If you’ve got a weak stomach, this book is not for you; In the Miso Soup is one of the most graphic and brutally violent things I have ever read. But beneath all that gore is a pretty taut thriller, as well as a worthwhile commentary on modern Japanese cultural values–and how their views of Western society inform their own cultural identities.
Kenji is your pretty typical aimless college graduate. Not ready to settle into a career, he makes his living as a sex tourism guide of sorts. Foreigners hire Kenji to take them to seedier parts of Tokyo, or get them into higher-end hostess clubs (where non-Japanese are not typically admitted), and function as guide interpreter–or just general Japanese-friend-for-rent.
When Kenji is hired by a man named Frank, he immediately gets a bad vibe. A hooker was brutally murdered a few nights prior, we learn, and though he has no real reason to, he suspects Frank is the call girl’s killer. In need of money and somewhat afraid to refuse in case he really is a psycho killer, Kenji keeps Frank on as a client. One of the prime strengths of this book is Murakami’s careful plucking of the chord of tension wound between Frank’s odd mannerisms and words and Kenji’s increasing paranoia and distrust.
Eventually this distrust is pulled too tightly though, and thus Murakami spends the second half of the book pumping suspense from wherever he can think to drill. On the whole I think he is successful in this effort, but I can certainly see where not all readers would agree. Without spoiling too much: whether or not it’s Frank, a killer is on the loose, and at right about the halfway point the book descends rapidly into stomach-churning brutality so gratuitous that it could easily be shelved alongside bizarro fiction. However you might feel about that, Murakami renders a palpable fear on his pages, with Kenji’s life future constantly balanced on the tip of a needle.
Beneath all the blood and sexual violence is an interesting and pretty astute commentary on the wayward, even lost, sense of identity in Japanese youth. Theirs is a culture simultaneously proud and abashed of its historical self, one that both craves the influence of the Western world and despises it. Kenji and Frank’s relationship in many ways analogues Japanese and American relations. Kenji needs Frank, and in a way becomes dependent on him. He’s unsure if it’s based on fear or respect or duty or greed, but he sticks with Frank and, as much as he wants to loathe his American client, he begins to identity Frank as a necessary component in defining who he is.
This is a short and entertaining book; an expertly crafted thriller with a surprising clarity of sociological sensibility. You might call it bizarro or satire or suspense/horror with tinges of the society; I’m not sure how to best categorize this book, but I do know that I quite liked it, and was pleasantly surprised to find it actually had something to say. I wasn’t hyperbolizing about the brutality though: this book is graphic in its sadism. If that’s not something you can handle, stay away.
Similar Reads:Maribou Stork Nightmare (Welsh), American Psycho (Ellis)