Tuesday, 14 May 2013

'Popular Hits of the Showa Era' by Ryu Murakami (Review)

Welcome, one and all - it's time for more Murakami madness from Pushkin Press!  After giving me a copy of Coin Locker Babies to review during January in Japan, the small publisher (with the big new web-site) recently sent me a copy of another dose of the inimitable Ryu's style.  It's a little different though: where Coin Locker Babies was bad, this one is plain mad...

Ryu Murakami's Popular Hits of the Showa Era (translated by Ralph McCarthy) is a book deserving of the luridly-coloured cover you see on the left.  We begin with six young men having a 'party', a sad social gathering of inept losers.  Right away, the writer leaves us in no doubt as to his thoughts on the group:
"These young men, in other words, represented a variety of types, but one thing they had in common was that they'd all given up on committing positively to anything in life."
p.14 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Murakami mocks his creations mercilessly in this first chapter, and when we get to see the purpose of their gathering, a drunken, cross-dressing costume karaoke party on the beach, we're laughing along.  However, the kids are not as harmless as they first appear, and pretty soon the tone changes.  One of the six, sex-starved and brain-dead, follows a woman down the street, touches her inappropriately - then kills her.

Which, as the police have no leads, is where the matter might have rested, were it not for the victim's friends.  You see, this is another gang of six, half-a-dozen mid-thirties women of the Oba-San (auntie) variety, women verging on middle age, unattractive and unloved by society.  The six women, all called Midori, form a tight-knit group, and the loss of their friend causes the remaining five to shake off their apathy.  It's time to get some revenge...

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is a black farce, a comic fight to the death between two groups of people from the less-known side of Japanese society.  J-Lit often focuses on the beautiful, the aesthetic, cherry blossoms framed against a backdrop of Fuji-san - it's a refreshing change to see one-cup sake, dubious discos and cheesy dance tunes featured so prominently.  This is a novel which focuses on the working classes, featuring two groups who are not part of the trendy, successful Japan we know.

Despite the over-the-top humour and violence though, there is a serious side to the book.  Murakami depicts two groups of people stuck in a rut with very little to live for, and the added motivation of their vendetta actually brings them back to life.  This is particularly true for the Midori society, who suddenly find themselves becoming more attractive and desirable as their concentration and focus on the feud spreads into other areas of their lives:
"What all four Midoris shared was an indelible, very serious, and very real secret - a secret that served both to bolster their self-confidence and to lend them a certain air of mystery.  And that combination of self-possession and intrigue is what makes a woman truly appealing, especially when she herself seems unaware of it." (p.156)
Sadly, they might not live to enjoy this discovery, as murder follows murder in ever more gruesome ways.  The sad truth is that revenge is a never-ending spiral, consuming those who attempt to control it.

Enough of the philosophising about Murakami's critique of Japanese society - this is a book which could also simply be enjoyed on the level of an action movie.  The two tribes are complemented by a weird supporting cast who add to the pleasure of the book.  There's a film director and bomb expert, a cheerful old man in a gun shop, and a very creepy schoolgirl, who is just... wrong.  Add to this the mental images of the cross-dressing and cavorting on beach to cheesy old-fashioned pop tunes (the Showa Era of the title finished in 1989), and you've got a pretty good idea of what awaits you :)

It's also very funny, and one of the running jokes is Japanese society's prejudice against the useless Oba-Sans, women who are no longer young enough to attract the attention of eligible men, and whose grey existence is made worse by the scorn they experience:
"Do you sell these to just, like, anybody?"
The storekeeper laughed, his wrinkles fanning out like rays of the sun.
     "Hell, no.  Only to people I feel good about.  I like your spirit.  They always say that when human beings are extinct, the only living thing left will be the cockroach, but that's bullshit.  It's the Oba-San." (p.71)
On a side note, it's surprising how easy it is to get access to some pretty serious weaponry in Japan ;)

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is a lot lighter than Coin Locker Babies, but it's still a good read with a few serious messages hidden beneath the bloodshed and karaoke.  I thought it was a great translation, the second from McCarthy that I've enjoyed recently, and I'm looking forward to more from the Pushkin-Murakami-McCarthy connection :)

A word of warning to finish today's post: from the two novels I've read so far, Ryu Murakami really seems to have it in for the good people of Tokyo.  In terms of mass destruction of the major Japanese metropolis, he's right up there with Godzilla.  Please, if you notice Murakami around, be very careful when you're in this part of Japan...