Shotaro Ikenami*

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Contemporary Japanese Writers

Shotaro Ikenami*

Shotaro Ikenami* 池波正太郎

Shōtarō Ikenami ( (1923–1990)  ) was a seventh-generation Edokko, or child of Edo (present-day Tokyo). This background greatly influenced his writing style.

Edokko refers to those who were born in the shitamachi, or the old, originally central parts of Edo and, later, Tokyo. They are said to be on top of their game, playful, and hot-blooded, with a strong sense of justice, but they can also be stubborn and quick to fight, short-tempered, and at times imprudent.

All of Ikenami's protagonists have inherited these qualities. The author's crisp language also typifies Edokko speech.

Since he was young, Ikenami had been a film aficionado. That he watched not only Japanese films but also plenty of American, French, and Italian ones is evident in his works, which clearly borrow elements from these. Moreover, he was a playwright for the theater company Shinkokugeki prior to his debut as a novelist, and this experience of writing popular dramas cultivated his talent for telling stories that grab the attention and don't let go.

Eventually, the author established himself as a household name through the creation of three popular characters, all of whom have been featured in films, television, and theater. An English equivalent of these characters would be Sherlock Holmes.

The first hero is featured in Onihei hankachō (Onihei's Crime Stories), a series Ikenami began writing in 1967. Modeled after the career of Hasegawa Heizō (1745?95), a real-life law-enforcement official who was greatly feared by criminals, it is a historical tale with an entertaining cops-and-robbers quality.

The main character in Rōtō no yume (Dream of the Old Thief), one of the episodes in the series, is Kinosuke, an old man who has washed his hands of criminal activity and is trying to live a peaceful retirement. Kinosuke had been a thief with an old-fashioned code of honor: he never stole anything that would cause anyone hardship, never killed or injured anyone, and never attacked women. He decides to steal again because he is obsessed with a buxom young woman named Otoyo, and to enjoy his life with her, he needs money. He hires three young men to help him with a heist, but they are the type who would not think twice of committing an act of cruelty for cash. Right before they are to go through with the plan, they tie Kinosuke up and storm the home of a wealthy merchant family they had had their eyes on. They kill everyone inside and break into the safe; and though Kinosuke does everything he can to stop them, his efforts come to nothing. As he is about to take his last breath, the dissolute Otoyo squirms under the weight of another man's body.

In Kenkaku shōbai (Master Swordsman), a 19-volume series that began in 1972, the protagonist is Akiyama Kohei, an elderly swordsman who has dedicated his life to his weapon. Kohei has retired to the outskirts of Edo to enjoy his life with a farmer's daughter 40 years his junior. His 26-year-old son, Daijirō, has just opened a training hall in Edo and begun his career as a professional swordsman after wandering the country for four years, sharpening his skills. This masterpiece series is rich in the taste of Edo culture.

The third series, Shikakenin Fujieda Baian (Mastermind Fujieda Baian), comprises seven volumes. Let us take a look at Koroshi no yonin (Four Assassins), contained in the first volume. Baian, an acupuncturist who is beloved by the townspeople, is actually an assassin who uses needles as his weapon. Having completed a killing, Baian recuperates at a hot spring before setting about another job that involves a great deal of money. On his way back to Edo, he senses that someone is following him. He hides and calls upon his friend, the assassin Hikojirō, for backup. The culprit is Inoue Hanjūrō, whose wife Baian killed many years ago. As it turns out, Inoue is a highly skilled assassin and, along with another assassin, Sasaki Hachizō, he is looking for the chance to take Baian's life. Baian, trying to plot a way to get out of this mess, is unable to shake the feeling that tomorrow might be the last day of his life, and drowns himself in the sensual pleasures of Omon, a widow. But, according to plan, he and Hikojirō successfully defeat their two enemies. With no time for rest, Baian moves on to his job of killing the samurai Itō Hikohachirō, who has been abusing the privileges given him by his master's favor. Baian quietly sharpens the three needles he will be using for the assassination, a ritual he undertakes before killing. The next day, Hikohachirō's body is found in the bathroom of a restaurant with a needle stuck in his heart. Baian is a master at turning a lifesaving tool into an instrument of death.

 


* Onihei hankachō series (Bungeishunju, 1967?89, 24 paperback volumes, 205?363 pages each)
* Kenkaku shōbai series (Shinchosha, 1972?89, 19 paperback volumes, 316?380 pages each)
* Shikakenin Fujieda Baian series (Kodansha, 1973?90, 7 paperback volumes, 304?361 pages each)