In a not so distant past, I used to enjoy reading James Ellroy’s novels. Visceral darkness, graphic violence didn’t scare me, only in a literary form of course. But I guess motherhood changed me. Maybe I already read too many times “Night-Night Little Bear” and “Where Is Your Mommy Little Kitty?”. Anyway, I discover that I don’t have the stomach for such novels as Tokyo Year Zero anymore.
This thriller is not for the faint-hearted. Not only are the crimes gory in their descriptions and settings, but the atmosphere itself is one of decay and destruction. I was drawn to it by the perspective of understanding Tokyo at the end of the war. Having seen this city so modern and rich and, let’s be honest, obsessively clean, I wished to have a look at the place before the massive reconstruction process built it up to that present state. Peace (who lives in Japan and seems obsessed with research – the serial killer in the book is a real one, convicted and executed in 1949) recreates post-war Japan in all its vividness, but that doesn’t make it a pleasant read at all. Everyone is obsessed by death and defeat and hunger and poverty. In this apocalyptic world where life is cheap, it would be likely for crimes to go unpunished, yet the exhausted and dodgy police force pledge to find the killer of several young women turned prostitutes for food. The job is even more difficult because of the post-war chaos where nobody is who he seems and the police force is undergoing constant purges by the Occupation forces. The inspector itself is going through the investigation as in a nightmare or a drug-induced bad trip that suggests that he himself is guilty of some dark crimes.
Peace’s writing itself is something extraordinary, somehow going even further from Ellroy’s repetitive images and sounds. It’s often difficult to immediately perceive the meaning of it, it’s sometimes more like a lyric prose poem, but a very dark one, in a stream of consciousness style. This is very useful because it also gives an insight in the inspector’s real thoughts as he is often humiliated and must obey or agree to superiors against his will. But this writing may turn off many people. A lot of sentences are but a few words long, unstructured and full of onomatopoeias (the sounds are rendered both in English and in Japanese, as for example “Gari-gari”, or the itching word in Japanese, because the inspector is constantly plagued by lice… yuck!). The novel was full of “ton-ton”, the drumming sound of reconstruction drills. I may be too sensitive, but the more I read, the more I itched and my head ached!
If you decide to give that book a try, you’re in for a rough ride, but that’s a one-of-a-kind experience. It reminded me, besides Ellroy, of Ibuse’s Black Rain (not graphic at all, but a sensitive, intimate account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb on a Japanese family), or Osamu Dazai, whom I had discovered in a short story collection “Youth”, but in a much more disturbing version. To Peace’s credit, you soon forget that the novel is written by a Westerner, but I wonder if Japanese writers would have been so extreme.