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Dark vigilante stories reveal a changing Japan


TOKYO -- Imagine possessing the paranormal ability to set someone on fire. Not just singe an eyebrow or scorch a finger, but burn a person to a crisp just by thinking about it.

Junko Aoki has those pyrokinetic powers, and thank goodness it's all fiction, because she uses them to leave a trail of smoldering bodies across Tokyo.

Junko is the dark heroine of Crossfire, the third novel from Japanese writer Miyuki Miyabe to be translated into English. It is being published in the United States this month.

Although Stephen King's Firestarter mined similar terrain, in Japan, where guns are seldom fired and killing historically has been a matter of swordplay, the idea of a human blowtorch as murder weapon is an imaginative departure.

But these days, Japanese horror writers need every new twist on terror they can find to compete with real-world frights, where events of the past few years have battered assumptions about Japan as a safe place to live.

In recent months, disturbing headlines have included preteens stabbing preteens, a student murdered by her tutor, a mother who had confined her 18-year-old daughter since childhood because she was "different."

By American standards, Japan remains preposterously safe. But Miyabe, with her prolific output of what the Japanese call "entertainment novels" (never "literature"), says the steady stream of sensational crimes makes it harder to frighten readers.

"Crime is getting worse and worse; weird crimes are happening every day, and I'm amazed," says the cheerful 45-year-old, whose soft, singsong Tokyo accent is hard to twin with the voice of the novelist who can describe sickening violence.

At the moment, all five paperback volumes of her last novel, Mohohan (Copycat Criminals), sit on Japan's Top 20 best-seller list. Mohohan was her 41st book published since 1989, when she left a business school education and a career in a law office. She has sold millions of books. Two have been made into movies. Another, Brave Story, her 2002 novel about a 10-year-old boy who lives in a world called Vision, was turned into a weekly "manga," or comic book series, and will be released this year as an animated film.

Miyabe sets her stories against the shifting social tectonics of Japan. It's an approach that offers foreign readers a peek into Japan noir that isn't evident in "official" news coverage. The first book translated into English, for example, examined identity theft in a society turning from a savings culture to debt addiction.

Crossfire was published in Japan in 1998, and its theme of vigilante justice struck a chord in a country where the legal system moves slowly and those with connections seem to skirt justice.

It is a society so morally bankrupt that the heroine, Junko, feels she must go "to war" to save it.

Once the war is launched, however, her enemies list keeps growing. Are those who facilitate crimes - gun dealers and parents who indulge children's criminality - just as guilty as the ones who murder? If it is a war, is it not to be expected that a few innocent people, "noncombatants" in the words of Miyabe's vigilantes, may get caught in the crossfire?

The moral counterpoint to Junko is Makihara, the Tokyo detective who is the first to grasp the nature of her paranormal powers. He's a good cop, bent on catching crooks "without running down the pedestrians."

"Psychologically," Miyabe says, "I tend to support Junko's view. But that's the dangerous way of feeling."

It is hard to picture this small, gentle woman as a vigilante. "Violence is hidden within me too," she says. "In my stories, the criminals are often female, and I can understand their psychology very well."

Miyabe says female readers who wrote her tended to approve of Junko and her methods.

"Women are often victims," she says. "Female readers liked a strong Junko because she got rid of so many men."

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