Zee's Reviews > In the Miso Soup

In the Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami
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bookshelves: booksread2010, japanese, gothic-horror

Murakami channels Brett Easton Ellis in this Japanese psycho-thriller with his version of Patrick Bateman. Stockholm syndrome never felt so creepy!

If I were a hip, well-paid reviewer for say, The Guardian or The Times (I know, I know, delusions of grandeur!) this is what I'd want the publishers to quote from my review. What I'd also demand is that the book should come with a warning label on it; the kind they put on CD's for explicit language. Not that anyone would actually heed it. If anything, it would serve as a homing beacon for spotty emo-goth teenagers to revel in this very 'Japanese' style of modern horror.

I decided to read this after I discovered it was Haruki Murakami's favourite author (no relatopn) but quickly realised that Ryu Murakami had little influence over the former's writing. 'In the Miso Soup' is more in the calibre of Ellis's 'American Psycho', but without the density of long, tedious descriptions of designer-wear and other such name-dropping. In fact, I'd like to call this a Japanese view on the dangers of Western people; American's in particular. Murakami seems to have taken the classic American horror elements and placing them in a Japanese setting. Ryu then goes on to create some non-judgemental characters like Kenji and his girlfriend, and just lets the whole thing play out on the garish, neon-lit underworld of Tokyo's red-light district.

The story centres around Kenji, a 'tour-guide' for foreigners aiming to make their way through the sleazy night-life of the city. One night he happens upon an American tourist, Frank, who hires Kenji for this purpose. But right from the off, Kenji knows that something is amiss. His feelings only grow stronger as Franks srange behaviour leads Kenji to assume that he might be the serial-killer-at-large that has been rocking Japanese headlines for the past few days. It all comes to a head when Kenji realises that the only way to deal with a man like this, is to try to understand him, and even sympathise.

I found the narrative to be of a sweet and sour mix that is so intrinsic to Japanese story-telling. There were moments of sheer horror, that were later tempered by humour and even pensive reflection. Frank is portrayed as a lardy, pasty, pale psychotic who, despite all his madness has some sort of coherent method to his murders. Like Bateman, there is a side of him that is completely inaccessible, his kill-zone area that operates outside of his will. Personally, I found him more realistic and relatable than Kenji, but was equally relieved that I couldn't/ didn't have access to that part of him. In essence, we realise that Frank's solitude is probably one of the major factors of his being this way:

"... The type of loneliness where you need to keep struggling to accept a situation is fundamentally different than the sort you know you'll get through if you just hang in there"

As slimy and repulsive as Frank is (almost reptilian with his dead-pan expression) there is also a very human part to him that Murakami did well to bring out in the end. The chemistry between him and Kenji displays 'stockholm syndrome' at its best. In general, the Japanese do not treat horror the same way as the West. They don't shirk away from it like we may do. Which means they come up with more original material to scare by. The scare factor in this novel wasn't so much the bloodbath, the disseminated school-girl prostitutes or Frank himself, but the fact that Kenji relates to Frank far more deeply than he or we could ever imagine. It brings home the fact that serial-killers aren't a world away from us. They were, perhaps, once 'normal'. But sometimes something happens somewhere, the normal becomes singed, burned or corrupted. That plastic layer that is clamped over our sensitivity might become unhinged, and the poison of life gets under it; sullying the way we see the world around us.

Frank comes across as one such tragedy. He knows what he is, and confides in Kenji, tries to tell him what and why he does things. The effort alone is humbling really. What ultimately happens is that the two men learn that they are more similar than they think they are:

"Nobody, I don't care what country they're from, has a perfect personality. Everyone has a good side and a side that's not so good .... What's good about Americans, if I can generalize a little, is that they have a kind of openhearted innocence. And what's not good is that they can't imagine any world outside of the States, or any value system different from their own. The Japanese have a similar defect..."

It is passages like this that really helped gel together what Murakami was thinking about. The divide between East and West, their methods and ways of doing things become a metaphor. Kenji and Frank meet, East and West collide. Like the left and right sides of a brain, the conscious and unconscious, they probe and attack each other until they come to an understanding. The inaccessibilty of Japanese culture has been the subject of many novels and movies. 'Lost in Translation' is a firm favourite of mine in this respect. Tokyo city could be a major culture shock and a source of alienation if you don't know what it's all about. It's a a bewildering place, but not as bewildering as perhaps, the inner world of Frank the killer. Murakami manages to unite two opposing cultures who are both fascinated and terrified of the other, through some impressive role reversals.

In some respects, Kenji was more American than Frank and Frank more Japanese than Kenji. Both characters see their cultural 'self' in the other; and to them, it doesn't make sense. If that's not pure genius, then I don't know what is.

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Reading Progress

June 3, 2010 – Shelved
June 22, 2010 – Started Reading
June 30, 2010 –
page 12
July 1, 2010 –
page 81
July 1, 2010 –
36.0% "... Contemporary Japan has never been so sinister..."
July 2, 2010 –
July 3, 2010 – Shelved as: booksread2010
July 3, 2010 – Shelved as: japanese
July 3, 2010 – Shelved as: gothic-horror
July 3, 2010 – Finished Reading

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