Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 304 pages; 2010. Translated from the Japanese by Shuichi Yoshida.
Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain isn’t your typical crime novel. Yes, there is a crime at its heart — the murder of a young woman — but it’s not a police procedural and it’s fairly obvious from the start who committed the crime, though we are never completely sure why he did it.
The book, which is set in Japan, is more a look at the outfall of the murder on a series of characters — including the woman’s hardworking parents, her friends and the accused — and how they adjust to changed circumstances. As such, it provides an interesting glimpse of contemporary Japanese society.
A young woman’s murder
Yoshino Ishibashi is a young insurance saleswoman who has moved to the city to work and have fun. She is a regular user of dating sites and has become acquainted with several men — the rich college boy Kiago and the good-looking but aloof construction worker Yuichi — but she doesn’t have a serious boyfriend. Yet that’s not what she tells her flatmates, Saki and Mako, who believe she’s seeing Kiago on a regular basis — a notion of which Yoshino does not disabuse them.
This, of course, muddies the waters when Yoshino does not return home after supposedly meeting Kiago very late at night for a date. When her body is discovered in the remote and forbidding Mitsuse Mountain Pass, Kiago is immediately put in the frame. Then, when his friends admit he’s been missing for several days, there seems little doubt that he must be the murderer.
However, as events unfold, Kiago’s role in Yoshino’s murder isn’t as quite clear cut as first thought — but to say more would spoil the plot.
The most interesting aspect of this novel is the ways in which different characters react to the crime: the two men accused go to ground, but when one of them is cleared, he turns boastful; the victim’s father becomes incredibly angry and wants revenge, while his wife becomes an emotional mess and cannot function properly; Yuichi’s grandmother finds herself caught between defending her grandson and protecting herself from a blackmailing scam she’s become caught up in; and an additional character, Mitsuyo, a department store worker, finds herself falling in love with the alleged perpetrator and goes on the run with him.
Their stories, their emotional and inner turmoil, are told using various viewpoints — third person and first person — which can, occasionally, be confusing, but this narrative structure gives the reader a well-rounded picture of a group of people struggling to readjust to life after the murder.
It also provides a fascinating portrait of life in Japan. It may just be the lower class portrayed here, but everyone seems obsessed by three things: food (there’s endless descriptions of it), sex (many of the characters visit “love hotels” and one is a prostitute) and consumer goods as status symbols (cars in particular). All the young people are working lowly paid or menial jobs and the women are doing all they can to find good husbands. I got the feeling that almost everyone in this novel felt alienated from the people they loved and the world in general (a common theme, I’ve noticed, in other Japanese books I’ve read). It’s a bleak picture, tinged by criminality, poverty and despair.
Detached prose style
The book is written in clear, lucid prose in the kind of flat, detached style I’ve come to expect from Japanese crime novels (interestingly, the author translated it himself). It’s a style I generally like, but I found my interest in the story waning the further I got into it. I think the lack of central narrator with which to identify (and cheer on) may have had something to do with this.
It didn’t help that many characters had similar names, which I found confusing, and I simply didn’t care enough about any of them to want to keep reading, so getting to the end of this novel became a bit of a hard slog.
That said, Villain is a rather thought-provoking book and I’ve come away from it not quite sure who the real villain was, something I suspect the author wanted to achieve. To what extent is the murderer the villain, because surely there are other factors at play? Was his upbringing to blame? Should the person who put the victim in a dangerous situation but not commit the murder take responsibility? Or is the victim to blame?