Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

March 10, 2012

Japanese Masters: Matsumoto Seicho (writer)

Matsumoto Seicho (1909-1992; 松本清張) was one of Japan’s most popular writers of the second half of the 20th century. He produced a steady stream of works, totaling more than 450. Initially, Matsumoto worked on the border between literature and mass fiction - in 1953, for example, he won the prestigious literary Akutagawa Prize for Aru Kokura nikki den ("A Legend of the Kokura Diary"). He wrote contemporary stories and novels, but also historical ones and of course the mystery fiction for which he is in the first place famous. He also wrote a lot of non-fiction, such as essays about history, travel and early Japanese history and archaeology.

Matsumoto Seicho was born in Kokura (now part of Kitakyushu). His father didn't have a fixed job and as the family was poor, Matsumoto had to start working after Middle School. He was employed by an electronics firm, and after that worked for several printing companies. In his free time, he read books - one of his great interests was the writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Despite his lack of a college education, Matsumoto was very well-read. In 1937, Matsumoto joined the advertisement department of the Western Japan Office of the Asahi Newspaper, where he designed layouts. In 1943 he was called up for military service and stationed in Korea as a medical corpsman. After the war, he returned to the newspaper, where he designed travel posters.

Matsumoto's first short story, Saigo-satsu, saw the light in 1951 - not because Matsumoto longed to be an author, but rather because he saw it as a way of increasing his too meager income (he supported three generations, both his wife, his parents and his children). He entered the story in a Shukan Asahi contest where it took third prize; it was also nominated for the Noma Prize. This gave Matsumoto the confidence to make the move to Tokyo.

In 1952, he published Aru Kokura nikki den in a literary magazine - and the next year this short story won the 28th Akutagawa Prize, a prestigious prize for starting literary authors. He also started working for the Asahi newspaper, but gave this job up after only three years to devote himself solely to writing. In the first years of his career, Matsumoto exclusively wrote short stories, in three genres, historical, contemporary and mystery - together they fill six volumes.

Matsumoto wrote his first mystery stories, Harikomi and Kao, in 1955. Kao won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1957, the year that Matsumoto started serializing his first mystery novel, Ten to sen. Together with another Matsumoto mystery, Me no kabe, when published in book form in 1958, this became a huge national bestseller. 1958 was a watershed in the genre, people would speak about "before Matsumoto Seicho" and "after Matsumoto Seicho." The late fifties were a true "Seicho boom," and Matsumoto wrote so much that he suffered from severe writer's cramp and had to start dictating his work. He had a great work ethic and sometimes worked on as much as five books at the same time. Matsumoto, by the way, was a "late bloomer," at the time of his great breakthrough he was already 50 years of age.

Three things were new in Ten to sen ("Points and Lines"):
  1. It was a realistic police procedural, different from the mysteries with an eccentric detective a la Holmes or Poirot, which were being written for example by Yokomizo Seishi - Matsumoto shows ordinary police officers doing a real job
  2. It was a "social mystery" ("shakai-ha misteri"), that is to say, at the background of the crime was a form of social injustice, for example a corrupt official - Matsumoto singlehandedly created this subgenre which would  have countless followers - see for example Mizukami Tsutomu - the mystery novel would never be the same in Japan; 
  3. It was a "railroad mystery or travel mystery" ("toraberu misteri"). Trains are a popular form of transport in Japan, more so perhaps then in other countries. The late 1950s were a time when Japan was getting on its feet again and people were starting to make holiday trips by rail. In Points and Lines, not only do the detectives travel a lot by train in the course fo their job, the solution of the crime lies in a trick with the time table (by the way, something only possible in a country like Japan where all trains run exactly on time!). Other Matsumoto works to feature railroads include Me no kabe (The Walls Around the Eyes, 1958) and Zero no shoten (Zero Focus, 1959). Here, too, Matsumoto would have many followers, such as Nishimura Kyotaro who exclusively dedicated himself to railroad mysteries.
Matsumoto Seicho's most popular mystery novels would be Suna no Utsuwa (1961), which sold more than 4.5 million copies and Zero no Shoten (1960), which sold 2.4 million copies (Ten to sen sold 3.1 million). More than 35 films were based on his novels, most noticeably by director Nomura Yoshitaro; the number of TV films is many times as large.

Matsumoto's awareness of social issues also led him to publish books as Nihon no kuroi kiri ("Black Fog Over Japan", 1962), an exposé of 11 enigmatic incidents that occurred during the US Occupation, and Showa-shi hakkutsu ("Unearthing Showa History," 1965–72), a nonfiction account of the Japanese military from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s. This last work won the Kikuchi Kan Prize in 1970.

His interest in history also remained strong and took form not only in novels as Kagero ezu ("The Transitory Plan," 1959), about the last years of the ex-shogun Tokugawa Ienari, but also in a host of writings about the "mysteries" inherent in Japanese earliest history, such as the search for the elusive Yamatai (an early Japanese country mentioned in Chinese sources). This type of writing in its turn reinforced the travel boom: people started visiting the various sites associated with ancient history.

In the 1960s, Matsumoto was Japan's bestselling and highest earning author. He chaired the Mystery Writers of Japan Association from 1963 to 1971. In the 70s and 80s, he continued writing, but also traveled internationally. His books were translated into many languages. At his death in 1992, he had achieved iconic status in Japanese culture and his work remains very popular - not only as pocket books, but also his collected works have been published. In Kitakyushu, near Kokura Castle, stands the Matsumoto Seicho Memorial Museum.

Selection of works:
  • Saigo's Currency (Saigo-satsu, 1951) - short story (historical)
    Saigo Takamori rebelled in 1877 and gave out military currency (called "Saigo-satsu"), a sort of war bonds, to finance his campaigns. A former follower of Saicho who has lost everything in the rebellion and is now a rickshaw man in Tokyo, hears the (false) rumor that the Meiji government will buy up all Saigo currency, and does his best to collect as much as possible...  Nominated for the Noma prize.  Made into a TV drama in 1964 and 1991.
  • A Legend of the Kokura Diary (Aru Kokura-nikki Den, 1952)  - short story   (contemporary)
    A physically disabled young man, Kosaku, is researching the famous author Mori Ogai. From 1899-1902 Ogai served as head of the Army Medical Corps in Kokura (now Kitakyushu). A diary he wrote about that period was presumably lost, so Kosaku tries to reconstruct it by searching out locals who knew Ogai. But his illness worsens and finally an unforeseen matter makes his work superfluous. Won the Akutagawa Prize.  Made into a TV drama in 1965 and 1993.
  • The Face (Kao, 1956)  -  short story  (mystery)
    A rising movie actor has murdered his girlfriend, a bar hostess. On the way to the distant spot where he lured her, one other person has by chance seen them together. Years later, when he is asked to play in a film, he is increasingly worried that witness may recognize his face on the screen... Filmed in 1957 with Okada Mariko.
  • The Voice (Koe, 1955)   -  short story   (mystery)
    Tomoko, a telephone operator at a newspaper, by coincidence makes a wrong call to a house where a murder has just taken place. Luckily, Tomoko has an iron memory for voices... Filmed in 1958 by Suzuki Seijun. 
  • The Stakeout (Harikomi,1955)   - short story   (mystery)
    This police procedural features Yuki, a Tokyo detective who travels to the southern city of Saga to solve a murder-robbery. From the second-floor window of a nearby inn, he stakes out the house of a banker, whose second wife is the former lover of the murder suspect. Yuki firmly believes that ultimately the murderer will come to see her... In 1958 made into a film by Nomura Yoshitaro, and featuring two detectives to make it more interesting on screen. The film aptly portrays the long train ride from Tokyo to Saga, the endless hours spent staking out the house, the intense summer heat, and the beautiful woman under the detectives' gaze (Takamine Hideko).
  • The Woman who Took the Local Paper (Chihoshi wo Kau Onna, 1957)   - short story (mystery)
    Shioda  Yoshiko, a bar hostess, lives in Tokyo and subscribes to a regional newspaper from Kofu - apparently out of interest for the novel that is serialized in it. In reality, she is waiting for the news of the discovery of the bodies of two lovers who have committed suicide in a famous ravine close to the city. When she cancels the subscription claiming that the serial has become boring, the novelist feels insulted and starts investigating her, with fatal consequences. In 1959 filmed as "Kiken na Onna." Eight times made into a TV drama between 1957 and 2007.
  • Wait One and a Half Years (Ichinenhan Mate, 1957)   - short story  (mystery)
    Satoko has murdered her husband but claims he was a very violent man. Supported by social commentators who denounce violent husbands as a prevalent problem, she gets a suspended sentence. But then something unforeseen happens... Eleven times made into a TV drama between 1960 and 2010. 
  • Points and Lines (Ten to Sen, 1958) - novel  (mystery)
    Typical railway mystery with a social dimension. That the suicide of a young couple on a secluded beach in Kyushu is not what it seems, comes to light thanks to the painstakingly gathering of evidence by two police officers. Not only has the murderer set up a false witness by making use of a  “four-minute blank” that allows a view of a neighboring platform at Tokyo Station, he has also created an alibi by an ingenious use of the timetable. Only possible in Japan where trains run exactly on time. The plot is realistic and related to a social problem, a scandal involving a powerful bureaucrat. Filmed in 1958 with Takamine Mieko. 
  • The Wall before the Eyes (Me no Kabe, 1958)  - novel  (mystery)
    A "social mystery" about illegal financial dealings in the corporate world. The financial manager of a company commits suicide after causing great loss through falsified cheques. His subordinate investigates and uncovers some dark secrets inside the company... Filmed by Oba Hideo in 1958.
  • The Savage (Kichiku, 1958)  - short story  (mystery)
    A man operating a printing workshop has three children with a mistress. When business goes bad and he can't support them, the children are dumped on him and his wife. The angry wife hates the children and wants him to get rid of them... Filmed by Nomura Yoshitaro in 1978 (in English brought out as "The Demon"), with Ogata Ken and Iwashita Shima.
  • Amagi-Pass (Amagi Goe, 1958)
    A 16 year old boy has run away from his home in Shimoda and on the Amagi Pass in Izu he meets a beautiful geisha and gets involved in a dark mystery, which, many years later, comes to haunt him... Filmed in 1983 by Nomura Yoshitaro.
  • Zero Focus (Zero no Shoten,1959)
    Only one week after Uhara Teiko has married Kenichi, her husband disappears while on a business trip to Kanazawa. Teiko travels across Japan to find him and discovers that he has been leading a double life... Filmed in 1961 by Nomura Yoshitaro; beautifully shot during the winter on location in the Noto Peninsula. Also six times remade as TV drama.
  • Tower of Waves (Nami no To, 1960)
    A public prosecutor has a  chance meeting with a mysterious woman in the theater. When she again appears before him, his destiny will be changed... Filmed by Nakamura Noboru in 1960; seven times made for TV.
  • Flags of Mist (Kiri no Hata, 1961)
    A young woman asks a famous lawyer to help her brother, who has been accused of murder but is innocent. The lawyer refuses and sends her away; after her brother has been mistakenly executed for murder, she plots revenge on the lawyer. Conveniently, he has some skeletons in the closet... Twice filmed, in 1965 by Yamada Yoji and in 1977 with Mikuni Rentaro and Yamaguchi Momoe. Also eight times made into a TV drama. Published by Random House as "Pro Bono."
  • The Vessel of Sand (Suna no Utsuwa, 1961)
    Again a "travel mystery." A successful musician kills a man who had once saved his life out of fear that his assumed identity will come to light. Published in English as "Inspector Imanishi Investigates" (Soho Crime press 2003). Filmed in 1974 by Nomura Yoshitaro, with Tanba Tetsuro and Kato Go. The film made Kamedake Station in Shimane Prefecture famous. Also five times made into a TV drama.
  • Bad Sorts (Warui Yatsura, 1961)
    The head of a private hospital is hard up for money, but he has several mistresses from whom he can borrow. When he falls in love with a famous fashion designer, he again needs lots of money... Filmed in 1980 by Nomura Yoshitaro, with Matsuzaka Keiko. Also 3 TV dramas.
  • The Globular Wilderness (Kyukei no Koya, 1962)
    A woman comes across handwriting that resembles her father's, a diplomat who died at the end of the war. She starts thinking that her father perhaps is still alive. An investigation rakes up the mud and bodies start falling... Filmed in 1975, also 7 times a TV drama.
  • Beast Alley (Kemono-Michi, 1964)
    After killing her sick husband, Tamako becomes the mistress of a kuromaku, a wirepuller in the political world. Although she leads a rich life, there is one man she can't forget... Made into a film by Sugawa Eizo in 1965 and 3 times a TV drama.
  • The Complex of D (D no Fukugo, 1968)
    A writer has been asked by a magazine to travel to locations where folktales are situated and write about his trips. But at each location strange accidents happen... A novel that combined Matsumoto's interest in mystery with his love of ancient history. 
  • Pocketbook of Black Leather (Kurokawa no Techo, 1980)
    An ordinary OL embezzles money from the bank where she works and uses it to buy a club on the Ginza where she becomes a famous Mama-san... Five times made into a TV drama.
  • Stairs that shine at Night (Yako no Kaidan, 1981)
    A hairdresser uses the women who are his customers to get higher on the social ladder. Four times made into a TV drama.
  • Suspicion (Giwaku, 1982) - short story
    When her husband dies in an accident, a rough-mouthed former bar hostess is suspected of murder and insurance fraud. In this courtroom drama she is defended by a lawyer who is a cool and elegant business woman. Filmed in 1982 by Nomura Yoshitaro with Iwashita Shima and Momoi Kaori.
  • Street of Desire (Irodorigawa, 1983)
    A murder mystery in the financial world, set on the nightly Ginza. Filmed in 1984.