Yin and Yang
Murakami’s gorefest tackles cultural conformity and individualism
by Jonathan B. Frey
Gurotesuku suriaa , a Japanese expression borrowed from the English phrase “grotesque thriller,” precisely describes Japanese author Ryu Murakami’s novel, In the Miso Soup (Penguin, $14, translated by Ralph McCarthy). Not only does Miso Soup contain the inexorable plot and vicious brutality of a horror film, but it also reflects Murakami’s continuing scrutiny of Western influences on Japanese culture.
Kenji, the narrator and one of three central characters in Miso Soup , is a 20-year-old college dropout who conducts sex tours of Tokyo’s nightlife for foreign, mostly American, visitors and dreams of “sav[ing] up a fair amount of money and go to America.” His girlfriend, Jun, is a 16-year-old high school student who meets Kenji while performing “compensated dating,” a practice indulged by young Japanese women that involves entertaining, not always sexually, middle-aged men in exchange for pocket money. Frank is an American businessman, who contracts with Kenji for a multi-evening tour of Tokyo’s Kabuki-cho district. It is the last three nights of December 1996; there are news reports of grisly murders of a young teenage girl (suspected of compensated dating) and a homeless man. The result is a story of senseless menace as well as appalling and never fully explained gore.
As a thriller, Miso Soup contains the genre’s essential elements, but too often broadcasts the developing action to the reader, undermining much of the novel’s suspense. While this flaw may be an artifact of translation from Japanese to English, the more likely cause is that such development is not of primary interest to Murakami. Nevertheless, Miso Soup contains an illuminating portrayal of the sex industry and youth culture of Japan, both of which are—as Kenji comments several times in the novel—“fundamentally uninterested in foreigners,” yet which have paradoxically developed elaborate methods to mimic foreign ways. Or as Frank exasperates, “it’s not cool, it’s embarrassing. Japan may have lost the war, but that was a long time ago now. Why keep imitating America?” Such a question has been posed by many visitors to Japan and is central to Murakami’s fiction.
Ryu Murakami, like fellow author, countryman, and unrelated namesake Haruki Murakami, was born in post-World War II Japan, emerging as an award-winning and very popular writer in the ’70s, first in Japan and then subsequently worldwide. As members of the post-Occupation generation, Ryu and Haruki were the first writers to incorporate frequent Western cultural references into Japanese fiction, to mixed critical reception in their own country (and causing some identity confusion between them among non-Japanese readers). In the works of Ryu and Haruki, as in the contemporary Japan they were both born and raised in, Western fashions, cuisine, sports, and iconography flourish, contributing significantly to their novels’ accessibility for U.S. audiences as well as lending a somewhat surreal air to their fiction. The key difference, however, is that for Haruki Western custom appears as an inescapable and accepted reality, a setting his characters live within. Alternatively, for Ryu, commencing from his first novel Almost Transparent Blue 30 years ago, the same influences present as suspicious and possible sources of conflict.
In an interview with author Steve Erickson, Ryu Murakami has remarked that “the Japanese people do not have the ability to ‘create’ values, they just follow them. They can’t find value in things that are not labeled already as exclusive or highly reputed. When I say ‘brand-labeled,’ I’m not just talking about Chanel or Gucci. I’m talking about, for example, the Three Great Tenors, Wimbledon Tennis, Masters Golf tournaments, etc., etc. The Japanese tend to rely on whatever has already been established and ignore the rest.” Another example is growing overabundance of words adopted from English when Japanese alternates exist, an apparent nod to sounding more contemporary and trendy (e.g., baaten for bartender, desainaa for designer, fea for fair, sueetaa for sweater, sekkusu for sex, to list just a few). As if to stress this point, the Japanese title of Murakami’s book contains the words miso supu , employing yet more loanwords from English, rather than misoshiru , the Japanese original for what is a traditional Japanese dish. (Similarly, his first novel’s title employed buru , another loanword from English, not the Japanese aoiro , for blue.)
While it is hardly surprising that the American businessman Frank is the sinister focus in Miso Soup , the novel’s greatest horror is the yin and yang of the relationship it portrays: on the one hand the Japanese tendency toward conformity, on the other the near-destructive individualism of the West, each serving the needs of the other, a creepy co-dependent whole.