Toru is the protagonist of Norwegian Wood. He starts the story in retrospect, focusing his gaze on his eighteen-year-old self. His best friend, Kizuki, just committed suicide and he is struggling to come to terms with the loss. He struggles to not become such a serious person after losing his best friend, but it fails because he keeps searching for the truth behind Kizuki’s death and also behind loss in general.
Toru sees himself as painfully ordinary and rarely talks about how he is perceived in the world. This is mostly due to his lack of ambition but also due to his ambivalent identity after Kizuki’s death. Toru is introverted by nature, citing Kizuki as someone who connected him to the liveliness of the world, and Toru struggles to find his place in life when alone. He is often introspective, trying to understand what it is that propels him forward in a world where everyone else seems to have goals
“I would stare at the grains of light suspended in that silent space, struggling to see into my own heart. What did I want? And what did others want from me? But I could never find the answers. Sometimes I would reach out and try to graps the grains of light, but my fingers touched nothing”—Toru (Murakami 29).
Due to Kizuki’s death, Toru often swings between melancholia and mourning. His perspective of himself is perpetually shifting as he accepts his grief in all its various stages. His identity struggle in the face of loss is further drawn out to the two female leads below.
Naoko is Kizuki’s girlfriend at the time of his suicide. Kizuki, Toru and Naoko were all friends in high school. However, Toru states that when Kizuki was not in the room, the air between Naoko and himself grew awkward. They were not close friends, which makes it less surprising when Naoko cuts off contact with Toru after Kizuki’s suicide.
She moves to Tokyo for college (as does Toru) and one day, they accidentally run into each other on the train and decide to go for a walk.When she was dating Kizuki in high school, Naoko had a much more youthful and happy appearance. During their walk, Toru observes that the Naoko he once (physically) knew is gone. Toru notices that “there was something natural and serene about the way that she had slimmed down, as if she had been hiding in some long, narrow space until she had herself become long and narrow” (Murakami 19). She now has a neck that is “delicate and slender” (Murakami 19), “straight black hair” (Murakami 20), “small, white ears” (Murakami 20) and eyes that are “deep and clear” (Murakami 19).
Naoko also struggles with her identity after Kizuki’s death, which is what she and Toru connect to each other about. Further on in the book, it is revealed that Naoko has already undergone a severe loss as her older sister committed suicide when Naoko was a child. She was the one to find her sister hanging in her room and confesses to Toru that it felt “like something inside me had died. I just stayed that way, with my sister, in that cold, dark place until my mother came up to see what was going on” (Murakami 145). She goes on to reveal that she truthfully never left that dark place and when Kizuki committed suicide at the same age as her older sister, it further undid her fragile psyche.
She exhibits clear signs of suffering from melancholia, which can be read about more here. Naoko attempts to leave Tokyo and go to a sanatorium to stabilize her identity but eventually, she succumbs to her own darkness. Chapter eleven begins with the following phrase:
“Naoko no longer existed in this world; she had become a fistful of ash” (Murakami 271).
She commits suicide, leaving a void in the world and in Toru’s already fragile identity.
Toru meets Midori in college, when she chooses to sit down next to him at lunch and immediately beings peppering him with questions. Toru is bewildered by her bluntness. The lively, inquisitive Midori signals a new path in Toru’s life– a much needed escape from the pale, quiet Naoko. She is energetic and wild, zipping from place to place in their conversations instead of dragging questions out. She is much more content to let the words hang between them as opposed to deciphering their every meaning. She drags Toru out of his comfort zone– to bars, to bookstores and even to porn films. He is enthralled by her and feels much more alive in her presence.
Most notable about Midori is her physical appearance, as it differs drastically from that of Naoko. Midori has “extremely short hair and wore dark sunglasses and a white cotton mini-dress” (Murakami 49). She is “a fresh and physical life force” (Murakami 51). Toru has never seen “a face so vivid and expressive” (Murakami 51). He is wholly fixated on her short hair, as it is a direct contrast to Naoko, whose long hair was something Toru had become obsessed with as an expression of ultimate femininity and innocence. However, Midori’s hair does not make her any less feminine to him– if anything, she becomes more intriguing to him. The way she speaks is also very different from Naoko.
“It never crosses my mind that my way of thinking is different from other people’s. I’m not trying to be different. But when I speak out honestly, everybody thinks I’m kidding of playacting”—Midori (Murakami 77).
Midori is vivacious and has a vibrant curiosity about life. She is a whirlwind of contradictions, wearing short skirts while faithfully taking care of her dying father. When her father eventually passes away, Midori exhibits clear signs of mourning (read more about it here) but is able to move on and maintain her adventure loving spirit. She teaches Toru that death doesn’t mean life coming to a complete halt. It is important to take time to absorb and understand the loss, but it is not necessarily a reflection of the self.
Midori is fiery and independent, piquing Toru’s interest while also helping him find clarity in the jumble of what his life has become after Kizuki’s passing. She leaves Toru in a completely different state than the one he was in before he met her: bewildered, befuddled, and bewitched.