Saturday, November 19, 2011

Murder at Mt Fuji

The special express for Gotemba departed at noon from the northwest terminal of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. Most of the seats where occupied as the train pulled out the station, the passengers returning home having paid there New Year’s respects at the Meiji shrine. More than half of them got off at the next station down the line. Gotemba, the train’s final destination, was the jumping off place for excursions in the Mt Fuji region; from there one could go to the mountain itself, or to the nearby Fuji Five lakes distinct. Winter however, was the off season in that area and by the time the train approached its final stop, fewer than twenty percent of the seats were still occupied.  (p1)

This is the opening paragraph in Shizuko Natsuki's Murder at Mt Fuji. Set in the fictional posh suburb of Asahi Hills on the edge of Lake Yamanaka in the Fuji Five Lakes district. 

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Jane Prescott, an American student studying at the Tokyo Women's University. As the private English tutor and friend of Chiyo Wada, the daughter of a wealthy Japanese family, she finds herself somewhat awkwardly invited to the Wada family New Year celebration at their weekend home, on the shores of Lake Yamanaka. The first pages describing Jane's journey to the family home with some wonderful descriptive passages that really evoked for me the experience of travelling by train and bus in and around Tokyo.
There were about ten people waiting at the bus stop by the time the bus was ready to leave. It left promptly at 2:30 and threaded its way through the shop-lined streets of the city and out onto highway 138, Mt Fuji soaring majestically in front of them. Although capped with snow the mountain was not completely white; dark blue streaks running down from the peak accentuated the steepness of its slope.
The clean paved road wound its way through the foot-hills in gentle curves. As they drove along, Fuji remained fixed in its position, filling the very centre of the windshield. This view of the mountain was much different from the impression one got seeing it at a distance from the window of a bullet train. At this close range one was made aware of its powerful, imposing presence. (p13)
photo from Japan Bash

Natsuki uses the location of the remote country home, and adds a heavy snow storm to the night of the murder, to create a variation of the "locked room mystery". 

There are two other points in the novel where a description of Mt Fuji appears. Both occur where the characters (detective Nakazato and Jane, respectively) are having moment of internal reflection on the events which are swirling around them. In these paragraphs Natsuki evokes the subtle changes in mood as a way to describe time passing, yet emphasis the continuity of the power the mountain exerts over the surrounding landscape. 
Through the windshield of the car they could see the forest of bare trees dusted lightly with snow and towering above them, the gloriously white peak of Mt Fuji.  Miraculously, the peak was not hidden by clouds and the entire mountain was visible. As the car approached Lake Yamanaka, they looked directly at the eastern slope of Mt Fuji; viewed from here the peak appeared broader than from any other location, and the whole mountain seemed dignified and resolute. Nakazato puffed on a cigarette as he squinted and took in the view. The surface of the lake was a chilly blue, and out in the middle it was frozen white, with wavelike ripples. (p110)
This morning Fuji’s white peak shone brilliantly in the sun and seemed to pierce the very blue of the sky itself. Even the leafless forest of larch on the lower slopes shone brightly in the sunlight, making a blinding glare that caused one to squint. (p184)

This was Natsuki's first novel translated and published in the English. Six of her novels appear on several sites as available in English, although a simple search on her name on Amazon shows that she is a prolific writer like P. D. James. Having never read any other of her works, I am wondering whether the setting of Mt Fuji, and the American protagonist Jane Prescott, where unique to this novel and way to give something familiar to an English speaking audience.

The novel was adapted and made into a movie in 1984 - W's tragedy Wの悲劇It won quiet a few awards and has now been remade.. I was searching on youtube for the movie of using the Japanese script and was starting to wonder whether it was a series of common words as the trailers that popped up didn't seem to have any connection to the novel I had just read. (when I started researching this post in August 2011 there was plenty of trailer of the 1984 film which have all been taken down and there just seems to be video clips of the title song- perhaps someone who can read the characters can find a link..)

Some of the characters, namely Jane, are not mentioned at all, and the the movie synopsis on imdb describes the re-setting of the novel in a theatre. With a bit more digging around I relies that Natsuki's story has become a stage play, acting as the inner story which reveals the truth of the main narrative, moving the literary convention from a "locked room" to a "play within a play".


  1. wow you made it sound really interesting,...i've been searching for something good to read and i loved the way you broke down some elements here so i'll give it a try ... thanks

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. 1983
    Haruo Ichijo (Jane Prescott) - Kumiko Fujiyoshi
    Mako Watsuji (Chiyo Wada) - Iyo Matsumoto
    Shohei Mazaki - Ryuzo Hayashi

    The "Ma" in "Mako" is written 摩, which means "devil" and it's apparently done to give an aura of mischievousness to the girl. I haven't got a copy of the original Japanese book so I have no idea if the names were as the English translator says they are or if they got changed during the translating process (for comparison, in Miyuki Miyabe's All She Was Worth there were several names changed by translator Alfred Birnbaum).

    Mako Watsuji - Maiko Kawakami
    Shohei Mazaki - Takashi Fujimoto

    Haruo Ichijo - Kaoru Okunuki
    Mako Watsuji - Nanako Okochi
    Shohei Mazaki - Taishu Kase

    Haruo Ichijo - Miho Kanno
    Mako Watsuji - Mizuki Tanimura
    Shohei Mazaki - Teruyuki Kagawa

    Haruo Ichijo - Yuki Matsushita
    Mako Watsuji - Emi Takei (also plays Satsuki Kurasawa)
    Shohei Mazaki - Issei Takahashi

  4. Did you know also that Shizuko Natsuki titled her work "W no Higeki" as a tribute to Ellery Queen? In the 1930s, Ellery Queen published three books titled "The Tragedy of X," "The Tragedy of Y", and "The Tragedy of Z." These books were translated into Japanese as "X no Higeki," "Y no Higeki," and "Z no Higeki" respectively. Natsuki just followed the convention.

  5. Sorry what I meant to say in my deleted post is that Jane Prescott was, for visual media, substituted for a Japanese character (they obviously couldn't get American actresses to be heroines, and wouldn't). In all TV drama iterations it has been substituted by a character named "Haruo Ichijo" (no, the Haruo is NOT a male name - it's purposely written as neutral).

  6. HI there Surge, Sorry for my late reply to your fantastic comments and contributions. I have been out of the blogosphere for 2 years.
    It's really interesting that the character of Jane only appears in the translation. I felt the award distance and outsider status was perfectly captured by her character, but I guess this would be the case for any 'family outsider' in a formal rich family.
    Thank you for your comments that make the conversation much richer.