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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bullet Train

Isaka Kotaro

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To purchase Bullet Train

Title: Bullet Train
Author: Isaka Kotaro
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 415 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Bullet Train - US
Bullet Train - UK
Bullet Train - Canada
Bullet Train - Deutschland
I sette killer dello Shinkansen - Italia
  • Japanese title: マリアビートル
  • Translated by Sam Malissa
  • Bullet Train has been made into a movie (2022), directed by David Leitch, and starring Brad Pitt

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Our Assessment:

B : almost ridiculously over the top, but a fun and mostly gripping read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 16/4/2021 Laura Wilson
Straits Times . 3/7/2021 Walter Sim

  From the Reviews:
  • "Part high-octane thriller, part farce, and laced with philosophical and literary debates, this is an unusual and thoroughly enjoyable read." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "He shines in character development. None of the crooks in Bullet Train is a cookie-cutter stereotype. They leap off the pages with their own idiosyncrasies and mind games." - Walter Sim, Straits Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bullet Train is set almost entirely on board a Japanese Shinkansen -- a bullet train -- traveling from Tokyo to Morioka; like the Shinkansen, the novel zips along; it's also one hell of a wild ride. As someone whom one of the passengers calls along the way accurately observes:

I don't know what's going on, but there's something seriously wrong with your train. Nothing but trouble.
       The streets of Japan may be ultra-safe by international standards, but Isaka's bullet train is anything but; indeed, readers are probably soon scratching their heads some as to why the accumulating number of dead people on board a single train isn't attracting the attention of more of the passengers, much less the crew. In fact, there are surprisingly few passengers on board -- something for which an explanation is eventually given -- and practically everyone who is on board seems to be involved, in one way or another, in the same big scheme -- albeit unknown to each other, and certainly not working together.
       A motley group of what are, it soon becomes clear, for-hire criminals boarded the train in Tokyo. There's the hit-men duo of Tangerine and Lemon, who come on board with precious cargo: the son of Yoshio Minegishi -- the most notorious of Japan's crime bosses, with an unrivaled reputation for cold-blooded ruthlessness -- and a suitcase filled with ransom money. Minegishi's son had been kidnapped, and Tangerine and Lemon rescued him; they had had clear instructions:
     Minegishi had prioritised the list. Most important was bringing back his son, then the money, then killing the perpetrators.
       Tangerine and Lemon managed the last on the list well -- leaving a scene of grand carnage in their wake (a lot of people were involved with the kidnapping). They did also get the younger Minegishi and the suitcase with the money on board the train safely -- but do not fare so well with these two items once they got moving .....
       Then there's Nanao, a walking piece of bad luck -- "I've never only just had some trouble" -- who nevertheless somehow always seems to manage to wind up emerging safely from whatever catastrophe he stumbles into. (The same can not be said for those who he stumbles into along the way.) Nanao has a handler whom he is in telephone-contact with, Maria, who relays instructions as to what he is supposed to do on the train. He tries his hardest, but things generally do not go the way they should; indeed, he was supposed to exit the train only a few minutes after it left Tokyo station, at the first stop, Ueno; instead, he finds himself stuck on board for the entire five hundred kilometer and two and a half hour ride, until the bitter end.
       Two other characters actually aren't professional criminals, but are also on board the train for essentially criminal purposes. Kimura gets on board with a gun, looking to kill Satoshi 'The Prince' Oji, a teenager who is responsible for gravely injuring his young son, six-year-old Wataru. The Prince, all of fourteen, is, however, a true psychopath, and quickly turns the tables on Kimura. Threatening to see to it that even greater harm comes to the still-hospitalized and comatose Wataru, he forces Kimura to do his bidding -- essentially kidnapping him.
       Other criminals with considerable reputations also find their way onto the train, leading to a variety of confrontations, but it's these around whom most of the action revolves, most of the chapters switching between their different experiences on board -- which increasingly overlap. The professional criminals -- these main ones, and a variety that pop up along the way -- all seem to have something to do with Minegishi, in one way or another; as it turns out, so do the Prince's plans, as he too has crossed Minegishi's path; the reason he wants to head to Morioka with Kimura is to have a go at Minegishi.
       The various main characters each have some notable characteristics, beginning with Nanao's strange bad luck; he is also boy scout-like well-prepared for every eventuality -- Maria: "calls him a walking Swiss Army knife". Tangerine and Lemon are an odd pair, with Lemon obsessed by the train-engine kids-series Thomas and Friends, while Tangerine reads serious literature. (Tangerine encourages Lemon to tackle something more serious as well, but his suggestions -- "Start with, I don't know, To the Lighthouse" -- are clearly unrealistic, given Lemon's rather single-minded limitations.) Despite their differences they make a good team, Tangerine finding of Lemon:
He was an ideal partner for their sort of rough trade from the standpoint of physical ability and the fact that no matter what kind of trouble they got into he never panicked, always kept his cool -- you could say he was almost emotionless -- but on the other hand he was terrible with details, was irresponsible and sloppy.
       Kimura turns out also to have a shady history, but has devoted himself to being a single dad -- though his alcoholism was a problem, until his son's accident; he's since gone cold turkey. It's the Prince, just fourteen years old, who is the most disturbing of the characters, however. A master manipulator, he is already responsible for a string of horrible deeds (and fatalities). Kimura crossed paths with him before -- which is why the Prince targeted his boy --, and there are several flashback scenes of these previous encounters.
       The completely amoral Prince also has a question which he asks nearly everyone he encounters, wondering seriously: "Why is it wrong to kill people ?" The philosophical speculation only gets so far however; most of the people on board have more immediate things to worry about.
       Bullet Train is a thriller, but with a strong comical element, from bad-luck Nanao's difficulties in even just exiting the train when it stops at various stations to the trail of the bag of ransom money which various characters get their hands on -- not to mention some of encounters with unfortunate outcomes that the characters stumble into.
       The dynamics between the core of central characters is quite well played-up with their different motives and goals -- including, eventually, attempts to possibly work together (though it turns out they are not very good at that). Hovering over it all is Minegishi and his fearful reputation -- with him sending underlings to the stations along the way to check up on things and report back to him, a matter of obvious concern to the hired guns on board the train who are failing in the missions he hired them for. For good measure, Isaka also tosses a few more professional assassins into the mix, such as the Hornet -- who kills with a needle-prick --, shadowy figures that loom as additional threats and hurdles. (There's also a snake that gets loose .....) For a country with such strict gun laws, there are also a surprising number of guns in circulation on the train .....
       With the back and forth between the main character and a constantly shifting situation, Isaka really keeps things moving -- and offers a pretty gripping read. Things do get rather out of hand -- it's a lot to juggle, and seems to exhaust even the characters, as, for example, near the end:
     'I can't even tell who killed who.' Nanao manages to sigh again. He no longer cares about the details. He just wants to get off this ridiculous train. It feels like the Shinkansen is misfortune itself, hurtling at two hundred and fifty kilometres an hour. The northbound Misfortune and Calamity, and Nano is on board.
       If what takes place on board is mostly near-farcical fun, the descriptions of some of the Prince's previous cruel games are truly unsettling. It's disturbing to find that of a cast of characters dominated by those who are professional criminals it is the young, innocent-looking boy who is the most purely evil.
       The resolution is neat enough; what happens is dramatic, but, unlike events in the rest of the novel, Isaka doesn't draw it out in much detail - and there's no need to; his simple summing-up will do. The fun of the novel is in the wild ride to Marioka and what happens along the way. Still, Isaka does make sure that things work out elegantly enough, pretty much everyone getting more or less what they deserve -- and even if we don't learn the details of some of that, it's a satisfying conclusion.
       Almost cartoonish in its excess, Bullet Train often verges on the silly, but for pure entertainment value it certainly offers more than enough. Yes, it's vacuous, but there's no question that it's a fun -- and, much of the time, exciting -- read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 July 2021

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Bullet Train: Reviews: Bullet Train - the movie: Other books by Isaka Kotaro under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Isaka Kotaro (伊坂幸太郎) was born in 1971.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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