Although crime fiction traditionally unravels within the dark recesses of the modern cityscape, a number of Japanese crime writers have embraced the seemingly innocuous suburb as the setting for their murderous plots. This geographical shift not only echoes collective discontent concerning the negative transformation of formerly idyllic geographical spaces in the wake of the nation’s modernization and, more recently, its economic bubble collapse, but also reflects escalating skepticism concerning the notion of the home as a space impervious to the anxieties that have long been associated with urban life. Moreover, while in Japan (and elsewhere) conventional crime fiction frequently achieves a restoration of the status quo via the triumphs of characters embodying hetero-normative masculinity over entities that have been relegated to the margins of culture, suburban crime fiction is a sphere heavily populated by both writers and characters representing social groups whose voices have been conspicuously absent within both Japanese fiction and cultural discourses at large. If you haven’t already, check out the following works—spanning from the interwar period through the twenty-first century—in which the emergence of criminality within the suburban sphere not only begs us to reconsider the ostensible safety of the domestic realm, but also serves to illuminate many of the cultural ills of Japanese society at large.
Edogawa Rampo’s “The Caterpillar” (1929)
Edogawa Rampo’s 1929 short story “The Caterpillar” begins with the introduction of Tokiko, the wife of a quadruple amputee who during the Russo-Japanese war had lost his limbs, as well as his abilities to speak and hear. While playing the part of the quintessentially dutiful wife Tokiko begins to undergo a psychological transformation whereby her husband is metamorphosed from a recipient of her loving care into an object of fear, loathing, and erotically sadistic desire. Although “The Caterpillar” is a near-perfect embodiment of the ero-guro-nansensu (eroticism, grotesquerie, and nonsense) sensibility that emerged within the artistic sphere of rapidly urbanizing interwar Tokyo, this particular story is circumscribed entirely within the domestic realm.
Interested as Rampo was in the latest sociological and psychological research on female deviancy (a field of inquiry that became extraordinarily popular—and informed much crime fiction produced—within the nation during his lifetime), Tokiko, like many of Rampo’s women, diverges somewhat from popular depictions of female criminality in interwar Japan. Unsatisfied with pseudo-scientific claims concerning the relationship between female biology and violent crimes perpetrated by women, Rampo rejects biological essentialism in favor of exploring female criminality in terms of the myriad (and often contradictory) behavioral and aesthetic expectations to which women were subject in this period. In “The Caterpillar” male vision is heavily implicated in the suppression of female subjectivity, and as is the case in many of Rampo’s works, the story’s (anti?)-heroine goes to unthinkable extremes to circumvent the objectifying gaze of modernity.
If you like this one, you’re in luck. Many of Rampo’s works—and especially those produced toward the end of his career—are similarly concerned with re-thinking the world in terms other than those deployed by the rationalizing (and moralizing) scientific, governmental, and media institutions of his time. Some of my favorites in this regard—and I should note here that, like “The Caterpillar,” many of these works present heavily ambivalent envisionings of femininity—include “The Human Chair” (1925), “The Hell of Mirrors” (1926),“The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture” (1929), and The Blind Beast (1931).
Seichō Matsumoto’s Pro Bono (1961)
When Kiriko Yanagida’s brother is accused of the brutal murder of a matronly moneylender, the young woman, convinced of her brother’s innocence, travels from her small hometown to the big city to seek the help of renowned lawyer Otsuka. When he refuses the case owing to Kiriko’s inability to pay for his services and the accused subsequently dies in prison, Otsuka finds himself caught up in the messy aftermath of his decision.
Japan’s best-selling writer in the 1960s, Matsumoto was eminently concerned with the broader cultural schema out of which criminal activity was born. His many novels explore a diverse array of social problems, and perhaps most notably institutionalized corruption, which he is credited with introducing into the genre. Even so, Pro Bono offers a particularly striking social commentary in its depiction of small town characters who, lacking access to wealth, are denied the same quality of legal representation afforded to (or, rather, affordable to) those existing within the upper echelons of society. Set into motion by a domestic murder whose number one suspect is a young teacher who wants nothing more than to sidestep the scrutiny of his peers, Pro Bono dissolves the imagined boundary separating the suburban and urban spheres, illuminating the ubiquitous implications of a society that at once demands conformity and cultivates socio-economic disparity.
Kirino Natsuo’s OUT (1997)
The crime fiction of Japanese writer Kirino Natsuo paints a complex picture of contemporary Japanese urbanity. Her portraits of the modern Japanese city are gritty, her explorations of the criminal mind compelling, and her depictions of the social realities of contemporary Japan unnerving, and often unequivocally bleak. However, Kirino’s fiction does not merely present a pessimistic vision of humanity—rather, it engages with a number of the largely invisible social realties of contemporary Japan. Out, which earned the writer France’s prestigious Grand Prix for Crime Fiction, is perhaps the most representative example of this quality of Kirino’s work. Via its intimate exploration of the lives of four women who are housewives by day and bentō factory workers by night—and who are propelled by desperation into the criminal underbelly of modern-day Tokyo—the novel draws attention to the gendered logic according to which both private and public relations in Japan operate.
While Out has received much deserved acclaim for its rigorous interrogation of the domestic lives of Japanese women, the novel rapidly expands outward, transcending the confines of the household sphere to engage with the broader topography of social relations in contemporary Japan. Exhibiting an overarching concern with the implications of the nation’s maternal logic for its female inhabitants, Kirino underscores the darker side of Japan’s late capitalism via her depictions of the bentō factory in which the novel’s housewives are precariously employed. When Out’s women, seeking an escape from their everyday lives, enter into the business of corpse disposal under the employ of a local gangster, the seemingly oppositional forces of housewife and yakuza converge in a complex exploration of the shared experiences of those who inhabit the gloomy peripheries of urban Japan. From its first pages through its last ones, the novel is a discourse of subjugation rendered material via Kirino’s depictions of bodies as sites of production and consumption, desire and destruction within both the public and private realms.
Miyabe Miyuki’s Shadow Family (2001)
A police procedural, Shadow Family (originally and more aptly titled R.P.G.) clinically details the investigation of a murdered man named Tokoroda Ryosuke. As the narrator unravels the tangled web of relationships in which the victim had been engaged, it is revealed that Tokoroda had occupied the roles of husband and father not only within his real-life family, but also within a “family” that had come into fruition almost exclusively online.
In Shadow Family an unmasking of suburban order is achieved as the investigation into Tokoroda’s murder retraces the chaotic disintegration of the victim’s two families via an exploration of the psychologies of each of the novel’s characters. Moreover, in extending her examination of institutional breakdown beyond the geographical confines of the suburban space, Miyabe cleverly deploys the conventional whodunit formula as a mode not only of dissolving the picturesque image of suburbia, but also of drawing our attention to an unsettling reality located at the crux of contemporary discourses on Japanese cultural identity. More pointedly, the novel underscores what a number of contemporary Japanese crime writers collectively depict to be one of the most troublesome aspects of Japanese modernity: the grim implications of the nation’s attempts to sustain a historically constructed image of cultural homogeneity through the institutional re-enforcement of preconceived norms. Miyabe explores this issue within the context of a quintessentially homogenizing space—the suburban Japanese household—presenting both characters who, unsatisfied with their roles within the conventional familial sphere, seek to renegotiate their identities via their participation in a new, idealized form of family within a virtual setting, as well as figures who go to murderous extremes to attain a sense of agency in a world dictated by normalizing forces. Ultimately, Shadow Family is a novel about the relationship between identity and place—both physical and ideological—and the lengths to which one will go to ascertain a sense of self in the “sukasuka,” or “hollow,” modern world.
A genre whose ever-expanding popularity—both locally and globally—evidences the reading public’s demand for socially conscious art, from its earliest emergence within Japan the nation’s crime fiction has served to politicize not only the act of writing, but the act of reading, as well. The works listed above illustrate the reality that Japanese crime fiction, far from functioning as a vehicle of escape from modern existence, is a sphere in which writers and readers alike have been enabled to participate in the interrogation of culture-at-large. And, we find, those very mechanisms that in Japan have served to actualize the society in question—from the progress machine that engendered the fast-paced, high-tech cityscape to the conception of serene neighborhoods in which the nation’s youth might be spared the moral conundrums posed by urban life—have given birth also to a monstrous modernity.