Book review: ‘Popular Hits from the Showa Era’ by Ryu Murakami

I think I have read enough Ryu Murakami at this point to safely call myself a connoisseur without sounding like too much of an asshole. This Japanese horror writer always manages to tickle my gag reflex or give me school bus giggles. He is lurid. He is inventive. He is hilarious.

However, if I wasn’t a Murakami-sseur, I’m not sure his novella Popular Hits of the Showa Era, most-recently translated to English, would inspire the sort of “supple undertones, oaky aftertaste” style of fandom I’ve developed. In fact, I’m not sure I’d bother following his career. Luckily, I count his novel In the Miso Soup among my favorite books of all time and was appropriately stunned at the first sentence of Coin Locker Babies so I know how to sift out the moments of gold in this sort of crudely-drawn semblance of a story well enough to consider it a fine read.

The story stars two dueling factions: A herd of 20-something misfit boys who hang out on Saturday nights and watch the neighbor lady get naked, have Rock/Paper/Scissors contests and then jet off for the finale: A fully costumed and instrumentally outfitted go-round of karaoke; A herd of late 30-something women known as The Midori Society, a faction of divorced or otherwise single women united by the same last name, although not related.

One of the boys commits a random act of fatal violence against one of the women, and the other women find a clue to the killer’s identity at the crime scene. They kill him back while he’s mid-stream in public urination. A junior college girl — who is the butt of most of the story’s humor because of the grim effect she has on people (“It seemed as if even her voice were sprinkled with disease dust …”) — witnesses the second crime and soon Team Boys and Team Women are trying to off each other in new, exciting, bigger and badder ways.

One of Murakami’s trademarks is the barf-inducing death scene where a throat is slit and spills blood the color of soy sauce or a crazed fiance goes Pampered Chef on a guy’s Achilles Tendon. There is so much back-and-forth death in this book that the descriptions are visually dulled, only once really going crazy on the way a bullet hole can rip into a face (“twisting the face like a wrung rag”). He seems to replace it with humorous set-ups to the deed: The women meeting with a military specialist. The boys renting a helicopter.

So the premise is good. The story is a little random and frequently veers into a silliness that doesn’t seem to translate. But there are these two-to-three sentence gushes, quintessential Murakami, that make Hits of the Showa Era worth reading. But only after you’re already a fan.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on February 10, 2011.

Review: ‘Audition’ by Ryu Murakami

I have learned a valuable lesson: Bitch and ye shall receive.

It has been mere days since I gave the internet sad eyes and whined that Ryu Murakami was failing me. I had been reading so many of his words without once feeling like I was going to soil the pages of his book with high-speed regurgitated Annie’s Mac. Or even taking evil glee in his creatively-armed sociopaths inventing new ways to torture the freaks and geeks who probably would have tortured the sociopaths first if they only had a sharp enough implement in their murse.

The answer came in a book I wasn’t even wickedly stoked to read. I just picked it up because I was in a Japanese bookstore rich in untapped Murakami and when would I ever be there again? Audition, a deliciously-paced, somewhat cheesy iota of a suspense novel. Something more along the lines of an old school short story by Joyce Carol Oates.

Aoyama has been playing it straight in the seven years since his wife died. He set some goals, met them, and sure he banged a stray here and there — he’s not dead — but he has been out of the relationship loop. His 15-year-old son suggests that Aoyama get married again, and the widower kicks around the idea with his wingman Yoshikawa. He has a specific type of woman in mind. Someone similar to his wife, with an artistic background. But he doesn’t want to play reindeer games with a steady stream of ladies.

Yoshikawa, who is in the movie biz, devises a plan that is just inside the gray area of ethical: He’ll build bucko hype around a film, then hold auditions. Aoyama can weed through the starlets for his perfect mate. Mr. Romance sifts through head shots and essays and falls for a former ballet dancer who describes her career-ending injury in a way that Aoyama can relate to. And when she comes in for her “audition,” there is damn-near a barometric change in the atmosphere.

“It was like being the millionth visitor to an amusement park, suddenly bathed in spotlights and a rain of balloons and surrounded with microphones and flashing lights.”

Yamasaki Asami says all the right things, blushes on cue, and leaves Aoyama a stuttering mess of puppy love. He goes off book and begins wooing her, and she responds with asthmatic levels of adoration.

Murakami drops in some hokey, horror flick clues, which come off as funny rather eye-roll inducing obviousness. Like a self-aware mockery of suspense. At a restaurant, the couple runs into a man in a wheelchair who sees the woman and begins to cause a scene before he is silenced by the staff. Aoyama’s best friend is doing some Hardy Boys snooping, and reveals some sketchiness in what she has claimed as her back story. Aoyama’s 15-year-old son warns his father that girls these days are different, perhaps not to be trusted.

This novel is short at less than 200 pages, and it never lags, bogged down by fatty excess. Murakami opens with intrigue and continues to build toward a grisly finale that literally ends on the last page. It’s not as sick as Murakami has been known to go, but it is sick enough to remind you of where he has taken his work. And once again, like the most memorable scene in his novel In the Miso Soup, he has created a scene that will definitely leave an aftertaste long after the story ends.

Originally posted September 12, 2010 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Piercing’ by Ryu Murakami

It has probably been two years since I read In the Miso Soup, which I consider more than just Ryu Murakami’s flagship novel, but one of the few pieces of literature that I still draw on regularly when I want to ush and gush about fiction. I can still conjure what it feels like to read that book: Dreamy, terrifying and lonely, with a touch of nausea. And whenever I get into a conversation about books with someone I know can handle the dankest of dank, and the sourest of sour, the bloodiest of bloody – something that should be packaged with it’s own air sickness bag — I recommend it.

Since then, I’ve been working my way through his canon, but cannot find another instance of where Murakami gives the literary equivalent of a kidney chop like he did in Miso Soup.

Piercing, which was the followup to the greatest book of all time has moments of sublimely ishy text, but just doesn’t have plot flow that it requires. It’s like using fresh ingredients on day-old bread. Or, in this case, using freshly sanitized puncturing tools on a seasoned cutter.

Murakami gets to his trademark grit on impact, with Kawashima Masayuki watching his newborn daughter sleep in her crib in the middle of the night. Within three pages, he is caressing her cheek with an ice pick. Imagining what it would feel like to puncture the baby’s skin. Instead of following his brutal instincts, he makes himself a promise: He will instead stab a prostitute with the ice pick. Get it out of his system, and save his little family. Kawashima begins filling a notebook with elaborate plans involving gloves, a change of clothes, a falsified accent, and the size, shape and skin color of the victim.

“The woman must be not only young, but petite. A large woman would be more difficult to control in the event of any unforeseen glitches,” he writes after a dry-run with an aged masseuse.

Turns out this isn’t the first time that Kawashima has experienced such a craving. While he has gone on to become a successful graphic designer, a father, the husband of a woman who teaches classes in bread and pastry making in their home, he has had a troubled past. Abused, neglected, eventually raised by a foster family. When he was in his late teens, he got embroiled in a relationship with an older woman. A stripper old enough to sometimes mistaken for his mother, and who openly mocked him by bringing home strange men. One night, in a snit, Kawashima stabbed that woman in the stomach with an ice pick. The police were never involved. The woman lived. They broke up, but she did tell him that it really hurt during a few conversations they had in the aftermath.

When he makes the call to the escort service, Sanada Chiaki’s perspective comes into play. The young OCD prostitute is a cutter who has recently misplaced her sex drive. She’s got her own tales to tell, and when it finally comes down to go-time, things fail to follow the plans Kawashima sketched out so carefully.

Murakami – a Japanese novelist, musician, TV talk show host – still manages to write better-than average fiction even at his worst. He creates worlds that look normal on the outside, but when you lift the lid you find it oozing with lawlessness. Well dressed sociopaths camouflaged with manners and hygiene, and bystanders who don’t just turn a blind eye – they don’t pay close enough attention to notice that anything might be amiss in the first place.

This one is filled with black humor and picturesque words, combined in a way to provide ample opportunity for barfage:

Inspired by a magazine article he’d read and photocopied in the library, Kawashima had decided to buy a knife as well as an ice pick. The article was about a thirty-two year old ‘soap tart’ who’d been found murdered in a hotel room, with her Achilles Tendon severed. An anonymous police detective had volunteered this explanation: ‘When you cut the Achilles tendon, the sound it makes is as loud and sharp as a gunshot. The killer must have known that and taken pleasure in it.

Delicious and visual words, but the apex of the novel is long with frequent perspective shifts that make it a little clunky. So it’s good. It’s just no Miso Soup.

Review was originally posted at Minnesota Reads on September 1, 2010.

Review: ’69’ by Ryu Murakami

When it comes to dizzying collections of words, Ryu Murakami has long been the writer most likely to make me wretch with glee. He’s a Level 3 sensory offender, twiddling away at a reader’s gag reflex just because he can. There is a scene in his novel In the Miso Soup (my favorite) that is so engraved in my brain that it has almost become a permanent ear worm. The depravity and desperation of Almost Transparent Blue have stuck with me for more than a decade. His novel Coin Locker Babies opens with such a shocking sentence that it’s a wonder anyone makes it to Page two — unfortunately.

But with 69, his roman a clef about a posse of restless, political, literary, music-loving teens noodling away at Simon & Garfunkel’s greatest hits on a guitar and talkin’ about a revolution, Murakami takes his best tool and hides it in a garage for the duration of the novel.

This is to say, I didn’t almost barf once.

Kensuke Yazaki is a trouble-maker, the only son of school teachers, a Pisces, an egomaniac. A romantic reading Rimbaud. He’s inspired by the political movements around him, and sets out to create his own. Shake things up at his school, which he sees as a mindless farm that churns out person after identical person. He borrows blueprints from pre-existing movements and organizes a faction of students to help him make statements: On one occasion they set up a barricade at the school, paint naughty graffiti all over the walls, coax a timid hanger-on to release an epic dump on the principal’s desk. This is part of a greater project: The Morning Erection Festival, during which he will show an original film starring some of the local high school hotties and with a little luck, find a white horse to co-star.

Much of this is to get the attention of a girl in his class, whom he refers to as “Lady Jane.” And, readers, she falls for it.

This book is to cute, what In the Miso Soup is to chilling. (Some people like to attach a Catcher in the Rye-like quantifier to it which is a bit of a stretch). In its best moments, Kensuke is 100 percent false bravado, quaking at the puckered lips in front of him. The last ten pages are pretty adorable, surprisingly. It doesn’t pack the punch of his grittier work, though.

Originally posted June 8, 2010 on Minnesota Reads.