January in Japan: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida

Just about time to squeeze in one more Japanese writer for Tony’s January in Japan challenge. Although it does feel at times like Tony is reading the classics, while I am just reading the sensationalist crime fiction…

The Bestsellerish Cover - like a million others.
The Bestsellerish Cover – like a million others.

What is interesting about Japanese crime fiction though is that it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre, or at least not of the police procedurals we are used to. The focus is less on detecting the perpetrator of the crime, than on the events leading up to the crime and its aftermath. However, they are not quite psychological thrillers either. We gain a little insight into the thoughts and feelings of some of the main characters (and there is usually more than one point of view in Japanese novels), but the motivations for some of their most extreme actions remain shadowy. Can we ever truly know what makes a person do certain things? [Japanese authors seem to ask.] This lack of clear-cut answers, this deliberate ambiguity, is what fascinates me about Japanese literature, but it can have mixed results in the crime fiction genre.

So the plot is not the main point here, but here is a quick summary of it anyway. A woman is found strangled on a remote mountain pass (often associated with ghost sightings). It turns out that the young woman, Yoshino, has a secret online dating life, to counteract her boring job as an insurance saleswoman. She also claims to be going out with a popular and rich college student; in fact, she has almost started believing her own lies. But is it her slightly dangerous hidden lifestyle or her fantasies which led to her death? We might be able to guess fairly early on who the killer is, but there are a few surprises along the way, including a Bonnie and Clyde moment.

More interesting cover - which do you prefer?
More interesting cover – which do you prefer?

The book starts very slowly, with a rather dull description of the Mitsuse pass and the motorway passing through the region. But stick with it, because it does get better, although never as pacy as a Western thriller. What is most interesting about the book is the realistic, if rather depressing ‘slice of contemporary Japanese life’ on offer. We have here the collective portrait of lonely young people, stuck in dead-end jobs, unable to express their emotions, living in anonymous industrial towns with grey convenience stores and dingy love hotels. In this respect, the multiple points of view work well, as together they build up the picture of what feels like a lost generation.

Why so many glum books from Japan? Well, I think because Japanese society is still very much about maintaining a façade and about fitting in. It’s almost a cliché but the distinction between ‘honne’ (your true feelings and inner core) and ‘tatemae’ (the public face) is still alive and well. Rebellion and eccentricity, when they come, are more extreme (think Swinging Sixties but on an individual or small-group scale). Alienation is more depressing and there are fewer opportunities to meet like-minded people (although there seem to be plenty of them in the literature).

So perhaps I wouldn’t recommend this to a die-hard crime fiction fan, but to someone who wants a subtle exploration of family breakdown, ageing, alienation and rather desolate provincial life in a stagnating Japan, I would say: ‘Welcome to Anomie Central!’

For an excellent review of this novel and picture of the Mitsuse Pass, please go to the wonderful blog by Dolce Bellezza.