Ryu Murakami is sometimes referred to as the “other” Murakami, the yang to the more internationally popular Haruki Murakami’s yin. But in Japan, the so-called “other” Murakami is just a strong a force in the contemporary literary scene. Ryu Murakami has won almost all the big literary prizes in Japan, including the Akutagawa, the Yomiuri, and the Tanizaki Junichiro twice, and with numerous film adaptations of his work, including the critically acclaimed, cult film Audition, Ryu is one of Japan’s most popular and recognizable names in literature today.
In Popular Hits of the Showa Era, his latest to be translated into English, Murakami takes the idea of the “battle of the sexes” to its darkest and most absurd extremes. The novel follows the misadventures of two rival camps: a group of wayward, twenty-something year-old males who have almost nothing in common with each other except their severe lack of social skills and a semi-regular party they throw, in which they all dress up in costumes and record themselves singing karaoke to old pop songs on a deserted beach; and the “Midori Society,” a group of oba-sans, or middle-aged women, who have just as little in common with each other as their male counterparts besides their shared name Midori and the failures of their romantic relationships. When one of the men sexually assaults and then murders one of the Midoris, a twisted and ludicrous inter-generational gender war begins, which over the course of this slight novel rapidly escalates until its absurd and shocking conclusion.
Popular Hits of the Showa Era, like many of Murakami’s works, is an exploration of the darker, more twisted aspects of humanity, but at the same time, it is his most satirical and humorous work available in English so far. The rival camps are each twisted in their own way, and Murakami depicts what makes each person (not) tick with a certain irreverence that knocks each gender down a notch. For instance, when the young men try to buy a gun, which are illegal in Japan, their shady connection obliges:
“Our friend was murdered by a middle-aged Oba-san, and with an unprecedented weapon – a sashimi knife duct-taped to the end of a Duskin handle!”
“What kind of Oba-san?”
“The type whose husband left her and who’s hurting for money but can’t work in a massage parlor or soapland because she’s getting too old, and – “
“According to our investigations, no. Not the the type who buys her clothes at Ito Yokado bargain sales either, but rather at boutiques or speciality stores.”
“Ah. So, not the sort of Oba-san who sits behind the counter at a stand bar preparing little dishes of pickled daikon strips, but the sort who puts on a nice dress and sings fashionable pop songs by people like Frank Nagai in a karaoke club with chandeliers?”
“That’s correct. Frank Nagai or Nishida Sachiko or Yumin.”
“And eats spaghetti with mushrooms in some restaurant with big glass windows that everybody on the street can look in through?”
“Yes, sir. Also doria and onion gratin soup and Indonesian-style pilaf and so forth.”
The storekeeper squeezed his hands into fists and clenched his jaw. He looked to be fighting back tears.
“And why,” he asked more quietly now and between gritted teeth, as his wrinkles ebbed and surged in complicated patterns, “would an Oba-san like that want to murder your friend?”
“The reason isn’t entirely clear. Apparently she was bored.”
“Gotcha,” the storekeeper said, and rose to his feet. “Wait right there a minute.” He shuffled into the back and soon returned with something wrapped in oiled paper, which he placed on the counter in front of Yano.
“There are ten live rounds in the magazine. It’s a hundred and thirty thousand yen, but since your motives are pure, I’m going to give you a discount. Make it a hundred and ten thousand.” Yano collected money from the others, counted out eleven ten-thousand-yen bills, handed the stack to the storekeeper, and asked one last question.
“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.”
It is this touch of absurdist humor that saves Popular Hits of the Showa Era _from the absolutely overwhelming darkness and depravity that weighs down other Murakami novels such as Piercing. Even so, _Popular Hits is not for everyone, especially those who cannot stomach a little of the grotesque on their way to some laughs.
While the overall translation of Popular Hits is not bad, there are a couple of missteps along the way that detract from the enjoyment of the novel. In trying to stay absolutely faithful to the original Japanese, there are places where the translation is simply much too awkward. One of these is a section where the characters play a word game linking the last syllable of a word to start the next, which apparently requires the use of footnotes to explain that the Japanese word for “golf” is “gorufu” or that “banana” is the Japanese word for, you guessed it, banana. Choosing complicated explanations over slight rewrites, purely linguistic translation over cultural translation, is the downfall of a number of passages and the biggest distraction to this dark and humorous tale.
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