Review: Popular Hits of the Showa Era, by Ryu Murakami

>>Published (in Japanese): 1994

>>Published (in English): January 2011

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

“I mean, just because I came up behind that Oba-san and poked her in the ass with my tent pole, she starts screaming like a banshee. I’m not about to put up with that kind of shit. Anybody would’ve lost it, right? I mean, what about my dignity? So I broke through the imagination barrier and took out my knife in the real world and slit her throat, guerrilla-style, and that was it. It was the right thing to do too.”

***

A little bit West Side Story, a little bit American Psycho, a whole lotta karaoke. That more or less sums up Ryu Murakami’s Popular Hits of the Showa Era. This deliciously perverse novel is a sexually charged, misogynistic, spiteful, blood-splattered tale of assault, murder and revenge between six young, very lost and destructive men, and a group of divorced, slightly older women who call themselves The Midori Society. When the first of the society is murdered in an act both twisted and celebrated by the author and the other men, it sparks a war between the two factions that escalates from knives and guns to heavy weaponry and genocide, all written with such over-the-top vitriol and satisfaction that it’s impossible to be taken as anything but a farce of deliberately low taste.

This is something of a theme with Murakami’s work. His books are reminiscent in tone of the more abrasive, socially detached works of Brett Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk, but so over the top by comparison that it’s practically impossible to feel any sort of attachment to the characters within. Which, given the segment quoted above, is a very good thing. You don’t want to feel anything for these characters. They’re avatars through which the author can examine extremes of social depravity and maliciousness, but without the heavy hand of societal condemnation hammering the message home. With that in mind, the book works best when it travels to descriptive extremes:

Nobue and Ishihara were in a state resembling sleep paralysis as their brains tried to process the afterimage of the junior college girl’s face. Unable to move, they were still shivering at the image when the actual face materialized before them, seeming to cause the blue sky to crack in two and the yellow ginkgo leaves to turn to scraps of rotting flesh, fluttering in the breeze. Both of them felt as if they’d just slurped up their own vomit.

It goes without saying, reader discretion is advised. In fact, I’d give such a warning for everything Murakami’s written—his style is unique, and certainly not without its merits, but the violent and psychologically distressing extremes to which he frequently takes his characters are not for the easily offended or nauseated. There is a great deal of humour in the book as well, though it is very dark and in some cases masks extremes more disturbing than what he conveys in the rest of the book.

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