Monday, February 6, 2012

Antique Mystic

ゲッゲッゲげげのゲー 朝は寝床でグーグーグー
楽しいな 楽しいな お化けにゃ学校も試験も何もない
『ゲゲゲの鬼太郎』 (いずみみたく)

Gegegege no ge, mornings are spent in bed going goo goo goo
Oh what fun, oh what fun, ghosts don't have schools or exams!
"Gegege no Kitarou" (Izumi Mitaku)

I have read quite some books from a range of authors these last few years, but there are still notable blind spots in both my Japanese and non-Japanese readings. One of my major Japanese blind spots is Kyougoku Natsuhiko. Kyougoku is known as a youkai (spirit/monster/demon) expert, which is actually a really interesting field. I have to admit that my knowledge of youkai comes mostly from comic series like Gegege no Kitarou and Inu Yasha, but there is something.. magical to the whole world of supernatural beings with their own characteristics and such. Heck, I actually reviewed the English-language youkai guide Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide here. I should have started reading Kyougoku ages ago! Though I have to admit that the sheer length of his novels does kinda scare me. Those bricks are big!

Kyougoku's main series is called the Hyakki Yakou ("Night Parade of Hundred Demons") series, set in postwar Japan. The series' detective is Chuuzenji Akihiko, who has the nickname Kyougokudou, which is the name of his bookstore (the series is therefore also refered to as the Kyougokudou series, but Kyougoku himself does not seem to like the name). Youkai don't actually appear in the series, but the cases Kyougokudou handles are always related to youkai and other folkloristic customs. Which makes this series really interesting for people interested in anthropology, I guess. And because there is both a film and an English translation of the first novel in the series, Ubume no Natsu ("Summer of the Ubume"), I really have no excuse for not trying this series. Heck, by all means, I should have started this series with Ubume no Natsu, considering all those ways to experience the story!

And yet, my first encounter with Kyougoku Natsuhiko is an audio drama of his novellete collection Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Ame ("Bag of Hundred Random Demons - Rain"). This is a supplement installment to the Hyakki Yakou series, with the main protagonist being Enokizu Reijirou, a private detective of the Rose Cross Detective Agency and friend of Kyougokudou. But can we really call Enokizu a detective? He doesn't investigate. He doesn't deduce. He just solves cases. Which is partly helped by his power to read other people's memories, partly helped by his overblown self-confidence, partly helped by his charisma and partly helped by his assistant. Enogizu is not particularly smart, but he somehow manages to solve every case he takes. But it usually takes some explanation from Kyougokudou himself before anybody even knows what happened.

This is a really weird series. Judging from the (cool) covers on the Kyougoku novels and the length of those books, I had always thought that they were very serious, dark novels. And I don't know much about the main Hyakki Yakou series, but Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Ame is a straight comedy book. It is really a character-driven series, with Enokizu dominating every scene he is in. The fun of the stories is derived from seeing Enokizu doing seemingly random stuff and Kyougokudou acting all mysteriously from the eyes of the narrator, only to have everything to the narrator explained at the end. Enokizu does not seem to be handling many murder cases though and the three stories here evoke at times the feelings of some of the Holmes stories, where enigmatic and puzzling situations (but not criminal per se) perplex the narrator, until the detective explains everything.

The narrator first visits the Rose Cross Detective Agency in Narikama - Barijuuji Tantei no Yuuutsu ("Narikama - The Melancholy of the Rose Cross Detective"). His niece was raped by the son of an influential politician and his friends. The narrator tried to get this story out in the open, but the father of the guilty son managed to hush up everything. Having nowhere else to go, the narrator hopes that Enokizu can give him justice. Which Enokizu gladly gives him. The mystery in this story is mostly in guessing what Enokizu is trying to do with Kyougokudou's help (even using a mysterious rice cooking pot ritual to lure out the gang of rapers to see who deserved the most punishment). This is like a Lupin story with a charismatic protagonist trying to get revenge in the name of a poor girl, but this is hardly a detective story.

The narrator of the previous story returns to the Rose Cross Detective Agency to give his thanks to Enogizu in Kameosa - Bara Juuji Tantei no Uppun ("Kameosa - The Frustration of the Rose Cross Detective") and there he learns about the detective's newest assignment: Enokizu's father wants him to locate a precious pot (kame) and their pet turtle (kame). The narrator, being drawn by Enokizu's charisma, wants to help him and with the help of Kyougokudou, learns about a mansion full of pots where the pot Enokizu is looking for might be. Coincidentally, they also find out that the turtle they are looking for might also be in the neighbourhood. The mystery in this story comes the dual investigation (which seem to be connected in some strange way) and finding out the link between those cases. Once again, the story is dominated by the random actions of Enokizu and the meddling (?) of Kyougokudou (who usually sees through everything rather quickly), with the narrator having trouble keeping up with the two grand forces.

In Yamaoroshi - Bara Juuji Tantei no Fungai ("Yamaoroshi - The Indignation of the Rose Cross Detective"), Enokizu is away from the office for another case, forcing his assistant Masuda to take on a request by a friend of Kyougokudou himself. This friend, a monk, suspects something might be wrong with an old acquaintance of him whom he has not seen in 18 years: when he called his home, they first said that they didn't know the monk and the second time they said that his friend died in the war. Fearing something might have happened to the monk's friend, Masuda and the narrator head to the friend's house, which has been turned into an exclusive haute cuisine restaurant. And luck has it that his own investigations have also brought Enokizu here. Which kinda mirrors the events in the previous story. This is the best story in the collection though. While it does not take a genius to figure out what is going on and there are some really forced coincidences in this story, it is an entertaining adventure for the detectives. There is just little to add to that: this is a story that is fun to listen to, but there is nothing to really praise or critique. The "Ok, that was fun, what shall I do now..."-feeling.

You might disagree with Dine, but a murder in a story does feel a lot better than no murder. The three stories in Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Ame are rather light mysteries that just happen to seem more mysterious, because of the totally random and enigmatic behavior of Enokizu. As mysteries, they might disappoint a bit, but I have to admit, as a character-driven mystery (similar to NiSiOiSiN's Kubishime Romanticist), this is really enjoyable. I also love the anthropological / folkloristic background information to the stories, which really makes me eager to start in the main series.

But I think I'll first listen to the audio drama of Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Kaze ("Bag of Hundred Random Demons - Wind"), the sequel to this collection!

Is there by the way a detective series that takes it cues from urban legends? I am naturally familiar with Norizuki Rintarou's An Urban Legend Puzzle and I should really continue with the game Hayarigami, but any other recommendations?

Original Japanese title(s): 京極夏彦(原) 『百器徒然袋――雨』: 「鳴釜 薔薇十字探偵の憂鬱」 / 「瓶長 薔薇十字探偵の鬱憤」 / 「山颪 薔薇十字探偵の憤慨」


  1. Well, I can't think off-hand of an entire series (not counting Scooby Doo) that takes it cue from urban legends, but I can compile a list of individual titles if you're really interested.

    1. Ah, don't bother! I still have a lot left from your previous list :P

      You'd think that urban legends would make for a great foundation for an interesting series though...

  2. I did not really enjoy Ubume no natsu that much. The setting and the characters were fine, hands down, but for me it just felt exhausting. Maybe I'm actually not sufficiently interested in Japanese folkore to endure neverending passages of Kyougokudou's lectures without any advancement of the novel's actual plot. It might just be the medium though. I liked the Mouryou no hako anime a lot. But of course in that case the source's content was significantly abridged.

    The comical tone is not the standard of the series. The characters certainly are one of the most enjoyable aspects of Kyougoku's writing and some dialogues may be more on the funny side but he always knows when it's time to be serious.

    Since Ubume isn't particularly long (at least not in terms of Japanese mystery novels) you might just try it out. Personally I just can't acknowledge the amount of praise it always gets since a short story by Maya Yutaka, which was written before Ubume was published, already features a comparable trick in a (in my opinion) more convincing, unique and slightly fairer manner. And while Kyougoku is one of the most popular authors, it seems like Maya has been kind of a black sheep until the sudden award winning recently.

    1. I might just pick up the English version of Ubume no Natsu for convenience's sake. Even after reading Jinroujou no Kyoufu, brick bunko still scare me. I was also very surprised when I found out that the Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro Ame bunko is 750 pages long, making listening to the audio drama seem like dodging a (giant) bullet.

      Maya is a weird blind spot in my readings. I have read his work, but only random short stories / Trick X Logic scenarios by him, which makes it hard to really judge him.