~by Ryu Murakami
~translated by Ralph McCarthy
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.