“I had a terrible feeling about this.”
The Japanese crime novel, The Village of Eight Graves, from Seishi Yokomizo is number 35 in the Detective Kindaichi series. The title, and the subsequent legend about how this remote village got its name, pulled me into the story right away. The village, we are told, is located “amid the desolate mountains on the border of Tottori and Okayama prefectures.” It sounds like a miserable place. If you are going to live in the middle of nowhere, it should at least be picturesque, but this area renders poor farming. With its “inhospitable climate” the villagers can barely grow enough food, and the “main industries” are charcoal making and cattle. In the 16th century, 8 rebel samurai fled, and arrived at the village with a considerable amount of gold. All is well at first, but a reward is posted for the rebel samurai. The villagers decide to murder the samurai and keep the gold. The villagers got the bounty for the dead samurai but never found the gold. …
After this incident, terrible things began to happen in the village. It was as though the villagers were cursed with bad luck, and then one day a member of the powerful Tajimi family went berserk, killed seven members of his own family and punctuated the slaughter by the ultimate party trick, self-decapitation. Interesting to note, the Tajimi family had been major players in the murders of the 8 samurai. ..
Since this incident, “hereditary madness had been passed down through the generations of the [Tajimi] family.” Fast forward to the 1920s. …. Yoko Tajimi, a married man, “developed an infatuation” for a teenage girl named Tsuroko. Yozo carries her off, locks her in his storehouse, and repeatedly rapes her. Yozo refused to let her go and her terrified family persuaded Tsuroko to become Yozo’s mistress. She agrees and is released from imprisonment but still mauled by Yozo. It’s a horrible situation with Yozo’s “crazed ferocity” that “no ordinary woman” could tolerate. Tsuroko keeps running away but this only provokes Yozo’s “crazed fury.” And the villagers keep begging Tsuroko to return, so there’s an atmosphere of terrified collusion. Eventually Tsuroko becomes pregnant and has a baby boy named Tatsuya. Rumours swirl through the village that the child may be the son of the local teacher, Kamei, the man Tsuroko loves, and honestly, the villagers should keep their friggin’ mouths shut! Tsuroko runs off after Yozo brands the baby with burning hot tongs. Subsequently Yozo goes on a killing frenzy and slaughters 32 villagers. Yozo disappears.
26 more years pass, and now it’s post WWII Japan….Tsuroko and Yozo’s child is now a man of 29. He fought in WWII and returned home to Kobe. His mother is long dead and his stepfather has been killed during the bombing. Tatsuya, who has no idea about the violence in his past, is contacted by a lawyer who asks to see identity papers and then asks to see Tatsuya’s scars from the decades-old branding. The lawyer explains that he has been hired by a wealthy man, a relative of Tatsuya’s to locate him. Tatsuya finally learns of his bloody past and then receives an anonymous letter telling him never to return to the Village of Eight Graves. The letter warns that if he dares to return, “there will be blood!” But the killings start right away–even before Tatsuya gets to the Village of Eight Graves. Tatsuya’s life is spinning out of control–long-lost relatives, buried treasure, death threats, murder, ancient curses, a beautiful woman, hereditary madness all of these await Tatsuya at the Village of Eight Graves.
It takes a while to get into the story, and it has its slow moments, but it’s gripping once all the characters slot into place. The story’s establishes that the villagers have constructed an unhealthy society of murder and cooperation with violence. Tatsuya’s narrative is particularly interesting as it’s easy to imagine his feelings when he discovers his bloody, violent past and confronts the possibility of hereditary madness:
Maybe I did have some dark later ego lurking inside me, and this other me was committing all manner of horrors without my knowing it.
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk