Prose Study: The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

“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. Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio. Perfect spaghetti-cooking music.

The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women

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.

Tuesday’s Woman is an oil painting by Johnny Acurso, inspired by Murakami’s story. You can find more of his illustrations based on more of Murakami’s writing here.


Learner Portfolio

‘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 narrator of The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women as a case study, write about the presentation of men in the short story collection. How is he ‘stunted’ emotionally? In what way is he isolated from the world? How does he respond to challenges that force him out of his ‘torpor’? How does he interact with the women in the story?

2. Hidden Motivations

This 1982 short film, directed by Naoto Yamakawa, was inspired by Murakami’s short story 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

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.

Write a one-two page journal entry about the female characters in the anthology collection, using the narrator’s wife from this story (or another character if you prefer) as your case study. (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 characterise the female character?
  • 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. Banal Present / Tumultuous Past

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

The Fall of the Roman Empire… page 118

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.


Learner Portfolio

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. Selecting one or two instances, write one-two pages about a character or characters in the anthology who seem to be stuck in the past, or have trouble moving into the future. For each character discuss:

  • In what way is the character ‘stuck’? What literal or figurative obstacles are in their path?
  • In what ways are they being challenged to change?
  • To what extent are the characters successful?
  • What writing devices does Murakami use to signal the motifs of change or reinvention?

4. Japan’s Lost Decade

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

Sleep, page 106
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

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 in Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes; as this 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, page 152

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.


Learner Portfolio

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. You could complete this portfolio entry by writing a pastiche – create your own narrative set in Murakami’s ‘world.’ Here is a brilliant example, written by a student, called The First Friday, that perfectly captures the atmosphere, and other characteristics, of Murakami’s writing.

6. The Elephant Vanishes… (and other animals)

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

The Elephant Vanishes, page 327

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

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, page 327

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: oral presentations

Choose a short story from The Elephant Vanishes (or another of Murakami’s short story collections such as Blind Woman, Sleeping Willow or Men and Women) 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.

Learner Portfolio

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.

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 at least two works you have studied.
  2. Judging by two 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 two of the 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 water 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?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, 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:

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? 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.

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