“The Aosawa Murders” by Riku Onda

Detail from Japanese cover Detail from Japanese cover

Early in The Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda writes that “it’s impossible to ever really know the truth behind events,” setting the tone of the mystery surrounding a horrible mass murder in 1970s Japan in which seventeen people are poisoned by cyanide after drinking a toast with sake and soft drinks. What starts as a jovial birthday party for three generations of the Aosawa family ends in the family, their relatives, and friends dying in agony. The only survivor in the Aosawa family is Hisako, their blind teenage daughter.

Years after the murders, several characters associated with the case suddenly die. There’s death by arson, two suicides, and a heart attack. One of the suicides is the man who delivered the poisoned drinks to the Aosawa house, but many believe him to be an innocent conduit and not the mastermind of the crime.


The Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda, Alison Watts (trans) (Bitter Lemon Press, February 2020)
The Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda, Alison Watts (trans) (Bitter Lemon Press, February 2020)

Riku Onda uses an unusual structure in that each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character involved in the case: a male police detective, a neighbor who writes a book about the murders a decade after they occurred, the author’s research assistant, and a neighbor who knew the delivery man that brought the poisoned drinks to the party. There’s also Hisako Aosawa, the sole survivor.

Because no one witnessed the tampering of the drinks or knows who placed the order (they were a gift), the case remains unsolved for decades. Due to the severity of the crime and because it remains unsolved, the case stays in the memories of those affected. The male detective, for one, believes that


everybody has a particular time in their life that they find themselves going back to in unguarded moments… For me, it was that case. Working that case in the 1970s was a defining point in my life. Sometimes I’ll be doing something and suddenly don’t know where I am. Whenever that happens, what I always see in the back of my mind is me, working on solving that case. Even after all these years.


Like much good noir, this story is guided by the characters’ fears and doubts, both leading up to the crime and in its aftermath. Onda sets the murders in 1970s Japan, and focuses on a disparity between rich and poor in what has more commonly been portrayed as a relatively egalitarian society. Many of the characters feel resentful of the successful Aosawa family, a family known for its generations of prestigious physicians. One neighborhood boy goes as far as saying that the crime was inevitable because of this prestige and disparity.


We understand instinctively that invisibility is the best strategy for survival. The new kid at school knows he or she mustn’t stick out. They should act as though they’ve been there all along, and not do anything to attract attention. Because being visible carries appalling risk. Conversely, however, those who want to set themselves apart from others actively seek to become visible. That house was visible. And so were the people who lived in it.


In a reminder that book was originally written for a Japanese readership (it was originally published 15 years ago),  the male detective has developed the particularly Japanese habit of folding small origami cranes to stave off his craving for cigarettes:


Cranes have been auspicious symbols since ancient times. Origami cranes were folded originally as part of Shinto rituals, and in fact the art of paper folding itself was believed to be a pathway to the gods. It was so highly regarded as an art that ancient documents record the importance of pouring heart and soul into every bird folded. Tradition has it that the first origami crane was folded at the Ise Grand Shrine, one of the most sacred of Shinto sites, which perhaps explains why priests from the Ise region were responsible for the invention of various crane designs during the Edo period.


Those wishing a novel to parallel the Oscar-winning film Parasite might find that The Aosawa Murders fits the bill. Like the film, it was produced for a domestic audience and focuses on tensions arising from income disparity, something all too timely.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.