The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

Japan, 1936.  An eccentric artist named Heikichi Umezawa is found dead – murdered in his locked studio.  Along with his dead body, detectives also find his journal or “will,” describing a gruesome project he had planned to carry out.  A staunch believer of astrology and the occult, Heikichi writes in his journal that his obsession with women has inspired him to create the perfect one, whom he will name Azoth.  To execute his plan, Heikichi details how he will need to kill six women and use different parts of their bodies based on their astrological signs to create a perfect specimen, namely, Azoth. However, before Heikichi can carry out his plan, he is brutally murdered one snowy evening, alone in his studio.  Police investigators are baffled by Heikichi’s death; by how the murderer or murderers could have killed him in his room that can only be locked from the inside.

Unfortunately for the police investigators, the mystery behind Heikichi Umezawa was just beginning.  A few days later, his eldest stepdaughter is also found murdered and raped in her home.  A few weeks later, his six daughters and stepdaughters go missing. The six girls are found one by one, dead, with their bodies cut up and missing the  parts specified by Heikichi to make Azoth.

The gruesome deaths came to be known as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which baffled police investigators, amateur detectives, and mystery lovers  throughout Japan.  How had Heikichi’s plan been carried out after his death?  Who killed the Umezawa girls?  Did the killer really create Azoth, and if so, where was she hidden?  Did Heikichi fake his own death to carry out his grand plan?  These are just some of the questions that plagued those obsessed with the case.

Shortly after the occurrence of the Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Japan was devastated by World War II, and the case was closed, unsolved.  However, after the war, there was a renewed interest in Heikichi Umezawa and the strange case, and countless books were written about the crime, each author presenting his own hypotheses about what really happened.  In 1979, 43 years after the murders, the case is rediscovered by mystery buff Kazumi Ishioka and his friend astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai, who owing to a bet try to solve the case and end the mystery of the Tokyo Zodiac Murders.  By reviewing all the known facts about the case and following leads, Kazumi and Kiyoshi come up with their own hypotheses about what really happened to Heikichi, the Umezawa girls, and Azoth and try to provide answers to the case that is so complicated it has remained unsolved of more than 40 years.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada is a unique mystery novel known in Japan as honkaku or “orthodox” or “authentic.”  I don’t exactly know what it means for a mystery to be “orthodox” or “authentic,” but honkoku novels differ from typical mystery novels or psychological thrillers in that they focus not on characters or themes but on plot and the placement of clues for the mystery.  Honkaku mystery novels are designed to be interactive, with the author creating a story for the readers to solve along with the characters in the novel.  According to the explanation at the back of the novel, unlike a typical mystery novel that tries to deceive readers regarding the identity of a killer, authors of honkaku novels don’t hide anything from their readers.  In fact, they provide all the clues needed for the readers to try and solve the case on their own.

Honkaku mystery novels focus on the mystery and the clues provided to the readers, which may explains the blandness of this novel’s characters, lack of depth and personal background, and their forced and awkward dialogue.  At first I thought it might be because of poor translation, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders being originally written in Japanese. However, after learning that it belongs to a special type of mystery subgenre, which is designed to engage readers solve the mystery, it made sense that the novel’s strengths lay in the story about the Umezawa killings and not on the two main characters, Kazumi and Kiyoshi.  Twice in the novel, the author, Soji Shimada, even interrupts the story to write notes addressed to the readers.  In his first note, he tells the reader that he has now provided all the clues the reader would need to solve the mystery. In the second note shortly after the first one, Shimada tells the reader to focus on certain questions that he/she can surely answer based on the clues already provided.

Being a fan of mystery and the macabre, I found the plot of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders interesting.  At first I was turned off by Kazumi and Kiyoshi’s lack of depth and chemistry and the awkward dialogue, but upon learning that the novel is a honkaku, I was able to move past the lackluster storytelling and concentrate on the mystery presented.  Unfortunately, though the author assured me that I had all the clues needed to solve the puzzle, I was unable to solve the mystery on my own and ultimately had to rely on Kazumi and Kiyoshi to unravel the mystery.  The locked room mystery will be familiar to anyone who has read Agatha Christie novels, but the added gruesomeness of the deaths and dismemberment of the Umezawa girls made for a highly compelling and complicated puzzle.  The unexpected note from the author to me (or the reader) was also an added surprise that I found unique and original.

I can understand how some people would consider this novel boring.  It is not designed to transport readers to strange places or give them insights into the complicated minds of psychopaths.  It really is recommended for those who want to exercise their brains and engage in a little mental activity and to analyze clues and hints provided by the author to solve a complicated albeit gruesome mystery.


The Tokyo Zodiac Murders [Senseijutsu Satsujinjiken] (1981) – Soji Shimada.  Published in English in 2004.

Pushkin Vertigo; 319 pages (paperback)

Personal rating:  2.5/5

4 thoughts on “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

  1. I’ve never come across anything like this before. I shall have to ask my Japan colleagues about the genre. As you say once you realise the objective is to turn the reader into a detective then the lack of other elements you’d expect in a novel make more sense. I think I would still want to feel that sense of reading about “real” people though otherwise it just becomes a puzzle and not a novel.

    • It’s my first time to encounter the genre as well. It’s quite fascinating. I know what you mean…I was a bit disappointed in the writing in general. It could have been a much better novel if the author developed the characters more.

    • It was very challenging. To be honest, when the truth was revealed, it was something I probably never would’ve guessed…or at least not right away. Maybe given more time and if I really put in some serious effort I could solve it eventually…..??

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