Akimitsu Takagi’s 1948 novel Shisei Satsujin Jiken (published in English first as The Tattoo Murder Case by Soho Crime in 1999, republished as The Tattoo Murder by Pushkin Vertigo in 2022) happens to be one of the first books that kickstarted my fascination with Japanese crime literature. As it was the only title missing from my collection of Pushkin Vertigo’s translated Japanese titles, I recently decided to buy and revisit it after eight-odd years. So, how did the trip down memory lane fare for me this time around?

Eight years is a long time for anyone to forget major chunks of a book, but I must admit I was pleasantly surprised at how much I remembered the setting of this novel. Against the backdrop of a wound as raw as the Second World War, it must have been difficult for an author to replicate its ambience. But, Takagi pulls it off and evokes the atmosphere of a bombed-out, defeated, post-Second World War Japan in a manner that is refreshingly different from Seishi Yokomizo’s Death on Gokumon Island, a book that was written and published in roughly the same period. I keep returning to the opening two paragraphs of the novel that firmly establish the environs where the work will be set and locate it strictly at a very particular time:

“It was the summer of 1947, and the citizens of Tokyo, already crushed with grief and shock over the loss of the war, were further debilitated by the languid heat. The city was ravaged. Seedy-looking shacks had sprung up on the messy sites of bombed-out buildings. Makeshift shops overflowed with colorful black-market merchandise, but most people were still living from hand to mouth.

Even in formerly posh neighborhoods around the Ginza, the same pathetic scenario was being played out. During the day, ragged crowds of people with empty eyes would meander aimlessly about the crossroads, mingling with the American soldiers who strutted along triumphantly in their dashing uniforms. When evening rolled around, the rubble-strewn streets teemed with prostitutes, petty criminals, and vagabonds seeking a cheap night’s lodging. The uneasy silence of the night was frequently shattered by the report of a pistol.”

A war-ravaged Tokyo

Author Takagi’s interest in an unfamiliar Tokyo provides fuel for the seedy atmosphere that he sustains for a majority of the novel, and his gaze (which he shares with the readers) has a flâneur-like quality in the opening stretches. Page after page, chapter after chapter, we travel through the charred streets and neighbourhoods of Tokyo to witness the curious, sometimes aimless, movements of the characters whose lives and motivations have taken unpredictable turns after the war. The overall, pointless, arbitrary nature of survival in a post-war period is best illustrated when Akimitsu describes the existing buildings in the several locales spread across the city.

For instance, one is introduced to the opulent mansion of Professor Hayakawa as follows: “Professor Hayakawa had married money as well as beauty. He and his tattooed wife lived in Yotsuya in a splendid European-style brick house with leaded windows, wrought-iron balconies, and a classical English garden hidden away behind high brick walls. The house had been spared by some wartime fluke, while both of the formerly elegant dwellings on either side were now bombed-out ruins, overgrown with weeds.” This illogical reality of certain settlements surviving with the surrounding ones in ruins persists throughout the novel. And it is against this backdrop that the story unfolds, with many of the key characters relying on the forbidden charms of the underworld and the red-light districts to escape from the mundane, sobering reality of their everyday lives.

The apathy in the lives of a number of the characters in the novel is juxtaposed with the sinister designs of some others. The result is a transformation of the flâneuristic gaze into a voyeuristic one – the object of voyeurism being a magnificent tattoo of the mythical sorcerer Orochimaru on the body of a certain Kinue Nomura. The tattoo is unveiled in all its glory at the first post-war meeting of the Edo Tattoo Society, an event meant for the recreation of a certain section of Tokyo’s people suffering a long and terrible summer. This act of exhibitionism sparks a chain of events that leads different characters to “tail” this bewitching tattoo and its owner for different reasons: first, Kenzo Matsushita (an aspiring student of forensic medicine), Professor Hayakawa (also called Dr Tattoo), Gifu Inazawa (the manager of the company owned by Kinue's husband, Takezo Mogami), and later, Ryokichi Usui (Kinue’s former yakuza lover) and Tsunetaro Nomura (Kinue’s brother, who had supposedly perished in the war).

Now, tailing is an essential tool for detectives – and as the late Sari Kawana mentions in her work, Murder Most Modern, it even allowed scholars and researchers in the 1920s and 1930s to put on their thinking caps and step in the shoes of a sleuth (a fact well illustrated in Kawana's encapsulation of a slightly creepy social experiment involving the tailing of a woman in a department store and then making observations based on her shopping habits and buying patterns). Not surprisingly then, the act of tailing became a keystone of crime and detective fiction works in the country – an investigative tool of such sanctity that deductions could safely be made on the basis of these actions and the secrets unearthed consequently.

A tool of misdirection

When it comes to tailing, Edogawa Ranpo usually played it straight in his "ero guro nansensu" (erotic-grotesque nonsense) stories such as “The Stalker in the Attic”. However, The Tattoo Murder (which mirrors some of the aesthetics of Ranpo’s ero guro nansensu) subverts the role and purpose of tailing by turning it on its head and changing it into a tool of misdirection which fools not only the characters caught in a trap but also the police who draw their observations based on their misguided surveillance and pursuit of the suspects and the testimonies made. From the standpoint of the miscreants, however, it all unfolds perfectly like a well-rehearsed script. Kinue Nomura, the subject of much fascination, plays the role of a damsel-in-distress-cum-femme-fatale, using her feminine charms (and her tattoo, of course) to appeal to men like Gifu and Kenzo (“I feel that I am going to be killed very soon ... A terrible death is stalking me, and I am terrified of what may lie in wait. I fear my days are numbered, and the happiness I’ve found with you will be cruelly snatched away.… You’re the only one who can rescue me, my love.”), even making out with them. However, the dismembered body parts of Kinue are soon discovered in the locked bathroom of their Japanese-style house, with her husband having ostensibly disappeared. To add further suspicion, Kenzo, Gifu, Ryokichi and Professor Hayakawa are all discovered to have visited the scene of the crime on the evening or the day after for their own, not-so-honourable ends.

One by one, the authorities shift their focus on each of the suspects while simultaneously bringing to light the murky past of Kinue and her family (consisting of her father Horiyasu, an incredibly talented tattoo artist, her mother, a hardened criminal who ran away and died in person, her sister Tamae, who was supposed to have passed away in the Hiroshima explosion and her brother Tsunetaro, who had gone to serve in the Philippines during the war and was listed as missing in action). It is also believed that Horiyasu had left a curse on each of his offspring by etching three mythological characters on their bodies (Orochimaru on Kinue's, Tsunadehime on Sanae's and Jiraiya on Tsunetaro's). Such an act is considered to be taboo because the three are warring magicians who are said to have destroyed each other – and with Kinue's death, the prophecy seems to have been fulfilled. Except, the killings don’t quite stop at this point – a few days later, the body of Takezo Mogami is found in the storeroom of an abandoned building, a bullet hole above his right ear. And, in yet another turn of events, Tsunetaro turns out to be alive with a tattoo business of his own, only to soon end up dead (for real, this time) in a burnt-out building with the skin removed from his torso, hands and thighs, after promising to expose the perpetrators. This intense, secretly manipulated tailing and pursuit has no happy, satisfactory ending for any of the parties concerned.

The Japanese tattoo culture

Takagi’s love for the art and the culture of the Japanese tattoo shines through the novel – and it is no surprise that the trick behind the case of a mistaken identity revolves around the process of tattoo engraving and removal. A review of the book termed it “a document of the times”, and this is best seen in sections where Takagi reveals, with an almost journalistic flourish, the harsh realities of post-war Japan that people could scarcely believe would have come to pass – women, both elderly and preteen, thrown into prostitution; the intricate and artistic Japanese tattoo as a symbol of superiority over the “unimaginative” American tattoo, providing solace (in a perverse way) to a population hurting from a wartime loss; tattoo parlours in hidden alleys being meeting grounds for the affluent and the downtrodden where skilled but outlawed tattoo artists sketched and imprinted these symbols of national pride and identity, flouting strict rules prohibiting such practices. Takagi paints the underworld and, in particular, the shady, tattooing industry in post-war Tokyo in vivid, sensual detail and in a sensitive, sympathetic manner that should resonate well with the layman reader. The rules, etiquettes and the inner workings of the world of the Japanese tattoo artists too are explained in a comprehensible, but perhaps excessively earnest, way.

Till this point, the narrative develops organically, providing reasons, along the way, for a reader to develop an interest in Japanese history and culture. The denouement, comprising the last third of the novel, comes as a bit of a surprise, though. The arrival of the amateur detective Kyosuke Kamizu, who provides the much-needed “fresh point of view” and “miracle”, signals the beginning of a significant tonal shift. Hereon, Takagi completely drops the ball on the creepy, seedy atmosphere he had so painstakingly established and rushes towards the endgame with a ruthlessness and clinical efficiency that would have done Freeman Wills Crofts proud. Gone are the discussions on the Japanese tattoo and the importance of mythological stories in the world of the Japanese tattoo; these are instead replaced with conversations on Western philosophies and ways of thought, and deliberations on Kamizu’s pet theory of “criminal economics”. For a novel that caters so much to Japanese tastes, cultures and sensibilities, The Tattoo Murder sure does proclaim the superiority and triumph of Western perspectives and methods of detection in its final stretches. The locked-room murder is explained satisfactorily and competently but in an uninspired, perfunctory manner, while a final dramatic twist and reveal is perhaps an inevitable development that may be considered predictable by today’s standards.

When I referred to The Tattoo Murder as a novel of a very specific period, I may have subconsciously also been hinting at the unfortunate, excessive cross-pollination of genre aesthetics and mechanics in its final portions – a development that was perhaps inevitable in that era. That is why this treatment is perfectly understandable too – for an author like Takagi writing right after the end of the Second World War, the challenge must have been to incorporate Japanese aesthetics and sensibilities in a genre that was essentially seen as a Western import. And, make no mistake – The Tattoo Murder as a mystery novel is a gripping page-turner of the first order that also wonderfully explores a city in ruins and offers fascinating insights into aspects of an oft-ignored profession and class of society (at that time). As a Japanese mystery, however, the lack of an organic conclusion stunts its status somewhat and, in my humble opinion, prevents it from reaching the heights of Seishi Yokomizo’s The Inugami Curse and Death on Gokumon Island.