In Western media, World War II in Asia has never received as many stories dedicated to it compared to the events in Europe. The lack of stories set in Japan before and during the war makes me really appreciate novels like F. Paul Wilson’s Black Wind.
The novel came out in 1988 when there was also a strange love/hate relationship toward Japan. In the 1980s, ninjas were all the rage in action movies but Toyota and Honda were putting American automobile manufacturers out of business.
To Black Wind’s credit, it is not an anti-Japanese novel of any sort. Not only does it show the Japanese home front but also details the domestic politics of the 1920s and 1930s, in both America and Japan. It’s one of the only novels in English I’ve found that dramatizes the Shimpeitai Incident of 1933, the 2-26 Incident, and the internal factionalism within the Japanese Army. That stuff is like catnip for me.
However, Black Wind is not always concerned with historical accuracy. There is a fictional secret mystical society, the Kakureta Kao, who seems to be manipulating a lot of Japanese politics behind the scenes. What’s more, they want to harness a mystical power for war, the titular Black Wind.
The main characters are Frank Slater, an American rich-boy, Matsuo Okumo, his Japanese friend, Hiroki Okumo, his older brother, and Meiko, the love interest.
The story begins in 1926 with Matsuo living in San Francisco on orders of his father, the Baron Okumo, to gain insight into the American psyche. Matsuo has mixed feelings toward America, enamored by its freedoms but turned off by its racism. Eventually, Matsuo returns to Japan and reunites with Hiroki, who has political ambitions within the Japanese Empire. It goes without saying that Hiroki is the villain of Black Wind, who ingratiates himself with the shadowy Kakureta Kao and begins rising through the ranks of government.
Matsuo also meets Meiko, who is initially Hiroki’s fiancée, that is before Matsuo puts the moves on her. Throughout the 1930s, we see the political events as Japan begins its doomed march toward World War II. Eventually, in a bizarre turn of events, Meiko is swept across the Pacific and winds up in Hawaii, where Slater is stationed as a US Navy officer. Now would be a good time to mention that the two of them had actually met while Meiko went to college in America and resume things where their relationship left off.
As you may have guessed, Matsuo, Slater, and Meiko form a love triangle. Speaking of Matsuo, he is now an officer in the Japanese Navy and is sent to Hawaii as a spy right before that fateful Sunday.
I won’t go much further, as the book continues throughout World War II where it finally introduces us to the titular Black Wind, Japan’s secret weapon. The description of it is quite eerie: think of a mushroom cloud that can attack. This is where the novel veers into the strange and fantastical but it never gets too crazy which I appreciate. For the most part, the tone remains serious and if you can accept the realm of magic, albeit understated, you’ll probably enjoy it.
As mentioned earlier, very few novels actually detail what 1930s Japan was like, despite a treasure trove of political drama and intrigue that should whet any thriller writer’s appetite. It was partly this dearth of fiction set in prewar Japan that I wrote Shadows of Tokyo. However, Black Wind left an impact on me, so much so that I contacted the author F. Paul Wilson for an interview.
F. Paul Wilson Interview
1) What inspired you to write Black Wind?
At Dawn We Slept and other books recounted how nicely the Pearl Harbor attack played into Roosevelt’s desire to go to war against the Axis, hinting that Pearl had been set up for attack. The more research I did, the more I believed it true. That started Black Wind cooking. It was Dutch-ovening while I was writing The Touch and demanded to be written after I’d finished.
From a career perspective, it was a bad move; but my problem is I tend not to think of writing in career terms. BW was the next book ready to go, so I went with it, and it ended up taking me two years to research and write.
2) The book came out in 1988 and is thoroughly researched. So much so, that you even included a bibliography at the end. I feel that World War II in Asia has always been overlooked in America when compared to the European Theater. Was there a reason why you decided to focus, not only about the war but the events in Japan leading up to it?
That’s a fascinating part of the history. The movers and shakers knew they’d be going to war with the US and had begun preparing for it in the 1920s. So that’s when I started my story. They needed to understand the gaijin and so they sent a boy to be raised among them. Matsuo was that boy.
3) Again, Black Wind is one of the few English-language novels that cover Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. You even mention the Shimpeitai Incident in 1933. Were you surprised at how much political turmoil occurred in 1930s Japan?
Not until I started backgrounding. A feudal social structure was trying to break into the 20th century industrial age. Kimonos and top hats. Katanas and machine guns. Social, political, industrial chaos pure and simple. To understand the Japanese back then, you have to study on. If you don’t know about that, nothing makes sense. Matsuo’s actions, and anything done by the Kakureta Kao sect, are pure fiction. The rest was painstakingly researched, going so far as to comb old newspapers to find out what people were thinking, wearing, doing at the time of the novel.
4) Parts of the novel are told through Slater’s POV in first-person while the other POVs are in third-person. Was there a reason why you used this storytelling method?
It’s Slater’s memoir, and so it seemed the right way to do it.
5) Black Wind is something of an epic, taking place between 1926 and 1945. Did you always intend t cover over two decades or did the novel just grow and grow when you started writing it?
It had to start in the 1920s to develop Matsuo’s hatred of the casual, ambient racism of the times and his contempt for what he perceived of Americans’ lack of honor. I never had a doubt that it would end at ground zero in Hiroshima.
6) There is a mystical element, the titular Black Wind. This is introduced somewhat later in the novel, during the war, although it is mentioned by the Kakureta Kao earlier. Was this mystical angle always intended when you began writing or did it develop later?
I started BW as a horror novel but as I did more and more research, it gained sweep and scope. As it grew and grew, the horror got pushed into a secondary role. I think it’s my best novel – not my favorite, but my best. I’m perhaps inordinately proud of the fact that it was reprinted in Japan, and was most pleased when I found out the translator had just three or four minor things he had to change. My research paid off.
7) Going back to my earlier point, Black Wind covers a period in Japan that is virtually unknown in the West. Did you have trouble trying to convince an agent or a publisher about the marketability of this novel?
Putnam, publisher of The Keep, The Tomb, and The Touch, turned it down. “We love the story but have no idea how to market it.” And I could see the problem. It’s a World War II revisionist historical family saga horror novel (try saying that fast 3 times), a mix of cultural fanaticism and wrenchingly dark supernatural horror. How do you market that? Fortunately, Tom Doherty, head of Tor, loved it and went to bat for it.
8) What was your inspiration for the main characters: Slater, Matsuo, Meiko, and Hiroki?
As a rule, my characters aren’t inspired by anything except the story. Like Nabokov, I consider characters galley slaves. They do what the story requires. Each starts off as a tabula rasa, and each chapter inscribes a bit on that tablet. At the end I know them and their story, then I rewrite with that knowledge. If I form the character first, I’ll encounter situations where I’ll realize, “So-and-so wouldn’t do that,” and change the story to suit the character. Uh-uh. It’s my story, pal. You do what you’re told.
That said, the born-and-raised Japanese characters were, by necessity, somewhat pre-fab, shaped as they were by a stiflingly rigid culture. Matsuo was more fun; he was looked on as a sort of oaf, a dressed-up barbarian; his slightest faux pas was viewed with horror.
9) What was the initial reaction when the novel was published?
Not a single bad review, but no one seemed to know where to place this mongrel. Neither the marketing department nor the booksellers knew what to do with it. Tom Doherty spent a lot of time and effort getting it out to the stores, but where do you shelve a World War II revisionist historical family saga horror novel? Consequently, despite excellent reviews, it got lost.
10) A few years after your book was published, a similar novel entitled Love and Infamy by Frank Deford was released. It involved a love triangle involving an American, a Japanese woman, and a Japanese Navy officer. The similarities end there. Are you familiar with it?
Sorry, never heard of it.
Black Wind is currently available as an ebook on Amazon, although I definitely prefer the stepback cover.
Paul Wilson is currently at work on another Repairman Jack novel. Check out his website and his Twitter at @fpaulwilson