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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #31 (August 1, 2006), page 20.
Enter into Japanese history and mystery
By I.J. Parker
Paperback, 383 pages, $13.00
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
For readers who love mysteries or tales of ancient Japan, thereís nothing better than I.J. Parkerís novels about the intrepid 11th-century Akitada Sugawara, junior clerk at the Ministry of Justice. Scrupulously researched, well plotted, and beautifully written, these books provide immense pleasure at the same time as they inform and educate about Heian-era Japan. I.J. Parkerís latest paperback release, Rashomon Gate, falls perfectly in line with her other Sugawara books, tantalizing and satisfying readers from beginning to end.
Parker began her Akitada series with the St. Martinís Press hardcover publication of Rashomon Gate in 2002. After Penguin signed her, it reissued her earlier publications, with Rashomon Gate being the latest to come out in paperback. St. Martinís chose to introduce readers to Parker and Akitada with Rashomon Gate, though it is second in the series; they could have begun this delightful series at any point, however, with equal success. In fact, the tale of Akitada Sugawara begins with The Dragon Scroll, published in 2005, and continues with Rashomon Gate, which is followed by Akitadaís adventures in 2003ís The Hell Screen.
In Rashomon Gate, Akitada is given the opportunity to fill in temporarily as a law professor at the Imperial University, as a favor to Professor Hirata, an old family friend and a surrogate father figure. Because it will give him a respite from the dusty archives where he works, and because he will also conduct a covert investigation into apparent blackmail, Akitada jumps at the chance to help out Hirata.
Akitada is very much a creature of his era, respectful of the stratified class system and knowledgeable about current events, beliefs, and philosophies. But he is also a revolutionary, chafing against that same class system, and striking out in new investigative directions when a case leads him there. The conflict between old and new ideas, between personal emotions and duty to society, is both central to Japanese culture and the character of Akitada Sugawara.
In the course of his investigation, Akitada uncovers corruption at the once-prestigious university, and becomes involved with the mysterious disappearance of a member of the royal family and a murder of a local musician. In each case, Akitada must remember his place in society, yet still find a way to make inquiries and establish relationships that will help his investigations.
It is with these, and other, period details that Parker hits her stride, seamlessly integrating the mystery tale with slices of life in Heian-era Japan. The university provides a window into the scholarship of that age, while Akitadaís sleuthing leads him to a silk merchantís shop and into the ossified culture of monks. Throughout, we are treated to other moments of historical and cultural interest, like the pageantry of the annual Spring Festival or the exploration of the novelís eponymous gate.
At the crumbling 11th-century Rashomon, the bodies of the poor and unidentified were piled up for burial, providing a creepy setting for a search by Akitadaís superstitious retainer, Tora. Parker noted in her recent interview with The Asian Reporter that the name of the gate, and hence the book, should properly be called simply "Rashomon," but her first editor insisted on the current title, perhaps to avoid confusion with the well-known Kurosawa film.
But reading Parkerís books never feels like a lesson in Japanese history or philosophy, in part because the mysteries are so well-plotted and engaging. Her red herrings donít feel misleading or manipulative, since even explorations unfruitful to Akitadaís investigations will yield interesting facts. Like a wrong turn away from a guided tour, readers may find that these moments are their favorite: seemingly pointless deviations that nonetheless prove memorable.
In the end, of course, Akitada solves the case, but he also develops as a character, earning renown (and occasional scorn) for his investigative successes. Similarly, other charactersí lives develop in ways that will prove interesting in successive books. Peripheral characters such as Genba, a hired retainer, appear in later books, and Tomiko, Akitadaís love interest in Rashomon Gate, becomes his wife at the end. Parker remains unafraid of taking chances to keep her series lively; indeed, she has written several more Akitada novels, including Black Arrow, to be released this December, which her growing cadre of fans will anxiously anticipate. Until then, however, we will all enjoy gems such as Rashomon Gate, a perfect, welcoming entrance for novices to Akitada Sugawara, as well as for established fans.
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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #31 (August 1, 2006), page 20.
Blending Japanese history and culture with mystery
By Mike Street
Asian Reporter: Has the success of this series taken you by surprise? Are you concerned that you might find yourself unhappily "married" to Akitada if he becomes too popular?
I.J. Parker: I had to publish a number of short stories and win the Shamus Award with one of them before the first of the novels sold. By that time, four of the Akitada novels were already written. I was surprised by the Shamus Award ó and immeasurably gratified ó but Iím not convinced that the novels have been all that much of a success ó yet. And no, Iím becoming more interested in Akitada rather than less. Should I ever get bored, Iíll simply stop, but thatís not likely to happen for a long time.
AR: Where does the character of Sugawara Akitada come from, in a historical and personal sense?
I.J.: The period is the time of the novel Genji by Lady Murasaki. I came across this and other literature of the Heian era in the late í70s as I was teaching World Literature. When I decided to try my hand at mystery writing, that was the period I chose because nobody had used it at the time and it is particularly rich in cultural detail. Akitada is my own creation, though he shares his noble lineage with the great and tragic poet/statesman Sugawara Michizane.
AR: For an American writer, your themes are very Japanese ó Akitada often suffers the classic ninjo/giri conflict of duty vs. personal emotion, and his resignation to things as they are points to the mono no aware concept. To what extent does the iconoclast Akitada go against these traditional themes?
I.J.: Well, you are quite right. For me the problem was to create a character who would fit both the historical reality and modern Western attitudes. Eleventh-century noblemen observed class distinctions and were raised by Confucian ideals of social order. To modern readers, especially in a democratic society, that sort of thinking is anathema. As a result, Akitada is torn between what is expected of him and his inner sense of justice. His inner conflicts make him a stronger character. He is frequently in trouble or danger because he follows his heart too much. His religious attitudes ó the fact that he prefers Shinto to Buddhism, which he dislikes intensely ó separate him from most of the aristocracy of his time, but they were not unheard of even then.
AR: What books from, or about, Heian-era Japan are your favorites?
I.J.: The novel Genji, certainly, is a wonderful book. It is the first novel in the world that deserves the name, and quite beautifully written. Also: A Tale of Flowering Fortunes (Eiga Monogatari), The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon, and the other diaries of court ladies. The best books about the era are Heian Japan (in The Cambridge History of Japan series); Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince; Robert Reischauer, Early Japanese History; and R. Ponsonby-Fane Kyoto, The Old Capital of Japan (the last two are old but have not yet been superseded).
AR: One of your indubitable strengths is blending period detail with descriptions and plot; even your prose echoes the simple elegance of Japanese culture. How much of this is deliberate, and how much comes unconsciously, after so much research? Have you had to alter any plot elements after making a historical discovery?
I.J.: Well, thank you. Some of the more poetic detail (nature imagery) is quite consciously based on the themes of the court poetry of the time. The same is true of the aristocratic customs and habits, but these generally come from the prose of the period. There isnít much that unconscious about detail, though I no longer have to consult books to come up with the imagery.
As for mistakes: Yes. As Rashomon Gate was going into production, I read a post on a scholarly website which maintained that the famous gate had been destroyed in the eighth century. A frantic exchange between myself and the scholars ensued. The outcome suggests that the gate had been rebuilt several times, but that after the early eleventh century no more contemporary references exist. My sources had been maps in scholarly books and the stories about the gate in the early twelfth century Konjaku Monogatari. In the end, I added an explanation to the historical note for the novel.
AR: Where will Akitada Sugawara go next?
I.J.: Black Arrow continues Akitadaís adventures after Rashomon Gate. He takes up his assignment as provisional governor of Echigo, Japanís snow country, where he contends with a local warlord. It is a bit of a swashbuckler, a role that is uncomfortable for Akitada but which he carries off with great panache.
After Black Arrow, Akitada undertakes a secret mission to Sado Island, where a political exile is causing trouble for the court. The current title is Island Of Exiles. This Fleeting Life is about a smallpox epidemic, and The Masuda Affair involves him in a case that is particularly painful personally because he has just lost his only child.