A Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami


A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

A sheep with a star shaped mark on its back and possibly nefarious designs for the human race.  A girl with supernaturally dazzling ears and a sixth sense.  A dying right-wing power broker.  A narrator haunted by a whale’s penis.  A slurring dwarf in a sheep outfit.  What could they all have to do with each other?  Why, they’re all part of the plot of one of Haruki Murakami’s earliest novels, A Wild Sheep Chase.  Naturally.

Of course, we start with a typical Murakami narrator.  Think Philip Marlowe with preference for bar stool philosophy, and pit his nonchalance and cynicism against Carroll’s Wonderland.  This narrator is also joint owner of a translating and advertising business, and has a girlfriend whom he describes as having ears that are so beautiful that they “transcended all concepts within the boundaries of my awareness” who is “a part time proofreader for a small publishing house, a commercial model specialising in ear shots, and a call girl in a discreet intimate friends-only club. Which of the three she considered her main occupation, I had no idea. Neither did she.”

The narrator is recently divorced and going through the motions of life until a strange man in a black suit, who represents “The Boss”, a major right-wing figure, makes him an offer he can’t refuse: find the sheep with the star shaped mark on its back, or his life will be destroyed.  Thus begins (da da dum!) a wild sheep chase.

While it should be obvious that I deeply enjoy Murakami novels from the sheer number I’ve reviewed on this site (he’s my most read author), I have to confess that I’ve previously dismissed the idea that they have serious underlying themes.  When I reached the end of A Wild Sheep Chase, I had a strong suspicion that there was alot more going on under the surface.  So I read it again, this time taking notes on the characters, recurring motifs and themes.

But it wasn’t until I was almost finished writing up the first draft of this book review, dismissing Murakami’s magic realism as merely fun smoke and mirrors, that I finally got it.

At its heart, A Wild Sheep Chase is a defiant declaration of humanism against the forces that have shaped twentieth century Japan, a celebration of the little guy, the simple life, and good old mediocrity.

This interpretation emerged when I examined the lives of a trinity of characters whose life histories are briefly recounted in the text: The Boss, the Sheep Professor, and an Ainu (Hokkaido’s indigenous people) youth.  Central to these character’s lives are sheep, and in the case of the former two, the titular supernatural sheep with the star on his back, who enters people’s bodies and works its will through them Trust me, this stuff makes sense in the context of the novel.  Kind of.  Not really.

The Boss was a mediocre right wing youth until he was “possessed” by the sheep whilst in prison.  He emerges as a new man, with “charisma, a solid ideology, powers of speech making to command a passionate response, political savvy, decisiveness, and above all the ability to steer society by using the weaknesses of the masses of leverage.”  Using gold and silver plundered from Japanese occupied Manchuria, he builds a “powerful underground kingdom” that controls “[p]olitics, finance, mass communications, the bureaucracy, culture, all sorts of things you could never dream of.”  He’s also linked to war crimes and drugs.

Then there’s the Sheep Professor.  As a child, he was a scholastic prodigy with an unusual passion for agricultural administration.  He graduated at the top of his class at Tokyo University (Segoi!  Todai!)  and entered the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.  He looks set to fulfil his promise until, while conducting field work in Korea, he is possessed by the sheep.  His superiors are understandably perturbed by his claims of having a sheep inside him (yes, his superiors also question the dodginess of that phrasing), and he is sent back to Japan in disgrace, with the sheep hitching a ride.  The sheep then abandons him, leaving him “sheepless”, and he enters the story an old man, a filthy, embittered, shut in with a monomaniacal obsession for ovine, hunting for the supernatural sheep like Ahab hunting Moby Dick, which is referenced multiple times in the novel.

Finally, there’s an unnamed Ainu youth, who, at the turn of the 19th century, drew on native lore, not to mention his blood and sweat, to help a band of Japanese settlers survive the harsh conditions in Hokkaido, and establish Junitaki-cho, a town central to the plot.  He takes a Japanese wife and name, and becomes a shepherd after he is gifted sheep by the government.  Unbeknownst to him, the sheep are intended to produce thermal wool for soldiers in the Russo-Japanese war.  When, in a cruel irony, his eldest son is killed in that same war, he becomes embittered and dies alone, heralding the decline of his town.

What do all of these stories have in common?  Wars, specifically wars of Imperial Japanese expansion, are pivotal in all of them.  The three men are all extraordinary.  They’re cautionary tales: the Sheep Professor and the Ainu youth become old, isolated and embittered, while the Boss is just an out-and-out bad guy.  And of course, there’s sheep.  Sheep are central in the downfall of the Ainu youth.  The supernatural sheep drives the Boss build a vast evil empire, while it ruins the Sheep Professor’s prospects, leaving him an insane recluse.

Contrast the stories of the three great men above with out hero, the narrator.  He is completely without ambition and believes the story of his life is “so utterly orderly, you might doze off in the middle of it.”  He refuses an offer of worldly success based on a hunch, then leaves a successful business without blinking an eye.  And he casually gives away what is probably the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now, he seems so disconnected from the world that a reader can be forgiven that nothing is important to him.  But I believe that the characters close to him act, in a way, as aspects of his personality.  His business partner expresses uncomfortableness with how quickly their company has grown, and wants to go back to basics.  The Sheep Man (too much to explain.  And I’m sure those who haven’t read the book have tuned out by now anyway) explicitly says that he fled to the mountains to escape war.  And [MAJOR SPOILER] The Rat, who is most heavily implied to be an aspect of the narrator, would rather kill himself than be possessed by the sheep.  Significantly, he says:

“I guess I felt attached to my weakness.  My pain and suffering too.  Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas – if I like these things, why should I apologise.  The same with having a beer with you…”

This also puts all of Murakami’s focus on the minutiae of mundane life – cooking, smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, travelling on a train – into a different light, and I’d venture to say that there’s an element of Buddhist philosophy influencing the author, albeit an unconventional beer and sex and cigarette friendly type strain of Buddhism.

Put simply, the bad guys or tragic figures stand for ambition, imperialist expansion, and war, whilst the good guys just want to quietly go about their lives without having to buy into the whole mess.

It’s also worth noting that the symbol of dangerous ambition is an introduced animal, livestock that was brought to Japan during the Meiji era, when Japan was scrambling to Westernise and modernise, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the author feels, consciously or unconsciously, that the corruption that has taken hold in Japan is a result of foreign influence.

This is the deepest analysis I’ve done of a Murakami text, and there’s alot more buried in A Wild Sheep Chase, especially in relation to the elastic nature of time in the novel, and the conspicuous absence of names.  But I need to save some fun for next time.  And the insight I’ve gained here will definitely add to my reading of Murakami in the future, and cause me to go back and reread books I’ve already read.

Oh, the book is good, by the way.  Recommended.

35 Responses to A Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami

  1. Sarah says:

    As soon as you mentioned the whale’s penis I made the connection with Moby Dick and was gratified to see that borne out.

    The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is on my pile but your review of A Wild Sheep Chase has grabbed my attention and that may have to take precedence as my next Murakami.

    On the whole, I think I can happily settle for the magic realism smoke and mirrors, and anything else will be a bonus.

  2. Mike Dekema says:

    Great review – Thanks. Like you, I finished this book and then read it again, something I haven’t done in years. I found this book to be just what art should be. Not completely clear, but fascinating.

  3. Chris says:

    I personally hated this book. This is my third Murakami novel, the first being After Dark and the second being South of the Border West of the Sun. I liked these two but and this novel A Wild Sheep Case was recommended by a friend of mine. I honestly couldn’t get into the book from the start. I felt like giving up on it many times. I eventually did at like the second or third to the last chapter (i had no more strength to even finish it). Maybe it’s just too deep for me, but i never really got anything from the story. The most interesting part of the novel was actually the story of the history of Junitaki-cho. I still don’t understand who the Rat is. Who the Sheep Man is either. I was really disappointed by this novel. I guess i’m not artistic enough to understand something this deep. If anyone would like to enlighten me about the plot or symbolism, please do. Thanks.

    • Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it. Doesn’t mean you’re not artistic enough, though, just means it wasn’t your cup of tea. If anything, some people might find The Wild Sheep Chase one of Murakami’s more entertaining novels because it relies heavily on the hard-boiled detective genre.

      I’m relying on my shoddy memory to answer your questions… As for who the Rat is, the simple answer is that he’s the narrators friend. Murakami’s early novels are known as “The Trilogy of the Rat” (of which A Wild Sheep Chase is the third) because he’s a recurring character. My interpretation, though, is that the Rat is kind of an aspect of the narrator, expressing his disenfranchisement from society and the temptation of suicide.

      The Sheep Man is the Rat in disguise. I know it’s more complicated than that, but that’s as deep as I can go without spending a few hours looking through the book again.

  4. nikon says:

    I think i read that the sheep symbolizes japanese nationalism.

  5. linhlyn says:

    Thank you for your analysis. I know that you don’t want to get more spoilers for the curious readers. So, is it ok to have a little discussion here? I love this book a lot, however, after finishing the book, I am still in a daze now. I can’t get the full grasp of this book. I think I’m not keen enough to get what under the surface…:/
    What is the relation between the Boss, the secretary in suit, and the Rat? The Boss seems to be the bad guy, and the Rat in contrast. Why the secretary in suit later met the rat after the Rat had a serious talk with the narrator? And they intentionally let the narrator find the way to Rat for what purpose? hmmmm

    It seems that they agreed to have a deal?? That, the Rat wanted to meet the narrator , in a way that, the narrator had to drag himself to find the Rat. Is that right? And coincidentally, the Boss, the Sheep Professor and the Rat have the same background in Hokkaido.

    • I’d love to be able to answer your questions, but I don’t have my copy of the book with me right now. Oh well, I’ll give it a go. The Boss and the Rat were both possessed by the sheep. The Boss wanted to be re-possessed by the sheep, and the secretary wanted the sheep for himself so that he could achieve greatness. The Boss and the secretary send the narrator on “a wild sheep chase” so that he flushes the Rat out of hiding from his disguise as the sheep man, giving the bad guys the opportunity to get their hands on the sheep. Does that make sense?

      I’m not clear on who you mean when you say that they agreed to a deal. From memory… doesn’t the narrator embark on the journey because he is given the choice between being ruined or being handsomely rewarded?

      I think the Boss, the Sheep Professor and the Rat being from the same area just helps to tie the plot together.

      How does all of that sound? Right? If I have time later in the week when I’m reunited with the book, I’ll have a skim through and double check. Hope I haven’t lead you astray!

      • linhlyn says:

        Thanks a ton!! It seems that your interpretation has shed lights for my dead end:) It makes sense.
        Well I mean ‘make a deal’ is due to the detail Rat said to the narrator that he had an appointment after the narrator left the house. And it was the secretary in suit, who happened to have appointment with the Rat. So, in other word, Rat had agreed with the secretary upon something.
        Now, thanks to your interpretation and I double-checked the stuff ending part, things seem to get clear now. Not all clear, but much better than my mind was before: totally in a haze. Yes, the secretary wanted to lure the Rat out of his lair in a perfect, natural way. In the end, the secretary’s calculation won , right? What a sad thing. To the character Rat, the narrator is someone really important to him. Now, the scene where the narrator crying on the beach is such a sad ending, after I understood more of the ending.

      • drizzle88 says:

        Thanks for the analysis :) Btw, have you read the novel ‘Dance Dance Dance’ ? I heard that it was the sequel of A wild sheep chase. There are mixing opinions about Dance dance dance, so I want to give that book a try.

      • You should give it a try! I read it years ago and remember liking it as much as A Wild Sheep Chase. I’d love to get around to reading it again, actually.

      • drizzle88 says:

        Thanx!!:) Yes, I requested the book in the library. I’m so looking forward to it. I like A wild sheep chase a lot, actually more than ‘Norwegian wood’-his most famous novel.

      • drizzle88 says:

        Thanks. I’m reading After Dark (Haruki), and will switch to Dance Dance Dance as soon as I finish After Dark

        .

  6. Linda Cumberland says:

    The more I read, the more I found myself thinking about Philip K. Dick’s zebra and Thomas Mann’s mountain. For my part, I’m inclined to take a more optimistic view of the conclusion than linhlyn — maybe I missed something, but I thought Rat :”won” in that he completed his plan to destroy the sheep and everyone who had come under its thrall by setting a trap for the secretary, while still protecting his two friends, the narrator and J. The narrator had been angry at being used in a negative way but came to realize that in fact he had been used in a positive way to assist his friend Rat in putting a stop to a malevolent force in the world. If I’m wrong, I don’t want to know. I like the feeling that interpretation gives me.

  7. hazel says:

    …the ‘Rat’ is the son of the ‘Boss.’ He was accused of being weak as a child because of his compassion…but he refused to compromise his athentic self. My intretpretation.
    Great book.

  8. Victoria says:

    Thanks for your review and analysis. Before I even finished the book, I knew it would require a re-read, which I’m looking forward to.

  9. Thanks very much for your analysis, that was very insightful and is certainly a plausible way to look at the book. I recently finished this novel, and although I quite liked it, I could not piece together the “logical thread” holding the book together (also, I’m unfortunately too busy/lazy to go through the book again and take notes). Your analysis has made me enjoy the book that much more – maybe I’ll even reread it now.

  10. Your review was very well put. I’ve just finished this book two days ago. Being a fan of Murakami, I never thought I would be so confused after reading this one. “After Dark”, “Kafka on the Shore”, and “South of the Border” were all easy reads. I wonder what the explosion in the mountains meant? Why did the protagonist hear an explosion, which, according to him, was in the direction to which the Boss’s secretary went? Also, your interpretation on the sheep being a symbol of foreign influence/invasion was likely to be true, and that the narrator found it negative; however, I’m not very sure that Murakami intended that since, as far as I know, Murakami is more Western-oriented in the same way that modern Japanese writers are. In fact, he admitted once that he hated the Japanese culture and that if he were given the chance to choose his race, he’d pick the European blood. I hope you could enlighten me on these. Thank you, Gabriel!

    • From memory, the explosion in the mountains was the cabin exploding. I think the Rat wired the cabin to explode to take out the sheep’s pursuers. The Rat might even refer to something he left in the clock at some point. Not particularly important to the themes, in my opinion, more of a tying up of loose ends in the plot.

      I agree that Murakami loves the West, and Western pop culture in particular. But he may have some reservations about parts of Western influence. Otherwise, why choose the sheep as a symbol, and emphasise that it is an animal not native to Japan? On the other hand, Murakami’s symbols are rarely clear parallels. Their meanings shift and expand as the story demands. That’s one of the things I like about his writing.

  11. Here’s my interpretation of what the sheep symbolized:

    Could the sheep have referred to Christ or Christianity? I’m aware that Murakami is not particularly religious nor is he Christian to start with. You see, the sheep had a star on its wool. The star is also a symbol of Christ because it was the light that led the 3 magi to Bethlehem. Furthermore, Christ is called the “lamb of God”. Could it be that Murakami was writing about the resistance of the Japanese to Christianity as a foreign religion (which also draws from your interpretation)? When the sheep entered the Boss and the professor, they felt powerful and wise, which could also be a portrayal of how people initially feel when they have been persuaded to practice a new philosophy or religion. However, over time, they get tired of this religion either because of routine or the desire to change. And upon abandonment, loneliness and emptiness strike in, and these same people feel less human than they did before adopting such religion. So, they then become bound to look for that sheep…they feel compelled to seek God to bring back what they lost.

    • Hey! And doesn’t the Boss’s chauffeur have a direct line to God? That supports your interpretation, too. Sounds like a strong case to me.

      On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a direct sheep = Christianity. If it was, I think Christianity would play a stronger role in the whole story. Maybe the Boss would be priest instead of a shady businessman.

  12. […] Dance Dance picks up where A Wild Sheep Chase left off.  The unnamed, everyman narrator is shell-shocked from the events of the previous novel […]

  13. mattsavas says:

    I just finished this book, and to be honest, I had no idea what the hell was going on. I just enjoyed the story. I figured the symbolism revolved around a boring, regular guy conquering an insurmountable challenge. Having now read your analysis, I can appreciate the book even more because the imperial Japan versus post-war Japan symbolism seems spot on. Your bit about the sheep representing unwelcomed foreign intervention is also excellent. This is an awesome post.

  14. Eric Cartman says:

    Just finished the book and don’t quite know what to make of it. It is a lot more mysterious and cryptic than “1Q84″, also by Murakami, which is really saying something.

    I think that the word “sheep” has a negative connotation in general, often used to refer to people who follow blindly after the “herd”. In a way, the book seems to encourage individual thinking and the fact that “searching for sheep” is a useless and futile quest. It is only when we abandon the search to be like everyone else that we can break free (as our unnamed hero does at the end of the novel) that we can be happy.

    My interpretation, anyway.

    • Shut up, Cartman! Nah, just joking, I couldn’t resist. Thanks for the comment. I didn’t think about that aspect of the symbolism, but you’re definitely onto something there. Murakami has a very individualistic streak.

  15. Fernando says:

    Excellent analysis, made me like tge book even more. Thanks!

  16. Rick says:

    Very helpful analysis. I hadn’t quite gotten it that the secretary wanted to meld with the sheep and become as powerful as the Boss had been. I just finished the book — my first Murakami — and I had enjoyed it a great deal, but I knew that I had missed something. Thanks.

  17. Rodrigo says:

    Don’t you think that everything in the story seems a bit dream-like? The narrator is constantly saying how boring his life is. Maybe he just imagined some parts of the story. I kept getting this feeling, there were times I couldn’t tell if the scene was real or not. Anyway, great review! Thanks!

  18. gideonaa1 says:

    Fantastic analysis. You really vocalized some of the connections and elements that I felt implicitly while reading but couldn’t quite crystalize. Thanks.

  19. Cody says:

    Solid review. This was one of Murakami’s stronger novels, and I’ve all of them but his first two and most recent (it’s on deck). Like some of his later novels, especially Wind-Up Bird and Kafka, the connections are loose enough to feel organic, but tight enough to be meaningful. Definitely one to recommend. Cheers.

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