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Kirk Houghton

Author of The Dividing Lines and Bad Things to Good People

Kirk's Book Reviews

Kirk's Book Reviews

Review of In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

Posted on October 19, 2015 at 8:00 PM

In The Miso SoupIn The Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The year 1997 represents a prolific time in Ryu Murakami’s career. In The Miso Soup and Audition both emerged to widespread praise, the latter making it to the cinema screens as a critically-acclaimed film two years later. Yet why In The Miso Soup has not been picked up at the box office remains a mystery.
Skip to 2015 and Murakami’s discourse on his country’s fascination with American culture and instinctive rejection of the Gaijin (foreigner) is as poignant as ever. Still mired in two decades of deflation and an economy that is yet to recover from the stock market crash of 1995, Japan’s job-for-life security in the Zaibatsu is in tatters. Even worse the lavish consumer spending that characterised the 1980s looks like a distant past. Japan's citizens are being asked to spend more, yet are unwilling to open their wallets, even with the Central Bank pushing a deliberate policy of inflation. The country is as rich as any Western democracy, crime levels are the lowest in the developed world, education levels up there with the best in the G20, and the country’s artists and intellectuals admired on a global scale and in the best universities. So why do Japan’s famous salarymen work themselves to death? And what motivates rich high school girls to enter the world of ‘compensated dating’ (e.g. prostitution)?
Ryu Murakami is determined to tackle these themes in this excellent novel, but doesn’t forget the ingredients to a good story – a succinct first-person narrative, a likeable protagonist, exquisite descriptions of Tokyo’s Kabukichō red light district, and, of course, a rhythm that takes suspense levels to new heights of terror. In this book gratuitous violence and depravity mix with the philosophical and the adolescent. The passing of one generation to another looms like a befuddled instruction, sending out contradictory messages. Establishment types warn of a corruptible age, yet remain blind to their own hypocrisy and obsession with material wealth. Perhaps only a psychopathic American sex tourist can diagnose the Japanese nation’s problems.
The eighteen-year-old narrator, Kenji, is a smart guy. Recognising how Japan’s tolerance of foreign sex tourists has bottomed out in the aftermath of AIDS, he ditches school and sets himself up as a guide for the Gaijin looking to score in the best clubs in Tokyo. It beats sitting in an office cubicle for the rest of his life, and allows him to rent a semi-decent apartment and take his girlfriend out for Korean barbecues on a regular basis. Though accustomed to working for Americans, he’s taken aback by the mysterious Frank, a shabby, overweight pervert who looks more like a stockbroker than a rugged blue-collar character from a Hollywood movie. What is it about this compulsive liar that persuades Kenji this man might be responsible for a shocking murder committed only two days ago in Tokyo’s red light district?
We, the reader, know there’s something wrong with Frank. The grimace on his face when something infuriates him; the over-friendly appreciation of the touts; the Darwinian hatred he has for the homeless bums on the street; his generosity in handing out blood-stained 10,000 Yen bills – there’s something sinister about his superficial self. But we still can’t guess what he’s capable of doing. Like most psychopathic individuals, his intelligence is above average, he has neurological problems, and he sees the world in terms of power, humiliation and revenge. Frank wants to get inside Kenji’s head and persuade him they’re not too different: ‘Is it possible,’ he asks, ‘that somewhere in this world there are people who, if they sat next to a homeless fellow they’d get an urge to snuggle up to him, but if they sat next to a baby they’d get an urge to kill it?’
Whether Kenji is going to be coerced into an act of violence by his American client is always at the back of the reader’s mind. Will he give in to peer pressure; will he find something in Frank he agrees with? His contempt for the childless women that inhabit Omai bars out of loneliness rather than necessity bubbles to the surface on a couple of occasions, and his respect for the migrant Peruvian whores that ply their trade to feed their families in Latin America suggests he might not be too far from Frank’s way of thinking. There is no simple good or evil, but plenty of repression and frustration.
Like any great novel, the author is not scared to throw in a few hilarious passages of mutual incomprehension between the Japanese and the Gaijin. This is, after all, a story about cultural differences. Frank’s well-intended bow to a passing policeman is ‘endearingly clumsy’ and says in a stereotypical way, ‘I respect your culture and traditions.’ A restaurant owner smiles at Kenji when he sees Frank taking so long with his zaru soba: ‘Gaijin will be Gaijin,’ he jokes. Yet as the narrator surmises about his country, ‘Japan is fundamentally uninterested in foreigners, which is why the knee-jerk response to any trouble is simply to shut them all out.’
Though only 180 pages in length and easy to devour in one night, In The Miso Soup is not the type of book you can read on auto-pilot – and that’s not a bad thing. The writing is economic and the sentences clear and crisp, and you know after 10 pages this is going to be a classic, even though the content is often malevolent and relentless in its promise of terror. Imagine Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, and multiply the sinister by ten. Your first instinct (if you’ve got the stomach) will be to re-read it and imagine how good it would be on screen.
I wonder if Lars Von Trier has been taking notes for a screen-play…

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