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Japan seen in a dark mirror

Times Staff Writer

IMAGINE possessing the paranormal ability to set someone on fire. Not just singe an eyebrow or scorch a finger but burn a person to a crisp.

Toast. Just by thinking about it.

Well, sorta-sexy single Junko Aoki has those pyrokinetic powers, and thank goodness it’s all fiction, because she uses them to leave a trail of smoldering bodies across Tokyo.

Junko is the dark heroine of “Crossfire,” the third novel from Japanese horror-mystery writer Miyuki Miyabe to be translated into English. It will be published in the U.S. next month.

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Although Stephen King’s “Firestarter” mined similar terrain, in Japan, where guns are seldom fired and killing has historically been a matter of swordplay, the idea of a human blowtorch as murder weapon is an imaginative departure.

But these days, Japanese horror writers need every new twist on terror they can find to compete with real-world frights, where events of the last few years have battered old assumptions about Japan’s vaunted reputation as a safe place to live. Trains crash. Builders are discovered cutting corners on earthquake protection in high-rises. Meanwhile, the Next Big One lurks around the corner.

And crime feels like it’s getting worse. TV and newspapers here have the same tabloid instincts as Western media and can give the impression that this placid country is in brutality’s grip. In recent months, disturbing headlines have included preteens stabbing preteens, a high school student murdered by her college-age tutor, a newborn baby snatched from a hospital maternity ward (a crime police say may have been inspired by a similar kidnapping in the popular Japanese novel “99% no Yukai” or “99% Abduction” by Futari Okajima), and a mother who had confined her 18-year-old daughter to her room since childhood because she was “different.”

By American standards -- or, those, say, of Colombia or Russia -- Japan remains preposterously safe (statistically, you are more likely to be murdered in Norway). But Miyabe, with her prolific output of what the Japanese call “entertainment novels” (never “literature”), says the steady stream of sensational crimes makes it harder to frighten readers.

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“Crime is getting worse and worse; weird crimes are happening every day, and I’m amazed,” says the cheerful 45-year-old, whose soft, singsong Tokyo accent is hard to twin with the voice of the novelist who can describe sickening violence. “As a mystery writer, it is getting more difficult to write fiction.”

Miyabe still has a large and loyal audience that is pretty much prepared to take her every new offering on faith. At the moment, all five paperback volumes of her last novel, “Mohohan,” or “Copycat Criminals,” sit on Japan’s Top 20 bestseller list (longer Japanese books are broken into several smaller volumes). “Mohohan” was her 41st book published since 1989, when she left a business school education and a career in a law office behind. She has sold millions of books. Two have been made into movies. Another, “Brave Story,” her 2002 novel about a 10-year-old boy who lives in a world called Vision, was turned into a weekly manga, or comic book series, and will be released as an animated film and distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. this year.

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A culture in transition

MIYABE sets her stories against the shifting social tectonics of Japan. The first book translated into English examined identity theft in a society turning from a savings culture to debt addiction (“All She Was Worth” is the English title); the second examined unhappiness masquerading as idealized cyber-characters in Internet chat rooms (in English as “Shadow Family”).

It’s an approach that offers foreign readers a peek into Japan noir that isn’t evident in “official” news coverage, which tends to focus on bad diplomatic relations with China, arguments over wartime history and the accelerating moves to end the country’s constitutional pacifism.

“If you look at Japanese society, there is this discussion now about patriotism and whether the youth should have a nationalist education, the things my generation was taught were bad and so we didn’t think about very much,” she says, sitting in her office in downtown Tokyo. “But I am a mystery writer with the flavor of science fiction. I’m not an expert on politics. So I don’t think about such things.”

“Crossfire” dwells instead where most Japanese live: an anxious place where it seems that evil and amorality have breached the walls of social unity and conformism that once kept them at bay. The novel was published in Japan in 1998, and its theme of vigilante justice -- and the cost it extracts in humanity from the avenger -- struck a chord in a country where the legal system can move painfully slowly and those with connections often seem to skirt justice.

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It’s the targets of Junko’s arson attacks, not her pyrotechnics, that really get readers’ blood up: youth gangs who kill for pleasure (among them, kids who tell schoolgirl kidnap victims to make a break for it, then run them down in cars), without a flicker of conscience.

It is a society so morally bankrupt that Junko feels she must go “to war” to save it.

Once the war is launched, however, her enemies’ list keeps widening. Are those who facilitate crimes -- the gun dealers and the parents who indulge their children’s criminality -- just as guilty as the ones who murder? And if it is indeed a war, is it not to be expected that a few innocent people, “noncombatants” in the words of Miyabe’s vigilantes, may get caught in the crossfire as the price of winning it?

The moral counterpoint to Junko is Makihara, the Tokyo detective who is the first to grasp the nature of her paranormal powers. He’s a good cop, bent on catching crooks “without running down the pedestrians.”

“I introduce these two ways of thinking,” says Miyabe, who hedges when asked which approach she favors. “Of course retaliation is a crime. And it’s bad for Junko herself. But perceptions in Japan are changing since I wrote the book. With so many cruel crimes being committed every day, and with our legal system ... not perfect yet, there is a greater sense that society will support retaliation.

“Psychologically, I tend to support Junko’s view. But that’s the dangerous way of feeling.” It is hard to picture this small, gentle woman as a vigilante. “Violence is hidden within me too,” she says with a smile. “In my stories, the criminals are often female, and I can understand their psychology very well.”

Miyabe is not alone in casting females as killers with a cause. Last year, Natsuo Kirino -- frequently called the queen of Japanese crime fiction -- published the highly successful novel “Out,” a bloody tale of sexual violence that revolves around four women who work the night shift making boxed lunches and who conspire to get rid of a body after one of them kills her swine of a husband.

Miyabe says female readers who wrote her tended to approve of Junko and her methods. “Women are often victims,” she explains. “Female readers liked a strong Junko because she got rid of so many men.

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“Ordinary people and criminals are not that different from us. Even now, when you hear of a crime, you’re often surprised that such a person could do it. But somehow they went over that wall.

“The wall is really high, but somehow they get over it. I want to explore why they do such a thing. That’s the mystery.”


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