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February 21, 2014

The "Ero-Guro" mysteries of Edogawa Ranpo

Edogawa Ranpo (real name Hirai Taro, 1894-1965; Ranpo is also spelled as "Rampo") is Japan's greatest pre-war writer of crime stories. And, like Okamoto Kido - but in his own way -, he is very Japanese. Instead of writing the type of puzzle mysteries that were popular in England and America in the 1920s and 1930s (except in a handful of early stories), he choose to write in the genre of Ero-Guro-Nansensu or “Erotic, Grotesque Nonsense.” Called Ero-Guro for short, this was a Japanese cultural movement that emphasized eroticism and decadence. “Guro” refers to things that are malformed, unnatural or horrific. This interest in the deviant and bizarre came up in the 1920s, in a social atmosphere of nihilistic hedonism. But it has older roots in Japanese culture: it goes for example back to such 19th century ukiyo-e artists as Yoshitoshi, who depicted decapitations and other acts of violence, including bondage. There was also a similar streak of the macabre with sexual overtones in the Kabuki, as in the famous "horror" play Yotsuya Kaidan. And today we still find it in certain manga and anime, as well as some Japanese cult films.

[Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: Eimei nijuhasshuku
(Twenty-eight famous murders; from Wikipedia)]

We also find the association of the macabre with the erotic in the Japanese literature of the period: Edogawa Ranpo was very much inspired by the novels and stories of Tanizaki Junichiro, who did write many of such erotically tinted, macabre stories in the first decades of the 20th century, starting with the famous The Tattooer from 1910. Interestingly, Tanizaki also tried his hand at quite a few crime stories. As in Ranpo, we often find neurotic confessions. Take for example the story "The Secret" ("Himitsu"), translated by Anthony Chambers in The Gourmet Club, about a man suffering from ennui who experiments with cross-dressing to savor the thrill of duplicity. So Edogawa Ranpo is rather a "Tanizaki for the masses." Tanizaki and Edogawa Ranpo knew each other personally and Tanizaki supported Ranpo as an artist.

Hirai Taro was born into the family of an ex-samurai in Mie Prefecture and, after studying economics at Waseda University in Tokyo, had a whole string of odd jobs before settling down as author. This was in 1923, after the success of his first detective story, “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” ("Nisen doka"), which was the first story written by a Japanese to focus on logical deduction (ratiocination). Hirai wrote under the pen name Edogawa Ranpo, a conscious homage to Edgar Allan Poe (when you pronounce it quickly, it indeed resembles the English name; the meaning of the Japanese characters is tongue-in-cheek “A leisurely stroll along the River Edo”).  As the selection of his pen name already shows, Edogawa Ranpo felt closer to this author of the macabre than to the "scientific" Arthur Conan Doyle of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He wrote in fact only a handful of straight detective stories and soon Ero-Guro elements start to proliferate, before in the 1930s wholly taking over his fiction. His strongest works are those which contain a combination of both, such as Beast in the Shadows (Inju, see below). Wholly Ero-Guro novels are for example Blind Beast (Moju) and Black Lizard (Kurotogake), both from the 1930s, but there are many others.

Later, circumstances would force Ranpo to give up this type of fiction. When Japan entered upon its several mid-century wars, society frowned on Ero-Guro and even detective novels, so Ranpo switched to writing adventure stories for boys, which he continued to do for many decades. And after the war, although he did write some original creative work, Ranpo was in the first place active in the critical field, where he made a large contribution to establishing the mystery novel as an important literary genre. He also set up a new magazine, Hoseki (Jewel), which took over the function of Shin Seinen as the main magazine outlet for detective stories. But in the postwar years, the time of Ero-Guro was long past, so we find Edogawa Ranpo pleading for the puzzle detective, a subgenre he himself hardly practiced...

[Edogawa Ranpo; photo from Wikipedia]

Let's have a look at some of Ranpo's major works:

"The Two-Sen Copper Coin" ("Ni-sen Doka," 1923). This is Edogawa Ranpo's first detective story, published in the magazine Shin Seinen (New Youth), which thanks to Ranpo's contributions became the main venue for detective stories in the 1920s and 1930s. The magazine was meant for young adults, but seems also to have appealed to a somewhat more mature generation. In this first Ranpo story figures a code, as in Poe's "The Golden Bug." But Ranpo was only inspired by the idea of using a code and borrowed nothing else, his story is wholly original. So is the code Ranpo introduces, based on the Japanese braille combined with the Buddhist invocation "Namu Amida Butsu." This first detective story by Ranpo contains an instance of ingenious ratiocination, but interestingly, at the end Ranpo reveals that the narrator has played a trick on his roommate, the would-be detective, so that the rug is pulled from under the reader's feet who is left with a hoax. In other words, from the very start Ranpo seems not very interested in writing "straight" detective stories in the style of his American and English contemporaries (Van Dine, Christie, Queen and Carr)!
The story has been masterfully translated by Jeffrey Angles in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler.

"The Case of the Murder at D-Slope" ("D-zaka no satsujin jiken," 1925). The story in which Ranpo's serial detective, Akechi Kogoro, makes his first appearance, and for once a classical detective story. Interestingly, it is a very Japanese variant of the "locked room mystery." In the traditional Japanese house with its sliding doors and movable partitions, a locked room does not exist - there often are not even locks! But in a busy down-town neighborhood of Tokyo (in the story, the real district of Dangozaka in Sendagi is used), people are always watching each other - this "mutual surveillance" creates in fact a virtual locked room. The beautiful wife of a second-hand book seller is found strangled in the living room behind the shop, but as various neighborhood people have been watching both the front and the back of the shop, it is impossible that a stranger has slipped in, so we have the equivalent of a "locked room." Akechi Kogoro is not the Western-suited dandy he would become later, but rather a poor student in traditional Japanese garb. Even in this classical story Ranpo could not desist from one of his favorite Ero-Guro elements: the murdered woman has died in the heat of a sadomasochistic game...
This story has not yet been translated. Discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008).

"The Psychological Test" ("Shinri Shiken,"1925). A student imitates Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in murdering an old woman and stealing her money. He thinks he has committed the perfect crime. It is not his sense of guilt which brings him to justice (as Dostoyevsky's protagonist), and neither is it the Western-style psychological test given him by Dr. Kasamori, which he passes rather too smoothly. No - it is Akechi Kogoro who catches this too great perfectionist in a psychological trap by asking the right questions - just like Judge Oka in the colorful days of the eighteenth century, concludes Edogawa Ranpo. What also reminds one of the Judge Oka stories is the fact that the identity of the criminal is already known to the reader - the emphasis is on the cleverness of the detective (see my post Hanshichi, Japan's first fictional detective).
This is one of the ten stories translated by James B. Harris together with the author and first published in 1956 as Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (still available as a reprint in Tuttle Books). The translator could not read Japanese but could speak and understand it; Edogawa Ranpo could read English but not speak it. Together they managed the translation, which was checked by Ranpo and can therefore be called an "authorized" version. Although not very literal, it manages to catch the atmosphere of the stories rather well.

"The Human Chair" ("Ningen Isu," 1925). One of Ranpo's most grotesquely erotic stories: a man hides in a Western armchair to enjoy the feeling of female bodies sitting on top of him. Yoshiko is a talented authoress who shuts herself up in her study to write every day after her husband has left for the Foreign Office. One morning, she receives a manuscript in which the "chair man" (who is a furniture maker) confesses his strange obsession, which finds its origin in his ugliness and the aversion women feel towards him. First he inhabits the hollow space inside an upholstered armchair he has made for the lobby of a Western-style hotel where he is "caressed" by many different female bottoms - mostly of foreign origin. Then the hotel closes and the chair is sold to a high-ranking official, who puts it in the study of his wife. The chair man develops a deep feeling of love for this purely Japanese woman, enjoying her featherlike gentleness of touch, while he lovingly cradles her on his knees - the reader can already see Yoshiko's shock coming, as she sits reading the manuscript in that very chair... but there is another twist at the end. This is not a detective story, but a pure Ero-Guro artifact in the mock confessional style of Tanizaki Junichiro.
Translation included in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle Books). 

"The Red Chamber" ("Akai heya," 1925). A sort of "secret society" of Japanese men meets regularly in a Gothic room to share horror tales - a setting that reminded me of certain stories by Stevenson. Tonight, a new member, T., will share his first tale of horror. He tells how, out of chronic ennui, he began committing crimes only for the sake of finding excitement. At that time, incidentally, he discovered a way to murder without being caught: by causing fatal accidents of which random people become the victim - for example by having a blind masseur walk right into a construction pit, or calling out to an old woman who is crossing a busy street, so that she hesitates and is hit by a trolley. Of cause he takes care that he seems to have no responsibility for these deaths. His murder count stands at 99, he says - who will be the next victim? Of course there is an interesting twist at the end, even a double one.
Translation included in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle Books).  

The Dwarf (Issun-boshi, 1926). A sprawling Ero-Guro novel, in which Akechi Kogoro faces off with a mysterious, evil dwarf. Michiko, a young upper class woman has disappeared. Her beautiful mother, Yurie, calls in Akechi but it seems already too late as the victim's limbs are appearing in various places all over Tokyo. The dwarf has been spotted in nightly Asasuka Park carrying a female arm around and he has also been on the scene in a department store where a mannequin showing the latest kimono fashion boasts an arm which is too real to be true. But the dwarf's repertory of evil is not yet exhausted: next we find him, wearing prostheses to hide his stunted limbs, blackmailing Yurie into a rendezvous... he has been in love with her for ten years, he confesses...
Together with Blind Beast, the present story served as the basis for Ishii Teruo's self-produced (and no-budget) DV-shot Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf (Moju vs Issunboshi, 2004), featuring director Tsukamoto Shin'ya in the role of Akechi Kogoro.
This story has not yet been translated. Discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008).

"The Stalker in the Attic" ("Yaneura no Sanposha," 1926). In this masterful tale Ranpo combines Ero-Guro and detection elements. It is set in a newly built boarding house, where Goda Saburo - a young man bored with life, who seeks thrills by cross-dressing and going out in disguise like the protagonist in Tanizaki's "The Secret" - discovers that via the large Japanese-style built-in cupboard in his room, he has access to the unused attic which runs above all the rooms of the boarding house. He finds a new voyeuristic thrill by spying through cracks in the floor on his fellow boarders as a Peeping Tom. Also just for a thrill, he decides to murder a fellow boarder, Endo, who has the habit of sleeping with wide open mouth below one such a hole in the wooden ceiling. The method Goda uses is very ingenious, but he is no match for detective Akechi Kogoro.
The various film versions made of this story strongly emphasize the Ero-Guro elements and even introduce new ones (such as the 1976 "pink eiga" version by Tanaka Nobuo) - in comparison Ranpo's story is even rather tame.
Translated by Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press 2008).

Strange Tale of Panorama Island (Panorama-to Kidan, 1926). A short novel on the theme of the doppelganger and appropriated identity. Hitomi Hirosuke is a poor man who dreams of creating a utopia on earth. He sees his chance when a rich man, Komoda, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, dies - Hitomi fakes his own suicide and then takes over the life of Komoda, pretending to have been only apparently dead. There is one problem: Komoda's wife will undoubtedly notice the difference when he sleeps with her, so he tries to practice abstention, but that is not at all easy as Chiyoko is very beautiful... He throws himself, however, into his project of turning an uninhabited island that belongs to the Komoda family into his dreamed utopia, "Panorama Island." He fills the whole island with clever optical illusions and mechanically produced simulated realities. When the island utopia is finished, Hitomi takes "his" wife to visit the island together. In the meantime, his false identity has been guessed by her and he decides to kill her during the visit.
Together with Koto no Oni, this story formed the (loose) inspiration for Horrors of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen, 1969) by Ishii Teruo - see my review in Best Japanese Cult Movies.
Translated by Elaine Kazu Gerbert (University of Hawai'i Press, 2013). 

Beast in the Shadows (Inju, 1928). A novella that again combines classic detective elements with the erotic and grotesque. It also contains the doppelganger motif we so often find in Ranpo's fiction. The narrator is a detective novelist who is asked for help by an alluring young woman named Shizuko. She claims she is receiving threatening letters from a jilted lover who also is a detective novelist (a rival of the narrator) who apparently writes Ero-Guro mysteries under the pen name Oe Shundei. The letters contain many intimate details, as if Shundei is even peeping into her bedroom from above the ceiling (like "The Stalker in the Attic") and observing her relation with her husband, a rich businessman. However, the narrator is led to believe that Shizuko's husband is the culprit, and that he is impersonating Shundei who in fact does not exist. A riding crop the narrator spots in the couple's bedroom suggests a sadomasochistic relationship. In the meantime, the narrator and Shizuko slip into a secret romance. Then the husband is found murdered, his body drifting in the River Sumida which flows behind the house. Now the narrator starts thinking that perhaps Shizuko is the culprit - she may have used the story about Shundei as a ruse to be able to murder her husband. But when Shizuko commits suicide because of the accusations leveled at her, the narrator is shocked... was his suspicion of Shizuko premature? Does a man called Shundei exist or is he purely fictional? Where lies the truth? Although there is a lot of ratiocination in this story, it ultimately leads nowhere, as if Ranpo wants to say that in a world of doppelgangers and mirrors the truth is elusive.
This novella was filmed in 1977 by Kato tai as Edogawa Ranpo no Inju.
Translation by Ian Hughes included in The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows (Kurodahan Press 2006). Discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008).

"The Caterpillar" ("Imomushi," 1929). The "caterpillar" is the symbol for Lieutenant Sunaga, a war veteran whose body has been terribly mutilated in battle: he has lost both legs and arms, and can neither hear nor speak. He has only his eyesight left. The lieutenant crawls through the room like a hideous insect, in nothing resembling the handsome man he once was. His wife, who has to nurse him, is filled with hatred for this ugly lump of flesh, but at the same time she is strangely attracted to it. She plays cruel games with her amputee husband, the stress and sexual frustration arouse her basest instincts, leading to further mutilation and ultimate disaster. This has been interpreted as an antiwar story, but in fact, the emphasis is wholly on the Ero-Guro elements. 
"The Caterpillar" is one of the four short films in the compilation Ranpo Jigoku (Rampo Noir) from 2005, an episode filmed by "splatter" and "pink movie" director Sato Hisayasu. The story also served as the basis for the film Caterpillar (Kyatapira), made by Wakamatsu Koji in 2010, in which the antiwar message has become central. 
Translation included in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle Books); also translated by Michael Tangeman in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler.

The Demon of the Desert Isle (Koto no Oni, 1929-30). Called one of "the most deliberately, bizarrely outre of Ranpo's works" (Mark Silver), a hybrid between a murder mystery, adventure tale and science fiction. Before the main story gets underway, Hatsuyo, the girlfriend of the narrator (an ordinary accountant named Minoura) has been found murdered in a locked room; the mystery is solved by a detective - the culprit is a ten-year old child contortionist, who is himself murdered before the motive can be made clear. The main story is the quest for that motive, which brings Minoura with his friend Moroto (who pesters him with homosexual advances) to a desert isle presided over by Takegoro, a hunchback and a sort of Japanese Dr. Moreau, who wants to "rid Japan of healthy people and fill it with freaks." His project is to abduct children, stunt their growth in tight-fitting boxes, and surgically graft foreign body parts unto them, even animal fur. Among the children is an adolescent pair of opposite-sex Siamese twins who have been surgically attached at the hip - one a beautiful young woman, the other a foul-mouthed and unkempt boy. The young woman proves to be Hatsuyo's sister, and the motive for the original murder is a treasure belonging to her family, which lies buried deep in the catacombs under the island. Minoura manages to find it and finally marries Hatsuyo's sister (after she has been surgically detached from the boy), but his hair has literally become white because of all the dangers he has had to face...
Together with Panorama-to Kidan, this story formed the (loose) inspiration for Horrors of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen, 1969) by Ishii Teruo - see my review in Best Japanese Cult Movies.
This story has not yet been translated. Discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008).

The Blind Beast (Moju, 1931). Pure Ero-Guro: a deranged, blind sculptor captures a singer and imprisons her in a labyrinth of giant sculptured body parts, before killing and dismembering her and scattering her limbs, head and torso all over Tokyo. But far from being satisfied, the blind killer continues on his sexually-charged spree of amputation and decapitation, all with one purpose: an exhibition of human sculptures which are a bit too life-like for comfort...
This story was used as the inspiration for Moju: The Blind Beast, a great cult film made in 1969 by Masumura Yasuzo (see my review in Best Japanese Cult Films; also see my post on Masumura Yasuzo). 
Translated by Anthony Whyte (Shinbaku Books, 2009).

Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1934). Pure Ero-Guro camp. Akechi Kogoro competes in cleverness with the Queen of the Underworld, the Black Lizard, who has kidnapped the daughter of a jeweller to obtain a precious diamond. The finale plays out in the secret lair of the Black Lizard on a remote island, where she keeps an eerie collection of naked life-size dolls...
Made into a great cult film by Kinji Fukasaku in 1968 (see my review in Best Japanese Cult Films).
Translation by Ian Hughes included in The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows (Kurodahan Press 2006).

The Fiend with Twenty Faces (Kaijin Nijumenso, 1936). Due to the wars waged by Japan in the second half of the 1930s, both classical and Ero-Guro mysteries were increasingly frowned upon by society, so Edogawa Ranpo moved to mystery and adventure stories for boys, starting with The Fiend with Twenty Faces in 1936. Akechi Kogoro figures as detective in the story and he is helped by a twelve year old boy called Kobayashi (as well as "the Boy Detectives Club") in his fight against an Arsene Lupin-like master-thief, called "The Fiend with the Twenty Faces." Ranpo wrote 34 installments in this long-running and very popular series (the last one dates from 1962), often recycling and infantilizing previous work. It at least has the merit that it made a whole generation of Japanese enthusiastic for the detective genre, which helped foster the postwar boom of the genre. The "Fiend with Twenty Faces" became a proverbial celebrity, and also Akechi Kogoro probably has at least part of his great fame to thank to this series of adolescent novels.
The 2008 film K-20: Legend of the Mask by Sato Shimako only borrows the characters of Akechi and Kobayashi, its plot is based on a novel by Kitamura So and has no direct relation with Edogawa Ranpo.
Translated by Dan Luffey for Kurodahan Press (2011). 


Edogawa Ranpo is still a popular writer in Japan, as attested to by the many films and TV dramas that are being based on his stories. In the authoritative Tozai Mystery Best 100 list, published by Bungei Shunju, he is present with several works, both in the list from 1985 and the updated version from 2012. "The Two-Sen Copper Coin," Strange Tale of Panorama Island, Beast in the Shadows and The Demon of the Desert Isle figure on both lists; "The Psychological Test" and "The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture" in addition on the 1985 list. 
Edogawa Ranpo's works are easily available in various versions; my preference goes to the Edogawa Ranpo Zenshu in 30 volumes published as large, brick-like paperbacks by Kobunsha. The literary publisher Iwanami Shoten has also recently discovered Ranpo in their short story collection Edogawa Ranpo Tanpenshu. 
Long neglected by academia, we now see a blossoming of theses on this author, including the detailed discussion in Purloined Letters, Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature 1868-1937 by Mark Silver (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008). In Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler, Ranpo is discussed as an important example of the modernist trend in Japan. About Ero-Guro in general, see Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times by Miriam Silverberg (2006).

February 13, 2014

Hanshichi, Japan's first fictional detective

The first fictional detective of Japanese origin was not a copy of an imported thinking machine a la Holmes, but a trusted old Edo-period sleuth called Hanshichi. It seems right that Japan first delved into its own culture before wholeheartedly adapting the foreign detective story to its needs.

Hanshichi, the detective created by Okamoto Kido in 69 stories written between 1917 and 1937, also has the honor of being the first Japanese serial investigator – appearing seven years earlier than Edogawa Ranpo's Akechi Kogoro. The Hanshichi stories are intrinsically Japanese. Perhaps Okamoto was indebted to Conan Doyle (read avidly in the original English original by him) for the idea of writing detective stories in itself, but in fact the strongest model for Hanshichi are Edo-period crime stories as those about the wise judge Oka Echizen.

In the Edo-period (1600-1868), Japan knew the genre of crime stories but these were very different from the modern Western crime novel. Crime literature consisted of courtroom narratives such as Iharu Saikaku's Honcho Oin Hiji (Trials in the Shade of a Cherry Tree, 1689; based on the Chinese Tangyin Bishi) and the anonymous Oka Seidan (Oka's Rulings). These stories emphasized the authority of the state in the form of wise and infallible judges. The criminal would be known to the reader from the start and the suspense was wholly on the question how the judge would discover him. Forced confessions and torture were also part of the trial. Based on Chinese examples and thus strongly influenced by moralistic Confucianism, these stories also put a strong emphasis on the punishment of the victim, often described in gruesome detail. Punishment was important, because the balance of Heaven which had been upset by the crime, had to be restored.

Oka Tadasuke (1677-1752), also known as Oka Echizen no Kami, who was famous for his acumen and fairness, was not a judge in the Western sense (these did not exist in premodern Japan), but a magistrate. He was machibugyo or civil governor of Edo under the shogun Yoshimune in the early part of the 18th c. One of the most famous stories in the Oka Seidan is called "The Case of the Stolen Smell." An innkeeper accuses a poor student of stealing the smell of his cooking. As this was evidently a case of paranoia on the part of the innkeeper, everyone expected Oka to throw the case out as ridiculous. Instead, he came to the following judgment: he ordered the student to pass the money he had in one hand to his other hand, ruling that the price of the smell of food is the sound of money!

In the Meiji-period, the old Edo-tales were replaced by another wave of moralism: on the one hand sensational stories about criminal woman as poisoners (there was a surge of interest in this subject after a notorious case), on the other hand very free adaptations of 19th c. Western adventure and crime novels such as those by newspaper editor Kuroiwa Ruiko (1862-1920). Kuroiwa also wrote two original novels, but the intention remained a moralistic one, not so remote from the confessional narratives of criminals appearing in the other pages of his mass publications. So we have to wait until 1917 for the appearance of Japan's first real detective, Hanshichi.

Hanshichi was the creation of Okamoto Kido (1872-1939), the son of a former senior retainer of the Shogunate. Due to a decline in his family's fortunes, Okamoto could not attend university, but started working as a journalist and reviewer of stage works. The stage was his real love and he also wrote plays himself – his breakthrough came in 1911 with the play Shuzenji Monogatari, which is still occasionally staged. He also wrote modernized Kabuki plays (Shin-Kabuki). Okamoto considered his stage work as his main accomplishment, rather than the detective and other fiction he wrote.

Posterity has judged differently: Okamoto's fame now rests in the first place on his Hanshichi stories, which have never gone out of print and are still available in various editions, from pocketbooks to ebooks. Okamoto called his stories “torimonocho,” or “casebooks,” and this designation was adopted by several other authors of historical detective fiction.

Of course, detectives in the modern sense did not yet exist in the Edo-period. Hanshichi is an okappiki, a helper of the machibugyo who was hired in an unofficial capacity. It was the task of the okappiki to make arrests, but also do a certain amount of investigation to solve cases. In that sense the job was indeed somewhat comparable to that of a detective on the police force. Okamoto has wisely left out another aspect of the okappiki's job, that of torturing criminals to obtain a confession.

On the contrary, Hanshichi is not violent at all, but rather a wise man like Okamoto's historical model, Oka Echizen. He is also very Japanese. Culturally, Japan was not a country of logical reasoning, but rather of intuition (think Zen), and that difference is clear when you compare Hanshichi to Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes. Hanshichi does not use ratiocination, but rather his intuition plus his detailed knowledge of Edo, the city in which he lived. Besides that, he is also helped by simple good luck and coincidence.

Hanshichi is also not a law-enforcer in the Anglo-Saxon sense, where the law is abstractly upheld without regard for persons or circumstances. Hanshichi is a humane man and above all he is out to uphold the fabric of society. He may spare a criminal in order to preserve the reputation of a certain family, he avoids creating waves that would upset society.

The Hanshichi stories belong to the sub-category of the historical mystery, which only took off in the West after the boost by Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in 1980, while in Japan it stood at the head of detective fiction. One could say that besides Hanshichi, the city of Edo itself is also an important "character" in these stories, with its samurai mansions and its brothels, its teahouses and its bathhouses, and its colorful superstitions. The stories are full of interesting characters and events and the pace is fast. The mystery elements are limited and there is no menace or danger. Instead, there is a lot of good humored fun.

The stories have been written according to a fixed template but Okamoto's inspiration never flags. He also deftly uses a double time frame: the stories themselves take place somewhere in the middle of the 19th century (50s and 60s), but they always start with an introduction placed in the Meiji-period (80s and 90s) in which the retired Hanshichi tells one of his experiences to the young Okamoto.

The feeling of nostalgia for a past irrevocably ended is strong, and Okamoto has been called reactionary for his looking back to Edo (for example by Mark Silver in Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature), but he does not idealize. Moreover, Edo nostalgia was popular at the time he started writing about Hanshichi – think for example of the stories of Nagai Kafu as The River Sumida (1911). The Hanshichi stories are made all the more interesting because of the encyclopedic knowledge of the Edo-period Okamoto Kido could bring to his project.

The original stories are available online at Aozora Bunko. They have also been published as Kindle editions and on paper as Bunkobon (Kobunsha and others). 
We are lucky to have a magnificent translation of the first fourteen stories by Ian MacDonald as The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi: Detective Stories of Old Edo. Warmly recommended. (Avoid the slight adaptations made of four stories by Edgar Seidensticker as The Snake that Bowed - these are insipid and not worthy of the great translator).

February 6, 2014

Setsubun Rite (Tsuinashiki) in the Nagata Shrine in Kobe

Monday (February 3) was Setsubun (see my previous post about the Setsubun Festival), a festival that welcomes the start of spring and therefore a new beginning. This is done by purifying oneself and getting rid of all bad things - these "bad things" are symbolized as demons that are driven out. In this way, one can spend the year in good health. Temples and shrines all over Japan hold Setsubun ceremonies and rituals. Some of these are very superficial, such as those of Zojoji in Tokyo or the Ikuta Shrine in Kobe, where popstars, sports people and other cardboard figures throw handfuls of soy beans at the spectators. But there also exist interesting ceremonies with deep historical roots, such as those of the Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto, or the Nagata Shrine in Kobe.


The Nagata Shrine stands in the area of Kobe that was hit hardest by the 1995 earthquake. The town has been rebuilt by pouring tons of concrete, but the Nagata Shrine stands in a small wood and seems far away from the danchi (clusters of apartment buildings). The oldest record about the shrine dates from the 9th century. But, on the other hand, archeological finds show there was a community in this area already in the Yayoi-period (200 BCE - 200 CE). The shrine probably originated in an old cult place of this community where nearby Mt Takatori (a so-called kannabi or sacred mountain) was venerated, so it does go back a long time, although in a more misty way than mythology asserts - in myth, its founding is ascribed to the ahistorical Empress Jingu, who presumably passed here in 201 CE on her way back from just such an ahistorical "conquest of Korea." Forget mythology - the shrine must have originated in a nature cult, like so many old shrines in Japan, and its amorphous kami was later deified, as happened all over the country when powerful clans took the reins and projected their deified ancestors over the originally formless natural forces. The ancestor deity here is Kotoshironushi, who came from the politically ascendant Yamato area (Nara area). It was probably adopted by the clan ruling at the foot of Mt Takatori to express an alliance with a powerful Yamato clan.


As all shrines in Japan, for most of its history the Nagata Shrine was under the management of Buddhism, until the forced (and unnatural) separation of the two creeds by the Meiji Government in the early 1870s. Before the Meiji regime destroyed them, there also stood several temple buildings in the shrine grounds. One of these was a hall dedicated to Yakushi, the Buddha of Healing, and it was at this Yakushi Hall that the tsuinashiki Setsubun rite developed in the Muromachi period (1337-1573).


The rite features several oni (demons) who are played by costumed men wearing ancient wooden demon masks. The men must be supporters of the shrine for many years and they undergo seclusion and purification the night before the ceremony. Carrying a large torch (taimatsu) and with a sword on the left side, they dance a pantomime on the stage in front of the shrine. During the dance they strike various poses (almost like sumo wrestlers), glaring at the public and swaying their torches to shower sparks on the devotees. This "purification by fire" has the same meaning as the large Omizutori ceremony at Todaiji in Nara in mid-March. The flames of the torches burn away all calamitous influences, just as the blades of the swords symbolically cut away all evil coming near.


The dance is accompanied by the beat of a large drum and blowing on horagai (conch shells). In the evening, the ceremony (which starts at 14:00) ends with a mochi cracking ceremony, after which the onlookers take home bits of the extinguished torches and pieces of the cracked mochi.

P.S. It is also customary to eat Ehomaki, large uncut sushi rolls on Setsubun.
The Nagata Shrine is a 7 min walk N of Kosoku Nagata St on the Hankyu/Hanshin/Sanyo Dentetsu lines, or Nagata St on the Kobe subway line. The annual festival of the shrine is held on Oct. 17-19. The shrine is also a popular Hatsumode destination.