Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Sharaku Murder Case

The Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) best known in the west are those by Hiroshige and Hokusai, artists who were still active in the first half of the nineteenth century, as the influence of western techniques and materials was rapidly increasing. The Sharaku of  写楽殺人事件 (Sharaku satsujinjiken, The Sharaku Murder Case, 1983, translated as The Case of the Sharaku Murders) by 高橋克彦 (TAKAHASHI Katsuhiko, born 1947), is less well known, but much admired by connoisseurs.  He was active for only a brief period from 1794 to 1795, specialising in portraits of kabuki actors. Since little is known of him, many people have had speculative theories identifying him with this or that artist of the time. Takahashi was a lecturer on art history from Touhoku, the north east of Japan's main island. So it's perhaps not surprising that he constructed his first detective story, which won the Edogawa Rampo prize, around a theory connecting Sharaku with the art world of the region.

TSUDA Ryouhei (津田良平) has a junior research post under his professor, the leader of one of two opposing groups in the world of Japanese woodprint studies. Shortly after the leader of the other group is found dead, apparently from suicide, Tsuda gets his hands on a book of photographs that seems to give a clue to Sharaku's true identity, linking him to a painter, Shouhei.  He tries to find out more about Shouhei by visiting the north east, where he had been active, and gradually pieces together a story connecting Sharaku to a group of early imitators of western oil painting techniques (Akita ranga). His discoveries promise to be a sensation not just in the art world, but with the press and television; but the promised glory is a temptation for his professor too.

This is one of those mysteries which introduce their readers to a specialist field along the way. We get a brief glimpse of the murder part of the title in the first chapters, and then we are on a scholarly treasure hunt for half the book until the next mysterious death occurs. I like treasure hunts as a plot well enough; but this one reminded me a little too much of the kind of enthusiastic house of cards construction that so often wastes other researchers' time in academic life. Reading this part in Japanese with an imperfect grasp of the kanji (symbol letters) used for names and minimal knowledge of Japanese art history was hard work; and I was often a little lost as Tsuda drew his network of connections between a huge number of eighteenth century characters (perhaps it is easier if you're reading it in the translation).

The appreciation printed at the end of the book quotes Takahashi as saying that as a reader he likes locked room mysteries and alibi breaking plots, but when he comes to write he turns to mysteries of motivation. There is some alibi breaking in the book, but it's a fairly minor part, and in general this is more a read along mystery than a fair play puzzle. We share Tsuda's experience of the story as each part of the truth is revealed rather than competing with him to solve the mystery.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Taro the Dragon Boy (film)

When I wrote about the children's book, Taro the Dragon Boy by MATSUTANI Miyoko, I was aware of the 1979 film; but I'm too much of a miser to pay the 25 Euros that a DVD cost back then. Happily the price went down to something more affordable, and I thought I'd write another post comparing film and book.

To recap a little of what I wrote in the earlier post, the book combines folk tale elements to make a larger adventure story. Taro is a lazy, greedy, thoughtless child raised by his poor and self sacrificing grandmother in a mountain district of Japan. He is also strong, brave and good natured, spending his time playing with his friends, the animals of the surrounding forests. (Here he is teaching them sumo wrestling.)


When a friend is kidnapped he sets out to rescue her, and success in this leads to a further search, to find his mother, who had been transformed into a dragon.

The most striking thing about the film is how closely it follows the book. Most film adaptations diverge significantly from their source material, with close correspondences mostly found only in the earlier scenes; but Taro the Dragon Boy stays close to the original from beginning to end. The story makes a slightly different impression in the different media. Both are episodic; but while the two larger plot arcs that the book divides into are still present in the film, the story seems to flow forward more easily and the division is not so strongly felt.

The visual style of the film is strongly influenced by the traditional ink wash painting that Japan learnt from China.


The background landscapes are all done in this style, and while the characters are drawn in a more typical animation style, their colours are also toned down to fit the scenery.

You probably anticipate that a story that starts with a lazy and thoughtless protagonist will have moral lessons about the value of hard work and consideration for others. In a sense, it does. Here is Taro after working for months for a manipulative landowner, taking the pay she reluctantly offers him, as much rice as he can carry (which he then distributes to poor villagers).


But the account of the hero's growth does not feel moralising. We are not invited so much to condemn the earlier version of the character as to share his realisation of the harshness of the world he lives in and desire to change it.