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Japan, 1995. A successful university student with a promising future, the son of a respected dentist, dies suddenly, tragically, and mysteriously, breaking his father's heart. A few friends meet at the racetrack, their shared, moderately risky pastime. And at one of the most prominent beer companies in the country, a document from the company's past surfaces, threatening to compromise upper management's future.
This web of alliances and catastrophes produces a high-profile kidnapping, with a victim who isn't used to telling the truth about anything. It's inspired, loosely, by an actual incident that paralyzed the business community of 1990s Japan and remains unsolved. In LADY JOKER, the kidnapping spawns a manhunt for an anonymous conspiracy of kidnappers, who adopt the collective nom de guerre "Lady Joker," and whose professional identities and class backgrounds span the nation. Lady Joker is like the Three (actually, four) Musketeers, only less blindly patriotic and far, far more perceptive.
Will the forces of law and order catch the shady Lady? Whether they do or not, can Japan confront the social ills that fuel it, including discrimination against descendants of the feudal-era burakumin, or outcast caste?
LADY JOKER, volume one, is Marie Iida and Alison Markin Powell's long-awaited first English translation of Kaoru Takamura's 1997 novel. When Takamura's book first appeared in 1997, massive in size, epic in scale, and inspired by a notorious actual case from the 1980s, it proved controversial and endlessly fascinating to Japanese society. Adapted to film, television, and theater, it was apparently inescapable.
Received as a riveting suspense novel but also a national moral reckoning, it did not immediately find an audience outside Japan. What a wonder I have missed by not knowing Japanese, and not knowing of Takamura's work.
The second and final volume of Takamura's epic shows the consequences of the secretive crime syndicate known as "Lady Joker." Their first heist: the kidnapping of a major executive at Hinode Beer, a man with lots of mixed-up corporate and family secrets. As police and journalists try to unmask Lady Joker, they attempt more audacious heists: extortion for ransom, contaminating beer, at first only with food dye, but that act of adulteration serves as a chilling calling card, destroying corporate credibility. As they grow bolder and the media become more obsessed with them, some members of Lady Joker start dreaming up more irreparable ways to get even with the corporatist, status-obsessed, intergenerationally classist Japanese business community.
Meanwhile, the reader gets to know the men (yes, they're all men) of Lady Joker far better than their pursuers can. Interlinked by a complex web of family, business, and social networks, they all have a legitimate axe to grind with society. Like any avengers, however, they begin to lose control of the plot, uncertain of the boundary between justice and vengeance.
In the meantime, Takamura sociologically dissects their crimes and Japanese society's responses, taking the reader to places where corruption is business as usual and secrets are revealed. The people at the top of the social structure are, of course, much worse than Lady Joker's constituents and harder to catch. The people caught in the middle have compelling stories, too. Although the 1990s society Takamura describes is intensely patriarchal, the complex events of the novel are traceable in part to the struggles of underestimated women. "Behind Haruko's decision to marry Sugihara and her desire for a perfectly ordinary unrestricted life," Takamura divulges,"there must have been, however subconsciously, a rebellion against her family–the picture of middle-class tastefulness–and her brother, who had carried on their traditions."
To this Western reviewer, LADY JOKER is reminiscent of Les Misérables or Eugène Sue's Les Mystères de Paris. LADY JOKER does a lot of the same kind of work as the global urban "mysteries" (that is, secrets) novel genre that includes both these French examples and that flourished during the nineteenth century. To understand it, you'll need to read both volumes and make good use of the helpful list of characters at the top of each volume, but that small bit of diligence will be worth it. Crime isn't rewarding, but LADY JOKER is.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, November 2022
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