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Point Zero Reviews

“Do you aspire to be a connoisseur of the best international crime fiction? If so, Seichō Matsumoto’s Point Zero (Bitter Lemon, £9.99, translated by Louise Heal Kawai) should be on your bedside table. Matsumoto is highly regarded, but this remarkable novel is appearing in English some 60-odd years after its Japanese publication. The book was groundbreaking in its use of a female investigator, Teiko Uhara, who travels to a remote coastal city to track down her missing husband. Congruent with the mystery narrative is a nuanced examination of the contrast between traditional and modern Japan, along with the legacy of a country’s military defeat. Become acquainted with a crime master.” --Financial Times


“Matsumoto’s love for the rugged, wintry Japanese landscape is evident in his descriptions, which are verbal equivalents of traditional Japanese art . . .”

In Point Zero, Seicho Matsumoto weaves a compelling mystery out of Japan’s wartime past and postwar trauma. Though not well-known in the United States, Seicho Matsumoto was Japan’s most successful fiction writer in the 1960s. His métier was detective fiction. His 1959 thriller Point Zero was well known enough in Japan to have been twice adapted for the screen (1961 and 2009). Now it appears in a new English translation by Louise Heal Kawai, who has previously translated Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place. In Point Zero, our sleuth is not a policeman or private detective: She is a young Tokyo housewife trying to figure out why her husband suddenly disappeared while on a business trip to Kanazawa. Teiko met her husband Kenichi Uehara through a marriage broker. On paper, his credentials seemed highly respectable. He was 36 years old and had a good job with an advertising agency. Previously based in Kanazawa, he is about to be transferred to their Tokyo office.The body count rises as Teiko begins her search for her husband. First her brother-in-law is poisoned. Cyanide also kills the kind colleague of her husband who tries to help Teiko with her investigation. Another man supposedly commits suicide by jumping off a cliff. As Teiko doggedly pursues clues, she discovers that the murders have something to do with the Japanese prostitutes who serviced American G.I.s after the war. The damaged done to these women was still a scar: “It only took a single shock for old wounds to erupt again with flesh and blood.” Teiko also discovers that her seemingly mild-mannered husband led a complicated secret life. Point Zero is a fine example of classic detective fiction as we follow Teiko trying to make sense of the clues she is offered. How do the deaths connect? Who can be the guilty party? Like the work of early masters like Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, Point Zero is a tale of ratiocination. Teiko thinks through a number of possible scenarios before finally figuring out the mystery. Like many detectives, she prefers to work independently of the police. One of the fascinating aspects of Point Zero is that Keiko is not the typical Japanese woman of the 1950s. She boldly and bravely pursues her leads in what seems to be a male-dominated society. Women still wear traditional dress. Only the former pan pan girls sport bright colors and American fashion. Japanophiles will be fascinated by this picture of Japan in the late 1950s as it is moving into a more prosperous era after the ravages of war. The novel moves from Tokyo to the smaller Kanazawa to small coastal communities. Matsumoto’s love for the rugged, wintry Japanese landscape is evident in his descriptions, which are verbal equivalents of traditional Japanese art: “Another long earthen wall, the remains of a traditional samurai residence, was visible on the far banks of the stream, it’s tiled walls crumbling under the weight of the snow.” ----NY Journal of Books 


"Fall into a fascinating slice of history as you play armchair detective in this absorbing translated crime novel set in Japan during 1958. "If you appreciate plunging yourself into a time and place when you read, then step this way. This rewarding murder mystery was first published in Japan in 1959 and is set just a year before. On the recommendation of a go-between Teiko marries an advertising man, when he disappears after their four day honeymoon she determines to find answers. I love the older Japanese novels that are only now being translated into English, the sense of being totally immersed in the location and period can be extraordinary and that is certainly the case here. Award-winning author Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) is one of Japan’s celebrated mystery writers. There is a meticulous intricacy to the layers of his writing. The observations of human emotion and responses took me to that precise moment. The social history of the time and inclusion of the ‘pan-pan girls’ is fascinating. I want to ask translator Louise Heal Kawai what it was like to read and then translate a novel written sixty years ago as the translation is wonderful, I felt my senses come alive and appreciated where the words had taken them. There is a dual reading joy on offer with Point Zero, the wonderment of where and when, followed by the satisfaction of unravelling the how, what, and why of the mystery. ----LoveReading 


“In this welcome reissue of a lost classic from 1959, a young woman is wed to a businessman via arranged marriage, only to have him disappear soon after. She barely knows the man, much less what could have happened to him, but still finds herself in dogged pursuit of the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. The immediate post-war era in Japan looms large as the backdrop to understanding both how she experiences her losses and how the tragedy came to be.”----CrimeReads 


A different world. In 1958 Tokyo a bright go-ahead young woman agrees to an arranged marriage with an older man. They marry, have an agreeable honeymoon, he goes back to work in a coastal town – and vanishes. She sets out to find him and discover what happened, and it is soon clear that he has not walked out on her. No one at his workplace or in the town has any idea what happened.

Japan in 1958 retains strong memories of and is much affected by the Second World War. It remains a deferential and strikingly courteous country in which direct questions, especially from a woman, are unthinkable. But she, joined by her brother-in-law and a helpful policeman, realize that her new husband is almost certainly dead, and was probably murdered. Conducting an enquiry in this smotheringly polite society seems impossible. But she persists. As do the deaths. We travel with her on a slow-paced and absorbing journey through a Japan that fascinates but no longer exists (any more than 1958 Britain any longer exists) into a tangled and over-long denouement and a very Japanese conclusion.----CrimeTime


“Seicho Matsumoto was one of Japan’s best known and most significant 20th-century crime writers, credited with leading the break from so-called “puzzle fiction”--locked room mysteries, traditional whodunnits and the like—and instead taking the genre towards social commentary and psychological observation. Point Zero, first published in 1959, is amongst his key novels. Its 26-year-old protagonist marries, via a matchmaker, an advertising salesman 10 years her senior: as Teiko gets to know him a little, her hope grows that it’s a partnership which could work for both of them. But then, after only a couple of weeks of marriage, her husband sets out from Tokyo on a business trip to the north—and vanishes. As Teiko investigates she finds a tragedy with its roots in the post-war US occupation, and the ways in which women, only a generation before her own, survived both war and peace. Along with an intriguing mystery, Matsumoto gives an unobtrusive but fascinating lesson in the history and culture of the period between the Japan we know today and its immediate past.”---Morning Star


“Sometimes a novel can serve as a snapshot of national cultural moment. Released in translation more than 50 years after its publication, this mystery by Matsumoto, a revered master of his craft in Japan, offered such social commentary as it focused on so-called pan-pan girls, Japanese women who served American GIs in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Soon after Teiko marries Kenichi Uhara, she finds that her husband is distant. After a short honeymoon, Kenichi simply vanishes. He travels for work often, but what could have happened? On a mission to find out, Teiko travels north to the snow-bound coastal city of Kanazawa and pieces together a mysterious portrait. At times the story misses the forest for the trees, as Matsumoto carefully names prefectures and focuses on train schedules. “Hakui was the start of the Nanao Line that ran up the Noto peninsula,” we find out. Nevertheless, immersive descriptions of the scenic countryside—readers will want to stay in a traditional ryokan (inn) after completing the novel—along with a cinematic ending richly compensate for any pacing irregularities.”----Booklist


“Matsumoto has been called Japan’s Georges Simenon and the comparison is apt. Both writers traffic in dark psychological narratives that plumb the depths of human nature. In “Point Zero,” first published in 1959 and newly translated into English by Louise Heal Kawai, Matsumoto examines the shadowy corners of postwar Japan, with a specific focus on pan-pan women, a loose group of prostitutes, many of them teenagers, who serviced occupying soldiers after the war. As the book opens, Teiko Itane becomes engaged to a businessman named Kenichi Uhara in an arranged marriage. Kenichi leaves Teiko behind in Tokyo to close out some business in the Kanazawa region of Japan; he subsequently disappears, leading Teiko on a quest to determine what happened to him. Matsumoto is not a flashy writer and Kawai’s graceful translation is the epitome of a slow burn; “Point Zero” has much to say about Japanese culture and the ravages of war on a national psyche for readers patient enough to follow the author along the path of his deceptively quiet narrative.”---Toronto Star


“Seicho Matsumoto was one of Japan’s most celebrated mystery writers —with two dozen novels to his name from the late 1950s, at a time when Japan was rebuilding after the war until just before his death in 1992—but only in recent years his work has been translated into English. Point Zero, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, is one of his early novels. The story, set in 1958 and the first part of 1959, takes place mainly in Tokyo and the western port city of Kanazawa and is defined by both the hope of the new era and the agonies of war. Unlike most noir stories of that time, Point Zero is sympathetic when it comes to women, who are not accessories in this book, but rather the heroes of the story. Teiko Itane is a young newlywed in an arranged marriage. Her husband, Kenichi Uhara, at first seems a bit controlling; he won’t agree to Teiko’s suggestion that they honeymoon in Kanazawa, along Japan’s western coast, insisting instead they spend a short honeymoon in the mountains in Yamanishi prefecture, not too far from their home in Tokyo.  Matsumoto’s writing, with Kawai’s skill as translator, consistently includes a feeling of foreboding doom, in this case when the couple arrives at their honeymoon destination.

Night had fallen by the time they arrived in Kofu. At the station, they were greeted by the manager of the ryokan inn they had reserved, a paper lantern in his hand. He ushered them into a waiting car and closed the door behind them, bowing. Teiko was seized by the feeling that she was at a crossroads in her life and was being pushed in a particular direction

Yet the honeymoon turns out to be the happiest part of Teiko’s marriage. She feels as if she and Kenichi have developed a special bond so much so that when they return to Tokyo and he has to travel to the opposite coast to Kanazawa to wrap up his business there, she feels reluctant to let him go. This is where the mystery begins. Kenichi doesn’t return from Kanazawa, even after he sends Teiko a postcard informing her of his return date. When Teiko goes to the police and fills out paperwork to start the search for Kenichi, she still doesn’t know her husband well.

Teiko described her husband’s facial features, noted his height, weight, clothing, the possessions he had likely had with him, the areas he could have visited, each in a separate column. As she wrote, she reflected on how it felt as if she were describing a total stranger… 

She is not aware of it at that time, but Teiko will end up being the main investigator of her husband’s disappearance. The book takes on a Hitchcockian tone, with Teiko enlisting the help of her mother in her investigation. And many other people who try to help Teiko end up being murdered along the way. In her search, Teiko uncovers some of the pan-pan girls, or women who worked as prostitutes during the US occupation after the war. Matsumoto is sympathetic towards the pan-pan girls, which one can’t imagine was typical when he wrote this book in the late 1950s. He has a radio show commentator say: 

With the exception of those who got married right out of the profession, I think most of them washed their hands of it, got themselves a decent job once the economy  allowed it, married a man they met there and never spoke of it again. And I think that is all perfectly reasonable and shouldn’t be censured. 

The final chapter is titled “Point Zero” and leads Teiko to the answers she’s been searching for. The novel and the rural setting of Kanazawa hold up well after all of this time. Despite the slow train travel and the absence of mobile phones, the story often reads as if it could be set today.”----Asian Review of Books




  • Author avatar
    Francois Von Hurter
  • Point ZeroSeicho Matsumoto