Tuesday, June 21, 2011


"Look, a ladder!"
"That's a "step"-ladder"
"So? What's the difference? You need to stop judging things based on narrow-minded cultural assumptions, Nick!"
"Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney"

Oh, something Dutch! But Japanese!

Whereas modern criminal court-room drama mainly focus on a) defense attorneys, b) prosecution, c) lay judges or c) expert witnesses, you seldom see one featuring judges. Which is logical, I concur, but in the old, old times, judges in Asia were pretty much the only factor of importance in the courtroom, which were more like civil courtrooms, with individuals prosecuting each other and the judge as acting as the one who decides who was right. Probably the most famous example in the West would be Van Gulik's Judge Dee. Which is a pretty amusing series, featuring a Chinese judge who acts as a detective.

Bertus Aafjes did something similar like Van Gulik. Van Gulik based his Judge Dee on the historical Judge Dee (see also Parallel Cases under the Pear-Tree, a translation by Van Gulik of real Chinese court records). Bertus Aafjes wrote several stories starring Judge Ooka, who was based on Ooka Echizen, a famous judge presiding in Edo in Tokugawa Japan and who is still revered as a wise judge, who was able to find solutions for seemingly impossible problems. Like Van Gulik, Aafjes didn't 'storify' existing Ooka legends, but came up with original stories. Een Ladder tegen een wolk ("A Ladder against a Cloud") is the first short story collection by Bertus Aafjes featuring ten  original stories with Ooka. They're all quite short, maybe ten pages, sometimes less and usually feature a problem that is seemingly impossible to solve, until the wise Ooka intervenes (note that my summaries are really short this time, as the stories themselves are short too).

De haan heeft gegaapt of de zaak van de vele moordenaars ("The Cock Yawned or the Case of the Multiple Murderers") is about three old friends who accuse each other of murder. One says he did it, the other she did it and the last one says they both did it. Which of them is the real murderer?

In Een ladder tegen een wolk of de zaak van de afperser ("A Ladder against a Cloud or the Case of the Blackmailer"), an old couple is forced to steal in order to pay a blackmailer who had found out they had illegally left the city of Edo. The old couple gets caught while stealing. Ooka wants to be lenient on the old couple, but that would mean that he would have to let the blackmailer go.

In Wie de schaduw liefheeft krijgt het koud of de zaak van de wanhopige samoerai ("He Who Loves the Shadow gets Cold or the Case of the Desperate Samurai"), Ooka gets a strange request by a woman: her husband, an ex-samurai, is unhappy now he has to work in a store (rather than carrying a sword) and because of that, they lose clients everyday. How is Ooka able to make the ex-samurai content again?

In Wie zich met vermiljoen mengt wordt rood of de zaak van de identieke verdachten ("He Who Mingles with Vermillion turns Red or the Case of the Identical Suspects"), Ooka is confronted with the ancient problem of unreliable witnesses. The witnesses point to two different men as the thief of their store. Ooka is sure one of them is the thief, but which one? 

In De ware mens is geen werktuig of de zaak van de woedende winkelier ("A True Man is Not a  Tool or the case of the Raging Retailer") a woman begs Ooka to help her son: he works at her brother's store, but gets abused a lot. Ooka takes the case and uses his wisdom in sorting things out.

In Een wilde gans is honderd goudstukken waard maar men moet er eerst drie uitgeven voor een pijl of de zaak van De Wenkende Kat ("A Wild Goose is worth 100 Gold Coins but You have to Pay 3 Coins First for an Arrow or the Case of the Inviting Cat"), Ooka gets out to find decisive proof that one of the suspects in his custody is the person they're looking for.

In Zelfs de koelies bemerken nog wie de geliefde van de keizer is of de zaak van de zonderlinge spion ("Even the Coolies know who the Emperor's Lover is or the Case of the Strange Spy"), Ooka has to sort out a strange case wherein one family has planted a baby as a spy in another family.

In Ook een aap valt wel eens uit een boom of de zaak van de dief van Toranomon ("Sometimes even a Monkey Falls Out of a Tree or The Case of the Toranomon Thief"), Ooka is having troubles catching the Torananomon Thief and a different judge, Kujou is appointed to take over the case of Ooka.

Ooka faces his biggest challenge in Beter zijn leven te verliezen dan zijn gezicht of de zaak van het vrijwillige doodvonnis ("Better Losing His Life than his Face or The Case of the Voluntary Death Sentence"), as thanks to a trap by his enemies, Ooka is forced to sign his own death sentence!

Finally, in Als men er drie jaar op gaat zitten wordt zelfs een rotsblok wel warm of de zaak van de beide eerstgeborenen ("If You Sit On It for Three Days Even a Rock Will Become Warm or The Case of the Two First-Borns"), Ooka has to identify which of the identical twins is the first-born in an inheritance case.

The stories are amusing, very much like the cases in Parallel Cases under the Pear-Tree (even though that's Chinese). The focus on finding solutions for seemingly impossible problems is fun, even if sometimes it's not nearly as brilliant as the text tries to make you think. As someone studying Japanese studies though, I sometimes had to let out a Marge Simpson "hmm...." moan though. While I gather that Bertus Aafjes has visited Japan and it's mostly correct, some details do seem a bit iffy. Which is also a reason I don't think Judge Ooka's as fun as Judge Dee. At least, this particular short story collection was OK to read as a snack, between other books, but it sure didn't leave me satisfied.

Original Dutch title: Bertus Aafjes, Een Ladder tegen een Wolk


  1. Hey, the shortness of the stories is no excuse to be this brief in summarizing all the cases in this volume, but hey, it leaves me with an opportunity to do a more extensive review of it – and it's really sad that I refer to my short story reviews as extensive. ;D Anyway, I redirected some of my visitors to this post.

  2. Thanks for the link!

    I was actually having fun writing summaries shorter than the title (+ translation) of the stories j/k

    I did write this review as the last of four reviews in a row, so yeah, I was making it kinda easy for myself. But I'm not very enthousiastic about the stories, so I wouldn't have written an extensive review anyway, I think. Too bland to rave about out, but not bad enough to yell at.