Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories

Tokyo Decadence: 15 StoriesAuthor: Ryu Murakami
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075786
Released: March 2016
Original release: 1986-2003

Ryu Murakami is a fairly prolific and multi-talented creator. In addition to being an author, he is also a filmmaker and has been involved in the music industry as well. Several of Murakami’s novels have been translated into English, many of them by Ralph McCarthy, including Audition and Popular Hits of the Showa Era which were my introduction to Murakami’s work. McCarthy is also responsible for compiling and translating Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories, a sort of best-of collection bringing together fifteen of Murakami’s short stories originally published in Japan between 1986 and 2003. Nine of the stories had previously been translated and released in a variety of different periodicals, but the translations have been revised for their inclusion in Tokyo Decadence. The remaining six are being published in English for the first time. Published by Kurodahan Press in 2016, I was fortunate enough to be selected to receive an advanced copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

The fifteen stories included in Tokyo Decadence are selected from five of Murakami’s short story collections and are presented chronologically. “Whenever I Sit At a Bar Drinking Like This,” “I Am a Novelist,” “It All Started Just About a Year and a Half Ago,” and “Each Time I read Your Confession” are from Run, Takahashi! and are all at least tangentially related to the baseball player Takahashi Yoshihiko. (It was this collection that seems to have ignited McCarthy’s passion for Murakami’s work.) The stories from Topaz—”Topaz,” “Lullaby,” and “Penlight”—are about call girls while the stories from Ryumiko’s Cinematheque—”The Last Picture Show,” “The Wild Animals” and “La Dolce Vita”—would appear to be at least semi-autobiographical. “Swans,” “Historia de un Amor.” “Se Fué,” and “All of Me” are taken from Swan, and most have something to do with Cuban dance and music and even share a few characters. Tokyo Decadence closes with the titular story from the collection At the Airport.

Having previously read some of Murakami’s work, I was rightfully prepared for Tokyo Decadence to be engaging while revealing a viciously dark sense of humor and dealing in gut-churning blood and gore. What I didn’t expect was that some of the stories, or at least parts of those stories, would be legitimately charming, compelling, and even occasionally heartwarming. Among the tales of gruesome murder, insanity, lust, obsession, and a myriad types of abuse are moments of love and humanity. That being said, Tokyo Decadence is very much a graphic and explicit collection of mature short stories, often disturbing and dark with very few characters who are anything but self-absorbed or self-indulgent. The stories are well-written, but the warped depravity and intensely twisted psychology exhibited will certainly not be to every reader’s taste and will likely offend or be found off-putting by many.

Surprisingly, Tokyo Decadence starts in a fairly lighthearted vein before delving into its more devastating and grotesque aspects. The portrayals of the various characters in the collection aren’t particularly flattering. Many of them are rather disturbed individuals, making Murakami’s use of first-person narration especially discomfiting. Interestingly, quite a few of the stories are actually seen from a woman’s perspective. This of course doesn’t soften the seedier nature of Tokyo Decadence which is quite frank in its exploration of sex and violence, the two subjects often closely intertwined with each other. Although some of the stories arguably lose some of their impact out of context from their original collections, overall I found Tokyo Decadence to be an interesting, engaging, and varied anthology; I would be very curious to read more of Murakami’s short fiction in translation.

Thank you to Kurodahan Press for providing a copy of Tokyo Decadence for review.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era

Author: Ryu Murakami
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
U.S. publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 9780393338423
Released: January 2011
Original release: 1994

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is the second novel by Ryu Murakami that I’ve had the opportunity to read. Earlier this year I received a review copy of Murakami’s Audition through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. In fact, that is the same way I managed to snag an early copy of Popular Hits of the Showa Era, scheduled for release by W. W. Norton in January 2011. The novel is translated by Ralph McCarthy, who also provided the translation for Audition. As with many of Murakami’s other works, Popular Hits of the Showa Era received a film adaptation. The film, known as Karaoke Terror in English, was directed by Tetsuo Shinohara and released in Japan in 2003. The original Japanese publication of the novel was in 1994. After finishing Audition, I was interested in reading more of Murakami’s works, so I was very excited to have been selected to receive a review copy of Popular Hits of the Showa Era. (Also, I absolutely love the cover design.)

Meet the Midori Society—a group of women in their late thirties who all happen to have the same given name. They’ve been meeting for years. But their lives are thrown into turmoil when one of the Midoris becomes a victim of a spontaneous homicide. The culprit is a member of a group made up of mostly twenty-something, rather disturbed young men who gather together every Saturday, even though they don’t know each other all that well. The murder triggers an all-out war between the two groups, a cycle of revenge that quickly reaches epic proportions. In addition to their animosity toward each other, the Midoris and the young men have plenty in common. To begin with, they all love karaoke and the individual group members are incredibly self-absorbed. At least they were until now. As the violence escalates, the groups discover a cohesion and shared purpose in their lives like never before as they draw together to defeat their newly declared enemies.

Each chapter takes its title from the name of a song that is either mentioned in it or plays a role in the story. Even though I was unfamiliar with most of them, I was still able to understand the songs’ significance, albeit not always completely. In addition to the music references, Murakami also makes plenty of references to other aspects of Japanese pop culture. I may not have caught them all, but I appreciated those that I did. Popular Hits of the Showa Era is a dark comedy and satire; some of the more subtle humor might be lost on readers unfamiliar with Japan, but the ridiculous and outrageous plot certainly makes up for that. The humor will certainly be difficult for some readers to take—Popular Hits of the Showa Era is not a nice book. The events that occur are truly horrible even if the writing is hilarious. Murakami doesn’t shy away from the gruesome or twisted, which doesn’t surprise me at all after having read Audition.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is depraved, absurd, and terribly amusing, which is probably why I enjoyed it as much as I did. And I do mean “terrible” in all sorts of senses of the word. The novel is extreme and over-the-top and honestly, some readers will be completely appalled by it. McCarthy has done a fine job with the translation, keeping the humor of Murakami’s writing intact (something that can be difficult to do moving between different languages and cultures.) Popular Hits of the Showa Era isn’t a particularly long novel so it reads fast, but it still packs quite a punch. By the end of the book, the story reaches a level far above and beyond believability, if it ever had any to begin with, and I reveled in its absurdity. It’s definitely not for everyone, though.

Thank you to W. W. Norton for providing a copy of Popular Hits of the Showa Era for review.


Author: Ryu Murakami
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
U.S. publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 9780393338416
Released: June 2010

Imagine my delight and surprise that, when after more than a year went by without receiving any books through LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, the Almighty Algorithm has blessed me two months in a row. I was particularly interested in reading Ryu Murakami’s Auditions, translated into English by Ralph McCarthy, and so was excited to be chosen to receive an advance copy from W. W. Norton. Now, I haven’t’ actually read any of Murakami’s work before, although he has been recommended to me several times. Nor have I seen Takashi Miike’s controversial cult horror film Audition which was based on Murakami’s novel (though I do plan to). Murakami began his writing career with Almost Transparent Blue in 1976. Since then, he has been nominated for, and has won, numerous awards for his work. Only a handful of his books have been translated into English so far, and I get the impression that some people are pretty excited that Audition has finally reached the U.S.

Seven year ago, Aoyama’s wife Ryoko died of cancer. Since then he has continued to live out his life as a documentary filmmaker and has deliberately cultivated a meaningful relationship with his son Shige. He has shown little interest in remarrying until his son encourages him to consider it. But being a middle-aged widower, Aoyama’s options are somewhat limited when it comes to meeting women he would be interested in for a long-term relationship. Then Yoshikawa, his good friend and fellow filmmaker, comes up with a scheme—they’ll hold an audition for a film they have no intention of making, ensuring that Aoyama will have plenty of opportunities to meet young and interesting women. Aoyama reluctantly agrees to the plan, not entirely convinced it will be worthwhile until he sees the resume and photograph of Yamasaki Asami out of thousands of applicants. Many of his friends are uneasy about her, but Aoyama is determined that Yamasaki Asami is the perfect woman for him, despite the unusual circumstances that surround her.

The first thing I noticed when I received Audition was how short it is; the book can easily be read in a few hours. Although it was shorter than I expected, there is nothing wrong with this. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started reading Audition other than it was supposedly horror fiction. I say supposedly because most of the book only has a vague, low-key sense of foreboding; it’s not until the last chapter or so that the book turns highly disturbing, gruesome, and intense. It is certainly not a story for everyone. Another thing that might be off-putting or offensive to some readers is the largely (but not completely) negative portrayal of women in the book. But, it is appropriate for the story in which many of the characters hold women in disdain to one extent or another, particularly those women working in the entertainment industry.

It wasn’t until late in the book that I had a strong inkling about where Murakami was taking the story. The beginning of the book could have easily led into a romantic comedy rather than horror. There are hints along the way, but Audition is mostly told from Aoyama’s point of view and he tends to be blinded to most of the situation by his obsession with Yamasaki Asami. The narrator does occasionally let something slip through, almost explicitly directing comments toward the reader which I found to be disconcerting and inconsistent with the rest of the book. Generally, the writing is sparse and direct and while not exactly crude it can be rather blunt. Aoyama himself at times comes across as somewhat of a jerk, but I still liked him and ultimately found him to be a sympathetic character. I particularly enjoyed his easy relationship with his teenage son Shige (who I also liked quite a bit). Overall, I found Audition to be an absorbing albeit uncomfortable read (it really is horror, after all) and I’m interested in trying some of Murakami’s other books and films.

Thank you to W. W. Norton for providing a copy of Audition for review.