Seich Matsumoto Essay - Critical Essays

Seicho Matsumoto


An esteemed postwar writer, Seich Matsumoto is credited with changing the format and expanding the content of Japanese mystery fiction. He dispensed with the formulaic insertion of clues common to the genre and added emphasis to more complex issues of human behavior and societal problems. Whereas mystery writers before Matsumoto provided readers the literary equivalent of a trail of bread crumbs, he gave readers the entire loaf. Followers of his detective fiction know as much or as little as the detective; nothing is kept in confidence to create artificial surprise at the conclusion of a work.

At first glance, Matsumoto’s straightforward and sparse style of writing seems to take its inspiration from journalism, not unexpected given his earlier association with a newspaper and his focus on detective fiction. However, as a number of critics have noted, the simplicity of Matsumoto’s writing is deceptive. His prose style has been compared to haiku, a Japanese poetic form consisting of seventeen syllables that evoke a clear but expansive image. Likewise Matsumoto’s plots are carefully scripted, with elements of Japanese society playing a crucial role in the discovery of how a crime was committed. Train schedules (trains are well known for running on time in Japan) feature in several works where the time frame of an alibi is in question.

In a Matsumoto novel, more than just the crime is under investigation; postwar Japanese society also undergoes interrogation. All imposters and pretenders—dishonest officials, pretentious academics, and social climbers—have their falsities exposed. Because Matsumoto’s detectives see their society so clearly, with an outsider’s detached perspective, usually they are able to get their man (or their woman). A combination of detective ability, dogged perseverance, and understanding of human behavior guides their search. When they fail, as is the case in Kuroi fukuin (1961; black gospel), bureaucracy is often the culprit. Matsumoto based Kuroi fukuin on an actual crime in which the prime suspect was a foreign Catholic priest and the victim was a Japanese stewardess. The investigation was disbanded after the Japanese government allowed the priest to return to his own country. Matsumoto wrote his novel both to spur public interest in the case and to protest its closure.

Often Matsumoto’s investigators are civilization’s scrappy underdogs. The most memorable of his detectives, Inspector Imanishi, survives on a modest salary, fights forces of corruption within his own department, and maintains emotional equilibrium through his pursuit of outside interests. Imanishi’s composition of haiku and his tending of a garden provide readers with additional insight into the inspector’s methods. His construction of the case is pursued with the same careful attention to detail as is required in his hobbies.

Points and Lines

Ten to Sen is the novel that in 1958 secured Matsumoto’s inclusion in an elite cadre of Japanese mystery writers. Published in English as Points and Lines, the novel introduced Matsumoto to an English-language audience and helped him gain an international...

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