Something about crime and mystery fascinates the human imagination. From Sherlock super-fans – to serial killer documentary bingers – to novel readers: people across the world love a dose of mystery to get their hearts racing and brains whirring.
With particular skill, Japanese authors cast crime, thriller and mystery stories with a vivid reality that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.
Whether you’re infatuated with Keigo Higashino’s hard-boiled detective novels, Seishi Yokomizo’s cosy mysteries (small town mysteries with less graphic material), or police-led investigation novels like Hideo Yokoyoma’s Six Four – readers are guaranteed to find jaw-dropping Japanese crime and mystery novels to suit their tastes.
Iyamisu (イヤミス) or ‘eww mystery’ is a sub-genre created by mystery critic Aoi Shimotsuki in 2006 to classify novels which explore the darkest and most disturbing sides of human beings. As the name suggests, they often contain spine-chilling and gut-wrenching content which draws out an ‘eww!!’ from the reader.
See some of our favourite 'eww mystery' type novels below:
Mahokaru Numata: Nan-Core
(Translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies)
Mahokaru Numata deserves great credit for raising the profile of ‘eww mystery’ novels. Her novel Nan-Core centres on a young man called Ryosuke who, on visiting his parents’ home, finds three journals in the bottom of his father’s closet containing detailed murder descriptions. The novel centres around the question: are these gruesome accounts fact or fiction?
Despite the graphic content, Nan-Core has a melodic and lingering feel as the plot thickens. One of Ryosuke’s employees disappears, and mystery heightens. Mahokaru Numata presents a novel about doubting the people closest to you and speaks to those who have ever had a hint of intuition their parents might just be hiding something...
Nan-Core was translated into English in 2015 and remains Mahokaru Numata’s only novel available in English today. A perfect place to start for a taste of iyamisu.
Kanae Minato: Confessions
(Translated by Stephen Synder)
Hailed as ‘The Queen of Iyamisu’ because of the shocking ‘eww mystery’ scenes in her novels, meet Kinae Minato. Her first novel, Confessions (2008), sold over three million copies in Japan and more worldwide in English-translation (2014).
After 4-year-old girl (Manami) drowns to death in a school swimming pool, her mother Yuko (a teacher at the same school) suspects two 13-year-old boys from her class of killing her. In a jaw-dropping retirement speech to the class to begin the novel, she drops strong hints that she knows who they are and what they’ve done – and promises to enact her revenge. Yuko even reveals her first move: declaring she’s spiked the culprits’ milk with the blood of her ex-fiancé, who has AIDS.
In the 2nd person, Kanae Minato’s characters provide unique accounts of Manami’s drowning – through a diary, letter, blog and more – highlighting differences in perception. The iyamisu element of this novel is less focused on the perpetrators of the crime, but rather the deeply thought-out and twisted ways Yuko plans her revenge as she wishes to destroy the boys’ lives from the inside out. As she says:
‘It’s much easier to condemn people who do the wrong thing than it is to do the right thing yourself.’
A pulsating must-read. Also see Penance (English-translated in 2017)
Masako Togawa: The Lady Killer
(Translated by Simon Grove)
Translated into English 45 years after its publication in 1963, The Lady Killer is one of Masako Togawa’s most gripping works. The once singer-songwriter, actress, LGBTQ+ activist, former night club owner, and mystery novelist tells a tale of lust, mystery and murder.
Ichiro Honda works in Tokyo during the week and visits his wife in Osaka on the weekends. But he’s got a secret no-one knows: he prowls the nightclubs and bars of Shinjuku in search of women, takes them to nearby hotels for sex (where he checks in with a fake names), and records details of his sexual conquests.
When news breaks of these women’s murders, a murder trail comes to light and he’s naturally suspected. But is all what it seems?
With ominous atmosphere and ambiguity sprinkled throughout, Masako Togawa gives us a psychological and pulsating thriller with a gut-wrenching splash of iyamisu that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
Natsuo Kirino: Grotesque
(Translated by Rebecca Copeland)
Bestselling author Natsuo Kirino turns the murders of two Tokyo prostitutes into an examination of societal expectation, capitalism, and misogyny through a look at their pasts (and those of two other women) at the same expensive high-school. As we see the diaries of two prostitutes and their alleged murderer, we begin to understand Japan’s relentless quest for progress, an unfair class system and the dominant role of men in Japanese society.
‘In order to induce the process of decay, water is necessary. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water’.
Grisly details come to light, and will make you throw more than questioning glance at patriarchal society. The reader is probed to ask ‘Why?’ 1) these murders have happened and 2) sexual inequality exists. Murder, feminism and 'eww mystery' combine to create a bestselling novel that will make your skin crawl.
Other novels with iyamisu elements:
- Penance by Kinae Minato
- The Dark Maidens by Rikako Akiyoshi
- The Master Key by Masako Togawa
- Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami
- The Cat in the Coffin by Mariko Koike
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