Seishi Yokomizo’s first Kosuke Kindaichi novel, The Honjin Murders, was serialised in the Houseki magazine between April and December 1946, but the story itself was set in pre-Second World War Japan (more precisely, in 1937) in a rural farming community in distant Okayama. Just the following year (January 1947), Yokomizo would start serialising Death on Gokumon Island, the second Kindaichi adventure, which he would eventually complete in October 1948. Publication-wise, there’s not much of a gap between the two works; however, in storytelling terms, nearly a decade has passed, with the latter set after the conclusion of World War II (1946).

This passage of time is significant, especially as Death on Gokumon Island is steeped in local Japanese culture that mingles with the pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty and chaos in the aftermath of the war in an unholy fashion. The predicament of Kindaichi (the sleuth) in the intervening period between 1937 and 1946 is an indication of this. He was drafted by the army and saw action in China, New Guinea and several other islands before returning to Tokyo, with the result that “the best years of his life became a kind of void”. As a matter of fact, it is the mysterious dying request of his wartime comrade that draws Kindaichi to Gokumon Island just as surely as a lighthouse beacon beckons a ship in choppy waters to safety.

An all-pervasive insanity

Gokumon Island (translating to Hell’s Gate Island and/or Prison Gate Island), though, truly lives up to its moniker over the course of the novel. The groundwork for this is laid even before Kindaichi sets foot on the sinister and foreboding island. Yokomizo comes across as a gifted storyteller, and his skills express themselves not just in the plotting of fiendish puzzles but also in the way he describes the geography and history of the isolated (but not functionally so), insular Gokumon Island and its long tryst with criminals, pirates, and the fishing community. This treatment is essential because of the “insider-outsider” dynamic the novel sets up; it is essential for outsiders to understand the culture and the thinking of the islanders as well as the politics and powerplay between the residents and families to make an iota of sense of the events that happen on Gokumon Island. Yokomizo paints vivid portraits of all these aspects, often in lyrical, flavourful prose, allowing one to “live through” the novel, even though for one looking to solve the mysteries, those important insights, revelations, and throwbacks into the past may not be fairly or favourably timed.

The mysteries of Death on Gokumon Island revolve around the gruesome deaths of the three sisters of the aforementioned wartime friend of Kindaichi, Chimata Kito. Strangely enough, Chimata had an inkling of what would transpire even before he died on a repatriation vessel five days before he would have reached his Gokumon Island. On his deathbed, Chimata fervently requests Kindaichi to go to the island to save the three sisters – Tsukiyo (the eldest), Yukie and Hanako (the youngest). Kindaichi intends to keep his promise but completely fails to do so. The sisters are all killed in bizarre ways without rhyme and reason: Hanako is hung upside down from a plum tree on the grounds of a temple, Yukie’s corpse finds its way under a gigantic temple bell, while Tsukiyo is found dead in the garb of an ancient shamanic priestess within the prayer house in the compound of the head Kito household. Conceivably, only one explanation can suffice for all the happenings: insanity.

Insanity is indeed the all-pervasive theme of the novel, but the diverse layers of madness that Yokomizo unravels are complex and worthy of admiration. It is also a testament to the progress Yokomizo makes as an author between his first and second works. After the first murder, Kindaichi is puzzling over the nature of the crime and the need to stage it in such a lurid manner, he ruminates thus:

And there was the crux of the matter. Detective Kosuke Kindaichi had been pondering the exact same question. Was it simply the murderer showing off? Just like some novelists, trying to find a fresh story, think up the most excessively theatrical settings, had this murderer, just on a whim, painted this ghastly spectacle out of flesh and blood?

No, no, no.

Kosuke Kindaichi didn’t believe anything of the sort. He was convinced that the fact that Hanako’s corpse had been hung upside down on the tree held some kind of profound significance. It was crazy, utterly insane. But the whole of Gokumon Island itself had something crazy about it. The island’s peculiar ways must have had some profound effect on both the murderer’s motive and method.

This is as clear a statement of authorial intent as any you will ever find. With that reference to “excessively theatrical settings”, Yokomizo throws shade at his previous work and assures readers that Death on Gokumon Island will not be alike The Honjin Murders. It also paves the way for the eventual unveiling of the novel’s plot as a nursery-rhyme-themed serial murder (or, more appropriately, a haiku-themed one).

As stated earlier, madness forms the overarching theme of the novel, and the haiku-themed modus operandi is only one of the numerous layers. As the late Dr Sari Kawana mentions in her essay “With Rhyme and Reason: Yokomizo Seishi’s Postwar Murder Mysteries”, Gokumon Island takes after its predecessors in SS Van Dine’s The Bishop Murder Case (1929) and Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders (1935) and And Then There Were One (1939). More significantly, as stated in the essay, it is perhaps one of the earliest instances of the use of such a device in Japanese crime fiction, as it remained unused in the pre-War years. Kawana argues that World War II was the necessary prerequisite for authors such as Yokomizo to explore the potential of Western devices such as the nursery rhyme and adapt them for their own indigenous purposes. And as it transpires, the haikus navigate a weird, transitory world in Gokumon Island where several orders collide and mingle – and where order and reason make way for unreason and chaos.

The haikus, in a way, can be said to be the “will” and legacy of a deceased patriarch of the Kito family, trying to ensure the longevity and “purity” of a family line and order that he helped set up. The aforesaid patriarch, for his own selfish purposes, undid an even older order rife with criminal and unlawful activities by identifying poverty as the root of all plagues on the island. An unintended side effect of the patriarch’s quest for prosperity is that it also leads other islanders to grow rich and rise in status. However, on the flip side, these developments also set up rival factions, conflicting loyalties, deeply troubled interpersonal relations and ultimately madness (particularly, in the case of the three sisters and their father and mother) in unforeseen ways.

Perhaps, this also explains why Kindaichi completely misreads the affair till the very end and has such a tough time investigating and understanding the myriad ways and power structures and hierarchies (religious, political, familial and professional) of the island, and why he has to, ultimately and perhaps unsatisfactorily, depend primarily on his conversations with various “untrustworthy” people (instead of more concrete evidence) to deduce whodunnit and howdunnit. After all, with the level of distrust among the people of the island, is it any real surprise they would also harbour suspicions about the sleuth, especially as he is an outsider? Though unwilling to state the purpose of his visit, it is through a revelation of his status as a renowned private detective that Kindaichi is finally able to stamp his authority as an “agent of order”.

A maddening miasma

Ironically, the haikus are meant to be a safeguard against the inevitable turmoil to be wrought by the Second World War. In effect, seen in the light of the patriarch’s intentions and the island’s own convoluted logic, the haikus are straightforward agents of order meant to ensure that the effects of the War do not adversely affect the lineage and succession of the main family. In execution though, things fall apart completely and sensationally so. The unprecedented chaos and turmoil brought about by the Second World War subsumes the entirety of Gokumon Island and especially its powerful personalities in a maddening miasma from which there is no way out. The greatest testament to this is the revelation at the end that the execution of the murders ensures the tragic failure of both the detective and the culprits. The real culprit ultimately turns out to be the vagaries of the Second World War that usher in a third age on Gokumon Island despite the insane (yet, at the same time, logical) efforts – an unforeseen age where prima facie, most of the remnants of the previous orders have perished with the demise of their practitioners and custodians.

Kawana’s instructive, thought-provoking essay mentioned earlier connects several strands of the novel with Yokomizo’s experiences of the war. Kawana cites Yokomizo’s own observations regarding how his stay in “feudal” Okayama (during the Second World War years) and its obsession with “pedigree”, “clan”, and lineage (“obsolete” terms in urban Japan by then) largely influenced his depictions of the complexities of the rural, isolated communities in works such as The Honjin Murders and Death on Gokumon Island. Kawana also mentions Yokomizo’s curious contention that rationality and consuming detective fiction could have saved Japan from the clutches of fascism and militarist ideologies. Seen in light of these facts, Death on Gokumon Island certainly seems to make a socio-cultural and political statement against the nuisance of war.

In fact, interweaving these real-life elements, ideologies and cultural elements against the backdrop of war and its aftermath and then positing rationality against the forces of chaos caused by an unholy combination of the war and older world orders makes Gokumon Island very much a product of its times. Not surprisingly then, a number of elements have not aged well – the uncomfortable omnipresence of patriarch worship, the brusque, rough-edged manner in which the topic of mental health is portrayed, almost “villainised” and the blatant sexism in some parts of the novel will surely stick out as sore thumbs, even though they are meant to be representative of the age in which the novel is set. A particularly egregious example can be seen in the setup of Tsukiyo’s murder where a lighthearted, banter-filled conversation assumes problematic proportions due to the manner in which the issue of female sexual consent is discussed; one can well imagine such sections having a trigger warning or a red flag (literally) to caution readers in the 21st century.

Even with the shocking nature of commentary in quite a few passages, it is understandable why Death on Gokumon Island became a “beloved classic” for Japanese readers. It may be difficult for audiences outside Japan to understand its merits beyond that of a mystery novel without the necessary context, but for a Japanese readership, several aspects of it must have resonated deeply with them when it was serialised. The hyperlocal setting, the dedicated effort in setting up a fictional, but recognisable, almost authentic Japanese landscape modelled on the aesthetics of wabi (transience and beauty), sabi (imperfection) and yūgen (profound subtlety), showcasing the insider-outsider dichotomy, the nuanced use of religion, politics, fishing, and theater in setting up a convincing mystery that can be termed as organically “Japanese” – these may have been some of the attractions and hooks that also mirrored the state of contemporary Japan back then.

Above all, Death on Gokumon Island has literary value beyond its sensationalist roots, as the use of haikus by Matsuo Bashō and Takarai Kikaku well illustrates. The novel’s real strength lies in its beautiful, lyrical, character-driven approach, with sketches and dialogues that propel the narrative, provide motives for the cast, shine a broad light on the complex past and present of a fictional island, and scathingly, tragically indict the monster threatening both fictional and real Japan at that time – a world war.