First published in Japanese under the title ‘Akunin’ back in April of 2007, Japanese novelist Shuichi Yoshida saw his novel later becoming translated by Philip Gabriel for its English language re-release retitled as ‘Villain’ in August of 2010.

DLS Synopsis:
On a cold winter’s night, on the quiet mountainside road known as the Mitsuse Pass in Southern Japan, young and moderately attractive insurance saleswoman Yoshino Ishibashi is found murdered along the deserted roadside.  Signs of strangulation can clearly be seen on her discarded body.

As the police begin their intensive investigation, popular college student Keigo Masuo quickly becomes the prime suspect.  The last anyone saw of Yoshino was when two of her close friends left her on the night of her murder to meet with Keigo who, as Yoshino informed her friends, she was starting an intimate relationship with.

But no one can locate the young college student.  The last his friends have seen of him was a few days ago.  However, as the police investigate the circumstances surrounding the young girl’s death, they discover that she had been frequenting online dating sites, from which she had already met up with a few men.

Gradually, a not-so-innocent picture of the young Yoshino’s private life begins to unfold.  Claims of prostitution begin to emerge across the media, shaming her distraught parents further.  And then, slowly but surely, the light of suspicion begins to fall instead towards a timid twenty-seven-year-old construction worker named Yuichi Shimizu who Yoshino was beginning a secret relationship with. 

It quickly becomes apparent that Yuichi was also there that night.  The young couple had arranged to meet for a late-night date.  But Yoshino had told everyone she was meeting with Keigo – who it now looks as if is on the run.  Further still, when the police begin to look into Yuichi’s connection with the victim, they find that the young car enthusiast has taken off with a lonely shop assistant named Mitsuyo Magome in tow, leaving behind his confused and disbelieving grandmother.

Somehow all of the pieces of the puzzle must come together to reveal what really happened to Yoshino that night.  The two young men on the run must have their reasons for running, and have their own stories to tell of what part they had to play that fateful night.  Everyone has their own motivations for the actions they take.  Events happen that twist and turn the course of life’s direction.  None more powerful than with true love.  And so as the families try their best to pick the shattered pieces of their lives back up, the hunt is on for the real killer of Yoshino Ishibashi, and hopefully an explanation as to why?...

DLS Review:
Having been translated from a Japanese novel, the first thing that jumps out at the reader is the sudden exposure to the lifestyles and broad culture within Japan, with the novel having been written originally for a Japanese audience, the text takes certain cultural and logistical references for granted, which a more European reader is often largely unfamiliar with.  However, this doesn’t seem to erect any real barriers with the understanding, clarity or enjoyment of the tale.  If anything, it adds a culturally-intriguing quality to the storyline as well as enhancing the overall backdrop for the plot.

After laying down a broad cross-section of many of the principal characters involved and that of their immediate families, the author works through a brief sketch of the run-up to the murder, all in a mildly understated fashion.  From here, the tale then reverts back to the characters involved, and how they each interacted with the murder victim before her death and then their resulting lives afterwards.

An air of mystery lingers over the two principal suspects, with the author gradually unravelling the actual events that really took place prior to the murder, which ultimately reveals Yoshino’s true killer.  And in doing so, the reader is repeatedly thrown off-guard, with numerous unforeseen motivations and unexpected emotional twists becoming the most impactful elements to the tale.

Emotionally, this is certainly a complex novel.  Love and the birth of close relationships become a driving factor behind the development of the tale.  Indeed, behind much of the novel’s structure is a very subdued coming-of-age storyline that flickers between a gritty reality and a passionate conception of a developing relationship.

The subject of sex is explored in a very coarse and raw fashion.  Much of this is due to the recurring ties with prostitution, the more sordid sides to online-dating, and indeed the nervous sexual exploration of Yuichi Shimizu.  ‘Love hotels’ are introduced to the less aware readers (myself being one), as well as a brief glimpse into the emotionally stagnant environment of brothels and their workers.

Much of the novel is very hard-hitting with its modern-day grittiness.  It’s often bleak outlook is atmospheric as well as unsettling.   Where the novel’s real strength lies is with the bonds it forms with the readers as well as the raw emotions that are exposed in all their fragile glory throughout the tale’s length.

The ending is very suiting and (once again) emotionally powerful.  Its quiet subtlety fits in perfectly with the latter progression of the tale, rounding off the novel with a well-executed final message, and a last exposure of exactly what sort of individuals the characters truly are.

The tale was later adapted into the 2010 film of the same name, which was directed by Lee Sang-il.  The film received high acclaim and went on to win a total of five Japan Academy Awards in 2011.

The novel runs for a total of 295 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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