Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami’s Popular Hits of the Showa Era, translated by Ralph McCarthy, is the first novel of his I’ve read since, years ago, I gave three of his older works a shot. Almost Transparent Blue, Coin-Locker Babies, and Sixty-Nine were all, as I remember, bizarre and grotesque works largely about alienation. So is this one, though while it’s still grotesque it seems decidedly less so, and possibly also more upbeat and fun. It certainly seems like an easier read, although the squeamish might still not be up for reading about this extremely unconventional Tokyo gang war.

On the first side are the six young men who have weekly “parties” that consist of snacking on convenience-store-bought food, drinking, and driving out to abandoned lots to put on their own private karaoke show. They sit around getting drunk and giggling maniacally, unable to actually speak to each other about anything. If they’re lucky, a sexy neighbor might get undressed before her evening shower. Then they put on skimpy leather costumes and sequinned kimonos and sing songs from the Showa Era, over and over again, for hours.

The facts about the boys’ individual lives are not very important, nor are the differences between them. They seem basically interchangeable as instantiations of a single type: angry, mute, powerless, confused, isolated, alienated, aimless young men. One of them, Sugioka, likes to play with knives. After a particularly wild night, hung over, he stabs a middle-aged woman—an Oba-san, or Auntie—in the throat, completely thoughtlessly, after imagining that the folds in the back of her skirt spelled out the syllables for “shite,” the Japanese version of “do me.”

Sugioka’s victim is Yanagimoto Midori. She’s a member of the Midori Society—that is, a group of six women all named Midori who are not really friends but regularly hang out together. They are all, like Yanagimoto, Oba-sans: divorced, working women in middle age, with or without children, lonely and alone. From an englishman in osaka’s “Ode to the Oba-san”:

But cross the line, or make fun of their life,
And they’ll sever your kintamas, with a carving knife.

So one word of advice, towards the end of this verse,
Show some respect, and save your balls from the hearse.

The Oba-sans in Popular Hits of the Showa Era are no exception. They solve their friend’s murder when the police can’t and decide to get their revenge. A tit-for-tat feud between the two unconventional gangs begins.

Both groups undergo a transformation as the war progresses. The Midoris suddenly begin listening to each other and having actual conversations now that they’re trying to work together to reach a goal.

Iwata Midori was the first to remark on it. “We’ve never really shared ideas like this, and listened to each other like this before, have we?” she said. “I know,” said Henmi Midori. “It’s like, if you listen carefully to what other people are saying, you can really understand what they’re trying to say, you know what I mean?” And Takeuchi Midori summed it all up: “It kinda makes you see that the other person is really another person.”

After nearly four decades of life on this planet, the Midoris had discovered other people. And by the end of the evening, once they’d scientifically chosen and agreed upon a murder method, they would all hold hands and weep. For women of this particular nation, who had basically never known anything beyond the Banzai Charge, it was a transformative and revolutionary night.

They try not to let anything change in their outward lives so no one will suspect what they’ve been up to, but despite continuing their own karaoke outings religiously they are changing in noticeable ways. They are sexier, begin to be voted employee of the week, improve their relationships, and can’t keep their new-found confidence hidden. The guys also find new meaning in their lives, since, as one of them says, “When you come right down to it, murder’s the only thing that has any meaning these days.”

It’s a familiar problem. What does it mean that in Murakami’s Japan seemingly like-minded individuals can only come together to destroy an entire city? Hopefully not more than the fact that these two seemingly disparate groups both have the exact same problems and the same chance to finally discover other people.

The US Federal Trade Commission compels me to note that I received an advance uncorrected proof of this novel from the publisher via Librarything Early Reviews.

3 comments to Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami

  • I haven’t read Murakami Ryu but your description of this book makes me want to read it. It’s an interesting premise, and I’m curious about his suggestion that these groups find their identity in such negative practices…is it about being numb and then something wakes them up? Even if what wakes them up is violence?

  • Yes, I think that’s probably a good way of putting it. These are definitely people for whom Something Happening is a new experience. And the only Something that seems to genuinely Happen is violence.

  • I’d be curious to look at this further. I’m no expert but I lived in Japan for several years, and I remember being surprised at how social critique is expressed through film and literature and arts. It isn’t always, but can be really different from how this works in western culture. I’ll definitely read some of his work, and especially this one.