[Poster for the film by Lee Sang-il]
Villain is a psychological examination of the lives of a construction worker (Yuichi), the girlfriend he murders (Yoshino, an insurance saleswoman), and the new girlfriend he falls in love with (Mitsuyo, a saleswoman in a jumbo men's clothes store). At first, we see Yuichi as a beast and the first girlfriend, Yoshino, as an innocent victim, but gradually, when we learn more about them, Yoshino is revealed to be loose and shallow, while Yuichi may be hard to fathom, but he takes good care of the grandparents with whom he lives.
Yuichi meets his girlfriends via dating sites. Yoshino uses such dating sites not so much to meet boyfriends, but to make money as she prostitutes herself for a fee (plus travel expenses!) to the men she meets. After the murder, Yuichi meets Michiyo who is getting older and sees her boring life slip by in the provincial town where she lives. They fall desperately in love, but as Yuichi is a wanted murderer, they both realize they have no future.
Villain is a dark novel that paints an ugly picture of contemporary Japan, where loneliness and alienation seem the hallmarks of the nation's youth. The novel concentrates on ordinary, recognizable people, those below the level of the salarymen, and provides a realistic view of their daily lives: the prices of highway tolls and gasoline, what to have for dinner, the struggle for customers by a barber whose style is too old-fashioned, the dates in love hotels and the ubiquity of convenience stores. Even more interesting are the typical Japanese circumstances, such as the public reaction to Yoshino's murder - instead of receiving sympathy, the parents are flooded with obnoxious phone calls and messages telling them their daughter deserved to die because of her sleazy character.
The end of the book is uplifting. Communication is restored between the parents of Yoshino, Yuichi's grandmother who was being extorted out of her savings by gangsters, decides to stand up to them, and even Michiyo's life is transformed. But the greatest change is seen in Yuichi, who redeems himself by an act of altruism, that is all the greater as he hides it from the receiver.
The title should be read with a question mark: is Yuichi really such a villain, or are it rather social and other circumstances that make him so? The author holds no apology for Yuichi, but does ask us to have a more nuanced view.
The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and never descends into melodrama. There are also some chapters in interior monologue, which directly shows us the thoughts of the major characters. The translation is excellent, as we are used to from Philip Gabriel who has an impressive list of translations to his name, including novels by Oe Kenzaburo and Murakami Haruki.
In short, this is a realistic novel, about recognizable people, written in a clear style. Above all, it is an interesting picture of Japanese society, although a bit on the negative side.
P.S. A blurb on the back cover of the translation contains a misleading comparison to Stieg Larsson - happily, this realistic novel has nothing whatsoever in common with the sensational fables of Larsson which are more rooted in the 19th century (The Count of Monte Cristo) than contemporary reality.