A character of unregenerate evil who has always managed to avoid accountability for his crimes finally gets his comeuppance in this perfect exemplar of the crime thriller. Two distantly related boys who originally meet as fifth-graders face off a decade and a half later in a dramatic courtroom showdown, not as prosecutor and accused but as defender and hostile defendant. Part One focuses on roughly five years in their early life, through middle school, and Part Two focuses on their renewed confrontation some ten years later.
The point-of-view character is Keisuke Okuyama, who at the outset lives in a Tokyo suburb with his mother Kanako and father Masaharu, a trading company employee. In the fall of 1999, when Keisuke is in fifth grade, a boy of the same age named Tatsuya Asanuma moves into an old apartment complex nearby. Keisuke’s mother Kanako and Tatsuya’s stepmother Michiko are second cousins—though Michiko was an adopted child, so they are not actually related by blood. Before long, Michiko begins visiting the Okuyamas to ask for money, generally with Tatsuya in tow. Every time Tatsuya comes, things disappear from the Okuyama house: some money, a treasured knife of Masaharu, a piece of Kanako’s underwear, and so forth. Part One begins with the story of how Michiko and Tatsuya gradually gain control over the Okuyamas.
It is a little over a year later, on December 28, 2000, that tragedy strikes. Michiko and Hideaki Asanuma all but dump Tatsuya on the Okuyamas, saying they have to go to Osaka on a job that will last through the New Year holidays. Tatsuya volunteers to make curry for dinner, but then mixes sleeping medicine in the dish to put the Okuyamas to sleep, rapes Kanako, and sets the house on fire. As he flees the fire, he pulls only Keisuke to safety. For some reason the police fail to bring charges of arson, determining instead that it was an accidental fire caused by an unextinguished cigarette. Michiko becomes the orphaned Keisuke’s guardian and robs him of his home, land, and inheritance of ¥30,000,000 (about $300,000). Apart from allowing Keisuke to continue in school, the Asanumas treat him as a virtual slave around the house, barely even feeding or clothing him. Keisuke repeatedly witnesses Michiko and Tatsuya having sex, and he becomes aware that Michiko has several other lovers as well. In the end, Keisuke’s only friend at school, Hisato Morota, comes to his rescue, and with the help of a lawyer, he is finally freed from the Asanumas in the fall of his ninth-grade year.
In the ten years that pass between Part One and Part Two, Keisuke works his way through school to become a lawyer. Tatsuya, who is on trial for robbery and murder, dismisses his court-appointed lawyer and, claiming innocence, writes a letter to Keisuke asking him to defend him. Although Tatsuya has been involved in numerous misdeeds since his elementary days, he has always been careful not to be the one who gets caught, by, for example, inciting an action but then making sure to remain on the sidelines as it is carried out. Well aware of this modus operandi, Keisuke has his doubts about the case, in which Tatsuya appears to have ineptly left numerous clues pointing directly to himself in a crime that could well bring him a death sentence: it simply seems too much out of character. Nevertheless, he accedes to Tatsuya’s request, thinking he will see the case through to a guilty verdict and send Tatsuya to prison. Instead, he is walking into a trap set by Tatsuya to get back at Keisuke for having unforgivably escaped from his yoke in ninth grade and for subsequently managing to bootstrap himself into becoming a lawyer.
On the first day of the trial, conducted under the new lay judge system, a stunning courtroom drama takes place, all orchestrated by Tatsuya. His girlfriend Sayumi Tsukuda, who was scheduled to appear for the defense and say that she was with Tatsuya at the time of the crime, is called by the prosecution and testifies that she was pressured by the defense to lie on the stand in order to establish Tatsuya’s innocence. She also reveals that Tatsuya and Keisuke lived in the same house when they were in middle school, that her own older sister Mika had been in their seventh-grade class, and that Tatsuya had told her Keisuke was involved in an incident where Mika was sexually assaulted by multiple boys. The courtroom is thrown into an uproar. When Tatsuya subsequently takes the stand to be questioned by the prosecutor, he, too, testifies that Keisuke told him to lie about his whereabouts at the time of the crime. The truth, he says, is that he was having sex with his mother at the time, and they were broadcasting it live over the Internet. The video is promptly entered as evidence, and the time stamp is confirmed to be authentic. Tatsuya thus establishes an ironclad alibi for himself, while also framing Keisuke with misconduct charges that are all but certain to lead to his disbarment.
As it becomes clear that Tatsuya will soon be released from custody, Keisuke and his old middle-school friend Hisato, now an investigative assistant to a nonfiction writer, begin a search for evidence that can prove Tatsuya’s guilt. They learn that the actual perpetrator of the robbery and murder was one of Michiko’s former lovers named Kadota. The whereabouts of Tatsuya’s father Hideaki, who disappeared from sight not long after Keisuke became the Asanumas’ ward, then becomes the key to unraveling Tatsuya’s entire dastardly scheme. Tatsuya and Michiko had in fact killed him and buried the body with the help of Kadota, who subsequently began demanding money in exchange for his silence. Tatsuya had gotten Kadota to carry out the robbery and murder, then helped him leave the country, but when Kadota returned four months later to demand more money, he killed him. Once he had ruined Keisuke’s career, Tatsuya’s plan was to finger Michiko for the crime and hightail it out of town himself. Keisuke and Hisato meet Michiko, Tatsuya, and Sayumi at a Chinese restaurant and lay out the irrefutable evidence against them, then excuse themselves to go call the police. When they are gone, Michiko pours Tatsuya a drink laced with agricultural chemicals, and he is rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
With naked malice that will make you recoil in horror, a grand plot reminiscent of Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel, and courtroom scenes that pay homage to Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, this is a first-rate suspense thriller filled with twists and turns down to the very end.