Planet Mystery: Japan

Japan has ‘way too many great mystery writers to tackle in a shortish blog post, so I have chosen four women for the first go-round: Miyuki Miyabe, Asa Nonami, Natsuo Kirino, and the Agatha Christie of Japan, Shizuko Natsuki.

Miyuki Miyabe is one of Japan’s best known and most prolific contemporary authors, having penned not only a world-class bunch of mysteries, but also fantasy/sci-fi, children’s books, and historical fiction. In March 2006, I reviewed what would become an English language bestseller for her, Crossfire:

By Miyuki Miyabe
Kodansha, $24.95
408 pages
ISBN 4770029934

“Tokyo police detective Chikako Ishizu, protagonist of Miyuki Miyabe’s best-selling Shadow Family, returns for an encore performance in Crossfire, this time forced to re-evaluate her skeptical position on paranormal behavior. It seems that Junko Aoki, a pretty young Japanese woman, has a strange talent: she can start fires simply by exerting intense concentration. It is a gift she uses to exact vigilante justice in cases where the conventional legal system failed. Both Ishizu and Aoki seek justice for criminals, but their methods are distinctly at odds with one another, as are their usual outcomes. As the bodies begin to pile up, the police are not the only ones to take notice: a growing vigilante group in Tokyo would dearly love to add Aoki’s talents to their arsenal. Best described as a mystery-meets-supernatural novel, but definitely leaning more toward the mystery side, Crossfire will be a big hit with fans of Stephen King and John Connolly alike.”

The Hunter
By Asa Nonami
Kodansha, $24.95
272 pages
ISBN 9784770030252

Asa Nonami wrote her classic The Hunter in 1996, although it didn’t make it to Western shores for another decade. Some of her other titles will take a bit of creative editing to be saleable in English-speaking markets, however: Regrets, a Female Detective Takako Sound Passage; or, my personal fave, Takako Fall Flower Girl Detective at the Sound of the Street Murder. Appended below is my BookPage review of The Hunter, oddly (but certainly appropriately) the first column I penned after arriving in Japan:

“As this is my first column written from within the confines of my tiny Tokyo apartment, it seems especially fitting to lead off with a review of a Japanese author. Asa Nonami makes her first foray into English-language mysteries with The Hunter, translated by the talented Julia Winters Carpenter, who impressed readers (including this one) with her English rendering of Miyuki Miyabe’s 2004 thriller, Shadow Family. Originally released in Japan in 1996, where it won the prestigious Naoki Prize, The Hunter stands poised to take aim at Western markets this month. The heroine, beleaguered police detective Takako Otomichi, is as complex and conflicted a protagonist as any in recent memory. The product of an affirmative-action type program to bring more females into positions of power in the workplace, Otomichi is by turns coddled, patronized and outright dissed by her co-workers. On top of that, she is recently divorced, her sister is semi-suicidal, her mother is a harpy and her new partner is a misogynist of the first order. Otomichi’s latest assignment finds her hot on the trail of a murderous canine, possibly a cross between a large dog and a wolf. Surprisingly, there is a society, albeit a loosely knit and somewhat clandestine one, that promotes the breeding of these clever and ferocious animals; to Otomichi’s dismay, the key figures all seem to be cops. And what’s a girl to do when the cops all stick together to keep a female officer out of the loop? The answer, of course, is to stay one step ahead, to beat the bullies at their own game, a task that Otomichi is well up to. The Hunter is a first-rate page-turner, sure to have readers queuing up for a sequel.”

Real World
By Natsuo Kirino
Knopf, $22.95
224 pages, ISBN 9780307267573


Natsuo Kirino is something of a legend among my fellow mystery aficionados (author Timothy Hallinan, for example, reports that Kirino is on his “automatic buy” list). Her bestselling novel Out was made into a hit film in Japan, and it just begs for subtitles or an American adaptation. The basic plot is that a woman strangles her brutish husband in a fit of rage, then reluctantly turns to some work colleagues to help her cover up her bad act. The four women chop up the body, and distribute parts to local dumpsters, but get caught in the act by a would-be blackmailer. He doesn’t want money, though; he wants the four women to dispose of bodies in similar fashion, and on a contract basis! Here is a review of her follow-up book, Real World, published in BookPage in August 2008:

Tokyo is said to be the safest city in the world, although if the events in Natsuo Kirino’s chilling Real World are any indication, the safety may be something of an illusion, a thin gauze veil over a maelstrom. Four teenage girls are the protagonists, although some are definitely more pro- than others: Toshi, the steady one, who hears the loud noise next door, unaware that a murder has just taken place; Kirarin, the sweet and lovable one who is a bundle of contradictions just below the surface; Yuzan, the one who has not quite come out of the closet, although her friends are all aware of her sexual leanings; and Terauchi, the hyper-philosophical one who struggles with loneliness and betrayal. All of them have a peculiar bond with a geeky high school kid nicknamed Worm, and each of them will have a fateful interaction with him: two will die, and two will find the courses of their lives irreparably altered. Real World is not about central-casting Japanese girls who shyly cover their mouths when they smile, but rather about thoroughly serious contemporary young women faced with a crisis well beyond their limited abilities to cope with it.

Murder at Mt. Fuji; Shizuko Natsuki; Ballantine (paperback); ISBN 9780345337610; as to the page count and the price, your guess is as good as mine…

As mentioned above, Shizuko Natsuki bears the well-deserved moniker of “Doyenne of Japanese Mystery Writers”. Her Murder at Mt. Fuji is a classic of the “closed-room” suspense novel that has delighted several generations of readers since the early days of Christie, and even before (think Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe, for example). The book is set at the villa of the wealthy Wada family, in the shadow of Japan’s highest mountain. Niece Chiyo has brought her American friend along to meet the family, and to ring in the New Year. But before the evening is out, Yohei Wada lies dead, and Chiyo blurts out a hasty confession to his murder. Things are not what they seem, however, and the family’s attempts at cover-up and preserving their good name may indeed cloak a darker motive altogether.

As far as I can tell, Shizuko Natsuki’s books are now out-of-print in the US, although they are still readily available at used bookstores and online.

So there you have it, part one of what will likely be at least a four-part series on mysteries from the Land of the Rising Yen. Stay tuned!


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