Several years ago at Anime Weekend Atlanta, we had the pleasure to be table neighbors with Sarah G. Rothman, and when she described her book Suicidal Samurai as “a samurai-cowboy solves mysteries in Victorian Japan,” it was a natural insta-buy.
Of course, me being me, I didn’t actually read it until last month. But I digress.
Suicidal Samurai is an interesting combination of many things – a Western-style revenge story, historical adventure, and comedy of errors all rolled into a read that goes by much faster than its length would suggest.
The story centers around Mori Makoto, who has spent fifteen years exiled in the United States and now returns to Japan to exact revenge on the people responsible for the near-complete murder of his family – and his exile. His stealthy intentions are completely thwarted, though, when he’s seen in the wrong place at the wrong time by a dead body he didn’t kill, and suddenly finds himself wanted for murder. This murder, though, turns out to have some threads that might connect to the murders of his family, and so he decides to follow them to their source. On the way, he encounters bumbling policeman Yamada Kotaro, American tourist and actress Helen Arkwright, and mysterious shrine maiden Hayashi Emiko, and together they unravel a mystery that, in the end, threatens the very stability of Meiji Japan.
I say “together” very loosely, though, because Makoto has no real interest or intent to team up with any of them (except maybe Emiko, who in addition to being wildly beautiful, also has ties to his family’s old shrine). Rather, Makoto – in classic lone cowboy/lone samurai style – is determined to solve the case by himself, but he just can’t seem to stop crossing paths with Kotaro and Helen, who themselves have gotten wrapped up in more trouble than they were looking for. Helen, visiting Japan with her businessman husband, is bored in the hotel room and just wants a little adventure in this exciting new land. Kotaro is a low-ranking policeman who wants to ingratiate himself with the higher-ups and ends up tailing Makoto (against orders) once he finds something suspicious about the whole case. None of them ever plan to join forces and don’t actually do so until the very end of the book, and half the fun of reading is seeing how Rothman pulls their paths together. The story occasionally relies on too-convenient coincidences to make this work, but on the flipside, those contribute positively to the quick pacing of the plot, and even become part of the amusement.
See, Suicidal Samurai walks a fine line between revenge drama and light comedy. Makoto’s scenes are all serious, but they are balanced with the near-Shakespearean foils of Kotaro and Helen, who are such a buffoon and a busybody, respectively, that it’s hard to take them seriously even when they’re trying to be so. Their trope-ish repetitions of certain phrases only contribute to their humor (even if they’re sometimes a bit grating) – Kotaro frequently refers to himself as “The Great and Powerful Yamada Kotaro,” and Helen makes a persistent habit of quoting plays in case the reader forgets she’s an actress. Yet, despite these tonal differences, they’re woven together in a way that reads smoothly, much like the structure itself. It can be enormously hard to structure a story that relies on coincidentally-overlapping storylines without it reading like the characters know the plot ahead of time, and that Rothman was able to pull it off with such fluidity shows a truly deft writing hand.
The setting itself also deserves some mention. My knowledge of Meiji-era Japan is admittedly limited to what I’ve seen in historical anime, so I can’t comment on the literal accuracy. However, the level of historical detail present in the book suggests that it’s quiet well-researched. Rothman doesn’t shy away from the cultural biases of the era, especially in the form of the Japanese mistrust of foreigners and the West in particular. In fact, that fear of the coming era’s potential changes becomes key in the overall plot. Japanese law also plays a major role, and the sheer amount of effort Makoto has to make to 1) get his illegal gun into the country, 2) find time to put it together, and 3) get the necessary materials to even fire it could only have come about through intense research. Not to mention that Yokohama’s so well-described that I feel like a time machine could plop me down in its Meiji version and I’d have no trouble finding my way around.
All in all, readers looking for a fast-paced historical adventure would do well to pick up Suicidal Samurai. There’s some blood (’cause, you know, murder), and though an age range is not specified, I’d consider it safe for 7th grade and up, and if you like it, a sequel, Notorious Ninja, is reputed to be on the way!
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