Wednesday, January 25, 2012


"You people have allowed yourselves to be chased into a psychological locked room. You're stuck in that metaphorical room, making no progress at all, and you haven't been able to set foot outside it since the case began"
The Tattoo Murder Case

Yes, I am still doing my English translations of Japanese detective novels reviews series. At this rate though, it will not take long before I have gone through that pile too though.

Takagi Akimitsu's The Tattoo Murder Case (Original title: Shisei Satsujin Jiken) was published in 1947, a few years after the war. A time when Japan was still occupied by the US army and the economy still had not recovered completely from the shock. Matsushita Kenzou is one of those young students who survived the horrible war and tries his best at returning to a normal life. One day, he comes across an old school friend of his, Mogami Hisashi, at a tattoo contest. Kenzou also meets Kinue at the contest, daughter of the famous tattoo artist Horiyasu and the lover of Hisashi's brother. Kinue is also the owner of a beautiful Orochimaru tattoo on her back, something so impressive that Hisashi's uncle, a well known tattoo maniac who has the nickname Dr. Tattoo, even offered to buy her skin if she happens to die. For preservation.

Kenzou and Kinue start an affair, but their love is still young when one day Kenzou discovers a dead Kinue in her bathroom. Or to be more exact: he finds her arms and legs in a locked bathroom, but no sign of her torso. It seems like somebody murdered here and took off with her tattoo. This seems to be connected with the curse of Horiyasu's three children. Among tattoo artists there are certain taboos: for example you are not supposed to tattoo a complete snake covering someone, or else the snake might suffocate its bearer. Yet Horiyasu seemed to have cursed his own children by giving them tattoos of Jiraiya (Kinue's brother), Orochimaru (Kinue) and Tsunade (Kinue's sister), who are bound to fight each other. And what else but a curse can explain the locked room? The police tries everything, but are helpless in their investigation. That is, until Kenzou comes across his old friend Kamizu Kousuke, a gifted young man who was once called the Boy Genius.

Takagi debuted in 1947 with this novel and it is still considered a classic as it is one of the earliest and best Japanese locked room mysteries. The Tattoo Murder Case was released only a year after Yokomizo Seishi's Honjin Satsujin Jiken and in fact forms an interesting pair with it. While both novels were written after the war, Honjin Satsujin Jiken is actually set in a rural area just a bit before the war, while The Tattoo Murder Case is set in Tokyo a bit after the war. The differences in these settings are pretty big, with themes like the small village under control of an illustrious family, class status and face playing an important role in Honjin, while the distinct metropolitan setting, the effects of the war and the anonymity within urban spaces turn out to be an important theme in Tattoo. These two novels thus form opposite images.

Yet their main attraction point, the locked rooms, are very similar. Not in execution, but in their importance. The locked rooms in both Honjin Satsujin Jiken and The Tattoo Murder Case are set in Japanese-style houses, something pre-war critics thought to be unsuitable for locked room mysteries. Japanese-style houses were open, with connected spaces and made with easily removable and replacable materials. In Rampo's Yaneura no Sanposha ("The Walker in the Attic") for example, a man succeeds in spying on his neighbours in a lodge house by climbing up to a connecting loft. Japanese-style houses just did not seem suitable to portray an imprenable locked room situation.Yokomizo and Takagi were the first authors to challenge the problem succesfully. Honjin has the splendid situation of a double murder in an annex where the murderer seemed to have disappeared into thin air, while Tattoo has a locked room murder in a bathroom, one of the few rooms in a house that has its own lock and cannot be accessed from other rooms through a loft or cellar because of the tiles. These two novels showed the possibilities of a Japanese orthodox locked room mystery and paved the way for future writers in the genre.

The locked room mystery, which is good, is certainly not the only mystery in the novel and The Tattoo Murder Case is a actually a surprisingly well-polished debut novel. There is also a sea of information about the tattoo culture in Japan discussed in this novel that is really interesting, but it is also in fact of importance for solving the mystery. There is a distinct difference in how the topic of the 'curse' of Jiraiya, Orochimaru and Tsunadehime is handled by Takagi here and how Yokomizo would have handled though. Yokomizo is a master in creating creepy atmospheres linked with curses, legends and other supernatural beings and his novels are often very close to horror-stories. In The Tattoo Murder Case, Takagi plays a lot with the idea of tattoo curses, but it never becomes really creepy in the story. It is all too pragmatic, down to earth in this story. If you play with the idea of a curse in your detective story, you should present the 'supernatural explanation' (the curse) as a plausible explanation for the events. Usually by making the case look unexplainable unless you accept the supernatural explanation. For example by creating such horrifying settings that a curse seems a plausible cause. That never happens in The Tattoo Murder Case. The same holds for Takagi second novel, Noumen Satsujin Jiken, that's about a curse of a Hannya mask, but it never turns really creepy and the 'supernatural explanation' is never seen by the reader as an acceptable explanation of the events.

The translation of the English version is good, as far as I could judge as I do not actually own the original Japanese text, but the little things did bother me. Like how Tsunadehime was translated as Tsunedahime. And how sometimes the short cultural explanations incorporated into the body of the text felt very unnatural. It is of course a translator's (and editor's) choice how to work out cultural specific customs (expansion of the text to exlain it, footnotes, no explanation, deletion etc.), but here it felt too obtrusive at times. And strangely enough a thing like itadakimasu was left in Japanese without any explanation. As far as I know, that is not considered common knowledge Japanese. The English translation also precedes a Japanese revised edition. I am actually not sure what was revised and who revised the novel though, because I think Takagi was already dead then.

Anyway, this is a classic that anyone should have read and it is actually available in English too!

Original Japanese title(s): 高木彬光 『刺青殺人事件』


  1. I've been thinking about checking this out in English after the revised edition was out of print, but now that I know when I'll be overseas I guess I'll just wait until I can buy it in Japanese.

    I began reading 人形はなぜ殺される some months ago but somehow couldn't really get into it. You might have put it quite well with the lack of atmosphere due to pragmatic writing.

    1. I remember I had severe troubles getting started in Noumen Satsujin Jiken, because the writing was so dry. With an English translation, I can power through it forcefully, but I can't do that with Japanese texts... I guess that this is Takagi's writing style, but that knowledge certainly doesn't make the idea of having to read Ningyou wa naze korosareru alluring (well, I'll probably have to one day, seeing how it's lauded everywhere...)

  2. What I found an interesting aspect of this book was how Takagi adapted (or seems to have adapted) a fairly typical feature from the American detective story to depict a part of Japanese culture, in this case the world of tattoos.

    A close examination of a culture, institution or collectors, interspersed between portions of the plot, was something often found in the works of members of the Van Dine-Queen School. Clyde Clason and (from what I understood) Todd Downing were the most notables ones, who draped their stories in cultural backgrounds.

    The locked room is a good one, but it would've profited from a diagram that gives the reader immediately a clear picture of how the trick was pulled off.

    1. That's an interesting observation you make. I remember Takagi refering to Van Dine relatively often (even going as far as spoiling the The Bishop Murder Case in Noumen Satsujin Jiken), so he's probably the one who influenced Takagi.

  3. is Kyosuke Kamizu in this novel?

    1. Well, I certainly didn't mention his name in the review (and gave this post a tag with the name) just for fun...