In the Miso Soup, by acclaimed psychological thriller author Murakami Ryu, reads as more than just a gory exploration into the murder scene. It is an examination of modern Japanese culture, the way they are seemingly complacent, or at least willfully blind to the things around them. It seeks to understand the phenomenon of teenage girls and their “compensated dating” (being paid just to go on dates with older men). It touches on the way Japan views outsiders, and it brings into light the way our lives can be unexpectedly changed, our eyes opened, and how there is often to returning once revelation strikes.
The novel opens to the narrator, Kenji, bemoaning the numerous ways to simply say, “My name is Kenji,” in Japanese. It is a language of nuance, of decision, of social etiquette dictating even the way you speak to an absurd degree. Kenji works as a tour guide for Japan’s sexual underworld, and the story largely takes place in the Shinjuku and Kabuki-cho neighborhoods of Tokyo. Kenji’s fare is a giant of an American, with the ubiquitous name Frank, and startling characteristics. Within hours, Kenji comes to believe that his charge is the serial killer plaguing the city.
Confused at first, Kenji turns to his 16 year old girlfriend, Jun, for advice. And she ultimately adds to his belief of girls who are "selling it" with "compensated dating," because two of the girls found dead thus far were such individuals. He returns to Frank the next night, the night before New Year’s, determined to ignore his rising suspicions toward this gaijin.
That night culminates in a scene that is difficult to forget, both because of how well it is written, and because of the way it is written. Murakami has a skill for writing the macabre and the obscene in a way that suggests he has actually beheld these things. His skill at describing, for example, a slit throat, is eerily intense and strangely realistic.
The strong point of the novel, however, is the end, where Frank and Kenji are discussing miso soup, a staple side dish in Japan. The author draws the allusion that Japan itself is very akin to miso soup, in that it is sort of transparent, though cloudy, with an odd, though not unpleasant, aroma, and bits of what appear to be “kitchen scrapings” floating throughout. I found that a particularly poignant image of Japan, because it really is that. Bizarre at first to someone unfamiliar with it, and a little unsavory at first glance. But upon further inspection, you can come to see that each element, even the most unassuming, works together to create something that is prevalent and adored.
Murakami has quite the following, since his masterful work Audition, which was made into a film of the same name. He continues to wow audiences in Japan and internationally with his displays of the horrors of the human spirit, and what we can be capable of. Also, like his novel Popular Hits of the Showa Era, In the Miso Soup is as much a cultural experiment and hypothesis as it is a wonderful read.</cut>