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Review: The Case of the Sharaku Murders
September 30, 2013

The Case of the Sharaku Murders
Katsuhiko Takahashi

Japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e ("art of the floating world"), constitute one of the most well-known genres in art history. Although in their prime (roughly 1600 to 1860) the prints were not critically respected, being similar to pulp fiction compared with literary novels, or posters with oil paintings. Only a few of the ukiyo-e artists rose to any great stature, and the works of Hiroshige ("Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road"), Hokusai ("The Great Wave"), and Utamaro (portraits of women) are three of the most recognizable. The artists themselves tended to be a mysterious group, using often-changing pseudonyms, sometimes to keep one step ahead of the censors or bill collectors.

One of the most enigmatic and controversial of the artists was named Sharaku, now considered one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists despite producing works of art for only ten months near the end of the eighteenth century. His works went against the established norms of the genre by using Western realistic techniques rather than the idealized figure and form. Assumed to be signing works with a pseudonym, Sharaku's real name and identity are not known, although there are a few theories including one that he was actually Hokusai who disappeared from the art world for a few years during the time Sharaku completed his works.

Japanese author Katsuhiko Takahashi takes this historical artist and wraps a present-day fictional mystery around him. In the opening of The Case of the Sharaku Murders, the body of calligraphy master and ukiyo-e expert Saga Atsushi was found floating in the ocean near his vacation cottage. The authorities deemed the fifty-six-year-old man's death a suicide. Among those shocked to hear the news is Tsuda Ryohei, a young ukiyo-e scholar and research assistant to Professor Nishijima Shunsaku, one of Saga's academic rivals. The professor is considered the foremost expert on Sharaku.

Ryohei attends the funeral representing Prof. Nishijima who wouldn't attend because of his disputes with Saga. There, Ryohei runs into another former student of Professor Nishijima?s, Kokufu Yosuke. Ten years older than Ryohei, Yosuke and Ryohei crossed paths a few times before at various academic functions, although it had been almost three years since they had seen each other. At that last event, Yosuke got into a heated argument with another alum that came to blows.

One of the main divisions between Prof. Nishijima and Saga was the identity of Sharaku. The two former students discuss this matter at a cafe, and then go to a bar to continue. On they way there, they realize they are being followed. When they confront the man, he reveals that he is a detective investigating Saga's death. On the day of his death, Saga mailed a set of rare books to a dealer. The police recovered the books and discovered they had been stolen and seemed to point to evidence of the identity of Sharaku. The detective now suspects that Saga was murdered.

Following leads and researching the threads he discovers, Ryohei enlists Yosuke's younger sister to help with his investigation. They knew each other at university and have a mutual attraction that Yosuke teases them about. The three travel to the area where Sharaku completed his works and dig further into the controversy of his identity. When another person associated with Saga is killed, the stakes get higher.

The author skillfully ties together the present day and past, and the mystery is full of fascinating details of the art of the actual floating world of actors, courtesans, sumo wrestlers, and everyday folk. The details are well integrated into the story even for those with little prior knowledge of the subject, making the narrative well paced and suspenseful. Overall, it is a rich experience for mystery readers who enjoy Japanese culture as well.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 2
click here to add a comment

Lee Witte
Sounds like a story you could have written, given your interest in ukiyo-e (365 Views of Mt. Fuji), and mysteries (Oh!)

Todd
Thanks, Lee, although I think writing a straight-ahead mystery would be difficult for me. I would have to resist straying from the central plot.

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