‘Popular Hits’ takes aim at Japanese gender roles

By Liz Raftery
Globe Correspondent / February 2, 2011

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Like a video game in narrative form, Ryu Murakami’s satire, “Popular Hits of the Showa Era,’’ with its stark violence and sexuality, appears to be targeted to a young male audience, while arguably attaining artistic merit through its exploration of gender roles in late-20th-century Japan.

Best known in America for his novel “Audition,’’ which was made into a cult horror film in 1999, Murakami here uses violent themes to achieve a darkly comedic effect. “Popular Hits’’ — whose titular era refers to the period of Emperor Hirohito’s reign in Japan, from 1926 to 1989 — revolves around two groups of friends, which Murakami positions like boxers at either end of a ring.

On one side is a handful of twentysomething men who embody the worst stereotypes of Generation Y layabouts, spending their time drinking, playing rock-paper-scissors, and singing karaoke. “[N]one of these young men were . . . familiar with the concept of going out of their way to help others,’’ we’re told.

Their similarly cliched adversaries are the “Oba-sans,’’ a group of spinsters apparently doomed to lifelong singledom. (Though the term typically refers to women of middle age and older, these women are only in their late 30s.) Interestingly, some shared characteristics of the two cliques — general idling, having pointless conversations that lack substance — tend to evoke scorn for the men and pity for the women.

The plot kicks into gear with the senseless murder of an Oba-san who refuses one of the men’s sexual advances. This sets off a gang war of sorts, which Murakami uses as a backdrop to offer social commentary on gender dynamics and cultural mores.

Also fueling the fire is an overall mistrust and lack of understanding between the groups, both of which society views as disposable. As the tactics become more absurd — the weapons of choice evolve from guns and knives to rocket launchers and atomic bombs — Murakami’s descriptions become increasingly stomach-churning. Upon seeing the grotesque consequences of the violence they’ve perpetrated, the women are sickened. The men, notably, never arrive at this realization.

There is also a sexual element to each group’s actions. It’s implied that the men’s brutality is borne of sexual frustration, and a homosexual element to their relationships is touched upon peripherally, while the women’s newfound empowerment leads to awakenings for some.

Still, some aspects of the novel beg the question whether viewing it as a dissection of gender and age divisions, or an allegory about the consuming, destructive power of revenge, might be giving it too much credit.

The writing features a few laugh-out-loud one-liners but too often comes across as simply juvenile. Murakami’s descriptions of an unattractive college girl, for instance, are smirk-inducing (“It was a face that instantly robbed those who gazed upon it of a good thirty percent of the energy they needed to go on living’’), but he revisits the hyperbole so often that, by the fourth of fifth reference, it borders on misogynistic.

Perhaps owing to the translation, the book is written in a way that lends itself to a campy screen adaptation, with dialogue sounding like it was plucked out of the script of a bad B movie. (A Japanese film version, whose title translates to “Karaoke Terror,’’ came out in 2003.)

Appreciation for “Popular Hits of the Showa Era’’ will hinge on an interpretation of it as either schlock or substance. This polarizing novel may find a rapt audience among a certain demographic, but the wider population may find the extreme violence and warped humor alienating.

Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at


By Ryu Murakami

Translated, from the Japanese, by Ralph McCarthy

Norton, 192 pp., paperback, $13.95