There is a very good reason why foreign film, literature and music doesn’t often possess the same universality as much of entertainment that comes from the United States. Where Americans can tend toward the lowest common denominator in a financially sound attempt to reach the broadest possible audience, other cultures often lean towards more nuanced work within their arts and entertainment. This isn’t to say that there aren’t, say, Michael Bays in every country, but rather that what primarily gets exported is targeted at a more cosmopolitan audience. Of course, there are flukes and outliers like Stieg Larsson’s massively popular Millennium series—essentially the Swedish equivalent of an American mass market paperback by any number of grossly prolific mystery writers—that tend to cater towards that universal demographic through the use of violence and general protagonist bad-assery.

With a culture like the one found in Japan, however, with its myriad social expectations and potential repercussions, entertainment can be a bit more insular and hard to crack. Such is the case with Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four. Ostensibly a tale about one member of the police force’s search for his missing daughter, which somewhat mirrors the titular Six Four cold case murder of a young girl a decade or so prior, the story itself becomes mired in the social elements that can be so damning to one’s character in Japan yet, elsewhere, seem like nothing. Yoshinobu Mikami, the novel’s protagonist, has found himself moved several times from being a member of the actual prefectural police force to head of media relations. This is seen as a form of punishment, a downgrade that frustrates the hell out of Mikami.

Add to this the fact that the Japanese press corps works within the same building as the police force—bringing to mind an increasingly exacerbated Sean Spicer dealing with the seemingly straightforward questions he tended to see as bullying or flat-out ignorant—and you’ve got yourself a rather tenuous, tension-filled workplace. Faced with the task of dealing with the press in the wake of a seemingly minor traffic collision in which a pregnant young woman hits an elderly gentleman, Mikami sees things blow up quickly and seemingly without reason as the woman’s name is withheld. Seen as an egregious insult thrown in their face, the members of the press resolve to make life as difficult as possible for the prefectural police department—Mikami in particular.

It’s here that the subtle social queues that would likely register as red flags with those intimately acquainted with Japanese culture become maddening for the outsider looking in. Yokoyama devotes pages and pages to the back-and-forth between Mikami and the press, a plot point that could just as easily have been wrapped up in a paragraph or so rather than half a dozen or more chapters. Admittedly, this seemingly minor issue helps set the stage for larger interdepartmental corruption, but even that leaves many a Western reader scratching their head as to just what all the fuss is about.

Six Four does have some elements of mystery and intrigue—Mikami’s back-and-forth with his nemesis Shinji Futawatari has a certain level of mystique—but the majority of the character interplay revolves around that which is unspoken between characters. While these aspects might be better observed in a visual medium, here they simply frustrate and drag the novel’s pacing to a painful crawl. That can be a challenge in a book that runs nearly 600 pages, the first several hundred of which feel like nothing more than red herrings and Yokoyama spinning his narrative wheels by rehashing conflicts, dialogue and Mikami’s inner monologues.

Perhaps I’m a bit dense, but Six Four is an interminably painful read that feels more like a chore than anything else—this despite the hard-boiled tagline: “The nightmare no parent could endure. The case no detective could solve. The twist no reader could predict.” Mired in the weeds of cultural expectations and an unspoken language of social propriety, Six Four is, at least through my American lens, nothing more than a dull, glacially-paced, overlong genre exercise that never truly finds its feet.

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