There was a time when a record label — like Motown, Stax, or Atlantic — represented a certain taste and aesthetic that you couldn’t confuse with anyone else. Records were one major way this sort of thing surfaced, but books, too: an imprint like New Directions or City Lights Books carried with it a far better idea of what they published than more generically corporate monikers like Random House or Basic Books.
The only publisher I’ve come across lately that has some of that same guiding, idiosyncratic taste is Vertical: everything they’ve put their name to has been at the very least interesting, and often downright amazing. They pick titles that hit big at home in Japan, that open doors here in the States by dint of being readable, eye-opening and absorbing, and that are a step beyond the usual genteel “literary” offerings. Vertical’s previous forays into hard-boiled crime fiction from Japan have included works by Kenzo Kitakata (his Winter Sleep made me lose about three hours in a day without blinking), but now they have a new name to add to that roster: Arimasa Osawa and his Shinjuku Shark series.
Even if the Shinjuku district in Tokyo isn’t the simmering cauldron of criminal activity that it is in Japanese popular film and fiction, that hasn’t stopped the name from becoming synonymous across Japan with gangsters, streetwalkers, crooked cops and human debris of all kinds. Shinjuku Shark uses said mean streets as the backdrop for the equally gritty story of Detective Samejima, the “shark” of the title, with the gangsters of Shinjuku as his prey. The series has sold like crazy in Japan and inspired a screen adaptation, and it’s not hard to see why — its pavement-level fascination with the grimy criminal underworld of Japan comes through on every page like weeds shoving through concrete.
If Samejima wasn’t a shark, he’d be a wolf: he works alone, since no one else in his division dares become his partner, and he’s almost universally despised by his superiors. Unlike the equally roguish Detective Azuma of Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop, Samejima has some degree of humanity to him. He has a healthy contempt for criminals and crooked police alike, made all the stronger by his possession of a scandalous secret that practically guarantees him a continued position with the force. He’s also got a girlfriend — Sho, an up-and-coming rock singer with skin at least as flinty as his and a mouth that’s many times more vulgar. It’s telling that Sho is the one link Samejima has to a world that is not about police procedure and criminal codes; she’s as much of a self-determined social exile as he is. (I keep thinking that Japan’s closet fascination with outsiders and lone-wolves as [anti-] heroes works remarkably well in a pulp fiction mode. As long as the person in question sticks ruthlessly to his values, however insular or cynical those values are, they’re still in some sense noble.)
Samejima abruptly has his hands full when two policemen are shot dead in what looks like a gang-style killing. The other officers in his department would rather he keep to himself and not work on this particular case, but he can’t help himself. Asking him to keep his nose out of this one is like, well, asking a shark not to swim — and when that happens, as we all know, the shark in question dies. He throws himself headlong into the case with his trademark meticulousness — and heedlessness for his own safety, to boot — and soon turns up at least one key lead. This is Kizu (the name means, probably not coincidentally, “wound”), a manufacturer of illegal firearms and a name that has crossed Samejima’s path before, a sicko die-cut from the classic crime-pulp mold.
Kizu is not the killer. He is, however, an accessory, and Samejima has to track him back to his workshop and fit together a whole congeries of clues that don’t seem to match up to each other at all before he can get a hint as to who might really be responsible — and what might be driving them to kill not just once but again and again. Things come to a head when he realizes his own girlfriend might be the next one in the crosshairs, and the last thirty pages of the book race by fast enough to give you paper cuts.
The last thirty pages may be a speed-reading exercise, but sadly there are patches throughout earlier on that simply aren’t. For the most part Osawa keeps his writing lean and direct, but there are many parts where he disrupts the momentum he’s built up to give us big hunks of backstory or technical explanations. I’m not sure if that’s the translator’s fault or just the way Osawa’s prose worked to begin with. Fortunately, they’re not deal-killers, just speedbumps, and for the most part the book zips along nicely.
America has been such an aggressive exporter of popular culture for so long that it’s becoming all the more interesting to see what other countries create, and not just in the sense of “responding” or “competing” to what the U.S. does. Japan is one of the most vibrant examples and we’re starting to discover that on a cultural scale that’s bigger than just manga and anime. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those, but that’s like reading only the books in the library that begin with the letter “E”. It’s entirely possible that the less you know about the yakuza or Japan in general, the more you might savor Shark.