Toru, his classmate Kizuki, and Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko are the best of friends. Kizuki and Naoko are particularly close and feel as if they are soulmates; and Toru seems more than happy to be their enforcer. This idyllic existence is interrupted by the unexpected suicide of Kizuki on his 17th birthday. Kizuki's death deeply touches both surviving friends; Toru feels the influence of death everywhere, while Naoko feels as if some integral part of her has been permanently lost. The two of them spend more and more time together, trying to console one another, and they eventually fall in love. On the night of Naoko's 20th birthday, she feels especially vulnerable, and they consummate their love. Afterwards, Naoko leaves Toru a letter saying that she needs some time apart and that she is quitting college to go to a sanatorium.
The blossoming of their love is set against a backdrop of civil unrest. The students at Toru's college go on strike and call for a revolution. Inexplicably, the students end their strike and act as if nothing had happened, which enrages Toru as a sign of hypocrisy.
Toru befriends a fellow Drama classmate, Midori Kobayashi. She is everything that Naoko is not — outgoing, vivacious, supremely self-confident. Despite his love for Naoko, Toru finds himself attracted to Midori as well. Midori is attracted to him also, and their friendship grows during Naoko's absence.
Toru visits Naoko at her secluded mountain sanatorium near Kyoto. There he meets Reiko Ishida, another patient there who has become Naoko's confidante. During this and subsequent visits, Reiko and Naoko reveal more about their past: Reiko talks about her search for sexual identity, and Naoko talks about the unexpected suicide of her older sister several years ago.
Toru, now back in Tokyo, unintentionally alienates Midori through both his lack of consideration of her wants and needs, and his continuing thoughts about Naoko. He writes a letter to Reiko, asking for her advice about his conflicted affections for both Naoko and Midori. He doesn't want to hurt Naoko, but he doesn't want to lose Midori either. Reiko counsels him to seize this chance for happiness and see how his relationship with Midori turns out.
A later letter informs Toru that Naoko has taken her own life. Toru, grieving and in a daze, wanders aimlessly around Japan, while Midori — who hasn't kept in touch with him — wonders what has happened to him. After about a month of fugue, he returns to the Tokyo area, where Reiko is visiting. With her support, he comes to the conclusion that Midori is the most important person in his life. Toru calls Midori out of the blue to declare his love for her. What happens following this is never revealed - Midori's response is characteristically (by this point) cold, yet the fact that she does not explicitly cut Toru off at that point (like she did before) leaves things open.Quotes:
"You'll die with me?" Midori asked with shining eyes.
"Hell, no," I said. "I'll run if it gets dangerous. If you want to die, you can do it alone."
"I'm not going to die with you just because you made lunch for me. Of course, if it had been dinner..."
Next door was a shop where a middle-aged, sleepy-eyed guy sold "adult toys." I couldn't imagine why anyone would want the kind of sex paraphemalia he had there, but he seemed to do a lot of buisness. In the alley diagonally across the from the record store I saw a drunken student vomiting. In the games center across from us at another angle, the cook from a local eatery was killing his break time with a game of bingo that took cash bets. Beneath the eaves of a shop that had closed for the night, a dark-faced homeless guy was crouching, motionless. [....] Every fifteen minutes or so I would hear the siren of an ambulance or cop car. Three drunken company employees in suits and ties came by, laughing at the tops of their voices every time they yelled "Piece of ass!" at a pretty, long-haired girl in a telephone booth.
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 grasp the grains of light, but my fingers touched nothing.
How many Sundays - how many hundreds of Sundays like this - lay ahead of me? "Quiet, peaceful, and lonely," I said aloud to myself.
"That's the kind of death that frightens me. The shadow of death slowly, slowly eats away at the region of life, and before you know it everything's dark and you can't see, and the people around you think of you as more dead than alive. I hate that, I couldn't stand it."