Kafka on the Shore (Barbican Centre)
The Ninagawa Company adapts the bestselling novel by Haruki Murakami with mixed results
A teenage runaway crosses Japan in search of his mother and sister. An illiterate old man with no memory looks for lost cats. A librarian longs for her long-dead lover. Fish fall from the sky, dreams come to life and Colonel Sanders - the KFC logo - is alive and well and pimping out philosophy majors for sex.
Haruki Murakami's 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore is fantastical without being fantasy - magical realism pushed to a dreamscape - and Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, rightly, invests its strange goings-on with the utmost of reality.
Kafka Tamura (Nino Furuhata) is the 15 year-old abscondee, apparently destined to fulfil an Oedipal curse. His father, a famous sculptor, has been murdered - perhaps by him, perhaps not - and he's drawn, inexplicably, to a library in Takamutsu, run by the aloof Miss Saeki (Rie Miyazawa). She's still mourning for her teenage lover, who died 30 years earlier - and sees some of him in Kafka. He, in turn, dreams of her younger self, falling in love with an idea.
Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, Nakata (Katsumi Kiba) - a "mentally impaired" old man, fluent in cat - follows in his footsteps, searching for a missing moggy and murdering the whisky logo Johnnie Walker as he converges, just as inexplicably, on Takamutsu.
It's all very dream-like; a world of doubles and opposites and other halves. Nakata might be Kafka Tamura's dream-self - or he might not be. Miss Saeki might be the mother he was destined to meet - or she might not be. One person's memory loss meets its match in another, stuck in the past. One person can be old and young at once, or both male and female. It's a swirl of conscious subconscious, waking and dreaming, self and other.
Ninagawa mounts the whole thing on trucks, with scenes playing out in Perspex cases, as if Japan had been made by Damien Hirst. Each piece of scenery has its double - bookcases on one side, a urinal on the other - and the same combinations repeat like so many photocopies. Only the present moment and the immediate vicinity seem to exist, putting dreams on a par with reality. Kafka's world is monochrome, Nakata's technicolour, and the two criss-cross and correspond. It's a clever move, but the staging never develops into anything more.
'It all teeters on pretentiousness'
A lot will depend on how you take your Murakami. The Japanese author is a slippery customer and Kafka on the Shore is forever escaping your clutches. Just when you think you might have it pegged, something disrupts the pattern and scuppers your theory. Everything hinges on association and events echo each other inexactly. Personally, I found that increasingly frustrating - evasive to the point of emptiness - but sink into the story, let it wash over you, and it has its own peculiar charms.
I'm not sure, however, that Murakami quite suits the stage. Frank Galati's adaptation can tease out its parallels - so Kafka muses on Adolf Eichmann at the same time as Nakata witnesses mass 'catricide' - but the story refuses the centrifugal logic of good drama or the connective logic by which theatre makes meaning. It's more nebulous than that - and it's possible Murakami's saying something quite simple in quite over-complicated, wishy-washy ways. It all teeters on pretentiousness.
None of that's Ninagawa's fault, though, and this is an ambitious evening, faithfully realised. Galati's is a crisp condensation of an elusory story and Tsukasa Nakagoshi's designs can be gorgeous, as forests and service stations come together from nothing.
Kafka on the Shore runs at the Barbican Centre until 30 May