“Seventeen miles south of Kasaoka…is a tiny island, measuring barely five miles in circumference, its name is Gokumon-to, meaning Hell’s Gate Island.”
GIVEN what Hollywood has done to terms like Hell’s Gate, I am not sure the English translation applies here, more Gokumon might be the island of adversarial spirits and ancestors, a closed island that has survived the trauma of war but has its own sub culture, if you like by omission from the rest of Japan and the 20th century. I enjoyed this leisurely, rural Japanese crimo, for the wrong reasons, or at least not the reasons why it was first penned. This you might say is Japanese noir, 1945. Seishi Yokomizo captures the clash of old and new as the war subsides, the moody countryside, the weather and the people on this small island where pirates still roam offshore and the macho fishermen are not quite as brave as they seem. Maybe the fanciful plot is secondary or even tertiary like one of those classic oil portraits where the face is fairly blank and all the interest is around it, in the clothes, the room and the view out of the window. Even the violence is totemic. Everyone on the island is nervous, not least of strangers. We meet the pretty, batty sisters, the priests, the divided family, the doctor, the jolly policeman, the gossipy barber, the tidemaster et al…and later we will even discover their ancestors. The dialogue is a bit manga so we get a lot of “Oh, but that is impossible!” but it works as scaffolding to hang all these various threads of the grand puzzle together.
Kosuke, an investigator, is back from the war, with a letter and mission, to the island where his best friend’s family are notables. He is prone to long silences while he is thinking, and scratching his head of thick hair. Each time bad things are coming his heart beats faster and when confronted by a victim he shudders and sweats. In crime scene analogy he is more Endeavour than Morse, more heartbroiled than hardboiled.
Yokomizo teases out through the conversations a bigger portrait of a passing society, customs are unpredictable, norms are at odds even probably to Tokyo readers confronted with this far outpost where past bonds, the temple and shamanic traditions still hold sway. The ending is suitably involved, colourfully imagined and elaborate. Yokomizo wrote more than 70 stories and died in 1981. This work just creeps in to the 21st century definition of this blog thanks to Louise Heal Kawai’s new and welcome translation. If you have read Guillaume Musso’s Secret Lives, then I will just say that his final denouement, is the starting point here…