Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Flying Horse

I've read only a few books in the genre "puzzles of everyday life" (日常の謎), where the mysteries are not major crimes, but the kind of minor puzzles that might happen anywhere. It's a genre that I'd like to like more than I do, since I've always thought that the detective story's emphasis on murder is unnecessary and misses out on a lot of possibilities. Somehow the examples I've read so far don't rise above agreeable, pleasant, not very compelling reading. There always seems to be a slight lack of focus. The problem perhaps is that there's a limit to the amount of energy someone can put into investigating an oddity that they happen to come across. If they have too much curiosity about other people's lives for no good reason, readers may be disturbed rather than entertained. Everyday mysteries with a workplace setting can get around that; but the mystery I'm discussing here, 空飛ぶ馬 (Soratobu uma, Flying Horse, 1989) has characters whose only motivation is curiosity, and, since they aren't pathologically nosy, there is (more or less) no actual investigation, only deduction from the known facts.

The book is the first collection of detective stories by 北村薫 (KITAMURA Kaoru, born 1949), a major figure in the genre. The narrator is a young literature student in her first year at university. The detective is a rakugo teller, SHUNOUTEI Enshi (春桜亭円紫), a former student of one of the narrator's teachers at university. Rakugo is a kind of comic narrative, with a set of traditional stories, where the particular character comes from the way the rakugo artist tells them. Each of the short stories also contains an account of one of Enshi's performances and the story he tells in it. In fact, there are a lot of cultural references: the narrator is an enthusiast for books and rakugo, and deductions may depend, for instance, on the difference between Shakespeare's and Verdi's Macbeth

The first story "The Soul of Oribe" looks for the explanation of apparently supernatural knowledge. An old professor had as a small child repeatedly dreamt of a man who had committed seppuku. One day his rich collector uncle clears out his storehouse and brings out a portrait of the inventor of Oribe pottery, the man from his dream. The boy shocks his uncle by asking if this man committed seppuku: he had had no opportunity to see the picture locked away for years in the storehouse. The second, "Sugar Battle", looks for the explanation for why three women at a teashop would apparently compete to put as much sugar as possible into their drinks. The third story follows the narrator and two friends on an outing in north east Japan: why would someone steal the worthless seatcovers on their car? The fourth, "Red Riding Hood", looks at why a little girl in red would always be seen at the same time alone in a playground. In the fifth, "Flying Horse", a shopkeeper donates the broken horse ride that he used to have outside his shop to a local kindergarten, setting it in concrete in the grounds there. But that night a woman believes it had disappeared, although when she checked the next day, it was there as if nothing had happened.

Anyone expecting a classical mystery is likely to be disappointed here. The stories spend much more time on exploring the narrator's daily life and thoughts about the future than on the mystery. This is most notable in the third story, where aspects of the mystery are prepared early in the story, but the actual mystery only appears in the last few of its seventy odd pages. The solutions are rarely criminal, but they sometimes reflect less happy sides of life; and this in turn becomes material for the young narrator's character development. I must admit that, although I didn't dislike the narrator, her aimlessness was both odd to me and slightly irritating. I don't remember undergraduates in my time being so lacking in interest in where they were going. They may have had a lot of competing ideas; but having none seems very strange to me. The book is the first in a series of six, which follow the character's development (the covers of the sequel show the same figure with slight changes in dress and hairstyle). So perhaps she gets more purpose as it goes along.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Two Minute Adventure

A boy who loves stories of knights fighting dragons is transported from his Japanese school life to another world where he must fight a dragon to save the kingdom. That probably sounds like the laziest fantasy fulfillment story you could write. I'm not sure why 二分間の冒険 (Nifunkan no bouken, Two Minute Adventure, 1985) by 岡田淳 (OKADA Jun) is so much better than you'd expect from that description; but it works very well.

The hero Satoru is on an errand across the school grounds, with instructions from the teacher to be back within two minutes, when he is summoned by a black cat, Dareka (Someone), whose voice he can hear in his head. Dareka gets Satoru to remove a thorn in his paw (or at least mime the action, as Satoru cannot see any thorn there). As a reward he grants Satoru one wish. When Satoru, pressed to decide, says "Give me time!", Dareka transports him to another world, where he can stay until he grows old, but still be back within the two minutes. And indeed Satoru  might have to stay, since Dareka now decides to play a game of hide and seek with him. The cat has transformed himself into something else, "the most certain thing in this world"; he will take Satoru back to his world when Satoru catches him and says "Got you!"

Alone in the middle of a forest, Satoru can think of nothing but to set off in some direction and hope he finds something. Night falls before he can find his way out of the forest. Fortunately after a while he spots light ahead in the darkness. He finds a group of children his age. In fact they all look like children he knows from school, but they have no memory of him. They have gathered to send off Kaori, a girl from their village. Every year the village sends two children to become victims to the dragon that rules the country, chosen by an arrow fired into the roof of their houses. This year however, both arrows had landed in Kaori's house; so the second victim is unclear. When Satoru appears, the other children think he might be the one meant; and Satoru agrees to go with Kaori, thinking that if the dragon's power is so absolute, he might be Dareka, so that catching him would solve his and Kaori's problem at once.

A world with yearly victims sacrificed to a monster sounds familiar; but this world is a little stranger than that.

"What you said, it sounds like you it's only children living in your village?" Satoru asked, tipping the last crumbs of bread into his mouth.

"Children?"

"I mean, people about our age ...." Satoru replied, surprised. "Do you understand the word 'adult'?" he tried asking back.

Kaori tilted her head.

"Who were you born from?"

"Born?"

This was no good, Satoru thought, and looked for a different line of question.

"Um, I mean, the people last night, they were living with you in the village, yes?"

Kaori nodded.

"Apart from them, who was living there?"

"No-one."

"No-one? Well, when did you all start living there?"

"When ....? Always."

"Always? There must have been someone looking after you?"

Kaori didn't seem to understand Satoru's question.

"I mean, the meat and bread we just ate - did you make it?"

No, Kaori shook her head.

"Who made it?"

"No-one made it. It just is."

"It just is? Even though no-one makes it? Does someone bring it for you?"

"I don't know. I've never thought about things like that."

...

"Well what did you do in the village from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night?"

"We played."

The story developes into a fight against the dragon; but it avoids some potential clichés, casting an ironic light on the idea of a chosen hero. In addition, the oppressive fear running through the group of children, who are each waiting for the moment when they must face the dragon, is conveyed more vividly than we might expect. In this and other ways what looks like an easy fantasy becomes a little more disturbing.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Balloon Town Murder

バルーン・タウンの殺人 (Baruun taun no satsujin, The Balloon Town Murder, 1994) by 松尾 由美 (MATSUO Yumi), is currently out of print; so while in Japan recently, I bought an electronic copy. I think it's not difficult to find second hand copies there too. I certainly saw it in more than one used bookshop. It's a series of linked science fiction detective stories, all set in the same world, a near future Japan, with recurrent characters.

The classic of science fiction detective stories is of course Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954). Many science fiction novels are a kind of mystery, where the reader or characters are trying to understand not a crime, but a world. Combining the two allows us to explore one aspect, the society in which the story is set, while the characters pursue the answer to the other puzzle. It helps of course to have characters who themselves don't understand the rules of the society in which the crime is committed. In The Caves of Steel, there is a crime committed at the intersection of two societies, both foreign to us, investigated by an ad hoc team of two detectives, one from each society. In The Balloon Town Murder, the foreign society is a part of Tokyo reserved for pregnant women, in an age where the artificial uterus has made pregnancy unnecessary. A minority of women choose to go through with pregnancy anyway, and the city has reserved an area for them, protected from harmful environmental influences. 'Balloon Town' is the non-official, somewhat derisory, name that outsiders have given the area. This setup allows Matsuo that very old science fiction trick of looking at the familiar with a stranger's eyes.

The eyes belong to 江田茉莉奈 (ETA Marina), a Tokyo policewoman, who investigates various crimes in Balloon Town. The real answers, though, are provided by an armchair detective, who deduces the answer from the data that Eta has gathered. This is Eta's friend from university, her senior in the detective fiction club there, 暮林美央 (KUREBAYASHI Mio). Kurebayashi is one of the inhabitants of Balloon Town, in the seventh month of her pregnancy when we first meet her. She doesn't share the slightly cultish seriousness about pregnancy that the other inhabitants seem to have (from an outsider's perspective); she offers 'curiosity' as her reason for coming to Balloon Town.

The title story establishes the setting and, as we expect from a science fiction detective story, it leads us to a solution that depends on aspects of the society that we have been introduced to. The style is generally light and humorous, occasionally becoming more serious or taking the humour in a more sharp and satirical direction. Throughout the book, attitudes to pregnancy and maternity are the focus, both outside the pregnant society and within it. In the following stories, humour sometimes takes the upper hand, with absurd situations and various parodic references to detective fiction (and more rarely science fiction). The second story, バルーン・タウンの密室 ("The Balloon Town Locked Room") is a locked room mystery; but the victim is only knocked unconscious. The story plays out as a battle of deductions between Kurebayashi and a deduction program on a policeman's laptop, given the name 'Professor Dowell' by one of the characters (apparently a reference to this). The third, 亀腹同盟 (Kamebaradoumei, "The League of Turtleshell Bellied Women") is a pastiche on several Sherlock Holmes stories, and I imagine that the fourth, なぜ、助産婦に頼まなかったのか? (Naze, josanpu ni tanomanakatta no ka? "Why Didn't They Ask the Midwife?") is a reference to Agatha Christie's Why Didn't They Ask Evans? In both, the mystery starts with the dying message of the title, and Eta meets the dying man as she leaves the game centre where she has been playing virtual golf.  The book ends with a very minor story,  バルーン・タウンの裏窓 (Baruun taun no uramado, "Balloon Town Rear Window"), whose point of reference should be obvious; this is a later addition, a very minor story, which disturbs a little the concluding character of the previous story.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Boy Detectives Club

少年探偵団 (Shounen tanteidan, The Boy Detectives Club, 1937), is the sequel to 二十面相 (Nijuumensou, The Fiend with Twenty Faces, 1936), making it the second in a series of juvenile detective stories by  江戸川乱歩 (EDOGAWA Ranpo), featuring the great detective AKECHI Kogoro (明智 小五郎), his young assistant, teenager KOBAYASHI  Yoshio (小 芳雄), and a group of primary school aged boys, the boy detectives club of the title.

Tokyo is in terror of a black figure, who merges into the night and is seen only when he shows the white teeth of his mocking smile. The strange figure's appearances come close to the house of a wealthy Japanese family, and wake in the memory of the father an association with a jewel that he once bought. The jewel had seemed a bargain at the time; but he later learnt that it had been stolen from an idol in an Indian village, and two Indians were said to pursue the stone relentlessly, taking the life of the owner's daughter, just as an Indian girl of the village had lost her life at the time of the theft.

The mystery runs along similar lines to Twenty Faces. Akechi is again away on business and Kobayashi steps in for him. This time the villains seem a bit more ruthless than Twenty Faces, who did not care for killing.

Straining his eyes he looked up at the ceiling. It was hard to make out; but it seemed that a small hole was opening there and through that something like a thick pipe was being pushed inside. Its diameter was about twenty centimetres.

Hey, what's this you're playing at? What on earth is that? Kobayashi braced himself, prepared for whatever might come, and kept his eyes fixed in that direction. As he did so, he thought he heard a "ga, ga ga" sound. And in that moment, suddenly, out of the mouth of the thick pipe, something white and foaming started to pour down like a waterfall. It was water. Water.

Oh, readers, what must our Kobayashi's surprise be at this moment?

The novel follows very much the pattern of the first book and has similar virtues. The villain is hilariously irritating, crowing like a child in his victories and mocking his opponents. The narrator moves between different viewpoints and attitudes, often addressing the readers and inviting them to speculate about what is going on, sometimes pulling the camera back and seeing events through the eyes of the people of Tokyo. The passage of time has perhaps given the story more interest, for the glimpse of Japan in the thirties that it offers. That includes such suprisingly modern items as burglar alarms with infrared sensors and helicopters. It also shares the fault, if you care, that all the surprises are much too obvious. An adult reader will work out almost everything that is going on immediately; and probably children are expected to spot most of it for themselves before the revelation.

The boy detectives club, which had a small role in the first book, is the title character this time; but its role is only slightly larger, and almost restricted to the first part of the book.

According to the Japan Foundation's translation database, there is an English translation by Gavin Frew, The Boy Detectives Club (Kodansha International, 1988).