But people always look back
And stand still at the sceneries they've come across
Hoping they don't disappear
"Wasurezaki" (Garnet Crow)
Edogawa Rampo is commonly seen as the father of the Japanese detective story, but it was Kuroiwa Ruikou (1862-1920) who paved the way for the now succesful genre industry. Kuroiwa was a newspaper journalist/editor, writer and translator in a time of transition for Japan, who might have less 'name impact' than Rampo nowadays, but his name is still one you can't ignore. As a newspaper man, Kuroiwa had a clear political agenda and he also set up his own newspaper (the Yorozu Chouhou, one of the earliest gossip newspapers, aimed at the masses), which did quite well not only because of its accessibility and social criticism, but also because Kuroiwa published serial fiction in the newspaper, which drew quite a public.
Kuroiwa's translations were freely rewritten translations and often used to present his own political ideas. Among his serial translations are for example Dumas' Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (famously translated as Gankutsuou, "The King of the Cavern", still a common Japanese title for the book) and Hugh Conway's Dark Days, which became Houtei no Bijin ("The Beauty in the Courtroom"). He published over a hundred translations, many of them of detective novels, which is why Kuroiwa is considered one of the most important names in Japanese detective fiction history.
Kuroiwa eventually also started to write his own stories and Muzan ("In Cold Blood", 1889) has the honour of being not only Kuroiwa's first original detective story, Muzan is actually the very first original Japanese detective story (The alternate title is Sansuji no Kami, Tantei Shousetsu ("Three Strands of Hair, A Detective Story")). The short story starts with the discovery of a severely wounded corpse in a river in Tsukiji and two policemen are set on the case: veteran cop Tanimada and the rookie Ootomo. Based on the nature of the wounds and the knowledge he gathered in his many years in service, Tanimada deduces that the victim was killed in a row by a woman and quickly heads out to find la femme. Ootomo on the other hand focuses on the three strands of hair clenched in the victim's hands and using scientific analysis and logical reasoning, arrives at a different conclusion than Tanimada. Which of them is right?
I will admit right away that I think Muzan is more interesting as the first Japanese detective story than as 'a detective story' on its own, but it does has its interesting features. First of all, I find it extremely interesting that this story features not one, but two police detectives as the detectives. I had kinda expected a Great Detective and his Assistant in the spirit of Dupin and Holmes, but here we have two common cops, just on another case. Amusing is how Ruikou places the two detectives against each other: one veteran cop who 'knows' the world and takes on each cases trusting his own instincts, and a rookie cop, who despite his lack of experience, has a very sharp and keen mind and basically uses forensic methods to detect. The trope of two 'rival' detectives is one I have always appreciated, especially if both parties use different techniques to detect, and this is done wonderfully in Muzan. Ootomo is interesting as he has more in common with Great Detectives like Dupin and Holmes in terms of method, but still obvious just a man within the organization who needs to the support of his superiors to act. Tanimada on the other hand is not portrayed as just a hardheaded cop though, even in the juxtaposition with 'modern techniques', Tanimada shows that experience is indeed also necessary. Setting these positions as equal is something I had not expected and I was pleasantly surprised.
With Muzan, you'll also get a bit of the melodrama Kuroiwa was famous for in his (translated) novels. The ending consist of a long, a very long confession and explanation of how everything came to be and how the victim turned into a corpse and I have to say I thought this was quite boring, especially as it takes up a not unconsiderable amount of the total page count.
As a detective story in its own, I find Muzan an okay story, but nothing more than that. I like the concept of the two detectives, as said above, but the deductions feel a bit forced at times (especially those surrounding the three strands of hair!) and the ending is rather anti-climatic.
Muzan is interesting as a point in detective history because of its existence, rather than for its contents, but for anyone interested in Japanese detective fiction, I think it does provide an amusing short read. You can read the text at Aozora Bunko (the Japanese Project Gutenberg), though those who have never read Meiji-period literature before might find it a bit hard to get through.
Original Japanese title(s): 黒岩涙香 「無惨」