in the middle of the night; a young woman discovering a little green monster; or an insomniac wife waking up in a semi-conscious world, each story depicts disruption in normal life.

About the book: The Palme d’Or-nominated film, Burning (2018), is based on a story called “Barn Burning” from this collection.

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03
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997)
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997)

Synopsis: The story revolves around protagonist Toru Okada’s search for his missing cat and wife in the netherworld. The quest ends up with Toru meeting a group of eccentric people that include antagonists, prostitutes, politicians and war veterans who recall buried secrets of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

About the book: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published in Japan in 1994 as a trilogy and translated into English by Jay Rubin as a single book. It is also named among the 10 best Asian novels of all time by The Telegraph in 2014.

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04
Sputnik Sweetheart (1999)
Sputnik Sweetheart (1999)

Synopsis: Narrator K’s unrequited love for his best friend Sumire, an aspiring writer, forms the centre of Sputnik Sweetheart. As the story proceeds, K meets an elderly businesswoman named Miu and is instantly attracted to her. However, Sumire soon goes missing from a Greek island and K finds himself entangled in a search party. Will K be able to reunite with Sumire at the end and solve the mystery of her disappearance?

About the book: Its 1999 Japanese version release was followed by an English translation by Philip Gabriel, which was published in 2001.

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05
South of the Border, West of the Sun (2000)
South of the Border, West of the Sun (2000)

Synopsis: The book portrays the story of Hajime, a successful jazz bar owner in post-war Japan and his longing for association with the right person. Hajime’s blissful home with his loving wife and two children faces a threat when his childhood love Shimamoto returns. In an attempt to rekindle their childhood intimacy, Hajime soon ends up risking his present by indulging in an affair with Shimamoto.

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06
Underground: The Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (2000)
Underground: The Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (2000)

Synopsis: Murakami tells the story of the aftermath of the 1995 Tokyo poison-gas attack. He puts together eyewitness accounts and victim responses to portray a realistic picture of Japan and its people after the tragedy.

About the book: Murakami was inspired to write this story after seeing a letter to the editor from a woman whose surviving husband still suffered from the aftershocks of the subway attack.

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07
After the Quake (2002)
After the Quake (2002)

Synopsis: A collection of six exciting short stories ranging from mystery to fantasy, the book is set at the time of the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake.

The collection engages readers with stories of an electronics salesman and his real nature; the son of God coming across his human father and an agent’s encounter with a talking frog who ends up helping him in saving Tokyo from destruction.

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08
Kafka on the Shore (2005)
Kafka on the Shore (2005)

Synopsis: One of the deepest books in modern fiction, Kafka on the Shore revolves around a teenage boy Kafka Tamura and an elderly librarian Nakata, who lost his higher cognition in an unusual childhood incident and now searches for missing cats. The story soon takes the form of a puzzle when a brute killing involving an unidentified victim and a killer surfaces.

About the book: Kafka On The Shore was originally published in Japan in 2002. Its 2005 English translation was included on ‘The 10 Best Books of 2005’ list by The New York Times.

09
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006)
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006)

Synopsis: One of the most celebrated short story collections by Murakami, the stories depict surreal to mundane themes and showcase the author’s ability to “transform human experience in ways that are instructive, surprising, and relentlessly entertaining.” The book comprises tales that include a young man telling his cousin about a woman put to sleep by flies crawling inside her ear; a couple falling apart after feasting on crab during their vacation and a man who heeds to postcard instructions for applying for a job, but he must get through a password.

About the book: The collection comprises 24 short stories that were translated into English by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin from its Japanese origin Mekurayanagi to nemuru onna.

In addition, director, composer and painter Pierre Földes was inspired by this collection to create his debut feature animation film of the same name, which is set to release theatrically at Film Forum in New York in April 2023.

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10
After Dark (2007)
After Dark (2007)

Synopsis: After Dark is a spellbinding story about the uncanny hours between midnight and dawn. The novel starts with a 19-year-old Mari Asai coming across a young man in Denny’s. As the story unfolds, Mari goes on to encounter several other people, including models, thieves and musicians, in one night in an almost fantastical Tokyo.

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11
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008)
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008)

Synopsis: The memoir, which resulted from Murakami’s journal entries during his New York City Marathon training, provides insight into the award-winning Japanese author’s thoughts on marathon runners and writers. His details on how both running and writing intersect and reach a coherent meeting ground form the crux of the memoir.

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12
1Q84 (2011)
1Q84 (2011)

Synopsis: Murakami’s writing in this opus fantasy-turned-dystopian science fiction takes readers to 1984 Tokyo where Tengo’s, a budding author, path crosses with a young woman named Aomame. The latter, however, has entered a parallel existence in a world of questions that she calls 1Q84. As the story finds its way through both their worlds, a dyslexic young girl with a peculiar vision, a strange religious cult, and a dowager with a shelter for abused women, among many other things, bring Aomame and Tengo closer.

About the book: Published in three volumes from 2009 to 2010 — when 1Q84 was first released in Japan — most of the copies sold out in just a day, as per a 2011 BBC report. Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest bookshop, sold more than one copy per minute. This was followed by a million copies being sold in the first month, stated the report.

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13
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013)

Synopsis: The story follows a young and depressed Tsukuru Tazaki, as he deals with trauma and loss in life. Towards the end of the novel, readers see the protagonist delve deeper into his past to understand the meaning of his dreams and nightmares and finally move on from his inner struggles.

About the book: An instant #1 New York Times bestseller, the novel portraying realist bildungsroman sold over one million copies in Japan within seven days of its midnight release.

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14
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa (2016)
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa (2016)

Synopsis: This unprecedented piece of non-fiction is a deeply personal conversation about the nature of music and writing between Murakami and the former music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa.

The book is interspersed with discussions on record collecting, jazz clubs, orchestra halls, film scores, Brahms, Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould.

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15
Men Without Women (2017)
Men Without Women (2017)

Synopsis: This collection of seven short stories depicts realistic tales of men who invariably lead lives in alienation. Here baseball, disappearing cats, jazz bars, strange women and Beatles music continue to be a source of comfort for lonely hearts.

About the book: Japanese drama Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchiis, created an adaptation based on this short story collection. It went ahead to win the Best International Film award at the 2022 Oscars and even secured Golden Globe and BAFTA trophies ahead of its win at the 94th Academy Awards.

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16
Killing Commendatore (2017)
Killing Commendatore  (2017)

Synopsis: The story follows the adventures of a portrait painter who sets off on a chain of mysterious events after stumbling across a peculiar painting in the attic of the home of a famous artist Tomohiko Amada. To put an end to the strange happenings, the painter must go on a journey with a bell that rings on its own, a teenage girl, a World War II Nazi assassination and a businessman.

About the book: Originally published in Japanese as Kishidancho Goroshi on 24 February 2017, the novel’s English translation, Killing Commendatore, was released on 9 October 2018 and sold more than a million copies.

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(Note: Years mentioned on the list are when the books were translated into English.) (Main and featured image credit: Vintage Books Design/Instagram)   This story first appeared in Prestige Online Malaysia  

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Question: What is the best Murakami book?

Answer: Although one cannot pick a favourite book by Murakami, some of his best works include 'Kafka on the Shore', 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle', 'A Wild Sheep Chase', 'Norwegian Wood', 'Dance Dance Dance', 'After the Quake', '1Q84', 'The Elephant Vanishes' and 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage'.

Question: What is the best Murakami book to start with?

Answer: According to Penguin Books, one should start delving deep into the Murakami world with 'A Wild Sheep Chase' (1982).

Question: What is the best Haruki Murakami novel?

Answer: While 'The Elephant Vanishes', 'After the Quake' and 'Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman' are some of his best short story collections, Murakami's best novels include 'Norwegian Wood', 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle', 'Kafka on the Shore', and '1Q84'.

written by.

Sushmita Mahanta

A PhD research scholar, Sushmita is a full-time writer and a part time poet. Notepads are Sushmita's one true love -- the unbothered victims drowned in the ink of her pen. An avid fan of K-pop and K-dramas, she mostly writes about Korean culture and entertainment. When not writing, Sushmita is dancing, reading, collecting books, learning about fashion, art, motion pictures, and appreciating BTS.
‘Kafka On The Shore’ And 15 Other Haruki Murakami Books To Read Right Now