Monday, February 17, 2014

Cry Bloody Murder

Japan’s major English daily, The Japan Times, carries a weekly column dubbed Essential Reading for Japanophiles and is one I look forward to each week. It’s very likely the case that most of the recommended readings are of more interest to those with a keen interest in things Japanese, but one or two of the suggested books are major titles in Japanese literature familiar to the average Western reader. One of the column’s recent recommendations was a mystery by Akimitsu Takagi, a prolific writer between the years 1948 and 1988. Never having read one of his many books, I figured it would be a good start. First published in 1948, The Tattoo Murder Case was Takagi’s first foray into writing. Despite his ongoing popularity, the book was not translated into English until 1998, three years after the author’s death.

With all military industries in Japan halted after World War II, Takagi found himself out of work. On the recommendation of a fortune-teller, he decided to become a writer. It was good sense that prompted him to send a second draft of his first book to the great mystery writer Edogawa Rampo, a man who played the major role in development of Japanese mystery fiction and who wielded considerable influence. Rampo recognized Takagi’s skill and sent the book to a publisher. Shisei satsujin jiken (The Tattoo Murder Case) was published in 1948. A year later his second novel, Noh Mask Murder Case won the Tantei sakka club sho (Mystery Writers Club Award).

Takagi published thirty-one novels and nine short story collections over his lifetime. He died in 1995.

The Tattoo Murder Case is set in post-war Tokyo, a city of mostly destruction, a place of the homeless and the hungry getting by as best they could. It was a time when American GIs were a common sight, when American policymakers were shaping a new Japan. While Takagi’s story wanders through this dark and broken landscape, with few exceptions, his characters are members of a class saved from the loss of everything in life. They all live comfortably and moneyed in still standing homes, attend the theater and socialize at restaurants on the Ginza. But among those privileged citizens are some with nefarious agendas.

The tattoo artist of that time was deemed a criminal, his work performed in secret and viewed openly on only rare occasion. It was associated with the criminal class for the most part, but could also be found among firefighters. Takagi’s cast of characters is built upon those who view full body tattoos as an art form deserving of museum walls. A woman is murdered for her tattooed skin, another is relieved of his skin for snooping and a third killed for getting in the way. One of Takagi’s best creations is the character known as “Dr Tattoo” who muddles police efforts in his passion to hang one more beautiful skin on his walls. The plot focuses on the three children of a famous tattoo artist, each elaborately tattooed with creatures of legend—a snake, a frog and a giant slug.

Kenzo Matsushita, a post grad medical student at Tokyo University is taken along by an older classmate to a tattoo exhibition where men and women display their full-body tattoos. At the showing he meets a beautiful young tattooed woman named Kinue Nomura who encourages his attentions. He spends a night with her stumbling away the next morning in love. Several days later he receives a letter from the woman expressing fears for her life and asking him to come to her home the following morning. He goes to her home the next morning but discovers her dismembered body in a bathroom locked from the inside.

It is unfortunate when a basically good book with a fascinating setting, interesting characters and a gripping story is badly mauled by a poor translation, one that goes far beyond the parameters of translating. I feel certain that had Akimitsu Takagi been alive when this translation was done in 1998, he would have unequivocally rejected the translation-adaptation of Deborah Boliver Boehm. It’s hard to imagine what about her agreement to translate a writer’s work into English made her think it permissible to rewrite passages and to add words of her own in a belief that an English reader requires as much. Equal blame should be attached to her editor at Soho Press, who might even be a non-existent contributor. Rarely have I read a translated work that treated a writer’s words so cavalierly and it is easy to imagine Ms Boehm looking over a passage of Japanese and telling herself, “An English reader will never understand that. I’d better rewrite it.” 

Two other books by Akimitsu Takagi are available in English translation by a different translator. If you do not read Japanese and want a look at the work of this writer, the books are available at Amazon in English translation. In both cases the translations were done by someone apart from Deborah Boliver Boehm. Those books—The Informer and Honeymoon to Nowhere—are offered on the same Amazon page as The Tattoo Murder Case.


  1. The tattooed backside is strangely appealing.
    Wait. Did I say that out loud?

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America