There’s definitely something very distinctive about Japanese fiction. It lavishes attention on the apparently inconsequential, the trivial, the minutiae of life, in a way that creates a strangely detached picture of life. I’m pleased to report that I found Six Four more engaging than other Japanese novels I’ve read recently – Parade or Slow Boat – but it’s still very definitely not a Western novel. Focusing on a cold-case kidnapping from fourteen years ago, it follows the staff of a provincial police station as their investigations become caught up in internal power struggles, distrust and mutiny.
I suppose I’d been expecting this to be something like Grotesque meets Scandi-noir, but the novel isn’t about the details of this historic kidnapping (codenamed Six Four) per se. The case does, however, cast a long shadow over the story. Riddled with police errors and failures, it was the most shameful disaster in the history of the local force, culminating in the murder of the kidnapped seven-year-old girl and a complete failure to apprehend the perpetrator. It’s still a sensitive subject for the officers who were in service at the time. Now, you might imagine, given that background, that this novel will bring us into the offices of the team dealing with the (officially) ongoing investigation. But actually that isn’t the case. The Criminal Investigations department remains enigmatic for most of the novel and instead we find ourselves shadowing a man who’s apparently on the periphery of matters: Yoshinobu Mikami, director of the station’s Media Relations team.
Mikami is an outsider in more ways than one: a former detective, he’s been transferred out of Criminal Investigations into Administrative Affairs. As such, he’s having trouble asserting his authority because he’s regarded as an interloper, while his former colleagues over in Criminal Investigations can’t see past his current role and fear he’ll leak information to the Press. While Mikami feels isolated at work, things aren’t much better at home. His troubled late-teenage daughter Ayumi has been missing for three months and Mikami and his wife Minako are almost at their wits’ end, both trying to maintain an awkward pretence of normality. Mikami has dealt with matters by sinking deeper into his work, while Minako – herself a former detective, and now a housewife – spends her days waiting by the telephone, desperately hoping it will ring, her hopes fuelled by a recent spate of silent calls that she’s convinced are from their daughter.
Mikami’s life isn’t exactly rosy as it is, but he’s suffering more aggro from the members of the station’s Press Club: local reporters eager for a scoop, who feel that the police are increasingly trying to stifle their journalistic freedom. Mikami knows that’s all too true. When press and police collide on a question of anonymity, all the resentment that’s been bubbling beneath the surface erupts into a full-blown crisis. To make matters worse, the police commissioner from Tokyo – the head honcho – has announced that he’ll be visiting the prefecture to pay his respects to the family of the murdered girl from the Six Four case. This is precisely the wrong time for the local press to be anything but docile and respectful, but Mikami’s efforts to calm them only fan the flames. As he tries to negotiate – stymied on one side by an arrogant press corps, and on the other by an executive that doesn’t want to have to deal with the press at all – he finds himself facing an impossible situation. And perhaps this isn’t the only problem on the table. Someone, somewhere, is sowing suspicion between Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs. If the two halves of the station hierarchy can’t resolve their differences, then the commissioner’s visit promises to be catastrophic – and it seems that Six Four is at the bottom of things.
This is a weird book. I’m sorry, but even trying to summarise it makes my head ache. It’s strange because you have yourself geared up to read a detective novel and instead find yourself following disputes between Press and PR teams in great detail. To be frank, by the time I was a third of the way through, I was considering giving up. Why did I care about yet another ultimatum about anonymous reporting? But I gritted my teeth and stuck with it. I do not give up on books. And actually it was worth it. It’s best to look at this not as a heart-in-mouth race to find a criminal, but as a compelling insight into the Japanese psyche. The place of honour and reputation is so important in this society: the public apology; the depth of a bow; the way that journalists are taken out by the police Media Relations team in an attempt to get them on side; the bargains; the rigid hierarchy within the police force itself; the still rather outdated attitude to women. Mikami’s interactions with the other characters aren’t necessarily fascinating as actions, but as signifiers for the way that Japanese business and society operates.
Do we ever find out who committed the Six Four kidnapping and murder? Do we find out whether Mikami’s daughter has been calling home? Do the press finally come to an agreement with Mikami? We may or may not have answers to these questions by the end of the book. It’s definitely not something to read if you need lots of colour and liveliness to keep your interest; but for those who appreciate more subtle, evocative writing, it has a certain charm. The translation by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies is certainly fresher and more immediate than those of other Japanese books I’ve read recently, but this may reflect Yokoyama’s own style as much as the translation itself.
It is a strangely compelling read in some ways (I kept deciding I’d read just one more chapter, in the hope of actually finding something out), but my overwhelming feeling, at the end, is that the book is just too long at 635 pages. Perhaps others will disagree with me on that (although many Amazon reviewers seem to be on my side). The novel has had great success in Japan, though: there’s even a film.