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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Shield of Straw

Kiuchi Kazuhiro

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To purchase Shield of Straw

Title: Shield of Straw
Author: Kiuchi Kazuhiro
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 236 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Shield of Straw - US
Shield of Straw - UK
Shield of Straw - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: 藁の楯
  • Translated by Asumi Shibata
  • Shield of Straw was made into a film in 2013, directed by Miike Takashi

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Our Assessment:

B : a clever premise making for decent suspense, but doesn't offer much more

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Shield of Straw begins with the discovery of a body, a seven-year-old-girl found brutally raped and murdered. The perpetrator is quickly identified as Kunihide Kiyomaru, recently paroled for having killed a girl seven years earlier, with DNA confirming that he committed the crime. (There is no explanation for what must have been a relatively light sentence and the granting of parole which, given that crime and evidence, appear extremely unrealistic.)
       The victim's grandfather is Takaoki Ninagawa -- a man with a fortune, "the biggest fish of all the big fish in Japan's corporate world". As the police struggle to find Kiyomaru, Ninagawa takes things in his own hands, eventually putting a bounty on Kiyomaru's head. And not just any bounty: as one of the wealthiest people in the country he can afford to offer a lot, and he does: one billion yen. (At the exchange rate at the time the novel was first published (2004), that amounts to over nine million US dollars.) And the bounty isn't for Kiyomaru's capture, but really for his head: Ninagawa promises the money -- in ads he slips into all three of the major national newspapers -- to anyone who kills Kiyomaru. With a website explaining the details, and a whole bank of telephone operators available to answer any questions, Ninagawa has carefully prepared his offer, and spreading the word about it. As legally dubious as it might be, it was convincing: people didn't doubt that Ninagawa would see to it that anyone who managed to kill Kiyomaru and was held responsible for that murder would get the cash -- and so the hunt was on. With that much money on offer, the few years of prison anyone who was successful might be sentenced to would be a small price to pay .....
       That's the hook of Shield of Straw -- a manhunt story that sets practically an entire country after one single man (who clearly is deserving of no better fate -- he's as reprehensible as any criminal could possibly be).
       The main character in the novel is Kazuki Mekari, an officer in Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department. He is part of the Security Section -- working the protection detail, including protecting the Prime Minister. When Kiyomaru is finally caught -- in Fukuoka, where the man he had been hiding with had attacked him, hoping to get the bounty -- Mekari is assigned to the group that is supposed to bring him back to Tokyo. The problem is, of course, that Kiyomaru has a very big target on his head, and that there is good reason to believe that many people will want to have a go at killing him.
       This, of course, is exactly what happens. Practically everyone is out to get Kiyomaru, and threats lurk everywhere -- even among those assigned to protect him. Mekari is watchful, but it's clear this is going to be one very dangerous trip.
       The transfer begins simply enough, a huge convoy accompanying Kiyomaru by road, but it's not too long before they have to switch to taking trains. Matters are not helped by the fact that the movements of those assigned to protect Kiyomaru are being tracked -- and publicized, by the resourceful Ninagawa -- so that they can barely keep a step ahead of the rather many people eager to try to take Kiyomaru out. (Mekari is, it must be noted, rather slow in figuring out just how they're being tracked.)
       Bookended by a Prologue and an Epilogue, Shield of Straw is divided into five chapters, each titled by a declining number of people. It begins with 120,000,000 -- the entire population of Japan -- and then: three hundred fifty, five, three, and then just one. Chapter by chapter, the circle around Kiyomaru shrinks, until there's only Mekari standing between him and the murderous masses. Ninagawa stacks the deck against the criminal's survival at every turn, making for a reasonably exciting chase-thriller.
       Kiuchi tries to add a bit of depth to the novel by giving Mekari a tragedy of his own that he hasn't overcome, the death, from cancer, of his beloved wife three years earlier. More successful is his making Kiyomaru a truly reprehensible character, with no redeeming features: if anyone deserves to die, it would be him -- leading, of course, also Mekari to ask himself repeatedly why he is doing his duty and laying his own life on the line to protect this scum.
       It's all a bit over the top, which is fine, but also rather disappointingly simplistic in its presentation. Kiuchi outlines a clever enough (if far-fetched, verging on the cartoonish) story, but the actual writing is more rough than ready. It's a story that feels like a better fit for the big screen -- and there is, of course, a film version -- and Kiuchi does fine with the cinematic pacing and the twists; it is all also reasonably suspenseful. But it's also much too simple and fast, all action-thriller and little else. The attempt to show Mekari's vulnerable human side, as he still mourns his wife, feels more forced than anything; there would have to be a lot more depth to this -- and also Ninagawa -- for it to make a more meaty novel that truly grappled with the complexities of the intriguing issues raised here.
       The premise is enough to sustain Shield of Straw, making for a passable thriller but little more; it's a lightweight work compared to Kiuchi's much more accomplished A Dog in Water.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 July 2022

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Shield of Straw: Shield of Straw - the movie: Other books by Kiuchi Kazuhiro under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kiuchi Kazuhiro (木内一裕) was born in 1960.

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© 2022 the complete review

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