Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When most people think of thrillers, they think of the fast pace, the action, and, perhaps, the rise and fall of tension as the protagonist gets in and out of dangerous situations. But thrillers can also include layers of moral ambiguity, and character development. Let’s take a look at such a thriller today, and turn the spotlight on Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw.
Takaoki Ninagawa, one of Japan’s wealthiest and most successful people, faces a devastating heartbreak when his granddaughter Chika goes missing. At first, he thinks she’s been kidnapped for ransom, which would make sense, given his wealth. But then her body is discovered. She’s been raped and brutally murdered, and what’s more, Ninagawa knows by whom. The killer is thirty-four-year-old Kunihide Kiyomaru, whose DNA was found on the victim.
At this news, Ninagawa takes an unusual step. He wants to make his granddaughter’s killer pay for what he did, so he offers a bounty of one billion yen to anyone who is proven to be Kiyomaru’s killer. He arranges for a very public announcement and a website that explains the matter. When Kiyomaru finds out about the bounty, he comes out of hiding and turns himself in to the police in Fukuoka, where he’s been laying low. In order to be prosecuted properly for the murder, he’ll need to be transferred to Tokyo (a matter of almost 1100 km/685 mi).
With so many people tempted by the reward money, transferring Kiyomaru will require special precautions. So SP (Special Police) officer Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department (MPD) is assigned to travel to Fukuoka with a team of officers to bring Kiyomaru back to Tokyo. This group is usually responsible for protecting VIPs, so it’s a logical fit for the task.
The team is chosen, equipped and sent off. But they’re going to face several challenges. For one thing, the bounty offer has been widely circulated, so there are many thousands of people who might want to claim it. And who’s to say that that group couldn’t include police or other trained people? For another, there’s the matter of the man they’re protecting. Kiyomaru is, by anyone’s reckoning, a despicable human being. The rape and murder for which he’s about to be prosecuted is not his first. What’s more, he’s not in the least remorseful. In fact, he gloats. And, as he’s thoroughly aware that the police are required to protect him, he enjoys ‘pushing their buttons.’
Still, Mekari and his team have been given their orders. And there is a lot to be said for the rule of law, rather than vigilante violence. So the team members duly begin the journey back to Tokyo, with their charge in tow. The question is: will they bring Kiyomaru back alive? And at what cost?
This is a thriller. So, as you might imagine, the pace is fast, there’s quite a lot of action, and there is a great deal of tension as the team members face different obstacles. There’s also violence; and some of it is ugly. Readers who dislike a lot of violence will notice this. There is also a bit of the sort of suspension of disbelief that often goes along with thrillers.
Another element in the novel is its noir atmosphere. Plenty of people show themselves to be only too human when it comes to the temptation of a lot of money. And there is no guarantee that anyone can be trusted. It’s also the sort of dilemma where there’s no really good outcome. If Kiyomaru is returned to Tokyo alive, then a lot of police and public resources have been spent on someone who is, by all accounts,
‘nothing but filth.’
If someone kills him, then the police are shown to be incompetent, or even venal, depending on how and by whom he’s killed.
And that leads to another important element in the novel: its moral ambiguity. Is it wrong to take a life when that life belongs to someone who has raped and killed with no remorse, and will likely do so again? Is it wrong to lure someone else to do it? What about vigilantism? These are not easy questions, and they are not given pat answers here.
Through all of this moves Mekari, from whose perspective most of the story is told (in third person). He’s a dedicated police officer, but not blindly obedient. He’s a widower who still misses his wife deeply. But at the same time, he doesn’t wallow in sorrow. He’s gone on with his life, and does his job the best he can. He struggles with the morality of what he’s asked to do, and with the consequence of what happens in the story. At the same time, he is dedicated, and doesn’t want mob rule. Readers who are tired of drunken, demon-haunted sleuths will likely appreciate Mekari’s character.
Since Mekari is with the police, we learn a great deal about the way police do their jobs in Japan. In that sense, there’s an element of the police procedural in the novel. As the story evolves, we see how different police departments coordinate their efforts, and how the different jurisdictions and responsibilities work in Japan. There’s information about the weapons they use, the precautions police take, and so on.
This novel also reflects its setting and context – another important element. There are descriptions of daily life (from meals to bullet trains) and perspectives that are distinctly Japanese. Even the attitude towards crime is consistent with the culture and place.
Oh, and one more factoid is in order. Shield of Straw (Wara no Tate) was adapted for film by Takashi Miike, and nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013. I must confess I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know how well it adheres to the novel.
Shield of Straw is an action thriller that addresses issues of vigilantism, the worth of a human life, and the appropriate use of police resources. It takes place in a distinctly Japanese context, and features a detective who has to face untenable decisions. But what’s your view? Have you read Shield of Straw? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 8 August/Tuesday, 9 August – State Fair – Earlene Fowler
Monday, 15 August/Tuesday, 16 August – The Dinner – Herman Koch
Monday, 22 August/Tuesday, 23 August – Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty