Country Delights – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 2

5.0 out of 5 stars More Japanese Weird Tales

After enjoying the first volume in this series, Tales of Old Edo – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1, I was eager to read volume two. While I was quite familiar with many of the tales of old Edo, I didn’t know what to expect from “Country Delights.” There are a few famous names here, and some stories I know, but most of the book was new territory. And, as promised by the title, delightful.

As with “Tales of Old Edo,” Kurodahan Press assembled a collection of classics and modern authors, of the ultra-famous and the not-so-much. Some of the authors will be familiar to anyone with even the most casual acquaintance with Japanese literature—like Natsume Soseki (Botchan), also also known as “that guy on the old 1,000 yen bill,” Izumi Kyoka (Japanese Gothic Tales), and Yanagita Kunio (The Legends of Tono) who almost single-handedly created Japanese folklore studies. Many of the authors I had never heard of, but that didn’t mean their stories were any less fascinating. In fact, in the later stories it was interesting to watch the waning influence of Edo-period storytelling and seeing obvious Lovecraft-influences slowly creep in.

There are nine stories in total in “Country Delights,” and one short comic. In his introduction, Robert Weinberg suggests that you read all of the stories before reading Higashi Masao’s introduction, which I heartily agree with. There are lots of surprises here that you don’t want spoiled. Most of the stories are fairly short, and the longest, “Midnight Encounters, (1960)” runs ninety-four pages. The oldest story is Izumi Kyoka’s “Sea Daemons (1906)” and the most recent is “Reunion (1993)” by Takahashi Katsuhiko.

As with “Tales of Old Edo,” none of the stories in here could be classified as “horror.” These are weird fiction, more unsettling that shocking. Most make use of traditional settings and Japanese ghosts and monsters, but some favor exotic locales.

My favorite story in “Country Delights” was “Sea Daemons,” which is no surprise as I really like Izumi Kyoka. This story of a poor coastal fishing village and their battle with something from the dark of the ocean was chilling and sad. “The Kudan’s Mother, (1968)” by Komatsu Sakyo was also intriguing, telling the story of a cursed house during the firebombing of WWII. “The Clock Tower of Yon, (1961)” had the most Lovecraftian feel, with the exotic French setting and the hordes of Tibetan cats. I know there is a sub-genre of Lovecraft-inspired Japanese fiction, but this is the first story I have read in that vein. Not every story was a winner. I thought both “The Mummy (1942)” and the comic “Only You (1992)” were lackluster.

The translations in “Country Delight” were a marked improvement over the previous volume. Whereas some of the translations in “Tales of Ole Edo” felt stilted and academic, the translations in “Country Delight” were just pure reading pleasure. I caught a few mistakes, and reading the “Legends of Tono” translations was a big awkward as I have translated those myself and know the different choices I made. But on the whole you could just disappear into the story and forget you were even reading a translation.

Overall this was another great volume from Kurodahan Press, and I am looking forward to volume three.

The Tattoo Murder Case

5.0 out of 5 stars Tattoos are only skin deep

A locked room murder mystery. A hidden underbelly of society, populated by beautiful tattooed women who work behind doors opened by secret codes. A legend of three ancient sorcerers, linked together to carry a curse. A mysterious and driven older professor, known by the name of “Dr. Tattoo” for his obsession with skinning the bodies of tattooed corpses so that he may collect and preserve their unique art. A naive and idealistic young forensics student, seduced and far in over his head

These are the elements that author Takagi Akimitsu has woven together in order to create his grand design. Using the background of post-War Japan, a place bombed into despair and turned upside-down, he crafts his tale with precision and style, each element added at precisely the right time to extract the most impact from its revelation. This is a brilliant detective novel.

Kinue Nomura is a sensual and beautiful woman of the underworld, her skin carrying the last known tattoo of her famous father. An Orochimaru design, its twisted serpent design snares any man who she reveals it to. Kenzo Matsushiita is the young forensic student, just back from the War where he served as a medic, he is eager to put his past behind him and work towards his doctorate, but his love of mystery novels and the excitement of Kinue assure that he will follow another path.

Also involved is the world of the Japanese tattoo, and art form beautifully described in the novel by Takagi, and one completely illegal during the setting of this novel. The taboo nature of the art, the sexual nature of decorated naked flesh, the secrets hidden behind the ink, all of these add a primal feel to the logical structure of the crime, creating a balance of order and chaos, of body and brain. As someone who is also privileged to carry a Japanese tattoo, I really appreciated the sincerity and detail of this part of the novel.

Special note must also be made of the translation, which was flawless. The translator did a perfect job of maintaining Japanese words were appropriate, giving explanations of cultural terms rather than unsuitable translations.

This was enough to get me hooked on the author. I am looking forward to delving into further Takagi mysteries.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates

imanishi

5.0 out of 5 stars Castles of Sand

This is the first Matsumoto Seicho book I have read, and the third in the Soho Crime series that brings classics of Japanese crime fiction to a Western audience. I have been deeply impressed by the series, and consider it a hallmark for great writing and quality translations, and I know I can pick up any book in the series and be able to settle down for a good read.

“Inspector Imanishi Investigates” (original title “Suna no Utsuwa” or “Castles of Sand”) is one of the most famous of Matsumoto’s works, having been adapted twice, once as a feature film and once as a TV mini-series. First published in 1961, it was one of his “social mysteries” that deal with social issues in Japan at the time as opposed to simple murder puzzles. In this book we have the gender gap that followed the Japanese defeat in WWII, the loss of older ways and the rise of a new generation with new methods of committing crimes. Will the old-fashioned ways of solving them still work?

The story begins with a basic crime scene; a dead body is discovered, and clues are scant. Inspector Imanishi and his younger partner Yoshimura follow what lose trails they have, which is limited to an accent from a certain part of Japan and a single word “kameda”. The hunt leads them through a long path, taking months as they sort through regional accents, dusty family records, movie posters and any other thin straws they can desperately grasp to. Somehow interlinked is a group of avant-garde young Japanese intellectuals who call themselves the Nouveau, and seek to subvert the social order into something new and unique, using art, writing, music and theater. They are the black suit and beret set, completely at odds with Imanishi’s old-fashioned and simple life.

Imanishi is a fascinating character, although much different than most fictional detectives. He is no brilliant Holmes or Poirot. He is just a simple old hound dog who latches onto a trail and follows it where it goes. A lover of bonsai trees and haiku, yakiniku and hot sake, Imanishi is a simple middle aged man, not exceptional, not a rebel or rule breaker, but with a dogged sense of pursuit and the inability to give up once an idea has twitched itself in his mind. One feels bad for the old guy, tired and somewhat out of his depth, but just too stubborn to let it go. He is a very realistic character.

As far as the mystery goes, it is the perfect kind of crime for Imanishi. There are no breadcrumbs to follow, no near misses of suspects and dynamic shootouts in dark alleys, but rather hunting patiently through old records and slowly stitching together a big picture. There are a few too many coincidences, and a few too many lucky breaks fall into the inspector’s lap, but I can forgive that for all the foot work he put in. He deserves a few easy clues. The way the mystery plays out is fantastic, and I was gripped at every minute. When the “ah-ha” moment came of figuring it all out before the book revealed the end, it was very satisfying in the way that only a really good mystery can provide.

The Informer

 

informer
5.0 out of 5 stars What’s your price?

This was my second Akimitsu Takagi novel, after The Tattoo Murder Case, and I was equally impressed. This book is far less of a mystery, with the true identity of the culprit being easy to reason out, and much more of a psychological profile of a nation, showing a greater depth and intensity than his earlier work.

Based on a true story, “The Informer” delves into the world of the industrial spy, someone who uses connections and lies to weasel out secret information that would prove valuable if sold. This was a popular topic during the era, such as the 1958 film Giants & Toys and 1962’s Black Test Car. The Economic Miracle was just beginning, and businessmen were ruthless in their pursuit of competitive advantage, and willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill if it meant getting ahead.

In this novel we have Shigeo Segawa, a hapless fellow who got caught playing the stocks with company money and subsequently finds himself ruined. He is offered two lifelines, one from the hand of Mikio Sakai, a company owner who offers Segawa a Faustian bargain, but something he isn’t able to turn down, and one from the hand of Eiko Murozaki, and old lover whom Segawa had never forgotten but who reappears in his life suddenly. The spider-web of intrigues grown from there until Segawa is caught in a cleverly spun trap, and the game is afoot.

A novel without heroes, the story is told mostly from Segawa’s point of view as he is relentlessly hunted by the city’s chief prosecutor Kirishima, an almost amoral character who doesn’t seem to mind seeing more innocent bodies fall if it helps him untwist the web. Having a lawyer as the investigator was an interesting twist, and author Takagi had a keen insight into its mysteries, and in fact served as special advocated during a famous trial. The mystery aspect of the case is not too hard to unravel, but that doesn’t make the psychological interplay any less fascinating.

The tone of The Informer reminded me of No Country for Old Men, although the plots have nothing in common. One gets the sense that in the 1960’s world of Japanese business, there aren’t going to be any happy endings, and as long as someone is sitting in jail then justice is satisfied, regardless of whether the guilty party has been caught or not.

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