Hamao Shirô ‘s “Did He Kill Them?”

The first venture into fiction of prosecutor turned crime novelist Hamao Shirô (1895–1935) “Did He Kill Them?” 1929) has a sort of (though inept) investigator trying to answer the title question. The narrator is a defense lawyer recruited by an admirer of the attractive youth (bishônen) Ôtera Ichirô, confessed killer of a married couple (whose marriage had been arranged rather than chosen on the basis of love), the sickly rich recluse Oda Seizô and his fun-loving, flirtatious wife Michiko.

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After a protracted mahjong session at the Oda’s seaside villa, one young man had gone home and Ôtera stayed over. Though the case looks open and shut, not least with a confession from Ôtera, his attorney remains skeptical.

After relating his ineffectual investigations (it shocked me how late in the judicial process the attorney was able to meet his client!), he produces a lengthy document written by Ôtera before his execution in which he explains what happens and why he confessed. I don’t want to reveal either, but can note that Michiko was a noir femme fatale and engaged in kinky games of jealousy (and bondage) with her husband. Though initially a fairly conventional investigation of a double murder, the novella very much exemplifies the genre of ero-guro-nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense).

The narrator/attorney, like the aristocrat who hired him, finds Ôtera Ichirô remarkably handsome, so that some of his zeal in a hopeless cause has some erotic basis. (Hamao was an outspoken defender of same-sex love as natural, whatever his personal erotic life involved.)

The story is at least implicitly a criticism of how the legal system (not just the Japanese one that the author’s grandfather had done much to modernize) latches onto appearances and fails to establish truth.

 

I prefer the second novella Hamao published in Shinseinen (Youth) in the spring of 1929, “The Devil’s Disciple” which not only was published second but is only half as long as “Did He Kill Them?” and approve of the Hesperus publishers’ decision to title the publication of the pair “The Devil’s Disciple.”

Translator J. Keith Vincent provides information both on the social context and the (very elite!) background of the tall, skinny (crane-like) author.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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