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Japanese sickos 'buy it' from American psycho
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

Reviewed by Gary LaMoshi

Perhaps the Japanese understood the danger intuitively, so for centuries they kept their country shuttered to outsiders. Then Commodore Matthew Perry landed in Yokohama Bay, pried open the door, and began a mutually destructive relationship between the United States and Japan. After the horrors of Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ryu Murakami's In the Miso Soup, just released in English translation, presents a postmodern movement in a doomed tango between cultures that simultaneously attract and repel each other.

Frank, a 35-year-old American tourist, comes to Tokyo a few days before the new year and hires Kenji, a 20-year-old guide to the city's sex establishments who is working to save enough money to go to America. Frank, now "in the miso soup", wants to explore genuine Japanese sleaze - lingerie bars to peep shows to omiai (matchmaking) pubs where women from across the social spectrum receive a free opportunity to perform karaoke and a platform to "sell it", as they flippantly say.

When the novel debuted in Japanese in 1997, "compensated dating" among high-school students had reached scandalous proportions. The book opens with one practitioner of the trade found brutally murdered, her dismembered body stuffed into trash bags and dumped in an alley. Kenji and his high-school-student girlfriend Jun, who vehemently opposes "selling it", find the killing technique decidedly un-Japanese and, within the first thousand words of the book, Kenji is casting suspicion on his new client.

The odd appearance of Frank's skin and his strange behavior feed Kenji's apprehensions, but that doesn't prevent them from sampling the sexual thrills for sale in Tokyo beyond conventional prostitution. Based on news accounts that the murdered teen had been sexually assaulted, Kenji asks a peep show's genital masseuse to divulge Frank's ejaculatory volume. (At such moments readers feel they are in the firm grip of true literature.) Kenji's source expresses alarm about something unusual in Frank's equipment, without actually mentioning the shocking oddity or delivering the requested liquidity report.

At one stage during their journey through the seedy Kabuki-cho night, their talk turns to baseball. Frank's inconsistent answers turn this connection between their cultures into a source of mistrust and competition. Kenji and Frank wind up in a frigid batting cage with Kenji's guide fees riding on the outcome, while Frank expresses his distaste for a homeless man finding warmth in the radiation from the attendant's booth.

Kenji fails to deliver a home run, but Frank forfeits his turn, stumbling obliviously into the path of incoming pitches. Frank explains that his partial lobotomy after a serious traffic accident sometimes leaves him disoriented. Uniquely, though, Frank is growing new brain cells to replace the ones that were cut out. Coincidentally, a homeless man is found burned to death the next morning. Ominously, Kenji is booked for two more nights as Frank's tour guide.

Since his debut novel Almost Transparent Blue, brimming with sex and drugs near a US military base, won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1976, Ryu Murakami has balanced on the cutting edge of Japanese popular culture. His resume includes rock drumming, political and economic commentary and a stint as a talk-show host, but it is his novels and cult films that shock audiences.

The material Murakami presents throughout In the Miso Soup is often outrageous, but it packs surprisingly little jolt. Relentless foreshadowing of Frank's dark side diffuses the impact of the ultimate revelations about him. So do large chunks of sociological exposition on sex-industry variants and a storytelling style that too often features characters talking about things that happened rather than things actually happening.

Also, thanks in part to observers such as Murakami, we no longer think of Japan simply as the land of the tea ceremony, calligraphy, kabuki, kimono and cherry blossoms. We know, for example, that Japan is one of the world's hotbeds of pornography, inefficiency and corruption. It's the place where you can buy schoolgirls' saliva and panties from vending machines, as well as (perhaps more shocking to 21st-century Americans) cigarettes, beer, and 37 brands of canned coffee, served hot or cold.

We also know that more recent generations increasingly reject the postwar formula of conformity and hard work in favor of doing their own thing and looking for new values. Long before and beyond today's parasaito shinguru no jidai (age of the parasite single), women who "sell it" have experienced a dollop of empowerment over those who "buy it" along with their degradation. Just after the Japanese release of In the Miso Soup, "no pan" shabu-shabu - Japanese hot pot served by young girls in skimpy outfits and no underwear - led to scandal and resignations among top government financial officials. In the novel, a wise streetwalker from South America steers Frank toward a possible Japanese cure for his woes, joya no kane, the traditional New Year's Eve bells that toll 108 times to banish the same number of bonno, worldly desires.

Postmodern Japanese society turns a deaf ear to those bells in favor of "selling it" and to "buying it" as a source of meaning in life. But In the Miso Soup offers no alternative prescription, just alternative noise. Former talk-show host Murakami assaults readers with titillation from the fringes, like a Japanese episode of America's toxic Jerry Springer and similar programs. Once again, two great nations meet to produce mutual degradation and destruction.

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami (translated by Ralph McCarthy), Kodansha International, Tokyo, 2004. ISBN: 4-7700-2957-8. Price: US$22.95. 240 pages.

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