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.

Bødy

Bødy

Title: Bødy
Japanese Title: 躯 (Karada)
Author: Nonami Asa (乃波アサ)
Translator: Takami Nieda
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 192

If body horror makes you squeamish, you probably shouldn’t read this book.

If body horror fascinates you, you have come to the right place. Surgery, needles, public bathing, erectile dysfunction, heart attacks, concussions – Nonami Asa’s Bødy has it all.

Bødy collects five short stories, which are all about forty pages long. Each of these stories centers around the body-related neurosis of its protagonist. The short stories in Bødy remind me of the short stories of Patricia Highsmith (particularly those in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder and Little Tales of Misogyny) in that they feature tongue-in-cheek accounts of terrible things happening to people who probably deserve them. In “Blood,” a man who gets off on injuring others learns that he can also get off on injuring himself. In “Whorl,” a man planning on dumping his girlfriend is dumped by her after some mishaps involving an experimental treatment for baldness. In “Jaw,” a man consumed by his training to become a boxer is ultimately defeated by his own physical regimen. The opening story, “Navel,” is about a mother and her two daughters who blow through their savings in order to undergo a series of cosmetic surgical procedures. The last laugh, however, is on the husband and father who doesn’t notice that they look any different until it’s too late.

Although the tone of Bødy is far from jovial, it never takes its subject matter too seriously. With an escalating series of bad things happening to weak-willed and pathetic people, the humor in Bødy is as black as it gets. As soon as the reader thinks that things can’t get any worse for the characters, things get worse in the worst possible way. As a result, these stories are horrifying and fascinating at the same time.

Humor usually works best when the butt of the joke is in a position of power or otherwise represents the status quo, and an element of discomfort tends to creep in when the character being ridiculed truly is a victim. For this reason, the story “Buttocks” stands out for me as the most disturbing story in the collection.

Hiroe, the former queen bee teenage protagonist of “Buttocks,” suffers severe culture shock after she leaves her home in the country to attend a high school in Tokyo. She lives in a dorm, where she has trouble physically and mentally adjusting to a communal lifestyle. She didn’t want to leave home in the first place, her friends from middle school won’t talk to her anymore, and she learns that the only reason she’s able to live in Tokyo is because her father made a large donation to her school. When one of the other girls living in the dorm calls her fat, Hiroe develops an eating disorder. The reader, who is given intimate knowledge of Hiroe’s mindset and methods, sympathizes with the bulimic Hiroe’s improved self-image and sense of renewed control over her life. It actually seems as if the story will have a happy ending before Hiroe collapses and is revealed to be terrifyingly unhealthy. As her parents carry her out of the dorm, Hiroe overhears the same girl who had mocked her for having hips like a duck whispering how creepy she is now that she looks like a skeleton.

Hiroe may have bullied another girl in middle school, but she didn’t deserve this, and the punch line of “Buttocks” is chilling. In this story, the narrative pattern that characterizes the stories in Bødy is less tragicomic and more genuinely upsetting. It’s easy to laugh at the chauvinist pigs of the first three stories in the collection, but the teenage protagonists of the last two stories are genuine victims of forces beyond their control who receive no sympathy from other characters and turn to desperate measures in an attempt to exert some small measure control over their lives. The emotional range Nonami achieves within these stories is remarkable, as is the skill with which she treads the line between amusement and discomfort.

Nonami Asa is a fantastic writer, and I’m happy that more of her work is appearing in translation. She’s primarily known for her detective fiction in Japan, and Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation of The Hunter is an good example of her gritty hardboiled style. Nonami’s other novel in translation, Now You’re One of Us, is creepy gothic horror that features the black humor and body horror of Bødy without the blunt, cringe-inducing needle-in-your-eye imagery. If you can handle literature with genuinely dark themes, it’s hard to go wrong with Nonami Asa, and Bødy is an excellent introduction to the writer’s work.

Parasite Eve

Title: Parasite Eve
Japanese Title: パラサイト・イヴ (Parasaito Ivu)
Author: Sena Hideaki (瀬名秀明)
Translator: Tyran Grillo
Publication Year: 1995 (Japan); 2005 (America)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 314

Sometimes I know that I should not write a particular review. Sometimes I have nothing nice to say. Sometimes, however, it’s way too much fun to resist writing about a hilariously bad book. This has happened before with Outlet and xxxHOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC, and now it’s happening again with Sena Hideaki’s horror novel Parasite Eve, which is so bad that it’s almost good.

If nothing else, the premise of Parasite Eve is certainly original. A woman named Kiyomi has a problem with her mitochondria, which have collectively mutated into an intelligent being. These mitochondria gradually take over Kiyomi’s body, killing her and forcing her husband Toshiaki, a pharmaceutical researcher, to cultivate her liver cells. Since Kiyomi was an organ donor, one of her livers has found its way into a fourteen-year-old girl named Mariko, who begins to suffer from nightmares. As Toshiaki’s cell culture, which he has named “Eve 1,” grows, it (she) gains the ability to move around and make herself look like Toshiaki’s dead wife. Since Eve 1 cannot live for long on her own, she wants to create a half-human, half-mitochondria offspring, a project for which she needs Toshiaki’s sperm and Mariko’s womb. Although Eve 1 has a time limit for how long she can survive outside of a cell incubator, she can reshape herself at will and shoot fire. It goes without saying that Toshiaki must find a way stop her.

The narrative shifts between Toshiaki, Toshiaki’s research assistant, Mariko’s father, Mariko’s doctor, and Kiyomi. Eve 1 occasionally gets a few italicized paragraphs, too. Each of these characters is interesting in his or her own right; but, even though none of them are wooden or stereotypical, their characterization felt a bit half-hearted to me. The real focus of the first two-thirds of the book seems to be less on the characters and more on the surgery and scientific experiments they are involved in. Toshiaki’s research and Mariko’s organ transplant are described in loving detail, with all sorts of technical terms accompanied by explanations for the general reader. Even with all the non-fiction exegesis of science and medicine, the narrative progresses normally (if a bit slowly) for 175 pages. Even though there was a bit of Eve 1 shooting orgasms at people (I am not making this up) previously, this is the point at which things get ridiculous.

The next paragraph is filled with spoilers and sex. Consider yourself warned.

In the last third of the book, Eve 1 steps into the spotlight. I was especially struck by how Sena chose to portray her as intensely sexual. When Eve 1 first gains the ability to manipulate her shape while still in the cell culture incubator, she immediately gives herself a vagina and a finger and puts the two together. She then mouth-rapes Toshiaki’s student in order to gain control of her body for a few days before breaking free, at which point she turns herself into a giant vagina and rapes Toshiaki so as to procure his sperm. I kept thinking to myself, I bet Eve 1 is going to grow a penis and rape the fourteen-year-old next. So, when Eve 1 grew a penis and raped Mariko (after a short jaunt through the sewer), I actually laughed so hard that I cried a little bit. At the very end of the book, it turns out that Eve 1’s offspring cannot live (something about the male mitochondria in her body fighting the female mitochondria; don’t ask me). Instead of using her mitochondrial superpowers to generate a small-scale nuclear reaction and blow everything sky high (as I would have done in her situation), Eve 1’s daughter decides to fuse into the body of her father Toshiaki, and all of their cells have sex before they both die. Brilliant.

Body horror seems to be one of the major selling points of Parasite Eve, but body horror needs to be subtle in order to be truly effective. I believe that the body horror in this novel is unsubtle to an extreme, however, and the book has very few genuinely creepy moments. Also, by the end of the story, I really wanted Eve 1 to succeed in her mission of evolving an all-female race of mitochondria mutants, so I was a bit (okay, extremely) disappointed when both her and her daughter were defeated by the patriarchal power structures that pervade the narrative. Also, the idea that a female character needs to be either an innocent victim, a primordial mother, or a hyper-sexualized aggressor is getting a little stale. Seriously, is the dawn of a female race of X-Men with tentacles really too much to ask for?

To summarize, Parasite Eve is somewhat slow and boring for 175 pages, becomes progressively more gross and strange for the next 100 pages, and then ends in a 15 page orgy of fire and violence and slime. In other words, the pacing is a bit uneven, as is the distribution of action and explanation. Overall, reading Parasite Eve felt uncannily like reading a Michael Crichton novel, including the way that the science became increasingly more outlandish as the story progressed. If you’re a fan of Michael Crichton novels (or Dean Koontz novels), then you’ll probably be able to gloss over the flaws in the writing and enjoy Parasite Eve. Sena is working with very interesting material, after all, and his style is neither dry nor unliterary. The translation flows smoothly, and everything from dialog to the description of surgery has been rendered into natural, idiomatic English. If nothing else, it is worth reading through the first two thirds of the book in order to get to the ending. Especially if you’re into the sort of thing that happens during the ending – and, admit it, who isn’t?