Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Yatsugatake Highland Murder Case

And so I end the record of my literary performances,—which I think are more in amount than the works of any other living English author. ... I find that ... I have published much more than twice as much as Carlyle. I have also published considerably more than Voltaire, even including his letters. We are told that Varro, at the age of eighty, had written 480 volumes, and that he went on writing for eight years longer. I wish I knew what was the length of Varro's volumes; I comfort myself by reflecting that the amount of manuscript described as a book in Varro's time was not much. Varro, too, is dead, and Voltaire; whereas I am still living, and may add to the pile. [Anthony Trollope, Autobiography]
 In case the quotation above wasn't enough of a hint, today's book is by the incredibly prolific 西村京太郎 (NISHIMURA Kyoutarou, born 1930). A high production rate is fairly standard for Japanese mystery writers; but Nishimura has written hundreds of books since his first novel in 1964. The Nishimura bibliography on the Japanese Wikipedia lists 557 books authored (up to June 2015) and a few more edited by him. I could devote this blog soley to reviewing his books and I would never catch up in my lifetime. Of course, I don't plan to do that. Including the book I'm discussing today, 八ヶ岳高原殺人事件 (Yatsugatake kougen satsujin jiken, The Yatsugatake Highland Murder Case, 1987), I've now read two books by Nishimura; and the quality seems like my memories of his English counterpart, John Creasey, not unforgivably bad, occasionally rising to quite good.

The subgenre that Nishimura is particularly associated with is the travel mystery, which typically features crimes set in some interesting part of Japan, often with an element of alibi breaking, which may involve close inspection of public transport timetables and maps: Nishimura's book covers often feature trains. In The Yatsugatake Highland Murder Case there is no alibi breaking, although the obsessive detail with which Nishimura lists the departures, connections and arrivals of every train a character travels on makes you expect that it must be coming. The other interest of the travel mystery is to satisfy the tourist interest of Japanese readers, who mostly spend there short holidays somewhere in Japan. If you've ever watched Japanese television, you'll know that travel shows are a large part of every evening's entertainment. Here the detective is Nishimura's series detective, Inspector TOTSUGAWA (十津川); but the tourist eye is provided by a travel writer, who grumpily accompanies a young female photographer to a mountain resort in Yamanashi: Yatsugatake of the title is part of a mountain range on the border of Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures.

The tour of the area is interrupted when the two journalists find a dead body in the woods, a famous television actress who had been staying at the same hotel as them. She has been strangled with a black silk ribbon, the same method used to kill two other young and beautiful women in Tokyo. Totsugawa had been investigating these cases and travels to Yamanashi to see if this is part of the series. The ribbon is the same; and a few days later another case occurs, just a few miles away in Nagano prefecture, again discovered by the travel writer and photographer. Can this be coincidence? Unfortunately when we get to the end, we find that quite a few things in the book actually are coincidence. Although the police make deductions or conjectures on the little evidence they have, there is enough that doesn't make sense or is never developed that you might suspect that Nishimura had not worked the exact plot out in much detail when he started.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Hunter

NONAMI Asa's 凍える牙 (kogoeru kiba, Freezing Fang, 1996) is the first in a series of books featuring the policewoman OTOMICHI Takako (音道貴子) and one of her most successful works. It won the Naoki Prize and was adapted twice into a television series (in 2001 and 2010) and more recently into a Korean film, Howling (2012). It is also one of the few Japanese crime novels with an English translation, as The Hunter by Juliet Winters Carpenter (2006).

Japan probably has the world's highest proportion of fictional female police detectives to real ones. The majority of Japanese policewomen are in the traffic division, which is where the main character here also started, before transferring first to a motorcycle squad (used primarily for publicity purposes) and then finally to criminal investigation. In this mystery she is the only woman in the large investigating team, and is often made uncomfortably aware that she is an unwelcome presence for some of her colleagues. Worst of all, she is teamed up with one of the most prejudiced, the grumpy middle aged TAKIZAWA (滝沢), who spends the first days of the investigation ignoring her as far as possible. Gradually over the course of the case, he begins to understand her a little better.

The police procedural aspect of the story probably sounds very familiar. Mismatched partners gradually learning to work together and female police officers coping with prejudice have both been a staple of western television drama since at least the eighties. Mixing rather oddly with this generically familiar character arrangement and the realistic depiction of a police department, the crimes they investigate are fantastic and bizarre. The first victim is killed with an incendiary bomb attached to his belt, which explodes while he is eating in a Tokyo "family restaurant", burning him alive and destroying the restaurant and several storeys in the same building. Another victim is killed by a dog; and the bite marks on his killer are the same as a bite on the leg of the first victim. Apparently someone has trained a wolf-husky hybrid to kill.

The content of the crimes is not only stylistically jarring in its mismatch with the realism of the police investigation, it is also unconvincingly plotted. Even granting the unusual elements there is too much coincidence and too many aspects that don't really make sense. In this it is a little like MATSUMOTO Seichou's strangely successful 砂の器 (suna no utsuwa, 1974, translated as Inspector Imanishi Investigates, 2003), though Nonami's book is at least a little more solidly plotted than that.

The strength of the book lies not in the mystery, but in the depiction of the characters. Although a description of Otomichi and Takizawa sounds hackneyed, on the page they come across as convincingly and interestingly human. The narration switches between their viewpoints and that of witnesses or victims of the unfolding series of crimes.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Jack the Poetical Private

MORI Hiroshi (森 博嗣) started his career as a novelist with すべてがFになる (subete ga F ni naru, The Perfect Insider / Everything Becomes F, 1996), featuring SAIKAWA Souhei (犀川創平), a lecturer and researcher in a university architecture department, and NISHINOSONO Moe (西之園萌絵), the orphan daughter of a wealthy family, a student in the same department. The story was notable for its daringly unexpected locked room mystery and high technology setting; it won the Mephisto Prize and has been adapted into a manga, a television drama, and most recently an anime series. No-one would deny the daring of its approach to the locked room mystery; but I must admit that I thought the book wrote itself a large blank cheque in the assumptions behind what was plausible both for the characters and for the set up.  

詩的私的ジャック (shiteki shiteki jakku, Jack the Poetical Private, 1997) is a much more conventional detective story in the same series. It too has a locked room mystery, or rather several, as a series of victims are found in locked rooms in different universities, all stripped to their underwear with mysterious marks cut into their skin after death. So, as well as a locked room mystery, this starts looking like a "find the connexion" serial killer mystery. In fact the first two locked rooms are not taken very seriously as a puzzle for the reader, and the links between the various murders are also established early. The final locked room is kept as the main puzzle, although it is really hardly a locked room at all. The attention of the police and the amateur detectives is soon drawn to a drop out student at the university, now a rising pop star. The lyrics of one of the songs on his new album have a strange similarity to the crimes.

Like The Perfect Insider, the book reads easily; but I never felt much engagement with the characters. There was a little more Ellery Queen style deduction in the answer this time. Some of it (as often with this style) was not quite convincing; but there were also parts where Saikawa could offer a plausible, but not considered, explanation for oddities in the various crime scenes. The puzzle aspect of the book was very similar to what one might find in one of the more trick oriented golden age writers.

The book had a puzzle of a different kind. As in The Perfect Insider, Mori provides a list of characters, a very useful feature if you're reading Japanese and have difficulty with name kanji. But in both, the only characters listed are those in universities or research institutes. Other characters, such as policemen or servants, are not listed there. I think the first book did the same thing; and it seems very odd to me. Is there some reason for it?



Monday, 16 November 2015

The Girl the Dragon Called

竜が呼んだ娘  (ryuu ga yonda musume, The Girl the Dragon Called, 2013) is a children's fantasy by KASHIWABA Sachiko (柏葉幸子), a writer best known for 霧のむこうのふしぎな町 (The Marvellous Village Veiled in Mist, 1975). That and りんご畑の特別列車 (The Apple Orchard Special Train, 1989) that I discussed earlier are towards the more nonsensical or whimsical end of the spectrum of children's fantasy. This book is much closer to the other end of the spectrum, an adventure set in a world in which magic is real, much like a fantasy written for adults. Visits from our world to the magic world are more likely to be found towards the "nonsense" end of the spectrum. This might be because part of the interest of such books is the strangeness of their nonsense world, and an observer from our world can react appropriately. In The Girl the Dragon Called, the heroine Mia belongs to the world of the story. Even so, readers want a character who experiences the world as something new along with them. Mia  can do that because she comes from a valley cut off from the rest of the world, the home or prison of "wrongdoers" and their descendants. The only creatures linking the valley to the outside world are dragons which can fly over the surrounding cliffs. Each spring the visit of a dragon has a special significance.

Ten year olds wondering, 'Will I be called by the dragon?' felt their hearts tremble at the thought that if that happened they would be leaving the village for good.

Not just the parents of ten year old children, but the whole village would talk about who the dragon would take this year. Sometimes no-one might be called, sometimes two or three. It was an honor to be called by the dragon.

Mia is an orphan, raised by her aunt, who had herself been taken out of the valley as a child, but then returned as an adult, for some wrongdoing of her own. When the dragon calls Mia, she realises that her aunt had been preparing her to leave all her life. The dragon always brings the children to a place where they are needed; and Mia is wanted in the palace complex of the capital. The remnants of a long past war have left behind a variety of unfinished business, that Mia must help with. She is the new servant in the rooms of the hero of that war, who is now only left as a weeping voice heard at nights.

The book is not constantly serious. There are occasional patches of humour or lighthearted adventure; but there are also episodes showing a dystopian society, and more emphasis on a child's uncertain place in the world and their relation to the adults that should care for them.

Most of the various threads of the plot get a resolution of sorts by the end of the book, so that it makes a self contained novel; but it certainly feels like the door has been left open for a sequel with more of the story.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

My Town

NONAMI Asa (乃南アサ, born 1960) is probably best known for her books with police detective OTOMICHI Takako (音道 貴子). The first of those, 凍える牙 (kogoeru kiba, Frozen Fang, 1996) even has an English translation (The Hunter, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, 2006). ボクの町 (boku no machi, My Town, 1998) is less well known. It's not a detective story, not even a crime novel really, though the narrative includes several crimes. It's the account of one trainee policeman's first apprentice year in a local police mini station (a kouban) in Tokyo.

The young policeman TAKAGI Seidai (高木聖大) is a bit of a misfit in the police world. He has no great natural enthusiasm for the job and would rather be chasing girls. He had left university with no clear idea what he wanted to do and joined the force almost randomly. Even on his first roll call he gets marked out by his superior officers for having a sticker with a photo of his last girlfriend stuck in the back of his police notebook. He still has an ear piercing, and his speech is mostly casual and slangy. (It sounds like the dialect typical of thoughtless slapdash young men in television dramas, the 'su style, you could say; I've never heard this in real life, and don't know if it's a convention or a real thing.) Through his post training apprentice year he gets experience of what the work really demands, often failing to live up to expectations and questioning whether he has made the right choice in joining the police.

The uniformed police don't get much attention in fiction in Japan or the English speaking world, so it's interesting to read a bit about them for a change. The mini police stations in particular are a very Japanese institution. Tourist guides to Japan often advise you to ask for directions there. There aren't enough of them for that to be actually practical for a tourist; but from the novel it seems that giving directions really is a major part of the work. There are crimes too; but they aren't necessarily resolved. As policemen on the beat, the characters have less control over how things work out than a detective. Mostly they can only patrol or wait and hope to run into the criminal. Towards the end, though, a serial arsonist changes the narrative expectations, as Takagi joins the all out hunt to catch the culprit.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The Devotion of Suspect X

Mostly the books I discuss, even if they have a translation, are little known in the west. In this case most English speaking mystery readers probably read the book long before I got round to it, since 東野 圭吾 (HIGASHINO Keigo) is one of the few successful Japanese mystery exports, with several of his books now available in translation. In Japan too, 容疑者Xの献身 (yougisha ekkusu no kenshin, The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005) was one of his most successful works, winning the Honkaku Mystery prize and adapted into a film.

The book is part of a series, in which Tokyo policeman KUSANAGI (草薙) consults his old university friend, now a physics lecturer, YUGAWA Manabu (湯川学) for ideas on difficult cases. I've read an earlier short story collection 予知夢 (Yochimu, Prophetic Dream, 2000) and 聖女の救済 (seijo no kyuusai, Salvation of a Saint, 2008). The former is fairly conventional, a set of mysteries with a slight appearance of the supernatural to them. Salvation of a Saint however is an inverted mystery, like its predecessor, The Devotion of Suspect X. Perhaps it would be better to call them semi-inverted mysteries. We know (or at least we are fairly sure) who did the crime; but exactly what they did is still a mystery. As in other inverted mysteries, we follow the story both from the point of view of the detectives and from that of the criminals, with divided sympathies and some unease at the developments.

In The Devotion of Suspect X, the killer is a mother, HANAOKA Yasuko, living with her teenage daughter after divorcing her abusive husband. A threatening visit from him escalates into a fight in which they end up strangling him. (I'm not quite sure what the legal status of the crime would be in England; the events are close to, but not quite eligible for a 'self defense' plea.) They are on the point of calling the police to turn themselves in when their neighbour, maths teacher ISHIGAMI rings the doorbell. He immediately deduces what has happened and offers to help them, if they intend to conceal the crime. When they accept, he takes charge of the situation and sets to preparing a trick to deceive the police.

From the police side, we follow Kusanagi as he investigates the ex-husband's murder, soon closing in on the mother and daughter. By coincidence, the neighbour Ishigami, whom he questions as a witness, turns out to be an old friend of Yukawa. Yukawa is surprised to learn that Ishigami, a mathematical genius, is now a high school teacher and visits him to renew their friendship. Soon the various parties are separately pursuing their suspicions or concealing their guilt. Meanwhile we, like most of the characters, don't know quite what trick Ishigami used; and this is the mystery part of the book.

From Ho-Ling's post about the book, I gather that there was some discussion in Japan about whether the mystery part of the book was fair play. This seems really bizarre to me, because the solution, while shocking, is really very obvious, and pointed to by a variety of hints. It may be that the answer is more obvious if you come to it from reading Salvation of a Saint, since the narrative trickery used to mislead us is much the same. (I hope it's not giving much away to say that in both Higashino uses our insider knowledge of the criminal and their crime against us.) Seeing through the tricks (both Ishigami's and Higashino's) doesn't make the story less interesting, as the mystery is only part of the book. It does make it more painful reading though. You share more of Yukawa's distress as he pursues his friend. I don't notice anyone else claiming to have solved it easily, so if you want a challenge, don't read Salvation of a Saint first. And if you only read one, read this one; it's far the better book.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Sky Town 008

空中都市008 (kuuchuu toshi zero zero eito, Sky Town 008, 1968) by KOMATSU Sakyou (小松左京, 1931-2011) is a children's science fiction novel. Komatsu was Japan's most famous science fiction writer, probably best known in the west for 日本沈没 (nihon chinbotsu, Japan Sinks, 1973), which was filmed twice, in 1973 and in 2006. Sky Town 008 got an adaptation too, a 1969 television puppet drama by NHK.

The story is aimed at young children and gives an optimistic view of the world in the twenty first century. The main character is a primary school aged boy Hoshio, whose family (mother, father and younger sister Tsukiko) move to the city. Its name makes it sound like a city in midair; but anyone expecting James Blish style cities in flight will be disappointed. It is a more realistic earthbound city of skyscrapers, differing from those of the twentieth century in the more sophisticated use of the higher levels. Hoshio's new home is many stories up in the air, but is still a proper house with a garden. The houses and gardens wind upwards round the building in a spiral, which allows each to have light.

Each chapter brings a new episode, exporing different aspects of the town and of the world of the future. Hoshio explores the city with his neighbour Ginny (although the setting is Japan, Komatsu imagines a more international country than Japan in the sixties, and many characters are from other countries). They build a robot for a school club project, with the help of a robotics expert they know. The central computer malfunctions causing various mishaps, most amusing, some alarming, for people in the city. They have a school trip to the nearby city under the sea and make friends with an intelligent dolphin.

Most of the episodes are within the realistic mode of near future science fiction, and the kinds of adventures the children are allowed to get into are mostly close to the minor scrapes that a small child could really experience. That means that expectations of a thrilling adventure may be disappointed. There are no bad characters; in fact Hoshio and his family and friends don't even have to deal with any persistently stupid or misguided characters. The only sense in which the book rises to a climax is in saving the most exciting outing, a tourist trip to the moon, for the last chapter. I imagine though, that I would have liked this book a lot if I'd met it as a child. It reminds me strongly of Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the Sky, which I loved, but which I see is sometimes criticised for the same lack of major tension as Sky Town 008.

 The technological developments Komatsu imagines are based on inventions and research of the sixties. There are footnotes from the original book, explaining where the ideas come from. These make for interesting reading fifty years later. Some predictions are completely wrong. Others are very close to reality, or imagine real developments, but ones which came about in a quite different way to the book.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

An Unfortunate Name

I wrote a review of half of the 1982 book Suspicion (疑惑) by MATSUMOTO Seichou a year ago. That was the novella with the book title. Somehow I didn't get round to reading the other half of the book, the novella,不運な名前 (fuunna namae, An Unfortunate Name, first published separately in 1981).The story is an investigation of a famous counterfeiting case from the 19th century, presented as fiction, much like Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951). 

The story's setting is the museum of the old Kabato Prison in Tsukigata, Hokkaidou. The prison was set up as part of the Meiji government's efforts to populate Hokkaidou; the prisoners were to provide a workforce to build the necessary infrastructure. The most famous prisoner was perhaps KUMASAKA Chouan (熊坂 長庵, 1844-1886), arrested for forging Japanese banknotes. The case was notable because three years before Kumasaka's arrest, the businessman FUJITA Denzaburou (藤田傳三郎, 1841-1912) and other leaders of the Fujita group had been taken into investigative custody on suspicion of being the culprits, then finally released without charge. The suspicion had been a major scandal, involving senior politicians, and many have suspected that Kumasaka was a scapegoat, especially as his name was only one letter different from a famous Heian period robber, 熊坂長範 (KUMASAKA Chouhan).

The investigators in the story are three visitors to the prison museum: a freelance writer investigating the case (we see everything through his eyes and thoughts); a retired teacher and passionate defender of Kumasaka's honour; a young woman, apparently a tourist. Although the scene and the modern characters are given a personality, they are really only there to mediate the narration and analysis of the nineteenth century story. The actual case is interesting, but it's not easy reading. In several places we have long excerpts from Meiji era documents and narratives; and even when the modern characters are speaking, they constantly reference outdated and technical terminology. I must admit that I'm a fairly recalcitrant reader for most popular history in general, and this sort of fictional account in particular. I suspect the whole time that the writer is working more like a lawyer advocating a case than a researcher. The status as fiction is particularly problematic when much of the argument is based on a photograph of a forged note in the private possession of the fictional freelance writer.

From the Wikipedia page on Kumasaka, I see that this is not the first time Matusmoto had written about the case. There's a 1964 story 相模国愛甲郡中津村 (Sagaminokuni Aikougun Nakatsumura) which is apparently based on the case (the title is Kumasaka's home village); but I haven't read it.

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Manji Murders

卍の殺人 (manji no satsujin, The Manji Murders, 1989) is IMAMURA Aya's first novel. The manji of the title is the Japanese word for the symbol that in English is best known as the swastika, although the symbolism is different to the Nazi version that comes to mind. The shape is different as well, in that the arms bend counter clockwise. A character in the book says that the other direction brings associations with Nazism in Japan too. The symbolism is fairly irrelevant here, because the sign's only role is as the shape of the house of a rich Japanese family. This is one of those stories written in the boom of "new orthodox" detective stories, that try to recreate the golden age (in this cases also emphasising particularly elements that YOKOMIZO Seishi had favoured): a closed circle of suspects in an isolated mansion; unusual architecture; intrigue centred on a wealthy family; impossible crimes and crimes with a pattern.

The mansion in this case has two branches of a winemaking family, each living in a different arm of the manji of the title, with a common hall in the middle. ANDOU Takumi (安東匠), the adopted son of one of the families is making his own life as an illustrator in Tokyo and has a new girlfriend HAGIWARA Ryouko (萩原亮子) in the narrator, a translator. The head of the family has summoned him home to discuss marrying his cousin; but he declares that he will give up his place in the family, and travels with his girlfriend to explain his intention to marry her. On the first night in the mansion, Ryouko witnesses a man in the other wing of the mansion strangling a woman. That turns out to be only one of two murders that night, as in a different wing another victim has also been strangled. This is the first of a series of deaths and attacks; and the same pattern of nearly simultaneous victims in different parts of the house repeats itself.

The various crimes involve a series of tricks. For many the characters, particularly Takumi, find a solution to the mystery early on, only to overturn it with a new complication later. A locked room mystery is quickly dispensed with one solution, then another. The plausibility of some of these tricks demands generous readers. The final revelation proves to be a variation on a very familiar trick, but a bold one, and so thoroughly signalled throughout the book that a reader who has not spotted it (I hadn't) will be impressed. This is certainly no classic, but a respectable minor honkaku mystery.

[UPDATE: One point I forgot to mention. I read this in the kindle version, and the various floor plans and family trees in the book were unreadable. Clicking on them made them larger, but equally illegible. If you're thinking of reading this, you'd probably do better with the paper version.]

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Adventures of Norizuki Rintarou

It's not surprising that the first short story collection by NORIZUKI Rintarou (法月綸太郎) is called 法月綸太郎の冒険 (Norizuki Rintarou no bouken, The Adventures of Norizuki Rinatarou, 1992). Admirers of Ellery Queen, who is a constant presence in Norizuki's books, will recognise the title of the first Ellery Queen short story collection, The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1932). Norizuki's collection is made up of one novella and six short stories, some of them reworkings of stories he wrote as an university student for amateur club magazines.

The novella, 'The Death Penalty Puzzle', is set in the execution room of a prison. Japan is one of the two prosperous democratic countries that still have the death penalty, although it is mostly reserved for multiple murders: there are typically two or three executions in a year. In the story, moments before being hanged, a prisoner is poisoned. The prison governor worries about the public reaction to the crime and asks Superintendant Norizuki and his son, detective story writer and amateur detective Rintarou to quickly identify the culprit. Obviously the motive is the biggest puzzle here, since the victim was about to die anyway; but Rintarou focuses more on opportunity. The story is a strong example of the kind of deduction by elimination familiar from early Ellery Queen. A slight oddity is that the elements on which the deduction are based are not really hidden. Similarly the surprise revelation of the murderer is prepared by hints that are hardly disguised. Even so, I hadn't worked out the answer myself.

I won't describe all the other stories in detail, as working out just what kind of a story it is is part of the interest. Like the short story collections from Doyle through to the golden age, they have a great deal of variety. Some are murder mysteries, and these may be whodunnits, howdunits or something completely different. Others feature minor crimes, "puzzles of everyday life", although the fact that they are not announced as such in advance means that they do not fit so simply into the genre. This is perhaps one of the strengths of the "it doesn't have to be murder" freedom of the short story world. Not every story has to establish a well defined problem near the beginning. Some of them can leave you wondering "just where is this heading?" and the answer can be horror, tragedy or comedy.

One story that does have a clearly defined problem is "The Green Door is Danger", a locked room mystery. The victim was an apparent suicide; but Rintarou becomes suspicious of the widow and tries to find out how the murderer could have got out of a bolted room whose only other exit, the green door of the title, has been sealed fast for many years. I had the right background to make the solution very obvious to me; but I thought it was a very satisfactory version of the locked room genre. It isn't one of the most baffling examples, since, although there is clearly a right answer, the set up would have allowed the murderer a variety of possibilities to create much the same effect. But this is one story where you can decide for yourself, even if you don't read Japanese, as there is a translation by Ho-Ling Wong in the November 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Of the other stories in the collection my favourite was "The Slasher" (切り裂き鬼). I wish English speaking fans of the classical detective story had a chance to read it.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

And then there were five people missing


そして五人がいなくなる (soshite gonin ga inakunaru, And Then Five People Were Missing, 1994) is the first book in the series 名探偵夢水清志郎事件ノート (Meitantei Yumemizu Kiyoshirou jiken nooto, Case Notes of Great Detective YUMEMIZU Kiyoshirou) by はやみねかおる (HAYAMINE Kaoru, born 1964). It's a lighthearted children's detective series, probably aimed principally at children around ten to twelve, although the narrator and her sisters are slightly older (about thirteen).

Yumemizu is the new neighbour of the IWASAKI (岩崎) family. He has moved into the ramshackle western style house next door and hung up a sign saying "Yumemizu Kiyoshirou, Great Detective". The children 亜衣, 真衣 and 美衣 (Ai, Mai, Mii, or I, My, Me, as they write their names) regard this declaration with suspicion; and Ai starts to investigate the detective, calling round on the new neighbour with a gift from her mother. Yumemizu is an eccentric, always dressed in a black suit and sunglasses, mostly lying around reading or sleeping. A former lecturer and self proclaimed great detective, his self confidence is boundless, but somehow hard to credit, even though he shows Ai his card, which reads "Great Detective Yumemizu Kiyoshirou".

"You showed me the card earlier, so never mind that. I mean, tell me what cases you've solved so far."
"Fine." But although Yumemizu's mouth stayed open, no more words came out.
"What is it?"
"I can't remember."
Seeing my suspicion filled eyes, he hurried to defend himself, "It's true. I really have solved any number of difficult cases. But when a puzzle's solved, it's not interesting any more and I just forget them."
Really?

In the end Yumemizu's deductions convince the sisters that he really is a detective; but since "Great Detective" isn't a real title, they end up calling him "Professor".

The first real case comes in the summer holidays. At a nearby amusement park, the performing magician "The Count" (伯爵) makes a young girl vanish from a box suspended on ropes above the stage. When neither he nor the girl reappear, the audience realise that she has in fact been kidnapped. The Count announces that this is the first of five people he is going to make vanish; and soon another three children disappear in impossible circumstances. The figure of the Count is very much like the villain of EDOGAWA Rampo's children's series; but here there is less adventure, more emphasis on the puzzle. The book aims to be a proper classical detective story, though one in a world in which plausibility is not really a criterion. There are a couple of good ideas in the various puzzles (and one nice use of a narrative trick), but most will seem a little obvious. The chief attraction of the book is in the humour, particularly in its eccentric detective and sarcastic narrator.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Magician of Balloon Town

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

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

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


Monday, 3 August 2015

The Alice Mirror Castle Murder Case

Ten characters gather on a lonely island in winter. Most are detectives invited by the wealthy niece of the owner of the only house on the island, the Lewis Carroll themed Alice Mirror Castle. The niece wants the detectives to search for the so-called Alice mirror that should be in the castle somewhere. Whoever is still alive at the end of their stay can have the mirror. This seems like an invitation to murder. And indeed someone is targeting the other guests, and one by one their number decreases, in a homage to the Agatha Christie classic, And Then There Were None. If this all sounds strangely familiar, there is more than one homage to the book in the world of Japanese mystery. Today's isolated island serial murder is by KITAYAMA Takekuni (北山猛邦, born 1979), 『アリス・ミラー城』殺人事件  (The Alice Mirror Castle Murder Case, 2003).

I'm not going to write much about this one, because I'm clearly not its intended audience. It has a locked room mystery and various crime scene maps and plans; but at the end, none of the explanations for the various mysteries seemed to make sense. The fantastical set up might be considered a warning not to expect too much logic, and the characters do not act like characters in the real world.

You can read the much more enthusiastic reactions of other bloggers here and here. So obviously I'm missing something.

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Apple Orchard Special Train

りんご畑の特別列車 (ringobatake no tokubetsu ressha, The Apple Orchard Special Train, 1989) is a children's book by KASHIWABA Sachiko (柏葉幸子), best known for The Mysterious Town beyond the Mist. Like that, this is a fantasy for young readers. You could put children's fantasy on a spectrum. At one end, you have conventional fantasy stories, much like the post-Tolkien fantasy marketed to adults, which treat a magical world as something real and try to make it plausible. At the other, you have stories like Alice in Wonderland, which put more emphasis on invention and fill their world with deliberately fanciful and absurd creations. The classics of English language children's books would fit on the spectrum something like this: Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, The Hobbit. Like The Mysterious Town beyond the Mist, The Apple Orchard Special Train falls near the middle of the spectrum, a little closer to the "absurd and inventive" end than to the "treat magic like reality" end.

Yuki is a fifth year primary school girl (ten or eleven years old), taking an early evening train home after school and piano lesson; but something seems to have gone wrong.
When he got to Yuki's seat, the conductor said, "Please show me your ticket."

But they never checked tickets on the train ..... Yuki pulled her season ticket out of her pocket. As she held it out, she felt the train taking a curve to the left and looked out of the window. There shouldn't be a curve here. As Yuki pressed her face against the window, she heard the conductor, still standing by her seat, "Not that, the special train ticket."

She turned round in panic, "'Special train?' Do you mean this train?"

The conductor nodded.

"This isn't the normal train?"

"It's the special train," the conductor shook his head.

Yuki felt sure she had checked it was the right train. A little sulkily, she said, "Well, I'll pay the difference."

Resignedly, she took out her purse; but the conductor shook his head, "You can't pay the difference. It looks like you got on the wrong train. You'll have to get off at the next stop."

"Whaaat?" As Yuki cried out in distress, the train clanked to a stop.

"Right, up you get. If you don't have a ticket, you have to get off." He took her arm and pulled her to her feet. The old woman sitting in front of Yuki looked like she felt very sorry for her, but didn't say anything.

"Right. Down you go, down you go," the conductor threw the weeping Yuki out onto the dark platform.

But it didn't say "Special Train", Yuki thought, giving it a reproachful look. What? She looked at the one coach train standing by the platform. When she had got on, there had been ten coaches. ... The train's door hissed shut, a whistle sounded and the train started moving.

"A! Aaa!" Yuki half sighed half cried. The last window of the train opened, Beni and Ryou's faces looked out. When they spotted Yuki, they called, "Go to Merry's place!", "Here's a map. It's a travel agency," and threw a crumpled piece of paper. "You have to go there."

Yuki goes to the place her friends tell her, thinking she can telephone her father to come and get her. Instead, Merry sends her into another world.

The book falls into two parts, an outer frame, in which Yuki wanders into a fantastic world, and a central narrative, in which she has an adventure in the world she has been sent to. Trains and apple orchards only turn up in the outer frame. The world she reaches is one in which everyone except her can do magic; in return, magic does not work on her. Only she can see the ghost like wizard Pekinpo, who had almost been reduced to nothing by the country's king, who had cast a spell so that no-one would remember his existence. Since Yuki is the only one who can see him, she uses his help to win a magic contest and become the companion to the young prince, who must prove his worth by recapturing a stolen piece of magic.

As often in fantasies of travelling to other worlds, the heroine finds new qualities where her character had been lacking before. Yuki sees herself as someone who is too nervous and slow to speak up or act when needed; but faced by the challenges in this world, she is forthright and positively reckless. The adventures are bloodless, and although the characters are often in real danger, the story returns regularly to scenes of comedy or friendship.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Updates

I don't generally bother to announce new translations of books I've reviewed separately; but if you're interested in children's literature, a new translation of one of INUI Tomiko's best books, The Little People in the House in the Tree's Shadow (木かげの家の小人たち), is good news. Pushkin Press are publishing a translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori, as The Secret of the Blue Glass (the title seems to be taken from the French translation, presumably because the Japanese title becomes unwieldy in English). There's a sample here at the Guardian just now (not the best bit to give an idea of the book).

I've added a note to the original post. Although a blog is pretending to be a diary, I do occasionally edit old posts. Mostly it's because I spot a spelling mistake or minor grammatical error. In that case I make the change silently. If it's anything more substantial, I try and make the change more visible, mostly by adding a square bracket with "UPDATE" in it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Great Kidnapping: Rainbow Kids

大誘拐 (daiyuukai, The Great Kidnapping, 1979) is a crime novel by TENDOU Shin (天藤 真, 1915-83); and as you can probably guess from the cover, it's a comedy. Although kidnapping is such a horrible crime in real life, it is often used for comedy (the O. Henry story, "The Ransom of Red Chief" for instance, or the Bette Midler film Ruthless People). This one fits into a familiar pattern in kidnapping stories: a victim more forceful than the captors effectively becomes the boss of the gang. Rainbow Kids in the post title is the "English title" added to the book (although it doesn't have an English translation), and refers to the name that the gang give themselves (they call each other by the code names Wind, Thunder and Rain, when they remember). There is a 1991 film of the book, directed by OKAMOTO Kihachi (岡本 喜八).

Three young small time crooks leave prison planning to make some real money. The leader Kenji (健次) is thinking of a kidnapping, to the alarm of the others, who remember horrible news stories of child kidnappings gone wrong. No, he assures them, the target is not a child, but an old woman, YANAGAWA Toshiko (柳川とし子, known as Toji, apparently an old fashioned honorific for a woman running the affairs of  a wealthy family). She is the head of a Wakayama family that controls a vast extent of forest land. Unknown to the kidnappers, they have picked an ideal time, as she has taken it into her head to go for a walk every day through a different part of the Yanagawa lands, accompanied only by her maid Kimi.

When the kidnappers, after various misadventures, finally succeed in capturing her, it immediately becomes clear who is going to be in control, when she insists on them letting Kimi go.  Soon, instead of heading to the hideout they had prepared, they are staying on the farm of one of Toshiko's loyal former servants. Their plans are thrown out much more drastically, when she hears how little (in her opinion) they were planning to ask for ransom. She insists on a huge sum, far greater than any previous ransom; and the gang agree, very unwillingly (how are they even going to carry a sum like that). Soon the case developes into a game of wits between the old lady directing the gang behind the scenes and the wily police chief, who had got his start in life from Toshiko's support when he was a child, and is fiercely devoted to her. As each side challenges the other, the whole of Japan and the world outside are drawn into the spectacle.

This is not a black comedy. There is no violence and no real villains. Most of the characters rise to the challenges presented them. The humour is mostly in the characters (particularly Toshiko, always gentle and courteous, but sure to get her way) and the situation, not so much in actual jokes or comedy set pieces. The tricks that the kidnappers use to outwit the police are reminiscent of the "caper" style of crime file (like Ocean's Eleven), but the book also reminds me a bit of earlier comedy adventures like John Buchan's John Macnab.

The film is very close to the book, in both substance and tone.  The main differences are only simplifications and minor omissions. Occasionally a scene is very slightly more slapstick than the book, but this is rare. One minor difference of tone is the music. Okamoto sets a lot of scenes to upbeat pop music; and this sounds a lot more like 1990 than 1979 to me. It's no classic, but I thought it was a very successful adaption, definitely worth seeing if you get the chance.


Sunday, 12 July 2015

Why were the dolls killed?

TAKAGI Akamitsu (高木彬光) was one of the major Japanese mystery writers in the second half of the twentieth century, producing several books a year for decades. From the Japanese Wikipedia page, 1955 seems to have been a particularly productive year, with a total of twelve books published. At that rate, one should perhaps not have too high expectations of 人形はなぜ殺される (ningyou ha naze korosareru, Why Were the Dolls Killed? 1955); but it's a mystery with a high reputation, on the whole well deserved, with effective atmosphere and one especially pleasing trick.

The detective is KAMIZU Kyousuke (神津恭介), a professor of forensic medicine, amateur detective, and all round genius. His friend MATSUSHITA Kenzou (松賢研三), a detective story writer, functions as the book's Watson. We start with Matsushita visiting a café, whose curious and sinister ornaments derive from its owner's former trade as a professional stage magician. Kamizu is lucky that his cases so far have not involved magicians, the owner tells Matsushita. A magician, trained in the art of deception, would challenge him more than the killers he has dealt with so far. We soon have a chance to find out if he is right. At a meeting of amateur magicians, a guillotine trick is on the programme. The mannequin's head intended to be substituted for the head of the woman playing Marie Antoinette is stolen, so that the performance must be abandoned. Kamizu suspects there may be more to this mystery and advises Matsushita to look into it. Matsushita neglects the commission (he is playing all night Mah Jong). When he gets round to it, it is too late. The woman has been found guillotined. Where her head should be, the killer has left the stolen mannequin's head. This is the first in a series of murders in which the killing is announced in advance by the theft or destruction of a doll.

The initial theft is set up as an impossible (or at least very difficult) crime, but the investigation is not taken very seriously. In other respects though, the book is incredibly reminiscent of John Dickson Carr. Several characters feel like they have walked out of one of Carr's books and much of the stage scenery is clearly inspired by him (especially a lecture by Kamizu on black magic). Ellery Queen's challenge to the reader also makes its appearance. And YOKOMIZO Seishi contributes the serial targetting of three sisters from a once powerful landed Japanese family and an ominously threatening children's chant. Takagi's own interest in dubious finance is also already on show here. That ought to be all a bit much, but it all fits together very nicely.

I have a couple of reservations, neither of which made me like the book any less: the solution is probably a bit obvious and the book is longer than it should be. I say 'probably', because the way to the solution is made too easy, not just by Takagi, who plays perhaps too fair with the reader, but also by a careless description on the back cover of the paperback, which practically hangs a neon sign around the killer's neck. (The Japanese Wikipedia has a page on the book; and I'd avoid looking at that too until you've read the book, although it tries to avoid spoilers.) Around the middle of the book, Kamizu, who until then was commenting intelligently on the various puzzles, suddenly seems to forget even his own observations and become no better that than the average blundering policeman until the last couple of chapters.

My edition added two short stories, also featuring Kamizu, 蛇の環 ('The Ring of Snakes') and 罪なき罪人 ('Guiltless Sinner'); but I didn't have much enthusiasm for either of them.


Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Targeted Town (The Case Notes of Telepathy Girl Ran)

ねらわれた街 テレパシー少女「蘭」事件ノート (nerawareta machi , The Targeted Town:The Case Notes of Telepathy Girl Ran, 1999) is the first in a series of children's books by ASANO Atsuko (あさのあつこ). The main character, Ran (蘭), is a thirteen year old girl just starting middle school; and the book is clearly aimed at children about that age. In many ways it is very reminiscent of Japanese popular television, particularly anime or dramas aimed at teenagers. Not surprisingly it too has been made into an anime series, by NHK in 2008.

Ran and her family, mother and father and older brother Rin (凜), live in a small but growing town. Ran already has a boyfriend, the quiet Rui (留衣), whom she has known since they were small children. She is looking forward to everything in her new school life. Then on the way to school, she hears a mocking voice inside her head.
Haha.

 Just next to her she heard a laughing voice, a tiny laughing voice.

Ran turned around.

The room was filled with the the light flowing in from the window. The cats Kishou and Tenketsu were sleeping in the bright spring sunlight. There was nobody there.
As the day progresses, she hears the voice again, now talking to her clearly, and she identifies the 'speaker' as the new student Midori (翠), who seems set to become Ran's personal enemy. After an initial confrontation however, she finds that Midori has been seeking her, having come to her town after sensing another person with strong telepathic powers in it. Midori's parents have effectively rejected her, unable to accept her powers. Ran, more at ease in her home life and confident that her family would still accept her, makes friends with Midori. There is however a real enemy at work in the town. A variety of apparently isolated incidents all have in common that people (and animals) suddenly act out of character. It seems there is someone else with psychic powers behind it all.

The mystery is one of those affairs where there's really only one suspect, though just what the culprit is after leaves some room for deduction or speculation. In general as far as plot is concerned, the book runs a very conventional path, with a thin emotional story progressing in tandem with a thin mystery. Probably the book is best seen as establishing the characters, in particular Ran, Midori and Rui, for later appearances. In the final confrontation, it is Midori, rather than Ran, who is the detective. Ran's role, from this book at least, looks to be more one of emotional guidance.

What I said about the vivid but simple style of Battery applies here too. The story here feels more conventional than that book. It looks like it is meant to be something lighter, mostly humorous outside of a few confrontation scenes. It is also more eventful and progresses a lot more purposefully.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Kyoto Murder Map

京都殺人地図 (Kyouto satsujin chizu, A Map of Murder in Kyoto, 1980) is a set of short stories by 山村美紗 (YAMAMURA Misa, 1931-1996). Yamamura was a major figure in Japanese mystery in the twentieth century; but my impression is that interest in her books has pretty much faded now. She wrote a lot, and the titles and descriptions give the impression that the books are very formulaic. Before reading the book reviewed here, I pictured her work as something like UCHIDA Yasuo's books, giving more attention to tourism and romance than to mystery. That prejudice was reinforced by the Yamamura Misa TV drama I saw when I was first in Japan, which had a too comfortable "Murder She Wrote" feel to it and featured a lot of Kyoto tourism. I don't know what her other books are like; but if this one is typical, I had the wrong idea completely. The stories are neat little mysteries, with a focus on forensic investigation.

ENATSU Fuyuko (江夏冬子) is a kenshikan (検視官) in the Kyoto police, a high achiever who has reached this position while still in her twenties. When she starts, her male colleagues doubt that a young woman like her is up to the job. The kenshikan has responsibilities a little like a coroner, determining the cause of death where there is any suspicion of unnatural death. As Yamamura depicts it, this is the preliminary stage of any investigation. Enatsu is called out to the suspected crime scene and examines the corpse and its immediate surroundings, to decide whether a police investigation is necessary. This gives the stories a typical structure like this: 1) Enatsu races with her partner Hashiguchi to the crime scene and discovers indications that it was murder and gives a preliminary estimation of time of death; 2) as far as her job is concerned, her part in the case is now over, and other police detectives follow various leads, discovering suspects and clues, but finally run into a dead end; 3) Enatsu has an idea that leads to a breakthrough; 4) the head of the murder squad sets out the police case to the killer.

The first story, 'The Girl Died in a Locked Room' is (of course) a locked room mystery. A teenage schoolgirl is found asphyxiated in the one room cottage in the garden of her parent's house where she lived. Door and window are locked from the inside; and it looks like she has died while sniffing paint thinner. Enatsu notices that she is pregnant and suspects that she has been carefully strangled so as not to leave an evident strangling mark. I'd actually already read this one, in an anthology of locked room mysteries edited by AYUKAWA Tetsuya (鮎川哲也). Locked room mysteries really are a staple of Japanese mystery; and many writers seem to include them more from duty than enthusiasm, with an unoriginal use of some idea seen a hundred times before. This one is not as bad as that; but it's not a classic either.

The next 'The Faked Murder Scene' starts with the discovery of a murdered woman, apparently stabbed by her husband, who is missing; but something about the room where the woman was killed seems odd to Enatsu, although she can't quite place what it is. 'The Missing Spouse' starts with Enatsu on her day off watching  television. The television company has located the runaway wife and husband from two neighbouring houses and is putting on a confrontation, getting the pregnant abandoned wife to beg her husband to return, without success.  The other runaway is not on the programme, having refused to take part. When Enatsu is called away to investigate a woman run over by a train, it turns out to be the missing woman. 'The Flower Message of Daffodils is Death' involves the murder of a flower arranger (a traditional art in Japan, ikebana). 'The Methodical Killer' starts with the police in pursuit of the kidnapper of a five year old kindergarten child; but after the first phone call the kidnapper makes no further contact, and when the child is found dead, it is clear that he had already died before the phone call was made. 'The Drowned Woman' features a woman found dead in her apartment with the water of Lake Biwa in her lungs. 'The Headless Corpse' is the investigation of a dismembered body. 'The Proof of the Bones' involves the search for the unrecovered bodies of Japanese soldiers in Saipan.

The stories generally focus severely on the investigations, without going much into character. A little attention is given to Enatsu's feelings about her work and what she wants from life: the ikebana case brings her into contact with an old friend, now a mother, and makes her think that maybe she too should get married (which in Japan at that time would probably involve giving up her job); although her male colleagues come to accept her, she is not really part of the team. Most of the stories are interesting little mysteries; but they are not fair play, at least not reliably. The reader gets the clues needed to solve the case perhaps half the time; in other cases, the clue is revealed along with the deduction. We are watching people detect, more than detecting ourselves.

Only one of Yamamura's books has been translated into English, 黒の環状線 (1976), translated as The Dark Ring of Murder (1996) by Robert B. Rohmer.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

A poor correspondent in an age of social media

You wrote me half an Iliad,
  I didn't give a damn.
Were you expecting better, bad
   At writing as I am?

I post a photo or a link
   On Facebook just to show
That I'm alive. I cannot think
   What more you need to know.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Burmese Harp

ビルマの竪琴 (birma no tategoto, The Burmese Harp, 1940) is a 1946 children's book by TAKEYAMA Michio (竹山道雄, 1903-1984), which ICHIKAWA Kon (市川 崑) made into a film with the same title in 1956. There is an English translation, Harp of Burma by Howard Hibbett, first published by Tuttle in 1966. The story follows a group of Japanese soldiers in Burma in the last days of the second world war and in the time between their surrender to the British and their return to Japan a year later.

Apart from an introductory chapter, the story is told by an anonymous member of the group, narrating as a representative, not so much telling us his own personal feelings and observations as what the whole group saw and felt. In fact very few of the soldiers are characterised individually and only one is named, the central character Mizushima (水島). Apart from Mizushima, the most important character is the calm and serious captain, who had been a music teacher in civilian life and now keeps the soldiers in spirits with choral singing.

Mizushima is a private (first class) who has discovered a passion for music in this setting, constructing a Burmese harp. 
You know, I think if you collected together the instruments that soldiers have, it would make an interesting museum. Wherever soldiers go, if they have any free time, someone is sure to make an instrument. Some of them are specialists; and it's astonishing what good instruments they can create, making do with the materials available. In the wind section, you go from flutes made by cutting reeds and bamboo and boring holes in them all the way to proper trumpets made by putting together pieces of broken machinery. In the percussion section, I've seen everything from the skin of a dog or cat stretched over a wooden frame to drums made by stretching some kind of skin over an oil drum. They said it was tiger skin, but, well, I don't know about that. Anyway it made an incredible, reverberating noise, and was the pride of that troop.
Mizushima is the troop's scout and goes ahead of them in Burmese clothing to check that they are not going to run into British soldiers. In one village, the Japanese find themselves surrounded by Gurkas and British and Indian soldiers, waiting in ambush in the jungle outside. Pretending to still be celebrating the feast they had been enjoying, the Japanese keep singing their traditional songs, as they push the cart with their ammunition out of the village. A moment before they turn from singing to attack the enemy, the captain stops them. The British soldiers are singing the same songs. (In the nineteenth century, there was a westernising movement in music education, that brought many British songs to Japan with new texts, as well as Japanese compositions in a western style.) The threat of fighting passes, and they find that the war is over and Japan has surrendered.

Nearby a different group has not surrendered so easily. The captain is asked to help and sends Mizushima to try and convince the hold outs to accept defeat. Transported across the country to a prisoner of war camp in Mudan, they wait for him to return; but when months pass without sign of him, it becomes clear that something has gone wrong, particularly when they find that the survivors of the group he was meant to convince had in the end surrendered and are being treated for their injuries in a nearby hospital.  Unable to find out more, they have to assume that Mizushima is dead; but then the captain, driven by his guilt at sending him on the mission, begins to suspect that maybe a buddhist monk they have seen could be the surviving Mizushima. The soldiers fluctuate between belief and rejection, as various clues make the identity seem more or less likely. Meanwhile the captain starts teaching a parrot, the brother of the one that the monk always carries on his shoulder.
Stroking the parrot, he said, "There, there, we've all been ignoring you, haven't we? From now on we'll look after you properly. In return, you can learn some Japanese."

The parrot shook itself with happiness. It clacked its hard bill and stuck out a cold rubber like tongue and pecked the captain's hand.

What the captain had started doing was really strange. He would divide up the food he received three times a day, then he would say, "Oy, Mizushima," and when the parrot repeated it, he would let it feed from the palm of his hand. Then he would say, "Come with us" and when the parrot repeated that he would give it a share of meat from his side dish. Finally he would say, "Home to Japan."  
They send the parrot to the monk; but although he receives it, he seems unwilling to admit that he is Mizushima, appearing only as a silent watching figure outside the camp. Only when they have finally embarked on the boat home do they learn from a letter what had kept him in Burma.

The narration, despite the serious subject matter, mostly runs along calmly and cheerfully. Some bits are even like a children's adventure story. In particular an episode in a cannibal village, wisely dropped from the film, reads as if it came out of a nineteenth century adventure. The book and film are sometimes described as anti war; and they're certainly not pro war. It might be better to see them as depicting people coming to terms with being the losers in a mistaken war and working out what they should be doing with their lives now.

The film is very close to the book. There are hardly any scenes or dialogue which are not taken from it. The main difference, except for some abbreviation, is that Mizushima's narrative is inserted into the story earlier. As Takeyama comments, the central part of the book is structured like a detective story, except that the mystery is only important for the soldiers' feelings. Since the narrative is so even paced, readers are probably willing enough to read first the troops' account, then Mizushima's; but a film viewer has different expectations.