Apr/May 2012

Murder, He Wrote

Richard Lloyd Parry painstakingly traces a young woman's disappearance in Japan

Luc Sante

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Lucie Blackman in 1998.

You may remember the case: On a Saturday in July 2000, Lucie Blackman, a twenty-one-year-old British woman who had been working as a bar hostess in Tokyo, disappeared. Her remains were found seven months later, by which time her killer had been arrested. His trial did not end until nearly six years after that. I remembered the case only vaguely myself; it had gotten confused in my mind with a number of roughly similar cases of young women who had disappeared in foreign countries. Since I didn’t follow it, I hadn’t been aware of the agonizing slowness with which the case developed, a protraction that allowed for the breeding and growth of various parasitic subplots and appendices. The author of this exhaustive account of the case, Richard Lloyd Parry, a British journalist and an old Tokyo hand, at one point characterizes the trial as “lurid and tedious at the same time.” The phrase might equally apply to the case as a whole, and indeed to the book itself, not that this is entirely Parry’s fault.

I don’t mean to sound cold. Any death is awful; the death of a young person is twice as awful; the murder of a young person is ten times as awful. Lucie Blackman by all accounts was good-hearted, engaging, full of fun and contradictions, and she would undoubtedly have emerged in time as a grounded and complex adult. That she was murdered is in itself only transient news, sadly. That she was murdered in a country separated from her own not only by thousands of miles but by a vast gulf of mutual incomprehension makes it somewhat more enduring news. That she was murdered by a remote and exceptionally strange human being, who happened to be very rich, and for whom the killing and its circumstances represented a rare slip in a long sociopathic career—that makes it the subject of a true-crime opus. The true-crime genre, despite its name, focuses only on a microscopic subset of the world’s crimes. More than even the movies, it requires extremes: of gore, sex, wealth, or pathological behavior. Only superlatives can convert crime into a mainstream consumer product.

Lucie Blackman, from Sevenoaks, Kent, had gone to Japan for the same reason young people end up in places like Dubai: to make money quickly while enjoying the freedom of an exotic locale far from prying relatives. She got work in the Tokyo nightlife district of Roppongi, at one of a number of bars there that hire foreign women to converse with patrons, flattering and teasing them into drinking more and staying later—a global-economy merger of the geisha and the B-girl. Hostesses were given a bonus for charming customers into making repeat visits, and a bonus for enduring a dohan, an off-site date with a client that would conclude with the two returning to the hostess’s bar. There were penalties for not meeting a specified quota of dohans, and Lucie, for all her blue-eyed blondeness, was lagging seriously behind and feared losing her job. And while the money was good, Tokyo was extremely expensive, and she lacked a phone of her own, a serious handicap in her trade. When she went out that Saturday in July 2000, it was with high hopes—the client taking her on a dohan had also promised her a phone.

He really did have a phone to offer—one of seventy prepaid cell phones he had bought the month before—and it’s conceivable that Lucie might have been able to keep it had things not gone horribly wrong. “He” was Joji Obara, formerly Seisho Kin, formerly Kim Sung Jong, son of an ethnic Korean family that had literally gone from rags to riches as a result of his father’s aggressive investments in taxi companies, pachinko parlors, and parking lots. He himself had multiplied his inheritance through real estate speculation, and had been able to maintain an intensely shrouded lifestyle—he was seldom seen, never photographed, and virtually his only human contacts were with bar hostesses. It seems he had a pattern: He would arrange a dohan, spontaneously suggest a trip to the shore—out of bounds, strictly speaking, but few women declined—and take them to an apartment he maintained in a resort complex. There he would urge them to drink a “special wine” laced with chloroform or Rohypnol, and while they were unconscious he would videotape himself having sex with their recumbent forms. They would wake up hours later with a headache but otherwise unaware that anything untoward had occurred.

He covered his tracks expertly, but in 1992 a young Australian hostess, Carita Ridgway, suffered a toxic reaction to the chloroform and died of liver failure. Obara, under an assumed name, paid her hospital costs and soothed her family, who were sufficiently distraught and disoriented that they did not inquire further. When Lucie’s case broke, Carita’s boyfriend, now a lawyer in Sydney, sensed a connection. Partly as a result of his efforts, Obara was arrested. For reasons never made clear, it took much longer than it should have to find Lucie’s remains, which were buried in a seaside cave close to another of Obara’s properties. The trial took so long because of peculiarities of the Japanese judicial system—trials are not held over a succession of consecutive days, for example, but one day per month for however long they take—and because of Obara’s wealth and obstinacy. He could afford to hire and fire legal teams at will, and in apparent contrast to most defendants in Japan—where indictments depend much more on confessions than on material evidence—he denied all, including the most straightforward and seemingly undeniable, charges. In the end he was convicted of the rapes of eight hostesses, of the rape and killing of Carita Ridgway, and of “the abduction, drugging, attempted rape, and dismemberment of Lucie, and of illegally disposing of her body.” He wasn’t convicted of her murder, for lack of evidence. Her cadaver was too decayed to be forensically revealing.

Parry’s book is a slow, steady procedural. Unlike many practitioners of the true-crime genre, he does not engage in sensationalist rhetoric, does not write in one-sentence paragraphs, and does not take shortcuts. He fills in every aspect of the story, which is useful and honest but sometimes detrimental to the book’s dynamics. An awful lot of exposition is required, and Parry cannot muster the wit, imagination, or way with words that might dispel an overall impression of weight and stolidity, as if he were shunting streams of freight cars across the yards. He does possess an instinct for suspense—that is, he knows when to cut away to another topic just as some revelation is promised. The trouble is that by the time we get back to the revelation, it has been defused by the sheer pileup of intervening information. Still, the book provides enough of an undertow that the reader will keep turning pages even through explanations of recondite Japanese legal matters, of the complex hierarchy of Roppongi nightspots, of the childhood experiences of both killer and victim.

What is most likely to try the reader’s patience, however, is a subplot so large and so unavoidable it threatens to commandeer the narrative. That is the matter of Lucie’s family. Lucie’s case was more or less ignored at first by the Japanese authorities—she was in the “water trade,” and a foreigner at that—so her sister and her parents had to get involved. They tirelessly flew back and forth, held press conferences, distributed flyers, and so on—although her parents, divorced for years, continued to war against each other, with the result that their efforts involved duplication and conflict: too complicated, uninteresting, and trivial for enumeration. There really is no way to tell the story without accounting for the parents, who loom larger and larger in the course of it as Lucie herself fades. The reader will quickly understand why Lucie chose to get as far away from them as possible, and will sympathize while enduring her mother’s bile and superstition and her father’s boundless self-absorption. In the end, Tim Blackman accepted a payment of one hundred million yen from Obara in exchange for signing an oddly worded statement enumerating alleged gaps in the case against him. Tim used part of the money to buy an antique yacht.

In theory, all these complexities of character should make for a far deeper and richer book than the average true-crime yarn, but Parry is out of his depth. He is an able reporter, but his professional practice makes him dependent on the goodwill of his subjects, while his professional instincts keep him fixated, as he admits, on a conventional wish to enter the mind of the killer. “Unlike their words or actions, the thoughts and emotions of other people are unavailable to us,” he writes, tersely illustrating just how much he lacks the novelistic gumption the story demands, which cannot be compensated for by any amount of fact gathering. He has written a big, ambitious book, at once too serious to be lurid and too lurid to be serious. The odd title, by the way, is never explained or even alluded to, aside from a cryptic mention in the acknowledgments.

Luc Sante's books include Low Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991) and Kill All Your Darlings (Yeti, 2007). He teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College.