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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Tattoo Murder Case

by
Takagi Akimitsu


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Tattoo Murder Case



Title: The Tattoo Murder Case
Author: Takagi Akimitsu
Genre: Novel
Written: 1948 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 324 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Tattoo Murder Case - US
The Tattoo Murder - UK
The Tattoo Murder Case - Canada
Irezumi - France
Il mistero della donna tatuata - Italia
  • Japanese title: 刺青殺人事件
  • US title: The Tattoo Murder Case
  • UK title: The Tattoo Murder
  • "Translated and adapted by Deborah Boehm"

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Our Assessment:

B : neat concept and color, but a bit rough in the execution

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 1/2/2014 Stephen Mansfield
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/3/1998 Marilyn Stasio


  From the Reviews:
  • "The pursuit of motive and the assigning of guilt assume a complexity comparable with the twisting, ramshackle medina that is the hastily built, temporary Tokyo of the novel. (...) More than a mere novel, Takagi has left us a document of the times." - Stephen Mansfield, The Japan Times

  • "Like voyeurs, we follow Takagi down the charred streets of bombed-out Tokyo to scenes of fastidiously executed decadence: the display of living body art at the Edo Tattoo Society, the dried skins hanging in the Specimen Room of Tokyo University, the intimate torture of a studio session with a master tattoo artist. Not even the clumsy police procedures (or the wooden dialogue of Deborah Boliver Boehm's overly formal translation) can deaden the impact of this sensational crime or dull its macabre allure." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Tattoo Murder Case -- now re-published simply as The Tattoo Murder -- is set in just-post-war Tokyo, beginning in the summer of 1947. The central character is Kenzo Matsushita, a twenty-nine-year-old medical school graduate working on his PhD and hoping to join the police medical staff; he's also a great fan of foreign mystery novels. Kenzo's older brother is a real detective -- Detective Chief Inspector Daiyu Matsushita, "chief of the main criminal investigation division of the Metropolitan Police Department".
       Other prominent figures include the dapper Dr. Heishiro Hayakawa -- first encountered: "nattily dressed in an off-white linen suit with a precisely knotted necktie of ecru satin" and carrying a rattan walking stick. He is also a professor -- and an obsessed tattoo-aficionado, with a collection which he constantly hopes to add to; so intense is his devotion to the art of tattooing that he is even nicknamed 'Dr. Tattoo'. And, late in the story, Kyosuke Kamizu is introduced -- an extraordinarily gifted young man who had attended Tokyo University Medical School shortly after Kenzo and whose promising academic career had been cut short by the war.
       The story is set in motion with Kenzo going to the first postwar meeting of the Edo Tattoo Society, where they also hold a competition for the most impressive tattoos -- with Dr.Tattoo one of the judges. There Kenzo meets the beguiling Kinue Nomura, who boasts a spectacular tattoo covering her torso that her father had worked on for three years, making her 'Kinue of the Orochimaru'. Kinue also had a brother and a sister, who their father had also tattooed, but the sister is presumed to have perished at Hiroshima and the brother is still among the many missing after the war.
       Kinue is involved with Takezo Mogami, who shadily built up a successful business during the war, the Mogami Group, which is still going strong. Takezo's younger brother, Hisashi, is a few years older than Kenzo, but they had been together at middle school. And Professor Hayakawa -- Dr. Tattoo -- is the Mogamis' uncle.
       Officially, tattooing is still strictly illegal at the time, so an air of secrecy and the taboo still surrounds the craft -- and practitioners tend to be very cautious about revealing what they do, but The Tattoo Murder Case immerses the reader fully in this milieu -- with the tattoo artists true artists, and the tattooing process something much more painstaking (and painful) than most contemporary Western tattooing. (So also, the tattoos the occupying forces -- the Americans -- display are derided as mere 'sushi tattoos'.)
       Kenzo is quite taken -- and seduced -- by Kinue, but a sense of tragic inevitability already hangs in the air. Professor Hayakawa opines that:

If you look at it from a psychoanalytic point of view, a tattoo is a form of perpetual suicide.
       And Kinue writes to Kenzo, admitting that: "I feel that I am going to be killed very soon. [...] A terrible death is stalking me, and I am terrified of what may lie in wait ...". And soon, indeed, Kenzo goes to her house and -- along with Professor Hayakawa, who also chances by -- makes a terrible discovery. They only catch a glimpse -- the bathroom door is locked, there seems no way in or out -- but there is definitely a body there. A dismembered body, as it turns out -- with the torso missing.
       It looks like not only had Kinue been killed, but that the murderer made off with her entire torso -- and its grand tattoo. And that in a room locked from the inside. It looks like a classic locked room mystery -- with the added twist of a significant portion of the victim having gone missing.
       Kenzo is a detective-fiction fan, with repeated references to that -- including him at one point: "lolling glumly about in the room eating black-market Hershey Bars and reading The Three Coffins by John Dickinson Carr" -- so the expectation is, of course, of a typical seemingly impossible locked room mystery -- so too even after the next dead body turns up. And even Kenzo's brother finds it all challenging, noting:
The thing I can't fathom is why the torso disappeared. What on earth was the point of that ? This is the strangest case I've ever seen, in all my days as a cop.
       But, as one person with a connection to the case tells Kenzo:
There is a lot more to this case than meets the eye. You people are only seeing what's on the surface. To put it bluntly, you've been conned.
       This person also apparently figures out what's truly going on -- but asks that Kenzo not mention him to his brother yet, and doesn't reveal what he knows to Kenzo, asking:
     Please wait for three more days. If those three days pass without incident, I'll tell you everything I know, I promise. But until that time, no matter what happens, I can't say another word on this subject.
       Yes, The Tattoo Murder Case is also a mystery novel with this kind of silly tease (as it's quite clear there will be an incident, and that this person will soon enough be in no condition to reveal what he knows or anything else ...). Similarly, near the end, there's a similar reveal-pullback:
     "So who is she, anyway, your mystery woman ?"
     "I'm surprised you haven't guessed. She's, uh ..." Just as Kyosuke was about to make the revelation, a very diminutive, boyish-looking police officer walked into the office and began to give his report in a surprisingly deep, authoritative voice.
       Uh .... indeed; this contrivance was already a tired one when Takagi was writing this, in 1948, and should have long before been removed from the mystery-writer-toolbox.
       Some two hundred pages in -- and in a chapter that opens after: "Two months passed" -- Takagi re-starts the story with the appearance of the: "tall, remarkably good-looking youth" Kyosuke Kamizu. Even Daiyu is impressed by him, judging that: "he has the kind of remarkable mind that only comes along once every ten or twenty years" And, indeed, it is Kyosuke who gets to the bottom of things -- not least in looking at things from a different perspective. For one, he's not that obsessed with the whole locked-room scenario:
He locked it from the inside, and somehow managed to get out. I don't know how he did that, but when you read detective novels, there seem to be all sorts of methods for doing such things, so I'm sure it wouldn't be impossible.
       (An explanation is eventually found, too -- clever enough but also, as Kyosuke expected, fairly straightforward.)
       But Kyosuke's true insight -- and the cleverest part of Takagi's plotting -- is that:
From the time that all of you saw the locked room, you were completely convinced that a crime had taken place inside that room, and that preconception colored your investigation. There was no way for you to escape from the psychological locked room constructed in your own minds. This complicated and obfuscated the case
       The Tattoo Murder Case does turn out to be a quite clever piece of work, and it offers both interesting characters and situations, but it's also a bit of a mess. The brilliant Kyosuke, a late addition to the story, takes over, replacing Kenzo as the principal investigator, a rather clumsy shift that seems to have only occurred to Takagi well into the story, when he apparently realized that Kenzo was inadequate for his purposes. (Indeed, Takagi would go on to take this more interesting character and run with him, making him the central character in a whole series of mysteries he went on to write (none of which appear to be available in English).) Kyosuke suddenly appears like some super-detective -- complete with conversations where he: "effortlessly quoted Chekhov, Chaucer, and Heine, though not in a pretentious way, and always with perfect relevance" --, and while he is certainly an intriguing and fun figure, it is also something of an artificial intrusion, making it seem like Takagi couldn't figure out how to solve all this without this new figure.
       Kyosuke also makes for one more strong character that then pulls the novel in too many directions: like Professor Hayakawa, Kenzo, and Takezo Mogami, he has to share too much of the space; a tighter focus on one (or at least fewer) of the main characters would have made for a stronger story. At least Kinue is a well-drawn, strong figure -- but her fate also limits just how prominently she could be featured in the story.
       There's a lot that is appealing to The Tattoo Murder Case, including the descriptions and use of both the tattoo-milieu and just-post-war Tokyo, and there is a very neat and satisfying resolution to the crime (or crimes), but it's also rough and uneven -- not least in the translation, that also tries -- inevitably somewhat clumsily -- to explain some of the Japanese bits to English-speaking readers. (The fact that the copyright page acknowledges that the novel is not only translated but also: "adapted by Deborah Boehm" should be a warning sign; all translation is adaptation, but if they actually admit it (and/or warn readers) like this it's clear that there has been mire fiddling with the text than usual.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 November 2022

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Links:

The Tattoo Murder Case: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Takagi Akimitsu (高木彬光) lived 1920 to 1995.

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© 2022 the complete review

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