Hideo Yokoyama's Six Four a "riveting" insight into Japanese character

Six Four, Hideo Yokoyama
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Six Four, Hideo Yokoyama

Six Four
Hideo Yokoyama
Quercus, $38

To an occidental reader, Six Four is a singular work of crime fiction and will perhaps only cease to be so when more of the author's work becomes available in translation. It has 80 chapters and is more than 600 pages in length and is without doubt a police procedural novel. But there are no men dressed in black, armed to the teeth ramming their way into locked houses at 4am. In fact, if one discounts psychological angst, no-one is hurt. Although the book seemed daunting at the start, within a few pages the author had one by the scruff of the neck.

The main character is Yoshinobu Mikami. A few years previously he had been a detective but is now an administrator in charge of the relationship of the police with the press. A few years before the setting of the book, he and his wife lost their teenaged daughter. She simply walked out, having spent some months locked in her room, abjectly miserable about her appearance. In spite of police searches she has not yet been found.

Six Four refers to the name the police have given to a case of abduction, ransom demand and the murder of the abducted young girl. It happened 14 years ago and they have not yet caught the murderer. Well on in the progression of the book, another abduction takes place, with uncanny similarities to the previous one.

Thus are the bare bones of the story, which might not sound altogether promising. However, the book becomes increasingly riveting. It gives profound insights into Japanese character and what it is that drives everyday interactions – mainly in the police and the press, but there is no reason to suppose that these are especially distinctive. 

So, it becomes a novel about power in its many forms, some of which are penetratingly subtle. It is about the importance of maintaining face at any cost, the hiding of emotional expression, and the significance of shame in the Japanese way of being. Superficial politeness (mainly via bowing and carefully controlled eye-gaze) is basic to most encounters, but that is only the start of wonderfully described interpersonal intricacies.

Six Four is a book that moves very slowly and yet in which a great deal happens. The only problem is remembering from page to page who the characters are. Reasonably enough, they all have Japanese names, not one of which this reader had seen previously. And, with this degree of ignorance, it is not even possible to determine gender from name. But, in the end this did not matter; context usually provided a clue.

The book was so enjoyable that as the end neared, one wanted it to move even more slowly than it had been.

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