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Lost Even Before Translation 

Murder, melancholy and Murakami’s In the Miso Soup

Thursday, Feb 12 2004
Illustration by Erik Sandberg

“He’d described himself as white and stocky and looking a bit like Ed Harris in profile,” the Japanese narrator tells us of his new American client. But Frank shows up looking nothing like Ed Harris, and that’s just the first bit of misinformation that fills Ryu Murakami’s exhilarating page-turner In the Miso Soup. While recent films like Lost in Translation and Japanese Story had their Western heroes growing to understand the Japanese through bumbling missteps and moments of grace, discovering that both cultures are essentially nice, Murakami’s bold new novel sees it from the other side, and says it without flinching: We get along because we’re both not nice. In the Miso Soup is quality pulp made out of Japan’s crushed, dark heart: Our pride, it suggests, is matched only by our self-hatred. We’re desperately lost . . . but so are you.

Murakami’s hero is Kenji, a 20-year-old, English-speaking guide who’s hired to take Frank around Tokyo’s red-light district. Instead of the open arms (and legs) found in Third World cities, the soap lands, lingerie pubs and karaoke bars of Kabuki-cho are impermeable to gaijin, which is where Kenji comes in. He translates as best as he can to Frank the intricacies of “compensated dating” (just talk, no touch), the comical snobbery of modern-day geishas (“I never want to fly economy,” says one) and the braggadocio of dives with signs claiming, “This is a top-quality peepshow that was shown on television.” What ensues is a culture clash from the Japanese point of view. One of the book’s best scenes describes a brand-obsessed hooker’s disillusionment when she’s told that Hilton hotels aren’t considered particularly “high class” in America. The more Kenji tries to explain it all to Frank, the more baffling he himself finds the Japanese. He’s lost even before translation begins.

When Frank’s erratic behavior starts making Kenji suspect he might be responsible for a pair of unsolved murders around town, Kenji and his equally dislocated 16-year-old girlfriend have what they think is a serious discussion about it. (“You’re not saying he’s a robot, are you?”) No matter. Killer or not, there’s something compellingly lonesome about Frank that keeps Kenji at his side, part sleuth, part social scientist and part hapless enabler. A match made in hell.

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Murakami’s American fans include such connoisseurs of the visceral as Oliver Stone and Roger Corman, and it’s easy to see why. In the Miso Soup often reads like a collaboration between Stephen King and Michel Houellebecq, with off-key karaoke going on in the background. He gives you shocking blood-violence, but the social critique is never far behind. After a gory massacre at a lounge, Kenji blames the victims for their complicity. They were asking for it, he says, because they were too passive, too polite, too Japanese. “It was murder with all the drama of picking up a fallen hat and replacing it on a rack.”

With his hard-eyed view of modern Japan, Murakami can hardly be confused with his more famous peer, Haruki Murakami (no relation), whose more sedate novels like Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun are peopled with characters living in a sustained Western reverie, feeding off the nostalgia evoked by Beatles songs or the purr of a saxophone. Ryu Murakami, who at 51 has written over 40 novels and even directed movies (his Tokyo Decadence tackled the city’s S&M scene), is closer in spirit to the equally prolific filmmaker Takashi Miike — whose cult hit Audition was, unsurprisingly, based on one of his novels. That film slipped seamlessly from a taut, Hitchcockian thriller into a midnight movie with amputation by piano wire. And that’s pure Murakami.

Until now, Murakami has been best known stateside for Coin Locker Babies, published here in 1998, his densely imagined fable about two young men who go on an epic search for the mothers who left them in public lockers as newborns. It was deemed an oddity and received scant attention. But In the Miso Soup washes ashore as part of a new tidal wave of Japanese pop artifacts fusing extreme violence with extreme melancholy. Those barely legal teens of anime trysting with tentacles have become old hat. Now, female factory workers dismember an unpleasant husband in Natsuo Kirino’s best-seller Out; lonely school kids kill one another in movies like All About Lily Chou-Chou and Battle Royale, a fave of Quentin Tarantino and every indie filmmaker in New York; Ichi the Killer murders everybody in the gleeful blood operas of Takashi Miike. (Battle Royale II was the hottest ticket at the Rotterdam International Film Festival last month.) Yet In the Miso Soup stands apart from the others because it offers a self-examination, if not exactly a conscience.

Near the book’s close, Kenji and Frank have a lengthy summit over soggy ramen about the awful symmetry binding Japan and the U.S.: Here are the two countries in the world that have never been forced to adapt to another culture — they did the forcing — and as such, they possess the kind of bloodlust that festers only in isolation. Slyly, Murakami has shown us that the real core of Japan and America’s mutual admiration is also the one commodity everybody else in the world desires, in all its horror and majesty — it’s that mother of violence, imagination.

IN THE MISO SOUP | By RYU MURAKAMI, translated by Ralph McCarthy | Kodansha International | 180 pages $23 hardcover

  • Murder, melancholy and Murakami’s In the Miso Soup

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