Japanese fiction is becoming more and more popular in the Western world. Is it because of our increased interests in the East? The rise of popular cultures; anime, manga, k-pop etc.?
Or Could it be our own loneliness that’s beginning to connect with that felt by Japanese writers growing up in an increasingly isolated country?
In The Miso Soup centres around Kenji, and his latest customer Frank, an overweight American. Guiding foreigners through the city is usually a simple task; point them in the direction of either a bar or a sex club and off they trot. However, Frank has other ideas.
As the book goes on, Kenji begins to see Frank differently than he first assumed, both physically and spiritually. His skin is deformed slightly and looks almost synthetic. Frank’s touch is metallic to the point of cold.
Murakami is excellent at leading the reader down one alley, only to have it suddenly open up and show a different world on the other side. Always expect the unexpected.
This was none so more evident than his book Audition, which also plays with reader’s expectations, only to trample all over them in the final third.
In The Miso Soup is a little more reserved in that aspect, but more because it doesn’t take itself too seriously from the get-go.
Tokyo is introduced as a bustling world of sleaze, enjoyed by upper-class Japanese businessmen and sex-tourists alike.
Lurking behind their nightly exploits is the news that Tokyo is experiencing an increase in its death toll. A Schoolgirl has been found horrifically dismembered, and Kenji tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
As Kenji begins to see Frank’s lies and total avoidance for meeting at his hotel, his suspicions only increase as the three nights pass by. Could the appearance of Frank have anything to do with her death?
Loneliness in a Crowd
Stephen Leather’s Private Dancer deals with relationships concerning showgirls and their customers where In The Miso Soup sticks strictly to the male gaze.
Kenji has his own girlfriend at home and is hesitant to engage in any uncompromising situations. This is one of his traits that makes him so endearing. He only wants to earn a bit of money from being a sex tour guide to pay for his flat that his girlfriend often visits.
As the two venture out into the neon-landscape, Kenji drops titbits on his customer’s psychological behaviours, again, moulding the reader to subconsciously believe they know what’s really going on.
There are underlining looks here between the two cultures of America (represented by Frank) and Japan (Kenji).
Prominent activities that have international appeal are sports, music and sex; the latter being the reason for many foreigners to visit Tokyo.
It’s an interesting concept that rings true with Saudi Arabia and China, both using high-profile events to garner worldwide support despite questionable human-rights issues.
The same cannot be said about Japan.
Burning an Image
Two scenes that continue to stick in my mind are the baseball cage and the club-spree.
Frank boasts about how well he is at baseball, how he’s so great etc. so Kenji decides it’ll be fun to take him to the batting cages. Wrong.
It quickly becomes apparent that this’s another of Frank’s long list of lies. As the balls begin to fire at him, what looks initially like a joke to Kenji quickly develops into a much more severe emotional incident.
At this moment, I began to see a different side to Frank, a more vulnerable individual who’s possibly lying as a means of protection.
We’ve all met that kind. They lie till they’re blue in the face, but deep down, you know none of it is true. The likelihood is they’re doing it as a form of deflection from ridicule that might come their way.
The second scene is in the nightclub that features the girls dancing on stage. Custom is, you choose one to come and sit with you and pay a small charge for doing so, along with their food and drinks for the time you’re there.
It quickly escalates into something entirely different, and is a turning point in the book; not just for the story, but also the style of the genre.
The ending is left open-ended and abstract, allowing the reader to make their own minds up given everything that’s happened to this point.
Given Murakami’s style throughout, a dreamy sense of wonderment teamed with the comical violence of American Psycho, it does blend well with the genre. It also allows for pondering many questions long after the book is closed.
In the Miso Soup is a terrific pulp thriller by an author who doesn’t shy away from the seedier side of life. Tokyo feels vibrant and alive, in contrast to the sex-workers inhabiting it who’re lost and dead-eyed.
Where Frank wants to find sex, the workers want to find friendship. This creates an awkward juxtaposition between the two, quickly making enemies of each other.
I enjoyed the plot and the writing style much more than Murakami’s Audition, and I can’t wait to get started on Piercing.