Book review: High-octane Japanese thriller of killers aboard a bullet train



Bullet Train
By Kotaro Isaka, translated by Sam Malissa
Random House/ Paperback/ 432 pages/ $29.95/ Available here
4 out of 5

The confined high-speed rail adds to the claustrophobia of South Korean zombie flick Train To Busan (2016), with the cocooned passengers trying to fend off the undead.

The threat here instead comes from a motley crew of criminals who find themselves on board the same train hurtling from Tokyo to the north-east Japan city of Morioka, with the inevitable convergence of their respective nefarious missions.

Isaka's Bullet Train - which was first published in his native Japanese in 2010 and is being made into a Hollywood flick starring Brad Pitt that is set for release next year - adeptly makes use of the tight confines of the shinkansen as hiding spaces for loot and dead bodies.

Isaka, whose boyish looks belie his 50 years of age and dark material, is a prolific award-winning crime writer with more than 20 novels in his repertoire since his first book in 2000.

But this is only his second novel to be translated into English after Remote Control (2011), which follows a suspect in the fictional assassination of the prime minister.

He shines in character development. None of the crooks in Bullet Train is a cookie-cutter stereotype. They leap off the pages with their own idiosyncrasies and mind games. The blackly comic crime caper is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), about a planned jewellery heist gone awry.

Isaka relishes mocking how people are quick to jump to assumptions in their perceptions of the world.

There are five protagonists, including Satoshi "The Prince", a psychopathic 14-year-old schoolboy who likes reading about genocide and who shoved a young boy off a roof. Now the boy's vengeful father, Kimura, who has a chequered past himself, has followed Satoshi onto the train.

There are also two oddball mobsters nicknamed Tangerine, who quotes from classic literature, and Lemon, who loves the children's train series Thomas And Friends.

Completing the quintet is Nanao, who is so unnaturally down on his luck that he dubs himself the "unluckiest assassin in the world".

More would-be killers and myriad twists - including a snake on the loose - are thrown into the mix on this perilous journey, which requires more than a healthy suspension of disbelief.

Each character gets to tell his or her own perspective in separate chapters, a narrative structure that lends itself to repetition. But this hardly breaks the tempo of a high-octane dark comedy as the body count stacks up.

  • If you like this, read: The Plotters by Kim Un-su, translated by Sora Kim-Russell (Anchor Books, 2019, $19.21, available here). Likewise from East Asia, the cinematic crime caper is set in the shadowy world of gangs and assassins in South Korea's underbelly and told with deadpan humour.

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