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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Lady Joker (I)

Takamura Kaoru

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To purchase Lady Joker (I)

Title: Lady Joker (I)
Author: Takamura Kaoru
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 576 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Lady Joker (I) - US
Lady Joker (I) - UK
Lady Joker (I) - Canada
  • Japanese title: レディ・ジョーカー
  • The first part of Lady Joker; part II is due to be published in 2022
  • Translated by Allison Markin Powell and Marie Iida
  • Lady Joker has been made into a film, directed by Hideyuki Hirayama (2004), and a TV mini-series (2013)

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Our Assessment:

(--) : impressive, very large-scale crime(-and-more) novel of post-war Japan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 11/7/2021 Iain Maloney
Publishers Weekly . 27/1/2021 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Takamura ensures readers are firmly on the criminals' side before a single crime has been committed, and this sympathy is reinforced when the police and reporters take the stage. (...) This is a novel steeped in the unfairness upon which modern life rests. Japan's homogeneity hides a series of systematic discrimination: race, gender and, most importantly for Takamura, class. (...) Like all great fiction, Lady Joker informs and entertains." - Iain Maloney, The Japan Times

  • "(A)n excellent crime novel (.....) Readers open to delaying gratification will be hooked. Takamura shows why she's one of Japan's most prominent mystery novelists." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       Lady Joker is not your usual crime novel. There's its length, of course -- the nearly six hundred pages of Lady Joker (I) are just the first half of the massive work (with part two to follow in English translation in 2022). But it is distinctive in other ways as well: for example, it is also actually part of a series, the third Takamura wrote featuring police inspector Yuichiro Goda -- but Goda only appears on the scene some 250 pages into the novel. (Amusingly, the police officer who runs into him wonders after the brief encounter that is this first Goda-appearance: "Who was that guy ? Who was he to have materialized out of nowhere".) And while several deaths do occur as the story gets rolling, the actual, central crime is a long time in coming (with these deaths only tangentially related to it). Not only is the build-up to the crime at the heart of the novel slow and long, but almost none of that involves the actual planning of the crime -- and, when the time comes, Takamura does not even describe the commission of the crime but rather jumps ahead to the police reaction (with the police quickly on the scene). And, as it turns out, the kidnapping itself is a kind of feint and preamble -- just the beginning of the actual crime and plot the perpetrators have planned (which barely gets rolling in this first half of the novel in the slow and steady build-up of this story).
       This isn't the book for readers looking for the immediate gratification of straight-to-the-action crime fiction. Takamura builds up something very different here -- and takes her time doing it.
       Part One of the novel is set in 1990, and titled: 'The Men'. It is mostly character-study and stage-setting, presenting many of the central characters -- the handful of men who will eventually get together and organize the kidnapping of the president and CEO of the huge Hinode Beer conglomerate, as well as Kyosuke Shiroyama, their victim.
       The men who will commit the crime know each other from Sundays at the racetrack. There's truck driver Jun'ichi Nunokawa, who comes every week: "not so much for his own enjoyment but because his daughter liked horses"; the girl, soon nicknamed 'Lady' here, is physically and mentally disabled, unable even to communicate meaningfully, but she is an enthusiastic horse racing fan. Seizo Monoi is a widower who runs a pharmacy; Yokichi Matsudo -- called Yo-chan -- is a friend of his who works as a lathe operator in a small factory. And there's Shuhei Handa, a police officer who is a bit too independent to smoothly rise through the ranks. (One more figure joins the group, but only a bit later: Katsumi Koh, a dapper dresser who works in finance, at a credit union.)
       As Monoi notes, years later when they do organize themselves into a group with a very specific agenda: "We sure are a motley crew". But their very different backgrounds and the limited connections among them beyond the racetrack are certainly also advantageous, given what they eventually have in mind.
       'Eventually' is the operative word here: if they come across as somewhat beaten down and frustrated -- some more than others -- they're not thinking anything of the criminal sort here yet. Still, this long first part of the novel -- almost 150 pages -- is not without incident, beyond the racetrack; it's not just about getting to know (some of) the characters and their backgrounds. Central to it, and much that follows, is an incident from even earlier, as the novel in fact begins with some prefatory material, specifically a lengthy letter written to the Hinode Beer Company in June, 1947, by a former employee, Seiji Okamura. In it, Okamura writes about both his recent resignation from the company (along with some forty other employees) -- due to events surrounding the aborted general labor strike planned for 1 February (a significant incident in Japanese labor history) -- as well as that of one Katsuichi Noguchi several years earlier. As Noguchi had explained to Okamura at the time: "My employment has become a problem for the company". Noguchi is a burakumin, from Japan's 'untouchable' community, born in: "a buraku village, one of the segregated areas where members of feudal outcast communities still lived". He was apparently only hired by Hinode because they were hoping to acquire a plot of land for a new factory near the village where he was born, and they hoped his employment would facilitate negotiations with the locals.
       At the time the letter was received, the company had some concern about the possible ramifications (despite considering it: "incomprehensible in its argument and unclear in its purpose") but took no action. Nevertheless, the letter and its clear suggestion of discriminatory practices would continue to haunt them -- and be perceived by them as a threat, as something that would cause potentially great harm to Hinode's reputation and standing if it ever became public.
       The peculiarities of Japanese business-practice play a significant role in Lady Joker. Reputation and saving face are very important, and the obsequiousness of public performance is remarkable when compared to Western corporate behavior. Among the most striking scenes in the novel is that of one of the company's press conferences, shortly after Hinode president Shiroyama has been freed by the kidnappers, with two executives: "bowing so deeply that their foreheads almost touched the desk", their statement about the crime and its resolution then going so far as to say:

At this time, words cannot express our deepest apologies for the grave concern we have caused our shareholders, our clients and customers, and of course the public as well. To be embroiled in such a bewildering incident, as a company we feel nothing but confusion and embarrassment, but we are hoping for swift progress with the investigation and that the perpetrators will soon be apprehended.
       Hinode rode the Japanese economic resurgence after the Second World War as well as any company; in 1990 it is: "a trillion-yen business that ranked among the twenty most profitable firms in Japan". While somewhat diversified, it remains best-known for its beer, a market it dominates. In recent years, however, competition has become tougher in this market. How business is conducted has also changed, as for decades companies such as Hinode were involved with more dubious companies, often connected to organized crime, paying out bribes as they were subject to a form of extortion (which, however, in getting money to flow around, often seems to have benefitted everyone involved). In particular, Hinode's long and complicated ties to the Okada Association -- "an enterprise composed of corporate extortionists, corporate raiders, loan sharks, and financial brokers, among others", and, in fact, the "corporate underling" of a large crime syndicate --, prove problematic; Okada has enough dirt on Hinode to cause them great potential harm, though by the early 1990s -- especially after the 1991 law against organized crime -- Hinode had done its best to extricate themselves from any possible obligations to them.
       (There's quite a bit about the complex ties between companies, finance, politics, and shady organizations in Lady Joker, and especially about the peculiar types of extortion practiced on even major firms like Hinode (as well as how they dealt with it), much of which can be rather confounding to readers not familiar with this system. The novel certainly does bog down some in especially the Okada and related happenings, but the main point -- that Hinode has something (or a lot ...) that they have good reason to hide -- certainly comes across. One of the reasons the 1947 letter is still of concern to them is not so much because it is specifically related to any of these problematic dealings, but that any investigation into it and its claims might give the authorities an excuse to look into Hinode's other dealing, which they have good reason to want to keep secret.)
       Hinode's treatment of a buraku employee and the letter of 1947 come uncomfortably (for them) to the fore in 1990 when Monoi's grandson, Takayuki, a talented University of Tokyo student, is turned down for a job by them. (Monoi did not know his grandson well; his daughter, Mitsuko, had married a dentist, and stayed in little more than perfunctory contact with her father.) The opening section of the novel takes place just two weeks after Takayuki died, in a car accident. He had apparently set his mind to working for Hinode, but he had suddenly got up and left during his second interview with them, and they had declined to make him an offer -- surprising, in light of his outstanding qualifications.
       As it turns out, the family background of Takayuki's father, successful dentist Hiroyuki Hatano, is of the kind still discriminated against in parts of Japanese society. Hinode president Shiroyama is told that human resources' decision was not based on that -- indeed, that they had not conducted the kind of family background check that would have revealed it -- but there's more to the story: Shiroyama's brother-in-law, deputy manager of the beer division and board member Takeo Sugihara, had a daughter, Yoshiko, who was dating Takayuki and had told her father she wanted to marry him when she finished school. Sugihara had then looked into the family and found: "there was an issue with the father's family register, so Sugihara had told his daughter he wouldn't allow it". The personal and the professional decisions were supposedly entirely separate, but obviously it wouldn't look good if anyone ever learned about them, especially since it involved a direct relative of the president of the company, his niece.
       After Takayuki's tragic death, his father Hiroyuki sent two letters to Hinode, vaguely accusing them of impropriety -- going so far as to use the name of the Buraku Liberation League (BLL). The BLL don't appreciate his actions, but they have their own agenda and see him as potentially useful in it -- and they provide him with a copy of the 1947 letter. Hiroyuki makes a recording of himself reading it, and sends the tape to Hinode, which leads them in turn to begin to take the matter more seriously and call in the police, filing a complaint: "on the basis of defamation and obstruction of business" -- planning to drop the charges after they have sufficiently intimidated the dentist, whose reputation would suffer if it became know what he had done. Instead, Hiroyuki takes it all harder than apparently expected, committing suicide.
       Part One ends with Monoi getting the news of his son-in-law's death. With it, too, apparently, Hinode's concerns about unfavorable information being made public fade away; the story leaps ahead four years, to 1994: Part Two, 'The Night Before', is set then. In the meantime, Monoi has tracked down the long-supposed-dead writer of the 1947 letter, Seiji Okamura -- Monoi's older brother, who had been adopted into another family (a not uncommon practice in Japan) as a child and whom Monoi barely had any recollection of; by the time Monoi finds him, he is gravely ill and barely aware of anything any longer (i..e also no longer able to provide any information about the past, or the letter).
       It's when his brother dies that Monoi finally, in a sense, cracks. He's had and seen enough:
     There's no deep meaning behind it. It's just that, as an old man, my life happens to have brought me to this.
       He wants to squeeze some money -- a lot of money -- out of a company -- and Hinode is the obvious choice. He approaches those he knows from the racetrack, to see if they are willing to go along with it. They are -- including policeman Handa, who likes the idea of: "playing the innocent at my respectable job as a police officer at MPD when in fact I'm a public enemy ...". Hinode seems like easy pickings -- their main product vulnerable to tampering, which could destroy consumer confidence -- and its president, with his predictable routines, an ideal kidnapping target.
       Little more than the decision to go after Hinode is made before the book jumps ahead again, this time only a few months, to the spring of 1995. Two hundred and sixty pages into the novel, we get to: 'The Incident', on Friday, 24 March: Shiroyama is kidnapped. (That comes at the end of a busy week for the Tokyo police: the Tokyo subway Sarin attacks happened on that Monday.) From here on in, the book takes a different turn: for all that space devoted to 'The Men' and their stories, save Shiroyama himself they basically don't appear in the rest of this volume at all. A whole new set of characters are introduced -- from the police and press -- and the story shifts almost entirely to their perspectives. The rest of this first half of Lady Joker is police and press procedural, along with some behind-the-corporate-curtain scenes.
       The kidnapping itself is first presented from the vantage point of the responding police, from the family notifying them that Shiroyama, supposedly dropped off at home a bit after ten in the evening, is missing to the quickly ratcheted-up intense search for him. It quickly is clear that he was kidnapped -- there is a note to that effect -- but the kidnappers seem to have made a clean get-away. The press soon sense something is up, and quickly devote increasing resources to the story -- all also in the attempt to beat the news embargo that they know will come sooner rather than later (it does, at 12:45 AM).
       A busy weekend follows, as police and press work on the case. Yuichiro Goda, who had been transferred to the local precinct police department, got the call late Friday night to check out the situation, and thus was one of the first on the scene. As soon as its clear how serious the situation is, the bigger guns come and take over; Goda remains on the case, but in a low-level capacity. Still, he is very focused on it -- and he has the right questions about what happened:
Was the president the target, or the company itself ? Why Hinode Beer ? Were there troubles within Hinode that would provoke a crime ? Did they have any connections to extortionists and organized crime ?
       Shiroyama's experience of the kidnapping is then also presented. Blindfolded the entire time, he never saw his kidnappers; readers know these must be some of 'The Men' from Part One of the novel, but they remain anonymous, unidentifiable figures here, and Takamura never shifts to their perspective.
       The kidnapping ends as abruptly as it began. Without having made any public demands, the kidnappers release Shiroyama early Monday morning, having just kept him over the weekend. When they release him, the kidnappers do have demands -- but Shiroyama is instructed to give the police a different story than their actual demands. And the company president realizes:
The kidnapping victim was not Shiroyama the president, but Hinode the beer itself. Shiroyama had only been detained so that he could reliably communicate their demands.
       And he has two different stories to tell: one to the police, and one to his board, who have to come up with the enormous sum the kidnappers demand.
       The police are not naïve and are naturally suspicious about the unusual form this kidnapping took -- why would criminals free their victim without even making any demands ? They realize Shiroyama and Hinode may have things (and ties) to hide, and that they may be vulnerable to forms of extortion. They understand Shiroyama might not be being entirely forthcoming with them, and they continue to investigate accordingly.
       Shiroyama, meanwhile, has to deal with this continuing looming threat, and find a way to ensure that neither he nor his company are ruined by it. Lady Joker is, not least, also a corporate-workings novel of the sort popular in Japan, and the inside look as to how Hinode handles everything they have to deal with -- from a huge new product launch to the continuing pressures from their former semi-allies at the Okada Association to this unusual crisis -- is yet another fascinating aspect of the novel. So also the board Shiroyama has to deal with in navigating how to deal with the kidnappers demands and the police, as, typically:
     For the time being, each executive held fast to his own argument, and the dearth of ideas -- an utter failure to see the big picture and make a commanding decision -- was nothing out of the ordinary.
       The investigations, by both police and press, putter along. The place where Shiroyama was kept is easily found, but the vehicle used to transport him proves difficult to track down. There are the unusual circumstances that there were no police patrols in the vicinity at the time of the kidnapping -- leading Goda to suspect that the criminals had access to a police radio, meaning that someone from the police is involved. And, keeping an eye on the stock market, there's a suspicious increase in margin buys of Hinode stock as time goes on. None of this, however, gets the police (or the press) very far.
       Finally, more than a month after the kidnapping, the kidnappers contact Hinode again with their demands -- one for public and police consumption, one very much to be kept secret. It is this point that this first volume of Lady Joker has built up to. The police expect it now to be fairly straightforward, with all that's left to do being to lay a trap for when the money is handed over. Just in case, however, they insist Shiroyama be put under police protection, a bodyguard accompanying him the entire time he is not at his home. And the man selected for the job is, of course, Goda.
       The police understand that there may be something more going on than what Shiroyama has shared with them -- "there's a significant possibility that the crime gang will try to shake down the president himself" -- and Goda is to be their inside man: "you must gain Mr. Shiroyama's trust and get close to him".
       Volume I closes with Goda beginning his assignment, arriving early at Shiroyama's home -- just after Shiroyama received the message with the kidnapper's true demands.
       To have only the first half of a crime story may seem like a cruel tease, and readers may be tempted to wait out the year until the conclusion is available as well, but, as noted, Lady Joker is anything but your usual mystery. It's no whodunnit -- though admittedly the question of exactly what the caper involves is still quite open. But even just the first half of Shiroyama's mammoth novel offers a great deal beyond a simple crime. Across the men who meet at the racetrack to Hinode, as well as the police and press, it neatly presents a broad canvas of changing times and roles as Japan became an industrial powerhouse after the Second World War. The different paths of the characters reflect this particularly well, and where they stand in the 1990s, when the action takes place, is revealing.
       Much of the novel is also simply about process: the workings of a corporation, the police, and the press, which Takamura presents in considerable detail (indeed, at times the novel is arguably too detailed here). The contrast to the lives of the other individuals -- those that make up the 'Lady Joker'-group, as they then call themselves --, which involve more personal struggle, is also intriguing as they have largely not benefitted nearly as much from the corporate success story of Japan Inc. over these decades. So also Goda senses, as the investigation progresses, that what truly motivates the criminals isn't the obvious:
They may have made a monetary demand, but they are more fixated on the act of squeezing the money out rather than on the money itself. With antipathy toward corporate society at large, they brim with confidence that they'll be able to bring a trillion-yen corporation to its knees ...
       There is a very large cast of characters in Lady Joker, and Takamura takes a risk in how she handles them: practically all 'The Men' from the first part, whose stories she focuses on in such detail, then are essentially entirely absent from the rest of (this part of) the novel. Meanwhile, Goda only comes to the fore as the novel progresses -- though he clearly will be a major player in the second half of the novel. (The decision to keep Goda, this: "cog that did not quite mesh with the machine of the police organization", and amateur violinist, on the back-burner for so long is probably for the best; there's no need to force him into more action earlier.) Having Shiroyama, both pawn and decision-maker, the only character who really appears throughout the entire (half of) the novel here is effective enough, and provides sufficient grounding continuity.
       (Striking, however, is the absence of women in significant roles -- an almost shocking indictment of Japanese professional structures, as none of the significant corporate, police, or press figures are female. Shiroyama's secretary is efficient and shows a bit of initiative, but is decidedly a subordinate figure, while the disabled Lady is little more than a prop; wives, if mentioned at all -- Shiroyama's, Hatano's (Monoi's daughter) --, also are pushed (or flee) very much to the fringes of the action.)
       Lady Joker impresses with its scale and patience, only occasionally getting long-winded, particularly in some of the explanations regarding the corporate/criminal-connections and surrounding activity; there's also a bit of unnecessary repetition (mainly about this sort of thing, where repetition unfortunately doesn't make it much clearer). Takamura's expansive presentation is unusual, but effective; if some of the issues remain a bit confusing -- the 1947 letter, in particular, and the importance ascribed to it -- the basics are clear enough. Lady Joker isn't action-packed or -focused, but Takamura's attention to foundations -- carefully building up her story -- makes for a novel of considerably greater depth than your usual crime novel. Much of the second half of this part of the novel is focused on the procedural -- police, press, and also corporate --, detail that some might find slow but that is also revealing about the Japan of those times, and offers a great deal in this regard.
       Lady Joker (I) certainly leaves the reader curious as to how the rest of it will play out. As is, it naturally feels rather incomplete -- but there's enough here to satisfy, a large canvas that, even if without resolutions, offers a thoroughly engaging read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 March 2021

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Lady Joker (I): Reviews: Lady Joker - the films: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Takamura Kaoru (髙村薫) was born in 1953.

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© 2021 the complete review

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