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Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011

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Running man: Masato Sakai as Masaharu Aoyagi in the film version of the novel "Golden Slumber" by Kotaro Isaka, which has recently been published in English as "Remote Control." © 2010 GORUDEN SURANBA SEISAKU IINKAI / DVD SOLD BY AMUSE SOFT ENTERTAINMENT INC.

Mystery author Isaka writes to control his fears


Staff writer

Novelists all have different motivations to write. For Kotaro Isaka, an award-winning mystery writer whose books always rank high on Japan's bestseller list, it's the constant "fear" of something calamitous happening — whether it be a North Korean missile attack or an outbreak of an unknown flu virus — that keeps him writing.

In October last year, "Remote Control," the English-language version of Isaka's massively popular 2007 book "Goruden Suranba" ("Golden Slumber"), was published by Kodansha International.

The book depicts in thrilling detail how Masaharu Aoyagi, a young, good-looking, good-natured ex-delivery truck driver in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, suddenly finds that he is being framed for the murder of the Japanese prime minister. Aoyagi tries to escape, but it's no easy mission, as he has to elude not only trigger-happy police officers — who somehow target him only moments after the assassination — but also "security pods," which have been set up throughout the city to monitor citizens' mobile-phone transmissions and record video of all street traffic.

In writing the novel, which was adapted into a film last year, 39-year-old Sendai-based Isaka said he wanted to create an action movie-like story. But what inspired him most of all was his fear of becoming famous.

Thanks to the success of his previous books, several of which have also been turned into movies, it was around the time of writing "Goruden Suranba" that the author started getting noticed in public and getting asked for autographs.

"I don't write because I want to get famous or rich," he said in a recent interview with The Japan Times, noting that, as a Cold War baby, he grew up being brainwashed by adults that Japan could get hit by a Hydrogen bomb at any time. "I write to overcome my fear — the ambiguous fear of Japan changing (due to calamity)."

Another reason he wrote "Goruden Suranba" was to express his view that it's OK to run for your life when something disastrous happens to you — and when you haven't done anything wrong.

In the story, Aoyagi has a flashback to comments made by his college buddy Morita, who contacts him out of the blue and asks to meet him. Morita confesses, only minutes before his car is bombed, that he had aided in the frame-up, telling Aoyagi: "Get out any way you can! Get out and live your life!"

"There have been a few scary incidents (involving me)," Isaka, who is married and has a preschool-aged boy, said without elaborating further. "I seriously wondered if I might have to move to another town with my family. But the three of us would still be together, so that would still make me happy.

"There are many events in life that are hard to justify or that make you sad, but you still have to live. I wanted to reflect that mix of positivity and negativity in the book."

The story of Aoyagi, who survives a showdown with police, bears an eerie resemblance to the real-life two and a half year flight from police by Tatsuya Ichihashi, the prime suspect in the 2007 murder of a British teacher in Chiba Prefecture. Like Ichihashi, who underwent a series of cosmetic surgery procedures, including ones performed by himself, Aoyagi goes under the knife toward the end of the book to disguise his appearance.

The timing of the novel's publication coincided with the period during which Ichihashi was on the run. The original Japanese book came out in November 2007, eight months after Ichihashi bolted past police officers visiting his apartment and ran away.

Isaka acknowledges the similarities between the fictional and real-life characters, but denies that the high-profile murder case was a source of inspiration for the book — while there is no knowing whether Ichihashi took a cue from the acclaimed author's book.

"I had the movies 'Die Hard' and 'The Fugitive' in mind when I wrote the book (and not Ichihashi)," Isaka said. "Ichihashi might have copied me."

Not restricted by lack of inspiration, Isaka said he is currently working on two stories, neither of which features a human as a lead character.

"I'll soon start writing about a passenger car," he said. "Even though it's myself who came up with the idea, it's quite difficult to write a story with a car as the main character. For one thing, the character cannot dictate when he gets involved in the story, because he cannot appear unless his master decides to drive him. The other story I'm working on concerns a cat. It takes place in a strange world and is written from the cat's perspective.

"I have been thinking too much about cats and cars lately, so once I've finished I want to get back to writing about humans."

And that probably won't take too long: Since his debut in 2000, Isaka has churned out 20 books. With creativity and productivity like that, his profile is bound to rise further, which in turn is sure to keep him worried about his fame for a while — and give him even more inspiration to write.

See page 11 for a review of "Remote Control" (Kodansha International), No. 1 in Japan's 2009 "This Mystery is Amazing" rankings.


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