Tuesday, September 1, 2015

BOOKSHELF: SHUICHI YOSHIDA'S "VILLAIN"


Shuichi Yoshida's Villain is the fifth Japanese thriller on my themed summer reading list, and I am no closer to experiencing the wow factor I so longed to discover. Another well-written novel, it suffers, first and foremost, from ofttimes reading like a transportation manual. There is a level of proficiency required for a reader to feel comfortable in the setting, but, at some point, excessive details serve to take us out of the story. Villain's most pertinent action takes place at Mitsuse Pass and, aside from an eerie park and a coveted lighthouse that reappear in the narrative, Yoshida's pedantic mapping of every road, sidewalk, and alley does a disservice to his work.

More importantly, is Villain a genuine thriller or another marketing misrepresentation? Initially, we are meant to be concerned about the murder of Yoshino, a young woman killed at Mitsuse Pass. There are only two suspects, young men Yuichi and Keigo, wildly different from one another in looks, character, and social standing, and Yoshida keeps that pendulum swinging well into the third act. It's a cheap tease, because the perpetrator is obvious from the start, and the constant attempt to infuse doubt only reinforces that fact. Almost immediately, the thriller morphs into a character study, with appearances by so many new people, the identity of the lead protagonist becomes entirely unclear. There are parents, grandparents, uncles, sisters, best friends, co-workers, past lovers, and many more folks who muse about the difficulty, darkness, and loneliness of life and, if we are lucky, tie it back to one of the main characters.

Aside from keeping track of the ever-mounting pyramid of secondary personages, the reader is tasked with slipping in and out of first person narration. I'd think it a valuable tool of manipulation had it been limited to a specific string of characters, say the possible killers, or the victim herself, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason for shifts between third and first person POV, and the tactic becomes a nuisance awful fast. What I do give Yoshida credit for, is making the murder victim out to be so utterly unsympathetic and shifting reader alliances, even if the rest of the characters remain too distant for us to forge a connection. In short, no one is likable, nobody wins, and the most intriguing aspects of the novel become its inquisitive chapter headings:

1. WHO DID SHE WANT TO SEE?
2. WHO DID HE WANT TO SEE?
3. WHO DID SHE HAPPEN TO MEET?
4.WHO DID HE HAPPEN TO MEET?
5. THE VILLAIN I MET

Saturday, August 15, 2015

BOOKSHELF: M. MIYABE'S "ALL SHE WAS WORTH"


If you are looking to achieve textbook-like proficiency in Japan's consumer debt crisis of the 1980s, then Miyuki Miyabe's All She Was Worth will hit the sweet spot. If, however, you have set your sights on the promised top tier mystery of stolen identity and murder against the stormy, forlorn, noir-ish backdrop of Japan, you are in for a bit of a let down. I was partial to the writing style, because it reminded me very much of my own. While there is no doubt this is a well-written, competent work, the nearly clinical description of the credit crisis by way of dry character monologues and its role in fostering the economic bubble that would soon burst was poorly integrated within the established tone of the novel. The mind often meandered for pages on end.

The book introduces us to Detective Honma, a widower with a 10-year-old son, on leave from his job after an accident left him with a bum leg. During his recovery, he is visited by a distant relative, Jun, a young banker, whose fiancée bailed on him during a confrontation about a credit card application that revealed her history of insurmountable debt. He enlists Honma to find her, but when an early investigation turns up a case of stolen identity, Jun refuses to believe it and storms out. Honma remains intrigued, and continues poking and prodding the history of "Shoko Sekine," the fiancée, and the "real" Shoko Sekine, whose identity was assumed. Is the real Shoko dead? Is her impostor also in trouble? Were both women unknowingly running from the same crisis? The book reads like a massive procedural, every chapter dedicated to a different witness. The beauty of solving the mystery lies in Honma's creativity and perseverance, as he is off duty and unable to merely flash his badge to get people talking. Most of the persons of interest aren't receptive to his initial wiles.

The book falters in the very last chapter by denying readers even the most basic idea of closure, not a shred of accountability, not a hint of due process. All She Was Worth is a striking (if heavy-handed) commentary on the dangers of materialism in a consumer-driven culture, pitting frowned upon individualist tendencies against collectivism and cross-generational familial responsibility. The problem? Just about every question you may come to ponder throughout this text will go unanswered. Some call that an open ending, but it feels as if Miyabe became exasperated with her own novel and decided to quit abruptly. So it stops, just as things finally stir your interest, and you find yourself baffled, if not altogether cheated, staring at those last italicized words and nervously leafing the leftover blank pages, but, alas, that's all she wrote.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

BOOKSHELF: OTSUICHI'S "ZOO"


Otsuichi's Zoo is a collection of 11 strangely unremarkable short stories breaching genres of horror, psychological thriller, science fiction, and fantasy. Advertised as a much needed booster shot into tired genre tropes, Zoo falls short of providing readers with a revived take on fantasy infused horror. United by a theme of death and decay, the ideas are there, and many a premise appears destined for a grand payoff, but it never comes to fruition. Whether it's AI existentialism, a man receiving daily polaroids of his decaying ex-girlfriend, a deformed recluse building a house in the woods from dubious matter, an abused twin who plans the demise of the other, or a child intrigued by the seeming bottomlessness of a sandbox, none of the stories maintain a fitting climax. 

don't propose a neatly wrapped up conclusion, but there is a difference between an open ending and an author who has  written himself into a corner. With no way to reconcile his intentions, he presents a work that feels unfinished, a hasty sketch of fluid features in lieu of fleshed out, concrete details. To Otsuichi's credit, every narrative has a decidedly visceral build-up, only to be followed by a decidedly rushed, uninspired finale. All stories, both in language and structure, read like a first draft.

The dreaded first person account is prevalent in 10 out of 11 stories. The intention is for them to read like diary entries, yet most are so monotone in style and simplistic in word choice, that it's hard to grasp at anything remotely wondrous. If this prose is supposed to be skillful and emotionally engrossing, it is lost in translation. It's too bad, because Otsuichi is a solid writer and has better works to showcase his talent (the novel Goth, for example). If it wasn't for the often clinically gruesome subject matter, I'd say Zoo reads more appropriately as a Young Adult entry. As it stands, this collection is neither here nor there, and I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to the author, but rather complementary reading for die-hard fans of Otsuichi's craft.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

SUMMER CAPER: DONG-HOON CHOI'S "THE THIEVES"


Inspired by TCM's "Summer of Darkness," I turned to my favorite South Korean cinema for some quality chills and thrills. What held my interest was a 2012 caper, The Thieves. Pegged as Korea's Ocean's Eleven (2001), The Thieves is everything its Hollywood counterpart should have been, and I say that as a fan of Clooney's Vegas shenanigans.

The Thieves is not a restrictive all-boys club, where women are instrumental only as play things and/or seductresses. They can be that, too, but their skills are no less important than those of the group's male members. Likewise, where Ocean's Eleven was straightforward in its dynamics, loyalties, and the tasks at hand, The Thieves is all about old grudges, betrayals, and mistrust of the ever-expanding crew. There are two groups within the master crew, the Chinese and the Koreans, who come together in spite of initial standoffishness to pull off a grandiose heist in Macao. Yet, within the Korean posse brew deep-seated, duelling rivalries between head honchos Macao Park and Popeye, both of whom feel betrayed by each other for a previous sting gone off script.

All these personalities and character trajectories culminate in a larger than life adventure that can get a little muddy from one thrilling sequence to the next, but one that keeps its eyes on the prize and won't bottom out under the heavy weight of multiple storylines and varying time frames. Fans should recognize plenty of familiar faces from this transnational cast, with a most animated performance by Hong Kong veteran Simon Yam, who looked to be having an absolute blast. And, despite young ladies frolicking about in tight heist gear, his romantic storyline with "Chewing Gum," a lonely, aging woman from the Korean crew, is full of genuine chemistry and wonder.

The film is a contagious ball of energy, with beautiful locations, expertly choreographed action, and enough character development to chew on for those who appreciate meaningful down time between endless chases and explosions. It is very slick, surprisingly humorous, impeccably stylish, and deserving of attention.  The perfect summer caper.

Monday, June 15, 2015

CURRENT REELS: THE MO BROTHERS' "KILLERS"


Killers (2014), the hyper violent film about addiction to murder, both in the name of pleasure and justice, has had me in its death grip for weeks. The first viewing was surprising, the second impulsive, the third felt disturbingly necessary. My need to revisit this story began to mirror the ever-winding rabbit hole one of main characters unwittingly descends into. 

To be clear, there are two protagonists - Namura, the pro in Tokyo, and Bayu, the novice in Jakarta. Bayu, an investigative journalist, spends much of his free time surfing the dark net, lingering in one chat room in particular, where he gets acquainted with Namura's murderous work. He watches the videos of Namura's dying victims, as the focus shifts to their last breaths, blinks, and helpless whispers for mercy. Despite being horrified, he always comes back. There are high ranking officials he knows are abusing power, and whom he wants to see dead, but it is not until he is abducted, beaten to a pulp, and forced to defend himself by lethal means that he begins to rationalize murder. He films the aftermath of his adventure and posts it in the same chat room. Namura is impressed with the kills, but suggests that the first time is never hard, because it is always an impromptu affair, a crime of necessity and opportunity. The second, however, is the real deal, and requires conscious, meticulous planning. The games begin, or rather what Namura views as a game of chills and thrills, while Bayu searches for reasons to vindicate his own brutality.

The bigger thesis here is the conflict of murder for pleasure versus murder for justice, and why many of us try so vehemently to make allowances for the latter, perhaps because it is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. Unlike pleasure, justice is a man made concept that is not recognized or practiced among any other species. Another striking detail - Namura's murder for pleasure is exclusive to women, whereas Bayu's murder for justice is exclusive to men. Is this coincidence, or a spectacle of Namura's decadence in his choice to prey on the "weaker" sex? Women = pleasure / men = business? There is one exception for Namura, a male kill from which he derives much pleasure, but its initiation is driven by vengeance and the need to reassert his own manhood, because the male victim humiliated and brutally assaulted him earlier.

I hesitate to call Killers an enjoyable experience, for that has moral implications I am not ready to parse. This isn't your run of the mill torture porn fiasco, which is precisely what makes its unabashed violence more challenging to dismiss. And yet, despite all good reason, I yearn incessantly for another taste. Encore!