#121 – In The Miso Soup, Ryu Murakami BOOK REVIEW

December 17, 2018
krauserpua

In The Miso Soup

There’s something deeply satisfying about taking a chance on something unknown and being pleasantly surprised by how well things go. Think of it like doing an hour’s gutter game late on a blustery Saturday night and bagging an SDL with a 19yr old Czech girl [1]. On an equally sexual and dramatic note – though vicariously – consider my surprise when picking up Ryu Murakami’s In The Miso Soup on the discount shelf in Belgrade’s Laguna book store. I knew absolutely nothing about it bar the sleazy red cover with Mr White’s girlfriend on it [2].

If there was one word to describe this book, it would be immersive. Such immersion is the holy grail of many video games, to suck you in so deep you lose all track of time. It’s the immersion of Dark Souls that had me playing ten-hour marathons where I forget to eat and put down the controller only for toilet breaks. That’s how In The Miso Soup enthralled me. I began reading at 7pm in the Hostel Moskva lounge cafe and didn’t stop until I’d finished it at midnight, lying in bed. I was there – in Tokyo – with the characters.

So, to what do we owe such immersion?

My own background in Tokyo must be part of it. When the main character, Kenji, is working as a late-night sex industry guide for his small chubby American client Frank, I felt like I was there in Kabuki-cho with them. I knew lots of the districts. Murakami mentions walking past Seibu Shinjuku station or changing at Yotsuya on the Yamanote line and images of myself there spring to mind [3]. There’s a long-running series of RPGs called Yakuza about rival gangsters fighting for control of the sex and drugs trades in Kabuki-cho and In The Miso Soup nails that vibe exactly. I’m currently playing Yakuza Zero and it’s a perfect synchronisation of entertainment forms for me.

Yakuza

Yakuza series is pretty oddball

Make no mistake, In The Miso Soup is Bottom World. It’s as bottom as it gets. It’s a one-weekend deep dive into the lowest grime of Tokyo’s seedy underworld. Kenji knows all the touts – lost young men at the end of their rope, trying to hustle businessmen into clubs – and all the juvenile delinquent women working. It’s the kind of vivid convincing detail that makes me wonder where Murakami spent his adult years. You can smell the ramen drifting from late-opening kiosks, and touch the cum-stained velvet carpet in the cramped peep shows. Murakami paints a bleak nihilistic world of a Japan hollowed out by the long post-1989 decline. No-one has any hope. The young ‘uns struggle to get by with low-paid dead-end arbeit jobs and the businessmen are still working themselves to death then paying hostesses for attention. Murakami paints a world of soulless automatons.

This dehumanizing of the locals is important when it comes to the murderous violence. You see, this is actually a serial killer thriller not unlike the Tom Cruise movie Collateral: Kenji is the stand-in for Jamie Foxx’s cab driver and the American Frank is the killer. For the first two acts Murakami masterfully foreshadows Kenji’s growing unease with the seemingly omega Frank, a soft timid non-entity who is autistically enthusiastic about trying to get laid [4]. As we move into the third act shit gets real FAST. I won’t spoil the plot, but here’s a taster:

Frank grabbed her by the hair and plunged the knife into her chest. And like a gnat flying out of a clump of grass, something went missing from that peculiar smiley face.
That’s when Lady #5 at last began to scream. It wasn’t like a reaction to #3’s murder specifically, but rather as if someone had finally hit a switch to turn on the volume. Frank pulled the knife from #3’s chest and then tried to take the mike from her, but her fist was so tightly clenched that even he had trouble prying it loose. Her fingers had turned white and puffy, as if they’d been pickled. Frank grabbed her by the hair again and rammed his index finger into her eye.

The author spent a full chapter painting these victims with utter contempt before having Frank murder them. He’s making a statement, no doubt inspired by Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho as the book sometimes feels similar. It got me thinking.

In particular, it got me thinking about my favourite TV show, the long-running anime series Detective Conan. That’s a murder-mystery based on the locked-room puzzles of Agatha Christie, with a dash of police procedural and Sherlock Holmes. After watching several dozen of them I realised a big difference between Japanese and English crime stories: in Detective Conan the victim almost always deserves it, and the killer is a sympathetic character. There are plots where a brutal asset-stripping businessman is murdered and the killer turns out to be the mother of a child he killed in a hit-and-run accident, for example.

Japs aren’t just slanty. They are weird too [5]

Otaku

Deepak’s regular girl in Tokyo

Towards the end of In The Miso Soup Kenji tries very hard to ‘understand’ Frank and seems to develop a Stockholm Syndrome. It’s written in self-aware terms so I don’t think Murakami is trying to have us sympathise with the serial killer but rather to show the absurdity of Kenji doing so – it’s meant as an indictment of what he considers the nihilism of modern-day Japan. I felt my skin crawl more at Kenji’s rabbitry – of licking the boots that kick him – than of Frank’s murders. It was well done.

I thoroughly recommend this book, especially for anyone who has visited Tokyo. It gripped me from the very beginning and the prose is beautifully written.

If you like stories of seediness in Tokyo you’ll likely enjoy my upcoming Balls Deep second edition, which has several new chapters of me living it large there. Check my products page here.

[1] True story. See volume five of my memoir, when it’s written.
[2] So he claimed when I sent him a photo of it.
[3] Though not at the hostess clubs, as I’ve never been to one.
[4] Absolutely unlike PUAs who go to Asia, of course.
[5] I still like them, though. The white men of Asia.

2 Comments

  1. What is with lately why all the book reviews.

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