The Master Key

The Master Key

Title: The Master Key
Japanese Title: 大いなる幻影 (Ōinaru gen’ei)
Author: Togawa Masako (戸川 昌子)
Translator: Simon Grove
Publication Year: 1985 (United States); 1962 (Japan)
Publisher: Dodd, Mead & Company
Pages: 198

The Master Key, first published in 1962 and set in the late 1950s, is an interesting window into a period of postwar Japan that we don’t often see represented in Japanese fiction in translation. The story takes place entirely within the closed world of the K Apartments for Ladies, a large, multi-story building located in southeast Ikebukuro and registered as a charitable trust with “rents pegged at wartime levels.”

On its surface, the story is about a 1951 kidnapping of a young boy who is the son of a Japanese woman and an American military officer. Seven years later, when the K Apartments building is lifted and moved to a different location in a grand public works experiment, the body of a child is discovered buried underneath a shared bathing area in the basement. Right around the time the child disappeared, a man dressed as a woman was struck by a van in an intersection near the apartment building, and it’s revealed to the reader early in the novel that this man disguised himself as a woman to help one of the tenants dispose of the body that would later be found in the building’s basement. Who in the apartment buried the body, and what relation does this have to the kidnapping incident?

About twenty pages into The Master Key, however, it becomes clear that the mystery portion of the story is going to take a backseat to an extended exploration of the inner worlds contained within the K Apartments for Ladies and the psychological dysfunctions of its aging tenants.

Ishiyama Noriko, who has been diagnosed with “nervous pains,” has removed herself from the rest of the world and lives in a dark apartment stuffed with other people’s trash, which she occasionally boils and eats to sustain herself. Yatabe Suwa, a former concert violinist who now gives music lessons to children, is haunted by the loss of potential represented by the theft of a violin from her own teacher, even though it’s possible that she herself may have more to do with this incident than she likes to admit. Kimura Yoneko retired from her position as a schoolteacher years ago and spends her days writing letters to her former students, and she is not above checking into the affairs of the other tenants as well. Santo Haru is obsessed with a religious cult, and she is in the palm of its leader, who frequents her apartment to hold prayer meetings centered around the trances of its vestal priestess.

The plot is complicated and circuitous but is centered around the use and whereabouts of the master key of the title, which various tenants use to sneak into one another’s rooms in order to discover the secrets of others while concealing their own. At the end of the novel, it’s revealed that there is a mastermind orchestrating all of their movements, someone who has been spying on everyone for years and has manipulated the women around her for her own amusement. As someone who had essentially done the same thing to these characters through the process of reading this novel, I felt somewhat guilty, but not enough to lessen my enjoyment of how neatly all of the different plot threads are eventually tied together.

I will openly admit that I love stories about women being unpleasant and irrational and absolutely human. All of the female characters in this story are a little pathetic and a little demonic in that they have no power outside the K Apartments but all manner of strange little powers within their closed world. I’m sure this can be read as a metaphor for something, but it need not be, as the haunted and uncanny environment the characters shape through their bizarre actions is absolutely fascinating in and of itself.

For people with more background on Japanese history and urban space, the story’s setting in Ikebukuro is of special interest. In the immediate postwar period, Ikebukuro famously functioned as a heterotopia in which diverse groups of people came together and the norms of mainstream society didn’t necessarily apply. There is all manner of hidden “national polity” history in Ikebukuro, where the family-state of Japan has buried countless failed narratives under highways and skyscrapers. The Master Key thus serves as an excellent example of postwar Tokyo gothic (as similarly exemplified by Kyōgoku Natsuhiko’s The Summer of the Ubume). A reader doesn’t need historical knowledge to appreciate the story, but a bit of research into the setting has the potential to deepen the experience of reading this novel, which has sub-basements under sub-basements under sub-basements.

The Master Key is long out of print but still cheaply available through a number of online used book services. If you have access to your local or university library’s Interlibrary Loan program, it’s well worth requesting this book. It’s a quick read, and it packs a huge impact. To my fellow horror and mystery lovers especially, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of this short, satisfying, and creepy little novel.

Danchi junrei

Title: Danchi junrei (団地巡礼)
Author and Photographer: Ishimoto Kaoru (石本 馨)
Publication Year: 2008
Publisher: Futami Shobō
Pages: 176

I learned about this book while doing research on the manga Hot Gimmick, which is about teenage romance and social hierarchies in company-owned danchi housing. If a certain living arrangement exerts such a strong influence on people’s lives that it can determine patterns of everyday interaction, I wanted to know more about what these danchi actually look like.

Danchi are apartment complexes. Unlike the stand-alone manshion apartment buildings found everywhere in the urban centers of Japan, danchi are sprawling arrangements of buildings situated in more peripheral locations such as suburbs and commuter towns. As seen from the windows of passing trains, danchi are almost monstrous, and I’ve always counted myself lucky to not have to live in one. After reading Danchi junrei, though, I’m now jealous of the people who have had the experience of living in a danchi.

In Danchi junrei, or “danchi pilgrimage,” professional photographer Ishimoto Kaoru takes the reader along on his journeys into danchi complexes of various sizes and layouts. His pictures don’t beautify the buildings, but he does give the reader a sense of the charm and livability of the danchi he visits. Although the buildings themselves, which were constructed in the housing boom of another era (usually the late fifties), are often dilapidated, the backyards and balconies and inner courtyards and playgrounds of these danchi are filled with children, pets, greenery, and the evidence of the daily lives of the people who live in the complex, from hanging laundry to bicycles to discarded toys to graffiti.

Of course, this is when there are people living in the danchi at all. Over the course of his pilgrimage, Ishimoto also visits complexes that are nearly abandoned, fully abandoned, or already demolished at the time of printing. Some of these danchi have historical significance, such as a structure in Daikanyama built in 1927 that was one of the first modern apartment complexes in Japan. Some of them, such as the “ghost danchi” in Meguro, are associated with urban legends and famous among people into haikyo, or the exploration of abandoned buildings. Although these derelict danchi are covered with rust and mold, they’re surprisingly well preserved, and one might think that people could still be living there were it not for the rampant, jungle-like plant growth that has filled the open spaces and started to encroach into the buildings themselves.

Ishimoto’s photographs are enhanced by his text. Each photograph is accompanied by an unobtrusive one-line description, and each set of photographs is introduced by a short paragraph of flavor text. What I really enjoyed reading, however, were the one-page descriptions of each danchi, which would usually include the history and occupancy status of the complex as well as any rumors that Ishimoto had picked up from fellow danchi enthusiasts or just people living in the neighborhood of the danchi in question. Ishimoto also describes his own experiences of walking around each danchi, which tend to be particularly interesting when the complex has been abandoned.

Ishimoto is an engaging writer, and the undoctored feel of his photography gives the reader a sense of proximity that wouldn’t be possible with more polished-looking set pieces. Danchi junrei is urban exploration at its finest, and I surprised myself by enjoying the book so much. I highly recommend it to people interested in Japanese cities and architecture. I might also recommend it to people interested in Japanese aesthetics, because you can’t get any more wabi-sabi than a deserted apartment complex slowly going to seed on the borders of Tokyo.

I should mention that Ishimoto ventures out of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area as well. Here are two examples from the end of the book…