Before she became a bestselling novelist, Kanae Minato was a Japanese home economics teacher and housewife. Somewhere between the laundry and cooking, she wrote her debut, “Confessions,” the most delightfully evil book you will read this year.
“Confessions” is new to most American readers, but it’s already a literary phenomenon in Japan. It was published in 2008 to immediate acclaim, becoming a runaway hit and winning a slew of awards. It was then adapted into a movie, which also won a bunch of awards, and was selected as Japan’s entry for best foreign language film for the 2010 Oscars. Think of “Confessions” as the “Gone Girl” of Japan — a twisted tale about a girl (OK, woman) who is pretty far gone and going further.
The protagonist is Yuko Moriguchi, a victim and vigilante in ravenous search of revenge. Until recently, Yuko was a single mother to a 4-year-old girl named Manami, doing her best to balance her child’s needs with the demands of her job as a middle-school science teacher. Her engagement to Manami’s father came to an end when he discovered that his adventurous past had left him HIV-positive. The couple parted, and Manami became the centerpiece of Yuko’s life.
When Manami drowned in an apparent accident at the school swimming pool, Yuko grieved. When she discovered her daughter’s death was the result of cold-blooded murder, she decided to get even.
Her case is about as sympathetic as possible — it’s easy to root for a woman pursuing justice on behalf of her murdered child. But the targets of Yuko’s vendetta are children themselves: two 13-year-old boys in Yuko’s class.
The murderers’ youth is one of the driving forces behind Yuko’s revenge. Japan’s legal age of criminal responsibility is 14, and younger offenders — even murderers — may lead full lives after serving sentences tailored to their age, with their identities hidden and their futures compromised far less than those of their victims. Yuko is content to let the authorities believe her daughter’s death was an accident — the police are, after all, the warmed-up frying pan to her hellfire.
Yuko reveals the first step in her plot for revenge during the course of a long resignation speech to her rapt middle-school class on the last day of the school year. It’s a move that combines physical endangerment with psychological torment, designed to ruin the boys from the inside out. It has a poetic logic that almost makes it look justified, and it’s hard not to side with Yuko, who narrates the entire first section in a wounded yet eerily reasonable voice.
Like any complex revenge tale, “Confessions” comes with a healthy dose of moral ambiguity. Yuko is positioned as the hero, but as the plot unfolds, taking turn after sickening turn, her actions start looking maniacal, disproportionate, perhaps out-and-out unforgivable. Meanwhile, the boy murderers induce almost sea-sickening sways between extremes of revulsion and sympathy.
Shuya Watanabe and Naoki Shitamura are the uncontested killers of a 4-year-old child, but they are also damaged young teenagers who are pitiable even at their most ruthless. Shuya is the evil genius of the duo, a budding sociopath driven by a desperate, misguided longing for attention stemming from an unhappy childhood. Naoki is the follower, a boy plagued by mediocrity and impotent anger who becomes wrapped up in Shuya’s plot. He finds himself incapacitated by feelings of guilt and dirtiness, which Yuko is able to manipulate. After the first step of her revenge, Naoki becomes a shut-in and Shuya is bullied by his classmates — fair enough but hard to stomach as these murderers reveal themselves to be damaged, vulnerable children.
Of course social damnation isn’t Yuko’s end goal and, as her actions produce more and more ruinous consequences, she hurtles through moral boundaries, creating disaster for Shuya and Naoki as well as for a host of their classmates, family members and other helpless, unwitting players pulled into the mad vortex of her anger and grief.
Minato spins out this gut-wrenching thrill ride with clean, high-impact language and a structure that allows for several points of view. The story unfolds in six chapters featuring different narrators, all speaking in the first person under different conceits. There’s a speech, letter, a diary, a Web manifesto, all of which offer an immediate, confessional tone that makes looking away impossible.
While “Confessions” is distinctly Japanese in texture (in particular in its family and classroom dynamics), its thrust should hit home for any reader with a pulse. It’s a nauseating tale of morality and justice, with violent turns that will drop your jaw right to the floor.
Cha is the author of “Beware Beware.”
Mullholland: 240 pp., $15 paper