Friday, March 31, 2017

Death Note

Home, sweet home

On the topic of things left by previous tenants: I lived in a dorm when I was studying in Japan, and I remember the first time other people from the dorm came to my room, they were all surprised at the TV stand I had in my room. It was only then that I found out that thing wasn't part of the standard room furniture set! I was grateful for that thing though, as it was a great place to store my videogame consoles.

"Welcome, new tenant" These are the first words written in a black notebook which is hidden inside the closet of Room 12 of "The People's Villa", an old, run-down apartment building with sixteen rooms. The inhabitants of The People's Villa are a colorful lot, but they all have in common that they simply have no choice but to live in such a shabby place. Other tenants include an elderly puppet-making couple and their unwed daughter, an angel-like school teacher, a blind war veteran, a person claiming to be on the look for his lost wife and baby, and the nosy wife of the building's caretaker. These people are also the people who star in the memoirs recorded in the Room 12 notebook. For some reason, the tenants in Room 12 seldom stay long, partly because these tenants somehow always get involved with murder cases that happen among their fellow tenants. From a cruel murder on the blind war veteran to a ghostly tale about a couple that died under strange circumstances, it appears The People's Villa is perhaps something more than a simple apartment building. Those who find the hidden notebook in Room 12 write down their strange experiences for future Room 12 tenants to read, and together these tales form a strange record of The People's Villa in Yamada Fuutarou's Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin ("Murders Anyone Could Commit", 1958).

Yamada Fuutarou was a prolific writer in the post-war period, nowadays best known for his many historical fantasy novels on ninja like Kouga Ninpou Chou ("The Kouga Ninja Scrolls"). In fact, his ninja stories have had a huge influence on the popular image of the ninja, and in extension on the whole genre of battle manga aimed a boy audience, like Saint Seiya, Naruto and Bleach. One might even say series like that might not even exist if not for Yamada Fuutarou. But Yamada started out as a mystery writer, and has written some of the finest post-war Japanese mystery novels available. In the past, I have reviewed works like Meiji Dantoudai ("The Meiji Guillotine"), Youi Kinpeibai ("The Bewitching Plum in the Vase") and Taiyou Kokuten ("Sunspot"), which were all great. Only the last of those novels was set in the post-war period by the way, like Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin, the topic of today's post.

The set-up of consecutive tenants of Room 12 writing down their own, mysterious experiences with interacting with the other tenants in The People's Villa is truly fantastic. Each 'chapter' (entry by another inhabitant of Room 12), is, at the core, a standalone mystery story that involves the other tenants. In some entries, the Room 12 tenant is a direct part of the story, for example in the entry by someone who confesses how they plotted the death of another tenant, while in other entries the Room 12 tenant is merely an observer of the curious events. The link between these various stories is the setting of The People's Villa and its inhabitants, and it is really fun to see characters mentioned in one entry, appearing in later entries in very different roles. As each entry is written by someone else, their views on their fellow tenants obviously also differ, and this ever-changing portrayal of an otherwise  'familiar' cast is what makes each consecutive entry a blast to read. Some tenants are only mentioned briefly in some entries, but become fullfledged characters in other entries, which again strengtens the notion of different perspectives. It's also a bit funny to see how The People's Villa becomes emptier and emptier as everyone keeps on dying. It is also interesting to see how later narrators comment on entries by previous inhabitants of Room 12. Armed with the Power of Hindsight, these entries sometimes shine a surprising light on events that happened earlier in The People's Villa.

You know what, I could just explain the whole book in one sentence. This novel is simply Yamada Fuutarou's take on Maison Ikkoku. Completely different genres, but seeing all these different tenants of a boarding house interact really reminds of me Takahashi's romcom classic. There's just more death here.

As for the mystery plots, they are, at the core, fairly simple. In fact, many of the entries are more straight-up crime stories than really about solving a mystery. The strength of Yamada's writing keeps things captivating though. What should be mentioned is that Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin does fit perfectly with a theme I have seen in all of the Yamada novels I've read until now. I can't actually *name* it, because it would be kinda spoilery, but Yamada really loves writing about a certain theme, and it works great here. In fact, I think the structure of having various narrators only strengthens the execution of Yamada's theme here and really enjoyed it. If you're familiar with his works, you'll probably see the theme coming, and even if not, I think that Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin was one work where it's easy to identify Yamada's pet theme, but I still enjoyed seeing how he slowly, but surely, set the stage for the reveal. By the way, in general, a lot of Yamada's mystery plots are very much about interpretation of events, similar to Christie and Chesterton. Add in a bit of post-war pessimism concerning social (economic) conditions, but also a good heap of romanticism, and you have an idea of how Yamada's novels are.

My version of Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin was included in Yamada Fuutarou Mystery Kessakusen 1: Ganchuu no Akuma ("Yamada Fuutarou Mystery Masterpieces Selection 1: The Demon in Her Eyes"). This book also contains a wide selection of Yamada's early short stories, but most of them are also included in the short story collection Kyozou Inraku, which I already reviewed in the past.

I didn't manage to write anything substantial about Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin, but that's because giving away too much would really spoil the fun. I think that if you liked Yamada's Taiyou Kokuten, you'd also like this book, as they have similar atmospheres. The concept behind the story structure is really what makes this book a memorable one, and Yamada manages to execute the idea very admirably.

Original Japanese title(s): 山田風太郎 『誰にも出来る殺人』


  1. This one sounds very interesting. Is it a candidate for one of your translations?

    1. I can't (and won't) speak for LRI, but it's not a title that's on any of my lists at the moment.

      Though I'd love to see some of Yamada's detective novels translated to English, as he's now mostly known for his ninja work now even though he's written some great mystery stories. I wouldn't mind working on a translation myself either *wink wink @ publishers*

  2. why did you delete your translations of edogawa ranpo stories ?

    his works are in public domain now...

    1. I had to double-check, because it's been ages since I last did a Rampo translation, but I have not removed any of my Rampo translations from this blog... I have really only done two in total, and you can easily find them through the "Translations" tag in the sidebar.

    2. oh, you are right

      my mistake

      btw, since there are only two Kogoro short stories left that haven't been translated in english...

      do you think that, maybe, you could one day translate them ?


      just sayin

    3. Well, it's not an impossibility at any rate.