Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Demon's Bridge

鬼の橋 (oni no hashi, The Demon's Bridge, 1998) is a children's book by ITOU Yuu (伊藤遊, born 1959). The story is set in the Heian period, in the early days of Kyoto, where the hero Takamura is the teenage son of a high ranking civil servant.

Takamura had had a much loved younger sister, who had died playing hide and seek with him in an abandoned temple. For various reasons, Takamura blames himself: they were not supposed to go to the temple; he knew his sister hated playing hide and seek, but insisted; when he could not find her, he went away thinking she had run home. The story starts as Takamura revisits the temple where his sister had been found, fallen into a well.

Crossing the bridge was forbidden. Takamura hesitated a moment, still gazing at the far side, then with a kick to the bridge's railing, he set off purposefully over the bridge.

'What are you playing at?' a girl came out from under the bridge and shouted up at Takamura, her eyebrows raised in anger. Apparently that was not enough for her. She sprinted up the bank. Takamura stopped in confusion and looked towards her.

'It was you, wasn't it, who kicked the bridge?'

Her rolled up sleeves showed horribly thin arms. The fingers of her hands were clenched and she was glaring at Takamura with eyes that blazed with anger. He looked perplexed at this girl, who hardly came up to his shoulder.

'Apologise!'

'Apologise?'

The child is Akona, the daughter of a bridge builder, who had died while working on this bridge. Now she lives as a homeless orphan under the bridge that he built.

But there is another bridge in the story, the bridge that the souls of the dead have to cross. In his regret at his sister's death, Takamura finds himself in a place that is the threshold to the world that the dead go to. A huge bridge spans an icy river.

'If I cross this, where would I get to?' he wondered.

Somewhere in his heart he could hear a voice saying 'Better not.' He ignored that and set off slowly to cross the bridge. At that moment, he felt like whatever fate might be waiting for him, there was no reason for him to fear it. Let it happen as it happens, a feeling of throwing everything away. Anyway, walking along the side of this river, there was no goal for him to head towards.

As he kept walking on, however far he walked, no end appeared. The far side never came in sight.

'I wonder how far I've come by now?'

Takamura stopped and glanced back; as he did so, the shock stopped his breath.

There was a demon standing there.

The demons in this world are the guides to the souls of the dead; but they see the living as food.

The story is very episodic, with encounters with supernatural beings in Kyoto and in the spirit world. Through various inconclusive adventures, the various characters (particularly Takamura, Akona and the demonlike Hitenmaru, who saves Akona's bridge when a flood threatens to destroy it) move slowly forward. In particular Takamaru learns to move on from his grief and guilt and to accept adult responsibilities.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Scream Castle Murder Case

絶叫城殺人事件 (zekkyoujousatsujinjiken, The Scream Castle Murder Case, 2001) is the title story of a collection of six short mysteries by ARISUGAWA Arisu or Alice (有栖川 有栖), first published in magazines between 1996 and 2001.

Arisugawa has two main series, the "Student Alice" series, in which the narrator is ARISUGAWA Arisu, a student and budding detective story writer, recounting the deductions of his fellow student EGAMI Jirou, and the "Writer Alice" series, in which the narrator is ARISUGAWA Arisu, a professional detective story writer, recounting the deductions of his friend, criminology professor HIMURA Hideo. You might guess that the two Arisugawas are the same person at different points in their life; but there are hints in the "Student Alice" series that the "Writer Alice" world is the creation of student Alice, and in the "Writer Alice" narrative that "Student Alice" is a character in the books written by writer Alice. There are far fewer "Student Alice" books; and they include some of real world Alice's best regarded books. Any moment now, you should be able to try one of his best known early works in English translation, 孤島パズル (kotou pazuru, The Island Puzzle, 1989), published by Locked Room International as The Moai Island Puzzle. It makes an interesting comparison with the first Japanese novel from the same publishers and translator, The Decagon House Murders. At first sight the two are very similar (serial murders on an isolated island), but their approach is the polar opposite.

To come back to this collection, like the title story, the others all have titles of the form: [building name] "murder case". This is a very standard title for traditional detective stories in Japan (much like e. g. The White Priory Murders in English). In one of the stories the policeman in charge comments that Arisugawa would call it that in one of his stories, and (narrator) Arisugawa remarks that in fact he never had used such a title. That seems to be true for real life Arisugawa too. In fact there is a deliberate slight discrepancy between the image the title conjures up (like an English country house or isolated mansion murder) and the actual subject matter in the stories.

The first, 黒鳥亭殺人事件 (kokuchouteisatsujinjiken, "The Black Bird Villa Murder Case") is the nearest to the classical setting. Himura and Arisugawa visit the lonely house of an old friend from university. The friend lives alone there with his five year old daughter, having inherited it from an aunt who bought it cheap after the previous owners died in a murder-suicide. Now however, it turns out that the suicide part had been a fake, as the supposed suicide has been found, recently killed, at the bottom of the garden well.

壺中庵殺人事件 (kochuuansatsujinjiken, "The Retreat in a Vase Murder Case") is a locked room mystery. The victim had a cellar study, humorously called "retreat in a vase" after a Chinese folktale about a man who makes his home in a pot which is larger on the inside. The witnesses find the victim hanging from the ceiling, with the only exit (the hatch in the roof) barred from the inside. Most strangely, someone has put a vase on his head.

In 月宮殿殺人事件 (gekkyuudensatusjinjiken, "The Moon Palace Murder Case") Arisugawa takes Himura to see an unusual building he had discovered near the road they are taking, the tower like house built without permission by a homeless man out in the woods from discarded building materials. When they get there though, they find that the building has been burnt and the owner killed.

雪花楼殺人事件 (sekkarousatusjinjiken, "The Snowflake Tower Murder Case") takes place in the shell of a multistorey building, built in real estate speculation as a resort hotel, but then abandoned. A young runaway couple and an older unemployed man are squatting in different parts of the building. The young man has apparently fallen from the roof of the building; but he died not from the fall, but from a violent blow to the head. On the snow covered roof, the only footprints leading to the edge of the roof are the victim's.

紅雨荘殺人事件 (benisamesousatsujinjiken, "The Red Rain Mansion Murder Case") has a murder case somehow connected to a movie filmed in the title house, a romance of which Arisugawa was a fan.

絶叫城殺人事件(zekkyoujousatsujinjiken, "The Scream Castle Murder Case") is the longest story in the book, over a hundred pages. Himura pursues a serial killer, whose murder seems to be connected to a horror video game, in which young women are chased by an unknown killer through the corridors of a castle in which they are imprisoned.

The stories are mostly good, some very good, although the "footprints in the snow" impossible crime was one the least convincing versions I've read, and the solutions to one or two of the better stories were perhaps a little obvious.


Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Deer King


鹿の王 (shika no ou, The Deer King, 2014) is a fantasy novel by UEHASHI Nahoko (上橋菜穂子, born 1962). Uehashi is best known for her fantasy series, 精霊の守り人 (seirei no moribito, Guardian of the Spirit), which was the basis for a successful anime series and more recently for a live action television series. The first books of the series have an English translation, by Cathy Hirano (Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, 2008 and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, 2009). My only knowledge of that is from watching the anime series (and one episode in the middle of the live action series), but if that is anything to go by, The Deer King has a lot in common with Guardian of the Spirit. Fantastic elements are an important part of the narrative, but for much of the time we are nearer to (pseudo-)historical fiction. A variety of characters are at work in the story, most of them loyally serving some higher interest or some ideological principle. As in Guardian of the Spirit, scientists and scholars are key actors, although the major role is reserved for a warrior.

The story is set in a what had once been an independent kingdom, which many years ago came under the rule of an expanding empire. The imperial rulers have colonised some parts with people from their own country, sometimes leading to the displacement of the original inhabitants. The original monarchy and its administration is still active, subordinate to the empire, but sometimes secretly pursuing its own ends. Various peoples within the former kingdom and other parts of the empire also have their own interests. In particular there are the remnants of a civilisation once almost wiped out by plague, which now survives as a kind of politically active university devoted to medical science.

The lead character is Van, the leader of a group of soldiers who had been fighting a hopeless mission to defend their country from the encroaching empire. Van had expected to die in the war, but somehow he ends up a prisoner, chained with other slaves in a salt mine. A sudden vicious attack interrupts this hopeless existence. Wild dogs with strange skill and purpose race through the mine attacking everyone in it. Van defends himself, but he too is bitten. The dog runs off; but the bite carries an infection. When Van regains consciousness, apparently some days later, he finds that all his fellow prisoners are dead. Breaking free of his chains he searches the camp. The guards, prisoners and other workers are all dead. But in one hut, a woman had died hiding her baby daughter from the dogs. With this little girl, whom he calls Yuna, Van sets off out of the camp.

An attack like that on the mine also visits the kingdom's court, leading to several deaths and infections. Court doctor Hossaru starts to investigate, visiting the mine with his servant Makoukan. (At the start of the story Makoukan is the viewpoint character, so that Hossaru can be a Sherlock Holmes type genius, whose thought processes are concealed from us; but half way through we switch to seeing most of Hossaru's narrative strand through his own eyes.) Deducing that a survivor has got away, and keen to find him for the insight he might give into the disease (which resembles the plague that killed his people), Hossaru with the support of an influential nobleman in the imperial administration sends out a tracker from a village of basically ninjas (I've forgotten what they're called in the book), Sae, the daughter of the village chief. These and other characters interact, as different parts of the kingdom's government and the unseen plotters of the attacks pursue their goals.

The narrative does not give many clues to establish just what stage the civilisation portrayed is at, although it is certainly a pre-industrial world. The medical science portrayed goes well beyond what one might expect from such a world. Many aspects recall more recent biological research, some even from the last few decades, although without the theory of evolution that lies behind much of this thinking. To a large extent this is nearer to a medical science fiction novel than a fantasy. The interrelationships of parasites and of organisms in symbiotic relationships or of organisms and the environment and similar concepts then become a symbolic reflection of the interrelated nature of society or the connection of individuals to the social world around them.

The two strands of the personal story of Van, displaced from life by the loss of his family, finding and perhaps losing again his place among people and the larger story of a threatened epidemic move towards their climax over various twists and turns. Refreshingly, the stakes in the larger story are allowed to become less than world destroying while still being serious. In general the story reads well, but some of the political and environmental complications came across as constructed rather than narrated. Long and slightly clumsy exposition of invented history or scientific background also sometimes took over the narrative, even quite late in the story.