Friday, 27 September 2013

The Adventure of Little Kamu

KANZAWA Toshiko (神沢利子, born 1924) is a prolific and successful Japanese children's writer. She was born in Fukuoka, but spent much of her childhood in the northerly Japanese island of Hokkaido and in the yet more northerly Sakhalin, at that time controlled partly by Japan, partly by Russia. Her first novel ちびっこカムのぼうけん (The Adventures of Little Kamu, 1961) set in Kamchatka a little to the north of Sakhalin, is influenced by these childhood memories.

The hero Kamu is a young indigenous boy, living with his sick mother in a tent, who sets off to find the 'herb of life' which can cure any sickness. His way leads him through a variety of adventures, some with magical spirits, such as the giant Gamurii, who dwells at the peak of the region's great volcano, but more with the land's various wild animals, such as bear, salmon, eagles, reindeer, puffin, seals, and the landscape, an icy world of glaciers, sea ice and snow, dominated by great volcanoes.
Far away in a land to the north of the north, there towered a great mountain, all year round covered in snow.

From its peak, billowing clouds of smoke, as if a giant were breathing out, poured forth from a pillar of fire, that reached into heaven in the darkness, and could be seen even from the distant sea. 

Much like Taro the Dragon Boy the book divides into two halves. In the first adventure, while Kamu is saving his mother, he also learns of his missing father. Gamurii had thrown him into the northern sea, where he had turned into a white whale (no, I don't know either). Kamu sets off to find him and in doing so discovers that he must defeat the killer whale that is attacking the animals of the bay.

The similarities to Taro the Dragon Boy go beyond the larger structure. Both are made up of episodes that individually resemble traditional folk tales. Both have a young boy as hero, with a similar character in each, thoughtless, brave, assertive, good natured. Tellings of traditional Japanese stories of strong child heroes sometimes go in the same direction. It seems to me that in English children's stories such characters are rare, at least as anything like an identification figure. In Stevenson's Kidnapped for instance, the serious David Balfour is the figure with which the reader identifies, not the reckless Alan Breck; and in Arthur Ransome's books, Nancy Blackett is a strong character, but almost always seen from outside, while we are shown more of the inner life of more sensitive or responsible characters.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Zero Focus

MATSUMOTO Seichou ( 松本清張, 1909-1992) was one of the leading writers of detective fiction in post war Japan. He's probably also one of the better known Japanese crime writers in the west. Three of his novels (along with a collection of short stories) have been translated into English: 点と線 (Ten to sen, 1958, translated as Points and Lines, 1986); 砂の器 (Suna no utsuwa, 1961, translated as Inspector Imanishi Investigates, 2003); 霧の旗 (Kiri no hata, translated as Pro Bono, 2012). I've read 点と線 and 砂の器. Both are classic examples of the "tenacious policeman" style of investigation. The first, a corruption and murder investigation that develops into an exercise in alibi breaking, is quite good. The second is a bit of a mess, I think. It was made into a famous film (known in English as Castle of Sand); but I gather that the film diverges from the book's ramshackle plot in positive ways.

ゼロの焦点  (Zero no Shouten, 1959) is one of Matsumoto's best known works in Japan. There are two film versions, which seem to be known as Zero Focus in English (1961 and 2009) and several television dramatisations. It's a pity that it hasn't been translated into English. I think it's actually better than Points and Lines or Inspector Imanishi Investigates.

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the difficulties of reading Japanese books is the need to note the reading of the kanji for a character's name when they first appear, as the readings are not always obvious and you won't necessarily get another chance. So, as I often do, I made a list of character names as I went through for my own use. Since the Japanese Wikipedia page on the book doesn't give the readings, I'll add them here in case anyone can use them.

Name Reading Description
板根禎子 ITANE Teiko (maiden name)
鵜原憲一 UHARA Kenichi her new husband, advertising executive
佐伯 SAEKI recommended the marriage
本多良雄 HONDA Yoshio Kenichi's successor in Kanazawa
横田英夫 YOKOTA Hideo section chief in Kenichi's company
青木 AOKI colleague of Yokota
室田儀作 MUROTA Gisaku chairman of a Kanazawa brick company
室田佐智子 MUROTA Sachiko his wife
鵜原宗太郎 UHARA Soutarou Kenichi's older brother
葉山 HAYAMA Kenichi's former police colleague
田沼久子 TANUMA Hisako receptionist in MUROTA's firm
曾根益三郎 SONE Masusaburou her common law husband
木村 KIMURA representative of Kenichi's advertising company

(These are all the named main characters - and some fairly minor ones. Two more important characters are never named in the book, Teiko's mother, who is always 'mother', and Uhara Soutarou's wife, who is always 'older sister'.)

The main investigator in the story is this time not a policeman, but the newly married Teiko, whose husband by an arranged marriage, Uhara Kenichi, disappears only a few weeks after the honeymoon. Kenichi had been winding up his work in the Kanazawa branch of his firm before his transfer to the main office in Tokyo; but he never returns. As it becomes clear that something is wrong, Teiko heads out to Kanazawa to talk to the police. But Kenichi's disappearance is only the first of a series of murders or apparent suicides.

Since it was an arranged marriage and she had spent little time with him, Teiko hardly knew her husband. In addition, beyond natural reserve, he seems to have had certain secrets that he had not shared with Teiko. So the story is partly an exploration of her missing husband's life. This leads in one direction to his earlier life as a policeman in occupied Japan in the desperate years immediately after the second world war, in another to the connexions he had in Kanazawa. The setting of most of the story is Kanazawa and the nearby Noto Peninsula in midwinter. This part of Japan gets much more snow than Tokyo (Kawabata's Snow Country is set in a different part of the same region); and the bitter wintry landscape is part of the story. The Noto Peninsula, particulary its west coast, is depicted as bleak and precipitous, hard to reach by public transport, sparsely populated, with poor and isolated villages.

As a mystery, it's simply a very well made story. The early parts set up a variety of puzzles that at first have Teiko and us mystified or speculating wildly. Gradually, discoveries and deductions make the larger picture somewhat clearer. In the end the picture comes into focus and we see who the murderer is and how they did it. Since the cast is not that large, I spotted the murderer and the motive long before the final chapter, as most readers will; but I missed the main trick to the story, which makes sense of so much and is so obvious once one reads it.

I only have two minor reservations about the book. It takes a bit more room than the story needs. It's not as long as 砂の器, but at 470 pages bunko format, it's a long book. (I'm not sure what that would be in a typical western paperback; I'd guess a little over 300 pages, depending on print size). Like many famous Japanese detective stories, it was first published as a serial. This probably necessitates a certain degree of repetition and consolidation of established knowledge. Secondly, there are no really attractive characters. The book is not full of especially dislikable characters either. But, it was odd to read a book written mostly from Teiko's perspective and still end feeling that I hardly knew her. Like her husband she comes across as a very guarded character.

Really though, this is the best book by Matsumoto that I've read, and it makes me keen to read more.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

High and Low

The connexions that crop up between Japanese and western culture can be surprising. I read many of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books long ago, though I don't think I read anything published later than the early eighties. I didn't give up on them consciously; but in my memory the earlier ones are better (though there are things I don't care for in them, too). In a completely different world, The Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai, 1954), directed by KUROSAWA Akira (黒澤 明), was the first Japanese work that interested me. It was only after I had got to know most of Kurosawa's samurai films that I learnt that he had also directed an adaptation of one of the 87th Precinct novels, King's Ransom (1959). The film is known as High and Low in English, an ingenious translation of the Japanese title 天国と地獄 (Tengoku to jigoku, Heaven and Hell, 1963). A police procedural sounds like an oddity for Kurosawa, but in fact he had already made one of the earliest films in the genre, Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora inu, 1949).

I've seen the film several times now, and I thought it might be interesting to reread the book and compare them. Neither book nor film pretend to be mysteries; but as I can't say much about them without discussing the whole plot, I'll put the rest after the break. If you haven't read the book or seen the film and you're planning to do either, then you'd better not read any further.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Looking for Information on Japanese Detective Stories

As will become clear, I'm no kind of expert on the subject.  If you want to read Japanese mysteries, you've probably tried searching the internet for information and suggestions about what to read. If you're like me, you've probably not found very much. Searching in English (or French or German) turns up a huge amount of useless pages and very little that is really about the subject. I can't search in Japanese. Although I can read Japanese on paper well enough, I find Japanese websites very trying, except for a few whose format I've slowly got to understand. But for what it's worth I thought I'd note down here the things I'd found while hunting round on the internet. (My interests tend more towards "puzzle" detective stories. So my searches probably missed hundreds of useful pages on tough guy gangster melodramas and other parts of the wider genre.)

There don't seem to be many English language blogs about books in Japanese at all. For detective stories, I've only found three, of which two are dead or dormant. The only one being updated at the moment is "The Case Files of Ho-Ling (浩寧の事件簿)", which is also the most wide ranging. It's mostly reviews of Japanese detective fiction, with some posts on detective games, detective manga, films and European or American detective stories. The emphasis is on puzzle detective stories. (There's also a page with secondary literature.)

The two inactive blogs are On the Threshold of Chaos  (混沌の狭間), which has mostly reviews of Japanese detective fiction, with some European or American books, and How to escape a locked room (密室脱出方法) with a few reviews of Japanese detective fiction.

One thing I notice in all these blogs, is that hardly any of the writers discussed are women. Actually that applies to the detective stories I've written about here too. (I've read one book, a spy story, by NATSUKI Shizuko, but I wasn't planning to write about it.) There are certainly female mystery writers in Japan; but perhaps the puzzle oriented mystery has more male writers. If so, that would be quite a difference to Britain, where women probably make up the majority in the top ranks. I'll make an effort in the future to balance things out a bit in my choice of books.

As a rule, if a writer has had a book translated into English, they are likely to have a Wikipedia page, otherwise very unlikely, however famous they may be in Japan, e. g. HIGASHINO KeigoSHIMADA Souji, MATSUMOTO Seichou. Wikipedia has a page on Japanese detective fiction, but it's really not very good. On the other hand, its "See also" section links to lists of winners of various Japanese mystery prizes, which seem well maintained and might suggest good books. (Sadly, at least one translation of prize lists from the Japanese Wikipedia have fallen to the English Wikipedia's deletion policy. So you may find it worthwhile hunting around there too.)
[Update: the text of the "Japanese detective fiction" page is still no good; but someone has added some very useful lists to the article since I wrote the paragraph above. Of course with Wikipedia, you never know it'll last.]

Other Pages
There's a page listing a desultory selection of impossible crimes here.    
There's a page at Columbia by Satoru Saito with a bibliography of works on various popular genres, including mysteries, here.

Online reading
Buying Japanese books can be expensive or difficult in Europe. One good supplement is to read older public domain works. Japan has relatively sane copyright duration, fifty years after the author's death, which is at least better than the seventy that Europe and many other countries currently have. That means that many prewar writers and a few postwar writers who died young are out of copyright (EDOGAWA Ranpo has a few years still to go; he died in 1965.) Many public domain texts can be downloaded from Aozora Bunko (like Project Gutenberg but Japanese). I've only read a few short detective stories from this period, including three by OOSAKA Keikichi (大阪 圭吉). I mean to put up a translation of one of his stories here soon; but I need time to get the phrasing right and solve a few difficulties (or give up on them and guess).

I would really like to be able to read a good history of Japanese mysteries aimed more at the general reader than at an academic audience, something like Julian Symons' Bloody Murder. English language works are usually academic, which means that they are generally not good guides to the literature. Apart from the misrepresentation, there is the problem of spoilers. German has a booklet that seems aimed at serving as an introduction to Germans looking for "Krimis"; it doesn't read like the product of deep research and the number of writers covered is small. But it should certainly help a new (German speaking) reader looking for suggestions: Wittkamp, Robert, Mord in Japan. Der japanische Krimi und seine Helden: Vom Zweiten Weltkrieg bis zur Gegenwart, 2002 • ISBN 978-3-89129-745-2 · 132 pages. · EUR 12 (Eine Publikation der OAG Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens, Tokyo, im IUDICIUM Verlag). I'll try and look at some of the Japanese language guides to detective fiction in the near future. (Feel free to recommend one, if you know of a particularly good one.)

Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Little People of the Valley of Darkness

くらやみの谷の小人たち (The Little People of the Valley of Darkness,  1972) by INUI Tomiko is a sequel to 木かげの家の小人たち(The Little People of the House in the Tree's Shadow, 1959), which I wrote about earlier. The first book combined a fantasy story, a Japanese family caring for English fairies, with a depiction of Japan in wartime, the people's lack of food and their intolerant patriotic fervour. The book had spanned more than one generation of the Moriyama family, and the sequel similarly takes the story through to the next generation, represented in particular by Jun, the son of Shin, the jingoistic middle brother of the first book.

In a sense 木かげの家の小人たち leaves a lot unsettled, but it's not clear that it really needed a sequel. The tentative half resolution is what one might expect to come out of the experiences the characters had gone through, and the uncertainties that face them feel like the author's intention. Inui explains in the afterword that she had started on a sequel in 1967 (as she announced in the afterword to an edition of the first book), but it had taken that long to finish it. Still, the long gap means that the way of looking at things seems to have changed from book to book (like Ursula Le Guin's Tehanu). The first book had very few "adventure" elements; but the sequel is largely an adventure story, although it has some parts devoted to description or consideration of the period it describes, in particular of the first hungry years after the war, but also the reaction of the Moriyama family to changes in Japanese society and attitudes. In addition some of the new ideas about the blue cup from the first book seem to involve a rather ruthless rewriting of the original concept (indeed they undermine the major plot driver of the first book).

The Japanese kobito, Amanejaki, had been one of the more energetic characters from the first book, which ended with Iris and Robin leaving their parents and joining him in his home in a wood near Lake Nojiri. The sequel follows their adventures and brings in a large cast of Japanese kobito, most of them apparently spirits of Japanese flowers. These live in a dark underground world, which is dominated by the hostile spirits of various trees. The smaller spirits are searching for the spring of "The water of life", and their enemies are planning to exterminate them by bringing the "river of death" into the valley. This is a bit too much of a typical fantasy battle of good and evil; and only one character on the "evil" side is really given any personality or story.

The depiction of the river of death's effects perhaps reflects concerns about radiation sickness (the book mentions the atom tests on Bikini Atoll and the effects of the dust from the explosion on wildlife and on a Japanese fishing ship); but it presumably symbolises something more like an orientation towards war. Iris, as in the first book, is knitting as a prayer for peace in the world. This does not stop the good party from fighting against their enemies, although actual fights make up only a tiny part of the book.

If this sounds like an unnecessary and inferior sequel, it is still a well written book, with many impressive episodes.

Saturday, 7 September 2013


The first of YOKOMIZO Seishi's KINDAICHI Kousuke books, The Honjin Murder Case, was a kind of recent past historical detective story, written immediately after the second world war, but set before the war. 獄門島 (Gokumontou, Prison Gate Island, 1947) brings Kindaichi into the present. It has some other differences from The Honjin Murder Case, that makes it similar to most of the other Kindaichi books that I've read. The style is a little less playful and the literary self consciousness that made the first book a detective story about detective stories is here reined in. Like many later novels, Gokumontou starts with a historical preface, which provides the backstory of the setting Yokomizo has chosen. In this case he approaches it with a discussion of the possible etymology of the name, Gokumontou, a little island in the Seto Inland Sea, a corruption of Hokumon as the most northerly base of pirates operating in the region, or of the famous thief Goemon. In either case the corruption would be due to the island's use as a prison colony in the days of the shogunate. The descendants of these prisoners now make up the island's population, finding their poor livelihood by fishing and distrustful of outsiders.

Kindaichi has been enlisted and serving in the war. A fellow soldier and friend, KITOU Chimata (鬼頭千万太), is returning with Kindaichi to Japan, but dies on route, leaving Kindaichi with an entreaty.
I don't want to die .... I .... I .... don't want to die. If I don't get home, my three sisters will be killed. .... But .... I'm done for. Kindaichi .... in my place .....  in my place, go to Gokumontou for me.
The Kitou family is the richest family on the little island. Normally they would be controlling the island's business; but the head of the family is recently deceased and Chimata's father is insane, kept in a locked part of the house. There is a branch family, too, still on speaking and visiting terms, but regarded as secretly hostile and plotting against the main family. The sisters that Kindaichi has come to save are strangely childish and lacking in empathy. And is the figure seen lurking around the house the cousin reported to be on his way back from the war? Or one of a group of discharged soldiers who had been practising piracy in the area? Or perhaps both? Soon one of the sisters has been killed, the first of a series of murders, each bizarrely staged, particularly the second one, where the victim is beneath a giant bell. (The bell was being returned to the island's temple after narrowly escaping being melted down for metal during the war).

The atmosphere, both of Japan immediately after the war and of the isolated island, is well managed. Fantastic elements seem to become more prominent than in The Honjin Murder Case, as they are in the later books.

Considered as a puzzle mystery, it's difficult to know how to judge it. There are sufficient clues to know roughly what was going on for at least two of the murders (the first is probably too obvious); but the larger story of what was going on would probably be hard to work out. On the other hand the larger story makes an impressive answer to the puzzle when you read it. Some Yokomizo stories, including some regarded as classics, turn out to have a vast amount of pointless complexity in the solution. Here there is a surprising and horrifying simplicity, to which everything goes back.

Gokumontou has been filmed and televised many times, most famously as part of the series of Kindaichi films by ICHIKAWA Kon (市川 崑) in 1977. I haven't seen it, from this discussion, it seems to have been similar to the original, with slight changes.

Incidentally, my discussion here is written from memory, and I no longer have my notes on the readings of the kanji for the names of the various characters. But if you want to prepare yourself, the book's Japanese Wikipedia page lists the characters with their readings. (The description of the story there currently tries to avoid spoilers, but you might still be better off skipping it and the descriptions of the various adaptations.)