Thursday, 29 October 2015

Ishi no Mayu and Yami no Bansosha

These two crime series prove (if any more proof were needed by now) that WOWOW is the closest thing that Japan has to its own HBO. The quality of performances, directing, photography and writing are streets ahead of the average terrestrial channels.

Not to say that WOWOW is completely free from the usual cliches of Japanese TV, though. In both of these series the lead female characters (a cop and an ex-cop) both went onto the police force because their father’s were detectives and died with one unsolved case.

After this, the two dramas have little in common. Ishi no Mayu is the more conventional cop drama. The lead role is Kisaragi, a rookie cop, who is a junior officer on a serial killer case. In most J-dramas, rookie cops are there to make stupid mistakes so that people shout at them until the end when they make a passionate speech and everyone realises what a great detective they are.

Not this time. Most officers are either supportive or indifferent to Kisaragi. Some people are a bit annoyed when she becomes pivotal to the case, but that’s a side story.

The case itself involves a killer who appears to be taking revenge on some people he accuses of being murderers. So this leaves two cases to be solved: the current one, and a case from twenty years ago. This means that there’s never a dull moment in the five episodes, and the use of the killer phoning the police to tease them with clues may be old hat, but it does make for some great-cliffhangers.

Yami no Bansosha is less of a typical cop show, even though the police are involved. Mostly it revolves around two people: an ex-cop turned detective and a grumpy old out-of-work manga editor. The detective was brought in to investigate a manuscript, apparently written by a famous manga author, that describes an old unsolved murder with uncanny accuracy.

She is put in touch with an editor who can use his expertise and contacts to investigate. There are some nice Biblia Koshoudou type parts, where the editor can spot stylistic aspects to get more clues from the manuscript.

Both of these are similar in structure: male-female pair investigates an old unsolved case, but the approach is quite different. Yami no Bansosha is more comedic, with Furuta Arata stealing a lot of scenes, especially when he tries to run in a duffle coat and rucksack.

And both are excellent. If you watch them back-to-back like I did, you’re bound to feel some deja vu, but to ignore one in favour of the other would be a mistake.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

A famous murder from the Meiji era

I like online newspaper archives. I’ve passed many Sunday mornings, typing words at random into the search engines of various archives to see what comes up in reply. Often it is some forgotten gem of a story which was famous for a few days, before fading out of the public view.

The only free Japanese newspaper archive I know of is pretty hard to use without a solid knowledge of kanji, and the type of stories generally covered by Japanese papers tend to be quite dry and boring.

So it’s lucky, then, that the Internet Archive has digitised the Japan Daily Mail (or Weekly Mail). This was an English language newspaper based in Japan during the Meiji era aimed at foreigners living in Japan.

It's a fascinating look into Japanese society as seen through the eyes of new arrivals trying to make sense of it all. Some copies have an index at the front which is great for finding interesting stories. On page four of this issue, for example, tells the story behind a murder trial that gripped Japan. I’ll summarise it here:

Nishigori Takekiyo, 39, was an art connoisseur and was a former vassal to the wealthy Soma clan.

In 1877, while Nishigori was living in Tokyo, Viscount Soma Masatane started showing signs of insanity. His condition worsened until June 1879 when he was given a special room in the family mansion and treated as a patient, as well as receiving treatment from a lunatic asylum and a hospital in Hongo.

Nishigori believed that the Viscount wasn’t ill, but the victim of a conspiracy. He believed that the Viscount’s stewards and the Viscount’s father’s mistress had planned this in order to steal his property.

During 1882-83, Nishigori tried several times to visit the Viscount but was refused. He also repeatedly sent medical men to try and gain access. However, when this all failed, he sued three of the stewards Shiga Naomichi, Ishikawa Eisho, and Tomita Fukazo for illegal imprisonment.

This was thrown out of court so, in 1884, he used a letter of attorney to get the case looked at again. Unfortunately, it was discovered that Nishigori had forged this letter and the case ended in his own conviction, with a prison sentence of a month.

Rather than shake his convictions, this all seemed to have made him even more determined. In 1887 he kidnapped the Viscount from a lunatic asylum and took him first to a friend’s house and then on a trip around neighbouring prefectures.

The Soma family tracked him down and had him arrested (another one month sentence) but by now Viscount Soma had given Nishigori complete power of attorney. Using this, Nishigori kept filing civil cases against the Soma family.

Then, in 1892, one case had reached a point where the Viscount himself need to go to court to testify. The summons arrived on February 19th 1892 (asking for his attendance on March 3rd) and on the night of the 19th, the Viscount fell ill. He died on the 22nd.

Nishigori believed the Viscount had been poisoned. A belief made stronger when the family refused an autopsy. Then the Viscount’s estate was given solely to one son, Masatane, while the other son, Hidetane (still a child), was frozen out.

Nishigori asked a friend of his, a judge named Yamaguchi, for his opinion on the matter and the judge said he believed Nishigori was right. Encouraged by this, Nishigori began to put together a case regarding the poisoning and aspects of Hidetane’s succession.

The judge, Yamaguchi, thought that it was wiser to persue the poisoning case. He suggested that if Nishigori sent some documents to the court denouncing the Soma family this would cause enough of a sensation to get the case heard.

Nishigori did this, writing up a fictional version of the murder and bribery of medical practioners as if it were a confession from one of the accomplices.

He posted it to the court on June 28th and it caused a sensation when it was published in a newspaper soon after. Nishigori decided to press forward by filing a charge for murder. He hired a lawyer, Okano Kan, who was convinced to take the case by the confession.

The preliminary hearings were taken by a close friend of Yamaguchi, Judge Okada Seikyo. Yamaguchi himself helped with the examination of some witnesses and was able to pass on information to Nishigori, who could then use that in his case. Nishigori also continued to spread false stories about the Soma clan.

However, despite all this, no actual evidence of murder was forthcoming. Yamaguchi suggested to Nishigori it would be easier to pursue a lesser charge of illegal imprisonment leading to death. Nishigori agreed, but in the end the court threw out even this case.

Throughout this time Judge Yamaguchi had been slowly obtaining money from Nishigori. A few hundred yen here and there, as well as 5,000 yen in September 1893. And while he was extorting from Nishigori, he was in secret contact with the Soma family! Yamaguchi’s brother-in-law knew a high-ranking member of the clan, and they had asked Yamaguchi to help with their case. A request to which he agreed, promising to keep a close eye on Nishigori’s actions. However, his relationship with the Soma clan was not as profitable as with Nishigori.

Once Nishigori’s case collapsed, he and his accomplices were arrested. But even while the preliminary hearing for this case was in progress, Judge Yamaguchi was named in an entirely different case for blackmail! What a character.

This case was famous enough to have been written about in British newspapers at the time and according to this page, twenty books about it were written in one year (1892). Nishigori’s own book sold well, and made him a more sympathetic character: a loyal servant doing what he thought was right.

In the end, according to the Birmingham Daily Post for Wednesday 23rd May 1894, Nishigori was sentenced to four years in jail, while Yamaguchi was given five.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Disaster Preparedness Tokyo

Anyone who has visited Japan will, sooner or later, notice the local authorities’ sensitivity to natural disasters. Japan sits on the “Ring of Fire”: an earthquake-prone area that runs along the Asia-Pacific area, across the Bering Sea in the north and then down the western coast of North and South America.

Recently I saw a story on the BBC website about a disaster survival manual that had been written specifically for people in Tokyo, and distributed to them for free, which has caught people’s attention from outside the capital. Despite it being available for free download (link to the English version here) people seem to want the physical version, and copies of the manual have been popping up on e-bay.

I took a look at it and, apart from being impressed by the English, I found it quite fascinating. The manual begins with a clear warning that a large earthquake will almost certainly hit Tokyo in the next thirty years. On the one hand, this could seem alarmist. On the other hand, pretending it’ll never happen would be worse.

It’s full of useful information. One tip that hadn’t occured to me is that if you’re trapped, don’t shout for help since that’ll wear you out. Instead, repeatedly hit something so people will hear you.

I can totally understand why this book has become so desirable. It covers a wide range of subjects and is reassuring in its tone. But at the same time, there’s always something haunting about when authorities start to prepare the population for the worst. It kind of reminded me of the old Protect And Survive leaflet from the 1980s when a nuclear war seemed possible. It tried to be helpful but instead came across as being doom-laden and pessimistic.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

A change in direction

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting much these days. A lack of time is partly the problem. I have several half-finished articles about TV that I had planned on posting, but then never got a chance to finish them and finally it felt like the moment had passed and I couldn’t be bothered.

However, my interest in Japanese culture hasn’t waned, but it has shifted from dramas to a wider range of subjects. As such, I’m going to try writing about these as well as dramas and hopefully this’ll mean this blog won’t lie unloved and abandoned for much longer.

See you soon.