Friday, October 14, 2011



"Beware of the nights the Nue cries..."
 "Island of Evil Spirits"

I am always at doubt when reviewing novels of a series. Which is pretty much always if you look at my reading pile, but that's besides the point. The point is that I'm never sure whether I write reviews as seperate bodies of text, or conciously as part of a series of text. Or to be less abstract: should I expect that readers of a review have read some or all of my previous reviews (allowing me to build on that), or should I write them as accessible texts, so one might for example start with the latest review of a entry within a series without feeling overwhelmed? A concrete example would be like whether I should explain who the series detective is, his characteristics etc. in every seperate review of a series entry, or should I just assume that readers will find out by ploughing through old reviews? Should I discuss the basic elements of the Kindaichi Kousuke novels, their impact on the history of Japanese dectective novels and popular culture every time, or just hope that readers will read it in an older review?

In the end I always go for the easy way out though.

Akuryoutou ("Island of Evil Spirits") ranks amongst the more famous works of Yokomizo Seishi, for several reasons. Besides numerous translations to the white and silver screen, the novel is also actually the last novel Yokomizo Seishi wrote. It is therefore also the final Kindaichi Kousuke novel written. Within the chronology of the Kindaichi Kousuke novels, Akuryoutou is also the final novel in the so-called Okayama-cycle, a set of novels in the Kindaichi Kousuke series set in the Okayama prefecture. Other books in the Okayama-cycle include Honjin Satsujin Jiken, Gokumontou, Yoru Aruku, Yatsu Haka Mura and Akuma no Temariuta: indeed, most of the best Kindaichi Kousuke stories are set in Okayama. So yes, that raises expectations for Akuryoutou.

Ochi Ryuuhei grew up on the small Osakabe island in the Seto Inland sea, but left the island to travel to the United States. He made it big there and has now returned to Japan as a wealthy businessman. Hoping to revitalize his old home, he comes up a resort development plan set near Osakabe island. He also plans to move back to Osakabe island, but fearing that not all inhabitants on the island might be happy with his resort, he sents his subordinate Aoki to infiltrate the island as a tourist to see what people think of him. Aoki however disappears during this mission.

Kindaichi Kousuke is hired by Ochi to locate Aoki, and  it doesn't take long for Kindaichi to discover that Aoki was the mysterious man who was found in the sea near Osakabe island, who died shortly after leaving the enigmatic words:

Their bones are stuck together at their waists.... They walk sideways like a crab.... They are crabs... the offspring of crabs.... Evil spirits roam that island... evil spirits... evil spirits... Beware the night the Nue cries...

Partnering up with his old friend inspector Isokawa (who has discovered a link between Osakabe island and a the victim of a murder on the mainland), Kindaichi starts to investigate what has happened to Aoki and what Aoki's final words meant. With the discovery many people have disappeared from the island in the past, it really seems like evil spirits roam Osakabe island...

At over 600 pages, this is one of the longest, if not the longest Kindaichi Kousuke novel, but that's certainly not saying something about the quality of the story. I am not sure about the circumstances in which Yokomizo wrote this book, but it's written... not very well. Similar to some of the later books of Agatha Christie, the writing power of Yokomizo in his last novel is not as strong as in his early novels. In fact, there are dozens of instances in where keeps repeating himself or keeps using the same phrases over and over again, which is really annoying. The repetition might be because this is a serialized novel (so some recapping might be expected across chapters), but his earlier novels (which were also usually serialized) certainly didn't feature such a repetitive tone.

The story itself feels very much like a mish-mash of all the earlier Okayama-cycle novels. We have the island, secluded communities, the role of religious figures in said communities, power struggles between young / old, rich / poor, insiders / outsiders and of course the influence of the war on the everyday life of the common people. The story even features an extensive cave section (Yatsu Haka Mura). The problem is; these elements are all fine and the things I expect in a Kindaichi Kousuke novel, but the detection part of this story is very weak. Kindaichi does little deducing in this story (more like guessing) and while I admit that the atmosphere in Akuryoutou is absolutely creepy and works great as a horror novel, it certainly doesn't succeed as a mystery novel. Which is always a danger with Yokomizo Seishi's novels, as they often walk a thin line between the horror and the mystery genre, but Akuryoutou leans towards the former genre. Not a bad novel on its own, but it's certainly not a Gokumontou.

Funnily enough, this is also one of the few Kindaichi Kousuke books with very few victims, as Kindaichi actually tries to keep the kill count down by acting on his hunches. In other novels he is much more like the great detective (and the story structures are better), but despite that many people die in those books. In fact, Kindaichi is pretty much the last detective you'd want to hire, as more murders are bound to happen if he's on the scene. Something he kinda shares with his (maybe) grandson Hajime

Because of the bizarre elements in the novel (yes, there is some talking about a Siamese twin, and man-eating dogs and Nue and stuff), Akuryoutou feels very much related to some of the longer mystery novels of Edogawa Rampo. Once again, this is not a bad thing (hey, I love Edogawa Rampo!), but it was not what I had expected when I started reading the novel and I would have prefered a proper mystery.

Finally, as someone interested in sociolinguistics and dialects and speech patterns in fiction, I was really surprised to see how much the dialect of Osakabe island (and of more Okayama prefecture residents) resembles the Kyushu dialects. Geographically, you'd imagine that the accent in Okayama would be closer to the dialects in the Kinki region, but linguistic items like sogena (instead of sonna) and ken (instead of kara) are certainly Kyushu dialect characteristics. And while the auxiliary verb yoru is also used in Kansai dialect, it's certainly not as common as in Kyushu dialect. And apparently Okayama (Osakabe) dialect. I can imagine that the dialect would be quite hard to read for people not familiar with either of these dialects though.

As a swan song, Akuryoutou is a bit disappointing. It reminds of Yatsu Haka Mura, which was also more horror than mystery, but the latter was certainly written better. I have to admit that because of this, I'm afraid to expect too much of Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie ("The House of Hanging on Hospital Hill"), which features the last adventure of Kindaichi Kousuke.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史 『悪霊島』

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