In the Miso Soup

In The Miso Soup

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)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 217

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.

Audition

Title: Audition
Japanese Title: オーディション (Ōdishon)
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1997 (Japan)
Publisher: Norton
Pages: 191

The first order of business in any review of Audition should be to spoil the plot. (If you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read this review. Don’t look at the front cover of the book, either.) My justification for giving everything away is that the ending of this book lends such a delicious flavor to the rest of the story that trying to keep it a secret is pointless, and probably fairly cruel as well.

With that in mind, the premise of Audition is as follows: a middle-aged producer named Aoyama is looking to re-marry after his son mentions that Aoyama’s wife, Ryoko, died seven years ago and that it’s time for him to move on. Since Ryoko was such a wonderful woman, and since Aoyama is more or less satisfied with his current life, however, his standards in women are high. Aoyama’s friend and fellow producer Yoshikawa suggests that Aoyama interview prospective brides as part of a film audition tailored to his specifications. Aoyama reluctantly agrees and ends up meeting Yamasaki Asami, a beautiful 24-year-old woman who seems perfect in every way. Yoshikawa is suspicious of Asami, but Aoyama has fallen head-over-heels in love with her and will have no one else. It turns out that Yoshikawa has every reason to be suspicious, since Asami has a bad habit of drugging and torturing her boyfriends who cannot love only her. Does this include the sincere and good-intentioned Aoyama? You bet it does. The final thirty pages of Audition are a torture-fest graphic enough to test even the most strong-stomached of readers, even as they delightfully revel in the violence and subtle sexuality of the scene.

I generally find comparisons between books and movies to be boring and pointless, but director Miike Takashi’s 1999 adaptation of Audition is such a cult classic that I feel it should be mentioned. Is the novel different from the movie? Of course it is. It goes without saying that certain plot elements are different, but perhaps the most interesting difference is that, while the film focuses on the back story of Asami, the novel pays much more attention to Aoyama. Thus, the horrifically grotesque images associated with Asami’s apartment are missing from the novel. Instead, the reader is party to Aoyama’s absolute fixation with Asami in a brilliant parody of the genre of romance. For example, Murakami describes Aoyama seeing Asami in person for the first time as an amazing, magical moment:

Silhouetted against the off-white walls, she walked to the chair, bowed with modest grace, and sat down. That was all, but Aoyama had a very distinct sensation that something extraordinary was happening all around him. It was like being the millionth visitor to an amusement park, suddenly bathed in spotlights and a rain of balloons and surrounded by microphones and flashing cameras. As if luck, normally dispersed in billions of tiny, free-floating, gemlike particles, had suddenly coalesced in a single beatific vision – a vision that changed everything, forever.

Oh, Aoyama, if only you knew! The dramatic irony of passages like this is superb, and there are a lot of them to enjoy, each one more imaginatively written than the next. Also, since the written word does not have quite the visual power of the silver screen, Asami’s sexuality and sex appeal are presented differently as well, again from the perspective of Aoyama. We never get to see her in knee-high boots and a black rubber apron, but her “hard, tender nipples” and “lust-crazed pussy” are mentioned more than a few times as the book approaches its climax, so to speak. In the end, though, the novel is infinitely less gut-wrenchingly visceral than the film. I think both the film and the novel are brilliant texts, but the novel is much more accessible to a broader audience.

(By the way, I am not kidding about how hideously upsetting the film is. If you have not seen Audition, don’t see Audition. I’m serious. It’s traumatizing. Read the book instead.)

Before I end this review, I’d like to briefly address the issue of the book’s sexism. Although the story may seem to reference the female revenge scenario, the fact that Asami is certifiably insane, as well as her presentation as utterly inhuman and her complete lack of interiority, cancel out any sort of argument for female agency or empowerment. The real case against patriarchal privilege is made through Aoyama. Although Aoyama seems like a decent guy in many ways, the underlying current of his thinking is undeniably sexist. Precisely because Aoyama comes off as such a nice guy, the critique of his sexism and the broad societal sexism that informs it is much more effective. In the book’s closing lines, Asami calls Aoyama a liar, and she is right, even if her words are unintelligible save when voiced by Aoyama’s son. Make no mistake, Audition is written from a completely male perspective, but the light it sheds on how sexism is tied to contemporary Japanese masculinity is interesting and invaluable.