When I first read Takano Kazuaki’s thriller “Gravedigger,” I was enthralled by the breathtaking speed of this mesmerizing novel. It tells the story of a wrongfully accused man named Yagami who has to flee from police and a group of sinister men.
As an organ donor, Yagami has to safely arrive at a hospital in south Tokyo as soon as possible in order to save a child who is suffering from leukemia. To accomplish this, he has to cross Tokyo from north to south at full speed against all odds.
Recently, I reread “Gravedigger” with great enthusiasm. The second reading was illuminating and inspirational because I could relish some of the novel’s deeper themes. Ostensibly, “Gravedigger” is a crime novel dealing with a series of murders. However, a closer reading reveals that it tackles the compelling issues of good and evil, or justice and injustice. In the novel, Takano pursues this theme through the motif of the medieval and post-reformation inquisitors, who accused masses of innocent men and women of being witches or heretics and then ruthlessly tortured and executed them in the name of justice and truth.
Initially, the purpose of the witch trial was to persecute and eliminate those who criticized the church. Gradually, however, the inquisitors became more and more unscrupulous, arresting and killing anyone whom they did not like, under the pretext of purging evil and protecting the “truth” embodied by the church. In fact, the inquisitors themselves were the ones who were evil and unjust. Moreover, the inquisitors were relentlessly dogmatic and self-righteous. They did not hesitate to kill people because they believed whatever they did in the name of the truth and justice was right and sacred.
However, Takano wrote that the inquisitors were not able to wield their vested power in England because mysterious men wearing masks started assassinating them. Those assassins were called “gravediggers.” Actually, they are Takano’s fictional characters. Although they fought against the tyranny of the church, these assassins were also dogmatic and self-righteous in their own right, on the other side of the fence.
In Takano’s novel, secret members of a cult known as Minister commit murders in order to serve and protect Domoto, a powerful, corrupt politician and former high-ranking police officer. Protected by police and the National Assembly, the cult members resemble the inquisitors in the sense that they believe they represent justice when they kill people without remorse. On the other side, there is also a gravedigger who takes revenge by assassinating the cult members. The gravedigger, too, believes he is justice incarnate. In fact, however, he is killing for a personal vendetta.
Furthermore, in “Gravedigger,” Takano juxtaposes not only the cult murderers with the gravedigger, but also the security division with the investigation division in the police department. Just like the inquisitors in the medieval period, the security division is not reluctant to do illegal activities in the name of justice and national security. Since its job is to root out the communists, the security division firmly believes that it can do whatever it takes to protect the nation.
On the other hand, the investigation division, a rival of the security division, firmly believes there is a clear distinction between good and evil in the world. In the eyes of the investigation division, the maxim holds true that “once a criminal, always a criminal.” However, the protagonist, Yagami, nicely transcends this oversimplified boundary between good and evil. He is a bad guy with juvenile delinquency records, but he is also a good guy who is determined to save a child’s life by donating his bone marrow. Police detectives have the firm conviction that they are working for justice by eliminating social evil, when, in fact, they are liable to make mistakes by wrongfully accusing and arresting innocent people such as Yagami.
In “Gravedigger,” Takada criticizes both communism and capitalism, implying that, when pushed to the extreme, both are problematic. The same thing goes for tyranny and democracy. Detective Nishigawa says, “Capitalism makes us shallow and communism makes us lazy. History shows us that lazy people have been defeated by shallow people.” Then he continues, “Democracy, too, is not perfect. In democracy, the happiness of 49 percent overrides the unhappiness of 51 percent. If the ruling party gets 30 percent support in the election, it means 70 percent are ignored. That is the problem of democracy.”
Readers can be inspired by Takano’s powerful criticism of and profound insight into contemporary Japanese society, which can be extended to Korean society as well. After World War II, Japan was sharply divided by the conservative right-wing and the radical left-wing. So is Korea now.
Looking back on 2018, we come to realize that we should learn from Takada’s “Gravedigger” that both inquisitors and gravediggers are problematic. We should discard the illusion that we are the only ones who represent justice while all others do not. In the novel, Takada states, “The eyes of a man obsessed with justice resemble the eyes of a man possessed by a demon.” Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.