This time we will begin a novel by a really controversial, award-winning Japanese novelist Kanae Minato. Though she is more famous for a different novel, translated as Confessions in English, the novel we’ll be looking at this time is The Snow White Murder Case (湊かなえの「白ゆき姫殺人事件」), which was made into a movie a few years ago. I haven’t seen the movie, but the novel looks challenging. I don’t think it has been translated into English, but you can get the Japanese version here:
It came with two covers, one over the top of the other; the outside cover art from the movie, which I posted above, and the second cover that looks far more sinister which is also on the Amazon edition.
Published in 2014, it runs 312 pages with six chapters and an explanation section at the end, though Japanese novels generally tend to have an author afterword. I’m not sure yet if that’s what is at the end. I’ll be looking at the first chapter this time, titled “Colleague 1.” Each chapter is written from the perspective of different characters, and the first chapter follows the viewpoint of Risako Kano. It looks like a pretty complex format and structure just glancing over the chapters. The final chapter appears to be all done on a Twitter style application.
Risako Kano’s chapter is split into four segments, probably email, with a very conversational tone. In segment one, the reader isn’t told whom she is talking to in any formal way. I can only assume she’s talking to Emi Mitsushima, whom she calls Mi-chan, but I had to dig around the internet to figure out who Mi-chan was exactly since many of the characters have “mi” in their names. Risako asks if her listener is awake and heard the big news about the police finding a corpse in Shigure Valley’s forest in T town and T prefecture. It has been pierced more than ten times with a sharp weapon, doused in kerosene, then set on fire. When police detectives come to Risako’s workplace to investigate, she hears the murder victims’s name for the first time, Noriko Miki. Risako recognizes the name and is very horrified by the murder.
The novel gets briefly into the company’s training program for new workers, how they are partnered with a senior employee for a few years when they first start. Risako was assigned to be Noriko Miki’s partner, and Mi-chan was assigned to another girl named Miki Shirono. There is some interesting name wordplay going on between Noriko and Shirono’s names that the text references, namely that they both have Miki in their name, though spelled differently. Shirono’s name is Miki using the characters for beautiful princess or beauty (美姫), whereas Noriko’s name Miki uses the characters meaning three trees (三木). Yet everyone calls Noriko Miki by Noriko-san and Miki Shirono as Shirono-san, avoiding the duplicate name altogether.
Although Noriko lived at home with her parents, she still had no money to spend. She liked shopping and spent all of her pay on it. Risako and Noriko went together to a boutique to buy a brand name dress, but Risako was born in the countryside, got into the national university, and looked for an opportunity to get a job in the city, which wasquite a different lifestyle than Noriko’s. When they get a bonus, Noriko wants to treat her, but Noriko wonders what she’s thinking.
The communication then gets chatty about weekend plans in Tokyo and looking on YouTube for a group of violinists called the Serizawa Brothers, which appears to be a real group.
The rest of the email talks about Noriko having this Serizawa Brothers CD, how it moved Risako to tears, and going to this concert with an emphasis on two of the three band members in particular. She laments how such a good person could be murdered. Then she asks if Noriko had a boyfriend. Risako answers herself, saying that Noriko didn’t since she never mentioned one, and Risako didn’t think it was strange. She also speculates if Noriko has a stalker, then describes a time when they went out for tofu with coworkers.
In segment two, Risako starts off talking about the update on the “Shigure Valley Office Lady Murder Case.” An old woman picking vegetables in the mountains came across the corpse, and Risako gives a timeline of the news broadcasts and the certain identification of the body over a few days in early March. She describes how the police came and discovered her close connection to Noriko, and then she mentions something about participating in a company walk during the autumn and taking lunch to eat. There had been a police search when Noriko hadn’t returned home. Later Risako was worried when Noriko was absent from work but hadn’t thought she would turn out to be a murder victim.
The next part flashes back to right before Noriko’s death. The company required Risako to go to a farewell party for one of Risako’s colleagues, and they went to a restaurant named “The Water Mill” together, which was her first time there. She also describes their second outing for karaoke afterward. Noriko was present too, and Risako mentions that neither Risako nor Mi-chan have an alibi on the night of the murder; Mi-chan went to a third place for a snack later by herself. This situation comes up at their company since many employees participated in the earlier activities that evening. There are a lot of double and triple negatives in these couple of sentences, which is pretty challenging, but I’m guessing that Risako didn’t expect to become a suspect in her friend’s death but did because they were so close.
She goes on to analyze the proximity of various train stations to Noriko’s house and the company, then the timing of everyone leaving for the party as well as when the killer would have struck.
In segment three, Risako has more information. Mi-chan came over to Risako’s house to drink a bit the night before, and Risako put forward her pet theory that Shirono killed Noriko, detailing her movements on the night of the farewell party. There’s a lot of talk about eating and food in this first chapter, and Risako reflects on a gathering where they are serving cake at work for a birthday party where the murderer may have been present. They talk about what they consider Shirono’s suspicious behavior. Risako’s speculation about the food makes the murder mystery sound considerably less serious, however, and she also wonders if the case is connected to the theft of a Serizawa Brothers ball-point pen. The discussion about poisoned cream puffs and the missing pen go on for quite a few pages, though perhaps those are just red herrings in figuring out what happened.
In segment four, Risako says the police are finally pursuing Shirono as a suspect, and she tells Mi-chan she didn’t tell the police about her suspicions. Something came out about a man at the company, Makita, who saw Noriko in a car with another woman leaving the parking lot at 8:30 PM on the day she disappeared. Noriko was in the passenger seat, while the other woman was in the driver’s seat, but he doesn’t have that detailed of a description of the car or woman. His information becomes important eyewitness testimony, pointing to the fact that Noriko went to the Water Mill restaurant with Shirono.
Another man at the office Ozawa-san also has testimony on the event. At about 10PM he saw Shirono running toward the train station. The next day, Shirono’s name shows up on the company white board showing her on extended leave. Risako speculates on how Shirono could have killed Noriko that night and gone back to the train station. But it doesn’t quite make sense that Shirono would ditch her car and escape by train. She also speculates if Shirono was the sole killer or if she had help. She then considers the way the news broadcasts on TV have switched using “The Shigure Valley OL Murder Case” moniker to “The Snow White Murder Case,” referencing Noriko as Snow White.
Towards the end of segment four, Risako explains case name change in more depth, disagreeing with the news’ usage of it. She notes that “Snow White” was also a face cleanser using rice powder that the company sold which was supposed to make skin whiter. I think this new case name came from the internet, though the real twist here is the Japanese wordplay that Risako emphasizes. I was thinking when I started to read this that “The Snow White Murder Case” title was referring to the victim Noriko Miki, but in fact it is a play on the bizarre way Miki Shirono’s name is written in kanji, although Risako does note that Noriko looked like Snow White with her fair skin and black hair.
As I mentioned earlier, her first name Miki literally reads beautiful princess, but her last name is also evocative of fairy tales. Shirono literally reads castle on a plain, 城野. She is a beautiful princess in a castle, therefore Snow White. Risako observes how common her own name is in contrast to that of the potential murderer. I suppose this is why the case actually seems to go by two names here for the reader, one for the victim, “ The Shigure Valley Office Lady Murder Case,” and one for the suspected killer, “The Snow White Murder Case.” Now that Shirono is gone on “leave,” perhaps we have two parallel cases to unravel. An interesting development.
At the end of chapter 1 is a small notation in the corner reading “Document 1 (223 page~) Reference,” which suggests the contents are part of the official investigation record.
We’ll continue to delve into the mystery next time.
Part one of a three part series.