“The Tattoo Murder” by Akimitsu Takagi

The Tattoo Murder, Akimitsu Takagi, Deborah Boehm (trans) (Pushkin Vertigo, June 2023) The Tattoo Murder, Akimitsu Takagi, Deborah Boehm (trans) (Pushkin Vertigo, June 2023)

Amid the scorching heat of August 1947, the Edo Tattoo Society hosts a spectacle that captivates the city: a competition to crown the person with the most exquisite body art. Held at a garden restaurant, their first post-War meeting draws a large crowd. Among the attendees is Kenzo Matsushita, recently returned from the war where he served as a military medic. He has only a passing curiosity about tattoos yet becomes completely swept up in the excitement of the evening. 


It was, undeniably, a grand spectacle. Each person was an individual work of art. But seeing such a multitude assembled in one place, with such a profusion of magnificent skin-pictures on their backs, the philosophical observer was tempted to view them as an independent race, separated by their immortal tattoos from the transience of life on earth. With the force of a tidal wave, the sculpturesque group made a profound impression on the spectators.


Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tattoo Murder is a “locked room” mystery, originally published in Japan in 1948 and now available in English translation by Deborah Boehm. The novel introduces Detective Kyosuke Kamizu who appeared in Takagi’s stories from the 1940s to the 1990s. A master of crime writing, Takagi was also passionate about tattoos; in fact, the recently published book The Tattoo Writer showcases a collection of his black and white photography of Tokyo’s tattoo scene during the mid-20th century. The accurate details of tattoo artistry in postwar Japan add to this unique and gripping mystery novel.


At the competition, no one made a bigger impression on Kenzo than Kinue Nomura. She is adorned with a magnificent tattoo of a snake, the familiar of sorcerer Orochimaru from Japanese folklore. Kenzo had met her by chance outside the venue, and she confided in him that she feared for her life. Later, when a dismembered body is discovered in the locked bathroom of her house, Kenzo resolves to find the killer.

Only the severed head and limbs of the body are found, so it is believed that the murderer escaped with the Kinue’s torso, and thus her distinctive tattoo. Her father was a tattooist, and his three grown children are connected by their body art even though they are now separated: her brother Tsunetaro went to the Philippines in 1943 and her sister Tamae was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, and neither has been seen since. As Kinue explains, they were each adorned with the inked embodiment of old folk tales.


“Anyway, Orochimaru has a big snake as his sorcerer’s familiar, right?… If you read the story, you’ll see that Jiraiya’s familiar was a giant toad, and Tsunedahime was always seen riding on an enormous slug. Those three characters lived in the depths of Mount Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, and they were constantly competing to see who could create the wickedest, most powerful spells. My father saw an old woodblock-print version of the story, and he fell in love with the images. So he tattooed the three curses on his three children–Jiraiya on my older brother, Tsunedahime on my sister Tamai, and Orochimaru on me.”


Detective Chief Inspector Daiyu Matsushita, Kenzo’s older brother, is assigned to the case. He has a long list of suspects Kenzo is eager to help with the investigation. Their pursuit of the truth takes them through a labyrinth of motives and relationships, revealing the complexity of human connections and the blurred boundaries between affection and vengeance.

The murderer could be someone related to the Mogami Group—a construction company notorious for its unsavory connections; both Kenzo and Kinue are acquainted with the Mogami brothers, Hisashi and Takezo. Alternatively, it could be Professor Hayakawa, also known as Dr. Tattoo, an eccentric academic who is eager to add a photograph of Kinue’s tattoo to his collection at the university. Or perhaps a friend or lover from Kinue’s past has resurfaced.

Unable to make sense of the puzzle, Kenzo finally enlists the help of his brilliant friend Kyosuke Kamizu, who is introduced surprisingly late in the book. To solve the mystery, they race through the underworld of Tokyo, in pursuit of a ruthless killer.

Mary Hillis (@mhillis) is a teacher and writer based in Japan.