The Mantis–Bullet Train trilogy wraps with more drama, less steam

Review by C.J. Bunce

Kotaro Isaka’s odd predication for insects continues.  I’ve trudged through three Isaka novels because of the early advertising for the first translated into English, Bullet Train, a 2021 publication and a 2022 movie starring Brad Pitt (the novel I reviewed here, and the movie here).  In short Bullet Train was a good idea that was poorly executed, but a movie studio turned it into what it should have been from the beginning–a fun barrage of assassins tripping over each other on a speeding train.  Read the novel and watch the movie, and you’ll agree they have little in common.  It’s a strange thing.  Isaka’s 2004 novel Three Assassins (reviewed here) arrived late last year in an English translation.  Written seven years before Bullet Train, it was actually better than his later work.  This week sees the release of The Mantis, the third book in the trilogy to arrive in its English edition.  Unfortunately Isaka’s storytelling doesn’t improve, and this entry is less fun, with the assassination-movie action of the first swapped for a melodramatic soap opera plot about suicide.

With each of these books I’ve asked myself whether I could tell if translator Sam Malissa is writing this clunky dialogue for these clunky characters or whether that is just Isaka’s style.  It often reads like the dubbed dialogue of an anime TV series.  We’re only told via the book jacket that protagonist Kabuko is a highly trained assassin, because all we really get from the text is that he is a poor modern father, disinterested in the events at home as he gets bogged down with his mundane job taking over his life.  Even if his mundane job is killing people for a price, Isaka sells it as being as bland as pumping gas.  He doesn’t know or understand his wife or his son, to the extent that the reader may hope he is some kind of alien planted in the family as a replacement.  No such luck–he’s just written in a way that makes you think Isaka is not familiar with human nature–no woman in the 21st century would stay married to a guy like Kabuko for two decades, let alone two years, in Japan or anywhere.

The disinterested, uninvolved father trope has long grown stale.  Think of Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles 2.  This kind of character as a protagonist is drudgery for the reader.  Imagine a task around your house you’ve never done before but you need to complete.  You go to the hardware store, do some YouTube research, then do the job.  The first 70 pages of The Mantis is the point-by-point recounting of Kabuko planning and executing such a task.  In 2023 that’s just not good content anyone wants to see in what purports to be an action novel.  It is, however, something that might work for a K-drama or manga novel, which often are better media to handle themes of depression and despair.  I’ve noted before in reviews of genre content that suicide stands out as a theme in Japanese pop culture–especially the subset of works that get translated to English in books, TV, and film.  It may be a useful topic for non-fiction, but in fiction it’s overdone, and doesn’t seem appropriate for a frivolous action trilogy.

As with the first two books in the trilogy, Isaka is oddly sympathetic to the lives of “philosopher killers” for hire, elevating them to grand masters of wisdom, so noble they ponder together melancholy questions about the meaning of life.  You might tuck that idea into one story, but all three?   Can you imagine in any context two killers ever looking at each other and asking personal questions about meaning and job satisfaction?

At a few points in the first half of the novel, the 1950s-1960s family table dialogue and quirky situations made me wonder what would happen if Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch or Ward Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver were actually assassins instead of an architect or… whatever office job Ward had (maybe he was an assassin after all!).  That idea could only work if we had some worldbuilding and the author developed the characters into someone we liked or had some reason to care about.  He just doesn’t provide that here.  Again, it may because something is lost in the translation, but any humor or comedy just doesn’t come across loud and clear at any point.

As for Isaka’s penchant for insects, I just wish he would have done some research on them and infused some clever, relevant anecdotes or real science to tie to his narratives along the way.  I think most readers will be looking for that.  Three books in and it’s still just a character naming gimmick.

Slow-paced soap opera storytelling and clichés means Isaka doesn’t stick his predictable finish.  As for this being a continuation of the earlier stories, previous characters are really only shoe-horned into this story via brief recollections by the story’s “hero.”  The narrative is first person present, and Isaka switches to other characters’ vantage late in the novel.  It doesn’t work and it takes some re-reading to figure out who is telling the story.

As I said in my review of Three Assassins, Isaka’s writing is completely flat and his grasp of literature and storytelling is rudimentary and lacking in nuance.  I’d hoped for better this time.  But if you liked Bullet Train and Three Assassins, then you have one more novel to discover this week.  The Mantis arrives Tuesday, November 7 at brick-and-mortar bookstores and it’s available for pre-order now here at Amazon.

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