Japan’s mystery and thriller novels whirl the minds and triple the heart rates of bibliophiles worldwide. In particular, Kōtarō Isaka's high-octane narratives lure us into an intoxicating web of danger and deduction.
Turning 50 in May 2021, Kōtarō Isaka swapped his engineering job for full-time novel writing in the year 2000. The rest is history: a Shincho Mystery Club Award, Mystery Writers of Japan Award, Japan Booksellers' Award and The Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize make up just some of his glittering literary achievements.
Isaka writes to express his constant fear that something catastrophic is going to happen that will change Japan irrevocably. This tension diffuses his work… making the hairs on the back of our necks stand up.We look at Kōtarō Isaka’s two English-translated novels.
Translated by Stephen Snyder (2011)
A toy helicopter unleashes a bomb onto the Japanese Prime Minister’s limo during his election victory parade in Sendai, Japan. All evidence points to unemployed truck-driver, Masaharu Aoyagi, who dominates the media limelight and must now escape a desperate police chase – but he didn’t do it. Who has framed him? And why?
‘Now, no one knows who’s a terrorist and who’s not, so they gather information about everybody and then decide who’s suspicious.’
Masaharu entered media spotlight previously when he saved a famous celebrity from burglary when delivering to her address. Only recently, he was falsely accused of groping a girl on a train and consequently sacked. Yet these past events mysteriously combine to point a finger at him as the Prime Minister’s murderer.
Set in a near-future Japan, elite surveillance monitors all electronic communications, making Masaharu Aoyagi’s escape impossible as he tries to wriggle free from the suffocating grasp of advanced technology. Isaka’s conspiracy-style novel critiques corrupt politics and also underlines how helpless we are to influence the action; hinting that we can only passively choose between belief, scepticism, or indifference.
As one Aoyagi’s allies says: ‘This enemy of yours – I can't get a grip on him. You might as well be fighting 'the government' or 'authority' itself.’
Through the unique perspectives of many characters, Isaka presents a pulsating police chase and internal psychological challenge.Remote Control won the Japan Bookseller’s Award (2008) and Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize. As Kōtarō Isaka's first English translated novel, it stands out as a must-read for fans thought-provoking and heart-racing fiction.
Translated by Sam Malissa (to be published in April 2021)
‘If someone can push a six-year-old boy off the roof of a department store and still be walking around, breathing easy, then something in the world is broken.’
Bullet Train is one of the most thrilling translated Japanese novels of 2021.
Five lethal killers find themselves on a bullet train from Tokyo to Morioka. One seeks revenge on a 14-year-old psychopath who threw his son off a roof and put him in a coma. A killer couple must bring a suitcase stuffed full of money to the final destination, while the self-proclaimed ‘unluckiest assassin in the world’ must grab the suitcase and dash out at the next stop.
A locked-in feel thriller with dark humour and shocking twists, Bullet Train is both electrifying and amusing. Tension mounts as each assassin, (who takes us into their POV), must embrace their awareness of danger and race against time to complete their criminal objectives.
The train gathers pace as we hurl into an extraordinary shock ending. Initially a best-seller in Japan from 2010, this new translation will blow readers’ minds. And it’s cinematic version, starring Brad Pitt, Lady Gaga and Sandra Bullock, is set to be released soon!
Translated short stories to read by Kōtarō Isaka
- The Bookmobile (translated by Michael Emmerich: 4 November 2020)
- The Precision of Agent of Death (translated by Beth Cary)
Can’t get enough of mystery and thriller novels? Sign up to our Japanese Mystery and Thriller Book Subscription to receive one every month!