Back in the 1960s, the late, great film critic Pauline Kael wrote an influential essay called, "Trash, Art and the Movies." In it she championed the pleasure we take from movies with no artistic claims or pretensions. Among other things, Kael noted that, for many people, loving trash actually creates an appetite for art.
She could've been describing me. My lifelong love of books, movies and TV was born of my boyhood thrill at disreputable pop culture — Hardy Boys novels, James Bond pictures, Spider Man comics. They opened up my imagination. Although my standards have gotten higher as I've grown older, each time I go to the movies or pick up a novel, I still long for that same kind of teenage excitement.
All of this is my roundabout way of praising a new book that did delight me in the old trashy way. It's a thriller called Bullet Train by the bestselling Japanese writer Kotaro Isaka. Zippily translated by Sam Malissa for The Overlook Press, this is one novel that lives up to its title. Fueled by a seductively explosive premise, it's fast, deadly and loads of fun.
The action takes place aboard a high-speed Japanese bullet train, known as a shinkansen, heading from Tokyo to the northern city of Morioka. There aren't many passengers, but they include no fewer than five hit men. Kimura, a recovering alcoholic, aims to murder the person who put his young son into a coma. The goofy duo nicknamed "Tangerine" and "Lemon" have rescued a gangster's kidnapped son and are taking him back to dad — along with a suitcase full of cash. Nanao, known as "Ladybug," is the world's unluckiest assassin — every assignment goes wrong. And finally, the Prince is a teenager who plays the innocent schoolboy but is actually a sociopath. He likes to ask adults why it's wrong to kill people — then feel contempt for their answers.
I hardly need to tell you that these five strangers on a train — plus some juicy side characters — are there with conflicting agendas, and within pages, they're going after each other.
There is a large subgenre of thrillers whose main action is set aboard moving vehicles — you know, the train in The Lady Vanishes, the bus in Speed, or the plane in Air Force One. It's easy to understand their popularity. Beyond offering an inherent sense of forward momentum, such enclosed locations impose limits on what the characters can do, and much of our enjoyment lies in seeing how wittily the story unfolds within these constraints. Isaka neatly deploys his locomotive setting — everything from the luggage racks and toilets to the train's occasional stops — to keep his characters, and us, guessing.
One British critic compared Bullet Train to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, and the book does share some of their dark-comic glee. Indeed, it's already being made into a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt. I recommend you read it first, for its light touch with violence will surely be coarsened on film. The novel has time to take us inside the characters, be it Kimura's shame at how his old-school father sees him, Lemon's habit of seeing everything in terms of the Thomas the Tank Engine universe — which drives his partner crazy — or the arrogant Prince's learning to manipulate his schoolmates and teachers by studying the Rwandan genocide.
By the final page, several characters have been killed, tiny details have had big consequences, and some folks turn out not to be what they seem. I wouldn't dream of telling you more, for this isn't one of those thrillers that's grappling with serious themes. The shinkansen here isn't like the train in Snowpiercer which is actually a microcosm of society.
Isaka isn't trying to express some grand cultural idea. He wants to give us the irresponsible pleasure of sheer entertainment. And he does. At once outlandish and virtuoso, Bullet Train is like one of those dazzling balance beam routines that keep you hoping the gymnast will stick the landing.