In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
Given his more globally renowned namesake it’s easy to think of Ryu Murakami in terms of who and what he’s not. A literary sensation in his own right in Japan, his first novel, the dark and druggy Almost Transparent Blue, published when he was a student, has sold well over a million copies. But his latest offering, In The Miso Soup – blood splattered and unnerving and quite spectacularly nasty in places – most closely resembles the novels of Brett Easton Ellis, at least in terms of its slightly clinical prose style and bursts of genuinely shocking brutality.
Kenji makes his money as a tour guide. Instead of showing people the sights, he ferries men from overseas around the seedier districts of Tokyo, helping them to better understand the intricacies of Japan’s thriving sex trade and acting as a translator wherever necessary. His current client, an American called Frank, proves to be more difficult them most. There’s something unsettling in his appearance, his plasticy, unnatural-looking skin, his sudden silent rages when displeased that vanish almost as quickly as they arrive.
At the same time a serial killer is on the loose in Tokyo, doing unspeakable things to young women. After witnessing Frank’s increasing volatility, his fragile relationship with the truth and alarming hypnotic capabilities, Kenji begins to grow anxious that his new client may be behind these horrendous crimes.
Having established a fairly conventional set-up, gradually increasing the tension and raising the stakes, Murakami sidesteps expectation by slamming his big revelation about Frank’s identity straight into the middle of the novel. In these central scenes – based in one of Tokyo’s omiai ‘match-making’ pubs – the urban grubbiness of the early half of the novel is replaced by a set piece of sickening violence that is both compelling and repulsive. Sustained any longer and it would have made the novel unreadable, but Murikami pulls back at just the right point and the episode is not repeated – still as a reader you are left reeling and wary and the remaining chapters are impossible to read without a heightened level of anxiety as a result.
Though Kenji has a young girlfriend she does not really figure in the proceedings and Murakami seems more interested in the relationship that develops between Kenji and Frank, a warped form of friendship, fuelled by fear but also by fascination.
In The Miso Soup also acts as a primer for the various elements of Tokyo’s sexual underworld, the oddly blurred boundaries and rules that make little sense to outsiders. Murakami in particular details the idea of ‘compensated dating,’ of usually well-off Japanese girls who will enter into sexual relationships only in return for a stream of expensive gifts. He puzzles over how these practices may appear to the non-Japanese but offers few satisfying answers. And this is the case of the novel as a whole, it works as a thriller, a page-turner – one not for the weak of stomach – but its attempts at a greater cultural resonance seem laboured.