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In Japan, Is Technology Or Tradition The 'Villain'?

Villain

There once was a time when telling your parents you were planning to get together with someone you met on the Internet would elicit the horrified response, "But he could be an axe murderer!" Now your father has a Twitter account, your grandmother has set up a website of family photos, and the social revolution is complete. But the ramifications of such a world-changing invention as the Internet can still be felt in our friendships, our jobs and our families.

Shuichi Yoshida was born in Japan in 1968, which means he was already done with adolescence when words like "World Wide Web" and "information superhighway" started to be thrown around. Old enough, in fact, to remember when our social lives were a strictly face-to-face existence. But not old enough to fear the digital age or to moan about how Google is making us stupid and text-messaging is destroying language. Straddling that boundary puts Yoshida in the perfect position to examine the flux our society has gone through in the past 20 years, and he does it in the form of a ripping good story of murder and secrets.

The setup to his new novel Villain appears at first to be the standard Law and Order template: Girl leaves her friends after a night of drinking; her dead body is found dumped the next morning; the investigation into her surprisingly shady past begins.

What sets Yoshida's tale apart, however, is the way it plays with our modern identity issues. If you can upload a misleading and overly flattering photo to your online dating profile and clean up the shadowy bits of your life story, why can't you do the same thing in your offline life? Start over, move away from your dinky little hometown, change your name, maybe even convince yourself that your lies are the truth. Where better to explore this transformation than in Japan, where the contrast between its welcoming embrace of the wired world and its strong roots in tradition and custom makes for some pretty wicked tension.

Villain is Yoshida's seventh novel, and he writes with the cool confidence of a seasoned storyteller. Translator Philip Gabriel, who has also worked with Japanese greats Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami, introduces Yoshida to the English-reading world with a smooth style. While the identity of the girl's killer is known from the beginning, it's the investigation into the victim's history (both her virtual and real lives) and her killer's back story, and Yoshida's insight into our quickly changing culture, that keeps you in thrall.

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