Contemporary Japanese Writers

Yasuo Uchida*

Yasuo Uchida* 内田康夫

Yasuo Uchida (1934–)  is a popular author whose works have sold more than 100 million copies in Japan. His reputation as a mystery writer is built largely on a series of novels featuring the brilliant detective Mitsuhiko Asami, whose episodes exceeded 100 with the 2006 publication of Kireijima (Island of Abandoned Spirits). The fictional Asami is enormously popular and even has his own fan club.

After years as a copywriter and TV advertising executive, Uchida, in his forties, self-published Shisha no kodama (Echoes of the Dead). Despite this late start, he maintains a brisk writing pace, turning out three or four titles a year. Constant in his work is his evocation of the sensation of journeying to strange places and his research of historical legends that originate in these settings. All of Japan's 47 prefectures have appeared in his novels, many of which have become the basis for full-length TV movies. Another reason for his success is his puckish sense of humor: he frequently includes a character modeled on himself, introduced as "writer Yasuo Uchida," a confidante of Asami.

The inaugural work of the Asami series was Gotoba densetsu satsujin jiken (The Case of the Gotoba Legend Murder). Emperor Gotoba (1180?1239), who presided over a time of great political turmoil, was exiled from the capital of Kyoto to the Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan. Seven centuries later, Miyako Shōhōji, a 29-year-old office worker tracing the legendary route of Gotoba's exile as part of her travels, is murdered at a train station. A history book she had recently purchased is missing. Is the book evidence of some other crime? Or does history itself hold a clue?

Asami, "a tall, handsome man of clearly good upbringing," comes from a family of elite government officials: his late father occupied a high post in the Ministry of Finance, and his older brother heads the Criminal Affairs Division of the National Police Agency. Asami himself is "a private eye, always sponging off his family, basically a freelance writer." Whereas fictional detectives are traditionally a prickly lot, he is laid-back. And whatever era the story is set in, his age never varies: Asami is forever 33 years old.

Although Asami hates airplanes, he does travel overseas in the novel Itaria gensōkyoku (Italian Fantasy), the sequel to Kihinshitsu no kaijin Asuka hen (Asuka: The Phantom in the V.I.P. Suite). The story revolves around the shroud of Turin, said to bear the marks of the crucified Christ. The premise of the story is that the shroud was stolen in 1973 during filming for a TV program and replaced with a fake. Thirty years later, art dealer Muta and his wife are traveling aboard the cruise ship Asuka, disembarking with five wealthy Japanese tourists for five days to stay near Florence, Italy, at a villa owned by a Swiss gentleman whose daughter-in-law is Japanese. The visitors receive the peculiar message "Beware of the phantom in the V.I.P. Suite." When a painter named Ishiwata is murdered, Asami is called in to investigate.

Asami has to dig deep. He uncovers the decades-earlier accidental death of Kuze, a Japanese resident of Carrara who worked at a marble quarry. Kuze and the painter Ishiwata, he learns, had been members of the Japanese Red Army. One of their acts of terrorism had been to steal the shroud of Turin and, with the help of the painter De Vita, hide it in the cellar of the villa. In an attempt to protect the shroud, the owner had sealed off the cellar, but when Ishiwata threatened him, the artist was killed by De Vita's daughter.

Uchida also writes the Kazuo Okabe mystery series, which focuses on the cases encountered by a police lieutenant. Hagiwara Sakutarō no bōrei (The Ghost of Sakutarō Hagiwara), the first title in the series, makes clever use of these lines by poet Sakutarō Hagiwara (1886?1942): "Looking foolish, the arms come out, the legs come out, the head comes poking out." A buried corpse portrays exactly this fantastical scene. Okabe's dogged investigation clears up a 30-year-old case of false accusation.

* Gotoba densetsu satsujin jiken (new edition, Kosaido Publishing, 1982, 231 pages)
* Hagiwara Sakutarō no bōrei (new edition, Tokuma Shoten, 1982, 229 pages)
* Itaria gensōkyoku (Kadokawa Shoten, 2004, 344 pages)