Review of ‘Bullet Train’ by Kotaro Isaka

This is one of the most addictive thrillers I’ve ever read. It has a smart, cinematic style. While I was reading, I thought the book would make a great film. Other people obviously thought that too, because production on a film adaptation began in late 2020.

The story follows several shady characters as they travel on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo. They find themselves in competition and apparently working for the same crime lord. In a race against time, they try to identify each other, work out what’s going on, and either work together or kill each other. The story is narrated in the third person, with some flashbacks to events leading up to this situation, but is mostly set in the tense environment of the train carriages. Unusually for a thriller, the characters are memorable and distinctive. There are the ‘fruits’: contract killers, intellectual Tangerine and his Thomas the Tank Engine-loving partner Lemon. There’s Kimura, ex-alcoholic and single dad. Nanao, unluckiest man in the world. The Prince, devious school student who thinks he can beat the adults. And a few others I can’t mention because of spoilers.

Amidst all the action, plotting and clever dialogue, there is time for philosophy, psychology and for discussions on the differences between generations. It’s an extraordinary reading experience which I’m sure never to forget.

Bullet Train was first published in Japan as Maria Bītoru in 2010. The English translation by Sam Malissa will be published on 1st April.

Thank you to the publisher Harvill Secker for the advance copy via NetGalley.

12 thoughts on “Review of ‘Bullet Train’ by Kotaro Isaka”

    1. I did like it very much! I expect the film will be a little less Japanese than the book, to try and maximise appeal to different audiences.

  1. So great to see you finally reviewing it! I can’t wait to read it. I simply love cinematic thrillers and I hope I love it as much as you do! I may be off the mark, but the story seems to me to have this “Ocean’s Twelve”-mood.

    1. I hope you enjoy! I know how much you like Japanese literature. I haven’t actually seen Ocean’s Twelve so I can’t comment on any similarities but it does have that cool gangster style.

    1. When the film is out (and if it’s good!), a lot of people will want to read the book, I’m sure.

    1. I think the translation really makes a difference, I’m sure it must be difficult to translate effectively and still have a good style.

Leave a Reply