In July of the year 2000, two young Englishwomen, Lucie Blackman and Louise Phillips, went to Tokyo to work as hostesses in a night club called Casablanca, in the city’s Roppongi district. The girls’ chief duties at the Casablanca involved entertaining ‘salarymen’ after work: flattering and cajoling them, mixing their drinks, performing karaoke with them, and just generally helping them relax and let off steam after a presumably hard day at the office. It’s a setup that has no precise equivalent in the West.
Lucie and Louise had several reasons for embarking on this line of work. First, there was the element of adventure. Second, there was the chance to make good money by expending minimal effort. This was especially true for Lucie, who had racked up an impressive amount of credit card debt that she couldn’t seem to get out from under.
Hostesses were expected to go out on dinner dates with the club’s clients. This activity actually had a name: dohan. It brought the club additional revenue, and the women got a free dinner out of the deal. But that is as far as things were supposed to go. Hostesses were not expected to get into the client’s car and go elsewhere with him. Yet that was exactly what Lucie proposed to do on July 1, 2000. She called Louise that afternoon to apprise her of those plans, and to assure her that their own plans for later that evening could still go forward. Lucie called Louise again early that evening to let her know how her ‘date’ was going. The client had made her a gift of a much-needed cell phone! Sounding excited and happy, Lucie told Louise that she’ll be returning to their apartment within the hour. About ten minutes after that conversation, she left a message on the cell phone belonging to her boyfriend Scott.
That was the last anyone heard from her.
[From this point forward, you may encounter ‘spoilers,’ although I feel that I’m barely scratching the surface of this dense, complex narrative.]
When Lucie Blackman failed to return to the apartment that evening, Louise Phillips knew at once that something was wrong. It wasn’t merely that Lucie hadn’t returned: she had failed to call to say she would be late. This was totally unlike her. She always let people know where she was, always kept in contact. This was especially true where Louise was concerned. The two had been extremely close friends, having known each other since they were girls. Lucie would not fall silent in this way – not unless something were wrong.
Lucie was only an hour late when Louise called her mother in Britain to tell her: “Something has happened to Lucie.” Gradually, ineluctably, this mystery spread outward, engulfing all those who knew and loved Lucie Blackman in a world of anguish and anxiety, and then almost unimaginable pain and grief. As for her immediate family, already fractured by her parents’ acrimonious divorce, things went from bad to worse.
In the prologue to People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry sets out the basic circumstances of Lucie’s disappearance. This is followed by the story of Lucie’s childhood and youth. Her early history is unremarkable, and for me this was the least interesting part of the book. But in Part Two, Lucie and Louise arrive in Tokyo. Richard Lloyd Parry is the Tokyo Bureau Chief of The Times of London, and when he writes about this fascinating, teeming metropolis, he is clearly in his element. The writing is compelling; the story even more so. Parry has had to sift through a tangle of material in an effort to present a coherent narrative. He succeeds brilliantly in this effort. Moreover, he renders a society unfamiliar to many of us in vibrant, convincing hues.
In the prologue we’re told that Louise found Lucie’s actions in getting into a car with a strange man rather peculiar. Parry states that in his experience, Japanese men generally come across, in social situations at least, as more reserved and less aggressive than their Western counterparts. He has a theory about how this difference in temperament affects the mindset of hostesses from other countries:
The effect of this, for many foreigners, is to disable instincts of caution and suspicion that guide and protect them at home….Japan felt safe; Japan was safe; and under its enchantment they made decisions that they would never have made anywhere else.
One cannot help concluding that this perception – or rather, misperception – made possible the cunning manipulations of Joji Obara and his ilk. (Obara was not the only one to victimize young foreign women, but he seems to have been the most prolific and the most heartless.) A Japanese judge put it succinctly:
‘To violate the dignity of so many victims, in order to satisfy his lust, is unprecedented and extremely evil….There are no extenuating circumstances whatsoever for acts based on determined and twisted motives.’
Richard Lloyd Parry covered this story from its beginning. His book was published in the UK last year. For over a decade, he followed the twists and turns of the Lucie Blackman case: her disappearance, the discovery of her remains, the arrest, the court case, and much else. The crime seems to have acquired a personal dimension for him; he shared, at least to a degree, in the suffering of those who loved this unfortunate young woman. Indeed, what else can one conclude, from a cri de coeur such as this:
What if Obara had admitted guilt, begged forgiveness, wept out his black heart?…Imagine the most extreme vindication and retribution-nothing that mattered would be alleviated or improved by it. There was no satisfaction that could be imagined, only greater and lesser degrees of humiliation and pain. Lucie had been a unique being, a precious, beloved human creature. She was dead, and nothing would ever bring her back.
This is not to imply that Parry lost his objectivity. On the contrary, People Who Eat Darkness is a masterpiece of scrupulous reportage, investigative journalism at its finest.
Parry is able to elucidate many aspects of this crime, but not the mystery at the very heart of it, as he himself admits:
Humans are conditioned to look for truth that is singular and focused, hanging for all to see like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nu. But as a subject, Joji Obara sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut.
In other words, one gazed and gazed, and beheld only darkness – the heart of darkness embodied in Obara, a darkness that we all hope, for ourselves and our loved ones, never to encounter in this life.
I am aware that this is not a book for all readers. Parts of it are difficult to read. It kept me up some nights. Yet I am not sorry to have read it. I believe that People Who Eat Darkness belongs in that select pantheon of true crime classics inhabited by books such as Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson, The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, and of course, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Below is footage of a talk presented by Richard Lloyd Parry at Temple University’s Japan campus in September of 2011:
Lucie’s father Tim Blackman has established the Lucie Blackman Trust.