In The Spotlight: Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw

SpotlightHello, All,

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 


Filed under Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Shield of Straw

27 responses to “In The Spotlight: Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw

  1. I do like the sound of this Margot – the moral ambiguity especially because I think novels that tackle this really do make you think about where on the line you stand. Thank you for sharing another new author with me.

    • That’s definitely an important feature of this novel, Cleo – the ‘what might you do?’ sort of question. In this case, it’s an interesting set of questions about whose life should be protected, and whose not, and at what cost. Definitely ‘food for thought.’ If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Col

    Thanks Margot, I like the sound of this. I’ve previously not heard of either the book or the author.

    • I think you might like this, Col. It’s not your average, everyday, police procedural, that’s for sure. If you do get to it at some point, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Margot Kinberg reviews the Japanese thriller, SHIELD OF STRAW

  4. Nice job, Margot! I just read a portion of the book at Amazon. It sounds like a good one. The only trouble is that I would have a difficult time keeping the Japanese names straight. That won’t stop me from reading it. I’ll also be looking for the movie.

    • Thank you, Michael. I’ll be honest; the names are a bit of a challenge (I don’t speak Japanese). But that didn’t step me reading the story or understanding what happened in it. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  5. This sounds more like the kind of crime novel I would enjoy! And as I was reading your review, I could see it happening in my head and wondered, “Who’s going to make the film, and when?” Also, yes! I am tired of drunken, demon-haunted sleuths! Nice review, Margot!

    • Thanks for the kind words, GtL. This is definitely the sort of novel that translates effectively to the screen, I think. If you do try the novel, I hope you’ll like it. And you’re not the only one who’s tired of drunken, dysfunctional sleuths…

  6. Vigilantism is always interesting – it can seem attractive in certain circumstances, but then who gets to make the decision when it’s appropriate? And then bounty-hunting takes it to a whole other level. Sounds as if the book manages to explore the questions alongside the thrills…

    • It does, FictionFan. Those are definitely some of the questions that the book raises. I can say without spoiling the story, too, that Kiuchi doesn’t offer pat, easy answers. So on the one level, it’s a thriller, complete with violence, a few over-the-top scenes and so on. But on the other, it does explore some interesting issues.

  7. Thanks Margot – really curious about the book and the film now – right, off I go happily hunting 🙂

  8. A new-to-me author and book. Another one to add to my list. Always enjoy the spotlights, Margot. Thanks! 🙂

  9. Wow. It sounds rife with conflict. I could see how each thread might play out as I read your spotlight. I may have to read this one to see if I’m right. 😀

  10. Although this sounds very interesting, especially with a movie version too, it is a maybe for me right now.

    • I know the feeling, Tracy. I’ve had books/films like that, too, where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to invest the time and effort. If you do decide to read this one and/or see the film, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  11. Pingback: In The Spotlight: Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw – Bum's Landing Memorial – Andrè Michael Pietroschek at

  12. A.M. Pietroschek

    While the idea is not too innovative, when it comes to movies, this book to screen adaptation scored a 6,3 on IMDB,

    More important though is that you do indeed direct our attention to certain important ‘points’ of the topic. Vigilantism is surely among those.


    • Thank you, Andrè, for sharing that link. Folks, if you do see the film, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        It is the work schedule and craftsman lifestyle’s toll on my aging body which sabotages the preferable books to read. Many movies fail on delivering all the books offered, but save us some time. And the rare ones, precious, which succeed can mean one day some of us are the authors who brought such into reality… I hope…

        Have a nice day, Margot!

  13. Margot, I think I’d enjoy this intensely atmospheric crime fiction mainly because of its emphasis on police procedural in a non-English country.

    • I think you might enjoy it, Prashant. As I say, it’s gritty and in some places, violent. But it does address some of the moral ambiguity involved in some police work. And it does give a glimpse of what policing is like in a different society.

  14. This sounds good, I like the idea of that clear concept and setup. And I could do with reading something from Japan, broadening my literary horizons.

    • The context is clear, Moira, that’s quite true. And although gritty, and at times, quite violent and uncompromising, its focus does more or less stay on the questions of vigilantism, retribution and so on. And I know what you mean about broadening horizons. I just wish I had a quarter the time I’d like to do that *sigh.*

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