Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A Treacherous Tide


Like a sail waiting for summer
I'm always, always
always thinking of you
"Like a Sail Waiting For Summer" (Zard)

Think I've been on a sailing boat only once in my life.

Disclosure: I translated Osaka Keikichi's The Ginza Ghost.

Oosaka Keikichi was a talented master of the short puzzle mystery story, active in the thirties and forties of the previous century, but the second World War stopped his career abruptly: first state censorship didn't allow him to write the kind of detective stories he did earlier, and eventually, the poor man died on the battlefield. He became a forgotten author after the war, but was eventually rediscovered. In the past, publisher Tokyo Sogensha released two volumes that focused on Oosaka's output as a puzzle plot mystery writer: most of the stories in Locked Room International's English-language release The Ginza Ghost can also be found in these volumes. But in August 2020, this same publisher released a third collection of Oosaka's stories, but with a completely different angle. Shi no Kaisousen ("The Yacht of Death" 2020) collects more than a dozen stories originally published between 1934-1942, as well as some short essays/articles by Oosaka. The stories in this volume show a completely different side to Oosaka, focusing on his comedic (mostly non-imposssible) mystery stories, as well as stories with a stronger thriller or horror atmosphere.

I won't be discussing all the stories here as there are simply too many and some of them are really, really short stories. Nor will I be doing the (similarly short) essays/articles, though I have to say it's interesting to see the questionnaires included: these are the answers Oosaka gave to questionnaires in the magazines he was published in, answering questions like what books got him interested in writing and things like that. I'll just be picking out a few of the key stories in this volume. Also note that this volume includes the illustrations that accompanied this stories when they were first published in magazines: I like these typical magazine style sketches!

Shi no Kaisousen ("The Yacht of Death") is the tale most similar to the stories available in English and even includes a familiar face in Azumaya Saburou, maritime researcher and amateur sleuth. The narrator is a doctor who has been called to the manor of Captain Fukaya, a retired captain who built a house with the appearance of a ship on a cliff overlooking a bay. He lived in the house with his wife and his servants, but earlier this morning, the poor man died. He had the habit of going out sailing in the bay with his yacht, but this morning, the ship was found drifting with the captain's body floating in the water, tied to the yacht with a rope. Azumaya, who accompanied his friend to the house, soon finds signs that point to foul play and soon starts his investigation into finding out who killed the captain. This story feels similar to The Monster in the Lighthouse (incl. in The Ginza Ghost), not only because it features Azumaya, but also due to the seaside setting and Azumaya's focus on physical clues and a lot of measuring. Don't expect to be able to solve this one yourself, but for those who like those early Sherlock Holmes stories where you see Holmes come up with fancy deduction chains based on physical clues and measuring things, this is definitely a story in the same spirit. There are other Oosaka Keikichi short story collections from other publishers that have also used Shi no Kaisousen as the title story by the way,  so it's a really popular story.

It's important to note that as you read this book, you can really sense how the environment in Japan was changing as the war approached. It was a time in which it was made difficult for authors to write mystery stories about murder: with nationalistic sentiments growing in the build-up to the war, it was not deemed right to write stories about Japanese persons killing each other. Hyouga Baasan ("The Glacier Granny") isn't really a mystery story, but closer to a tale of the bizarre, about an elderly woman living near a glacier in Alaska. There's a distinct anti-American tone to the story and even ends with praise that Japan is going to invade the Aleutian Islands soon to save Alaska from the Americans. Suizokukan Ihen ("The Incident at the Aquarium") is a crime story with ero-guro-nonsense features, but stands especially out because there are quite a few sentences that have been censored, so those (segments of) sentences are just blanked out. There have been no uncensored versions of these stories, so they remained censored even in modern publications.

The bulk of the volume is made up with short, humorous mystery stories, similar to The Hungry Letter-Box (incl. in The Ginza Ghost). I personally loved The Hungry Letter-Box, and there are a few here that offer a similar fun read. Kyuukon Koukoku ("Matrimonial Advertisement") is about the middle-aged Ishimaki Kintarou, owner of an eraser company, had never much interest in marriage when he was young, but now regrets that. Noticing that nowadays, many people also use the newspaper to look for a marriage partner, he decides to answer an advertisement which catches his attention due to the style in which it was written. He receives an answer, and invitation to visit the woman, a certain Mizuta Shizuko who teaches at a girls academy. When he arrives there though, the woman says she never placed such an advertisement in the newspaper. The explanation to this has its roots in a certain very well-known short mystery story, but it's adapted well to a non-criminal setting. I had already read Kousui Shinshi ("The Perfume Gentleman") in the past and this story was interestingly written for a girls magazine. The heroine of the story is the teenage girl Kurumi, who is going to visit her aunt and cousin Nobuko by train, as Nobuko will be marrying and leaving her home. In the train, Kurumi finds herself seated with a rather suspicious man who is probably hiding something, but what can Kurumi do about it? Very short, but cute piece for the younger readers.

Hitogui Furo ("The Man-Eating Bath") is very similar to The Hungry Letter-Box, featuring a barber in love who happens to encounter an odd happening. Our hapless hero Kin can only think of the daughter of the local public bathhouse, but something odd has happened there: one day, when the bath was about to close, they found an unclaimed set of clothes in the women's dressing rooms. Some guests say they remember they saw a woman they never saw before in this public bathhouse, to whom those clothes probably belong, but where did that woman go, as she couldn't have gone far without any clothes on! Given that every other guest obviously did get out properly dressed, people start to fear the woman had been eaten by the bath itself, but Kin can't quite believe it, especially as it would endanger the livelihood of the woman he loves. Not a difficult story, but funny enough to read. Kuuchuu no Sanposha ("Stroller in the Sky") is very different in tone and features the detective Yokokawa Teisuke, who is described as a nationalistic anti-espionage detective. Yes, it has to be mentioned he is nationalistic. When an ad balloon to promote government bonds is untied from the rooftop of a department store once again by a prankster, making it drift all across the city, most people didn't think too much of it, but for some reason, Yokokawa becomes very interested in the incident, but why would this attract the detective's attention? I love it when Oosaka uses these signs of modernity in his stories (ad balloons hanging from the department store) and the ad balloon makes for a nice focal point for this story that is clearly set in a nationalistic spy/anti-foreign environment.

San no Ji Ryokoukai ("The "3" Travel Organization") is one of the best stories in this volume and is about a Red Cap porter at Tokyo Station who notices how every day, a different woman gets out of the third compartment of the train which arrives at three, and that these women are always awaited by the same man who carries their suitcase, which has a special "3" sticker on them. He strikes up a conversation with the man, who explains that he's acting as a hired help for the "3" Travel Organization, a special group which finances trips to Tokyo for single women from more rural places. The porter and the man only have short time to chat each day and it's only little by little that the porter learns the truth behind this odd group and the fixation on the number "3". The truth behind this grou that is revealed in the end is really clever, and there's some good misdirection going here. Shoufuda Soudou ("Price Tag Commotion") is set at the furniture department of a department store, which has been the victim of a bad prank for some time now: someone has been switching price tags of some very expensive pieces of furniture with a much cheaper one, and several times now, saleslady #304 and her manager had to apologize deeply to a customer as they had to explain that the prize tag of the closet they wanted to buy was actually wrong and that it was least double the price. But why would someone do this? The solution is one you may recognize from a different famous Japanese short mystery story, but this story can definitely stand on its own, with a very original take on the basic concept and a comedic tone that really manages to draw you in.

As a collection, Shi no Kaisousen is not one I would recommend as an entry point to Oosaka's writings: it's especially compiled to show a contrast with earlier collections. The title story is the only one that fits the model of the pure puzzle plot stories that are usually mentioned as Oosaka's masterpieces. The other stories offer far lighter material, though there are still a few in this volume that are genuinely worth a read as comedic mystery stories with a puzzle plot core. The volume also offers variety by also including thriller stories and a period piece and is an interesting read in a larger context because you can definitely feel the influence of building nationalistic sentiments as the war approaches, but this volume is best read after experiencing Oosaka's more focused detective stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 大阪圭吉『死の快走船』:「死の快走船」/ なこうど名探偵」 /「塑像」/「人喰い風呂」/「水族館異変」/「求婚広告」/「三の字旅行会」/「愛情盗難」/「正札騒動」/「告知板の女」/「香水紳士」/「空中の散歩者」/「氷河婆さん」/「夏芝居四谷怪談」/「ちくてん奇談」


  1. Thanks for the review. 🤔 I'll probably give this one a miss as I prefer mystery novels to short stories - and these sound too short and not especially puzzle-oriented. Perhaps the exception might be 刀城言耶 - I'm keen to try one of the short story collections, as the individual stories sound like puzzle-oriented novellas.

    My first of two bundles of Chinese novels - or rather, novels written in or translated into Chinese - has arrived! 🤩 Just started on Chan Ho-Kei's 'Man Who Sold The World'.

    1. Yeah, some of the Toujou Genya shorts are definitely closer to novellas in length, so I think you'll find them rewarding enough.

      The Man Who Sold The World was my first by Chan! I liked 13.67/The Borrowed better, but I did like the HK setting in the book.

    2. Unfortunately, the only short story collection translated into Chinese is 'Sealed Room' - I gather 'Eidola' is the superior collection for the Toujou Genya series?

    3. I did like Eidola better, but that was in direct comparison and Sealed Room was like one of the last books Iin the series I read, so there was also bit of 'fatigue'. On its own, Sealed Room is perfectly enjoyable and deals with familiar themes of the series.