Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction
Born: Kokura (now Kokura Kita Ward, Kitakyushu City), Fukuoka Prefecture,
Japan; December 21, 1909
Died: Tokyo, Japan; August 4, 1992
Type of Plot: Police procedural
Seicho Matsumoto is a premier author of Japanese mystery and detective fiction. Credited with popularizing the genre among readers in his country, Matsumoto became his nation's best-selling and highest earning author in the 1960's. His most acclaimed detective novels, including Ten to sen (1958; Points and Lines, 1970) and Suna no utsuwa (1961; Inspector Imanishi Investigates, 1989), have been translated into a number of languages, including English, and remain in print. Although Matsumoto is known for police procedurals that involve intriguing criminal investigations, he also wrote novels and short fiction that feature historically based mysteries.
Matsumoto's works depart from traditional styles of Japanese mystery and detective fiction. Dispensing with formulaic plot devices such as puzzles, Matsumoto incorporated elements of social significance and postwar nihilism that expanded the scope and further darkened the atmosphere of the genre. In particular, his exposé of corruption among police officials as well as criminals was a new addition to the field. The subject of investigation was not just the crime but also the society in which the crime was committed. In a Matsumoto detective story, Japanese society is often fingered as an accomplice.
A prolific author, the self-educated Matsumoto did not see his first book in print until he was in his forties. He wrote until his death in 1992, producing in four decades more than 450 works. Although Matsumoto also produced popular historical novels and respected works of nonfiction, it is his mystery and detective fiction that solidified his reputation as a writer at home and abroad.
Born Kiyoharu Matsumoto in Kokura (now Kokura Kita Ward, Kitakyushu City), Fukuoka Prefecture, on the island of Kyushu in Japan in 1909, he later adopted the pen name of Seicho Matsumoto. A product of humble origins, he was his parents' only child. Following his graduation from elementary school, Matsumoto found employment at a utility company. As an adult he designed layouts for the Asahi Shinbun newspaper in Kyushu. His work in the advertising department was interrupted by service in World War II. A medical corpsman, Matsumoto spent much of the war in Korea. He resumed work at Asahi Shinbun after the war, transferring to the publication's Tokyo office in 1950.
Though Matsumoto attended neither secondary school nor university, he was well read. As a rebellious teenager, he read banned revolutionary texts as part of a political protest. This act so enraged Matsumoto's father that he destroyed his son's collection of literature. Undeterred, the young Matsumoto sought award-winning works of fiction and studied them intently. His official foray into literature occurred in 1950 when Shukan Asahi magazine hosted a fiction contest. He submitted his short story "Saigo satsu" (Saigo's currency) and placed third in the competition. With three generations dependent on him (he supported his parents as well as his wife and children), Matsumoto welcomed the prize money. His modest success and the encouragement of fellow writers fueled his efforts. Within six years he had retired from his post at the newspaper to pursue a full-time career as a writer.
Renowned for his work ethic, Matsumoto wrote short fiction while simultaneously producing multiple novels--at one point as many as five concurrently--in the form of magazine serials. Many of Matsumoto's crime stories debuted in periodicals, among them the acclaimed "Harikomi" (1955; "The Stakeout," 1985), in which a woman reunites with her fugitive lover while police close in on her home. As is true of much of Matsumoto's fiction, this psychological portrait reveals more about the characters than the crime.
For his literary accomplishments, Matsumoto received the Mystery Writers of Japan Prize, the Naoki Prize, and the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for Literature, all awards bestowed on writers of popular fiction. In 1952 he was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for "Aru 'Kokura nikki' den" (the legend of the Kokura diary). Considered Matsumoto's best story, it features a disabled but diligent protagonist who seeks entries that are missing from the diary of author and army medical physician Mori Ogai. For Matsumoto's contributions to nonfiction, including volumes on Japanese history, society, and architecture, the Association of Japanese Journalists presented him with the Nihon Janaristo Kaigi Prize. He received the NHK Hoso Bunka Award, a broadcasting award, in 1978 and the Asahi Award in 1990.
A lifelong activist, Matsumoto voiced anti-American sentiment in some of his writings, but he was equally critical of his own society. Many of his works of fiction and nonfiction reveal corruption in Japanese government and academia. A political radical despite (or perhaps in reaction to) growing up in a conformist society, Matsumoto associated with like-minded individuals. In 1968 he traveled to communist Cuba as a delegate of the World Cultural Congress and later that same year ventured to North Vietnam to meet with its president. Though he continued to write works of mystery and detective fiction in the 1970's and 1980's, the author dedicated increasing time to works of nonfiction on more political topics.
Since his death from cancer at the age of eighty-three, Matsumoto's popularity as a writer of mystery and detective fiction has grown internationally, and he has achieved iconic status in Japanese culture.
An esteemed postwar writer, Seicho Matsumoto is credited with changing the format and expanding the content of Japanese mystery fiction. He dispensed with the formulaic insertion of clues common to the genre and added emphasis to more complex issues of human behavior and societal problems. Whereas mystery writers before Matsumoto provided readers the literary equivalent of a trail of breadcrumbs, he gave readers the entire loaf. Followers of his detective fiction know as much or as little as the detective; nothing is kept in confidence to create artificial surprise at the conclusion of a work.
At first glance, Matsumoto's straightforward and sparse style of writing seems to take its inspiration from journalism, not unexpected given his earlier association with a newspaper and his focus on detective fiction. However, as a number of critics have noted, the simplicity of Matsumoto's writing is deceptive. His prose style has been compared to haiku, a Japanese poetic form consisting of seventeen syllables that evoke a clear but expansive image. Likewise Matsumoto's plots are carefully scripted, with elements of Japanese society playing a crucial role in the discovery of how a crime was committed. Train schedules (trains are well known for running on time in Japan) feature in several works where the time frame of an alibi is in question.
In a Matsumoto novel, more than just the crime is under investigation; postwar Japanese society also undergoes interrogation. All imposters and pretenders–dishonest officials, pretentious academics, and social climbers--have their falsities exposed. Because Matsumoto's detectives see their society so clearly, with an outsider's detached perspective, usually they are able to get their man (or their woman). A combination of detective ability, dogged perseverance, and understanding of human behavior guides their search. When they fail, as is the case in Kuroi fukuin (1961; black gospel), bureaucracy is often the culprit. Matsumoto based Kuroi fukuin on an actual crime in which the prime suspect was a foreign Catholic priest and the victim was a Japanese stewardess. The investigation was disbanded after the Japanese government allowed the priest to return to his own country. Matsumoto wrote his novel both to spur public interest in the case and to protest its closure.
Often Matsumoto's investigators are civilization's scrappy underdogs. The most memorable of his detectives, Inspector Imanishi, survives on a modest salary, fights forces of corruption within his own department, and maintains emotional equilibrium through his pursuit of outside interests. Imanishi's composition of haiku and his tending of a garden provide readers with additional insight into the inspector's methods. His construction of the case is pursued with the same careful attention to detail as is required in his hobbies.
Points and Lines
Ten to Sen is the novel that in 1958 secured Matsumoto's inclusion in an elite cadre of Japanese mystery writers. Published in English as Points and Lines, the novel introduced Matsumoto to an English-language audience and helped him gain an international following. In this police procedural, Matsumoto manipulates the duplicitous number two: The plot centers on a double homicide masquerading as a double suicide and follows two detectives, one local and one from Tokyo, who join forces to solve the crime and track the criminal. Veteran Jutaro Torigai of the local precinct partners with Kiichi Mihara, a rookie from Tokyo's metropolitan force. Their investigation of the deaths of a young couple, whose bodies are found on a popular Japanese beach, eventually exposes a national crime ring. Two careful analyses of departure and arrival times in the train schedules for busy Tokyo station--one to refute the suspect's alibi and one to fix the time of the murders--are necessary for the detectives to crack their case.
Japan's highly structured society, with its divisions between social classes and workplace hierarchies, also undergoes examination in Points and Lines. The relationship between subordinate and superior, another duality, is scrutinized in this context. Matsumoto provides readers with two models. First, a traditional pairing in which each man conforms to his place in society is presented in the relationship between Ishida, a high-ranking ministry official, and Sayama, an assistant. Although Sayama is competent and knowledgeable, Ishida regards him as his inferior; their relationship does not allow a free exchange of information. In contrast to this standard, the relationship between novice detective Mihara and his superior officer, Inspector Kasai, breaks with Japanese convention. Though members of disparate social and departmental ranks, their mutual respect allows them to share information liberally to advance the investigation. As in many a detective novel by Matsumoto, Japanese society is under the microscope.
Inspector Imanishi Investigates
Perhaps the most popular of Matsumoto's works is Suna no utsuwa (1961; Inspector Imanishi Investigates, 1989). The novel features a homicide detective intent on solving a murder case even after his superiors have disbanded the investigation. With a single clue--the name Kameda--to guide his search, Inspector Imanishi travels throughout the prefectures of Japan, often on the same train line that passed through the station in Tokyo where the mangled body of the victim was discovered. Uncertain whether the name is a surname or a place name, Inspector Imanishi follows maps and directories to different locales, including the provinces, where the pace of life is depicted as less hurried than in the city, but the quality of life more impoverished.
Because the setting of the novel predates Japan's economic recovery and eventual boom in the 1960's and 1970's, there is an appropriately lean quality to the novel's descriptions of the nation's cities, towns, and countryside. Matsumoto's sparse prose creates a Tokyo that is afflicted by social maladies, including vice and apathy. As part of his investigation into the murder, the middle-aged Inspector Imanishi must circulate among a younger subpopulation consisting of radical writers, visual artists, and actors. Members of this scene are less focused on reviving their city's arts than they are on subverting an inherited culture that appears to them as staid as the inspector in his suit and tie. As a writer of haiku and a gardener, Imanishi's own foray into the arts is more conventional. However, it is these tense juxtapositions between traditional and modern Japanese lifestyles, urban and rural settings, and established and emerging generations that provide the novel its context and that contribute to Inspector Imanishi's success in identifying the victim and the perpetrator.
The Voice, and Other Stories
The Voice, and Other Stories, a collection of Matsumoto's crime stories translated into English by Adam Kabat, was published in 1989, although the individual stories were composed in the 1950's and 1960's. These tales are set in a Japan still recovering from the economic devastation of World War II and enmeshed in the Cold War. A time of transition for most Japanese citizens, it was an era in which women clad in traditional kimono traveled by the efficient modern railway system.
The six stories are linked by the fact that each involves an unsolved crime, but each story is distinct in its perspective. In some stories the detective is featured; in others, the criminal, and occasionally the not-so-innocent bystander. In "Kao" (1959; "The Face") a movie star harbors a secret. Before achieving fame, he murdered his lover, an event witnessed by a second pair of eyes. The same exposure that will escalate his career could jeopardize his life. In this work of psychological realism, the actor cannot help but choose the allure of the spotlight over the safety of obscurity. Likewise, "Kanto-ku no onna" (1960; "The Woman Who Wrote Haiku") examines the emotional triggers behind deviant human behavior. The story features a terminally ill, and thereby vulnerable, poet conned into acting as an accessory to murder. In "Kyohansha" (1965; "The Accomplice"), a businessman spies on his former partner-in-crime to ensure that his past life will not intrude on his present success.
Dorothy Dodge RobbinsPrincipal Mystery and Detective Fiction
1955-1970 Akuma ni motomeru onna, 1955; Ten to sen, 1958 (Points and Lines, 1970); Me no kabe, 1958; Aoi byoten, 1959; Kiroi fudo, 1959; Zero no shoten, 1959; Kuroi gashu, 1959-1960; Kuroi jukai, 1960; Nami no to, 1960; Kuroi fukuin, 1961; Kage no chitai, 1961; Kangaeru ha, 1961; Kiri no hata, 1961; Koko satsujin jiken, 1961; Suna no utsuwa, 1961 (Inspector Imanishi Investigates, 1989); Yuganda fukusha, 1961; Warui yatsura, 1961; Kaze no shisen, 1962; Fuan na enso, 1962; Renkan, 1962; Kami to yaju no hi, 1963; Hi no nawa, 1963; Rakusa, 1963; Kemonomichi, 1964; Kenrantaru ryuri, 1964; Kajitsu no nai mori, 1964; Kita no shijin, 1964; Saimu, 1964; Kusa no ankoku, 1965; Aozameta reifuku, 1966; Oboredani, 1966; Kaei, 1966; Hanagoromo, 1966; Hansei no ki, 1966; Sabaku no shio, 1967; Niju yomyaku, 1967; D no fukugo, 1968; Shosetsu Tokyo teikoku daigaku, 1969; Bunri no jikan, 1969; Shomei, 1970; Ningen suiiki, 1970
1971-1980 Ikeru Pasukaru, 1971; Kikanakatta basho, 1971; Tsuyoki ari, 1971; Soshitsu no girei, 1972; Kokuso sezu, 1973; Kaze no iki, 1974; Jiko, 1975; Kuro no kairo, 1976; Shocho no sekkei, 1976; Watasareta bamen, 1976; Garasu no shiro, 1976; Uzu, 1977; Kussetsu kairo, 1977; Seisoku bunpu, 1978; Fumon, 1978; Mizu no hada, 1978; Shiro to kuro no kakumei, 1979; Tensaiga no onna, 1979; Kurogawa no techo, 1980; Hi no michi, 1980
1981-1997 Jumanbun no ichi no guzen, 1981; Yakoo no kaidan, 1981; Giwaku, 1982; Satsujingyo oku no hosomichi, 1982; Shi no hasso, 1982; Irodorigawa, 1983 (2 vols.); Kotei no kobo, 1983; Seiju hairetsu, 1983; Kazatta senmai, 1984; Ami, 1984; Nurareta hon, 1984; Atsui kinu, 1985; Kiri no kaigi, 1987; Akai hyoga ki, 1989; 1952-nen Nikkoki "gekitsui" jiken, 1992; Hanzai no kaiso, 1992; Inka heigen, 1993; Kamigami no ranshin, 1997
Kao, 1959; Kiken na shamen, 1959; Kage no kuruma, 1961; Harikomi, 1964; Kichiku, 1964; Satsui, 1964; Koe, 1964; Kyohansha, 1965; Kuro no yoshiki, 1967; Hyosho shijin, 1968; Kyojin no iso, 1973; Kajin hisatsu, 1973; Nakai no wa, 1974; Mizu no hada, 1978; Toku kara no koe, 1964; Meiso chizu, 1983; The Voice, and Other Stories, 1989
Other Major Works
Saigo-satsu, 1950; Mushukunin betcho, 1957; Kagero ezu, 1958; Soshoku hoyden, 1958
Nihon no kuroi kiri, 1961; Zuihitsu kuroi techo, 1961; Tenpo zuroku, 1962; Showa-shi hakkutsu, 1965-1972; Kodaishi-gi, 1967; Misuteri no keifu, 1968; Seicho tsushi, 1976-1983; Seich o nikki, 1984; Mikkyo no suigen o miru, 1984; Nafudano mai nimotsu, 1992
Apostolou, John. "A Yen for Murder: A Look at Japan's Ichiban Mystery Writer, Seicho Matsumoto." Armchair Detective: A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Appreciation of Mystery, Detective, and Suspense Fiction 20, no. 3 (Summer, 1987): 322-325. Matsumoto's creation of memorable characters is linked to the author's own interests.
Hong, Lawrence. "Mystery as Poetry, Suicide as Literary Device: The Works of Seicho Matsumoto." Popular Culture Review 12, no. 2 (August, 2001): 1-14. Critiques Matsumoto's unique style, positing that the author's works of popular fiction are actually quite literary.
Kohl, Stephen. "Seicho Matsumoto." In Japanese Fiction Writers Since World War II, Vol. 182 of Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Van C. Gessel. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1997. Places the author in the context of twentieth century Japanese literature and society. Provides brief analyses of major works in various genres, including mystery, historical fiction, historical nonfiction, and archeology.
Manji, Gonda. "Crime Fiction with a Social Consciousness." Japan Quarterly 40, no. 2 (April/June, 1993): 157-164. A Japanese literary critic and associate professor who studies detective writers presents a picture of Matsumoto's influence on mystery writing in Japan. Provides history and analysis of works.
Wheeler, Wolcott. "Seicho Matsumoto's Points and Lines: The Shortest Distance is the Truth." Clues: A Journal of Detection 18, no. 2 (Fall-Winter, 1997): 59-70. Critiques Matsumoto's novel in terms of its structure and its social commentary.
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