Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Magician of Balloon Town

バルーン・タウンの手品師 (Baruun Taun no tejinashi, The Magician of Balloon Town, 2004) is a sequel to MATSUO Yumi's The Balloon Town Murder (1994). I wrote a post about that a year ago; but I'll repeat the essential background to the series here. Balloon Town is the mocking name given by outsiders to a closed district of near future Tokyo, reserved for pregnant women. Most women in this future prefer to use the artificial wombs that have established themselves as the safer and more convenient way to bring a baby into the world. For those women who reject this, Tokyo has set aside a protected precinct, a kind of town within the town, in which almost all the inhabitants are pregnant women. A little unusual among the other expectant mothers, the amateur detective KUREBAYASHI Mio does not share their slightly cultish devotion to natural motherhood. In the stories in the first book, she solves mysteries brought to her by her policewoman friend, ETA Marina, who finds herself sent repeatedly to investigate crimes in this unusual world.

The stories partly satirise things familiar in our world, in particular attitudes to pregnancy and maternity, by taking them to extremes, partly play with the surreal reversal of norms that the premise permits. Both of these elements are still present, but much more weakly so in the sequel. Eta is visiting another friend from the first book, whose baby is due. When a disk possibly containing sensitive government data goes missing from the hospital room, the only suspects are the other visitors, but none of them have the disk on them and none of them could have got it out of the room. Kurebayashi, whose baby Reo was born at the end of the first book, turns up to solve the impossible crime. As the more experienced Balloon Town insiders spot, she is pregnant again. So she is also on hand to solve the crimes that continue to occur in the town. In "The Balloon Town Automatic Doll", a maker of karakuri dolls (traditional Japanese clockwork dolls that perform surprisingly complex actions like serving tea) is bludgeoned and robbed in front of the camera he was using to record the performance of his two automata; but nobody could have got approached him by the only possible exit without being spotted. In "The Orient Express 15:45 Mystery", a protestor who threw tomatoes at a visiting author vanishes into a fortune teller's booth constructed as a railway carriage; but it seems that none of the pregnant fortune tellers could have been the attacker. In "The Strange Passion of Professor Hanibaru", Eta's investigation of a missing pregnant woman leads her to the woman's psychiatrist, a strange, mesmeric figure, whose enthusiasm for the subject of cooking with placentas perhaps hides something even more disturbing.

As the titles suggest the stories make frequent allusion to detective story literature, sometimes creating a pregnancy or maternity themed version of famous mysteries. The crimes are often relatively minor (there was one murder in the stories in the first book, none in this one). While the satirical element is weaker, more attention is paid to the development of the book across stories. The final story is much longer than the others; and lines preparing us for some of its elements are set up in the earlier stories.

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