Akimitsu Takagi - Honeymoon to Nowhere
It is the wedding night of Etsuko Ogata and Yoshihiro Tsukamoto. Both have known heartbreak in the past, and both have families they wish to avoid. They see in one another a chance to start a new, happy life, and are very much in love. After consummating their marriage, the hotel phone rings and Tsukamoto is called back to the university where he is a professor for an emergency. He doesn't return to Etsuko that night, and then the next morning he is found dead. He has enough assets that the police become concerned about a conspiracy between Etsuko and Tsukamoto's only surviving family member, his brother, but then he winds up murdered as well. So, who did it?
Akimitsu Takagi was a popular thriller author from Japan. His greatest successes came from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, with many of his novels experiencing reprint after reprint. Honeymoon to Nowhere was published in 1965, and reprinted twenty-three times between 1965 and 1972. In some ways it is a conventional detective thriller, though it at times take a strange angle to story-telling that is perhaps more familiar to Japanese audiences than those in the English-speaking world. Is it, as a thriller must be, suspenseful, and does it engender apprehension and curiosity enough to keep the reader reading? Well, sort of.
The first 90 pages or so recount Etsuko and Yoshihiro's burgeoning romance. Yoshihiro is portrayed as something of a scruff, a charmingly untidy university professor who engages in a number of cute devices to 'force' Etsuko to have another date with him. We learn of all this from Etsuko's perspective; she is an odd woman, relentlessly passive and concerned above all with tidying up Yoshihiro's appearance. Page after page, Etsuko fantasises about submitting herself totally to Yoshihiro, but there is a strong sense that this is not a Etsuko-specific desire so much as 'the way a woman should be', at least for Japan, and at least for the 1960s, and at least as according to Takagi. Yoshihiro has something of a dark past, but the darkness comes from his family member, not from anything he has done.
After the wedding night and Yoshihiro's murder, the narrative switches to take on the perspective of State Prosecutor Saburo Kirishima, and along the way the novel loses a significant quantity of its appeal. Etsuko, for all that she is a maddeningly submissive cipher of a woman, propelled the narrative along with her churning inner desires. There was a strong - incredibly strong - flavour of repression in her perspective, and it was interesting to watch her unfold herself for Yoshihiro. Of course, this sometimes results in disastrous passages such as this: "Suddenly Etsuko remembered reading somewhere that motherly women with large breasts were often attracted to untidy men, and she became conscious of her own breasts straining in her bra under her blouse", but at other times it can be quite fascinating to witness the mounting excitement of a passive woman coming to the realisation that her days as a wallflower are soon to be over. When Kirishima takes over, all of this is gone, to be replaced with a routine, and somewhat confusing, police investigation.
The problem of the second half of the novel comes from two distinct areas. The first is that Etsuko virtually disappears from the narrative. We do not learn much of her reaction to her husband's death, except for the usual comments of grief and sadness. Indeed, she becomes such a minor figure that her appearances are diminished to background colour in some scenes, and a casual mention or two in others. In a novel a little over two hundred pages long, to devote ninety of them to a character who disappears after that is a risk, and one that Takagi does not succeed in.
The second problem surrounds the lack of personality in Kirishima, and the incessant dialogue between himself and various suspects and policemen. Many of the conversations exist purely to hammer information into the reader, which has the unfortunate consequence that individuals lose their personality and the names fuse together until it all becomes rather meaningless. We never really learn much about the individual 'why' of the murder, or about the thoughts and feelings of anyone - but we read plenty of theories from dry policemen.
The narrative stumbles with the introduction of Kirishima, and it never really picks up again. Though it may be a little silly to read of 'straining breasts' and yearning desires, in reality Etsuko's section is more concerned with the casual repression of women, and the excitement that comes from the freedom that is offered from starting a new life. When Etsuko, who has been forbidden to marry by her father, lies to her parents that she is pregnant, her mother's response is to apologise to her husband, "I'm sorry, I should've watched her more carefully", and her father rages on about the loss of reputation that will come to his family from this event. Remember that Etsuko is twenty-six, and Yoshihiro is a respectably employed university professor - but, because the relationship is not sanctioned by the man of the house, it is immoral and wrong. This is fascinating, and so casually depicted as to offer a clearer insight into conservative Japanese relationships following the war, than any number of pages involving policemen talking with one another.
Honeymoon to Nowhere is a short novel, brief in scope and small in ambition. The first half is fascinating, the second half so useless that it should probably be avoided. The lack of personality in everyone once Etsuko disappears means that, when the killer is finally found, it is difficult to care about it - or remember who he is. It's an interesting book, but hard to recommend.
||Honeymoon to Nowhere
(Original Title: Zero no Mitsugetsu / ゼロの蜜月)