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Book Talk: A murder in Japan - but who is the real villain?

A young woman is murdered on a lonely mountain road, a young construction worker arrested. But who is really responsible?

May 26, 2011 / 04:22 PM IST

A young woman is murdered on a lonely mountain road, a young construction worker arrested. But who is really responsible?

Little is as it first appears in "Villain," a noir look at life in rural Japan. The first book by award-winning author Shuichi Yoshida to be translated into English, it was recently made into a movie in Japan.

Yuichi, the shy and alienated suspect, cares for his ailing grandparents while Yoshino, the victim, was an amateur prostitute who lied about her dates with Keigo, a spoiled rich boy. Then there is Mitsuyo, an ordinary woman whose one act of daring is falling in love with Yuichi.

Yoshida, who confesses to loving noir films and Ernest Hemingway, talked to Reuters about his book.

Q: How did you come to write this?

A: "First of all, this was a one-year serial in a newspaper. Up until then, I'd written a lot of serials for literary magazines, but to have a daily one in a newspaper was new. Of course the number of people that read newspapers is really huge, so I had to think of something that would keep them reading. I thought of trying to write a crime novel, which was something I hadn't done before either.

"This would have suspense, which I thought would make them want to read every day. It may be a bit arrogant of me, but I also wanted to write something about humanity. I thought that if I portrayed the kind of life of a lot of different types of contemporary people, within a suspense format, that I'd probably get a lot of readers."

Q: There are many points of view in this book. Why?

A: "I've always thought that two people can look at the same thing but see something totally different, even though it's the same thing. I wrote this in another book as well, the idea of having the main character illuminated by many different peoples' views of them. I really like this sort of way of looking at a person; it seems believable.

"When this became a movie, I had a lot of discussions with the producer about how to handle the main character, Yuichi. What I said was that this person was a bit like the middle of a doughnut and you only see who he is through the eyes of the people around him. But of course you can't make a movie that way, so we had a lot of talks about it, trying to pin down what I had written. In the end, it almost seemed that in my book, society as a whole became the main character - and then if you look at the title "Villain" from that point of view, it takes on a whole new meaning."

Q: Yuichi is an interesting main character: he's not especially nice but he is emotionally fragile, he takes good care of his grandparents. How did you come up with him?

A: "I didn't start with Yuichi, actually. This is a book set in Kyushu and I started with the setting. A small fishing village in Nagasaki prefecture, a really lonely harbour where there are a number of fishing boats docked, the kind of place that might show up in a movie. That's what I thought of first. Then I thought about what sort of character might live there, might really suffer there. The weakest possible person.

"Mitsuyo, the woman who flees with him, is from Saga prefecture, an area off by a highway where there's really nothing, just a few big stores here and there. I thought of a woman living in this area, commuting to her job by bicycle, and started to wonder what sort of a character she might have. All of it really came from the different places.

"It seems that usually most people come up with the characters, the story comes from that, and then they decide on place. But I'm the exact opposite. First I decide on the place, then the characters. The story comes last."

Q: Writing this book was hard or easy?

A: "It felt a bit like climbing stairs. Mostly when I write it just feels like walking along a level path, but this one felt like a climb.

"Also, when I was preparing to write this I was driving all around Kyushu. This had never happened to me before, but I started to hear the characters' voices, talking to me. It wasn't anything supernatural, like ghosts. But when I was driving along in Saga, Mitsuyo started talking to me about how boring it was every day, things like that.

Q: Who did you feel closest to?

A: "Characters in some of my other books have gotten ill and died or died in traffic accidents, but this was the first novel where I'd killed off a character through murder. Of course in detective novels people are dying all the time, but it was really, really hard to murder somebody even in writing. So in some ways the image of Yoshino even now clings with me.

"Before I started writing, I thought that Yuichi might kill Mitsuyo was well as Yoshino. But when I went to research the book, I went to a shopping mall and saw somebody who really resembled Mitsuyo. As I watched her shopping, I realized I couldn't kill her off. I just couldn't."

first published: May 26, 2011 03:26 pm

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