Book Review

Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami

not a great book, not a great blog post

Ryu Murakami is the other Murakami. About, in Japan, as acclaimed as the much-more-popular-in-the-West Haruki Murakami, Ryu’s novels aren’t the jazz and Beatles-referencing kookiness that any book buyers with low levels of literary nous might expect if casually picking up one of his books based on surname alone. Instead, [Ryu] Murakami’s novels reflect the ideas and stereotypes of Japan that the most popular literature in translation tends to avoid. Murakami’s novels are not from the Japan of Pokemon, Super Mario and Studio Ghibli, they are instead from the Japan of Battle Royale, of vending machines that sell used pants and, let’s be honest, Takeshi’s Castle. However, there is only one Japan, and to even attempt to understand its varied and complex culture, we must look at more than one side of its society. To truly appreciate Spirited Away, we must sit down and read Popular Hits of the Showa Era, a hyper-violent novel about a group of twenty-something fuck-up men fighting a war of attrition against a group of single women in their late thirties. Yes, that is a hot take, but fuck it – it’s December.

I’ve read a few of Murakami’s books before, but none for a very, very, long time. I wanted something simple and trashy and unpleasant for my recent holiday to Lanzarote, and based on Audition, Coin Locker Babies and In The Miso Soup, I thought this 1994 novel from Murakami (effectively like a Japanese Bret Easton Ellis or a better, Japanese, Chuck Palanuik (I’m not a Palanuik fan)) would be appropriate. In The Miso Soup is the novel of Murakami’s I remember best. It is about an American tourist in Tokyo visiting the red light district and having a weird fake metallic penis and doing lots of violence, whilst being shown the sights by an unobtrustive local. Like a hyper violent Don Quixote in Japan (which, yes, I’ll acknowledge, is surprisingly violent), or a pretty-much-the-same-level-of-violence American Psycho in Japan, it is a trashy, engaging and terrifying read. I came to Popular Hits of the Showa Era expecting something similar, and I definitely got that.
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I started writing this review about three weeks ago. I had a busy and eventful December, working, socialising and partying and not really doing much to advance my life forward much, other than:
  • Getting my first appearance on the BBC since 2001;
  • Having work published in multiple online magazines;
  • Earning some cash;
  • Sorting my head out;
  • Diminishing many of my most significant anxieties.

So, though I haven’t been here, and I haven’t been reading much, I have been writing, I have been thinking, and I have been pressing onward with my – tentative – movement towards a better state of psychological health. I’m typing this in a cafe as I wait for a doctor’s appointment to get a renewed prescription for the sertraline that is finally, properly, working, as I sit, kinda content, definitely optimistic, but still plagued with a weird indefinable lack of purpose. There is no one stopping me from making my own decisions about my life now, and now that I’m not really depressed I’m not even stopping myself. Anyway, I’ll write a proper “2017 Review” over the next few days, so let’s swing back to the topic in hand and sum up a Japanese novel I read most of a month ago in 500 words or less.

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Soooooo, weeks after I finished the book, over a month after I started it, here I am trying to write about it.

The plot is odd, it is violent and it is dark and it is, perhaps, gently sexist. Six young men, all misfits, murder a single woman approaching middle age, referred to as an “oba-san”. In retribution, the other oba-san friends of the murdered oba-san begin fighting back, and members of each side are killed until the novel’s denouement when a massive explosion is used to destroy almost every person and place we have encountered. The book is silly, frothy, violent and filled with corrupt army officials, (to my snowflake eyes) unacceptable mocking of single women in the their 30s and a weird underdeveloped subplot about one of the young men’s neighbours who the men watch getting changed but never interact with. In its depiction of sexuality it is rather damning: there is almost an implied undercurrent stating that it is the sexual frustration of both groups that leads to the violence each uses, however once the oba-sans commit their most violent act, they all seem to have a bit of a sexual awakening. It is a confusing reading of sex, I suppose: without it, men turn violent, and women only enjoy it once they have turned violent. Actually, yeah, that’s a deeply bleak and very worrying portrayal of sexuality. Just loosen up, Ryu!

I’m perhaps reading Popular Hits of the Showa Era a bit too closely, and perhaps it neither warrants nor stands up to close scrutiny. I bought it for an easy read on holiday and that was what I got. I think I’ve struggled to write a post about it because I had little to say about it when I read it and even less to say about it a few weeks on. Not an impressive book, tbh, but meh, not everything has to be gold.

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