Mystery and Detective Week, Pt 2: Inspector Hanshichi & Detective Akechi
This is the second of three Mystery Week posts. Earlier this week we went to China with Judge Dee. Now on to two Detectives in Japan whose authors brought them to life between the World Wars and whose exploits live on to this day in books, manga, film and television. Coming up this weekend, an old friend will solve crimes and unravel mysteries in India and Tibet. Until then, enjoy.
JAPAN: Inspector Hanshichi
“The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi” (半七捕物帳 – The Hanshichi Detective Stories). Link to Amazon site. Inspector Hanshichi was the creation of Kido Okamoto (1872-1939), whose life and work spanned three historical and tumultuous epochs of modern Japanese history, the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the Taisho Era (1912-1926) and the Showa Era (1926-1989), marked by the reins of the Emperors whose names they became known by (as per Japanese custom — Westerners should note that Emperors take on posthumous names, thus Emperor Hirohito became known as Emperor Showa after he passed away in 1989). A few years ago The Japan Times serialized (in English) “The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi.” Unfortunately, I can’t find an online version of that. Nevertheless, the Times published a wonderful, multi-part piece on the background of Inspector Hanshichi, his creator, Kido Okamoto, the times in which Kido lived and wrote, and the times (the late Edo Period) in which he places Inspector Hanshichi. The Times piece provides a very readable and informative history lesson of 19th and early 20th Century Japan.
Although widely read in Japan since its publishing in the years between 1917 and 1937, it wasn’t until 2007 that [The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi] was translated into English. The book was published by the University of Hawai’i Press . . . Hanshichi is that rare example of Japanese detective fiction that provides both a view of life in feudal Japan from the perspective of the period between the First and Second World Wars and an insight into the development of the fledging Japanese crime novel. Although it is a product of the early period of Japanese modernism . . . Hanshichi does not seek to challenge literary conventions. Instead it aims to entertain and thrill its readers with well-crafted prose, realistic dialogue, and compelling plots, enabling them to escape into a world both strange and familiar. Strange, in that the customs of mid-nineteenth century Japan must have seemed antiquated, even quaint, to readers of the late 1910s and early 1920s. Familiar, in that Hanshichi was not an imitation of Western fiction — as was much crime writing of the time — but boasted characters and settings uniquely Japanese. Full article.
And, a couple more quotes from the well-written Japan Times background piece on Hanshichi and its author:
Kido’s fictional hero, Inspector Hanshichi — an old man in the 1890s when the narration of the series is set — represents many Japanese at the turn of the century who had not entirely adjusted to the changes of two to three decades earlier. Hanshichi [ ] still thinks of the seasons and the weather in terms of the old lunar calendar. . . Unable to adjust completely, he feels himself somewhat out of tune with the modern world. Likewise, many traditional customs and practices persisted in Japan amid the onslaught of modernity. Western democracy and industry were embraced as more “advanced” and “enlightened” than Japanese institutions, but the feudal order proved surprisingly durable. Kido’s coming-of-age in the early years of Meiji also sheds light on his efforts to adapt Western artistic forms to Japanese tastes. The trajectory of his career illustrates the diffi culties many Japanese experienced in adapting to the new social order, as well as the opportunities it afforded. . . . Source.
When Hanshichi was launched in 1917, very few of Kido’s readers would have had firsthand knowledge of Edo (Tokyo) in the 1840s to 1860s, the period when the adventures are set. As the series progressed and more and more of the old city vanished (most notably after the Great Earthquake of 1923), decreasing numbers of his readers could have recalled what Tokyo had been like in the time before Japan’s overseas wars with China and Russia in 1894 and 1904, respectively. . . Hanshichi’s Edo is populated not only by fl esh-and-blood men and women but also by ghosts, spirits, and monsters of various descriptions, whose existence, while never actually proven, is frequently hinted at. They take the form of human specters, fox spirits, shape-changing cats, and other mischief makers such as the goblin-like tengu and watery kappa that lurk in rivers and on desolate moors, liminal spaces where the relative safety afforded by the city and the presence of other human beings gives way to the unfathomable and forbidding natural world. As the opening sentence of the very first adventure suggests, the Edo period was a time when the supernatural exerted a strong grip on the Japanese imagination. It was used to explain any strange and troubling event, and was as readily accepted by most samurai as by the less well-educated townspeople. Even Hanshichi, the wise and worldly expert on human nature, is never willing completely to rule out the supernatural as a plausible explanation. In recounting his adventures, he defers to his young interlocutor on all matters of modern science and empiricism, modestly professing that such things are beyond his ken. . . . Source.
Detective Kogoro Akechi was the brainchild of Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), pen name for Hirai Tarō. Here’s a wonderful write-up on Rampo and his works of mystery and fantasmagoria. And here’s a Rampo fansite. From the Wiki, regarding Akechi:
“Like [Sherlock] Holmes, Akechi is a brilliant but eccentric detective who consults with the police on especially difficult cases. He is a master of disguise and a judo expert whose genius lets him solve seemingly impossible cases. Also like Holmes, Akechi makes use of a group of young boys — the Baker Street Irregulars — to gather information. Akechi’s version is known as the Boy Detective Club. Akechi smokes Egyptian cigarettes when he is thinking about a case.
“Akechi is a tall, handsome man with heavy eyebrows who dresses well. He is married to a woman named Fumiyo and has an adopted son, Yoshio Kobayashi, the leader of the boy detectives club. Kobayashi often plays an important part in solving cases. Like his mentor, he is an expert at disguise and is especially adept at posing as a young woman. Aside from these relationships little is known of the detective’s personal life, which always takes a back seat to the mystery in his adventures.
“Detective Akechi’s most frequent foe is the infamous Kaijin Nijū Mensō (the ‘Fiend with Twenty Faces’) <-2002 made-for-T.V. film poster. The fiend is a master criminal whose infallible gift for disguise may have been inspired by Hamilton Creek, Thomas W. Hanshew’s heroic but amoral “Man of Forty Faces.” The Fiend is a non-violent criminal who steals to demonstrate his brilliance rather than out of need for money. He and Akechi have a mutual respect in the stories.” From here.
Regarding that 2002 TV version of Kogoro Akechi vs. the Fiend with Twenty Faces, here’s a link to the full film (sorry, with only Chinese subtitles; it’s a Chinese site): Link to Film. It’s rather hokey but visually interesting and even if you don’t understand Japanese (or Chinese), you can “get” what’s going on in at least the first 20 minutes, which I recommend. Historical/Cultural Note: the very beginning, Prologue portion, of the film is set in China during WWII, in the fictitious “Unit 634” (bio-warfare). There actually was an infamous Japanese biological warfare program in China during the war, “Unit 731.”
An even more recent “Detective Akechi vs. the Fiend with Twenty Faces” movie was released in theaters in 2008. It’s set in an alternate history, 1949 Japan where WWII never happened and Tokyo is called “Teito.” Here’s the trailer to “K-20,” which looks pretty hokey and unwatchable to me, but it is interesting to see what other filmmakers are doing (which, here, looks not too different from what American and British studios are doing, which is not a compliment).