This collection of short stories arrived with a warning from the publisher: “Graphic sexual content.” Perhaps it was worried that reviewers would blush to the tips of their toes upon reading it. However, anyone who has encountered Murakami’s excruciating 1992 sadomasochistic film “Topazu” (“Tokyo Decadence”) — depicting the comings and goings of call girls and their depraved businessmen clients in suites of Tokyo’s Hotel New Otani — might fear for another yawn-inducing marathon of kinky sex.

Tokyo Decadence, by Ryu Murakami, Translated by Ralph McCarthy.
273 pages
Kurodahan, Fiction.

Fortunately, this book is much, much better than that lurid movie. Indeed it is indispensable to understanding why Ryu Murakami — too often perceived in the West as “the other Murakami,” always in the shadow of the more famous Haruki — has been so garlanded with honors in Japan, including the prestigious Akutagawa and Noma prizes.

The translator of “Tokyo Decadence,” Ralph McCarthy, previously rendered several of Murakami’s novels into English and also translated some of the works of novelist Osamu Dazai (1909-48). From the beginning of this sparkling, uneven collection — a selection of stories from five Murakami anthologies published between 1986 and 2003 — you immediately perceive that Murakami is indeed Dazai’s true spiritual heir: a worldly, unshockable writer whose natural milieu lurks in the degeneracy of the world around him.

Murakami is never more at home than when evoking bars, hostess clubs, bedrooms and drug dens, and, like Dazai, is at his best when describing narrators similar to himself — writers almost bored of their own financial success, observing the pretensions and fickleness of the human comedy with acid wit and a jaundiced eye.

In Murakami’s modern take on Dazai-style decadence, we visit a world where characters don’t just hit you, they slam you with a bottle of Chivas Regal; where men fall in love with a girl because she looks exactly like a famous Italian actress.

In the selection of stories from an 1986 collection, “Hashire! Takahashi” (“Run, Takahashi!”), Murakami also introduces intriguing ideas from his wide reading of world literature, such as Jorge Luis Borges’ theme of the doppelganger, amusingly invoked in the story “I am a Novelist” as an impostor more handsome and popular than the author he pretends to be. In another gentle satire, a Neanderthal truck driver undergoes a transformation into a Verlaine-reading transgender woman working at a hostess club.

Things go off the boil a little in the selections from Murakami’s 1988 collection of short stories upon which the film “Topazu” is based — partly because he starts narrating from the perspective of the female sex-workers themselves. It’s one thing to have an ear for how those inhabiting the world of bars and hostess clubs speak, but another to actually get inside their minds. Murakami’s sex-worker narrators never feel entirely authentic.

After overwhelming us with sadomasochistic sex in “Topazu,” Murakami shifts to descriptions of drug abuse and liaisons with American servicemen in the 1995 short story collection “Murakami Ryu Eiga Shosetsushu” (“Ryu’s Cinematheque”), reminiscent of Amy Yamada’s “Bedtime Eyes.” In these stories’ elegiac reminiscences of older narrators recalling a lost and misspent youth, the connections with novels such as Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” are palpable.

Murakami tends to write in Raymond Carver-mode, with open-ended narratives that intersect with other stories through characters and themes. In each of his short story collections, he also focuses on a particular locale in Tokyo, whether it’s the Hotel New Otani in “Topazu,” the neighborhood of Kichijoji in “Ryu’s Cinematheque” or the upscale Aoyama district in “Swans.” By bringing selections of these stories together in “Tokyo Decadence” we begin to see his panoramic vision of Tokyo in all its social diversity.

You sometimes wonder whether Murakami’s focus on ostensibly taboo content — sadistic sex and drugs — is not simply a commercial calculation to bolster the “enfant terrible” image that’s so popular with his readership. However, Murakami also subtly advances some strong ideas that reveal an acute perspicacity. A number of his stories implicitly declare that to truly understand a society you have to first understand the youth who are so disaffected by it, and the reasons for people plunging into drug addiction and sexual depravities.

The stories also gradually return to the doppelganger theme, revealing it as being central to Murakami’s entire oeuvre. No matter how sunk into depression, nihilism and cynicism we are — how much we give ourselves up to decadence and abuse — there is another purified and elevated version of ourselves waiting to be tapped into. Quite often in his stories this hidden doppelganger is summoned up by the sudden revelation of a piece of art from a distant land, whether a chance encounter with a Federico Fellini film or being bewitched by the rhythms of Cuban music.

In Murakami’s later stories this triggering art from faraway lands not only reveals and redeems our inner selves, but powerfully connects us to the people around us. It can indeed draw in with a strong gravitational pull, even those characters who have been abandoned — such as Sakurai, the spurned lover in “Se Fue” — because their lover is suddenly infatuated with a work of art.

A special mention should also go to the superb translator of these stories, Ralph McCarthy, who does an accomplished job of rendering the slang of modern Tokyo into idiomatic English. Resonating with some fascinating ideas on the nature of art itself, Murakami’s stories offer a fearless and iconoclastic insight into the subterranean obsessions and passions of Japan’s megalopolis.

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