Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Review of Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith (2002, Pan)

December 1941. Harry Niles is living in Tokyo and running a bar. Harry is about as Japanese as an American can get having grown up in the city and attended a local school and is fluent in the language and culture. As a child he was left to fend for himself, his missionary parents travelling the country looking for souls to save. Bullied at school, he learned to look out for himself and sought sanctuary running favours at a down-at-heel theatre and living at the fringes of the underworld. Twenty years on, Harry is still running rackets and hustling to get by. As war approaches that hustle includes openly supporting the ambitions of the Japanese for a Pacific empire in order to secure passage out of the country, while also working to undermine this ambition by feeding them misinformation designed to stop them attacking the US. It’s a dangerous game as it annoys his fellow Americans, while he’s never really trusted by his hosts. Even in love he is living with his Japanese girlfriend, while also conducting an affair with the wife of a British diplomat. But the only side Harry is on is his own. Except the evidence is somewhat to the contrary. While in China in 1937 he helped run the international protection zone in Nanking and save the lives of numerous Chinese from the holocaust being wrought, and on the eve of hostilities he’s helping the German he worked with in Nanking and his Chinese bride leave the country. As he makes his own preparations, his nemesis from Nanking, Lieutenant Ishigami has arrived in the city and he wants Harry’s head.

Tokyo Station follows the raconteur, Harry Niles, in the lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbour and his attempts to leave the country before hostilities break out, while also avoiding a revenge attack of Lieutenant Ishigami, a man he humiliated four years previously in Nanking, and two agents from the Japanese ‘thought’ police. Harry is a classic anti-hero – a selfish, charismatic, seemingly amoral schemer who skirts on the edge of the underworld, but nonetheless does try to help and nudge things for the greater good, though he usually has an angle at play even when he’s helping others. The strength of the story is the characterisation, especially Harry, his Japanese girlfriend Michiko, and Ishigami, plus the use of a smattering of real-world political and military characters, the sense of place and time, and the rich descriptions of Japanese culture and history in the inter-war period and in the lead up to hostilities with the US. Smith does an excellent job of detailing the context for the plot, which while engaging and entertaining felt very much a thriller as envisaged by a screenwriter rather than being rooted in a more grounded realism. That’s no bad thing as it makes for compelling reading, though some of it felt overly-stretched in places and the ending felt a little incomplete.

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