The Inugami Clan

The Inugami Clan

Title: The Inugami Clan
Japanese Title: 犬神家の一族 (Inugamike no ichizoku)
Author: Yokomizo Seishi (横溝 正史)
Translator: Yumiko Yamazaki
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1951 (Japan)
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Pages: 309

Reading The Inugami Clan reminded me of sitting in my local public library as a kid in the early nineties and reading crime novels with yellowed pages and crappy covers that were always on the verge of falling off.

This novel is pure pulp. The sentences are short and declarative. The chapters are only a few pages long and always end with cliffhangers. The murders are fantastically improbable. The beautiful young female victim is always fainting. The ugly older women are pure evil. The men regularly walk around with assault weapons. The sexuality on display isn’t overt, but it’s always kinky. Someone gets murdered every five chapters. Even the paper Stone Bridge Press used for its publication of this translation has a deliciously pulpy smell. The pulp dial on this book goes up to eleven.

In other words, The Inugami Clan is both ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining.

The primary point-of-view character of the novel is Detective Kindaichi Kōsuke, an eccentric private investigator of strange appearance and stranger personal habits. (“Physically, he is a stammering, inconsequential fellow with nothing to recommend him, but his remarkable faculty for reasoning and deduction has been attested to,” the narrator says.) Because of the detective’s fame, he has been summoned to the Nasu Lake region (in Tochigi prefecture) by Wakabayashi Toyoichirō, a lawyer associated with the estate of the recently deceased Inugami Sahei, a local silk magnate. Before the lawyer arrives in Kindaich’s hotel room, however, the detective witnesses a beautiful woman going down with a sinking boat on the lake beside the hotel. This woman is Nonomiya Tamayo, who stands to inherit the entire Inugami fortune. Even though Tamayo is saved, Kindaichi returns to the hotel to find Wakabayashi dead from ingesting a poison that had been applied to the filter of one of his cigarettes. Someone is obviously out for blood, and it’s up to Kindaichi to figure out what’s going on before anyone else is killed.

Not that Kindaichi succeeds, of course. The detective’s “razor-sharp deduction skills” are no match for a long-held grudge, and the novel has plenty of time for an additional assortment of gruesome deaths. The Inugami family motto is “yoki koto kiku,” an expression that means “tidings of good fortune” but is also synonymous with the words “axe, koto, chrysanthemum” ( 斧・琴・菊 ), which is as good a set-up as any for a series of themed murders. The “axe” murder happens early on, and the reader is given the pleasure of anticipating what the “koto” and “chrysanthemum” murders will look like. It would be a shame if Kindaichi were to solve the case before the killer could complete the set, right?

Instead of pulling a “just add Sherlock” instant deduction, Kindaichi spends most of his time accompanying the family’s other lawyer, Furudate Kyōzō, to various formal meetings of the Inugami clan, which are full of drama.

It turns out that Inugami Sahei was a bit of an asshole. The man had three consorts who all lived with him, and each of these consorts bore him a daughter, each of whom in turn bore a son. Since none of these consorts was Sahei’s official wife, none of these grandsons is his official heir; and, in his will, Sahei leaves his entire fortune to Nonomiya Tamayo, provided that Tamayo marries one of his grandsons. Tamayo is the granddaughter of Nonomiya Daini, the head priest of Nasu Shrine, who took in Sahei when he was young and starving. Sahei had a very close relationship with Daini, and he had an even closer relationship with Daini’s wife, and he apparently loved Tamayo as if she were his own granddaughter. Sahei also had an (even more) illegitimate son with a much younger woman named Aonuma Kikuno (who apparently looked just like Tamayo); and, if Tamayo for some reason won’t marry one of Sahei’s other sons, then the majority of the fortune goes to this son, a man named Aonuma Shizukuma. Since both Aonuma Shizukuma and Inugami Kiyo, the oldest of Sahei’s grandsons, had problems with repatriation after the war ended, however, there are plenty of opportunities for confused identities.

As things stand, everyone has a motive to kill everyone else. It’s almost as if Sahei were trying to punish his three daughters for something – but for what? It quickly turns out that the Inugami clan is about as dysfunctional as families get, and there are plenty of family secrets for Kindaichi to uncover before he can figure out who’s trying to kill off everyone associated with Sahei’s will.

Even though most of action of the novel is generated by Sahei’s three grandsons, the three older Inugami daughters really steal the show. Inugami Matsuko, the reigning matriarch of the clan, is an especially powerful and compelling character. I can’t write too much about her without giving away the story, but let it suffice to say that she is awesome, and the social conflicts and historical crises that she represents add a layer of depth and thematic richness to the novel that it would otherwise have lacked had she been just another ugly and bitter old woman in a pulp mystery about silly murders.

I read The Inugami Clan while re-reading John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, and I found that Dower’s description of the political confusion and cultural liberation of the immediate postwar period in Japan resonated perfectly with the themes and atmosphere of Yokomizo’s novel. Dower’s chapter “Cultures of Defeat” (especially its sections on “Kasutori Culture” and the “Decadence and Authenticity”) was especially interesting in its discussions of postwar pulp magazines, the sexualization of literature, and the re-emergence of “erotic grotesque nonsense” as a mode of storytelling. As is the case with any good pulp novel, The Inugami Clan has its fair share of plot holes and obvious exaggerations, but an understanding of the book’s historical and cultural background goes a long way toward making these plot holes and exaggerations make sense. If you’re interested in classic Japanese mystery fiction, Sari Kawana’s Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction & Japanese Culture, which was published back in 2008 by University of Minnesota Press, is an excellent cross-cultural study that’s a lot of fun to read (and, for an academic book, it’s actually fairly affordable). Even without all of the secondary literature, though, The Inugami Clan is a lot of fun to read. The novel is currently out of print, but it’s totally worth the effort to track down a copy.

Ayako

Title: Ayako
Japanese Title: 奇子 (Ayako)
Artist: Tezuka Osamu (手塚 治虫)
Translator: Mari Morimoto
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1973 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 700

Every once in awhile I will play a game with myself in which I try to imagine the perfect setup for a Gothic novel. Family secrets! Incest! Murder! A madwoman locked in the basement! Sex! Revenge! I was thrilled, then, when I found that Tezuka Osamu’s mid-career manga Ayako hits all of the Gothic genre high points, one after the other. In 1949, a man named Jirō returns to Japan from an American POW camp to find his homeland significantly changed. The political situation in Tokyo is bad, but Jirō’s family situation in rural Japan is even worse, as the powerful Tenge clan has lost most of its holdings in the postwar land ownership restructuring movements. Through a convoluted series of events, Jirō ends up committing murder and has to flee the countryside. Through an equally convoluted series of events, Jirō’s four-year-old sister Ayako, who is made to bear the blame for the family’s misfortunes, is locked in a cellar for more than twenty years before finally being rescued by her older brother Shirō, who has been biding his time while witnessing the slow decay of his family. Ayako escapes her family and flees to Tokyo, where she is reunited with Jirō, whose rise to power reflects Japan’s economic ascent in the sixties. The Gothic elements of Ayako’s family drama are enhanced by the Gothic elements of postwar Japanese history, with its unsavory secrets and shady backroom deals and assassinated activists all swept under the historical carpet.

The whole thing weighs in at exactly seven hundred pages, making it a book to be reckoned with. It is in fact a Book, beautiful and well-published (but probably too big to carry around casually; an e-reader edition would have been awesome, but alas). Perhaps because of the way it has been published, in a tasteful, hardcover, single-volume edition, its ad copy attempts to market it as a Novel, stating, “Ayako looms as a pinnacle of Naturalist literature in Japan with few peers even in prose, the striking heroine a potent emblem of things left unseen by the war.” I read the publicity for the graphic novel, got excited, and had Amazon ship it to me on the day it came out. If people were comparing Ayako to Faulkner and Tolstoy, why shouldn’t I read it immediately? Unfortunately, although Ayako is certainly a major accomplishment in the field of graphic novels, I am going to have to put my foot down and declare that it is not in fact on par with the best of Japanese prose. Far from it. As literature, Ayako is riddled with problems.

Let’s start with the storytelling. The plot is highly improbable from beginning to end, and its developments often don’t make much sense if the reader begins to question them. The ending, which reeks of poetic justice, feels especially heavy handed. If one simply accepts the story as it unfolds, it’s not so far-fetched that it’s ridiculous, but “a pinnacle of Naturalist literature” it is not. The pacing is also highly uneven. I am not referring to the beautiful drawings of city- and country-scapes that Tezuka often inserts under blocks of third-person, scene-setting narration, but rather to certain key plot points that happen way too quickly. This refusal to let the reader slow down and figure out what’s happening is especially bad at the beginning and end of the book. Perhaps this why the plot at these points feels so contrived, or perhaps Tezuka himself wishes to rush across his plot holes. In any case, I didn’t feel that I was in the hands of a professional at the top of his game.

Another thing I expect from the “literary” novels I read is a cast of deep, multi-faceted characters, but the dramatis personae of Ayako are all one-dimensional. The Tenge patriarch and his oldest son Ichirō, for example, do what they do simply because they’re evil people. The two most complex characters, Jirō and Shirō, merely flip between “good” and “bad” like cutout paper puppets. Perhaps the female characters possess a greater depth of personality, but the narrative doesn’t really seem to care about them. Of Ichirō’s second wife, Tezuka says only that she is “so bland and devoid of a role in this tale that she is not worth mentioning.” Why is this woman driven to marry a man who obviously murdered his first wife, and how does she deal with his moodiness, alcoholism, and deranged family? It’s not worth mentioning, I guess. Ayako, who has the potential to be the most interesting character, is the most disappointing. The image of her on the cover of the book says everything you need to know about her. She is young, beautiful, and mysterious, and she very much wants to have sex with you. We see her breasts, butt, thighs, and panties more than we hear her speak. (I am exaggerating, but only a bit.) Of course she is seriously psychologically damaged, but Tezuka doesn’t give this the narrative weight it deserves, choosing instead to have us view her through the eyes of his male characters, who regard her as both pitiful and sexually irresistible. A “striking heroine” and a “potent emblem,” indeed.

Other minor characters are so cartoonish and caricatured that they don’t add much of anything to the story. In fact, one might say they detract from it. Clones of Popeye, Olive Oil, and Dick Tracy don’t really help the story construct itself as “serious literature,” and Tezuka’s brief attempts at humor feel inane and misplaced. On that note, the art quality in Ayako can sometimes be shockingly bad. For example, I don’t think Tezuka was even trying in this panel:

There are many examples that are far worse, but it would be cruel to beat such an ugly dead horse. Furthermore, some scenes that should be highly dramatic, like Jirō murdering one of his subordinates, come off as silly because the artwork is so immature. The cartoon character designs and the rushed artwork are much better, however, than Tezuka’s occasional attempts at realism. Such drawings are, quite honestly, unlovely, and their effect on the flow of the story is akin to someone jumping onto the train tracks. I’m sure that someone at some point will write a paper on Tezuka’s changes in artistic style in Ayako, but I came away with the feeling that his excursions into realism were randomly placed and artistically useless. They strike the reader forcefully – not in the way that an amazing photograph on the cover of a news magazine does, but rather in the way that someone suddenly vomiting in a crowded train does.

Such an awkward analogy brings me to my final point of contention: the translation. Again, the ad copy bills Mari Morimoto as an veteran translator, but I’m afraid that her extensive resume gave her a sense of artistic entitlement that she then used to absolutely no one’s advantage. If you think that this is a mean, nasty thing to say, I encourage you to read a page of Ayako (click on the image for a larger version):

I believe that dialect is something that is much more natural and naturalized in written Japanese than it is in written English. In written English, one needs merely to say of a character that he has a French accent; there is no need to write his every line of dialog as something like, “Je would like zee wat-ere with mon caf-ey.” The translation of Ōoku, which employs a vaguely Shakespearean idiom to give a sense of all the de gozaru period speech patterns going on in the original Japanese, succeeds brilliantly because the touch of dialect is so light. It is suggested to the reader, not shoved into his face and down his throat. The translation of Ayako, however, not only draws unnecessary attention to itself but also robs the Tenge family of any power, dignity, tragedy, or pathos they might have possibly had by making them sound like a Family Guy parody of the Beverly Hillbillies. There are also strange aberrations in the speech of certain characters, like when Jirō suddenly and without warning starts calling people “Guv’nor” in the last quarter of the book. And then there are the occasional lines of dialog that make no sense, such as when a character who otherwise uses unmarked speech says something like, “Boss! Our lads will think you’ve prostrated yourself to the [rival gangster organization]! They’ll be all a-seethe!” They’ll be all a-seethe? Seriously?

Any of these problem areas – narrative structure, pacing, characterization, art, translation – would potentially be a deal-breaker by itself, but together they make Ayako awkward and almost unreadable at times. Ayako is a deeply flawed work, and its flaws are of the type that are simply annoying without adding any depth to the story. I am posting an abbreviated version of this review on Amazon, and I am giving Ayako four out of five stars, because, despite everything, it is an excellent graphic novel. If you come to it expecting a literary masterpiece on par with The Makioka Sisters or The Sound and the Fury, however, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Ayako is not high literature. It is a comic book: an engaging and thought-provoking comic book that was ahead of its time, but a comic book nonetheless.

I wholeheartedly recommend Ayako to librarians building a manga collection as well as to people who study manga, and I somewhat reservedly recommend it to people who are either Tezuka fans or otherwise used to reading manga published before the nineties. However, Ayako is not for literary types seeking an introduction to manga, and it is not for casual manga fans seeking an introduction to Tezuka. Unless you’re really sure that you want to read Ayako, warts and all, you’re better off trying a Tezuka title like Buddha or Phoenix. Better yet, skip the history lesson and go straight to Urasawa Naoki, who achieves the beauty of art and novelistic scope and density of character that perhaps Tezuka could have aimed for had he not been working on a dozen projects all at once.

In conclusion, I’m happy that Vertical has released Ayako in translation, but I find the ad copy misleading and counter-productive. It’s like talking about some entertaining yet vacuous commercial garbage like the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and saying, “Look! This is literature! It references mythology!” in an attempt to get people to take young adult fiction seriously. There are plenty of literary manga out there, but Ayako feels like a relatively minor work in the canon, no matter how much money its publisher put into its release. If Vertical insists on producing deluxe editions, I wish they would pick up classics like Rose of Versailles or The Heart of Thomas, which have aged remarkably well. Otherwise, it is my hope that, in their ongoing battle against scanlations, they publish more affordable editions (like digital ones!) that might appeal to poor students such as myself, who sometimes get upset when their shiny new $30 investment isn’t everything it was promised to be.

Masks

masks

Title: Masks
Japanese Title: 女面 (Onnamen)
Author: Enchi Fumiko (円地 文子)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 1983 (America); 1958 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 141

Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translator of Enchi Fumiko’s novel Masks, is one of the most eloquent translators of Japanese literature alive today. Carpenter has translated everything from Tawara Machi’s groundbreaking collection of tanka poetry, Salad Anniversary (Sarada kinenbi, 1987) to Asa Nonami’s hard-boiled police thriller The Hunter (Kohoeru kiba, 1996). My advice to all lovers of Japanese literature would be: if Juliet Winters Carpenter has translated it, you need to read it!

Enchi Fumiko is one of the most highly regarded writers of literary fiction in Japan. Her father was a scholar of classical Japanese literature, and Enchi grew up devouring the books in his library, from the medieval Tales of Moonlight and Rain to the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Her pen name, Fumiko, means “child of letters” or “child of literature.” When she grew up, she undertook the translation of the monumental eleventh-century novel The Tale of Genji. She is famous for incorporating allusions to classical literature into her own fiction, which was highly praised by writers like Tanizaki Jun’ichirō and Mishima Yukio.

Enchi’s work is known for its tightly woven plots, subtle writing, strong visual imagery, and masterful use of symbolism. An Enchi novel is like a structuralist literary critic’s dream come true. There is an incredible amount of information packed within each paragraph, and her novels and stories have inspired a wealth of interpretations. Enchi is an intellectual of the highest magnitude yet also possesses the ability to imbue her fiction with great emotional weight.

Although Enchi is primarily known in Japan for her novel The Waiting Years (Onnazaka, 1939), for which she won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize, Masks has its own spooky charms. Although the work’s title refers to the masks of Noh drama, particularly the “madwoman” masks that lend their names to the chapter titles, the novel draws many of its themes and allusions from the Tale of Genji. The parallels Enchi draws between The Tale of Genji and the cultural climate of postwar Japan are fascinating. Not only does the author create distinct connections between her characters and the characters of the Heian romance, but she also makes use of themes such as spirit possession and romantic substitution to subvert the gendered expectations of the patriarchal and misogynistic societies that hold sway in both The Tale of Genji and postwar Japan.

Although Masks is primarily narrated from the point of view of a male college professor named Ibuki, who is cast in the role of Genji, its true hero is an older woman named Mieko, a powerful Rokujō-like figure with a painful past and veiled intentions. As Mieko’s daughter-in-law and protégée, Yasuko, explains to Ibuki,

Believe me, she is a woman of far greater complexity than you – or anyone – realize. The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume. Oh, she has extraordinary charm. Next to that secret charm of hers, her talent as a poet is really only a sort of costume.

Masks centers around Mieko’s attempt to use this “secret charm” of hers in order to set into motion a deep and complex scheme of revenge, creation, and rebirth. What Mieko is able to accomplish by the end of the novel is both terrible and beautiful. If nothing else, the events that occur during the final dramatic quickening of the work are thought-provoking and will force the reader to consider multiple ethical questions.

Masks is perhaps one of the best introductions to Japanese literature, and more specifically Japanese women’s literature, ever published in translation. No matter where your literary interests lie, this is a novel you need to experience.