Tokyo Decadence

Tokyo Decadence

Title: Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories by Ryu Murakami
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上 龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Publication Year: 2016
Pages: 280

Tokyo Decadence contains fifteen stories drawn from five of Murakami Ryū’s collections published between 1986 and 2003. As translator Ralph McCarthy explains in his acknowledgments, he has been translating his favorite Murakami stories since the late 1980s, and now he’s finally able to publish them thanks to the blessing of the author and the encouragement of Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press.

The first story in Tokyo Decadence, “Whenever I Sit at a Bar Drinking Like This,” has a passage at the beginning that reads as follows:

It’s probably safe to say that everyone sitting here is looking for some sort of sin tonight. The circumstances are different for each, of course, but everyone has the same general destination in mind. No one gets drunk in order to raise their moral standards.

It’s probably safe to say that no one opens a collection of Murakami Ryū’s short fiction in order to raise their moral standards. If you’re looking for some sort of sin, you’ve found yourself the right book. All of the stories in Tokyo Decadence are surprising and unique, but they all move toward the same general destination – sex and drugs and blood and tears.

This first story takes the form of an elaborate fetch quest across the seedy underbelly of Shinjuku in which the protagonist must exchange promises for favors. His goal is to get one of his former lovers to testify in court that they were sleeping together so that another of his former lovers doesn’t claim common law marriage and sue him for divorce. The point seems to be that people are terrible and selfish creatures, but it’s a lot more fun arriving at this conclusion than you’d expect.

The second story, “I Am a Novelist,” involves another strange situation in which a man posing as a bestselling writer gets a girl at a hostess club pregnant. When her manager insists that he meet the young woman, she quickly admits he’s not the person she slept with, but the writer still takes her out to dinner. She tells the writer that she’s a fan of his work, so he tries to get her to fall in love with him instead of his impersonator. It doesn’t work (obviously), and the novelist ends up finding out that he was just a minor character in someone else’s story.

In other stories, a trucker loses his wife and his job and becomes a host at a gay club, a guy with no self-esteem invades a woman’s home and smashes her television, and a young prostitute buys herself a topaz ring to remind herself of a musician whose world she can never enter. In “Penlight,” a call girl with serious issues talks about her imaginary friend to a guy she meets at a bar, who is interested in her body, but in the way you think (unless you happen to be thinking of horrific murder and cannibalism). A few of these stories are drawn from Murakami’s 1988 collection Topaz, which became the basis for the 1992 film Tokyo Decadence, which was directed by the author and banned in a handful of countries precisely because it’s the sort of movie you’d expect to have been directed by the author.

If you’ve read Murakami’s work before, you know what to expect. Since all of these stories are twenty pages or less, however, there’s no slow buildup to the carnage. That being said, the violence is tempered with irony, black humor, and intriguing characterizations that elevate the stories above simple splatterfests.

In contrast, the three stories drawn from the 1995 collection Ryu’s Cinematheque are vaguely autobiographical.

In “The Last Picture Show,” the 18-year-old narrator is living in Kichijōji and trying to make it big with his blues band. His upstairs neighbor, who is obviously a yakuza, wants to pay him to pick hydrangea leaves in Inokashira Park to dry and then sell as marijuana to American soldiers. In “The Wild Angels,” the 18-year-old narrator has started a relationship with a woman who works as a hostess, which makes him feel like less of a man, so he starts shooting heroin. In “La Dolce Vita,” the college student narrator hooks up with an older woman who lives in Yokosuka and gets her drugs from the American army base, which doesn’t end well.

To me, these coming-of-age stories were nowhere near as interesting or amusing as the murder stories, but they provide an interesting picture of the 1970s that serves as a counterpoint to the stories of the other Murakami; these stories forgo nostalgia in favor of an emphasis on the grittiness and despair and self-indulgent navel gazing of fringe counterculture.

The last third of Tokyo Decadence eases up on the drug use but maintains its focus on sex and emotional violence. Some of the stories reference each, and I got the sense that I was only being glimpses into a larger narrative. I dearly wish we lived in a world in which Ralph McCarthy was able to publish his translations of entire Murakami collections instead of selected stories, but each piece included in Tokyo Decadence shines brightly enough on its own merits that the reader is not disappointed by the relative lack of context.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tokyo Decadence. The collection portrays the Japan of the bubble and postbubble decades as a place where anything in your wildest dreams and darkest nightmares could happen. Murakami’s fiction is a love letter to the infinite possibilities of urban life delivered with style and panache. Just be warned – Tokyo Decadence is not for the faint of heart.

Tokyo Decadence will be released on March 15, 2016. A complete table of contents can be found on its page on the Kurodahan Press website.

Review copy provided by the noble and selfless people at Kurodahan Press.

Men, Women, and Tentacles (Part One)

I think a lot of people in my generation go to Japan for the first time expecting everything to be covered in images of anime characters. In some places, like Denden Town in Osaka, the convenience stores in Ikebukuro, and of course Akihabara, this perception is more or less true to reality. However, the vast majority of the street scene in any given place in Japan is devoid of any sort of anime aesthetic. What a casual observer is infinitely more likely to see are advertisements for pornography. Adult bookstores and theaters can be found outside of many train stations in Japan, whether in major metropolitan areas, their suburbs, or in the distant countryside. (Occasionally, if the area is too rural for actual stores, vending machines exist to fill the niche.) In urban entertainment districts, peep shows and “health massage” parlors crowd the tiny side streets and are thus hidden from sight, but the tissues offered to passers-by outside of the district’s train station often contain explicit advertisements for these establishments, and guides to the various sex stores and hostess clubs in the area can be picked up for free just inside family restaurants like Denny’s and Jonathan’s.

So, to make a broad overgeneralization, the sex industry in general and pornography in particular are a bit more immediately visible in Japan than they are in America. Of course, this isn’t to say that the same feminist debates concerning visual (as opposed to verbal) erotica that took place in the eighties in America didn’t make their way to Japan, and it’s not like civilian groups don’t protest the racy posters that get put up in residential areas along the routes that children take to school in the morning. However, if I had to guess, I would say that the relative openness of pornography in Japan is probably due to the prominent place so-called pink films hold in the history of Japanese television and cinema.

When most people think of Japanese cinema, their minds probably jump immediately to auteuristic masterpieces like Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon or Ozu Yasujirō’s Tokyo Story, if not to campy monster movies like the long-running Godzilla series. The truth is, however, that artistic dramas alone were not able to keep the Japanese film industry afloat after the proliferation of television sets in the wake of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; and, although monster movies pulled in their fair share of income, by the mid-seventies most major film studios had to resort to soft pornography, or pink films, in order prevent bankruptcy. With the advent of VHS players in the eighties, the porn industry really took off, and hardcore “AV,” or “adult video,” sprung up like mushrooms on the fertile ground prepared by the still-popular pink films. The concept of AV inspired the creation of OVA, or direct-to-video “original video animation,” which was not constrained by the regulations placed on televised series of work that would be released through a theater run. Not all OVA were explicitly pornographic (some, like Oshii Mamoru’s early piece Angel’s Egg, were just weird), but many obviously were, and that brings us to the topic at hand.

Japanese pornography is a many-tentacled creature, so to speak, and I think it might be useful to delineate the scope of this essay before I begin, since anime erotica is merely one branch of the huge spread of illustrated pornography in Japan. For example, the (admittedly vast amount of) animated pornography is eclipsed by the sheer volume of erotic manga released either in weekly and monthly magazines, which are openly available anywhere manga magazines are sold in Japan, from the convenience store to the train station, or in single-volume anthologies available in both mainstream and specialty. Also, girl games like Air and Clannad are dating sims which often offer the player a varying degree of pornographic content (in the eroge subgenre, that content can get quite explicit). Finally, dōjinshi, or self-published fan manga, is often explicitly pornographic, placing characters from popular titles like Naruto or the Final Fantasy video game franchise within highly erotic scenarios. Also, pornography is not the sole province of men, as women have created their own genres of erotica, such as something called BL, or “boys’ love” (which is referred to as yaoi in Western countries).

In this essay, however, I’d like to limit my focus to heterosexual animated pornography, or ecchi anime, which is primarily written and directed by men for an intended audience of men. Despite the obvious gender bias, I’d like to argue that female characters and their illustrated bodies are often privileged in these narratives. In other words, no matter how much the girl suffers over the course of the video, she always wins in the end. Also, unlike the stereotypical case of live-action pornography, female characters in anime erotica are often allowed both pleasure and agency.

Or are they?

Part Two
Part Three