Reviewed by George Fragopoulos
Kotaro Isaka’s Remote Control (experiencing a rather unfortunate title change in English translation from the more evocative and Beatlesqu original, Golden Slumber) is an entertaining if flawed slice of pop-fiction. It arrives to English readers in a very fluid and able translation by Stephen Snyder, a translator already familiar to English readers of Japanese-noir through his earlier work on Out by Natsuo Kirino. The novel’s plot is the stuff of genre convention: a former deliveryman by the name of Masaharu Aoyagi is framed for the assassination of Prime Minister Sadayoshi Kaneda. Aoyagi achieves a modicum of national attention years before the assassination when he rescues a young actress from an assault. His fame, for reasons that are never explained, seems to make him the perfect patsy for such a plot. A chase by police and the government’s security forces ensues through the city of Sendai. Aoyagi’s attempts to elude capture provide the main narrative thrust of the novel, and while Isaka does a good job of keeping his readers’ attention through a somewhat unconventional structure that vacillates between a variety of view points, the denouement is telegraphed long before it arrives. While predictability is not always a negative trait in a narrative it is here since Isaka seems to be so intent on building up suspense and tension.
Remote Control is at its best when describing a milieu of surveillance and control that is starting to become the norm in many technological societies, regardless of the national context. The great conspiracy that engulfs Aoyagi is never truly explained nor are the principal planners ever exposed. Isaka refuses to supply his readers with a complete and concise conclusion to Aoyagi’s story; he probably does as such to leave room for a sequel, but the added effect of abstracting the forces behind the curtain of control adds a sinister atmosphere of paranoia and danger to the work. The novel’s skepticism and pessimistic view of the powers-that-be is to be applauded since it adds to the proceedings an air of social critique that is often not found in popular fiction. One need not look further than Isaka’s description of the “Security Pods” which were “designed to increase the quality and quantity of information available for crime prevention and investigation.” Isaka’s novel suggests that one is always under the gaze of authority. Even the double-sided nature of Aoyagi’s fame—first as hero and then as villain, both fabricated and exaggerated identities—allows Isaka to critique the media’s propensity for hyperbole and obfuscation. Aoyagi’s flight can be better understood in allegorical terms as any attempt in our age of biopolitical and technological control toward escape from such horrors, perhaps even suggesting a kind of metaphysical transcendence. All the more reason to bemoan the loss of the original Japanese title: Golden Slumber was a far superior name because it wonderfully encapsulated the double-bind of what Isaka is striving to represent: both the narcotizing effect that modern living has on the mind and body and the seductive, if seemingly impossible, dream of fleeing to another world. An exchange between Aoyagi and his friend Morita illustrates as such:
Aoyagi said nothing, and Morita began to sing “Golden Slumbers.” “Once there was a way to get back homeward,” he sang, and then softly, “Golden slumbers fill your eyes. Smiles awake you when you rise.” Aoyagi had trouble following the English, but the last line stuck in his head—a smiling face at the break of day.
But for Isaka and his protagonists there is no way home, and no escape from this world and its global order.
Remote Control can be read as a critique of globalization and of the United States’ role in that process. Numerous references to the United States’ Patriot Act litter the novel. In fact, America becomes a frequent reference point for what unfolds in Remote Control. Frequent parallels are drawn to the Kennedy assassination. Prime Minister Kaneda’s name is meant to make the connection that much more apparent and on more than one occasion Aoyagi is described as an Oswald-like figure. Is Isaka suggesting that the closer his country comes to mirroring the United States the worse off it becomes? One character says early in the novel:
In the past, when they suspected someone was up to no good, they got a search warrant and then they could gather information on that person. Now, no one knows who’s a terrorist and who’s not, so they gather information about everybody and then decide who’s suspicious. The whole game has changed, in America and everywhere else.
It is these few and scattered subversive elements that make Remote Control an easy novel to sympathize with even while it frustrates because it never fulfills any real return on its ideas.
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