J-Lit Giants: 13 – Ryū Murakami

Welcome to another year of J-Lit Giants, where we sing the praises of great Japanese writers.  We’re starting off the third set of inductees with a man who, despite his success, can sometimes be a little unfairly overlooked overseas.  However, this is hardly surprising – it’s difficult to get all the fame you deserve when you share your family name with perhaps the most famous Japanese writer in history…

Ryū Murakami, once the enfant terrible of Japanese literature, has gradually grown into its grumpy old man, a writer always willing to take out his rage against society in his books, destroying Tokyo several times in the process.  Born in Nagasaki in 1952, he was a bit of a rebel during his school days, and quite apart from his short-lived time as a drummer, he did his part during the student protests of the late sixties, including a roof-top protest at his school (an event later fictionalised in his novel Sixty-Nine).

Like many Japanese writers, he eventually headed off to Tokyo; unlike many Japanese writers, he studied sculpture rather than literature.  This didn’t stop him from moving into writing, and his first work, Almost Transparent Blue, was written while he was still a student.  A rather disturbing look at street life and drug use, it won both the Gunzo Prize for new writers and the prestigious Akutagawa Prize (one which a certain other writer never managed to win…).

Ryū continued to focus on the dark underbelly of Japanese society, and most of his novels focus on the down-and-out, those left behind by the conveyor belt taking young Japanese through the school system, into a nice university and then onto an exhausting job for life in a major company, or a few years of making tea before finding a husband (depending on gender).  While some of his books vibrate with anger and frustration (e.g. Coin Locker Babies), others can take a more humorous, surreal approach (such as Popular Hits of the
Shōwa Era
).  Whatever the approach, the body count can be quite high – it’s always best for people to be out of Tokyo when Ryū’s characters come to town 😉

Of course, the elephant in the room when discussing Ryū is the other Murakami, Haruki, a man with a very different style, but whose path mirrors Ryū’s to a certain extent.  They were born a few years apart, and Ryū published his first book a couple of years before Haruki.  In a way, particularly for overseas readers, they will forever be linked, even if stylistically they’re the Yin and Yang of their era of J-Lit.  This is perhaps best displayed in the novels Norwegian Wood and Sixty-Nine – while Haruki’s university student Toru Watanabe avoids the protests going on around him, retreating into literature and long walks through Tokyo, down in Sasebo, Kensuke Yazaki is trashing his school and organising a rock concert.

Who would you rather hang out with? 😉

I’ve still to get to a lot of Ryū’s work, mainly because I’m a sensitive soul, but what I have read I’ve enjoyed for the most part (with the exception of a few scenes…).  Here are a few to check out:

1) Coin Locker Babies – Two unwanted babies, abandoned in coin lockers at Tokyo Station by their mothers, are miraculously rescued and sent to an orphanage.  This is a searing look at Tokyo’s underworld, and it’s a gripping read.  Two friends, two very different futures: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and a city that’s going to wish the boys had never been born…

2) Popular Hits of the Shōwa Era – Lunacy, pure lunacy.  A gang of karaoke-loving losers fight a battle to the death against a group of thirty-something women whose only previous concern was losing the excess weight they’d managed to amass over the years.  This is a book which deserves to be a graphic novel – it’s pure cartoon madness, and I loved it 🙂

3) Sixty-Nine – I’ve already mentioned this one above several times, and there’s a reason for that.  It’s probably the most accessible of the ones I’ve read, a fun look back to the writer’s narrator’s high-school days.  ‘If you put it on, they will come’ is his approach to the concert he dreams of holding – if only he can cope with teachers, aggressive gang members and the wiles of the opposite sex…

Bonus Suggestions – While I haven’t yet read it, Almost Transparent Blue is a book which I’ve heard great things about (UPDATE – review out now!), and another to recommend is Audition.  I watched the movie adaptation a while back, and… well, let’s just say that it’s fairly dark 😉

So, we’re off and running, with another excellent writer inducted into our Hall of Fame 🙂  Who’s next up for the J-Lit Giants pantheon?  You’ll just have to wait until next Wednesday to find out 😉


About Tony

Championing the wonders of fiction in translation... ...but quietly (the kids are asleep...).
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20 Responses to J-Lit Giants: 13 – Ryū Murakami

  1. Hi Tony, First, I have to say, Popular Hits of the Showa Era is probably my favorite of all Ryu Murakami's books. It's one of the funniest books I have read in the last ten years, if not longer. (In fact the only book I would have to say is even funnier, though in a very different way, is Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman.) From the Fatherland with Love is kind of a sequel to Popular Hits. It's a much fatter book and I was just starting it when I got pulled over into Korean literature so I can't say now how good it is. I see Audition, In the Miso Soup and Pierced as very similar – basically, take a character who's bad or weird or crazy or whatever and pit them against another character who turns out to be way worse. They're definitely dark humor, and though it's not something I'm particularly attracted to, I did like all three of them (though I thought the movie adaptation of Audition was actually better than the book).

    You've inspired me to read some Japanese books myself this month. I'll do my best to finish Fatherland and then go on from there. Happy January!

    — John


  2. Carola says:

    I've read two of his works now (Audition and Into the Miso Soup) but just can't seem to get into it (even though I generally kind of enjoy this type of work). I met someone who was writing his thesis on Ryu Murakami and when I mentioned this, he suggested I might like Popular Hits of the Showa Era. So I might give it another try 😉


  3. Almost transparent blue was the first Ryu book I read & still possibly my favourite although his latest From the fatherland with love is a close call, Piercing is another good one also quite dark. I used to be a Haruki fan but with the last books from both writers I pushing more towards Ryu.


  4. Ps, The Guardian newspaper said that Ryu Murakami was “The godfather to the dark heart of modern Japanese Fiction” not sure if he's aware of that but I get the impression he'd be quite happy with that title


  5. Tony Malone says:

    John – 'From the Fatherland…' is great in parts, but I'm not sure it's Ryu's best work. He tried to add a thriller approach to his usual style, and I'm not sure it meshed that well (there's a lot of unnecessary stuff that could – and should – have been edited out). Still, good to see the 'Popular Hits…' survivors back again 😉


  6. Tony Malone says:

    Carola – I think that Pushkin picked the right books to republish with Murakami – definitely worth a look 🙂


  7. Tony Malone says:

    Gary – Funnily enough, there'll be a review of ATB out in a matter of hours… 😉


  8. Ally says:

    I have read four or five of his books and every time I was shocked by the way he presented the topic. I recommend Audition, and the movie as well 🙂


  9. HI Tony, I saw after posting my comment that you've already reviewed Fatherland. I'll see how it goes, but I guess I have to accept up front that it's not going to be as good as Showa. I'll be interested to see what he does with the North Korean theme.


  10. Bellezza Mjs says:

    Piercing is another Murakami novel which effected me quite deeply. I loved Coin Locker Babies for its topic of adoption, even though it was an underlying theme, I thought he dealt with the confusion being adopted entails. Anyway, what an author! I can see why Gary said above he's leaning toward preferring Ryu to Haruki. The Strange Library disappointed me…


  11. Thanks for your great presentation. It sounds rather dark to me, I think I would prefer Haruki, whom I really like a lot, less dark and more literary, it seems, but with so many well-read people here, I'm ready to give Ryu a try!


  12. Ps I'm sad enough to own a Ryu Murakami 69 Tshirt.


  13. Tony Malone says:

    John – Hope you enjoy it anyway 😉


  14. Tony Malone says:

    Ally – I'm still not sure about trying all of his books (and having seen 'Audition', I'm even less sure!).


  15. Tony Malone says:

    Bellezza – 'The Strange Library' (which I haven't yet read) is a kids' book – I suspect I'll like it because I'm going into it with low expectations. I know that it's only out because Random House can make money from it…

    I've enjoyed most of Ryu's books, but I'm afraid he'll never replace Haruki in my affections 😉


  16. Tony Malone says:

    Emma – Ryu's definitely worth a try, he's just a lot grittier than Haruki (apparently, there are a lot of people who prefer that).


  17. kamo says:

    +1 as someone who's leans towards Ryu as his favourite Murakami. I've still to get to Fatherland (or ATB for that matter), but have read most of his other stuff, and he's just so much funnier than Haruki. Admittedly some of the humour is absolutely pitch black (Piercing, for example), but something like 69 is just flat-out hilarious (my wife tells me the original Japanese version was written in pretty heavy Nagasaki dialect, which apparently makes it even funnier). If someone like wordsandpeace is worried about stuff being dark, then 69 would be a great place to start; it's fairly scatological in places, but not dark at all. Life affirming, almost.


  18. Tony Malone says:

    Kamo – 69 is a wonderful read 🙂 In my review, I touched on the differences (and similarities) between that book and 'Norwegian Wood', and I also brought Teru Miyamoto's 'River of Lights' into that recently. They're all books set around the same time in different regions of Japan, with slightly different takes on a young man coming of age.


  19. Rise says:

    I'm in the Ryu Murakami camp myself. I look forward to reading Coin Locker (which I own) and Showa (which I'm glad to know is lunatic).


  20. Tony Malone says:

    Rise – I'll always be behind Haruki, but I'm sensible enough to know that you can enjoy both. As for the two you're planning to read, both great choices 🙂


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