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.