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Great Japanese Writers: Ryu Murakami

From enfant terrible of the Japanese literary scene to master of its dark arts, Ryu Murakami’s sinister world and black humor have been delighting readers for more than four decades.

By 6 min read

Often referred to in conversation as “the other Murakami,” I would argue that while not enjoying the sales and acclaim outside Japan that Haruki does, Ryu has done much more over his long career to push Japanese literature down new and uncomfortable avenues. Without him, the contemporary Japanese publishing world would look very different.

His arrival as a writer came with one of those “once in a generation” crashes into the mainstream that would herald the arrival of Irvine Welsh in Scotland a generation later — a writer to whom Murakami is often — but not completely fairly — compared to when being sold to English audiences. His debut novella Almost Transparent Blue won the Akutagawa Prize in 1976 but not without protests over the book’s contents. Set in a hedonistic youth culture scene where sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll hold sway, adjectives like “graphic,” “decadent” and “unflinching” have been used by reviewers to try and hint at the earthly delights portrayed in this short book. Which kind of misses the point: at the heart is an ennui and sadness that all this pleasure is ephemeral, pointless and, at the end of the day, incredibly tiring.

His next novel to make it into English was the autobiographical 69. It is based on Murakami’s own experiences as a teenage rebel who, along with some friends, took over their high school. 69 is a strange book of counterculture and comedy, never quite sure whether it should be a teen farce or a serious look at youth politics and the energy there that isn’t being usefully channeled. Ultimately, it’s quite unsatisfying and may explain why it would take eight years for another Murakami novel to be translated.

1995’s Coin Locker Babies is a stunning piece of work. It tells the story of Hashi and Kiku, two boys abandoned in coin lockers in Tokyo station. Hashi grows up to be a Bowie-esque rock star and Kiku ends up in prison (no spoiler, that happens early on). The book is often described as postmodern, cyberpunk and surreal — none of which even begins to cover it. This is certainly not Japan as we know it, but whether it is futuristic dystopian, parallel universe or just hallucinogenic is never clear. Maybe all three. For my money, this is one of the great works of contemporary Japanese literature, a book of such skill and imagination that it simply blows all competition out of the water. If you read this before sleep, be prepared for some weird dreams. A film adaptation by Sean Lennon, starring Val Kilmer, was mooted and we can thank the gods of celluloid that such an abomination was aborted.

Perhaps Murakami’s most famous English translation — certainly among English-speaking immigrants to Japan — is In The Miso Soup, a noir thriller narrated by Kenji, a tour guide for foreign sex tourists. American Frank hires him for three nights of fun in Kabukicho but Kenji quickly comes to suspect that Frank may have his own, grisly definition of “fun.” Probably not one to read if you’re flying to Tokyo for the first time and planning a night out.

… what he does best — explore bizarre events, satirize the powerful, make political and philosophical points, and put fringe characters into the center of the action.

Sales of In The Miso Soup seemed to dictate the direction publishers would go in translating Murakami. The next three were in a similar vein — short, snappy novellas that danced all over the lines between noir, horror and comedy. 2008’s Piercing, with it’s manga-like cover, sells itself in exactly that way but the story itself is thoroughly uncomfortable reading and the violence not at all cartoonish. Masayuki has an overwhelming urge to stab his baby son with an ice pick. As the strength of his desire grows he realizes he had better redirect it or end up actually killing his child. He decides to hire an S&M sex worker and stab her instead. It feels unnecessary to point out that things go very quickly and very horribly wrong with his plan.

The next year saw Audition come out. Already a popular and acclaimed film directed by Takashi Miike, it seems strange that it took so long for the original book to be translated. It’s hard to read the book now without picturing the film and comparing the two, something fans of Fight Club, The Godfather or Game of Thrones can appreciate. Miike had silence and music at his disposal to suggest and hint, something denied the author, so the horror can seem much more creeping on the screen. However, the book does what all great literature does: it delves far deeper into the psychology of its protagonist, Aoyoma, making the whole thing more believable — which for me, at least, makes it far scarier.

Then came Popular Hits of the Showa Era. Up front, this isn’t great. The idea was to reduce Japanese culture’s obsession with nostalgia and lack of ambition to an allegorical tale of comic violence. A group of idiotic young men spend all their time aimlessly drinking and singing karaoke to the titular songs, drifting without point or purpose until one of them stabs a random oba-san (grandmother or old woman) in the street. The oba-san is named Midori — as are her six friends, the Midoris, each of them divorced housewives who also enjoy karaoke and drinking. They decide to get revenge for their friend’s death. Cue violent farce. It doesn’t work. The farce isn’t funny. The violence is just stupid. The women get hold of a rocket launcher. The boys try to make a nuclear bomb. All very, “Meh.”

In 2013 From The Fatherland With Love hit the shelves. And I do mean hit: at 672 pages and weighing in at about 1.2 kilograms in hardback (according to Amazon, I haven’t weighed it myself), it required three translators to make and a hernia girdle to lift. Set in a parallel universe where North Korea invaded Japan in 2011, the premise allows Murakami to do what he does best — explore bizarre events, satirize the powerful, make political and philosophical points, and put fringe characters into the center of the action. The rebel alliance that prepares to fight for the freedom of Fukuoka (the beachhead of the invasion force) reads like a who’s who of Murakami characters: wasters, criminals, psychos, deviants and poets. It seems, as with Coin Locker Babies, that the wider screen he permits himself allows his imagination to run riot but still with space that allows its serious underlying points and absurdist comedy to both play out without getting in each other’s way.

In 2016, a short story collection, Tokyo Decadence, appeared. Translated by Ralph McCarthy, who translated the bulk of his novels, it features 15 short stories that do exactly what it says on the tin. Hopefully there are more in the pipeline. With over 40 books to his name, including non-fiction, there’s definitely enough material and enough room in the market for more of Murakami. My preference would be for the wonderfully titled Cocksucker Blues or The World in Five Minutes From Now which just sounds like the least ambitious science fiction novel ever.

Have you read Ryu Murakami? What’s your favorite book? Let us know in the comments!

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