Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Japanese Shark Tank

Shinjuku Shark by Arimasa Osawa

Rating: ****

Culture Shock: *****

Summary: Jump the shark and discover Japanese noir at its finest in the first of a long-running series of mystery novels to be translated into English.

A few years ago I toured Japan with Intrepid Travel (plug, plug). While in Tokyo, managed to cajole my wife into Kinokuniya, the Japanese equivalent of Chapters/Indigo or Barnes and Noble. This mega-bookstore in Shinjuku was five stories tall with one floor dedicated to manga. When you bought a book, no matter how small, the cashiers took the time to wrap the book in a Kinokuniya book jacket and then wrap it again in tissue paper before handing it to you in a bag. It’s all about the aesthetics I suppose. I still have the book jackets.

As I was staring in awe, I found a small shelf of English language books. On it was a collection of the most popular English language best sellers by the likes Stephen King and JK Rowling and Tom Clancy. There was nothing by such literary luminaries as Margaret Atwood. And it got me to thinking – is this how the Japanese perceive English language books? Are the likes of the most popular writers in the English language world the only window into English literature?

The same could be asked of Japanese literature. What do we get as a window into Japanese society? The most popular books out there are manga. I would dare say that this is not entirely the best way to see what Japan is really like on the literary front. Well, then along comes Vertigo books which publishes translations of Japan ’s most popular novels that were not written by Haruki Murakami. Koji Suzuki (author of Ringu and its sequals), Natsuo Kirino (Out and Real World) and other popular Japanese authors are now gracing American bookstore shelves. They provide at least a peak into what the Japanese literary world is like.

One hopes that Arimasa Osawa is a name that will also stay on North American books shelves (I got my copy on Amazon though).

Shinjuku Shark is Arimasa Osawa’s first book in a series of noir detective novels. Published in English by Vertical Books, this series of best-selling crime fiction has won numerous awards including Japan’s Naoki Prize and has been made into films – all Japanese of course. After a decade and a half of acclaim in Japan , this series has finally made it to North American shelves. I had to get it on Amazon, but at least I got it and now that I know the second one (Poison Ape) is coming in October, I will look out for it.

Samejima is the quintessential noir detective – tough as nails with a strict, uncompromising moral code and living in a corrupt system that wants him dead, or at least silenced, for what he knows. Samejima (whose name loosely translates into ‘shark’) must find out who is killing cops and his investigation will lead him through the seedy streets of Shinjuku home to criminals, corrupt cops, streetwalkers and Yakuza. Samejima grabs you by the throat from the first page and doesn’t let go until the last. His character and his relationship with the young pop singer Sho will keep you turning pages.

And that was enough for me to recommend this book. However, there were parts of the novel that did not engage me. Some parts might work for a Japanese audience, but did not work for me and may not work for a North American audience. For instance, there are several short chapters seen from the point of view of the unnamed killer. The reader gets insight into what is going on in the killer’s mind. But for me, it wasn’t engaging enough. There was little or no interplay between Samejima and the killer nor was there enough information to get insight into the killer’s motivation (at least not until the last couple of chapters) so as a study in the criminal mind, I found it lacking.

Also, there was a lot of backstory regarding Samejima and the secrets he knows near the beginning of the book. This extended infodump slowed the pace of the book considerably and may turn some readers off. Much of the information imparted to the reader did not have any bearing on the current mystery. It did reveal a lot about the character of Samejima and where he comes from, but did not add to the air of mystery surrounding the cop killings. I imagine a lot of this is set up for the inevitable translations of the sequals, the first (Poison Ape) which is due this December.

So my recommendation is to jump the shark and discover Japanese noir at its finest in this, the first of a long-running series of mystery novels to be translated into English.

Culture Shock: ***** Arimasa describes Shinjuku and Tokyo in very sparse terms. This is probably because it was written for a Japanese audience who would be familiar with the locations mentioned in this book. Intimate knowledge of these places and terms is not necessary but trying to figure them all out might cause vertigo.

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