John Updike once wrote down a few good rules for reviewing books (or any other media, really), with the first one being “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I did my best to keep this rule fixed firmly in my mind—or “engraved on my liver”, as they say in Japan—while reading Akira Arai’s A Caring Man. I had to do this for one simple reason: I kept comparing it, unfairly I suspect, to another book I felt was thematically similar but superior in execution, Ryū Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies. The two even share something of the same plotline: a young man abandoned by his biological mother and with the mindset of an outsider sets in motion a plan to take revenge on the society that failed him.
I know by now, though, that most people are less interested in the question of which book is “better” than they are in whether or not this particular book is any good. It is a good book, up to a point (and I’ll get to that in due time), but I had the shadow of the earlier book hanging over me all the while I read this one, and I would be dishonest if I didn’t cop to that. Babies is the far more artful, experimental, unabashedly “literary” of the two, while Caring Man is the more rigorously plotted, accessible, and upmarket-thriller story. It isn’t a groundbreaker and it won’t live forever, but it wasn’t meant to: it was written to give the reader a good ride. And for the most part it quite aptly provides said ride, but I do have to admit the ways it fumbles its own ball are annoying.
Man has, no question about it, a great opening hook. A network of hospitals throughout Japan set up a system for safely receiving abandoned babies: the “Stork’s Mailbox”. It has the same flavor of controversy as, say, fighting AIDS via condom giveaways and needle-exchange programs: who’s to say this is not simply encouraging the abandonment of children? But one day along comes the case that justifies the whole effort: someone delivers a baby, covered head to toe in lacerations, into one of the “Mailboxes”. Immediately after that in the narrative, but almost two decades later chronologically, the Tokyo Tower is knocked down in what appears to be an extremely sophisticated domestic terrorist attack. (The Tokyo Tower has been getting the worst of it in Japanese popular culture for decades, whether courtesy of a man in a monster suit, an alien attack, or the whole of the Kanto Plain being awash in a sixty-foot tidal wave of raspberry custard.)
The story makes little mystery of who’s ultimately behind the terrorism and a wave of associated crimes: it’s the man who once was that abandoned baby. Christened Yoshio Iizuka, he’s grown up to become a model student and even a more model citizen: humble, good-natured, self-deprecating, idealistic, exactly the kind of bright young man society admires. As a young adult, he founds a nonprofit organization whose stated aim is to rescue young people who have been abandoned, much as he was, and give them a place where they feel welcome and secure.
It’s all a façade, of course. On the inside Yoshio is a seething wreck, divided against himself and fuming with hostility. He hides it well enough that he can deceive, for instance, freelance photographer Mariko, who becomes interested in his case and might well be the first person to awaken within him true feelings for another. He hides it, but only at first, from the abused young men welcomed into his “nonprofit”, as they are in the long run fodder for the same kind of thought control practiced by the likes of any number of cults with an alienated, antisocially violent leader. This being Japan Aum Shinrikyo comes most immediately to mind. Aum is in fact obliquely name-checked by the author (albeit in a fictionalized way), and the climactic massacre that Yoshio engineers seems more than a little inspired by real events.
Japan provides no end of fertile ground for socially-informed thrillers to take root, thanks to a list of hotly-publicized social issues as long as a city phone directory. Most, if not all, revolve around problems with youth: compensated dating, hikikomori, the general disaffection and alienation of anyone under thirty facing a society that in their eyes expects the world from them and then systematically disenfranchises them from achieving it on anything but the most unfair terms. Yoshio seems like a worst-case-scenario version of a personality type found in that generation—the sort of character the oppressive government in Battle Royale would have been only too happy to use as a scapegoat for youth run wild.
The novel pulls all these pieces together using a number of what are by now standard specifications for thriller plots. The police investigation forms one entire track of the story; Yoshio’s interactions with Mariko form another; flashbacks and fill-ins make up a third; and Yoshio’s plotting, internal struggles and ugly side adventures with his brainwashed flunkies form a fourth. But there’s a curious lack of suspense to it all. The nonlinear storytelling is used not to conceal information or to artfully reveal context, but instead to do the opposite—to tip hands as early as possible. We know Yoshio’s behind everything, and so the suspense quickly (maybe too quickly) shifts to what else he’s really planning and whether or not he’ll get away with it. And I wouldn’t have minded that as much if the ending hadn’t been a near-cheat: the story resurrects a character from the dead through the all but unforgivable device of the author deliberately withholding narrative information about the presence of a character in a scene. It’s a dirty trick, and I resented the book for falling back on it as a way to manufacture surprise.
I have been told there is a term in Japan, “too-much-explanation disease”, that is often invoked as a reason for why a lot of popular fiction (and movies, too) from Japan spell things out as laboriously as they do. To be honest I don’t think it’s a cultural phenomenon exclusive to Japan; I think it’s endemic in most any popular culture, since one of the hallmarks of something being popular is that it is also easy to understand and not terribly taxing to follow as it unfolds. At its worst, it becomes an edict to the effect that the reader’s intelligence is not only not to be trusted but is downright suspect, and so everything must be laid out with the tedious precision of a man at the scene of a car accident having a long, sad conversation with his insurance adjustor. Caring Man is far from the worst example of this type, but it still loses power by having so many things that should be discovered naturally (e.g., the depth of Yoshio’s pathology) front-loaded into the story and spelled out.
I mentioned Coin Locker Babies earlier, and now in the process of writing this review I realized there was another story that I could not help but compare to this one: Osamu Tezuka’s MW, another story about a man victimized as a child who grows up to take a disproportionate degree of revenge—not just once but many times, in increasing doses—on society. MW made no secret about its villain’s pathology either, but found any number of ways to generate suspense about where it would lead him. And while MW ended on a far bleaker note than this book, it earned both the bleakness and a corresponding gravity as well.
Just so there’s no confusion: This is an effective and well-assembled thriller, barring the silly narrative stunt at the end. It keeps the reader’s interest and makes adept use of a whole slew of social issues present in modern-day Japan. Most readers will enjoy it. I know I did, while at the same time thinking about what has come before, and also what might have been. But you can’t review a book that doesn’t exist. Well, you can if you’re Jorge Luis Borges, I guess. But as Updike made it clear, I have to settle for the book that I got. That doesn’t mean I can’t muse about the one I wanted, though.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind