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In The Miso SoupIn The Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Murakami channels Brett Easton Ellis in this Japanese psycho-thriller with his version of Patrick Bateman. Stockholm syndrome never felt so creepy!” – Zee, The Observer

Haha, only joking. 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 display on the back-cover. What I’d also demand is that the book should come with a warning label; 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 ‘Japanese’ blood-fest.

I decided to read this after I discovered it was Haruki Murakami‘s favourite author (no relation) 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. In fact, I’d like to call this a Japanese view on the dangers of Western people; Americans in particular. Murakami seems to have taken the classic American horror elements and placed them in a Japanese setting. Ryu then goes on to create some non-judgmental 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 American tourist Frank, who hires Kenji for this purpose. But right off, Kenji knows that something is amiss. His feelings only grow stronger as Franks strange behaviour leads Kenji to assume that he might be the serial-killer-at-large that’s been rocking Japanese headlines for the past few days. It all comes to a head when Kenji realises 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. Which means they come up with more original material to scare by. The scare factor here 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 inaccessibility 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 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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