Sunday, April 19, 2015

BOOKSHELF: RYU MURAKAMI'S "IN THE MISO SOUP"


My "Japanese Thriller" themed summer reading has started early. Under heavy influence of a revived interest in dark anime and "Tokyo Shock" cinema, I was excited to venture once again into one of my favorite territories, both in genre and geography. Having picked eight novels of what I thought could be the cream of the crop for such subject matter, I began with Murakami's 1997 novel, In The Miso Soup. Short and not so sweet, it's a blazingly fast read, though you may be unsure of why you're so determined to get to the end. Yes, it grips you, but I wouldn’t call the work all that gripping. There's a gnawing feeling of urgency with each page you turn, but that isn't necessarily synonymous with enjoying the content.

The layout is equally unorthodox, as the novel only has three chapters, one for each day the story takes place. It is three days to New Year's Eve, and Kenji, an unlicensed guide of Tokyo's red light district, narrates his experience with a peculiar American tourist, Frank, who may or may not be a gruesome serial killer of prostitutes and homeless folk in the area. The 'whodunnit' doesn't carry much weight as there are no other suspects to chose from for the reader, nor does it matter, because Frank is so off the charts, that something awful is bound to commence with or without the 'is he or isn't he' dilemma. To be sure, the eventual lurid bloodbath in all its animated filth and glory doesn't disappoint. The passage seems cursory, but leaves a lasting impression.

First person novels aren't everyone's cup of tea, and I am on the fence in whether an abundance of I's brings a reader closer to the action or snaps them out of it. I suppose it works here to a certain extent, because the narrator is a 20-year-old youth and his way of speaking reflects it plainly. It also works well to segregate him from the rest of society, both in spirit and in word, which further mirrors Japan's isolationist social structure. The novel's main strength rests in making clear just how similar (and how utterly misguided) American and Japanese cultures are in fetishizing one another.

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