Friday, 31 July 2015

The Apple Orchard Special Train

りんご畑の特別列車 (ringobatake no tokubetsu ressha, The Apple Orchard Special Train, 1989) is a children's book by KASHIWABA Sachiko (柏葉幸子), best known for The Mysterious Town beyond the Mist. Like that, this is a fantasy for young readers. You could put children's fantasy on a spectrum. At one end, you have conventional fantasy stories, much like the post-Tolkien fantasy marketed to adults, which treat a magical world as something real and try to make it plausible. At the other, you have stories like Alice in Wonderland, which put more emphasis on invention and fill their world with deliberately fanciful and absurd creations. The classics of English language children's books would fit on the spectrum something like this: Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, The Hobbit. Like The Mysterious Town beyond the Mist, The Apple Orchard Special Train falls near the middle of the spectrum, a little closer to the "absurd and inventive" end than to the "treat magic like reality" end.

Yuki is a fifth year primary school girl (ten or eleven years old), taking an early evening train home after school and piano lesson; but something seems to have gone wrong.
When he got to Yuki's seat, the conductor said, "Please show me your ticket."

But they never checked tickets on the train ..... Yuki pulled her season ticket out of her pocket. As she held it out, she felt the train taking a curve to the left and looked out of the window. There shouldn't be a curve here. As Yuki pressed her face against the window, she heard the conductor, still standing by her seat, "Not that, the special train ticket."

She turned round in panic, "'Special train?' Do you mean this train?"

The conductor nodded.

"This isn't the normal train?"

"It's the special train," the conductor shook his head.

Yuki felt sure she had checked it was the right train. A little sulkily, she said, "Well, I'll pay the difference."

Resignedly, she took out her purse; but the conductor shook his head, "You can't pay the difference. It looks like you got on the wrong train. You'll have to get off at the next stop."

"Whaaat?" As Yuki cried out in distress, the train clanked to a stop.

"Right, up you get. If you don't have a ticket, you have to get off." He took her arm and pulled her to her feet. The old woman sitting in front of Yuki looked like she felt very sorry for her, but didn't say anything.

"Right. Down you go, down you go," the conductor threw the weeping Yuki out onto the dark platform.

But it didn't say "Special Train", Yuki thought, giving it a reproachful look. What? She looked at the one coach train standing by the platform. When she had got on, there had been ten coaches. ... The train's door hissed shut, a whistle sounded and the train started moving.

"A! Aaa!" Yuki half sighed half cried. The last window of the train opened, Beni and Ryou's faces looked out. When they spotted Yuki, they called, "Go to Merry's place!", "Here's a map. It's a travel agency," and threw a crumpled piece of paper. "You have to go there."

Yuki goes to the place her friends tell her, thinking she can telephone her father to come and get her. Instead, Merry sends her into another world.

The book falls into two parts, an outer frame, in which Yuki wanders into a fantastic world, and a central narrative, in which she has an adventure in the world she has been sent to. Trains and apple orchards only turn up in the outer frame. The world she reaches is one in which everyone except her can do magic; in return, magic does not work on her. Only she can see the ghost like wizard Pekinpo, who had almost been reduced to nothing by the country's king, who had cast a spell so that no-one would remember his existence. Since Yuki is the only one who can see him, she uses his help to win a magic contest and become the companion to the young prince, who must prove his worth by recapturing a stolen piece of magic.

As often in fantasies of travelling to other worlds, the heroine finds new qualities where her character had been lacking before. Yuki sees herself as someone who is too nervous and slow to speak up or act when needed; but faced by the challenges in this world, she is forthright and positively reckless. The adventures are bloodless, and although the characters are often in real danger, the story returns regularly to scenes of comedy or friendship.

Saturday, 25 July 2015


I don't generally bother to announce new translations of books I've reviewed separately; but if you're interested in children's literature, a new translation of one of INUI Tomiko's best books, The Little People in the House in the Tree's Shadow (木かげの家の小人たち), is good news. Pushkin Press are publishing a translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori, as The Secret of the Blue Glass (the title seems to be taken from the French translation, presumably because the Japanese title becomes unwieldy in English). There's a sample here at the Guardian just now (not the best bit to give an idea of the book).

I've added a note to the original post. Although a blog is pretending to be a diary, I do occasionally edit old posts. Mostly it's because I spot a spelling mistake or minor grammatical error. In that case I make the change silently. If it's anything more substantial, I try and make the change more visible, mostly by adding a square bracket with "UPDATE" in it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Great Kidnapping: Rainbow Kids

大誘拐 (daiyuukai, The Great Kidnapping, 1979) is a crime novel by TENDOU Shin (天藤 真, 1915-83); and as you can probably guess from the cover, it's a comedy. Although kidnapping is such a horrible crime in real life, it is often used for comedy (the O. Henry story, "The Ransom of Red Chief" for instance, or the Bette Midler film Ruthless People). This one fits into a familiar pattern in kidnapping stories: a victim more forceful than the captors effectively becomes the boss of the gang. Rainbow Kids in the post title is the "English title" added to the book (although it doesn't have an English translation), and refers to the name that the gang give themselves (they call each other by the code names Wind, Thunder and Rain, when they remember). There is a 1991 film of the book, directed by OKAMOTO Kihachi (岡本 喜八).

Three young small time crooks leave prison planning to make some real money. The leader Kenji (健次) is thinking of a kidnapping, to the alarm of the others, who remember horrible news stories of child kidnappings gone wrong. No, he assures them, the target is not a child, but an old woman, YANAGAWA Toshiko (柳川とし子, known as Toji, apparently an old fashioned honorific for a woman running the affairs of  a wealthy family). She is the head of a Wakayama family that controls a vast extent of forest land. Unknown to the kidnappers, they have picked an ideal time, as she has taken it into her head to go for a walk every day through a different part of the Yanagawa lands, accompanied only by her maid Kimi.

When the kidnappers, after various misadventures, finally succeed in capturing her, it immediately becomes clear who is going to be in control, when she insists on them letting Kimi go.  Soon, instead of heading to the hideout they had prepared, they are staying on the farm of one of Toshiko's loyal former servants. Their plans are thrown out much more drastically, when she hears how little (in her opinion) they were planning to ask for ransom. She insists on a huge sum, far greater than any previous ransom; and the gang agree, very unwillingly (how are they even going to carry a sum like that). Soon the case developes into a game of wits between the old lady directing the gang behind the scenes and the wily police chief, who had got his start in life from Toshiko's support when he was a child, and is fiercely devoted to her. As each side challenges the other, the whole of Japan and the world outside are drawn into the spectacle.

This is not a black comedy. There is no violence and no real villains. Most of the characters rise to the challenges presented them. The humour is mostly in the characters (particularly Toshiko, always gentle and courteous, but sure to get her way) and the situation, not so much in actual jokes or comedy set pieces. The tricks that the kidnappers use to outwit the police are reminiscent of the "caper" style of crime file (like Ocean's Eleven), but the book also reminds me a bit of earlier comedy adventures like John Buchan's John Macnab.

The film is very close to the book, in both substance and tone.  The main differences are only simplifications and minor omissions. Occasionally a scene is very slightly more slapstick than the book, but this is rare. One minor difference of tone is the music. Okamoto sets a lot of scenes to upbeat pop music; and this sounds a lot more like 1990 than 1979 to me. It's no classic, but I thought it was a very successful adaption, definitely worth seeing if you get the chance.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Why were the dolls killed?

TAKAGI Akamitsu (高木彬光) was one of the major Japanese mystery writers in the second half of the twentieth century, producing several books a year for decades. From the Japanese Wikipedia page, 1955 seems to have been a particularly productive year, with a total of twelve books published. At that rate, one should perhaps not have too high expectations of 人形はなぜ殺される (ningyou ha naze korosareru, Why Were the Dolls Killed? 1955); but it's a mystery with a high reputation, on the whole well deserved, with effective atmosphere and one especially pleasing trick.

The detective is KAMIZU Kyousuke (神津恭介), a professor of forensic medicine, amateur detective, and all round genius. His friend MATSUSHITA Kenzou (松賢研三), a detective story writer, functions as the book's Watson. We start with Matsushita visiting a café, whose curious and sinister ornaments derive from its owner's former trade as a professional stage magician. Kamizu is lucky that his cases so far have not involved magicians, the owner tells Matsushita. A magician, trained in the art of deception, would challenge him more than the killers he has dealt with so far. We soon have a chance to find out if he is right. At a meeting of amateur magicians, a guillotine trick is on the programme. The mannequin's head intended to be substituted for the head of the woman playing Marie Antoinette is stolen, so that the performance must be abandoned. Kamizu suspects there may be more to this mystery and advises Matsushita to look into it. Matsushita neglects the commission (he is playing all night Mah Jong). When he gets round to it, it is too late. The woman has been found guillotined. Where her head should be, the killer has left the stolen mannequin's head. This is the first in a series of murders in which the killing is announced in advance by the theft or destruction of a doll.

The initial theft is set up as an impossible (or at least very difficult) crime, but the investigation is not taken very seriously. In other respects though, the book is incredibly reminiscent of John Dickson Carr. Several characters feel like they have walked out of one of Carr's books and much of the stage scenery is clearly inspired by him (especially a lecture by Kamizu on black magic). Ellery Queen's challenge to the reader also makes its appearance. And YOKOMIZO Seishi contributes the serial targetting of three sisters from a once powerful landed Japanese family and an ominously threatening children's chant. Takagi's own interest in dubious finance is also already on show here. That ought to be all a bit much, but it all fits together very nicely.

I have a couple of reservations, neither of which made me like the book any less: the solution is probably a bit obvious and the book is longer than it should be. I say 'probably', because the way to the solution is made too easy, not just by Takagi, who plays perhaps too fair with the reader, but also by a careless description on the back cover of the paperback, which practically hangs a neon sign around the killer's neck. (The Japanese Wikipedia has a page on the book; and I'd avoid looking at that too until you've read the book, although it tries to avoid spoilers.) Around the middle of the book, Kamizu, who until then was commenting intelligently on the various puzzles, suddenly seems to forget even his own observations and become no better that than the average blundering policeman until the last couple of chapters.

My edition added two short stories, also featuring Kamizu, 蛇の環 ('The Ring of Snakes') and 罪なき罪人 ('Guiltless Sinner'); but I didn't have much enthusiasm for either of them.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Targeted Town (The Case Notes of Telepathy Girl Ran)

ねらわれた街 テレパシー少女「蘭」事件ノート (nerawareta machi , The Targeted Town:The Case Notes of Telepathy Girl Ran, 1999) is the first in a series of children's books by ASANO Atsuko (あさのあつこ). The main character, Ran (蘭), is a thirteen year old girl just starting middle school; and the book is clearly aimed at children about that age. In many ways it is very reminiscent of Japanese popular television, particularly anime or dramas aimed at teenagers. Not surprisingly it too has been made into an anime series, by NHK in 2008.

Ran and her family, mother and father and older brother Rin (凜), live in a small but growing town. Ran already has a boyfriend, the quiet Rui (留衣), whom she has known since they were small children. She is looking forward to everything in her new school life. Then on the way to school, she hears a mocking voice inside her head.

 Just next to her she heard a laughing voice, a tiny laughing voice.

Ran turned around.

The room was filled with the the light flowing in from the window. The cats Kishou and Tenketsu were sleeping in the bright spring sunlight. There was nobody there.
As the day progresses, she hears the voice again, now talking to her clearly, and she identifies the 'speaker' as the new student Midori (翠), who seems set to become Ran's personal enemy. After an initial confrontation however, she finds that Midori has been seeking her, having come to her town after sensing another person with strong telepathic powers in it. Midori's parents have effectively rejected her, unable to accept her powers. Ran, more at ease in her home life and confident that her family would still accept her, makes friends with Midori. There is however a real enemy at work in the town. A variety of apparently isolated incidents all have in common that people (and animals) suddenly act out of character. It seems there is someone else with psychic powers behind it all.

The mystery is one of those affairs where there's really only one suspect, though just what the culprit is after leaves some room for deduction or speculation. In general as far as plot is concerned, the book runs a very conventional path, with a thin emotional story progressing in tandem with a thin mystery. Probably the book is best seen as establishing the characters, in particular Ran, Midori and Rui, for later appearances. In the final confrontation, it is Midori, rather than Ran, who is the detective. Ran's role, from this book at least, looks to be more one of emotional guidance.

What I said about the vivid but simple style of Battery applies here too. The story here feels more conventional than that book. It looks like it is meant to be something lighter, mostly humorous outside of a few confrontation scenes. It is also more eventful and progresses a lot more purposefully.