I confess I’d no idea what I was getting into when I opened this book. Just that the cover looked, ah so inviting – the Bushi( Or Samurai) with his straw-hat pulled down and katana flashing standing beside the flowing rice-fields and the ominous darkness staining the sky behind him – trust me, any well-written book on Medieval Japan is irresistible. And the writing looked good and fresh. And I plunged in.
On the whole, Yamada Monogatari: To Break the demon gate is a pretty well-written fictional account based on the Medieval Japanese settings. Filled with sinister court-intrigue, supernatural beings from the Japanese mythology and a whole lot of politicking, featuring Yamada Na Goji; A minor noble-lord now disgraced from the courts, relegated to being a supernatural detective owing to his excellent knowledge of the Japanese demons with a drinking problem.
Further digging revealed that Richard Parks has already done a book that introduces the reader to Yamada Goji-san in a series of ten short stories, a sort of novelization of his adventures that feature him and his best friend, Kenji – a Buddhist priest with again a predilection for sake and other sorts of wine. So Richard actually does a pretty fantastic job of selling the settings of pre-samurai Japan – complete with its tanka (short poems), the ghostly spirits of Onis and Reis that roam the streets after dark, the Emperor who is nothing short of God, the noblemen and princesses in love and of course the power-hungry players of the court who would willingly sell their soul to the devil.
Lord Yamada-san is actually like a Japanese Holmes without the eccentricities and quirks that make him lovable. As the central character who drives the narrative, Yamada-san is just a bit off-color. Maybe it is a personal choice but those nervous bouts of energy that lead Holmes and his faith accomplice’ Watson on chases across grey drab London – Nail biting stuff, ultimately rewarding and extremely satisfying in the final reveal of the mystery. That is sorely missing. The author’s treatment of the mystery is satisfactory and well couched in these settings that he brings alive. But after racing through the book, you are left with this feeling that this book clearly is more of starter in a series. Setting the reader up with Goji-san whose intellectual capabilities and the ability to drown in sake are unmatched. Matched only perhaps by the extremely unreliable Kenji-san. Did someone mention Katana? Or a Tachi? Nope. Didn’t see that in action here.
Richard’s characters are all well-etched out with their own grey motives that start and end with the crown-emperor but somehow, they failed to connect. It isn’t anything to do with the prose either. I am a sucker for anything Japanese. Shogun is the single-most impactful book of my childhood. But then reading such leaves you with the distinct impression that the tales are all shot with some kinds of impending gloomy disaster. You know the love is doomed. Extremely beautiful noble-woman will be promised to the Emperor. So why does the hero even try? He should know it is doomed.
It’s probably a classic example of a bang-up setting (pre-samurai Japan) mixed with fantastic supernatural beings ( Onis, Reis) suffering from a plot that’s been done a thousand times before. I would probably go back and revisit Yamada Goji-san’s adventures but It isn’t going to jump to the top of my queue.