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Andrew Osmond reviews Ryu Murakami’s invasion novel

The packet of tissues still lay on the table. Lieutenant Pak took a sheet to feel the texture. Never before had his fingers touched such thin, soft paper. He put it to his mouth and then wiped his cheek. It felt to him like silk. The thought occurred to him that the whole nation of Japan was much the same: soft. The air at daybreak on Nokonoshima Island had been tepid and soft, like the evening air at Fukuoka Dome – and like that young farmer’s eyes. Choi had described the sensation of gouging out the farmer’s eyes as being “like poking through bean curd.”

In the original 1984 film of Red Dawn, the baddies were Russia, Cuba and Nicaragua, invading America as NATO falls apart. The recent remake was meant to have China invading America, but – amid loud jeers – the enemy was changed to North Korea at the last minute because, um, the distributors didn’t want to damage Chinese sales. The film opened to dismal reviews and uninspiring box office.

The problem with modern invasion stories – at least when the invaders are humans, not green meanies from outer space – is that they’re hard to make plausible. Another recent invasion film, the Australian Tomorrow, When the War Began (based on a popular series of Young Adult novels) fudges things by not naming the country that attacks Australia – it’s supposedly a coalition of Asian powers – or showing us what the rest of the world is doing. The story would have been more believable as an alternate-history World War II drama, in which Japan acts on its plans to invade Australia after Pearl Harbor (or would it?). In anime, Code Geass sidesteps the sensitive issue of Japan’s own real postwar Occupation by inventing a fantastical world where Japan is conquered by the superpower Britannia (sic).

The book From the Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami (pictured), has no time for such fudges. A hefty novel of more than 600 pages, it takes its invasion scenario seriously – well, at least some of the time. Although the English translation came out this year, the novel was originally published in Japan in 2005, imagining events in 2011. Today, then, it reads as alternate history, set in a Japan where there was no Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, but where a great many other things happened instead.

At about the time when that mentally challenged American president was compelled to admit that his attempt to force democracy on the Middle East had failed, the dollar had begun to fall precipitously. The yen rose for a while, then sank as rapidly as the dollar had. Municipal and semi-government bonds went into freefall, investors began dumping the yen, and finally national bonds went to hell, along with the stock market.

Japanese ATMs are shut down, even while America raises the price of corn (a vital Japanese import). Parks become shanty towns, a suicide bomb goes off outside the Diet Building, and the USA doesn’t give a damn. “America was like a philandering big shot, with Japan the kept woman unceremoniously dumped when the money ran out.” Enter North Korea.

This isn’t a film with tanks rumbling into central Tokyo, as in anime films like Akira and Patlabor 2. In fact, the North Koreans don’t attack the Japanese main island of Honshu at all. Rather they target the south island Kyushu, hundreds of miles away from the central government. Japan is portrayed as regionally chauvinist, with Kyushu patronised by the Tokyo-based ‘elite,’ just as much as Scotland, Wales and Ireland are by the Islington crowd.

But the clever bit is that the invaders pretend that they’re not acting for North Korea at all. Rather, they’re fake rebels. They pretend to be a breakaway group from the Republic and the Dear Leader, simultaneously protecting their masters and confusing the international response. In a nod to the rampant cinephilia of Kim Jong-il, the plan is inspired by an American film about a Nazi invasion of Manhattan, which is screened to the North Korean brass as the story opens. Sadly, the film seems to be the author’s own invention, although in a Reuters interview, the author said he was inspired by The Eagle Has Landed: “German soldiers dressed in English uniforms and pretending to be English military.”

In the novel, the advance invasion group consists of just nine soldiers, including two women. It sounds ludicrous, but the book sells it – after all, post-9/11, we’re all aware of what tiny groups can do. The North Koeans simply sail in to Kyushu, blended with Japan’s fishing boats, and then travel to the island’s capital Fukuoka. They enter the city’s baseball dome (in a scene anticipating the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises) and coolly take thirty thousand people hostage, paralysing everyone’s reactions for the vital hours before backup arrives by air. The invaders mete out violence brutally but selectively, mostly in underground torture chambers. They trick Tokyo into blockading Kyushu to protect the mainland, and as their power base solidifies, they set about carving the island from Japan.

The Koreans’ real aim is to change the balance of power in the Far East. Specifically, they want to turn Kyushu into a new buffer between China and America, the role played for decades in the real world by the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea. (In the book, America, having dumped Japan, has been seeking a détente with North Korea to unify the peninsula, which alarms the country’s hardliners; hence the need to redraw the map.) In a brief but striking exchange, the North Koreans discuss joining with the ethnic Koreans in Japan; specifically the controversial organisation Chongryon, which has real-world ties to North Korea. The suggestion is nixed because second-generation Koreans are too Japanese in the eyes of the Republic.

As for the reaction of Japan’s authorities, the book sums it up succinctly:

Resignation was gradually spreading around the table, like a bad smell. Resignation meant submitting to greater power, and abandoning any idea of resistance. Power was built and maintained with violence. A population accustomed to peace had no taste for either meting out or being subjected to brutality, and couldn’t even imagine what it would involve. People unable to imagine violence were incapable of using it.

While the book mocks the bureaucratic failings of the Japanese system – in particular, the hierarchies blocking specialists and experts from doing their jobs – the main target is Japan’s refusal to sacrifice hostages. The book refers obliquely to the real-life hijack of a Japanese plane in 1977 by the communist Japanese Red Army. The then Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda acceded to all the JRA’s demands, declaring “human life outweighs the earth.” In effect, the book pushes the case that what Japan really needs in a crisis is a Vladimir Putin (who, for example, sacrificed 130 Moscow theatregoers to end a siege by a Chechen rebels in 2002).

Failing that, Kyushu’s only hope is a band of young murderers and sociopaths, who have conveniently gathered in Fukuoka under the wing of an anarchist poet-guru-dirty old man, who in turn has handy connections for getting heavy weaponry. (Okay, so the believability takes a dip here.) This plotline has a slight resemblance to the British comedy Attack the Block; one of that film’s jokes was that the one time you’d want to see a gang of angry armed hoodies would be if the earth was being invaded by alien monsters. But the kids in Attack the Block are Disney bunny rabbits compared to the youths in Fatherland, who feels like dramatis personae for an especially sick manga. One has dismembered a schoolgirl in order to prove she was just meat. Another saw the kids’ anime classic 3000 Miles in Search of Mother, then stowed away on a bullet train to find his own mum, and ended up beheading the conductor.

At this point, some people, understandably, will drop the book. After the thriller-style early chapters, the sheer revoltingness of the youths, and the obnoxiousness of their mentor, makes depressing reading. The fact that you suspect the mentor’s views are close to the author’s own isn’t much of an advertisement. The midsection also contains some political debates, mired in prose that’s so stodgy that long passages are barely readable.

The book does pick up at the end. There’s a first class action set-piece that reads like Die Hard done by Sam Peckinpah, and a series of highly effective, humanist character studies of Koreans and Japanese alike. Even if you’re used to the extreme tonal swings of manga and anime, it’s hard to reconcile the high-mindedness of the ending with the scuzziness of what came before; and that seems to be wholly intentional. There can be communication between nations and races, even ones with decades of hate; it’s at the level of individuals that worldviews break down into incommunicability.

We’ve left the issue of the author to the end. Ryu Murakami (who is no relation to the world-famous Haruki Murakami, or indeed animator Jimmy Murakami) is described on the book’s frontpiece as the “enfant terrible” of Japanese literature. He wrote the original novel Audition, adapted as a notorious horror film by Takashi Miike that turned “kiri kiri kiri!” into the scariest phrase in Japanese cinema. Murakami’s backlist also includes In the Miso Soup, a salutary reminder that you can be grislier than Audition in print.

Author John Courtenay Grimwood aptly described the book as American Psycho – The Holiday Abroad, though he also defended it.

The fairest thing to say about From the Fatherland with Love is that it’s best to forget it’s by the author of Audition. There’s grue and gore, but it’s brief and elliptical. While most of the cast is male – it’s surprising there are no girls among the juvie delinquents, given real-life headlines in Japan – the late chapters bring significant, dimensional women to the fore, and makes them a key part of the resolution. At worst, the book is stodgy and repellent. At best it is gripping, rewarding, and shot through with bravura storytelling.

From the Fatherland with Love is available from Pushkin Press as a hardback. An article about his research for the book is available here; while it does not have ‘spoilers,’ it would be better to read it after the book.

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