Thursday, November 6, 2014

Amber Sunset


Someone needs to be punished

Random observation: I've always the characters in the Japanese word for solar eclipse, (日蝕; nisshoku), interesting. It's literally an insect eating the sun. But now back to business...

It has been about fifteen years after World War II. Japan is well on its way to become an powerful economic power, and both the generation that has experienced the war, as well as the one after the war have slowly become used to this new world. Akira and Youko are both students at Tokyo's K University. Living in the same apartment complex and both having moved here from their hometowns faraway, the two become friends, and more. The two have few financial means, but they have each other, and that's enough for them. That is, until Akira hatches the plan of seducing a rich heiress: at first, he just wanted to make fun of the girl by seducing her and showing how stupid the elite class is, but he slowly becomes entranced with the idea of actually marrying the girl and thus securing his ticket for the easy life. He borrows money from everybody around him to finance his dates, as if his whole life depends on this one chance. All of this causes Youko to suffer, who despite everything is still in love with him. And the dark spots in the once bright life of Akira and Youko become only bigger and bigger in Yamada Fuutarou's Taiyou Kokuten ("Sunspot", 1963).

Yamada Fuutarou started out as a mystery writer (see for example Youi Kinpeibai), but he got his greatest hit in 1959 with Kouga Ninpouchou (The Kouga Ninja Scrolls), a ninja epic that would spark a boom in Japan, as well as lay the foundation for battle manga in later years. And Yamada kept on writing ninja novels: he wrote no less then eight ninja novels between 1959 and 1963. Taiyou Kokuten thus marked a return of Yamada Fuutarou from ninja novels to detective novels.

Detective novel? The summary above seems like that of a postwar youth romance novel, you might say. Where is the mystery? And there you have the biggest problem, and biggest charm point of Taiyou Kokuten. It is a mystery novel. Or else I wouldn't be reviewing it here. But that is probably all I should say about Taiyou Kokuten. The whole point of the book is that the mystery comes from a rather unexpected angle and while almost 90% of the novel is indeed a youth novel, there is definitely something great (if a bit too ambitious) there for the mystery reader. I might be saying too much now, but I'll admit that I probably wouldn't have picked Taiyou Kokuten had I just read the summary and not heard it was a proper mystery novel, so this is all I'll say about that.

Of all of Yamada Fuutarou's works, I've only read Youi Kinpeibai and Meiji Dantoudai (both excellent), and while Taiyou Kokuten takes on a completely different form, it has a certain Yamafuu-esque story which I've come to appreciate. Again, I won't go into details of what that exactly is, because it would just work as a spoiler to Taiyou Kokuten's mystery plot, but I am definitely starting to get a feel for Yamada Fuutarou's novels.

Which is also due to the historical setting of Taiyou Kokuten. Well, it was just set in the time period it was written in, but Yamada Fuutarou is a master in getting the reader in the spirit of the time period of his stories, as well as tying that spirit to his plot. Post-war Japan comes to life within the pages of Taiyou Kokuten. One might think that it's because Taiyou Kokuten is mostly presented as a youth novel starring two students, but that's not the case, I think. Youi Kinpeibai (set in a literary depiction of 12th century China) and Meiji Dantoudai (the early Meiji period) are both very obviously detective stories, but also manage to bring a a historical setting to life. Yamada Fuutarou's is a bit of a history buff (besides the ninja novels, he also wrote a whole series set in the Meiji period) and one can feel his love for times past.

I enjoyed Taiyou Kokuten thoroughly and think it works as a great introduction volume for those who haven't read Yamada Fuutarou yet, and those who aren't in mystery novels per se. It is relatively short and the recognizable setting (not too faraway past) makes Taiyou Kokuten very accessible, while it still retains a peculiar Yamada Fuutarou atmosphere. For those whose interest lie mostly in mystery fiction, I think Youi Kinpeibai and Meiji Dantoudai make for better starts though, as they feature more variety.

Original Japanese title(s): 山田風太郎 『太陽黒点』

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