“Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.” Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
About Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World begins in medias res or “in the middle of things” which is a kind of narrative device that immediately leaves the reader looking for clues to fill in the back story.
We follow a male protagonist in an elevator who is not quite sure whether he is ascending or descending as he takes inventory of his five senses and tries to assess his situation. This is a classic detective move, and the reader tries to figure out what is happening along with the protagonist. You’ll notice the most mundane circumstances turn our protagonist into a hard-boiled detective.
As the reader, you will follow in the protagonist’s footsteps and keep your eyes open for clues as you try to figure out what’s going on. Right when you think you’ve got a handle on Murakami’s narrative style, you’ll begin chapter two and in sets the confusion. In the words of 38 Special, hold on loosely.
If you’re anything like me, the record in your brain probably scratched and you had to re-read the first couple paragraphs.
Everything is different.
We learn autumn is approaching in the first sentence and there are some kind of animals that are marked by “gold.” Gold or golden is mentioned six times in the very first paragraph of Chapter 2, which echoes the famous poem by Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
THEMES OF HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World explores themes of language, memory, nostalgia, romance, technology, and evolution. As far as literary and critical theories go, the novel is ripe for reading alongside deconstruction, phenomenology, schizoanalysis, or psychoanalysis. This book is a gift that keeps on giving.
The short videos below point out some of the themes and symbolism explored in this novel. To dig deeper into this novel, you can enroll in one of Book Oblivion’s self-paced courses, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Literary Theory or Murakami and Magical Realism.
There are so many layers to this work, and Murakami himself calls it his favorite novel that he’s written. Every reference is meaningful and calculated. No matter what Haruki Murakami text you read, you are likely to enjoy it more when you delve deep into the theories it evokes. Three of the dominant themes of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are present in the title.
Breaking Down the Title: Hard-Boiled
Breaking Down the Title: Wonderland
Breaking Down the Title: End of the World
Characters in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, none of the characters have traditional names. Most of them are assigned a designation that refers to either their physical characteristics or their occupation.
As previously mentioned, the narrative alternates between the Calcutec’s life in the Tokyo setting and the Dreamreader’s life in the Town setting. As you consider the descriptions of each character in the Tokyo setting, think about whether every character has a double in the Town setting.
Characters in Tokyo
Narrator, The calcutec
The Calcutec is 35, divorced, and works for the System in Tokyo. He enjoys his alcohol, appreciates good music, watches old movies, and reads literature in his free time. He is one of 26 other males that underwent Calcutec training, but he is the only one still alive. A great deal of emphasis is placed on his rational, calculated behavior, which is naturally disrupted by his circumstances.
The Calcutec is a victim of his circumstances after a shuffling experiment gone awry. As the narrative progresses, we learn he might not consciously take control of circumstances in his life, but we do see his unconscious manifest survival techniques.
The Chubby Girl/Young Woman, the Granddaughter
The granddaughter is 17, lost her parents at the age of 6, at which time she went to live with her grandfather, the Professor. She never attended school after she lost her parents, but knows how to ride a horse, speaks Russian, and works for her grandfather in his lab. She also makes great sandwiches and is awkwardly curious about sex. Part of her awkwardness stems from the absence of any kind of social embarrassment. Her wardrobe almost entirely consists of pink.
We learn the Granddaughter is an interesting mix of capable (she can shoot a gun and navigate her way through an underground maze) and incapable (she can’t find her way to a grocery store in Tokyo).
In chapter 21, we learn more about the night her parents died. She was in the hospital after having a heart operation. She had a premonition while looking out the window as she witnessed the birds. She felt utterly sad and lonely and just cried and cried. She only learns of their deaths after this. Throughout the novel, we find her more and more capable of taking care of and protecting herself.
The Professor, the Scientist, Grandfather
He answers to no one, speaks in a quirky dialect, which offers the reader a striking contrast to his technical knowledge. He is a leading researcher in his field and cares about science for the sake of science more than human life. The absent-minded professor motif is definitely at work in this character as we see when he experiments on his granddaughter by removing her speech and forgetting about it.
We see the Professor reveal his pure scientific motives and challenge the status quo and ethics of scientific inquiry. His shuffling experiment led to the death of 25 Calcutecs. He feels some remorse for the the death sentence that his shuffling experiment promises the Calcutec, but the reader has the feeling that he would do it all over again.
Librarian in Tokyo
The Librarian has an abnormally large appetite that no amount of food will ever satisfy due to gastric dilation. While she recognizes the strange circumstances of the narrator’s situation, she is easy going and willing to act outside of conventional norms to help him out. She largely acts on instinct.
The Librarian agrees to ditch her plans to attend a conservation study group to go on a date with the Calcutec. She reveals she cleaned the Calcutec’s apartment while he was away. The reader learns she is a widow and her husband was beat to death with an iron vase. The Librarian and the Calcutec almost sleep together early in the novel and later consummate their romance the night before he is destined to expiration. The Librarian and the Calcutec share some unspoken connection.
Big Boy is the nickname the narrator gives the larger of the two thugs who visit his apartment in search of information. He is described as hulk like with arms are as thick as thighs. His presence is primarily to intimidate the Calcutec and affirm the questions and assertions of Junior. He is primarily responsible for destroying the Calcutec’s apartment and belongings. When the Calcutec first sees Big Boy, he questions whether or not he has “false eyes” but decides he sees the pupils flicker. We do not see Big Boy or Junior after they destroy the Calcutec’s apartment and torture him, but we do learn second-hand that the Granddaughter shoots off Big Boy’s ear. Bang.
The smaller (“under a meter and a half”) of the two-man thug team does almost all of the talking and interrogating of the Calcutec. He speaks, at least in the English translation, like an Italian mobster. The Calcutec guesses Junior is in his late thirties or early forties.
Infra-Nocturnal Kappa. Kappa means “river child” and these are found in traditional Japanese folklore. In the text, they live underground and in subways. The government knows about them but doesn’t fight them or alert people of their existence. The granddaughter fears the INKlings have kidnapped her grandfather. The Calcutec was ignorant of their existence in reality until being warned about them when first meeting the Professor.
Characters in the Town
Narrator, the Dreamreader
The Dreamreader is fairly new to the Town. The narrative begins in Autumn and the Dreamreader arrived in the Spring. Upon entering the Town, he was forced to give up his Shadow. He was given the sign of the Dreamreader and told he was to read old dreams. He feels a sense of nostalgia when around the librarian and he only remembers two things about where he comes from: That the town I lived in had no wall around it, and that our shadows followed us wherever we walked. He is the only one in the Town to appreciate the beauty in nature: he watches the animals and the snow in awe on separate occasions.
The Dreamreader learns to play the accordion that the Caretaker gives him. As he recalls the tune Danny Boy, the reader sees connections take place between both worlds. He cares for his Shadow deeply, but his connection to the Librarian grows stronger and more promising with the knowledge that she can feel hope.
The Gatekeeper is the rule keeper, a giant man, and he is often swallowed by silence. He sharpens his tools in his downtime and inspires fear in the Town. He works the Dreamreader’s Shadow to the bone, calls the death of the Golden Beasts a treat, and is a presence that inspires fear. Like Thor with his hammer, the Gatekeeper is the only one capable of opening and closing the gate and does so effortlessly. He is also responsible for caring for the shadows and keeps them on a strict prison-like regimen.
The Gatekeeper is not Townsfolk and is thought to be from somewhere else because he enjoys dead things. The exercise he claims to offer the Shadow was really hard labor, which he ends up doing alone after the Shadow loses strength.
Librarian in the Town
The librarian’s job is to assist the Dreamreader in the library. She remembers her mother had a mind and disappeared when she was seven. She was four when her shadow was taken from her and went to live in the other world, and when she was seventeen, her shadow returned to the Town to die. Her shadow is buried in the Apple Grove, but they never met.
The Librarian offers herself to the Dreamreader, but he denies her because he feels it is what the Town wants. She continues to assist the Dreamreader. When they visit the Power Station, she asks the Caretaker if he has seen her mom. To the Dreamreader, this inquiry signals she retains remnants of her mind.
The Colonel is the Dreamreader’s neighbor and described as exceedingly quiet and thoughtful. He is a voice of reason in the Dreamreader’s life and acts as a guide or mentor for the protagonist. He plays chess with the Dreamreader and always wins because he plays by different rules. As a retired officer, it reads as though he now enacts war strategies while he plays chess. He was 65 when his shadow was taken from him and put to death.
The Dreamreader’s Shadow is taken from him when they arrive in the Town. He warns the Dreamreader that it feels wrong to separate and suggests there might be something wrong with the Town for requiring this division. He plants the idea of escape in the Dreamreader’s mind and tasks him with making a detailed map of the Town so they can escape.
After receiving the detailed map from the Dreamreader, the Shadow comes up with a plan of escape. He pretends to be sick and weak and gleans information about the Town from the Gatekeeper. He tends to know a great deal more about the Town than the Dreamreader.
The Caretaker mans the Power Station. He is described as neither Woodsfolk nor Townspeople by the Gatekeeper: “He stays at the edge of the Woods, never comes to Town. Harmless, got no guts.” The Librarian points out that the Caretaker still has a part of his shadow left, which is why he is in the Woods. He collects musical instruments for their beauty, but he does not know how to play them.
Throughout the book, it is apparent that the Town emerges as a character. We discover more and more about the Town and the more the Dreamreader learns, the more he and other characters anthropomorphize the Town. For example, it is the Town who wants the Dreamreader to sleep with the Librarian. Every time the characters in the Town refer to “they,” the reader suspects they are referring to the Town.