What the best of Japanese noir says about democracy, authenticity and the nation
Shylashri Shankar | 16 Nov, 2016
HERE IS HOW you write a brilliant Japanese crime fiction novel. First, revive the sense of wonder, of the fantastic, in the crime by introducing a very attractive mystery. Create an element of surprise—a single mother murders her abusive ex-husband and a neighbour knocks on the door and offers to create a perfect alibi (Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X), or co-workers in a factory that assembles lunch boxes design a macabre way of getting rid of the body by chopping and packaging and distributing it in different parts of Tokyo (Natsuo Kirino’s Out). Then include the puzzle element of who did it (or if you already know that at the beginning, then show how that person evades the police). It is important to use science and rationality in this element; the solution to the mystery must be logical. Then layer it with the social, political or institutional tussles roiling Japanese society (the underling cannot contradict the boss even if the latter is wrong, about 1 million youth—mainly men—suffer from ‘hikikomori’, which means being confined, where they lock themselves in their bedrooms because they do not measure up to social norms). Create, in EM Forster’s words, ‘round’ and realistic characters. As Keigo Higashino points out in one of his interviews, “Rather than explain the significance of everything at the end of the book, I wanted to describe the characters’ actions and intentions at the beginning so I could better portray their feelings of guilt and anguish… Japanese people like it this way.” Even better if you bring in sadomasochistic elements. Also, if you can, tweak and play with past classics from other parts of the world.
Most of these elements infuse Keigo Higashino’s The Midsummer Equation. On one level, it is reminiscent of an English country house mystery, except that it is set in an inn on a once-prosperous summer resort. There is a cool and highly Western undercurrent running through the book’s plot and is evident in the technique deployed by the protagonist, a brilliant scientist and university professor, Manabu Yukawa aka Dr Galileo to his friends in the police. Yukawa arrives in Hari Cove on a train and his compartment companion, Kyohei, is the teenaged nephew of the owner of the Green Rock Inn. Kyohei is our guide in the novel. Yukawa decides to stay at the inn while attending a conference where he is supposed to speak about an underwater mining operation that wants to drill for a valuable ore found in rock off the seabed. The Cove’s denizens are divided on the issue. The environmentalists are led by Narumi, Kyohei’s older cousin sister, who is worried about the drill’s impact on the sea life and coral reefs, while their opponents who have seen the once-busy tourist spot dwindle into a backwater, pin their hopes on the development project. Though invited by the mining company as an expert, Yukawa is even-handed about the issue; he upbraids a company executive about not being honest, and also tells Narumi that she has to respect the other side’s work in order to find a true compromise. After a heated panel discussion, Galileo returns to the hotel and finds the Narumi’s parents frantic about the disappearance of the only other guest. He is found on the shore at the foot of a cliff by the hotel.
An accident, think the local police. But when the cause of death is carbon monoxide, and the victim turns out to be a former Tokyo homicide detective who could have been investigating an old crime, Tokyo gets involved. The police ask ‘Dr. Galileo’ for assistance. Yukawa’s investigation connects an ancient crime (a sometime Hari Cove resident was convicted of killing a Tokyo hostess) with the Green Inn family while traversing a labyrinth of love, guilt, shame, selfless acts and happiness. Alibis worthy of Agatha Christie, and split second timing reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers confound the detectives. But not our Galileo, who has been teaching the nephew scientific principles (firing water bottles into the ocean) for a school project. Yukawa’s avuncular sternness with Kyohei, and his concern for Narumi are especially charming since they reveal a kind awareness of human frailty. It would be fair to say that science reveals the murderer and the modus operandi, while the selfless (and almost suicidal) act of an important character bestows spiritual depth to the story.
The five books in Keigo Higashino’s Galileo series have sold more than 3.2 million copies in Japan. Another prolific writer of travel mysteries, Kyotaro Nishimura, had a taxable income of 393.5 million yen in 2003. Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama sold a million copies in Japan in six days! It is surprising that the Japanese, whom many foreigners view in clichéd terms as homogeneous, patriarchal, orderly, with low crime (except the triads who have their own spheres of activity that rarely impinge on a common citizen), are such dedicated readers of crime fiction. After all, unlike China, the Japanese do not have an indigenous tradition of crime and detection stories. It was only in late 19th century, as Japan borrowed ideas from the West, that the detective genre was first translated into the serialised novels in magazines. It is also surprising that a blend of science with a logical deductive method and a fantastical element characterises present day Japanese detective fiction. The starring role in the wonderfully atmospheric A Different Equation is played by scientific thinking, though leavened by an awareness of human frailty.
At another level, Higoshino’s books are a blend of science, social concerns and Honkaku, a concept proposed by Saburo Koga in 1925. Honkaku is a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning. In writing this way, Higoshino is returning to the theme that has infused state and citizen building in Japan in the 20th century—a close link between science, crime fiction and Japanese nationalism. Science and rational thinking were harnessed to nationalism by the imperial state to create a perfect imperial subject, and in the post-World War II democracy, a perfect Japanese citizen. Edogawa Rampo (a pen name which, if one pronounces fast in Japanese style sounds like ‘Edgar Allen Poe’ in whose honour it was assumed), a popular writer of fantastical detective stories in the 1920s and 30s decreed that the real scientific spirit was found in this genre. As Hiromi Mizuno points out in Science for the Empire: Scientific Nationalism in Modern Japan, promoting science was intimately connected with wartime patriotism and was often described as ‘scientific patriotism’ (kagaku hokoku), which literally means ‘serving the nation through science.’ The ideal of Japanese womanhood was symbolised in articles like Science of the Kitchen: The Conversation between the Housewife and her Maid, which emphasised the rationalisation of home management. By the early 1940s, the Ministry of Education mobilised the concept of scientific patriotism to educate the ideal Japanese citizen through sweeping reforms in the school system wherein science was given a significant role from the first grade onwards. The ideal imperial subject, as Mizuno points out, would be rational, creative and technologically skilful so that he or she could contribute to national defence and the rise of national power.
Post-war Japan continued to promote science; ‘scientific nationalism’, a term coined by Mizuno, survived in the post War era as a legitimate form of nationalism (especially when other forms were discredited post-War), and this was replicated in crime fiction. At the same time, in line with the advent of democracy in post-War Japan, social issues came to the fore, and were tackled by detective novels such as Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. Detective fiction came to have a close relationship with Japanese high literature, unlike in the West where detective fiction is dismissed as belonging to popular genre fiction and often relegated to the pulp fiction category—something that can be read once but not repeatedly like true literature. The term for a detective novel is ‘suiri shosetsu’ (novel of reasoning).
IN THE 1980S, a group of young writers published ‘authentic’ detective fiction. This group (who include Kirino and Higashino) revived the classic puzzle-type stories—so there was authenticity of form too, rather than simply of content. For instance, in an interview, Kirino said that the here and now of Japan is fraught with problems, especially between Japanese men and women, caused by the inability of most men to grasp that women want more than the usual ‘3-piece set’ of marriage, home and children. Not surprising then that Japan was no 101 (out of 145 nations) in the 2015 global gender equality rankings.
Six Four, the current publishing sensation from Japan, epitomises the sublime ‘high literature’ level that a Japanese police procedural can ascend to. Don’t be put off by the size. It is an easy read. At first I thought the numbers were the Japanese equivalent of ten four—‘message received.’ But it is the 64th year of the Showa emperor—the date on which a seven-year-old girl, Shoko, who had been kidnapped, and whose father, a pickle manufacturer had paid the ransom, was found dead in the boot of a car. The statute of limitations on Shoko’s murder is about to expire. The detective, Yoshinobu Mikami, who had been on the police team that had tracked the father during the ransom payment is now (20 years later) press director of the regional police, handling a set of disgruntled crime reporters. Mikami had initially tried to reform the relationship by being more honest with reporters, but when his own daughter, Ayumi, runs away, his world falls apart. His boss uses the disappearance to keep Mikami in his debt, and refrain from such independence. Each time there is an unidentified body of a young woman, Mikami and his wife get to view it for obvious reasons. At the start of the book, Mikami is informed by his superior that the police commissioner wants to launch a last-ditch attempt to find Shoko’s killer and also regain ‘face’ for the police. It is up to Mikami to get the father’s acquiescence and bring the press on board. A very difficult task, he finds, since the Press is extremely angry about the heavy-handed way the police (and the laws) filter information, and keep juicy details (in this instance a hit-and- run case) under a cloak of anonymity. Mikami revisits the Six Four case file and finds some unexplained matters including a glaring mistake by the police. There is a mysterious ‘Kobe memo’ that some within the police are anxious to suppress, and there is the matter of silent phone calls to Mikami’s residence, that may or may not be connected to Shoko and Ayumi. There is tension between Tokyo and the regional police, and the commissioner’s arrival may include a momentous announcement that could spell doom for one of the divisions. Mikami is stuck in a situation where he is viewed with suspicion by those in the media division because of his former assignment as a detective, while his former division members ask him if he has switched sides and become a lapdog of the media director. He has to navigate these difficulties, while trying to keep his job so that the police force will continue to search for his missing daughter. His wife remains glued to the telephone in case the daughter calls ‘again’. Another kidnapping occurs, and surprisingly follows the same trajectory as the Six Four case. The denouement is explosive, unexpected, yet highly satisfying. All these elements hook the reader.
Six Four’s appeal comes from the taut rendering of dilemmas that have universal resonance. We plunge into Mikami’s life conundrums such as the tussle between being a father, and being a loyal member of the police force; between loyalty to his old job and life and his new position. And we see him carve, without melodrama, a third way out of an either-or dilemma. The tone is detached, yet, as the novel progresses, we too savour Mikami’s realisations about what really matters to him and what is worth fighting for and going out on a limb. For instance, he realises that tactics can never genuinely move a person; that one had to tell the truth and trust the other person to keep it secret.
Six Four is a tour de force of a Japanese police procedural because of the deft, yet measured story-telling style, and the way in which the author handles the mysteries, the personal grief and the Machiavellian games of those who inhabit large organisations. In most police procedurals, the author would sketch a skeletal view of inter-departmental feuds, and the clashes between the detective and his or her superiors whose goals may require some moral slippages on the detective’s part. But in Six Four, we inhabit an intricately shaded drawing where each stroke of the pen captures yet another layer of questions confronting Japanese society and state institutions. Mikami had ‘hoped that they were both torn between their allegiances, single bodies with two minds, existing in a world where hierarchy was everything… but he’d been wrong.’ ‘The police force is monolithic,’ decrees Mikami’s rival (and now a senior officer) from his youthful days in a martial arts academy. Am I a father first or a member of a revered organisation? Is losing face worse than telling the truth? What happens to those who do not or are not allowed to reveal the truth? These questions are seamlessly woven in with present day woes of Japanese society. At the same time, foreign readers can connect to these dilemmas. Who has not witnessed or experienced the machinations of one’s colleagues, subordinates and bosses or confronted some of the questions faced by Mikami?
In Japanese textbooks of the 1930s, the emphasis was on making Japanese children think, observe (nature) and act rather than mechanically memorise information. Such thinking for oneself was a double-edged sword—a fact recognised by some ministry officials who said that students might start questioning Japanese history. At that time, the disconnect was resolved by linking science and ethics with the notion of a good imperial national subject. But today, in democratic Japan, it is more difficult to subdue dissent. That is precisely what ‘authentic’ crime fiction in Japan reflects—the questions asked by those who occupy unequal positions in a democratic nation.