Ryu Murakami’s 1997 novel In the Miso Soup was written at a time when a new wave of Japanese literature was emerging, which capitalised on American culture, or rather a ‘vision’ of American culture. Ryu Murakami belonged to the first generation of Japanese born after World War II, when the convergence of Japanese and American popular culture became more pronounced. This can be seen, for example, in the music industry from the 1960s, a period that saw the rise of Anglophonic-sounding pop tunes and a combination of Japanese and English languages in song lyrics. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, another prominent figure in modern Japanese literature, addressed the topic of American culture directly in a 1992 interview with Jay McInerney: ‘American culture was so vibrant back then [in the 1960s], and I was very influenced by its music, television shows, cars, clothes, everything.’
Notably, the cultural exchange between America and Japan was not unilateral. Japanese pop culture trickled into the US simultaneously, including anime and Japanese cartoons popularised through Astro Boy, Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh. By the turn of the century, American audiences seemed to think of Japan as a fantasy land, responsible for the creation of manga comics, Nintendo, and the adorable Hello Kitty, with Tokyo as the hub of this ‘cutesy and cool’ culture. The extent of this influence can be seen in the saturation of modern and traditional Japanese culture in American films such as Kill Bill, The Last Samurai and Lost in Translation. Now was the time for Japanese authors to capitalise on the American love affair, and this is exactly what Ryu Murakami did.
Murakami provides several different social commentaries in his novel, Miso, the most prominent being the deliberate dumbing down of American culture. In his mission to illuminate Japanese culture beyond video games and comics for the reader, he offers a simplistic representation of America for juxtaposition. This is partly a reflection of his own vision of America that he was brought up with. Murakami states that to him,
America is an ideal and an idea. But that ideal is not just an abstraction, but an actual thing – It’s Coca-Cola, it’s hamburgers, it’s Presley, it’s Broadway musicals, it’s NASA.
Through this, Murakami seems to suggest that we are all shaped by the world around us, and therefore not necessarily guilty in our idealisations and reductions of different cultures. However, Murakami’s upbringing gifts him with a unique perspective on the American influence. Born in the US Navy base dominated city of Sasebo, his experience living in its shadow can be seen by his description in his first essay ‘Kichi no Machi ni Umarate’ (Born in a Base Town):
From the house where I was raised you can look out over Sasebo harbour. Right in the middle of the narrow stretch of flat land is the American base. Every morning and evening the Stars and Stripes fluttered there to the strains of the American national anthem.
The essay thus remarks on the omnipresence of America as a powerful force that may even be too close for comfort, and this is reiterated in Miso. The novel introduces the character of Frank, an American tourist who hires unlicensed nightlife guide Kenji to guide him through the Kabuki-cho district. While it may seem that Murakami’s main aim is to use the setting of this red-light district to introduce readers to Tokyo’s sex trade and ultimately depict a more poignant view of Japan, the novel’s real themes are hidden in the interactions between Kenji and Frank rather than the nightlife they advance through. To Kenji, American loneliness is a ‘completely different creature to anything we experience in this country, and it makes me glad I was born Japanese.’ The narrator makes a point of describing the difference between this kind of loneliness – in which Americans are in a constant battle of trying to ‘accept’ their situation – and Japanese loneliness’ ‘grinning and bearing it’ approach.
Perhaps the reason behind this difference is reflected in the contrasting concepts of Japanese collectivism and American individualism: the social outlook present in America that every person is a self-sufficient individual makes loneliness more difficult to bear with than in Japan’s collectivistic culture. Nonetheless, both types of loneliness manifest in similar ways. A lot of characters in the book go to great lengths to fill the void inside them, visiting sex clubs and hostess bars, just as Frank does, in an effort to feel alive. Murakami’s ability to give the novel a tone of being written by an outside observer (despite the narrator being Kenji) paints a vivid picture of urban loneliness and disconnection in a way that appeals to, and indeed resonates with readers beyond Japan. His dissection of loneliness, and his characters’ grasping at life beyond themselves is something that can be identified with universally.
Alongside loneliness, there is a less obvious theme of pretence which resonates with both American and Japanese society. Frank is described by Kenji in a terrifyingly hollow way:
The skin. It looked almost artificial, as if he’d been horribly burned and the doctors had resurfaced his face with this fairly realistic man-made material.
This portrayal of Frank acts as a metaphor for who we truly are in comparison to the façade we maintain in the eyes of the rest of the world. This is perpetuated in other parts of the novel: Kenji lies to his mother that he is studying for a college prep course when he is actually a nightlife tour guide, and his girlfriend tells her own mother that she is at a friend’s house when she is actually with Kenji.
Another key theme of Miso is cultural and moral corruption, a form of degeneration of both Japanese and American values. Murakami uses the background characters of the novel as a mouthpiece for his own criticisms of cultural ignorance. Frank remarks on two women they encountered at a match-making pub during their tour, stating that ‘they didn’t know anything about their own country’ and that ‘all they cared about was expensive handbags and hotels.’ What Murakami suggests through this is that our rampant consumerism suppresses our imagination and makes us ‘cruel and stupid.’ This consumerism is also what makes the characters in the book ignorant of other cultures. Just as Americans view Japan only through the lens of fantasy-style comics and anime, the women at the pub picture the American vision through ‘Nike Town’ and ‘Times Square.’ The fact that Frank is unimpressed with their knowledge of New York emphasises how much of the city’s culture is lost in this dubious illusion, just as how Tokyo’s own culture is confined in America. The point of the character of Frank in the novel is to remind the reader that we sometimes need the ‘foreigner’s’ eyes in order to see our true selves.
Murakami’s simultaneous hatred for and fascination with America is certainly disseminated into Miso, his most notorious novel. While Miso on the exterior has a noir theme, with a similar feel to American Psycho or The Silence of the Lambs, its claustrophobic setting in the backstreets of Tokyo creates a deeper feeling of dread beyond the more explicit descriptions: the dread of loneliness, loss of identity, and a clash of American and Japanese cultures, albeit a corrupted or disingenuous kind. The novel’s end may contain the most impactful metaphor of the entire novel, and is credited by its title. It is Frank’s version of Japan where they are all living inside a miso soup which finally gives him a sense of belonging that he had yearned for. He realises that everyone is floating around in the broth ‘just like those bits of vegetable’ and he is able to accept this after a monologue in which he confronts his own grotesque deeds. Again, it is this sense of acceptance that sets him apart as American according to Murakami, but he integrates this with the metaphor of miso soup, therefore showing that he is in fact right back where he started: a tourist who has barely any knowledge of Japanese culture. With this ending note, Murakami shows that as much as American and Japanese culture are globalised and begin to integrate, people will always have a specific vision of them respectively as a result of their own environment.
Written by Kat Jivkova
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