(Reviewed by Tony Ross JUN 27, 2007)
Originally published in Japan in 1994, this latest translation of "the other" Murakami's works suffers somewhat from its relative age. This is the fifth of his ten or so novels to appear in English, and by now, his paired themes of alienation and ultraviolence are well past their sell-by date. The perspective he offers on Japanese society may have been shocking thirteen years ago, but with the proliferation of J-horror films, media coverage of Japanese suicide rates, and other such indicators of a society in social distress, his latest serving ends up tasting like stale leftovers.
The story opens with Masayuki, a successful young graphic designer whom we meet as he hovers over his new baby with an ice pick, stifling the urge to pierce the newborn's smooth, perfect skin. It seems that Masayuki was abused as a child and has carried all kinds of psychological trauma with him into adulthood, even as he has managed to arrange a very normal domestic life.
However, the new baby has brought forth his hidden turmoil, and an inner voice convinces him that the only way to purge his awful yearnings is to actually stab someone, preferably a prostitute no one will miss. Masayuki's meticulous plan brings him into contact with Chiaki, a young S&M prostitute with her own hidden history of abuse (incest) and mental instability (she likes to cut herself).
When the two meet in his hotel room, nothing goes as planned, and after a gruesome battle, the two wounded souls actually manage at least a moment of connection. Murakami appears to be trying to use this vivid tableau to comment on Japanese society, notably how the modern emphasis on the individual can result to complete breaks with reality. However, its a rather flimsy and dated indictment, and the direct line he paints from childhood abuse to psycho adult behavior is far too pat. The interior thoughts of the two damaged souls are well rendered, but on the whole, there's not a whole lot here to engage with.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
"In the Miso Soup"
(Reviewed by Tony Ross JUN 4, 2006)
A note to the careless: there are two famous Japanese novelists with the last name Murakami. Both are acclaimed at home, but Haruki is the better known of the two in translation and is beloved for his quirky use of the tools of magical realism. This book is by Ryu, the "other" Murakami, and his books are an altogether different proposition. Written in 1997, this is only the fourth of his ten novels to be translated into English (after Almost Transparent Blue, Coin Locker Babies, and 69), but the themes of alienation and ultraviolence are right in keeping with his oeuvre, which includes the script for the highly overrated shock sexploitation film "Tokyo Decadence" and the novel which was the basis for the even worse film "Audition." Although there's little sex to speak of in this book, be forewarned that there is some very graphic violence that may well upset the faint-hearted.
The plot is relatively straightforward: 20-year-old Kenji works as a guide for Western tourists looking for action in Tokyo's sex districts. A few days before the end of the year, he meets up with a new American client named Frank. Right off the bat there is the sense that something is not right with Frank, and within the first ten pages Kenji irrationally suspects that Frank may have been responsible for the brutal dismembering of a teenager that's been in the news. The rest of the book vividly chronicles their journey through the grim nightlife as Frank drags Kenji around seedy bars, ostensibly in search of sex, but seemingly more in search of companionship. All the while, Kenji nurses growing suspicions that Frank may actually be a psychopath, until 2/3 of the way through there is a major incident which seems to confirm his worst fears.
I say "seems" because there are a number of ways one might interpret this incident and the entire story. Certainly, at the core, as in Murakami's other work, there is a heavy dose of social commentary regarding the prevalence of alienation in modern Japanese society and a critique of materialism. There are repeated references to the "compensated dating" phenomenon among teenage girls, as well as the varying shades of amateur prostitutes, and ruminations as to what kind of society leads to people seeking such desperate connections. In a sense, this is very reminiscent of the themes of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho . And like that book, one has to wonder about the reliability of the narrator, and ultimately question just to what extent the atrocities that are detailed actually occurred. One could make a case that "Frank" does not actually exist, and that Kenji is losing his marbles. On the other hand, one could take all the events at their face value and come up with a reading of the book in which the two protagonists are stand-ins for their countries and their relationship is a mirror of the U.S.-Japanese relationship (the American is rich and randomly violent, while the naive Japanese shadows him, bewildered and passive, wishing to intervene but never daring to). Either of these is more interesting than taking it all at face value, since despite the cover blurb, this isn't really a thriller.
The first 2/3 of the book do manage to provoke a fair amount of tension and anxiety as the reader wonders with Kenji about Frank's true nature. However, this is eventually subsumed by an annoyance with Kenji for being so passive and getting swept along so easily in whatever scheme Frank has planned.
After the major incident, the book kind of meanders to an inconclusive ending. Murakami does a great job of painting a vivid picture and creating an oppressive mood, but it ends up feeling like all style and very little substance. This may actually be a case where the movie will end up being better than the book.
- Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Almost Transparent Blue (1976; 1978 in US)
- War Begins Beyond the Sea (1977)
- Coin Locker Babies (1980; 2002 in US)
- 69 (1987;1993 in US)
- Raffles Hotel (1989)
- Ecstasy (1993)
- Piercing (1994; 2007 in US)
- Kyoko (1995)
- In the Miso Soup (1997; 2005 in US)
- Lines (1998)
- Parasistes (2000)
- Melancholia (2000)
- Exodus in the Hopeful Country (2000)
- Popular Hits of the Showa Era (January 2011)
- Hello Work (2004)
Movies from books:
- Almost Transparent Blue (1979)
- All Right, My Freind (183)
- Raffles Hotel (1989)
- Topaz (aka Tokyo Decadence )(1992)
- Topaz II (aka Love & Pop) (1996)
- Audition (1999)
- Kyoko (aka Because of You) 2000
- Hashire! Takahashi (2001)
- 69 (2004)
- Piercing (March 2006)
- Coin Locker Babies (2008)
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- Wikipedia page on Ryu Murakami
- Metropolis article on Ryu Murakami
- Art and Culture on Ryu Murakami
- Joi Ito blog notes on Ryu Murakami
- Daily Yomiuri interview with Ryu Murakami
- Ryu Murakami essay on Japan's Lost Generation
- Village Voice review of In the Miso Soup
- Telegraph review of In the Miso Soup
- PopMatters review of In the Miso Soup
- Asia Tiem review of In the Miso Soup
- Complete review on In the Miso Soup
- The New York Times review of the movie Audition
- Asia Week review of Exodus in the Hopeful Country
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About the Author:
Ryu Murakami was born in 1952 and grew up in Sasebo City, Nagasaki, Japan, whre U.S. Navy's harbor is located. He enrolled in the Musaschino University of Art in Tokyo but dropped out to write. His debut novel, Almost Transparent Blue, published while still a student, won Japan’s most coveted literary prize (Akutagawa Literary Award) in 1976 and sold over two million copies. It was also turned into a movie, which was directed by the author.
Ryu Murakami has also played drums for a rock group, hosted a TV talk show and producer of Cuban music..