Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Japanese Detective Novels (3): Edogawa Ranpo (1)

Edogawa Ranpo (real name Hirai Taro, 1894-1965) is Japan's greatest prewar writer of detective stories. After the war he served as an important critic and promoter of the genre. And, like Okamoto Kido - but in his own way -, he is very Japanese. Although he started writing a few classical puzzle stories as a sort of dialogue with the Western tradition, under the influence of the general cultural climate of his day (and of his favorite author Tanizaki Junichiro) he soon entered the typically Japanese territory of Ero-Guro-Nansensu or “Erotic, Grotesque, Nonsense.” Called Ero-Guro for short, this cultural mode, which was strong from the mid-twenties until the mid-thirties (when it was chased away by the dark clouds of nationalism and war) emphasized eroticism and decadence. “Guro” refers to things that are malformed, unnatural or horrific.

This interest in the deviant and bizarre came up in a social atmosphere of nihilistic hedonism, perhaps caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but it has older roots in Japanese culture: it goes for example back to such 19th century ukiyo-e artists as Yoshitoshi, who depicted decapitations and other acts of violence, including bondage, in his Muzan-e or "Bloody Prints."

[From Eimei nijuhasshuku (Twenty-eight Murders) by Yoshitoshi]

There was also a similar streak of the macabre with sexual overtones in the Kabuki, as in the famous "horror" play Yotsuya Kaidan. And today we still find it in certain manga and anime, as well as some Japanese cult films.

We also find the association of the macabre with the erotic in the Japanese literature of the period: Edogawa Ranpo was very much inspired by the novels and stories of Tanizaki Junichiro, who did write many of such erotically tinted, macabre stories in the first decades of the 20th century. Interestingly, Tanizaki also tried his hand at quite a few crime stories, as we saw in the previous article. Tanizaki and Edogawa Ranpo knew each other personally and as older, established author Tanizaki gave encouragement to Ranpo.

[Edogawa Ranpo (Hirai Taro)]

Hirai Taro was born into the family of an ex-samurai in Mie Prefecture and, after studying economics at Waseda University in Tokyo, had a whole string of odd jobs before settling down as author. This was in 1923, after the success of his first detective story, “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” ("Nisen doka"), which was the first story written by a Japanese to include an element of logical deduction, albeit with an important twist.

Hirai wrote under the pen name Edogawa Ranpo, a conscious homage to Edgar Allan Poe (when you pronounce it quickly, it indeed resembles the English name; the meaning of the Japanese characters is tongue-in-cheek “The Rambler of the Edo River”). As the selection of his pen name already shows, Edogawa Ranpo felt closer to this author of the macabre than to the "scientific" Arthur Conan Doyle of the Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact, soon Ero-Guro elements start to proliferate in Ranpo's work, before in the late 1920s almost wholly taking over his fiction. Ranpo was one of many popular authors who recognized the appeal that various forms of sexuality and especially "perverse sexual desire" (hentai seiyoku) held for contemporary, urban audiences. Beginning with "The Case of the Murder on D Hill," Ranpo's novels touch upon such matters as sadomasochism, gender transformation, pygmalionism (doll-love), and so on. His strongest works are those which contain a combination of these with more straight detective elements, such as Beast in the Shadows ("Inju").

[Statue of Edogawa Ranpo in his birthplace, Nabari City in Mie Prefecture]

Later, circumstances would force Ranpo to give up this type of fiction. When Japan entered upon its several mid-century wars, society frowned on Ero-Guro and readers were becoming tired of Ranpo's plots. Ranpo switched to writing detective and adventure stories for children, which he continued to do for many decades. After the war Ranpo was in the first place active in the critical field, where he made a large contribution to establishing the mystery novel as an important literary genre. He also set up a new magazine, Hoseki (Jewel), which took over the function of Shin Seinen as the main magazine outlet for detective stories. But in the postwar years, the time of Ero-Guro was long past, so we find Edogawa Ranpo pleading for the puzzle detective, a subgenre he himself had hardly practiced...

Here are Ranpo's best stories by year. I have listed all Ranpo's creative work published  between 1923 and 1936, but left out unfinished novels, adaptations of foreign novels as well as novels written together with others. This first part runs from 1923 to 1926.

Please note that the overview below reveals details of the plot of the stories. The titles of the stories link to Aozora Bunko. The titles between " " are all short stories.


Ranpo wrote "The Two-Sen Copper Coin" and "One Ticket" in September 1922, while staying with wife and child at his father's house in Moriguchi (Osaka), being out of a job. He sent the stories to Morishita Uson, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Shin Seinen, a new magazine dedicated to detective stories - so far only translations of foreign ones as talent in Japan still had to be discovered. Uson recognized Ranpo's talent and promised to publish both stories. "The Two-Sen Copper Coin" appeared in April 1923 with a recommendation by mystery and science-fiction author Kosakai Fuboku. From this first publication, Hirai Taro used the sobriquet "Edogawa Ranpo." In July that year, Ranpo managed to get a job in the advertising department of the Osaka Mainichi Newspaper.

Nisendoka” (The Two-Sen Copper Coin, published in Shin Seinen
[tr. Jeffrey Angles in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler (Hawaii UP)]
This is Edogawa Ranpo's first detective story, published in the magazine Shin Seinen (New Youth), which thanks to Ranpo's contributions became one of the main venues for detective stories in the 1920s and 1930s. In this first Ranpo story figures a code, as in Poe's "The Gold-Bug." Also the trick from Poe’s “Purloined Letter” – to hide something precious in full view – is mentioned. This is not imitation, but Ranpo is playing with the conventions of the genre, by applying the Western formula of mystery-solving to a distinctly Japanese context. Ranpo’s story is wholly original and so is the intricate code Ranpo introduces, based on the Japanese braille combined with the Buddhist invocation "Namu Amida Butsu."

A shrewd thief has stolen a large amount of money from a certain company; he has been caught but refuses to divulge the location of the money. Based on newspaper reports where a reward is offered, a poor student tries to solve the case as “would-be detective,” egged on by his room mate with whom he is locked in a daily battle of wits to see who is more intelligent. He finds a code in a two-sen copper coin which consists of two halves, with a small piece of paper hidden inside. While he reasons the case in search of a solution by ingenious ratiocination, the other student plays the Watson to his Holmes. But when he believes to have solved the case and even has the stolen money in his hands, his friend reveals that he has played a trick on him – and that the retrieved notes are false. So Watson has besieged Holmes and the rug is pulled from under the reader's feet who is left with a hoax – after all, the whole ratiocination is shown to be useless and in the end nothing at all has been solved. Ranpo has overturned the central conventions of the genre through the use of a deceitful narrator and the absence of resolution. The story has a nice atmosphere and is by far the best of the three stories Ranpo wrote in 1923. Ranpo was introduced by the magazine's editor as a detective writer who could hold his own against foreign authors. Because of the difficult, typically Japanese code it long resisted translation, but now we are lucky to have the excellent translation by Jeffrey Angles.

Ichimai no Kippu” (One Ticket, published in Shin Seinen)
[No translation available]
A respected scholar's wife is run over and killed by a train. The autopsy shows that she had been poisoned and the professor is arrested. Two students (again armchair detectives who meet in a restaurant), who honor the professor as a great scholar, conclude on the basis of small clues one of them has collected at the scene, that the woman's death was suicide (made to look like murder as the wife wanted to take revenge on her husband who had fallen out of love with her). The professor is freed from jail thanks to the newspaper article written by one of these students, in which he uses logical reasoning and demonstrates that the clues he has found all exonerate the professor. But in his last paragraph Ranpo again pulls the rug from under this ratiocination: if the accused had not been a famous professor, would the clues point to the same conclusion (the implication is that facts can always be interpreted in different ways)? And would these students even have been interested in the case if their beloved professor's life had not been at stake? As will also become clear in the stories Ranpo wrote the next few years, for him psychology is more important than pure logical reasoning. At the same time, this is a story which gives the reader a chance to develop his own theory based on the evidence presented - and in so far it also has a classical side.

Osoroshigi Sakugo” (A Terrible Mistake, published in Shin Seinen
[No translation available]
A man’s house has burned down and in the panic surrounding the fire, he has lost sight of his wife. Later he learns she has died in the fire, and he suspects that an acquaintance who in the past was a rival for the hand of the same girl, has urged his wife to enter the burning house as a form of revenge. He uses a trick to take revenge on the man but makes a fatal mistake – which means that now he will never know whether he was right or not, and he goes mad... The story with its long Dostoevskyan (Ranpo's favorite Western literary author) ruminations in fact boils down to the feeling of guilt of the protagonist: he has saved their baby and run away to put it in safe hands, but he has made the "terrible mistake" to forget to tell his wife that the baby had been saved - because his relation with his wife had deteriorated. The wife didn’t know that the baby was saved and must have reentered the burning house to look for it... In fact, one could say that it is the narrator who has unconsciously killed his young wife. This is a story in which psychology has completely taken over from detection, and Ranpo later judged it a failure.


This year Ranpo wrote two stories, both very interesting ones, and both published in Shin Seinen, like his stories of the year before. Although both contain a crime, they are rather general mysteries than detective stories. In November of this year, Ranpo decides to earn his income solely as a writer and gives up his newspaper job.

Ni Haijin” (The Two Crippled Men, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. James B. Harris in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle)]
Two elderly men meet at a spa and have a long conversation. One of the two is crippled due to the Russo-Japanese war, the other is "mentally crippled" for he is a sleepwalker and has been led to believe he may do terrible things in his sleep. He recounts his disease to his new friend. He also confesses the crimes, including murder, he has apparently committed unconsciously during his sleepwalking, when he stayed as a student in a boarding house, in the far past. But he is shocked when his companion offers a new interpretation of those events that challenges everything he has always believed: hasn't he been manipulated by a fellow boarder in believing that he was guilty of various somnambulist incidents, including the murder of the old lodging house keeper - and wasn't this fellow boarder probably the real culprit? It finally even appears the man offering this explanation "to lessen his mental anguish" somehow looks familiar - yes, you already guess who he in fact is! An interesting psychological story.

Soseiji” (The Twins, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. James B. Harris in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle)]
A doppelganger tale. A condemned prisoner makes a confession of a crime he has never been charged with but that haunts him - he has killed his twin brother and successfully taken over his life. The brothers were a pair of exactly look-alike twins from a rich family, the oldest of whom received the entire family's fortune; the younger in contrast was left with nothing. Being a bad sort, he murders his older brother, throws the body down the garden well, and assumes his brother's identity, taking possession of his fortune... and his wife. But being a big spendthrift and a gambler, he quickly depletes the family fortune, after which he starts stealing and even commits murder - the murder for which he is now awaiting the death penalty. But the other crime, which has never been discovered, was more evil...
Made into a beautiful, moody film in 1999 by Tsukamoto Shinya.


Now that Ranpo has become a full-time writer, this is a very fruitful year with 17 new stories, among which several of Ranpo's best. After the success of  "The Case of the Murder on D Hill" he is asked to become a regular contributor to Shin Seinen. He makes several visits to Tokyo and meets at different times with Kosakai Fuboku (in Nagoya), Morishita Uson, Uno Koji and Yokomizo Seishi. With the last one (who is also an important writer of detective fiction) he sets up the Detective Hobby Club (Tantei Shumi no Kai). In July, Shunyodo publishes his first story collection in book form (called after The Psychological Test).

D zaka no Satsujin Jiken” (The Case of the Murder on D Hill, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. William Varteresian in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogoro (Kurodahan Press, 2014)]
The story in which Ranpo's serial detective, Akechi Kogoro, makes his first appearance. Interestingly, it is a very Japanese variant of the "locked room mystery." In the traditional Japanese house with its sliding doors and movable partitions, a locked room does not exist - there often are not even locks! But in a busy down-town neighborhood of Tokyo (in the story, the real district of Dangozaka in Sendagi is used), people are always watching each other - this "mutual surveillance" creates in fact a virtual locked room. The beautiful wife of a second-hand book seller is found strangled in the living room behind the shop, but as various neighborhood people have been watching both the front and the back of the shop, it is impossible that a stranger has slipped in. Akechi Kogoro is not the Western-suited dandy he would become later, but rather a bookish, poor student in traditional Japanese garb. It was in this story that Ranpo began to introduce Ero-Guro elements into his work. Akechi Kogoro discovers that the woman was killed by accident in the midst of sadomasochistic games with a neighboring shopkeeper. This combination of problem-solving and sexuality, especially its “perverse” manifestations, recurs in many stories that Ranpo would write in years to come. Akechi Kogoro also expresses his doubt about classical ratiocination, as Ranpo did in the stories of the previous years: "Physical evidence can take on all sorts of appearances depending on the point of view. The best method of detection is psychological: to see through to the depths of people's hearts." (Early Cases, p. 25) In order to catch the perpetrator, Akechi also uses the association test described in the story "The Psychological Test" below. By the way, Ranpo has Akechi discuss Poe and Conan Doyle in this story as a clear attempt to position himself in the tradition of the Western detective story.
In 2015 made into a "pink" film by Kubota Shoji.

Shinri Shiken” (The Psychological Test, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. James B. Harris in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle)]
A student imitates Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in murdering an old woman and stealing her money. He thinks he has committed the perfect crime. It is not his sense of guilt which brings him to justice (as Dostoevsky's protagonist), and neither is it the Western-style psychological test given him by Dr. Kasamori, which he passes rather too smoothly. No - it is Akechi Kogoro who catches this too great perfectionist in a psychological trap by asking the right questions - just like Judge Ooka in the colorful days of the eighteenth century, concludes Edogawa Ranpo. What also reminds one of the Judge Ooka stories is the fact that the identity of the criminal is already known to the reader - the emphasis is on the cleverness of the detective (in other words, qua type this is an "inverted detective story"). A fascinating story that breaks down the flaws in the use of a ‘lie detection test’ to discover a murderer.

Kurotegumi” (The Black Hand Gang, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. William Varteresian in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogoro (Kurodahan Press, 2014)]
Akechi Kogoro solves the disappearance of a young woman from a wealthy family and in the end even acts as matchmaker. There is again a code, as well as an interesting trick, for the criminal uses stilts, so that he doesn't leave footprints. This rather slight story fits in with the other stories written during this period: no real crime has taken place (the young woman was not kidnapped, but eloped herself), and it comes all down to a misunderstanding.

Akai Heya” (The Red Chamber, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. James B. Harris in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle)]
A sort of "secret society" meets regularly in a Gothic room to share horror tales - a setting that reminded me of certain stories by Stevenson (The Suicide Club). Tonight, a new member, T., will share his first tale of horror. He tells how, out of chronic ennui, he began committing crimes only for the sake of finding excitement. At that time, incidentally, he discovered a way to murder without being caught: by causing fatal accidents of which random people become the victim - for example by having a blind masseur walk right into a construction pit, or calling out to an old woman who is crossing a busy street, so that she hesitates and is hit by a trolley. Of course he takes care that he seems to have no responsibility for these deaths. His murder count stands at 99, he says - who will be the next victim? Of course there is an interesting twist at the end, even a double one – making also this story a parody - and again a tale in which in fact no crime takes place.
P.S. One episode has been cut from this story in the James B. Harris translation: in one rather sick incident, the man tricks a boy into urinating on a live wire so that he is electrocuted. Probably this was too shocking for American audiences in the 1950s... 

Nikkicho” (The Diary, published in Shashin Hochi)
[No translation available] 
A young man has died of an illness and his elder brother looks out of curiosity in his diary. He discovers that the brother corresponded via postcards with Yukie, their far relative. As postcards can be read by anyone, the younger brother apparently used a code to communicate, via the dates on which he sent the cards. Yukie from her side used another code that just had been introduced in a popular novel: to show her love for him she glued on the stamps askew. But it seems neither of them understood the code of the other, so they were not able to communicate their shared love. The correspondence between both stops on a certain day – as the elder brother tells us that was the day he himself became engaged to Yukie, without knowing of her love for his brother. A story about a triple misunderstanding.

Soroban ga Koi wo Kataru Hanashi” (A Tale of Love Told by an Abacus, published in Shashin Hochi)
[No translation available] 
A clerk is in love with one of his company's young secretaries. But he is very shy and doesn't dare to talk to her face-to-face, so he puts a message in code on her abacus (certain numbers corresponding to certain kana syllables) to make her aware of his feelings, and finally even make an appointment with her in a park. When he finds a positive answer to the proposal for a meeting on her abacus one day, he waits full excitement in the park - but she never appears. What has happened? The figures on the secretary's abacus were a true calculation, just numbers, and not at all an answer to his coded message! Again, a story about a misunderstanding.

Yurei” (The Ghost, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. Willaim Varteresian in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogoro (Kurodahan Press, 2014)]
An entrepreneur is happy to hear his big rival and personal enemy has died. But he is shocked when he gets a phone call from the man. To make matters worse, a recent photo is sent to him on which he discovers his enemy. Then he starts seeing the man frequently, as if stalked by a vengeful ghost. When he goes to an onsen to recuperate, he happens to meet Akechi Kogoro, who solves the mystery: the rival just feigned to be dead in order to pester him. Again a story about a misunderstanding. 

Tonan” (The Burglary, published in Shashin Hochi)
[No translation available] 
Story told by a man who used to work for a religious sect in the provinces. Ranpo describes aptly how the believers are fooled by the sect leader, who shrewdly has them donate handfuls of money although he himself doesn’t believe in anything and leads a far from holy life. When the safe is full of money for a rebuilding of the sect’s temple, a letter arrives saying that a thief will come at 24:00 hrs and steal the money (an announcement similar to the one in the later The Fiend with Twenty Faces). A policeman they believe to be from a nearby koban, helps them protect the safe with the money, but finally pulls his pistol and disappears with the loot. Later, the narrator happens to meet the first burglar/policeman somewhere in the countryside. The man says that the burglary was fake, as was the money that was stolen - it was all set up by the leader of the sect. As proof he hands the narrator a few bills of the fake money. Disgusted, the narrator resigns from his job, believing that the sect leader just pretended that the money was stolen in order get the same amount again donated by the believers. But the story is not finished: the wife of the narrator unwittingly uses the "fake" bills, but they turn out to be real money! Now, what is true and what is false? What has really happened?
Note: this story as well as the above ones "The Diary" and "A Tale of Love told by an Abacus" were published in the magazine of Shashin Hochi, a more general publication, and Ranpo felt he could write more relaxed pieces, with no true puzzle elements. The same is true for "One-Hundred Faces Performer" and "Suspicion" below.

Hakuchumu” (The Daydream, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press 2008)]
A strong story. The narrator sees a throng of people around a man who claims he has killed his adulterous wife. But the onlookers laugh at him and think the wife has just run away with another man. The man is a pharmacist and he confesses he has turned the cut-up body of his wife into a waxen doll. And indeed, there is a female head on display in the shop window and to the narrator it looks terribly realistic. But nobody believes the pharmacist and the narrator flees as from a bad dream.

Yubiwa” (The Ring, published in Shin Seinen)
[No translation available]
A slight story in dialogue form about the theft of a ring while on a train. The thief explains his trick.

Muyubyosha no Shi” (The Death of a Sleepwalker, published in Kuraku)
[No translation available] 
A young man suffers secretly from sleepwalking, which is also the reason why he can't accept live-in jobs (of which there were many in Japan at that time, as shop boys etc.). He sits every day jobless in his father's home, doing nothing. These leads to frequent quarrels. One morning, the father is found killed in his garden chair outside. The sleepwalker suspects he himself has killed his father during one of his sleepwalking bouts, and in his paranoia he flees in panic. He is so nervous he eventually dies on the road from exhaustion. Later it is discovered he is not guilty: the father died because a large piece of ice for making ice sculptures fell on his head by accident from the window of the mansion next door.
Kuraku was a glossy magazine that would publsih more stories by Ranpo.

Hyakumenso Yakusha” (The One-Hundred Faces Performer, published in Shashin Hochi)
[No translation available] 
The narrator visits an older friend, a journalist who likes strange books and weird tales. They visit a circus where they see the "One-Hundred Faces Performer," a man who can transform himself in a surprisingly lifelike way into various characters, from old to young, from men to women. Afterward the journalist shows his friend an article about grave robberies where the heads of the deceased were stolen in the area and gives vent to the suspicion that the Hundred Faces actually employs "flesh masks" made form the dead in his performances. The narrator is deeply shocked. Finding no peace of mind, he again visits the friend a few days later and then is told with a big laugh that it was all a joke. 
Again a story in which in fact no crime has happened. The scene is set up very well, I therefore consider it the strongest of the four stories Ranpo published in Shashin Hochi.

Yaneura no Sanposha” (The Stalker in the Attic, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press 2008)]
In this masterful tale Ranpo combines Ero-Guro and detection elements. It is set in a newly built boarding house, where Goda Saburo - a young man bored with life, who seeks thrills by cross-dressing and going out in disguise like the protagonist in Tanizaki's "The Secret" - discovers that via the large Japanese-style built-in cupboard in his room, he has access to the unused attic which runs above all the rooms of the boarding house. He finds a new voyeuristic thrill by spying through cracks in the floor on his fellow boarders as a Peeping Tom. Also just for a thrill, he decides to murder a fellow boarder, Endo, who has the habit of sleeping with wide open mouth below one such a hole in the wooden ceiling. The method Goda uses is very ingenious, but he is no match for detective Akechi Kogoro. This is not a simple crime tale, but the author’s main interest was clearly in depicting the protagonist’s strange mental state as he peeps down through the boards into the private lives of his neighbors below. The appearance of the detective at the end serves merely to bring the story to a conclusion.
The various film versions made of this story strongly emphasize the Ero-Guro elements and even introduce new ones (such as the 1976 "pink eiga" version by Tanaka Nobuo).

Hitori Futayaku” (Playing Two Roles, published in Shin Shosetsu)
[No translation available]
A man called T, a bored urban dweller, is married to a beautiful wife, but has many relationships with other women. One day he wonders what his wife would be like with another man and he puts the deed to the word (a situation similar to that in Abe Kobo's The Face of Another). Putting on a disguise and sleeping with his wife, he takes care to leave a cigarette case with different initials than his own. When he continues this bizarre behavior for a while, he notices that his wife has fallen in love with the stranger and out of love with T himself. T has become his own rival in love and is consumed with envy - after all his wife is cheating on him but he himself is the new lover! He therefore gives up his previous identity and having minor plastic surgery, completely becomes the other. However, at the end of the story we learn that T’s wife had known all along that the stranger was in fact her husband. She decided to play along to save their marriage – and has marvelously succeeded. One could say that "bored urbanites need to externalize their desire and sensation before they are able to satisfy their desensitized senses." (Kawana p. 61)

Giwaku” (Doubt, published in Shashin Hochi)
[No translation available]
A story in dialogue form. The father of a family of five, a very violent man who was often drunk, has been murdered in his garden with an axe. The narrator is the younger brother; one after another suspicion falls on the elder brother, the sister and the mother, until finally the narrator confesses. But it appears he is innocent as well: he had left the axe in a tree and it fell by accident on the head of the father sitting under it... The trick is the same is the one in "The Death of a Sleepwalker."

Ningen Isu” (The Human Chair, published in Kuraku)
[tr. James B. Harris in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle)]
One of Ranpo's most grotesquely erotic stories: a man hides in a Western armchair to enjoy the feeling of female bodies sitting on top of him. Yoshiko is a talented authoress who shuts herself up in her study to write every day after her husband has left for the Foreign Office. One morning, she receives a manuscript in which the "chair man" (who is a furniture maker) confesses his strange obsession, which finds its origin in his ugliness and the aversion women feel towards him. First he inhabits the hollow space inside an upholstered armchair he has made for the lobby of a Western-style hotel where he is "caressed" by many different female bottoms - mostly of foreign origin. Then the hotel closes and the chair is sold to a high-ranking official, who puts it in the study of his wife. The chair man develops a deep feeling of love for this purely Japanese woman, enjoying her feather-like gentleness of touch, while he lovingly cradles her on his knees - the reader can already see Yoshiko's shock coming, as she sits reading the manuscript in that very chair... but there is another twist at the end. This is not a detective story, but a pure Ero-Guro artifact in the mock confessional style of Tanizaki Junichiro.
P.S. Also from this story one episode has been cut in the James B. Harris translation: the "chair man" muses in a lengthy contemplation how easy it would be for him to murder a foreign ambassador seated on top of him, and so cause an international incident. Again, perhaps something that was considered too politically incorrect...
Seppun” (The Kiss, published in Eiga to Tantei)
[No translation available]
A "just married" man thinks he has caught his young wife kissing the photo of another man - his boss, who sponsored their marriage and brought them together. Angry, he resigns his job. His wife, however, explains that a mirror has played a trick on him when he spied on her (turning around left and right when she opened a drawer in the cupboard) and that the photo she was kissing was in fact his own...


In January of this year, Ranpo moves with his family to Tokyo and rents a house in Ushigome. Ranpo takes on too much work, as he starts three serialized novels at the same time early in the year. Of these, The Air Man (Kuki Otoko) is discarded unfinished when the magazine in which it is published stops appearing. The Case of the Lakeside Arbor is finished in five months time, but Wriggling in the Dark is broken off and only later finished, when it appears the next year (1927) in the first edition of Ranpo's Complete Works. In fact, Ranpo discovers he is not a novel writer, but a short story writer - he has difficulty to keep up his own interest in longer works. Moreover, structurally his novels are extremely loose. Besides that, he manages to write 11 short stories and later in the year, starts on two more novels (Panorama Island and The Dwarf) which will be completed the next year after serial publication.  

Yami ni Ugomeku (Wriggling in the Dark, published in Kuraku)
[No translation available]
The first novel Ranpo attempted and a pure "ero-guro" story - of cannibalism, and with more eroticism than usual (it was serialized in a glossy magazine). As many of Ranpo's longer pieces, it is more an assembly of various episodes than a tightly constructed novel. He even broke off serialization only to finish the novel the next year. It is the story of a bohemian painter (Nozaki Saburo) who has never yet completed a painting. He is independently wealthy thanks to an inheritance and lives a life of pleasure - he has a fetish for female body parts (like the sculptor in Blind Beast). Finally he finds his ideal type in Ocho, a dancer from Asakusa, who has an unspeakable charm. Together they travel to Nagano where they stay in a remote hotel, the Hotel Momiyama. The fat owner of that hotel is a man with a huge appetite. He also renders massage services to the bathers in the large hotel bath. Ocho is afraid that someone may be stalking her, and when she is playing hide-and-seek with Saburo in the forest, she indeed suddenly disappears near an area of quicksand.

Uemura Kihachi, a friend of Saburo with an interest in playing the detective, comes to the hotel to help him find Ocho. At the hotel, he recognizes a certain Shindo, an old friend of the owner, as the man who was stalking Ocho. When they search in the quicksand, a "monster" appears, and they flee into a cave. The "monster" closes off the cave entrance. Inside, they find human bones and the dead body of the wife of the hotel owner. In the cave they also meet Shindo who divulges that the hotel owner is the monster. After an experience of shipwreck and going without food on a raft with several others, he had killed the chief mate and became a cannibal to survive. But he can't forget the taste of human flesh and has set up the hotel with the common bath where he doubles as attendant so that he can spot delicious human morsels and then kill and consume them...

Kohantei Jiken (The Case of the Lakeside Arbor, published in Sunday Mainichi)
[No translation available]
Planned as a long novel, Ranpo lost interest about halfway through and brought it to a quick end. The narrator is staying at a spa hotel called Kohantei near a lake for recuperation. He has a weird hobby: he has brought a telescope and likes to spy on women in the dressing room of the common bath. One day, he sees through his telescope a woman being murdered with a glittering knife... But when he rushes to the bath, there is nobody in the dressing room, although later some traces of blood are found. Together with another man staying at the hotel, Kono, he tries to find out what has happened...

Odoru Issunboshi” (The Dancing Dwarf, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press 2008)]
A dwarf working in a circus is the butt of jokes of the other circus artists. As a joke, they teach him to handle the swords in "The Beauty in the Guillotine Box" (a woman hiding in a box into which swords are stuck which miraculously miss her). This enables him to take a terrible revenge...

Dokuso” (Poison Weeds, published in Tantei Bungei)
[tr. Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press 2008)]
It is rumored that poor women (who can't support more children) use the poisonous weeds growing near their village to bring on abortions. The narrator gets worried when his neighbor (who suddenly looks very slim) tells him she had a miscarriage...

"Fukumen no Butosha" (The Masked Dancers, published in Fujin no Kuni)
[No translation available]
The narrator is invited by his friend Inoue to join a secret society of wealthy men looking for powerful thrills. The fifth meeting he attends happens to be a masked ball. Women have been invited for the ball and couples are formed by dealing numbered cards. The narrator is coupled with a masked partner who seems somehow familiar. She is also excitingly forward and he dances and drinks himself into a stupor... only to wake up in a strange room with a note of the woman at his side. He now learns that she is Haruko, the wife of the friend who proposed the secret society to him. In the note she severely criticizes his bad and violent behavior. The narrator tries to puzzle out the events of the night. He discovers that as a joke devised by the organizers every man was to dance with his own wife. However, his number and that of his friend Inoue were mixed up and they ended up dancing with each other's wives. The narrator is devastated at the realization of his unintentional adultery... and that of his wife.    

"Haikagura" (A Cloud of Ashes, published in Taishu Bungei)
[No translation available]
The protagonist has differences with his friend about a woman - and about money (he is poor and often has to borrow). One time, they quarrel and in the heat of the moment the protagonist picks up a pistol lying on the desk of his friend and in anger shoots him dead. The younger brother of the murdered man, who was playing ball with classmates outside, suspects the protagonist, who tries to save himself with a trick which makes use of the ashes of the hibachi in the room of the deceased...
"Taishu Bungei" was a magazine set up by Ranpo with several other authors, to promote "literature for the masses" (although he also had misgivings, as he didn't regard detective stores as "mass literature"). All members had to contribute a fixed number of stories or essays and Ranpo was quite bothered by this duty. To his relief, the joint magazine ceased publication in 1927.

Kasei no Unga” (The Martian Canals, published in Shin Seinen)
[tr. Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press 2008)]
A man dreams rapturously of his body being transformed into a woman. The protagonist walks through a shadowy, gloomy forest that seems to have no end, afraid that he is walking in circles. Then he reaches a clearing with a pool of water in the heart of the forest. He now notices he is stark naked, and that his body has metamorphosed into that of his white (presumably Caucasian) girlfriend. He swims to a rock in the center of the pool and then realizes he needs some color in the white and gray world – preferably crimson. He scratches his shiny white body until the blood gushes out, leaving wounds like “Martian canals” on his body. He dances and rolls about like a worm – until his girlfriend, next to him in bed, wakes him up from his nightmare with “My dear!” in her own language. This story shows Ranpo's ambivalent feelings towards Western women and Western culture (as in the story "The Human Chair")...
One of the episodes in the film Ranpo Noir.

"Monoguramu" (The Monogram, published in Shin Shosetsu)
[No translation available]
Starts with a long description of seedy Asakusa Park, as in The Dwarf. The narrator meets a young man, who claims to know him. As gradually becomes clear, the narrator used to be at the same school as the (now deceased) half-sister of the young man, and unknown to himself, she kept his photo in her hand mirror set...

"Osei Tojo” (The Appearance of Osei, published in Taishu Bungei)
[tr. Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press 2008)]
A man plays hide-and-seek with his children and hides in a large chest of which the lid by accident falls into the lock. When his wife (who is often absent because of an extramarital relation) finds him, after only a moment's consideration she again smashes the lid shut and re-locks the chest so that her husband is asphyxiated. A strong story.
Used in the film The Mystery of Rampo by Okuyama Kazuyoshi.

Hitodenashi no Koi” (Unearthly Love, published in Sunday Mainichi)
[No translation available]
A woman recounts the traumatic experience of being married to a man who was secretly in love with a doll he had cherished since childhood. The exquisitely handsome husband came from a wealthy family, but was rumored to be a woman-hater at the time of their arranged marriage. Just a short way into the marriage, the woman started feeling the husband seemed strangely distracted during their lovemaking. He also began leaving their bedroom to go to his study, a gloomy room filled with books and antiques, on the second floor of a storehouse on their property. One night the wife followed the husband to this room and from outside the door she heard him talking intimately to a female, seemingly his lover. No woman emerged from the room, however, and the wife returned the next day to search it. She discovered a beautiful female doll, with an allure both otherworldly and voluptuous. Out of jealousy and revenge she ripped the enchanting doll to shreds. That night, she again followed her husband to his study to enjoy seeing his despair at the destruction of his lover-doll. But she found him lying in a pool of blood with the doll’s remains, evidently having committed double suicide with a sword. The doll’s still lovely face wore an uncanny smile. Ranpo expertly brings out the multi-faceted allure of love for dolls, a metaphor for love that is somewhat shameful but at the same time superior to ordinary love.
This a great story that certainly deserves to be translated.

"Kagami Jigoku” (The Hell of Mirrors, published in Taishu Bungei
[tr. James B. Harris in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Tuttle)]
A story of the strange and macabre. Ranpo had an obsession with lenses and mirrors, and in this story he has created the perfect optics fanatic. As he grows up. the protagonist becomes more and more obsessed by telescopes and other contrivances. For example, he builds a large telescope to spy on his neighbor. And in the end, he creates a man-sized sphere which is on the inside wholly clad in various kinds of lenses and mirrors. He then enters the sphere to see himself reproduced endlessly, as in a kaleidoscope. When he comes out again at the end of his psychedelic journey, he has become a raving madman...
One of the episodes in the film Ranpo Noir.
Mokuba wa Mawaru” (The Merry-Go-Round is Rotating, published in Tantei Shumi)
[No translation available]
Remembrances of the Merry-go-Round in the Hanayashiki in Asakusa. A short piece with a nostalgic atmosphere. Also as an adult Edogawa used to ride the Merry-go-Round, together with the writer Yokomizo Seishi and the poet Hagiwara Sakutaro. Asakusa was a favorite spot of writers in the 1920s, for example also Kawabata Yasunari came here often and wrote The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa about it.

(The stories of the years 1927-1936 will be discussed in my next article)
This article incorporates parts of my previous post, the "Ero-Guro" Mysteries of Edogawa Ranpo.

Also see my articles about Ranpo on Screen:

Edogawa Ranpo on Screen (1)

Edogawa Ranpo on Screen (2)

And the two previous articles in this series:
(1) Ooka Echizen and Kuroiwa Ruiko
(2) Hanshichi and Tanizaki Junichiro
Studies used as reference in writing this article:

Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937, by Mark Silver (Univ of Hawaii Pr, 2008)

Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, by Sari Kawana (Univ of Minnesota Pr, 2008)

Mord in Japan, by Robert F. Wittkamp (Iudicium, 2002)

Three Tales of Doll Love by Edogawa Ranpo

Culture and authenticity: the discursive space of Japanese detective fiction and the formation of the national imaginary, by Satomi Saito (University of Iowa)

Double Visions, Double Fictions: The Doppelganger in Japanese Film and Literature, by Baryon Tensor Posadas (University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishonen Culture in Modernist Japanese Liiterature, by Jeffrey Angels (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

Monogatari Nihon Suiri Shosetsu-shi, by Gohara Hiroshi (Kodansha, 2010)

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Moai Island Puzzle by Arisugawa Alice (review)

The Moai Island PuzzleThe Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The Moai Island Puzzle" (Japanese title: Koto pazuru, lit. "Solitary Island Puzzle") is one of the detective novels written in the late 1980s by a number of (at that time!) young authors who specialized in writing traditional puzzle mysteries. Alice Arisugawa and the other writers had been nurtured at "mystery clubs" at Kyoto University and Doshisha University (also in Kyoto) and were dubbed Shin Honkaku or "New Orthodox" writers (for ideological reasons, some critics in Japan wrongly think that "puzzle mysteries" are the only authentic form of the detective story, which is rather a tunnel vision). Other writers of this "group" include for example Yukito Ayatsuji, Taku Ashibe, Kaoru Kitamura, Reito Nikaido, Rintaro Norizuki and Takemaru Abiko. The older and established writer Soji Shimada, who in the early 1980s had published a number of puzzle mysteries, served as their mentor, and publishers as Kodansha and Sogensha jumped on the bandwagon to promote this commercially as a new trend.

As I have indicated in my review of Soji Shimada's Murder in the Crooked House, puzzle mysteries can be rather problematical, not only from a literary point of view, but also when considering what constitutes a good and entertaining book: due to the focus on only the puzzle, the characters tend to be flat and uninteresting; the book is filled with endless discussions; there is no psychology or motivation; and the (too ingenious) "solution" to the closed room puzzle is usually unrealistic and unconvincing.

How does this novel fare? It is set on a solitary island, visited by three university students who join a larger group of people for the holidays. The students belong to a mystery club and intend to hunt for a treasure that the puzzle-freak grandfather of one of them supposedly has hidden on the island. Clues are apparently the miniature copies of "moai statues" dotting the landscape (the monolithic statues originally found on Easter Island and elsewhere in Polynesia). Then a double murder in a closed-room happens...

One of the students, Jiro Egami, functions as the detective, and his Watson is Alice Arisugawa, a copy of the author (just as Ellery Queen plays the main role in the Queen novels; only here the writer serves not as main detective, but his helper). Please note that this is a male (the author too, whose real name is Masahide Uehara - he apparently selected his strange pseudonym out of love for that other famous puzzle story, "Alice in Wonderland"). The third student is Maria Arima, whose family owns the island, and she is true to her (anagramatic) name female.

The writing is light and wholly focused on the two puzzles - for example, there is no characterization and the relations between the three students are not at all developed. And isn't a treasure hunt rather childish? While reading, increasingly the feeling took hold of me that this was a book for children or juveniles - for example like the "Famous Five" series by Enid Blyton (whose first volume Five on a Treasure Island indeed is about a treasure hunt!)... The author was 30 when the book was published, and has since then written a considerable number of novels and short stories. I wonder whether (or how) he has developed since then?

Two stars because I in general applaud translations from the Japanese.

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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater by William T. Vollmann (review)

Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh TheaterKissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater by William T. Vollmann
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have a problem with authors of huge books - books which are not only too fat, but which also have been crammed full with odds and ends. Before sitting at their keyboard, such writers should get rid of their superfluous energy by an hour of jogging or so. Vollmann calls this 500 page book "small..."

But first the positive side: Vollmann modestly confesses that he doesn't know anything about the No theatre or Japanese culture, but his descriptions of No are some of the best and most riveting I have ever read (during a stay in Japan, he sees a great variety of No plays, has interviews with important actors and also meets a mask maker). He just describes what he sees, but he is a good observer who knows how to translate those observations into inspiring prose.

Then the negative side: in the No female characters are played by (often elderly) men with masks - those masks are perhaps the central aspect of No. Different from Kabuki, where the onnagata (male players of female roles) will move and talk in a feminine way, in No the players of feminine roles will speak, sing and move like the elderly men they are - the fiction of femininity is wholly in the mask (and the fantasy of the viewer).

This leads Vollmann to the teasing question to what extent femininity in general is a performance and the even more fundamental question: what is a woman? - a problem which takes Vollmann not only to transvestite bars in Tokyo and geisha in Kyoto, but also has him discuss Kabuki's onnagata, Greek cult statues, Norse sagas, transgender women, porn queens, Valkyries and Venus figurines. In other words, he jumps from one thing to another without any clear thread and fills the big book with only loosely related snippets and anecdotes. It is all too much like late night bar talk – I wish Vollmann would have concentrated more on the No theater (about which there is still a lot to say).

So if Vollmann's descriptions of the No theater inspire you, quickly find a book with translations of No plays to enjoy the real thing (see my article Japanese No Plays in Translation).

P.S. This hardcover book was published on such sub-standard paper that already within 10 years it is severely discolored...

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"Pomegranate" & "The Devouring Insects" by Edogawa Ranpo (review)

Pomegranate and The Devouring InsectsPomegranate and The Devouring Insects by Edogawa Ranpo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was a pleasant surprise to find this self-published volume with translations by Alexis Brown of two short stories by Edogawa Ranpo on Amazon (as a Kindle-only book, for a very attractive price) – just yesterday I wrote that these two stories, “The Devouring Insects” (Maggots) and “Pomegranate” had not yet been translated into English, so I hurry to introduce them!

The book starts with "Pomegranate" (Zakuro) which was published in 1934 in the famous literary magazine “Chuo Koron,” the first time Ranpo published one of his works in this intellectual bulwark. Unfortunately, the story was so heavily criticized by the literary establishment that it severely demotivated Ranpo. As the sad result, he gave up most of his creative work and instead from this time on concentrated on essays, adaptations of foreign novels and juvenile fiction (to be more precise: over the next 25 years, until 1960, Ranpo would now and then still write a short story, but only to a total of ten over this whole period).

But “Pomegranate” is not at all bad – on the contrary, it is one of Ranpo’s best stories in the “pure” detective genre (called “honkaku” in Japan)! Interestingly, as in Ranpo’s very first story, “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” (see Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913-1938), this (more or less) last story is also a coming-to-grips with Western detective fiction. While that first story used elements of Poe and turned the traditional puzzle story on its head, here Ranpo borrows from Trent's Last Case, usually considered as the first novel belonging to England’s Golden Age of puzzle detective fiction. In that novel, we find a trick which Ranpo copies, but also deeply changes: in Bentley’s novel the murderer pretends that the (murdered) husband is still alive by speaking a few words to the wife who is already lying down. Thus, he establishes an alibi. In Ranpo’s story, about the rivalry between two traditional confectionery stores in Nagoya, one of the owners kills his rival; he then goes to the bedroom of the wife of the killed man and sleeps with her (the only “ero-guro” element), leaving early the next morning. Ranpo’s additional trick is that the other man has in fact been killed, and the man who sleeps with the freshly widowed wife is not the owner of the rival store, but her own husband “who pretends to be the owner of the rival store” “who in his turn is supposedly pretending to be her husband.”

The “pomegranate” of the title refers to the face of the murdered man, which is disfigured by sulfuric acid during the murder, and also to the perpetrator who in the end kills himself by jumping into a deep ravine – his bloody remains spreading over the surface of the river down below like the sight of a cross-sectioned pomegranate.

Mark Silver discusses this story in his excellent Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937 and asks attention for the fact that the story can be seen as an elaborate meditation on the differences between imitations and originals - the Japanese at the time that Ranpo wrote the story (and Ranpo himself in the first place) were rather uncomfortable with writing in a genre that had originated in the West, and tried to define their own identity. The story contains many mirrorings, such as the two confectionery shops making identical sweets, the two owners who are rather alike, etc. Ranpo also calls attention to the problems of assumed identity, as the murderer has had plastic surgery in Shanghai and doesn’t look like his old self anymore.

In contrast, “The Devouring Insects” (Mushi) from 1929 is a pure “ero-guro” story. A misanthropic man murders a beautiful woman who has spurned him. He then becomes so enamored of her dead body that he can’t bring himself to dispose of it, even when it is devoured by maggots...

The protagonist (Masaki Aizo) is a well-off bachelor who spends most of his time in his storehouse filled with old books and antiques (note that also Ranpo used a storehouse as his room for study and writing!). When he meets an old flame from school who is now a famous actress (Kinoshita Fuyo), his love for her is rekindled, but she rejects his advances. She has become the girlfriend of another former classmate (Ikeuchi Kotaro) and Masaki stalks them for several months around Tokyo to spy on their lovemaking. His peeping is helped by the fact that it is easy to make a small hole in shoji partitions papered with washi, but he even bores holes in the soft and thin walls between the rooms. When he observes the couple’s ecstasy (and especially when Fuyo makes some denigrating remarks about himself), his anger reaches a dangerous boiling point. He learns to drive a car and then poses as a taxi driver to kidnap Fuyo. He strangles the actress and takes her corpse to his storehouse, planning to throw it into the empty well in the garden.

But the doll-like corpse yields an array of unexpected pleasures when he embraces it, so Masaki keeps it in his storehouse. When the corpse starts decomposing as it is slowly devoured by maggots, Masaki anxiously looks for ways of preservation. He tries to inject embalming fluid into the veins, but fails doing that properly. Next he uses flashy make-up to hide the death-spots on the corpse... This is really the utmost of “ero-guro” – Ranpo serves up a rather sickening dose of necrophilia. In the end Masaki commits suicide and is finally discovered embracing the now unidentifiable remains of Fuyo...

This story formed the basis of the fourth episode in the anthology movie “Rampo Noir” (Ranpo Jigoku, 2005), filmed by Kaneko Atsushi. The infatuated man was played by Asano Tadanobu, and the actress by Ogawa Tamaki. As a manga artist, the director filled this segment with lush visuals and pop colors.

I fully recommend this book; the translation is fine, the only small blemish I noted is that the name of the actress is spelled as “Fuyuo,” which should be “Fuyou” (in the spelling the author uses) – with a long “o”.

Four stars for two excellent Edogawa Ranpo stories (which inexplicably had evaded translation so far).

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Saturday, June 27, 2020

"Gold Mask" by Edogawa Ranpo (review)

Gold MaskGold Mask by Edogawa Rampo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A novel which pits Japanese master detective Akechi Kogoro against Maurice Leblanc's gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (see Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief). Lupin featured in 17 novels and 39 short stories by Leblanc, starting with "The Arrest of Arsène Lupin" from 1905. In 1906 Leblanc pitted his master thief against Sherlock Holmes in the story "Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late" - the name Sherlock Holmes was for copyright reasons later changed into "Herlock Sholmes." Later also appeared the story collection "Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmes." So Ranpo repeats Leblanc's trick by bringing on Leblanc's Lupin, a Lupin who displays something of a a colonial and racist attitude and is castigated by Ranpo for his lack of chivalry. As he wrote in Japanese, Ranpo apparently didn't have to worry about copyright matters... Lupin would later be transformed into "The Fiend with the Twenty Faces," the master thief from Ranpo's children's books (see The Fiend with Twenty Faces). And again much later, he would keep Japanese minds occupied as Lupin III, the grandson of Arsène Lupin, whose adventures form a manga (and anime) series written and illustrated by Monkey Punch (see Lupin III, Vol. 1). So, thanks to Edogawa Ranpo, Maurice Leblanc had an enormous influence on Japanese popular culture...

It is clear that Ranpo was rather strongly influenced by Maurice Leblanc: with both writers, the master thieves announce their crimes in advance and escape by a certain trick which is soon after explained. In both cases, there is no real mystery – we know the thief will get away by a trick and we know that trick will be discovered, and that this will be repeated an X number of times. There are no real puzzles, and the novels read more as adventure stories for children than detective novels...

Gold Mask is episodic and light – Ranpo said of himself that he was not good in writing novels, he was in the first place a short story writer, so in his longer works there is no overarching structure, but he just strings several short stories together. Ranpo’s style of writing in this particular book also seems rather uninterested – as if he wanted to tell his story as quickly and with as little details as possible so that he could soon finish it. There is little "showing," but almost only quick "telling." There is also none of the fascination we find in Ranpo's "ero-guro" productions.

One could wonder why this book has been translated, while so many better stories (such as "Maggots", "The Monster Worm", "Playing Two Roles", "The Masked Dancers", "Unearthly Love" and "Pomegranate") and even novels like "The Demon of the Desert Isle" and "Wriggling in the Dark" are awaiting English translation. The publisher seems to be concentrating on the figure of Ranpo's detective Akechi Kogoro, but unfortunately, Ranpo’s Akechi stories are not his best work (with the exception of the first story, "The Case of the Murder on D. Hill" (translated in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogoro). Akechi Kogoro's character was initially not planned by Ranpo. In that first story of 1925 he is an amateur detective with a young, collegiate image. In the four next stories in which he appears (until and including "The Stalker in the Attic", see The Edogawa Rampo Reader), all still from 1925, he functions as a sort of plot device, appearing only towards the end of the stories to explain the solution (in fact, the stories would be better without him). His personality remains rather vague. Then in "The Dwarf" from 1926 (translated in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogoro) he appears as a professional detective who has spent time in Shanghai and wears Chinese robes. At the time of his next appearance, in "The Spiderman" of 1929, he has English-colonial or Indian looks and now is called a "master detective." In this capacity he will return in five more stories and novels: "Who" (1929), "The Limits of the Bizarre," "The Magician," the present "Gold Mask" and "The Vampire" (all 1930). And finally, from 1936 on, he is transformed into the dandy-like detective hero in the 27 volumes of the Boys Detective Club series of juvenile books. It is only there that he finds his final and stable form, with a twelve year old boy called Kobayashi and the Boys Detective Club as helpers (those "boys detectives" call a contemporary manga (and anime) to mind, "Conan the Detective" in Case Closed, Vol. 1).

But that is kid’s stuff – for the reader interested in literature, Edogawa Ranpo is in the first place the author of a number of fascinating "ero-guro" (erotic-grotesque) stories. I’m sure more of those in translation would find a welcoming public!

Two stars because I generally applaud translations from Japanese literature.

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Friday, June 26, 2020

"Murder in the Crooked House" by Shimada Soji (review)

Murder in the Crooked HouseMurder in the Crooked House by Sōji Shimada
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Murder in the Crooked House" is the second novel (published in 1982) by Soji Shimada, who started a revival in Japan of detective novels which are focused on the puzzle element, in the style of Ellery Queen. In the late 1980s, Shimada became the mentor of a group of young writers from Kyoto who also put the puzzle – mostly a closed room mystery - central. These were for example Yukito Ayatsuji, Takemaru Abiko and Alice Arisugawa. Not only that, Shimada and others also developed an ideology that the “puzzle mystery”, which they call “honkaku” or “authentic” as is common in Japan, would be the only original and justified way of writing detective novels.

That is of course absurd and a sort of tunnel vision – the world of the mystery novel is large enough to accommodate many different sub-genres. Moreover, in America and England puzzle mysteries were mainstream during the 1920s and early 1930s, but readers soon tired of them and in America we for example get the hard-boiled novels of Chandler and Hammett in the 1930s and 1940s. In France, in the same period, we see Simenon coming up, who again wrote a very different type of crime novels. There is joy in diversity!

In Japan, the puzzle mystery only relatively late took a hold of the mystery world: after the Second World War, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with authors as Seishi Yokomizo, Akimitsu Takagi and Tetsuya Ayukawa. It is claimed by Shimada c.s. that the first golden age of the puzzle mystery was in the early 1920s, when an author as Ranpo Edogawa was active, but that is a falsification of history. Ranpo only wrote a handful of short stories that could be called “honkaku.” In fact. from his first story, “The Two-Sen Copper Coin" (1923), he turns the puzzle mystery on its head and deflates it; and soon after that he would go in the direction of "ero-guro" (erotic-grotesque) stories which were popular among readers in the late twenties and early thirties (it is true that Ranpo after the war became a great fan of puzzle mysteries, but at that time he already had given up his creative work and only wrote essays and children's books).

The immediate postwar boom of puzzle mysteries was also short-lived, for in 1956 Seicho Matsumoto started publishing his “social” mysteries, which often put the finger on corruption in society and these became so popular that the history of the mystery novel in Japan is often divided into “Before Seicho Matsumoto” and “After Seicho Matsumoto.” Of course, Shimada and the Shin-honkaku writers push back against the all-too-dominant Matsumoto (and other writers of the late 1970s and 1980s, when light mysteries and travel mysteries were popular), and it is to their merit that they did call for stronger mystery plots, as that aspect was increasingly neglected. But they are also typically children of the 1980s "bubble economy," as they show no social conscience at all. Their novels are just “games” which are cut off from society (and reality). That is why they are set in the isolated spaces of absurdly large mansions or on small desert islands - not in any places that are relevant to the lives of contemporary Japanese.

I will not give the plot away as that would spoil the reading of the book, but just remark that “Murder in the Crooked House” displays everything that is wrong with pure puzzle mysteries in general:
- the characters are not only two-dimensional, but also utterly forgettable and uninteresting; there is no psychology;
- the novels are filled with discussions, with logical reasoning in which the various characters try to determine who the perpetrator could be. It is very boring to read such endless discussions, which only go back and forth.
- the way the murders are committed is totally impossible (the circumstance of the “closed room” forces the writer to devise a solution which is in fact unbelievable).
- it is also inconceivable that in real life a murderer would go to such weird lengths to commit a crime.

On top of that, in the case of “Murder in the Crooked House” it is quite easy to guess who the murderer is (although the method used is so ridiculous that no reader could guess how it was done).

I love mystery novels: Chandler, Hammett, the above mentioned Simenon, the Kurt Wallander novels by Henning Mankell, the John Rebus novels by Ian Rankin, and in the Japanese case Edogawa Ranpo, Matsumoto Seicho, Yokomizo Seishi, Natsuo Kirino and many others… but “Murder in the Crooked House” is just too much of a "puzzle-only" for me.

I give two stars because in general I applaud translations from the Japanese.

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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Bach Cantatas for Feasts on Fixed Days (C): St. John's Day (June 24)

Three cantatas written for a special Saint′s Day, a celebration which was additional to the normal Sunday services.

St. John's Day can refer to two different church feasts and two different persons with the same name: those celebrating the nativity of John the Baptist (late 1st century BCE – 28/36 CE) and those celebrating John the Evangelist (6 – c. 100 CE). That last one is dedicated to the author of the Gospel of John and is held on December 27 in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches. The first one is dedicated John the Baptist, a Jewish itinerant preacher who was seen as a forerunner of Jesus, and is held on Midsummer Day (June 24) in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches. It is this last feast which concerns us here.

[John the Baptist, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1551]

The Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24 comes three months after the celebration on March 25 of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive of the Holy Ghost and also that her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. It also falls six months before the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. These festivals are thus interlinked. The Nativity of John the Baptist is one of the oldest festivals of the Christian church, first mentioned in 506 CE.

The sole biblical account of the birth of John the Baptist comes from the Gospel of Luke. John's parents, Zechariah, a Jewish priest, and Elizabeth, were without children and both were beyond the age of child-bearing. One time when Zechariah served in the Temple in Jerusalem, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that he and his wife would give birth to a child, and that they should name him "John." However, because Zechariah did not believe the message of Gabriel, he was rendered speechless until the time of John's birth. At that time, his relatives wanted to name the child after his father, but Zechariah wrote, "His name is John", whereupon he recovered his ability to speak. Following Zechariah's obedience to the command of God, he was given the gift of prophecy, and foretold the future ministry of Jesus. This prophecy forms the text of the Benedictus canticle. 

Within Christian theology, John the Baptist was understood to be preparing the way for Jesus. St Johns Day coincides with the pre-Christian festival of Midsummer Day, in ancient folklore one of the great "charmed" festivals of the year. All over Europe "Saint John's fires" are lighted on mountains and hilltops on the eve of his feast. The hill fires were believed to chase away witches and evil spirits; on the other hand, medicinal plants plucked at this time were thought to be more effective than usual.

The date of Midsummer Day finds symbolical expression in John's statement "He must increase, but I must decrease" - which is symbolized in the fact that the "sun begins to diminish at the summer solstice and eventually increases at the winter solstice."

St John's birth is often shown in art, especially from Florence, whose patron St John is. The scene in the fresco cycle of the life of John in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is probably the most famous, created by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop between 1485 and 1490 (see photo above). In Florence, this feast was an occasion for dramatic representations of the Baptist's life and death and was marked by processions, banquets, and plays, culminating in a fireworks show that the entire city attended.

Epistle: Isaah 40: 1-5 (the voice of the preacher in the desert)
Gospel: Luke 1: 57-80 (the birth of John the Baptist and the Benedictus of Zechariah)

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)


  •     Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe, BWV 167, 24 June 1723

      Aria (tenor): Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe
        Recitative (alto): Gelobet sei der Herr Gott Israel
        Duet aria (soprano, alto): Gottes Wort, das trüget nicht
        Recitative (bass): Des Weibes Samen kam
        Chorale: Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren

  • (You People, Glorify God's Love) Short chamber cantata. Starts not with a chorus, but with a fine, flowing tenor aria. Possibly Bach looked at the canticle of Zechariah as an individual's song of praise. The alto recitative ends with an arioso that naturally leads into the duet for alto and soprano, which is characterized by beautiful oboe da caccia lines. Another recitative (by bass) then leads with the words "und stimmet ihm ein Loblied an" into the final chorus, a brilliantly accompanied song of praise, and a very joyful chorale.

  • Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, BWV 7, 24 June 1724   

        Coro: Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam

        Aria (Bass): Merkt und hört, ihr Menschenkinder
        Recitativo (Tenor): Dies hat Gott klar mit Worten
        Aria (Tenor): Des Vaters Stimme ließ sich hören
        Recitativo (Bass): Als Jesus dort nach seinen Leiden
        Aria (Alt): Menschen, glaubt doch dieser Gnade
        Choral: Das Aug allein das Wasser sieht

  • (Christ Our Lord Came to the Jordan) Based on the seven stanzas of Martin Luther's hymn "Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam", about the baptism of Christ in the waters of the River Jordan. The words are a meditation upon the meaning of this event. The seven-movement cantata begins with a chorale fantasia and ends, after a sequence of alternating arias (by bass, tenor and alto) and recitatives, with a closing chorale as a four-part setting. The opening chorus resembles an Italian violin concerto; the violin's rocking melody has been compared to the waves of the Jordan River. The first aria is accompanied by the continuo alone. The following recitative is given to the tenor as an Evangelist, narrating the biblical command to baptize. The beautiful central aria is sung by the tenor as well, accompanied by two violins. The next recitative is for bass, as the vox Christi. The fine last aria is sung by the alto with accompaniment of two oboes d'amore, requesting human beings to accept the grace of God. The closing chorale "Das Aug allein das Wasser sieht" is a summary of Luther's teaching about baptism.

  • Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30, (between 1738 and 1742)

    Teil I

        Coro: Freue dich, erlöste Schar
        Rezitativ (Bass): Wir haben Rast
        Arie (Bass): Gelobet sei Gott, gelobet sein Name
        Rezitativ (Alt): Der Herold kömmt und meldt den König an
        Arie (Alt): Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder
        Choral: Eine Stimme lässt sich hören

    Teil II

        Recitative (bass): So bist du denn, mein Heil, bedacht
        Arie (Bass): Ich will nun hassen
        Rezitativ (Sopran): Und obwohl sonst der Unbestand
        Arie (Sopran): Eilt, ihr Stunden, kommt herbei
        Rezitativ (Tenor): Geduld, der angenehme Tag
        Coro: Freue dich, geheilgte Schar

    (Rejoice, redeemed flock) This very late cantata (c. 1738) is a reworking of the secular, laudatory cantata BWV 30a, a serenata to welcome a new landlord. It was a good idea by Bach to use this very fine music again and turn it into a cantata to welcome Christ's prophet (but without the trumpets and drums). The cantata is in twelve movements, divided in two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon. The over-all mood of the cantata is joyful and relaxed, with a dance-like character appearing in the arias. The opening chorus of Part I has a rondo design and syncopated rhythms. The brilliant bass aria is characterized by triplet figures and includes full string accompaniment in roulades. The alto aria is remarkable for its binary-form ritornello and almost swinging final cadence; structurally, the movement is a gavotte. Part I concludes with the cantata's only chorale (newly composed). Part II opens with the cantata's only recitativo accompagnato, for bass with oboes and continuo (also newly composed). This prepares a bass aria, which opens with a 'scotch snap' (or Lombard rhythm) that repeats throughout the movement. After a secco soprano recitative follows a soprano aria in operatic style with chromatic bass and gigue rhythms. The piece concludes with a repetition of the opening chorus on a different text.

[Baptism of Jesus, by José de Ribera, 1643]

Thursday, June 18, 2020

"Pro Bono" by Matsumoto Seicho (review)

Pro BonoPro Bono by Seichō Matsumoto
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Seicho Matsumoto (1909-92) wrote ”Pro Bono" (original title "Kiri no Hata" or "Flags of Mist" - Japanese titles are very beautiful and poetic, like French ones, something which is always lost in the all-too-practical English titles) in 1961. It was his 9th novel after his novelistic debut in 1958 with the interesting Points and Lines (and I'm not even counting his many short story collections). In that one year 1961 Matsumoto wrote eight more novels, including the well-known "Suna no Utsuwa," Inspector Imanishi Investigates (original title "Vessel of Sand"). Matsumoto must have had a severe cramp in his fingers that year... No wonder also that these novels, all first published as serials in magazines, could have been more polished, with better characterization, and sharper outlined themes, if Matsumoto had taken more time writing them.

"Pro Bono" is the story of Kiriko Yanagida, a young woman working as a typist, who travels from her native Kyushu in Western Japan to Tokyo (a very long trip in 1961 before the Shinkansen trains were introduced), where she wants to meet the famous lawyer Otsuka. Her brother has been accused of murdering an old woman, a moneylender, and his case looks quite desperate although she believes him to be innocent, so she wants Otsuka to take up the case. But she has no money to pay the lawyer's high fees. Although he hesitates a moment, Otsuka refuses to take on the case pro bono, mainly because he has no time to listen to her as he has a (to him more fascinating) golf appointment with his mistress. Kiriko's brother then is convicted and dies in prison. Privately, Otsuka feels a bit guilty when Kiriko notifies him about this by postcard, and he secretly studies the case records. The shrewd lawyer indeed discovers that a serious mistake has been made and that Kiriko's brother was innocent - but he does nothing with this knowledge, thinking it is anyway too late now. Kiriko in the meantime wants to take revenge on the cold-hearted lawyer. Having come again to Tokyo where she now works as hostess in a club on the Ginza, she waits for an opportunity to destroy his social position. She gets that chance when a second murder happens, which is related to the case of her brother and in which the mistress of Otsuka is implicated...

Kiriko is an interesting character, silent but very determined and going her course alone, refusing all help from others (such as from a newspaper journalist who tries to befriend her) - what in Japanese is called "shin ga tsuyoi," to have a strong core (to have backbone), which can be said about more Japanese, who are often wrongly seen as weak by Westerners just because they don't express themselves in words all the time. But as I mentioned above, Kiriko's characterization could have been much stronger and more interesting when Seicho Matsumoto would have had more time to write this story... Still, this book is certainly worth reading for the light it throws on Japanese culture (which has changed a lot since 1961, but there are also things which never change), and I would applaud more translations of novels by this author, who is rather underrepresented in English - what about his ゼロの焦点 Zero no shōten "Zero Focus," which I consider as one of his best and most atmospheric novels?

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Mozart by Year (1) 1761-1768: European Tour and Visit to Vienna

Mozart by Year (1)

1761-64 (age 5-8):

Jan 24, 1761 - Mozart learns his first piece on the piano, a scherzo by Wagenseil
Sept 1 1761 - Appears as performer in a musical drama at the University of Salzburg

January 1762 - Leopold Mozart visits Munich with Wolfgang and Nannerl to play before the Elector Maximilian Joseph III. The visit takes three weeks.
September 1762 - The Mozart family travels to Vienna. From Oct 13 the children perform almost every day at court. The family also visits Presburg (Bratislava) before returning to Salzburg on Dec 31.

June 9 1763 - Start of  the Mozart family's Grand Tour of Europe. Munich (June 12), Augsburg (July), Frankfurt (August), Mainz and Koblenz (September). October to mid-November stay in Brussels. On November 18 they arrive in Paris, where they will stay for five months. Mozart starts writing his first sonatas for keyboard and violin. 

January 1 1764 - Concert before King Louis XV. Mozart publishes his first music, the violin sonatas K6 and K7.
April 10 - The Mozart family leaves Paris for London, where they arrive on April 23 for a stay of fifteen months.
April 27 - King George III receives the Mozarts. The children give many concerts. Meetings with Johann Christian Bach and Karl Friedrich Abel, two German composers successfully established in London. Mozart composes his first symphonies, some given at a concert in London on Feb 21 1765.
Short Piano Pieces (K1-K5)
In the so-called Nannerl Notenbuch Leopold Mozart wrote down short keyboard pieces for his daughter Maria Anna (Nannerl), to teach her to play the piano. The notebook contains pieces by Leopold Mozart, but also by other composers as CPE Bach and Wagenseil. Interestingly, Mozart also scribbled his first ever compositions in this notebook (most may have been actually copied out by his father). His first composition seems to have been an Andante, but the first work entered in the Köchel catalogue is another of these 12 pieces, a Minuet and Trio in G (K1).
Note: Another series of similar 43 short piano pieces was set down on paper during the visit to London in 1764-65 (K.15 a–ss (Anh. 109b).
These are really just exercises, with some historic value as they were the first compositions by Mozart as a child.

Violin Sonatas (K6-K9)

All four of these early sonatas are preserved in Leopold Mozart's handwriting. Not real violin sonatas, but keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment in the style of Johann Schobert and JC Bach. The first two sonatas were written in either Salzburg or Paris; the next two in Paris; and the last one in London.
More complex than the piano pieces above, this is elegant background music, in the period style.

Violin/Flute Sonatas (K10-K15)

Six sonatas for keyboard with accompaniment of violin or flute (the music has to be transposed for a flute, so the originals were probably only meant for the violin). Composed in late 1764 in London during the Mozart family's long educational and artistic tour of Europe, and commissioned by Queen Charlotte (the wife of King George III). Resembles a set of similarly scored sonatas (Op. 2) by Johann Christian Bach, the "London Bach," who befriended the young Mozart and became an important influence on the younger composer's evolving style.
Very pleasant sonatas, with a sure feeling for form. When transposed for flute, the melodic line of the solo instrument better stands out.

Symphony No. 1 in E flat major (K16)
Mozart's first two (preserved, there may have been others) symphonies (K16 and K19) were written in London. According to an anecdote, Mozart's father was ill with a throat ailment and had forbidden any piano playing in the family’s rooms. Mozart, to fend off boredom, sat down and jotted down symphony. The work shows the influence of several composers, including his father and the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Christian Bach, whom Mozart had met during his time in London and whose influence was large. JC Bach's type of symphony owed much to 'opera buffa': grace, wit and orchestral virtuosity in the first movement, tender galant melody in the slow movement and ending with a dance-like finale, usually in triple meter. There is little difference in complexity and originality between Mozart's K16 and the symphonies of Bach's Op 3 and Abel's Op 7, which served as Mozart's models (in fact, a symphony by Abel was long considered as Mozart's third symphony!).
I really like the start of this symphony: a 3-bar orchestral fanfare in octaves, followed by a quieter 8-bar series of suspensions (this forte-piano opening apparently also owes a debt to JC Bach). The andante is a nice piece of atmospheric writing: sustained wind, mysterious triplets in the upper strings, and stealthy duplets in the bass instruments - perfect music for a clandestine nightly rendezvous in an opera of the period. The finale is a vigorous jig in the form of a rondo. The intervening episodes in the rondo are filled with delightful touches of chromatism in the latest galant style.

1765 (age 9)
Jan 18 - Wolfgang dedicates his Op III sonatas (K10-15) to Queen Charlotte. More piano compositions for two and four hands, played by Mozart in public, partly with his sister. More symphonies.
July 24 - The Mozart family leaves London. They stay a month in Lille because of illnesses of the children.
September 10 - Arrival in The Hague, where the Mozart family will stay for six and a half months. Mozart is ill for two months, but manages to publish six sonatas for keyboard and violin (K26-31). He also writes more symphonies.

Symphony No. 4 in D major (K19)
Composed in London. A set of parts written in the hand of Leopold Mozart has been preserved. This early symphony was performed at a public concert in the Little Haymarket Theatre in London. By the way, the number jumps from 1 to 4 because the Nos 2 and 3 are now considered as not by Wolfgang (but by Leopold Mozart and Carl Friedrich Abel, respectively).
After a bright and extroverted first movement follows a pastoral andante with yodeling melodies and droning accompaniments. The yodeling can also be heard occasionally in the finale.

Symphony in F (K. Anh. 223/19a)
Another early symphony written in London, which was lost until a copy in the hand of Leopold Mozart was found in 1980. The influence of JC Bach is again quite strong.
The first movement starts with a broad melody and is more in binary than sonata form. It is followed by an andante, which shows remarkable polish. The rondo finale brings the symphony to a joyful conclusion, having something of the character of a highland dance. 

Sonata in C major for keyboard four-hands (K19d)
Sonata for keyboard four-hands composed in London. One of the very few works written by Mozart for four-handed play. The sonata is something of a surprise because of the substantial outer movements, as well as the imaginative contrasting episodes in the rondo. The sonata makes use of the technique of crossing the player's hands, a feature visible on the (much later) Mozart family portrait by Della Croce. Leopold Mozart claimed it was the first sonata ever to have been written for the four-hand medium, which we should take with a grain of salt. A work like this was advertised by Leopold Mozart in the London Public Advertiser of May 13, 1765. Printed versions of the work were discovered in 1921.
The first movement is characterized by a light and bright melody. The second movement is a slow minuet, almost sounding like an andante. The rondo finale features a rather jolly tune. This is a nice sonata, and a big step up for the 9-year old Mozart.

Aria for Tenor, "Va, dal furor portata" (K21)
Concert aria in C major for tenor and orchestra written in London. The words are from a libretto by Metastasio, about fury at treachery discovered.
Substantial aria in typical Italianate opera seria style.

Symphony No 5 in B flat (K22)
Composed by Mozart in The Hague in December 1765. All three movements are colored by the prominent horns. A rousing first movement starts in the style of the Mannheim symphonists, with a long pedal in the bass. This is followed by a solemn, mournful movement of rare intensity. A short, frothy finale closes the work.
A vivid and vivacious work in skillful period style - demonstrating growth compared to the three London symphonies.

Aria for soprano and orchestra "Conservati fedele" (K23)
Composed October 1765 while staying at The Hague. The aria was slightly revised in January 1766, possibly for a performance for Princess Carolina of Orange-Nassau. In his list of Wolfgang's works which he started in 1768 in Vienna, his father Leopold entered this piece as no. 2 of "15 Italian Arias, composed in London and The Hague." The text is from Metastasio's libretto Artaserse which had been set to music by a number of composers, among them Johann Christian Bach.
A skilled melodramatic opera seria aria.

1766 (age 10)
From late January to early March, the Mozart family stays in Amsterdam. In late March they leave The Hague again, and travel via Haarlem, Amsterdam and Utrecht to Antwerp, Brussels and finally Paris.
May 10 - Arrival in Paris, where the Mozart family will stay until Mid-July. They also visit Versailles.
July 9 - The Mozart family leaves Paris, and travels slowly via Dijon, Lyon, Lausanne, Bern, Zurich, Donaueschingen, Augsburg (the town where Leopold Mozart had been born) to Munchen, where they arrive on November 8.
November 9 - Mozart plays at court. Later in the month, the family travels home to Salzburg, where they arrive on November 29 after an absence of three and a half years.

8 Variations on "Laat ons Juichen" & 7 Variations on "Willem van Nassau" (K24 & K25)
The Mozarts were invited to The Hague by Princess Carolina of Nassau-Weilburg (1743-87), sister of the Prince of Orange. They arrived in September 1765 and would stay until the end of March the next year. While in the Netherlands, Mozart wrote these sets of simple variations on Dutch national songs.

Violin Sonatas (K36-31)
Composed in The Hague and dedicated to Princess Caroline of Nassau-Weilburg on the occasion of the eighteenth birthday of her brother, the Prince of Orange. They were published as Mozart's "Opus 4."
The keyboard part still dominates and the violin may be considered optional. But this is bright and lively music.

Galimathias musicum in D major (K32)
A quodlibet (a medley of popular songs) for small orchestra and harpsichord composed in March 1766. It was played at a special concert to honor the Prince of Orange's coming of age on 11 March. The first four movements can also be performed as a kind of miniature sinfonia (as has been done by Christopher Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music). The first and last movements in that case offer just some bright noises. The D minor andante has the melody in the violas. The minuet plays over a rustic drone on a popular German Christmas carol. The whole work consists of 17 short movements and ends with a fugue.
Mozart's first divertimento - and a demonstration of a rather coarse, Southern-German type of humor not strange to the Mozarts.

Symphony in G, "Alte Lambach" (Anh. 221 / 45a)
A pendant to the Symphony in B (K22) also written in The Hague. As the manuscript was found in the library of the Lambach Abbey in Upper Austria, where the Mozarts stayed in 1769, it was thought to be of a later date (or even not by Mozart). But the authenticity has been proven - the Mozarts probably stayed at the Lambach Abbey and as a way of thanks left this and a copy of a symphony by Leopold Mozart in the monastery.
Somehow, the freshness of K22 is lacking, this almost is like a somewhat older Mozart, many devices from his later symphonies appear in this work. Still, the symphony is generally considered as authentic.

Klavierstück in F (K33b)
Discovered in 1942, Mozart wrote this piece on the back of a circular by the Zürcher Musikkollegium (Zürich Music College), when the Mozart family came to the end of their Grand Tour. The piece appeared in the 1984 film Amadeus when the child Mozart played it blindfolded on the harpsichord.
Famous because of the film, where it is expertly used - although as music it almost seems like a parody of Mozart...

"Or che il dover – Tali e cotanti sono" concert aria for tenor and orchestra (K36)
Aria written as the first composition by Mozart since his family's return to Salzburg, and performed as part of an entertainment for anniversary of the consecration of Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach.
A very lively aria.

1767 (age 11)
March 12 - Wolfgang's sacred drama Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (K35) is performed at the court of the archbishop. He receives a golden medal and 12 ducats.
May 13 - Apollo et Hyacinthus (K38), a secular comedy for music, performed in Salzburg.
Sept 11 to 15 - The Mozart family travels to Vienna.
Oct 23 - In Vienna there is a smallpox epidemic. The Mozart family flees to Bohemia (Olmutz), but Mozart contracts the disease. He is successfully treated and recovers (Nov 10). On Dec 30 he plays a concert with his sister at a tavern in Brno.

Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (K35)
A sacred drama. Only the first part was composed by Mozart; the second and third parts were contributed by Michael Haydn and Anton Adlgasser respectively (Mozart's teachers who in fact greatly helped him). However, these other two parts have not survived. Mozart's part was first performed on March 12, 1767, in the Knight's Hall of the Palace of the Archbishop. The characters of the play are two tenors: Christgeist and Christ (a Christian), and three sopranos: Barmherzigkeit, Gerechtigkeit, and Weltgeist. The work starts with a bright sinfonia, followed by seven arias and recitativos. The final movement is a terzetto which has two recitativos.
Impressive music considering Mozart's age.

Piano Concertos 1–4 (K37, K39-41)
These early piano concertos are in fact orchestrations of sonata movements by various German composes. By using movements from the sonatas of other composers, the young Mozart seems to have begun to learn how to cope with the structural problems of composing in the piano concerto form (it may be that Leopold Mozart had devised this as a compositional teaching method).
These are clearly "study works," so a comparison with other concertos (by Mozart and others) is unfair. Leopold rightly excluded them from his 1768 list of Mozart's compositions. Most complete recordings of Mozart's piano concertos start therefore with his Concerto No 5. But these four concertos are bright and vivacious and form nice background music.

Apollo et Hyacinthus (K38 )
A secular musical drama consisting of five arias, two duets, a chorus and a trio, connected with recitative. Some call this Mozart's first opera, but it was nothing as grandiose as that: it was a charming school entertainment commissioned soon after the success of K35 and as "intermedia" interspersed between the acts of a larger play. All parts were sung by students and it was only performed the one time at this occasion. As is suggested by the name, the work is based on the Greek myth of Hyacinth and Apollo as told by Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses. In the original story, Apollo accidentally kills his lover, a boy named Hyacinth, after which the grief-stricken god causes a gorgeous flower to bloom from Hyacinth's grave. The original Greek theme of homosexual love was removed by the librettist who instead introduced a sister of Hyacinth as the object of Apollo's love.
Some nice melodies. Mozart is clearly growing.

Grabmusik or "Cantata on Christ's Grave" (K42)
When on Nov 29 1766 Mozart returned from his Grand Tour that lasted three and a half years, he brought back a considerable portfolio of compositions for a child. There is an anecdote telling that the Archbishop of Salzburg tested him by locking him up for a week with the text of an oratorio to judge his capacities. The result was the present Grabmusik, or so the story goes... but there is no proof at all for this assumption (although it is a nice story). The performance of an oratorio about the tomb of Christ was a convention in the passion week in the southern German lands. The anonymous text takes the form of a dialogue between a tormented soul, who is desperately lamenting the tragedy of Christ’s death, and an angel. The work was first performed in Salzburg Cathedral during Holy Week 1767.
The music is very effective, especially the frenzied bass aria with which the piece opens. In all, this is a work of considerable emotional and dramatic scope.

Symphony No. 6 in F major (K43)
Symphony begun in Salzburg in the summer of 1767 and completed in Olomouc (Olmutz), the Moravian city to which the Mozart family fled to escape the Viennese smallpox epidemic. The symphony is in four movements - as was customary in Vienna, Mozart included a minuet. The effective Andante movement uses a theme from a duet of Mozart's Apollo et Hyacinthus. Its initial performance was at Brno on 30 December 1767, in a concert arranged by Count von Schrattenbach, brother of the Archbishop of Salzburg.
This first Symphony by Mozart in the Austrian style is more assured in the handling of the form than his earlier work. A vivid and bright symphony. The andante, with muted violins singing over pizzicato notes, has been called "ravishing."

Note: Symphony in F major "No. 43", K. 76/42a, attr. to 1867, lacks authentic sources. Until recently its attribution to Mozart was accepted, but is now uncertain. Possibly by Leopold Mozart, but this is disputed by others, who think it the work of neither Leopold nor Wolfgang.

1768 (age 12)
Jan 10 - The Mozart family returns to Vienna.
Jan 19 - Mozart received at court by Maria Theresia and Emperor Joseph II
April to July - Composition of the opera buffa La Finta semplice. Due to intrigues this work commissioned by the Emperor cannot be performed in Vienna - the first performance has to wait until next year May in Salzburg.
Autumn - Mozart's second operatic work, the operetta Bastien et Bastienne is given in the garden theater of Dr Mesmer's house.
Dec 7 - Mozart conducts his Waisenhaus Messe and a lost trumpet concerto in the presence of the imperial family at the Orphanage Church in Vienna.
End of December - The Mozart family travels back to Salzburg via Lambach.

Symphony No 7 in D (K45)
Completed in Vienna in January 1768 after the family's return from a visit to Olomouc and Brno in Moravia. The symphony is in four movements. Its first performance was probably at a private concert, probably one given by Prince von Galitzin, the Russian ambassador, at his Vienna residence in late March, 1768.
The symphony was reworked (without the minuet and trumpets, but with a larger role for wind instruments) to become the overture to the opera, La finta semplice, also written in 1768.
The first movement has an overture-like character due to the missing repetitions, the numerous runs, tremolo passages and also due to its beginning with the three chord strokes - perhaps this is why it could easily be edited as the overture to K51 (but note that the transitions between "Symphony" and "Overture" were very fluid at that time). The Andante has a minimalistic character, while the minuet is characterized by falling fourths and fifths as well as an answering triplet figure; the trio is only for strings. The main theme of the Molto Allegro finale is based on a popular song, which is resembles the introduction to Leopold Mozart's "Musical Sleigh Ride."

Symphony in B flat major "No. 55" (K. Anh. 214/45b)
This symphony was lost until a copy was found in Berlin in 1943. The origins of the symphony are disputed. Attribution to Mozart cannot be fully confirmed, but it is generally treated as genuine. By the way, the high number (55) originates in the fact in the 19th c. that Mozart's symphonies were numbered 1-41. The earlier, unnumbered symphonies (often not authentic) were placed at the end and numbered from 42-56.
The song-like Andante begins with its ascending theme which seems a distant premonition of the Duettino between the Count and Susanna at the beginning of the third act of Mozart's Figaro.

La finta semplice (K51 /46a, "The Pretended Simpleton")
During the year in Vienna, Leopold tried to establish his son as an opera composer. He was acting enthusiastically to a casual remark by Emperor Joseph II that the young wunderkind might like to write an opera for the court, and selected an Italian libretto by the Vienna court poet Marco Coltellini, which was based on an early work by Carlo Goldoni. Mozart produced a full score of three acts, 26 numbers, including an overture, one coro, one duet, three ensembles (at the end of each act), and 21 arias. But the Mozarts hadn't reckoned with the jealousy of the musical retinue at court, who were not keen to be upstaged by a young boy. Moreover, the Emperor's theatre manager Giuseppe d’Afflisio - who already was in financial difficulties - was unwilling to gamble on the success of an untried teenager. During rehearsals, the merit of the music was disputed, and its veracity challenged, some claiming that it had in fact been composed by Leopold. Mozart was forced to withdraw the opera, which then received its first performance the following year in Salzburg at the request of the Prince-Archbishop (after that it was not staged anymore until the Salzburg Festival of 2006). The whole affair had dragged on for nine months and may also have alienated the Empress Maria Theresa, who was an austere personage already offended by the lack of dignity in the Mozarts' European journeys. During the Mozarts' Vienna visit, she may have developed an even more hostile view of the Mozart family. The failure in 1768 cost young Mozart his chance of establishing his reputation as a first-class opera composer in Vienna, which would have been a jumping board for obtaining a permanent position in another European court.
La finta semplice appears quite good in comparison to much of the work it was meant to compete with. The plot revolves around the old staple of obstructions to young love being overcome by wiles and wisdom. Mozart’s instinctive sense of the dramatic and innate feeling for musical characterization is already evident in this first operatic work. "No masterpiece, but a source of near-constant delight."

Bastien und Bastienne (K50 / 46b)
A one-act singspiel, a comic opera in German, allegedly commissioned by Viennese physician and 'magnetist' Dr. Franz Mesmer (who himself would later be parodied in Così fan tutte) as a satire of the 'pastoral' genre then prevalent, and specifically as a parody of the opera Le devin du village by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. After its supposed premiere in Mesmer's garden theater (that is only corroborated by an unverified account of Nissen), it was not revived again until 1890. The manuscript disappeared until the 1980s, when it was rediscovered in Krakow. Bastien und Bastienne is a work of the utmost concision: over half of the arias last for less than two minutes. The plot is simple: two bucolic lovers, Bastien and Bastienne; Bastien has been lured away from Bastienne by a city-dweller and seeks out Colas, a fortune-teller and magician. There is eventual reuniting of the lovers once it gets to the point at which Bastien threatens suicide.
The music is simply beautiful.

Veni Sancte Spiritus in C (K47)
This two-part setting of the Pentecost sequence “Veni Sancte Spiritus” follows the text of the antiphon “Ad invocandum Spiritum Sanctum," leading into an extended “Alleluia.” The music, characterized by alternating solo and tutti passages, is influenced by Mozart's teachers Leopold Mozart, Michael Haydn and Johann Ernst Eberlin.The duration is about 4-5 min.

Missa brevis in G (K49 / 47d)
Mozart's first mass, written in Vienna for Sunday services celebrating the Ordinary of the Mass, this work features all of the early Classical 'Missa Brevis' conventions seen in the works of Johann Ernst Eberlin and Michael Haydn. It is concise (less than 18 min in duration) and rarely repeats text. The choir dominates the orchestra and solo passages occur only sporadically: the bass solo in the Credo is just a glimmer of an aria. The Benedictus incorporates the use of a solo quartet, but brevity prohibits development. The somber Agnus Dei is immediately followed by a joyful "Dona nobis pacem." It is not clear what occasion this mass was composed for, and it has sometimes been confused with the (much larger) Waisenhausmesse composed later in the same year.

Missa solemnis in C minor, "Waisenhaus" (K139 / 47a)
Commissioned by the Jesuit priest Ignaz Parhammer, who asked Mozart for music for the consecration of the new Orphanage Church (Waisenhauskirche) in Vienna.  Mozart also composed a trumpet concerto suitable for performance by a boy as well as an offertory, both have been lost. Indeed, due to cataloging errors, this mass itself was also considered lost for many years. The performance took place on 7 December 1768 at the church, in the presence of the court. The twelve-year-old Mozart conducted a choir of orphans in a performance that received "universal acclaim and admiration".
This mass is considered as Mozart's most ambitious work to this date, and was his first missa longa (about 40 min in duration).

Symphony No. 8 in D (K48)
The fourth of the symphonies written in Salzburg and Vienna between Mozart's Grand European Tour and the Visit to Italy. This one is even more Viennese in character, as it is Mozart's first symphony featuring a thorough treatment of the sonata-allegro form. Strangely, no records concerning this impressive work have come down to us. It is possible that the ceremonial work, with its festive trumpets and tympani, was meant for a sort of farewell concert before leaving Vienna (but such a concert goes undocumented).
The first movement starts with a dynamically dramatic opening theme, with large leaps and sudden shifts between forte and piano. The development section (though concise as the whole symphony) forms a large step in Mozart's approach to the symphony. The second movement is for strings alone which convey a plaintive lyricism. A refined Minuet leads to the dance-like finale.

[This article includes passages from Wikipedia articles about Mozart and his music - it was solely assembled for my own study]