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Between dream and reality: Murakami novel on stage

Directed by Kim Mi-hye, ‘Kafka on Shore’ gets first Korean run

Famed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is currently in the international spotlight for his recently released novel “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” But Seoul’s Daehangno, the local hot spot for plays, is instead buzzing about his 2002 fantasy novel, “Kafka on the Shore.”

The novel, famous for its literary blend of magical realism and a suspenseful plot, is currently being performed as a play for the first time in Korea.

A production by American director Frank Galati, the show premiered in Chicago in 2008, and had a separate Japanese run in Tokyo last year. The ongoing Seoul run is directed by scholar and theater critic Kim Mi-hye. “Kafka on the Shore” is Kim’s directing debut.

“I found Galati’s original script rather boring,” said Kim during a press meeting on Wednesday, saying the Korean run may be different from the U.S. run. “It excluded all the fantasy elements of the novel which I think are very significant.”
A scene from “Kafka on the Shore,” a play based on famed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s novel of the same title. (PAC Korea)
A scene from “Kafka on the Shore,” a play based on famed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s novel of the same title. (PAC Korea)

Kim, who majored in English literature at Korea University and currently teaches in Hanyang University’s theater and cinema program, was initially asked to translate Galati’s English script into Korean for the local run. She was later asked to direct the play as well, though she’s never directed before. The scholar earned her Ph.D. in theater studies from the University of Vienna in Austria.

“I was deeply moved by the original novel,” Kim said. “To be honest, ‘Norwegian Wood’ (another best-selling novel by Murakami) wasn’t my cup of tea. But I could really empathize with the themes that ‘Kafka on the Shore’ explores: the Oedipus complex, the savagery of human nature, and the nature of art. The novel really affected my decision (to direct the play).”

Based on the novel, the play follows its 15-year-old protagonist Kafka who runs away from his father’s home to escape an Oedipal curse. He eventually finds shelter in a small, private library in Takamatsu, and becomes attracted to its manager Saeki, a beautiful middle-aged woman whose first love died in a tragic, senseless incident in his 20s.

Kim said she did not watch the American and Japanese runs, because she wanted to avoid being influenced by their artistic choices in any way and keep her production as original as possible. The current run also includes the song “Kafka on the Shore,” which the young, happy Saeki sings in the original novel before her only true love dies. The song is written by a local composer only for the Seoul production, and wasn’t included in the previous American and Japanese runs, said Kim.

Having lived overseas for eight years, Kim said she is not a fan of “Korean-style tearjerkers” but made a lot of compromises to meet the taste of the local public.

“I wanted the scene where Kafka says goodbye to Saeki ― as he decides to return to his reality ― to be without tears,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be overly dramatic and emotional. But I did make compromises so it’s not as calm as what I had in my initial vision.”

“Kafka on the Shore” runs until June 16 at DongSoong Art Center in Seoul. Tickets range from 30,000 won to 60,000 won. For more information, call (02) 764-1008.

By Claire Lee (