The narrator of Kou Machida’s Rip It Up is repulsive. In his introduction, translator Daniel Joseph describes him as a “toxic shit heel”. He is sexist; one woman characterizes him as “defilement incarnate”. He constantly insults other people, calling them “morons”, “idiots” and “dumbasses”. When he rudely rejects a potential marriage partner, the narrator tells the woman and her mother “exactly” what kind of person he is:
I spend all my free time at the panty bar… I dropped out of high school… I’m a spendthrift … I’ve got my head in the clouds and I’ve never done an honest day’s work in my life because I despise hard work.
The plot revolves around the narrator’s jealousy of a friend who has recently found success as a fine artist. The narrator, on the other hand, is the resentful heir-apparent of a small furniture store; he admits to his mother that however much she expands the company, he will “run it into the ground in no time flat” after she dies. His ongoing impulsive choices only widen the gap between their circumstances.
As is so often the case in the contemporary Japanese fiction in English translation, Rip It Up is also a critique of socio-economic problems in modern Japan. The protagonist doesn’t have a long-term, full-time job. His employment status makes him an outsider, a have-not, among other people his age. He criticizes the conspicuous consumption of “ostentatious gadgets” because they “represent the embodiment of [his] own petty desires.” Misogyny is everywhere; in one of the novel’s most surreal (and deeply discomfiting) episodes, the narrator’s friends seem to literally consume the women whom they treat as their personal possessions.
All of this unfolds in a fast-paced, stream of consciousness tirade. Eventually, the narrator’s reality itself begins to break down. Fans of Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole might find in Rip It Up the same surreality, the same ominous atmosphere. (Oyamada, who published her first novel ten years after Matsuda published Rip It Up, has acknowledged her debt to Matsuda.) The novel is sinister—but for most of the novel, it’s hard to pinpoint why.
Machida won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most celebrated award for literary fiction, for Rip It Up all the way back in 2000. To date, though, only one other Machida title—Punk Samurai Slash Down—has made it into English translation, in this case translated by Wayne P Lammers. Joseph explains that Machida is “notoriously difficult to translate” and that his writing is “baffling even to native speakers.”
The opacity of Machida’s writing makes Joseph’s translation all the more impressive. His talent is on display in a cobbled-together song the unnamed narrator sings at a karaoke bar, which Joseph has both translated and adapted for English-speaking readers:
It’s not unusual to hi-de hi-de hi-de-hi
You’re as chaste as ice, and baby we were born to nun,
Rollin, rollin’, rollin’ on Moon River
Any way the lunch grows doesn’t really matter
Joseph has also chosen not to explain many of the novel’s copious allusions. He leaves the reader to look up references in the glossary of terms at the end of the novel; for example, the opening sentence refers to Daikokuten, a hybrid Buddhist/Hindu/Shinto deity of wealth, and Kishōtennyo, a hybrid Buddhist/Hindu goddess of beauty and fertility. There is no explanation of these two figures in the text. The overall effect is a translated novel that feels authentic, if dense.
Rip It Up is an artistic achievement, both as a novel and as a work of translation, but it doesn’t yield a satisfying conclusion. There is no “moral” of the story. The narrator never gets any kind of comeuppance. There are no lessons for him to learn—and none for the reader. But that sense of pointlessness is itself the point. As the narrator concludes, “It’s always like this. There’s never anything at the end of the road.”