REVIEW: People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

In May 2000, Lucie Blackman and Louise Philips left the UK for Japan. Friends since childhood, the pair had been working as flight attendants and when that career path didn’t work out, they decided to take some time and travel around Asia. Their first port of call was Tokyo where they secured work as hostesses in a bar where Japanese men would pay to get drunk in the company of beautiful Western women. Two months after taking the job in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, Lucie Blackman left for a meeting with a client. That evening, Lucie called home to inform her flat-mate that she was visiting the sea-side with a client. She was never seen again.

A few days after Lucie’s disappearance, Louise was contacted by a man who claimed to be a member of a cult that Lucie had recently joined. According to this man, Lucie had embarked on a new stage of her life and wished to have no further contact with her old friends and family. Seven months later, Lucie’s dismembered body was found in a cave 200 yards from the home of Joji Obara, a once-phenomenally successful property tycoon whose phone Lucie used to call home the evening of her disappearance. When the police searched Obara’s home, they found detailed records of Obara’s sexual history including references to somewhere between 150 and 400 women who had all been befriended, drugged and raped as part of Obara’s fondness for what he referred to as ‘conquest play’.

Written by the Times’ Asian editor Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness is the story of Lucie’s abduction, her family’s search for justice, and the weird Japanese demi-monde that first put Lucie in contact with Obara.

While it would not be unfair to describe this book as ‘True Crime’, I would argue that Lloyd Parry is much less interested in the murder than he is in the stuff that happens around the murder and what those things say about both contemporary Japan and the human condition in extremis. As a result of Lloyd Parry’s decision to use the murder primarily as a focal point, the book enjoys an engagingly spiral structure whereby our attention is repeatedly dragged away from the murder and down a variety of weird rabbit holes before resurfacing somewhere else and jogging back to the murder at the centre of the book. This is a similar structure to the one used in Lloyd Parry’s later book Ghosts of the Tsunami and it works just as well here.

The first set of themes explored in People Who Eat Darkness is the world of Japanese night-clubs and its weird proximity to sex work.

There is a scene at the beginning of the game Yakuza 4 where a woman approaches the primary protagonist in search of a loan. Being a man of melodramatic honour and somewhat quixotic morality, the protagonist agrees to the loan on the understanding that woman will help to pay it off by working as a hostess in a nearby night-club.

The game presents this as a sort of moral compromise: Yes, the protagonist has forced the woman has become an indentured servant in a sleazy night-club, but she is currently unemployed and desperate enough to approach a gangster for an unsecured loan, so the protagonist is actually doing her a favour… kinda… maybe… if you squint and have a few drinks before trying to think about it too hard. I remember having quite a violent reaction to this game as a lot of people who are forced into sex work are victims of indentured servitude and while the game did not explicitly show the woman having sex with any of her customers, this whole space smells a lot like sex work.

I mention this scene from the beginning of Yakuza 4 as the female character was in a position very similar to that of Lucie Blackman when she arrived in Tokyo: She needed money, the bars offered to pay decent wages, and while she wasn’t explicitly told to suck anyone’s dick, she was subjected to pressures that are common to all forms of sex work.

Lloyd Parry navigates these waters with real aplomb: He paints a picture of a Japanese night time service economy that is effectively one long and subtly-shaded spectrum that extends from working as a waitress in a café all the way to working as a professional Domme in an underground sex-club.

Both ends of this spectrum are subject to the same set of economic pressures: Everyone has to pay rent, and everyone has to eat food. In order to make rent and feed yourself, you need to extract money from clients and the closer your rapport with clients, the more likely they are to spend money on you at the club. The first set of pressures are what we would think of as emotional labour: You drink with complete strangers whilst appearing interested and happy to be with them. The more interested you are and the happier you appear, the more likely it is that your clients will spend money and so there is always pressure to be perkier and friendlier. The second set of pressures involve building enough rapport to keep the clients coming back and spending money as often as possible. In the book, this involved answering inane semi-flirtatious emails from clients but those secondary pressures soon blossom into pressure to spend time with clients away from the bar and it’s here that the boundaries between being a hostess and being a sex-worker start to degrade as where exactly is the difference between hooking up with a guy in order to keep him returning to your place of work and straight-up having sex for money?

Lucie worked in a hostess bar in Roppongi called Casablanca. The bar specialised in hiring Western women to work as hostesses. While some of the hostesses were hired abroad and brought into the country specifically to work in these kinds of bars, a lot of the employees were just travellers on tourist visas meaning that women like Louise and Lucie were effectively marginalised by their roles in the grey economy: Neither tourists nor workers, neither waitresses nor sex workers. The ambiguity of their position in Japanese society made them attractive targets for predators but it also made their disappearances rather hard to investigate when things went wrong.

The first third of the book is given over to the issue of determining a) which rabbit hole Lucie disappeared down and b) how far down said rabbit hole Lucie actually went. When Lucie first disappeared, her family travelled to Japan in order to assist the search and so Lloyd Parry uses Lucie’s British family as a lens through which to perceive the Japanese underworld. This yields a fantastic series of character studies as both parents respond to the realities of Lucie’s Japanese existence in radically different ways. For example, Lucie’s mother comes across as so sheltered, bourgeois, and small-minded that she is completely unable to engage with anything brought up by the investigation into Lucie’s disappearance. Conversely, Lucie’s dad comes across as a somewhat eccentric presence who refuses to play the role of the grieving father and so winds up going semi-native in an effort to do something. The Blackman family’s growing frustration with the local police pushes them first into hiring private detectives and then into engaging with a layer of weird fixers and con-artists operating on the margins of Japanese society. One of these figures claims to represent a senior Yakuza who promises to return Lucie and deliver a beating to an underling in return for a large cash payment. Another figure serves as a guide to the Japanese BDSM scene resulting in the hilariously dark observation that while it’s kinky to die with someone else’s shit on your face, dying with your own shit on your face is just fucking sad.

People Who Eat Darkness also considers the question of how the rest of Japanese society deals with the hyper-capitalist oddity that is the world of Japanese sex work and it is here that the book starts to feel more like a work of ‘True Crime’ non-fiction.

The first issue raised in the book is the idea that, because Japan has a lot less violent crime than other developed nations, the Japanese police might be less experienced when it comes to dealing with cases like that of Lucie Blackman. Right from the start, the local police detectives are portrayed as bumbling and ineffectual; frequently slow to act and confused as to the extent of their powers. In fact, it takes them literally months to find Lucie’s body and even when they do, they manage to make mistakes during the process of evidence collection. Lloyd Parry draws particular attention to the fact that most Japanese convictions come from confessions and when Obara not only refuses to confess but outright denies all involvement, both the police and the prosecutors struggled to build a case. With no alibi and vast amounts of circumstantial evidence against him, Obara’s defence seems to have primarily rested upon filling the zone with as much confusing, irrelevant bullshit as possible in an effort to muddy the waters. As a result, the book spends quite a bit of time on the question of what constitutes a date-rape drug, why Obara kept his dead dog in the deep freeze, and why he paid Lucie’s father a huge sum of money to sign a barely-literate scribble protesting the quality of the evidence. There’s also a weird moment late in the day when Obara decides to try and sue Lloyd Parry for defamation but this too is little more than bullshit sprayed at the system in an effort to confuse and distract. The weird and depressing thing about Obara’s tactics is that they were (at least initially) successful as his initial conviction was for rape rather than the murder of a woman who used his cell phone and turned up dismembered 200 yards from his front door a few days after he decided to google how to dispose of a dismembered body.

Over and above the ability of Japanese courts to cope with a wealthy and intelligent murderer who refuses to acknowledge his own guilt, Lloyd Parry portrays the Japanese police as a lazy and incurious bunch of imbeciles who are quite happy to rely on type. As a successful man with lots of connections, Obara did not seem the type to abduct and murder women and so he repeatedly slipped through the fingers of police investigating his rapes. Lloyd Parry makes it quite clear that Lucie Blackman would most likely still be alive today had police done a proper job of investigating Obara’s previous sex crimes.

People Who Eat Darkness is a fascinating book that starts with a brutal murder and expands slowly into a series of dazzling portraits of a family, a corner of the Tokyo underworld, and a judicial system that is ill-equipped to deal with violent crimes. 

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