So, during my hiatus from this blog, I took the opportunity to… not read much of anything, actually. I’ve been watching a lot of movies during the pandemic, playing lots of Final Fantasy XIV, but not doing a lot of reading.
However, recently I did actually pick and finish a new book. It happened to come to my attention through a largely unrelated podcast, Scream Scene, which covered an adaptation of a different novel from the same author, The Vampire Moth. I learned that Seishi Yokomizu’s classic mystery novels were just now being translated into English, so I figured I’d try one out. I went on an Agatha Christie binge a few years back, I’m no stranger to detective fiction.
(Since the stories I’m writing about are mysteries, I’ll do my best not to spoil them)
So, I went and bought The Honjin Murders, the first book in the Kosuke Kindaichi series, from amazon. It was a pretty quick read, only about 200 pages, but it was a fun one, and it gave me a lot of context for another piece of media which I spend a significant amount of time engaging with last year, Umineko: When They Cry.
This sprawling visual novel is also a murder mystery, and it is concerned with the genre as a whole in a very interesting way.
Mysteries About Mysteries
Both stories engage with the genre in similar ways, looking at the history of mystery fiction and the concept of a “locked room” as an opportunity to play a game with readers. What’s more, they both directly reference other mysteries in the text, and have their detectives talk about what makes a good mystery or a bad one.
In The Honjin Murders, the existence of a shelf full of western mystery novels is a key clue to unraveling the identity of the killer. What matters is the psychology of the people involved, and the possible motivations. It isn’t isolated, the scene of the murder is a mansion with a bunch of staff right near a village, bordered by a path that people walk down all the time.
This contrasts with Umineko, where the fixation on mystery novels is not a clue to the identity of the killer, but rather the key to figuring out the motive for the crimes and the true nature of the psychology of the killer themself. The story is tight, clockwork, everything is controlled and locked down. It is set on an isolated island, with on a very rigid cast, the nature of which is controlled and debated throughout the story.
Context is Key
In both cases, I think the use of metatextual elements is a way of reassuring the audience. Saying to them, “I did my homework”, so to speak. However, the era in which they were written, and thus the wider context, could not be more different.
Yokomizo was writing literally in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. Japan was still a newly minted world power, having modernized their society and gone through many tumultuous changes in the previous century. Thus, the story concerns the dovetailing of a traditional society with modern ideas.
It was written in a more chaotic time, things were constantly changing, so the story examined the ways in which traditional values were exploited by psychopaths who only wanted to cause suffering. This is contrasted with Umineko, which is a story almost entirely about the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present.
Being written in the late ’00s (roughly 2007-2011), it was written in a time of almost stultifying stability. No major changes, no big upsets, everything just kind of plodding along, functional or dysfunctional as it may be. Thus, the excitement and intrigue all lie in the past, and all the drama lies in old secrets being revealed.
Grappling With the Present
One especially interesting thing, comparing the two, is the way that they talk about and portray World War II.
In Umineko, it is the source of darkness. This is where all the secrets are concentrated, where all the original sins were committed, which have their echoes traveling forward to the modern day. The shadow of fascism hangs heavy over the family at the center of the story, though they don’t even realize it.
Meanwhile, in The Honjin Murders, the war is just a thing that happened. Literally everyone just lived through it, there’s no reason to belabor the point. The main action takes place before the war, with the narration telling us what happened afterwards at the end. Two of the characters incidentally died in the war, one on the front lines after being drafted, and the other because they happened to be in Hiroshima on the wrong day.
They are both dealing with the state of the world in their own way. Yokomizo isn’t ignoring the war, but rather talks about it allegorically, through the shape of the murder, while Ryukishi07 is able to talk about it and its legacy more directly. For the author in the ’40s, it was a singular traumatic event, while for the more modern author, it is more of an old curse that has to be carefully dissected in order to fully understand its impact.
- Umineko no Naku Koro ni: The crimes of the fascists are still with us and continue to cause horrible problems to this very day. No matter how painful it is, the secrets of the past must be uncovered and faced in order to move forward!
- The Honjin Murders: That war was all about traditionalists and psychopaths feeding off each other’s bullshit. Obsession with traditional values and disregard for human life worked hand in hand to cause the greatest disaster of our entire history.
Anyway, they’re both really good, and you should read them! Definitely grab the mod that adds voice acting and better art if you play Umineko, though.
I’ll see you next time I read another book!