Point Zero

Image of Point Zero
Release Date: 
March 26, 2024
Bitter Lemon Press
Reviewed by: 

“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.”