Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive


Kenzo Kitakata

Vertical, Inc.

First American Edition

ISBN: 1-932234-02-0

Publication Date: 06-01-2003

219 Pages; $23.95

Date Reviewed: August 2, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003





Kenzo Kitakata is one of the top-rated active hardboiled writers in Japan. Former President of the Japan Mystery Writers Association, he has written over one hundred novels. 'Ashes' is the first to be translated into English and published in the U.S. by Vertical, Inc. For a reader of American hardboiled mysteries for many years, 'Ashes' is a unique departure, like ordering a Big Mac and ending up with sushi.

'Ashes' is a book in two parts, both about Tanaka, a middle-aged Japanese Yakuza mobster. Part One, titled "The Man Within", written in the third person, introduces Tanaka, his Clan Boss and various mobster minions and molls. To describe it as severely understated would be an exaggerated overstatement. It is obscure, oblique, often confusing and totally unlike any mystery in the American vernacular. It is left to the reader to decipher even the most basic plot and character components. The characters are set forth generically, the "man", the "bartender" the "woman" and much of the dialogue is unattributed. I found myself struggling to figure out who was talking to whom until I focused on the cigarettes. Tanaka smokes incessantly, far more than any other character, so I'd first look for the "man" with a cigarette, and then to who held the lighter. If the "man" lit his own cigarette, it was likely Tanaka and he was most likely alone, a frequent state. If someone else lit the cigarette, then Tanaka was the smoker and the lighter was an underling. Conversely, if Tanaka lit someone else's cigarette, which occurred only once, Tanaka was the underling and the other "man" the superior, in this case, the Clan Boss. I inferred from his nervous twitches and obsessive fiddling, finally supported by spare invective, that Tanaka hates the Clan Boss. Part One was tough going.

Part Two, however, titled "Within the Man", was a dramatic switch. Now writing in the first person, Kitakata takes up the narrative from Tanaka's viewpoint and fleshes out both the characters and the story of a yakuza mob in transition with the approaching death of the Clan Boss. There are multiple contenders for a successor to the Boss, each with agendas and weaknesses. Tanaka, removed from contention for the top job, is nonetheless a powerful influence. He has wisely built a solid, old-fashioned gang that is large, strong and an essential partner to the eventual leader. Now middle-aged, Tanaka schemes with less energy and more doubt - in the throes of his mid-life crisis.

Yakuza is to Japan as Mafia is to the US, mobsters engaged in drugs, prostitution, gambling, shakedowns, who operate as a family with an inviolate code. As Tanaka explains, "Yakuza are people that society rejected, who've huddled together to survive by hook or by crook. Sometimes a guy will have to give up his life to help his buddy. Any maybe someone will have to give up his life for you, too". Yakuza codes are both simple and oblique. Honor, loyalty, and respect are essential, as are ruthlessness, manipulation, and violence.

Kitakata's writing is so spare and lean it makes Hammett seem chatty. With minimal narrative, the plot unfolds in sketches or vignettes, leaving much to be inferred by the reader. Transitions from place to place, event to event, are abrupt. Characterization lies in what the players do rather than what they say. Unlike in-your-face American writing, Kitakata's 'Ashes" is duplicitous, conniving and tricky. Tanaka says one thing, but means exactly the opposite; likewise, he hears words from others and understands them to mean what was not said. Kitakata sparingly injects bits of wry humor. Tanaka ponders an "honest day's work. I threatened honestly, I stabbed honestly." Not so humorous, though, is Tanaka's take on women. Bed them, put them to work, let them earn you money. "Once you sleep with 'em, they're all the same." "What's the point in moping about the simplicity of women". While understanding that the Yakuza is clearly a male enclave, female readers will have a tough time with this simple chauvinism.

While 'Ashes' is fairly labeled hardboiled for its subject matter and its writing style, it is far less gritty and violent than many contemporary American counterparts. There is little on-screen violence and the more unsavory aspects of mob activity are alluded to, not shown. The reader must pay attention for telltale quirks of action and be able to draw the correct inferences to be in tune with the story. Page-turning suspense is replaced with subtlety; hard-core action is replaced with scheming. While not totally to my liking, I found 'Ashes' a diverting read.