In the Miso Soup is a Japanese horror novel by Ryū Murakami, published in 1997 and translated to English in 2003. It was first published as a serial in the Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese national newspaper. It is also classified as a suspense novel and a philosophical novel.
Kenji is a tour guide who accompanies foreigners through Tokyo’s nightlife to fulfill their sexual fantasies. In the three days preceding New Year’s Eve, he agrees to take an American named Frank as a client, despite promising to spend the holiday with his girlfriend, Jun.
The first day, Kenji meets Frank and is immediately disturbed by his appearance. His skin looks like a silicone mask, perhaps from burn grafts, and his eyes lose their humanity when he is upset. When Kenji tries to ask Frank any specific questions, he finds a way out of them, leading Kenji to think he is a liar.
Kenji sees a bloodstained bill in Frank’s wallet and connects him to murder he saw in the news. Later, they go to the batting cages and Frank mentions his disdain for unhoused people. They take turns batting for a bet, and when it is Frank’s turn, he goes inside the cage and ‘freezes up’, getting pelted with balls. Frank admits that this happens sometimes, because he ‘got in an accident as a kid’ and they had to ‘cut out part of his brain’ because it was too damaged.
The second day, Kenji hears that an unhoused man was torched to death. He doesn’t want to work with Frank again, but when he leaves his apartment, he finds a piece of human skin on his door and decides Frank will kill him if he doesn’t show up. When they meet, Frank is in a great mood. He claims his ‘brain cells are regenerating’, and he barely needs any sleep.
At a bar, a woman named Noriko talks to Frank about jazz and catches him in several lies. Frank hypnotizes her and they leave. At the next club, they speak to two women for over an hour, draining Frank’s money. Eventually, he becomes so frustrated, he tells Kenji to leave. When he calls Kenji back in, Frank has hypnotized everyone in the club and is in the process of killing them. He forces Kenji to watch him murder everyone. Frank puts a knife to Kenji’s throat, but Kenji gets a call from Jun and tells her to call the police in an hour if he doesn’t call back, so Frank lets him live.
Frank then takes Kenji to where he has been living, which is not a hotel, but a dilapidated medical clinic. He tells Kenji he will let him go tomorrow, after he takes him to listen to the New Year’s bells, which he thinks will cleanse him. Kenji calls Jun, asks where they were going to hear the bells, and tells her to meet him there tomorrow to help him escape.
In the meantime, Frank tells Kenji his life story. Despite claiming to have memory issues, he remembers his life as far back as age three, when he first drank his mother’s blood. He claims to have killed two people before age seven, and killed multiple elderly people on their porches before being sent to a mental institution, where they operated on his brain. He met people in reform school who taught him how to slit throats without spraying blood everywhere—which is how he has evaded capture for so long.
On New Year’s Eve, Kenji takes him to a bridge to hear the bells. There, Frank sees an unhoused person and laments about how they are wastes of life, and it is his duty to eradicate them. He lets Kenji go and disappears into the crowd.
As a suspenseful horror novel, this book is a complete failure. From the very beginning of In the Miso Soup, the reader knows that Frank is the killer—there is no suspense, besides wondering if Kenji will live or die. The story makes use of anxiety, fear, and tension through Kenji, who gets wrapped up in his own thoughts about Frank, but there are few scenes of actual terror. Besides one long-winded scene of torture porn in the middle of the book, there is no gore and nothing to be scared of except Frank himself. I found myself more terrified of how much worse the book could get than anything Frank could possibly do.
The pacing is a huge issue, and part of that may be from its original serialization. When a book is written one part at a time, without the luxury of editing, the author may add plot points that require explanation, without being able to go back and trickle in the information. I will admit, the first third of the book did keep me guessing. Is Frank going to kill someone himself, or will he get someone else to do his bidding? How did he lose part of his brain? What is truth, and what is lie? But after the gratuitous murder scene, the rest of the book is spent revealing everything about Frank and why he kills people, removing the guesswork. His explanation is complete fantasy, describing himself as a demonic, killer child, yet Kenji still sees him as someone who has been ‘stepped on all his life’. Kenji claims to be in shock, though it feels more like Stockholm syndrome at this point, listening to Frank and agreeing that life has been terrible to him. I can’t understand how Frank is meant to be seen as sympathetic in the slightest, unless it is implied that he was born with mental differences.
On that note, for most of the book I was indeed convinced that this would be a story about a murderer whose mental differences drive them to kill, and upon reflection, I cannot come to a definite conclusion. Frank claims he had brain surgery—this sounded like a lobotomy to me—but this was after he had killed multiple people. What drove him to kill? The only real explanation was that he wandered around when he was three years old, got confused and scared, and drank his mother’s blood. He self-harms, so the assumption is that he is depressed, but depression is never mentioned. All we are told is that his mind feels clear and focused when he kills people. He has scars all over his face (described as plasticy-silicone skin) and it is never revealed with certainty how he got them. Everything about Frank is a mystery, and a poor one at that.
If the book is meant to be a novel about human psychology, it succeeds to a small degree. Throughout the story, many characters (but especially Kenji, the narrator) rant about other people, their lives, Japan, America, baseball, loneliness, sex work, jazz, and a dozen other topics that have no bearing on the plot. At first, the rants give Kenji a Holden Caulfield-esque voice, which is pleasing if you find teen angst amusing (I honestly do). However, he turns vitriolic as the book goes on, becoming misogynistic and sneering at people in the sex industry, and I can’t understand why this happens. Early on, I thought it would have something to do with Frank—maybe he is hypnotizing Kenji to a degree, or something about him is rubbing off on him—but by the end of the book, it seemed that Kenji was simply pissed off about life and wanted to tell us about it. On their own, these sections are interesting to read, but in the middle of (what I thought was) a horror novel, they become grating and boring.
My research suggests that some people believe the book is about loneliness, but I struggle to agree. It’s true that Kenji talks about loneliness often, usually referring to Frank, other clients, or people in the sex industry. He thinks people who buy or sell sex do it because they are lonely in some way, and I agree that people who hire sex workers may do it because they have no one else to turn to for intimacy. However, sex workers themselves are doing it for money—it is a job, and not one you turn to out of loneliness. Kenji himself doesn’t seem lonely in the slightest. He has a girlfriend and he meets all sorts of people at his job. If he’s lonely, it’s in a greater sense, feeling like he doesn’t fit in, but this didn’t jump out at me while I was reading. He seemed far angrier to me than he did lonely.
Frank was the only person who seemed obviously lonely, having contacted Kenji on his search for intimacy. As the book reveals Frank’s backstory, though, the loneliness gets more confusing. Is he lonely because no one else in the world is like him—and for good reason, because he kills defenseless people? Is he lonely because he wants a girlfriend? Is he lonely because his family (I assume) has abandoned him? Again, I can’t figure out what is meant to be going on in Frank’s brain, so I hesitate to make connections to the loneliness of mental illness. Very few mentally ill people commit murder, and I doubt killing people would solve Frank’s loneliness crisis.
The one redeeming quality about the book is its prose. As described earlier, Kenji’s narration is similar to that of Holden Caulfield, in that he rants and raves about whatever he wants and the way it is presented is entertaining on its own. Ryu Murakami is wonderful at describing locations in a precise way, and I felt very grounded while reading. Despite wearing on me by the end, the dialogue was very natural, even in long stretches by a single character. The thoughts flow together like you are listening to someone speak freely, but that adds to the length. If the book was edited properly, I would expect it to be around 100 pages.
As usual, I want to note that this book is translated, and although I think the translation was done well, I am reading this from an American perspective and not a Japanese perspective. Japanese culture may play a large part in how this book is interpreted, and I only have my own experience to draw on as I read and analyze the story.
If you’re searching for your next horror novel, skip In the Miso Soup, but if you want a look into Tokyo’s sex industry and you enjoy strange character development, pick it up and see where it takes you.
It was something about his posture in silhouette. He gave off this overpowering, almost tangible loneliness. — pg. 29
Americans don’t talk about just grinning and bearing it, which is the Japanese approach to so many things. 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. — pg. 41
It’s not easy to live a normal life, though. Parents, teachers, government—they all teach you how to live the dreary, deadening life of a slave, but nobody teaches you how to live normally. — pg. 69
Malevolence is born of negative feelings like loneliness and sadness and anger. It comes from an emptiness inside you that feels as if it’s been carved out with a knife, an emptiness you’re left with when something very important has been taken away from you. — pg. 92