Monday, 23 November 2009

In the Miso Soup

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
(translated by Ralph McCarthy)

A happy little title, but don't be fooled, enter the dark and seedy world of the red light district Kabuki-cho in Tokyo. A morally ambiguous area with schoolgirls going on 'compensated dating', oniai matchmaking clubs layered over prostitution and exploitation.

Kenji has just turned 20 and takes foreign tourists on sex tours of the bars, strip joints and date clubs. His mother thinks he is enrolled in a college preparation course. He has no intention of going to college and is saving up to go to America.

Frank, a strange, overweight American tourist, hires him for a three night guided tour of the nightlife. There is something not quite right about Frank, and Kenji cannot get it out of his mind that he might have had something to do with the dismembered body of a schoolgirl, found recently in the area. Jun, Kenji's girlfriend is not happy that he has been hired for three days, because he has promised to spend New Year with her.

Strange incidents happen, and Kenji is more and more convinced that Frank is a killer on the loose, his eyes are "cold as dark marbles" and his stories are shifting truths.

When Kenji finds something like a scrap of paper stuck to his door his girlfriend looks at it as asks what it is. Nothing he says, throwing it away, but Kenji is horribly convinced it is a piece of human skin.

"Malevolence is born of negative feelings like loneliness and sadness and anger. It comes from an emptiness inside you that feels as if its been carved out with a knife, an emptiness you're left with when something very important has been taken away from you. I can't say I sensed a particularly cruel or sadistic tendency in Frank, or even that he fit my image of a murderer. But what I did sense was an emptiness like a black hole inside him, and there was no predicting what might emerge from a place like that"

The book covers three days but is also constructed like a three act play, which may be the influence of Ryu Murakami's other profession of film director. The first part is an exploration of this particular Japanese subculture, the second is Quentin Tarantino violence territory, the third is an exposition and a complicity of corruption.

Ryu Murakami's characters are all either drifting, lonely or empty vessels. The Tokyo district of Kabuki-cho runs like a fault-line through the book and Murakami is a vivid writer. The translation is excellent. Sometimes books in translation can feel as though there is a veil between the writer and reader but not in this translation.

Would I want to read more of Ryu Murakami's view of Japan, I'm not sure. If I did it would be the quality of writing that would lure me more than his dark picture of the human condition. He has been compared in the blurbs to Bret Easton Ellis and that is someone I have never thought of reading.

A Murakami interview from the Daily Yomiuri where he discusses his view of the Japanese character see here

No comments: