Authors: Ryu Murakami
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Translated by Ralph McCarthy
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY NEW YORK • LONDON
Copyright © 1994 by Ryu Murakami
Translation copyright © 2011 by Ralph McCarthy
Originally published in Japanese as
Shôwa kayô daizenshû
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Murakami, Ryu, 1952–
[Showa kayo daizenshu. English]
Popular hits of the Showa era / Ryu Murakami;
translated by Ralph McCarthy.
“Originally published in Japanese as Shôwa kayô daizenshû”
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110
W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT
had had a feeling, ever since the party the night before, that something like this was going to happen. That he alone had had this feeling was decidedly not because he was more intelligent than the others, or more skillful at analyzing situations, or psychic or anything. Ishihara had a tendency to burst into mindless and uncontrollable laughter at random moments, and it was a tendency he shared with all the other members of the group. The only difference was that in the interval between one bout of laughter and the next, into his head alone some sort of image—if not an actual idea—would occasionally pop.
The party had begun as usual at seven in the evening, and more or less everyone had been there—Ishihara, Nobue, Yano, Sugiyama, Kato, and Sugioka. “More or less” because no one was keeping track, but in fact the six of them constituted everyone. They assembled as always at Nobue’s apartment in Chofu City, on the western edge of Greater Tokyo. Each of them brought food or drinks in a plastic bag or paper sack or, in one case, an old-school
wrapping cloth. Yano was the one with the furoshiki. He also wore his prized Leica M6 on a strap around his neck.
“Check it out, I saw Karinaka Rie—the adult video actress?—at this street fair in Shinjuku the other day, and I took a bunch of pictures of her, but would you believe it? None of ’em turned out. I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t get it. Why would that happen? I’ve thought about it and thought about it, but…”
Stroking the Leica with his right index finger, Yano expanded upon this mystery at some length, but, typically enough, none of the others responded or reacted in any way. These gatherings didn’t have the atmosphere one normally associates with the word “party.” Nobue’s apartment, just north of Chofu Station, was in an old two-story wood-frame-and-stucco building with a sizable parking lot in the rear. The six members of the group generally assembled here of a Saturday evening, but the gatherings had no clear purpose, and one hesitates even to call the participants “friends,” since they lacked any common goals or interests. Nobue and Ishihara had been classmates in high school; Yano had met Ishihara in the computer section of a bookstore, where they’d exchanged remarks about the new Macintosh being this or that and then, having nothing better to do, meandered off to a coffee shop and sat facing each other for a couple of hours, neither of them talking much but each coming to the general conclusion that the other was a person rather like himself, the upshot of which was that they’d swapped phone numbers and become comrades of sorts; Sugiyama, the only one over thirty, had met Yano while temping at a construction site out near Chiba; Kato was a sort of underling or sidekick of Sugiyama’s; and Sugioka knew Nobue somehow or other.
Nobue was the one who’d originally suggested a party. It had now been about a year since the first time they’d assembled at his apartment. No preparations of any sort had been made for that first gathering, and no one brought anything to eat or drink. They’d all been to parties before, of course, but it had never occurred to any of them to think about how to host one or prepare for one, much less be the life of one. There were only five of them at the first party—Nobue, Ishihara, Yano, Sugiyama, and Kato. Kato, having lost a brief rock-paper-scissors showdown, was sent out to the vending machine down the street to purchase a sackful of One Cup Sake drinks, and when he returned they all sat around quietly sipping from the little glass containers. Every now and then one of them would burst into mindless laughter or relate in a fragmented way some personal anecdote, fully cognizant of the fact that no one else was listening, and after some five hours of this the party just sort of evaporated.
Not until the fourth time they gathered had the parties begun to take shape. There was a full moon that night. Sugiyama had brought an armful of karaoke laser discs, and though no one in the group could sing, a few of them hummed along tentatively. They were humming to one of the tracks when a light went on in the window of an apartment across the parking lot, and there, clearly visible from where they sat, a young woman with very long legs and an unbelievable body was in the act of disrobing. Sipping at their sake in awed silence, all six of them watched, along with the full moon, as this modest striptease unfolded. The young woman with the unbelievable body was immediately elevated to the status of everyone’s special idol, and the karaoke set (which had apparently conjured her up) to that of a miracle machine more worthy of reverence than even their precious computers. Karaoke became an essential element of each party from that night on, and they all began memorizing lyrics and timidly attempting to sing. Months went by, however, without the young woman with the unbelievable body making a return appearance. It was at the sixth party, when she’d failed to materialize for the second consecutive time, that Nobue proposed the post-party ritual that was to become such an important part of their lives. For someone in this group to come up with and propose an idea, and for the others to actually listen to it, consider it, voice their opinions, come to a consensus, and act upon it, was an unprecedented event—an event of historical significance to rival the moment seven or eight million years ago when some ancestor of human beings first stood upright and blundered forward on two feet.
The evolution of the parties had been slow but inexorable. At the third party, Ishihara had arrived bearing
(dried stingray fin),
(mugwort rice cakes), and
(peanuts mixed with tiny rice crackers), and from then on everyone began bringing things to eat or drink. At the ninth party a small wave of panic had swept the room when Sugioka showed up not with the usual dry snacks like stingray fin or peanuts or chocolate but a packaged macaroni salad of the sort sold in delicatessens and supermarkets. Nobue took one look at the macaroni salad and, after the inevitable bout of spasmodic laughter, set out plates and forks for all. One could have searched each individual brain cell in Nobue’s head—and everyone else’s, for that matter—without finding so much as a hint that the concept of providing others with eating utensils would ever occur, but it had, and it was a deeply moving moment. Sugioka, who’d bought the macaroni salad at a butcher’s shop just down the road, near his own apartment, actually misted up on seeing his purchase cause such excitement and wield such unexpected influence. At the tenth party, it was Yano’s turn to stir the others to their depths by bringing six portions of Nagasaki Chanmen, an instant noodle dish that required only the addition of boiling water. Such astonishing mutations in the nature of the parties were, Nobue and Ishihara and the others all believed, directly attributable to karaoke; and the scale of the all-important post-party ritual continued to expand.
It was during the party on the second Saturday of June, the sort of muggy rainy-season evening when air, underclothes, and feelings all reach saturation point, that Ishihara became aware of the unwonted anxiety taking shape inside him.
Unfamiliarity with anxiety was something all members of this group had in common. In other ways, however, they couldn’t have been less alike. All but a couple of them were from different parts of the country, and their social backgrounds and economic circumstances varied considerably. Complicating matters further was the fact that you couldn’t have judged who was what simply by looking at them. Whereas Nobue, for example, looked as if he might be a scion of old money, he was in fact the third son of a day laborer in the
orchards of Shizuoka; whereas Yano, when viewed in a certain light and from a certain angle, might have passed for someone who’d graduated from an elite university, he had in fact once been addicted to the toxic and long-unfashionable toluene, the fumes of which he had inhaled on a daily basis with high school friends, all of whom came down with debilitating nerve disorders as a result, while Yano himself, hardy though slight, maintained his health but was caught huffing the stuff on one of his rare visits to school and summarily expelled, which meant that he was officially a middle school graduate; and whereas Sugiyama, for example, to judge from his lugubrious face and sickly complexion, might have been on the verge of slitting his own wrists, he in fact tended to burst into laughter even more frequently and unexpectedly than the others, to the extent that even they sometimes looked at him askance. These young men, in other words, represented a variety of types, but one thing they had in common was that they’d all given up on committing positively to anything in life. This was not their fault, however. The blame lay with a certain ubiquitous spirit of the times, transmitted to them by their respective mothers. And perhaps it goes without saying that this “spirit of the times” was in fact an oppressive value system based primarily upon the absolute certainty that nothing in this world was ever going to change.
If these six young men had anything else in common it was something rather difficult to explain, except perhaps as a certain kind of strength on what we might call the cellular level. And this strength is what gave all of them, even in the absence of any good jokes or clever puns or amusing incidents, the ability to laugh to a more or less abnormal degree.
It wasn’t as if they would laugh together, mind you. They laughed individually, at completely different moments, and not necessarily about anything in particular. Each laughed in his own distinctive way, but in each case the laughter was loud, uncontrollable, and spasmodic, like sneezes or hiccups. An impartial observer would have noticed that at any given moment at least one of the six would be laughing—that by the time the laughter of one had subsided, that of another would have begun, which is in effect to say that the laughs never ceased—but the same observer would not have had the impression that anyone was actually having fun. Perhaps for these young men, all born in the latter half of the Showa Era, the connection between fun and laughter had simply never been made.
Such, then, was the atmosphere of the party at which Ishihara began to experience his anxious foreboding. The night wore on as always. A few members of the group recounted incidents from their own lives while nobody listened and a continuous, idiotic cackling echoed off the walls; but even when it was time to begin practicing their rock-paper-scissors technique, Ishihara’s anxiety lingered. The track to the theme song for tonight’s ritual, Pinky & the Killers’ “Season of Love,” played softly over the speakers, and everyone started trying to approximate the main vocal, each imagining himself in the role of the lovely and charming Pinky.
was startled by how tangible the anxiety was inside him. He’d never experienced anything like this before. He was certain it wasn’t simply a matter of his having suddenly uncovered a dread that had always been there. No, this was definitely something new. It was shaped like a fetus. And just as a fetus in the later stages of pregnancy kicks the walls of the womb to assert its own existence, the anxiety fetus was sending Ishihara an eerie, wavelike signal that seemed to say,
Don’t even think about forgetting I’m here!
The signal disrupted and weakened his heartbeat intermittently and caused the image of a tiny, undeveloped human being, its back curled forward and a cord extending from its navel like an unspooling fire hose, to blink on and off in his mind. He tried again and again to distract himself by laughing idiotically. His laughter was so droolingly mindless, in fact, and so explosive, that the others began to wonder if he hadn’t lost his wits, and Nobue whispered to Yano, “If he gets any weirder, we’ll take him somewhere and dump him, okay?”
Yano, who had long harbored an ambition to abandon something, experienced a little thrill at these words and unconsciously tightened his grip on the Leica M6. He had purchased the Leica from a man with a glass eye at a little camera shop in Hong Kong, where he’d gone on an employee excursion organized by the company he worked for and advertised as a
(“gourmet tour”), which to his surprise turned out to mean that they were to wander around as a group, eating at different restaurants. The Leica wasn’t his first camera, of course—for years he had carried an Olympus Pen given him by his father—but only recently had it dawned on him that the reason he was devoted to photography wasn’t because he particularly enjoyed capturing an image in a frame but because pointing the lens at an object and snapping the shutter was a way of virtually abandoning that object. Photography therefore provided a certain degree of catharsis for Yano, but he would have preferred to abandon an actual “thing”—or, if at all possible, an actual “person.”
A strange old tale had recently been revived in popular novels and films about a man who in accordance with the rules of the social group in which he lives must leave his aged mother to die on a desolate mountaintop. It was a story that would surely have caused any self-respecting immigrant or refugee or descendant of slaves to gag in disgust, but it was the stuff of Yano’s deepest aspirations. If only he could be given a chance to abandon something of tremendous importance to him—to dump it as if it were no longer needed in his life! He often reflected that if he were a woman, all he’d have to do was get pregnant, give birth to the baby, and abandon it; and it had even occurred to him that if he dressed up in drag and left a Cabbage Patch Kid somewhere he might be able to experience a similar sort of sensation, though he was restrained by the fear that if he went that far he might never find his way back.
I am, after all, a man, for better or worse,
he would mutter, and resign himself once again to waiting for a gender-appropriate opportunity to appear.
Ishihara, after fraying everyone’s nerves with his astonishing cachinnations, finally settled down and began practicing rock-paper-scissors, as the others were already doing. The rock-paper-scissors contest was what one might call the prelude to the all-important ritual, and though it goes without saying that rock-paper-scissors isn’t the sort of thing you can actually practice, each in his own particular way was convinced that he was doing exactly that. Nobue, for example, was loudly blustering that “Yano always starts out with rock, right? And with Sugiyama it’s always paper, right?”—though of course no one was listening. Yano stared at his own hand, studying the shape of each rock, paper, and scissors he formed. He was particularly concerned with his scissors and kept adjusting the angle between the index and middle fingers, muttering to himself as he did so: “When two lines of the same length describe an angle of elevation, the trigonometric function of the corresponding isosceles triangle must differ depending upon whether you’re talking Euclidean or non-Euclidean, so, um…” Sugioka was pitting his right hand against his left and plaintively asking, “Which do you think is the real me?”—but needless to say no one paid any attention. Kato was trying to read his own left palm, believing as he did in the theory that vibrations produced by one’s opponent’s mood could cause a delicate alteration in the pattern of lines there: “If the lifeline twitches—even a tiny bit—it means the enemy’s coming with paper, see?” Sugiyama was rubbing his right palm with a chunk of ice. “After all,” he mumbled, “even your balls get tougher if you ice ’em.” Ishihara held his right hand on top of his head and was making rocks and scissors and announcing, “Rock!” or “Scissors!” as he did so. “How come I always know which one I’m going to choose,” he wondered aloud, “and no one else does?”