In 1934, Henry Miller’s portrayal of explicit sex was decadent and subsequently banned in America for two decades. Fast forward to 1988, and Ryū Murakami seeks to cause the same sensationalist act, this time with a collection of short stories – all of which focus on the lower-rungs of sexual gratification.
I’m sure we’ve become desensitised to graphic sex and violence since then, which significantly drops the shock impact, but I can only judge it on its merits.
A Collection of Sin
Tokyo Decadence is a collection of fifteen short stories. As with most of Ryū Murakami’s work, the focus here is on seedy characters engaging in dark debauchery. Pimps, prostitutes, sordid businessmen and abused women feature throughout; often looking for something more from life.
And that’s about it really. What can I say? It’s a collection made up of three separate periods in Murakami’s life; Run, Takahashi! (1986), Topaz (1988), Ryū’s Cinematheque (1995), and one new edition; At the Airport (2003).
Sexual Depravity: Explored
One of the noticeable problems here is the lack of continuity running through the stories. Usually, in a collection, you’ll get between five and ten stories. Here, fifteen becomes tiresome, especially when they all have similar content.
This also meant that by the second half of the book, I was already feeling fatigued.
The first few stories deal with prostitution, a cross-dressing truck driver and several dark-forms of sexual wanting/abuse. It’s immediately apparent that Murakami isn’t holding anything back when telling his stories, warts and all. The problem with this is that the stories quickly become familiar because of the level of detail involved.
There are parallels with Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, in terms of sexually motivated stories. Still, unlike this comparison, the plots leave little to be desired.
Ultimately, the only story that remained in my head after finishing was the one in which a young prostitute is lured into a wealthy businessman’s suite. Alongside her companion, she’s heavily sedated and wakes up in blurred episodes, leaning over the toilet.
From this perspective, she believes the woman in the living room is being tortured and raped by the mysterious man and his colleagues. The doctor of the group then proceeds to dismember her companion to rid the place of evidence.
Murakami raises questions in his writing about whether this took place, or whether it was a hallucination, but that’s about as ambiguous as it goes.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Along with a clunky teenage perspective of sex, the book descends into murky chaos. The action is bewildering and the characters mainly forgettable. In a sense, a lot of the book is like watching the opening of a porn scene.
We know who they are and why they’re here, so cut to the chase. There’s no need for all this pseudo-filler. And like the aforementioned porn scene, the characters are wooden, and the engagements are overstimulated.
It’s hard to tell if it’s the translation that’s the issue. Still, the language was nowhere as vivid as his later works, noticeably In the Miso Soup.
The gritty atmosphere is a big part of the suspense, whereas here, it feels tacked on strictly to be extreme. A desire to shock doesn’t suddenly make the content disturbing, let alone engaging. And that’s the big difference between Ryū Murakami and a much more talented author such as Chuck Palahniuk.
In short, Tokyo Decadence is a clusterfuck of stories that seem principally designed to shock. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve read the first couple, most of the action feels repetitive. Add to this, one-dimensional characters and forgettable storylines and you’ve got a cluttered collection.