14 Japanese Thrillers in Translation [in The Booklist Reader]
Mysteries and thrillers make up a sizable portion of the Japanese literary market. Thanks to the international success of Keigo Higashino, Natsuo Kirino, and Miyuki Miyabe – and, just as importantly, their translators – contemporary Japanese crime fiction proliferates on Western shelves. Below is a list of both novels and manga (because no one does graphic titles like the Japanese) sure to chill and thrill you.
Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated by Stephen Snyder
Yūko Moriguchi announces to her middle-grade class that she’s retiring at the end of the month, and that she’ll never teach again. Her daughter is dead. Although her death was officially ruled a drowning accident, Yūko knows otherwise: two of her own students were responsible. Not only are Students A and B guilty, but they soon learn that their teacher has put in motion her own revenge as she reveals she’s tainted A and B’s milk cartons. “The incubation period for the HIV virus is usually between five and ten years,” she calmly explains, “so that should give you plenty of time to think about the value of life.” Children young enough to still be drinking milk daily at school are also old enough to be murderers. And just like that, chapter one ends with “Class dismissed.” Go ahead, say it: wow.
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
The sliding glass door to the lunch shop where single mother Yasuko works opens to reveal a visitor she hoped she’d never see again: her abusive ex-husband. He’s managed to track her down after five years, arriving with promises that quickly turn to threats. If Yasuko doesn’t cooperate with his demands, he’ll have to seek out her teenage daughter Misato instead. By chapter two, the ex is lying dead in Yasuko’s apartment, and while mother and daughter desperately try to figure out what to do, their next-door neighbor Ishigami, a near stranger, appears with an offer to help.
Malice by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander
Just before Kumihiko Hidaka is to move from Tokyo to Vancouver, he’s found in his home office … dead. You won’t have to wait long to find out whodunnit – but don’t let that deter you in any way, because you’ll have to get to the very final page to learn exactly who to blame. Revealing the many layers of whydunnit and howdunnit means switching back and forth from a truculent, unreliable narrator to a tenaciously persistent detective who accepts nothing at face value. Malice is the first of Higashino’s highly successful Detective Kaga series, with almost a dozen titles in Japan to be translated into English, after his Detective Galileo series hit the U.S. with critical and popular success. Between Kaga and Galileo, Higashino is quickly becoming one of Japan’s most thrilling imports.
A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith
Brilliant and eccentric physicist Manabu Yukawa – called Detective Galileo because of the sharp, unexpected insights he (not always willingly) shares with authorities – arrives at a seaside town, now mostly abandoned by fickle tourists. He’s come for a conference on underwater mining, but he’s drawn into the investigation of what seems to be the accidental death of a former police officer who was staying at the same family-run resort. With the help of a clever fifth-grader visiting his relatives for the summer, Manabu will soon uncover what fireworks, chimneys, a 15-year-old murder, a framed sea painting, an environmentalist, and a homeless former criminal all have in common, revealing the complicated details of yet another homicide.
Out by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder
Forget stereotypical visions of the meek and timid Japanese housewife who waits for her salaryman husband, slippers in hand and dinner on the table. Meet Masako and her coworkers who work at the food processing plant on the night shift and join forces to help the hapless Yayoi dispose of her worthless, abusive husband, whom she has strangled out of sheer frustration. Out proves to be a heart-pounding, piercing look at the Japanese underworld, replete with badly-dressed yakuza, kept women, and bumbling detectives.
The Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
Ayane Mashiro leaves her husband for a few days to visit her parents in Sapporo. A devoted, attentive wife, she leaves a key with her assistant Hiromi just in case hubby might need something while she’s away. Hiromi finds her boss’s husband sprawled on the floor, dead. Enter Tokyo Police Detective Kusanagi, known for solving the most challenging cases. Something about the elegant widow shakes Kusanagi’s heart. The department’s new recruit, Utsumi, is not as distracted, trusting her own intuition even when it doesn’t agree with the more experienced Kusanagi. When the investigation seems to reach an impasse, Utsumi turns to the legendary physicist, Professor Yukawa, a.k.a. Detective Galileo. Although Yukawa and Kusanagi are old college pals, they’ve been rather wary of each other lately, and it’s up to Utsumi to navigate around their contentious, prickly egos. Men!
Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
The discovery of an illicit link between the murder of a middle-aged salaryman and a college student is just the beginning. The police find a fantasy family that the murdered man formed online and met in real life to play their designated family roles. The real-life daughter of the murdered man vows she will have revenge on the murderer. Expect a surprise ending.
The Silent Dead by Tetsuya Honda, translated by Giles Murray
Already the star of an ongoing, bestselling series in Japan (on both page and screen), Detective Reiko Himekawa makes her English-translation debut, outsmarting her arrogant male colleagues by listening to the dead. At 29, Reiko is a young lieutenant in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police’s Homicide Division, yet old enough to be edging into spinster territory as she’s regularly warned, especially by her parents. When a mutilated corpse turns up in a quiet Tokyo suburb, Reiko’s initial reaction (as usual) is to gaze into the victim’s face for clues. Despite dismissive scoffing, Reiko is the first to realize this victim is not alone, eventually leading to the discovery of multiple decomposing bodies. Reiko sifts through the Internet and private clubs while battling patronizing officers and damaged criminals to reveal a heinous network of voyeuristic death and destruction.
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates
Handpicked by Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe for his eponymous Ōe Prize in 2009, Nakamura – who’s already garnered many of Japan’s other top awards – makes his Stateside debut. Disguised as fast-paced, shock-fueled crime fiction, Thief resonates even more as a treatise on contemporary disconnect and paralyzing isolation. The protagonist – a virtuoso pickpocket with Robin Hood-style tendencies – agrees to participate, for a lucrative fee, in what seems to be a simple robbery, only to get inescapably embroiled with the Tokyo crime world’s omnipotent power elite. Meanwhile, his last tenuous connection to society is a desperate young boy forced to shoplift by his drug-addled prostitute of a mother. With nowhere left to run, the thief must barter his life in a labyrinthine test of his thieving prowess.
20th Century Boys and 21st Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa, with the cooperation of Takashi Nagasaki, English adaptation by Akemi Wegmüller
Once upon a time, Kenji wanted to be a rock-star guitarist. But somehow, in 1997, he’s ended up managing a convenience store with his cranky mother, his missing sister’s baby often strapped on his back. Then he gets word that Donkey, one of his childhood friends, has suddenly committed suicide. Flashback to 1969: Kenji, Donkey, and the best of the neighborhood boys had a secret club, with a secret hideout and secret symbols and all. Out of nowhere, that suddenly-not-so-secret symbol keeps popping up in the most unexpected places. “The Book of Prophecy,” an all-knowing, all-powerful cult leader without a face, and saving mankind against all odds, makes this manga series an addictive whodunnit in 24 volumes. You won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough!
Black Blizzard by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, translated by Akemi Wegmüller; edited, designed, and lettered by Adrian Tomine
When a train derails on a dark and stormy night, two criminals handcuffed together make a daring escape. One, a young pianist, has been arrested for murder; the other, a hardened criminal, wants one last chance to see his daughter. To escape to freedom, somehow the men must separate, even at the price of the hand that binds them together. In a gruesome bet, one man will drink from a glass filled with sleeping powder, and both will be freed – but who will survive with all his appendages intact? Available in English more than a half-century since its original 1956 release, Tatsumi’s graphic prowess imbues his characters with constant movement, as if you’re watching a noir film unfold.
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service by Eiji Otsuka, art by Housui Yamazaki, translated by Toshifumi Yoshida, edited by Carl Gustav Horn
A mismatched clan makes up the fantastically talented Kurosagi (“black crane”) Corpse Delivery Service. Five unemployed Buddhist university students band together to help the dead find eternal peace: Numata finds the dead, Karatsu talks to the dead, Sasaki hacks any necessary background information about the dead, Makino preserves the dead, and Yata channels an alien voice that speaks through a handheld sock puppet who is often the lone voice of reason. Irreverent dark humor – with plenty of gore, so don’t read this late at night – fills these addictive manga volumes as the five solve the crimes and tragedies that help suffering souls find everlasting closure.
Master Keaton by Naoki Urasawa, story by Hokusei Katsushika and Takashi Nagasaki, translated and adapted by John Werry
Taichi Hiraga Keaton is a Japanese British archaeologist by training, whose dual-culture background is not unlike his double life. The son of a British woman from Cornwall and a Japanese zoologist with a penchant for philandering, Keaton was born in Japan and raised in England after his mother left his father when he was 5. He returns to his birth country after he receives a degree from Oxford. At home in Tokyo, Keaton is a lowly college lecturer, still in love with his ex-wife, and regularly exasperates his precocious, know-it-all teenage daughter. He skips out of his classes rather regularly – to experience his other life as an insurance investigator on far-flung assignments, where he solves mysteries, fraud cases, and murders. Along with seeing details nobody else does, the extreme survival techniques he learned in the SAS make him well-nigh invincible. With ingenious plotting, each chapter of this ongoing manga series is a mini-thriller.
Nijigahara Holograph by Inio Asano, translated by Matt Thorn
Long before the latest title from award-winning, transgender manga creator Inio Asano hit American shelves, the internet was abuzz with fascinating discussions attempting to piece together what might happen in it. After three readings, I’m still not sure about the order and details of all the events, but I can say without a doubt that this is head-spinning and un-put-downable – almost 300 pages of disturbing intrigue. Composed as two overlapping narratives set 11 years apart, the first page begins with butterflies, a set of crying twins, an open notebook, and a dark tunnel to nowhere. When a body turns up in the entrance to the Nijigahara (literally ‘rainbow meadow’) tunnel, rumors start circulating. The town’s young children insist that a monster lurks deep within: in a fit of terrifying violence, they decide to ‘sacrifice’ Arié – the daughter of a single father and the just-identified corpse – and throw her down a long well. But children can’t fly, adults aren’t reliable, and the dead can still speak. Now what?