Two old friends meeting for ramen watch in horror as a remote-controlled model-airplane bomb assassinates the prime minister of Japan. The police and media conduct a frenzied three-day hunt for the killer culminating in a weary standoff in a city park, while twenty years later, a historian details the high rate of accidental death among key eyewitnesses in the incident. Two decades after the fact, he reflects, nearly no one believes in the supposed assassin's guilt - but any hope of finding definitive answers died with the poor framed man. It's then that we reach the heart of the story, as we follow the wrongly-accused assassin, ex-deliveryman Masaharu Aoyagi, moment by moment through his three-day flight - from a college friend's warning that he's very imminently about to become the fall guy in a larger conspiracy to Aoyagi's woefully-underequipped everyman attempts to evade the law and public and prove his innocence.
I might note that without the Japan setting, "Remote Control" might seem a bit routine: an amiable underachiever has his true mettle tested by an impromptu battle against vast nebulous powers that forces him to a crossroads in his life and rouses him from his sleepwalk through existence. You can probably name any number of works with a similar premise (the Jamie Foxx film "Collateral," for one), but there're a couple qualities that somewhat distinguish "Remote Control." First, Aoyagi is exactly as outmatched by his predicament as you'd expect an untrained worker with no special skills to be; the true killers are, it seems, far beyond his reach, and his best outcome is only to prove somehow that he couldn't have been the perp. Aoyagi's primary weapon, then, isn't guns or fisticuffs but the manipulation of mass media, from outwitting the "security pods" that record video and audio on every street corner in this near-future to ensuring that his encounters with police are in front of cameras, where the cops are more reluctant to shoot a man dead. Indeed, rather unique to the thriller genre are the Japanese characters' consistently stunned reactions to how their cops are now not only brandishing guns in public but are willing to shoot both guilty and innocent in pursuit of their suspect; there are many quarters of the U.S. where that would be just another Tuesday. (Don't Google "Oscar Grant" unless you wish to be thoroughly dismayed by law enforcement and humanity.)
The book pinballs between four points of view - that of Aoyagi on the lam; that of Haruko Higuchi, Aoyagi's college sweeteart who dumped him for his passivity but now, as an urban mom married to a passionless salaryman, has second thoughts; and the former lovers' younger selves, as the sites in Sendai Aoyagi tours during his escape are cross-referenced with defining moments of his youth. Isaka's resolution of his divergent viewpoints is original and thematically consistent, as is a bit about an abandoned car that plays out effectively in the book's milieu of intrigue in the commonplace and Isaka's ruminations on the enduring value of old friendships even after the immediate ties fade. The meeting with the college buddy that kicks off the pursuit is another highlight; the reactions of the once-wisecracking, now-grim friend are exactly right, and the scenario ends with a rendition of a Beatles standard that's heartbreaking.
Let us now begin the airing of the grievances. First, the novel's translation is stiff, as is to be expected for any Japanese author in the U.S. market whose name isn't Haruki Murakami; still, I wish more effort had been expended to bring out each character's individual voice instead of having everyone speak solely in run-on declaratory sentences. A couple developments might stretch some readers' suspension of disbelief: halfway through his flight, Aoyagi receives help from a singularly unexpected quarter who adds some character to the proceedings but whose presence is a bit unbelievable; likewise, one might wonder if the method the true culprits chose to cover their tracks was really worth the investment and risk over digital means. A few too many folks are far too willing to risk jail time to help Japan's most wanted fugitive, and the novel's climax seems to come prematurely and is initially kind of muddled - though that doesn't stop it from being emotionally affecting in the end game. Finally, though Isaka works with the theme of friendship well, there's a lot of untapped potential in qualities like the book's nonlinear timeline and mass-communication fixation; the novel wants to make a bigger statement about the gulf between media images and reality and the untouchably vast forces controlling our lives but ultimately contents itself by simply observing that they exist.
"Remote Control" was published with a grant from the Japan Foundation, and I have to wonder why its translation was deemed such a priority. It's good but not great and contains little that is particularly culturally revelatory. Then again, though, why should every author by expected to write a big national statement? Why don't stories that're just tense and suspenseful instead of Important deserve a wider audience? Like Aoyagi himself, "Remote Control" doesn't quite follow through on its promise, but it is amiable company for a few hours, even managing a few genuinely memorable moments.
IMPORTANT NOTE: An unusual number of reviewers seem all too eager to reveal key plot points for this book. If you're arrived at my review unspoiled and have an inclination to read "Remote Control," go ahead and indulge it before others rob you of the book's surprises.