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by Shuichi Yoshida, and Philip Gabriel, trans.
Pantheon, August 2010
304 pages
ISBN: 030737887X

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The road that runs through Mitsuse Pass is twisty and dangerous. Some people think it haunted. So it seems almost fitting that the body of a young insurance saleswoman, Yoshino Ishibashi is found one winter's night, strangled and abandoned, near the summit of the pass. At first, it appears that the son of a wealthy local family may have been responsible. At least he was believed to have been dating Yoshino and they may have been together that night. He has, moreover, disappeared and seems to be on the run. There is another suspect, Yuichi, who comes from quite the opposite end of the social spectrum. He's been corresponding with Yoshino via an on-line dating site and may have had a date with her that same night.

He too is on the run, but not alone. Another young woman, a department store saleswoman older than he is, joins him on his flight, which takes the pair from love hotel to love hotel around the southern part of the Japanese coast. The stories of all these characters and of some of their friends and relations are told from various points of view and in a fragmented time sequence that in the end adds up to a complex and compelling impression of modern Japanese life in the wake of its economic collapse.

VILLAIN raises some important questions, not the least of which is who indeed is the villain in the piece. The killer? The man who rejected and abandoned Yoshino? The social circumstances that create an atmosphere so desperately loveless and alienated that young women will risk both safety and self-respect to achieve an ephemeral parody of a relationship with men who are wholly indifferent to them?

No clear answer emerges at the end. In part this is because it is difficult to understand what the author is telling us thanks to the considerable distance that still exists between Japanese cultural notions and those of the West. The translator, Philip Gabriel, has made a valiant attempt to bridge the gap and has succeeded in producing a very readable text that at least opens a window into a modern Japanese reality. Readers familiar with another writer of contemporary Japanese noir, Natsuo Kirino, will perhaps recognize in Yoshida's cast of characters a somewhat older, but still alienated group of young people.

But the reader still may remain a bit baffled in a world where a woman, en route to abandoning her young son, is humiliated on a streetcar by men laughing at her for neglecting to shave under her arms. Or one in which the bereaved parents of the murdered girl have to cower in their own home under a barrage of rocks thrown by strangers who blame them for raising a child who has behaved badly. Not to speak of one in which squid sashimi consists of a pallid squid served whole and with tentacles still twitching on a plate.

In the end, however, Yoshino's father makes an observation that brings it all into a perspective that can be universally understood. To a friend of one of the young men, he says, "'There're too many people in the world like you. Too many who don't have anyone they care about. Who think that if they don't love anyone else then they are free to do what they want. They think they have nothing to lose and that makes them stronger....But that's not the way things are. And it's just not right.'" Nor is it, either in Japan or anywhere else.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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