Review: In the Miso Soup, by Ryu Murakami

tumblr_lgscn3AE9g1qdh8kto1_400>>Published: 1997

>>Finally got around to it: March 2013

I didn’t want to go. But with Frank’s eyes drilling into me, I couldn’t have moved anyway. I had turned to stone, from the tip of each hair on my head all the way down to my toenails. Frank grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me inside. At the door I lost my balance and nearly fell, but he caught me and easily supported my entire weight with his right arm. He carried me inside as if I were a piece of luggage and dropped me carelessly on the floor. I heard him walk back to the door and pull down the steel security shutter outside it. When I opened my eyes I saw two pairs of legs, a man’s and a woman’s. I knew the woman was Maki by her red high heels and white lace stockings. A wet, shin, scarlet line slithered down the shin of one stocking. Like a living creature, some sort of parasite maybe, it was crawling along the delicate threads at a slow but steady pace. At a table facing her, Lady #5 along with Mr. Children and Lady #3 sat goggling slack-jawed at Maki. The moment I looked up and saw what they were staring at, everything in my stomach began the journey back up my esophagus. It looked as though Maki had another mouth below her jaw. Oozing from this second, smiling mouth was a thick, dark liquid, like coal tar. Her throat had been slit literally from ear to ear and more than halfway through, so that it looked as if her head might fall right off. And yet, incredibly, Maki was still on her feet and still alive, her eyeballs swiveling wildly and her lips quivering as she wheezed foam-flecked blood from the wound in her throat. She seemed to be trying to say something. The man beside her was the manager. He and Maki were leaning against each other, as if they’d been positioned to hold each other up. His neck was twisted in an unnatural way, his head turned as though to look over his shoulder, but drooping limply, chin resting on his shoulder blade. Just beyond Maki’s high heels, Yuko and the waiter lay in a heap on the floor. A thin blade, like a sashimi knife, was buried deep in Yuko’s lower back, and the waiter’s neck was twisted like the manager’s.

***

Kenji is a twenty-year-old “night life” guide for Americans looking to get their fuck on in Tokyo’s many exotic clubs and love hotels. His girlfriend Jun is a sixteen-year-old high school student who tacitly endorses Kenji’s at-the-moment career and his dream of saving up enough money to go to America. Just prior to New Year’s Kenji meets Frank, an American businessman in need of Kenji’s particular expertise. Together Kenji and Frank embark on a multi-night sex tour of the Tokyo ward Shinjuku that ends in murder, mayhem, and a peculiar, almost impossible to understand bond that develops between two very different men.

Frank discovers Kenji through an advertisement in the Tokyo Pink Guide—a guide to some of Tokyo’s many sexploits and sexcursions. He offers him a grand sum of money for three nights work—three nights to show Frank the ropes of the seedier side of town. Right away Kenji is suspicious of Frank; we learn in the beginning of a young woman found mutilated and discarded in a neighbouring area. Kenji suspects Frank—an out-of-towner with strangely artificial skin, an oddly shaped penis, and suicide scars up and down his wrists—might have had something to do with the killing. Almost immediately gaps begin to appear in the stories Frank tells Kenji; either his mind and memory are firing at random intervals, or he is not being entirely honest with Kenji. He is unpredictable, his emotions tripping between extremes at regular intervals. It isn’t long before Kenji’s questions are answered and Frank crosses over from odd duck to full-blown psycho killer territory.

The cover of my copy of In the Miso Soup has a blurb from the Guardian: “Reads like the script notes for American Psycho.” This is accurate, but only to a point. While there are definite psychopathic similarities between Psycho’s 1980s poster boy for all things effed Patrick Bateman and In the Miso Soup’s businessman-on-a-sexual-bender Frank, the styles of the two novels are drastically different; whereas American Psycho is a send-up of the culture of the moment and aesthetic conventions and obsessions, In the Miso Soup is borderline surreal in its marriage of Japanese culture and one American’s spur-of-the-moment killing spree.

Following Frank’s mid-novel rampage, Kenji pretzels himself into accepting what’s happened—at first out of fear for his own life, then out of some misguided concern for how going to the police might negatively affect his not-totally-legal career, and finally because of the distorted friendship that blossoms between them as more of Frank’s twisted and idiosyncratic past is revealed.

The three acts of In the Miso Soup are all quite distinctive: set-up and suspicion; a glorious, blood-soaked killing spree; and a point-for-point (and very detailed) excursion into one’s disturbed past. Kenji’s gradual acceptance of Frank—despite still fearing him—is steeped in a mix of curiosity and concern for Frank’s well being. There are strong mental illness undertones to Frank’s actions; however, they are, to a degree, undone by the novel’s brief but totally unrealistic side trips into is-it-or-isn’t-it black magic, such as Frank’s inexplicable ability to hypnotize innocent bystanders.

To the novel’s benefit, the connection between Kenji and Frank, while strange, is intriguing. By associating with Frank, Kenji is given an inverted view of the world that until now he’s only seen from safe places. Conversely, Frank spares Kenji because he sees in him an agreeable sort—a guide not entirely unsympathetic to actions he feels emotionally removed from.

Despite the mid-novel bloodbath, In the Miso Soup is decidedly tame by Murakami’s standards. Kenji’s progression from suspicion to fear and eventually tacit understanding is believable, as is his sympathy for Frank in the aftermath of the second night’s events. While Frank’s almost supernatural abilities take the reader out of the novel in brief moments, the journey overall is interesting, though not entirely thrilling.

In the Miso Soup is if nothing else a curious exploration of psychotic behaviour.

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