Aug. 15, 1945 — Emperor Hirohito broadcasts Japan’s acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, and the body of a woman is found in the flooded basement of Dai-Ichi Naval Clothing Department women’s dormitory. A year to the day after these events, police discover the bodies of two women in Shiba Park — Detective Minami investigates.
“Tokyo Year Zero,” based on the true case of Yoshio Kodaira, an ex-Imperial soldier who raped and murdered 10 women during the postwar chaos, is no mainstream police procedural — David Peace works in darker territories. There is a nod to Akira Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog,” the crime fiction of Seicho Matsumoto and Akimitsu Takagi, and Akira Yoshimura’s “One Man’s Justice,” but “Tokyo Year Zero” is more a literary autopsy of occupied Tokyo; it delves within the city’s body and surgically dissects its blackened heart.
With its incessant pace and relentless bleakness, “Tokyo Year Zero” is, at times, an uncomfortable read — the reader sweats with Detective Minami, itches and scratches with him. We feel his hunger, his mania. The repetitious prose invokes the rhythmic pulse of a city rebuilding itself. The writing is claustrophobic and apocalyptic.
Peace asks uncomfortable questions: What is the moral difference between a serial killer’s actions and the mass slaughter of civilians? Who are we when our nation is defeated and humbled? How human are we when reduced to stealing, begging, or trading sex for food? What is it to be human when no humanity remains? In a novel of half-light and half-things, Peace asks how we can be complete as individuals or as a nation when memory and history are shattered and morality is relative.
“Tokyo Year Zero” is a hybrid work: part thriller, part historical novel, part psychological portrait. It is a particularly contemporary piece, suturing together genres and facts into an examination of individual and national identity. James Ellroy’s “American Tabloid” and Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” are obvious predecessors, novels in which the authors merge imagination and history to form literature. I also felt a twinge of Dostoevsky in there, a twitch, a spasm.
Peace’s interest in physical tics and verbal iteration to portray emotional states may be grotesque but is essential to his detailed characterization of victims of horror. In describing a populace shaken out of its normal existence, a world in which a morsel of food, a cigarette, a haramaki (knitted stomach warmer) become prophetic, terrifying, existential, Peace examines how we construct a theory of the self, our fear and our joy in being alive. He does this by extending the thriller element of the novel, in which police investigation becomes self-examination. The banality of war is not evil; indeed, Peace would argue, it is survival that is mundane.
Essentially, the novel is a love song to Tokyo and its people. If I have one negative remark it is that the only humor is that of black bile; but then laughter dissolves when confronted by madness and extermination. The novel’s dedicated research — documented in the acknowledgments and sources — creates a verisimilitudinous Tokyo of nascent communism, violent gangs, Occupation purges, and the War Crimes Tribunal. But it is Peace’s stylistic muscle and narrative velocity that make this novel an exciting and challenging historical thriller. Its subject matter and literary heft resonate from the past to the present and abide long in one’s memory.
“Tokyo Year Zero” is the first in a trilogy based on the postwar experiences of Tokyo’s police force — to follow will be “Tokyo: Occupied City” and “Tokyo: Regained.” If war is dehumanizing, then Peace’s latest novel reminds us of the redemptive power of art.