Thursday, April 23, 2015

Scarlet Hills

「ラーメン、つけ麺、僕イケメン! オケー!」

"Ramen, Tsukemen, I'm a good looking man!"
"Good Looking Men Club@ Flower Viewing Festival" ('The Laughing Red Theater' sketch)

I usually write my reviews within a week after finishing the book, but this one has been waiting for almost three weeks! And it actually has to wait for almost half a year before it's published online... Ah, the fate of reviews of books that aren't timely to begin with...

Shina Soba Kan no Nazo - Mainaa Kyouto Mystery ("The Mystery of the Chinese Noodle House  - Minor Kyoto Mysteries") is a short story collection by Kitamori Kou and the first volume in his Minor Kyoto Mysteries series. Arima Jirou used to be the most succesful thief in West-Japan, but a chance meeting with the head of the Daihikaku Senkouji Temple in Kyoto brought him back to the path of the righteous, and now he lives as an temple assistant at the temple. Despite his turn, Arima still gets sucked into criminal cases, not rarely because of his friendship with the local journalist Orihara Kei. Strange cases brought by Kei, temple visitors getting killed, his past catching up on him and other incidents: Arima is confronted with one case after another, but he wouldn't have been able to become the greatest thief in the past if he wasn't in possession of a great set of brains, as well as very useful ties to the underworld of Kyoto.

I was actually looking for ramen-related detective stories (like these) when I came upon this short story collection (shina soba is an alternate nomens for ramen), which seemed even more interesting because it was set in Kyoto (where I have lived). I had never read anything by Kitamori Kou though and this read was kinda a gamble. And looking back, I have to say it was a fairly succesful one, though not without some minor gripes (one it being that ramen don't really appear in this collection!). Where it does succeed, is in being a "Kyoto mystery". Seldom have I read a book to which the term "topographical mystery" applies as good as Shina Soba Kan no Nazo. Because of Japan's history of limited travelling until the late 19th century, most regions have very distinct dialects and customs. In this volume, basically all the stories involve some kind of specific Kyoto custom or tradition in a believable, relevant way (and also important: in a fair way; the reader is never at a disadvantage if he has no prior knowledge). It's delight as an ex-Kyoto citizen to see local customs be given the spotlight like this, but it's also quite educational and I learned quite a bit about Kyoto folkways.

In Fudou Myouou no Yuutsu  ("Melancholy of the Acala"), Arima discovers a dead gangster in what is basically the temple's backyard. He naturally wants to know why a corpse was there and with a bit of help of Orihara Kei, manages to connect the victim to a small communal bath house, which has been troubled of all kinds of rumors lately. The story makes some strange jumps on its way to the conclusion and a 'sorta' twist at the end falls flat because it needed a bit more expansion, but the use of the public bath in this story is quite good and I wish it had been rewritten just a bit to really make use of that idea.

Ikyouto no Bansan ("The Last Supper of a Heathen") is all about sushi, sushi of mackarel (saba) in particular. Orihara Kei suspects there's a big story behind the recent death of an artist and sends an undercover Arima to find out more. The discovery that a plate of sababou (a kind of mackarel sushi) from Arima's usual joint was on the table points Arima to the right direction. Again some strange jumps in the story (would someone really murder for that?!) and this time, the trick is a bit harder to figure out because the knowledge is slightly less common, but still a great use of local food customs in a mystery story.

The Daimonji fire is probably the best known of Kyoto's three festivals and forms the setting of Ayu Odoru Yoru Ni ("On the Night Ayu Dance"). A female visitor to the temple whom Arima quite liked was killed on the night of the Daimonji and thrown at the garbage collection point behind the Kyoto Tower. An angered Arima vowes to find the murderer, for which he needs to break a perfect alibi on the night of the five big bonfires in Kyoto. Good use of the Daimonji festival in the story, though some parts of the alibi trick are quite silly and could never have been pulled off like that. Reminds me of another story set in Kyoto where the Daimonji are of vital importance, but it would kinda spoil it if I mentioned the title...

Mizumori Ken, a mystery writer, is invited by an university (and sponsored by Orihara Kei's newspaper) to hold a lecture. He disappeared just before the lecture though, leaving behind a dead professors in a lake of paint on campus. Thus begins a search for him in The Wrong Man ("Funyoi no Hito"), one of the two stories I didn't really like. Mizumori Ken is obviously a parody of author Kitamori Kou himself and he has fun depicting himself as the most horrible writer ever, but the mystery plot is rather disappointing. One part of the story is actually okay (with the professor in the paint pool) and not nearly as stupid as Kitamori seems to claim it is in his prose, but part of the solution depends on knowledge that isn't even Kyoto folkways anymore, but even more local and it was not even hinted at. So very few people would ever figure that out.

Shina Soba Kan no Nazo ("The Mystery of the Chinese Noodle House") was the title that lured me to this collection and was easily the most disappointing of all. Mizumori Ken seeks the help of Arima to help two Italians find their son, who is living somewhere in the city. The very, very vague hint "I live in a Chinese Noodle house" actually does bring Mizumori Ken on the trail of the Italian, but Mizumori also discovers a dead man in the house next door, who seems to have died in a locked house. The story basically consists of two parts, the first about solving the strange description of the Italian's house, the second about the murder. The first part is horrible. No way anyone is going to arrive at that solution with those words, unless you have a godlike Author hovering above you to dictate your actions. It's not even 'haha, that's so stupid, but I can still laugh about it' or 'it didn't really work out but I can understand what you were trying'. It's just bad. The second half is not as bad, but still a bit vague on the crucial parts, making it a bit unfair.

Izakaya Juubei ("The Izakaya Juubei") is where Arima and Orihara Kei spend a lot of time to talk about their investigations in these stories, but this time the bar is also the start of a new adventure. The owner of the place is worried about his fellow disciple: the two of them had trained together at the original Juubei restaurant, and later each went their own ways, taking the name 'Juubei' with them for their own restaurants. But lately, his 'brother disciple' seemed to have thrown away his principles of good food and has switched over to cheap, mass-produced food for the masses. The owner asks Arima to check whether the rumors are true and through The Powers of Fiction Coincidence, Arima also stumbles upon a murder case. Again a lot of weird jumps in logic and story flow that make this story a bit hard to enjoy (in fact, I mostly read through because it was set near where I used to live).

Overall, I'd say that the idea of the Minor Kyoto Mysteries series is better than its execution. There are some moments where local customs and the mystery plot really come together, which give this collection a great local flavor. But most of the stories have some gaps and jumps in their storytelling (how did he figure that out? How did he get that piece of information? Why did it happen like that and not in another way?) that make it difficult to feel completely positive about them. I especially had that feeling as I continued in the collection and I think the latter half is a lot weaker than the first half of the book. The parody of Kitamori Kou himself in two stories was also not enjoyable at all either, though it might be funnier if this wasn't my first novel by him, I think?

Shina Soba Kan no Nazo is the first of the two volumes that make up the Minor Kyoto Mysteries and I do really like the concept, so I might try the second volume sometime later, though I really, really hope the plots are cleaned up a bit this time. As for people who want to read more about Kyoto in fiction though, this is a great place as it features a lot of local folkways you usually don't come across in 'grand' fiction set in Kyoto.

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻 『支那そば館の謎』: 「不動明王の憂鬱」 / 「異教徒の晩餐」 / 「鮎踊る夜に」 / 「不如意の人」 / 「支那そば館の謎」 / 「居酒屋 十兵衛」

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