Saturday, 24 May 2014

Marutamachi Revoir

Every month or so, I look in Google to see if anyone else is writing about Japanese crime fiction in English (or another European language). At the moment, there seems to be only one active blog, Ho-Ling no Jikenbo, which has been going for over five years now and has hundreds of reviews on it. Since we're the only ones currently covering the material, I sometimes try to avoid overlapping too much. But if a book sounds interesting, I'm likely to read it too at some point. The Revoir series by 円居挽 (MADOI Ban, or Van Madoy in the version that the books offer, born 1983) sounds like the kind of thing that I'd expect to like. I tried the first book, 丸太町ルヴォワール (Marutamachi Revoir, 2009); but in the end I couldn't feel much enthusiasm for it. So this'll be a fairly short review.

The set up is the most interesting part of the book, a society within the society of Kyoto, made up of ancient families, who resolve their disputes by a private trial system. The prosecution is for a murder several years back: the then teenage 城坂論語 (SHIROSAKA Rongo) is accused of having murdered his grandfather. The first chapter is a long first person narration by Shirosaka of the events of that day. He was recuperating after an injury to his eyes, which left him effectively blind, in his grandfather's home. His grandfather meanwhile was in the hanare (離れ), a separate building in the grounds, where he lived to avoid electrical interference that might make his pacemaker malfunction. I've mentioned this before, but those places are death traps (I'm fairly sure every detective story I've read so far, if there's a hanare, someone's going to get killed in it). Shirosaka, reaching for his mobile phone, happens to catch the hand of an intruder, apparently a young woman, who claims that her name is Rouge. There follows a battle of wits where he keeps hold of her and questions her; but in the end she gets away, and when later the grandfather is found dead, suspicion falls upon Shirosaka, since there are no traces of the young woman he remembers. The family cover up the crime, but some years later Shirosaka goes against his uncle's wishes, who sets a prosecution in motion.

The books are clearly aimed at young readers; and all the main characters are either students or only slightly older. If you include the first person account in the first chapter, we see the action from three viewpoints, Shirosaka, and his defense team, 御堂達也 (MIDOU Tatsuya) and 瓶賀流 (MIKAGA Mitsuru: I take it that these are unusual kanji for this name, as my Japanese input program didn't offer them as an option). There's a focus on young people's interest in deciding what to do with their lives, and also on cutting a good figure (格好いい). 

The trial proceeds with repeated surprises, especially since both sides are quite unscrupulous, ready to use any trick in order to win. The actual deductions rarely seem convincing and at the end we are left with a solution that was probably the one we were expecting; but if there was any good reason to choose it, I must have missed it. The private court was in the end not really a plus for me. I didn't really care about the ceremonial aspects, which got a lot of attention, and wanted to know what the procedural rules were. As it was, it seemed like a chaotic free for all, which is probably less fun for readers who have a couple of decades of experience of badly run meetings. The books makes a kind of theme of the interplay of the pleasure of deception and the pleasure of deduction. In this book at least, Madoi seems stronger in the first than the second.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Little Momo

The book pictured is actually a bunko edition (2011) containing what was originally two books by  松谷みよ子 (MATSUTANI Miyoko), ちいさいモモちゃん (Chiisai Momo chan, Little Momo, 1964) and モモちゃんとプー (Momo chan to Pū, Momo and Pū, 1974). These are the first in a series of books about a little girl called Momo and her family: mama, papa, the cat Pū, and at the end of the second book the new baby Akane. The books are made up of linked short stories aimed at young readers (or listeners), but not as young as the main character, who goes from birth to three years old in the first book, from three to four in the second. I'm not sure why a book like this would be in bunko format (which are printed with few furigana and so probably unreadable for a younger child). You sometimes see children's books in this format, shelved among the adult novels, but they're mostly books for slightly older children, who may well be able to read them even without extra help. Either the publishers expect parents to read it aloud or they see a market in people nostalgically revisiting the books of their childhood.

It's a little hard to characterise the stories. The narrator uses a speaking voice, mostly close to written Japanese, but with occasional features of spoken Japanese, particularly the particle ね, a question particle, a bit like a parenthetic "you see?" "hmm?", which looks for the reader's or listener's agreement. All the stories have an element of fantasy, so that animals or inanimate objects may talk or in other ways show human characteristics. This is a bit like A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" stories; but the fantasy is only part of the Momo stories. The focus is on family life and the development from baby to child. The animism is perhaps a view of how small children see the world around them (or are encouraged to see it by their parents). In this the book is a bit like Richard Jefferies' Wood Magic, but without the single minded concentration on the viewpoint of a single solitary child that that has. 

The stories are mostly light, cheerful and short (five or six pages long); but some of the longer ones are ready to look at darker sides of life too. Here, for instance is part of a dream that the mother has a little before Akane is born.

Mama was trudging across a plain. Lead-grey clouds hung low over it. The plain was withered. Withered like that, you would expect it to have the colour of dead grass; but, perhaps because of the low hanging lead-grey cloud, the whole plain too was sunk in the same lead-grey.

Sometimes Mama would stop walking and look around. An icy wind blew past. But the damp layers of lead-grey cloud did not move, they just hung there darkly.

Mama sighed and started walking again with heavy steps. It's so dark, and lonely too, as if everything had died out, no sound anywhere .....

Did the baby die, perhaps? When I fell on the stairs, did it die perhaps? That's it, it died. I mean, it's so dark here. Like litter blown this way and that in the wind, mama stood swaying. That's it, the baby died .....

At that moment from a crack in the clouds one ray of light fell on the plain. And there where the light fell something was shining brightly.

"I wonder what that is ....."

The Japan Foundation website tells me that both books have an English translation: Margi Haas, Little Momo Chan (Kodansha International, 1985), Christopher Holmes, Momo Chan and Poo (Kodansha International 1986).

[Update 19.5.14: When I first put this up, I had (I can't imagine how) strangely misread, and so mistranslated a word in the quoted text above. Sorry about that.]

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Murders at Broom House

I've given my own translation of the title of 金雀枝荘の殺人 (Enishidasou no satsujin, The Murders at Broom House, 1993) by  今邑彩 (IMAMURA Aya, 1955-2013). As you can see, the publishers have put their own translation on the cover, The Murder at the Broom House; but the English translations that Japanese publishers sometimes put on their books are not always correct or idiomatic. The style of the cover is something you see quite often on Japanese mysteries: thin, very vertically posed figures with long necks and small heads. I'm not sure if they're all the same artist (this cover is credited to KITAMI Ryuu, 北見隆). The style appears on some more light hearted books; but, particularly in colours like these, you can see how it could fit with books tending more towards the horror end of the mystery genre. This book definitely belongs there. There are few descriptions of horrible events as they happen; but we read with anticipation or awareness that most of the characters are not going to survive.

I actually hate this kind of book. I hate watching people cluelessly bumbling about, unaware of the terrible things about to happen to them, or making obviously bad choices in their pathetic efforts to survive. It helps if the victims show more resourcefulness, or if they are particularly sympathetic, so that we care what happens to them. Neither is the case here. We just look on unwillingly as unpleasant events approach people whose fates don't really interest us.

The book also has the trappings of a ghost story. Unlike most detective stories, one ghost at least seems to be real, and we see things from her point of view in a prologue. Some provisional deductions are also made along the way based on acceptance of the supernatural. Such things of course threaten to undermine the puzzle, especially when the rules of the supernatural are not clear. But the central mystery at least can be solved without recourse to supernatural evidence.

Four cousins gather at Broom House to discuss a mysterious massacre that had occurred a year ago in the same mansion, a German style house that their great grandfather had built in the late Meiji period for his German bride.  Five other cousins had been staying there over Christmas. But they had all died. From the evidence, they seem to have murdered each other and the caretaker, serially (i.e. A was apparently killed by B, B by C, C by D and so on), each by a different method. The windows of the house had been nailed shut from the inside, and were likewise all locked from the inside, as were the doors. This massacre resembled a crime from the early twentieth century, when the caretaker had apparently killed his wife and daughter, before killing himself. In that case too the house had been locked and nailed shut from the inside. Did his ghost hang like a curse over the house, driving the cousins to madness? But the cousins' murder has another pattern, the series of the victims resemble the little goats in Grimm fairy tale that the cousins had made the centre of a game when they stayed at the house as little children. And there is one more mystery hanging over the house, the German great grandmother had disappeared shortly after her marriage, apparently abandoning her new born baby to return to Germany.

The four surviving cousins are joined by a woman who can see ghosts and a passing traveller who works his way into the group by a combination of strange persuasiveness and persistence. With six people in the house the stage seems set for a repeat of the events of last Christmas. And someone is secretly nailing shut the windows of the salon.

There are a range of mysteries here. Attention is concentrated on the earlier murder of the five cousins. As a locked room, I don't think it would rank in the top efforts. I certainly considered the actual solution; but, since we are talking about a mansion, rather than a room, with so many possible exits, it's hard to know what might be possible. On the other hand, it's one of the best examples of making use of the horror aspect of a crime to cover (and then from the other side to deduce) how the crime was committed. There are several other clever aspects to the book. At the end the motive brings us back into horror territory, a nastier variation on one of the most famous Japanese detective stories.

I wouldn't want to praise the book too highly; but it was good enough that I'll certainly try something else by the same writer. You can read another blogger's less enthusiastic reaction to the same book here.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Musika and Misika of the Far North

I wrote about INUI Tomiko's A Long, Long Penguin Story (ながいながいペンギンの話 by  いぬいとみこ) last year. 北極のムーシカミーシカ (Hokkyoku no muushika miishika, Mushika and Mihsika of the Far North, 1961) is literally its polar opposite. In every other sense, though, the two books are very similar. A Long, Long Penguin Story describes the childhood adventures of two penguins brothers in the antarctic. Mushika and Mishika of the Far North describes the childhood adventures of two brothers, polar bear cubs, in the arctic. The book was made into a cartoon film of the same name in 1979 (given the English title Adventures of the Polar Cubs). I haven't seen this myself. I assume that the illustration on the book's cover is taken from it.

As in A Long, Long Penguin Story, Inui lets the animal characters talk and think like people, but otherwise tries to show their lives as they really are. So, for instance, the father of the cubs has no part in raising them. We follow the mother and the two cubs from when they emerge from the snow cave they have lived in through the winter over the first years of their lives. Mishika is mischievous, Mushika is curious and inquisitive. A third cub, a girl Mashika, joins them when the brothers find her next to her mother who has been shot by hunters.

Looking at the cover, you're probably thinking that if the book is true to nature, that seal had better look out for itself, since seals are a major part of the polar bear's diet. The harsh necessity of polar life is actually a key theme of the book. The cubs make friends with various animals; but they come to understand that the lives of the animals of the arctic involve eating other animals.

"But, but, if the little human hadn't saved Mishika -" Mashika said, still shivering.

"Why couldn't the big human understand? How happy we were that Mishika and mother didn't get shot -" Mushika said angrily.

Here mother spoke, "It's something I told Mishika before, but in this harsh land of the north, since nothing is more important than finding food to survive, parents teach their children how to hunt. The humans teach their children to hunt seals and bears, bears teach their children to hunt seals and herring, and seals teach their children to hunt herring and cod. But those parents know that taking a life is something truly horrible for the being whose life is taken. Mishika, you know, destroying Oora's fellow seals is not something that I want to do. But the law of the polar bears is that the parent must at some time teach their cub to hunt seal ..... so that we can go on living."

Mishika and the other cubs were silent.

The book is aimed at younger readers. The cover suggests a reading age of seven or above, and says it can be read to children from the age of four. I can imagine that some of the material in the book might be difficult for very young readers, such as the scene on an abandoned seal hunter's ship where Mishika, whose best friend was the seal cub Oora, first sees his mother eating seal meat. The book tries to give readers and characters a chance to come to terms with this world in the summer festival that marks its climax, a magical event where all the different animals of the arctic can meet for a few days without fear of being eaten.