Saturday, 15 December 2018

A Big 1st Year and a Little 2nd Year

大きい1年生と 小さな2年生 (ookii ichinensei to chiisana ninensei, A Big 1st Year and a Little 2nd Year, 1970) is a children's book by FURUTA Taruhi (古田足日, 1927-2014). The title characters are in their first and second years of elementary school (小学校, shougakkou), so probably six and seven years old respectively. The book too is clearly aimed at relatively young readers.

Akiyo and Mariko are the two smallest children in the second year, small enough to be mistaken for kindergarten children; and of the two Akiyo is just slightly smaller. She had somehow had the idea that, since second years are taller than first years, she would get taller at the start of the new school year (which is also the start of the book). For all her small stature, she is tough and self confident, not shy of quarrels with other children. Her friend Mariko, by contrast, is quiet, calm and a little detached. Masaya, a new first year, whose family has just moved to a house near Akiyo's, is large enough that people sometimes think he is a third year; but his character is the exact opposite to Akiyo's, anxious to the point of cowardice.
The elementary school that Masaya and Akiyo walked to was on top of a hill. There were apartment blocks on the high ground. Akiyo's friend, Mariko Fujioka, lived in one of them. The school was just beyond the apartment blocks.
From Masaya's house to the school and the apartment blocks, there were two routes. One was a broad road up the hill, with lots of traffic. The other, the one that Masaya was now walking, was a narrow path up between two cliff faces.
On the way to the school entrance ceremony, Masaya's mother had taken him up the broad road, but after the ceremony, the teacher had said, 'The broad road with all that traffic is dangerous. The way you should take to school is the track through the cliffs.'
So when it was time to go back, mother said, 'Masaya, this time let's go by the cliff way.'
'No. I don't want to go that way,' Masaya said to his mother with a scared face.
'You're a first year now, Masaya, big enough to be taken for a third year. If you can't manage something like that path! The teacher told you that was the way you should take to school.'
Mother gripped Masaya's hand tightly and pulled him along. Masaya was dragged along, almost crying.
That was why Masaya was walking along the cliff route; but he was clinging tightly to his mother, because it was so scary.
It wasn't just narrow, it was dark and there were steep cliffs of red earth on either side, topped  with thick woods. In the midst of those woods, there were huge pine trees that you could see from Masaya's house, and in their tops crows would call, 'Caw, caw' from time to time.
Akiyo quarrels with Masaya on their first meeting, but they soon become more friendly; and Masaya comes to depend on the fearless Akiyo a little too much. Worried about losing her friendship, he starts to consider how he can become braver. 

This a simple story of real life, narrated in a simple style for young children. For all its simplicity, I think it does a very good job of depicting the friendship at the heart of the story, and also in communicating a sense of place, in this country district on the outskirts of Tokyo. And although the events that make up the plot are never far from the minor incidents that make up normal life, the story's progress still feels very satisfactory.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Last Confession

After deciding to return to blogging, but only for books for which I feel some enthusiasm, my first review goes against that decision. It's a solid but unremarkable collection of short stories, by TAKAGI Akimitsu (高木 彬光), 最後の自白 (saigo no jihaku, The Last Confession, 1967). Takagi was one of the major post war writers of traditional puzzle mysteries, with some classics to his name, especially in his earlier works. There are six long short stories in this collection, all featuring public prosecutor, 近松茂道 (CHIKAMATSU Shigemichi).

Chikamatsu is one of the prolific Takagi's many detectives (he is not even the only prosecutor detective). As a prosecutor, he is involved in the case, but only at a later stage. Most of the investigation is done by the police, who report to Chikamatsu and take advice from him. A common pattern is for the police to fix on one suspect, but find Chikamatsu unwilling to prosecute without further investigation. Each story has a different investigating policeman. At least, they have different names. If there is any difference of character, it is hard to detect, except that some stories demand that the policeman be a little more stubborn and obtuse than the average.

All the stories are traditional mysteries, with attempts at misdirection and alibi tricks, some moves towards impossible crimes, though nothing that fully qualifies as such. Two feature a floor plan. Most have a second murder. The stories generally aim for a little originality in the framing to catch the reader's interest, but most still feel a little bit routine. The same goes for the puzzle element. For the most part the likely reaction to the revealed solution is 'Okay, fair enough' (except for couple where most readers would probably wonder how the killer could pick such an improbable approach to their problem).

パイプの首 (paipu no kubi 'The Pipebowl'). Two policeman notice a parked car on a lonely mountain road as they drive past on a different errand. Seeing it still there as they drive back hours later they investigate and find that there is a corpse a the bottom of the roadside cliff, the brother of an importer of French luxury products. When a secretary in the same firm is murdered, the bowl of a pipe is found lying next to her dead body.
影の男 (kage no otoko 'The Man in the Shadows') A wealthy man's family is gathered for his last hours. Moments before his death, one of his managers rushes in with news that the eldest son has been murdered.
愛と死 のたわむれ (ai to shi no tawamure 'The Play of Love and Death'). Police suspicions soon fasten on the wife of a murdered man; but Chikamatsu is cautious.
かみきりの情熱 (kamakiri no jounetsu 'The Passion of the Mantis'): an inverted mystery. A woman has an almost foolproof plan for the murder of the lover who rejected her.
消えた死体 (kieta shitai 'The Missing Corpse'). Late at night a constable is called out from his kouban by a man claiming to have seen a murder in a different apartment in the building where he lives. But although the man had set other residents to watch the door, when they enter they find an undisturbed room with no corpse and no sign of a struggle. The constable remembers that the day is April 1 and decides that this is a joke; but later that night, the man who lives in the apartment rushes in to say he has found the body of a murdered woman there.
最後の自白  (saigo no jihaku 'The Last Confession'). When a blackmailer is killed, three people each claim to be the murderer. Which is the real killer, or is it someone else entirely?

Quiet here. Too quiet

If you look through the list of blogs at Ho-Ling's blog, you will probably notice that most of the few English language blogs on Japanese crime fiction have one by one stopped posting.  This is not (I hope) a case of a serial killer targetting English language crime fiction bloggers. My own absence has been due to various reasons, such as work and lack of enthusiasm for sitting in front of a computer in my free time. I have been reading Japanese books, but some mysteries and children's books (the main content on this blog) disappointed me, so that I wasn't keen to review them. I've been reading more literary books recently, which don't need a review from me, as there are doubtless plenty of scholars writing about them. I still read some crime fiction and children's books though, and there are a few books I'd like to write about. I expect to start posting again, but with much less frequency than before.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Yufuin Murder Case

湯布院殺人事件 (Yufuin satsujinjiken, The Yufuin Murder Case, 1994) is a not very interesting mystery by UCHIDA Yasuo (内田康夫). The main characters are IZUMI Naoto (和泉直人), a professor who has just resigned from the law department of his university in protest at its involvement in a corruption scandal, and his wife Asako (麻子). His former students honour his departure with the gift of a "honeymoon travel pass" which he can use with his wife on trains throughout Japan. Uchida's books are often the basis for television dramas that combine a murder mystery with views of an interesting tourist destination somewhere in Japan. In this case the television drama was already invisaged before the book was written. Indeed the travel pass element of the plot is there because Japanese Railways were sponsoring the television show. (At the time the book came out, the TV drama had been dropped; but it was finally televised in 2002.)

The mystery starts with the murder or perhaps suicide of the secretary of the politician involved in the  corruption scandal, then shifts to a traditional drama surrounding machinations within a wealthy rural family whose patriarch is lying on his death bed. As the death toll rises we wonder how the two stories fit together. The answer (SPOILERS, I suppose) is that they don't; and the original mystery is basically dropped in place of another one.

My memory of the few Uchida books that I've read is that they do occasionally have an interesting idea somewhere in them, although swamped by the lukewarm soup of platitudes that serves as fodder for mid evening television drama. In this case, anything promising in the story leads only to disappointment. On their way to their holiday in Kyūshū, the Izumis are suddenly summoned by the train conductor to come and look after their child. When they find the conductor, he is with an unknown boy, six years old, who has a letter asking them to accompany him to Yufuin (an peaceful onsen town in Ōita). Who is the boy and why has his mother taken such a strange method to send him to this distant town? The answers prove to be both implausible and uninteresting.

The mysteries of the actual murders are poorly supplied with clues; but there is no chance that you will not spot the killer.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Stakeout

張込み (Harikomi, Stakeout, 1965) is a collection of short stories by MATSUMOTO Seichou (松本清張).

In the title story, a detective on the team hunting for a man on the run after a robbery gone wrong turns to murder thinks that the best lead is the woman he once loved, now living a quiet, married existence in far away Kyushu.

In 顔 (kao, "Face"), a stage actor in a minor theatrical group is starting to get small parts in films. When the chance of a larger role comes, his future looks promising. The only problem is that he knows that there is an eyewitness who can connect him to a murder several years back. If he becomes more famous, it is only a matter of time before the eyewitness sees him in a film and can identify him to the police. Before things get that far, he needs to get rid of the eyewitness. An excellent suspense story.

声 (koe, "Voice") is a counterpart to "Face". A telephone operator on a Tokyo newspaper makes a wrong connection in the middle of the night and gets insulted by the irritated person on the other end of the line. The next day she learns that the occupant of the house she had misdialled has been murdered and realises that she has heard the voice of his killer. This story divides into two parts, a suspense story and an alibi breaking story. Each is good in its own way (with some minor implausible elements in both), but they don't really seem to belong in the same short story.

The basic idea in 地方紙を買う女 (chihoushi o kau onna, "Woman buying a local paper") was already used as a minor plot element in "Face". A woman who needs to keep track of the news in a provincial town orders the local paper, claiming to be interested in the novel being serialised in it. The paper informs the novelist of this flattering news, and again when she cancels her subscription. The novelist, irritated by this insult, starts to wonder if she had some other reason to order the paper.

In 鬼畜 (kichiku, "Monster"), a skilled print setter works his way up to owning his own, moderately successful print works. He starts to use some of his spare money supporting a mistress, and eventually three children. When business gets worse he can no longer support his second family and the mistress ends up leaving the three children with him. Encouraged by his angry wife, he starts thinking that the children may not be his and his life would be much easier if they were gone. Matusmoto is sometimes taken as a standard bearer for a "social school" in Japanese crime fiction; and this could be taken as a good example of that. (If you click on the social pages of a Japanese newspaper, you'll find that much of what's reported under that rubric is crime.) The story reads like it originates in response to the reaction most readers of reporting of instances of horrifying cruelty have: 'How could anyone do something like that?' There's a 1978 film by NOMURA Yoshitarou, which I haven't seen.

一年半待て (ichinenhan mate, "Wait a year and a half") presents first a "social school" story of a woman who kills her abusive husband in defense of herself and her children, then turns this around in a conversation between a mysterious man and the campaigning journalist who championed her. Reconsidering the evidence the visitor shows the unwilling journalist that there must be more to the story than she thought.

In 投影 (touei, "Projection) a lazy journalist quits a major Tokyo newspaper and takes his severance to a seaside town in provincial Shikoku. As the money runs out, he first allows his cabaret hostess girlfriend to support him, then finally takes a job with a tiny scandal hunting independent paper run by a cranky invalid. Soon the reporter's dormant professionalism is reawakened, as he gets on the track of local corruption and then murder. This is an enjoyable story, with some ingenuity in the trick of the story; but as in "Voice" there is some mismatch between the realism of the motive and setting and the detective story unreality of the crime. In addition, the trick is distinctly implausible in any context, both physically (though this felt like something that a writer could make plausible with a few minor changes) and as a method someone might choose.

カーネアデスの舟板 (Carneades no funaita, "The Plank of Carneades") is a sarcastic little story about academics in postwar Japan. After writing nationalist history under the former regime, a young professor successfully tacks left to succeed in the world of textbook publishing and popularisation; but when changes in the committees that oversee textbooks makes a swing back to "great men" and national history desirable, his old professor, rehabilitated through his help, threatens to overtake him. The title is from an ancient thought experiment about whether it is justified after a shipwreck to push away a drowning man from a plank that can only support one person.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Living and Dead

I reviewed The Book of Happiness by AWASAKA Tsumao (泡坂妻夫, 1933-2009) last year. That book was characterised by a bit of trickiness that readers were requested not to reveal, making a review a little difficult. Its sequel, 生者と死者  (seisha to shisha, Living and Dead, 1994) is also a very unusual construction; but in this case its unusual features are evident from the start. In fact there's a big warning label on the cover telling you how to read the book. Most books are made up of gatherings or quires (if I'm using the words right). The printers print large pages then fold them to make a set of folded pages, with one pair in the centre, and the others around them. Mostly printers use a machine to cut the outer edges; but it was common in the nineteenth century to leave the pages for the reader to cut. Even a hundred years later, if the topics you research are obscure enough, you might find yourself having to cut open the pages in a library book. A few publications still do this today; but this is probably the only mass market paperback in Japan that has the format. The reason is that the book is a kind of magic trick. If you read the pages that are open without cutting (a spread of two pages every sixteen pages), you read a short story. If you then cut open the pages, there's a full novel with a somewhat different story to it.

The short story features a man called Chiaki and a manager Satomi. Chiaki has memory loss and apparently also psychic powers. The novel also features Chiaki and Satomi, and Chiaki again has memory loss and apparent psychic powers; but many things that meant one thing in the short story mean something quite different in the novel. In particular, Awasaka seems to go out of his way to divide up a word (represented by two kanji) over the page break between the open and the uncut pages. The word in the novel is then a quite different one to the one in the short story. And many other things take on a quite different meaning in the new context. Many of these are trivial, in themselves unimportant for the larger story. The idea seems to be that the reader will enjoy finding the changes in meaning from what they read the first time. 

It's certainly an enjoyable game. How successful are the stories? I think only moderately. The short story as a narrative works like many modern short stories as a sequence of unconnected  and inconclusive scenes, from which readers construct their own interpretation; but knowing that the story was a product of a trick construction, the interpretative effort is too much to ask. Some of the joins are a little clumsy too, syntactically correct, but looking like something no-one would ever write.

The short story is not a mystery, and the series detective Yogi Ganjī and his associates only appear once one has cut the pages to read the novel. That is a mystery, with two deaths in it; but it is not clear exactly what we are investigating. The same is true in The Book of Happiness; but there the eventual solution adds up to more than we had been expecting. Here the solution concerns what might be considered the more trivial parts of the narrative, and many elements are narrated at the end rather than deduced. It does hold some surprises though; and as part of Awasaka's craftmanship, several of the differences between short story and novel also have thematic relevance to the ending.

The title, incidentally, refers to a performance by spiritualists or stage magicians, in which after an audience member wrote down several names of living people and one dead person (known only to them), the performer would find among the various folded pieces of paper the one referring to the dead person.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Coffin of Flowers

YAMAMURA Misa (山村美紗, 1934-1996) was very popular in her day, but has probably faded of late. The last time I looked, few if any of her books were in print; on the other hand they were still the staple of Japanese television mysteries the last couple of times I visited. The television mysteries looked a bit boring, cosy mysteries which succeed by catering to Japanese television's love of sightseeing (mostly within Japan). 花の棺 (hana no histugi, Coffin of Flowers, 1975) certainly fits that pattern, with a series of murders and other crimes taking places in different famous parts of the ancient captial Kyoto. The difference to the world of cosy mystery in England and America is that the mystery still keeps up the golden age enthusiasm for tricks, particulary locked room mysteries and impossible crimes.

The book is the first in the "Catherine" series. Catherine, the daughter of the American Vice President, has recently graduated from university and is visiting Japan for a year, keen to study Japanese flower arranging. The three main schools of flower arranging are each keen to win a pupil who could increase their reputation in Japan and beyond; but Catherine hopes that a woman whose exhibition she had seen in New York will agree to teach her. The woman is a member of the largest of the three schools, but had taken a critical attitude to its leader. Unfortunately nobody seems to know where she is at the moment. When she finally does turn up, it is as a dead body, poisoned near one of Kyoto's temples.

This is one of a series of murders and lesser crimes taking place at regular intervals in the ancient grid pattern of Kyoto's streets. Soon there is another poisoning, this one in a locked Japanese tea house surrounded by untrodden snow. An element of another murder is the disappearance of a car and caravan from a campsite with only one, watched, exit. I wasn't that keen on either of these tricks. The locked room has as boring a solution as you can imagine, and the disappearing caravan feels like an idea for a short story shoehorned into a longer mystery where it doesn't belong.

The biggest surprise about the book is how small a role Catherine plays. For most of the story, the actual investigation is done by the police, who are not incompetent. Catherine appears in some chapters as a witness; but the point of view character here is a young political functionary appointed by his foreign minister uncle to escort Catherine. This looks like the setup for a romance, which is certainly implied by the end of the book; but for most of the book we see very little of Catherine and that mostly without any insight into her character, except as a wealthy and influential American, who knows that people are going to let her do what she wants.

I'm not sure how I rate the book. It reads easily. It has a lot of ingenuity. But the different tricks are neither well developed nor properly integrated into the larger mystery.