Friday, 26 August 2016

The Panic of A Tomoichirou

AWASAKA Tsumao's A Aiichirou stories are among the highpoints of Japanese detective fiction. I've read two of the three collections so far; but this time I'm going to talk about a prequel. 亜智一郎の恐慌  (A Tomoichirou no kyoukou, The Panic of A Tomoichirou, 1997) features a character who seems to be a bakumatsu version of A Aiichirou. Like Aiichirou he is handsome and elegant, but sometimes clumsy and cowardly, and has a talent for observation and deduction. While Aiichirou is a photographer who specialises in cloud photography, Tomoichirou works in the shogun's "cloud watching department", in which a few samurai spend the day lazily observing the weather in Tokyo from a tower in the shogun's palace.

The first of the seven stories in the collection introduces us to Tomoichirou and other samurai who are assigned to his team, when a court official realises that he has the skills for a secret investigator. The subordinates have various characters, one is a one armed, easy going lover of theatre, one an enthusiast for the ninja skills that are no longer really needed in modern Japan, one is immensely strong. In different episodes in the first story, they show their potential usefulness as secret agents.

The stories that follow have something in common with the A Aiichirou series, but are really far enough removed from it that I don't think that I'd recommend them to fans. There is an impossible crime (of sorts) in the second story, but really most of the stories are more like spy stories with a small detective element. Also although some have a similar humour to the A Aiichirou series, others deal with horrible crimes where humour is really not wanted. Finally Tomoichirou, unlike Aiichirou, is rarely a major character in the story, although he does always make some deduction near the end. More often the mystery plays out as an adventure story with different members of his team as the main investigators (much like Van Gulik's Judge Dee series).

This is not a very enthusiastic review. Partly I may be holding Awasaka to a higher standard than other writers. Partly the historical background may have made this too difficult a book for me to enjoy it. I read a lot on the train, away from the internet or any dictionary. Mostly that works out fine; but here with a lot of vocabulary rooted in the culture of Tokyo under the shogun and a lot of references to historical events and people, I often lacked the background I needed to really appreciate the book. As historical fiction, they work much on the pattern established by Scott. The various adventures are often thrown up by the real historical events of the chaotic period that led to the rejection of the shogun for the rule of the emperor; but although the agents are successful in their own actions, they are not really changing anything in the flow of history.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Two Idas

ふたりのイーダ (futari no īda, Two Idas, 1969) is a children's book by MATSUTANI Miyoko ( 松谷みよ子).

While their mother goes on an assignment to Kyushu, she leaves Naoki and almost three year old Yuuko with their grandparents in the little castle town of Hanaura. Hanaura is in western Japan, on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, a location that will become relevant later in the novel. The family sometimes call Yuuko Ida, a nickname that Naoki gave her from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

On the first night in this grandparents' house, Naoki sneaks out to explore.

Naoki did not know how long he had been standing next to the castle moat. His attention was suddenly wakened as he heard the clatter, clatter sound of someone passing by near his feet. At the same time he heard a low murmur, "Gone, gone, can't find her ....., gone."

Although the voice was low and hoarse, it could be heard from down by his feet. Shocked Naoki looked around below him. It was a chair. It was a small - yes, about the size that would just fit Yuuko if she sat down in it - backed, round wooden chair. The chair was walking, clatter, clatter, along the white path at the edge of the the moat, dragging its legs with each step.

The next day Naoki discovers an abandoned house in the woods, and in it the chair from the night before. When Yuuko visits the house, she seems strangely at home there; and the chair thinks that it recognises her as the Ida it knew. But whoever that Ida was must have vanished long ago. Angry at the chair's claims on his sister, Naoki tries to find out what had happened to the people living in the house; but he also starts to wonder whether his Yuuko might be the reincarnation of the Ida that the chair knew.

A visit to Hiroshima suggests what may have happened to the family. A young woman from the town takes Naoki with her to a memorial ceremony for the victims; and Naoki learns about the events that he had only vaguely heard of before.

In this way the fantasy element of the book winds into a story of the atom bomb. The two fit together a little oddly. The chair's sentience is not really motivated; but its character can be seen as a way of approaching the feeling of being unable be come to terms a loss of this kind.

[UPDATE: I forgot to check the Japan Foundation's Translation Database before writing this review. It turns out there is an English translation, Paula Bush, Two Little Girls Called Iida, Kodanasha International, 1985.]