The Samurai is the third novel of Rafael Reyes-Ruiz’s Roppongi Crossings trilogy about Latin American expatriates in Japan. Each book stands on its own and can be read in any order. The Samurai, a first-person account by Ricardo, a young Colombian translator and language teacher, is the story of the search for a Japanese man who abandoned Elena, his girlfriend and her Mexican mother when she was little. That man, “whom everyone knows, but no one has really seen”(195), is someone suspected of being one of the leaders of a criminal organization responsible for trafficking women to Japan. It is worth noting that the issue of human trafficking is one of the common threads that run through the three novels of the trilogy: it is incidental in The Ruins, it is at the core of The Shape of Things, and it is shown in its commercial and legal complexity in The Samurai.
The novels in the trilogy are nuanced works, focusing on the personal lives of the characters, where the back and forth between East and West is both what brings characters together and what sets them apart. The novels are a richly nuanced explorations of the human condition. They bring together the inner life of the male protagonists to the need to understand the inner life of their female lovers; the past with the present of Japan and other Asian countries; and individual cultural crossings to unexpected commercial transactions.
Reyes-Ruiz’s love for cinema is evident, particularly in The Samurai. The novel’s title comes from the classic noir, Le samouraï, by Jean-Pierre Melville; Ricardo finds a resemblance between the main character, a methodical, silent killer, played by Alain Delon, and a man he and Elena see on a street in San Francisco. This man reminds Elena of her father—to the image she has of him—based on some photographs that her mother kept, one of which his father, who was once an actor, is dressed as a gun-for-hire in a promotional photograph of a Japanese produced Western b-movie, shot in Mexico.
The setting of the first part of The Samurai, will remind readers of Hitchcock’s Vertigo: the Argosy bookstore, manned by a portly foreign gentleman, where Ricardo purchases a novel, the most important literary reference of the trilogy, which I will discuss below; Fort Point, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, where Ricardo and his friends take photographs of themselves; and the streets of the North Beach Italian district, where Ricardo and Elena see that mysterious man who may be Elena’s father, among others.
Although there is no single film that we can reference in the second part of the novel, set in Tokyo, when Ricardo ponders on the mystery of the true identity and whereabouts of Elena’s father, he relies on Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks, to imagine the underworld of the Yakuza mafia syndicates, a world that we do not see in the novel, apart from some brief scenes, but which is the main setting for the exploitation of women who are trafficked to Japan.
Other films reference the psychology and personal and cultural identity of the characters. French cinema buffs will find allusions to two films by Éric Rohmer, Full Moon in Paris, and The Green Ray, at the beginning and end of the novel, in situations that, as in the respective films, refer to key moments of the intimate life of their young protagonists. Other issues related to identity come via David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a film that Ricardo and Elena have watched and discussed. Like one of the protagonists in Lynch’s film, a woman who has suffered an accident and has lost her memory, Elena’s character is someone in search for who she really is, and goes to Japan looking for her father, who she thinks has the key she needs to know herself. In an interesting example of intertextuality, the Japanese director of the language school where Elena works in Tokyo, calls her Rita-san, because she reminds him of Rita Hayworth, a 1950’s Hollywood star, who he says she resembles “not only in appearance but also in personality”(104). In Mulholland Drive, the young woman who lost her memory finds a resemblance between herself and Rita Hayworth, in a poster of Gilda, one of Hayworth’s best known movies.
The most important cinematic key for The Samurai, particularly its epilogue, is Alain Corneau’s Nocturne Indien, a film, based on Antonio Tabucchi’s novel of the same title, the main literary reference of the trilogy as a whole. In Tabucchi’s novel, and in the movie based on it, there is a search for an “other,” which is also a search for the self, the second common thread that runs throughout the novels in the trilogy. In The Ruins, it takes the form of the obsessive search of the protagonist, a professor of Japanese history, for a former lover, a woman he thinks he has seen in Goa, the former Portuguese colony in India, one of the key scenarios in Tabucchi’s novel. In The Shape of Things, it is in the search for a Japanese businessman who has the key to shady transactions that can derail the life of the protagonist, a young translator who aspires to be a writer. And, finally in The Samurai, it is in the search for Elena’s father, the man who will give us the key to untangle the threads that converge in the trafficking of women to Japan.
Taken together, The Roppongi Crossing’s novels constitute a literary work that is more than the sum of its parts. It uncovers the dark side underneath the mundane.
*This is a translation of Pilar Chargoñia’s review of the Spanish version of the novel (El Samurai, La Pereza Ediciones, Miami, 2018). Rafael Reyes-Ruiz is also the author of the Spanish version of the novel.