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.]