In the Miso Soup
by Ryu Murakami
Published by Kodansha
180 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Weeks after finishing In the Miso Soup by post-enfant terrible of Japanese literature Ryu Murakami, I still can't decide if I liked the book or loathed it. On the one hand, In the Miso Soup is one of the most rawly gripping books I've ever read. Really. Through the first half of the book Murakami builds tension so deftly, I found myself breathing through my mouth as I read.
Pretty much smack dab in the middle of the book, however, Murakami lets his serial killer loose in our vision and these passages make Thomas Harris' serial killer Hannibal Lecter look -- to borrow a phrase from Murakami's prose -- like something from Hello Kitty. The carnage lasts for 15 pages and is bald enough that I don't even care to quote any of it here.
The narrator, Kenji, is an unlicensed tour guide of Tokyo's night life. "Basically," Kenji tells us as the book opens, "I specialize in what you might call sex tours, so it's not as though my English needs to be flawless." He takes his clients -- mostly American businessmen -- to "relatively safe cabarets and massage parlours and S&M bars and 'soaplands' and what have you." It makes him enough money to enjoy the quiet life he wants while putting away money towards his ultimate goal: moving to America.
His first call from Frank is unexceptional: except that Frank, who says he is an American tourist, wants to book Kenji's services for three nights: up to and including New Year's Eve. Though Kenji had already made plans to spend the special night with his girlfriend, the cash from three evening's work is more than he can pass up. And even though, after they meet, Kenji is not entirely comfortable in Frank's company, he resolves to see his commitment through.
The first thing that puts Kenji off is Frank's face.
I'd worked for nearly two hundred foreigners by now, most of them Americans, but I'd never seen a face quite like this one. It took me a while to pinpoint exactly what was so odd about it. The skin. It looked almost artificial, as if he'd been horribly burned and the doctors had resurfaced his face with this fairly realistic man-made material.
While these are nice details -- and In the Miso Soup is bursting with nice details -- like so many others in this book, they don't actually go anywhere. Frank's face may be odd, but there doesn't prove to be any freakish burning or other skin disfigurement in his history. It's possible that the whole business of Frank's face is a metaphor for the duplicitous nature of humans in general. But, if that's the case, I'd really like the metaphor to be based on plotlines. Without that backup, it ends up feeling like unsuccessful sleight of hand.
There is much about Frank and his history that feels this way. The character seems entirely based on emotion rather than anything from the real world. For example, at one point deep in the book Frank tells Kenji that he killed his first victims before he turned seven. It was not an undetected crime and Frank has spent much of his life in various institutions. Yet here he is in Tokyo: being a known murderer and certified crazy doesn't seem to have hampered his ability to get a passport. Another bothersome point: at some point in his past, Frank has been given a frontal lobotomy. Yet his behaviors aren't in keeping with a lobotomized person: and never mind that Frank is supposed to be 35 in late 1996 and thus would not have been of an age where lobotomies were considered an option in American psychiatric care.
Then there's the whole matter of Kenji and Frank's relationship. Since Frank's Tokyo reign of terror begins prior to their meeting and since Frank demonstrates his ability to find his way around in all types of situations, why did he feel the need to hire a guide in the first place? Sure: it's a plot device. Kenji and Frank have to meet somehow. But the device is thin here and not very believable. Another flaw: Frank -- the lobotomized "American businessman" with the oddly covered face has the ability to hypnotize people with only the barest of effort. Truly: if small groups of people could be rendered practically comatose merely by staring at a credit card, the future of humanity would be in serious trouble.
In the Miso Soup is flawed on so many levels it shouldn't work at all and yet, somehow, it does. Murakami's fine eye for detail and dark sense of humor account for the things that do work. By way of example, here Kenji gives us his view on the nature of Americans:
What's good about Americans, if I can generalize a little, is that they have a kind of openhearted innocence. And what's not so good is that they can't imagine any world outside of the States, or any value system different from their own. The Japanese have a similar defect, but Americans are even worse about trying to force others to do whatever they themselves believe to be right. ... In a word, they're childish -- but maybe that's what makes their smile so appealing. ... the winning, bashful grin of the American actor is like part of the national character.
By the end of the book, Kenji has faced both mortal and moral peril and his meeting with Frank has forever altered the way he views his own world.
It could well be that In the Miso Soup isn't a story about an American serial killer in Tokyo at all. Murakami manages to cram so many thoughts and ideas into his slender book, it seems entirely possible that the whole thing is metaphor. The subtext of the book is a comment on "compensated dating," a form of gentle prostitution popular with Japanese high school girls in 1997 when In the Miso Soup was published in Japan. Murakami's bio informs us that he is "Renaissance man for the postmodern age" and so, of course, he doesn't condemn compensated dating -- no one who labels themselves thus could -- but neither does he support it. He manages instead to cast it in a negative light while not seeming to lift a finger. In other words, the secret to looking cool is never seeming to break a sweat. Murakami would seem to have that down to a fine art.
Murakami is the author of over 40 books and has directed four films. He's been a TV talk show host, a rock and roll drummer. His first novel, Almost Transparent Blue, was published to wide acclaim in 1976, capturing Japan's most prestigious literary prizes and creating Murakami's enfant terrible mystique. Now over 50, the enfant part is truly a thing of the past, but -- as In the Miso Soup demonstrates -- the terrible is not.
In the Miso Soup is a taut, thought-provoking book. Those rocked by seriously hard-core violence, however, will want to give this one a miss. Metaphor or not, it's pretty graphic stuff. | June 2004
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.