The first page grabbed me. Stripped down, hard boiled. An ordinary man in a grey suit walked into a bar and said, "Lose the jazz." I liked that. I bought it off that, and because the blurb of a middle aged yakuza sounded interesting. thus, I didn't know that Kitakata has written a bucket load of novels, and is well established as a crime writer. Think the Japanese version of Elmore Leonard, I guess.
I picked Ashes because I wanted something different, and I certainly got that. However, I'm not yet convinced that I think it's a good novel. Interesting, different, certainly not like anything else I'd read in the hard boiled crime genre, but good? That's a harder thing to pick. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the problems lies with the translator, who allowed simple repetitions of phrases to clutter parts, and who also allowed the English prose to become stripped back to the point that simple scene setting was at times lacking, and extended dialogue exchanges would often see me skipping back to figure who was saying what. It could be that this is a fault of Kitakata, but in the hands of a translator, one would expect it to be picked up, or that an awareness of it would be shown, and ultimately, these faults of the prose begin to wear by the end of the slim book.
It is, however, still interesting. The central character Tanaka feels as if he's been drawn straight from one of Takeshi Kitano's noir films, and it's hard not to imagine the middle aged character with Kitano's impassive face and short, hard sentences as he beats a man up and works through the lingering violence of his youth.
It is the portrayal of Tanaka in the yakuza lifestyle that is the novel's draw. It's divided into two parts, the first a third person narration called 'The Man Within' and the second a first person narration entitled 'Within the Man'. The first follows Tanaka through a series of events of his life in the yakuza, touching on his growing dislike for his boss, and his position within the Family. Kitakata and the translator conspire to offer a figure that we can't quite get a handle on, and which they reveal in the second section. It's not a pretty portrayal, but it's interesting, even if I felt that more time could have been spent lingering over his relationships with women and violence. But it is an interesting portrayal, and it is spared of the usual yakuza trappings: men cutting off fingers to appease the Family, intricate tattoos, and ninja swords. Instead, what is offered is the day to day running of drugs and women and the matter of fact acceptance that time in jail will have to be served. Indeed, the relationship Tanaka has with prison is one of the more interesting dimensions of the book.
I've skipped around giving too many details away in the book. It's not a very large thing, though I must admit, I was a bit surprised by the end. I'd expected something quite different, yet upon reflection, it was the ending that suited the book, which is always a pleasure to experience. But, I have been vague about the details, just so I don't spoil, because really, if you're looking for something a bit different, Ashes is worth the go.