Viscount Hamao Shirô (1895–1935) derived from two very elite families (marrying into his wife’s family, the Hamaos). After a few years as a prosecutor, he turned to writing crime fiction. In that it lacks a detective or even a murder, “The Devil’s Disciple” (1929) does not strike me as a “detective story” or a “murder mystery.”* There is a corpse and some mystery. The author of a long account (long for a letter, short for a novel!), Eizô Shimaura begins with the unusual report hat “I am being held here [jail] as a murderer. But the truth is that I am probably not that murderer. That’s right: Probably.”
He wanted his pregnant wife, whom he had come to loathe, to die and provided her what would be for her a fatal dose of sleeping powder, but when he woke from his own drugged sleep, expecting to find her dead beside him, he instead saw her rolled-up futon and found her not just alive, but chipper in the kitchen. She knew that she could not take a dosage like his.
And then he finds that the woman he does love has taken a fatal overdose of his sleeping powder while he was off trying to arrange his wife’s death. It would be hard to consider Eizô Shimaura “innocent,” but in legal terms, the most he is culpable for was negligence in leaving what could be a lethal dose of sleeping powder with his beloved (stockpiled for his own use, not intended for hers). Though his intent was nefarious, he is not even guilty of attempted murder.
Eizô Shimaura is far from being a model citizen. If he is an “unreliable narrator,” it is not in exculpating himself. What is dubious, indeed, what seems unbalanced, is his opening denunciation of the recipient of his letter, his former lover (another male) who is now a prosecutor, Tsuchida. Tsuchida, who is two years senior to Eizô, seduced Eizô when they were in school. Eizô berates Tsuchida for corrupting him, which is not primarily their former sexual relationship, but in introducing Eizô to drugs (for sleeping), alcohol, and for breaking his heart. After their two years of constant being together, Tsuchida (then 22) graduated. Eizô (then 20) remained in the school and was heartbroken that Tsuchida took on a new (19-year-old) favorite.
Tsuchida did not “corrupt” Eizô’s desire or sexual functioning with women. Eizô does not blame his first female love, Sueko, for dropping him and marrying up. After Sueko’s husband dies in an earthquake, the married Eizô starts sleeping with her. That is, he has ongoing sexual relations with two women (and no males).
The homophobia of “the disciple” Eizô’s attack on “the devil” Tsuchida is not an explication of Hamao’s own views. Hamao was a pioneer defender of same-sex love in Japan, defending the old accommodations of acted-upon desire for bishônen (beautiful boys) against the imported patholigization (as perversion). Tsuchida is a fictional character for whom first love led to first heartbreak… and in a very convoluted way to the death of the source of his second heartbreak. Though trying to blame another (Tsuchida) for his character and life, Eizô strikes me more as guilt-ridden than as ashamed for what he did, what he intended, and who he is. And the serial seducer of younger males, Tsuchida, does not show any signs of feeling either ashamed or guilty for his modus operandi of dazzling favorites (and dropping them later on).
- In his very helpful introduction, translator J. Keith Vincent identifies the Japanese genre: a mix of “aestheticized decadence, gothic horror, and pseudo-scientific sexology and criminology known in 1920 Japan as ero-guro-nansensu or ‘erotic grotesque nonsense.’”
©2016, Stephen O. Murray