Haruki Murakami is one of modern literature’s most well-loved authors, both inside his native Japan and amongst broader reading populations across the globe, with a particularly strong following in his temporary home of the US. His fiction is thought-provoking, emotive and often genre-bending. One of the best realisations of all that his fiction can accomplish is Kafka on the Shore.

Well known for housing international theatre companies, the Barbican has enjoyed a successful partnership with Ninagawa Theatre Company, which has come to the main stage again in 2015 with two plays; Hamlet and Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Director Yukio Ninagawa has lifted Murakami’s endearingly chaotic world off the page to the stage in this fantastical production. This adaptation seeks to bring the story of young runaway Kafka and the parallel tale of Nakata to visual life.

Kafka (Nino Furuhata) feels urgently that he must flee his home, and with guidance from his imaginary friend, Crow, the 15-year-old sets off into the night, seeking to find his sister and mother, abandoning his father’s house. He finds himself within the confines of an idyllic private library in Takamatsu, run by the mysterious Miss Saeki (Rie Miyazawa) and her assistant Oshima (Naohito Fujiki).

Meanwhile, Nakata (Katsumi Kiba) undergoes a journey of his own; a man rendered simple thanks to a curious incident when he was a child, he interacts with the world with vivid curiosity that leads him to complete a series of objectives, never really understanding why he is completing the serial tasks. He converses with cats, American cultural icons and various characters of the seedy underbelly of Murakami’s imagined Japan. The cats are a stunning feat; the mobility and appearance of Nakata’s feline friends who majestically manoeuvre around stage is a real highlight of the show.

The book has been adapted for stage by Frank Galati with set design from Tsukasa Nakagoshi. The opening is majestic, chaotic and transformative, with the epic Sigur Ros bellowing from the stage, helping transport the audience into a surreal new world. Ninagawa commands that you enter into its arena and play ball with its mode of storytelling. You’re in safe hands.

The playful, at times confronting, imagination of Murakami is skilfully brought to life using moving transparent containers that are tugged into viewpoint, housing props for each scene. The containers are pulled energetically but the stage crew, all assembled in black, somehow make it seem as though the scenes are rotating mechanically according to a grander design. As if there is a greater force at play that is taking charge of the events with the characters having little agency of their own. This idea is perhaps illustrated best when a planet moves in to focus and struts across the front of the stage before gliding out of sight. The captivating planet is adorned with luminous rings, its presence a gentle remainder that logic and reason bear no weight in this story.

The eccentricities of Murakami’s story mostly work. The inability to digress into each particular story is expected, but slightly disappointing. Revelations take place which are fascinating yet left unexplored in favour of driving the plot forward. A necessary choice but perhaps one that leaves the novel in an always predominant position.

The transference of Murakami’s work from page to stage is a successful one in most parts. Where it fails to better the book is in its inability to authoritatively separate the dialogue from the previous medium. Watching the stage version, you can never escape the source material because of a dependency to use dialogue lifted directly from the book. In some ways this adds a level of poetry to the script, but mostly it feels as though the characters were limited by the dialogue. In its language, the production was too eager to remain faithful to the master without truly committing to this new world of communication that the stage offered.

Kafka on the Shore played at the Barbican. For more information, see the Barbican website. Photo by Takahiro Watanabe.