It was one of those happy coincidences when I came across In the Miso Soup and Murakami’s other thin book Audition in a bookshop a few weeks ago. I was looking to see if Haruki Murakami had anything new out and just stumbled over the original written version of one of the most memorable Takashi Miike film’s I’ve seen. Audition stars Ryo Ishibashi a lonely widow auditioning young woman to be his next wife and falling foul of a complete nutter with a penchant for needles and piano wire. I snaffled up both books based on my enjoyment of the film.
In the Miso Soup written by who I’m probably always going to refer to as ‘the other Murakami’ in 1997, and translated into English in 2003, features twenty-year-old Kenji who provides Westerners with guided tours of Tokyo’s seedy nightlife and Frank a ‘gaijin’ who is seemingly a typical American sex-tourist wanting to hire Kenji’s services for a few nights leading up to New Year’s Eve.
After spending some time with Frank – drinking at bars, going to a peep show, hitting some baseball – it becomes clear to Kenji very quickly that Frank is hiding something and he suspects that he was involved in the recent murder of a Tokyo school girl. When a homeless person at the baseball nets is also found dead, Kenji is almost sure Frank is to blame.
It’s a short book spanning just over 180 pages and for the bulk of the tale the reader is teased by Kenji’s suspicions – is he just being over-imaginative and intrigued by Frank’s odd behaviour. Frank it seems is a bit of a hypnotist, a liar and has a bit of a short fuse. What we don’t find out until quite deep into the book is that he also has a razor sharp blade hidden about his person.
This blade is put to horrific use in a late night bar. Kenji witnesses multiple murders and is only spared by Frank because they have formed a bond. Kenji fights with the moral dilemma of calling the police while also risking provoking Frank’s wrath. It’s this part of the book I have a bit of an issue with as I struggle to understand Kenji’s motives for not calling the police.
Instead he sleeps at Frank’s hideout, a deserted hospital, and later escorts him to listen to some traditional bells ringing in the New Year. Frank has told him his life story – how he became a serial killer in the US, how he spent time in prison and was later treated for his mental illness – and Kenji thinks Frank will let him go once he hears the bells and is perhaps cleansed of his wicked ways.
At the end of the book, Kenji unnecessarily puts his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Jun, in harm’s way and it’s rather an anti-climax when Frank disappears into the crowd (or the ‘miso soup’ as he puts it).
I enjoyed Frank’s character and the atmosphere of frustrated loneliness inherent in the underbelly of this snippet of Japanese culture, but wasn’t blown away by the overall story. It didn’t feel like any of the characters really changed or learned anything useful from the shocking events contained within book.