[Book Review / Analysis] – Kotaro Isaka – Bullet Train

By way of an anatomy of a hit thriller…

Genre fiction lives and dies by its adherence to and deconstruction of popular tropes. It is how it both achieves familiarity and subverts expectations. Striking a balance between the two is how works that often thrive off a number of pre-set formulae manage to stay fresh within a market that can essentially see hundreds of variations on the same core themes published within a year.

I’ve often considered crime fiction as the veritable ‘fast food’ of the publishing industry – it is there to ‘fill you up’ on a quick, compulsively satisfying cocktail of adrenaline rush cum page-turning impulse. Sometimes it makes you think, too, but always in service to fiddling around with the core parameters that define the genre: Whodunnit? Whydunnit? Will they get caught? Will they die by the end? Who will kill them? Will ‘justice’ be served?

I was fascinated when I heard that big-bucks publisher Penguin would be releasing – under their Harvill Secker imprint – the thriller Bullet Train [Maria Bītoru (Maria Beetle) (マリアビートル) in its original Japanese publication from Kodansha in 2010] in early 2021. With the book now released, I eagerly ploughed through it, and wanted to share some of my thoughts on a novel that is interesting both from the point of view of its status as an exquisite example of genre tropes, but also as a case study in bringing non-Anglophone IP (intellectual property) to wider audiences.

How to review a genre thriller? As the books I usually review on my blog these days are either non-fiction works, or literary fiction where you can really go to town on the aesthetic feel of the ‘pleasures of the text’, this gave me pause for thought. It’d be like sitting down and banging out 1000 words on the careful minutiae of the latest Lee Child or Ian Rankin. Not that this inherently bothers me – as someone who used to write about pop music for a living, I hold a continuing fascination in treating the popular medium as a kind of ‘art’ in its own right, so I mused about what it was that struck me so deeply about Bullet Train, and that marked it out within both the wider spheres of thriller writing, and Japanese literature in translation.

***

I’ve long been a fan of the website TV Tropes and how it sorts and assigns everything from film to television to a set of common archetypes that are re-used time and time again. Bullet Train is no exception, and its engagement with many of these is what makes it such a joy to consume:

Stuck on a train

Need we say more? The central narrative conceit of a bunch of characters and action playing out within the confined space of a moving vehicle will never grow old. Murder on the Orient Express, Train to Busan, Speed, Air Force One, and (this will amuse those that have finished Bullet Train and will understand the reference), Snakes on a Plane. All variations on a theme and formula that delivers again and again.

Comedy duo

Swiftly into the book’s narrative, we are introduced to a kind of comedy ‘double act’ – a two-person criminal team called variously ‘The Fruit’ or the ‘fruit twins’. Their names are humorously given as Lemon and Tangerine. Lemon, in a typically outre character quirk for this kind of ‘a baddie, but also a goodie’ individual, is a manic fan of Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends (we’re sticking with the train theme here). He takes every opportunity to insert references to the show into dialogue, and even defines events and relationships by how the relate to the show. For readers who know their Gordons from their Percys, these references will thrill to the extreme. And then there’s Tangerine, with a die-hard love for serious literature, who quotes from Dostoyevsky and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. This duo essentially become the beating ‘heart’ of this novel, and are by far and away the most empathetic characters in the book.

Ensemble cast

It goes beyond the above double act. Bullet Train is defined by its chapters, each of which is told from a different character viewpoint (even going so far as to head each chapter up with their name as a kind of sub-heading, along with a handy diagram showing which carriages of the train the action is currently taking place in). These individual character arcs flow and overlap, but not always necessarily in synchronous order – sometimes we flash back or rewind, seeing the same events from two different perspectives. I’ll mention Tarantino again in this review, but for all those that adore Pulp Fiction to this day, Bullet Train is as about as close as you can get to this feel in the written format.

Mystery voice on the phone

Remember Phonebooth? Remember how a mysterious voice on the phone relaying instructions always feels exciting? Bullet Train has that too.

Rules and restrictions

Thrillers are driven forward by their careful, measured negotiation of a series of rules, restrictions and milestones. Like a novelistic equivalent of a Gantt chart, various progress bars will be ticking away, held back and delayed by restrictions. If the hero could shoot the villain in the first chapter and be done with things, it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? So instead, there’s a clear reason why he can’t kill the villain until X point in the story – we are held, gripped, ‘waiting’ for this point to arrive. Thus, by finessing the way in which – like a rubber band – these plot points are held back until at breaking point, and then snapped into place with a band, our nerves and adrenaline are played to a pretty tune in tandem.

***

With all the above interlocking and intersecting, it took me a little while to get into the workings of the book – it’s like looking at a fancy Swiss watch, the outside looks nice and shiny, but it’s only when you comprehend the delicacy of the inner workings that you realise the true marvel of what has been constructed. My initial impressions, as the set up was laid and the key characters were introduced, that this was in many ways a kind of ‘levelled up’ Light Novel (the Japanese equivalent of Young Adult fiction); essentially a procedural, narrative and dialogue led play-by-play, but with added swearing and violence. But then, around 100 pages in, comes the kicker.

Here, in a masterwork of a chapter, we are finally given insight into the novel’s central villain; a diabolical, psychopathically minded teen boy named Satoshi ‘The Prince’ Oji. With shades of the classic manga Death Note, this individual goads us into the age old dilemma, what if a kid – who from all outward appearances is perfect, handsome, innocent – was evil, pure evil? We’re given unique access to his thought processes and emotional development as we are told how his interest in death and the manipulation of people was driven by a school project in which he decided to focus on the Rwandan Genocide. This interweaving of real world history and fictional character development is a deeply unsettling, weirdly academic exercise in grounding his motivations in a kind of ‘authentic’ source, and while the character himself may feel like a kind of larger than life comic-book cliche at times, the novel’s persistence in ‘going there’ with some of its more shocking moral explications is compelling in the extreme.

A word of warning to the squeamish – there are some incredibly violent, gruesome scenes throughout Bullet Train. But more than that, the moral vacuum around said scenes creates a feeling that will only add to the unsettling feel of a chaotic world gone quite literally ‘off the rails’. The tone is very much that of a Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie flick, where violence operates within a weird zone of almost operatic dark humour, in which the extremes of the human condition are pushed to the limit or life and death, both physically and emotionally. This is a book that is not afraid to make the reader confront intense moral dilemmas, most notably: ‘Why is it wrong to kill people?’ – posing these as koan-esque conundrums to befuddle the reader, and then dazzle them with logical, clinically detailed exposes.

The translation, by Yale PhD grad Sam Malissa, is an effortless exercise in what I call ‘seamless translation’ – namely, something very much operating within the Haruki Murakami school of, short of proper nouns (place names, character names), leaving not a single word untranslated. I think I could count the number of italicised untranslated Japanese words on a single hand. This style has both its fans and detractors, and seems to fall in and out of fashion depending on the publisher and current trends in translation discourse, but for me it pays due dividends in that crucial factor; widening audience. Bullet Train is, at heart, a populist novel – the equivalent of a pulp airport read you’d find in any Tesco or WH Smith buy-one-get-one-half-price aisle, so in my mind, it should read like one in English too.

***

But, there is more to this book than the book itself. Because, of course, a movie adaptation is on its way, starring none other than Brad Pitt. Those interested in the wider story of Bullet Train‘s route to translation and associated movie tie-in owe it to themselves to read the story direct from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, in a long-form, highly engaging interview from The Hollywood Reporter with Yuma Terada and Ryosuke Saegusa; co-founders of artist management company CTB, who are responsible for setting all this into motion.

To summarise briefly some of the key points, they highlight, in fascinating detail – the difference between Hollywood-centric and Japanese-centric models of IP law and licensing (in Japan, authors typically retain copyright, and are published by multiple publishers, making global rights negotiation often a tricky matter). They focus on the importance of a killer ‘treatment’ for film negotiations, and also the thorny issue of localisation. They cannily raise the case of Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow – adapted from a Japanese Light Novel and famous amongst anime/manga fans as one of the select few Anglophone adaptations of Japanese IP to do a half-decent job (as opposed to controversial stinkers like the live-action Ghost in the Shell).

For those interested in the transnational interworkings of media properties and the businesses and key players behind them – essentially, the ‘reason’ why your favourite book or comic from another country ends up getting ‘big’ and ending up on Netflix / your local multiplex and X/Y other title doesn’t – this kind of candid transparency is gold dust. It shows joined-up, ‘bigger’ thinking – of media titles as specifically ‘planned’ entities with a designated road-map to global roll-out. Each and every title where this works effectively lays the groundwork for others, and is a rallying flag in the sand by which to counter the countless trail of ‘development hell‘ corpses that have littered the history of American live action attempts on Japanese IP over the past few decades.

It’s worth noting here briefly that one of Isaka’s previous works – Remote Control (original Japanese title: Golden Slumber) – was previously translated into English by Stephen Snyder (of Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police translation fame) and released by Kodansha USA back in 2011. Kodansha’s US operations have recently undergone a major re-branding, bringing all the non-domestic efforts, including their manga output and sub-labels like Vertical – under a single banner. Could this see a return to the kind of concerted publication effort fans of Japanese literature have long hoped for? Kodansha USA has been largely dormant as a publisher of ‘serious’, non manga/Light Novel works for a while now, so to see a return to this kind of model is something to be seriously aspired toward.

Bullet Train stands, then, as a fascinating case study in what ‘can’ be done when the stars align and the international licensing Gods get their act together and push toward a goal of bonafide ‘mainstream’ success. Time, of course, will tell – in a Post-COVID world, when exactly the promised movie version comes out, and if the book is a success before/after said movie tie-in. But as far as putting all the pieces into play, and attempting to ‘engineer’ both a stellar narrative and the meta-narrative that goes around its release, they don’t come much better than Bullet Train.

PS. It’s worth noting that Bullet Train is actually the second novel in Isaka’s ‘Killer‘ series of novels that features a number of characters in common – sandwiched between Book 1 – Grasshopper – and Book 3 – AX. This brings to mind other Japanese thriller writers such as Keigo Higashino, whose English translations have not always followed the same order as their original Japanese series.

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