A review of Ryū Murakami’s In the Miso Soup
From postmodern Renaissance man Ryu Murakami (who is different from and not related to Haruki Murakami), master of the psycho-thriller and director of Tokyo Decadence, comes this hair-raising roller-coaster ride through the nefarious neon-lit world of Tokyo’s sex industry. In the Miso Soup tells of Frank, an overweight American tourist who has hired Kenji to take him on a guided tour of Tokyo’s sleazy nightlife. But Frank’s behaviour is so strange that Kenji begins to entertain a horrible suspicion that his new client is in fact the serial killer currently terrorising the city. It is not until later, however, that Kenji learns exactly how much he has to fear and how irrevocably his encounter with this great white whale of an American will change his life.
• • •
A warning: I don’t think of myself a very hardened person and I am generally pretty squeamish usually, but I feel it’s always worth mentioning even though it should probably be expected considering the synopsis…: some readers might be much more sensitive than I am to the level of violence and sexual content in this book (even though it is mainly contained in one scene). I think most people will probably be okay reading it though.
Certainly entertaining and I felt like it was culturally interesting, but ultimately the novel was fairly forgettable.
It is divided into three parts. The first was interesting and largely very humorous, but things take a different turn in the second and third acts. The sexually graphic scene at the novel’s climax was, to me, not disturbing so much as awkward/uncomfortable largely because of the humiliation aspect which I think makes it a vexing part to read. But the violence of the scene is also almost comically over-the-top. I think its sudden eruption from a pretty mundane scene which seemed to go on and on was meant to make for a dramatic juxtaposition, but for me it was more just a spewing of action that kind of feels misplaced. The third part of the novel felt largely like coasting after the climax at the end of the second act.
That said, there are a fair few tidbits in this book that I felt were an insight into Japanese culture/thinking. There were parts that made Japan feel so foreign and other parts that made it seem so familiar. I found it particularly interesting when Kenji comments about how Japan is so homogenous and xenophobic in part because it has never been invaded and has never had to deal with foreigners.
Before Frank had turned up, this pub was like a symbol of Japan, self-contained, unwilling to interact with the world outside, just communicating with itself in every breath.
He mentions that even in the Second World War, no conflict came ashore. Sure, some of the fighting reached Okinawa, but never mainland Japan. Japan never had to deal with learning someone else’s language or seeing someone else’s faces. I also found his acknowledgement of all the instances of cognitive dissonance or intentional ignorance of contradiction in Japanese society really interesting.
Kenji also mentions almost a hierarchy of motives when talking about people involved in the sex trade. He generalises that the high school girls doing what is termed ‘compensated dating’—going on (non-sexual) dates men (mostly middle-aged) for money—or ‘selling it’ are pathetic where the South American prostitutes selling themselves so they can afford to just about keep their families alive are more poignant and deserving of more respect. Their reasons, he reasons, are more understandable because it isn’t out of boredom or loneliness that they sell the only thing they have to sell. And the theme always running through the book was of loneliness. Everyone in the whole world seems to be lonely, but the ways in which they show this loneliness are drastically different and come with varying degrees of consequences for themselves and for society.
There where instances here and there where I thought his comparisons between American and Japanese culture were a little distorted, but I appreciated the perspective nonetheless. Regardless of how true or untrue the Kenji’s assertions, there is something to be gained from reading that perspective. But then there are these nuggets that make for good food for thought:
The Americans, like the Spanish, massacred millions of Indians, but I don’t think it was out of malevolence so much as plain old ignorance. And sometimes ignorance is even harder to deal with than deliberate evil.
While I probably wouldn’t recommend this book (there are other stories that feel more solid that would give the same or similar insights into Japanese culture), I don’t regret reading it.
genre: thriller, crime
source: Waterstones (brick & mortar) shop
date read: 4 June 2015
recommend for: fans of thrillers, fans of japanese culture
pros: first half funny, insightful look at certain aspects of Japanese culture
cons: second half drags, clunky action