Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

"How about some bubuzuke?"
(Kyoto saying)

I know Japanese uses a lot of roundabout language to say things, but telling someone to go by offering them some tea is really confusing.

Over a year ago, I read Kitamori Kou's Shina Soba Kan no Nazo - Mainaa Kyouto Mystery, the first book in the Minor Kyoto Mysteries series, with plots built around local customs and other folkways of the city of Kyoto. Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo ("The Mystery of the Bubuzuke Legend") is the second and final short story collection in the series and is basically 'more of the same'. Our narrator is Arima Jirou, a temple assistant at Daihikaku Senkouji Temple. Before entering the enlightened path however, Arima was a talented burglar known throughout West-Japan. But even though he has abandoned his criminal ways, he still gets involved with criminal cases now and then. This is mostly because of the antics of journalist Orihara Kei and the mystery writer Mizumori Ken, who for some reason are always spending a lot of time hanging out in the temple. Because of these two, Arima often gets in a lot of trouble, but luckily for him, Arima's brain can both plan crimes as well as solve them.

The first book in the Minor Kyoto Mysteries series was definitely not perfect, but it had some good points. The actual mystery plots of the short stories were a bit simple and not very captivating on their own, but the link to local Kyoto customs was very interesting. Shina Soba Kan no Nazo was a true topographical mystery: the plots revolved around all things Kyoto: from Kyoto dialects to folkways and sayings. Japan has had a history of limited traveling until the 19th history, and that means that most regions have very distinct customs. Kyoto in particular is an interesting location as it was the ancient capital and has a very long history, resulting in various folkways. The Minor Kyoto Mysteries gives these folkways a place under the spotlight, resulting in very educational mysteries. I was not completely content with the first book in the series, but I was still curious to the second and final volume.

But Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo can be summed up with just one word: tedious. This is easily one of the most tedious books I've read in recent memory. I'm actually surprised at how much trouble I had with going through the book, because while the first book wasn't perfect, I definitely don't remember it being so appaling to read. The book is written in a supposedly humorous tone, but it is extremely tiring if the narration keeps pointing out jokes were made, especially if it's not actually really funny. Biggest offender is the character Mizumori Ken (who is some sort of parody of Kitamori Kou, I think). I already disliked him in the first volme of the series, where he first appeared in the second half of the book. Here he appears in all the stories, and he absolutely ruins each and every story. He's supposed to be a funny troublemaker-type of character, but that experiment has gone horribly wrong. He's basically what's wrong with the book, but in concentrated form. As I focus on puzzle plots and stuff when reading mystery stories, so seldom care about characters or narrative tone, but it's like all of them are conspiring together to make Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo as tedious as possible.

The puzzle plots aren't that interesting either this time. In Korimu ("A Dream of Foxes and Raccoons"), the writer Mizumori Ken wants to write a mystery story based on the fact that takuni-udon refers to different udon dishes in Kyoto and Tokyo: the story is barely a mystery story and feels very forced: as if Kitamori had the same idea and couldn't make it work as a real story, so he wrote a story about not being able to write a story. The title Bubuduke Densetsu no Nazo ("The Mystery of the Bubuduke Legend") refers to the Kyoto custom of 'offering' a bubuzuke (ochazuke) to one's guests. While it might sound like an invitation to stay, it actually means "please get out my house". The mystery plot itself has little to do with bubuzuke though: it's about the murder of an editor, and the main suspect is Orihara Kei. She of course denies having done anything like that, and it's up to Arima to prove her innocence. While a bit chaotic, I think this story has the best puzzle plot of the whole collection, though that's not saying much. I wouldn't say the plot is super original, but the plot does make use of something not very common (though I have seen similar ideas before). Akuendachi ("Cutting Off Bad Ties") has writer Mizumori Ken and journalist Orihara Kei breaking and entering the second home of a recently murdered man, in the hopes of finding a clue to solving the murder. They are discovered by a policeman on guard, but manage to escape by attacking the policeman. Too bad they left Arima's wallet on the crime scene. The story is about the stereotype that Kyoto people like to spend money to keep on appearances, but are stingy on other things, but the actual mystery plot is incredibly boring and predictable.

Fuyu no Shikyaku ("The Winter Assassin") starts with a death threat (using a certain Kyoto treat) to those of the Daihikaku Senkouji Temple, but is simply not fun. The whole 'mystery' is so over-the-top it's easy to guess where the story is going for, but it simply does not work. I think this is the unfunniest story in the whole collection. Kyouzameta Uma wo Miyo ("Behold the the Spoil-Sport Horse") starts with a story of a bleeding horse on a Japanese painting, but the whole story is one big web of coincidence and hard-to-believe actions of characters. Finally, Shiromiso Densetsu no Nazo (The Mystery of the White Miso) is about a person who has been plastering white miso in stores with the message "Do Not Eat. Poison Inside". At first, it was thought to be a prank, but then one package of white miso is found that actually contains a (small) amount of poison. The mystery plot on its own is OK-ish (for the standards of this collection), but the whole story around it is, again, not very tantilizing.

You'd be surprised how much trouble I had remembering what each story was about, even though I finished it just yesterday! The stories are just so unimpressive. One thing I did remember was that it wasn't just the comedy and characters that bugged me, but also the writing style. Jumping between locations and scenes in the middle of a conversation does not help the immersion, especially if said scene changes hardly help the narrative.

I very seldom feel this negative about a book, as I usually try to look for something, anything I liked, but Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo is one of those rare cases where even I have to give up. And I am really baffled, because I was not super-enthusiastic about the first volume in the series, but it was nowhere nearly as challenging as the second volume. Now I'm not sure whether I'll want to read the second volume in Kitamori's Tekki & Kyuuta series...

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻 『ぶぶ漬け伝説の謎 裏京都ミステリー』: 「狐狸夢」 / 「ぶぶ漬け伝説の謎」 / 「悪縁断ち」 / 「冬の刺客」 / 「興ざめた馬を見よ」 / 「白味噌伝説の謎」

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