Book review: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida

by Shuichi Yoshida
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Harvill Secker, 2010 (first published in Japan in 2007).

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.

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.

The translation is good, I think, but is American English not English English. For me some of the US colloquialisms jarred, but I am sure the reverse would be true for a US reader of an English English translation.

I obtained this novel free of charge via Amazon Vine.

Other reviews of this novel: The Complete Review (includes links to many other reviews), NPR books, Reactions to Reading and Yet Another Crime Fiction blog.

About the book at the publisher’s website.

About the author (Villain is his seventh novel but the first to be translated into English).

Villain was made into a film last year (2010), which is reviewed at Diverse Japan.