Kaoru Takamura has won most of the prestigious mystery and literary awards in her native Japan, including the Mystery Writers of Japan Award, the Japan Adventure Fiction Association Prize (twice), the Naoki Prize, the Shinran Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, the Noma Literary Prize, the Jiro Osagari Prize, and the Mainichi Arts Award. She’s been dubbed the Queen of Mysteries, and Lady Joker, written in 1997, is considered her masterpiece. It was adapted into a film and a television series and is regularly taught in Japanese classrooms. It is also, arguably, a bold choice of introductions to English readers. For Takamura’s first book translated into English – thanks to the efforts of Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell – Soho Press has released what was originally a trilogy in two six-hundred-page doorstoppers. Volume one was published in April of 2021 to generally favorable, if uncertain, reviews. Uncertain because the story ends abruptly, in a place seemingly dictated more by page count than plot.
With the release of volume two this month, we can finally enjoy this important work as its author intended. Lady Joker affirms every accolade Takamura has received. In scope and subject matter, the modern comparisons are to Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four and David Peace’s Tokyo Trilogy. But, by its sheer breadth, humanity, and the range of characters who walk across its pages, Lady Joker is comparable to the great 19th-century novels. It is a tremendous accomplishment.
The plot is complex and Takamura makes good use of all twelve hundred pages. Based on an unsolved corporate kidnapping and extortion case from the 1980s, Lady Joker opens with a rambling letter written in 1947 by Seiji Okamura. Okamura claims that he, and three of his coworkers at Hinode Beer, were discriminated against—forced to resign because they are Burakumin, an ethnic Japanese minority. From there, we jump to 1990 and meet an old man, a bitter police sergeant, a Zainichi Korean banker with shadowy connections, an emotionally withdrawn young welder, and a truck driver struggling to care for a daughter with a disability. Lady, who appears to have a severe form of cerebral palsy (her disability is never named), sits in the center of this unlikely group that meets every Sunday at the racetracks. Disenfranchised and dissatisfied with their lives, they hatch a plan targeting Hinode Beer. The plot is initiated by the old man, the estranged brother of Okamura, who is grieving for both his son-in-law and grandson. Their deaths are connected to Hinode Beer and the letter from the opening.
Large portions of the story are told from the point of view of two members of the racetrack crew: the old man and the police sergeant, who works in the Violent Crime Unit. But they are part of a continually turning carousel of perspectives, including the CEO of Hinode Beer, newspaper reporters, and an assistant police inspector. The intricate web Takamura spins for us reveals its shape slowly, connecting these men by the flimsiest of strands—easily traceable, if not particularly strong.
Except for Lady, all the main characters are men working in traditionally male professions: corporate salarymen, stock traders, police officers, and journalists. Women exist on the peripheries of a male-dominated society as wives, daughters, secretaries, and favored nieces. Takamura is writing a historical novel about the 1990s, known as the Lost Decade, which was defined by economic stagnation and changing social norms. Most of her characters are severely damaged, if not irreparably broken. Their attachment to one another is transformative, yet expressed primarily through small gestures. Takamura emphasizes how these men have subjugated their individuality to the goals and needs of the institutions to which they belong, having been deceived by the false promises of post WWII Allied Occupation. And, in the process, skillfully combines scathing social criticism with emotionally moving portrayals of male friendship and love.
Halfway through volume one, and shortly before the actual crime is committed, our attention shifts from the perpetrators to the victim. Now calling themselves Lady Joker, the group decides to kidnap Shiroyama, the CEO of Hinode Beer. The kidnapping, release, and subsequent blackmail is described from Shiroyama’s point of view. He is at the opposite end of the social spectrum from the members of Lady Joker, having risen in the ranks of salarymen to a position of power. But we also sense he, too, is at a point of existential crisis, questioning his life choices.
In an essay written for the Waterstones’ website, translators Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell recount the magnitude of the research necessary to translate a novel of this scope. Takamura’s immersion into her subjects’ lives, her attention to the details of the 20th-century in which they live and the institutions to which they belong, meant Iida and Markin had to delve deeply into multiple topics and recreate the specialized vocabulary peculiar to law enforcement, horse track betting, newspaper journalism, corporate Japan, stock trading, and beer production and distribution (to name a few). The payoff is readers become implicated in the characters’ feelings of injustice. The wrongs committed against these men weren’t targeted at them as individuals. Rather they are collateral damage—cogs in a societal machine that crushes without seeing.
In the second volume, Takamura ties up loose ends and the overarching themes begin to coalesce, while the conspiracy expands. A less scrupulous copycat group, also calling themselves Lady Joker, targets other beer companies. A “shadow of the underground had clearly fallen upon the Lady Joker case,” which begins to fade into the background as a connected subplot involving corporate extortionists and crooked politicians, disappeared journalists, and organized crime moves into the spotlight. The significance of some of the more confusing plot points in volume one are explained in terms anyone might understand. More information on events is provided by the police officers trying to catch the criminals and the journalists tracking the ever-evolving stories. Our friends from the racetrack reappear, and we learn each of their fates. As in life, some turn out better than others. In the aftermath, everyone involved is left to take stock of their lives and careers.
Lady Joker was a transitional book for Kaoru Takamura. After its publication, she publicly announced she was giving up detective novels to write literary fiction. Yet Takamura remains most strongly associated with the Japanese shakai-ha or social school of mystery fiction, pioneered by Matsumoto Seicho. Members moved away from the more traditional locked-room mysteries and toward psychologically complex characters and motivations. In this sense, Lady Joker is the best of both worlds. It combines a crime novel that doesn’t focus exclusively on plot and procedure with a social novel that doesn’t read like a philosophical or political tract. By setting her story within the institutions central to late 20th-century Japan, she is free to explore her characters’ unique situations and places within society. The crime is no longer the most important facet of the story.
More than anything, Takamura’s novel is about the importance of human connection. All else is secondary. The hyper-emphasis on the details of work and daily life embeds the reader with the characters. We live their lives, recognizing the simple joys. There’s a moment in volume one when a character moves through the race track stands, checking on his co-conspirators, confirming that they have everything they need to do their parts. He is about to walk away from the youngest member of Lady Joker, who is notoriously bad at choosing horses. They discuss the plan and after reaching an agreement the conversation takes a personal turn.
“Fine… And finally, there’s this.”
Handa placed a paperback book he had purchased at a bookstore he had happened to pass by in Yo-chan’s hands, then got to his feet. Yo-chan looked up and down the spine of the book and—muttering “You’re shitting me” to himself—leafed through the pages, no longer paying attention to Handa. The book had the dubious title, Horseracing Newspapers: How to Read to Win.
It’s a rare lighthearted moment that does nothing to forward the kidnapping and extortion plot. These two characters are not even particularly close. And yet, this trivial interaction brings us closer to these two men. We see them clearly in this moment because they see each other, right before they step back and disappear into the anonymous crowd.
The great gift of historical fiction is how it grants perspective. In many ways, Lady Joker is a period drama—an important work of literature about the final decade of the twentieth century. Society was in the midst of a digital revolution: cell phones exist in the world Takamura describes, but so do phone booths. She reminds us feelings of isolation are not unique to the twenty-first century. Nor is technology entirely to blame for the current crisis of loneliness. The characters in Lady Joker stay with us because, two decades and an entire continent removed, their situations and emotional states remain familiar. It is frustrating to think some readers will be intimidated, perhaps even put off, by the two volumes’ combined length. But the novels are a surprisingly quick and thoroughly engrossing read. Lady Joker has all the markings of a future English language classic, as it already is in the original Japanese.
By Kaoru Takamura, translated by Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell
Published October 18, 2022