I had only been in Japan for a couple of days, but I had already perfected my answer to the constant question: why are you studying Japanese? My answer: because I like Japanese detective fiction. Which always leads to discussions about how I got to know about Japanese detective fiction, etc. But one day, I was sitting in front of the university, when a friend came to me with a story about Western detective fiction. It didn’t hit me until much later, but it must have been a strange sight: Me, a Chinese-Dutch, sitting there talking with a Korean girl, in Japanese, in Japan about famous Western detective fiction like the Poirot and Arsène Lupin novels. It doesn’t get more international than this, I thought. Until then, I had actually never thought about how Western detective fiction was seen in Japan (or Asia in general for that matter). Or how people get to know them.
But of course, as the modern crime fiction did start in the Western world, it is no big surprise that names like Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are well known there, just like they are here. But still, I did wonder how people in Asia perceive the Western detectives.
Raised in the Netherlands, I know my first encounter as a child with Agatha Christie was through the TV show Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet. Even now, Suchet is Poirot for me. My first real memory of Holmes is an old cartoon of The Valley of Fear (starring Peter O’Toole as Holmes’ voice). But would Japanese children get to learn about these famous detectives, and if so, what would their impression be?
One of the funnier encounters I had with a Japanese version of Sherlock Holmes was when I happened to stumble on a new release of Sherlock Holmes story collection in a nearby bookstore. What was so interesting about this release was that it featured a specially drawn cover by the artist Katsura Hoshino, who writes and illustrates the popular comic D.Gray-man. A somewhat enigmatic Holmes watches over a busy Watson, running around with manuscripts. The contents were just a selection of Holmes story translations, and Hoshino only drew the cover, no other illustrations are present in this release. However, this was clearly an attempt by the publisher to entice children and young adolescents to pick up the book by using the Hoshino name. I guess I fell for the trap, too, though.
A more original take on Holmes is Sherlock Hound (1984-1985), which is an animated series where every character is depicted as an anthropomorphic dog. While the stories were original, it was clear to anyone who our sleuthing dog was based upon. The series was relatively popular and was in fact released in the United States and is still viewable. An interesting fact is that a lot of episodes of this series were directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the prominent film director famous for movies like Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky.
More recent is the NHK cartoon series Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple (2004-2005), which is, like the title suggests, a series based on the classics by Agatha Christie. The worlds of Poirot and Marple were linked together by the original character Mabel West, who was a relative of Mrs. Marple and assistant to Poirot. What is quite surprising is how faithful the adaption was to the original work, ignoring Mabel. Some logical changes have been made, like clues that rely heavily on English idioms that don’t translate or changing the name of Inspector Japp to Sharpe, probably due to the derogatory implications ‘Jap’ has. All in all though, it’s a pretty amusing adaption of the original work into Japanese. I am quite surprised actually that Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple hasn’t been released to western audiences, as I think it would make quite a nice introduction for the younger public to Christie’s work.
Now, if only Japanese detectives were as well represented outside their borders!
Ho-Ling Wong blogs at Ho-Ling no Jikenbo