Author :Shuichi Yoshida
Review: I thoroughly enjoyed Villain, admittedly somewhat against expectations. The plot is a skeleton for the intersecting stories of a range of ordinary Japanese people affected by a crime. One of the many charms of this book is that the characters are usually blue-collar people who work in construction, in shops or as insurance sales clerks, often worrying about money (to the exact yen), noting what things cost and deciding accordingly. To the non-Japanese reader this “slice of life” approach is a fascinating education into a culture that is completely different from that of the West and yet, at the level of people’s feelings and actions, the same.
The style of the book is straightforward and non-sensationalistic, yet told with great skill as sections switch constantly in time as a young woman is found murdered on a notoriously dangerous mountain pass. After a couple of weeks or so, a man is arrested for the crime. Between these two events we read of the lives of the victim and the presumed perpetrator, their families and friends, their colleagues and memories of their pasts. As we learn more about everyone, we come to see the clash of the ways older people see the world with those of the young – this applies as much to core values as it does to use of technology that grips everyone under the age of 30. Both groups are alienated but in different ways: the older people are struggling to make ends meet or are seriously ill after a lifetime of working; the young live alone, fixated on watching films on TV, or compulsively emailing people they “meet” on dating websites, or visiting bars and showing off to each other while often despising themselves and their companions. One of the many interesting aspects of the book is the way it shows how the school and university education system has increased, rather than ameliorated, this disengagement with wider society.
Hardly any of this inner desperation is articulated, but as we read this compulsive novel, we become more and more aware of the limitations of the world in which the characters are trapped. When people do meet, they seem to have nowhere to go except a “love hotel” where one has to know in advance how much private time one wants to spend with one’s companion, and put the right amount of money in the slot. How two people, a man and a woman, overcome the soul-less world in which they live and learn simply to love each other is really very poignant.
When Yoshino Ishibashi is found murdered near the eerie Mitsue Pass in southern Japan, a road locals only take in desperation to avoid expensive tolls on the nearby freeways, Police at first suspect a college student she knew who has also disappeared. But attention is also focused on Yuichi Shimizu, a construction worker from a nearby town.
Villain is the first novel by Shuichi Yoshida to be published in English and is translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Although it concerns the murder of a young woman it is, at its heart, a novel about modern Japan. Yoshida uses the murder as a peg upon which to hang the stories of those who have, however tangentially, been touched by the life of the murdered girl. Initially, Villain seems very different from most other modern crime fiction, lacking as it does the conventional linear structure and other plot devices common to the genre. However, on closer inspection, the author’s intentions become clearer.
The novel opens with a panoramic view of Mitsuse Pass, the location of the murder, and immediately establishes it as a symbol, literally and metaphorically, of the price the characters pay for the choices they make. It builds gradually, layering voices and characters as it goes. The common denominator is the loneliness of the characters, whether working far from home, substituting online dating for real relationships, or ageing slowly in a seaside town full of other old people.
In the opening chapters we meet the victim, Yoshino, and her friends Sari and Mako, who work together selling insurance door-to-door. Yoshino’s life revolves around her work, socialising with her friends, and her private life, where she seeks meaningful connections with the world around her through online dating sites and desperate encounters in ’love hotels’. None of these three characters elicit our sympathy, with Yoshino being particularly self-obsessed and manipulative.
Rather than being a whodunnit, Villain is an exploration of what makes a murderer and seen in that light it is fascinating. Any focus on the investigation of Yoshino’s murder is incidental to the author’s exploration of changes in modern Japanese society and associated issues of alienation, loneliness and despair. In short chapters, some told in flashback, we meet a wide range of people from different geographical and social backgrounds who all have some connection, albeit tenuous in some instances, to Yoshino or her murderer. We start by meeting Yoshino, a not-very-good insurance saleswoman by day and amateur prostitute with a gift for fantasy by night and move on from there. We then meet her parents, devastated and almost physically immobilised by her death and what they learn about her life, the two friends who were with her on the night of her murder, the college student and the construction worker who are both suspects in her murder, their friends and families and so on.
The person we learn most about is Yuichi, an almost allegorical character who experiences most of life’s disappointments in a very short space of time. Abandoned by his mother at a young age he is at the beck and call of his ailing grandparents and seems to have no interests other than his car and his fairly disastrous attempts at a love life (virtually all of which involve payment of some kind). In that respect he is not alone as none of the young people in the book seem capable of engaging in anything remotely like a ‘normal’ social life, what little social activity exists is conducted out via emails and furtive visits to love hotels, though I don’t know enough about life in Japan to know if this is a realistic portrayal of life for twenty-something Japanese people or beefed up for storytelling purposes.
For the most part the writing is very good and the translation by Philip Gabriel makes it easy to forget the words originated in another language but I must admit to finding the some of the ‘hyper-realism’ a bit off-putting as it tended to take me out of the story. The most obvious example of this is the inclusion of the price of every service and product mentioned which made me feel like I should have a calculator by my side or a shopping list on the go and I’m not really sure what purpose it all served.
For its first two thirds Villain is pretty bleak but towards the end there are glimmers of hope in which an unexpected person or two displays a hint of humanity and some of the characters, though none of the younger ones, show a bit of backbone. However the overwhelming feeling I’m left with is sadness as I think about these difficult to forget characters. If you can handle a slow-paced thoughtful novel that might leave you feeling uneasy about the state of the world then I would highly recommend Villain.
Initially, there is only one suspect in the murder enquiry – a student Yoshino has met only once but around whom she has built a fantasy relationship. To add to the weight of evidence against him he has disappeared. However, this is cast into doubt when loner Yuichi, on an impulse, contacts Mitsuyo, a thirty year-old shop-worker via an online dating site. They start a relationship and later run away together.
The novel’s blurb states that it is ’part police procedural, part dirty realism’. However, there is little to back this up – we see none of the police investigation and the tone of the novel lacks the darkness to be found in the work of, for example, Natsuo Kirino or Ryu Murikami. Where Villain works well is in its almost hypnotic meditations on the minutiae of loneliness – the little rituals the characters re-enact on a daily basis just to keep going.
Bravely, the author refuses to use any of the tricks that characterise modern crime fiction – while the structure of Villain means that there is little tension, it allows him to explore his characters’ inner lives and to play with perspective. Similarly, there are no twists – the main characters simply resign themselves to their fates in a quietly dignified and realistic manner.
This novel is very absorbing and tense: we are not sure for most of it who did actually commit the crime; and the book leaves open the question of who is the “villain” as well as providing us with a realistic account of the complex set of factors involved in creating someone’s personality, such that it is impossible not to see the world from his perspective.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
I would also recommend that you ignore most of the publicity material about this novel, much of which is either woefully inaccurate (the blurb on my copy for example claims that one of the characters is arrested for Yoshino’s murder early on which is just not true) or gives away too many spoilers. Also the US cover has a stylized gun on the cover which couldn’t have less to do with the story if it went out of its way to be irrelevant. I can only assume that no one responsible for publicizing this book has actually read it.
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