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Interview with Ryu Takeshi

We talk with Ryu about chocolate and buddhism, with a dash of Yakuza at the side.

Ryu Takeshi is the author of Shadow Shinjuku, a Japanese Yakuza / Fantasy thriller that defies categorization.

Thank you for your time! I’m happy to have you here on this humble blog, it’s a honor for me!
Shadow Shinjuku starts with the Yakuza, and there are some interesting passages about the way the Yakuza is implanted into the society, about how they provide and kind of give back to society. If you take a look at the Italian mafia, then there are some regions in Italy where the mafia provide municipal services (like waste services), and they are also known to strongly support the church. Do you think organisations like the Yakuza are a necessary part of modern society, and what kind of role are they playing?

This is a tricky question 🙂

First of all, we need to make a distinction between the Italian mafia and the Japanese yakuza. Both are violent crime organizations, but there is a key difference in the local societies they are embedded in. Whereas the mafia flourishes in parts of Italy which are struggling with poverty, unemployment, and low-quality (or even absence of) social services, the yakuza is embedded into a rather rich and relatively well-functioning society. But it is true that both tend to take on roles which in ideal circumstances should be managed by the state or in some other, lawful setup. It is also true that both attract people who somehow don’t fit anywhere else or were cast away, and these people find not only a home but also family and brotherhood. For some it is of course about the money, the excitement, the adrenalin, the false sense of freedom, while for others it is more about being a part of something bigger than themselves, being welcomed and embraced, being respected. Would these people be outlaws if they were able to earn good money in a legal way, if they were embraced and supported by their real families, if they felt the society at large accepted them? Maybe not. Probably not.

So, in a way, these crime organizations are filling certain gaps. And we cannot deny that these gaps exist, and we also cannot deny that the society and the state have failed some of these people, and we also cannot deny the fact that both the yakuza and the mafia are from time to time and in certain ways doing some good for the society. But this doing-good thing is also not black and white. They know perfectly well that through such actions they legitimize themselves in the eyes of those benefiting from their good deeds. So it’s also a strategic, business-like decision for them to do something good in order to be more accepted and respected by their societies. It’s not all just about being good and giving back. And we definitely cannot and should not deny, neither accept that they are doing a lot of harm, too. Probably more harm than good at the end of the day.

So, to answer your question: are they necessary? I believe that in life and in the world everything happens for a reason, which means that these organizations also exist for a reason. In this respect, they are necessary. Maybe they are there to show us what’s wrong with our societies, what are the gaps and failures, which we all need to better address if we want to make these crime organizations become obsolete, and ultimately disappear.

I’m going out on a limp here predicting that will never happen! So, your story blends a lot of elements into the narrative that have been called fantasy. I think some of those are more of a philosophical (and maybe psychological) nature, or even – for a better lack of word – religious. How much philosophy went into your writing, and what part does Shinto play in all this? What’s your take on Shinto?

You are completely right. The fantasy, or rather magical elements that I use in my book, and in my writing in general, have deep philosophical and religious roots. I never use magical elements just for the sake of using them and for the sake of writing fantasy or whatever you want to call it. I use these elements with purpose. Most of the time these are metaphors that help me convey certain messages in a specific way, but they are also my way of trying to interpret this complex thing we call life.

My experience with life is that the more I learn (about the world, about myself), the less I know. It’s just so infinitely complex. There are so many different aspects and layers to life and the universe that it’s impossible for a single human being to clearly see and understand everything. And I truly believe that the things we can see with our eyes, that we can touch with our fingers or hear with our ears are just a small fraction of the totality of life and universe. So, when I write, I kind of let my imagination and my inner self loose, and I let my subconscious bring to the surface all that’s somewhere there inside me. It’s a combination of my past experiences, my learnings, my feelings, my thoughts. And there are definitely things in there too that come from various religions that I have been exposed to. It’s not only Shinto. You have Buddhism there, you have Catholicism, and in general a great deal of mysticism.

When it comes to Shinto specifically, I think it’s an important part of how I think and feel about the world around me. It’s not so much the teachings and the written word, but rather the feelings and emotions it conveys between me and my surroundings. Shinto has this great power of being able to connect humans and nature in a spiritual way. I can easily relate to that aspect of it.

That is quite the mixture, just as your writing is! I was trying to categorize your tale (with not much result, as you might guess), but while looking at the plot, I had the feeling that you were roughly following the concept of the Hero’s Journey, which has been used to describe ancient myths of the west (like Greek legends). What kind of story did inspire Sato’s tale?

I also struggle to categorize my own work. Is it a crime thriller, a neo-noir tale, urban fantasy, or magical realism? Maybe a hero’s journey, as you put it? Probably it’s all of these. My writing style is very instinctive and spontaneous. I don’t really plan ahead and I don’t map out the plot nor the characters in advance. It’s rather a journey for me, where I really try to let the moment and all that’s buried within me carry the story and the characters wherever they wish to go. So, accordingly, I don’t have a specific genre in mind when I sit down to write. I only know what I want the story to feel like, what the mood and the atmosphere should be, and these intangible aspects of my writing then determine the way I carry everything forward.

My writing is also very visual. I have these vivid, anime and movie-like images in my head when I write scenes, when I create dialogues and describe characters. I guess, it’s just the fact that I’m so exposed to both anime and movies. I consider animation and cinema to be the pinnacle of storytelling as you can combine visuals with writing, sound, and music. So, when I write, I try to imagine what it would look like if I saw it on a screen.

This specific story was not really inspired by any specific format, genre or story of old. I’d say one big element of inspiration was the city of Tokyo, because I just love it so much, and when I write stories set in Tokyo, it’s also a way for me to go back to its streets and moods. Another element of inspiration was to write about people and things in general that are not black or white but somewhere in between. I hate it when people oversimplify things, categorize things, and label them this or that. Everything is so much more complex. The good has its bad sides and vice versa. So, I wanted to have a story and characters where this complexity, these different shades of grey were pronounced and articulated. But I get it where your hero’s journey comes from. And you are right in part. Also because these hero stories are some of the oldest and most essential, most basic stories we as humanity have. And we love them. They inspire us. I guess, I also like to inspire others with my stories. And there’s nothing more inspirational than a character who is lost at the beginning of the story and ends up finding his way, his purpose, himself.

Absolutely, I had this constant feeling that Sato was in search of himself, especially in those supernatural moments. This is a minor spoiler, but for me those mirror portals felt like a way into one’s own head. I thought of the shadows in Kei’s Bar as people Sato has touched in his life (or was touched by), people he had some kind of connection with. (I also take into account that Kei can mean intelligent, so I’m guessing it’s his intellect?) But what did you intend with those shadows?

A very good question, a very interesting interpretation you are providing, and I will let other readers create their own interpretations for themselves 🙂

I like stories where you have elements which are left open for interpretation, which are not crystal clear and explained to the reader / viewer. You have that in Murakami’s books as well. And he’ll never reveal what he meant by this or that. So, I won’t reveal either.

Alright, but I’m not giving up that easily! Because I’m really curious – does the number 101 hold a special meaning for you, or in Japanese culture, and if so, which one?

There are some numbers which have special meaning for me. Like the number five, for example. The number 101 does not. This number is more about being one step beyond a very round number such as the 100. It’s like reaching a border, a milestone, and then taking a bold step forward to go beyond the known, beyond what’s comfortable.

For me, the underlying tone of this story was that we need to acknowledge our past, our connections with people around us to become whole. (And also that family is not defined by blood.) We don’t need to understand everything as long as we can feel what’s important. Is there anything you want to tell your readers in case they missed it?

You capture the essence of the story quite well! But I’d say that it’s not only enough to acknowledge the past. Often, our past holds the key to some of the things which might be holding us back from developing, from taking a new direction in life, from letting go or starting anew. We have to find out what these past issues might be, and how we need to address them. It’s more than just acknowledging them. Acknowledging is only the beginning. These are transgenerational issues. Things we and our ancestors carry over from one life to the next, often over multiple generations. And if you think about it, this relates to the religious thread we discussed earlier. It should reveal to you that I do believe in multiple lives, in the reincarnation of the soul. And it’s not only a Buddhist thing. People often don’t know, but you can find it in Christian mysticism too. And there are more and more psychologists who focus on transgenerational issues. Think of the horrors of the Second World War, for example. It’s not just those people then who suffered, but their descendants are carrying over many of the scars into their own lives. And these traumas are not only psychological, but also physiological. It becomes part of your DNA. So, Shadow Shinjuku is also about trying to deal with such transgenerational traumas.

Oh, I get that! I’m German, and there have been instances in the past where I have been subject to people criticising me just because of my ancestry. But like you, it believe we can overcome those issues!
But onward to something more nice: Since Sato likes a good single malt – what is your favourite drink or cocktail, if you have any?

It’s the chocolate cocktail Sato drinks in Yoshi’s bar. It’s a real drink, and Yoshi and his bar were modelled after a real person, also named Yoshi, who runs his small cocktail bar in Mito, Ibaraki. It’s the best drink on the planet, full stop.

Thank you so much for your time! I’ll be looking forward to reading more of you, and I wish you the best of luck!

Chocolate Cocktail

This is the part where I usually like to provide you with the recipe for the author’s favorite cocktail. In this case, Ryu is referring to a very specific cocktail at a very specific place, so I won’t be able to do that. Instead, I’m going to share with you the recipe for a classic chocolate cocktail. And yes, despite it’s name, it does not contain chocolate. Crazy, right?

  • 3 cl blackberry liquor
  • 3 cl maraschino liquor
  • 3 cl yellow chartreuse
  • 1 egg yolk

Put everything into the shaker (along with some ice) and give it a good shaking. (You can skip the yolk if you’re feeling uneasy about it – the yolk doesn’t add flavour as much as it adds texture to the cocktail.)

Serve in a well chilled glass, and enjoy!

By Stefan

father of two, not enough time to read everything I want to read

2 replies on “Interview with Ryu Takeshi”

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