Friday, 26 August 2016

The Panic of A Tomoichirou

AWASAKA Tsumao's A Aiichirou stories are among the highpoints of Japanese detective fiction. I've read two of the three collections so far; but this time I'm going to talk about a prequel. 亜智一郎の恐慌  (A Tomoichirou no kyoukou, The Panic of A Tomoichirou, 1997) features a character who seems to be a bakumatsu version of A Aiichirou. Like Aiichirou he is handsome and elegant, but sometimes clumsy and cowardly, and has a talent for observation and deduction. While Aiichirou is a photographer who specialises in cloud photography, Tomoichirou works in the shogun's "cloud watching department", in which a few samurai spend the day lazily observing the weather in Tokyo from a tower in the shogun's palace.

The first of the seven stories in the collection introduces us to Tomoichirou and other samurai who are assigned to his team, when a court official realises that he has the skills for a secret investigator. The subordinates have various characters, one is a one armed, easy going lover of theatre, one an enthusiast for the ninja skills that are no longer really needed in modern Japan, one is immensely strong. In different episodes in the first story, they show their potential usefulness as secret agents.

The stories that follow have something in common with the A Aiichirou series, but are really far enough removed from it that I don't think that I'd recommend them to fans. There is an impossible crime (of sorts) in the second story, but really most of the stories are more like spy stories with a small detective element. Also although some have a similar humour to the A Aiichirou series, others deal with horrible crimes where humour is really not wanted. Finally Tomoichirou, unlike Aiichirou, is rarely a major character in the story, although he does always make some deduction near the end. More often the mystery plays out as an adventure story with different members of his team as the main investigators (much like Van Gulik's Judge Dee series).

This is not a very enthusiastic review. Partly I may be holding Awasaka to a higher standard than other writers. Partly the historical background may have made this too difficult a book for me to enjoy it. I read a lot on the train, away from the internet or any dictionary. Mostly that works out fine; but here with a lot of vocabulary rooted in the culture of Tokyo under the shogun and a lot of references to historical events and people, I often lacked the background I needed to really appreciate the book. As historical fiction, they work much on the pattern established by Scott. The various adventures are often thrown up by the real historical events of the chaotic period that led to the rejection of the shogun for the rule of the emperor; but although the agents are successful in their own actions, they are not really changing anything in the flow of history.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Two Idas

ふたりのイーダ (futari no īda, Two Idas, 1969) is a children's book by MATSUTANI Miyoko ( 松谷みよ子).

While their mother goes on an assignment to Kyushu, she leaves Naoki and almost three year old Yuuko with their grandparents in the little castle town of Hanaura. Hanaura is in western Japan, on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, a location that will become relevant later in the novel. The family sometimes call Yuuko Ida, a nickname that Naoki gave her from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

On the first night in this grandparents' house, Naoki sneaks out to explore.

Naoki did not know how long he had been standing next to the castle moat. His attention was suddenly wakened as he heard the clatter, clatter sound of someone passing by near his feet. At the same time he heard a low murmur, "Gone, gone, can't find her ....., gone."

Although the voice was low and hoarse, it could be heard from down by his feet. Shocked Naoki looked around below him. It was a chair. It was a small - yes, about the size that would just fit Yuuko if she sat down in it - backed, round wooden chair. The chair was walking, clatter, clatter, along the white path at the edge of the the moat, dragging its legs with each step.

The next day Naoki discovers an abandoned house in the woods, and in it the chair from the night before. When Yuuko visits the house, she seems strangely at home there; and the chair thinks that it recognises her as the Ida it knew. But whoever that Ida was must have vanished long ago. Angry at the chair's claims on his sister, Naoki tries to find out what had happened to the people living in the house; but he also starts to wonder whether his Yuuko might be the reincarnation of the Ida that the chair knew.

A visit to Hiroshima suggests what may have happened to the family. A young woman from the town takes Naoki with her to a memorial ceremony for the victims; and Naoki learns about the events that he had only vaguely heard of before.

In this way the fantasy element of the book winds into a story of the atom bomb. The two fit together a little oddly. The chair's sentience is not really motivated; but its character can be seen as a way of approaching the feeling of being unable be come to terms a loss of this kind.


Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Ghost Murder Case

「死霊」殺人事件 (shirei satsujinjiken, The 'Ghost' Murder Case, 1994) is a detective story by IMAMURA Aya (今邑彩), the third in a series set in a police murder investigation department. I'm a little random in my book buying, and I haven't read the first two in the series, so I don't know if I missed anything by starting here.

At the start, the book looks more like some kind of psychological crime story, with a businessman in difficulties thinking of killing his wife for the insurance. Soon however we come to the real mystery, which has a very different character. The businessman, his wife and his partner are all found dead in the businessman's house. Not only that, the businessman, the last to die, had just arrived by taxi and told the taxi driver to wait because he had to get his wallet from inside the house. The taxi driver had had the only exit in view the whole time from when his passenger entered the house until he followed him in after getting tired of waiting. He finds the victim dead, clutching the telephone. At the other end is the wife's sister, who just heard her brother in law say "the dead body came back to life". The wife's body is lying on the bed upstairs with a terrifying grin of fierce triumph on her face. In another room the tatami mats have been pushed aside and the floorboards opened, as though something had dug its way out; and there is dirt under the wife's fingernails.

This grotesque horror story style locked room mystery then merges into an alibi breaking investigation, as the police decide that the two business partners had been planning to kill the wife and had set up alibis for it, also sending a further accomplice to Hokkaido to make it seem that the wife had disappeared there.

This is all very promising, if a bit odd. The definite mismatch of genres in the two types of story, locked room mystery and police procedural is interesting; and the setup is as outlandish as you could want for the former. The series detective Kijima seems like a typical police procedural detective, here partnered with a younger woman, who is characterised by a lighthearted approach to the investigation, rather than the steely determination to succeed in a man's world that the genre expects.

At the end, after another locked room of sorts and the answer to all the mysteries, my feeling was much the same as with other books I've read by Imamura. It was not bad, in some respects very good; but it felt like there was a better book trying to get out with a little more careful work on the plotting. There was certainly too much reliance on coincidence and improbable behaviour from some of the characters.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Sheltering from Rain under the Slide

雨やどりはすべり台の下で (amayadori ha suberidai no shita de, Sheltering from Rain under the Slide, 1984) is a children's book by OKADA Jun (岡田淳).

A sudden rain storm makes a group of primary school children break off their baseball game and shelter under the large slide in the park in front of the block of flats where they all live. One of them suggests that the rain had been magically caused by Mr Amamori, who had been walking by at that moment and opened his umbrella a moment before the unexpected rain arrived. Amamori is an apparently unemployed middle aged man, who avoids contact with other people in the building. Another child reacts to the other's suspicion that Amamori was a wizard.

"You said, back then, I guess he really is a wizard, didn't you? 'Really is' means there was something before this?"

"What? Well, ......" Ichirou, playing with the rubber ball, glanced at Kyouko. "Just, somehow or other," he dodged the question.

Teruo didn't ask any more, but went on, "The truth is, when I heard you say 'wizard', it was a surprise. What I mean is, there was a time when I wondered whether he wasn't a wizard."

Everyone looked at Teruo in shock. Two or three had their mouths hanging open. Teruo went on, "The rain doesn't look like letting up yet, so perhaps you'll listen to my story."

One after the other the children tell stories of their experiences, all with a larger or smaller magical element, and all featuring Mr Amamori, as the apparent worker of the magic. The children are all of different ages (from 6 to 12) and the different stories reflect their different characters. Some of the stories are poetic fairy tales, others are closer to fantasies reflecting the wishes of the narrators. Readers can read the stories as stories, and also as reflections of the different storytellers. It is never stated as such, but there are hints that allow us to interpret the stories, if we want, not as a narrative of real events, but as a collaborative story telling competition. At the end, the final story puts a different perspective on the figure of Amamori, who is moving out that day.


Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Fall of A Aiichirou

亜愛一郎の転倒 (A Aiichirou no tentou, The Fall of A Aiichirou, 1982) is the second collection of A Aiichirou stories by 泡坂妻夫 (AWASAKA Tsumao). The stories are often compared to Chesterton's Father Brown stories, a comparison Awasaka was probably seeking with his collection titles, which are all of the form "The [abstract noun] of A Aiichirou". A Aiichirou is a photographer, handsome and well dressed, but clumsy and unworldly, with a gift for unusual deduction. As in the first collection, The Confusion of A Aiichirou, which I reviewed back in 2014, the stories are all told from the viewpoint of a third person observer. The narration is leisurely and as wayward as the hero. You never know quite where the stories are going, and what is going to be relevant. Often the solution occurs before the actual mystery has been well defined. Those stories that do have a well defined mystery (particularly the impossible crimes) usually present it more than half way through the story. I'm not sure if this will sound like praise to everyone, but for me the A Aiichirou stories that I've read include some of my favourite Japanese mysteries.

'The Straw Cat'. A and a friend are visiting a retrospective exhibition of the works of a painter famous for obsessive perfectionism, although their interest is actually for the fossils preserved in the gallery wall. While there, A puzzles over the various unexpected 'mistakes' he finds in the paintings. Do these have a connection to the deaths, apparently by suicide, of three people, the artist's most famous model, his wife and himself. And what was the meaning of the straw cat that his wife was clutching at her death? 

gasshouzukuri in Shirakawa village
'The Fall of the House of Sunaga'. A and other travellers are stranded when there train is stopped by a landslide on the tracks. Three of them attempt to reach their destination cross country, encouraged by a salesman, who mistakenly thinks his childhood memories of the countryside will be sufficient. After wandering hopelessly through the woods for several days, they come to the valley where in the nineteenth century the lonely house of the Sunaga family had mysteriously disappeared, leading to a lullaby threatening children with the "creeping monk" who took away the Sunaga family. The occupant of the house that stands there now, with some reservations, lets the travellers in for the night, but nails shut the window to their room. Curious what he is hiding, they pull out the nails and look out on a towering gasshou roofed house (a rustic style with a steep pitched thatched roof that starts at the first floor and contains several floors above that). When they wake in the morning, though, the massive house has disappeared without a trace.

'Suzuko's Disguise'. A fan of a singer who was lost in a plane crash at sea goes to see her last film, accompanied by a competition for a new singer to take her role. This seemed to me the weakest story in the book.

'An Unexpected Corpse". The title (i-ga-i-na-i-ga-i) is a palindrome in Japanese (which has a syllabic alphabet). Awasaka has a fondness for these kinds of games, reflected in his novel Palindrome Syndrome. A different bit of detective story playfulness is at the heart of the puzzle this time, though, the "nursery rhyme murder", in which the disposition of a body is for some reason made to reflect aspects of a children's rhyme.

'The Screwed on Hat' follows A and his current employer (an obsessive busybody), as they attempt to return a hat to a man who abandoned it at a service station parking area when the wind blew it off. But why was he wearing such a large misshapen hat and why did he not wait when A chased after it for him?

'The Four Great Fighting Heads' has a retired policeman looking into the strange behaviour of a young woman's grandfather for her. A slightly jokey story of finding the common element of a variety of odd clues, perhaps a little reminiscent of the lighter Sherlock Holmes stories.

'On the Streets of Saburou Town' is another impossible crime. A taxi driver puts down a passenger, then when the next one flags him down he finds the corpse of the departed passenger somehow still in the taxi, with his head severed.

'A Blade for the Invalid' is also an impossible crime, for me the best in the collection. On a hospital visit, A and his friend, a patient, take a walk on the roof, which has a recreation area for convalescents. Another patient collapses and when they run up to him they find that he has been stabbed. Neither the victim nor the only person close enough to stab him could have been carrying a knife.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Demon's Bridge

鬼の橋 (oni no hashi, The Demon's Bridge, 1998) is a children's book by ITOU Yuu (伊藤遊, born 1959). The story is set in the Heian period, in the early days of Kyoto, where the hero Takamura is the teenage son of a high ranking civil servant.

Takamura had had a much loved younger sister, who had died playing hide and seek with him in an abandoned temple. For various reasons, Takamura blames himself: they were not supposed to go to the temple; he knew his sister hated playing hide and seek, but insisted; when he could not find her, he went away thinking she had run home. The story starts as Takamura revisits the temple where his sister had been found, fallen into a well.

Crossing the bridge was forbidden. Takamura hesitated a moment, still gazing at the far side, then with a kick to the bridge's railing, he set off purposefully over the bridge.

'What are you playing at?' a girl came out from under the bridge and shouted up at Takamura, her eyebrows raised in anger. Apparently that was not enough for her. She sprinted up the bank. Takamura stopped in confusion and looked towards her.

'It was you, wasn't it, who kicked the bridge?'

Her rolled up sleeves showed horribly thin arms. The fingers of her hands were clenched and she was glaring at Takamura with eyes that blazed with anger. He looked perplexed at this girl, who hardly came up to his shoulder.

'Apologise!'

'Apologise?'

The child is Akona, the daughter of a bridge builder, who had died while working on this bridge. Now she lives as a homeless orphan under the bridge that he built.

But there is another bridge in the story, the bridge that the souls of the dead have to cross. In his regret at his sister's death, Takamura finds himself in a place that is the threshold to the world that the dead go to. A huge bridge spans an icy river.

'If I cross this, where would I get to?' he wondered.

Somewhere in his heart he could hear a voice saying 'Better not.' He ignored that and set off slowly to cross the bridge. At that moment, he felt like whatever fate might be waiting for him, there was no reason for him to fear it. Let it happen as it happens, a feeling of throwing everything away. Anyway, walking along the side of this river, there was no goal for him to head towards.

As he kept walking on, however far he walked, no end appeared. The far side never came in sight.

'I wonder how far I've come by now?'

Takamura stopped and glanced back; as he did so, the shock stopped his breath.

There was a demon standing there.

The demons in this world are the guides to the souls of the dead; but they see the living as food.

The story is very episodic, with encounters with supernatural beings in Kyoto and in the spirit world. Through various inconclusive adventures, the various characters (particularly Takamura, Akona and the demonlike Hitenmaru, who saves Akona's bridge when a flood threatens to destroy it) move slowly forward. In particular Takamaru learns to move on from his grief and guilt and to accept adult responsibilities.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Scream Castle Murder Case

絶叫城殺人事件 (zekkyoujousatsujinjiken, The Scream Castle Murder Case, 2001) is the title story of a collection of six short mysteries by ARISUGAWA Arisu or Alice (有栖川 有栖), first published in magazines between 1996 and 2001.

Arisugawa has two main series, the "Student Alice" series, in which the narrator is ARISUGAWA Arisu, a student and budding detective story writer, recounting the deductions of his fellow student EGAMI Jirou, and the "Writer Alice" series, in which the narrator is ARISUGAWA Arisu, a professional detective story writer, recounting the deductions of his friend, criminology professor HIMURA Hideo. You might guess that the two Arisugawas are the same person at different points in their life; but there are hints in the "Student Alice" series that the "Writer Alice" world is the creation of student Alice, and in the "Writer Alice" narrative that "Student Alice" is a character in the books written by writer Alice. There are far fewer "Student Alice" books; and they include some of real world Alice's best regarded books. Any moment now, you should be able to try one of his best known early works in English translation, 孤島パズル (kotou pazuru, The Island Puzzle, 1989), published by Locked Room International as The Moai Island Puzzle. It makes an interesting comparison with the first Japanese novel from the same publishers and translator, The Decagon House Murders. At first sight the two are very similar (serial murders on an isolated island), but their approach is the polar opposite.

To come back to this collection, like the title story, the others all have titles of the form: [building name] "murder case". This is a very standard title for traditional detective stories in Japan (much like e. g. The White Priory Murders in English). In one of the stories the policeman in charge comments that Arisugawa would call it that in one of his stories, and (narrator) Arisugawa remarks that in fact he never had used such a title. That seems to be true for real life Arisugawa too. In fact there is a deliberate slight discrepancy between the image the title conjures up (like an English country house or isolated mansion murder) and the actual subject matter in the stories.

The first, 黒鳥亭殺人事件 (kokuchouteisatsujinjiken, "The Black Bird Villa Murder Case") is the nearest to the classical setting. Himura and Arisugawa visit the lonely house of an old friend from university. The friend lives alone there with his five year old daughter, having inherited it from an aunt who bought it cheap after the previous owners died in a murder-suicide. Now however, it turns out that the suicide part had been a fake, as the supposed suicide has been found, recently killed, at the bottom of the garden well.

壺中庵殺人事件 (kochuuansatsujinjiken, "The Retreat in a Vase Murder Case") is a locked room mystery. The victim had a cellar study, humorously called "retreat in a vase" after a Chinese folktale about a man who makes his home in a pot which is larger on the inside. The witnesses find the victim hanging from the ceiling, with the only exit (the hatch in the roof) barred from the inside. Most strangely, someone has put a vase on his head.

In 月宮殿殺人事件 (gekkyuudensatusjinjiken, "The Moon Palace Murder Case") Arisugawa takes Himura to see an unusual building he had discovered near the road they are taking, the tower like house built without permission by a homeless man out in the woods from discarded building materials. When they get there though, they find that the building has been burnt and the owner killed.

雪花楼殺人事件 (sekkarousatusjinjiken, "The Snowflake Tower Murder Case") takes place in the shell of a multistorey building, built in real estate speculation as a resort hotel, but then abandoned. A young runaway couple and an older unemployed man are squatting in different parts of the building. The young man has apparently fallen from the roof of the building; but he died not from the fall, but from a violent blow to the head. On the snow covered roof, the only footprints leading to the edge of the roof are the victim's.

紅雨荘殺人事件 (benisamesousatsujinjiken, "The Red Rain Mansion Murder Case") has a murder case somehow connected to a movie filmed in the title house, a romance of which Arisugawa was a fan.

絶叫城殺人事件(zekkyoujousatsujinjiken, "The Scream Castle Murder Case") is the longest story in the book, over a hundred pages. Himura pursues a serial killer, whose murder seems to be connected to a horror video game, in which young women are chased by an unknown killer through the corridors of a castle in which they are imprisoned.

The stories are mostly good, some very good, although the "footprints in the snow" impossible crime was one the least convincing versions I've read, and the solutions to one or two of the better stories were perhaps a little obvious.