Lady Joker, Volume 1 by Kaoru Takamura

Perhaps one of the best places to start thinking about this complex and intricately detailed novel is with the title: Lady Joker. It seems to imply whimsy and confusion both at once, for whoever heard of a female Joker in a deck of cards? Yet the name refers to just one of the characters who suffers from great misfortune. Lady is the daughter of Jun’ichi Nunokawa, who sits in the stands of the racetrack with her father, turning her head and flapping her arms as she utters incomprehensible syllables. Her favorite treats are cream buns and fruit-flavored milk, as her mother denies her sugar at home.

”By the way, Handa-San. Let’s give our group a name,” Monoi said, “What do you think of ‘Lady Joker’?”

”What’s that? English?”

”The other day, Nunokawa called his daughter the joker that he had drawn. That’s when it occurred to me. If a joker is something that nobody wants, then what better way to describe the lot of us?” (p. 258)

Poor Seizo Monoi. He comes from a tenant farmer family, and now he owns a pharmacy. But the opinion he holds of his life fills me with sorrow:

I never had a future. I didn’t escape anywhere after all. (p. 159)

Such is the despair and hopelessness of Monoi and the friends he gathers around him: a detective working in Criminal Investigation, a credit union employee, a truck driver, and a lathe operator. All of them are horse racing fans. All of them feel victimized by the rich and successful, and decide that they will make those who have made a fortune suffer. Thus begins their plan for revenge.

Halfway through the novel the perspective shifts from these unfortunate friends to the kidnapping of Kyosuke Shiroyama, the president and CEO of Hinode Beer. We never hear exactly which of the five have taken him to a hideout, fed him fruit-flavored milk and cream buns, or released him with the demand for two billion yen while holding the beer itself hostage. But, we know that he is personally involved with more than one scandal.

The first stems back from 1990, when his niece’s boyfriend was interviewing with Hinode Beer. He had gone through several interviews successfully, until it was determined that he came from a Buraku background. Suddenly, he was told he would not be considered for employment within the company, and a few days after that he died in a car crash. To make matters worse, the young man’s father later committed suicide by stepping in front of a train after submitting a tape documenting Hinode Beer’s discrimination.

The second scandal involves the Okada Association, which is a group of corporate extortionists.

Through the working class, and executives, the police force and media, author Kaoru Takamura brings to her readers a Japan which is complicated and often corrupt. The disenfranchised working class who commit a crime seem no better (or worse) than the corporate executives who commit crimes in their own, more subtle, ways. Neither Americans, nor Japanese, are above the horrors of discrimination, crime, or the search for power.

From the publisher, SoHo Crime: “Since its Japanese publication in 1997 Kaoru Takamura’s sublimely detailed epic of crime and decline has pushed beyond the stigmas surrounding genre and shattered the Japanese literary glass ceiling. Lady Joker, Volume One is a novel about the sweeping dissatisfaction felt by those left behind by a culture whose new god finds no sacrifice too insignificant, no cost-cutting measure too inhumane, and no individual indispensable. Spurned and ostracized, driven to grief and desperation, the criminals at the heart of this groundbreaking heist story want what society has denied them: belonging. Dignity. Power. Revenge. They will purchase this with fear and outrage and pay whatever it takes.”