Written by: Ryu Murakami
Synopsis: It is just before New Year's. Frank, an overweight American tourist, has hired Kenji to take him on a guided tour of Tokyo's sleazy nightlife on three successive evenings. But Frank's behavior is so strange that Kenji begins to entertain a horrible suspicion: that his new client is in fact the serial killer currently terrorizing the city. It isn't until the second night, however, in a scene that will shock you and make you laugh and make you hate yourself for laughing, that Kenji learns exactly how much he has to fear and how irrevocably his encounter with this great white whale of an American will change his life.
“There's no reason a child commits murder, just as there's no reason a child gets lost. What would it be - because his parents weren't watching him? That's not a reason, it's just a step in the process.”
As has become my standard travel preference, I headed over to Japan with a bunch of books on the kindle app on my phone (I decided to leave my actual kindle at home) and a single physical copy book. And as usual, I tired of this arrangement pretty quickly. I don't know about everyone else, but as convenient as ebooks are I find I tire of reading off an electronic device far quicker than if it's an actual book. I think it might be tied to how often I use my phone to procrastinate, so I've programmed myself to feel to need to flick through things as quickly as possible. I hardly needed a lot of encouragement to dart into a bookstore and look for a new book to read, so when I saw a Kinokuniya in Sapporo I decided to see what their English language section had to offer.
I might have bought The Sisters Brothers, but what I really wanted was a book by a Japanese author. There is something amazingly cool about reading a book as you're travelling around where the book is set. It adds a level of personal investment that you simply don't get if you read it back home and it cements that book with that country in your memory, so future re-reads are always happy visits down memory lane. Aside from some English translations of traditional Japanese poetry and folklore the only real offering was Haruki Murakami, who is far too readily available in Australia to be special enough for a Japanese purchase,* and Banana Yoshimote and Ryu Murakami (no relation to Haruki). Since I've read (and adored) Yoshimoto that really only left Ryu Murakami - which I was 100% okay with because the blurbs on all of his books sounded brilliant. What I got from the covers of In the Miso Soup, Coin Locker Babies and Piercing is that Murakami is basically the Japanese equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson, rolling fictional narratives with unflinchingly accurate depictions of the underbelly of Japanese (and particularly Tokyo) life and culture. Yes please, gimmie gimmie gimmie.
In the Miso Soup is a sharp and slick peek into the apathetic life of Tokyo youngster Kenji. 20 years old, Kenji works as a tourist guide in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Except rather than guide Americans and English tourists around the shopping district or to the nearest shrine, Kenji specialises in sex tourism. When foreigners come to Japan and want to knock boots in the seedy and kinky Tokyo sex industry, Kenji guides them through Kabuki-cho, a brightly-lit district in Shinjuku that's full of love hotels, yakuza-run bars and prostitutes. Kenji is disillusioned, disinterested and despondent working in this industry, but it helps him get closer to his dream of having enough money to move to America and start a new life. Frank is Kenji's latest client. American, overweight and with a weird plastic shine to his skin, Frank creeps Kenji out from the outset. But money is money, and one creep is no different to the rest.
The book covers the three nights Kenji spends with Frank, and over the 200 pages you fall headlong into the turbulence of the Tokyo sex industry, shuffling between disaffected youths, antagonistic pimps and gangsters and the slow-building tension between Kenji and his American client. Everything is awash with a general sense of unease but because everything is so foreign and dirty and awkward it's hard to know if Frank is actually as unsettling as Kenji seems to find him, or if everything is just being heightened in the unhappy mind of Kenji as he comes to realise how little he likes this world. As the narrative unfolds and Frank questions Kenji about Japanese customs and the Tokyo scene it becomes clear that Kenji sees Japanese culture as littered with problems. Whether it's the high school girls selling their time (but not their bodies) to the highest bidder, not for a need for stimulation or for money but because they're lonely and are looking for something, or the unsettling salary men and karoshi careers, Kenji seems determined to push against everything that's accepted as natural in Japan but also seems unaware of how to go about it. He's floundering and unhappy.
“Very few people of our generation or the next will reach adulthood without experiencing the sort of unhappiness you can't really deal with on your own. We're still in the minority, so the media lump us together as "The Oversensitive Young", or whatever the latest catchphrase is, but eventually that will change.”But perhaps the best part of the book is how well Murakami, 45 years old at the time of writing, manages to write as a young disillusioned Japanese man, a 35 year old American man and successfully display each character's confusion, apprehension and misunderstanding about the other's culture. The cultural and generational divide between the two men acts as a point of separation but it also performs as a way for each man to come to terms with their own identity and that of their country. Through Frank's confusion or disgust Kenji finds himself questioning parts of Japan that he hadn't thought to question before. But by learning more about America through Frank, Kenji also comes to realise that the grass isn't always greener, and at the end of the day maybe everyone, everywhere, is equally fucked up.
“After listening to a lot of these stories, I began to think that American loneliness is a completely different creature from anything we experience in this country, and it made me glad I was born Japanese. The type of loneliness where you need to keep struggling to accept a situation is fundamentally different from the sort you know you'll get through if you just hang in there."I've been tiptoeing pretty hard around the actual plot of this book, partially because it's one that's better to go into knowing next to nothing about but also because it's so unpredictable and thrilling that I'd basically have to lay it all out from start to finish to avoid making it sound fractured and disastrous. So vague as this review may be, just trust me when I say it is excellent and you need to find out for yourself what the book is really about. And from someone who has just spent three weeks walking around many of the streets mentioned in this book, let me just assure you that it's a complete and fascinating look at a part of Japan that you might not encounter otherwise. While it emphasises the less than savoury aspects of Japanese (and in particular, Tokyo) culture and night time proclivities, it also paints a picture of a bustling, colourful, sometimes dangerous and always bizarre city that has to be seen to believed. It's a glimpse into another time and place, and I loved it.
*Although I actually did go back and buy one of his books later.