Title: In the Miso Soup
Japanese Title: イン ザ・ミソスープ (In za miso sūpu)
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上 龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1997 (Japan)
In the Miso Soup was serialized during 1997 in the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the highest circulation in Japan (and perhaps in the world), and it won the 1998 Yomiuri Prize for Literature, an extremely prestigious award given to superlative works of writers who have already established themselves as leaders in their fields. The novel’s North American and Japanese publishers have marketed it as a “psycho thriller,” and its extreme and violent content will more than likely shock anyone who isn’t familiar with Murakami’s oeuvre, especially his other suspense novels from the 1990s, such as Piercing (1994) and Audition (1997).
The twenty-year-old protagonist of the novel, Kenji, is a high school graduate from Shizuoka Prefecture who makes his living by acting as a guide of Shinjuku’s Kabukichō neighborhood, which is internationally famous for its nightlife. Kenji specializes in sex tours for foreigners, who learn about his services through Tokyo Pink Guide, a publication helmed by a man named Yokoyama, who believes it is his calling in life to bring the people of the world together through something all human beings have in common. On the morning of December 29, Kenji is contacted by an American named Frank, who claims to be a distributer of Toyota car parts and meets Kenji while clutching a copy of Pink Guide in his meaty hands.
If you mention In the Miso Soup to anyone who’s read the novel, the conversation will instantly turn to how delightfully creepy Frank is. Frank is a pathological liar, for starters. If one of the bizarre things Frank says is challenged in any way, he becomes suddenly and irrationally furious, his expression transforming into a mask of rage that Kenji soon comes to refer to as “the face.” The skin on Frank’s neck and hands is loose and seems artificial, and a sex worker who services Frank at a peep show says that there is something inexplicably wrong with his penis as well. To make matters even more upsetting, the body of a high school junior named Takahashi Akiko had been found dismembered and distributed across Kabukichō early in the morning of the 27th; and, after Frank goes on a rant about killing homeless people during his first night out with Kenji, the charred corpse of a homeless man is found in Shinjuku Central Park the next morning. By the end of the first of the novel’s three chapters, both Kenji and the reader are supplied with ample evidence to suspect that there is something not quite right with Frank.
Although Kenji is understandably apprehensive about spending more time with Frank, he is even more worried about what Frank might do in retaliation if he were to break their agreement and stand him up. He thus goes out for a second night on the town with Frank, who now makes very little effort to appear normal. After an episode of highly concentrated weirdness at an underground shot bar, Kenji and Frank go to an omiai club, a bar where people hoping to hook up with a stranger can meet. The girls who enter the club are given numbers and chosen by the men, who must pay a cover charge to enter. If a girl is chosen, she will share a table and drinks with the man who selects her. If they hit it off, they can then proceed to a nearby love hotels, and it is understood that money will more than likely change hands after the encounter. It’s not quite prostitution, but the women do have a financial interest in convincing the men to leave the club with them, and they will put everything they have into flirting and appearing attractive. What could be a quirky comedy of errors in another novel becomes an absurdist drama in the bizarro realm of In the Miso Soup, and Frank puts an end to the staged and artificial interactions of the club’s patrons with a lengthy orgy of meticulously narrated ultraviolence. Although Kenji is clearly traumatized by this turn of events, he also takes tentative steps towards an acceptance of what has happened to the other people at the club, who have upset his fundamental faith in humanity with their superficiality:
They were like automatons programmed to portray certain stereotypes, these people. The truth is it bugged the hell out of me just to be around them, and I’d begun to wonder if they weren’t all filled with sawdust and scraps of vinyl, like stuffed animals, rather than flesh and blood. Even when I saw their throats slit and the gore oozing out, it hadn’t seemed real to me. I remembered thinking, as I watched the blood drip down from Lady #5’s throat, that it looked like soy sauce. Imitation human beings, that’s what they were.
Murakami therefore configures Frank’s dispassionate killing spree into a sort of social critique, a theme that comes to fore in the novel’s third chapter. After the bloodbath at the omiai club (which Kenji refers to as “The Great Omiai Pub Massacre,” as if it had happened years ago), Frank shanghaies Kenji into spending the night with him in the abandoned medical facility in which he has ensconced himself. While Kenji shivers in the darkness of the unheated building, Frank regales him with stories from his childhood in America. As might be imagined, Frank’s childhood is dysfunctional and disturbing enough to make Stephen King proud (Frank even grew up in Maine!), as it includes the creepiness of small towns, the killing of small animals, murder, institutionalization, and extreme body horror courtesy of American mental health practices. Frank is obviously a sociopath, and he has already been established as a pathological liar, so it’s not entirely certain that he’s telling the truth, but he does seem to be telling Kenji his life story for a reason. Frank is almost like an overweight Tyler Durden as he explains that society needs terror, discord, and disruption in order to evolve:
“I see myself as being like a virus. Did you know that only a tiny minority of viruses cause illness in humans? No one knows how many viruses there are, but their real role, when you get right down to it, is to aid in mutations, to create diversity among life forms. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject – when you don’t need much sleep you have a lot of time to read – and I can tell you that if it weren’t for viruses, mankind would never have evolved on this planet. Some viruses get right inside the DNA and change your genetic code, did you know that? And no one can say for sure that HIV, for example, won’t one day prove to have been re-writing our genetic code in a way that’s essential to our survival as a race. I’m a man who consciously commits murders and scares the hell out of people and makes them reconsider everything, so I’m definitely malignant, yet I think I play a necessary role in this world.
I won’t spoil what happens to Frank, Kenji, and Kenji’s girlfriend Jun at the end of the novel, as the suspense regarding the fate of the trio lends an air of immediacy to Frank’s metaphysical speculations and the moral decisions Kenji begins to make concerning Frank. Let it suffice to say that the shock horror of the first two-thirds of the novel are compounded by the social horror of its final chapter. In the Miso Soup is a short book and a blisteringly quick read, but it stays with the reader long after it draws to its conclusion on New Year’s Eve, at which point its seemingly nonsensical title takes on chilling connotations. In the Miso Soup is a sublime dose of nihilism and ultraviolence that illuminates the seedy side of Tokyo in its blindingly dark shadow that is sure to please fans of Japanese horror and readers of extreme literature.