Wednesday, 7 January 2015

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 ;)