Interview: Michael Pronko Author of The Last Train: A Tokyo Mystery

Winner of the 2018 Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Independently Published Book

Shelf Unbound: You’ve lived in Tokyo for two decades—what interested you about Tokyo as the setting for The Last Train?

Michael Pronko: Tokyo is always provoking my curiosity. Japanese culture, and Tokyo life, too, has this respect for what is concealed or veiled from quick and easy view. Of course, Tokyo has an exciting surface life with huge numbers of people and diverse places, all in constant motion, that is hard not to see. But the unnoticed currents below the surface are more thrilling, more elusive. There’s layers of the accepted and forbidden for just about everything. Mystery novels reveal, gradually, what we usually avoid or keep out of sight—past mistakes, dangerous desires, corruption, fears—and Tokyo has a lot of all of those. So, that background seemed a good place to set the novel. I’ve written three works of non-fiction about Tokyo life, and I realized that a lot of what I wrote about was the mystery of life here. So, it seemed the next step was to write that response into larger fictional narratives. I’m still enchanted and amazed by Tokyo, and at times repelled and confused. Because of everything roiling under the surface, Tokyo seems an intriguing setting for these Hiroshi mysteries. Tokyo is a huge, fast-paced city that can feel endless and exhausting, but I’m fascinated by all the complexities of life here, so it seemed natural to write it in Tokyo. 

Shelf Unbound: Your three main characters are fascinating and enigmatic—white collar crime Detective Hiroshi Shimizu, his mentor Takamatsu, and the spellbinding Michiko Suzuki. How did you develop these characters? Are they based at all on real people?

Pronko: The characters come from my interacting with a lot of people over the years. Over twenty years, you meet and see a lot of people in Tokyo. Michiko is a composite of women I saw when I was going out a lot covering jazz. I wondered what their life was like. I was startled by the dignity and inner strength of women working in the night trade. Michiko is a powerful, perplexing character who lives her life in her way on her own terms. That’s rare. Though violent, she acts based on some of the best qualities of Japanese character, though she has a thing about revenge. Takamatsu is probably the most fictional of all the characters in the novel. He’s Hiroshi’s mentor, and is unapologetically unrestrained, but still ethical, though his ethics depend on the situation. I think that’s a distinct type of person in Japan, but he’s not based on a real person. Hiroshi is the character I can sympathize with most. I used to teach students who had lived overseas for many years and returned to Japan. Their re-entry was not always smooth, since Japan can be very rigid in many ways. After years of working with those students, I got a strong sense of what it is like to be trapped between cultures. Later, I realized that’s been my experience, too. Takamatsu and Sakaguchi, the sumo wrestler, are more purely Japanese characters. Hiroshi always stays a bit removed from Japanese customs and ways of thinking. Those characters developed on their own from the seeds of observation and interaction over the years here. 

Shelf Unbound: You are a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University. What American novels resonate with your Japanese students?

Pronko: I teach contemporary novels, and American film, art and music. It’s intriguing what students like, and don’t like, and it’s always a bit of a challenge to find that sweet spot when they can be swept away with a work but still move out of their comfort zone. I’ve taught a lot of novels over the years, but a few stand out. Modernist novels like The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby are based around conflicts and characters, as well as symbolism, that always clicks with students. Novels like The Joy Luck Club and Slaughterhouse-Five mean working with a more challenging structure, but once they figure out the jumbled-up time and place, they sink into these novels of ideas and of culture and get into interesting readings and discussions. Recently, students have come up with strong papers on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There are so many universals packed into the novel’s rather simple framework, they can connect with it in an individual way. As for films, The Graduate transfers easily to a Japanese context, especially the search for identity and meaning. The inertia and apathy of Benjamin is something they resonate with perhaps too well. To Kill a Mockingbird (I often read novels and film adaptations side by side) always sweeps them away. Other films seem to consistently connect, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Some Like It Hot, and Boyhood. But these are just generalizations, really. Students are very individual in their tastes, picky and eclectic, at times too. So, in any class, students will respond to very different works, and very different parts of the works. It’s always an adventure to hear their reactions.

Shelf Unbound: You run the site What is Japanese jazz like and what are a few groups we should be listening to?

Pronko: With over 100 clubs featuring live jazz every night in Tokyo and Yokohama, there’s a lot to choose from. Some aspects of jazz here stem from Japanese culture and style, but jazz is jazz. I mean, there’s a spirit of improvisation and freedom that flows from the heart of the music that seems largely the same. But of course, jazz is created by the individual sense and experience of musicians, so it’s inevitable it sounds Japanese. I like a lot of different styles of jazz, almost all of which are present here. I am a fan of Yosuke Yamashita, who continues to make fascinating music, everything from big band to free jazz, often blending Japanese and western instruments. I also like Takeshi Shibuya, but he’s never been one to pursue fame. He’s hardly known here, even, but like his cohort, Isao Suzuki, he really cooks. Pianist Hiroshi Minami has stretched outside of Japan, mostly in Europe. Over the past ten years or so, women have become much more common, and that’s a huge, welcome change. Junko Moriya runs a traditional big band, as does Satoko Fujii in a more avant-garde style. Both women have received acclaim overseas, and rightly so, they are simply amazing. I also like Hikari Ichihara, Hitomi Nishiyama and Ayumi Koketsu. Saxophonist Erena Terakubo spends as much time in New York as in Tokyo. It’s great that women are contributing much, much more to the jazz scene than in the past. The jazz scene is thriving and the level of musicianship, already high, continues rising. I go out as often as I can, as it’s a real pleasure to sink into a few hours of music to unwind and decompress from the pressures of life in Tokyo. 

Shelf Unbound: Tell us about the next books in your series. 

Pronko: The next novel in the Hiroshi series will come out this spring. It’s called The Moving Blade. Through the story of a murdered diplomat, it focuses on U.S.-Japan relations, the military bases and a bit of Asian history. The main character, a half Japanese, half American woman named Jamie, learns about her father’s past after his murder. As she learns more, and Hiroshi digs deeper (and falls for her), they stumble on more corruption than they expected. For this novel, Takamatsu has been put on leave, though he’s not completely gone, so Sakaguchi, the sumo wrestler-turned-detective takes over and works with Hiroshi. The novel explores bigger social and historical issues than The Last Train, but it has the same forward momentum and Tokyo setting. The next novel after that will be Thai Girl in Tokyo, which follows a teenage Thai girl on the run for her life on the streets of Tokyo. She’s rescued by a young, street-wise Japanese woman in Shibuya. They hole up in an internet café and stumble through Tokyo’s youth culture—good and bad—trying to get her back home. That novel is drafted, but I think it will not be done done until later this year or early next. I’ll do a standalone mystery after that set at an English school, which will include Sakaguchi, the ex-sumo wrestler, who secretly started English lessons. I’ve got two more in the Hiroshi series planned after that, since Hiroshi has so much more to learn. After that, we’ll see what evolves. 

Read an Excerpt:

The Last Train
by Michael Pronko

She pulled him toward the entrance of Tamachi Station away from the nearby warren of bars, eateries and all-night clubs filled with bar hoppers and boozers. She checked her watch, barely noticing the drizzle. The trains would stop running soon.

Drunken, red-faced Japanese men in groups, or alone with a woman peeled off from one of the hostess bars, ambled along the streets with liquored-up gracefulness. Drunk together at night, they talked loudly and coarsely, acting boisterous and loose, though in the morning they’d return to quiet, meek company mode.

Under the glaring lights of the station’s vaulted entrance, she appeared even younger and prettier than out in the dark and drizzle. Her face, shrouded by thick hair, was a classic oval. Straight-cut eyelids arched over her strong-boned cheeks and her lips curved deliciously. As they entered the station, she took in the times of departing trains and gauged the distance from ticket machine to platform.

The man’s red cheeks, shiny brow and comb-over did not match his chic, European suit. His broad chest and full belly strained against his tie-less, wide-collared shirt, one shirttail flopping out in front. He lurched after her toward the wall of ticket machines, missing a step, then another. Neat, bright colors rendered the immense circulatory system of the city into one readable grid, a maze of connections that led everywhere, or nowhere. The man looked back and forth for a minute, and then twisted toward her in stuttering confusion. 

She brushed back her hair with her hand and dropped coins in for two tickets. It didn’t matter if she got the right price. He tried to make a joke, but she checked the departure board and hurried him through the gate toward the escalator for the silent ride down to the platform.

At the bottom, she steered him around a kiosk shuttered for the night. With his arm clamped in her grip, she walked him down the empty platform toward the end. 

From The Last Train by Michael Pronko. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

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