Tuesday, March 01, 2011

'In the Miso Soup' and 'Audition' by Ryu Murakami (JLit Book Group)

Japanese Literature Book Group

The Japanese Literature Book Group was born out of the wish to read and discuss Japanese literature with others, and by doing so to hopefully gain a deeper understanding of the literature and culture of Japan. (Click on the button for more information about past and upcoming reads.) The schedule for the Japanese Literature Book Group for 2011 is largely made up of suggestions from fellow JLit devotees. Usually we focus on one book to read together and discuss, however for the first selection of 2011, we're looking more generally at author Ryu Murakami. The two suggested titles were In the Miso Soup, and Audition, but you are welcome to discuss any of his books you've read.

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
イン ザ・ミソスープ (In za Misosūpu)
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.

Kenji's intimate knowledge of Tokyo's sex industry, his thoughtful observations and wisecracks about the emptiness and hypocrisy of contemporary Japan, and his insights into the shockingly widespread phenomena of "compensated dating" and "selling it" among Japanese schoolgirls, give us plenty to think about on every page. Kenji is our likable, if far from innocent, guide to the inferno of violence and evil into which he unwillingly descends-and from which only Jun, his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, can possibly save him...
I read In the Miso Soup back in 2006 and this is what I said about it at the time:
In the Miso Soup reminded me of Out [by Natsuo Kirino], with its violence and social commentary on urban loneliness, rampant consumerism, and moral corruption in modern-day Japan. What made it memorable, like Out, was that it went beyond the violence, and into the psychological aspect of what made the characters do what they did, and on the flip side, what they didn't do. A dark and unnerving tale, yet a compelling read with a great element of suspense- I was never sure what would happen next. This was my first time to read anything by Ryu Murakami but I'm curious now to try more.

Since I read this 5 years ago now, I've forgotten many of the details of the story, but what has stayed with me is how violent it was. In fact, there were a couple times over the last couple years when I almost picked up another of his books, but each time I hesitated, not knowing if I was up for something so dark and uncomfortable. That's quite a lasting impact! However, at last, thanks to the Book Group, I decided to read my second book by Ryu Murakami, Audition.

Audition by Ryu Murakami
オーディション (Ōdishon)
Translated from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy
Since the death of his wife seven years ago, docmentary-maker Aoyama has not dated anyone. Now even his teenage son, Shige, thinks that he should remarry, and his best friend Yoshikawa comes up with a plan: to hold fake film auditions from which he can choose a new bride. Of the thousands who apply, it is a beautiful ballerina, Yamasaki Asami, who captivates Aoyama. Infatuated by her fragile nature and nervous smile, he ignores his increasing sense of unease about his new love until it may be too late...
Audition also contains some violent and uncomfortable scenes but in many ways it couldn't be more different to In the Miso Soup. I don't usually read much horror, or watch horror movies, but reading Audition felt very much like watching what I imagine would be a pretty run-of-the-mill horror movie. Appropriately there is a movie version, but I haven't had a chance to watch it to see how it compares. If you have seen the movie, I'd love to know what you thought of it.

As for the story itself, right from the beginning you know that the main character is getting into a bad situation and that there's something not quite right about the woman he becomes infatuated with. He ignores the warnings of his friends, and the rest of the story simply builds up to the final scene.

Along the way, we never really get too much in the way of character development, so I wasn't as engaged in the story or the characters as I would have liked to be, although I did enjoy the relationship between Aoyama and his son. I wish it had been more developed. As the story was also fairly predictable, I didn't find it overly suspenseful. Plus there was a rather graphic sex scene that seemed misplaced. However, despite all of this it was very readable and it certainly helped pass the time on a couple recent train journeys. And the ending was quite dramatic, and visual. I can understand why it was made into a movie.

For me Audition was a quick, somewhat entertaining read, but without any of the emotional impact, or deeper social commentary, of In the Miso Soup. I'm still curious though, and actually because these two books were quite different, I would really like to try reading something else by Ryu Murakami. He's an interesting man of varied tastes. In fact, H often watches Ryu Murakami's weekly TV show on business and economics! Unfortunately for those of us who can't read Japanese, only a handful of his books have been translated. And apparently not all of his books are dark and violent.  
Any suggestions of which one I should try next?

Have you read either of these, or any of Ryu Murakami's other books?
If so, what did you think? If not, would you like to?

Other thoughts:
Always cooking up something (Chinoiseries)

In the Miso Soup:

Coin Locker Babies:

If you've read Audition, or In the Miso Soup, or have posted anything else about Ryu Murakami let me know and I'll include a link here.

Ryu Murakami on Wikipedia.

Please feel free to chat about these or any of Ryu Murakami's other books in the comments. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

The small print: The books mentioned in the post were purchased by me and belong to my personal library. Links in this post to Amazon contain my Associates ID. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. I recently read 'Pierced' by Ryu Murakami. Quite enjoyed it, in a slightly odd way. It was certainly an intriguing read.

  2. Having read both in the miso soup & Out, I'm in agreement concerning their similarities, although Miso is lighter in tone, my favourite Ryu Murakami is Almost Transparent Blue, which is a lot darker.

  3. I wouldn't dare to read either of these books. It think they will give me nightmares for weeks to come!

  4. I ve not read him keep meaning to when I see his books in library and seeing both you and parrish have read them maybe I should ,all the best stu

  5. In hindsight I have to agree with you on the relationship between "Audition"'s protagonist and his son. It had quite some potential to be developed into a full-fledged storyline.
    Despite my own quite negative review of the book, like you, I would also like to read more by him. Especially after what @Owl59 said... that this author has written quite a lot of interesting books, but that most of it has remained untranslated as of now. A pity, that!
    My next book by him will be either the French "Lignes" or "In the Miso Soup".

  6. Right now I'm going to pick up my copy of "In the miso soup" from the bookstore - they've sent me yesterday an information that my February's order has been processed, finally!;)

    Also, I haven't finished "Coin Locker Babies" yet. Maybe it's because this book is so gloomy and it's hard for me to focus on the story. But in a few days I should be done with this book, and then I would be able to say something more about Murakami's writing.

  7. Owl59 here.

    I recommend Sixty-Nine by Ryu Murakami for those who don't like dark/heavy stories. I enjoyed it.

    It is a light-hearted, fast-paced story of high school students in Nagasaki Kyushu in 1969. Ken, I think it is young Ryu Murakami, and his buddies started a kind of student movement, made bands, filmed a short film mostly to impress the prettiest girl in his school.

  8. I have Audition loaded on my ereader...I must get around to reading it! It's not too violent, is it?

  9. Darren - Intriguing is good. :)

    Parrish - You're right that Out was darker, but somehow the violence in In the Miso Soup bothered me more. At least from what I remember. Perhaps it was more senseless?

    From what I've heard of Almost Transparent Blue it does sound very dark. I'll have to be in a happy place when I finally try it someday.

    Uniflame - Yes, they certainly aren't happy stories, and not for everyone. We wouldn't want you to have nightmares. :)

    Stu - I look forward to hearing what you think, once you get around to reading him.

    Chinoiseries - I'll be interested to know your reaction to his other books. I looked and I don't think "Lignes" has been translated into English yet so you'll be ahead of us there. It's sad that more of his work hasn't been translated.

    litera - I look forward to hearing your thoughts on both Coin Locker Babies and In the Miso Soup, but no rush. :)
    I know it can be hard sometimes to read something dark and gloomy.

    Owl59 - Sounds like 69 might be a good choice for my next book by Ryu Murakami. It'll make a nice contrast to the darker topics of most of his other ones translated into English.

    Sam - It's only really violent in the last dramatic action scene. So maybe just skim through that part, if you need to.

  10. Interesting. I downloaded a sample chapter of the e-book of In the Miso Soup and wasn't impressed but I read Out a few years ago and loved it so maybe I should have given it more of a chance.

  11. I've finally read both "Coin Locker Babies" and "In the Miso Soup" and written you an e-mail with links to the reviews;) I hope it's okay, though it's actually after time (but still before the next shedule^^')...


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