Japanese Title: 悪人 (Akunin)
Author: Yoshida Shūichi (吉田 修一)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Year Published: 2010 (Britain); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Yoshida Shūichi’s Villain is not a classy novel. It’s got sex scenes, murder scenes, chase scenes, masturbation scenes, scenes of mothers abandoning their children, scenes of fathers crying over their dead daughters in the rain, scenes of catty girls, and scenes of men and women being obnoxious to each other. It’s got poison love, pathetic love, tragic love, and codependent love built on unfulfilled ideals. It’s the most unapologetically pulpy book I’ve read recently, and I very much enjoyed reading it.
Villain is the story of the murder of Ishibashi Yoshino, a graduate of a junior college who worked as an insurance saleswoman and lived in her company’s dorms in Fukuoka City. Yoshino had been involved in online dating and had occasionally taken on clients as an amateur prostitute. When her dead body is found dumped alongside a highway running between Fukuoka and Saga prefectures, an investigation opens in search of the person who strangled her and left her on the side of the mountain underneath a lonely highway pass.
The novel is less concerned with the police and their investigation than it is with the social and emotional ripples that spread from Yoshino’s death. Villain jumps between the various people who end up becoming involved, no matter how tangentially. There is Yoshino’s friend Sari, a virgin who tells lies about having dated a certain boy in high school. Yoshino’s friend Mako is chubby and good-natured and profoundly gullible. Yoshino had lied to her friends that she was dating a business major and named Masuo Keigo, a playboy who has dropped out of college in all but name. Yoshino’s dad is a deadbeat who runs a barbershop outside of JR Kurume Station that is slowly going out of business. Shimizu Yuichi is a construction worker from Nagasaki who drives a flashy car and was one of Yoshino’s johns. Yuichi has a grandmother named Fusae, who is hassled by thugs, and an uncle named Norio, who is also Yuichi’s tough-guy boss. Yuichi ends up running away with a woman named Mitsuyo, who has reached thirty without marrying and works a crappy job in a crappy department store in a crappy suburb. There are also a handful of other characters who only appear briefly, such as Keigo’s dippy friend Koki and Mitsuyo’s spinster sister Tamayo.
The thread connecting these characters is that they are all pathetic sadsacks who are weak, petty, stupid, gross, and despicable. The forward momentum of Villain isn’t created by plot or mystery but rather by the reader’s compulsion to see just how nasty the novel’s characters can become. Over the course of the book, the author delves deeper and deeper into the individual, familial, and social dysfunction that makes up the world in which Ishibashi Yoshino lived. Villain is like a long, glorious train wreck in which terrible personalities are compounded by idiotic lies that are in turn compounded by bad decisions. The sheer maliciousness of this novel must be read to be believed.
The Japanese setting of the story, and in particular the geography of the Kansai area, constitutes a significant portion of its meaning and appeal, and I’m sure that an astute observer can find all manner of trenchant social commentary embedded in the novel. In the end, though, Villain is an engaging psychological thriller. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s great guilty pleasure reading for people who find the more unpleasant side of human nature amusing rather than upsetting.