A top-notch tale of suspense reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, or of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan. Author Noboru Tsujihara is known for his meticulously detailed descriptions and the incomparable lyricism of his prose.
The story is set in the city of Wakayama, south of Osaka, and the time is the mid-1980s, when plans for a new Kansai International Airport to be constructed on an artificial island in Osaka Bay are beginning to take shape. At the center of the action is Kayoko Masumoto, the 39-year-old proprietress of a drinking establishment, called Bergman, in the city’s entertainment district. A wanton woman who’s quick to throw herself at a man and yield to his charms, Kayoko lived fast and loose in her youth, but it has now been eight years since she married Satoru Kamitani, who runs a real-estate business, and they have a four-year-old daughter.
Because Satoru launched his business on the assumption that an airport on an artificial island would require massive amounts of fill, the repeated delays so often typical of such projects begin threatening his cash flow. Then the construction company that had been his principal backer goes belly-up and his debts balloon to nearly ¥70,000,000 (about $700,000). When an osteopath friend working for an eldercare facility tells him that one of the residents who suffers from dementia and has no family holds title to a piece of land on the edge of town, he forges the necessary documents to gain ownership, waits for the man to die, and sells the property for more than ¥100,000,000. After paying his osteopath friend ¥10,000,000 as hush money, he uses the rest to pay off his debts and capitalize Bergman for his wife to run.
In her role as proprietress of a tavern, Kayoko gets to know Hiroshi Mineo, an executive in the local Harukoma-gumi yakuza family, who comes to collect protection money. They become lovers. Hiroshi happens to be a client of Satoru’s osteopath friend, who fails to keep quiet about the land fraud, and Hiroshi uses the information to blackmail Satoru and steal his wife away. Satoru takes custody of their daughter. Hiroshi is magnanimous enough not to constrain Kayoko from contact with her ex or their daughter, and they continue to have dinner together from time to time and even go on sightseeing trips together.
The main action of the story begins in February 1984, when a 48-year-old man named Yasuo Kaji shows up at Bergman as a new customer. An employee of the town hall of nearby Shimotsu, a fishing port surrounded by citrus growers, Yasuo has taken over as acting treasurer while his boss battles cancer in the hospital. When he visits Bergman after hearing about it from a work associate, he is immediately smitten with Kayoko. In 17 years of a childless marriage to a middle-school English teacher, he has never stepped out on his wife, but now he cannot restrain himself. In due course, he and Kayoko become lovers—except that it is in fact part of a scheme hatched by Hiroshi. With consumer camcorders having just come on the market, Hiroshi instructs Kayoko to secretly tape their lovemaking, then uses the tape to extort ¥30,000,000 from Yasuo. Not surprisingly, Yasuo comes up with the money by embezzling town funds. His wife nevertheless leaves him.
Kayoko and her three men ultimately get embroiled in a real-life gang war that took place in the Osaka region beginning in mid-1984 due to a rift in Japan’s largest yakuza syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi. In January 1985, the Ichiwakai family that split away from the Yamaguchi syndicate dispatches four hitmen to assassinate the top two Yamaguchi bosses, whose deaths trigger an all-out war between the two factions. The Wakayama affiliates of each faction face off as well, with Hiroshi’s Harukoma-gumi on the Ichiwakai side and Kanasashi-gumi on the Yamaguchi side. Hiroshi is ordered to take out a Yamaguchi executive who’s been sent to Kanasashi, and he does so successfully, but it makes him a marked man. In order to flee the country, he demands another ¥30,000,000 from Yasuo, telling him to bring it to Bergman at 2 AM on May 4. At the end of his rope, Yasuo tells Kayoko he’s going to use the money as a lure, kill Hiroshi when he arrives, and then kill himself as well. Worried about the repercussions if Bergman becomes the scene of a murder, Kayoko turns to Satoru for help. Satoru puts together a plot to clear the decks of Yasuo, Hiroshi, and Hiroshi’s pursuers in one fell swoop and take the money for himself. It will be the perfect crime.
In the climactic scene, Yasuo kills Hiroshi with Kayoko’s help and they dump the body near the harbor. Yasuo and Kayoko then take a boat Satoru has waiting for them out to sea, where Kayoko plans to fake her part of a double suicide using diving weights so only Yasuo dies. But her feelings for Yasuo win out at the last second, and the two return together to the port where Satoru is waiting.