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.

18 thoughts on “Book review: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida

  1. Very interesting indeed, Maxine. Love to discover that even in a completely different culture, people’s feelings and actions, are pretty much the same. It looks to me a worthwhile reading.

  2. Lovely review and I agree with your conclusions…it’s a terrific book and not at all what I expected. I got quite cross that this was virtually ignored and The Devotion of Suspect X got so much attention (the latter is an inferior product all round in my not so humble opinion).

  3. Maxine – Thank you for a really excellent review. I think one of the hallmarks of a really well-written novel is when it touches on universal themes such as alienation, generational conflict and so on, while at the same time being contextual enough to share some of the particular culture with the reader. This novel seems to do just that.

  4. Maxine–Yes–I read this when it was first published,and am not the only
    one to be surprised that it never made the International Dagger

  5. Thanks, all, for your comments – and thanks, Keishon especially, as I probably wouldn’t have read this if it were not for your review.

  6. Thanks for this excellent review, Maxine. I loved this off-beat crime novel, and thought it was extremely well written. It’s also a ‘snap!’ moment, as I’ve written a review of Villain which I’ll post next week. Great minds etc…!

  7. Pingback: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  8. This is a book I’ve wanted to read and now will have to get my hands on a copy. As others have said–excellent review–I’ve been reading opinions on other blogs about what ‘reviews’ should do/say and you always capture the essence of a story without it being a simple rehash of the plot. Nicely done.

    • Thanks, Danielle, I always try not to “spoil” the book, it is so disappointing that many cover/publisher blurbs do this. For a plot-based novel, the last thing one wants is to know in advance a crucial event that occurs on p 300!

  9. I wasn’t planning on reading this as I thought I’d watch the film, but I think I’d like to now (after reading your post!) It seems a lot of Japanese crime fiction focuses on alienation of the young, but then I guess crime fiction in general does that.

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