Before last year, I knew nothing about Murakami—let alone read a book by him. In September 2021, I decided to start reading them all. This is how I ranked them.
For reference, the reading order I've been following is the one set by Jessica Manuel's The Best Way to Read Murakami on Book Oblivion. It's an amazing read, so be sure to check it out.
PS: This list is continuously updated as I keep on reading.
15. Sputnik Sweetheart (2/5)
Unbearable characters, a predictable storyline (that, like in Pinball 1973, goes nowhere), and many other things make Sputnik Sweetheart a mess of a novel. It feels amateurish and pretentious, with the same old characters doing the same old things. It feels like Murakami tried to repeat the Norwegian Wood formula but just couldn't find his ground.
It might have gotten a higher score if I'd read it before, but by the point I got to it, it just felt like I was reading the same story over and over again. This Goodreads review by a Dasha explains my feelings quite accurately (thank you, Dasha!).
14. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (2.5/5)
That being said, its historical value is quite relevant, it being one of Murakami's first surrealist books. I could definitely appreciate many of the elements that he would later develop and perfect in other novels, so there's definitely that. It belongs in the weird/unexplainable climax category, which I'd've probably enjoyed more had I read it before some of the others (looking at you and your terrible climax sequence, Killing Commendatore).
The actual ending is quite good and reminds me of some of Murakami's realist novels. Overall, I enjoyed some parts quite a lot, but some of them got tiresome eventually and feel they could've either been developed a bit better, or plainly dropped. The well soliloquies and seclusion sections (for all characters) are a great example. I don't really know why, but I feel they didn't reach their full potential and eventually became all the same.
13. Pinball, 1973 (3/5)
A weird follow-up to Hear the Wind Sing that goes nowhere. It appears to be more of an experimentation in creative writing than anything else. Not particularly bad, I just feel it falls a bit flat.
12. Norwegian Wood (3/5)
Not bad, not great. I guess it's what I would call a typical novel. There's definitely an intriguing story & narrative arc, great character development (as usual) and an ending that's not too shabby. Feels a bit autobiographic on some parts (particularly Watanabe's college days), but this assumptions is not based on anything at all.
The Naoko/Midori contrast is really good. I found Midori particularly refreshing, in a way that reminded me of the girl from The Wind-Up Bird, without the intolerable 16 year-old attitude that makes you wanna slap the character. She was a welcome addition too, since Naoko felt too much for me after a while. I get that's probably the point, though, since she keeps feeling bad/complaining about what a burden she is for Watanabe.
11. South of the Border, West of the Sun (3/5)
Horrible first half. Cliché, pretentious main character who doesn't like traditionally beautiful women, but those who have a secret beauty only he can see, enjoys music nobody else appreciates, yada yada. Also, it felt a bit rushed. After reaching the second half, the story gets a bit better, and why the first half was so rushed becomes a bit clearer. The soliloquy on how we manage our reality was particularly well written. (I do think the reader must've reached either a certain age or lived through certain experiences in order to empathize and connect with Hajime.)
10. After Dark (3/5)
A different (in a good way) experience. Would definitely like to see this in the big screen, with camera instructions followed to the word. A little bit of both worlds in this one. (Btw, there's an amazing short on Vimeo by Prateek Vats. Check it out.)
9. Men Without Women (3.5/5)
Men Without Women
Samsa in Love
An Independent Organ
Drive My Car (Movie is 10x better)
8. Killing Commendatore (4/5)
Great first half, meh climax, really good ending. To be fair, I really enjoyed it, it just fell out of favor because of everything that happens once he goes in the tunnel. It was a good idea but I think it could've been developed a bit more concisely. Very good plot and a refreshing twist on the melancholy divorced man present in a few of the other novels. The conclusion was particularly good. I feel the dialogues were on point and the ending in itself was fulfilling.
7. Dance Dance Dance (4/5)
What a great ending to a very weird saga! It's clear how Murakami developed his signature style over the years and throughout the Rat tetralogy. D3 is another clear example of how Murakami can manage symbolism and metaphor without making it feel too dense (unlike some of his other novels). The elevator scenes are a particularly good example of this.
I really liked how the saga turned from a casual, quasi-existentialist novel that felt like a Japanese Catcher in the Rye, to a crazy journey that included the twilight zone, a one-armed poet, a sheep man, and some Lolita references. The symbolism of the entire story and how and some of the pivotal moments in the saga ended up as motifs in his subconscious (guarded and managed by the Sheep-Man, perhaps?) felt well developed. Also, kudos for the references to A Wild Sheep Chase.
Would have liked to see The Rat one more time, but that's just me. I can definitely appreciate that when he was gone, he was gone. Forever. Ballsy decision.
6. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (4/5)
This ranking might be a bit unfair since it was the first book I read. I'm pretty sure it'll gain a few positions when I eventually read it again. Edit: After some thought, I upgraded it from 8 to 6.
A full-blown, powerhouse of an introduction to Murakami, HBW/EotW has everything. Pulp action, crude language, surrealism, a crazy story, as well as many of the motifs commonly seen in other Murakami novels—dual storylines, the subconscious, a weird but interesting young woman, animals...—but in a more accessible, "easier to digest" manner.
The EotW part gave me a sense of likeness to The Kid Named Crow parts in Kafka on the Shore. Curiously, these appear to be my favorite styles for Murakami.
I believe HBW/EotW will be forever underrated and cursed to lower positions because it is the perfect gateway/intro book. That in no way undermines its value as a literary marvel and a delight of a read.
5. 1Q84 (4/5)
Really long but very well written. The characters' routines, acts, thoughts and emotions are flawlessly portayed. I think this particular trait is what makes Murakami so different. He may not be the best storyteller, but he's definitely one hell of a narrator.
The plot is quite imaginative without falling on the obscure or abstract, unlike some of his other novels. The way Murakami intertwines every story, as well as how he builds tension leading up to the climax (especially the Aomame/Tengo/Park saga) is beatiful.
Supporting characters feel extremely well-thought. No loose ends or characters who don't have a reason to be there. Ushikawa (!!!) is the GOAT. Glad to see him come back after The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Yes, I will always believe it is the same Ushikawa.
4. Hear the Wind Sing (4/5)
For all the hate that it received (particularly from Murakami himself), I found this to be a very entertaining read. Really enjoyed discovering this early facet of Murakami, and watching him draw inspiration from other classics.
I would recommend this book (and the Rat saga in general) as the starting point for new Murakami readers. I feel it makes it a bit easier on the reader to understand many of the elements present in all of the other novels—both realist and surrealist.
3. A Wild Sheep Chase (4/5)
Definitely the most fun one in the saga. A great and entertaining read. Everything from The Rat to the Sheep Man to the Dolphin Hotel made for an entertaining and interesting twist to the saga. This is definitely evidence of a more experienced, professional writer. It's hard to take one story and develop it into a completely different one, but AWSC does it with ease.
I particularly enjoyed the Dolphin Hotel parts (the trip to Hokkaido, the town's historical record, the characters, the flashbacks...).
2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (4.5/5)
A welcome change after reading Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart (more on that below). Feels very different from his other novels.
While nostalgic/nihilistic males are a recurring theme in almost all of the novels, this one feels a bit more real, more complex and with way more depth than just ambivalent guys in their 20s who don't enjoy anything but don't get upset over anything either.
A very light and enjoyable read. Feels way more honest and less pretentious or experimental than some of his other stuff.
1. Kafka on the Shore (5/5)
Could not stop. Would not stop. Everything about this novel—the characters, the story, the metaphors, the interviews, how the story reveals itself... everything is on point. Even the intimate scenes, which tend to be quite repetitive (and boring) in Murakami novels, were delicately written and conveyed the complexities and vulnerabilities of the characters. Both Kafka and Nakata are very well thought and written.
Everything is simply excellent. The climax is filled with symbolism and metaphor, and delicately balances an ambiguous hero's journey so as not to make it feel too saturated, complicated, pretentious or plain and simply off (some opposites are The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Killing Commendatore). The ending—and its revelations—are sublime.
You get many of the usual Murakami elements and characters (cats, eccentric villains, a lonely older woman, dual storylines, war...) in their best form.
Again, simply sublime. A masterpiece.
(Tip: Don't miss this analysis by The Holy Rohan Empire.)
Again, these are all my opinions and are by no means a standard for anything other than my personal experience reading Murakami from scratch.
I can understand if/why some readers have very different rankings. I just thought I'd share mine 😊. People tend to have some strong opinions on this topic, and that's part of Murakami's magic.
Reach out on Twitter and let me know what your Murakami favorites are at @untaljaime!