Ashes by Kenzo Kitakata – Book Review (Japanese Hard-Boiled Fiction)

ashesAshes by Kenzo Kitakata is an #OwnVoices Japanese, hard-boiled story about a middle-aged man working in the Yakuza. I originally came across this book at my local library and read it back in February.

Ashes is a book that I feel sad talking about because when I initially began reading it, I was swept away by the unique twist to it. In most hard-boiled narratives, we have a detective or private investigator that we follow as they solve cases in a paced, meticulous manner, usually with cynical monologues. More often than not they witness some kind of violence stemming from organised crime, set during the Prohibition era. Ashes takes this concept and replaces the detective with a member of the Yakuza. So, we get an intimate look at the violence taking place from the eyes of the people who are committing these crimes.

In addition to being wonderfully noir, this take in narrative dynamics was highly contemplative and so beautifully imaginative. The ambiance while being enigmatic was equally sinister and seductive. The Man (as the Yakuza individual is referred to) seemed like a person who walked a grey line of doing what he had to do for this organisation while trying to figure out what other purpose there is to his involvement and the ways it fulfilled (or didn’t fulfil) him.

Because of the way everything is set-up and introduced, it offered a great amount of intrigue and mystery that kept me curiously on my toes, wondering which direction all of this would eventually take. However, it only lasts for the first-half of the book.

In the first half, things are told from a third-person point of view. Yet, once we pass the fifty-percent mark, the perception changes into a first-person one told via The Man. This ruined all of that captivation that had me excited and drooling over the book when I started it.

This narrative shift goes into the intricacies of Yakuza politics, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as it sounds. Most of it was about power plays that was told in the utmost boring and humdrum tone possible. The Man mutates from being a figure of mystery and danger into an old guy just wanting a bigger piece of the power pie, and the various tactics that he uses to manipulate his way into trying to make that possible. I know, this all still sounds really compelling. But trust me, it’s not. The writing becomes lacklustre, almost as if the author became bored with what he was writing himself, and that’s exactly how it comes off: dull and dead. It felt like an utterly different book altogether.

Another thing I didn’t care for were the females. They are obviously written in a way that illustrates them as how men believe they behave and think, which usually means they live to cater to the men’s needs and whims. A powerful woman who owns her own business clearly will always place the needs of her man first and foremost, even sacrificing everything she worked so hard for. Yeah… No. A strong, independent women will not randomly sacrifice everything she worked so damn hard for just for some dick. That’s not how it works. They are also constantly viewed as brainless sexual objects and that can be immensely off-putting.

All in all, Ashes began as a tenacious hard-boiled fiction narrative and slowly withered into a lifeless, tedious story with unbelievable females and a dude who constantly needed ego-stroking just to get up in the morning. I honestly wouldn’t recommend this to many readers, if possible. However, if you are someone who likes hard-boiled fiction and would like to see one written from the perspective of a criminal rather than a detective or PI, then this may be worth checking out; just go into it cautiously and without much expectation of decent quality.

2.75 cigarettes outta 5!

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5 thoughts on “Ashes by Kenzo Kitakata – Book Review (Japanese Hard-Boiled Fiction)

  1. Sucks that such a great first half, was killed by a poorly thought out switch in perspective second half. Hopefully your next venture in the hard boiled Yakuza genre won’t be as off putting, as I feel like it could have some hidden gems and untapped potential for great stories.

    That damsel in distress/must stand by or be subservient to their man syndrome is pretty par for the course for most Noir and Hard boiled style stories (and since they started in the 50sish and cover a time period going back to the 20s, I guess a the time it made sense.) Maybe someone with some good writing and a desire for proper representation could write something that changes that perception and doesn’t crap out half way through the book either :).

    • It is definitely an out-dated part of the genre that needs to evolve for the more “awoke” audiences, LOL. I’ve noticed it’s far more prevalent in narratives written by male authors, although that isn’t to say that some female authors don’t do the same thing.

  2. So it was the POV that killed it… very intersting. Yakuza novels are either incredibly fun to read or absolutely dead on arrival looks like… it was killed rather then delivered dead. (I was attempting humor there but I probably missed my mark lmao)

  3. It is really hard to pull of a POV switch in the middle of a novel. I actually quit a series because all of a sudden in book 7 they started to switch POVs. That was just a bit jarring. Readers really do have some unspoken rules in their minds about POV and somethings just don’t work and like you said if the other POV is boring that is even worse haha!
    Man this sounded really good at the start. I also agree that it is maddening when women are portrayed in a way that we give up everything for “dick” ugh.

    • Yes! I remember reading a fantasy series that had alternating POVs, but the names were always the same across all of the books, until the last two books where instead of using the characters’ names, the author used vague nicknames or identifying markers and they were always different, even for the same character. It totally killed it for me.

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