Post-war Japan, August 1947. A young Ph.D. student of forensic medicine, Kenzo Matsushita, decides to be adventurous and visits a tattoo contest organized by Edo Tattoo Society. There he meets a mysterious woman with a wonderful tattoo on her back who feels that her death is near. Kenzo falls in love with her only to find out that she was brutally murdered and her tattooed torso stolen. His chase after the murderer takes the reader around the post-war Tokyo with its ruined buildings, people struggling to live their lives despite the humiliation of having lost the war and, above all, the tattoo underworld with its secrets, taboos and strange beauty that, obviously, can lead people to murder.
There are a few reasons why to read this novel! First, it takes place in the post-war Japan and shows us how the Japanese people dealt with their losses and hard war experiences. Written by a Japanese writer in 1948, it’s a first-hand account of living there and then! Secondly, it introduces us to a Japanese way of thinking and perceiving the world that flows slower and more meditatively than the Western one. Chiseled and polished over centuries, the Japanese culture is famous for its simplicity, beauty and attention to details and you can find it not only in the works of the long-gone pen masters but also in this popular fiction book – its writing style is very detailed, the narration is quite fast-paced and yet slow enough to be able to admire the style and images of scenes and characters the author creates in the reader’s mind’s eye. Finally, for all tattoo fans out there this book gives a wonderful insight into the world of traditional Japanese tattooing, with its official ban, ambiguous social attitudes toward tattoos, popular motifs and taboos associated with the art.
What really struck me while reading this book was how modern the author’s reflections on tattoos seem to be. Among many interesting statements uttered by several book characters, at least a few could just as well be said today by a Western tattoo fan (although probably in not that beautiful a form!): ‘there are two things about getting tattooed that seem to impress people: the money it costs and the pain it causes’ (p. 106-107), ‘tattooing is like narcotics. You become fascinated, then addicted, and the next thing you know you’re ruining your own skin with ink and dyes’ (p. 166) or ‘the philosophical observer was tempted to view them [tattooed people] as an independent race, separated by their immortal tattoos from the transience of life on earth’ (p. 24).
Although the author, by means of the characters he created, takes different stands on tattooing throughout the book, it’s also quite obvious that he did thorough research before writing his book and is able to see differences between the Japanese and Western tattooing styles. Moreover, he is also quite proud of the artistry and consistency reflected in the Japanese tattooing. Now and then he comments on it: ‘unlike the Japanese tattoo, which flows over the contours of the body like a river over stones, the Americans cover their arms with a hodge-podge of unsightly, obvious designs … there’s no excuse for the total lack of artistry’ (p. 10) or ‘the art tattoo is one area in which Japan can still claim to be the best in the world’ (p. 319).
As the plot of one murder after another develops, Takagi takes us deeper and deeper into the world of tattooing, sharing scattered pieces of the history of the Japanese tattooing (Yokohama and tattooing the Western crowned heads mentioned as well as ukiyo-e roots of tattoos), showing the vast variety of tattoo motifs and richness of the Japanese folklore and pointing out how polarized were opinions on tattooing in the Japanese society (and many modern articles on the subject show clearly that this ambiguity still holds). In Takagi’s book murders and sensationalism somehow are pushed to the background while people’s disappointments, daily struggles and hidden passions take place in the spotlight.
Takagi did his homework when it comes to tattoos but he also knew enough Western detective novels to blend them skillfully into his work. There are many references to such novels throughout his book and he names two of them: The Maltese Falcon and Farewell, My Lovely. In the background, however, never named but always present is another great detective figure, Sherlock Holmes, here disguised as a young genius, Kyosuke Kamizu. The main character, Kenzo, might enjoy more attention from his creator but it doesn’t change the fact that his role is this of Watson, not overly bright but sometimes helpful sidekick of Holmes.
‘The Tattoo Murder Case’ is a nicely complex detective novel that shows that reading this genre not always is a waste of time. It’s beautifully written (and well translated, I guess) and fascinates with its insight into the tattoo world of the old Japan. The modern tattoo fan might be surprised by the depth and complexity of the author’s stand on tattoos but it only adds to the value of this novel and shows how much we owe to the past and traditions we pretty often don’t even know about.
Akimitsu Takagi, The Tattoo Murder Case, Soho Crime 2003;