22 July 2011

Review: VILLAIN, Shuichi Yoshida


  • Harvill Secker 2010
  • first published in Japan as AKUNIN in 2007
  • translated from Japanese into English by Philip Gabriel 2010
  • ISBN 978-1-846-55268-0
  • 295 pages
  • Source: my local library
Publisher's blurb (Random House Australia)

A young insurance saleswoman is found strangled at Mitsuse Pass. Her family and friends are shocked and terrified. The pass—which tunnels through a mountainous region of southern Japan—has an eerie history: a hideout for robbers, murderers, and ghostly creatures lurking at night.

Soon afterward, a young construction worker becomes the primary suspect (this is rather inaccurate). As the investigation unfolds, the events leading up to the murder come darkly into focus, revealing a troubled cast of characters: the victim, Yoshino, a woman much too eager for acceptance; the suspect, Yuichi, a car enthusiast misunderstood by everyone around him; the victim’s middle-aged father, a barber disappointed with his life; and the suspect’s aging grandmother, who survived the starvation of postwar Japan only to be tormented by local gangsters. And, finally, there is desperate Mitsuyo, the lonely woman who finds Yuichi online and makes the big mistake of falling for him.

A stunningly dark thriller and a tapestry of noir, Villain is the English-language debut for Shuichi Yoshida, one of Japan’s most acclaimed and accomplished writers. From desolate seaside towns and lighthouses to love hotels and online chat rooms, Villain reveals the inner lives of men and women who all have something to hide. Part police procedural, part gritty realism, Villain is a coolly seductive story of loneliness and alienation in the southernmost reaches of Japan.

Read an excerpt

My take

One of the interesting things about this novel is its structure. The murder of a young woman, or rather her relationships with a variety of people, is seen from a number of points of view. She has been lying to her friends about her "boyfriend" and consequently the police investigation begins in what appears to the reader to be entirely the wrong direction. The police begin using resources to track down the wrong person, or, wait, is he..?

Many of the victim's friends have secrets from their other friends, even from their families. The lies they tell stem from the desire to be seen by others has better than they actually are, or from shame about the activities they participate in. The problem comes when they begin to believe their own lies, or when others believe or act on them.

I found the chapter headings fascinating, and while they indicate the structure of the novel, the focus of each chapter is not just one person.
  • Who did she want to see?
  • Who did he want to see?
  • Who did she happen to meet?
  • Who did he happen to meet?
  • The villain I met.
This murder mystery gives Western readers a chance to penetrate modern Japanese culture. As many other reviews point out, in many ways it is a tale about dysfunctionality and alienation, at the same time as indicating the ripple effect in society of what was in many ways an unpremeditated crime. The author also explores the impact of chance events and spur-of-the-moment decisions.

The cultural overtones that permeate a translated novel, particularly one like VILLAIN, can be very strong, meaning that the reader is constantly aware that setting is "different" to the one that they normally "inhabit". This is the second translated Japanese novel that I have read this year. The other was THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X by Keigo Higashino reviewed here. In that one too I was acutely aware of cultural differences. That's what makes translated crime fiction so valuable to Western readers.

My rating: 4.5


Other reviews to check:
Author Biography: 
Shuichi Yoshida was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1968. He is the author of numerous books and has won many Japanese literary awards, including the Akutayawa Prize for Park Life, and the prestigious Osaragi Jiro Prize and the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award, both of which he received for Villain. Several of his stories have been adapted for Japanese television, and a film based on Villain is due to be released in 2010 in Japan as Akunin. Yoshida lives in Tokyo.

Looking for another Japanese crime fiction novel? 
What about CROSSFire by Miyuki Miyabe or GROTESQUE by Natsuo Kirino?

1 comment:

mel u said...

Thanks for this very interesting review on a new to me author-I am very into Japanese fiction-I am now happy to be a follower of your blog

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