By Marty Mulrooney
In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami is a 180 page emotional assault, a book that instils an unshakeable mix of morbid fascination and mounting dread with each passing sentence. It is the story of 20 year old Kenji, a “nightlife guide” in Tokyo, and Frank, a 35 year old American who may very well be a deranged serial killer. Mere days before New Year, the pair embark on a journey through the city’s sex clubs, hostess bars and backstreets that will expose them to the darker sides of both Japan and the human psyche, against a backdrop of sexual depravity and cultural despondency. It is an utterly compelling read.
“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. For some reason these thoughts stirred up the unpleasant memory of that newspaper article, the murdered schoolgirl. I sipped my coffee.”
What makes In The Miso Soup so compulsive is the characterisation of not only Frank and Kenji, but of Tokyo itself. I have a feeling this book may impact even stronger with a Westerner reading the translation, than it would with a native speaker reading the original text. It certainly did with me. As Frank is given his tour by Kenji, you can almost close your eyes and envisage every bar, every bustling, neon-lit street, with the eyes of an outsider. Sexual taboos are laid bare in a culture that frowns upon titillation on the face of it, yet facilitates it to such a dangerous degree behind closed doors. The location of this book is so vividly realised that it quickly becomes a central character, only taking a backseat to the abomination that is Frank.
Frank, if that is even his real name, is one of the most horrifying characters I have ever been exposed to in modern literature. A compulsive liar, he awkwardly shifts between childlike friendliness and silent inner rage. Threats emanate from him even in his most docile moments. Everything he says is an enigma, a jigsaw puzzle of lies and truths. As he spends more time with Kenji his true nature is further unravelled until the page practically boils with impending danger and violence. Yet there is an undeniable thirst to know more about him.
“He was standing right behind me, between me and the police box, blocking my vision entirely and so close that it was like he was preparing to absorb me. By some miracle I managed to remain both conscious and on my feet. Frank seemed much bigger than before. He was looming over me, and looked as if his weight alone could crush me like a bug, should he decide against swallowing me whole. I felt like a miniature version of myself.”
Kenji is a tragically human narrator, a young man who should pull the plug on this adventure well before the halfway point, but who through a mixture of fear and a bizarre feeling of connection ploughs forward even as the reader internally screams at the page, urging him to run and hide. Once the halfway point does arrive, there is a scene so shocking and brutal that I almost had to close the book… but I couldn’t bring myself to do so until it was all over.
The true ingenuity of In The Miso Soup is that this moment, although shocking, doesn’t come at the very end. Truthfully, many readers will be instantly put off as soon as this moment arrives and may not even finish the rest of the book. To stop here though would be a huge mistake. This burst of vivid horror is not a mere scare tactic used to cheaply sucker punch the reader. Instead, Murakami slowly winds down to a conclusion both frustrating in its openness yet beautifully poetic in its portrayal of loneliness and isolation. To make the reader fear Frank so much yet still want to understand him, much like Kenji, is simply masterful storytelling.
“I wasn’t sure I knew any longer what was right and what was wrong. It was a very precarious feeling, but it hinted at a sense of liberation like I’d never experienced. Liberation from the countless little hassles of everyday life. It was as if the border between “me” and “not me” was dissolving, leaving me in a sort of slush.”
In The Miso Soup certainly isn’t for everyone. The prudish will recoil in horror long before the rest of us read that infamous scene and reassess our stomach for violence. There are also some stretches of the imagination and niggling implausibilities. Yet those who stay until the very end will be rewarded with a haunting portrayal of a culture brought to its knees, a whole generation of people walking down crowded streets in their own individual bubbles. The true beauty and horror of In The Miso Soup is that Frank and Kenji are equally lost, and most readers won’t be far behind them.
9 OUT OF 10