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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Three Assassins

Isaka Kotaro

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To purchase Three Assassins

Title: Three Assassins
Author: Isaka Kotaro
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 254 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Three Assassins - US
Three Assassins - UK
Three Assassins - Canada
La vendetta del professor Suzuki - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: グラスホッパー
  • Translated by Sam Malissa
  • グラスホッパー was made into a movie in 2015, directed by Takimoto Tomoyuki

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Our Assessment:

B+ : cartoonish crime fiction, but well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 18/4/2022 Barry Forshaw
The Guardian . 15/4/2022 Laura Wilson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/8/2022 Ian Wang
la Repubblica . 9/7/2022 Giancarlo de Cataldo
The Times . 13/4/2022 James Owen

  From the Reviews:
  • "The bizarre interactions in this lethal community are every bit as surreal as in the earlier book, but the novelty of Bullet Train is absent." - Barry Forshaw, Financial Times

  • "Ghosts abound, motivation can be murky, and the characters circle each other like sharks in this frustrating yet mesmerising tale of how life is simultaneously cheap and precious, and the past catches up with us all." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "In the delicate balancing act between this heady nihilism and his direct, propulsive plotting, Isaka occasionally fumbles. Moments that verge on existential epiphany (...) or wry political critique (...) are stunted by Isaka’s flat prose, and by Sam Malissa’s sometimes too-colloquial translation (.....) The novel is most successful when it marries its depressive elements with the hallucinatory. (...) A surrealist fable disguised as a crime novel, Three Assassins feels like a fever dream that makes sense when you’re in it, but whose strange contours linger long after you wake up." - Ian Wang, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Forte di una scrittura dalla velocità indemoniata, intessuta di situazioni paradossali e dialoghi funambolici, questo romanzo si legge di un fiato, a patto di non cercarvi significati che vadano oltre il puro piacere dello spettacolo, messaggi trascendenti o quant'altro" - Giancarlo de Cataldo, la Repubblica

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:

       The narrative in Three Assassins moves back and forth, chapter by chapter, between three characters, former middle school math teacher Suzuki and two very different sorts of contract killers known only as 'The Whale' and Cicada.
       Now in his late twenties, Suzuki lost his wife two years earlier, when she was hit by a car, the driver never held to account for killing her. Suzuki learnt that the driver was someone named Terahara, and he quit his job to join the senior Terahara's criminal organization, Fräulein, Inc., so that he could get to the younger Terahara and exact revenge. When the novel opens he's been working for the organization for a month, proving himself by doing his small part in their seedy dealings, but now he's being tested. A handler from the organization, Hiyoko, is involved, setting up a scenario in which Suzuki is faced with a very difficult choice. And, to really test his loyalty, they're also involving the younger Terahara .....
       Just as they are set to meet the younger Terahara he is apparently pushed into traffic, hit and killed by a minivan. Hiyoko and Suzuki both think they saw who pushed him -- and Hiyoko instructs Suzuki to follow the man, which he does.
       The Whale is then introduced while on the job; coïncidentally he's in a building overlooking the intersection where Terahara then meets his death. The Whale, too, sees a man walking away from that scene -- The Pusher, he immediately thinks, "A lone ant of a different species", famous for pushing people to their deaths in what otherwise appear to be accidents.
       In contrast to the Pusher, the Whale's method of murder is almost entirely hands off -- though he does have a gun on hand, if he needs to make his case more forcefully. Usually, however, he can convince his victims to accept their fate and go along with the suicide-scenario he's set up for them, presenting it so simply as basically the only choice his victims have that they pretty much all ultimately go along with it without too much fuss. As he melancholily puts it, "People who meet me just wind up dying". His victim here is the secretary of a politician, Kaji, -- the thirty-third person he's killed for hire.
       Finally, there's Cicada, a more traditional kind of contract killer, also first encountered while on the job. He's part of a small operation that consists of just him and Iwanishi, who handles the non-killing parts of the jobs. They're a reasonably successful team -- in no small part because Cicada isn't bothered by the kinds of victims he's asked to dispatch, specializing in jobs no one else will do.
       Terahara orders all hands on deck to hunt down the killer of his son. Suzuki seems to have the best lead, but he's managed to get himself out of the organization's direct clutches, and while Hiyoko keeps badgering and threatening him by phone he tells her he wants to ascertain that the man he followed really is the Pusher. He followed the man home, and even gets himself invited in, presenting himself to the man, named Asagao, as someone offering tutoring services. Asagao has two young boys and, as far-fetched as the idea is, Asagao seems to be willing to entertain it.
       There's something a bit off about the whole family, but they're pleasant enough to Suzuki. One of Asagao's son's observes approvingly: "You look like you'll do whatever anyone tells you", and indeed for a while now Suzuki has been doing pretty much that. He shows some independence here -- not immediately giving in to Hiyoko's demands that he reveal his whereabouts and who he is with -- but ultimately continues to go with the flow (which, with some lulls, goes largely way over his head, tossing him about like a cork in the ocean).
       Meanwhile, the Whale's conscience seems to begin to weigh on him, as he is having various sorts of visions -- including one that tells him that he should really stop what he's doing and change his ways, and that he'll feel much better if he does. But to really step away he has to settle one last score, the one time he failed at a job -- which leads him to want to track down the Pusher too, not for the sake of Terahara, who he has no connections with, but for his own. Cicada, meanwhile, also gets a new assignment -- from Kaji, who wants to tie up some loose ends; this will lead Cicada too to want to hunt down the Pusher.
       Things go wrong -- "I think I messed this one up", Cicada realizes at one point, and he is not the only one -- but everyone keeps plowing ahead with their plans, zeroing in, more or less, on the mysterious Pusher. Suzuki does so amateurishly, Terahara and his large organization in more or less blind fury, the Whale haunted by his conscience and the ghosts it exposes, and Cicada simply and single-mindedly professionally. And the Pusher also reveals himself, pushing his way into the action.
       "It's all connected", the Whale realizes: "One thing will lead to a series of connections" -- and that's what Isaka has done here, presenting an intricate series of connections and dominoes falling in an ever-tightening web that brings the three storylines and main characters together. It's a bit messy and quite a bit of it is preposterous, but there's an elegance to the elaborate plot and the ripple-effect of consequences of the various (often deadly) actions. There's considerable suspense, some very nice twists and surprises -- and a sense of humor to the absurdity of it all, as Isaka (mostly) doesn't take it all too seriously.
       Three Assassins is cartoon crime fiction -- but it is very well done as such. The plot is well-designed, the connections neatly made -- and the intricacy is pleasing, down to the two victims Hiyoko and Suzuki drug right at the start of the story, who continue to serve a purpose throughout, down to the very end. The Whale's ghosts and an occasional ponderousness as Suzuki mourns his wife weigh things down a bit, but basically Isaka keeps things moving at a very good clip, not least by throwing in quite a few clever twists.
       Both ridiculous and ingenious, the storyline in Three Assassins makes for a very enjoyable and quite satisfying read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 August 2022

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Three Assassins: Reviews: グラスホッパー - 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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© 2022 the complete review

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