Prose Study: The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

FRom the pRL / translated work (JAPANESE) / C20TH / asia / japan

“These stories show us Japan as it’s experienced from the inside… [they] take place in parallel worlds not so much remote from ordinary life as hidden within its surfaces…”

The New York Times Book Review
“With elegant prose, Haruki Murakami conjures magical worlds overlaying ours.” This Litburo video essay explores the elegance and simplicity of Murakami’s writing style and investigates the feelings of longing and loneliness that characterise his best-known works.


Haruki Murakami (in Japanese, 村上 春樹) was born in Kyoto in 1949 and moved to Tokyo to attend Waseda University. After college, Murakami opened a small jazz bar, which he and his wife ran for seven years. If you are ever in Tokyo you can still visit the Peter Cat today. Murakami’s love of music pervades his books. Many of his characters pass the time listening to music and even the title of a well-known novel is named after a Beatles song: Norwegian Wood.

His first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, won the Gunzou Literature Prize for budding writers in 1979. He followed this success with two sequels, Pinball, 1973 and A Wild Sheep Chase, which all together form “The Trilogy of the Rat.” Since then Murakami has written over a dozen novels, works of non-fiction and short story collections, including The Elephant Vanishes (originally published in 1993). His work has been translated into more than fifty languages, and nominated more than once for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

It’s almost impossible to pin down a single theme in Murakami’s work. When asked about the purpose of his writing in a recent interview, he replied: “When I was in my teens, in the 1960s, that was the age of idealism. We believed the world would get better if we tried. People today don’t believe that, and I think that’s very sad. People say my books are weird, but beyond the weirdness, there should be a better world. It’s just that we have to experience the weirdness before we get to the better world. That’s the fundamental structure of my stories: you have to go through the darkness, through the underground, before you get to the light.”

IB Student Learner Profile: balanced

“We critically appreciate our own cultures and personal histories, as well as the values and traditions of others. We seek and evaluate a range of points of view, and we are willing to grow from the experience.”

In these stories, a man sees his favourite elephant vanish overnight; a newlywed couple suffers attacks of hunger that drive them to hold up a McDonald’s; and a young woman discovers a little green monster who burrows up through her backyard and can read her thoughts. You never know what is going to happen in one of Murakami’s stories – or even which reality you’re going to find yourself lost inside. Some characters seem stuck in a world bereft of stimulation; others try to escape by plunging into the past, fantasy worlds, or even alternate realities. People feel bewildered by the world and seek answers to the point of their own existences. Above all they struggle – often unsuccessfully – to find balance in their lives.

IB Lang and Lit Concept: perspective

A criticism that is sometimes levelled against Murakami’s writing is that his narrators, from book to book, are overly similar. Most are young men of a certain age (mid-twenties to mid-thirties) who have dropped out of mainstream society and seem to be searching for answers to questions of life and purpose that they haven’t yet properly formulated. His female characters tend to be ambiguous, often taking supporting roles and having hidden thoughts and motivations – yet they leave a huge impact on the hero’s life and are often a reason for the strange journey he undertakes. As you read the stories in this collection, ask whether these criticisms are wholly fair and explore the effect reading through the eyes of men (or occasionally women) has on your perspective on The Elephant Vanishes.

1. Murakami’s Narrators

I’m in the kitchen cooking spaghetti when the woman calls…

The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women
This print by John Arcuso was inspired by Murakami’s story.

A man stands in his kitchen cooking spaghetti when the phone rings, not once, not twice, but three times. He’s irritated and doesn’t want to talk to whomever is on the other end of the line. It soon becomes clear that this is a man of routine; even ironing his shirts needs planning out into twelve meticulous steps. Yet, despite his best efforts, our narrator is drawn out of his private world as he finds himself sent on a quest to find a disappearing cat.

Haruki Murakami establishes the tone and motifs of his anthology in the first story of the collection. As in many of Murakami’s works, we find ourselves in a world in which the narrator rarely ventures out of his house. But he nevertheless has encounters with new and eccentric people. In this section, you’ll discover how readers can understand the nature of the narrators’ daily existence in Murakami’s short stories.

Murakami’s Mysteries

In 1998, Murakami published his novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, continuing the story of The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women. We discover the narrator’s name is Toru Okada, and the missing cat is only the beginning of his troubles. When his wife also disappears, he ventures into a mysterious netherworld underneath Tokyo, encountering a bizarre group of allies and antagonists, including an old Japanese soldier, a mute boy who can read minds, and a clairvoyant woman who visits him in his dreams.

Learner Portfolio: Depictions of Men and Women

‘Haruki Murakami’s stories almost always involve grown men who have not fully developed emotionally and several strong-willed women who force them to question their world-views.’

Using the stories in this collection, create a mirrored profile of men and women in Murakami’s writing. In what ways are men emotionally stunted? What kinds of things do they like to do? How do they respond to challenges? By contrast, how do women behave and act? What kinds of values do they represent?

2. Hidden Motivations

“Why my wife owned a shotgun I had no idea… Married life is weird, I felt.”

The Second Bakery Attack

A married couple lie in bed, suffering from the most profound hunger. The fridge is empty – except for some onions and a bottle of beer. To distract him from his hunger pangs, the man tells his wife a story of how, many years ago, he once robbed a bakery. Unexpectedly, the story seems to wake something up inside of her, and she persuades him to orchestrate a ‘second bakery attack.’

As with the first story in the collection, Murakami presents women characters who seem to have strength and emotional depth that is conspicuously lacking in the male narrators. But the female characters are also shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. In this section we’ll flip the lens and take a closer look at the female characters in Murakami’s stories.

Learner Portfolio: Murakami’s Ambiguous Women

The narrator of The Second Bakery Attack’s wife is one of the more enigmatic and yet dynamic characters in Murakami’s stories. She is decisive in her actions throughout but unclear, often, in her motivations. In this she shares much with Murakami’s other female characters.

Choose a female character from the story collection – a female character from Wind-up Bird, Second Bakery Attack, Kangaroo Communique, or Barn Burning would all be suitable for this exercise. Write a journal entry following the suggested prompts. Here is a great example of Learner Portfolio work using this prompt for you to read, if you like. Consider these questions to help you write your portfolio entry:

  • How does the male character (or other character) view the female character? How is she described?
  • Are her speech and actions consistent with the way the male character presents her?
  • Does it make a difference seeing the female character through the eyes of a male character?
  • In what way is your chosen character significant to the themes and ideas in the collection as a whole?

3. Failures of Communication

“Why all of a sudden this fury of wind?”

The Fall of the Roman Empire…

By the time you read The Fall of the Roman Empire… you’ll have noticed how Murakami has established an odd convention of juxtaposing a banal present with a tempestuous past. Characters busy themselves with dull everyday activities, but they recall past experiences or think about historical events. Some of these events are traumatic, harrowing or disturbing – but they seem to have more vivacity and colour than the grey of the present. In this section you’ll consider this juxtaposition of past and present.

Mitsuri Fukikoshi onstage in The Elephant Vanishes. Murakami’s collection has been adapted for stage in Japan, London and around the world. You can read the review of Complicite’s famous 2003 production here.

Murakami’s Mysteries

After he left college, Murakami owned a small jazz bar called the Blue Parrot in Tokyo. His love of music is apparent in every book he writes. His stories contain references to classical musicians, songs, pop albums and more. Visit this brilliant compendium of all the references to music in The Elephant Vanishes stories – and beyond.

Learner Portfolio: Personal Reinvention

“A major theme of Murakami’s writing is personal reinvention, or, more pertinently, the struggle some characters have to reinvent themselves in a more desirable way.”

Choose two characters from stories you have read and create their fictional Instagram accounts. Think about: how many followers they would have and how many people would follow them? What would they post on their account? Would they post selfies? Accompany your design with a paragraph or two of reflection explaining the choices you have made.

4. Japan’s Lost Decade

“…what was going to redeem this imperfect life of ours, so fraught with exhaustion?”

This illustration by Kat Menschik promoted an adaptation of Sleep for the New York stage by Playco in 2016

A woman finds it impossible to sleep. This isn’t the first time she’s suffered from insomnia, but it is the strangest. To begin with, she’s not tired. In fact, she’s able to access previously unknown reserves of energy and creativity. But as time passes, things become increasingly weird as she is driven to ever-more desperate measures to figure out what’s going on.

Throughout The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami elegantly draws a portrait of the post-imperial country of Japan; in his eyes it is a dull place of electrical appliance stores, fading institutions and rapidly diminishing men. Nowhere is this faded land more evocative than in Sleep, one of the stories central to the collection.


Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from Sleep ; as The Elephant Vanishes is a short story collection, the literary form is ‘prose’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

5. Dreams

“My husband left for work as usual, and I couldn’t think of anything to do.”

The Little Green Monster

A lonely housewife looks out at an oak tree that stands in the center of her garden. Her husband is at work and she seemingly has nothing to do. Suddenly, a horrifying little creature burrows its way out from underneath the tree and forces its way into her house. Initially, the woman is frightened – but the monster has the power to read minds, and she begins to communicate with it. Then, things take an unexpected turn, and the reader is left wondering who is the real monster in this story?

By this point in the anthology, the reader has accepted that characters can communicate and engage in substantive activity in dreams. This is sometimes an oddity to the various characters – but some of them also seem to accept that dreams can have significance. Murakami writes in a particular genre of ‘magical realism’, where unexplained events, disappearances, dreamers, soothsayers, coincidences, freak weather events and other similar phenomenon exist in the world. At times, these elements are stronger; at other times they fade into the background. But they are always hovering at the edges of perception as we read the stories in The Elephant Vanishes.

Murakami’s Mysteries

The little green monster is a typical Murakami creation. In his 2019 novel Killing Commendatore, an artist is disturbed one night when he hears a noise in the attic. On investigation he finds a previously undiscovered painting hidden away – and things only start to get weirder when one of the little characters in the painting jumps out and starts to talk!

Learner Portfolio: A General Malaise

This short film was made by Jun Mok Lee, a student, responding to this Learner Portfolio prompt in a creative way. He wrote a pastiche of a Murakami story, then adapted it into a script. It’s a great example of the creativity you can bring to your studies in Literature.

In his short stories, Haruki Murakami often juxtaposes the fantastical with a sort of general malaise that permeates modern Japanese society. How does Murakami evoke this atmosphere? Are characters aware of the malaise? How do characters try to overcome it? Are they successful?

You might like to take this opportunity to write in a different way and complete this portfolio entry by writing a pastiche – in other words, try to adopt Murakami’s tone and style of writing to create your own narrative set in his ‘world.’ Here is an example, written by a student, called The First Friday, that perfectly captures the atmosphere, and other characteristics, of Murakami’s writing. Alternatively you could write an analytical piece about the atmosphere of Murakami’s stories, and how he creates the feeling of ‘general malaise’ that permeates the world in the story collection. And check out the embedded video above for an example by a student who wrote a story – then adapted it as a film project for another class!

6. The Elephant Vanishes… (and other animals)

“Some kind of balance inside me has broken down…”

The Elephant Vanishes

An old elephant and its keeper suddenly disappear one night from a dilapidated old zoo. As a chronicler of the elephant’s disappearance, the narrator of this story recounts news coverage of the incident, remembers the futile attempts of the townspeople to find the elephant, and obsesses over the strange facts surrounding the case. As the story progresses, the narrator continues to feel confused by the elephant incident and saddened by the disappearance of the elephant and its keeper. He feels ‘the air of doom and desolation’ hanging over the empty elephant house, and he continues to visit the zoo forlornly, seemingly searching for something that has vanished along with the elephant.

The Elephant Vanishes is the title piece of the short story collection, but Murakami has saved this story till last. By now, you’ll have encountered many animals scattered throughout the anthology, some lost or disappeared, others appearing only in dreams or fantasy sequences. Here you’ll have a chance to discuss the symbolism of animals, and inquire into the relationship Murakami’s characters have with aspects of natural world.


Learner Portfolio: Symbolic Animals

The Elephant Vanishes, beginning even with its title, is a novel that draws mystically from the natural world. Aspects of nature serve as symbols of a lost world, harbingers and, to some extent, good-will ambassadors. In her critical essay about The Elephant Vanishes (above) Anna Hong writes: ‘The old elephant and its elderly keeper represent longstanding relationships and symbolize former ways of life, which have been pushed aside by commercial ventures.’

Create a Learner Portfolio entry about symbolic animals and/or images drawn from the world of animals throughout the short story collection. You might like to write a regular essay – or you could complete this entry in a creative form, such as a visual guide or brainstorm. Whatever you choose to do, present your ideas about the (many) ways in which animals and natural images can be interpreted symbolically, and include key quotations from the collection.

7. Alienation and Empathy

“People are looking for a kind of unity in this kit-chin we know as the world. Unity of design. Unity of colour. Unity of function.”

The Elephant Vanishes

One of the central themes of Murakami’s writing is the interconnectedness of humanity, and the psychological and spiritual toll such modern living takes on individual people. Some are able to cope admirably, and even thrive, especially at work. Others, though, try to disconnect themselves from society, hiding away in private spaces and rarely venturing outside. In this section, you’ll consider themes such as interconnectedness, communication and privacy, and discover that Murakami’s writing seemed to presage a curious modern Japanese phenomenon known as hikokomori, where some young people – predominantly men – may not leave their houses for years, or even decades!


Class Activity: give your own presentation

Choose a short story from The Elephant Vanishes that you have not yet studied in detail with your teacher. Create a presentation about the plot, characters, themes and symbols of your chosen story. Deliver the presentation to your class. Aim to present for approximately 5 minutes. You should prepare a handout, ppt, prezi or another kind of visual aid to accompany your presentation.

Here is an example of a presentation created by students for you to see the kind of work you might like to create. Once you have delivered your presentation, add the resource you made to your Learner Portfolio.

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to The Elephant Vanishes, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2 ).

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you may have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. Animals and images drawn from the world of animals are a rich source of inspiration for writers. Discuss how animals are used to develop central ideas in works of literature you have studied.
  2. Judging by literary works you have studied, what would you say are the main causes of unhappiness?
  3. Explore how women are represented as stronger than men in the literary works you have studied.
  4. Often the appeal for the reader of a literary work is the atmosphere a writer creates (for example, peaceful, menacing, or ironic). Discuss some of the ways atmospheres are conveyed and to what effect in literary works you have studied.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 Marks).

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Once you’ve finished studying Murakami’s collection of short stories, and your mind is turning to the Higher Level Essay you have to write, The Elephant Vanishes would make a fertile ground for topics. Here you can find some suggestions for thematic and stylistic investigations. Of course, this list is just a starting point, and you should feel free to come up with your own angles of investigation instead:

  • Explore the use of flashbacks by Haruki Murakami in his story collection The Elephant Vanishes.
  • Examine the motif of ‘vanishing and disappearances’ in The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami.
  • In what ways does Murakami effectively employ ambiguity in his story collection The Elephant Vanishes?
  • What is the importance of setting in the stories of The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami?
  • By what means does Murakami create a pervading sense of loneliness in his collection The Elephant Vanishes?
  • How are the themes of balance and imbalance presented in The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami.
  • What role do animals play in the stories in The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami?
  • In what ways, and to what purposes, does Murakami employ communication devices in The Elephant Vanishes anthology?
  • Explore the metaphor of ‘hunger’ in Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes collection. How, and to what ends, is hunger depicted in significant ways?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course) students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied (40 marks).

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

The Elephant Vanishes would be a good choice to discuss in this oral assessment. The stories explore themes of people in society, connectedness, consumerism, communication, the roles of men and women in society, nature, and more. Now you have finished reading and studying Murakami’s short stories, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the novel, come up with ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

  • Field of Inquiry: Science, Technology and the Environment
  • Global Issue: the psychic effects of modernity
  • Possible Pairings (Lit course: if you are following the Literature-only course, you must pair a text originally written in English with a translated work): Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet; Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee.
  • Possible Pairings (Lang and Lit): Dilbert cartoons; Alison Wright photography; I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach; HSBC adverts.

Modern living has brought all kinds of conveniences and benefits to people all around the world – but what has been lost as a consequence of modernisation? In The Elephant Vanishes stories, urbanisation and commercialism have supplanted older ways of living. Murakami paints a picture of a cosy and safe world; yet it’s also a corporate, sterile world whose inhabitants are bereft of feeling, purpose and companionship.

Many of Murakami’s narrators are isolated from the world and at first it seems like this is by choice. Many are married and have comfortable, suburban lives. But gradually, we find out that many characters feel disconnected from their loved ones, especially their husbands, wives or partners. By revealing the neuroses and fears that lurk beneath the veneer of normality, Murakami implies a busy world where everyone is connected but, ironically, everyone is lonely.


2 replies »

  1. This is amazing! I am using some of your ideas for After the Quake. About to dive into Murakami for the first time so this is great. Thank you for sharing your resources!


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