Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Invisible Intruder

What can I do, I ask? 
There's nothing left to say 
Why am I here? 
Why am I lost? 
"Spirit Dreams Inside" (L'Arc~en~Ciel)

Hmmm, this review is probably far longer than it should be. My reviews for Mitsuda's work always end up so talkative, even though I usually aim at something slightly shorter. Also: for some reason I always get fewer comments on my reviews whenever it's about a Western novel instead of a Japanese novel. It's not like I expect people to comment each and every time, but I expected more people to comment on Murder off Miami considering the gimmick and the fact it's actually available in English. Oh well.

Ever since I read Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono last year, I became a great fan of his Toujou Genya series. The series mixes brilliantly complex mystery plots with deep insights in local folklore, religions and history together with a distintive horror tone, resulting in absolutely amazing novels, and all four novels I've read until now were almost ridiculously good. In the reviews, I also mentioned that the novels were all relatively long, though they do make good use of their length. That said, I was curious whether this series could also work in a shorter form. Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola", 2011) is the second short story collection of the series. Second? Yeah, I never read things in order. And it appears the series itself is also jumping in time. In the novels I've read until now, Toujou Genya is a horror/occult writer in the early fifties, who travels across Japan to research folklore, especially in the form of yokai, ghosts and other supernatural beings. This short story collection however is set several years before he started his professional writing career. In the five stories of this volume, which are set more-or-less one after another, Toujou Genya is still a college student not long after World War II, studying folklore in Tokyo under the guidance of professor Kimura Yumio. Genya has a 'gift' for running into mysterious, often seemingly impossible crime situations, occassionally due to the meddling of Abukumagawa Karasu, an immensely arrogant senior student who considers Genya his "disciple". Genya himself doesn't like getting into trouble of course and even when confronted with murder, he'd prefer let the police to their job, but sometimes the people around learn the fact that his father is in fact Toujou Gajou, the greatest detective of Japan whom even the police relies on in the most baffling of cases. While he and his father don't get along, it seems Genya has certainly inherited some of his father's mind, as the young student is quite capable of making sense of the numerous impossible murders and disappearances commited within the pages of this book.

In case you were wondering: yes, this book is still quite long, despite being a short story collection. Each of the stories is relatively long for a short story, so you end up with a book that isn't any shorter than the usual novels in this series. Despite their (relatively) reasonable length, the short stories are of course still quite different from the full novels, but they still follow a similar set-up, with at the heart usually a impossible situation as the main mystery plot, which usually ties up to some folklore or ghost story. The insane synergy between the various elements like you find the novels is of course not as pronounced in these shorter entries, but structure-wise, most of these stories are still very well-designed mystery stories, featuring all the tropes you'd want from a Toujou Genya story, including clever ways in which the background ghost/folklore story tying to the actual mystery and of course the multiple solutions.

The book starts with Shiryou no Gotoki Aruku Mono ("Those Who Walk Like The Dead Spirits"), which is set around New Year. Genya is the guest of Motomiya Takeshi, a professor in anthropology, specializing in African masks. Genya's teacher Kimura introduced Genya to this authority in anthropology. Genya isn't the only guest, as Motomiya also has four acadamics from various universities staying at his home during the New Year. Genya soon realizes that all four men are also interested in the daughter of Motomiya. One night, the scholars are exchanging scary stories, and Isaka Atsunori (an assistant-professor in spirit religions at Jounan University) tells about an experience he had with the Sugsho Tribe, where he was witness to a seance: during the seance he heard footsteps beneath their hut, which was supposedly the spirit walking beneath them. Afterwards, he indeed found footprints there, but while he at first thought somebody must've snuck below their hut, he realized later were no footprints going to or away from that spot, meaning no man could've left them there.

The four permanent guests of Motomiya live in a special annex building, The Four Quarters. As its name suggests, the building consists of four seperate quarters and one main hall with a tower: the four quarters form a square together encircling the inner court, while the main hall is situated between the rooms on the lower left and right corner when looked at the building from the sky. Covered passages connect these quarters (and the main hall), but curiously enough, the passages only connect to the closest quarter, so to get from the eastern passage to the southern passage, one must go inside the south-east quarter and take the other door out to the southern passage. The four scholars using the quarters have all set-up their interiors so bookcases shield off the two doors from the rest of the room, so unless you have business with the master of the room, it's the custom to just do a courtesy knock and then quickly slip in out and of the room. The day after the scary stories, Genya visits Inoda Fujio in his quarters, but Genya becomes witness to two baffling scenes. First he sees a pair of sandals walking on their own near the entrance to the snow-covered inner court, and when he looks out there, he notices Isaka lying in the pavillion in the court. The man has been poisoned by a poison of the Sugsho Tribe, but what makes this murder kooky is that there is only one set of footprints left in the snow that indicate how the murderer must've gotten away from the pavillion, but they don't make any sense:they walk away from Isaka, turn around once, and then back to go inside the main hall. But with a witness in the main hall, and Genya's own eyewitness of the walking sandals, it seems the only one who could've struck Isaka with a poisoned weapon, and then walked back into the main hall on sandals across the snow was an invisible spirit.

Sorry for the tediously long summary. To keep the rest short: this is an excellent footprints-in-the-snow story. Like the novels, the story revolves around a background folklore story with some supernatural elements, which then occurs in real-life (in this case, an invisible spirit that leaves footprints). There's a lot going on in this story, but what's impressive is that this one of those stories where suddenly everything falls in place once you realize what is going on. The clewing is really good in this story too, though it does help if you have some knowledge about Japanese culture (there is a kind of negative clue here, that really gives away everything once you know what it is, but it might be hard arriving at this if you have never heard of this custom).

In Tenma no Gotoki Tobu Mono ("Those Who Fly Like The Demons"), Abukumagawa Karasu tells Genya about the Mitsukuri family, which has a unique family kami they have deified. Outside their home is a small bamboo grove, which ends at a cliff. Long ago, Mitsukuri Muna'aki disappeared in the small bamboo grove even though his grandchildren were watching him and he was only out of their sight for a second due to the bamboo trees. Later, Muna'aki's son Munatoshi learned that in the past, a demon was supposed to live in the grove, so he decided to pacify both his disappeared father and the demon with a small shrine. The disappearances didn't stop there however, for during the war, a child too disappeared from the backyard of the Mitsukuris: a boy had crept inside to steal, but was found and tried to run away. Eventually, they found his footsteps running in the direction of the grove, but mysteriously, the footsteps stopped suddenly, as if the boy had been pulled right into the sky. There was no sign of the boy anywhere inside the grove. Later, the body of the boy was found beneath the cliff. Abukumagawa and Genya travel to the Mitsukuri home hoping to be able to study the Mitsukuri family deities, and their timing is almost mysteriously perfect. They learn a girl (the younger sister of the boy who died) was lurking around the house too, and to their horrible surprise, they find her footprints near the grove, but like her brother's, they too stopped mid-track, with no trace of the girl herself.

Another impossible footprints story, though this one is a bit easier to solve, I think. The mystery lies in how the person leaving the footprints could've suddenly disappeared, with no third party close by, nor anywhere where they could've gone. The basic idea behind the solution isn't hard to arrive at, but  it does rely partially on something which seems... well, not impossible perhaps, but perhaps a bit unlikely? There's a second mystery in the very last act of the story, where Genya is convinced something is hidden within a room but can't find it. The clue pointing to the actual location is integrated really well in the story, but the actual location itself seems rather farfetched too. I actually think this story, while not bad, is actually in terms of structuring and clewing than the actual solution revealed.

Shirou no Gotoki Shitataru Mono ("Those Who Drip Like Corpse Wax") is the third and last story about impossible footprints in this collection. After the events of the opening story, Professor Motomiya learns that Genya is an aspiring horror writer, and decides to reveals to Genya that his friend Professor Tsuchibuchi of Jounan University is actually the famous horror writer Inoki Miroku and offers to introduce him to the professor, knowing that there is one other thing at the Tsuchibuchi manor which will interest Genya. Tsuchibuchi's father Shouzou had started his own Miroku (Maitreya) sect and eventually decided to practice sokushinbutsu. This is a practice where the goal is to mummify one's own body while alive, by meditating in a hole in the ground without taking food or water, as so to "turn into a Buddha instantly." Obviously, Shouzou died while doing this. After Shouzou's death, rumors went his mummy haunted three of his former followers, who had betrayed him, but in fact the mummy is buried on the small island in the middle of the large pond in the garden of Tsuchuchi manor. Genya is introduced to Professor Tsuchibuchi and his family and is offered a bed that night, but near the morning, he is awakened by the call of the professor outside. The body of a woman (one of the people renting a room in the large manor) is lying dead on the island in the pond and Genya also notices there are only two sets of footprints in the snow on both the bridge and in the garden: those of the victim herself, and those of the professor himself as he walked up to the body. The professor has an alibi for the night, so how was the woman killed on the island if nobody else left any footprints?

Oh man, this is one densely structured impossible crime story, with a lot of fake solutions. False solutions are a major trope in the Toujou Genya stories, but whereas it's easy to imagine how Mitsuda can work with them in a long novel, it's amazing to see how he can bring the same complexity to a story that it's only a fifth of the lenght of his regular novels! Each of the false solutions doesn't come out of nowhere, but is properly clewed, and the way they are eventually dismissed is of course also founded upon actual clews presented to you in a fair way, or dismissed on perfectly logical grounds. The final solution is great too: what makes this one especially memorable is how a seemingly supernatural event mentioned by a young witness suddenly makes perfect sense, making the supernatural suddenly extremely realistic.

The title story Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola") is not about footprints, but about ikidama or eidola, or doppelganger spirits. Yachio Ryuunosuke is a student who hopes to pick Genya's mind on a certain family matter. It was only during the war when he was still a child, that Ryuunosuke realized the man who used to visit him and his mother once a month was actually his father and that his mother was his mistress. During the war however, Ryuunosuke's mother sent her son to Yachio Takeru's home to be faraway from the bombs falling on Tokyo, though she herself didn't go because of her pride, and she eventually perished in the war. At Takeru's home, Ryuunosuke learned he was Takeru's third son. Takeru's official wife had already passed away, leaving only their eldest son Kumanosuke. Tomoko, another mistress of Takeru, is the mother of Takeru's second son Toranosuke. Tomoko is staying at Takeru's home too, as Toranosuke had gone off to the battlefield as a brave soldier, while Kumanosuke, born with a weak body, had not been drafted. During his stay, Ryuunosuke realizes Tomoko is hoping to become Takeru's new wife and have Toranosuke become Takeru's new heir, but the war changes everything. His bad health eventually kills Kumanosuke and Toranasuke too is declared dead by the authorities at the end of the war. However it turns he's not dead and he does return from the war with horrible injuries to his face, and partial amnesia. Two years later however, another person appears who claims he's Toranosuke and not even his mother can tell which one of them is the real. This leaves the Yachios with a big problem, for who of the two is to become Takeru's heir?

The main problem reminds of Yokomizo Seishi The Inugami Clan, with an heir coming back from the battlefield with horrible injuries to the face, making it impossible to know whether they are really the person they claim to be (a theme that you'll find in other works by Yokomizo). In this story, Genya is asked to figure out which of the two is real, and things take an unexpected turn when one of the Toranosukes apparently commits suicide. While this story does not feature a situation that is as clearly defined as the previous 'footprints in the snow' theme (it is hard to imagine how Genya will figure out who the real Toranosuke is), this story is actually incredibly well-plotted and clewed. I praised the previous story for its complexity with fake solutions: this one builds even further on that theme, with Genya proposing like half a dozen hypotheses about who the real Toranasuke would be, who the fake Toranosuke would be and several different motives. It's amazing how many hints and clues Mitsuda has managed to stuff into this story, but every hypothesis is properly supported by all the foreshadowing and never feels like it's suddenly dropped on you. The way each hypothesis eventually leads into each other, ending with Genya's surprising final conclusion is absolutely fantastic, and reminds of the way Genya does his thing in the longer novels too.

In the final story, Kaonashi no Gotoki Sarau Mono ("Those Who Abduct Like The Faceless"), Genya invites himself to a small gathering of students who hang around to tell each other scary stories. One of them, Hirata, tells about how when he was a child, he saw a kid disappear. He used to live in a nagaya 'row house', with several residences housed in one long building. One of his friends was Yuuki, who was of one of the better-to-do families in the nagaya neigborhood (at least, his family thought so). Around New Year, travelling perfomers would come to the neigborhood and do their act, but that year, Yuuki said he realized that one of those performers was a burglar, and that he had recognized him. He said he'd confront the performer, so he went alone into the small secluded corner of the nagaya block, where the performers were. That particular spot is basically a cul-de-sac: most of that little spot is blocked off by the nagaya houses and the east side is completely blocked by the river (and a high fence). There are only two entrances to the place: either just by going through the front passing by the nagaya houses and turning the corner, or taking the gate at the northern part of that spot, but that gate is usually locked, with the key in the possession of those who move out the human waste. Hirata was waiting for Yuuki to return, but eventually, the performers all left that spot one by one and when Hirata took a look, he found Yuuki had disappeared. Yuuki had obviously not left with the performers, nor was there any other exit by which he could've left without Hirata, or some other passerby notice him, so how did Yuuki disappear? The solution can be guessed pretty easily, though you'll have to make sure you're not going for the false solution, as there are plenty of them once again. What makes this story memorable however is how Mitsuda eventually shifts the focus of the problem to the practical how: while the basic idea of how it was done seems simple enough, the problem of actually arranging and executing it is actually far more complex, and the explanation Genya gives of how it was done is chillingly horrible. It's more of a psychological explanation at heart, but Mitsuda does go the effort to hint this through another part of the story, and it works mostly.

For a short story collection that is only five stories long, this review has been incredibly long I think, so I'll get to the conclusion right away. Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono is an excellent short story collection that is mostly focused on impossible situations, and almost miraculously, it also managed to utilize the complex plot structures of the (very) long novels in these shorter stories. Folklore serving as a background story and clue to the main mystery plot, devilishly constructed false solutions and so many subtle clues: everything you'd expect from a Toujou Genya story is to be found here too. This series has yet to disappoint, and I very doubt it will ever, considering the crazy quality of each of the entries I've read until now.

Original Japanese title(s):  三津田信三『生霊の如き重るもの』:「死霊の如き歩くもの」/「天魔の如き跳ぶもの」/「屍蝋の如き滴るもの」/「生霊の如き重るもの」/「顔無の如き攫うもの」


  1. Good Evening (in Italy it's almost night).
    I wrote to you other times. I ask you something. You have translated some time ago a story by Koga Saburo, The Spider. Very beautifull. I would like to know one thing, as long as you are aware of it. I have seen that you have a much more than discreet knowledge, and certainly greater than the one we Westerners have in Japanese honkaku literature. For many years I
    thought that Carr was the first novelist to treat the bislocation of
    the same place: an apartment that was exactly the same, in two
    different places. There are several cases, we know well. A bislocation
    between equal houses also was used by Ellery Queen in one of his
    famous long stories and many years later Sladek used it for a very
    famous locked room, By Unknown Hand.
    I thought though that the first was Carr. But next evening, I read a
    story contained in an anthology curated by Martin Edwards, "Foreign
    Bodies". The Spider by Koga Saburo, a Japanese author. The Spider was
    published in 1930. The date is already indicative. But Koga in the
    explanation of the Locked Room reveals that his character killer had
    initially thought about another method, derived precisely from a story
    (of which, however, the author is not revealed), written before1930,
    in which he speaks of a bislocation of an apartment furnished in an
    identical manner, on the first floor and on a high floor, so that the
    victim, not knowing that he was narcotized on the first floor, having
    heard that a bomb is about to explode, instead of escaping from the
    door, run away from the window, thinking of making the leap of a floor
    and instead smashes him to the ground.
    I wanted to know if you are aware of any history written before Carr
    that deals with a bislocation, which he used in his stories and radio
    plays. Because if there is not then we should argue that the first to
    have talked about it was Saburo.
    Pietro De Palma - Italy

    1. I can only think of one earlier novel (serialization in 1928) that features a similar trick, but it's likely there are even earlier examples, but that's beyond my knowledge.

      I wouldn't want to spoil it for other readers, so the title in ROT13 cipher ( is: Yn Qrzrher Zlfgéevrhfr (Na Nefrar Yhcva abiry)

  2. Yup. I have understood. But that example I already knew. That is a bislocation: two identical house (as in Ellery Queen). I told you a bislocation of an identican apartmnet in the same buiding...
    OK. Anyway thanks.
    P. De Palma - Italy

  3. Just a quick question: I kinda like how the author uses lists just before his final deduction in Kubinashi no Gotoki, does he use it too in all the short stories?