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Sympathizer of the hippie movement and drummer of a rock band in his youth, Ryū Murakami‘s writing reflects the cultural landscape of the 20th century. He currently has over 30 novels published, and he quickly became one of the most prolific and popular writers of our time and his generation. His work proves Japan is anything but the land of cherry blossoms.
Postmodernism is always aware of history and values the past, but tries to remodel it. This element in particular is characteristic to the Japanese society. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida saw Japanese culture as off-centered, which is why they call the Land of the Rising Sun essentially postmodern. Moreover, in the 90s, there was a strong and increased interaction between the Western belief in the afterlife and the Asian worship of the moment.
After the Second World War, the USA came out as a superpower both economically and politically. The highlife standard quickly became a symbol for what today we call the ‘American dream’, marking a society that, using advanced technology, favored the expansion of democracy and the spread of pop culture. Thus, it created ‘a sense of euphoria and liberation among writers and intellectuals as well as in the population as a whole,’ as Jonah Raskin mentions in American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation.
Once Jon Ford’s film Stagecoach and many other pop culture elements such as comic books, sitcoms, soap operas, fast food, fashion magazines, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll entered the peaceful Orient world, the postwar Japan found herself in a love-hate relationship with change. Artists such as Takashi Murakami even initiated a movement called superflat, in which they criticize the shallow emptiness of postmodern society, as a reaction to the postwar changes.
Born under the name Ryūnosuke in Sasebo city, host of a huge American naval base, Ryū was heavily influenced by the Western presence. The memories of American sailors visiting a brothel near his home disturbed his soul, giving rise to shame, disgust and fascination. This intimate interaction between him and the Western culture has shaped his oeuvre. His literary career is made up of a corpus of works that reflect Japanese postmodern society’s lack of capacity to preserve its own identity. Alienation, violence, filth, pathology and existential crisis are only a few of the themes highlighted by Murakami in his novels, while hallucinogens, alcohol and the jazz beats are all borrowed from 1960’s hippie counterculture.
His debut novel, Almost Transparent Blue, which also has a movie adaptation, is a semi-autobiographical Japanese version of Trainspotting, replete with blood, drugs and disturbing eroticism. Winner of the Akutagawa prize, it shocked the literary circle of his time. Set in the suburbs of Tokyo, it portrays the decadent life of Ryū and his friends, expressed through orgies, harsh language and alcohol. Ryū’s constant sensation of heat, shaking and sweating throws the reader into a fragile and obscure universe in which mescaline, Nibrole and The Doors are a substitute for happiness.
In Popular Hits of the Showa Era, on the other hand, he makes up a black comedy that embodies gender conflict and mental illness. The story revolves around two groups of gangsters fighting for supremacy: a puerile mid-20s band of boys against some middle-aged aunties. The grotesquely flat characters act like broken dolls, speak in non-sequiturs and juggle between bloody fights and uncontrollable laughter. All of them seem to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder and show a sick attachment towards karaoke, soap operas and a childish game named ja ken pon.
If the novel above is a work of humorous fiction, In the Miso Soup is downright scary. On a first superficial read, it is a plain sociological exposure to the insights of the sex industry, a nightlife guide spiced up with a climax scene of extreme violence. The story carries the reader through Tokyo’s red light district. Frank, an American sex tourist, hires Kenji, a young Japanese guide, who soon starts questioning Frank’s psychotic behavior. But it is so much more than a thriller: it is an Asian version of American Psycho, which essentially guides the reader toward understanding the relationship with the West. Tokyo looks like a graceless New York full of glittery shopping malls and brainwashed gyaru girls that only dream of Nike Town. Kenji and Frank both possess spirits that hardly match society’s operating rules. The Eastern-Western contrast becomes even stronger when a South American prostitute confesses her expat experience, marking out the group pressure and the lack of divinity in Japanese mentality. There’s no other written piece that highlights the sense of despair in a unidentifiable world ruled by mass media, consumerism and trends like In the Miso Soup does. Misanthropy is the key to survival. Frank himself is the product of a dysfunctional environment where crime acts like a purifying agent.
‘Lady #1, Maki, had never once given any thought to what was really right for her in her life, simply believing that if she surrounded herself with super-exclusive things, she’d become a super-exclusive person.’
Coin Locker Babies‘s structure, on the other hand, is almost entirely built on escapism. In a country tortured by the postwar changes, abused children are born. Kiku and Hashi, both abandoned at birth in train station lockers, miraculously survive but grow up with severe psychological damage. Despite being the results of an uncaring and harsh society, they possess an explosive inner power. In Kiku’s case, it externalizes through force and physical power, while Hashi has a sharp, deafening voice that contradicts the weakness of his body. One escapes through music, by becoming a famous rock star in Toxitown, while the other finds consolation in Anemone’s arms. Anemone herself is a hilarious character with a troubled upbringing – her home is a temple to a living crocodile. Alienation from society and abandonment in an alternate universe where crocodiles dominate a five-room apartment and tear down walls in order to carry out freely become for her as vital as water. While In the Miso Soup might be a more readable option, Coin Locker Babies is definitely Ryū’s masterpiece. This isn’t a book to enjoy – it’s a challenging and superabundant experience. It’s similar to datura, the powerful toxic substance that almost becomes a character in the novel.
Following the flow of information brought by the West, Ryū Murakami manages, in a splendid way, to create a valuable work. By living at the borderline, far away from the hustle, his characters are, without exception, outcasts in a salary man society which annihilates any form of individualism and originality. As Linda Hutcheon mentions in A Poetics of Postmodernism, ‘To be ex-centric on the border or margin, inside yet outside is to have a different perspective.’ By embracing the peripheral, the idea of the center is crumbling.