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).

1 comment:

  1. you lose a book?! O_o

    Yatsu Haka Mura... by now I've read the book, seen the movie, seen the Inagaki Gorou TV special, played the game and I've probably seen the story in some other form too... I find it interesting as a reference point to discuss Kindaichi Kousuke in terms of tropes, and as a reference point for parodies, but I've never really liked the story itself and never will. It's almost impossible to explain the TV drama TRICK for example w/o Yatsu Haka Mura.