Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Heads You Lose

熱く強く 俺達は生きてゆく
愛をかざし 守りたい
『永遠の未来』 (アニメタル)

Oh blue sky, neverending sky
As long as light exists there
We will live passionately, strongly
Holding up love, I want to protect
The eternal future
"The Eternal Future" (Animetal)

And just as I had made plans to finish the book I'm reading now within the next two days, some new books are delivered. Temptation to start in new books...

Yamada Fuutarou was a prolific writer of mystery and historical novels and is nowadays probably best known for his many historical, ninja novels (including Kouga Ninpou Chou, which set an example for battle manga later). He also wrote many novels set in the early Meiji period (usually referred to as meiji-mono/Meiji stories). Meiji Dantoudai ("The Meiji Guillotine") is one of these historical mystery novels. It is 1869, one year after the infamous Meiji Restoration, which meant the end of the Shogunate and restoration of imperial rule. The ports of Japan were opened for foreign visitors for the first time in 400 years, marking the start of modernization. The new government has its hands full with guiding the country towards industralization and catching up with the west, but also with the aftermath of the revolution and corruption within its own administration. The danjoudai, the Imperial Prosecuting and Investigating Office, is an office reinstated from the ancient Ritsuryo legal system, dedicated to hunt down and punish corruption and rebels. To help in their fight against evil, the danjoudai even imported a guillotine from France to instigate fear upon its enemies. Two of the danjoudai's stars are Kawaji Toshiyoshi  (who would later play a large role in forming the modern Japanese police force) and Kaduki Keishirou (who always wears a suikan). It was Kaduki who brought the guillotine to Japan, together with Esmeralda, a spirit medium and heir of a family of guillotine constructors. During their investigations, Kawaji and Kaduki come across crimes which seem impossible, from ghostly rickshaws to people being cut down by unknown, supernatural forces, but by summoning the spirit of the dead, Esmeralda always manages to bring light into darkness.

I hardly read any historical detective novels, but if they were all like Meiji Dantoudai, I would definitely be reading them much more often. For Meiji Dantoudai is a masterpiece. It's easily one of the best novels I read this year, and will also be remembered as one of the best mystery novels I've ever read. When I first heard people saying they liked Yamada Fuutarou's mysteries, I wasn't sure what to think of it (as I only knew his name from his ninja novels), but I apologize! I was wrong! There's nothing wrong with liking his mystery novels! If anything, why wouldn't you like them?!

I have to admit that Meiji Dantoudai has a slow start though. It is in principle a short story collection, but the first two stories just serve as an introduction to Kawaji, Kaduki, Esmeralda and a group of five lazy and corrupt rasotsu ('policemen', 'footsoldiers) who work are forced to work under Kawaji and Kaduki. By the time you've gone through them, you're already at a quarter of the book.

But then the stories really start and it is amazing. Meiji Dantoudai does exactly what I'd expect, what I'd want from a historical detective and pulls it off perfectly. The 'easy' part is probably putting the story in a certain historical context (or else the 'special' setting wouldn't really be necessary). Yamada is best known for his historical work, so it shouldn't be surprising to see that this part is done really well. Historical events and characters pop up in surprising ways in each of the stories, but never in a way as to overwhelm the main mystery plot. Kawaji Toshiyuki is a historical person too, of course, but the use of characters like James Hepburn's assistent Kishida Ginkou is also done very well, but never intrusive. The story is set just afer the Meiji Restoration, which was done with quite a bit of assassinations on high officials on both sides (those who wanted to restore imperial rule, and those opposing that), so one can imagine that both sides still had scores to settle. These events form an important background to Meiji Dantoudai and the way history is weaved with Yamada's fiction is really captivating. I guess the one thing I know that even gets close to this is Rurouni Kenshin (which is also set in Meiji, dealing with the aftermath of the Restoration), but Meiji Dantoudai is much more grounded in actual history.

Of course, a bit of historical knowledge does really add to the experience. I am the first to admit that I was unfamiliar with many names at first, but even without knowing everything and the precise details of every event refered to, you can still enjoy Meiji Dantoudai as a historical novel. Yamada's prose is great, really bringing the world to life both through 'plain' narration as well as well-written lines (this is the sociolinguistician in me speaking).

But good historical background alone does not make for a great mystery short story collection. But good prose and historical research aren't the only things to be found here. Meiji Dantoudai offers some of the best impossible crime situations in a historical setting. What is most impressive is that they all feature very Meiji-esque elements, which reinforces the historical detective element. America yori Ai wo Komete ("From America, With Love") for example has a great variation on the no-footsteps-in-the-snow trope, with a victim apparently having been driven by a rickshaw, without a puller. Just the rickshaws prints remain on the snow. The fact that the ghost of war criminal thought to have fled to the United States is said to be haunting the neigbourhood isn't making things less scary. Or what about Engankyou Ashikiri Ezu ("The Leg Amputation Telescope Illustration"), where the rare, modern object the telescope allows for surprising discoveries, including the accidental witnessing of a murder. Eitaibashi no Kubitsuribito ("The Hanged Man of Eitai Bridge") is a great alibi deconstruction story, where you really feel how smaller the world has become since the Meiji period. Comparing the alibi deconstruction plots in this story with stories like Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen or Ayukawa Tetsuya's Kuroi Trunk and you'll see how a historical setting can offer much surprise to an old trope. Onore no Kubi wo Daku Shitai ("The Body That Carries Its Own Head") is in comparison a bit boring in its execution of a familiar trope, but once again makes great use of the setting. The best story is the first mystery Kawaji and Kaduki encounter though, Kaidan Tsukiji Hotel Kan ("The Tsujiki Hotel Ghost Story"), which features the best example of a mystery making the best use of its (limited) setting. The plot oozes Meiji-atmosphere, and features a trick that seems like something Shimada Souji would write (save for the fact Meiji Dantoudai was written much earlier).

In a way, I think that in a sense, historical mysteries don't differ much from other 'special' settings like a science fiction setting (like The Caves of Steel), a pure fantasy setting (like Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban or Snow White). As long as the reader is made aware of the characteristics of the setting (be it the absence of technology/knowledge of the present, or the presence of magic or robots), and is told what the limits are (i.e. rules for magic and robots, or what is available in a certain historical setting), a great, fair-play puzzle plot is always possible and can be made even more fun because it has a setting you usually don't come across. I for one really enjoyed Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban because it was a totally fair mystery story, which made great use of a device like magic. A historical setting sets limits on a fair-play plot, but also offers surprising possibilites you might not even consider because it utilizes technology/knowledge the modern man doesn't think of. Meiji Dantoudai is a great example of how to do it right.

And just as you think that Meiji Dantoudai has given you everything it has, the last story, Seigi no Seifu Wa Arieru Ka ("Can There Be A Just Government?") shakes things up by forming a perfect epilogue to the short story collection. It connects every short story up until now into one surprising, complete narrative, transforming the whole structure of the book. I have read a couple of connected short story collections, but never seen it done as good as here. The one thing I can think of that comes close is the videogame Gyakuten Kenji 2. With short story collections, it can be tempting to just read the stories in any order, depending on your mood, but Meiji Dantoudai really shows the potential of connected short story collections.

Meiji Dantoudai is in short a must read for any fan of the genre. It's a great mystery short story collection, it's a great impossible crime collection, it's a great historical detective, it's a great connected short story collection.... it does everything I would want from such a book, and does it excellently.Yamada Fuutarou has Kawaji Toshiyuki appear in some more of his other Meiji novels, and I will definitely make more trips in the future, to this fantastic past world Yamada writes about.

Original Japanese title(s): 山田風太郎 『明治断頭台』: 「弾正台大巡察」 / 「巫女エスメラルダ」 / 「怪談築地ホテル館」 / 「アメリカより愛をこめて」 / 「永代橋の首吊人」 / 「遠眼鏡足切絵図」 / 「おのれの首を抱く死体」 / 「正義の政府はあり得るか」


  1. This sounds like a really great book. Viz Media is an American firm that translates Japanese books for an English-speaking market. They have an imprint called Haikasoru which specializes in science fiction, but recently they also published the book Apparitions by Miyuki Miyabe, which is a volume of ghost stories. Maybe Viz would like to expand their line to publish mystery novels. You could translate it for them.

  2. I'd definitely take up the offer if anyone would offer me such a job! :P

    The funny thing is, Yamada Fuutarou didn't even rank in the original Tozai Mystery Best 100, because his mystery novels were out of print. But with his Meiji stories in print again, people (like me) got the chance to read him again and in the Best 100 compiled last year, he got no less than 4 books in the top 100 His 'Kouga Ninja Scrolls' is available in English, so maybe, in the future...

    1. The address for VIZ Media is P. O. Box 77010, San Francisco, CA 94107. They have their own home page under with contact data. Their phone number is (415) 546-7073. Why don't you float a proposal to them and see what they think? You might be able to make a some money out of it.