Gaijin gone wild

In the miso soup
Ryu Murakami
(Kodansha International, 180 pp)

Looking out on the blasting neon lights of Tokyo's legendary Shinjuku night-life district from the elevated vantage point of one of the high-rise hotels or multilevel department stores that surround Shinjuku station, you get an image of an explosively vibrant neighborhood, filled with people who obviously know how to have a good time. Unending rivers of humanity flow across the bridges, on the sidewalks, in and out of the bustling train station ... it's exciting and overwhelming and, from an elevated vantage point, it seems nearly beautiful.

Once you're on the ground, though, things are considerably different. The scene is still dazzling, but the tight streets and innumerable alleyways are simultaneously claustrophobic and limitlessly expansive. Hawkers and touts are omnipresent, shouting and pressing fliers into your hands, hoping to get you (and your yen) into their bar or club; music blares from every shop, whether they're selling wireless phones or tennis shoes or CDs. And the further you move away from the nexus of the train station -- in a generally northeasterly direction -- the more scarily primal things become, as it's this area, known as Kabuki-cho, that is the beating heart of the sex trade in Tokyo. It's not the sex that's scary, though; what's frightening is the patina of normality that pervades this exceedingly abnormal area. Strip clubs, hostess bars and barely concealed prostitution fronts are ubiquitous, making it difficult to imagine that anything else ever existed in the area ... or that anything else exists in Tokyo at all.

It's this sense of abnormal normality that Ryu Murakami brings to his fourth novel, "In the Miso Soup." As a filmmaker and a novelist, Murakami has long dwelled upon the intricacies and extremities of contemporary Japanese culture, exploding quirks into pathologies and oddness into painfully apocalyptic psychedelia. His film "Tokyo Decadence" (1993) is the most logical precursor to "Miso Soup," as they both take place in the same geographical area (Shinjuku and Kabuki-cho) and hew to a character-driven narrative that's normal ... until it gets really weird. Yet, where "Tokyo Decadence" was a rather rote morality play about a bland girl gone way bad, "Miso Soup" takes the far-out, bleeding-eye imagery of a truly bizarre book like his "Coin Locker Babies" and grafts it onto a story that's part psycho-thriller, part culture clash and, oddly enough, part buddy story.

Transforming the Ugly American into something most grotesque, Murakami tells the story of Frank (a fleshy, robotic psychopath) and Kenji (a relentlessly naïve "sex-tour" guide) and their multinight journey through the roiling depravity of Kabuki-cho. Kenji just wants to make a few bucks from Frank; Frank just wants to get laid ... and gruesomely murder as many people as possible. The way that Murakami exaggerates the notion of the predator tourist is telling, and in this story, Japan's long history of resistance to foreigners manifests itself as something potentially more destructive than cultural dilution.

Originally published in Japan in 1997 (and just now receiving its first English translation), "In the Miso Soup" was largely viewed at the time as an indictment of the then-prevalent trend of "compensated dating" (when schoolgirls get paid to spend a largely platonic evening with salarymen and other sexually repressed denizens of Shinjuku). This turned into a problem when girls were raped and killed, but Murakami's point with "Miso" is far more broad than condemning something that had been tacitly approved by society. Rather, his condemnation falls squarely on the society that allows such things to happen. Kenji, though theoretically the protagonist here, is far more evil than Frank (who turns out to be a run-of-the-mill lobotomized killing machine of the sort that America churns out on a nightly-news basis). Murakami damns Kenji with constant faint praise, ultimately painting him as a spineless enabler; it's not by accident that the scene of Frank's most violently gory killing spree is also the book's funniest. Kenji's complicity in maintaining the status quo of Kabuki-cho's exploitative environment -- just to make ends meet, of course -- is fundamentally what encourages all those Ugly Americans to drape their cornfed carcasses over the virgin beauty that is Japanese culture. It doesn't look this ugly from the high-rises where the tongue wagging and finger-pointing about the sullying of Japan goes on. And that, ultimately, is Murakami's point.

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