A book like this leaves me divided. Popular Hits of the Showa Era is black comedy of the kind that would have made Terry Southern proud, and is written in a wild, paintball-splatter style where most every sentence has something funny about it. I laughed harder while reading the first half or so of it than almost anything else I’ve run across in the last few months. And then it’s over, and you realize the whole thing was a giant shaggy-dog story, an extended metaphor for any number of things without ever being anything on its own.
This is both expected and weirdly disappointing for Ryū Murakami, who has made a career out of being a cultural critic of Japan through his bestselling mainstream fiction. Sometimes he does this by embedding his critiques within what appears to be a genre fiction exercise; In the Miso Soup and Audition had the form but not quite the content of horror thrillers. Sometimes, as with Coin Locker Babies — still his masterpiece, for my money — he jumps outside the confines of genre altogether and creates something entirely new and daring. But sometimes, as with Showa, he just shoots blanks. It explains why the film made from the book (Karaoke Terror) also felt like a misfire: they were simply being faithful to the source material, which really was that addled.
Showa deals with two groups of people, the first being a band of five twentysomething men who have entered adulthood without ever actually growing up. They hang out, booze up, eat, and eventually fall into a ritual where they drive out to the ocean and have dress-up karaoke parties (which is what the title of the book hints at). Group #2 is a band of Oba-sans, the “Midoris” — women in their thirties, all divorced and also hanging out together, all sharing the last name Midori, and bonding over superficial chitchat.
They’re two different breeds of insufferable, especially as painted in excruciating detail by Murakami, and there’s no reason for them to share a book except to collide. And collide they do: one fine day one of the boys gets a wild hair up his rear, grabs a knife from his copious collection of same, and slashes one the Midoris’ throats. This makes the women fighting mad, and after some scratching around for information they find the killer and get their own revenge by stabbing him to death in passing from a moped. The boys escalate and bring a gun to the knife-fight. The Midoris retaliate with a leftover LAWs rocket. The (surviving) boys wonder if they can get their hands on an atomic bomb. And so on.
It takes no time at all to realize that Murakami is dealing in the broadest and campiest satire possible. And initially, it’s quite funny: the manic level of detail expended in describing the oddball habits and screwy insights of both the boys and the Midoris is by itself hilarious. And the Terry Southern comparison actually becomes more relevant over time since the last couple of chapters border on Dr. Strangelove territory. It’s also plain how Murakami’s satire is meant to be a distancing device; we’re laughing at these people, not with them. Because they’re such gross caricatures, the readers — that is, the Japanese readers — are not inclined to think they’re the target and thus get peeved at Murakami for attacking them.
Maybe that worked for Japanese readers, but when that tactic is presented to an audience who stands mostly outside of the sociological hothouse Murakami is depicting, the seams show. Also, in other and better books, Murakami has shown how he can be both precise and merciless, and also have a certain measure of pity and sympathy for those even on the lowest rungs of the ladder. Here, everyone is a cartoon symbol of Japan’s general corruption — the boys for being aimless, violent otaku; the women for being … well, what, exactly? Middle-aged women? Showa may be an attempt to caricature Japanese sexism and ageism, but the pox-on-all-your-houses approach comes off like just so much sour grapes. I’m not sure you could accuse Murakami of being ageist or misogynist, but the opposite of those things is empathy, not misanthropy.
If nothing else, the book works as a showcase for Murakami’s remarkable eye for detail and immersion. Who else would describe the sound of the boys beating time on their Styrofoam snack containers as “not a nostalgic ting, ting, but a dry, emotion-free pash pash, like synthesized drums”, or an old man’s face as “skin like a dust rag used for a century and then marinated in acid”? All his books from Almost Transparent Blue on have been like this, although it’s a trait which works best when it’s fused with a story we care about. Here, it’s verbal tinsel — dazzling, but thin.
I’m still grateful for W.W. Norton and translator Ralph McCarthy for bringing Showa into English. Much of Murakami’s most important work — like Topaz, the inspiration for the film known as Tokyo Decadence — hasn’t been translated, and so being able to read that much more of it is still good news. Existing Murakami fans won’t have a problem adding it to their collections. But if you’re coming in from anywhere outside that circle and haven’t yet experienced his work in both its accomplishments and its limits, you may wonder what the screaming’s about. To paraphrase Roger Ebert talking about Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Showa is the kind of Murakami novel that makes you want to find another Murakami novel.