Shizuko Natsuki: Murder at Mt. Fuji

Christie-esque? Hardly.

Ugh.  If I believed the publisher’s hype that this is among the best that Japanese crime fiction has to offer, I’d be done with Japanese crime fiction here and now.

Natsuki knows how to write “atmosphere”, but how she could ever have become (according to her American publisher) “one of Japan’s most popular mystery writers” is utterly beyond me.  And while I do believe that Natsuki really was trying to copycat Agatha Christie, all she produces is an overly convoluted plot and a novel brimming with inconsistencies.  From egregious scene continuity issues to essential information being gathered “off stage” by teams of policemen elsewhere, to characters behaving purely as the author’s plot sequencing and writerly convenience dictates (with little to no regard for, and repeatedly even contrary to what should have been both their inner and their outer response to events), to a clichéd “woman facing off against villain during dark and stormy night” final scene, the novel abounds with things that either should have been weeded out in the editing process or should have prevented it from being published altogether.

Worst IMHO, however, are the police, who

* let a family — all of whom are suspects — merrily go on living in the very house that constitutes the crime scene without having cleared the scene first (thus affording the suspects plenty of opportunity to tamper with the scene … which promptly happens),

* give press conferences in the very building that constitutes the crime scene (again before the scene has been cleared — allowing for the reporters to further muddy the scene),

* allow the suspects to be present at those press conferences (oddly, without a single reporter showing any interest in approaching the suspects — instead, the reporters wait until most of them have finally departed to Tokyo, to then fruitlessly stalk the premises from outside at night),

* reveal every last scrap of information — including and in particular things only known to the police and the culprit(s) — to the press,

* and involve a civilian who only a day earlier had still been one of the suspects (and should actually be charged with conspiring to conceal a crime / as an accomplice after the fact) in an ill-conceived, risk-prone, and promptly almost fatally derailed scheme to entrap the killer.

Oh, and did I mention that — though I can’t comment on the substantive details of the Japanese legal provision central to the plot (which gets cite-checked to numbing point in the final part of the novel) — Natsuki’s research, if any, on the legal issues that I can comment on is seriously off as well?  (Which, in turn, may actually explain the otherwise inexplicably stupid behaviour of one particular character.)

Well, I guess at least I finally get to check this one off my TBR … and check off Japan on my “Around the World in 80 Books” challenge.



Original post:



In the comments section of the original post, I had the following exchange on translated literature with my BookLikes friend Darth PonyPedant:

Darth Pedant
I always approach English translations of Japanese works a little warily. There’s so much nuance in the Japanese language that doesn’t directly translate into English, and I always wonder how much gets lost in translation. According to one of the reviews on Goodreads, this is “an example of a translation that plays too loose with the original text”, so who knows what might have been had a more diligent translator been employed? I should add bad translations to my list of book crimes.

Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books
I know — translation is quite obviously another big issue with this book (and I totally agree on the book crimes thing). Even without speaking Japanese, you can tell that the translator is playing fast and loose, and if I’d liked the book better in all other respects I’d have asked my BFF (who has a degree in Japanese and Korean) about some of the things that stood out to me. E.g., I know from my friend that the Japanese have three systems of script / characters, NONE of which are based on Western-style individual letters; yet the translator blithely makes a big point of “the Capital ‘W’ of ‘Wada'” — the name of the family at the heart of this book, allegedly embossed on the gate of their residence … which even shows up as part of the final chapter’s title. That, too, is quite obviously bullsh*t, and if I’d liked the book any better overall I would probably have asked my friend what she made of this particular item, and what she thought the author might *really* have written about in that particular respect. (This is not the first Japanese book where I’ve found the translation seriously annoying, just because it was so obviously messing with the original text. Aanother book where I’ve recently come across that is Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen”).

I ended up disliking the book so much on other grounds that I decided consulting my friend wasn’t worth the trouble, but in any event, this is a big reason why in my review I only focused on things that are very obviously down to the author herself, such as dialogue, plot points, and the characters’ behaviour (by all which I don’t just mean individual sentences but entire patterns — above and beyond cultural differences, that is); including the behaviour of the police, which may follow different rules than, say, American, Australian, English or German police in individual respects, but the police of a highly (including technically) advanced society like Japan’s would certainly NOT allow their crime scenes — and their entire investigation — to be massively and consistently polluted like it’s happening here.

And re: the all-important statute, that, too, is quite obviously down to the author herself, as the statute in question provides both the motive for the crime as such and the reason for the culprit’s specific course of action. And there I also happen to know based on my own training that the author is dead wrong both in her conjecture about the alleged absence of any corresponding American provisions (which actually do exist; including and in particular in California, where I’ve practiced for several years, and where the book’s only Amercan cast member lived before temporarily moving to Japan); as well as with regard to the background of the Japanese provision, which she sees as an outcrop of Japanese (and more generally speaking, Eastern) philosophy — whereas it’s nothing of the sort; in fact, it was copied from German law when the Japanese (like the Turkish and the Spanish) copied the German civil code pretty much wholesale when they were fundamentally revising their legal systems in the course of the 20th century. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I could just as well practice in either of these countries. But the fact that several other countries incorporated the German civil code into their own legal systems is obviously something that German law students are made aware of at some point over the course of their studies — and in fact, law school libraries in those countries will typically be well-stocked with German law books (in the German original), as I can attest to from my own eyewitness experience.) And go figure: You do find that sort of provision in the German civil code, too. And the German provision, in turn, is one that I HAVE come up against repeatedly in my own professional life.

Darth Pedant
This is starting to remind me of my experience with a particular anime series. An English dubbed version started airing on a local TV station when I was in my teens and many of my friends LOVED it. I HATED it because I found the main character supremely annoying and too stupid to live and the plots were asinine. Then the show started coming out on DVD, and one of my friends who loved it made me rewatch an episode with the original Japanese audio and English subtitles. The difference was stark. The plot was actually a lot more complex and intelligent than the dubbed version . . . but the main character was still supremely annoying and too stupid to live. You are so right. A good translation can’t fix everything. XD

Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books
Ugh. Yes, exactly … (And btw, just curious: It sounds like speak Japanese?)

Though, speaking of TV series, dubbing actually can work for the better as well. Did you ever watch “The Persuaders” (starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis)? The dialogue in that series was significantly altered in the German dubbing process, with side-splittingly funny effects that greatly contributed to making it a runaway success in the German-speaking market. The series’ premise and the storylines themselves weren’t changed, and the amazing thing was that the altered dialogue still perfectly matched the actors’ expressions and body language — to the point that you couldn’t imagine *what else* they might have been saying in the original version. (!#Redubbed_versions) I love that series — both in its German version and in the English original.

Darth Pedant
No, I don’t speak Japanese (I wish!) beyond recognizing a few words, but an old acquaintance who did speak it confirmed that the show’s subtitles were a much better translation than the English dub script, which completely changed the story in some parts. For an example, one plot revolved around children in a town disappearing and it turns out fairies from the forest were taking them. In the dubbed version, it’s never explained why the kids were being taken, and there’s a random scene where a character is making cookies and someone asks her why, and she says something nonsensical like she just feels like making cookies in the afternoon. Then a fairy shows up a few minutes later and it’s completely out of left field. In the subtitled version, that random cookie-making scene is really important because the cookie-making character unknowingly explains the fairies’ motivation by relating an old folk tale about how townsfolk used to make cookies and leave them out for the fairies as a peace offering kind of thing. Crucial plot points weren’t being conveyed in the dub because the dialogue was badly translated and adapted.

I never really cared for The Persuaders, but it sounds like the German dub is hilarious and right up my alley. (Too bad I don’t speak German either!) There’s a movie called Kung Pow: Enter the Fist that’s an intentionally bad dub of an old martial arts movie with huge alterations and added scenes. It’s brain-cell-destroying levels of stupid and it makes me laugh until I cry and/or wheeze every time I see it.

Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books
Re: The Japanese series: One has to wonder what went through the translators’ and producers’ heads — were they just oblivious of what they were doing, or did they think an English speaking audience wouldn’t “get” the Japanese concepts they were cutting out? Above and beyond the things I can safely locate with the author in “Murder at Mt. Fuji”, I’m pretty sure this is part of what is going on in this book, too; and it simply adds to the overall problems because it makes the novel appear much flatter than it probably is in the original. And as I said, I came away with the same impression from reading “Kitchen” — there, too, instead of just trusting the reader with the actual Japanese concepts and patterns of speech, the translator severely Westernized it, and thus (for me, anyway) robbed it of layers and layers of depth … which it very obviously does contain in the original (and often it almost hurt physically to be able to still recognize that there had to be so much there that was being kept from me).

I’m sure you’d love the German version of “The Persuaders” — not least, because the dubbing is done out of a spirit of genuine respect for the original; not to make it appear anything less. And of course, it’s just too darned funny! 😀

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