Author Focus: Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami, born in 1952 in Sasebo, Nagasaki, Japan, is an award-winning author whose work looks into contemporary Japanese society. A cult writer, his novels usually contain male protagonists who are involved in violence in some way or another. Some characters thrive off it, others are the victims of it. All of the characters are a product of a new Western-influenced Japanese society, which conflicts with the peaceful, Oriental image which many have about Japan – including older generation Japanese.

Author Ryu Murakami

Author Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami moved to Tokyo where he enrolled in Musashino Art University on a sculpture course. Whilst studying he wrote his debut novel, Almost Transparent Blue, which won the Akutagawa Prize in 1976. The novel looks at modern Japanese youth culture and the influence upon it of the United States – the protagonist, a young Japanese boy, even lives near a US naval base.

His books have often been turned into films. The most famous of which, Audition, was adapted for the screen by Takashi Miike and is known as being one of the best Japanese thrillers in the movie industry.

Scene from Audition

Scene from Takashi Miike’s Audition

Which Ryu Murakami books should you read? I recommend Audition. If you liked the movie, you will love the book. If you’ve not seen the movie, you should read the book anyway! It’s fast paced and the tension, which is subtle at first, builds up and up until it explodes. The book isn’t great towards women – in fact, non of Ryu Murakami’s books are – but for those who love thrillers, you will love Audition.

Another novella worth reading is In the Miso Soup. It’s violent, it’s grotesque, it’s everything you imagine Japanese cult literature to be. None of the violence is committed by a Japanese man, but by an American. A slight nod to whom East Asians believe to have changed Eastern society for the worse (Koreans and the Chinese also criticise American influence upon society), but it’s also a way for the Japanese to engross themselves in violence and be rest assured that there’s no way a Japanese man could have done it.

Ryu Murakami’s works might be the ideal ”man” novel, but for those who are interested in modern Japanese youth culture, how Japan has changed, pop culture, and indeed, political influences (Ryu Murakami’s From the Fatherland, With Love is about a North Korean invasion of Japan) then Ryu Murakami’s work ticks all those boxes.

from the fatherland, with love audition almost transparent bluein the miso soup

Out

Out is Natsuo Kirino’s first novel to be translated into English. Kirino isn’t your typical Japanese women’s writer. She doesn’t discuss themes of love and relationships – at least, not in the conventional sense. She uses a predominantly masculine genre (the crime novel) mixed with masculine writing techniques – like grotesque imagery and violence – to tell the story.

out

Like most crime novels, the plot is easy to follow. It is about four women (the leader Masako, Kuniko, Yoshie and Yayoi) who work in a demeaning, unsatisfying job – a factory – and who all have difficult home lives. When Yayoi’s drunk husband gambles away all their money, her anger leads her to strangling him. Scared, she enlists the help of Masako who convinces the other two to dismember the body and discard the parts all across Tokyo. A body part is discovered by the police, who soon believe a casino owner and criminal was to blame for the murder of Yayoi’s husband. The criminal begins hunting the women down one by one, and the women start disposing of bodies on a regular basis for extra income.

The characters are shallow. They lack depth and intellect. Despite them all leading difficult lives, I struggled to sympathise with any of them as they never try to take control of their situation. The only character who can really think for herself, Masako, is cold and distant. As a reader you can’t empathise with her.

Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino

Women, the role of women, the treatment of women, a woman’s position in Japanese culture and society is ultimately what the novel is about. On the outset, the women appear to be powerful and in control. They do the ultimate action which is associated with feminism and female empowerment: they kill a nasty man who abuses women. But the book isn’t feminist. The characters are stereotypical women: shallow and one-dimensional. They think they’re in control when actually they are far from in control. They still go to their demeaning job, they are being hunted down one-by-one by a man who proves to be successful.

The ending of the novel further enhances how it’s men who are still dominant and powerful. Masako is brutally raped and tortured, but she appears to begin to enjoy the situation and emotionally connects to her attacker, presumably because she has been given the attention which she has desired for so long. On the other hand, the ending could also be interpreted that Japanese women think rape is acceptable, that they prefer men to be in power, that it’s what women desire.

Out is anything but a simple crime novel. It shows who is still in control of Japanese society – men. I’m very undecided about the novel. A part of me loves it; it’s gritty, grotesque and violent and yet, there’s a deeper message underneath the gore about gender and society. The other part of me doesn’t like the novel: the characters, the ending… I am completely on the fence.

Snakes and Earrings

Earlier in the week I wrote about Zhou Weihui and her novels Shanghai Baby and Marrying Buddha. Kanehara Hitomi is the Japanese Zhou Weihui and her novel Snakes and Earrings is similar to Shanghai Baby – about a young woman who’s passive and easily influenced by others.

snakes and earrings

The themes however do differ. Instead of shopping and sex, the character Lui explores body art (tattoos and piercings) and sex and uses these to explain her life along with other literary themes which litter contemporary Japanese literature (such as violence and death).

The novel focuses around the character of Lui, a young girl who battles with depression and wishes to create feeling in her empty life. Lui meets Ama, who has a forked tongue and immediately becomes obsessed and starts a relationship with him. Ama introduces Lui to the life of piercings and tattoos and she begins the process of getting her tongue forked as well.

Lui is obsessed with pain. Her piercings, tattoos and alcoholism are all a form of self-harm for her. They enable the character to feel. Pain fills up the void Lui is feeling, and it’s pain and the need for physical pain which draws her into a relationship with Shiba-san, a sadist who is often violent towards her.

Lui doesn’t realise that it’s not pain which makes her happy. It’s love which fulfills the void and it’s not until Ama protects her from violent men which she realises this. This feeling is further reinforced when Ama goes missing, and after a few days the police reveal that he was brutally raped and murdered.  It is here that Lui recovers from the numbness she was previously experiencing and sets about changing her life.

The novel, like Shanghai Baby, is poorly written and has a sloppy and immature feel, but this adds to the characterisation. It’s not elegant, it’s not perfect – just like Lui.

The novel, by embracing topics such as alcoholism, sex, and the very taboo tattoos (which are still associated with the Yakuza in Japanese society), shows Japanese youth culture changing. It’s breaking away from traditional Japan and becoming radical and rebellious due to the pressures on youth from society. This all creates an unstable youth population who use this new youth culture to vent out its frustration.

Snakes and Earrings is a cry for help on behalf of the young people of Japan.

Author Kanehara Hitomi

Author Kanehara Hitomi

The novel won the Akutagawa Prize in 2003 which has cemented its importance in Japanese literature. Like Zhou WeiHui’s novels, I am not a fan of Snakes and Earrings, but I can appreciate it in comparison to other Japanese novels.