Meet Japan’s great mystery novelist Shusuke Michio
Shusuke Michio is one of Japan’s representative mystery novelists. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Oyabu Haruhiko Prize, Yamamoto Shugoro Prize and the 2011 Naoki Prize, one of the most prestigious literature awards in Japan.
One of his latest titles, “Baku no Ori,” has been nominated for the SUGOI JAPAN Award2016 in the manga, anime, ranobe (light novel) or entame shosetsu (entertaining novel) category. The awards ceremony is the second of its kind organized by the SUGOI JAPAN Committee and The Yomiuri Shimbun.
Online voting for the 2016 award is under way and will close on Jan. 3, with the award-winning works to be announced in March. Voters are asked to choose their favorite titles that are so “sugoi” (amazing, great and wonderful) that they want to share them with the world.
Michio, who enjoys overseas popularity, spoke of “Baku no Ori” in an interview conducted by Momo Tachibana.
Reader-author connection essential for good novels
A man returns to his hometown, a lonely village in Shinshu, Nagano Prefecture, in the wake of the accidental death of a woman. In the village, the protagonist suffers recurring nightmares that eventually lead him to the truth pertaining to the death of his father. In “Baku no Ori,” the village is described as a huge “locked room” plagued with a succession of mysterious events that play out against the backdrop of the village’s history and folk customs.
Michio I learned one day about the Gorobe Yosui irrigation canal in Saku, Nagano Prefecture. It was built during the Edo period by [Ichikawa] Gorobe, who relinquished his samurai status to devote himself to completing the irrigation system and helping poor farmers in the barren village. Rokuro Sanemitsu, a character in my novel, is modeled on Gorobe. Keen to know as much as possible about the man, I visited Saku to gather information. In the process, I was inspired to write this novel, the core plot of which came to me suddenly while gazing at Mt. Asama [north of Saku] and imagining a wintry scene with the mountain blanketed in snow.
The author instilled into the novel a certain degree of the timeless reality of village life he felt while staying in the Shinshu region. In the book, villagers speak the dialect of the area and exhibit toward one another contradictory day-to-day feelings — altruism and impenetrability.
Michio The dialect spoken in Nagano Prefecture is rich in phonological features. Indeed, it was both challenging and enjoyable to express local words and phrases in writing. For example, people in the prefecture say “oyagene” to mean they feel “kawaiso” [sorry] about something. But some readers say the villagers’ dialect is hard to understand, making the novel less readable. Others have found it difficult to readily understand the scenes in each chapter depicting dreams.
This is the kind of novel that may frustrate readers who are not ready to empathize with the protagonist and the situations surrounding him, and proactively engage the story. For that reason, I think readers are sharply divided on this novel. For my part, when I was out of sync with the protagonist, I lost my concentration and found it difficult to write.
I’m afraid that including a character with whom everyone can easily be in sync would limit my literary universe. Therefore, I urge every reader to collaborate with me. To me, this is the real meaning of novels. Biologist Shinichi Fukuoka writes that cell membranes that control the flow of substances into and out of cells in the human body are the very core of life. Likewise, I think, novels emerge as the consequence of empathy between authors and readers, delivered through paper. No national boundaries can stop such a mutual relationship, and, as such, novels have the strength to entertain everyone everywhere in the world.
Encounter with great U.S. author
Michio Many of my titles have been translated into Asian languages, but none into English. I earnestly want my novels translated into English. Why? Because I visited the United States in 2014 to meet Thomas H. Cook, the U.S. author I have long respected. I talked with him about many things. Unfortunately, I learned he had not read any of my novels, while I have read all of his, even those not yet translated into Japanese. Therefore, one way or another, I would like him to read my novels.
How did the Japanese author get to know the U.S. novelist with an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America?
Michio I got in touch with him via Twitter. At first Tom didn’t have an account, but I kept up a daily search for his name on Twitter, expecting him to begin using it someday. I was confident that, once he finally opened his Twitter account and went through a learning stage, he would respond to my messages. Then, one morning, I finally found his account name and immediately sent him a message in English. I received his reply, and we started exchanging e-mails about novels. Later on, he wrote that I should stop by his house if and when I visited the United States.
10th anniversary and English translation
To meet the U.S. writer he so deeply respects, the Japanese novelist made serious efforts to improve his English proficiency. Though he has little interest in traveling abroad, he decided in the autumn of 2014 to visit the United States — his first overseas flight.
Michio I wanted to meet him on Oct. 15 of last year, 10 years to the day of my becoming a mystery novelist. When I contacted him, he invited me to visit his Cape Cod [Massachusetts] vacation house. We drank wine on a deck surrounded by deep woods. He also took me for a drive. We spent hours talking about mysteries and mystery novels, as well as just chatting, and I learned things I had never learned from published interviews with him. I was really happy.
I felt happiest when he praised my “bravery.” When he was in his 20s, Tom said, he traveled to Britain, hoping to meet an author living there. Tom was in front of the author’s house, but he was so afraid to knock on the door that he turned back. The author later died, and Tom said even now he regrets his lack of temerity. He said that was why I was brave. He also said, “Let me be the first to know when your books are translated into English.”
So, I am looking forward to such an occasion. I hope that not only my novels but as many Japanese literary works as possible will be translated into foreign languages for international readers to enjoy.
Baku no Ori
Born in 1975, he has won numerous awards, including the Honkaku Mystery Award, Mystery Writers of Japan Award, Oyabu Haruhiko Prize, Yamamoto Shugoro Prize and Naoki Prize. His latest titles include “Tomei Kamereon” (The invisible chameleon).