“Crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.”
– George Orwell
Crime fiction, especially the Nordic Noir type, has been my favourite genre of reading for a number of years. Every time I go to a book store, be it Waterstones, or second-hand bookshops, I search for crime thrillers, especially authors with Scandinavian names. As you can see from this picture of my bookshelf, I have a good collection of crime writers and their works from that particular region.
As for Japanese literature, my reading has so far been largely limited to Haruke Murakami, epic Memoirs of Geishas (not written by a Japanese but an American) and stories of cheating husbands (Watanabe Junichi). So when I saw Villain’s back jacket that Yoshida was compared to Stieg Larsson, one of my favourite crime writers of all time, I grabbed it.
Hence I began a new adventure with my very first Japanese crime fiction.
I read a few pages and found out that there was a murder of an insurance salesgirl on a creepy mountain pass, and then the Police arrested a suspect called Yuichi, a construction worker. That was only page three.
I put aside the Villain and went on to read another crime thriller by a German writer on my Kindle and finished that one very quickly. It was an engaging read, fast paced with an interesting plot.
Back to Villain again where I left it. The plot was a little slow but I stuck in.
What an eye-opener for someone like me, who has been fascinated by Japan yet has never set foot to that country. Now with the culprit behind the bars, that is when the story gets really interesting.
The author introduces a stellar cast of characters and uses multiple voices to weave a powerful story about modern Japan, shedding light to the dark side of a society in which young people are faced with tremendous loneliness and isolation. A sense of desperation is seeping through the pages, all so tangible and within reach.
The story-tellers, mostly ordinary folks who are associated with the victim or the villain in one way or another, such as the victim’s barber father, the pitiful grandma who raised Yuichi, and the young woman who fell for the man on the run.
“Until I met you,” she said, “I never realised how precious each day could be. When I was working, each day was over before I knew it, and then a week just flew by, and then a whole year…What have I been doing all this time? Why didn’t I meet you before? If I had to choose a whole year in the past, or a day with you-I’d choose a day with you…”
With different perspectives told by different characters, the author slowly peels open, like an onion, layer after layer, what has led to the horrific murder. As a reader, I can feel the compassion the author has for his characters, and in turn, it arouses a mixture of feelings inside me, sadness, empathy and a sense of premonition and the inability to stop it. Even though it was quite hard to feel sympathy towards the murdered victim because the way she had behaved, when I read how this unseen tragedy affected her friends and her parents, especially her father, my heart bled. At the same time I felt for the villain in the book, and in a sense, he can be seen as a victim of his time and circumstances, and the helplessness of his situation.
This is an absorbing and highly thought-provoking book with tour de force characterisation. I am both deeply saddened and moved in the process.
I noted from some of the reviews on GoodReads that a number of readers disagreed that the author is being compared to Stieg Larsson. In my view, Yoshida is no Stieg Larsson (not a criticism), whose books were much more action packed and fast paced, although they both offer social critique. I think that the Japanese writing sensation is more like another Swedish crime author, also my literary idol Henning Mankell in terms of writing style: slowing burning yet burning deep in a reader’s heart and mind.
I absolutely love this book so I give it 5 stars without hesitation!
About the Author: Shūichi Yoshida (吉田 修一) was born in Nagasaki, and studied Business Administration at Hosei University. He won a number of literary prizes. In 2003 he wrote lyrics for the song “Great Escape” on Tomoyasu Hotei’s album Doberman. His 2007 novel Villain won the Osaragi Jiro Prize and the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award, and was recently adapted into an award-winning 2010 film by Lee Sang-il.