Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Attack of the Headless Horror

"Looks like you won't be attending that hat convention in July!" 
"Hudson Hawk"

Today, a fantastic book!

Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) starts with an introduction of Himekubi Mountain and Himekami Village at its feet, situated in the rural outskirts of Tokyo. Himekami Village has since medieval times been ruled by the Higami Clan, which in turn is divided in three houses. The House of Ichigami is the main family and leader of the Higami Clan, while the Futagami and Mikami Houses serve as the branch families. Only males of the Higami Clan can succeed to the position of the head of the Ichigami House and lord of the Higami Clan, and if ever the Ichigami House fails in producing an adult male to take over the position, the next leader of the Higami Clan will be chosen from either the Futagami or Mikami Houses, which in turn becomes the new Ichigami House. Luck has it that the Higami Clan has been cursed and especially the sons of the Ichigami House have trouble staying alive until adulthood, often perishing in their childhood. The person who cast the curse, a princess who was wrongfully decapitated at the end of the Warring State period, has been deified as the mountain kami Aohime, and the people of the Higami Clan have to pray for her mercy in the fall of their third, thirteenth, twenty-third and thirty-third year by visiting Aohime's shrine in the mountains and spending one night there. It is in 1943, during the war, when Choujurou, the future heir of the Higami Clan, and his twin sister Himeko conduct the Thirteenth Nightly Shrine Visit, but Himeko vanishes from inside the shrine as she's making her way to the room where she's supposed to spend the night, despite being observed from both outside and inside the shrine. Himeko is later found dead inside a well, and rumors has it she was found headless. Ten years later, Choujurou once again has to pay a visit to the Aohime Shrine in the mountains, this time to choose one out of three potential bride candidates and ask for Aohime's permission to marry the woman, but one of the women is decapitated inside the shrine, and Choujurou himself is also found decapitated elsewhere on the mountain. Is this the curse of Aohime, or can these deaths be attributed to someone from the other houses hoping to become the next leader of the Higami Clan?

Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is the third novel in Mitsuda Shinzou's Toujou Genya series, which stars the horror/occult novelist Toujou Genya and the bizarre crimes he comes across as he travels across Japan to do research on local folklore. This is the first I read this series by the way (or anything by Mitsuda actually), but it had been on my radar for a long time, as I absolutely love horror-mystery novels with a folklore background (see also the work of Kyougoku Natsuhihiko for example, or a game like Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P). The reason why I started with the third novel was because Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is widely lauded as one of Mitsuda's best mystery novels, and I had learned it was not necessary to read them in order anyway. In fact, Toujou Genya hardly appears in this novel, as Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is presented as an accurate account of the murders that happened in Himekami Village in the past, written as a serialized novel by Himenomori Myougen, mystery author and wife of the police constable who was in charge of both the 1943 and the 1953 case. The novel is written in the hopes that some reader manages to figure out the truth behind the horrible headless killings in Himekami Village.

And what a novel this is! This will no doubt be one of the best mystery novels I'll read this year, as it's a blast from start to end. After an atmospheric start that introduces the reader to the folklore surrounding the vengeful deity Aohime, the curse on the Higami Clan and ghost stories about headless spectres roaming the mountain, we're witness to the absolutely baffling disappearance, and death of Higami Himeko during the Thirteenth Nightly Shrine Visit, which makes up one amazing locked room mystery. Both Himeko and her twin brother Choujurou have to spend one night in Aohime's shrine, which has sleeping quarters attached to it. To make their way from the main shrine to these sleeping quarters, one must pass through a tower. This tower only has one corridor in the form of a spiral stairway, which first goes all the way up to the top of the tower, and then spirals back to the bottom (to the other side of the tower). This means that even if two people start walking from both sides of the tower, they won't see each other until they meet each halfway, at the top of the tower. Himeko is seen entering the shrine and the tower from outside the building by a witness, and heard by her brother Choujurou who was already inside the sleeping quarters waiting for his sister, but Himeko disappears the moment she arrives at the top of the tower. She is not found anywhere inside the shrine, and because of the pebble stone garden surrounding the shrine and the tower, it was also impossible for her (or her body) to slip out the building without being heard. Yet she is found dead outside the shrine, stuffed inside a well. The case ten years later, after the Twenty-Third Nightly Shrine Visit, is not an impossible crime per se, but still as baffling, as one of Choujurou's potential brides is murdered and decapitated inside the shrine's sleeping quarters, and Choujurou himself is also found decapitated elsewhere on the mountain. But why were the two decapitated and how did the murderer make their way to the shrine even though all the mountain entrances were being watched by the police due to the marriage meeting ceremony?

What makes this an exceptional mystery novel is the meaningful repetition of themes. The 1943 and 1953 crimes are for example completely different mysteries, with the first being a brilliant impossible disappearance and the latter more a whydunnit about decapitations, but ultimately, the two crimes are connected by a common, underlying theme of mystery fiction, but executed in very different manners. The two crimes have nothing in common except for this theme, which makes it so devilish, as figuring the precise connection between them won't be easy. I had an inkling of what was going on, but really didn't manage to make the necessary connections between all the various points, so I maybe got 10, 15% of the whole solution. This repetition of themes in different manners is done multiple times in this novel, and in fantastic ways. Most of them would be spoilers of course, but take the theme of decapitation: there are multiple plot threads that involve decapitations in this story, from sightings of a headless creature roaming the forests, to the murders and decapitations of the victims, to heads being found. Each of these threads however have completely different reasons for them, and all of them are convincing. As a master class on decapitations in mystery fiction, I can think of no work that can rival Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, especially as the novel also features a Decapitation Lecture! Locked Room Lectures are popular, and I've seen lectures on dying messages and missing-footprints-in-the-snow too, but this is the first time I read one on the various reasons for decapitations in mystery fiction, and it's a gem! This exceptional focus on certain themes is makes this book so great, as it brings not only variation, but also consistency between the various events.  The impossible disappearance for example is plotted very well even taken on its own, but it is the connection to the other events of the book what makes this one to remember.

One decisive clue to the tale lies in the practice of folklore, what some readers of mystery fiction might not consider fair, as it's basically belief in the supernatural. I myself seldom see a problem with that though, as folklore itself is based on human practices and human perception of the world, which in turn follows (human-made) rules of logic. Supernatural powers might not exist, but the belief in supernatural powers exists and it does govern the psyche, and therefore the action of humans, so a good mystery novel can make great use of that. Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono has a great example of that, as the decisive clue surrounds an action that should've been taken given the folklore we've been presented with throughout the novel. The story takes the time to explore this theme of folklore and the workings and psychology behind it, so even if you don't manage to spot it (I didn't), you don't feel cheated, as it was set-up in a most fair way.

As a mystery novel on its own, Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is great, but it's the synergy between all the various themes that makes this a classic. No element is there just on its own, everything is to strengthen the rest of the book. The horror elements aren't there just to scare you, they also serve as meaningful misdirection and hints to the solution of the murders. The presentation in the form of a serialized novel isn't there just for fun: it's a crucial part in presenting a part of the mystery in a fair way to the reader. The impossible disappearance and the decapitations aren't just there for the mystery: they are intricately connected to the underlying story of the fall of the Higami Clan throug the curse of Aohime. Everything in this novel has a reason, no, multiple reasons to be there and they make what would've been a great mystery novel on its own, easily one of the best novels I've read these last few years. I can't wait to read more of this series!

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三 『首無の如き祟るもの』

14 comments :

  1. I've never seen you so excited about a novel like this for a long time! Hopefully one day it will make its way to English.

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    1. I was surprised too I liked it this much! It's a fairly long novel, and I was progressing really slowly through it at first because of other reasons, so I was afraid it'd end up as one of those 'it's not the book's fault, I just read it at the wrong time' books, but it managed to surpass all of that.

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  2. By the way, there's a new book in the Enomoto Kei series called Mystery Clock that was published back in October. I wasn't sure if you had gotten it already.

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    1. Yeah, I know the book's out, but I'll wait two, three years for the cheaper paperback pocket release ^_~

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  3. This one sounds really interesting. It sounds to me to be somewhat like Kyogoku's Summer of the Ubume. Maybe you can get your publisher to authorize a translation.

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    1. There's definitely some overlap: the post-war setting, the horror atmosphere, the way folklore is made part of the mystery plot. A difference would be that this book is more focused on the horror/mystery plot, so you don't have those super long discussions on topics like philosophy and the way the human mind perceives reality and stuff like that :P

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  4. Thanks for the review - I'm glad there's a Chinese translation of this novel in my local library. :) But it's in the traditional script, which is more challenging for me. Hopefully, an English one might be released?

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    1. The novel can also be easily sold as a J-horror novel I think, so I think it can appeal to a wide audience, so. That said though, I think this is one of those novels that's well worth the effort you might need to pour into, especially if you can just borrow it from the library :)

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  5. This sounds great! As someone above said, here's hoping it makes it into English soon.

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  6. Just finished up Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, and man, I haven't been this shaken up since Decagon House Murders or one of Renjou Mikihiko's short stories! It's great :D

    In the preface, Mitsuda claims that he designed this book with a certain "mechanism", that all 37 mysteries presented in the story can be easily solved once "a single important truth is realized". It was a very daring boast, but albeit a very deserving one. The way of having a writer showing the story in a serialized novel format, prompting the reader to digest the information currently available and stimulating various theories in each of the inserted interludes.....it was almost like a one huge long "Challenge to the Reader", and I loved it!

    The real gem was definitely at the end of the book, right up to the last page. There was like three to four(!) rapid successions of "turnabouts" in a short amount of pages; I was completely floored. It was at that moment, I realized why Mitsuda planned this book the way it did. And boy, was it glorious :D

    After this masterpiece, most Chinese readers seem to consider 山魔の如き嗤うもの to be his next best one in the series....that might be where I am heading to next, we shall see.

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    1. It's a real gem, isn't it? Glad you too also liked the book. It's really impressive how every little element has a reason, even the serialized novel format and the intermezzos. I already read Yamanma by the way, though the review probably won't be posted until August because I write way too much in advance. And yes, it's a great novel too! It's also slightly related to Kubinashi: You remember how Genya left the train early on in Kubinashi? Yamanma is about the place Genya went to visit then (man, how the story of Kubinashi might've gone had he not left the train then!) I reckon that even a third review of this series will pop up within this calendar year...

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    2. That's cool, now that little scene on the train makes sense :D

      Pretty happy that his first six books in the series had been translated in Chinese so far.

      In terms of critique, I do seem to come across Mitsuda's comparison with Kyougoku Natsuhiko quite a lot.

      I haven't read any of Natsuhiko's works yet, do you recommend them? Can I expect the same kind of atmosphere and tight/well-woven logic?

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    3. I haven't read much of Kyougoku either, but there are certainly some similarities, especially in the post-war setting and the focus on Japanese folklore in relation to the plot.

      I'd say Mitsuda is more focused on both a traditional detective, and horror story though. The characters in Kyougoku's stories tend to... talk a lot in more vague terms. For example, youkai play an important part in Kyougoku's stories, but rather than playing the horror angle, Kyougoku's characters are more likely to talk about the socio-economic and philosophic roots of how such youkai were invented in the past, and how they function as 'real constructs' in the mind even if they are fictional beings. And stuff like that :P So Kyougoku's mystery plots are bit more 'vague', and the tricks are more based on mental perception/interpretation rather than classic and easily recognizable themes like the deheadings from Kubinashi.

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