In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

by Patrick Schabe

12 May 2006


The Crushing Weight of Bonno

While Japan offers the global culture a number of stylish and critically celebrated creatives—from animators to artists to architects—in the world of authors there’s little doubt that the name Murakami has in recent years developed its own cache. Whether it is the coolly poetic fantasia of Haruki Murakami, or the sharp, disturbing character studies of Ryu Murakami, both have developed an international reputation for being among the best in contemporary Japanese fiction.

Despite some clear stylistic differences, there are certainly some parallels between the two. Both are award-winning writers in their home country, with sizable bodies of work published in Japan that have been reaching foreign eyes more frequently in the last decade or so. Both contain trace elements of the quasi-futuristic postmodernism often attributed to Japanese urban life, and both invest some portion of their explorations to puzzling out just what this means for Japanese culture. In their hands, the Japanese experience seems to revolve around a perpetual anxiety about identity.

cover art

In the Miso Soup

Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph McCarthy


But there are undeniable differences between the two writers, and to give them a combined identity to wear under the banner of shared name does a disservice to both. While Haruki Murakami, author of such revered work as The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, is regarded as the more “literary” of the pair, placing him on equal footing with the best of contemporary fiction around the world, Ryu Murakami’s more lurid, graphic work, including Almost Transparent Blue, Coin Locker Babies, and 69, has placed him in the company of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Whether one camp is more vital than the other is an open debate, but both certainly have their own visions of modern life to share, and if Ryu Murakami is the more carnivalesque fun-house mirror to hold up to contemporary Japanese (and global) culture, then nothing about In the Miso Soup is going to change that perception.

This is, after all, the same man who first came to international attention as the writer and director of Tokyo Decadence, a film that explored in unflinching, unglamorized detail the demoralizing world of prostitution in Tokyo’s underground S&M scene. Murakami was well regarded for his bravado in dealing with the subject matter so bluntly, and that reputation won him a new international interest in his much more prolific literary career, where fans were not disappointed to find the same vivid, often perverse close-up zoom on social aberrations as a regular feature. Having won a prestigious national award for his first book, Almost Transparent Blue, Murakami gained the position to write a series of novels that in various shades detailed Japanese life on the fringes, at times affectionately, and at others savagely.

In the Miso Soup carries on Ryu Murakami’s tradition in one of its most immediate and affecting examples. Murakami plays with space and culture, shedding light on the lack of personal space by drawing the reader into the claustrophobic world of the story’s narrator, Kenji, then mimicking the desire to get away from the pervasive presence of a horrific American sociopath named Frank. We walk into the Tokyo of the sex-trade in the commercial red light district of Kabuki-cho as Kenji the “nightlife guide” informs us that the events that will unfold happened in the past—deflating the potential ramifications of what’s to come by letting us know from the start that, no matter what, Kenji will survive. That comfort quickly proves to be small, for as Kenji introduces us to Frank, it becomes clear that survival comes with consequences, and what they may be for Kenji, we can only guess, adding to the tension rather than subtracting from it.

As Kenji is first meeting Frank two nights before the New Year’s celebration, Tokyo police are puzzling over a brutal, torturous murder of a teen girl who is also a known prostitute. Her body turns up dismembered and mutilated, dumped in two different trash bags on the outskirts of the Kabuki-cho district. The newspaper report of the murder is fresh on Kenji’s mind as he goes out to meet Frank for the first time, and so he is convinced that the strange and lie-riddled night in Frank’s company has made him paranoid when he begins to suspect that his new client is the killer. But as the evidence mounts, and as Kenji’s life keeps pulling itself into tighter and tighter orbits around Frank, paranoia gives way to real fear, and a sense that Kenji is now locked into something beyond his control.

In Frank, Murakami has created a character that is both mindless and calculated, a creature who lives on the fringes of society and preys upon it, yet who finds a certain purpose in his own existence that he often finds missing in his victims. While many reviewers have seen Frank as a less cultivated Hannibal Lecter, he perhaps shares equally as much in common with Will Self’s Fat Controller from My Idea of Fun. Psychosis is the driving force behind Frank’s day to day existence, but he also looms over the book (and Japan) as a rather obvious symbol of America itself, something that Murakami revisits through Kenji repeatedly over the course of In the Miso Soup.

This aspect of Frank is certainly the heart of the tale, and not the ultraviolence that is Frank’s mission. Murakami only takes the audience directly into one scene of violence in the story, describing in surreal, morbidly clear detail a moment where Frank unleashes himself onto a small club, but it’s enough to impact everything else in the book, letting the sinister atmosphere carry the rest of the story. But this is still Kenji’s tale, not Frank’s, and though Frank is the catalyst, Murakami uses the gravitational pull on Kenji to explore much deeper issues of personal identity, questioning the idea of Japanese national character, Japan’s relationship to America (rather acidly summed up in a brief passage centering on Niketown), and the psychological implications of the emptiness that Murakami reveals beneath the surface of Japanese life. While the intricacies and formalities of the sex industry in Japan serve to highlight these themes, sex itself is less a feature of this story than its seedy commodified setting.

Unlike Coin Locker Babies, which some critics found too sprawling and gratuitous for its own good, In the Miso Soup is a narrow, focused look into one slice of life, and Murakami confines himself to the framework in which the characters live. This singularity makes Kenji a compelling, believable narrator, as well as allowing Murakami to hammer home the confined spaces of the story, and it makes for a quick, frantic read. And unlike the coming-of-age tales that also feature prominently in Murakami’s work, the contemporary setting of In the Miso Soup gives the story a sense of immediacy, making Frank a very real, very possible character, no matter how improbable his existence may seem. Ultimately, this all adds up to a slender, razor sharp book that trades on graphic creepiness to make you think about society and our place in the world through demented, but forcibly objective eyes. That Murakami succeeds in taking that reader on such a journey even in translation, even when primarily dissecting a Japan that is only truly known to its natives, is a testament to Murakami as a storyteller.

For all that, there’s still the lingering question of whether such postmodern horror stories are of equal value to a more complex and nuanced literary tradition. Ryu Murakami seems like both a product of and a critical inside-man in a Japanese culture that is rich in sexual fetish, neon decay, and a demented horror industry. The movie adaptation of his Ôdishon makes even Ringu and Ju-On seem mild for their supernatural tropes. But rather than celebrate manga-like violence or horror for its own sake, Murakami uses those tropes to ask larger questions, and does so with an awareness of the reader as complicit in the questioning. At one point, Kenji even alludes to Stockholm syndrome in his relationship to Frank, and it’s as if Murakami is nodding to the reader in acknowledgment that we are also sharing the terror and sympathy of that closed space. Yet because of his subject matter, Ryu Murakami will probably never quite reap the reputational rewards that Haruki has in international markets. Like Cronenberg movies and Clive Barker prints, psychological horror fiction has a market, but it’s a niche one for the most part.

But with the favorable reviews for In the Miso Soup comes an increased chance for Ryu Murakami’s work to circulate outside of Japan. One of the more amazing aspects of this book is that Murakami’s critical eye and the intertwined relationships of Japan and the United States gives the tone of the book something like that of an outside observer, if not a tourist, to some degree. With some 30 novels to his name at home, and a sensitive and careful translator in Ralph McCarthy, there is still plenty of material to find its way into English. Perhaps then the closed system of culture and society so eerily on display in In the Miso Soup will find greater exposure in the global community, risking the intrusion of the world’s Franks at the same time.

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