Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Cloudy Memory

上空舞うもの達とOver Drive
「Over Drive」(Garnet Crow)

Together with those that dance in the sky high in Over Drive
I want to be in a world that is blue everywhere
"Over Drive" (Garnet Crow)

You know, I’ve been wanting to read this book for years, ever since I finished the main series, but for some reason it never found its way to my shopping cart until now.

A Aiichirou series
A Aiichirou no Roubai ("The Discombobulation of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Annoyance)
A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou" AKA A Is For Accident)
A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Abandon")  

A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou ("The Alarm Of A Tomoichirou" AKA A Is For Alarm")

Samurai are often seen as a warrior class in popular media, but the Tokugawa Shogunate ushered in an era of (relative) peace in the country when it took control of Japan and secluded the islands from the outside world early seventeenth century. So what do warriors do when there’s peace and there’s no need for battle? Samurai basically became public servants, and were granted all kinds of comfortable government jobs with easy income. And there were a lot of rather curious jobs made up for these samurai. But no matter the task, the same basic rule applied to all jobs: the closer the job got you to the shogun (physically), the better the job. One of the more senseless jobs is the Cloud Watch, which consists of watching the clouds all day and making predictions about the weather (it doesn’t even matter if they seldom come true). However, only a very small number know that the small team of the Cloud Watch, led by the head A Tomoichirou, is in fact secret task force under the direct control of the Shogun. Whenever there is a mission too delicate for the police to handle, it’s up to A Tomoichirou and his subordinates to earn their salary in Awasawa Tsumao’s A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou (“The Alarm of A Tomochirou”, 1997).

Long ago, I reviewed Awasaka Tsumao’s three A Aiichirou books, which was a wonderful short story collection, with several tales that rank among the best of Japan’s impossible crime short stories. The titular A Aiichirou was a travelling freelance photographer, who had a knack for inadvertently getting involved with all kinds of mysterious incidents. But his unique way at looking at events always allowed him to make sense out of chaos. A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou is a spin-off, starring Aiichirou’s ancestor in the restless final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (mid-nineteenth century), who is revealed to also be a person who is good at solving mysteries. There are some other nods to the original series: Tomoichirou’s subordinates of the Cloud Watch are for example all ancestors of certain persons Aiichirou meets in the main series, but you certainly don’t need any prior knowledge to start with A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou, as the references are kept at a minimum.

In fact, A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou is also very different in tone compared to main A Aiichirou series. The main series was obviously based on G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, with curious incidents (not always criminal) which are solved by unique, intuitive insight by the detective character, often by comparing, and finding parallels in two ostensibly completely different situations. There was barely an ongoing story (maybe two stories out of twenty-four that delve a bit deeper in Aiichirou’s past), and no main cast, with Aiichirou’s travels bringing him to new locales and new people all the time. The seven stories collected in A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou however do feature a recurring main cast with the people of the Cloud Watch, even if the titular A Tomochirou’s not always at the focus of the story. Passage of time is also an important factor in these stories: about one year passes between each story (we are told the Cloud Watch does perform other missions in the meantime), and the changing political background (the final days of Tokugawa Shogunate as the pressure of both national and international forces builds) is something you definitely need to keep in mind as you read these stories. Of pre-modern Japanese history, the Tokugawa/Edo period, especially its final days (Bakumatsu), is the one I am most familiar with, but knowledge of the political background as well as about how the Shogunate is organized is definitely something that will make reading this book a lot easier for you, as it likes to throw historical terms at you.

I started with this book expecting “A Aiichirou in the Bakumatsu period”, but the adventures ancestor Tomoichirou has are actually very different from the ones Aiichirou has. Like I mentioned above, Aiichirou’s stories include some of the best Japanese impossible crime short stories, and like the Father Brown stories, they have a distinct comedic tone that accompany almost fable/fairy-tale like settings and situations.  The stories in A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou however place less a focus on the mystery element, and are written more like regular historical novels (jidai shousetsu) and toriminochou (pre-modern detective stories featuring Edo police forces, like The Curious Casebook of Hanshichi). These stories are more like the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with an emphasis on the dynamics of a tale, sometimes sprinkled with a bit of action (sometimes with swords) and political intrigue. The stories can also be a bit more graphic than the Aiichirou stories.

Kumomiban Haimei (“Appointment of the Cloud Watch”) details how several men proved their tremendous courage and/or wit during the Great Ansei Earthquake of 1855, saving the shogun from more than one disaster. For their services rendered, the men were all appointed to the Cloud Watch under leadership of A Tomoichirou to serve as the shogun’s personal covert task force. As a ‘How The Team Got Together” type of story, it’s okay, though as a mystery story it feels lacking. Historical knowledge about a rather specific detail is needed to truly appreciate what Awasaka tried to do here. It appears that in the original serialized version, this story actually featured some illustrations that helped visualize what was going on. I do think it’s a neat idea actually, but it doesn’t really work in modern times, as the knowledge needed for this trick to really shine isn’t common sense to modern man. Had this story been written in 1855, when common sense entailed a different set of knowledge, yes, it would’ve been a much better story then, but now it falls a bit flat because it hinges on a small note in the history books.

A Tomoichirou and Moko Mouzou, a master of the ninja arts, are on an undercover mission in Fudaraku Oujou (“Departure for Potalaka”) to investigate rumors of a daimyou killing more than thirty of his people in his castle in a rage. During their investigation, the two learn of a strange ceremony which has been becoming popular in the region. A recently arrived monk apparently has the power to send people directly to Potalaka, residence of Kannon, the Boddhisattva of Mercy. People don’t have to spend a lifetime building karma, but can be sent to paradise immediately, leaving only a peaceful corpse behind. Tomoichirou and Mouzou suspect murder of course, but it appears the ‘victim’ is always left alive in a closed-off hollow, with their relatives and the monk keeping vigil all night. Yet the victim is always ‘gone’ the following morning, leaving nothing but a peaceful expression on their face. This story is basically an impossible crime story, and while the solution to how people are sent do paradise is nothing shocking, I have to say the way the clues are structured, and how everything in the end ties up together is brilliant. I think this is the best story of the collection, as it manages to combine the ‘gritty realism’ of the historical crime story with the plotting of a mystery novel splendidly.

Clocks were popular novelty items in the Tokugawa Period and led to very unique Japanese clocks, but the Earthquake Clock in Jishindokei (“The Earthquake Clock”) went beyond normal clocks. This gift to the shogun was not only able to tell the time, but also to predict earthquakes, with ‘features’ like human hair and skin to measure delicate changes in temperature and a big base to prevent the clock from tumbling over during a quake. Juutarou of the Cloud Watch however was not occupied with this new toy of the shogun, as he was busy investigating the double suicide of a prostitute he frequented. He suspects something is wrong, but he couldn’t have expected his adventure would have anything to do with the shogun’s clock. Or could he? The reader sure could, as the two parts are initially so disconnected, anyone could guess they’d come together one way or another. This is a story more focused on the adventure rather than the mystery, though it features a Sherlock Holmes-esque deduction at the start of the story which gets inverted twice in an interesting way. What I don’t like is that the main idea of this story is basically recycled for Bara Inrou (“The Disconnecting Seal Case”) a story later in this volume about the Shogun’s request for a photograph of himself and some lectures on Rangaku (Dutch studies) and the science behind photography, but which ends in the exact same way as Jishindokei.

The Cloud Watch is tasked with locating the shogun’s long-lost son in Onnagata no Mune (“The Chest Of The Female Role Actor”). When the shogun was young, he once had a relation with one of the women in the Inner Palace (the inner section of the palace housing all the women of the Shogun), and he only learned after the woman had left the Inner Palace that she had in fact been pregnant. It’s been many years since then, but as his health is failing and forces around him gather to seize power, he decides it’s time to locate his one heir. This is a mediocre story at best: the search for the lost heir is rather boring, and it’s only pure coincidence that leads the Cloud Watch to the heir in the end. Some deception is going on that sorta reminds of Father Brown, but the execution is so minimal, it is hardly worth mentioning.

Satsuma no Nisou (“The Nuns of Satsuma”) is the darkest story of the collection, as it revolves around the serial killings of young girls. The Cloud Watch is ordered to investigate the disappearance of the younger sister of one of the women in the Inner Palace, and they find out she was killed the day she disappeared; her stomach cut open and organs removed. Some days later, another girls is washed up from the river. The connections between the two cases: young girls being cut open, and witnesses seeing nuns hanging around the girls just before they’re gone. While this story develops mostly as a grim serial murder story, with the Cloud Watch fighting against time to stop the murderers from taking more victims, the whydunnit plot is actually very clever: the ‘missing link’ that explains why this is all happening is hidden ingeniously, and the way these events eventually connect to an important event in Japanese history was both surprising and satisfying. One of the better stories in the collection.

The final story, Oooku no Sharekoube (“The Skull Of The Inner Palace”), is set in the Inner Palace. Normally, the Shogun is the only male allowed in these women’s quarters, but Tomoichirou and Juutarou, dressed as women, manage to sneak inside as they are tasked to investigate rumors of a ghostly appearance in the Inner Palace, as unrest inside the Inner Palace seldom is a good sign for events outside the Inner Palace. The truth behind the ghost is… okay, I guess. There is some good hinting going on, even if a bit little, but I thought the story dragged a little, and after hearing about the Inner Palace in previous stories, I thought the depiction of it in this story was a bit… underwhelming. Compare to the scary battlefield that was the harem in Yamada Fuutarou’s Youi Kinpeibai.

A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou is on the whole an okay story collection, though one certainly shouldn’t expect it to be very much like Aiichirou’s adventures. This is first of all a historical detective story, which also happens to feature to a degree an element of the more puzzle-oriented plot from the main series. The first half is definitely stronger than the second half on the whole though. People who liked The Curious Casebook of Hanshichi should definitely enjoy this book.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『亜智一郎の恐慌』: 「雲見番拝命」 / 「補陀楽往生」 / 「地震時計」 / 「女方の胸」 / 「ばら印籠」 / 「薩摩の尼僧」 / 「大奥の曝頭」

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