Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Professor and the Puzzle

 "Archaeology is the search for fact ... not truth."
"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

Like I mentioned in the review of the first volume in this series: despite the cover art, these stories aren't scary at all. I'd love to read a series with the atmosphere invoked by this art though! I really have a weakness for occult-historical mysteries.

Most students who sign up for Renjou Nachi's folklore course are lured by her looks, but it usually doesn't take long for them to drop out: Renjou may have a reputation as one of the better known figures in the academic field of Japanese folklore and anthropology, but that's because she's highly unorthodox and dares to take on very risky positions in academic discussions and many students in her class curse the day they signed up for her class as they battle with the vague essay assignments at the end of the semester. The person who has to suffer the most under her is her teaching assistant Naitou Mikuni, who recognizes her brilliance, but who is also the one who has do all the administrative work whenever Renjou spends their lab's whole year's fieldwork budget within a month and keeps skipping classes. Renjou's brilliant mind however also comes handy in criminal cases and for some reason, she has a knack for getting involved with murder cases whenever she's doing research on a new subject. Kitamori Kou's Sokushinbutsu - Renjou Nachi Fieldwork II ("The Buddhist Mummy - The Fieldwork of Renjou Nachi II", 2002) collects five more adventures of Renjou and Mikuni as they do research on Buddhist statues, essays on the meaning of famous Japanese myths and... murder.

I read the first volume in this series earlier this year and it was the folklore angle in particular that attracted me. Mitsuda Shinzou's horror-mystery Toujou Genya series builds upon actual folkloristic and anthropological concepts to create fully fleshed-out, but ultimately fictional histories to set-up unique religious ceremonies and local deities that are used in the murders there, but Renjou Nachi Fieldwork is built upon actual folkloristic and anthropological research and a lot of the themes and topics discussed in these stories are actually applicable to real-world understanding of history and anthropology. You learn a lot about Japanese history here, usually from a religious angle as Renjou's research topics often focus on material culture (so a lot of religious statues/graves/etc.), but at times, she'll also be analyzing well-known myths from Japan and focus on the meaning behind them or how they changed throughout the centuries. Kitamori obviously did a lot of research to write these stories and for the history buffs under us, this series really deserves some attention.

In the opening story Hikuyou ("Hidden Memorial"), Renjou and Mikuni are out on fieldwork to research a group of stone figures hidden away in a grove in a deep forest. They suspect these stones were to memorate some event, but there are no legends or stories passed on in this region that give any details about them. Renjou decides to use this topic as an essay question. Some days after the deadline, the police visit Mikuni about a murder case: the victim was burnt until there was little left of her, but they eventually identified her as a student in Renjou's class and people had seen her 'argue' with Mikuni about the assignment before her death. As far as Mikuni knows, she only came to ask some questions, but the case seems to take a weird turn when the computers in Renjou and Mikuni's office is ravaged by an unknown person. I feel that this series is at its best when there's a good link between the underlying folkloristic theme and the murder, but that isn't the case here. A lot of things happen, but the link that connects the stone statues to the murder is fairly weak (it basically could've been any research theme). I like how this ultimately becomes an academic mystery in the sense that the motive is firmly set within a college setting, but the folklore theme is underwhelming.

Daikokuyami ("The Great Darkness") is my favorite story of the collection, where I feel the mystery and the underlying folklore theme work the best. Mikuni is working on a paper about how the image of deities changes with time when he's visited by the student Sugizaki Naoko. She hopes Mikuni can help her brother, who has become a member of a shady university club. He's been duped in buying an expensive Buddhist statue, believing the statue to be a representation of himself and that owning it will bring him fortune. Mikuni earlier published a paper on modern sects and cults, and Naoko believes that the university club is actually some kind of cult. Mikuni tries to find Naoko's brother at the club room, but is soon overwhelmed by the mood there and is nearly persuaded to become the club's supervisor (a supervisor is needed in order to be recognized by the university), until he's saved by Renjou. Some days later, Naoko's brother is found hanging in a grove, with two Buddhist statues at his feet. Apparently, he wanted those statues desperately because he believed them to be his sister's representation and he killed the antiques dealer to steal them, until he hanged himself in remorse.  It's not difficult to guess how the real murderer slipped up even if you don't have specialistic knowledge, but the core murder plot is nicely combined with Mikuni's research theme to bring a satisfying story.

And this story reminded me of that time in Fukuoka, soon after I arrived, when a classmate (also an international student) mentioned in class that he had been invited to some gathering about happiness by someone he met at some party, and that the teacher immediately told him not to go and that it was probably some front for a sect or new religion and that that occasionally happened around campus.

Renjou has not shown her face in college for a few days at the start of Shinomitsurudama ("The Orb of Overflowing Blood"), but she's eventually found by the police, inside a car next to a corpse. Renjou had been at a small private academic gathering, where a few freeminded academics could exchanges ideas and talk about folklore in complete freedom. Renjou recalls she had been discussing the meaning of the meaning of the magatama as part of the imperial regalia of Japan with the victim, but at one point all of them had been knocked out by some sleeping medicine and while the others all found themselves dumped somewhere near their home, Renjou and the victim were left inside a car. Renjou becomes a suspect because a magatama was found inside the victim's stomach. Another story where the underlying folkloristic theme is actually far more interesting than the current-day murder. The theories Renjou poses about the symbolism of the imperial regalia are really interesting and really show off how captivating historical detectives can be. And while the motive is original in the sense that it only makes sense if you tie it to Renjou's theory, the actual murder itself is rather boring and the way it's proved who the murderer really is based on how the magatama was introduced in the victim's stomach was just silly.

In Sokushinbutsu ("A Buddhist Mummy"), Renjou and Mikuni investigate a 'Buddhist mummy' (Buddhist monks who mummified themselves alive by not eating and drinking) who for some reason has no history at all. A local scholar suspects this mummy was actually not merely a Buddhist mummy at first, but a complex amalgation of various religious figures from Japanese mythology, but Renjou doesn't confirm anything. Some time later, Renjou and Mikuni are contacted by the local scholar's daughter, who says her father is missing, but Renjou instantly knows where to look. A rather short and to-the-point story. This is a good example of when the motive of the culprit does connect brilliantly with the folkloristic topic and while the reader won't be doing much deducing themselves (you're never going to guess where the local scholar was simply based on the clues), I think the mystery of the actual meaning of the Buddhist mummy was pretty good and nicely founded in actual folkloristic research.

In the final story Okage-kou ("Thankful Trade"), Mikuni is surprised by the sudden arrival of Sae Yumiko, who is to become the newest member in Renjou's lab. This gives Mikuni some more free time to focus on his new assignment from Renjou, as he has to investigate the meaning behind a certain folklore tale that resembles the story of the straw millionaire. Meanwhile, Mikuni is also approached by Mera, the teaching assistant at Professor Mikami's lab. Yumiko used to work in Professor Mikami's pre-modern literature research group, and Mera wants her back there, and hopes Mikuni can help him. As far as he knows, Yumiko got transferred to Renjou's group on her own will, so Mikuni tells Mera he can't do much about it, but Mera doesn't seem like he's going to back down. Ultimately, the story manages to connect Mikuni's research to the story of Yumiko, but it's a bit forced. It's a complete coincidence that Mikuni's finding just happen to be mirrored in the circumstances surrounding Yumiko, and again, I think the actual folkloristic research in the meaning of the myth and its variations is much more interesting than the problems surrounding Yumiko.

Sokushinbutsu - Renjou Nachi Fieldwork II is a book that I wanted to like a lot more than I actually do. It's weird, but I think the historical and folkloristic topics Kitamori addresses in these stories are immensely entertaining and interesting, and the surprising anthropologic interpretations of the various topics do make for a great mystery. But these 'background stories' don't always connect well to the current-day mysteries Renjou and Mikuni face and more often than not, the historical mystery is simply more interesting than whatever crime the duo stumbled upon. I wonder if a purely historical approach like in Kujira Touichirou's Yamataikoku wa Doko Desuka? ("Where is Yamatai-koku?") would've worked better for me, for far too often, I feel myself hoping they just push the current-day crime aside and just hurry up to explaining to me exactly why the image of deities change over time or what the hidden meaning or origin is behind this or that myth. I think I will read more of this series, but I have a feeling it'll be mostly for the historical plots.

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻 『触身仏  蓮丈那智フィールドファイルII』:「秘供養」/「大黒闇」/「死満瓊」/「触身仏」/「御蔭講」