Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Last August 12, Haruki Murakami released his latest English-translated novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  I was one of the many who was looking forward to this novel, his first after the strange chunkster 1Q84.  Without knowing anything about it, I was intrigued by the new novel’s title – who was Tsukuru Tazaki and why was he colorless?  What did that even mean?  And “years of pilgrimage,” seems to be a strange phrase that doesn’t exactly sound right grammatically.  Put together, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage promised to be a strange novel full of invisible people perhaps (or at least one person), who time travel or else spends the rest of his days travelling to exotic places. With a title like that, the possibilities were endless – it IS a Murakami novel after all.

So imagine my disappointment when Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage turned out to be about an ordinary man, Tsukuru Tazaki, whose life was almost destroyed when, during his sophomore year in college, his four closest friends from high school decided suddenly and without explanation to cut him off completely from their close-knit group.

Tsukuru met the four people who would later become his closest friends in high school while doing volunteer work. Ao, the jock, Aki, the nerd, Kuro, the outspoken comedian, and Shiro, the sensitive, beautiful musician. Coincidentally, all four had surnames which were in part, a color – Ao, which meant blue, Aki – red, Kuro – black, and Shiro – white. Unfortunately, Tsukuru’s surname, Tazaki, didn’t have a color element in it.  His “colorlessness” was a great source of amusement, to his four colorful friends, to his slight annoyance.

Besides having a surname that was not related to any color, Tsukuru felt that he was an entirely colorless, or boring person.  His face, though not ugly, was without any distinguishing features.  He was without any special talents or skills; he was not exceptionally smart, but could get by by studying hard, and he had no strange quirks or philosophy in life.  In other words, he was, to his estimation, a downright, simple guy with almost no personality.  His only passion in life, if you could even call it that, was his love for train stations and the process that goes into building one.

After high school, Tsukuru Tazaki applied to an engineering college in Tokyo to fulfill his dreams of building train stations, leaving his four friends behind.  Though his four friends all stayed behind in Nagoya to pursue their own interests, Tsukuru’s absence didn’t seem to affect their friendship.   Tsukuru would come home from Tokyo during summer or winter vacations, and the five of them would spend their days together, talking and hanging out.

Everything was going well in Tsukuru’s life; he was living in a one bedroom condominium in Tokyo owned by his family, studying engineering and going home to Nagoya whenever he could to be with his friends – that is, until that fateful summer day during his sophomore year, when Tsukuru’s four friends suddenly decided that they would stop speaking to him forever.

The event, though strange, was far from tragic, but for Tsukuru, who had never made a friend in Tokyo the whole time he was there, it felt like his world had crumbled.  For the next 6 months after his friends had cut him off completely, he had become obsessed with death and dying.

Now, 16 years later, Tsukuru Tazaki is living his dream working in Tokyo building railroad stations.  He has all but forgotten his four colorful friends, the woman he has been seeing asks him about his past.  After listening to Tsukuru’s story, she believes that the strange event among the five friends is more important to Tsukuru than he lets on, and that he still has some unresolved issues.  She firmly believes that unless Tsukuru reconnects with his four friends and asks them to explain their motive for cutting him off, he will never be able to move on with his life and form meaningful relationships with other people, including herself.

With the help of his pseudo-girlfriend who was very good at searching for people online, Tsukuru sets out to find his four friends and to get to the bottom of the mystery of why he was suddenly and completely dropped from the “orderly, harmonious community” they once created.  The outcome of his quest is a bit surprising, and even stranger than he had imagined.

The “Years of His Pilgrimage” part of the title is not about an actual pilgrimage that he goes on for several years.  It is simply the title of a Franz Liszt composition which was mentioned several times and essentially the soundtrack for this novel.

Aside from South of the Border, West of the Sun, which is really  more of a novella, Colorless Tsukuru is the first “normal” full-length Murakami I’ve read.  Normal in the sense that there weren’t any surreal / paranormal / weird /bizarre characters and events in it.  As a matter of fact, the only thing I found strange about this novel was the author’s awkward writing.  I know I have no right to question Murakami’s writing style – I am definitely no writer, but early on in the novel, I found myself frowning on his word choices and sentence constructions. Words and phrases were used repeatedly to describe different things, and the dialogue seemed a bit awkward at times. In my mind I tried to translate the dialogue in Japanese (with the very little Japanese I know), just to see if it would come out better.  It even came to a point when I started blaming Philip Gabriel for his poor translation.

It wasn’t until I came across an article in The Atlantic about Murakami that I stopped criticizing the translator.  Sorry Mr. Gabriel.  The article, which talks about Murakami’s novels, characters, and odd writing style in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki was spot on, and I was a bit surprised, and relieved, that I wasn’t the only one who thought the writing was fairly….noticeable.  I think most people will agree with the points raised in the article, whether or not they are fans of Murakami.

Even with its slow pacing and an ending that would leave you wanting, I wouldn’t call Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage bad, or a waste of time.  It is interesting in its own right, and offers many insights on Japanese culture and psyche.  I will say that it was a bit disappointing.  Not because there weren’t any of the usual Murakami strangeness in it (though I was hoping there would be), but because the story, except for a few parts, really just seemed a bit ordinary and mundane.

BONUS:  I’m sharing this interesting article about Murakami’s novels and the music that accompany them;  the article includes a very cool Spotify playlist of all the music he has ever mentioned. The playlist is called The Music of Haruki Murakami.  Enjoy!


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014) – Haruki Murakami

Knopf; 386 pages

Personal rating:  2.5/5

19 thoughts on “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

  1. Thank you for your honest review. I was a little disappointed for the same reasons, when I was reading the book. I think, this novel is not a typical Murakami and I hope, his next works will be more like 1Q84. Many thanks for sharing the playlist !

  2. I didn’t read this too closely since I haven’t read the book yet, but thank you for the Spotify playlist! I’ll come back and comment on your review once I’ve read the book. 🙂

  3. I’ve never read Murakami, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to start with this one (although I seem to like the premise; I’m not inclined towards weird stuff). I’m torn between Kafka and Wind-up Bird.

    • If you don’t like weird then maybe you should start with this one, or South of the Border, West of the Sun, or Norwegian Wood (which I haven’t read, but I know isn’t weird). I wouldn’t start with Kafka because that is very weird….maybe even weirder than IQ84, which is what I would recommend you start with. I haven’t finished Wind-up Bird but I read a few chapters a few months ago. It seemed a bit strange too, but I don’t know if it’s one of his more ‘normal’ ones.

  4. I’m rather fond of Murakami and bought this book just before I went on holiday. Am looking forward to reading it (I hardly read at all on holiday), and will then reappraise your review.

  5. I’ve read more than half of Murakami’s novel and my opinion is mixed. I liked some but found most rather dry and repetitive which gives the impression that if you’ve read one you’ve read them all.

    While there is indeed a general division between his surreal novels as well as the more straightforward ones, there are common themes of nostalgia for lost love, teenage angst, and anomie that Murakami returns to obsessively in his writing.

    I remember enjoying ‘The Wind-Up Bird’ and ‘The Hardbroiled Wonderland and the End of the World’ while hating ‘Kafka on the Shore’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’, among others.

    Murakami keeps on publishing new books like they were burgers and fries so I haven’t read his more recent ones (maybe I’ll read ‘IQ84’ once they lower its price by 70 percent or so).

    Thanks for this review. It would seem from your reception of the novel that it would not be one that I will be fond of.

    • It does seem like Murakami’s writing falls into only 2 categories – the surreal or the nostalgic, and it does feel like once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. He has a very distinct style and flavor. I read a few recent Murakami interviews that sort of explains why he writes the way he does.

      This novel, for me, was just OK….I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. It’s is rather unremarkable and forgettable, but still distinctly Murakami.

      Maybe you will enjoy 1Q84 more.

      • That may be true of many Murakami novels I encountered before. Rather ‘unremarkable and forgettable’! But I’m not sure about those two categories because almost all the Murakami novels I read, especially those with surreal elements are quite nostalgic too. Once again, thanks for sharing all these thoughts about the more recent Murakami novels that I haven’t read yet. 🙂

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