Wednesday, April 6, 2011


"On the main railway line to Kagoshima there is a small station called Kashii, three stops before the city of Hakata. From the station, the road inland, in the direction of the mountains, leads to Kashii Shrine; in the opposite direction, it goes down to the seashore from where Hakata harbor can be seen. 
Directly in front of the beach a narrow strip of land called Umi no Nakamichi extends in the sea like a sash, and at the end of it the island of Shika appears to float on the water. Off to the left lies the island of Noko, barely visible in the misy dis-tance. It is an exceptionally beautiful spot.
The stretch of seashore is called Kashii Bay. In olden times it was known as Kashii Inlet. In those days Otomo no Tabito, a government offical, was inspired by this same scene to compose the poem that appears in the manyoshu, a famous eight century anthology:
At low tide though our sleeves may
get wet, let us hunt
after sea herbs for breakfast in 
Kashii Bay."
"Points and Lines"

While there is a noticable gap in English translation of Japanese detective fiction, Matsumoto Seichou is one of the few authors who is relatively 'known' outside of Japan. Several of his books have been translated to English and reviewers always seem to be quite enthousiastic about his writing-style, praising his realistic depiction of the Japanese post-war society, the tension between classes and the workings of the Japanese justice system. Matsumoto is the starting point of the so-called shakai-ha ("social school") of Japanese detective fiction, a post-war movement that moved away from the fantastic plots found in orthodox Golden Age fiction, towards crime novels set in contemporary times, addressing contemporary (social) problems. Gonda (1993) (see the attic) quotes Matsumoto saying "[I] want to take detective novels outside the "haunted house"". Matsumoto was not a full-time crime writer by the way, but he's mostly remembered for being the whole starting point of the dominant post-war movement in detective fiction till the 80's. Which is kinda understandable.

And I don't really like it. I want imaginative plots and tricks!  I want a locked room, an intricate alibi trick, headless bodies and ancient curses! In fact, of all the Matsumoto novels I read until now, the only one I truly liked was Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines"). And I'll admit it's partly because the murder scene is set in Kashiihama, Fukuoka. See introducing quote. But it is a decent detective novel on its own, though I can imagine very well the solution is rather bland in this time-and-age. The trick doesn't age well.

So why did I buy the short story collection Kao? I'd like to know that myself. I think it had something to with 2009 being Matsumoto's 100th birthday (he is dead though). As he was from Kita-Kyuushuu, his books and movies were promoted quite heavily that time all over Fukuokan bookstores. Or at least, in the bookstore across my dorm. And it had won the Japanese Detective Writers Assocation Price! And it was released in the cool black-cover Japanese Detective Writers Assocation Price winners series, of which actually features great novels and secondary literature. So I kinda got swept away by the promotion. But note that while I bought the book in 2009, I've only read it now.

The short story Kao ("Face") starts the collection and is one of Matsumoto's most famous stories. It tells the story of a young stage actor, who is slowly getting more popular. He gets gigs in movies and before he knows it, he is seen as the next rising star of the silver screen. The problem is... he doesn't want his face to get known all over Japan. Or more exactly, he doesn't want to show his face to one specific person. Ishioka. Ishioka is the only witness who saw him that fateful day many years ago, when he was in the train with a girl he killed. Ishioka is the only person alive who can connect him to the murder. So he decides what every murderer would do, he tries to kill the witness. It is pretty decent as a thriller and I enjoyed it on that level, but I have no idea why Matsumoto won a price for detective novels with it.

Satsui ("Murderous Intent") is also rather disappointing. Here a judge examines the court records of a certain poisoning case. But what initially looks like a howdunnit, ends in a whydunnit. Which kinda took me by surprise. All my musings about how the poison was administred or who did it were pretty useless, as a bit for the finale the judge kinda decides rather arbitrary what the solution is and then asks himself the question why. The motive is not an original one though and while you might say it is interesting looking at it from the whole Japanese post-war economic miracle society angle, I won't.

Naze "seizu" ga hiraiteitaka ("Why was it opened at "star chart"?) is slightly more orthodox. A teacher was found dead in his study by his wife. The man had a weak heart from the start and had just come back home after several days of hunger strike at school, so there was nothing unnatural to his death, but because of his involvement with the strike, the police decides to look in things more thoroughly, just to be save. It seems the man was looking something up in his encyclopedia when he died, and the book is still opened at "star charts". Does it has anything to do with his death? Yes, it does and I guess the solution isn't too bad, but Matsumoto really had trouble making the problem relevant. The way the police suddenly decided that the open book had a) to be a clue and that b) it was intentionally opened at "star charts" was just weird.

My favorite story of the collection is Hansha ("Reflection"),  an inversed crime story very much like Edogawa Rampo's Shinri Shiken ("The Psychological Test"). A man comes up with 'the perfect plan' to kill his lover, steal her money and hide it where the police won't find it. To be exactly, in a bank. To be even more exactly, at several banks. In different accounts. And it works, the police somewhat suspects him, but they have no decisive proof nor any clue of where the money is. But like the protagonist in Edogawa Rampo's story, this man might have been too smart for his own good. And also like Edogawa Rampo's story, this is a good story, which I enjoyed very much. It was the only one in this collection though.

Shichou Shisu ("Death of the Mayor") is a bit like Naze "seizu" ga hiraiteitaka, in the sense that it is kinda like an orthodox detective story, only written more blandly and not particularly original. The mayor of a small town and several members of the town council were on a business trip in Tokyo, but on the way back, the mayor said he had somewhere to go and took a different train. Much later, the mayor is found dead in a small hotel in a town far away. Why did the mayor go there? I could say something about confusion casued by the war, the opening of the country due to economic prosperity or something like that, but I'll just say that the solution is a neat, simple one and more interesting than the story itself. It's not really original like I said earlier, but I have to admit I fell for it.

There was nothing to fell for in Harikomi (Stake Out) though, as this was .... I'm not sure what kind of story this is. Was there something? Anything? Like the titles suggest, the story is about a stake out of a woman, who used to be the lover of a wanted man. He is on the run, but the police suspect he might go look for his old lover. The woman is married now, lives in Kyuushuu and has several children. So the Tokyo police send a man to keep an eye on her. What follows is a long description of her daily routine, the wanted man showing up and taking the woman on a bus and the police capturing their man. The end. Maybe the twist was that there was no twist. Maybe I should focus on the working woman in post-war Japanese society as depicted here. Maybe I should really stop with reading Matsumoto.

Ah well, at least I got this over with.

Original Japanese title(s): 松本清張 『顔』,「顔」/「殺意」/「なぜ「星図」が開いていたか」/「反射」/「市長死す」/「張込み」

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