Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Secret of the Forgotten City

 朝になれば City Light
「City Hunter ~愛よ消えないで」(小比類巻かほる)
Whenever it becomes morning
The city lights always disappear
"City Hunter ~ Oh Love, Don't Disappear" (Kohiruimaki Koharu)

The longer a book stays in the backlog list, the greater the chance I will simply never get started on it.

As they say, some books you don't really want to read, you just want to have read them. And that was basically how I felt as I was reading Mato ("The Demon Capital"), a novel by Hisao Juuran originally serialized between 1937-1938. Hisao was a prolific author of popular fiction and wrote in a wide variety of genres, from mystery to historical drama and comedy. Mato is seen as one of the major, modernist Japanese crime novels from the 30s, which also earned it spot 69 on the 2013 Tozai Mystery Best 100 ranking. But I honestly had trouble getting into the story from page one, and as far as I know, over these last years, I think I have read the first chapter like 5 times, each time losing interest at that point and then moving on to another book. Anyway, the book starts on New Year's Eve of 1934, when the third-rate reporter Furuichi Kajuu is thrown out of the Newsreporter Club's end-of-year party for once again overestimating his position in the media hierarchy. He ends up in a bar, where a curious customer asks him about the recent rumors of the fountain in Hibiya Park singing like a bird. Furuichi hits it off with the man, who invites him to the home of his mistress to celebrate the new year. The man turns out to be the emperor of Annam (Vietnam), who likes Japan a lot and often spends time here incognito. In the early hours of the first day of the year, Furuichi leaves the apartment building as they agree to meet up later again, but when the reporter makes it down to the hill, he finds the body of the emperor's mistress lying on the ground. Curiously, Furuichi himself is detained, as police seems to be thinking he's the emperor. Meanwhile, Superintendent Manako Akira is put on the case, but as he digs into the circumstances of the death, he uncovers there's a bigger plot going on that involves Annam politics.

What follows is a thriller that is perhaps best read from a historical point of view, because as a mystery story, it's less memorable. Starting on New Year's Eve, the story follows mainly Furuichi and Manako's seperate investigations into the death of the mistress. In terms of concept, the book reminded of a series like 24, because while the book is fairly long, the events described take place in a span of about two days. Little happens in each individual chapter therefore, as the story basically tries to present a thrilling, real-time adventure unfolding. Probably pretty cool in the 30s, but it's a slow read nonetheless, and due to the serialized nature of the novel, you often have the feeling the book is repeating itself as it goes over details again and again mentioned in earlier installments.

But the story Mato eventually tells is also less about the logical solving of a murder mystery and more about the setting of the modern capital Tokyo in the 1930s. The term Mato, or Demon Capital, originally refers to the Shanghai after the First Opium War, with the International Settlement, the French Concession and basically an international metropolis that was rapidly changing and modernizing. In Mato, Hisao presents Tokyo as the new demon capital, the largest metropolis of Japan that was rapidly modernizing and changing and nationalistic sentiments gaining power. The Tokyo of the 1930s was nothing like it was two or three decades before, with an underground dungeon being made (subways), people from all over the world going in and out and the local people too only focused on themselves and just any interesting news to distract them from real-life problems. In Mato, Hisao tells an adventure that is set in this modern new Japan, utilizing the new Tokyo to its fullest as the story moves from one point to another and immediately to the next and in that regard, Mato is certainly interesting as modern fiction about Tokyo.

If you focus only on the mystery part of Mato though, you'll get a story where, you do get answers to questions like who killed the mistress, where the real emperor of Annam went to and what's behind the murder, but the plot is mostly a rather straighforward thriller and there are few moments that truly feel clever or surprising. Heck, after a while the story just seems to go on and on without really reflecting on the plot anymore, and I'm pretty sure that that one major murder near the end of the story isn't even explained anymore, because by that time, Mato isn't really a detective story anymore, it's just an adventureous tale set in a transforming Tokyo.

I wasn't really the audience for this book, but I guess that if you're into looking into modernist depictions of 20s-30s Tokyo, Mato is an interesting read. If you for example like the depictions of the city and a changing world and culture as seen in a lot of Edogawa Rampo's work, or for example the stories in (insert disclosure warning) Oosaka Keikichi's The Ginza Ghost, you'll probably be able to find something you like along with a thriller that's clearly written as a grand, spectacle work of entertainment. It's the reason why I ultimately decided to write this review anyway instead of just skipping it, because I think there are probably also readers here who will fight the cultural aspects of this crime novel interesting.

But yeah, coming back to what I wrote earlier, Mato was not a book I particularly enjoyed reading, but I'm glad I now know what it's about. Looking at it as a pure mystery novel, it's not really memorable, but unlike contemporaries like Dogura Magura and Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, I don't think it's genuinely meant to be an anti-mystery. Mato is more rewarding simply read as a thriller or modernist work of entertainment that depicts a transforming Tokyo.

Original Japanese title(s): 久生十蘭『魔都』

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