This was one of the most pleasant surprises of my reading year. After reading the last Ryu Murakami book, and my first, I was wondering should I even bother with the second one. I usually read three books by an author to figure out if he is worth my time. The first one I read, Coin locker Babies, was really a disappointment. I felt like it was too loose, all over the place. In The Miso Soup was the complete opposite. It reads so much better. One of the biggest reasons is probably Ryu’s improvement throughout the years, since there is like 20+ years difference between him writing those two books. In The Miso Soup is also a lot more concise, it knows what the subject is and sticks to it, with only a few sidetracks. The author tends to favor commentary about the world as he sees it. Its toned down in this book and he picks his spots very well. Overall, very impressed with the book and will read Almost Transparent Blues in the future and figure out if me and Ryu are a long-term thing. (Calling him Ryu because I’m already a fan of the other Murakami, Haruki).
Onto the book itself.
The book is about meeting and time spent together of two men, Kenji and Frank. Kenji is a 20-year-old who works as a sex tour guide. Its not a fully professional, by the books gig, but more of a living in the grey zone of the economy sort of thing. He is from a small town in a province nearby. His father died when he was 14, and his mother raised him by herself after his father died. Unlike the majority of the men in his hometown, Kenji has respect for his mother, while others, in his own words “Don’t mind smacking their mothers around”. The poor mother thinks he’s in college, and would be heartbroken if she found out that he was lying to her all this time, as well as working a job that would bring disgrace to her. His dream is to save enough money and move to the States. He had hoped the job would pay a lot better than it actually did. But non the less, he still has a lot of spare time and can live a life that feels fulfilling. He can read and watch stuff he wants; enjoy all the music he likes and spend plenty of time with his 16-year-old girlfriend Jun.
There is an epidemic of what Kenji calls “selling it” in Japan. By that he means high school girls doing prostitution. There are layers to it, and while his girlfriend Jun is very much against it, she did do some compensation dating, which entails spending time with other men, going drinking and singing karaoke with them. They don’t discuss those moments at all. Kenji also has the habit of seeing the worst in a situation or person.
One night Kenji meets Frank, a short, awkward stocky built American. There isn’t anything particularly interesting about Frank. He looks average. But something feels off, at least to Kenji. He finds it really hard to gauge Frank’s age. One moment he looks 25 and the other he appears as a guy in his 40s. The way Frank acts, especially his social awkwardness makes it seem to Kenji that he is suffering from immeasurable levels of loneliness. Frank talks a lot, all the time. Which Kenji doesn’t mind, but what Kenji does mind and what makes him feel unease is all the lies Frank starts telling him about his backstory. He goes through half a dozen of them, every single one of them conflicting.
But being that Kenji’s mind works in very absolute pessimistic ways, he starts to connect Frank with the set of violent things happening in his prefecture, the various murders that have been going on. The more time he spends with Frank the more he scares him. One of the biggest reasons is this face Frank makes when he is angry or under some sort of stress:
Sure enough, this summoned up the Face. Little blue and red capillaries appeared on his cheeks, the light went out of his pupils, and the corners of his eyes and nose and lips began to quiver. This was the first time I’d seen the Face head-on and close up, so close I could almost feel Frank’s breath on me. He looked like he was either very, very angry or very, very frightened.
There are other things that freak Kenji out, like the suicide scars on Frank’s hands, him freezing in moments and forgetting where he was or what he was saying. Frank can hypnotize people. And the story of him being in a traffic accident which lead to doctors having to cut out his medulla oblongata just doesn’t sit well with Kenji. Frank also doesn’t feel cold, barely sleeps and has abnormal strength, which feels like a mechanical, metallic power when unleashed.
And then, the scene in the club happens. Its an incredible scene. I really think that in the right hands, in a great horror movie director’s hand it could become the greatest horror movie scene of all time. Hands down. It just keeps on going, but doesn’t become tedious. It keeps upping the ante. Just as you think the horrors, the gruesome, terrifying horrors are over, it gets worse. You can’t stop reading, you are hypnotized. And once its over you feel like you were there, like you were Kenji in the flesh, feeling tired, physically and mentally exhausted, on the brink of throw up your insides and your soul at the same time.
The way the author paces Kenji’s thoughts about Frank, combined with the timing of the bombastic revelation is amazing. There are so many clues along the way. But Kenji is a pessimist who likes to conclude the worst about people and what’s happening around him. You are on a swing, between what might be and how Kenji sees the world. But the clues are numerous and they really push you to the conclusion. Murakami knows that, and that’s why he says “You have probably figured out that Frank has done all these things, but let me show you how he does it”. And boy oh boy, does he show it to you.
There are two ways of reading the latter half of the book, when frank reveals to Kenji everything about him. One way is to believe him completely and see him as an honest bloke. Or you are like me and think he is a complete psychopath and sociopath and think he gets off on controlling people. I think Frank sees himself as a superman type of figure or uberman. He does refer to himself as the “Superman of Sex”. The fact that he knows and often uses hypnosis is a pretty big sign that he likes the ability to control others. Information is a common form of control and by telling Kenji all these particular backstories he shapes the way Kenji sees him. But what pushed me towards my “everything is a lie” conclusion is Frank’s talk about devolution. You can clearly see there that he is a deranged psychopath with no compassion.
The only thing that makes me push back on that conclusion is the ending. Frank gives Kenji a swan’s feather as a good bye gift. Before that we have Kenji leading Frank towards a bridge where they can hear bells that supposedly have the power to wash away all your sins and bad influences. If Frank is honest, truly honest, he came to the bridge to get absolution from his ways, and die as a pure soul. The suicide scars point to that. And everything he experiences with Kenji is Frank’s sick and twisted idea of a Swan Song.
I’m still on the fence a bit, but I really think he is just manipulating Kenji to the very end.
And here are a few extra quotes and thoughts by the author through Kenji
▪ And sometimes ignorance is even harder to deal with than deliberate evil.
▪ Everybody lives with a certain amount of confusion and indecision—never knowing which way the
Taking Shots at Horror Movie Fans:
▪ Basically people who love horror movies are people with boring lives.
▪ They want to be stimulated, and they need to reassure themselves, because when a really scary movie is over, you’re reassured to see that you’re still alive and the world still exists as it did before.
▪ That’s the real reason we have horror films—they act as shock absorbers—and if they disappeared altogether it would mean losing one of the few ways we have to ease the anxiety of the imagination