“In the railroad yard of Tokyo’s Kamata Station a disfigured corpse is found, document.write(“”); its head pillowed on one rail, thighs across another, awaiting the departure of the first morning train to complete the grisly work. The solitary clue is a name: Kameda. It leads nowhere until from the Homicide Division comes Inspector Imanishi Eitaro, a dogged, respected investigator, minimally educated, genteel, a gardener fond of haiku.”
“Typically Japanese, he takes his work not only seriously but personally, even more so when the victim turns out to have been a retired policeman. When the case is closed unsuccessfully, he pursues the investigation on his own. Too abashed to even ask for expenses when his hunch directs him on an expedition to a rural village, he uses his wife’s savings (gladly proffered, since it is for the job). From the Japanese Sea to the Pacific, from Tokyo to the rural north, Imanishi pursues his quarry, using up vacation days and off-duty hours. Peasants, politicians, movie makers, actors, doctors, scholars — the hunt for the murderer takes him into the recesses of Japanese society and the Japanese psyche. With utter dedication, Imanishi moves ever closer, tracing what are really a string of crimes dedicated by a uniquely Japanese motive.”
“Inspector Imanishi Investigates is not simply a mystery, not is its author a simple mystery writer. (…) Seichô Matsumoto, is credited as the restorer and innovator of Japanese detective fiction following the Pacific War (…). In the 1950s, he introduced the “social detective story,” a police procedural that depicted society in realistic terms. Appearing first as a newspaper serial and then in book form in 1961, Suna no Utsuwa (“Vessel of Sand”) sold in the millions and established its author as the leader of a new generation of writers. Although he only began writing at the age of forty, in his long and distinguished career, Seichô Matsumoto has published over 450 novels, histories and non-fiction works, and has garnered many awards, including [notably for this novel] the the Akutagawa Literary Prize and the Mystery Writers of Japan Prize.”
[Text from the inside jacket]
WARNING: May contains trace of spoilers! People allergic to the discussion of any plot’s elements before seeing a movie are strongly advised to take the necessary precautions for their safety and should avoid reading further.
This novel, originally titled Suna no utsuwa (??? / lit. “The Bowl of sand”), was first serialized in Yomiuri Shimbun between May 17, 1960 and April 20, 1961 before being published by Kobunsha (kappa novels) in July 1961. It was translated in english as Inspector Imanishi Investigates and in french as Le vase de sable. It was adapted by Shochiku in 1974 into a movie titled Castle of Sand (which we commented recently) and was also made into TV dramas by TBS (in 1962 and 2004), Fuji TV (in 1977) and TV Asahi (in 1991 and 2011). So it’s obviously a popular story.
Seichô Matsumoto [1909-1992, see picture on the right, from the back cover, © Bungei Shunju Ltd] is often compared to other crime writers like Belgium’s Georges Simenon (creator of Detective Maigret) or England’s P.D. James (creator of detective Dalgliesh). As it is said on the inside jacket of the book, he played an important role in the development of modern Japanese detective fiction by creating police procedural stories that were strongly embedded into the social and cultural environment of postwar Japan. He published over four hundred books (novels but also short stories collections and essays mostly about Japanese and ancient history). He was Japan’s best-selling author of the 60s.
The novel is divided into seventeen chapters. In the first one, titled “Kamata Railroad Yard”, the crime scene is described and all the known elements of the case listed. Then, only five pages later, we are introduced to the main character of the story, Imanishi Eitaro, a 45-year-old veteran police officer and part-time poet. An old man has been found bludgeoned to death in the Kamata train yard in Tokyo and the only clues is that a waitress from a nearby bar said the victim spoke with a Tohoku accent, she saw him with a younger man and overheard them talk about “Kameda”. Is that a person’s name or place? Maybe it refers to Kameda Station in Akita Prefecture?
In chapter two, “Kameda”, Imanishi travels by train to Kameda along with Yoshimura Hiroshi, a younger and enthusiastic colleague. Except for the presence, the previous week, of a strange man, they cannot find any new leads for their investigation. On the train back, they see a group of four young men surrounded by fans and reporters. They are told they are members of the Nouveau group, a younger generation of intellectuals with progressive opinions: the composer Waga Eiryo, the playwright Takebe Toyoichiro, the critic Sekigawa Shigeo and the painter Kanazawa Mutsuo. It seems that serendipity can play a role in a criminal investigation…
In chapter three, “The Nouveau Group”, we are introduced a little more to this group of intellectuals, and particularly to Sekigawa and his mistress, Emiko. In chapter four, “Unsolved”, the investigation team (made of eight investigators from the Homicide Division of the Metropolitan Police and fifteen local precinct investigators) is disbanded due to the lack of progress. Imanishi and Yoshimura meets in a bar to discuss the case. Back home, Imanishi is told by his wife that a young actress just moved in a nearby apartment building. Waga Eiryo is injured in a taxi traffic accident and is visited in the hospital by friends and his fiancé, Tadokoro Sachiko, the daughter of a former cabinet minister.
In the fifth chapter, “The woman of the paper blizzard”, the investigators get their first break when the adoptive son of the victim files a missing-person report and identifies him has Miki Kenichi, a retired grocer from Okayama Prefecture. Back home, Imanishi meets his sister who tells him that she has a new tenant in one of her apartment units, apparently a hostess in a bar in Ginza. Murayama, an art critic, tells his friend Kawano about a strange encounter he had in a train: a young woman was throwing out of the train’s opened window what looked like shredded white paper. His friend asks if he could publish this poetic story as his own. In chapter six, “The distribution of dialects”, Imanishi wonders that if Miki Kenichi was from Okayama Prefecture how could he then talks in Tohoku dialect? However, he discovers that the Izumo dialect is somehow similar to Tohoku’s and that there’s a place called Kamedake in that area too, so he goes to Shimane Prefecture to investigate. He learns that, before becoming a grocer, Kenichi worked a longtime as a policeman in Kamedake. Imanishi meets with the police chief of Minari station in Nita town and with one of Miki’s friend in Kamedake, an abacus maker named Kirihara Kojuro. He can now start to investigate Kenichi’s life in search for a motive for his murder. He doesn’t learn much. He mostly hears stories about how Miki-san was a very good man, always helping people, like this time when a leper beggar traveled through the village with his son.
Chap. seven, “Bloodstains”: Imanishi reads the story the “Girl of the paper blizzard” in a magazine and is intrigued. He tracks down the writer to get more details. What if the girl is the murderer’s mistress getting rid of evidence, for instance the blood stained shirt he was wearing at the time of the murder? He goes looking along the train tracks and indeed finds bloodstained cloth fragments. Tests reveals it is the same blood type as Miki! He also learns that Naruse Rieko, the young woman who moved into an apartment near his home, had just committed suicide. On a hunch he goes investigates at the Avant-Garde Theatre where she was employed and meets a young actor named Miyata Kunio who seems to know something about the reason behind her suicide. He promised to meet Imanishi later to give him more helpful information. Chap. eight, “A mishap”: Miyata never shows up at the meeting and, the next day, Imanishi discovers that he is dead, of an apparent heart attack. He starts investigating him, going back to the theatre and then to his apartment and discovers that he was probably the man, disguised as a labourer, acting strangely in Kameda!
Chapter Nine, “Groping”: On the spot where Miyata died, Imanishi and Yoshimura find a piece of paper with what seems unemployment statistics. They surmise that Miyata must have been hired by the killer to go to Tohoku in order to distract the police. Imanishi goes to visit his sister in order to discreetly interview her tenant, Miura Emiko. She seems well-learned for a bar hostess and interested in everything written by Sekigawa. He also suspects that she’s pregnant. Chapter ten, “Emiko”: Emiko tells Sekigawa about her encounter with Imanishi and that she is pregnant. He seems displeased and asks her to move out of that place immediately. Later, Imanishi learns from his sister that Emiko has moved out. He investigates the moving company and the bar where she was working, trying to find her whereabouts. He finds this highly suspicious.
Chapter eleven, “A woman’s death”: Imanishi’s suspicions are confirmed when he leans that Emiko died of an apparent miscarriage. He now starts investigating Sekigawa, trying to learn more about him and find out his birthplace. He learns he was born in Yokote City, in Akita Prefecture. Chapter twelve, “Bewilderment”: Imanishi and Yoshimura meet again to discuss the case and Imanishi writes a couple of letters to request more information from Miki’s adoptive son and from the abacus maker. The last time Miki Kenichi was seen by his family, he was leaving for a lengthy pilgrimage that culminated in Ise. He was supposed the come right back to Okayama, so why did he stop in Tokyo? He must have seen something or someone that made him change his plans. So, once again, Imanishi takes the train to investigate around the Ise shrine. He learns that Miki went to a movie theatre twice just before leaving for Tokyo. He must have seen something in the movies that suddenly made him change his plans.
Chapter thirteen, “A thread”: Imanishi goes to the movie company to screen the films seen by Miki in Ise, but he sees nothing suspicious. Maybe it was something in the news reels or previews? Yoshimura, who saw the movie in question a while ago, thinks that the preannouncement of the next movie, a foreign feature, had scenes from the opening nights showing lots of celebrities, including maybe some members of the Nouveau Group. Imanishi is not only investigating Sekigawa but also Waga Eiryo. He is going to Yamanaka in Ishikawa Prefecture, a small and poor village, to investigate the wife of the leper beggar that Miki had helped and try to find the whereabouts of his son. Chapter fourteen, “Soundless”: Yoshimura reports to Imanishi that he looked around Sekigawa’s house and came upon the strange story of peddlers getting sick with no apparent reasons while trying to push their products at his doorsteps. Imanishi is finally able to see the preview movie for himself, but can’t find anything useful in it.
Chapter fifteen, “On the track”: The Ise police questioned the theatre’s manager and it is revealed that a commemorative photograph showing the manager with agriculture and forestry minister Tadokoro Shigeyoshi and his family was displayed at the theatre when Miki visited. Finally, Imanishi is able to identify the face that had drawn Miki to Tokyo! Imanishi goes back to the Avant-Garde Theatre and learns that a man’s raincoat was stolen from the wardrobe of the theatre. It was a stage costume used by Miyata Kunio and probably stolen by Naruse Rieko for her lover. So the killer could walk back home without attracting attention since his bloodied shirt was covered by a raincoat! He also learns that what made the peddler feel sick at Sekigawa’s house was an ultrasonic device used as “peddler repellent.” Chapter sixteen, “A certain family register”: Imanishi goes to Osaka to investigates Waga’s family register. He deducts that, since it was destroyed during the war and reconstruct with information provided by the people on an honour basis, the information is likely false. Imanishi and Yoshimura realize that the paper found near Miyata Kunio’s body wasn’t unemployment statistics after all, but a list high and low frequencies with silences, a recipe for murder!
Chapter seventeen, “The loud speaker announcement”: At the Homicide Division, Imanishi explains his findings to the team. All the pieces of the puzzle are finally coming into place and the murderer is arrested before he boarded a plane for the U.S.A.
First of all, the title of this translation is terrible. The original title can be literally translated as “The Bowl of sand” (it’s poetic, but the deeper meaning of it escapes me; maybe it refer to the futility of hubris, since a bowl of sand cannot retain any water?). It was probably too complex for the american publisher who chose this utterly unimaginative title instead (note that the french publisher kept the original spirit of the title with “Le vase de sable” which means “the vessel of sand”).
Like the movie, that we recently commented, this novel is a very detailed police procedural. The storytelling is more linear than the movie and much more complex as several characters were eliminated or merged for the movie. The main difference is the fact that there’s two main suspects (Waga and Sekigawa), there’s two girlfriends or mistresses’ murders (Emiko and Rieko) on the sideline of the main crime and the use of an ultra-sonic device as the secondary murder weapon. This intrigue was probably too complex (and confusing: two artists, two girlfriends) for a movie which needed a simpler plot. Also, the movie put much more emphasis on Waga’s father and his disease, while the book pits the westernized ideas of the Nouveau group (progressive but also corrupting — after all two of its members, full of hubris, committed murder to preserved their status) against the simpler and beautiful way of life of traditional Japan (represented by the abacus maker) — although it could also means abject poverty (like in the village of Waga’s mother).
It’s a good novel and, despite the fact that it painstakingly follows every steps of the investigation, I didn’t feel any lengths. However, even if it’s not a very exciting story, it’s a good example of Japanese detective story, and for this it’s well worth reading.
Inspector Imanishi Investigates, by Seichô Matsumoto (translated by Beth Cary). New York, Soho Press, september 1989 (republished in July 2003). 16 x 24.5 x 3 cm, 314 pg., $16,95 USD / CAN. ISBN: 0-939149-28-1 (2003 edition: 9781569470190). Suggested for young adults (16+). You can read a lengthy extract of the novel on Google books.
For more information you can check the following websites:
Inspector Imanishi Investigates © 1989 by Seichô Matsumoto. All rights reserved.
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