Six aimless young men, six thirtysomething “aunties,” and a battle to the death. That in a nutshell is Ryu Murakami’s novel, Popular Hits of the Showa Era, just translated into English by Ralph McCarthy and a recent selection in the LibraryThing Early Review Program, which is how I came to read it. The young men are nothing special; they have weekly parties that have gradually turned into private Karaoke concerts, complete with costumes, out on the beach. These guys aren’t engaged with society, and they’re barely engaged with each other. Their parties have developed not according to any plan, but with one guy after another just randomly deciding to bring something and everyone adjusting to each innovation until a ritual forms. They mostly act on impulse, until one of them has an impulse to attack and murder a middle-aged woman he meets on the street.
This woman was part of a group of women who call themselves the Midori Society, in recognition of the last name they all share. The Midoris are all independent divorcees in their late 30s, and in their way, they are as aimless and disengaged as the young men. But the murder of one of their number lights a fire under them, and they begin to plot revenge. And as is typical in a revenge story, a cycle develops, and the revenge plots get bigger and more complex.
Murakami’s novel is short and compulsively readable. The violence is extreme and disturbing, but I couldn’t look away from it. Partly this is because I got the sense that Murakami wasn’t entirely serious about the violence. It’s too extreme, and the characters are too goofy for this to be serious. But, as is often the case with this kind of extremely sleek but violent story (think of Quentin Tarantino), I also question whether it’s too celebratory of the violence. Does it revel too much in the bloodshed? The revenge plots are just about the only things that engage any of the characters to any serious degree. It brings them confidence, camaraderie. Coming face to face with death has helped them live. Until that random stabbing in the street, they had no purpose, and now they do. Even the other characters who are in on their plans—their weapons suppliers and bomb-making experts—seem to see what they are doing as a good thing.
On balance, though, I think Murakami is using violence to make a bigger point about society. What kind of people are we if it takes something like this to break us out of our aimless stupor? The implications of that question are far more disturbing than the violence itself. However, as an American reader, I found that a lot of the satire went over my head. Murakami is clearly taking aim at particular types within Japanese society in the latter half of the Showa era (1926–1989). I could sort of wrap my mind around the young men, as they didn’t seem so different from a certain type of aimless young American men. But the women (sometimes referred to as oba-sans) were more of a mystery. At times, the descriptions made them seem like middle-aged frumps; but at other times, they seemed like self-absorbed career women. I suspect that if I were Japanese, I’d know right off what type he was referring to.
On the whole, I’m feeling mild ambivalence toward this book. At times, it was really quite funny—I do enjoy dark comedy–and I think Murakami is getting at some interesting, but not entirely original, ideas about engagement and alienation. But I never could get invested in the characters, even as I was fully engaged with the plot. Would I read Ryu Murakami again? Maybe, but I’m not hurrying out to do so. I need to let this settle first before I even think about going back for more.