Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Point Zero, by Seichō Matsumoto


Europa Editions, 2024
originally published as Zero no shoten, 1959
translated by Louise Heal Kawai
279 pp 


 I needed a short novel for late-night reading while family was here last week and Tokyo Express (apa Points and Lines) called out to me from my shelf, after which I found myself wanting to read more of Matsumoto's work.  I chose this one,  Point Zero, which, like Tokyo Express, is set against the backdrop of  postwar Japanese society.  I found myself unwilling to put it down at any time once I'd started reading, and I liked it so much that I took out my copy of the author's A Quiet Place (also from Europa) which I'm ready to start later this evening.  About Point Zero, it's best to say as little as possible so as not to give away too much, so my post will be a bit vague.  Personally, I think the back-cover blurb is too spoiler-ish but feel free to disagree. 

 Although Teiko Itane had received marriage proposals in the past, she'd turned them all down.  Her situation changes when she receives a proposal from a certain Kenichi Uhara via a matchmaker.  Uhara is the manager of the Hokuriku branch of a major advertising firm, spending twenty days a month at the office in Kanazawa City and ten days in Tokyo.  That arrangement is of particular concern to Teiko's mother, but it seems that the company has been trying to get him to move to Tokyo for a while and he's finally agreed, using the opportunity to finally get married as well.  Even though they hadn't spent any time alone together, Teiko decides to accept the proposal, and also believes that whatever life he'd had in the past should stay in the past.  This decision will come back to bite her later, but for the moment, aside from some sort of  unspoken "complexity" within Kenichi that she senses, the few early days of the marriage that they share aren't so bad for either of them.  She's made friends with Kenichi's brother's family (who live in the Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo) and after the honeymoon, the plan is for Kenichi to make his final trip to Kanazawa to hand over the job to his successor, a certain Yoshio Honda, who will be accompanying him on the train journey.   As she watches the train pull out of the station, she has no clue that this will be "the last time Teiko ever saw her husband." 

The first hint that something is wrong comes when Kenichi sends a postcard saying that he'll be home on the twelfth and fails to show up.  After a few phone calls, Teiko learns that nobody in the company knows where he is; on the third day the section chief of Kenichi's company advises her that someone will be going to investigate his disappearance in Kanazawa.  He also asks if she would be willing to accompany that person.  Kenichi's brother Sotaro can't get away at that time, so she heads to Ueno station where she learns that Honda has already been in touch with police and is taking Kenichi's disappearance very seriously.  Once she arrives in Kanazawa, she learns a bit more about Kenichi's movements the day before he was to take the train home to Tokyo, the results taking both Honda and herself by surprise. But this information is just the opening salvo of many more surprises to come, including a series of unexpected deaths and a ruthless killer who is determined not to be caught.  The question that drives Teiko here is just how these deaths are connected. She also realizes that "Her husband had a secret. What was it?"   Beginning her quest with only two photos of two different houses that might possibly be some sort of clue,  finding the answers becomes for Teiko nearly a full-time occupation.  She also doesn't realize that she is up against a very powerful and determined opponent, someone who will do anything to prevent the past from catching up to the present, no matter the cost. 

1971 edition (in which the cover is much more relevant and given the story, downright creepy)  from Amazon

Aside from the twists and turns that this story takes, I was struck while reading Point Zero by two things.  The first is the sense of place that Matsumoto layers into this novel, whether it is in describing  various views captured within the neighborhoods of Tokyo or (and most especially), his incorporation  of the natural world away from the city.   The second is that the most forceful characters throughout the novel are women.  Anyone who goes into this novel with preconceived notions of docile Japanese women taking a back seat to the men in their orbits may be surprised at the strength the author affords to many of the females here.  While there are more than a few I could talk about, it starts with Teiko, who is strong, highly independent and more than determined to get to the root of Kenichi's disappearance.  She has no trouble trying to dig out information from people ranging from top company executives to the police to denizens of the neighborhoods her investigation takes her, and obviously she will not be satisfied until she knows everything there is to know, even if she has to rethink things now and again.  

The novel is utterly twisty, full of betrayals and secrets which eventually are unraveled to take the reader to another time and place entirely.  All of the above makes for  a solid mystery at the core of this novel, and I seriously had trouble putting it down once I'd started.  I have a great love for Japanese crime authors who use their writing to explore human nature and troubled psyches, and  Point Zero certainly appeals on that level as well.  What elevates it beyond ordinary is Matsumoto's ability to set the crime not only within historical context but in a changing social context as well.  This one I can certainly and highly recommend, especially to readers of vintage Japanese crime fiction.  I loved it. 

from blu-ray.com

I also watched the film adaptation of this novel made in 1961.  There is also a 2009 version that I would love to see, but I have to wait for a long while for my DVD to arrive.    For now, luckily I subscribe to the Criterion Channel and there it was (the 1961 film) along with other Japanese noir movies.  The beginning happens very quickly  with fast scene changes and seems a bit clunky;  later these quick cuts will be a bit more fleshed out via flashback. It's only when Teiko arrives in Kanazawa that the movie gets a bit more back on track, but I was definitely thankful I'd read the novel ahead of seeing the film or quite frankly I would have been shaking my head at the start wondering what the heck is happening here.   The powers that be did make a number of changes to the original source material, but even with those it is still well worth watching.  

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