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... but you might need to keep a night-light on if you want to sleep again after reading this book. Ryu Murakami, famous for his more gruesome psycho-horror novels, has pulled no punches with this novel In The Miso Soup. Another in a long list of torturous thrillers, it compounds the seedy underworld of Tokyo with the agitated darkness of the human soul.
Our protagonist, Kenji, is an average twenty-year-old guy: he has a girlfriend named Jun and he is pretty fluent in English. However, instead of going to university or the average 9-5, Kenji organises sex tours of Tokyo's red-light district specifically for foreigners. Kenji's knowledge of Kabuki-cho is as astonishing as it is mundane: he knows the best place for the cheapest lap-dance and when to go to right street corners at the right time; he makes small-talk with the girls at the peep shows, the hostess bars, and the strip clubs - while his clueless client can only shift nervously or unabashedly stare, not understanding a word.
Kenji, while not untouched by debauchery, does have a light in his life - and he has promised to see in the New Year with her, his girlfriend, Jun. That is, until a client, Frank, contracts him for three nights of nightlife with money Kenji just can't refuse. Though Frank is seemingly an average client, something about him unnerves Kenji, and after their first night perusing Kabuki-cho Kenji decides to call their arrangement off - but Frank won't let him go so easily. With a backdrop of horrific killings terrorising the city and Frank's increasingly bizarre behaviour, the first half of In The Miso Soup grasps your imagination and bleeds it for all its ghastly speculations. Who or what is Frank - beyond his demeanor, his lies, and even his face?
The second half of In The Miso Soup an eye of the storm. Ryu Murakami not only has a rather twisted imagination and knack for building tension, but his keen insight also permeates the interactions between Frank and the women of Kabuki-cho, but most importantly Frank and Kenji. Beyond the sleaze and the artifice, there is a choking loneliness in the streets of Tokyo's red light district echoed the lives of both our protagonist and antagonist. Rather than attempting to elicit sympathy from Frank's rather grotesque childhood, In The Miso Soup instead asks us to consider the emptiness, the hypocrisy of both American and Japanese society - not only in its underworld, but in the undercurrents that tie society together so irrevocably - and how easily they can be manipulated or sliced away.
In The Miso Soup is a competently shocking and gutsy thriller, but more than that, it is self-aware, and asks the audience to consider what drove them to seek out such macabre excitement in the first place. To quote Frank:
"People who love horror films are people with boring lives... when a really scary movie is over, you're reassured to see that you're still alive and the world still exists as it did before. That's the real reason we have horror films - they act as shock absorbers - and if they disappeared altogether, I bet you'd see a big leap in the number of serial killers. After all, anyone stupid enough to get the idea of murdering people from a movie could get the same idea from watching the news."
This pop-culture cross-examination, within the confines of what could so easily be slasher pornography, is what makes In The Miso Soup an unforgettable vade mecum of hidden darkness. For anyone interested in the psychology of a killer, this is a must read.
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; New edition edition (23 July 2005)
From the author of the infamously shocking Audition, and described as reading "like the script notes for American Psycho - The Holiday Abroad", Ryu Murakami's In The Miso Soup is not to be taken lightly. Like Murakami's most famous novel (and the equally gut-wrenching screen adaptation), its power to shock lies not so much in its admittedly stomach-churning scenes of horror, but the now-you-see-it turn of tone and pace that flips the story on its head in the space of a paragraph and changes everything.
ITMS unfolds over three nights in the run-up to New Year's Eve, taking place amongst the seedy nightspots, crowded streets and curious sub-cultures of Tokyo's sex industry. Into the midst of this comes Frank, an overweight, over-earnest American who has come to enjoy the best of Japan's dark side. His guide - and ours - is Kenji, a young man who makes his living showing gaijin (foreigners) around this perplexing maze. Murakami paints this off-the-tourist-map slice of Japan in dark, unsettling and shifting tones, and conveys adeptly the myriad of peculiar customs, conventions and attitudes that keep foreigners largely out of Kabuki-Cho, the city's red-light district.
Frank is no ordinary sex tourist, though - unfortunately for Kenji, who had more run-of-the-mill plans for the turn of the year. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that as dark as Kabuki-Cho gets, Frank only gets darker - and Kenji finds himself pulled ever, inextricably deeper into the nightmare his client creates.
The shock-n'-awe brutality of this novel isn't that unusual, especially in the kind of Japanese literature that has made the leap to film and subsequent, watered-down remake. What makes the violence and visceral chill of ITMS so much more affecting, however, is the part it plays in the story. Unlike in Audition, these scenes are not the fast-paced denouement to the story - heavy, relentless and summative, like a computer-game end boss. Instead they come slap-bang in the middle of the book, and after a scene of an intensity which makes the protagonist lose his lunch on the floor, everything settles back down, and Frank regains his sheeny veneer of affability. Nothing, of course, is quite the same, but this firing and calming of the story's pulse is one that sucks in the reader and makes the terrifying figure of Frank so much more unnerving.
"Unnerving" is only really the start of it. Confusing and complex, you sympathise with and detest Frank in turn - his actions swing from the bizarre to the horrific, and the author manipulates you right into Kenji's shoes, never knowing what face he'll show next. In a genre that's seen many iconic antagonists, Frank is right up there. I'd love to see him interpreted on screen, but I'm not sure any film would quite do justice to the disquieting jumble he represents.
Ryu Murakami's books are hard to recommend, as the customary twist and turn of pace and punch is so graphic and disturbing, it kind of threatens to overshadow everything else that happens. The rest of the story, though is so much more calm, measured and insightful - twisting the lid of this impenetrable aspect of Tokyo and sorting methodically through the tricky issue of Japanese relationships with the rest of the world.
The manga-styled graphics and promises of violent glee that adorn the cover shouldn't obscure the fact that this is an intelligent, perceptive novel, skilfully written and adeptly translated by Ralph McCarthy, who seems to handle the nuances of a Japanese author describing subtle facets of Japanese sub-culture notably well. It helps of course that the narrative entails Kenji explaining such things to a curious Frank, so much of the work is done - but the author's "voice" is nonetheless finely carried across. All this said, though, it's hard to get past the excesses and terrors of Frank's descent into nightmare - and this is meant literally; not everyone will carry on reading past this point.
If you can stomach the extremities of Murakami's imagination, though, this is a richly rewarding novel. It strains at boundaries and takes risks which pay off in an ending of tantalising ambiguity which nicely offsets the hardcore halfway-mark. In The Miso Soup isn't easy, but it is bleakly, blackly, brilliantly good.