Three Assassins
By Kotaro Isaka
Translated by Sam Malissa
Harvill Secker, UK
ISBN: 978-1787303201
254pp.

To better understand Japan and its ethos, one needs to comprehend two of the most famous embodiments of that country’s popular culture: the Samurai and the Ninja. Both belong to a bygone era of feudal Japan and exemplify an almost fanatical devotion towards an ideal, or a job that must be seen through, come what may.

The Samurai were a warrior caste who served the nobility, local lords and chiefs and, despite their ruthlessness and brutality, always adhered to a moral code called Bushido, or the ‘way of the warrior’. In fact, the word ‘Samurai’ itself comes from the Japanese verb saburau, literally ‘to serve’, which is exactly what they did till the end of their lives.

Almost like sculptors, they worked for years on self-improvement as warriors and philosophers, and their only purpose was to serve their lords and die a glorious death in battle in service of their masters.

The Ninja, on the other hand, were a mirror opposite of the Samurai. They were spies, mercenaries and assassins, who adhered to no moral code whatsoever. They served rival clans and chiefs and the only code they believed in was getting the job done, using whatever means at their disposal. For the Ninja, money was the primary motivator and morality could never be a barrier to the job at hand.

A reissue of the first novel in a Japanese hitmen trilogy is almost film noir in word form: complicated at the beginning, puzzling in its progress, but making perfect sense as it concludes

Ninjas could lie and cheat whereas the Samurai, who lived by a code of honour, would never do that. Yet, despite their differences, these two types of warriors had some common ground. Both were utterly ruthless and fanatical in completing their objectives. They could put aside any human emotion in the process and their propensity for violence could turn most stomachs upside down.

Keeping this in mind lets readers more easily understand the labyrinthine narrative of Japanese mystery writer Kotaro Isaka’s latest fast-paced thriller Three Assassins, and the motivations driving the various characters within the novel.

The central character in the story is Suzuki, an ordinary man who teaches mathematics and gets sucked into a shadowy world of assassins and bloodthirsty sociopaths after his wife is brutally killed by a sinister organisation called Fraulein.

The head of Fraulein is corporate bigwig Terahara. Like a Yakuza clan chief, he sends hired thugs to do his dirty work, his targets ranging from businessmen, to politicians, to journalists. To avenge his wife’s murder, Suzuki seeks to join the evil Terahara’s organisation as a means of getting close to his sadistic son and killing him.

But Suzuki does not have the mettle required to infiltrate a world such as this. He is like a rose in a garden of deadly Venus flytraps — sensitive and fragile in the midst of adherents to the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. Thus, Suzuki’s true motivation is easily uncovered and pretty soon, he is strong-armed into carrying out a targeted killing on Terahara’s behalf.

While all this is happening, the titular three assassins appear to play their respective parts in this twisted tale of murder and intrigue.

One, going by the nom de guerre ‘The Whale’, is a ruthless killer who, like the Samurai, possesses an element of morality despite his profession. He specialises in making his victims commit suicide and leaving them at the crime scene with no trace of his own involvement. Cold and calculating, The Whale’s modus operandi makes him a valued assassin for those seeking his services, but he is haunted by the ghosts of his victims and shows faint signs of remorse for his crimes.

The second assassin, going by ‘Cicada’, is The Whale’s exact opposite. His specialty is killing with a knife and, yearning for his brutality alone to make him fearsome, he makes sure his crime scenes are grisly and blood-soaked. Cicada is very much a Ninja in that he bears no sense of guilt in carrying out his assassinations. He also enjoys seeing his prey suffer before they die, the sadistic pleasure and thrill of dominating his victims is like an act of sexual arousal for him. It’s almost as if Friedrich Nietzsche’s master-slave morality is taken to its most extreme interpretation when Cicada kills his victims.

The third assassin is known simply as ‘The Pusher’. He kills his victims by — as the name suggests — pushing them on the road while an incoming car races down at full speed. The Pusher is the most mysterious of the three assassins and it is his identity and capture that drives the entire plot.

Suzuki’s story crashes into that of The Pusher when he witnesses the assassin pushing the son of Fraulein’s chief, Terahara, into a speeding car. This son is the very man Suzuki himself wanted to kill in order to take his revenge on Terahara.

Having witnessed the killing and possibly identifying the man, Suzuki is ordered by Fraulein’s handlers to chase the assassin, find out his identity and report back to them. Suzuki follows a man he suspects to be The Pusher to a house where he is living with a wife and kids. Suzuki is now greatly perturbed: is this the assassin he chased? Or is it a case of mistaken identity? In any case, he is unsure and stalls from reporting back to Fraulein.

Meanwhile, The Whale also witnesses the killing of Terahara’s son from a hotel window and sees that it was done by The Pusher. In his case, he wants to catch the other assassin for revenge on a prior killing. At the same time, Cicada also gets wind of Terahara’s son’s death and sees this as an opportunity to make his name even bigger by finding The Pusher and eliminating him.

The two hardened, professional assassins find out about Suzuki and that he may know the identity of the third assassin. Both now seek to find the mathematics teacher and it’s only a question of which assassin will be the first to get The Pusher, while the unfortunate Suzuki has to figure a way out of this mess.

Three Assassins was first published in Japanese in 2004, under the title Gurasuhoppā, or ‘Grasshopper’. It was reissued last year to correspond with the release of the Hollywood film Bullet Train, which is based on Isaka’s 2010 novel Maria Beetle, published in English as Bullet Train.

Three Assassins in the first novel in Isaka’s ‘Hitman’ trilogy and certainly sets the tone for the fast-paced, relentless action that his other books follow. Isaka writes in a very dark tone, showing the underbelly of Japanese society in all its murkiness. The book is almost like a David Lynch film, full of strange characters who, in their dark and twisted ways, draw readers into their world, leaving them fascinated and repulsed at the same time.

Isaka is a very talented writer and has a flair for spinning a convoluted yarn. His book is almost film noir in word form: complicated at the beginning, puzzling in its progress, but making perfect sense as it concludes.

Despite being very entertaining, though, sometimes Three Assassins can be a bit too much. The endless stream of shadowy figures and their morbid obsession with death, like some sort of erotic disposition, is definitely not for readers who prefer a sunny outlook in their books.

It can’t be put in the same category as the works of legendary Japanese writers such as Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami and Natsume Sōseki, and those who wish to understand Japanese culture better might want to read Lady Murasaki’s epic novel The Tale of Genji instead. But if one is on the lookout for a fast-paced thriller to enjoy on a lazy afternoon, Three Assassins will do the job nicely.

The reviewer is a writer and journalist. His interests include history, politics, music, literature and cinema.

He can be contacted at rsayeed1984@gmail.com and tweets @razmat

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 19th, 2023

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