Saturday, January 21, 2006

In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

Ryu is the "other" Murakami, a lot less well known than Haruki: although they are unrelated, they are grouped together as representing Japan's Angry Young Men. Ryu tends to dig around in a more realistic gritty underworld than his more famous namesake. His first novel was Almost Transparent Blue, about young Japanese people in the 1970's, hanging out around an Air Force base, doing drugs and casual sex. Several of his works (he must have written more than 20 novels) have been made into movies.

In the Miso Soup came out in 1997 and was translated into English in 2003. It is an odd wee book, in that the author's concerns don't seem to be taken anywhere and there is far too much foreshadowing of the main story line. Essentially, "Frank" is a middle-aged American tourist who wants to be shown around Tokyo's nightlife, with some emphasis on getting laid. Kenji is his 20 year old guide - he's being doing this for a while now; having shown some 200 men around, he knows what's what.

From their initial contact, Kenji suspects something is strange, dangerous even, about Frank. At the time of Frank's call, Kenji was reading about a murdered schoolgirl, someone who had been raped and cut up. She was one of a growing number of girls who, not out of any kind of financial necessity, went on "compensated dates" and were "selling it". Periodically, there were further references to this kind of thing in the novel, as indications that life in Japan was under transformation and not in a good way. Tokyo's reputation is as a "department store for sex".

But Frank is something special. He creeps Kenji out - partly because his skin appears artificial, he doesn't have the kind of appealingly innocent smile Kenji has come to expect from Americans and his story about why he is in Tokyo sounds like a cover story:
I looked over at him as we walked past the Toyota lot, and a chill trickled down my spine. It was something about his posture in silhouette. he gave off this overpowering, almost tangible loneliness.

All Americans have something lonely about them. I don't know what the reason might be, except maybe they're all descended from immigrants. But Frank had taken it to an all new level. His cheap clothing and slovenly appearance had something to do with it ... he looked very old for his age. But it wasn't just that. There was a falseness about him, as if his whole existence was somehow made up.
Nonetheless, Kenji takes him on for three nights and, really, the first night isn't too bad. They go to a lingerie pub, where girls sit around in lingerie and talk about their dream to go to America and see Niketown (!). Frank turns out to be very funny - the whole bar is engrossed in his "japanese lesson". But they don't go anywhere near a sexual encounter: instead, the night finishes at a baseball batting machine thingey.

Night two, however, all of the little hints and suspicions coalesce. Frank and Kenji have had a remarkably boring night in a "match-making" pub. Five women are sitting at tables, each with a number. Frank fills in the form he's given to invite a couple of the ladies over and, man, were they, or at least the only one who did any talking, horrible. But the night trundles along until Frank is given the bill: that's when he runs amok (contrary to the claim made in the blurb, I did not laugh). Of course, Kenji is left wonderiong what the hell is to happen to him: his client has just killed seven people.

But there's a semi-mystical side to the story - we learn about Frank's history, the compulsion to kill he has had since he was about 3, the times he has spent in mental hospitals and his hope that he might somehow find peace in Japan. This is because of a Buddhist belief that there are 108 "bonno" (kind of worldy desires, bad instincts that make one lose their way): on New Year's Eve, 108 bells are rung to free the listeners from their bonno. Frank wants to listen to the bells. We never know what impact they have on him, because the novel finishes before they ring, but it does end with Frank actually doing something quite tender.


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