In recent separate conversations with both Gibnut and Miseryguts the idea that Japan has stepped into the breach left by the Soviet Union has come up - the notion that it might be the last place on Earth where you can feel the ultimate sense of displacement, the sensation of no longer being on the same Earth at all.
In The Miso Soup is a novel in three parts, narrated by Kenji, a 20 year-old student who makes good money in the evenings guiding foreigners around the neon-soaked backstreets of Kabuchi-Cho, a red light district that sits within a labyrinthine system of alien etiquette.
In the first part Kenji relates how he met 'Frank', a visiting American pyscho with a repertoire of disturbing facial expressions and a knack for putting people into a trance. During their first night together Kenji facilitates stops at a peep show, a lingerie pub and a baseball battting range and his suspicions that Frank was the author of a gruesome murder-dismembering on these very streets the night before grow steadily more tumescent.
The thriller format is suddenly and bloodily dropped on the floor of Omiai pub in part two when Frank gets unambiguously down to business, whipping out his long sashimi knife and slicing up the venue's occupants, while Kenji looks on paralysed by fear, disgust and as he later admits, an odd sense of passive complicity. This is quite a squirmfest, worthy of that other notorious splatterbook, American Psycho and of course the cinematic oevre of Takeshi Miike, with whom Ryu Murakami collaborated on Audition, another of his stories. (review coming shortly).
In part three the roles of tourist and guide are reversed as Frank leads Kenji back to his layer, a partly demolished clinic that the cops won't go near for fear of toxic waste. There he transforms into the talking bad guy, relating his bloodsucked childhood and how he later set about his "mission". Frank now lives to murder. He kills to avoid senility, to dull with the sensation that the world is both at his feet and yet utterly disconnected from him. He's at his most focussed and clearheaded when he's erasing lives. And the lives he erases at the Omiai pub had already started to fade on the page, Kenji later reflects, ultimately finding it hard to regret the loss of these "imitation human beings", who behave like "automatons programmed to portray certain human stereotypes".
Frank asks Kenji which is the greater bane on society - the psycho or the bum? He visualises his own role in society as that of a virus - "malignant but necessary", not just an agent of morbidity and disease, but also a stimulant of evolution through diverse mutation. The bum on the other hand is a devolutionary type: "If you reject society you must live outside it, not off it." In the affluent world people that have given up trying actually have the easiest of lives, Frank asserts, but they also suffer from sluggish brain circulation which broadcasts "please kill me" messages that people like him can pick up and act upon.
Frank recounts how the psychologists his parents sent him to see were convinced that his collection of Horror videos was the root cause of his aberrations. Yet as far as he is concerned there would be more people like him wandering the streets if people leading boring lives were unable to relieve "the anxieties of the imagination."
This section of the novel contains more explicit sociological observation than that provided by Brett Easton Ellis in American Pyscho. It is here that you begin to appreciate that In the Miso Soup is an exercise in self-examination and criticism that itself segues into outright self-loathing.
Many of Frank's analyses have the ring of genuine insight and Kenji eventually characterises him as something akin to a member of the resistance, but of course, as Kenji also correctly points out, who is Frank to set himself up as judge and jury? Yet this man who makes "murder with all the drama of picking up a fallen hat" is in many ways a fictional stand-in for the author himself, able to cut through the dead flesh of urban Japan leaving only a gory metaphorical mess in our imaginations to be cleaned up afterwards.
Murakami seems to be suggesting that just as paedophile nirvana can be found on the beaches of Thailand and Sri Lanka the natural destination for the slash-tourist is his own native land. Why is this?
Frank has a non-lethal interaction with a Peruvian hooker who tells him that she has come to believe that Jesus loses his power in Japan - as if its dislocated culture acts as some sort of massive jamming device against the Divine signal. The communications problems extend to the relationships between the individual nodes of the social network beneath this shield: "When people are fucked up their communication is fucked up". Kenji familiarises Frank with some Buddhist terminology that can help frame the problem- Bonno, or "bad instincts" which foster Madoa, "losing your way". In Buddhist thinking enlightenment is part of our original nature, something that we have forgotten. So perhaps Murakami is hinting that the modern pace of forgetfulness is leading us towards oblivion.
Frank's interactions with Kabuchi-Cho undermine the basic duality of killer and victim, just as the duality of amateur and professional is already pretty shaky in these parts. In the West the cultural barriers that we have established between amateur online dating and the professional escort trade are apparently more robust. But Kenji appears to be warning us that the basis of prostitution in Japan is not, as elsewhere, destitution. It is instead isolation and loneliness that robs people of their outline and sets them up to be finally rubbed out by the likes of Frank. Perhaps we too are starting to live lives perilously close to the shadows and are in danger of reaping the consequences of not living our lives in earnest.
We may yet have nothing quite as fuzzy as "compensated dating" but across the world technology has become a powerful enabler of both deceit and all too easy relief from the atomised existence. As Kenji says of his peers: "More and more young dudes can't be bothered to look for a girlfriend or fuck buddy. Overseas these guys would probably turn gay, but Japan has the sex industry."