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 kilometers, connecting Fukuoka and Saga Prefectures and straddling Mitsuse Pass in the Sefuri mountain range.
The last Japanese crime novel I reviewed was Inspector Imanishi Investigates, an engaging police procedural published in 1961. By contrast, 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 this 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.