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No Kidding: Japan's Kidnaping Epic 'Lady Joker' Will Hook You

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says he's never read a crime novel quite like "Lady Joker." It's a panoramic story about a kidnapping that's the first work by Kaoru Takamura to be translated into English. Her book was a sensation in Japan, where it sold a million copies, spawned both a movie and TV series and is routinely taught in Japanese schools. Soho Crime has just released the first of two volumes. Here's John's review.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: There are few things I enjoy more than reading crime novels, especially ones that take me someplace unfamiliar. A lot of what I know or think I know about Scandinavia, Italy, France, Argentina or even my home city of Los Angeles I've gleaned from detective stories and police procedurals. Few have punched me as deep into a different society as Kaoru Takamura's "Lady Joker," an eccentric epic about a kidnapping that, since its publication in 1997, has become a landmark in Japan. The first volume, which clocks in at 575 pages, is just out in a highly readable translation by Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell.

And, frankly, I hoped I wouldn't like it. I mean, who wants to sign up for a thousand-page book whose second volume may not come out for a year? Yet once I got started, I was absolutely hooked. "Lady Joker," an enticing title, by the way, is a work you get immersed in, like a sprawling 19th century novel or a TV series like "The Wire." It reveals its world in rich polyphonic detail. Inspired by a real-life case, it takes us inside half a dozen main characters, follow scads of secondary ones and enters bars and boardrooms we could never otherwise go.

The action begins with a 1947 letter to the market-leading Hinode Beer company, a fictional version of, say, Asahi. Sent by a former employee, it expresses disappointment in the company's behavior, in particular, its ill treatment of employees who are burakumin, the term for the so-called untouchable class in Japan. Although this letter seems harmless enough to us, it ticks away inside Hinode's history like a shameful family secret. Almost 50 years later, this letter will inspire a struggling pharmacy owner, Seizo Monoi, to dream up the kidnapping of Hinode's president and CEO, Kyosuke Shiroyama. To pull it off, Monoi enlists the help of his disaffected friends from the racetrack, an odd noirish crew that includes a bitter cop, a maimed lathe operator, a nihilistic finance guy and a truck driver with an intellectually disabled daughter called Lady.

Of course, snatching a business titan is a very big deal, and "Lady Joker" expands ever outward from Shiroyama and his captors. Soon we're following the cops and reporters assigned to the case, as well as Shiroyama's top executives. We learn about Hinode's secret deals with an underworld organization that's secretly tied to a right-wing nationalist group that's secretly tied to a big government minister. And let's not forget the activist group defending the rights of the still poorly treated burakumin. Although the Japanese aesthetic is known for creating beauty by leaving things out, Takamura is a born includer. She's fascinated by the world's rich complexity and loves to show us how things work - how a newspaper handles breaking news at midnight, how the police bureaucracy divides up tasks in a kidnapping case, how gangsters squeeze money from a giant corporation. As we watch Hinode executives obsess over market share, distribution plans, new products, potential mergers and boardroom politics, this novel does for the beer industry what "Moby Dick did" for whaling.

Yet for all its digressions, "Lady Joker" casts a page-turning spell. It draws us into the fears, longings and vulnerabilities of its characters, characters like Monoi, a quiet man who discovers a core of destructive rage, or Inspector Goda, a once-promising young cop who's fallen in the rigid police hierarchy, or the reporter Negoro, who fears for his personal safety and no longer believes his country is a democracy. Everyone feels hemmed in by work expectations, by the need to constantly interpret the nuances of other people's behavior and by Japan's tacit, hyper-refined formalities that determine what one can, can't or must say. Shiroyama may be rich and powerful, but when he gets free from his captors, he does something that lets us know that we're in a culture radically different to our own. He apologizes for being kidnapped.

Takamura is famous for capturing the alienation and fury of outsiders who, for reasons ranging from bigotry to bad luck, were left behind during her country's boom years. She gives us a Japan where behind the neon prosperity and Hello Kitty cuteness, even successful people feel isolated and lost. I can't wait for volume two.

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed "Lady Joker" by Kaoru Takamura. On tomorrow's show, we talk with Lauren Hough about growing up in the doomsday cult The Children of God, which was also a sex cult. She has a new collection of personal essays. She'll also talk about being a lesbian Air Force airman during the don't ask, don't tell era and more. I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.