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In the Miso Soup    by Ryu Murakami order for
In the Miso Soup
by Ryu Murakami
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2004 (2004)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The jacket describes In the Miso Soup as 'a psycho-thriller', an apt description. It's a psychological thriller about a young Japanese man's interaction with an American tourist (ironically named Frank), whom he gradually becomes convinced is a glib liar and a psycho. At the same time, he reads about a succession of murders in the papers. The novel was translated by Ralph McCarthy and, like many of this publisher's books, comes with a handy, old-fashioned, built-in bookmark, which I hope becomes ubiquitous!

Kenji is a twenty-year-old entrepeneur who, unbeknownst to his mother (his father died when he was fourteen), works as a 'nightlife guide' for foreigners, whom he introduces to the Kabuki-cho district. Kenji specializes in sex tours for 'gaijin' who, since the advent of AIDS, are only welcome in some of the clubs. His latest client makes him uncomfortable from their first meeting on December 29th, and the suspense builds steadily, while the reader empathizes more and more with Kenji's fears. In the intervals in which he's away from Frank, Kenji shares his anxiety with his girlfriend Jun, a high school student and a steadying influence in his life.

Frank has an unnerving grin and his anger (which comes easily and over small things) changes his face in a horrifying way - it only 'slowly morphed back to something more or less human.' Kenji knows that Frank's a liar, but wonders if it's only his imagination that his client is something worse. Then comes horror and people, whom Kenji perceives as 'human trash', die. The shock is magnified for readers when Kenji is affected by a combination of Stockholm syndrome (in which a victim becomes attached to his or her captor) and a bizarre empathy with a mesmerizing psycho. This, as well as fear for his own and Jun's lives, keeps him from contacting the police while he still can. Is it possible that he'll survive till the New Year?

While the novel shows us the sordid side of big-city life in Japan (lingerie and matchmaking pubs, peep shows, hostess bars etc.) it's also very critical of those who mindlessly exploit others out of greed - of 'men who live off the traffic in women's bodies' and who 'look as if something has eroded away inside them'. What the killer does resonates to some extent with Kenji, since the targets are people whom he despises. And we see some beauty through the fog of escalating horror, in Kenji's memories of his father teaching him baseball, and in contemplation of the healing, purifying effect of the 108 'Joya-no-kane, the New Year's bells.'

I don't usually enjoy this degree of horror and wasn't sure that I'd like In the Miso Soup, but I found it engrossing from the first page. While readers want to help Kenji get off his roller-coaster ride to oblivion, they don't know how to make it happen, and can only hold on tight with him, and hope.

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