Compassion After Catastrophe: On Seishi Yokomizo’s “Death on Gokumon Island”
By Alex Genty-WaksbergJanuary 25, 2023
Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo
The book is translated by Louise Heal Kawai, who also translated the series’ first novel, The Honjin Murders. The story is told in the voice of a close friend, relating recent events from a shared universe. The prose is familiar and cheery, even in the midst of the murders, evoking a mischievous tone similar to translations of Murakami. The English translation is smooth and easy to follow (always a feat in noir), and the detailed descriptions of time and place orient the reader well.
Yokomizo’s writing is in the vein of the “Golden Age” writers like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr: crime puzzles being sorted out by odd, genius detectives. But I instead found myself thinking of Yokomizo’s writing alongside his hard-boiled contemporaries and in comparison to the postwar film noir genre that sprouted from the work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. These novels and films give contemporary audiences a sense of the darker mood that had dispersed into the American psyche during the Depression (and eventually the postwar era). In Yokomizo’s fiction, we are given a window into the Japanese mentality after the brutality of a war that ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs and a public surrender from Emperor Hirohito. In Death on Gokumon Island, which takes place right after the war has ended, this altered consciousness is apparent in all of the characters, most notably in the prodigious detective’s life path.
The events of Yokomizo’s second book come almost 10 years after The Honjin Murders, his first Kosuke novel, which took place in 1937:
What had he been doing since then? Well — nothing. Just like every other young man in Japan, he was drafted by the army and forced to join the war. The best years of his life became a kind of void.
The book begins with Kosuke traveling to Gokumon Island to deliver the news of the death of Chimata Kito, a friend from the war and the only direct male heir of the island’s ruling family. Chimata, with his dying breath, urged Kosuke to visit the island himself and told him that his three sisters are now in mortal danger. Though Kosuke became a renowned Japanese detective after the events of The Honjin Murders, he returned from the war to find his home burned and his mental state severely affected. With nothing else to do, Kosuke arrives on Gokumon, despite warnings from his benefactor about the dangers of the island.
On Gokumon Island, we meet Chimata’s remaining family — his cousin Sanae, who takes care of the household; his three flighty sisters; his grandfather’s surviving mistress; and Chimata’s father, who is mentally ill and kept in a cage. We also meet the branch family on the island (the second most powerful fishing chiefs) as well as the tide master, the doctor, the mayor, and the priest. Due to the danger involved in the fishing trade, citizens of the island are extremely religious, bestowing the priest with a tremendous amount of power. For centuries prior, the island was used as a prison and often became a landing spot for pirates. The island eventually stopped being used for exile, and in time, Gokumon became an insular community, descended from pirates and those formerly imprisoned. In the prologue, this is used as a way to explain why it is so difficult for an outsider to solve a crime on the island: the islanders are fiercely protective of their own.
Though there can be some fun in getting lost in the twisty, complicated details of a crime novel, Gokumon Island is keen to hand-hold, and the reader is better for it. The first pages of the book include a beautiful, descriptive map of the island and a full list of members of the families and other supporting players. Along with information about the religiosity of the citizens and their close-knit nature, a barber gives Kosuke a full rundown of the history of the main Kito family and the branch family. Any aspect of the story that might require specific knowledge, such as the duties of a fishing community’s “tide master,” are taken care of within the first chapter. With detailed efficiency, the reader is primed with an untrustworthy community in a striking and severe setting:
It was common for cliffs to rise straight up from the very shorelines, and Gokumon Island was one of the most extreme examples. […] [T]he overall effect was of an island springing from the ocean, its cliffs rising hundreds of feet into the air all around. […] White plaster-walled houses, glowing in the evening sun, were dotted on the hill slopes under a glowering grey sky that seemed ready to attack at any moment.
Just as Chimata had warned, the three sisters of the ruling family are picked off one by one, in oddly staged scenes. As Kosuke investigates each crime scene, it becomes clear that the sisters’ killings are being modeled after well-known Japanese haikus. The book’s marketing materials use this as an opportunity to compare Gokumon to Christie’s famous novel And Then There Were None, which models its murders after a counting rhyme, and it seems likely that Yokomizo was at least partly inspired by the 1939 book.
At the center of the action is Kosuke, a fascinating holy-fool kind of character, underestimated by the island community owing to his strange appearance and off-kilter personality. He is often described as “scruffy” and is known for digging his hand into his knot of hair and scratching furiously when engaged in deep investigative thought. In contrast to a spiky Sam Spade or an affected Poirot, Kosuke is exceedingly kind and forgiving. After Kosuke falls under suspicion for his curious demeanor, the lead detective on the island, Shimizu, decides to imprison Kosuke, and only releases him when another murder is committed while he is behind bars. Kosuke doesn’t blame Shimizu at all and tries to cover for him when Shimizu is forced to explain to his superior why he incarcerated Japan’s most famous private detective. Kosuke’s character gives the mystery a soft edge, filtering the events through a man who is mourning the death of Chimata (and countless others during the war) and who feels culpable for allowing his sisters to die, despite Chimata’s forewarning.
In the end, Kosuke solves the series of crimes, uncovering a plot that had been put in motion by Chimata’s own grandfather. In doing so, Yokomizo reveals a rather brilliant way of looking at the dark side of Buddhist practice — so effectively cutting oneself off from “materialistic and earthly desires” as to completely lack empathy. This plot point feels like an indictment of the power bestowed upon religious leaders within small communities and the ease with which they can exploit that blind trust.
It would be foolish to write that, as an American reader, I learned anything concrete about Japanese crime novels by reading Gokumon Island. Yokomizo is just one mystery writer in a country with its own well-developed literary tradition. But I am fascinated with the way that the novel opens up my understanding of the United States’ postwar noir. It feels like a funhouse reflection of the American hard-boiled genre — not only are Japanese people grappling with the general trauma of war in these stories, but they are also dealing with the horror of losing said war and enduring nuclear disaster. And yet, with the help of Kosuke’s unexpectedly light and compassionate disposition, the novel ultimately reads as optimistic, focused on the rebuilding of a community after the decisions of people far away have thrown ordinary citizens’ lives into disarray.
So much of the American noir genre is laced with bitterness by veteran detectives that have returned home from a violent war, only to have the experience celebrated as a victory. There is always a distance between the noir protagonist and the civilians. Kosuke and the characters populating Gokumon Island are well aware of what was lost during the war — and unlike Americans, they can look to destroyed physical spaces as evidence. This shared experience collapses the space between Kosuke and the people on Gokumon Island, allowing Kosuke to develop relationships and exhibit genuine empathy. It is a wonderful antidote to the genre that noir readers have grown accustomed to — a story about serial murders that believes in the possibility of a better future.
Alex Genty-Waksberg is a teacher and artist living in New York.
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