At it's centre Villain/Akunin is a murder story although there's many things about this novel that sets it apart from being pigeon holed into being solely a crime/murder novel. Published in Japan in 2007 it won Shuichi Yoshida both the Jiro Osaragi Prize and also the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award, Villain is Yoshida's first book to be appear in English,the translation is by Philip Gabriel. After the body of a woman, (Yoshino Ishibashi) is found on Mitsuse Pass, a mountain range reputedly haunted and a haven for murderers on the run,Yoshida's novel begins to piece together the scenario of her last moments. The night she was murdered she had dinner with her friends, during their conversation Yoshino exaggerates her relationship with Keigo Masuo, a popular guy, who's parents run an expensive inn, later in the night her friends say goodbye to her thinking she was meeting up with Keigo on a date. In actuality she's arranged to meet with Yuichi Shimizu, a guy she had met through an online dating agency, the following day her friends at work are curious that Yoshino hasn't arrived at her job, the t.v is on at work and a report comes on that a woman's strangled body has been found on the mountains, worryingly the description matches Yoshino's. After following up the leads the police find that mysteriously Keigo Masuo has gone missing. Yoshida's approach to telling his story has a real originality about the way he introduces his characters, starting with descriptive passages and scenes that lead on to connect with those of the main characters, as the history of their lives are emptied out before our eyes, we learn more about Yuichi from the eyes of Miho, a woman who he had met at a massage parlor and had an unsuccessful relationship with, Yuichi was abandoned by his mother when he was a child after his father had run off with another woman, adopted by his grandparents, Fusae and Katsuji, and and in turn the narrative takes us back to Fusae's childhood, and we see a life spent largely struggling, from picking up rationed potatoes thrown on the floor, in the post war days of her youth, to being bullied into buying unwanted medicine.
The story is shot through with the quiet desperation of the loneliness of it's characters, Tamayo and Mitsuyo are sisters living a rather dissolute existence together, and through online dating Mitsuyo contacts Yuichi, but after he asks her to meet him she stops the communication between them, but after a period of loneliness she contacts him again out of the blue, over the course of some emailed texts Yuichi's own loneliness comes to the fore, he texts -''These days I haven't talked to anybody', He looked down and saw the words on the screen. They weren't words someone has emailed to him. Without realizing it, he'd typed the message'. This time the couple meet up and after Yuichi's forthright invitation head for a love hotel, the anonymous world of online dating is summed up when Mitsuyo asks, 'is Yuichi Shimizu your real name?', she revels in Yuichi knowing that her lonely isolation is nearing an end. Yoshida has drawn an accurate portrait of contemporary Japan, name dropping many brand names, and I think this has the most references to Japanese food and customs that I've read in a contemporary novel in a long while, furikake, butaman, kamaboko, chikuwa to name but a few, and the novel opens with Yoshino's father doing the calculation of how much money you can save by choosing between the slower and faster train service, and the price of the ETC system, the addition of these details place you right in the novel's setting. Although a story of murder, the story is more character study than police procedure, and the relationship between Mitsuyo and Yuichi grows in intensity after his confession, Mitsuyo haunted by an apparition of her loneliness can't stand to leave Yuichi, the two know their time together will not last but still head for refuge in a deserted light house, a light house also figures in his relationship with his mother. As the net begins to tighten around them, were left with a slight enigma with Yuichi, is he at heart a good man, who's loneliness has pushed him to the limits where his actions slip momentarily out of his control?.
Villain is published by Harvill/Secker in the U.K and Pantheon in the U.S., in Japan a film adaption of Villain/Akunin directed by Sang-il Lee, (Scrap Heaven, 69), will appear in September 2010.
Eri Fukatsu recently won best actress at Montreal Film Festival for her role in Akunin.