“Bullet Train” by Kotaro Isaka

Detail of UK cover Detail of UK cover

Kotaro Isaka’s thriller Bullet Train moves as fast as the train—the Shinkansen—it takes place on and is named after. Already destined to be a movie starring the not-very-Japanese Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock (one imagines some changes en route), Bullet Train, a guilty pleasure if there ever were one, is something of a cross between Murder on the Orient Express and Train to Busan. People continually get on, but few manage to get off, at least not alive.

This particular train in the Tokyo-Morioka line has several assassins all travelling north—most reviews count five, but I counted nine—and they keep on bumping into each other in a way which seems less and less coincidental as the book (and train) go along. They include the underworld thugs Lemon and Tangerine who have requested the kidnapped son of a notorious gangster and a suitcase of ransom money; Nanao, who considers himself, with some justification, the industry’s unluckiest hitman; Kimura, a recovering alcoholic and recovering gangster who is for revenge for an injury inflicted on his son by a sociopathic and manipulative teenager who goes by the name of the the Prince. Each chapter is headed by a helpful diagram indicating which cars it is taking place in.


Bullet Train Kotaro Isaka, Sam Malissa (trans) (Overlook Press, August 2021; Harvill Secker, April 2021
Bullet Train, Kotaro Isaka, Sam Malissa (trans) (Overlook Press, August 2021; Harvill Secker, April 2021)

The plot (of the book) consists of unraveling the layers of relationships that each player is initially unaware of: each revelation leads to a new mystery and complication. There’s a high (if not quite all-encompassing) body-count, in one of the carriage’s bathrooms in particular. The plot in the book is too convoluted to relate here.

The appeal of the novel comes in its characterizations or, perhaps, caricaturizations. The fruity pair of Lemon and Tangerine (“sour and sweet”) are a look-alike odd couple. Tangerine quotes literature, while Lemon finds his life lessons in Thomas the Tank Engine (references to which can be pretty obscure to readers who haven’t yet had toddlers). This (somewhat distressingly perhaps) is less surreal than it might at first appear: Thomas is big in Japan. An actual Thomas replica rumbles through the Japanese countryside.

Nanao is reserved and fatalistic. He’s probably in the wrong line of work, except that his bad luck extends to those who cross him: their necks have a tendency to be (accidentally) broken. The teenage Prince is a nasty piece of work, manipulating schoolmates, teachers, parents and anyone he comes across; his inspiration was the Rwandan genocide. Assassins, on and off the train, go by the monikers of the Pusher, the Hornet and Ladybug.

The characters are most played for humor, one might almost say dark humor, except that Bullet Train seems to itself be making fun of the genre. This is not a book that takes itself very seriously, and so it doesn’t do to inquire too deeply as to why there also needs to be a snake on board. Everything moves so quickly that once on board, like the Shinkansen, it’s hard to get off in the middle.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.