Despite my efforts to wander as casually possible in Waterstones, I couldn’t seem to avert my gaze from a particular corner of the bookstore. Staring back at me were copies of Ryu Murakami’s In the Miso Soup. A good proportion of the book cover stars an unsuspectingly cartoonish figure, complimented by the backdrop of neon nightlife in Tokyo. This, in addition to its simplistic and innocent title made me rather surprised that the book, according to reviews at the back of the book, reads like the script of American Psycho. Gingerly, I picked the book up and brought it to the counter.
In the Miso Soup was originally written in Japanese in 1997 by Ryu Murakami (not to be confused with Haruki Murakami, author of Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore). Through the protagonist Kenji, a ‘nightlife’ guide in Tokyo leads readers through the claustrophobic streets of Kabuki-cho, Tokyo’s red-light district on an experience of neon loneliness.
The translated work is a horror novel on two different levels. Murakami’s novel follows the interaction between Kenji and the mysterious, uncanny American tourist Frank. Thanks to Murakami’s masterful characterisation of Frank, readers feel a sense of malignity radiating from the foreign tourist upon his introduction. For Keiji however, the allure of monetary gain, trumps working with the bizarre, potentially dangerous American. In the Miso Soup is undoubtedly powerfully written as a horror novel, as reflected by the language Murakami adopts in his writing.
Grotesquely graphic at times, the novel reveals the human capacity to commit horrible deeds in response to the feeling of loneliness. The novel contains emotionally detached descriptions of brazen violence that comes off as ludicrous instead of merely inspiring fear, not to mention Murakami portrays the murderous lunatic in a way that makes him somewhat terrifyingly relatable. In the Miso Soup is in a sense a social commentary on the conservative and lonely contemporary Japan, and more specifically on compensated dating in the sex industry, consumerism, and the country’s notoriously gruelling work culture. The novel is underlined by a stagnant, empty feeling, creating an atmosphere that reveals how one can go to great lengths to fill the void within them and to feel alive, just as how the vividly garish red-light district masks the social isolation inherent in Japanese society, unveiling the second layer of horror to the novel.
“It took me a while to pinpoint exactly what was so odd about it. The skin. It looks almost artificial, as if he’d been horribly burned and the doctors had resurfaced his face with this fairly realistic man-made material.” Artificiality, manifest in the character of Frank, and performative acts demanded by the trend of sexual commodification hammers home the permeating theme of superficiality and its relation to social isolation. The novel’s major focus on the interaction between Kenji and Frank also suggests that Frank seeks social companionship rather than sexual intimacy, ironically, in the seedy district of Kabuki-cho. It seems that while America and Japan have distinctively different cultures, the feeling of loneliness is perhaps universal.
In the Miso Soup is a disturbing yet thoughtful novel. The book ends on a rather ambivalent tone with regards to self-discovery and solitude – a personal takeaway is that the passage to self-discovery is perhaps lonely, and love, though potentially a solution to loneliness, is hard to find; Murakami masterfully combines the thrills of a horror novel with the deep complexities of humanity, keeping readers at the edge of their seats whilst compelling them to think philosophically about themselves and our modern society at large. In the Miso Soup might not be everyone’s cup of tea – considering its graphic depictions of gross violence and idiosyncratic characters, it is definitely not a book for the faint hearted and might unsettle some. It is however an interesting read for those who enjoy thrillers and want to delve into the darker side of Japanese culture.
Image: Sophia Ayame via Unsplash.