Sunday, January 22, 2012

Two Stations in Kashii

"What a lonely place!"
"Points and Lines"

I'll just start this post with admitting right away that I am not a big fan of Matsumoto Seichou. And that's actually not completely his fault. It is more because of how (mostly English) reviewers and scholars can't seem to stop raving about the realism in his novels and how Matsumoto manages to capture the social problems of postwar Japanese society, like class-struggles and the unfair justice system, perfectly within his stories. English reviews of Matsumoto's Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines") and Suna no Utsuwa ("The Sand Vessel", published as Inspector Imanishi Investigates) therefore often have the tendency to turn out almost the same, even though technically the stories are quite different. Historicizing when discussing fiction is something I do too, even though at times it seems a bit as an excuse to 'justify' reviewing genre fiction, but I have the feeling the (English) Matsumoto Seichou reviewers have a tendency to exeggarate this.

Matsumoto has written some interesting stories though. While Matsumoto's more orthodox detective stories sometimes suffer from being rather bland, several of his short stories like Kimyou na Hikoku ("The Strange Defendant") and Hansha ("Reflection") are pretty fun to read. But the one novel by him I really, really like is Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines").

Matsumoto Seichou debuted in 1957 the short story Kao, but the Matsumoto-boom in Japan started one year later, with his first novel Points and Lines (also available in English). The discovery of the dead bodies of Otaki, a waitress and Sayama, a senior offical in a ministry, on the beach of Kashiihama, Fukuoka is what sets the story in motion. The case is initially handled as a love suicide, but one of the local detectives suspects that it was actually murder, also because Sayama was wanted by the Metropolitan Police Department in relation with the investigation of bribery case at his ministry. This man's death is rather convenient for his superiors. A important suspect comes up during the investigation, but there is one problem: the suspect has an ironclad alibi. The suspect had to be in Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyuushuu on the night of the murder, but that would have made it impossible for him to be in Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaidou the next morning. How did the man manage to teleport from one side of Japan to another?

And to admit another thing: one of the reasons I love this novel is because I lived in Kashiihama, Fukuoka for a year. I was only a minute away from the crime scene of Points and Lines. I have stood there at the beach dozens of time. Kashiihama was a wonderful place to live. So rereading the novel really brought up some great memories of this little neighbourhood in the eastern ward of Fukuoka. More than fifty years have past since Matsumoto first wrote this story and things might have changed a bit in those years (nowadays the road from the station to the beach of Kashiihama is not really lonely, for example), but Matsumoto's description of Kashii and Kashiihama is not as outdated as one would think and conveys the ambience of the quaint little block wonderfully. Matsumoto's writing might seem dry at times, but he actually has a wonderful knack for describing ordinary day scenery and customs expertly in just a few words. His short story Harikomi ("Stakeout") for example also features some great descriptions of Kyuushuu, the problem with it is just that it is not a mystery story at all. Matsumoto himself was from Kokura, so he must have have been familiar with Kashii. Interesting is that the two stations at Kashii (a JR station and the private Nishitetsu line), that play an important role in the story, are still in use today. Points and Lines actually made Kashii famous and even now there is a Seichou Sakura to commemorate Points and Lines planted at the Nishitetsu Kashii station.

But nostalgia is a dangerous thing, Tezuka Osamu's impressive series Phoenix taught me, so what about the story itself? Is Points and Lines worth reading if you have not lived in Kashii? As can be guessed from the summary, this is a story that revolves around the deconstruction of the main suspect's alibi and it is actually pretty ingenous. Matsumoto (the murderer) really did his best in coming up with a seemingly ironclad alibi with several safety nets for himself. It's a bit of a shame the English paperback version does not feature a map of the whole of Japan (it has a couple of maps of the Fukuoka area though), because for readers not familiar with Japan's topography, it might be hard to imagine how the distance between Kashii and Sapporo. It is really, really far away. Which makes the alibi trick all the more awesome. I actually want to write a bit more about the trick, but I guess that be nearing that ever-dangerous spoiler area, which is something I want to avoid.

And now for my third confession, I don't think I've ever read anything written by Freeman Crofts. But the focus on alibis and trains in Points and Lines is similar to many of Freeman Crofts' stories, I've been told. Trains play a big, big part within the world of Points and Lines and that's not strange. Trains have been a very large part of the Japanese culture ever since their introduction in the early Meiji period (post-1868) and was crucial for nation-building. Many people have heard about the bullet-trains developed in Japan. Trains are still an important means of transportation for longer domestic trips and there is even a whole culture around the so-called eki-ben, boxed meals sold at stations with local specialties. Heck, the whole subgenre of travel mysteries and train mysteries (mostly by Nishimura Kyoutarou, but I haven't reviewed any of his travel mysteries yet) in Japan is pretty much built upon the whole train culture, linking domestic tourism and the detailed railway schedules of trains that magically never seem to be late. I assume that countries like the United States don't have such a tradition in train mysteries. In the Netherlands, I guess most train mysteries are doomed to fail because the time in the railway schedule seldom seems to correspond with the actual times, you usually have to count in a five minute lag. Or maybe ten minutes.

Points and Lines also occasionally relies on what some people like to call 'typical Japanese customs / way of thinking', which are actually not really such unique indigenous customs as those people seem to make them out be. Matsumoto's stories do often seem to feature some cultural customs as crucial plot-points. In fact, one of the more important insight the detective in the story has, is pretty much copied from Matsumoto's own debut story Kao ("Face"), which also revolved around a certain way of thinking. Point and Lines however makes much better use of the same 'trick', almost like Matsumoto himself thought the trick in Kao could and should have been used for something better.

Like I admitted, I love Points and Lines partly because it is so strongly related to a place dear to me, but it is also a good alibi deconstruction mystery that is satisfying not only to those reviewers who praise Matsumoto for describing how a chair looks like in Japan in his novels, but also for people interested in a good old mystery that happens to be set in Japan.

Original Japanese title(s): 松本清張 『点と線』


  1. You're on fire this month!

    Anyway, I can, sort of, understand a part of the ravings emanating from my fellow reviewers and scholars here in the West, but I think that the realism seeping from its pages is mainly derived from its slightly more accurate depiction of policemen diligently working on a case.

    Matsumoto's depiction of postwar Japanese society, which surrounds the investigation, only adds to the story, but would've proved insufficient to carry the entire novel if more emphasis had been placed on it. This is, after all, still a detective story and a good one at that! However, it shows how far a sizable chunk of Western reader has strayed away from the genre and into mainstream fiction.

    Oh, I have a different paperback edition, one that has kanji on the front cover and spine, which does include the map of Japan.

    By the way, I know of one Dutch train mystery, Baantjer's Moord eerste klasse, but it has been eons since I read it and couldn't tell you if time-tables played any role in it or how good (or bad) the plot is.

    1. I don't really have anything new to read at the moment, so I've been relying quite a bit on audiovisual media and material I've already read lately, which really speeds up the posting. Well, that and whenever I post on consecutive days on a row, that usually means that I wrote everything on the first day and just spread the posts across the week.

      With this post, I just had a sudden urge to visit Kashiihama agaim ;)

      I occassionaly play with the thought of (fictional) murder when in the train. The way the compartments are set up in the old model sneltreinen and people tend to sit away from each other, the Orient Express-ish circumstances we occasionally have in the winter, the locked windows, something could be done with that, right?

      BTW, I really have to get used to this new comment system with branching threads ~_~

    2. I hope you have one or two outstanding orders to replenish your diminished stock of detective stories. There's something highly unnatural about a confirmed mystery addict without any unread stories scattered around the place to tackle.

      Your descriptive musings on the possibilities of a murder on an old model sneltrein stirred up the pool of my subconscious and a memory of the aforementioned Moord eerste klasse came bubbling to the surface.

      If I remember correctly, there was a nude body in the first class compartment of a train and part of the solution hinged on the question how you can murder and undress someone aboard a speeding train – without being seen or attracting unwanted attention.

    3. I don't have any putstanding orders actually. But don't worry, there is logic and order behind this all. I think.

      But rereading old material isn't that bad. Just marathoned through the first half of Detective Academy Q, which is at least as awesome as I remembered it to be!