Saturday, 30 November 2013

Non chan Rides a Cloud

Not many Japanese children's books have been translated into English; but an astonishing number of English books have been translated into Japanese. Many, both classics and modern works, are known in Japan through the translations of ISHII Momoko (石井 桃子, 1907-2008). As a writer, her most famous book is perhaps ノンちゃん雲に乗る (Nonchan kumo ni noru, Non chan Rides a Cloud, 1951), which was made into a film with the same name in 1955 (some English language internet pages call it Nobuko Rides on a Cloud).

The story is a fantasy; but the core interest of the book is the normal family life of an eight year old girl, Non-chan (short for Nobuko), her mother, father and older brother. One day Non-chan wakes up to find that her mother has gone with Non-chan's brother to visit relatives in Tokyo. The family had moved to the countryside after Non-chan as a small child became desperately sick with dysentery. Her mother had once promised Non-chan that she could come with her to Tokyo when she was older and stronger. Now she has gone off, keeping the trip secret. Non-chan, feeling betrayed and deceived, cries with unusual persistence.

'Well that's because everybody is worried about you.'

'That's a lie! Brother's never worried about me or anything.'

Father gave up and turned away. 'What a child for not seeing things! Go on and cry!'

'I am crying. Waaaah.'

And Non-chan cried.

Aunt had been tidying up the breakfast plates in the kitchen. When she came out a little later, father's silence and Non-chan's crying was still continuing. Aunt crouched down next to Non-chan and helped her blow her nose again and wiped her eyes.

'Come on, Non-chan,' she said, 'Please stop crying like that! Mother's already got to Yotsuya by now. Crying won't change anything, you know. Instead of that, let's you and me go out somewhere.'

'Now there's a good idea,' father agreed.

But Non-chan kept on crying.

What good was all that? Father and aunt didn't understand. She was crying, because she couldn't change anything.

Non-chan goes out to a nearby pond and climbs the tree there, gradually calming down. Suddenly she finds herself floating in the air, able to move each way, so that it becomes hard to tell 'up' from 'down'. She hears a voice calling her from a cloud overhead and dives upwards to reach it. The cloud is being steered by a strange kindly old man, who reminds Non-chan of her grandfather and also of a figure in her ohinasama dolls set. He is ferrying several people across the sky, but somehow the only one Non-chan can see clearly is a boy from her class.

The old man asks her about her life; and most of the book then becomes Non-chan's account, rephrased by the narrator, of herself and of her father, mother and brother. After each story, the old man questions her and makes suggestions, which put a new light on the story and its characters. Although Non-chan claims that their family is a happy one, it gradually emerges that she and her brother do not get on perfectly. Complaints about her brother creep into her stories of her mother and father, so that when we get to the chapters devoted to the brother we expect more of the same. In fact, Non-chan recognises good things in her brother too, and the relationship does not sound especially bad. He is a wild and thoughtless child, while she is a proper and disciplined one. Under the old man's prompting she comes to see his point of view.

This probably sounds like the book is describing a counselling session, "Non-chan's Supernatural Therapist". Probably part of its appeal is the idea of having someone interested to hear all about a child's life (a fairly rare experience for most children). As far as the fantastic element is concerned, a magical figure has more authority in its suggestions and judgements; but the book lives by its depiction of a family.

There is no English translation, but there is a German one, by Aenne Sano-Gerber, Nobbi, Erlebnisse einer kleinen Japanerin (1956), which in turn was translated into Danish as Nobbi, en lille japanesk piges oplevelser (1958). Both are out of print, but there are second hand copies. If you're looking, you may want to search for Momoko Ischii, which seems to be how the name is transliterated in the books.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Eight Graves Village

I wanted to write one post about each of the KINDAICHI Kousuke (金田一耕介) novels by YOKOMIZO Seishi (横溝正史) in chronological order. That would have meant that 夜歩く would be next. But I just left my copy on the train. I was about two thirds through, at the point where Kindaichi is pursuing a sleepwalking women through a forest in a violent thunderstorm and has just caught view of a sword brandishing man up ahead. So I'm going to be a bit on edge until I either get the book back or give up and order a new copy from Japan.

In the meantime, I'll skip one ahead and talk a bit about the next in the series, 八つ墓村 (Yatsu haka mura, The Village of Eight Graves, 1951).

Although there's a recognisable style to all the novels I've read in the series, Yokomizo also tries out several different approaches to the narration. In The Honjin Murder Case, he narrates in the third person without letting us see inside Kindaichi's head. In Gokumontou, he again narrates in the third person, but we see things from Kindaichi's perspective (the great detective is pretty much at a loss for most of the narrative). The Village of Eight Graves (like 夜歩く) is narrated in the first person, and Kindaichi is seen only from the outside. (My experience is that when we don't see inside Kindaichi's head, he often knows things that he isn't telling us; and that's particularly true here. His comment that doubtless Inspector Isokawa often thinks of murdering him is only too justified.) But before we get to the first person narrative, there is a prologue by Yokomizo, as in Gokumontou and some later books, in which he describes the background history from which the present case arises.

The first part of the village's history is the murder of eight samurai who had been hiding out there after being on the losing side in the civil wars of the sixteenth century. The villagers both feared the winner's anger and hoped to get hold of the money that the samurai had with them. But the gold was never found; and eight villagers died soon after, apparently from the curse of the murdered samurai. Hoping to assuage them, the villagers buried them properly in the eight graves that give the village its name and honoured them with a shrine. But in the twentieth century another massacre occurred, this time claiming 32 victims (closely modeled on a real mass killing, the Tsuyama massacre). The murderer is TAJIMI Youzou (多治見要蔵), the son of one of the two powerful families in the village, an always violent man, who had previously kidnapped and imprisoned a girl from the village.

Twenty-six years later, the novel's narrator, TERATA Tatsuya (寺田辰弥), the son of this woman, is contacted by a lawyer. The Tajimi family is looking for Tatsuya, as Youzou's son, to continue the family. Unaware of his own family's history, Tatsuya sets off for the isolated Okayama village, despite a mysterious warning letter and the death by poisoning of the grandfather who had come to accompany him back.

What follows is an atmospheric story with secret passages, labyrinthine cave systems, mysterious family secrets, hidden treasure, angry mobs, rival families, a not quite trustworthy love interest, an embittered war veteran, and so on. I've seen more than one reaction that this isn't much of a detective story at all (here, for instance), more of a horror story perhaps. To me, except for the horrific and repulsive background story, it more resembles the kind of book that Sir Walter Scott made popular. You might call it the male version of the gothic romance story that has been a staple of popular fiction (and occasionally high literature) for hundreds of years: an innocent visitor to a strange house is thrown into the midst of conspiracies and secrets and must decide whom they can trust. Christianna Brand did a very effective detective story version of the more normal women's gothic romance in Cat and Mouse (1950); so it's perfectly possible to combine the two

Considered as a puzzle, like  Gokumontou, it's a "serial murder with a pattern" story. There are no  special tricks from the murderer, only straightforward misdirection as to motive, which we suspect anyway. There's really only one clue; but accepting Kindaichi's view of what is going on with the serial murders, it points very clearly to one person. (It's actually a Yokomizo favourite, recurring slightly changed in at least two other novels.) But as often in the Kindaichi books, there are many side complications, so that although I made the necessary deduction, I was left feeling a little unsure and suspicious of other characters until the end.

There are three films based on the book. Since only one is available in Europe, that's the one that I've seen. It's the 1977 version by NOMURA Yoshitarou (野村 芳太郎), also known for several films based on  mysteries by MATSUMOTO Seichou (松本清張), which I haven't seen. This one was a commercial success in its day, but it didn't appeal much to me. The story of course has to be simplified for the film, but when I hear for instance that the doctor is the only one in the village, a little warning bell goes off in my head and I start thinking, "Hang on. In that case, what happens to the whole plot?" In fact Tatsuya's experiences and adventures and the background history remain much the same, but every single element of the detective story plot except for the identity of the killer has been removed. In its place, there's some tedious rigmarole involving the families that killed the original eight samurai, which gives the viewer no chance to work out who the killer is; it's simply announced by Kindaichi as the result of his researches at the end (and since its intercut with the killer's attempt to murder Tatsuya, the audience is probably not paying much attention anyway).

Since the story works well as an adventure story, one could hope that the film would get by with this; but a first person narrative doesn't translate well. And then Tatsuya's great aunts, Koume and Kotake, who are so effective (scary, funny and sad at the same time) in the book, just look wrong to me in the film: the characters are supposed to be very old, but they look like relatively young actresses, who have been unsuccessfully made up as old women, which gives the film a real feel of bad amateur drama. Following the links from the Japanese wikipedia page on the film, I see that the actress who played Kotake (市原悦子) was forty-one in 1977.

There is no English translation; but if you can read French, there's apparently a translation by René de Ceccatty and Ryôji Nakamura, Le village aux huit tombes (1999).

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Keeping track

I haven't really got the hang of the blogspot software. In particular I wasn't thinking very carefully when I added the various labels. The Japanese names don't get an alphabetical order (not surprising I suppose with kanji, which have various readings) and since I didn't think to add the English version of the name, they're not very useful for non Japanese speakers anyway. So I've added an extra page with a catalogue (in the tab at the top of this page), ordered by genre and author in English alphabetical order, and within author by date.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Adventurers

1972 was the year that  Watership Down by Richard Adams was published. I remember how, once it came out in paperback, almost everyone seemed to be reading it. In Japan another animal adventure story came out in the same year, and was likewise very successful:  冒険者たち ガンバと15ひきの仲間 (Boukenshatachi ganba to 15hiki no nakama The Adventurers, Gamba and his Fifteen Companions) by  斎藤惇夫 (SAITOU Atsuo, born 1940) with illustrations by 薮内正幸 (YABUUCHI Masayuki, born 1940). The book is a prequel to Saitou's first book, グリックの冒険 (Gurikku no bouken, Grick's Adventure,  1970). I haven't read it; but apparently its main character is a Japanese chipmunk, Grick. A minor character in the book, the rat Gamba, was so popular that Saitou decided to make him the main character in his next book. There's also a sequel, ガンバとカワウソの冒険 (Ganba to kawauso no bouken, The Adventure of Gamba and the Otter, 1983). The Adventurers was made into an anime series, ガンバの冒険 (Ganba no bouken, The Adventures of Gamba, 1975), and then into a film, as were the other two books in the series (グリックの冒険, released as Enchanted Journey 1981; 冒険者たち ガンバと7匹のなかま, 1984; ガンバとカワウソの冒険 1991).

Gamba's name is short for Ganbariya, "Battler"; but at the start of the story his fighting spirit is only shown in taking food from the larders of houses that other rats have occupied and keeping them out of his (the other rats think "Thief" or "Robber" would be a better name, but since Ganba is stronger than them, they don't press the point). He is taken out of his dull but easy life by his friend Manpuku, "Fullbelly", who wants to go visit the sea (and taste the imported delicacies to be found in the harbour). At a party in a dockside warehouse, Gamba drinks, fights, dances and brags with the ship and harbour rats who are enjoying the warehouse goods. Suddenly the party is interrupted by the appearance of a hungry and terribly wounded rat, Chuuta, who has escaped from an island where a large group of weasels has almost wiped out the rats living there. He is looking for help to save his family. One rat had already experienced the peculiar terror of these weasels, the Noroi clan, led by the charismatic and terrifying white weasel, Noroi. Despite his warning that the fight is hopeless, Gamba and fourteen others set off to fight the weasels.
Children need role models
Animal wars have often featured in children's books, for instance in Richard Jefferies' Wood Magic (1881) and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908). In Japan, こがね丸 (Koganemaru, 1891) often said to be the first children's story, tells of a dog avenging his father's death; and INUI Tomiko wrote several children's books with animal heroes, such as  ながいながいペンギンの話 (A Long, Long Penguin Story, 1957). I haven't read Koganemaru; but of the books I have read, the most similar is probably Watership Down. Common points are the distinctly adult protagonists and the epic scale. In Watership Down that is achieved by Tolkien style world building, with an invented mythology as background and a foundation legend based on the Aeneid and the legend of Romulus. The Adventurers feels like it is looking more towards samurai films for its model. In particular the reader is almost inevitably reminded of the plot of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Like in Kurosawa's samurai films, the action is short but intense, and much of the drama comes from eloquent speeches in debates of the heroes.

The actual fight with the weasels starts in the last third of the book. But the journey to the island and the search for the survivors is itself full of adventure; and Saitou very effectively builds up our dread of the weasels. He also very skillfully deploys his large cast. It helps that a few are only characterised by one capability revealed in the name (e. g. Tenor, Bass, Jump, Holedigger); but he manages to make us feel like we know a surprising number of characters and to give many of them a personal story that interacts with the larger story. Early in the book we are given warning that not all the companions will survive.

One other aspect the book shares with Watership Down is that it is a distinctly masculine story. All the fifteen companions are male; and Gamba shows an expectation that even in a fight for survival, it is only the males that will be fighting. At least the one named female character, Shouji, shows some impatience with this attitude. As in other Japanese children's books that I have read, the hero is boastful (in a positive way) and not very introspective, except towards the end of the book as the burdens of his responsibility start to weigh on him.

There is no English translation, but it seems to have been translated into French by Karine Chesneau: Gamba et les rats aventuriers (2012).

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Snow Locked Room

I read 雪密室 (Yuki Misshitsu, Snow Locked Room, 1989) by 法月綸太郎 (NORIZUKI Rintarou, born 1964) a while ago. So this is really just an account of my impressions from reading it.

Police superintendant NORIZUKI Sadao (法月貞雄) is one of several guests invited to the guest house Getsushokusou in the mountains in midwinter. The invitation is the work of a woman who takes pleasure in discovering other people's secrets and blackmailing them into dancing to her tune. When she is found hanged in the separate house in the grounds, the local police want to treat it as suicide, especially since there is untrodden snow all round this annexe and the only key a murderer could have used seems to be inside the annexe. But Norizuki is sure that this is murder. Locked rooms are beyond his abilities, though. So he calls in the help of his son, detective story writer NORIZUKI Rintarou ( 法月綸太郎).

The locked room puzzle here probably sounds familiar; and Rintarou himself mention's Carter Dickson's The White Priory Murders (1934) as soon as he hears of what had happened. The solution there does not work here, though, as Rintarou's policeman father remarks. On the other hand, one could say that the solution when we do find it uses elements from this and another mystery with a similar setup. It's perhaps not surprising that Ho-Ling in his review thinks that 'the locked room is not very original'. I actually like it a lot. Most locked rooms in the end are a matter of clever new combinations, and this one seemed very satisfactory. It's also very neatly constructed, so that the reader can have the pleasure of solving half of the trick without necessarily getting the full solution. More than that, we accept the solution to most locked room mysteries, because it's the only one that explains the impossibility. Norizuki here manages to have a solution that is reached by deduction, which in turn leads to a further deduction which allows him to identify the criminal, very much in the style of early Ellery Queen mysteries.

The similarities to Ellery Queen will probably already have struck you as you read the plot description: a team of policeman father and amateur detective son; an author with the same name as the hero. This is a deliberate homage of course. The father son team is very reminiscent of Ellery Queen novels and is really very well done.

There are things I don't like in the book. In some respects it feels overegged, with an abundance of side plots and the provision of a tragic backstory that fits very uncomfortably into the book. But it was one of the Japanese mysteries that most made me want to read more from the writer. Strange that I haven't got round to it yet. I have The Adventures of Norizuki Rintarou waiting on my shelf; I just need to get the energy to read a set of short stories.

There's a J'lit page on Norizuki Rintarou here.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


NATSUKI Shizuko (夏樹静子, born 1938) is one of the few Japanese detective story writers that English speaking readers have had a chance to read. Six of her novels have been translated into English. 蒸発―ある愛の終わり (Jouhatsu - aru ai no owari, Disappearance, The End of a Love Affair) is an award winning novel from 1973, unfortunately not one of those that have been translated.

There is more than one disappearance in the book, which is the story of the pursuit of two missing persons. But a particular disappearance is the prize puzzle of the book. Natsuki is well aware of that and describes the episode first, in a prologue, although chronologically it belongs about a third of the way into the book. On the Boeing 727 flight 585 from Tokyo to Hokkaido, the chief stewardess notices that seat 12C is empty, although she knows that every seat on the plane was taken. She remembers giving the woman sat there a refreshment napkin after embarcation, when the doors were already closed. Checking with the other stewardesses, the count of passengers, which a stewardess at either door makes as they come onto the plane, also indicates that every seat should be taken; and another stewardess remembers seeing a woman of the same description. But she is nowhere on the plane; and recounting the passengers shows that there is one less than had been counted in. Somehow a passenger has vanished in mid flight.

The 'vanishing passenger' is an occasional theme of mystery fiction. Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (1936), more famous from the Hitchcock film adaptation The Lady Vanishes (1938), features the disappearance of a passenger from a train; and John Dickson Carr had missing victims or murderers on ships in The Blind Barber (1934) and Murder in the Submarine Zone (as Carter Dickson, 1940). (I haven't heard his radio play "Cabin B-13" [1943] or the film Dangerous Crossing [1953] based on it, which have the same theme.) A plane is a yet more controlled environment than either of these, particularly at this time in Japan, shortly after the hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 351 in 1970, which led to tighter security controls. There's a 2009 Jodie Foster film, Flightplan, with a disappearance on a plane, not very good, if you trust the critics.

In Disappearance, it's a neat little puzzle; but it's only part of the book. The larger story is the pursuit by a foreign correspondent of his lover, who has gone missing while he was out of the country. The inquiry runs into another missing person problem, which leads to an extremely complicated story, as you could guess from the (selected) cast list below.

name reading role
田淵久子 TABUCHI Hisako stewardess
菊畑敏江 KIKUHATA Toshie stewardess
重松三千代 SHIGEMATSU Michiyo stewardess
小久保寛 KOKUBO Kan? copilot
水谷 MIZUTANI flight engineer
冬木悟郎 FUYUKI Gorou foreign correspondent
冬木郁子 FUYUKI Ikuko his wife
冬木ゆかり FUYUKI Yukari his daughter (5)
朝岡隆人 ASAOKA Takahito banker
朝岡勉 ASAOKA Tsutomu his son
朝岡美那子 ASAOKA Minako his wife
丹野靖久 TANNO Yasuhisa former admirer of Minako, steel company boss
白井 SHIROI Tokyo policeman
武藤 MUTOU Hokkaido reporter
丹野怜子 TANNO Reiko Tanno Yasuhisa's sister
中川圭吾 NAKAGAWA Keigo Fukuoka murder squad inspector
倉橋満男 KURAHASHI Mitsuo Tanno Yasuhisa's right hand man
高見ユリ枝 TAKAMI Yurie Tanno Yasuhisa's secretary
郡司祥平 GUNJI Shouhei Kyuushuu Steel boss
飛田 TOBITA Fukuoka murder squad policeman
須藤二三夫 SUDOU Fumio villa caretaker
小田切 ODAGIRI Fukuoka uniformed police chief
森脇真二郎 MORIWAKI Shinjirou villa occupant
鈴子ふさ子 SUZUKI Fusako villa occupant
小泉悠子 KOIZUMI Yuuko villa occupant
広池 HIROIKE Fukuoka ken murder squad chief
宗像 MUNAGATA Fukuoka town murder squad chief

Fuyuki Gorou returns from Vietnam, where he had been lost in the jungle, presumed dead, to find that Minako Asaoka,  a neighbour's wife, has gone missing. Before leaving for Vietnam he had been having an affair with her, and he was planning to ask her to marry him on his return. As he searches for her, he happens to learn that an admirer from her home town of Fukuoka has also gone missing. He starts investigating that disappearance too. Soon it becomes clear that there has been at least one murder. And a figure that fits Minako's description crops up again and again in eyewitness reports and before Gorou's own eyes, only to disappear again.

The different crimes and incidents each offer separate mysteries of a fairly traditional puzzle mystery kind: the impossible disappearance mentioned at the beginning; a couple of alibi tricks, including a not very interesting train alibi. The larger mystery though is how the two parts of the story fit together. The comparisons that come to mind while reading it were (in different ways) Ruth Rendell, Ross McDonald and Margaret Millar. Locked room mysteries and the like are a sure way to get that pleasing bafflement: 'It's got to make sense. But it doesn't make sense. But it's got to make sense.' But mysteries that play out on a larger scale can manage that too; and if they do, the effect can be really impressive. Natsuki is not in the Margaret Millar class (only Margaret Millar was); the book's success comes closer to one of the weaker Rendell mysteries. After puzzling over things that just don't fit, we want to read a solution that shows the simple truth behind the apparent contradictions, preferably one that completely overturns some of our ideas. The final explanation here pulls things together, but it's neither surprising nor especially simple: some of the many complexities are too obviously invented just to create a mystery, rather than arising naturally from the larger mystery. While I'm listing negative points, the narration too gets a little overburdened with the complexities. After we've followed a character reasoning out what the criminal must have done, it gets a little tiring to hear that reasoning again, or to have the same actions rehearsed when the criminal confesses.

I hope that won't deter anyone from trying this, as all in all it's a clever and well constructed mystery.