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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Death on Gokumon Island

Yokomizo Seishi

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To purchase Death on Gokumon Island

Title: Death on Gokumon Island
Author: Yokomizo Seishi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1947 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 317 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Death on Gokumon Island - US
Death on Gokumon Island - UK
Death on Gokumon Island - Canada
Gokumon-tō: La isla de las puertas del infierno - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: 獄門島
  • Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
  • 獄門島 has been filmed several times, including as The Devil's Island (1977), directed by Kon Ichikawa

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Our Assessment:

B : a clever concept, a bit cumbersome in its execution

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/6/2022 Sarah Weinman
TLS . 16/12/2022 Bryan Karetnyk

  From the Reviews:
  • "(S)uperbly translated by Louise Heal Kawai (.....) As deaths mount, the quirky, endearing detective strings together the clues to solve this fiendish puzzle." - Sarah Weinman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Death on Gokumon Island has a typical digressiveness that affords characters space and time to grow well beyond mere plot devices, though their motivations and methods can at points seem somewhat fanciful. (...) If some of these elements seem far-fetched, they are undeniably entertaining, and they make for an intricate, multilayered work that will delight literary-minded readers as they attempt to unmask the culprit." - Bryan Karetnyk, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Death on Gokumon Island is set in the fall of 1946, shortly after the end of the Second World War, and begins with Kosuke Kindaichi on a ferry bound for Gokumon Island. As Yokomizo notes: "Kosuke Kindaichi. Reader, if you happen to have picked up the mystery The Honjin Murders, you will already be familiar with him". The 1937 case, successfully solved by Kosuke, is mentioned several times in the novel and, as Kosuke's claim to fame, turns out to be familiar to quite a few of the people he will encounter on the island. Still, when he shows up it's not as: "Japan's number-one private detective", but rather on a mission for a comrade.
       Since the time of the case that made him famous, Kosuke had not been working as a detective. Like so many, he had been drafted into the war effort, and had just recently been repatriated. While posted in New Guinea, he had become friends with Chimata Kito, who died tragically not during the war but on the ship home, and Kosuke has come to Gokumon Island to inform his family of his death.
       With its name literally meaning 'Hell's Gate Island', Gokumon Island is a somewhat forbidding place. Its 1000 inhabitants are the descendants of pirates and prisoners, with the edges now just only a bit less rough. Certainly, the situation has been better in recent decades, as the Kito family had established a very successful fishing business that had improved the lot of the entire island population.
       The Kito family was now divided into two, the head family and the considerably lesser branch family. The patriarch of the head family, Kaemon, had passed away the previous year. His son -- Yosamatsu, Chimata's father -- had lost his mind and is held imprisoned in rooms in the house. Of the next generation, the potential heirs Chimata and his cousin, Hitoshi, had both gone to war; the news that Chimata is dead is devastating, but Hitoshi's fate remains unknown. For the time being, Hitoshi's younger sister, Sanae, -- still only in her early twenties -- runs the household. Yosamatsu also had three daughters, Chimata's stepsisters. They are now in their late teens -- and an odd little trio; as one person observes: "They're the most peculiar girls".
       Chimata's dying words to Kosuke were:

     The island...go to Gokumon island...my sisters will be murdered...my cousin...my cousin...
       Later, Kosuke will recall even more specifically:
     On that suffocating troop-transport ship, in the final throes of death, there was one specific request his comrade, Chimata, had repeated over and over: "Go to Gokumon Island. My three sisters will be murdered. Go to Gokumon Island in my place. Save my sisters."
       So we know what awaits Kosuke on Gokumon island -- and, unfortunately, it must be said, he fails miserably at his appointed task. In the days following his arrival, one after another of the girls are killed (with one more murder tossed in for good measure). Clearly, Kosuke's talents are not in preventing crimes but rather solving them, and he does dedicate himself to investigating these goings-on, trying to get to the bottom of them.
       There's only one policeman stationed on the island, Sergeant Shimizu -- and, initially unaware of who Kosuke really is, he understandably finds the newcomer a prime suspect in the crimes. (Indeed, there's no getting around the fact that Kosuke's arrival seems to have precipitated the killing-spree.) Soon, however, old acquaintance -- from the Honjin case -- Inspector Isokawa -- comes with a considerable force and joins the case. Still, it's Kosuke who puts the complicated pieces into place and figures it all out.
       Gokumon Island and the locals seem to defy even Kosuke's comprehension. As he tells Isokawa at one point:
     That's right. That's right, Inspector, I know what you're going to say: 'But that's crazy.' But everyone here on Gokumon Island is crazy. They're all out of their minds -- it's beyond reason!... Out of their minds. Beyond --
       He's not the first to suggest it -- earlier someone from the branch Kito family had wailed:
It's too much, too much. This is craziness. Everyone's crazy. It's true. It's true. Everyone's completely nuts.
       There is, of course, a true madman on the island -- Yosamatsu -- and there's some speculation as to whether he might be playing a role in the murders, but it isn't really plausible. And, despite it seeming, as the Inspector puts it, that: "The first murder and the second, they're both utterly insane", Kosuke comes to realize that, for all the outrageousness of the crimes, there seems to be clear method to this madness:
One victim a night, for three nights in a row. With precision...in cold blood...without even a hint of madness, this killer carefully executed his plan.
       Yes, as he comes closer to figuring things out, even the detective seems worn down by everything on the island -- "Kosuke looked haggard and pale, his eyes gleaming with a kind of madness" -- but his thinking is ultimately crystal clear, as he exposes the various threads of the complicated tapestry that lies behind the crimes.
       Death on Gokumon Island is most ingenious in its resolution This isn't a whodunnit where readers could have figured it out for themselves, even as Yokomizo strews clues from early on -- not least with the haikus that echo so suggestively throughout. The murders are not only, in more than one way, a family tragedy but also a game that is played. It's not just pure evil that lies behind them either, but both a sense of duty and of fate. There's no small irony in how things finally turn out, too.
       This very clever resolution and what (and who) is behind the murders are what makes Death on Gokumon Island so memorable, and this aspect of the novel certainly impresses. But it's also a bit tortured, a twist -- or a whole corkscrew-worth of them -- that can feel forced. The surrounding story, of the deaths and the investigation, and the various characters on the island, have some appeal, but there's such a large cast of characters that the overall effect is somewhat diluted.
       Death on Gokumon Island does also offer an interesting glimpse of just-post-war Japan, its locale a place of transition from old and very raw ways (there are still pirates out there, too !) to more run-of-the-mill contemporary civilization. Yokomizo perhaps relies overly much on madness -- one of the other characters does, in the conclusion, also lose his mind .... -- but the local color and dynamics are well-presented. It makes for a reasonably engaging read -- though more satisfying in its conclusion, taken as a whole (and with its clever, tragic resolution), than its progression.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 June 2022

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Death on Gokumon Island: Reviews: The Devil's Island - the film: Other books by Yokomizo Seishi under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Yokomizo Seishi (横溝正史) lived 1902 to 1981.

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© 2022 the complete review

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