Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Murakami Ryu

Sept. 2011 WLT
Sept. 2011 WLT

Murakami Ryu. Popular Hits of the Showa Era. Ralph McCarthy, tr. New York. W. W. Norton. 2011. 192 pages. $13.95. ISBN 978-0-393-33842-3

At night, in an apartment in Chofu city, Tokyo, six dissolute young men gather regularly for no reason at all. They eat, drink, talk but never listen, erupt randomly in spasmodic laughter, and eventually perform the all-important “post-party ritual.” One chooses a theme song. Then all drive to a remote, deserted cove where, decked out like the original performers of the song, they face the sea and sing their cover Karaoke version over and over and over. Elsewhere in the city, the Midoris meet. Drawn to one another by the mere happenstance of the shared surname Midori, they enjoy “getting together occasionally and chattering away without the inconvenience of having to listen to one another.” These six Oba-san (middle-aged women) were born, like the young men, during the Showa Era (1926–89). Now they are divorced, alone, unloved and unloving, and emotionally dead to themselves and everyone else.

One day, an act of senseless savagery triggers a cycle of reprisals between these two groups—a battle royal that, in Murakami Ryu’s pitiless satire Popular Hits of the Showa Era, rapidly escalates into apocalyptic war 

So far, writer/filmmaker Ryu (b. 1952) is less well known in the West than his contemporary Murakami Haruki, to whom he is unrelated. But in Japan he has been widely read and critically acclaimed since publication of his first novel, Kagirinaku to¯meini chikai bur› (1976; Eng. Almost Transparent Blue, 1977), which won Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize. Most of his works portray the plight of lonely, emotionally damaged people—usually the young—adrift on the margins of modern Japanese society.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era was first published as Sho¯wa kayo daizensh› in 1994, the same year as Murakami’s Piasshingu (Eng. Piercing, 2007). Both are set early in Japan’s “Lost Decade” of the 1990s. The collapse of the country’s asset bubble had shattered the sense of community, family, and security—pillars of Japanese identity—leaving behind the anomic society that created, then discarded, Murakami’s characters.

Hits is not a nice book. Its considerable violence is graphic, though not gratuitously so. It offers little consolation or hope. Murakami means to shake us up, to force us to see through eyes unclouded by sentiment. In so doing, he challenges us.

His setting and characters are Japanese; his challenge is global: To what extremes must we who live in modern First World societies go to find meaning, to connect with our true selves and with others? Can only rage awaken us from the deadening effects of a culture bereft of morality, authenticity, and hope for change? Have we created a society in which, as one character says, “murder’s the only thing that has any meaning these days”?

Michael A. Morrison

University of Oklahoma