Tsutomu Mizukami

Hauntingly atmospheric novelist

In 1963, after a stint in Malaysia, I returned to Japan to find the name of the novelist Tsutomu Mizukami in all the bookshops and on all the cinema posters. His new novel,
Echizen Take-ningyo ("Bamboo Dolls"), had just appeared to critical acclaim, a best-seller and already a movie directed by Kozaburo Yoshimura.

Tsutomu Mizukami, writer: born Wakasa, Japan 8 March 1919; twice married (one daughter deceased); died Nagano, Japan 8 September 2004.

In 1963, after a stint in Malaysia, I returned to Japan to find the name of the novelist Tsutomu Mizukami in all the bookshops and on all the cinema posters. His new novel, Echizen Take-ningyo ("Bamboo Dolls"), had just appeared to critical acclaim, a best-seller and already a movie directed by Kozaburo Yoshimura.

An earlier novel, the 1961 Gan no Tera, based on his own experiences of temple life, was also illuminating the screens as Temple of the Wild Geese (1962) with the sulphurous young actress Ayako Wakao as the temptress who seduces the head priest in a production by Yuzo Kawashima. This finely atmospheric novel had won the prestigious Naoki Prize. His collected works eventually totalled 26 impressive volumes.

Mizukami came from an unexpectedly humble background. He was born in 1919 to a poor carpenter who made a paltry living working for shrines and temples in the then remote region of Fukui on the northern coast of Honshu, facing the Sea of Japan. It was to provide the hauntingly strange settings for several of his works.

The family was so poor, he was sent at the age of nine to work in a local temple, then was moved to Shokokuji Temple in Kyoto, where he attended Hanazono Junior High School, and thence to the famous Kyoto temple Toji-in. For a while he attended classes in Ritsumeikan University. But he found temple life unbearable, and ran away. Penniless, he began a roaming existence, doing odd jobs. He slept rough. He was a not very successful door-to-door salesman. Then he was sent to China and Manchuria, where he was in charge of coolies on wartime work.

During the way in the Pacific, he led the life of a fugitive from military service, wandering all over Japan to escape detection, like the hero of the novel Sasamakura ( Grass for my Pillow, 1966) by a near contemporary, the fine novelist Saiichi Maruya. From this period the sad note of a drifter's life was to leave its traces on his work.

However, Mizukami had become interested in books and writing. He joined small literary coteries that are such a feature of writers' lives in Japan. He began contributing to little magazines. A well-known author, Uno Koji, became his literary mentor, and his naturalistic style was an influence Mizukami never forgot.

After the Second World War, he published his first novel, with the eccentric title Furaipan no Uta ("Song of the Frying Pan", 1948): but it was not a success, and he gave up writing for 10 years. He had married, and had to make money to support his wife and their little daughter who was born with a spinal defect. In despair, his wife abandoned them.

When he eventually found strength and courage to start writing again, the result was the 1959 mystery novel inspired by the master of that form, Seicho Matsumoto, who became his friend and whose naturalistic techniques he adopted. These were known as "Points and Lines" - complex plot construction starting from two apparently unrelated events that were gradually brought together after all the vicissitudes of storytelling beloved of thriller fans into a satisfyingly surprising climax.

Kiri to Kage ("Fog and Shadow") won Mizukami a solid reputation among fans of the genre: so much so that his second attempt, with its strong social-awareness theme of the devastating Minamata disease, was awarded the Japan Detective Writer Club Prize in 1960, with the dramatic title Umi no Kiba ("Fangs of the Sea"). Its stark, documentary style stands comparison with the great and influential book about the victims of the Minamata disease, Michiko Ishimure's Kugai Jodo, Waga Minamata ( Pure Land, Poisoned Sea, 1969), and to a lesser extent with her autobiographical novel on the same theme, Umi no Ki ( Story of the Sea of Camellias, 1970).

Mizukami began writing great novels with a more sinister and haunted atmosphere. The first was Gan no Tera - an immediate success. Its thriller techniques are on a par with those of Georges Simenon, Patricia Highsmith, François Mauriac and Leonardo Sciascia. In 1962, Mizukami wrote another fine novel about an actual event, Kiga Kaikyo ("Straits of Starvation"). The Japan National Railways passenger ferry Toya Maru - the only means of mass transit between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido before the construction of a tunnel - was capsized by a tremendous September typhoon in 1954. The 1,155 passengers were all drowned after the ship left its port of Hakodate.

He used his experiences of boyhood and youth as the basis for Echizen Take-ningyo. This is full of the peculiar local colour of a small, creepy village on "the backside of Japan". The descriptions are so detailed, they almost give the feeling of reading a fascinating ethnographical study of a primitive and spooky culture. It is a lost world of vicious ghosts, painful obsessions, utter poverty and the helpless dignity of ugliness. The book became one of Mizukami's most popular works.

Though little known abroad, Mizukami (his name is sometimes transliterated Minakami, and he is translated into French) became a celebrated figure in Japan's cultural life. In 1989 he joined a group of writers on a visit to China. They were housed in the luxurious Beijing Hanten Hotel, facing Tiananmen Square. Early in the morning of 4 June, Mizukami was suddenly awakened by the deafening sounds of armoured tanks lumbering on caterpillar tracks into the square, followed by heavy gunfire. It was the students' revolt, and the violence of the confrontation affected his heart. The Japanese government sent air-force planes to bring the Japanese back to Tokyo - a two-hour flight during which his heart condition worsened, so immediately on landing at Setagaya he was rushed to hospital and placed in an intensive care unit, where it was discovered that one-third of his heart was affected by necrosis. He spent 46 days there.

He retired to a country house in Nagano, but kept on writing, winning more prizes for his biographies of the Buddhist painter and priest Ikkyo and the Zen Buddhist priest and poet Ryokan. He cultivated his bamboos, and made cloth from their fibres. He became a good potter, and had several exhibitions of his works, which included elegant urns for the preservation of the bones and ashes of the departed.

Mizukami had learnt Zen cooking at the many temples he had worked in, and enjoyed entertaining visitors. One such was the British dramatist Arnold Wesker, whose 1959 satirical comedy The Kitchen is based on his experiences as a pastry cook. They apparently got on well together - Wesker amused his host by thinking a dish of tofu was soup.

James Kirkup

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