Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Aria of the City

time after time
ひとり 花舞う街で 
『Time after Time 花舞う街で』 (倉木麻衣)

Time after time
I am now alone in the city of dancing flowers
We can't go back to the time before they scattered,
But as my tears fall for that scenery that never changed
I am still waiting here
"Time After Time ~ In The City of Dancing Flowers" (Kuraki Mai)

Aesthetically, I think the cover of today's book is okay, but historically, it's as incorrect as you can get...

In I.J. Parker's Rashomon Gate (2003), Sugawara Akitada, a minor official in the Ministry of Justice, is asked by his old mentor Hirata to investigate a blackmailing case going on in the Imperial University. By (bad) luck, professor Hirata was passed a threatening letter meant for a different professor, which suggested that something fishy is going on in the university. Sugawara is to infiltrate the university as a temporary teacher, find out who the blackmailer and his victim are and if the reputation of the university is in any danger. One of Sugawara's new pupils is Lord Minamoto, grandson of Prince Yoakira who recently disappeared into thin air from a temple (which was observed from outside). The emperor has declared Prince Yoakira's disappearance a miracle, but Lord Minamoto wants Sugawara to find out what really happened to his grandfather.

Because most of what I read is mystery fiction from Japan, I never had a real interest in non-Japanese fiction about Japan, to be honest. Sure, I've discussed Bertus Aafjes' Judge Ooka several times, but that was definitely an outlier. But when I first heard of I.J. Parker's Suguwara Akitada series, I have to admit my interests were piqued. While I have read Japanese historical mysteries, I don't think there are many series set in the Heian period (794-1185) written in Japan. The Heian period is a time in history when Chinese influences on Japanese culture were at their height. Religions like Buddhism (which found its way to Japan via China) and Taoism flourished, literature imitated the mainland and the court culture was based on China. The capital of Heian Japan, Heiankyou, was modeled after the Chinese city of Chang'an. Heiankyou is nowadays known as the city of Kyoto, and the city layout as it is now is still based on its Heiankyou days. Sugawara Akitada, the protagonist of the series, is also a name that probably rings a bell with people who have studied Japanese history. The Sugawara family was scholar-politician family in the Heian period. The most famous family member is Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar-poet who after his death was revered as Tenjin, a deity representing scholarship (partly because people thought he was a vengeful spirit out to destroy the palace with lightning bolts).

I think the easiest way to describe Rashomon Gate is... Judge Dee. And not simply because both are historical detectives set in an Asian setting. Like I pointed out above, the Heian period was the time when Japan really did its best at imitating the mainland, and that results in a world that is actually very much like the Judge Dee novels. Similarly, Sugawara Akitada also makes uses of a reformed man of the streets for undercover investigations while Akitada himself moves in the higher ranks of society and Akitada is also involved with multiple cases at the same time in Rashomon Gate, all mimicking the Judge Dee stories. I can't say I was surprised when I read on Wikipedia that I.J. Parker was influenced by Robert van Gulik's writings and I don't think it's a bad thing per se; it's just that these books set in different countries are actually a lot more similar than you'd suspect at first. Heian is an important part of Japanese history, but it is in essence based on Chinese culture. So readers who want something "typically" Japanese or were expecting samurai or anything like that, might be a bit disappointed.

In terms of mystery plot, Rashomon Gate is also similar to those in the Judge Dee novels: not particularly surprising or anything, but usually fairly well connected to the 'setting' of the world. Rashomon Gate has two impossible crime situations: the one where Prince Yoakira disappears from a temple despite its exit being watched from the outside, and a murder on a girl in a park of which the guards says nobody had even entered, but the solutions to both conundrums are not likely to excite longtime readers of impossible crimes.

Obviously, setting a mystery novel in an 'exotic' setting is always dangerous as it is difficult to judge what elements can be considered known to the reader (and thus 'fair') and unknown to them ('unfair'). Obviously, if I write about a locked room murder on an alien planet, but only at the end reveal that the aliens there can walk through walls, then it's not fair. With historic settings, it's a bit more difficult, because your mileage might vary a lot from another reader. With Rashomon Gate, it's definitely not unfair, but I think that unfamiliarity to a certain setting will always influence the perception of fairness of the reader and especially with special settings, be it historically correct settings or fantasy settings, the writer needs to help ease the reader into the setting and give all the necessary information. With Rashomon Gate, I think it missed just that little extra to help the reader, though nothing that would really confuse the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed Rashomon Gate for its unique setting, but at first sight, one might find it very hard to differentiate it from the Judge Dee series. But if you're interested in a period of Japanese history seldom addressed in mystery ficion, this is the place to be.


  1. Thanks for the review, which comes at a good time insofar as I'm about to complete Van Gulik's 'Chinese Gold Murders'. Looking forward to trying out a mystery novel with a Japanese setting! :)

    1. I really like Chinese Gold as a tale, so I hope you enjoyed it too!

  2. Very interesting. Shall go on the TBR list, even though I should be taking things off...