A young insurance saleswoman is found strangled at Mitsuse Pass. Her family and friends are shocked and terrified. The pass—which tunnels through a mountainous region of southern Japan—has an eerie history: a hideout for robbers, murderers, and ghostly creatures lurking at night.
Soon afterward, a young construction worker becomes the primary suspect. As the investigation unfolds, the events leading up to the murder come darkly into focus, revealing a troubled cast of characters: the victim, Yoshino, a woman much too eager for acceptance; the suspect, Yuichi, a car enthusiast misunderstood by everyone around him; the victim’s middle-aged father, a barber disappointed with his life; and the suspect’s aging grandmother, who survived the starvation of postwar Japan only to be tormented by local gangsters. And, finally, there is desperate Mitsuyo, the lonely woman who finds Yuichi online and makes the big mistake of falling for him.
A stunningly dark thriller and a tapestry of noir, Villain is the English-language debut for Shuichi Yoshida, one of Japan’s most acclaimed and accomplished writers. From desolate seaside towns and lighthouses to love hotels and online chat rooms, Villain reveals the inner lives of men and women who all have something to hide. Part police procedural, part gritty realism, Villain is a coolly seductive story of loneliness and alienation in the southernmost reaches of Japan.
Yuichi turned on the overhead light in his car and angled the rearview mirror toward him. In the darkness the reﬂection of his face was indistinct. He moved his head from side to side, combing his ﬁngers through his hair. His hair was soft and feline; the ﬁne strands ﬂowed through his rough ﬁngers.
In the spring of last year, Yuichi had dyed his hair for the ﬁrst time in his life. He dyed it a brown that almost appeared black, and when none of the guys on his construction site noticed, he dyed it a lighter brown, then even lighter the next time, until ﬁnally now, a year and a half later, his hair was nearly blond.
Since the change in hair color was so gradual, no one kidded him about it. Only once did another worker, Nosaka, laugh and say, “Hey, since when are you a blond?” His blond hair went well with his skin, tanned from outdoor work, so perhaps that explained the lack of teasing.
Yuichi was not a ﬂashy guy, though when he went to Uniqlo and other inexpensive clothing stores to buy sweatshirts and sweatpants, he always wound up going for bright colors, reds and pinks. He would tell himself he’d get something subdued, black or beige, something that didn’t show dirt easily, but when he got to the store and stood in front of the racks of clothes, for some reason he’d reach for the brighter colors. It’s only going to get dirty anyway, he told himself.
His old chest of drawers at home was stuffed full of similar sweatshirts and T-shirts, all of them with threadbare collars, frayed sleeves, the cloth all worn out. All of this made the colors stand out even more, like colors in a deserted theme park. He liked these old sweatshirts and T-shirts, though, because they absorbed the sweat and grease well, and the more he wore them the more they felt like part of his skin, a feeling he found liberating.
Yuichi leaned forward and looked again in the rearview mirror. His hair was in place. His eyes were slightly bloodshot, but at least the pimple between his eyebrows was gone.
Until he graduated from high school, Yuichi was the type of boy who never combed his hair. He wasn’t on any sports team, but every couple of months he’d go to the neighborhood barbershop and get a buzz cut.
Around the time he started attending an industrial high school, the barber had sighed and said, “Yuichi, pretty soon I bet you’re going to get all particular about your hair, telling me how to cut it.” The huge mirror in the barbershop reﬂected a young boy, tall and skinny, who was far from being very masculine.
“If you have anything special you want me to do, let me know, okay?” said the barber. The barber liked to sing enka, and he made his own recordings, posters for which were plastered on the wall.
But Yuichi had no idea what anything special meant when it came to hair. He had no idea where to begin. Until he graduated from high school, Yuichi always got his hair cut at this shop. Afterward, he worked for a short time at a small health food store, and then, after he quit, just hung out at home. A former classmate invited him to work at a karaoke box place, but within half a year the place closed down and he took a series of short-term jobs, at a gas station for a few months, then at a convenience store. And before he knew it he was twenty-three.
It was around that time that he started working in construction. He was considered more of a day laborer than a regular employee, but since the owner of the company was a relative, he earned more than he would have otherwise. He’d been working with this company now for four years. Yuichi liked the irregularity of the work, how they worked in good weather and didn’t when it rained.
Fewer and fewer cars passed in front of the park. It had become so quiet that the presence of the young couple two cars ahead of him, who had driven away quite some time ago, still lingered.
And right then he spotted Yoshino walking, not so quickly, down the path that ran parallel to the park. Yuichi had been cleaning his nails under the interior light in his car.
He gave his horn a light tap. Surprised by the sound, Yoshino stopped for a moment.
On Monday morning, December 10, 2001, Sari woke up ﬁve minutes ahead of her alarm, a rare occurrence. Sari was not a morning person, and when she was living with her parents in Kagoshima City, almost every morning her mother got upset when she wouldn’t get up on time. Even after Sari moved out and started living in Fukuoka, her mother would occasionally call her to remind her to get up.
Part of the reason she had trouble getting up was that she couldn’t fall asleep easily. Back when she was still in school she’d go to bed early, but as soon as she closed her eyes, her mind started replaying conversations she had had with her friends. If only I’d said this to her, she’d think. If only I’d come back to the classroom earlier. She couldn’t help worrying about all the little things that happened. A lot of people do this, of course, but in Sari’s case her regret over trivial events of the day would, before she realized it, balloon into the same imaginary scenario.
It was hard to explain what this scene was, exactly. She had just entered junior high and was in bed one night when it popped into her mind, and ever since, no matter how much she’d try not to think of it, it came to her as she struggled to sleep.
The time period wasn’t clear, perhaps the late 1920s or early ’30s. In this mental scene Sari was locked up in a cramped room, a photograph of an actress clutched in her hands. Sometimes in the photograph the actress wore Western clothes like a pinup ﬁlm star; at other times it was a newspaper clipping, an ad for what appeared to be the actress’s new movie. Sari had no idea who the actress was, but she did know that in her fantasy she was ragingly, overwhelmingly jealous of this woman. Through the latticed window, she sometimes saw gallant young soldiers marching down a cherry-tree-lined street; sometimes she heard the shouts of children throwing snowballs at each other.
In this fantasy, Sari always felt irritated. If only I could get out of this room, she thought, then she would be able to take the actress’s place in the movie. Her fantasy had no plot, no other characters. Just this one protagonist, Sari’s alter ego, whose feelings became her own when Sari couldn’t sleep.
Just before her alarm buzzed, Sari reached out and turned it off. It hadn’t rung, but she felt as if she could hear it. She ﬂipped open her cell phone to see if there were any messages from Yoshino, but there were none.
She got out of bed and opened the curtains. From her third-ﬂoor window she had a nice view of Higashi Park bathed in the early morning sunshine.
Last night, just before twelve, she’d phoned Yoshino, certain she’d be back by then, but there was no answer.
Yoshino’s phone had rung but eventually gone to voice mail, so Sari had hung up and gone out on the veranda to peer down at Yoshino’s apartment, which was directly beneath hers. The lights weren’t on. If she really had met up with Keigo and come home afterward, twelve was too early for her to have gone to sleep.
Flustered, Sari had then decided to phone Mako, who sounded as if she was brushing her teeth when she answered the phone.
“So Yoshino isn’t back yet?” Sari asked her.
“Didn’t she say something about coming back right away? But I just called her cell and she didn’t pick up.”
“Maybe she’s taking a shower?”
“But her light’s off.”
“So maybe she’s still with Keigo.”
Mako sounded like she couldn’t be bothered, so Sari just let it be.
“She’ll be back soon. Did you want something?” Mako asked her.
“No, not really . . .” Sari replied and hung up.
No, she didn’t have anything else she wanted to ask Mako. Instead, the sound of Yoshino’s footsteps, fading as she walked toward the darkened park, came back to her.
Normally Sari wouldn’t have given it another thought, but after she took a shower and went back to bed, she was still concerned. She knew she was being a pest, but she called Yoshino’s cell phone one more time. This time, though, the call went immediately to voice messaging, as if the phone had been turned off. Right as it did, Sari pictured Keigo’s condo in front of Hakata station. Feeling foolish, she tossed the cell phone aside.
That morning Sari arrived at her company’s Hakata branch, also in front of Hakata station, just in time for the eight-thirty morning meeting. Normally she rode her bicycle for the one-kilometer commute to the ofﬁce, but today, just as she was straddling the bike, Mako—who usually commuted by subway to the company’s Seinan branch—called out to her. “I’ve got to stop by the Hakata ofﬁce,” Mako told her, so Sari decided to take the subway, too.
As they were walking to the station Sari asked, “So, have you heard from Yoshino?”
“Yoshino? She hasn’t come back?” Mako asked, mellow as usual.
“She never answered her cell.”
“Then I suppose she must have stayed overnight at Keigo’s. She’ll go to work from there.”
Mako’s laid-back attitude convinced Sari that she must be right. They stopped discussing it and rushed into the subway.
When their morning meeting at work was over, the branch manager switched on the TV set on top of a shelf in the small reception area. He’d never turned it on before, so all the employees collectively turned toward the screen.
“Something has happened at Mitsuse Pass,” the branch manager said, turning toward the others. Several employees had already heard something and, from the corner of the room, they began to talk loudly. Several others moved closer to the TV.
The morning light shone through a large window, over which hung a decoration left over from the Tanabata midsummer festival. It was the only spot in the ofﬁce where the summer heat still seemed to linger.
Sari turned to Mako, who was busy counting promotional gifts packed into a cardboard box. “Mako,” she asked, “don’t tell me you’re planning to buy those? Aren’t they kind of expensive?”
“New ones are coming out, they said. Plus we can buy these at seventy percent off.”
The box was crammed with not very appealing stuffed bunnies.
“Who’s going to sign a contract with us just because we hand out this kind of junk?” Sari asked.
“Yeah, but there are some people who ask speciﬁcally for the stuffed toy animals,” Mako said seriously.
Then several staff members in front of the TV exclaimed loudly: “No way.” “How awful.” Their voices weren’t so much tense as indifferent, so Sari merely glanced around at the TV.
Normally this local morning show reported on bargain sales in town, but today on the TV a young reporter, frowning very seriously, was standing in front of the road that ran through the mountains.
“They found a dead body up at Mitsuse Pass,” one of the staff members said, turning around.
Everyone began to move toward the TV.
“The young woman’s body was discovered this morning at the base of the cliff that’s visible over there. The police have roped off the area, but even from here it’s clear that the cliff is quite steep.”
The reporter, out of breath, was almost shouting, as if he’d just arrived at the site.
Sari was struck by an awful premonition and glanced over at Mako, who was obliviously pawing through the stuffed animals.
“Mako,” Sari said, and Mako—thinking Sari wanted some of the stuffed animals—held out the one in her hand, the smallest of the bunnies in the box.
“Not that. Look,” Sari said, irritated, motioning with her chin. Mako slowly turned to the screen.
“. . . The victim has not yet been indentiﬁed. According to authorities the body was abandoned there today, before dawn. Most likely the victim has been dead for eight to ten hours. . . .”
Mako returned to her box. Sari, half afraid, waited for what Mako might say. Mako’s face stiffened and she said, “Mitsuse Pass is where there’re all those ghosts, right?”
“That’s not the point!” Sari shouted. If she explained it, she was sure Mako could catch her drift, but she was reluctant to put her thoughts into words.
“What?” Mako said, reaching again for the box.
“Yoshino did go to work today, didn’t she?”
Sari ﬁnally got this much out, but Mako still didn’t follow. “Yeah, I guess so,” she said.
“Should we call her?”
Sari looked helplessly at the TV again and Mako ﬁnally got it. “No way!” she said in disbelief. “I’m sure she went to work from Keigo’s place.
“If you’re so worried, why don’t you call her?” she added.
“I don’t know. . . .”
“Want me to call her?” Mako wearily pulled her cell phone out of her bag. “I’m only getting voice mail,” she said. “Hi, Yoshino? When you get this give me a call.”
“Why don’t you call the other branch directly?” Sari suggested.
“She’s gotta be there,” Mako said, but at Sari’s urging she dialed the number in Tenjin.
“Hello? This is Miss Adachi from the Seinan branch. I was wondering if Yoshino Ishibashi is there?”
Cell phone pressed against her ear, Mako knelt down and stuck her hand among the plush toy animals.
After a moment she stood up. “Yes? Is that right?” she said. “I see. Yes, I understand.” Her voice was cheery enough, but after she hung up she turned to Sari with a dazed look.
“She didn’t come to work?” Sari asked.
“On the schedule board it said she was going directly to meet a client. It’s probably the owner of that coffee shop. You know, the guy Yoshino did a cold call to the other day.”
People were starting to drift back to work, but Sari wasn’t ﬁnished.
“Mitsuse Pass is a creepy place. I drove through there once,” Suzuka Nakamachi said, her eyes still glued to the TV. She shuddered dramatically.
Later Sari realized that if Suzuka hadn’t spoken to her right then, it might have been the end of it. They worked in the same sales district but weren’t close. Still, Suzuka always spoke to Sari in an overly familiar way. Mako didn’t mind her, but Yoshino disliked Suzuka intensely. Once she’d said, trembling with emotion, “I hate the way she acts.”
“Suzuka,” Sari said, shooting a quick glance at the TV. “You know Keigo Masuo, right, who goes to Seinan University? Do you know how to get in touch with him?”
“Keigo?” Suzuka said, guardedly. “Why do you ask?”
“Yoshino went to stay over at his place, but isn’t answering her cell. Do you know his number?”
Suzuka listened, expressionless. “I don’t really know him, but my friend sort of does.”
“Would he know how to get in touch with Keigo?”
“Gee, I don’t know. . . .”
Sari was pretty sure she wasn’t going to get any help from her.
Mako was listening to their conversation. “Well, it’s time for me to get going,” she said and closed the lid of the cardboard box. Just then the TV showed an interview with the old man who had ﬁrst discovered the body. Several people in the ofﬁce were watching and burst out laughing. The old man had exceedingly long nose hairs. The laughter broke the tension in the room and the ofﬁce’s normal, peaceful atmosphere returned.
“I noticed that the rope tying down the load on the back of my truck had broken,” the old man was explaining, “so I stopped right at that curve over there. I got out and happened to glance over the edge of the cliff and saw something stuck in a tree. When I looked more closely . . . I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Excerpted from Villain by Shuichi Yoshida. Copyright © 2010 by Shuichi Yoshida. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Shuichi Yoshida was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1968. The author of over 25 books, he has won numerous literary awards in Japan and has also had several of his short stories adapted for Japanese television. He lives in Tokyo.