Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Dragon's Secret

「明日 僕は龍の足元へ崖を登り 呼ぶよ「さあ、行こうぜ」」
『 銀の龍の背に乗って』(中島みゆき)

"Tomorrow I will climb the cliff to the feet of the dragon and cry out "Let's depart!"
"Climbing on the Back of the Silver Dragon" (Nakajima Miyuki)

The discovery for me last year was Mitsuda Shinzou's Toujou Genya series. Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono are easily two of the best mystery novels I've read in years, and while perhaps not completely at the same level as those two, Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono too was a devilish experience in impressive mystery plotting. The series manages to mix brilliant mystery plots with deep insights into local folklore, religions and history together with a distintive horror tone, resulting in absolutely amazing novels. And that meant of course I was sure to read more of the series this year.

The Hami region in Nara is a small, secluded area that is characterized by Mt. Futae, Lake Chinshin located at the foot of that mountain, and the Mitsu River that springs from Lake Chinshin. Four communities eventually settled around Mitsu River, all making a simple and sometimes harsh living from farming. Sayo Village, Monodane Village, Saho Village and Aota Village all exist solely thanks to the blessings of Mitsu River (which feeds the crops), so it is not strange that the people here came to see the river as a deity that determined the future of their lives here. The Mitsu River is therefore worshipped, and feared as a force of nature called Mizuchi, or the Water Spirit, which is believed to be a dragon-like being which resides at the bottom of Lake Chinshin. All four villages have shrines dedicated to the Water Spirit, being the Mizushi Shrine in Sayo, Mizuchi Shrine in Monodane, the Suiba Shrine in Saho and the Mikumari Shrine in Aota, and the four shrines and their priests are effectively the major authorities in this region, with Sayo's boasting the longest history in its divine tasks. The shrines are in possession of seven artifacts said to be parts of Mizuchi, being the Horn, Nostril, Fang, Scale, Bone and the Lightning of Mizuchi.

As life in Hami is so dependent on the Mitsu River, it's no wonder that the most important task of the four shrines is to safeguard the water levels of the river. The human-built dams are manually controlled by the shrines, but in times of unusual draughts, or in unusal wet periods, the shrines have to resort to divine measures, and perform the Ceremony of Mizuchi, which can be either a rain making or rain stopping ritual, depending on what the people of Hami are facing now. Each time, a different shrine is chosen to perform the ceremony, which is held on Lake Chinshin. The Kami-Otoko, a chosen priest, is to go on the lake in a special, covered boat with an opening in the bottom, where he is to sink barrels with offerings for Mizuchi into the lake, all under the watchful eyes of the dancing maid and the priests of the other shrines playing music on the shore. The ceremony is succesful once all six barrels of offerings are sunk to the bottom, but this can be a very perilous ceremony, as at times barrels will come back floating up, and then the Kami-Otoko will have to dive down with the barrel himself to have it swallowed into a dangerous underwater tunnel in the lake. 23 years ago, Mikumari Tatsuo vanished during the Ceremony, believed to have been sucked into the tunnel himself. 13 years ago, Mizushi Ryuuichi was found dead inside the boat with a horribly contorted expression on his face, as he had apparently died of a heart attack in fear of some terrifying sight. It is in 1954 when horror mystery author Toujou Genya and his editor Shino make their way to the Hami region, having learned the Ceremony of Mizuchi will be performed soon to pray for water. Toujou travels across Japan to learn about local folklore, religions and legends, and finds that this is a unique opportunity to witness the ceremony. This year, the ceremony is performed by Mizushi Ryuuzou, younger brother of Ryuuichi who died thirteen years ago. Everyone on the shore looks on as they see the boat rock on the lake surface as each of the barrels is thrown in, but nothing happens even after all six barrels were thrown overboard, and when the captain of the boat takes a look inside the closed, covered room of the small boat, he cries out to the shore that Ryuuzou has been murdered! When they make it to the boat, Genya and the others find that Ryuuzou was stabbed through his chest with the Horn of Mizuchi, one of the artifacts held in the Mizushi Shrine. But how could Ryuuzou have been stabbed by anyone, as the whole lake was under observation during the ceremony? Genya soon suspects this all has to do with the death of Ryuuichi thirteen years ago, but also with a strange storage house Ryuuji (father of both Ryuuichi and Ryuuzou) has kept hidden from everyone and the true, unknown history of the Hami region in Mitsuda Shinzou's Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009).

I always try to keep my story summaries as brief as possible whenever I write a review, but with the Toujou Genya series, I always end up having to sketch a lot of the background story for my summaries to make any sense. This is also done in the series itself: it always takes ages for the novels to actually get to the introduction of a genuine mystery that has be solved, as usually the first half of the novel is needed to prepare the mise-en-place with all the unique religions, insanely complex human relations etc. It was actually something I somewhat complained about in my review of Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono. I do have to say though, Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono, the fifth novel in the series, has been by far the easiest read, despite it not only being the longest entry in the series I've read until now, here too the murder on Ryuuzou doesn't occur until the halfway point of the book (around page 350, of more than 700 pages in the pocket paperback). Yet the story never felt as slowly paced as previous novels. The writing is less winding on the whole I think, so in terms of reading experience, I might say this novel may be the "most pleasant" way to start the series, even if I think Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono are, on the whole, better mystery novels (though Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono is really good too).

I'll refrain from talking about the theme of synergy this time, as I have done that enough in my reviews of Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono, so let's talk about something else: the theme of folklore interpretation. In order to even try to solve the cases that happen in the Toujou Genya series, it is imperative to understand the underlying logic and dynamics of the various rites and folkloristic rituals that form the nexi of the plots in these novels. Themes like spirit mediums, Rites of Adulthood and Shrine Visits to appease vengeful spirits might sound like elements that don't belong in a mystery novel, where logic should prevail, but in the Toujou Genya series, it is necessary to understand why and how these rituals are performed and what the underlying meaning is behind these rituals. For whether you believe in Mizuchi or the kami Aohime or not is irrelevant: it's the human actions, and the human interpretation behind these phenomena that are of importance in the logical processes needed to solve the murder cases in this series.

Most of the mysterious events that Genya faces in Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono revolve around a certain realization he has regarding the Ceremony of Mizuchi, and it's that realization that not only allows him to deduce who the murderer is of Ryuuzou, but more importantly, why. This realization is excellently hinted at. While there are no real physical clues that points to this, the way Mitsuda has used so many elements to hint at this hidden truth behind the Ceremony of Mizuchi is more than impressive. From linguistic hints to associative hints where you recognize one certain action in another, to even brazenly stating the fact as is (of course in a disguised way): Mitsuda does more than enough to nudge the reader in the right direction. Again, this all has to do with religious and folkloristic themes, and it's easy to just wave them away as 'sure, it's not real', but what Mitsuda always does is leaving more than enough clues to allow the reader to comprehend the underlying logic behind these rituals (why are these rituals performed in this manner for what purpose?), and even recognize contradictions in the religious logic behind the rites, which eventually guides you to the truth. Once you have that realization in this novel though, you're still not there, as while that gives you the motive (a very understandable one, considering the horrid truth!), it still doesn't give you the identity of the murderer.

There we have another Toujou Genya staple, the fake solution. Genya's method of deduction consists of first listing a lot of questions that bother him (I think he has like forty questions listed in this novel concerning various incidents) and then just say what comes to mind. He simply comes up with theories and hypotheses as he goes, and when people come up with counterarguments or proof that what he says can't be true, he'll just dismiss what doesn't work, and continue to build his theories in a different direction. That means he can easily spend five pages building a certain theory, and immediately discard it on the next page to try something else. In fact, I think that in this novel, the whole section with both the fake and real solutions in the end take up like a hundred pages together. And the thing is: all the fake solutions are really good solutions. They are really well argumented, and it's usually only by a small detail you forgot that you have to give up on them. Any of these solutions would have made most mystery writers think they have a brilliant solution and totally ended their novel with that, but Mitsuda easily discards five-seven of these brilliant theories to come up with one that's even better. And Mitsuda wouldn't be Mitsuda if he would be using the fake solutions both to steer the reader into the right direction, as well as the wrong direction at the same time. A good part of the denouement of this novel is spent by identifying what characteristics the murderer must answer to, and while Mitsuda is definitely not lying when he presents that list of characteristics, he's also brilliantly leading you away from the true solution. His writing is always very tricky, both "kind" in the sense he's playing really, really fair in terms of clewing, but also very sneaky as he's a master in misdirection and he's usually simultaneously helping and deceiving you. Speaking of that, there's an excellent piece of misdirection where a certain line seems not particular meaningful, but takes on several different meanings once you reach a certain point in the chain of deduction. It kinda reminded me of that one line in Yokomizo Seishi's Gokumontou in how brazenly it is uttered and yet so likely to not be noticed by the reader until it is too late.

If taken completely seperate from the story, the main locked room murder situation of this novel, where Ryuuzou is stabbed with the Horn of Mizuchi even though nobody could've approached him while out on the lake in the closed-off section of the boat, features a clever, but perhaps not entirely shocking trick behind it. However, taken in the complete context of the story, this murder works really well. The motive, means and opportunity behind this murder are unique in the sense that they are not only derived all from the core (religious) theme of this novel, they are also completely concentrated in this main act of murder. There are actually a few other murders that happen in the latter half of the story, though none in particularly impossible situations, but they are mainly a device to push the story forward, and to serve as both hints and misdirection to the identity of the murderer. But again, it's the way Mitsuda manages to flesh out a unique background story and motive based on folkloristic themes, that is also perfectly clewed and actually logical in argumentation, what makes this series in general, but also Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono in particular, an impressive read.

By the way, the series is specifically called a horror-mystery series, and there are actually also some minor (horror) elements that remain unexplained in this novel, as it happens in other novels too. These events do not have direct bearing on the core mystery plot, but there is always a hint of the supernatural in this series (to give a simple example, the Ceremony of Mizuchi basically always works and one of the characters talks about a past event that involved him possibly seeing some monster). These minor, unexplained horror elements should not be any reason not to read these novels though for their mystery plots, as you'd be missing out on something fantastic.

This novel is not directly connected to previous novels (save for some references early on to Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono which happened several months earlier), though there is a nice link with the first novel in the series, Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono. Certain names mentioned in Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono will take on a completely different meaning if you have read the first novel and while it was not necessary, I am glad I read Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono before this novel (especially as I always read these things out of order).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono to be another impressive mystery novel in the Toujou Genya series. Perhaps surprisingly, I did find this novel easier to read that the other entries I've read, and while both Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono are among the best mystery novels I've ever read, I do have to admit they feel kinda samey. In that regard I found Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono, with a slightly more focused look on the underlying folkloristic background of this novel as the nexus of its mystery, a very entertaining read that managed to avoid feeling too similar to other novels in the series. Though I have to say, up until now, all the Toujou Genya novels I have read are incredibly good, and I can't believe that four novels in, I still haven't come across one that even remotely disappointed in terms of plotting. With still three novels and two short story collections unread as I am writing this, I'll be sure to return to this series soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三 『水魑の如き沈むもの』


  1. Oh wow, that's some very high praise coming from you. Will definitely try this series when my Japanese is good enough

    1. Definitely do! I do suggest waiting until you're reasonably confident in your Japanese though: the novels all tend to be a bit on the longer side, and the discussions about folklore can feature a lot of new vocabulary (some made up for the story, some a bit specialistic). These are not the books you want to get stuck in for a month or so, only to forget what had been said earlier :P