Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Kiki's Delivery Service 2

Kiki's Delivery Service  (魔女の宅急便, 1985) by KADONO Eiko (角野 栄子) was a success in its own right before being made into a film by MIYAZAKI Hayao (宮崎 駿) in 1989. Doubtless the film provided an encouragement for Kadono to produce several sequels, the first of which was 魔女の宅急便 2: キキと新しい魔法 (Majo no takkyuubin 2: Kiki to atarashii mahou, Witch's Express Home Delivery Service 2: Kiki and her New Magic, 1993); but the first book was already written in a way that looked towards the possibility of a series. I've only read up to the second; but I suspect from what I've read that the series is a fantasy version of series like Anne of Green Gables or Little Women, which follow a girl from child to adult.

As in the first book, the story is made up of a series of short stories, each about something that Kiki delivers. In the first book, many of the episodes were less realistic than the film, involving fantastic absurdities. Some of the early episodes of the second book are in the same style (e. g. "Kiki delivers a hippo"); but as it proceeds, this aspect is cut back and there is more emphasis on character development. Curiously, much of this part of the story resembles additions that the film made to the first book: Kiki becomes less able to fly; although she can still talk to her cat Jiji, he is less keen to accompany her; she is jealous of a normal girl she sees with Tombo. Other aspects of the crisis of confidence in the book differ from the film and have more to do with her uncertainty about whether what she is doing is worthwhile, after one mission fails and another involves delivering something unwelcome to the recipient.

As her flying becomes less reliable, she takes to walking more, and borrows a pretty dress from a second hand clothes shop to feel like she is not a witch, just for a little while. She spends her savings on an ice at an expensive restaurant that overlooks the sea.
When she had finished eating Kiki propped her face with one hand and gazed at the sea.

Then, recalling how Mimi had looked as she smiled up at Tombo, she copied the smile, showing gleaming white teeth. But the only people to see were the restaurant waiters; and they were all just standing in a row like white pillars.
In the end, Kiki takes her unhappiness as the spur to look for a new direction and adds a different magic to her flying. Readers of the first book may remember that something like this decision was already at least suggested at the end of that. It's probably fair to say that both books take a leisurely pace with new developments; but it's not a book I read resenting the time spent on it.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Fox's Locked Room

高木 彬光 (TAKAGI Akimitsu, 1920-1995) is one of the few Japanese detective story writers to have had some success in the west. Three of his novels have been translated into English: 刺青殺人事件 (Shisei satsujinjiken,1948, The Tattoo Murder Case, 1998); 密告者 (Mikkokusha, 1965, The Informer, 1971); ゼロの蜜月 (Zero no hanemuun, 1965, Honeymoon to nowhere, 2004). The Japan Foundation site also lists a short story, 二銭銅貨 (Nisen douka, "A Copper", The Reeds, 9, 1963, 71-9). Looking at library catalogues, the journal is probably the house journal of the English department of the Osaka University of Foreign Studies; the story has the same title as an EDOGWA Rampo story (so either it's a homage, or someone made a mistake in the Japan Foundation data entry). The Tattoo Murder Case was Takagi's first novel and featured the detective KAMIZU Kyousuke (神津恭介). It regularly features in lists of best detective stories; but I haven't got round to reading it yet (nor any of the other translated works). A different detective, OOMAEDA Eisaku (大前田英策), features in a (not very good) collection of short stories, 恋は魔術師 (Koi ha majutsushi, Love, The Magician, 1986). While Kamizu is an intellectual, a medical scientist who sometimes is called in as a consultant because of his detective abilities, Oomaeda is a professional private detective, described as the descendant of the bakumatsu rogue, OOMAEDA Eigorou (大前田英五郎, 1793-1874).

In  狐の密室 (Kitsune no misshitsu, Fox's locked room, 1977) Takagi puts Oomaeda and Kamizu on stage together. Oomaeda is called in by a millionaire Kyoto businessman, worried about the woman that his son seems set on marrying. She is currently a nun in a breakaway Buddhist sect with a dubious reputation. Worse than this, the businessman suspects that she may be his daughter from an affair he had in Korea during the war with a Japanese woman who never returned to Japan. Oomaeda's staff start looking into the background of the nun's family, while Oomaeda himself goes to the sect's main temple near Lake Biwa, posing as an invalid seeking miraculous help. The sect's charismatic leader has a legendary reputation; he is said to have had the ability as a child to work wonders through control of foxes (which in Japan are magical creatures). Now however he is sick and is looking to decide the future of the sect. But after a night of prayer, he is found strangle with a fox fur, in a temple surrounded by untouched snow. He died after the snow had stopped falling; but the only footsteps are those of the disciples who found his body in the morning. Locked rooms are beyond Oomaeda; so he calls in the help of the great detective Kamizu.

The first two thirds of the book follow Oomaeda, allowing us to see his suspicions and ideas. After Kamizu's appearance, Oomaeda is more or less an onlooker. Kamizu is very much the great detective, with enigmatic pronouncements and questions whose need is not immediately obvious.

As a detective story, it's at least satisfactory. Despite the title the locked room is more an impossible crime. The solution could be seen as a variation on a very familiar locked room trick. There are one or two points about the locked room situation that seem a little forced. But there is more to the mystery than just the locked room.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Rim of the Pit

Somehow, although I had read several histories of the detective story, the name of Hake Talbot had never registered, until learning Japanese brought me back to reading detective stories recently. His Rim of the Pit (1944) appears in quite a few lists of classic locked room mysteries. So, to fill in my education, I took a look at it, as an interval between the Japanese detective stories I mostly read.

The setting is an American forest wilderness. The lodges of two partners in the logging business are separated by a short walk. The wife of one of the businessmen is a spiritualist; and now she is calling up the ghost of her first husband, to ask his permission to cut the trees on one part of the land he had left her. But the ghost that appears seems miraculous beyond the possibilities of a fake seance; and it comes with a deep hostility to those that have called it up. Soon we have a Carr style mystery, with a locked room and footsteps that end in lonely untrodden snow, so that the witnesses can only think that a man has taken flight. For local colour the North American windigo legend is adapted to the idea of possession by ghosts. The dead, as evil spirits, can possess a man, directing his actions, while giving his body supernatural powers.

The style of the book is incredible. With huge self confidence Talbot pours out an endless stream of the clichés of popular writing: "A sneer curled Madore's thick lips", "Rogan saw Jeff's great shoulders bulge under his hunting shirt","Lights appeared over the brow of the hill. Madore's eyes darted to them in superstitious terror. Rogan took advantage of this to step in, catch the half-breed's wrist and twist it behind him until he dropped the knife". The attitudes of an old book are always going to be at odds with a modern reader. Mostly I have no problem with such things. Talbot's attitudes perhaps seemed so unpleasant to me, because unlike other dated writers, that's all he has.

The mystery is very closely modeled on Carr; and it looks quite promising as it is being built up. I guess that this setup in the first part of the book is what gets the book mentioned. The second half gets more tedious, as the characters track back and forth between the houses. The solution sort of works, if you're feeling generous; but it's not one of those wonderful "Oh, of course. How did I miss that?" solutions that the best mysteries have. There are a couple of good ideas in it, but they are not the impossible crime part.

When I read a really negative review of something that other people like, I suspect that the reviewer is missing something. Search for this title in other blogs and you'll find plenty of good reviews. So doubtless I'm missing something. At the moment I'm not really inclined to be fair, just snarling a little over the waste of my time.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Looking for Translations of Japanese Books

I'm amazed by how much has been translated into Japanese. You can still buy Japanese translations of several writers of quite obscure British detective stories that are no longer available in English. Translation in the other direction is really pitiful, though. There are a few writers who are sufficiently established in English speaking countries that many of their works get translated; but again and again you come across really good books that have never been translated into English. When I write about a book, if I know that there's an English translation, I mention that in the post and add the label "books with an English translation". As you can see, there aren't many books with English translations in what I've looked at so far. Failing that, if I know that there's a translation into another European language, I often mention that, in case any readers can read that language (and can't read Japanese).

I thought I'd just note down some of the things I do when looking to see if there's a Japanese translation. I'm not a bibliographer by profession. So it's a fairly amateur search and I'd welcome any better suggestions.

Sites on Japanese works translated into other languages

(I found the first two of the websites listed below from the sidebar of the blog Contemporary Japanese Literature, the third from the sidebar of the blog Ho-Ling no Jikenbo.)

1) Perhaps the most useful site is the Japan Foundation's database of translated works. I've always gone to the author lists, which are alphabetised by surname. Within the results, to find out what exactly each entry is, you need to click on "Detailed display".

2) A site I rarely look at is Japanese Literature in English. My impression is that this is very incomplete. On the other hand, I have found things there that are not listed on the Japan Foundation's site.

3) For mystery, instead of a database, there's also a website, Asia Mystery League, in Japanese with lists for various European languages. Of course, if you want to read a translation from Japanese, it's quite likely that you don't read Japanese; but as most of the relevant pages have lists including the Romanised form of the author name, perhaps it could still be of some use. The European languages are all on separate pages: English; French; German (no European alphabet form for the authors, so you may find it not that helpful); Dutch (no European alphabet form for the authors); Italian; Spanish and Portuguese; Scandinavian and Baltic (no European alphabet form).

General Searches

The sites above don't find everything. I often look on google and google books and in combined library catalogues like Worldcat or the Karlsruhe Virtueller Katalog. Worldcat allows you to select within the results by language. The different possibilities for spelling and ordering Japanese names in English can be a problem for this kind of search.

In Practice

It might be interesting to compare the results of the different sources for a few authors, restricting the search to English translations.

For MIYABE Miyuki, a google search would return too much (since she's a well known author in the west). The Japan Foundation, Japanese Literature in English and Asia Mystery League turn up almost the same list of books and short stories: Crossfire; The Sleeping Dragon; All She Was Worth; Brave Story; Ico, Castle in the Mist; Shadow Family; The Devil's Whisper; "The Futon Room" in Tales of Old Edo (Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan Vol.1). But Japanese Literature in English has one more: The Book of Heroes (2010). The Asia Mystery League has that too and does one better, adding, Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo (2013). As to catalogue searches, Worldcat finds all of these; but, combining as it does the data of many libraries, it also has some false entries (nothing to compare with Google Books of course). For instance, it offers a book Who's That Boy? from 1998; but the ISBN for that gives a book by Miyabe in Japanese from the same year, 地下街の雨. 

For NIKI Etsuko, The Japan Foundation gives a translation of  遠い絵図, "The distant drawing" in The Kyoto collection: stories from the Japanese (Osaka, 1989). None of the other sources find even that.

For NISHIMURA Kyoutarou, The Japan Foundation finds a short story "The Kind Blackmailer" in Ellery Queen's Japanese golden dozen : the detective story world in Japan (1978) and a novel, The mystery train disappears (1990). Asia Mystery League has the novel but only lists the short story separately (not in its Nishimura entry); on the other hand, it adds the more recent collection, The Isle of South Kamui and Other Stories (2013). Japanese Literature in English doesn't have anything. Worldcat finds everything and adds a few irrelevant search results.



Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The God of the Bottom of the Class


 岡田淳  (OKADA Jun, born 1947) worked as a teacher before publishing his first children's books. So it is not surprising that more than one has a school setting. びりっかすの神さま (Birikkasu no kamisama, The God of the Bottom of the Class 1988) is a fantasy set in the fourth year class of a Japanese primary school, when the children would be about nine years old.

The main character Hajime is new to the school. His mother had moved to the area after the sudden sickness and death of his father, who had devoted his life only to getting ahead, something that Hajime's mother does not want for her son. The new class has a teacher keen on using tests to drive the children to do well. There are tests every day; and each child's place in class is decided by how well they are doing in the tests. Unsurprisingly, it's an unhappy class, especially the children at the back (the ones doing worst in the tests). But as Hajime introduces himself to the class, he makes an unusual discovery.

'I am -'

Those were all the words he had got out, when he caught sight of something really strange.

In front of his eyes, about a metre away, all of a sudden a transparent man appeared. The man was about twenty centimetres tall, wearing a worn out suit and a shabby tie. There were tiny wings on his back. He was flying through the air with lazy flaps.

He didn't just fly through it. His eyes met with Hajime's. His face was long, his hair dry and unkempt, his expression timid. His eyes still meeting with Hajime's, he blinked, and flying forward about fifty centimetres, he suddenly jolted with surprise. At that moment he vanished from sight.
 Hajime observes this little spirit, and finds that it appears at the desk of children who come last in a test. Although he himself has no special difficulty with schoolwork, he deliberately comes last to get the spirit to come to him, and gradually learns to communicate with it by his thoughts.  The man calls himself 'Birikkasu', the name for the person at the bottom of the class. He thinks that he was called into being by the unhappiness of children who were last in the many tests the class teacher gives.

So far, Hajime is the only one able to see Birikkasu; but his neighbour at the back of the class Miyuki finds out that he has been deliberately getting low marks. When she challenges him, he tells her everything. Next day, when Miyuki too, as often, gets the lowest mark, she too finds that she can see Birikkasu, and with that, communicate in her thoughts both with him and with Hajime. Gradually the whole class gets drawn in: the children cooperate to raise the grades of the worst students, and those that could do better hold back, so that a whole group of children can get the same lowest mark at the same time.

For the teacher, the improving average of the class should be welcome in principle; but the strange uniformity and the change in behaviour of the children becomes more and more disturbing. (The story is a comedy; but rewritten from the teacher's point of view it would be more like The Midwich Cuckoos.) Soon he is on sick leave and the children are left to decide among themselves what kind of real efforts are worthwhile, as the school sports day approaches.

This is an amusing and skilfully written book that handles with a light touch the kinds of real pressures that small children experience.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Gingko Slope

松尾由美 (MATSUO Yumi, born 1960) writes detective stories, science fiction and fantasy; several of her works are a mix of these genres. Her most interesting sounding book is バルーン・タウンの殺人 (Baruun taun no satsujin, Balloon Town Murder, 1994), set in a new town reserved for pregnant women as part of a Japanese government attempt to keep the birth rate up. Unfortunately the book and its sequels are out of print. You can buy an electronic version if you live in Japan. As I don't, I tried a different book. 銀杏坂 (Ichouzaka, Gingko Slope, 2001) collects five short stories published between 1996 and 2001, featuring two police detectives in a Hokuriku town, whose cases all involve an element of the supernatural.

This is not the kind of supernatural element which actually turns out to have a natural explanation. Instead in the course of the investigation, the detectives have to accept that the mysterious phenomenon is real, and then explain the remaining mystery in the light of that. The stories can all stand as separate mysteries; but experience of one is reflected in the next.

A Street in Kanazawa
Matsuo devotes a lot of attention to the setting. The dialogue is largely in dialect; but it's easy enough to read (the most common differences to standard Japanese are that "ga" often appears where you might expect "no", and "ya" where you might expect "iru"). The town Kousaka seems to be fictional. I think that it's based on Kanazawa, which is Matsuo's home town according to Wikipedia. The town has two rivers, a famous park, little pockets of traditional streets and a "karakuri temple", all of which would fit. Also, one of the stories mentions a local author (apparently fictional) whose works include a story 化銀杏 (Bake ichou, "Gingko spirit"). The famous Kanazawa author, 泉鏡花  (IZUMI Kyouka, 1873-1939), has a story of the same name. I haven't read it; but the summary on the Japanese Wikipedia page fits the description given in the book.

The two detectives are the experienced Kizaki and the young Yoshimura; but in several stories Yoshimura plays only a minor role and it is always Kizaki who provides the key deduction. Kizaki grumbles quite a bit, both at his younger colleague's enthusiasm for detective story style interpretations of their cases, and at the supernatural phenomena that seem to plague him; but he is a likable character, unable to leave a problem alone, but still showing sympathy towards those he investigates. The supernatural elements that wind through the stories are the kind of ideas that disturb the real world only slightly: a ghost (who can be seen, but cannot move objects); prophetic dreams; a man whose soul wanders from his body while he sleeps; a child with weak telekinetic abilities. The crimes involved tend toward the less bloody end of the range of detective fiction. There is one murder, and that in a locked room whose only exit is through a window onto a snow covered garden with no footprints. Other than that the stories feature: the theft of a jewel box, which ought still to be in the building (since witnesses saw no-one leave), but cannot be found; the investigation of a woman whose dreams convince her she is going to stab her husband; a man hit on the head with a surikogi ; a passenger known to have boarded a plane to Tokyo, who nonetheless is not among the passengers when the plane lands. The last one might sound familiar if you read the post on 蒸発 by NATSUKI Shizuko (夏樹静子). This is Matsuo's approach to the same problem, with a different solution. Although there are two or three impossible crimes in the collection, the emphasis is actually more on the characters.
 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Sleepwalker

夜歩く (Yoru aruku, Sleepwalker 1949) is the third KINDAICHI Kousuke (金田一耕助) novel by YOKOMIZO Seishi (横溝正史). It's a lot less famous than either Gokumontou or The Village of Eight Graves, which it comes between. 

The book is narrated in the first person, like in The Village of Eight Graves; but this time the narrator comes across more as an outside observer. He's an unsuccessful detective story writer, which provides the opportunity for a lot of metaliterary observations on the conventions of detective stories. In this respect, the book recalls the first Kindaichi novel, The Honjin Murder Case and also the long short story 黒猫亭事件 ("The Black Cat Café Case" 1947), which is published in the same volume. As I said in my discussion of the book, the most interesting thing in "The Black Cat Café Case" is probably the discussion of the genre convention of the disfigured corpse; and the ideas expressed there could be taken to be a warm up for this book, which takes the concept to the point of absurdity.

The book is much more concentrated than the longer Kindaichi novels; and the shape of the story as it's presented to us is more like a John Dickson Carr book, except for the absence of a locked room. There is something like an impossible crime, though; but it's deliberately left a little loose round the edges. The narrator's friend tells him that he fears his father might drunkenly attack someone with the Japanese sword in the house. His father has this habit when drunk. The narrator's first sight on reaching the house is of the father pursuing a guest, sword in hand. The sword is said to have been made by Muramasa, a legendary sword maker, whose weapons were said to thirst for blood; and the thought plays on their minds. For some reason the friend wants the narrator's help so that even he cannot get at the sword alone. He locks the sword in the house safe with the key and lets the narrator set the code, so that both of them are needed to open the safe. But in the night they see the daughter of the house sleepwalking from the pavilion in the grounds. Investigating later, they find a decapitated victim there; and when they open the safe the sword is still there, but now covered in blood.

The victim is a hunchbacked man, with a bullet wound in his leg. Normally that would be enough to identify him; but there were two hunchbacked men staying in the house that night. Which is really the victim? And did one kill the other or was someone else the killer? This is the start of a series of games with identity, which continues through further murders.

As a puzzle, on the one hand I have to agree with those who say that it is not really fair play. Still, it's too late for me to join the mob of torch and pitchfork carrying readers that doubtless assembled outside Yokomizo's house when the book was first published. Nowadays, it might be celebrated for overturning the forms of the detective story; and I must admit I am half appalled, half admiring. I can imagine Yokomizo laughing to himself at the thought of readers crying out, 'Have you no honour, sir?' Fair play or not, it has one really good trick in it (which in retrospect should have been obvious, because it involves the kind of detail that normally didn't interest Yokomizo). And solving that trick does lead to the solution of the mystery; but the other hurdles only get removed in the last paragraphs before the answer.

The characters and their behaviour are unusually repulsive in this book. Except for Kindaichi and the police, there are no really sympathetic characters. I think I need to give Yokomizo books a rest for a while and read something a little gentler.



Saturday, 30 November 2013

Non chan Rides a Cloud

Not many Japanese children's books have been translated into English; but an astonishing number of English books have been translated into Japanese. Many, both classics and modern works, are known in Japan through the translations of ISHII Momoko (石井 桃子, 1907-2008). As a writer, her most famous book is perhaps ノンちゃん雲に乗る (Nonchan kumo ni noru, Non chan Rides a Cloud, 1951), which was made into a film with the same name in 1955 (some English language internet pages call it Nobuko Rides on a Cloud).

The story is a fantasy; but the core interest of the book is the normal family life of an eight year old girl, Non-chan (short for Nobuko), her mother, father and older brother. One day Non-chan wakes up to find that her mother has gone with Non-chan's brother to visit relatives in Tokyo. The family had moved to the countryside after Non-chan as a small child became desperately sick with dysentery. Her mother had once promised Non-chan that she could come with her to Tokyo when she was older and stronger. Now she has gone off, keeping the trip secret. Non-chan, feeling betrayed and deceived, cries with unusual persistence.

'Well that's because everybody is worried about you.'

'That's a lie! Brother's never worried about me or anything.'

Father gave up and turned away. 'What a child for not seeing things! Go on and cry!'

'I am crying. Waaaah.'

And Non-chan cried.

Aunt had been tidying up the breakfast plates in the kitchen. When she came out a little later, father's silence and Non-chan's crying was still continuing. Aunt crouched down next to Non-chan and helped her blow her nose again and wiped her eyes.

'Come on, Non-chan,' she said, 'Please stop crying like that! Mother's already got to Yotsuya by now. Crying won't change anything, you know. Instead of that, let's you and me go out somewhere.'

'Now there's a good idea,' father agreed.

But Non-chan kept on crying.

What good was all that? Father and aunt didn't understand. She was crying, because she couldn't change anything.

Non-chan goes out to a nearby pond and climbs the tree there, gradually calming down. Suddenly she finds herself floating in the air, able to move each way, so that it becomes hard to tell 'up' from 'down'. She hears a voice calling her from a cloud overhead and dives upwards to reach it. The cloud is being steered by a strange kindly old man, who reminds Non-chan of her grandfather and also of a figure in her ohinasama dolls set. He is ferrying several people across the sky, but somehow the only one Non-chan can see clearly is a boy from her class.

The old man asks her about her life; and most of the book then becomes Non-chan's account, rephrased by the narrator, of herself and of her father, mother and brother. After each story, the old man questions her and makes suggestions, which put a new light on the story and its characters. Although Non-chan claims that their family is a happy one, it gradually emerges that she and her brother do not get on perfectly. Complaints about her brother creep into her stories of her mother and father, so that when we get to the chapters devoted to the brother we expect more of the same. In fact, Non-chan recognises good things in her brother too, and the relationship does not sound especially bad. He is a wild and thoughtless child, while she is a proper and disciplined one. Under the old man's prompting she comes to see his point of view.

This probably sounds like the book is describing a counselling session, "Non-chan's Supernatural Therapist". Probably part of its appeal is the idea of having someone interested to hear all about a child's life (a fairly rare experience for most children). As far as the fantastic element is concerned, a magical figure has more authority in its suggestions and judgements; but the book lives by its depiction of a family.

There is no English translation, but there is a German one, by Aenne Sano-Gerber, Nobbi, Erlebnisse einer kleinen Japanerin (1956), which in turn was translated into Danish as Nobbi, en lille japanesk piges oplevelser (1958). Both are out of print, but there are second hand copies. If you're looking, you may want to search for Momoko Ischii, which seems to be how the name is transliterated in the books.

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).


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Keeping track

I haven't really got the hang of the blogspot software. In particular I wasn't thinking very carefully when I added the various labels. The Japanese names don't get an alphabetical order (not surprising I suppose with kanji, which have various readings) and since I didn't think to add the English version of the name, they're not very useful for non Japanese speakers anyway. So I've added an extra page with a catalogue (in the tab at the top of this page), ordered by genre and author in English alphabetical order, and within author by date.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Adventurers

1972 was the year that  Watership Down by Richard Adams was published. I remember how, once it came out in paperback, almost everyone seemed to be reading it. In Japan another animal adventure story came out in the same year, and was likewise very successful:  冒険者たち ガンバと15ひきの仲間 (Boukenshatachi ganba to 15hiki no nakama The Adventurers, Gamba and his Fifteen Companions) by  斎藤惇夫 (SAITOU Atsuo, born 1940) with illustrations by 薮内正幸 (YABUUCHI Masayuki, born 1940). The book is a prequel to Saitou's first book, グリックの冒険 (Gurikku no bouken, Grick's Adventure,  1970). I haven't read it; but apparently its main character is a Japanese chipmunk, Grick. A minor character in the book, the rat Gamba, was so popular that Saitou decided to make him the main character in his next book. There's also a sequel, ガンバとカワウソの冒険 (Ganba to kawauso no bouken, The Adventure of Gamba and the Otter, 1983). The Adventurers was made into an anime series, ガンバの冒険 (Ganba no bouken, The Adventures of Gamba, 1975), and then into a film, as were the other two books in the series (グリックの冒険, released as Enchanted Journey 1981; 冒険者たち ガンバと7匹のなかま, 1984; ガンバとカワウソの冒険 1991).

Gamba's name is short for Ganbariya, "Battler"; but at the start of the story his fighting spirit is only shown in taking food from the larders of houses that other rats have occupied and keeping them out of his (the other rats think "Thief" or "Robber" would be a better name, but since Ganba is stronger than them, they don't press the point). He is taken out of his dull but easy life by his friend Manpuku, "Fullbelly", who wants to go visit the sea (and taste the imported delicacies to be found in the harbour). At a party in a dockside warehouse, Gamba drinks, fights, dances and brags with the ship and harbour rats who are enjoying the warehouse goods. Suddenly the party is interrupted by the appearance of a hungry and terribly wounded rat, Chuuta, who has escaped from an island where a large group of weasels has almost wiped out the rats living there. He is looking for help to save his family. One rat had already experienced the peculiar terror of these weasels, the Noroi clan, led by the charismatic and terrifying white weasel, Noroi. Despite his warning that the fight is hopeless, Gamba and fourteen others set off to fight the weasels.
Children need role models
Animal wars have often featured in children's books, for instance in Richard Jefferies' Wood Magic (1881) and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908). In Japan, こがね丸 (Koganemaru, 1891) often said to be the first children's story, tells of a dog avenging his father's death; and INUI Tomiko wrote several children's books with animal heroes, such as  ながいながいペンギンの話 (A Long, Long Penguin Story, 1957). I haven't read Koganemaru; but of the books I have read, the most similar is probably Watership Down. Common points are the distinctly adult protagonists and the epic scale. In Watership Down that is achieved by Tolkien style world building, with an invented mythology as background and a foundation legend based on the Aeneid and the legend of Romulus. The Adventurers feels like it is looking more towards samurai films for its model. In particular the reader is almost inevitably reminded of the plot of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Like in Kurosawa's samurai films, the action is short but intense, and much of the drama comes from eloquent speeches in debates of the heroes.

The actual fight with the weasels starts in the last third of the book. But the journey to the island and the search for the survivors is itself full of adventure; and Saitou very effectively builds up our dread of the weasels. He also very skillfully deploys his large cast. It helps that a few are only characterised by one capability revealed in the name (e. g. Tenor, Bass, Jump, Holedigger); but he manages to make us feel like we know a surprising number of characters and to give many of them a personal story that interacts with the larger story. Early in the book we are given warning that not all the companions will survive.

One other aspect the book shares with Watership Down is that it is a distinctly masculine story. All the fifteen companions are male; and Gamba shows an expectation that even in a fight for survival, it is only the males that will be fighting. At least the one named female character, Shouji, shows some impatience with this attitude. As in other Japanese children's books that I have read, the hero is boastful (in a positive way) and not very introspective, except towards the end of the book as the burdens of his responsibility start to weigh on him.

There is no English translation, but it seems to have been translated into French by Karine Chesneau: Gamba et les rats aventuriers (2012).

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Snow Locked Room

I read 雪密室 (Yuki Misshitsu, Snow Locked Room, 1989) by 法月綸太郎 (NORIZUKI Rintarou, born 1964) a while ago. So this is really just an account of my impressions from reading it.

Police superintendant NORIZUKI Sadao (法月貞雄) is one of several guests invited to the guest house Getsushokusou in the mountains in midwinter. The invitation is the work of a woman who takes pleasure in discovering other people's secrets and blackmailing them into dancing to her tune. When she is found hanged in the separate house in the grounds, the local police want to treat it as suicide, especially since there is untrodden snow all round this annexe and the only key a murderer could have used seems to be inside the annexe. But Norizuki is sure that this is murder. Locked rooms are beyond his abilities, though. So he calls in the help of his son, detective story writer NORIZUKI Rintarou ( 法月綸太郎).

The locked room puzzle here probably sounds familiar; and Rintarou himself mention's Carter Dickson's The White Priory Murders (1934) as soon as he hears of what had happened. The solution there does not work here, though, as Rintarou's policeman father remarks. On the other hand, one could say that the solution when we do find it uses elements from this and another mystery with a similar setup. It's perhaps not surprising that Ho-Ling in his review thinks that 'the locked room is not very original'. I actually like it a lot. Most locked rooms in the end are a matter of clever new combinations, and this one seemed very satisfactory. It's also very neatly constructed, so that the reader can have the pleasure of solving half of the trick without necessarily getting the full solution. More than that, we accept the solution to most locked room mysteries, because it's the only one that explains the impossibility. Norizuki here manages to have a solution that is reached by deduction, which in turn leads to a further deduction which allows him to identify the criminal, very much in the style of early Ellery Queen mysteries.

The similarities to Ellery Queen will probably already have struck you as you read the plot description: a team of policeman father and amateur detective son; an author with the same name as the hero. This is a deliberate homage of course. The father son team is very reminiscent of Ellery Queen novels and is really very well done.

There are things I don't like in the book. In some respects it feels overegged, with an abundance of side plots and the provision of a tragic backstory that fits very uncomfortably into the book. But it was one of the Japanese mysteries that most made me want to read more from the writer. Strange that I haven't got round to it yet. I have The Adventures of Norizuki Rintarou waiting on my shelf; I just need to get the energy to read a set of short stories.

There's a J'lit page on Norizuki Rintarou here.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Disappearance

NATSUKI Shizuko (夏樹静子, born 1938) is one of the few Japanese detective story writers that English speaking readers have had a chance to read. Six of her novels have been translated into English. 蒸発―ある愛の終わり (Jouhatsu - aru ai no owari, Disappearance, The End of a Love Affair) is an award winning novel from 1973, unfortunately not one of those that have been translated.

There is more than one disappearance in the book, which is the story of the pursuit of two missing persons. But a particular disappearance is the prize puzzle of the book. Natsuki is well aware of that and describes the episode first, in a prologue, although chronologically it belongs about a third of the way into the book. On the Boeing 727 flight 585 from Tokyo to Hokkaido, the chief stewardess notices that seat 12C is empty, although she knows that every seat on the plane was taken. She remembers giving the woman sat there a refreshment napkin after embarcation, when the doors were already closed. Checking with the other stewardesses, the count of passengers, which a stewardess at either door makes as they come onto the plane, also indicates that every seat should be taken; and another stewardess remembers seeing a woman of the same description. But she is nowhere on the plane; and recounting the passengers shows that there is one less than had been counted in. Somehow a passenger has vanished in mid flight.

The 'vanishing passenger' is an occasional theme of mystery fiction. Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (1936), more famous from the Hitchcock film adaptation The Lady Vanishes (1938), features the disappearance of a passenger from a train; and John Dickson Carr had missing victims or murderers on ships in The Blind Barber (1934) and Murder in the Submarine Zone (as Carter Dickson, 1940). (I haven't heard his radio play "Cabin B-13" [1943] or the film Dangerous Crossing [1953] based on it, which have the same theme.) A plane is a yet more controlled environment than either of these, particularly at this time in Japan, shortly after the hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 351 in 1970, which led to tighter security controls. There's a 2009 Jodie Foster film, Flightplan, with a disappearance on a plane, not very good, if you trust the critics.

In Disappearance, it's a neat little puzzle; but it's only part of the book. The larger story is the pursuit by a foreign correspondent of his lover, who has gone missing while he was out of the country. The inquiry runs into another missing person problem, which leads to an extremely complicated story, as you could guess from the (selected) cast list below.

name reading role
田淵久子 TABUCHI Hisako stewardess
菊畑敏江 KIKUHATA Toshie stewardess
重松三千代 SHIGEMATSU Michiyo stewardess
小久保寛 KOKUBO Kan? copilot
水谷 MIZUTANI flight engineer
冬木悟郎 FUYUKI Gorou foreign correspondent
冬木郁子 FUYUKI Ikuko his wife
冬木ゆかり FUYUKI Yukari his daughter (5)
朝岡隆人 ASAOKA Takahito banker
朝岡勉 ASAOKA Tsutomu his son
朝岡美那子 ASAOKA Minako his wife
丹野靖久 TANNO Yasuhisa former admirer of Minako, steel company boss
白井 SHIROI Tokyo policeman
武藤 MUTOU Hokkaido reporter
丹野怜子 TANNO Reiko Tanno Yasuhisa's sister
中川圭吾 NAKAGAWA Keigo Fukuoka murder squad inspector
倉橋満男 KURAHASHI Mitsuo Tanno Yasuhisa's right hand man
高見ユリ枝 TAKAMI Yurie Tanno Yasuhisa's secretary
郡司祥平 GUNJI Shouhei Kyuushuu Steel boss
飛田 TOBITA Fukuoka murder squad policeman
須藤二三夫 SUDOU Fumio villa caretaker
小田切 ODAGIRI Fukuoka uniformed police chief
森脇真二郎 MORIWAKI Shinjirou villa occupant
鈴子ふさ子 SUZUKI Fusako villa occupant
小泉悠子 KOIZUMI Yuuko villa occupant
広池 HIROIKE Fukuoka ken murder squad chief
宗像 MUNAGATA Fukuoka town murder squad chief


Fuyuki Gorou returns from Vietnam, where he had been lost in the jungle, presumed dead, to find that Minako Asaoka,  a neighbour's wife, has gone missing. Before leaving for Vietnam he had been having an affair with her, and he was planning to ask her to marry him on his return. As he searches for her, he happens to learn that an admirer from her home town of Fukuoka has also gone missing. He starts investigating that disappearance too. Soon it becomes clear that there has been at least one murder. And a figure that fits Minako's description crops up again and again in eyewitness reports and before Gorou's own eyes, only to disappear again.

The different crimes and incidents each offer separate mysteries of a fairly traditional puzzle mystery kind: the impossible disappearance mentioned at the beginning; a couple of alibi tricks, including a not very interesting train alibi. The larger mystery though is how the two parts of the story fit together. The comparisons that come to mind while reading it were (in different ways) Ruth Rendell, Ross McDonald and Margaret Millar. Locked room mysteries and the like are a sure way to get that pleasing bafflement: 'It's got to make sense. But it doesn't make sense. But it's got to make sense.' But mysteries that play out on a larger scale can manage that too; and if they do, the effect can be really impressive. Natsuki is not in the Margaret Millar class (only Margaret Millar was); the book's success comes closer to one of the weaker Rendell mysteries. After puzzling over things that just don't fit, we want to read a solution that shows the simple truth behind the apparent contradictions, preferably one that completely overturns some of our ideas. The final explanation here pulls things together, but it's neither surprising nor especially simple: some of the many complexities are too obviously invented just to create a mystery, rather than arising naturally from the larger mystery. While I'm listing negative points, the narration too gets a little overburdened with the complexities. After we've followed a character reasoning out what the criminal must have done, it gets a little tiring to hear that reasoning again, or to have the same actions rehearsed when the criminal confesses.

I hope that won't deter anyone from trying this, as all in all it's a clever and well constructed mystery.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Ginza Ghost

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]

This a translation of a short detective story by 大阪圭吉 (OOSAKA Keikichi, 1912-1945), first published in the Japanese magazine Shinseinen (新青年) in 1936. I've called it "A Ginza Ghost", but you might prefer "The Ginza Ghost"; there's no article in the Japanese. You can read the original online at Aozora Bunko here. The four stories that I've read by this writer all feature amateur detectives; but they are not the aristocratic dilettantes that the word suggests. They are all professionals in some modern specialist work, sometimes in a management role, but still closely involved with the actual work (the director of a marine biology laboratory, for instance). This story shares with another famous Oosaka story, とむらい機関車 ("Funeral Train") a narrative approach which gives the narrative viewpoint to a whole neighbourhood. There are certainly better stories by Oosaka than this one; and I wouldn't want to claim too much for it. But I think it's an effective mystery, and the evocation of thirties Ginza could be interesting for western readers.

 There are only five named characters in the story, TSUNEGAWA Fusae, her daughter Kimiko, her employee Sumiko, her lover Tatsujirou, and the detective NISHIMURA. We don't learn the surnames of Sumiko or Tatsujirou, or the first name of Nishimura. I've written Tatsujiro in the story, because that's how the name would mostly be written in English.

Where I could easily translate with an English expression, I have. I'll try to explain everything else here in advance.
Ginza: a Tokyo district, at that time very lively, and very modern, with many cafés.
ken: an old Japanese length measure, 1.8m.
tsubo: an old Japanese area measure, 3.3 sq. m.
well beam pattern, a shape with two crossing vertical and horizonatal lines, like the kanji for well, 井.
yakko kite: this is actually the point in the translation where I'm least confident. The symbol 奴 has various meanings: slave, person (derogatory) and I think I've seen it used dismissively for an (unspecified) thing. But here this is the only thing that seems to fit from what my dictionary or the internet offers me. The yakko kite is a traditional kite shaped like a man (a servant, hence the name).
Shinbashi: a Tokyo district just south of Ginza.
National Lamp: a popular square shaped (bicycle) lamp of the time, made by the company that later became Panasonic.

Story after the break.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Kiki's Delivery Service

Kiki's Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便, more literally "Witch's express home delivery service") is a 1985 children's book by KADONO Eiko (角野 栄子, born 1935). It was a successful book in its own right, with several sequels; but it is best known as the book on which the Japan's most famous cartoon director, MIYAZAKI Hayao (宮崎 駿), based his 1989 film of the same name. For once, there is an English translation (which I haven't seen), by Lynne E. Riggs in 2003. It seems to be out of print at the moment; but second hand copies are easy to find.

It's hard to fairly judge a story when you've first got to know it in a different form. The few films that I've ever walked out of have been adaptations of books that I had read. In this case I knew the film before I read the book, and I couldn't help judging it in the light of the film.

In the world of the story, witches are a part of everyday life, but much rarer than they once were. Kiki, the daughter of a witch, has the choice of becoming a normal girl or a witch, and chooses the latter. Witches' skills have grown fewer over the years. Though Kiki's mother can both fly and make potions, Kiki herself has only learnt to fly. Her one other piece of magic is that she can talk to and understand her black cat Jiji, born at the same time as Kiki. In the year when she reaches thirteen, the custom is for a witch to spend one year living independently in a strange town. Kiki leaves the little town between wooded mountains where she grew up and sets off southwards, towards the sea. Following a river she comes to a large coastal town, with an improbably high clocktower, and decides to try making that her home for the year. The cool reception from the townspeople is a shock to her; but kinder treatment from a baker, Sono, persuades her to stay and earn her living by delivering parcels for the townspeople.

So far, those who know the film should find a lot that they are familiar with. Many of the strengths of the film come from the book. Kiki and other named characters are much the same in both. Kiki's parents are the same combination of stricter mother and more indulgent father. Jiji has the same cautious outlook on the world, but also a more childish side in the book. The themes are very similar; but Miyazaki makes the film more a story of a child coping with having to rely on their own emotional resources. The book is far more episodic: it follows the year that Kiki spends in the town with a series of seasonal episodes. Miyazaki selects a few of these (often radically changed) and puts them together to tell a story which does not attempt to fill the whole year. The film also shifts the emphasis towards realism, with its loving creation of a beautiful but plausible Scandivian town. The book allows itself a lot of deliberate comic absurdity, of which very little gets into the film (only the episode where Jiji must pretend to be a stuffed cat, I think). For instance, when the mayor discovers that the clock is broken on New Year's Eve, he wants to 'borrow' a gear from the clock of a nearby town, which has the same mechanism.
As soon as Kiki landed on the clock tower, the mayor spoke agitatedly, 'The fact is, this largest cog wheel of this clock is broken, you see? ..... If you cross three mountains west of here, the town over there ..... You could make an appropriation and come back to us, hmm? .... um, um, it's really urgent. ..... hmm? hmm? hmm?'

'Appropriation?' Kiki asked round eyed.

In response the mayor shrugged his shoulders and said in a small voice, 'In other words, just for the time the clock is sounding midnight, borrow it without telling anyone ..... is what I mean.'

'In other words, steal it?'

'Shhh! That's a bad word. That's not a word that a girl should be using. Definitely, definitely "borrowing" is what we want to call it. After all, we'll give it back when we're done."

By some accounts, Kadono was not happy with the film's changes to the book. But the character of the story is not massively changed beyond what I have described. Those who like the film would probably find the book interesting too.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Klein Bottle

クラインの壺 (Klein Bottle, 1989) is the last mystery written by 岡嶋二人 (OKAJIMA Futari), a team of two writers, who after this worked separately. The other Okajima Futari novels that I've discussed, 焦茶色のパステル and そして扉が閉ざされた, are fairly clearly puzzle detective stories, although the first also has a strong adventure story element. Klein Bottle still has detective story type clues; but it is much more of an adventure story. Specifically it's a science fiction mystery.

 I make a character list when reading Japanese detective stories, because otherwise I tend to forget the kanji readings. In case it's any use to anyone else, here it is. 

Kanji Reading Character
梶谷孝行 KAJITANI Takayuki Epsilon Project operations manager
上杉彰彦 UESUGI Akihiko game scenario author
敷島映一 SHIKISHIMA Eiichi Uesugi's brother in law
敷島邦子 SHIKISHIMA Kuniko Uesugi's sister
百瀬伸夫 MOMOSE Nobuo Epsilon Project research engineer
高石梨紗 TAKAISHI Risa game tester
ケネス・バドラー Kenneth Badler Epsilon Project research engineer
笹森貴美子 SASAMORI Kimiko Epsilon Project manager
真壁七美 MAKABE Nanami Risa's friend
豊浦利也 TOYOURA Toshiya game tester
姫田恒太 HIMEDA Kouta journalist

The setting is modern day Japan. A firm called Epsilon Project buy a game scenario written by the young Uesugi Akihiko. They mean to make not a normal computer game, but a virtual reality game, where the player is completely immersed in the game world and experiences it like the real world. When the game is developed, he and another tester are invited to play it through. But is it really a game they are developing?

All the Okajima Futari books that I've read have been good storytelling. The mystery element here (as in their first book) is a bit too obvious to people expecting this kind of story, so that the reader is often well ahead of the narrator, Uesugi. (Perhaps that was less of a problem in 1989, before so many films with constructed realities came out.) Even if we have more of an idea what could be going on than the narrator, the larger question of what the Epsilon Project is doing remains; and it is easy to share Uesugi's confusion and fear.

My only problem while reading it was that the science fiction premise just didn't seem realistic. I read through thinking "OK, we'll say this happens. But you know that wouldn't really work, don't you?"

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Translation is Hard

This is really just a post to postpone another post. I think I mentioned earlier that I meant to put up a translation of an OOSAKA Keikichi (大阪圭吉) story, "The Ginza Ghost", soon. I see now it's better not to mention these things in advance, as soon will not be very soon. I have a draft of it ready, but it takes time to check the bits I'm unsure of and hunt for a reasonable phrasing. I expect it will be another two or three weeks before I'm done. 

In the meantime, if you can't read Japanese and are interested in finding out what sort of a writer he was, Ho-Ling has a translation of a different short story on his blog now. [UPDATE: He doesn't any more. I hope that it'll reappear in some other form for English readers some time.]

Reading it, it's perhaps a good thing that my own translation will not be ready for a while, as the two stories are probably best not read back to back.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Fox's Window



AWA Naoko (安房直子, 1943-1993) was a writer of fairy tales. The collection that I've read,  きつねの窓 (The Fox's Window), brings together stories from the late sixties and early seventies. You can read a discussion of  an earlier collection that it shares several stories with here. A selection of Awa's stories has been translated into English, The Fox's Window and Other Stories, translated by Toshiya Kamei, University of New Orleans Press 2010. I haven't seen this, but from looking at the contents page online, it seems to be a different selection from the one I've read, sharing only three stories, the title story and 夢の果て and 鳥. There's a blog review here.

The invention of new fairy tales is something I associate with the nineteenth century in Europe, particularly Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde; unfortunately the moralising of such stories often irritates me more than the retellings of traditional stories. Japan had several inventors of fairy tales in the twentieth century, such as MIYAZAWA Kenji and NIIMI Nankichi in the twenties and thirties. Awa's stories have a modern setting. In some, modern objects are at the heart of the story; in others there are only a few casual mentions of things like radio, plastic bags, electric lights, and the story would be the same if you replaced them with a more ancient equivalent. Compared to the writers mentioned above, Awa's stories are more delicate and insubstantial, often centering on some particularly strong image. Humour is very rare; and the mood is often one of mild melancholy.

I've put a little incomplete description of the stories below, so you can get an idea of them.

The Fox's Window, きつねの窓
A hunter misses his path and comes to a magical field of blue bellflowers. He catches sight of a white fox cub, and follows him, hoping to catch the cub's mother. Instead he finds a dye shop and the cub transformed into a boy (Japanese foxes can transform into people and create illusionary buildings).
"You know, sir, dyeing your fingers is just wonderful," he said and held his hands opened out in front of my eyes.
The thumbs and index fingers of his little white hands were dyed blue. The boy brought his hands together and made a diamond shaped window with the four blue dyed fingers. Then he held the window up above my eyes.
"Come on, just take a little look, please," he said enthusiastically.
"Umm," I said, not really on board.
"Oh, just a little. Just take a look, please."
So I peered, reluctantly, into the window. Then I froze in shock.
In the middle of the little window made by his fingers, I could see a white fox, a magnificent mother fox. With her tail sweeping gently to and fro in the air, she was sitting quite still. ...
"Thi-, what on earth ...." I was so astonished I couldn't say more than that.
The fox replied with a sigh, "This is my mother."
Sanshokko, さんしょっ子
The spirit of a pepper tree is a little girl, Sanshokko, watching another little girl, Suzuna, who plays beneath the tree with Santarou, a boy from the neighbourhood. Suzuna grows up into a beautiful woman and is given in marriage to a rich man in a nearby village. The boy, incompetently running the village tea house for his sick mother, watches her leave silently. Sanshokko tries to be his friend; but she has not realised that she has become only a green light and a voice. That voice sounds like Suzuna.

The End of the Dream, 夢の果て
A girl buys eyeliner and finds that it brings her a dream of running through fields of flowers. She senses that on the far horizon someone is waiting.

An Hour that Nobody Knows, だれも知らない時間
A turtle dreams of a girl in a jar beneath the sea and waits for the long years he must live to end.
He shares some of his time with a young man in exchange for sake. Every day he gets one extra hour that only he can experience, in which he can practise his taiko drumming. Then one evening the girl from the turtle's dream comes to his house.

Incidentally the story mentions the turtle's experience of being fed sake by fishermen and sent out to sea again. In 母のない子と子のない母と  (Children with No Mother, A Mother with No Child) by TSUBOI Sakae (壺井栄), there's an episode where just this happens. Perhaps it's a common custom.

Green Skip, 緑のスキップ
In a cherry grove an owl finds a little girl in a pink kimono. She is cherry blossom shade and must disappear when the cherry blossom is gone. The owl keeps watch over the grove and tries to protect it from anything that can harm the blossom. But the spirits that bring leaves to the world are coming.

The Land of Evening Sun, 夕日の国
A young girl shows a boy a magic way to go to the land of evening sun. But each visit can only last for a few moments.

Snow on the Sea, 海の雪
Snow is falling. A youth comes to a seaside town, looking for his mother. He finds a nearly deserted town. One girl shares her umbrella with him.

The Deep Well the Mole Dug, もぐらがほった深い井戸
A young mole finds a coin and buys a tiny square of land. He delights in having real property, as far up in the sky as he can see and as far down as he can dig. For years he digs a well, but as he does so he becomes selfish. Others ought to pay, if they are to enjoy the benefits of his work and his property.

Miss Sally's Hand, サリーさんの手
A young woman lives in a cheap apartment overlooking a noisy railway. Even in the dead of night there sometimes seems to be a special train passing. She works in a doll factory, sewing the hands of a doll called Miss Sally; but she comes to feel that the hands she is sewing are like strange plants and the endless identical Sallies have no life to them. Then one sleepless night, she decides to watch for the train that she sometimes hears.

Bird, 鳥
A young woman visits an ear specialist with an unusual problem.

"Something's got into your ear?" he asked.

The girl with an incredibly sad face, said, "It's um, it's a secret."

"A secret." The doctor looked at her sternly, "We can't have secrets. Or we can't cure it, can we?"

The girl became even more glum, "That's what I'm telling you: it's a secret. A secret's got down into my ear."

This is the only joke I noticed in all the stories. (It's a good one though, isn't it?) This story is also unusual in its narrative style. The ending is prepared with a series of clues, like a little mystery story, although in other respects it is no less of a poetic fairy tale.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Cat Knew

NIKI Etsuko (仁木悦子, 1928-1986) wrote eleven mystery novels and over a hundred short stories as well as children's books. Her novel, 猫は知っていた (The Cat Knew, 1957) won the Edogawa Rampo Award, one of the major prizes for Japanese mysteries, and was made into a film in 1958 and a television drama in 1973.

At the age of four, Niki had been diagnosed with caries of the thoracic vertebrae, which led to paralysis of both legs. She spent her childhood confined to bed, unable to attend school. Her father died when she was seven years old, her mother and oldest brother died during the war and she came to live with another brother. At first she wrote children's stories, but turned to detective stories with 猫は知っていた.

I make a bookmark with the readings of the names when I read a novel, since names are one of the hardest things to learn (for me at least). Here's a list of the more important names. The question marks are for readings not provided in the book.


Name Reading Description
二木悦子 NIKI Etsuko music student
仁木雄太郎 NIKI Yuutarou botany student, Etsuko's older brother
箱崎兼彦 HAKOSAKI Kanehiko doctor
箱崎英一 HAKOSAKI Eiichi his oldest son, medical student
箱崎敬二 HAKOSAKI Keiji his second son, student
箱崎幸子 HAKOSAKI Sachiko his young daughter
箱崎敏枝 HAKOSAKI Toshie his wife
桑田ちえ KUWATA Chie her mother
桑田ユリ KUWATA Yuri Chie's granddaughter
野田 NODA nurse
家永 IENAGA nurse
人見 HITOMI nurse
平坂勝也 HIRASAKA Katsuya patient
平坂清子 HIRASAKA Kiyoko his wife
江藤まゆみ EDOU Mayumi patient
小山田すみ子 OYAMADA Sumiko patient
宮内正 MIYAUCHI Tadashi patient
桐野次郎 KIRINO Jirou patient
カヨ Kayo maid in the Hakosaki household
清川 KIYOKAWA? previous owner of the clinic
大野 OONO? accident victim
吉川 YOSHIKAWA? neighbour
笠井あきら KASAI Akira detective story writer
峰岸周作 MINEGISHI Shuusaku retired police inspector
KINUTA deputy inspector
杉山 SUGIYAMA? president of Yuri's drama club

The two central character of the book are the botany student, NIKI Yuutarou, and his younger sister, music student Etsuko, who is also the narrator. (Author as fictional character is an Ellery Queen like feature also found in ARISUGAWA Arisu, 有栖川 有栖, and NORIZUKI Rintarou, 法月綸太郎.) In this period it was rare for students to have their own apartment; and the two of them rent a room in the Hakosaki Clinic. (Given her background, a hospital setting perhaps reflects the received wisdom to 'write what you know'.) For a reduction in the rent, Etsuko will be teaching piano to the youngest daughter, Sachiko. Soon mysterious incidents start to occur. Etsuko rescues KUWATA Chie, the mother in law of the clinic's doctor, from the storehouse, where somebody had locked her in. Soon after, both Chie and a patient, the antique dealer, HIRASAKA Katsuya, are found to have gone missing, although no-one should have been able to leave the grounds unobserved. Also missing is Chimi, a young black cat who has a tendency to follow people about. Chimi reappears in the grounds of the temple next door; but there is no sign of the others until Yuutarou discovers the strangled body of Chie. This is the first of a series of murders in the clinic, many of which seem to involve the little cat in some way. Etsuko does some of the investigation, but for the most part she plays the role of intelligent Watson to her older brother.

Niki has been described as 'the Japanese Agatha Christie' in Japan. This kind of description is sometimes used by publishers to sell Japanese writers to western audiences. Julian Symons somewhere comments on the extreme absurdity of the same description used for NATSUKI Shizuko (夏樹 静子); and if you google "Japanese Stieg Larsson", you'll find hundreds of people making the happy discovery that HIGASHINO Keigo is nothing like Stieg Larsson. In this case however, the Christie comparison is really quite appropriate. The style and narrative technique has the same kind of easy simplicity. There is little expression of strong emotion of any kind. Niki describes most events with mild humour, becoming briefly serious, but not overwrought, when appropriate. The setting is the normal, modern day world. You could say that Niki was the polar opposite to YOKOMIZO Seishi. A.A. Milne's "The Red House Mystery" gets mentioned early in the book; and that too is similar. 

As a puzzle, it's certainly not on a level with the best Agatha Christie; but it's a well made and fairly clued mystery. I was particularly impressed when I got to the motive, which came as a horrific revelation, although it was obvious once I read it.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Looking for Information on Japanese Children's Books

I wrote earlier about looking online for information on Japanese detective stories. For children's books, the supply is in some sense worse; but there are a couple of very good sites.

Blogs
I haven't found any English language blog devoted to reviewing Japanese children's books, at least none that had more than one or two posts. There is a group blog of some translators of Japanese children's books, SCBWI Japan Translation Group. It has some posts that could be of interest for people who want to find more about Japanese children's books, particularly in this category.

Websites
The International Institute for Children's Literature, Osaka, apparently no longer exists as such, having been disbanded in 2009 and incorporated into another library. Its website still exists; and there is a really useful list of a hundred representative works from 1868 to 1979, with descriptions and sample illustrations for each book. The list is divided into two parts, 1868-1945 and 1946-1979. There is an English version; but you have to go down from the top level into each half before the button for it appears: 1868-1945; 1946-1979. The enlarge feature for the illustrations doesn't seem to work on all the English pages; you might want to try clicking over to the Japanese in that case.

JBBY, the Japanese Board on Books for Young People, has a little information, and unlike the IICLO it includes more recent books.

J'Lit, the site of the Japanese Literature Publishing and Promotion Center, has pages describing authors and representative works. It has some older works, but the emphasis is on current and recent writers. The author descriptions often mention books that have been translated. They have a category for children's books.

There's one author specific site I know of, The World of Kenji Miyazawa, devoted  to Japan's most famous children's writer.

The page by Satoru Saito at Columbia with bibliography on popular literature, that I mentioned on the page on detective stories, also has a section for secondary literature on children's books.

Public Domain
Aozora Bunko has a lot of children's literature that is in the public domain and can be downloaded. I'll just name a few here, putting the Aozora Bunko link in brackets. Two writers in particular are known as children's writers. KENJI Miyazawa (宮沢 賢治), who also wrote poetry, is probably Japan's most famous children's writer. I find some of his stories are payment enough for the trouble of learning Japanese, for their vividness, liveliness and complex simplicity. NIIMI Nankichi (新美 南吉) is also well known. Most Japanese adults seem to have read 'Gon the Fox' in school. (This probably started a teacher experimenting to see if they could get the whole class crying inconsolably in one moment.) Most of the stories by him that I have read seem very simple; sometimes one feels a little uncertain whether the simple moral that the story offers is really all that the story is saying. There are also writers more famous for literature for adults, such as ARISHIMA Takeo (有島 武郎; I translated a couple of his stories here and here), and DAZAI Osamu (太宰 治).

Exhibitions
The International Library of Children's Literature in Tokyo is (as you'd guess) a library with a specialist children's literature collection. As major libraries often do, they have exhibitions of books, which might be worth a visit, if you're interested in children's books and you have a rainy day in Tokyo. When I was there last autumn, they had a general history exhibition and one on a particular writer (which I skipped). The general exhibition had a useful brochure with bibliography and links to websites.