Reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Finders Keepers: Fuminori Nakamura's The Gun

by Jan Filart


Fuminori Nakamura (author), Allison Markin Powell (translator), The Gun, Soho Crime, 2016. 208 pgs.


There might have been a time you had a "finders keepers" experience. Maybe one day as a kid, you were walking home from school and you spotted a dollar bill lying underneath a bench on the sidewalk. You honestly wanted to alert whoever had dropped the money, but the bench was empty and no one was in the immediate vicinity. Looking around just one more time to be sure, you shrug and pocket the money like it was no big deal. It's mine now, you'd say to yourself.

If you've ever had a "finders keepers" moment, perhaps you will be able to relate a bit with what happens on one rainy night in Japan to Nishikawa, the main character of Fuminori Nakamura's debut novel The Gun. You see, Nishikawa is a jaded college student who is out walking the streets when he encounters a man's corpse under a bridge. Beside the corpse is a gun, a powerful revolver. The scene suggests a suicide rather than a murder—because what assailant would leave his murder weapon lying beside his victim? Nishikawa impulsively takes the gun home and claims it as his own, becoming enthralled and enamoured by an object that he's never seen before in real life, as guns are far from common in a country where possession of firearms and swords is mostly illegal.

In The Gun, originally published in 2003 but only recently translated into English, Nakamura digs deep into the psyche of a young man and his obsession with a gun, producing a focused and meditative portrait of a character ensnared in a web of possession and fatalism.

Other reviewers have identified Nishikawa as a sociopath, though ironically, he's a contemplative narrator. Generally callous, he has little to no emotional attachment to his peers, his few friends or even his step-parents. He also feels no sympathy for his biological parents (his father is ill). With his jadedness, he casually goes through his humdrum routine of eating, sleeping, smoking and attending class, while occasionally going out for drinks with his buddy Keisuke and picking up girls to sleep with. That is to say, he had nothing meaningful to live for until that night when he obtained the gun, his newfound passion.

Finding the gun becomes a life-changing experience for Nishikawa, who immediately attributes his brighter mood to his chance discovery and resulting loot. Nishikawa gazes at the gun with profound adoration, as if worshipping it. He keeps it hidden in his apartment, placed inside a satchel bag. He buys a special handkerchief for polishing it, carefully cleaning the gun during every minute of his free time. Later on, he finds the nerve to carry it with him to class and out in the streets.

Nishikawa initially treats the gun as a mere object—a talisman or a departure ticket from ennui. But soon, in the midst of his unremarkable and tedious life, he realises his power, rejoicing in the vast range of possibilities that the gun offers:

I could use the gun to threaten someone, or I could use it to protect someone. I could kill someone or I could even easily commit suicide. Rather than the question of whether or not I would actually do those things, or whether or not I wanted to, what was important was being in possession of that potential—the incarnation of stimulus itself.

Eventually, this honeymoon period simmers away, and Nishikawa begins to more clearly see the sinister purpose and ideology of a gun as a weapon. His obsession moves on to actualising the possibilities he's imagined. This is the point where Nishikawa becomes entrapped in fatalism. "I had the feeling that firing the gun had begun to shift from a conscious choice to a foregone conclusion without my noticing it," he says, as he realises the strong inevitability of actually putting the gun to use.

Nishikawa finds himself seized and held captive by his fatalistic thinking. He claims to have openly tolerated the gun's spell on him, as it lured him into submitting to its power. "The gun was already a part of me—it may have been an exaggeration to say this, but it had penetrated my sense of reason," he says. "Firing the gun was in the nature of the gun itself, and it would always motivate me to do so."

One night, Nishikawa is out in a park and finds a target. Right then and there, he decides to use the gun. When he does get to aiming it and pulling the trigger, he feels as if he is under control by an outside force. Nonetheless, he feels ecstatic and delirious over finally being able to fire the weapon. However, merely firing the gun has not quite set him free. 

His desire makes an ominous progression to wanting to shoot a person. The gun seemingly demands for its fate of tasting human blood to be fulfilled. It is only Nishikawa's own willpower that fights against the gun's hypnotic influence—because he has in fact found a new target to shoot. It can be said that the role of possessor, along with the power it entails, switches from Nishikawa to the gun itself. The object gains control of its owner:

But the gun demanded that I fire it soon. The gun was everything to me. I was meaningless without it—I felt a savage love toward it. And yet the gun was cold to me. It drove me mad to think that the gun did not care, not even if I were consumed by that darkness. I'm not the one using the gun, I thought. The gun is using me—I was nothing more than a part of the system that activated the gun.

The decision whether to shoot someone consumes Nishikawa both logically and emotionally, straining his psychological limits towards a tantalising breaking point. In the novel's edgiest moments, Nakamura's intricate writing of a narrator overcome with anxiety elicits pulsating and palpable tension—much like a loaded gun about to be fired.

Overall, The Gun is an impressive debut for a writer who has since become one of Japan's top crime authors. Nakamura delivers an engaging case study of an obsession with an object, evoking fatalism and challenging notions of possession.

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