Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Japanese underworld is dark: The Cage by Kenzo Kitakata

It is often claimed that nothing ever happens in Japanese novels. This is probably more a case of the ‘big noses’ reading novels like a bull shops in a china store than a profound comment on Japanese writing. But nobody could say the same about The Cage. The book begins and ends with violence, and most of what lies between consists of a violent tussle between an old time cop and a supermarket manager with a dark past. If anything, Kenzo Kitakata squeezes in too much. The pace is remorseless (beatings, stabbings, shootings, car chases, smuggling, drugs, yakuza, small time gangsters, corrupt politicians, bar girls, and so on and on), but it’s tempered by scenes providing deep insights into the main characters. Kitakata is called the don of Japanese hardboiled writing, but I think that misses the mark a bit.

What Kitakata is a master of is tough guy crime fiction with an emphasis on the psychology of violence. Or at least violence in Japan. He’s not alone. Japanese crime and mystery thrillers regularly delve into what lies beneath the surface, often with surprisingly profound results. The attention to detail, the little things especially, is what sets Japanese writing apart (and from which the view that nothing ever happens – or happens very slowly – springs). Kitakata seems to slide between these worlds effortlessly, packing his books with action (sometimes brutal and bloody) on the one hand and philosophical musings on the other.

The meaning behind the title becomes apparent quite early, but I’ll leave it to future readers to work that out for themselves.

On a final note: it took twenty years for an English version to be published (it hit bookshelves in Japan in 1983), and so it has an authentic 70s/80s feel. But it’s surprising that a novel this good took so long. Moreover, it has a paltry 156 ratings on Goodreads and only three seven reviews on Amazon. It deserves much better. This is not a book worth reading because you can learn something about Japan; it’s a book worth reading because it’s a great crime thriller with a complicated plot and masterfully realised characters.