Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Case of the Constant Suicides

さくらさくら今、咲き誇る
刹那に散りゆく運命を知って
「さくら」(森山直太朗) 

Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms, they bloom now
Knowing the destiny awaiting them is to fall
"Cherry Blossom" (Moriyama Naotarou)

I mentioned earlier how I always take ages to get pass the first sections of the books in this series. I think almost six months passed since I read the first pages of this book, and when I was finally finished...

Toujou Genya series
1) Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono ("Those Who Bewitch Like The Evil Spirits", 2006)
2) Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono ("Those Who Are A Taboo Like The Malicious Bird", 2006)
3) Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) 
4) Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend", 2008)
5) Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono ("Those Who Stay Inside Like A Sealed Room", 2009)
6) Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009). 
7) Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola", 2011)
8) Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan", 2012)
9) Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono (2018)
10) Maguu no Gotoki Motarsu Mono (2019) 
11) Ina no Gotoki Nieru Mono (2021)

Sakurako grew up in a poor, rural village but she was happy living with her parents, siblings and friends. She even became friends with Aya, a girl from a family with means living in the neighborhood, who taught her to read and write. But with ever-lasting poverty going on, Sakurako agrees to be sent off to the red light district Momozono so she can earn money for her family, even though she doesn't know what a courtesan is. She's brought the Kinpeibairou, a courtesan house, where the 13-year old girl receives education and taught skills she will need in the future by Granny, who keeps on an eye on the women working in the house. Sakurako becomes friends with Yuuko, the daughter of the owner of Kinpeibairou, but after a while Yuuko stops appearing at the house. Meanwhile, Sakurako also senses there's something wrong about the courtesan house, and there are multiple rumors of ghostly figures haunting the hallways at night or looking into the rooms through the windows. At first young Sakurako also doesn't really understand what the Kinpeibairou is, wondering why all the courtesans here get to wear such nice dresses and how they seem to be earning money just by spending time with men in a room, but it's at age 16 when Sakurako is old enough to be put to work when she's confronted with the hellish reality. Sakurako is given the courtesan name Hizakura and manages to attract quite a few customers early on due to her inexperience and Granny selling her "virginity" multiple times. One night, one courtesan throws herself from the window of the exclusive courtesan room on the third floor of the annex, but she miraculously survives the fall. However, two more courtesans follow in her footsteps, attempting to throw themselves from the same window, though luckily, they manage to be saved. Hizakura is also one of the persons who attempted to throw herself from the window, but she was luckily stopped just in time, but Hizakura doesn't actually know why she tried to jump out of the window, and suspects it has to do with the spectral presence roaming in the courtesan house. Afraid for her life, she plans to escape her nightmare and run away from the Kinpeibai.

A few years later, during World War II, Yuuko has taken over the house of pleasure from her mother, renaming it the Baiyuukirou. Circumstances are of course different now during the war, with the courtesan business being seen as a way to support the troops. It's hard to get hold of good new courtesans however, so when Granny brings in a new woman named Someko who reminds Yuuko of Sakurako, she decides to give Someko the courtesan name Hizakura. The idea is to create some gossip about the original Hizakura having returned, and they put Someko in the exclusive courtesan room on the third floor. Meanwhile, there's also a pregnant woman staying inside the courtesan house, a friend of Yuuko's mother who has to give birth discreetly. Half a year passes and the woman gives birth, but soon after throws herself out of the window of the exclusive courtesan room. And then another, and another... After the war, the courtesan house was bought by a third party, who renamed it the Baienrou, making it a restaurant with a special back-establishment where the waitresses sell their bodies. Sako Sousuke is the nephew of the new owner and a newly debuted writer of horror stories, and he has been looking into the case of the constant suicide leaps in the past. Interestingly, a new waitress has been hired who has been given the name Hizakura, which might have been tempting fates, for once again, a series of suicide leaps from that room starts. When mystery writer Toujou Genya comes into possession of the diaries and manuscripts of Sakurako, Yuuko and Sako respectivelly, he arrives at a startling conclusion regarding the haunted courtesan room in Mitsuda Shinzou's Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan", 2012)

The sixth full-length novel and eight book overall in Mitsuda Shinzou's series about the horror-mystery writer Toujou Genya takes on a completely different form than the previous entries and while it's far from my favorite entry in the series, it's quite a unique and memorable experience, and as a mystery novel, it's one that has made a lot of impression on me in regards of the theme. The previous novels basically all followed the same basic premise of being set in a rural place, with an impossible happening occuring during an esotoric religious ceremony with a certain historical meaning, which in turn is interconnected with the motive and means of the how the trick was done. That is definitely not the case here. There's no clear crime committed in this long novel and folklore doesn't even play a big role in this novel. There's talk about a ghostly figure roaming the hallways of the courtesan house throughout the generations, but there's no elaborate analysis into it from a folklore point of view, no views and thoughts presented on it from historical, sociological, economical and religious angles. These eleemnts were a delight to read in the other novels, as Mitsuda always built these stories on actual folklore studies, but the religious angle and how it ties to folklore is next to non-existent here, making it very different from the other novels.

The four chapter structure is another notable change. Toujou Genya himself only makes a minor appearance at the very end of the novel, with the previous three parts making up the bulk of the novel, being the diary of Sakurako (the three leaps out of the window when the first Hizakura was at the courtesan house), an account written by Yuuko about the war period (the second series of leaps, during the second Hizakura's tenure) and a manuscript written by Sako (third series of leaps, during the third Hizakura's time). Throughout the three different accounts, you'll see how the courtesan house changes, and sometimes surprisingly doesn't change. Some courtesans like the first Hazakura disappear from the narrative, some courtesans stay working at the place despite all the owner and name changes, the time changes from pre-war, to during the war and after: it makes the courtesan house a character of its own and throughout the generations, the three narrators also comment on strange, mysterious happenings that occur in the establishment, from figures suddenly disappearing from hallways and footsteps being heard from floors where there's nobody, to of course the repeating series of leaps from the window of the exclusive room each time a courtesan is given the name Hizakura. There's no "clear" crime like a murder or impossible disappearance however, so the mystery of this story is more focused on the atmosphere of the place, which is quite different from the previous novels. I myself found it difficult to stay constantly focused on this book because of this, as it's a very slow book in a series that usually has very slow starts already.

While I said that this book doesn't look at some religious ceremony from various angles like previous books and tie it to the crime, it does look at the theme of courtesans from historical, sociological and economical angles and in that regard, it's like this book uses the method it usually utilizes to examine youkai, religious ceremonies and other folklore topics to examine and analyze the function of courtesans/prostitutes between 1930-1950. Even the setting of the closed-off entertainment district (to make sure no women escape) reminds of the secluded, rural communities with their own customs and rules like we see in the other books. In Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono, you'll get a glimpse in the lives and customs of the women who lived in the courtesan houses, how they were viewed by society in contradicting ways, how their lives changes in and after the war. Mitsuda has clearly done his research and you'll learn a lot about this topic as you read this book, but while it's incredibly informative and interesting, it's obviously not an entertaining topic. The first part of this book, being the diary of the 13-year (and later 16-year) old Sakurako is absolutely horrifying, as you follow a young girl who doesn't even what a prostitute is and who dreams of helping her family by working in the city and slowly realizing what a nightmare her life is. It's incredibly heavy material, and it took me quite some time to get through this first part, because it's really effective at painting the life of young Sakurako and it honestly feels uncomfortable reading this part. The other accounts, being from completely different people, are luckily easier to go through. But in hindsight, I thought it was really a very informative and interesting angle this book focused on, as you're not likely to come across it any time soon elsewhere.

But back to the mystery plot. Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono doesn't feature the same clearly-defined core mystery previous books had, though it still utilizes the method of offering a lot of minor mysteries too, that ultimately tie in together (no Genya making a list of 70 questions to be answered though!). The main mystery is of course the question why people keep throwing themselves out of the window of the exclusive courtesan room on the third floor throughout different periods of time. I really like the core idea behind this, even if it is slightly unbelievable and some parts rely perhaps too heavily on coincidence. But the core notion is one that really fits the unique setting of the red light district, and the concept is worked out quite well throughout the three different periods, but Mitsuda does rely on coincidence a few times to make it a clear three series of three jumps for this novel, so some elements don't feel as strong as others. Genya also addresses the various minor mysteries that pop up throughout the three accounts, like the disappearing figures in the hallways or the footsteps that come from nowhere, and most of them have convincing explanations, though not always hinted at as strongly and they don't always connect that well, so whereas in previous novels usually everything connected back to the main mystery, there are a lot more disconnected nodes in this tale, or nodes that are only connected to the main plot after multiple steps. Plot-wise, Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono is definitely not the brilliant monsters of synergy previous novels were, where everything was connected and written to support other elements. This is anothe reason why this book feels so different from the other novels.

Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono is a weird book to explain and recommend, as it's very different from the previous Toujou Genya novels. It feels like author Mitsuda Shinzou became interested in the topic of courtesans in the 1930-1950s, did tons of research in the topic and afterwards decided to use all that research for a Genya novel. The result is a book that tackles a topic that is quite unlike anything we've encountered before in the series, focusing on a plot quite unlike anything we've seen in the series, but I have to admit, I thought the setting and the theme of courtesans was really interesting, so ultimately, I think it was a worthwhile detour the series took. I wouldn't want all the novels in this series to be like this, but once a while, a book like this is also fun and I have to repeat I really liked the core idea of this book, which is complex in its simplicity, even if the execution isn't as brilliantly neat as we saw in the previous books (which were, to be honest, of an exceptional level in terms of mystery plotting). Don't read this as your first Toujou Genya novel, but if you're looking for a palate cleanser after reading three or four other books in the series...

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三『幽女の如き怨むもの』

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