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  • Writer's pictureEmily

Summer Knitting: A Trip Down (Murderous) Memory Lane

It is summer, and it is hot. I am working on a scarf in rather thin yarn that is taking a long time to finish. It also requires a lot of concentration. The challenge with these types of projects is that they limit what else I can do at the same time. And before you say, "but why do you need to do something else when you're already doing one thing?" just stop yourself. I am cursed with a genetic inability to sit still or do just one thing. Ask my cousins. Or my dad, who read books when he came to watch me play basketball. He told me I should just be happy he was there, and if I could tell he was reading, then the game must have been pretty dull at that point. But I digress.

I end up watching a lot of reruns of shows I know, because I don't need to pay close attention to keep up with the plot. My go-to genre has and is crime procedurals. Of all kinds. The first non-little kid book I remember reading was a Hardy Boys, I knew the plots of all Sherlock Holmes stories by memory by the time I was 8, I've read all but 4 (and yes, I've counted) Agatha Christies. I love Law and Order, Criminal Minds, Sherlock, Elementary (I want to be Joan Watson), and my sentimental favorite, Inspector Lewis (because Hathaway is my ideal man...ex-theology student turned detective who is obviously a little scarred but so funny and smart!) But before any of these, there were Japanese Sasupensu.

The classic: 亀さん、乗ってみよう!(Kame-san, let's ride the train!)

Japanese Sasupensu (Suspense) are a very specific kind of crime procedural. They are a 2-hour format, and while they tend to be serialized, the individual episodes are independent of the others and are not televised in clusters. There is a standard time they are shown, but on any given week, it can be one of the ubiquitous (king of sasupensu) Nishimura Kyotaro "travel mysteries" featuring a team of detectives from the elite Tokyo Metropolitan Police who invariably end up "riding the train" to figure out how the suspect created an alibi (and always involves a trip or two to a depressed but honest agricultural hamlet somewhere in the far north).

The tireless duo, Totsukawa and Kame, somewhere in the far north, discovering the sad story in the past of someone that led to the recent series of murders. If this show were reality, Japan's rural hamlets are churning out murderous criminals like nowhere else!

Or (queen of sasupensu) Yamamura Misa's Kyoto-based mysteries featuring a photojournalist and her journalist boyfriend:

Poor dad Detective Kariya who just wishes his daughter would marry Natsume-kun and stop discovering dead bodies all over Kyoto. Kyoto is also very dangerous! And you can get from Nanzenji to Gion in 5 mins in this world. But I digress...

or the ambiguously named "Kyasarin" (Katherine) who randomly peppers her dialogue with English and is buddies with the same detective in the former journalist-heavy series. And those are just the most frequent. There are also actors who've made their careers playing different characters in sasupensu, none as iconic as Funakoshi Eiichiro and Yamamura Momiji (daughter of Yamamura Misa, and who is apparently required to appear in any televised version of her mother's novels).

The tireless Funakoshi (looking somewhat tired here) and always cheerful Yamamura Momiji.

I recently discovered that several very kind and generous souls have uploaded hours and hours and hours of these shows to youtube, and I have been gloriously binging on all I can while slowly making progress on my scarf. These are universally cliched, predictable, and simple-minded shows. My dad, who also had the TV on in the background while working (what can I say, chip off the old block), would laugh on cue each time Detective Kame would muse, "there's something strange," and his boss, Totsukawa would respond, "strange?" without fail, every single episode. I think one of his most thrilling brushes with celebrity was when he happened upon a shoot of the show in Otoineppu, the tiny village in Hokkaido where he rented a house for a while. The whole cast was there, including Kame and Totsukawa! I think the VHS of that episode is still safely kept somewhere.

But my love of these shows isn't simply out of childhood nostalgia or even memories of silly moments shared with my dad. Binge-watching these has an interesting effect. It highlights themes and plot lines that they seem to share in common. And despite the supposed range of honest and hardworking policemen and private detectives (journalists, novelists, the plucky young hot spring inn proprietor) and geographic diversity, the things these shows share in common make for some very interesting social and cultural commentary (you didn't think I'd write about Japan without my inner nerd coming out, did you?)

No matter where they take place--Tokyo or Kyoto or Kanazawa or Kamakura or some delightfully quaint hot spring resort town--the plot usually goes something like this: a body is discovered, the police arrive, and as they investigate the murder, they realize that either the victim or the suspect comes from a small, humble village somewhere in the Japanese countryside. They usually had a sad childhood and ran away to the big city and tried to leave that past behind. In the big city, instead of valuing the "traditional Japanese qualities or crafts or techniques" they were raised with (I just threw up a little in my mouth...sorry) they embrace modern machinery and profit and expansion. This rejection of humble authentic Japan in favor of a soulless consumption and profit-driven ambition leads to the terrible series of crimes that take up the rest of the 2 hours. The detectives (or private citizen detectives) always visit the humble hometown of the person and learn about their tragic childhood from a generic old person speaking a generic-but-supposed-to-be-local dialect. At the denouement, the detectives confront the suspect, always near a body of water (ocean or lake or river, but always water).

I have no idea which episode this is, but I can tell from their posture and the ocean behind them that this is where the detectives confront the murderer.

And this is the most important point: when confronted, the murderer at first attempts to justify their actions, saying they had no choice, or they were doing this out of a sense of duty to avenge their brother/sister/parent, or for the good of the company (or whatever), but after Kame-san or Totsukawa-san or whoever gives them a sappy speech about how their mom/dad/grandma/child wouldn't have wished this for them, and how they've forgotten the soul and beauty of the thing they supposedly committed themselves to, the murderer invariably collapses in place, weeping, and apologizes to them, and TO US, confessing how much regret and remorse they feel for failing to truly understand the beauty of whatever it was to begin with. They have wronged not just their victims, but SOCIETY IN GENERAL. This is the actual sin they've committed. And for this, they will obediently go to prison and pay the price for their sins.

While not required, these shows often involve ridiculous succession disputes at "traditional" artisanal houses--dyers, kokeshi makers, Noh dancers, etc--meaning that what is at stake is also the crafty soul of Japan itself. In other words, rejecting the path of the humble and hardworking artisan and aspiring to instead create an artisanal empire leads to LITERAL DEATH. YOU KILL PEOPLE when you stray from the honest Japanese way! They also always, at least partly, take place in lovely parts of places known for "traditional" architecture or scenery. Kyoto is usually the setting for Yamamura Misa shows (though rarely for Nishimura Kyotaro--the two were also close friends and he left Kyoto to her, while he tended to set his in the northeast instead). I especially love the Kyoto ones because they usually involve just absurd itineraries--like people discussing something under the famous brick aqueduct at Nanzenji one minute, and then somehow miraculously walking through Gion 5 mins later (even by patrol car with lights, it would take at least 15 mins to get from one to the other!) These shows are part folk nationalist propaganda, part tourism commercial. And so ridiculously hokey it's absurd. But I love them.

So this summer, as I sit in the sweltering heat, I am reveling in the absurdity of these shows. But they also offer lots of material for thinking about how popular media, even silly crime shows, can be powerful enforcers of "traditional" values and ideas about what Japan should be.

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