Three Assassins–Bullet Train “prequel” a better story, but even thinner plot

Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s a strange thing.  Kotaro Isaka’s 2004 novel Three Assassins, newly released in an English translation, is actually better than his later work in the same world, his 2011 novel Bullet Train, released in English last year and reviewed here at borg.  It’s difficult to tell whether translator Sam Malissa simply did a better job this time, or if Isaka’s writing was better earlier in his career.  At about half the page count as Bullet Train, this prequel of sorts is certainly a better edited piece of fiction.  It has little in common with his other novel, and its brand of storytelling emulates Quentin Tarantino’s 1990s brand of pulp novel nostalgia.  Unfortunately Three Assassins seems past its time.  Sympathetic to the lives of “philosopher killers” for hire, its melancholy questions about the meaning of life seem dated and out of place today.  Although it amps up the intrigue in its final chapters, this feels pretty thin as action thrillers go.

Three Assassins, originally titled Grasshopper, has the similar slow pacing of Bullet Train, which followed a web of criminals after a misplaced bag of money on a train (entirely different from what made it to theaters).  Although a train has a cameo in Three Assassins, the story follows the shifting viewpoints of two assassins in Japan and a third a man named Suzuki, who tries to get revenge against a mob boss’s son who killed his wife while drunk driving, avoiding prosecution because of local corruption.

One of the assassins is called only Cicada (early Isaka preoccupation with naming characters after insects).  Cicada specializes in murdering not just the bad guys but their wives and children, and he seems to revel in it, entirely without remorse.  The other assassin is known only as the Whale–no surprise, for his size–and he prides himself in his ability to cause his victims to kill themselves.  He also has some unspoken mental illness, as he sees the ghosts of those he has murdered trying to manipulate his actions as he did theirs.  Yes, Isaka’s Japan is quite an ugly place.

So the only sympathetic character is Suzuki.  He has embedded himself in the very mob of his wife’s killer, hoping to find an opportunity to strike.  But he is not a killer.  The mob minion overseeing Suzuki’s actions knows his past, to Suzuki’s surprise.  His first task is to kill a young couple that the minion has drugged and put in the back seat of her car.  But that is interrupted when the mob boss’s son walks in front of a car and gets killed.  Was this the work of the notorious assassin (title assassin #3) called the Pusher?  Yes, in Isaka’s Japan all assassins perform one repeated kill type only, and this guy’s is pushing people in front of cars.  Soon all three leads are in pursuit of the Pusher for various reasons, all to–no surprise–collide in the end.

The dialogue is painfully stilted, including characters saying inane things to the effect of endless monologues instead of just “why don’t you just kill the guy already” and asking childlike questions like “did you think you would be doing these kinds of bad things in the mob?”  The only character of both Isaka books to get a full character arc is the Whale, and readers might wish more details of his backstory were fleshed out, including why he is seeing and interacting with ghosts.

Bullet Train was overstuffed with allegory, and that is here, too.  The details, sparse setting descriptions, and dialogue are riddled with too little Japanese culture, too many fake attempts to tap Western culture, and it all makes for a slog, despite its short length.

I’m not sure why Isaka’s novels are now getting English translations.  His writing is completely flat.  His grasp of literature and storytelling is rudimentary and lacks nuance.  Unlike Bullet Train, Three Assassins is paper thin and as straightforward as a story can get, without twists and turns.  This is not a mystery or suspense thriller, but it borrows beats from Pulp Fiction, only it does so in a strange way: Isaka pushes his dark plot through the beats of a 1980s horror movie, including characters walking into obviously bad situations with little forethought in scene after scene.

Yes, the story is more Friday the 13th than Elmore Leonard.

If you liked Bullet Train, you may also like Three Assassins This novel has a thinner, easier to digest plot, but even less nuance.  Three Assassins is available now in hardcover in an English translation here at Amazon.

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