Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

Bullet Train Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 16 March 2021)

English translation by Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 415 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thriller is a genre that I have only really started reading in the last couple of years and it is swiftly growing to become one of the top types of novels I tend to check out.  While most of the thrillers I read are somewhat mainstream and from authors I have read before, I occasionally branch out and check out something from an unfamiliar author if it has an unusual-sounding plot synopsis which really grabs my attention.  One of the most recent of these was Bullet Train by bestselling Japanese author Kōtarō Isaka, which I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a little while ago.  Bullet Train, which is the first English translation of Isaka’s 2010 standalone novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beetle), is a unique and clever thriller which follows five very unusual killers who find themselves aboard the same ill-fated train ride.

On a seemingly normal day, a bullet train is setting out from Tokyo, making its regular trip to Morioka, with several stops planned along the way.  As the train leaves, everything appears quiet, except for the fact that five dangerous killers are on-board, each of them with a very different mission in mind.  The youngest killer, Satoshi, looks like an innocent schoolboy, but in reality his is a psychotic master manipulator, easily able to get people to do what he wants.  His latest victim was Kimura’s young son, who is now in a coma after being thrown off a building.  Kimura, a former hitter turned alcoholic, has tracked Satoshi to the train and intends to kill the youth in revenge.  However, when Kimura underestimates his opponent, he soon finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of survival, as he and Satoshi encounter some of the other passengers on board.

Nanao, the self-proclaimed ‘unluckiest assassin in the world’, has a relatively simple retrieval job that requires him to spend only a few minutes on the train.  However, when his unnatural bad luck conspires to keep him trapped aboard, he is forced into a desperate battle for survival.  At the same time, the lethal and unconventional assassin partners, Tangerine and Lemon, are also travelling to Morioka, until an untimely death puts them in the crosshairs of a notorious crime lord.  When a suitcase full of money also disappears, all five killers are forced to show their hands, beginning a desperate battle aboard the moving train.  However, as things get serious, the killers begin to wonder why all of them are aboard the same train and who is really pulling their strings.  As the bullet train pulls closer to its destination, betrayals, manipulations and secrets are revealed, and not everyone will survive to reach the last station.

Now this was an extremely awesome and deeply impressive novel that I am so very glad I decided to check out.  This translated novel from Isaka, an author who has written a massive collection of mystery and thriller novels over the last 20 years, including several that have been adapted into films, was a clever, fast-paced thrill ride that follows several awesome and captivating assassin characters.  This resulted in an epic and compelling read which proved to be extremely addictive and is one of the most entertaining books that I have read this year.

I absolutely loved Bullet Train’s slick and clever story that quickly dives between the book’s various characters.  Split between the five central killer protagonists, as well as a few intriguing supporting characters, Bullet Train has a particularly intricate narrative that is heavy on the twists, rapid turns and unique moments.  Isaka does an exceptional job setting the scene and introducing each of the great characters, and the reader is soon engrossed in seeing how the story and individual character arcs play out.  It does not take long for all five main characters to find themselves involved in some surprising and dangerous situations, which they must work to extricate themselves from.  As each character attempts to deal with their own problems, be they a dead client, stolen money, blackmail or being suddenly forced to deal with a dead body, their various storylines soon begin to intersect.  The way in which the individual storylines come together works extremely well and it proves to be extremely entertaining to see to the vibrant and distinctive personalities of each of the protagonists clash against each other when they meet.  Their intriguing interactions include some intense action sequences, clever manipulations and even some amusing confrontations that include anything from philosophical debates to discussions about a certain children’s show.  At the same time, the characters are also forced to contend with several additional complicating factors, including other killers aboard the train, seemingly oblivious onlookers, secrets from the past and a dangerous long-reaching plot.  All of this leads to an epic and clever conclusion that sees several protagonists die and a number of clever twists come to fruition.  I honestly did not see some of these cool twists coming and I ended up on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next and which of the characters were going to survive the whole thing.  I ended up being really impressed with this cool book and I really enjoyed this thrilling and compelling read.

While Bullet Train’s narrative itself is extremely cool, the true highlight of this epic book is the five killer main characters of the story.  All of these main characters are a lot of fun and the author has imbued them with some excellent and memorable traits and personalities.  All five characters add so much to the story in their own right, but their real strength is the way in which they interact with each other.  The way in which these unique protagonists play off each other is just perfect and it was great to see them get the measure of each other and fully understand just whom they are dealing with.  You really get invested in each of these five characters fates and it is rather interesting to see who survives until the end and who comes out on top.

The first two major characters featured within the book are the interesting combination of vengeful former hitman Yuichi Kimura and teenage manipulator Satoshi Oji.  Kimura is a recovering alcoholic who is hunting Satoshi due to the teen’s role in Kimura’s son getting pushed off a roof and ending up in hospital.  However, his attempts at revenge are quickly thwarted by Satoshi, whose nickname “the Prince” tells you pretty much all you need to know about the kid.  Using threats towards his comatose son, the Prince manipulates Kimura into helping him investigate the strange events occurring on the train, and the two quickly find themselves in the middle of the dangerous situations, with Kimura attempting to find a way to save his son while the Prince attempts to work the situation to his own advantage.  Both fantastic killers are well-written and compelling characters who add a significant amount to the tale.  You really get invested in Kimura’s struggle to save his son and overcome his own inner demons, while Satoshi serves as a particularly unlikeable villain, who you really want to suffer, even if he is a teenager.  Isaka also throws in a few intriguing flashbacks which highlight how the rivalry between the two started, and which helps to dive into both insecurities and fears.  Both end up having fantastic story arcs within this book, and I really enjoyed the complex web that the author wove around the two.

Another of the main characters is Nanao, a young professional killer with a conscience who has only recently entered into the game.  Nanao is an absolute sweetheart whose most defining characteristic is his abysmal bad luck, which plagues him throughout the course of the book.  It proves rather amusing to see all the dramatic and amusing setbacks that happen to Nanao during Bullet Train, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is actually cursed, a fact that he faces with particular sadness and a certain amount of fatalism.  You cannot help but feel for Nanao as the book progresses, and there is something about his general unhappiness with the situation that draws the reader to him.  Thankfully, he is also a particularly skilled operative, especially in dangerous situations, which gives him a fighting chance against his opponents, and the times when this resourcefulness appears are pretty awesome.  I personally felt that Nanao’s story arc was one of the best in all of Bullet Train and I really loved seeing the other side of the characters’ unluckiness eventually come into play, even if the protagonists never realised just what happened to him.

The final two killers featured within Bullet Train are the memorable partnership of Tangerine and Lemon.  Despite their similar appearance which makes many people believe that they are twins, Tangerine and Lemon are very different people, both with unique personalities that clash with one and other.  While Tangerine is the well-organised professional with a love for classic literature, Lemon is the wild card, a seemingly flaky and eccentric killer with an unnatural appreciation for the children’s show Thomas and Friends.  This makes for a very entertaining odd-couple pairing, as the two characters, who at times appear not to even like or understand each other, need to sort through the chaotic situation about the train.  While Tangerine is an enjoyable character who serves as a good straight man to some of the more outrageous personalities aboard, I definitely enjoyed Lemon way more.  Lemon is a wildly entertaining and captivating character whose unique viewpoint on life, which is inspired by Thomas and Friends, is both childlike and clever at the same time.  I really enjoyed seeing some of Lemon’s reactions and solutions to the problems he encounters, especially as he mainly draws on lessons from the characters in Thomas in Friends, when it comes to judging people (you really do not want to be a mean old Diesel).  This leads to some great scenes, especially as he can see through manipulations that have tricked some of the other characters.  It was also great to see the full breadth of the friendship between Tangerine and Lemon become clear as the book continued, especially as it leads to one of the best scenes in the entire book.  Each of these character arcs ended up being truly spectacular and I had an outstanding time seeing each of their unique tales unfold.

Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka was an epic and immensely captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I deeply enjoyed the unique and exciting tale told within it, loaded as it was with all manner of cool twists and surprise reveals, and I cannot emphasise how awesome the main five characters were.  This was a superb read and I will have to keep an eye out for English translations of any of Isaka’s other books.  I am also quite excited for the upcoming film adaption of this book, also titled Bullet Train.  I assume that this English translation novel is the result of the major Hollywood adaption of Maria Bītoru that is currently in production, and which looks set to feature an impressive array of actors including Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Zazie Beets, Lady Gaga and Sandra Bullock.  While I am a little uncertain about why a film set on a bullet train in Japan is going to feature a primarily American cast, this looks set to be a fun movie, especially if it lives up to this impressive and clever novel.

3 thoughts on “Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

  1. Pingback: Canberra Weekly Column – Thrillers – 18 March 2021 – The Unseen Library

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