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.

Asura Girl

Ashura Girl

Title: Asura Girl
Japanese Title: 阿修羅ガール (Ashura Gāru)
Author: Maijō Ōtarō (舞城 王太郎)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 214

Asura Girl is narrated by Aiko, a seventeen-year-old student who just so happens to be a total badass of the sort we all wish we could have been in high school. She does what she wants, doesn’t apologize for anything, and isn’t interested in your shit. Sure, she’s a little messed up in the head, but what teenager isn’t?

If Aiko’s life were nothing more than maintaining her self-respect while dealing with bullying and subpar sex, she’d be okay, but there’s a serial killer on the loose. When a boy disappears almost immediately after she left him in a love hotel, she takes steps to lure the murderer to her, because she is pissed off and ready to lay down the law. She is inspired by her enviable collection of DVDs of American movies, especially after she picks up on a parallel between the abduction of her single-serving boytoy and the abduction in The Big Lebowski.

That’s right, The Big Lebowski – a perennial favorite of seventeen-year-old girls everywhere.

Asura Girl was written by a thirty-year-old man, and it shows. Aiko is more or less a cross between Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, and a basement-dwelling neckbeard. It makes very little sense to try to understand her as anything other than a construct. There is no sensitive or nuanced portrayal of girlhood in this novel, but that’s okay. Sometimes you’re just looking for a hardcore metal portrayal of a manic pixie murder girl.

To give you a sense of what this means, this is how Aiko interacts with her crush:

Still, it did sound a little like he was more worried about Maki than me, so as he was taking off his shoes in the doorway I kicked him – my patented Aiko whip kick, a roundhouse to the upper body that I learned from my brother. My bare foot struck his arm – chiban! – and he bent double, letting out a little yelp. Humpf. Drop dead. No, on second thought that might cause trouble. (53)

The boy is okay with it, because of course he is. Aiko is less of a girl power icon than she is a fantasy girlfriend for the author, but her ridiculous character is a perfect for this novel’s ridiculous story.

The family of one of the serial killer’s victims set up a website asking for help, a plea that went nowhere fast but still managed to inspire a great deal of internet discussion and speculation that coalesced into a vigilante group calling itself “Voice of Heaven.” The Voice of Heaven has convinced itself that the serial killer is a middle school boy, and so its members begin to engage in “middling,” or ganging up on middle school kids and beating the shit out of them. A grisly confirmation of a new murder sparks widespread riots, in the midst of which Aiko receives an unlikely visitor.

A hundred pages into the novel, there’s a vertiginous narrative shift as Aiko undergoes a near-death experience, and her already unstable imagination goes completely off the rails.

I don’t want to spoil what happens here, but it is insane.

When Aiko returns from her epic vision quest ninety pages later, she has learned nothing. Regardless, she understands that she’s been given a new lease on life to make a fresh set of terrible decisions, and she fully intends to make those decisions as terrible as possible.

And then there’s this weird bit at the end about making a sacred Buddhist statue of the warrior-god Asura out of human corpses. Should the reader understand these human corpses as literal, or are they the cast-off shells of Aiko’s identity as she constantly reinvents herself yet always stays essentially the same? Why choose when you can have both??

I just, what is this novel, what is it even.

Asura Girl is not for everyone, and I can imagine wide swaths of readers being confused and offended by it. But! If your heart went a little doki-doki when your eyes passed over the words “The Big Lebowski,” and if you always thought Reservoir Dogs could have used more Japanese schoolgirls, then Asura Girl is probably for you.

You know who you are.

In the Miso Soup

In The Miso Soup

Title: In the Miso Soup
Japanese Title: イン ザ・ミソスープ (In za miso sūpu)
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上 龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1997 (Japan)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 217

In the Miso Soup was serialized during 1997 in the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the highest circulation in Japan (and perhaps in the world), and it won the 1998 Yomiuri Prize for Literature, an extremely prestigious award given to superlative works of writers who have already established themselves as leaders in their fields. The novel’s North American and Japanese publishers have marketed it as a “psycho thriller,” and its extreme and violent content will more than likely shock anyone who isn’t familiar with Murakami’s oeuvre, especially his other suspense novels from the 1990s, such as Piercing (1994) and Audition (1997).

The twenty-year-old protagonist of the novel, Kenji, is a high school graduate from Shizuoka Prefecture who makes his living by acting as a guide of Shinjuku’s Kabukichō neighborhood, which is internationally famous for its nightlife. Kenji specializes in sex tours for foreigners, who learn about his services through Tokyo Pink Guide, a publication helmed by a man named Yokoyama, who believes it is his calling in life to bring the people of the world together through something all human beings have in common. On the morning of December 29, Kenji is contacted by an American named Frank, who claims to be a distributer of Toyota car parts and meets Kenji while clutching a copy of Pink Guide in his meaty hands.

If you mention In the Miso Soup to anyone who’s read the novel, the conversation will instantly turn to how delightfully creepy Frank is. Frank is a pathological liar, for starters. If one of the bizarre things Frank says is challenged in any way, he becomes suddenly and irrationally furious, his expression transforming into a mask of rage that Kenji soon comes to refer to as “the face.” The skin on Frank’s neck and hands is loose and seems artificial, and a sex worker who services Frank at a peep show says that there is something inexplicably wrong with his penis as well. To make matters even more upsetting, the body of a high school junior named Takahashi Akiko had been found dismembered and distributed across Kabukichō early in the morning of the 27th; and, after Frank goes on a rant about killing homeless people during his first night out with Kenji, the charred corpse of a homeless man is found in Shinjuku Central Park the next morning. By the end of the first of the novel’s three chapters, both Kenji and the reader are supplied with ample evidence to suspect that there is something not quite right with Frank.

Although Kenji is understandably apprehensive about spending more time with Frank, he is even more worried about what Frank might do in retaliation if he were to break their agreement and stand him up. He thus goes out for a second night on the town with Frank, who now makes very little effort to appear normal. After an episode of highly concentrated weirdness at an underground shot bar, Kenji and Frank go to an omiai club, a bar where people hoping to hook up with a stranger can meet. The girls who enter the club are given numbers and chosen by the men, who must pay a cover charge to enter. If a girl is chosen, she will share a table and drinks with the man who selects her. If they hit it off, they can then proceed to a nearby love hotels, and it is understood that money will more than likely change hands after the encounter. It’s not quite prostitution, but the women do have a financial interest in convincing the men to leave the club with them, and they will put everything they have into flirting and appearing attractive. What could be a quirky comedy of errors in another novel becomes an absurdist drama in the bizarro realm of In the Miso Soup, and Frank puts an end to the staged and artificial interactions of the club’s patrons with a lengthy orgy of meticulously narrated ultraviolence. Although Kenji is clearly traumatized by this turn of events, he also takes tentative steps towards an acceptance of what has happened to the other people at the club, who have upset his fundamental faith in humanity with their superficiality:

They were like automatons programmed to portray certain stereotypes, these people. The truth is it bugged the hell out of me just to be around them, and I’d begun to wonder if they weren’t all filled with sawdust and scraps of vinyl, like stuffed animals, rather than flesh and blood. Even when I saw their throats slit and the gore oozing out, it hadn’t seemed real to me. I remembered thinking, as I watched the blood drip down from Lady #5’s throat, that it looked like soy sauce. Imitation human beings, that’s what they were.

Murakami therefore configures Frank’s dispassionate killing spree into a sort of social critique, a theme that comes to fore in the novel’s third chapter. After the bloodbath at the omiai club (which Kenji refers to as “The Great Omiai Pub Massacre,” as if it had happened years ago), Frank shanghaies Kenji into spending the night with him in the abandoned medical facility in which he has ensconced himself. While Kenji shivers in the darkness of the unheated building, Frank regales him with stories from his childhood in America. As might be imagined, Frank’s childhood is dysfunctional and disturbing enough to make Stephen King proud (Frank even grew up in Maine!), as it includes the creepiness of small towns, the killing of small animals, murder, institutionalization, and extreme body horror courtesy of American mental health practices. Frank is obviously a sociopath, and he has already been established as a pathological liar, so it’s not entirely certain that he’s telling the truth, but he does seem to be telling Kenji his life story for a reason. Frank is almost like an overweight Tyler Durden as he explains that society needs terror, discord, and disruption in order to evolve:

“I see myself as being like a virus. Did you know that only a tiny minority of viruses cause illness in humans? No one knows how many viruses there are, but their real role, when you get right down to it, is to aid in mutations, to create diversity among life forms. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject – when you don’t need much sleep you have a lot of time to read – and I can tell you that if it weren’t for viruses, mankind would never have evolved on this planet. Some viruses get right inside the DNA and change your genetic code, did you know that? And no one can say for sure that HIV, for example, won’t one day prove to have been re-writing our genetic code in a way that’s essential to our survival as a race. I’m a man who consciously commits murders and scares the hell out of people and makes them reconsider everything, so I’m definitely malignant, yet I think I play a necessary role in this world.

I won’t spoil what happens to Frank, Kenji, and Kenji’s girlfriend Jun at the end of the novel, as the suspense regarding the fate of the trio lends an air of immediacy to Frank’s metaphysical speculations and the moral decisions Kenji begins to make concerning Frank. Let it suffice to say that the shock horror of the first two-thirds of the novel are compounded by the social horror of its final chapter. In the Miso Soup is a short book and a blisteringly quick read, but it stays with the reader long after it draws to its conclusion on New Year’s Eve, at which point its seemingly nonsensical title takes on chilling connotations. In the Miso Soup is a sublime dose of nihilism and ultraviolence that illuminates the seedy side of Tokyo in its blindingly dark shadow that is sure to please fans of Japanese horror and readers of extreme literature.

Peepo Choo

Title: Peepo Choo
Japanese Title: ピポチュー (Pipo Chū)
Artist: Felipe Smith (フェリーペ・スミス)
Translator: Felipe Smith
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2008-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 250 (per volume)

Peepo Choo was my Christmas present to myself. I had read a number of reviews which stated that, in short, the title is too offensive to exist and will only appeal to the most hardcore of manga fans. I have had my fill of critically favored yet bland and innocuous series like Kiichi and the Magic Books and Natsume’s Book of Friends, so such a negative assessment of Peepo Choo was as good of a recommendation as any.

I’m happy that I gave the series a chance. I read all three books without even noticing the passage of time, and then I went back a few days later and read them all again. Peepo Choo is brilliant. And yes, it is offensive. If you are shocked and appalled by the image of a group of bullies feeding a bloody tampon to a crying girl on the floor of a public restroom, or by the image of a decapitated fat man anally impaled on the gargantuan penis of his murderer, then Peepo Choo is not for you. And that’s okay. However, if you are one of those vile degenerates who has grown weary of shōjo manga and has come to consider a cute cartoon character regurgitating feces (or a stalker jacking off while witnessing a street fight) to be all in good fun, then you are more than capable of appreciating the genius of one of the most creative and entertaining manga released in America during the past year.

Peepo Choo tells the story of Milton, a teenage anime dork from the South Side of Chicago. Milton doesn’t fit in with the gangsta culture of his hometown and dreams about visiting Japan, where everyone loves anime and cosplays all the time and lives the hyper kawaii lifestyle advocated by his favorite animated series, Peepo Choo. Milton habitually skips school to visit a comic book store run by a silent, hulking gorilla of a man named Gill who uses the business as a cover for his true profession, mass murder for hire. The cashier at the store is Jody, a young (and secretly virginal) porn addict who energetically hates comic book geeks and otaku alike. When Milton wins a free trip to Japan through a lottery sponsored by the store, he sets off with Jody and Gill for Tokyo.

Jody wants pussy (to put it bluntly) and is counting on Milton, who has been assiduously studying Japanese by watching Peepo Choo, to interpret for him. Gill has been hired to take down an ultraviolent yakuza who calls himself Rockstar and sets about doing this by first massacring everyone else who tries to kill the self-styled gangsta Japanese homeboy. While Gill is taking care of business, Jody and Milton come to the unpleasant realization that the “Japanese” Milton has learned from Peepo Choo (“Howdy, sir milk dog! Feet be berry!”) isn’t real Japanese, and that the series was never even popular in Japan. When all hope seems lost, Milton stumbles across a dorky, pug-faced girl named Miki, who recognizes Milton’s Peepo Dance and tries to communicate with him with the bilingual aid of her friend Reiko, the lovely lady who graces the cover of the first volume of the manga. Milton, Miki, and Reiko go to Akihabara while Jody becomes involved in the yakuza war that Gill has created. In both cases, chaos ensues.

One of the most common complaints about Peepo Choo is that the artwork is bad. Some reviewers qualify their opinion by stating that at least the artwork is deliberately bad. Personally, I think Felipe Smith’s artwork is the strongest aspect of the manga. The art isn’t bad; it’s stylized. There is a difference. Smith exaggerates the faces and reactions of his characters to humorous effect, of course, but he also does it to convey emotion. Characters don’t have to tell you how they’re feeling; they show you. As a result, each image contains a wealth of characterization without having to resort to pointless dialog. Smith’s graphic portrayals of his characters are constantly innovative and always spot-on. This is one of my favorites:

An image like this tells the reader everything he or she needs to know about Milton and Jody’s first impressions of Japan without any verbal narration ever having to spell them out. Milton is delighted with the country’s quirkiness, while Jody is confounded and a bit frightened. This sort of graphic style also ensures that the reader never takes the story too seriously, which helps to mitigate its bursts of extreme violence and sexuality.

Speaking of the story, another complaint I have read about the series is that it doesn’t live up to its potential as a narrative. Unlike more conventional manga, not every loose end in Peepo Choo is tied up. The characters do not couple off. The bad guys are not defeated, and no clear-cut good guys ever emerge. Cultural differences are explored, but no one ever really comes to a complete understanding of anyone else. Characters are developed, but not to neat, logical conclusions. At the end of the series, Milton is still a dork, Jody is still a bitter virgin, Miki is still ugly, Rockstar is still an obnoxious gangsta wannabe, and Gill is still an inscrutable violence junkie. (Reiko has a bit of an epiphany, the nature of which feels a bit chiché, but Reiko is awesome, so I will ignore any stereotypes that might apply to her.) Along the way, however, every single character is uniquely appealing. Even the unsympathetic characters (namely Jody and Rockstar) are fun to watch and fun to hate. As a character, Gill especially is a force unto himself and makes the whole series worthwhile, even if the “examination of cultural assumptions and differences” theme occasionally seems a bit too wholesome and contrived.

In my opinion, Peepo Choo is one of the best new manga of 2010. I understand that scenes of frenzied masturbation and disemboweled yakuza aren’t for everyone, though, even if they are accompanied by infinitely creative artwork and thematically multilayered storytelling. I will therefore confess that my other great discovery of the past year was the perennially amazing Igarashi Daisuke’s Children of the Sea, which is also brilliant and beautiful and eerie and disturbing (but on the polar opposite end of the raunchy scale). Along with Peepo Choo, I recommend Children of the Sea to anyone with an interest in Japanese literature who appreciates graphic art and isn’t afraid to be intellectually and emotionally challenged.

Here’s to a fantastic year of Japanese literature and manga in translation! Cheers!