“The Mantis” by Kotaro Isaka

Kotaro Isaka Kotaro Isaka

It’s difficult not to compare Kotaro Isaka’s third novel in his loosely connected trilogy to Bullet Train, the book and film that put the series on the map. The Mantis, translated by Sam Malissa, centers around a veteran hitman and includes the same lightheartedness and plot twists of Bullet Train, but stands on its own as a touching father-son story. 

Kabuto is the professional name of a hitman known as Miyake-san to his family and friends. He entered the underworld years before he married and became a father to a son named Katsumi. But his family has no clue he’s a hitman and instead think he’s an unmotivated salaryman who punches in each day just to pay the bills. Becoming a father changed his perspective and for years he’s wanted to leave the underworld, but it’s not so easy. The person who gives Kabuto his “jobs” is a physician simply known as the doctor. As much as Kabuto wants to leave this field, the doctor won’t let him and wields enough power to threaten Kabuto and his family.


The Mantis, Kotaro Isaka, Sam Malissa (trans) (Harry N Abrams, Harvill Secker, November 2023)
The Mantis, Kotaro Isaka, Sam Malissa (trans) (Harry N Abrams, Harvill Secker, November 2023)

Throughout the story, there are small references to Bullet Train. The first page mentions a friend named Lemon who is a fan of the children’s television show, Thomas & Friends, and works with a partner named Tangerine, both characters in that first of the trilogy. Elsewhere when Kabuto thinks he has an easy job, he reflects on more difficult scenarios.


He had heard the story of the professional who took another easy job, to steal a suitcase on the Tohoku Shinkansen and get off at the next stop, but somehow he just kept being unable to get off the train and got entangled in a whole mess where the bodies kept piling up. Kabuto knew that danger could still strike at any moment.


Catching these small references aren’t necessary to appreciate the story and characters in The Mantis, but for those who are familiar, it will come as no surprise that Isaka doesn’t easily let any character off the hook.

As in Bullet Train, Isaka arranges his chapters in The Mantis as cinematic parts of a connected story. In the first part, Kotaru has promised his wife and son that he’ll attend parent-teacher conferences at Katsumi’s school. He is an engaged father, but is not familiar with Katsumi’s teachers or friends. It seems that every time there’s a school event Kotaru is called to an assignment by the doctor and cannot say no. As menacing as the doctor is, Kotaru is most afraid of his wife and will do anything to appease her. In an attempt to make polite conversation to show his wife that he cares, he innocently asks if Katsumi’s school serves lunch. He soon realizes that was the wrong question.


He thought they were just playing catch, but she had her bat at the ready and when he lobbed an easy pitch she swung at it: Don’t you know whether your son’s school serves lunch or not? Don’t you see me making his bento every morning?! Her words came in rapid fire, quickly expanding to other topics: You wake up so late every day, and Must be nice to work for such a laid-back company. 


As Kabuto tries to retire from his assassin job, he learns the doctor has pitted him against other hitmen who also want to get out of the business. All of the chapters are narrated by Kabuto apart from last, which alternates between Kabuto and an older Katsumi in the future. It’s during a Katsumi-narrated section that Isaka goes more into the meaning behind the book’s title. As an older Katsumi recalls from his childhood:


In that moment something comes back to me from years ago. A conversation I had with Dad. The ax of the toro. When a praying mantis faces down a much larger creature and holds up its little blades, ready to fight. Didn’t the saying mean to fight a losing battle? But sometimes the mantis gets in one good chop.


Kabuto gets in more than one good chop and even though the odds pile up against him, he remains agile and loyal, fighting for his family at all costs.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.