Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

March 24, 2022

Nanao, nicknamed Lady Bird—the self-proclaimed “unluckiest assassin in the world”—boards a bullet train from Tokyo to Morioka with one simple task: grab a suitcase and get off at the next stop. Unbeknownst to him, the deadly duo Tangerine and Lemon are also after the very same suitcase—and they are not the only dangerous passengers onboard. Satoshi, “the Prince,” with the looks of an innocent schoolboy and the mind of a viciously cunning psychopath, is also in the mix and has history with some of the others. Risk fuels him as does a good philosophical debate . . . like, is killing really wrong? Chasing the Prince is another assassin with a score to settle for the time the Prince casually pushed a young boy off of a roof, leaving him comatose.

When the five assassins discover they are all on the same train, they realize their missions are not as unrelated as they first appear.

All aboard the Shinkansen. Please ensure your baggage is not blocking the walkway and you have a valid ticket ready for inspection. This week’s review is Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka, a new crime thriller direct from the shores of Japan.

At first glance, you might be fooled into thinking Bullet Train is fairly standard by-the-numbers stuff. You’re wrong. The narrative takes the opportunity to explore exactly why each character has ended up in the chaotic moment they find themselves in. Nanao, for example, always manages to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or the right place at the right time, it kind of depends on your perspective. Meanwhile, Tangerine and Lemon could easily be viewed as two-dimensional hit men types but they are far more fleshed out that that. We learn all the character’s weird little idiosyncrasies. Those odds and sods that motivate them. It’s all gleefully odd. It certainly came as a bit of a surprise just how much of the plot relates to the philosophical ponderings of Thomas the Tank Engine, but who am I to judge. Yes, you did read that correctly. One of the characters is more than a little obsessed with the locomotive residents of the isle of Sodor. Unexpected, but it works in a bizarre, utterly random sort of way. I suppose it makes sense what with most of the action taking place on a train. 

Scenes often get replayed from differing viewpoints, or there are slight overlaps between chapters. I liked this approach, but it does demand your complete attention. It gives the plot a marvellous sense of continuous forward motion. The action continues to escalate into what amounts to a sort of demented shell game. Everyone is terribly keen to get their hands on an extremely valuable suitcase. They all seem more than prepared to screw one another over to get it. The big question is, who is going to be the last assassin standing?  

As an aside, some of you will no doubt be aware that Bullet Train is imminently set to make the jump from page to screen (see the trailer below). I am genuinely curious to see what stays and what goes from the novel. Looking at the cast list I can see one main character has been gender-flipped and ages of others have been tweaked. That’s all good, but I’m not sure about westernising just about everyone. Is Brad Pitt* the right fight for Lady Bird? Time will tell. I can only hope the movie has the same quirky feeling as the book. Meanwhile, I’ll suppose I’ll try and give the movie a fair shake. Perhaps I’ll even manage to contain my disappointment that the entire cast isn’t Japanese. I just get so annoyed when this sort of blatant whitewashing happens. It is completely unnecessary. Remember when the spectacular All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka was made into the movie Edge of Tomorrow featuring Tom Cruise. Why Hollywood? Why??

Anyway, back to the book – I really enjoyed Bullet Train. Isaka’s writing has a wonderfully offbeat feeling. There is a whole rogue’s gallery of career criminals, introspective killers, and homicidal teenagers to discover. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you who was my favourite. I’m also pleased to note another one of Isaka’s novels is due to be released soon. I’ve managed to get ahead of the curve on this one. I’ve already got a review copy of Three Assassins on my Kindle ready to go!

Bullet Train is published by Vintage and is available from 1st April. Highly recommended.

My musical recommendation to accompany this novel is the soundtrack to Yakuza 0 by Hidenori Shoji. Once it gets going, it has a suitably ballistic vibe that captures the frenetic tone of the novel perfectly.

*In the film he is called Lady Bug but I’m willing to bet it is essentially the same character.


One Comment

  • Grace June 4, 2022 at 10:26 pm

    Excellent review!! You did a really good job in encapsulating what I also thought about the novel. I think Japan has a very limited budget in producing these large-scale action thrillers, so it’s sometimes “outsources” these films to the US to get more attention and interest. Of course, the cross translation of both language, tone, and physical comedy is always something that I’m nervous about — Snatch (2001) is a film kind of similar to bullet train that balanced these aspects amazingly, but then again it didn’t come from a foreign novel. Either way I hope the movie is entertaining even if it does differ from the novel. I absolutely love the novel and would definitely read it again on a plane trip or long train ride somewhere! Thanks for drawing attention to it on your blog!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *