Kotaro Isaka’s ‘Bullet Train’ Novel Blends Satire into a Thriller

Whether you’re a fan of the recent film or not, Kotaro Isaka’s source material is a thrilling, comedy-laced ride.

Please Note: This review was first published in August 2021. 

Bullet Train, or Maria Bītoru, was written in 2010 by Japanese author Kotaro Isaka. The novel is an unusual blend of Murder on the Orient Express and John Wick, infused with satirical humor and the perils and pitfalls of the worst assassins and hitmen in Japan. The entire story unfolds aboard one of Japan’s famous bullet trains, headed from Tokyo to Morioka. I can see why the encapsulated setting attracted filmmakers, eager to create the next hit. It has all of the components of a hokey comedy, wrapped in the package of a sadistic film noir.

As the story unravels, the five seemingly unconnected assassins discover that their missions are all interconnected. Two men, and Thomas the Tank Engine enthusiasts — Lemon and Tangerine — are hired to rescue a man’s son from kidnappers and return with the ransom money, while another hired hand, Nanao, has been enlisted to steal the suitcase with the ransom money. But they are not the only entangled killers aboard the train. Kimura has boarded the train to track down the 14-year old boy (“The Prince”) who pushed his young son off of a roof. Unfortunately for him, the Prince happens to be a psychopathic killer himself.

Upside Down and Sideways

It’s a lot to keep track of, but Isaka does it so well. I don’t know if the original printing handled the bullet train in the same fashion, but I love how this version has a diagram of the train at the start of each chapter, identifying which train cars the chapter takes place on. It really helps for visualizing the action and how the characters intersect with each other.

I think that many people would love the novel Bullet Train. I disagree with the comparisons to Tarantino and the Cohen brothers on the back of the book. It’s far too clever and unique to fall into the framing of their films. The mix of humor and action at best should be compared to a Dave Barry or Carl Hiassen novel. Isaka has created an off-beat, fast-paced, and humorous thriller, unlike any other thriller you’ll find on the bookshelves. If you’re looking for a new book to take on a trip with you, Bullet Train is a perfect read while encapsulated on a train, plane, or automobile.

Book-to-film adaptations are often a disappointment, but I get the distinct feeling that the upcoming Bullet Train film will pale in comparison to the world that Kotaro Isaka has created. I can hardly imagine a world where Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, or Sandra Bullock could pull off the larger-than-life, caricatures that he has brought to life in the pages of this book. Preemptively, I feel confident in my assertion that if your interest has been piqued, you should read the book and forget about the film.

Bullet Train the novel was released by Overlook Press.

Bullet Train

Bullet Train

An Intriguing Blend of Satire and Thriller


Maggie Lovitt is a writer at Wealth of Geeks where she covers her favorite topics: Star Wars and pop culture nerdery.

In her free time, she is also a novelist, screenwriter, actor, and member of the Screen Actors Guild.