Thursday, July 28, 2022

Death on Gokumon Island, by Seishi Yokomizo


Pushkin Vertigo, 2022
originally published as Gokumon-To, originally serialized 1947-1948
translated by Louise Heal Kawai
310 pp


Completely overjoyed when I learned last year that this book was going to be published by Pushkin Vertigo, I hit the preorder button at lightning speed.  At the same time, I bought a dvd of the 1977 film made from this novel, directed by Kon Ichikawa, which I watched last night after finishing Death on Gokumon Island.  More on that later.    

It's September, 1946 and as the novel opens, a ferry is making its way to a few different islands in Japan's  Seto Inland Sea.   It drops its passengers until there are only three left, all heading for a small island, Gokumon-to, which translates to Hell's Gate Island.  One of these people is Kosuke Kindaichi, who overhears a conversation between the other two -- a priest who had gone to pick up the once-confiscated, now-returned bell belonging to Senkoji Temple, and another man who informs the priest that someone named Hitoshi was "supposed to be coming home soon."  He had heard the news from a soldier in Hitoshi's regiment who had come to the island a few days earlier, when the guy had turned up to tell the family that Hitoshi had sent him to let them know not only that he would be returning, but also that he hadn't been injured in the war.  The priest then asks about someone named Chimata, which captures Kindaichi's attention, sparking a conversation among the three men.  It turns out that Kindaichi, a friend of Chimata, had come to Gokumon-to let the Kito family know of his death aboard a transport ship just a month earlier. 

Kindaichi, "like every other young man in Japan," had been drafted into the army, where he had spent two years in China before being deployed "between different islands to the south." His last stop had been in Wewak, New Guinea, where his division had been defeated, causing them to retreat; his division had joined others and it was then that Kindaichi had met and befriended Chimata-san,  helping him through his bouts of a very bad case of malaria and spending time together while the other soldiers "fell one after the other."   While they eventually made it out okay when the war ended,  each time Chimata fell ill Kindaichi noted that he suffered from "an extreme fear of death."  All was well, it seemed, until Chimata fell ill on board the repatriation ship; before he died he had told Kindaichi that he didn't want to die, and that he had to go home.  Otherwise, he said,  his "three sisters will be murdered."    Exactly why this might be is not explained until the end, but by then, it's too late -- it seems that Chimata had been right, and now our detective must try to discover who is behind these (quoting the back cover) "grotesquely staged" deaths that start not too long after he lands on the island. 

1971 cover from Mandarake

He will definitely have his work cut out for him, since the islanders tend to regard anyone not from there as suspicious; he is even arrested once by the local police sergeant who has no idea of his prowess as a "famed detective" and who views him as prime suspect in the case.  With the arrival of his old friend Inspector Isokawa (from The Honjin Murders) Kindaichi is released (to the sergeant's great  chagrin, I might add), but even then it will not be smooth sailing because, as he says to Isokawa, "everyone here on Gokumon Island is crazy. They're all out of their minds."   Perhaps, but while the Inspector makes note of the insanity behind the murders, Kindaichi eventually realizes that there is most certainly a method behind the madness on the part of whoever is responsible.  

What is done very well is the description of the longstanding power structure on the island and then there's the novel's  immediate postwar setting which captures the  demobilizations that are still ongoing, the families who continue to wait for their loved ones to return home and sit by the radio to hear the latest repatriation news, and a real sense of how the war has interrupted the flow of life for most people such as Isokawa, whose career had basically stalled during World War II and remains unsettled at the moment.   At the same time, the real payoff  in reading Death on Gokumon Island must wait for the end.  I was actually becoming a bit frustrated partway through because the story becomes more than a bit muddled and clunky at times; to be fair to the author, he does toss out clues here and there but they are on the impossible side of figuring out until all is revealed and things fall into place.  Trust me -- even the most seasoned armchair detectives will not be able to figure this one out.  Word to the wise: pay attention to the list of characters offered up front; I found myself returning to it several times.

 So far, Pushkin Vertigo has published four of the books in Seishi Yokomizo's Kosuke Kindaichi series:  The Honjin Murders, The Inugami Curse, The Village of Eight Graves and now this one.  According to Thrilling Detective, there are seventy-seven books featuring Kindaichi, so with any luck (crossing fingers) we may be seeing more in translation.   As I've noted before, my favorite is The Inugami Curse apa The Inugami Clan, but with another seventy-three left, who knows what little gems are yet to be uncovered in this series!  Despite my reading reservations at times,  Gokumon Island ends up being not only clever, but the author injects more than a twisted sense of destiny as well as a sort of tragic irony into this story once all is said and done.  Recommended for fans of the series and for Japanese crime fiction in general; it may be a bit slow in the telling but the reward is well worth waiting for. 

from TMDB

The Japanese film (1977) based on this novel (directed by Kon Ichikawa, whose The Burmese Harp I could watch on a continuous loop) starts with the same premise as the book, but for some reason I still can't fathom, the powers that be here then changed the storyline, including the identity of the killer.  Also unexpected and producing a very loud "wtf"  was a decapitation scene, and I have to say that I actually cringed every time Kindaichi scratched his head releasing clouds of very visible dandruff. Ick.  On the other hand, it streamlines the rather convoluted story making it easier to follow, but I'm glad I read the novel before viewing the movie.   All in all a fun experience but in my humble opinion, not quite as well done as the movie based on Yokomizo's Inugami Clan, also done in the 70s but miles better than this one.