Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka

Three Assassins Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 14 April 2022)

English Translation: Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 254 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Legendary Japanese author Kotaro Isaka brings us another fast-paced, intriguing and unique thriller with the English release of Three Assassins.

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the first English translation of Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beatle), which was released in the Western world as Bullet Train ahead of a movie adaptation of the same name.  I had a lot of fun with this impressive novel which set several distinctive and crazy assassins against each other aboard a speeding bullet train.  Now, with the Bullet Train film only a couple of months away, an English version of another of Isaka’s novels, the 2004 novel Gurasuhoppā (Grasshopper) has just been released.  This novel, translated by Sam Malissa and released under the title Three Assassins, presents another intense and clever thriller read that was incredibly fun to read.

Suzuki is a former schoolteacher who has joined the notorious Tokyo criminal gang, Fräulein, to get revenge for his dead wife by killing the murderous son of the gang’s leader.  However, his revenge mission goes downhill when, moments before his flimsy cover is blown, his target falls onto the road and is run over by a van.  With the shocked gang watching on, Suzuki is sent to chase after someone he sees fleeing the scene, who the gang believes killed the leader’s son.

Convinced the man responsible is the elusive assassin known as the Pusher, Suzuki’s Fräulein contact demands that he reveal the location of the person he followed.  However, Suzuki is uncertain about whether the man is actually responsible or just a random passer-by, especially when he meets the man’s young family.  But with the gang determined for revenge, Suzuki must decide whether to pass on the information or attempt to flee for his life.  Worse, his actions have attracted the attention of other notorious assassins, each of whom have their own reasons for hunting down the Pusher.

The Whale is deadly and forlorn soul who can convince anyone to kill themselves just by talking to them, while Cicada is a talkative and deadly knife expert.  The Whale wants revenge on the Pusher for his part in a prior death, while Cicada is determined to make his own rep by killing this notorious assassin.  Both are determined to find Suzuki and have him lead them to the Pusher by any means necessary.  Can Suzuki survive the barrage of killers, gangsters and monsters being unleased upon him, or will he be forced to compromise his principles and morals to survive?

This was an awesome and exciting novel from Isaka that proved to be extremely fun to read.  Written in Isaka’s distinctive style, and featuring some unique twists, turns and characters, Three Assassins is an entertaining read that I powered through in a day and which is really worth checking out.

Three Assassins has a brilliant fast-paced story to it that readers will swiftly become addicted to.  Written in a distinctive style that emphasises odd character traits and relies heavily on intriguing anecdotes, you are quickly introduced to three captivating point of view characters: Suzuki, the Whale and Cicada.  All three have unique and compelling storylines: Suzuki is thrust into survival mode as he hunts for the elusive Pusher, the Whale is involved in political assassinations before being forced to turn on his employer, while the wildcard Cicada balances his killing desires with frustrations with his overbearing boss.  These storylines soon start to come together when the Whale and Cicada learn about Suzuki’s situation and his apparent connection with the infamous Pusher, and both try to get their hands on Suzuki before the gang does.  However, nothing is as it seems, and all three must battle with their own demons (literally in the case of the Whale), while also trying to outsmart each other and some of the other unique people populating the streets of this version of Tokyo.

All three separate character-driven storylines come together perfectly as the story progresses, and you will love seeing these amazing characters interact as each reaches their own unique destiny.  There are several fantastic and impressive confrontations towards the later part of the book, as well as some great twists, the best of which will leave you reeling and completely change how you viewed the first three quarters of the novel.  While I saw a couple of twists coming, I was pleasantly surprised by several of the reveals, revelations and story turns that occurred, and there are some fantastic moments scattered throughout this book.  I loved how fast-paced Three Assassins turned out to be and there is honestly not a single slow moment to be found as you get through it.  That, combined with its shorter length, will encourage readers to power through it in a very short amount of time, and you will not be disappointed when you see what happens with this entertaining and amusing story.

Like Bullet Train, Three Assassins is a standalone novel that requires no familiarity with any of Isaka’s previous novels to appreciate the clever story or intense action.  It does however have some interesting connections to Bullet Train that fans will really appreciate.  Three Assassins is noticeably written in a similar style to Bullet Train, with a familiar plot focused on multiple unusual Tokyo assassins, as well as certain unique types of characterisations, interactions and writing flow.  These similarities are intentional as the original Japanese version of Three Assassins, Grasshopper came out several years before Maria Beetle.  This means that Three Assassins is actually a precursor to Bullet Train, hence the stylistic similarities.  As such, Three Assassins features a couple of characters who would end up having minor roles in Bullet Train, such as the Pusher, who has a few short point-of-view chapters as the character Morning Glory in Bullet Train, and the assassin duo known as the Hornet.  I have to admit that when I read Bullet Train, I did wonder about why these characters were featured, as some relevant context appeared to be missing.  However, after reading Three Assassins I see that they were there as a reference to this preceding novel and you actually get to understand their role in Bullet Train a little better after reading this book.  I really liked the cool connections this novel had to Bullet Train, and it is really worthwhile checking Three Assassins out alongside it.  While I do think that I preferred Bullet Train a little more than Three Assassins, as its story was stronger and the characters a little more entertaining, Three Assassins really stands on its own and proves to be an excellent read.

Isaka clearly had a lot of fun with the awesome characters contained within Three Assassins, as this book features an eclectic mix of unusual and entertaining figures who make Tokyo’s underworld seem like a weird and deadly place to explore.  This novel is primarily anchored by its three main point-of-view characters, each of whom is a particularly complex and unique being that will quickly drag the reader in with their intriguing stories or antics.  This includes central character Suzuki, the former teacher turned attempted gangster, who is initially involved with this plot for revenge, and who has done some dark things in order to get there.  However, when the target of his revenge is killed and Suzuki seems to find the life of the Pusher and his family in his hands, he starts to have a real crisis of conscience and must determine what he really wants to do.  Watching him attempt to weigh up the lives of the family he encounters versus some hostages Fräulein potentially has is extremely intense and results in some major examinations of his conscience.  Suzuki also serves the role of the unenlightened character for most of the book as he is mostly ignorant of the various assassins and outrageous characters running around out there.  As such, he serves as a good introductory character for many of these unique world elements, and it was very entertaining to see him interact with some of the other characters for the first time without a clue about who or what they are.

The Whale and Cicada are both complex and weird figures for very different reasons.  The Whale is a highly unusual assassin who specialises in arranging deaths to look like suicides.  A large man with an unnatural aura, the Whale is “blessed” with a near supernatural ability to talk people into killing themselves.  This is a pretty unique and cool character trait which Isaka does a wonderful job portraying throughout Three Assassins.  Watching this character slowly and calmly talk various characters into killing themselves results in some naturally dark scenes, but they are a great part of the book and really add something to the distinctive feel of the book.  At the same time, Isaka tries to humanise the Whale to a degree by showing him to be haunted by the ghosts of everyone he has killed.  These ghosts routinely appear before him, airing their grievances with him while also blotting out his ability to see other people or things.  This serves to be an intriguing handicap for this otherwise unstoppable figure, and it proved fascinating to see this merciless killer face some substantial reservations about his work and slowly start to rethink his life and choices.  The Whale easily has some of the most complicated and intriguing scenes in the entire novel and it proves extremely fascinating to see his entire arc unfold.

Cicada, on the other hand, is a somewhat less complex figure who serves as the book’s comic relief.  A skilled knifeman who lacks empathy, Cicada has earned a reputation as a man who can take on the unpleasant jobs and is often hired to kill women and children.  However, Cicada finds himself in a very hostile working relationship with his boss and handler, Iwanishi, who treats him poorly.  This toxic relationship becomes the imperative for Cicada to engage in the hunt for the Pusher, as a form of finding his own independence, although nothing goes to plan.  Cicada is an excellent and enjoyable character, and you will quickly find yourself getting attached to the quick-talking killer, even when he does some terrible things.  The most physically gifted of all the characters, Cicada is often dragged into some of the book’s best fight scenes, and it was exciting to see his knife skills in action.  Thanks to his unique humour and continual banter, Cicada proves to be a great counterpoint to the book’s darker or more emotionally distressed characters like Suzuki and the Whale, and I think that his inclusion really helped to balance out the tone of the book.  All three characters and their chapters play off each other extremely well, and they help to form a captivating and amusing overall story.

Three Assassins was another awesome read from Kotaro Isaka that takes readers on a wild and exciting journey to Japan’s outrageous underworld of assassins.  Filled with quirky characters, surprising turns and intense action, this is a fantastic novel and you will swiftly get addicted to its entertaining and captivating story.  A must read for fans of this legendary Japanese author, especially in advance of the upcoming Bullet Train film, Three Assassins comes highly recommended and is really worth checking out.

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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

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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.

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Make sure to also check out my review for the connected Kotaro Isaka novel, Three Assassins, here.