No relation to the other Murakami (as far as I know). However, this Murakami — of the same generation as his contemporary — shows a distinctly American/Western influence on his writing. Whereas Haruki Murakami dips his toes into surrealism and magical realism, Ryu Murakami is pure noir, at least with this effort. In The Miso Soup is a highly dark and disturbing novel — part thriller, part noir-ish crime story.
Twenty year old Kenji is a guide to Tokyo’s sex industry, often taking tourists to the well known red light districts for a fee. He’s barely out of high school, a tad naive, has a girlfriend a couple of years his junior. The story begins when an American tourist named Frank contacts Kenji to guide him through Tokyo’s more lurid side. Upon meeting Frank, Kenji can already tell that there is something unusual about him. At first he chalks it up to cultural differences (those differences, between what’s “typically Japanese” and “typically American” are spelled out throughout the novel) but as he gets to know him on their first sojourn together, the more leery and afraid of Frank Kenji becomes. There has been a rash of killings in the red light district, particularly one young sex worker who was found dismembered. Kenji’s gut tells him that perhaps Frank is the murderer.
At first chalking it up to paranoia and coincidence, Kenji and Frank slowly get to know one another. Frank is an interesting and very strange character, an overweight, slovenly man who is kind of a cross between John Goodman and Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is talkative, brash, pushy, mysterious, and everything he says can’t be taken at face value. Kenji is also fairly sure that his name isn’t his true one. Just as Kenji begins to think that perhaps he is jumping to conclusions, an incident at a sex club proves him right after all. The scene is bloody and disturbing — and brutally violent. But Frank spares Kenji, considering him his “friend” as well as his guide. However, Kenji is now stuck with a moral dilemma. Should he turn him in or not? He witnessed him brutally murder more than a half a dozen people in the most psychotic way imaginable, yet he can’t get himself to call the police — thereby making him an accessory.
From this point forward the novel shifts focus toward what makes the mind of a psychopath tick. The more Frank discusses his childhood and life in America, the more Kenji begins to critique Japanese society, a lot of which goes through great effort to mimic it’s neighbor across the Pacific. They speak of Gods, post-war life, weighty existential issues, and so forth. What makes me a little curious about the plot is the fact that even after witnessing Frank commit such horrific acts of murder, Kenji, in a way, has some empathy for him and the two carry on as if nothing happened. Is a suspension of disbelief needed here?
All in all, not a bad book and there are some interesting elements to it, however there is a sort of drag on the story post-murders. For fans of horror/thriller/noir, it’s worth a read. For readers of more existential fiction, it’s worth exploring Murakami’s thoughts on post-World War II Japanese society and how — in some ways — it isn’t all that much different from their former enemy, perhaps implying the American influence on their society irrevocably transformed it.