Contemporary Japanese Writers

Jirō Akagawa*

Jirō Akagawa* 赤川次郎

Jirō Akagawa (1948–)  is a master of the humorous mystery. He first won recognition in 1976 when his Yūrei ressha (Ghost Train) was awarded the All Yomimono Mystery Prize for New Writers. Since then he has published upwards of 560 books (as of 2013), with total sales of over 300 million. Critic Manji Gonda points out in his commentary in the paperback edition of Marionetto no wana (Puppet's Trap), "Jirō Akagawa's excellent writing displays a unique sense of humor, unheard-of plot developments that completely overturn expectations, and a distinctive aura of horror and suspense." Akagawa has won a large following for the originality of the worlds he creates and for his smooth, readable narrative style.

The Mikeneko Hōmuzu (Holmes, the Tortoiseshell Cat) series, in which a cat solves the mysteries, is particularly popular. The first book in the series, Mikeneko Hōmuzu no suiri (The Deductions of Holmes, the Tortoiseshell Cat), published in 1978, spurred a dramatic increase in the number of female readers buying mystery novels, which in Japan had previously appealed mainly to men. There are now more than 40 titles in the long-lived series, and new installments keep on coming.

Twenty-nine-year-old Yoshitarō Katayama is a detective in the Special Investigations Division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, yet he cannot bear the sight of blood and has phobias about heights and women. He is portrayed with humor and occasional pathos along with his level-headed younger sister Harumi, who likes to get involved in his cases from time to time, and their intelligent cat Holmes, who solves them. Holmes stalks the crime scenes with uncatlike composure and behavior, offering hints that lead to the solution. Even though the detective work is done by a cat, Akagawa's plots are by no means farfetched and have a solid payoff that keeps fans hooked.

Humorous mysteries are not Akagawa's only forte. His first full-length work, Puppet's Trap, is a suspense novel with overtones of gothic horror. Young Shūichi Ueda, who has just returned from studying abroad in France, is referred by his professor as a live-in French tutor to Noriko and Yoshiko Minegishi, two sisters living by themselves in a large Western-style mansion in the woods. The exceptionally high remuneration strikes Ueda as odd, until he learns of an eerie murder that took place nearby recently. His suspicions aroused by the strange behavior of the sisters and their household staff, he begins a furtive search of the mansion interior and comes across an underground jail cell where a woman claiming to be Masako, the youngest Minegishi sister, is confined. He takes pity on her and releases her, but a series of murders ensues and Ueda himself is immobilized with two broken legs. Noriko, who has survived the mayhem, tells Ueda that Masako is a homicidal maniac. Then a doctor, a lawyer, and others in town are stabbed to death. Ueda's fiancée, Minako Maki, is troubled by his sudden disappearance and heads for the mansion in the woods. The piling up of mystery on mystery is topped by an unforeseeable final twist, displaying the author's enthusiastic flair for endlessly inventive storytelling.

The novel Futari (Two), which was made into the movie Chizuko's Younger Sister by director Norihiko Ōbayashi, is a fantasy relating the loving bond between two adolescent sisters. The lead character, Mika Kitao, who attends a girls' middle school, grew up suffering constant comparison with her beautiful and talented older sister, Chizuko. However, Chizuko dies in her second year of high school after being struck by a truck, and her grief-stricken family is plunged into gloom. One day, as Mika is threatened by a knife-wielding assailant on the street, she is amazed to hear her sister's voice inside her: Chizuko's spirit has entered her body to protect her. From that moment, the two sisters begin a strange life together.

With Chizuko looking on through Mika's eyes, all sorts of things happen. Their mother has a mental breakdown triggered by Chizuko's death; their father moves out, posted away by his job; Mika's best friend suffers inner turmoil after her father dies. Then, as Mika approaches the age Chizuko was when she died, she discovers their father is having an affair. With the family on the verge of collapse, Mika stops hearing her sister's voice. This is one of Akagawa's major works, with haunting images that tear at the heart.

* Marionetto no wana (Bungeishunju, 1977, 205 pages)
* Mikeneko Hōmuzu no suiri (Kobunsha, 1978, 219 pages)
* Futari (Shinchosha, 1989, 255 pages)