Natsuhiko Kyougoku and the tradition of Honkaku mystery fiction

“There’s no such thing in this world as an uninteresting book. Any book is interesting; and not just when it’s new. Even books you’ve already read can be quite fascinating. It just takes a little more effort to get there, that’s all.”

So claims Akihiko “Kyougokudou” Chuzenji: bookseller, atheist onmyouji (I’ll get to that in a bit) and reluctant solver of crimes.

I was only dimly aware of the Honkaku type of mystery fiction, but this article is an excellent introduction to the genre. It’s apparently one with a long history, too: its origins lie in the traditional “golden age” of mystery novels in the 1920s and 30s and the tradition is still going strong, albeit with modern additions to the formula. There’s a nice long list of authors, books and films in there and in the comments, so I recommend you check it out.

My own experience of Honkaku mysteries is limited to that of novelist Natsuhiko Kyougoku, who currently has two of his novels translated into English: The Summer of the Ubume, which is where you’ll find the quote above, and Loup-Garous. There was an anime adaptation of Mouryou no Hako, the second novel in the series of “Kyougokudou” novels that follows on from Ubume, but being the…weird show that it is, it’s never been available internationally on DVD or streaming. It's extremely hard to find, unless you can track it down on fansub somewhere.

Although he’s not mentioned specifically in that article, Kyougoku is another writer who I recommend if you’re interested in Honkaku mystery stories. Lous-Garous is set in a dystopian future and as such is borderline-cyberpunk, but it contains the same elements of the two “Kyougokudou” stories that I’m also familiar with. There are also some cool bits of social commentary that, like all clever SF that’s worth its salt, have not lost their relevance over time.

To clear up any confusion: the character of Chuzenji in the “Kyougokudou” series is clearly a self-insert on the part of the author, from his knowledge of Japanese folklore to a background in book-selling (Kyougoku is himself a youkai researcher and had prior experience in the publishing industry before writing his own novels).

This is where I’d set out my main caveat when recommending his work. If disappearances and locked-room mysteries are your thing, you also need to prepare yourself for learning all about youkai folklore. To his credit, Kyougoku combines these two keen interests in an imaginative way: his stories are very deliberately NOT supernatural, and the supposedly spooky elements are metaphors for real-life ideas and motives. Lous-Garous for instance doesn’t feature any actual werewolves, but the human monsters provide all the horror a good murder-mystery needs.

Although I’m a sucker for cyberpunk, the “Kyougokudou” mysteries are in some ways even more interesting to me than that of Lous-Garous: rather than a dystopian future, they are set in the early 1950s, when Japan was going through a post-war rebuilding, both literally and culturally. The amateur detective Kyougokudou might be officially an onmyouji, but he’s very much a man of science and reason who keeps the folklore and reality separate in his mind; the same cannot be said of many of the other characters, so the mysteries of Ubume and Mouryou highlight this difficult transition to modernity that the country was experiencing at the time. There are also elements of film noir, what with the era in which they are set and tropes such as the enigmatic femme fatale and the careworn police detective.

Although the roots of Honkaku mysteries lie in Europe or North America, Kyougoku’s take on the genre is very Japanese, and the Kyougokudou stories capture what is – to me at least – a fascinating moment in his country’s history. The youkai and other supernatural elements are clever metaphors, but there are other bits of historical detail that show a country coming to terms with its past and trying to embrace the present. Several characters are ex-military, including detective Kiba, who experiences a couple of harrowing flashbacks during Mouryou of his time in the army that are indicative of battlefield-induced PTSD. Real-life historical events, such as the notorious Unit 731, are woven into the fictional ones, which may perhaps be inspired by the life and work of the late Shigeru Mizuki, a WW2 veteran and pacifist who was Kyougoku’s youkai-study mentor.

I’ve not been able to find any source to corroborate my suspicions beyond a Japanese-language interview where he’s mentioned, but I strongly suspect that elements of the Kyougodukou novels also found their way into the works of Type Moon’s Kinoko Nasu. Many plot points in Kyougoku’s Ubume – and Mouryou too – are similar to the third and fifth chapters of The Garden of Sinners, and even certain character names feel like direct homages. His literary influences also include the likes of Yukito Ayatsuji and Soji Shimada, which also makes a lot of sense in terms of the murder-mystery elements of The Garden of Sinners novel series. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel itself, but the premise of Shimada’s Tokyo Zodiac Murders could also be pride of place on Nasu’s bookshelf.

My other caveat with recommending Kyougoku’s writing is in an observation made by one of the commenters in the Guardian article I linked to above. Honkaku sticks to the tradition of a crime being committed through real-world laws of nature without any supernatural assistance: there’s no magic, and even the SF trappings of Lous-Garous are extrapolations of technology found in the real twenty-first century. Even so, while the solutions to the mysteries are technically possible, it’s sometimes hard to argue that they’re plausible.

This is a bit of a problem, depending on what your expectations are going in. If your idea of a good mystery is to follow the story and actively figure it out as you go, I’d argue that the convoluted puzzle-box architecture of a Kyougoku story – with its scientific explanations that stretch the capabilities of science, especially that of the 1950s – doesn’t make this a very reasonable proposition.

Of course, you may prefer to suspend your disbelief and instead find enjoyment in admiring the plot twists as a passive observer rather than turning amateur detective yourself. In that sense, I enjoy these stories in the same way that I enjoy the Jonathan Creek BBC TV show. The titular hero of that series is the creative consultant to a stage magician, so the approach that he takes to solving crimes and other mysteries is through logical deduction and applying his professional knowledge of sleight-of-hand, practical illusions and human psychology. Again: there’s no real magic or supernatural stuff at work, but the underlying plot mechanics are often far too improbable and carefully-hidden for most of us to guess ahead.

That said, there is a wonderful sense of “rewatchability” to it. Like picking up The Summer of the Ubume or rewatching Mouryou no Hako, it’s fun to revisit the old Jonathan Creek episodes when I’m already armed with the knowledge of how it all works. Seeing how it all fits together has a charm of its own.

“Even books you’ve already read can be quite fascinating. It just takes a little more effort to get there, that’s all.”

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