Shuichi Yoshida, Villain, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (London: Vintage 2011 ). A gripping dissection of a murder and its repercussions 5 stars
Opening sentence: Route 263 runs north and south some forty-eight kilometres, connecting Fukuoka and Saga Prefectures and straddling Mitsuse Pass in the Sefuri mountain range.
Shuichi Yoshida, author of the 2007 novel Villain, opts not to foreground the activities of the police or the private detective when tracing the story of a crime. Instead, ordinary individuals, who’ve unexpectedly found their lives shaken by the murder of a young woman, are placed centre stage, while the police investigation progresses quietly behind the scenes. This creates a crime novel with an impressive difference, showing us how the ripples from a murder move outwards and impact on a variety of people. As well as dissecting the effect that the crime has on the victim’s and murderer’s families, and on friends and workmates, the novel provides us with in-depth portraits of Yoshino Ishibashi and her killer, and a complex analysis of the circumstances leading to the murder on the desolate mountain road of Mituse Pass.
The identity of the murderer is only confirmed towards the end of the text, and readers are invited to reflect on the extent to which he is indeed a ‘villain’, or whether the contributory actions of others, and the social circumstances in which he was raised should also be viewed as ‘villainous’. The narrative’s sympathies never tip over into an apology for the murderer’s actions, but there is an attempt to move away from a knee-jerk characterisation of the murderer as monster, to a more nuanced understanding of his crime.
One aspect of the novel I particularly liked was the almost complete absence of melodrama. The writing style is spare and matter-of-fact, homing in on ordinary details, such as a grandmother eating a pickled plum, or a shop-assistant reflecting on the difference between expensive designer shirts and the ones she has to sell. The emphasis on everyday experiences that readers will recognise (whether they are Japanese or not), brings this story closer to real life than is often the case, and makes it all the more unsettling: this is a recognisable world populated by recognisable individuals.
That having been said, the story is also very much of its time and place – contemporary Japan – and paints a largely unflattering picture of Japanese society, especially in relation to the issue of class. There are a lot of unhappy people in this book, and a sense of individual entrapment comes over very strongly in the depiction of a number of characters.
Villain has won the prestigious Japanese Osaragi Jiro Prize. The film adaptation, directed by Lee Sang-Il, appeared in 2010 and received mixed reviews.
One last observation: the back cover of the novel contains the by now almost inevitable, lazy comparison to Stieg Larsson, in the shape of a quote from a New Yorker review.
For the record, aside from the fact that it’s a crime novel and contains some social critique, Villain bears no obvious resemblance to Stieg Larsson’s works. I don’t mean this as a value judgement, but simply as a statement of fact. Villain is the in-depth study of one crime, while the Millennium Trilogy explores a number of crimes; Villain examines the lives of individuals dealing with the immediate aftermath of a murder, with the police operating in the background, while the Millennium Trilogy explores the long-term effect of past crimes and foregrounds the investigative activities of Blomkvist and Salander; Villain’s dominant themes are class and patterns of cause and effect, Millennium’s are misogyny and power. And stylistically, the novels are as different as can be.
Mrs. Peabody awards Villain an impressive 5 stars.
Excellent review – I thought this book excellent, and you’ve cleverly encapsulated many of the reasons why I thought so. I agree the comparison with Stieg Larsson is risible.
Thanks, Maxine. Yes, one of those crime novels that’s doing something very complex: a forensic dissection of Japanese society refracted through the crime. The grandmother was my favourite character – wonderfully drawn.
Thanks for an excellent review. Like you, I like a crime novel where we actually get to see how ordinary people cope with something as extraordinary and horrible as a murder. It’s hard to do that without being melodramatic…
Thanks, Margot. Yes, I think the focus on the ordinary individual is the novel’s greatest strength. The author really does do an admirable job of depicting a multi-generational array of characters from across the social spectrum.
This is a review which together with some other excellent reviews will steer me towards this book.
From everything I’ve read about Japanese society, class is a rigid and pervasive issue. With unemployment now an issue or layoffs from what used to be lifetime jobs, there is a lot of insecurity by working people. And women have issues as well.
But I must read this book to see what you are raising.
This again is a way of reading crime fiction to learn more about what is happening in a country other than one’s own.
Yes, I think you’re right, Kathy. It’s a pretty grown-up book, especially as it doesn’t shy away from showing the negative side of Japanese society. It would be interesting to hear what Japanese readers think of the novel’s depiction of the country.
Incidentally, I could have written the same amount again on the gender relations depicted in the book, but it would have meant giving too much of the plot away! There were a couple of bits that left me feeling slightly uneasy (the portrait of one of the mothers), but overall the novel provides an interesting exploration of gender dynamics, and in some ways can also be viewed as a rather unconventional but touching love story.
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Sold! It’s on my wishlist.
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