“Everything takes ten times as long in the countryside: what takes one year to forget in the city takes ten years in that village. The memories stick, they take root – year after year, people stubbornly cling to them.”
—Miyako Mori in The Village of Eight Graves
The Village of Eight Graves is not your conventional detective story as it incorporates an unusual perspective that often relegates the detective / investigative elements to the sidelines. It is perhaps best read as a Gothic romance-thriller with distinct pulp-like, horror and supernatural tropes scattered throughout. In that respect, The Village of Eight Graves’ place in the Yokomizo canon and Japanese crime fiction is similar to that of The Hound of the Baskervilles in the Holmesian world and British crime fiction.
In a February 2022 interview, however, Bryan Karetnyk, the translator of Seishi Yokomizo’s Yatsuhakamura (literally, The Village of Eight Gravestones / Tombs, published by Pushkin Vertigo in 2021 with the title of The Village of Eight Graves), mentions that Yokomizo, in one of his essays, acknowledged the influence of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders on this novel in particular. Having now read the book, I think it is an interesting comparison to make, but not without keeping your expectations in check from the outset.
Can The ABC Murders template really be applied to The Village of Eight Graves?
The Alexander Bonaparte Cust figure in Yokomizo’s work is Tatsuya Terada, a man of uncertain lineage living in Kobe in post-World War II Japan at the time he is introduced in the novel. A mysterious summons reveals to him, for the first time, that he has links to the ominous-sounding ‘village of Eight Graves’, which is “perched amid the desolate mountains on the border of Tottori and Okayama prefectures”. But, before he can even begin his journey to the village, strange occurrences crop up around him.
An unknown lawyer named Suwa gets in touch with him, along with Miyako Mori, a representative from the village’s Nomura Family (or, “The House of the West”), both of whom bring him up to speed on his connections to the village, a lowdown on the village’s residents and the current happenings that necessitate his presence there. He also meets, for the first time, his grandfather, Ushimatsu Ikawa, a cattle trader, who soon meets a horrific end in front of Tatsuya, due to poisoning. Tatsuya also finds out that a strange person has been making all sorts of enquiries about him in the town. Around the same time, he becomes the recipient of a threatening letter warning him to stay away from the village of Eight Graves.
The breakneck pace of events established in the opening stretch is sustained after Tatsuya reaches the village. The village boasts of its own eclectic cast of characters: creepy elderly twins, thieving nuns, doctors dreaming up elaborate murder schemes, sneaky priests snooping on others, and disfigured war veterans no longer sure of their standing in society. The atmosphere is so rife with tension that you can literally cut it with a knife. Except, in this book, poisoning and strangulation seem to be the preferred modes for the culprit.
Like the aforementioned Alexander Bonaparte Cust, Tatsuya finds himself embroiled in a large number of situations where he is potentially the most likely suspect, but not quite with the same ‘directness’ of being implicated and doomed that was the trademark in Cust’s case. Add to this the Gothic ethos (the labyrinthine caves that go on endlessly, the seemingly bizarre disappearances of certain characters at key moments), and the strange, often threatening, ways of the villagers – and the reader, like Tatsuya, is stuck with this sense of dark foreboding, gloom and helplessness without any light at the end of the tunnel, despite the reassurances of Tatsuya’s well-wishers and lovers.
The murders and their rationale is perhaps where this novel probably resembles The ABC Murders most closely. Disregarding the bloody massacres that took place twice in the past, 11 people – priests, nuns, doctors and the narrator’s family members included – die in the present time of the novel, most of them seemingly without rhyme or reason. It is the same stratagem that was used by Christie in her novel – create a deranged, serial-murder-like situation to hide the devilishly insidious real, singular motive in a most cunning fashion.
However, The Village of Eight Graves wades further into deeper, murkier waters by throwing too many red herrings around for its own good. From the perspective of motive, the rapid developments lead the investigators to posit different theories focusing on different perpetrators, some of them more outlandish than the others, in an effort to explain it all.
Even at the fag end of the novel, the mysterious, seemingly inexplicable, movements of certain characters from way before make it difficult to pinpoint whodunnit, which Kosuke Kindaichi does by finally gaining a correct understanding of the nature of the suspects involved. And yet, as Kindaichi reveals, despite the devilish plot behind it all, the miraculous thing is that it would have all naturally resolved itself at the end.
The definite shortcomings
As a mystery, however, there are definite shortcomings in The Village of Eight Graves. For one, there’s an abnormally high level of coincidence that places certain key characters at certain important locations at the most eventful moments, often without sound rationale. In fact, the entire chain of murders hinges upon the accidental discovery of a key item, which is, in turn, dependent on the fortuitous and favourable alignment of certain circumstances. It makes me suspect that Yokomizo may have been stringing things along to an extent, just to add, perhaps unnecessarily, to the mystery quotient of this hefty narrative. However, even more than that, it is, perhaps, the book’s most intriguing aspect that is also its greatest weakness – its uncommon perspective.
The events are narrated in manuscript form by Tatsuya, one of the book’s suspects who could have ended up as one of its victims. He is, by his own admission, not a gifted and talented storyteller – something that becomes quite evident as the story progresses. Everything we see is through the lens of Tatsuya’s tinted glasses, and they are not of the best kind. Furthermore, the problem is that we get to know of incidents and plot points only as they happen to Tatsuya and the people around him at that point of time. He cannot write about other events happening elsewhere (for instance, insights on what Kindaichi and inspector Isokawa may be thinking about and investigating at said moment), that too impartially, simply because he is not privy to those details. He has to rely on information furnished by others later to fill these gaps.
These constraints and the perilous situations he is continuously faced with inevitably leads to his myopic treatment of a narrative over which he barely seems to have any control. Some characters (Noriko, for instance) often end up being one-note, treading over the same beats, while vital character traits and revealing hints are elicited very inconsistently, only when Tatsuya comes across them, often in his conversations and adventures in the village’s caves and the countryside. Sometimes, these reveals come criminally late for the reader to make an informed guess based on them. It is this lack of an ‘overall’ view – rather, this constant, narrowed-down focus on the singular movements of Tatsuya in real time, without any knowledge of the whereabouts and activities of the rest of the cast – that hurts the novel the most.
Yokomizo’s idea of stepping into a character’s shoes and then having that character narrate the novel is certainly interesting. One other book that used the same ploy is Boris Akunin’s The Coronation (2000; English translation in 2009) where the chief steward of a Russian noble family does the bulk of the storytelling. In both cases, however, I have been severely put off by the excessively stilted and artificial nature of the voices of the authorial personas chosen by the real-life authors. Even worse, in The Village of Eight Graves, Tatsuya overreaches his authorial ambitions to weave elements of mystery-writing in his narrative. The result, I feel, is a work that is not sure of its own identity. Is it a work of Gothic horror? Is it a faithful diary recounting Tatsuya’s experiences? Or, is it a somewhat fictional, exaggerated account of Tatsuya’s emotionally taxing travails that somehow also manages to masquerade as crime/detective fiction?
The movie adaptation
Yoshitarō Nomura’s 1977 film, Yatsuhakamura, resolves this conundrum to a certain extent by amplifying the horror and supernatural elements to the extreme, resulting in a film that has some of the most beautifully shot scenes I have ever seen, which contrast well with the amped-up terror and horror quotients. The composition of the shots and the moderately paced nature of the film (in relative terms, that is) lends a certain expansiveness which is accentuated immensely by the sweeping orchestral soundtracks that composer Yasushi Akutagawa made for this film. These sensations are seemingly in direct contrast to those experienced on reading Tatsuya’s constraints-ridden tale in the book.
This is not to say that the book is disappointing throughout; in fact, it is wildly entertaining where events, twists and turns, blood and gore are your constant companions every few pages. It is just that despite all the wealth and treasures it has to offer, it could have been so much more – and the thought of what could have been can make one very regretful, indeed. Hence, the caution of not getting swayed by all the praise the book has received for decades, and moderating your expectations at the outset.
The most unfortunate conclusion, though, is that I don’t think Yokomizo needed to enforce the perspective of Tatsuya onto the readers. The world-building of the village of Eight Graves (especially its foundations in a bloody samurai tale where cycles of massacre recur) is top-notch, and the socio-cultural, economic and religious undertones should be evident to those curious enough to explore these themes.
There is a lot to unpack here: the real-life inspiration behind the book (the Tsuyama massacre), Yokomizo’s depictions of and commentary on feudal communities in the rural, isolated Okayama countryside (an area Yokomizo himself had travelled through and resided in during the World War II years), their family values and structures, superstitions, the socio-economic, religious (especially with regards to Buddhism and Shintoism) intricacies of life here, and the disruptive effects that World War II wrought in the life of certain residents even in these faraway places, especially those who shifted from urban areas in the wake of the war. One wonders why Yokomizo chose to have Tatsuya then as the narrative voice unveiling these threads, when Yokomizo himself could have done the same in a far more polished and competent manner.
An observation that would, perhaps, better serve as a question in a university semester examination, concerns imagining how the book would have turned out had Yokomizo told it all himself as the omniscient narrator – just as he had done in The Honjin Murders. In fact, The Village of Eight Graves is at its self-assured best in the first chapter, where Yokomizo, speaking in his own voice, talks of the bloody samurai history of the village, its traditions, its tryst with subsequent violence and massacres, and the past events leading to the story Tatsuya will narrate in the rest of the book.
But, had Yokomizo done the entire narration, would he have altered the order in which the events were presented to ensure a better flow in comparison to Tatsuya’s jerky but strictly chronological attempt to do the same? Would he have increased the participation of Kindaichi and Isokawa in key moments by revealing where and how the investigators came across decisive clues and the lines of deduction they pursued? Would he have provided illustrations/maps for the labyrinthine cave to serve as a companion to the poems that point out the landmarks but do not illuminate much otherwise? Above all, would he have judiciously managed the flow of necessary information to the readers so that they would get a fair shot at cracking the mystery, instead of Tatsuya’s approach that invites readers to share his sense of befuddlement at the ever-deepening mysteries, only for them to be naturally resolved at the end?
Of course, there’s no conceivable way to know the answers now – just like the many victims and the mysteries of the village of Eight Graves and its caves, these have also been buried forever in the sands of time.