There is a joy that comes from reading fiction in translation, of finding common tropes presented through a different cultural lens. Japanese author Kotaro Isaka’s latest thriller Bullet Train, translated by Sam Malissa, has all the elements of well known American comically violent thrillers (think Tarantino) done in a very Japanese style. But after a while readers might start to wonder who was referencing who, and whether Japan is a more natural home for this kind of over-the-top thriller with a little philosophy thrown in. But more than that, Bullet Train often feels like a manga – the descriptions are vivid enough for anyone with a passing knowledge of the form to imagine how the plot might come to life as black and white hand drawn illustrations – or a brightly coloured, fast paced anime.
From the first page, Isaka sets up a series of cliffhangers involving his main characters. Former assassin Kimura boards the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to take revenge on a psychopathic teenager who injured is son but very quickly has the tables turned on him. Guns for hire Lemon and Tangerine are transporting both the son of a prominent gangster and the ransom money they were sent with back to their boss only very quickly both of those elements of their job become problematic. And Nanao, also known as Ladybug, the unluckiest assassin in Japan, is on the train to steal the ransom money only, as he predicts, nothing goes right for him. And it quickly appears that there may be some other assassins on board.
Launching from this set up the rest of the narrative is both completely both engrossing and slightly nuts with plenty of philosophy thrown in for good measure. Isaka digs into the psychopathy of the 14 year-old “Prince” who revels in the manipulation of adults but also is constantly questioning why killing is wrong; enjoys Lemon’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine, whose friends and adventures he uses as a guide for life (and pays off brilliantly); and plays around with Nanao’s run of bad luck. Throw in some more shady characters, plenty of twists, turns and reverses as the train and the narrative itself speeds towards its destination.
As long as you can take the violence and do not mind spending time with a group of characters who have all been in the violence business then Bullet Train is great fun. Isaka delivers his completely over-the-top plot with great verve and page turning panache. There is already a live action movie of Bullet Train in post production directed by David Leitch (John Wick) with an all star cast including Brad Pitt as Nanao. But despite this pedigree I can’t help thinking this particular tale would have worked better as an anime.