SENSEI, by John Donohue. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 258 pp., 2004, $23.95 (cloth).
For the ninth time since his 1994 debut in “Shinju,” Sano Ichiro (“the shogun’s most honorable investigator of events, situations and people”) is back pounding the streets of 17th-century Edo, tracking down yet another murderer.
“The Perfumed Sleeve” is set in 1694, the seventh year of the Genroku Era (1688-1703), when Japan was led by Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, a consummate eccentric remembered as the “Dog Shogun” for his strict edicts to protect stray canines.
Laura Joh Rowland portrays Tsunayoshi as a dithering fool, completely manipulated by his chamberlain Yanagisawa, a ruthless schemer who also happens to be Tsunayoshi’s homosexual lover, and who has entertained a visceral hatred for the upright Sano since the series began.
In the strict sense, Rowland’s Edo Period whodunits are neither classic puzzlers nor historical novels; but she does an exceptionally good job of assembling a cast of colorfully eccentric characters and fitting them into excruciatingly complicated situations. In “Black Lotus” (2002), a murderous religious cult led by a charismatic, mystical figure conspired to take over of Japan — a plot no doubt inspired by events here in 1995. “The Dragon King’s Palace” (2003) featured a sexually compulsive villain who abducted women, including the shogun’s elderly mother and Sano’s wife.
This time, a senior adviser to the shogun, Makino Narisada, is found assassinated. Sano is forced to honor Makino’s posthumous request to investigate the death, which couldn’t happen at a worse time, as Sano and his small band of samurai are caught in a vicious power struggle between the Yanagisawa and Matsudaira factions.
Sano reluctantly allows his strong-willed wife, Reiko, to go undercover as a maid in the murdered man’s household and she discovers a secret chamber that reveals the deceased was up to his ears in all kinds of sexual perversions. The question is: Was this a factor in his demise?
Thus, assisted by his wife and loyal sidekick Hirata, Sano nimbly navigates a gantlet of pitfalls and obstructions, most of them intentionally aimed at preventing him from doing his job. Herein lies the true appeal of Rowland’s stories, which stand out as a cross between Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” and a Harold Lloyd movie where the waiter, dangling one-handed from an upper story window ledge, somehow manages to make it to the patron’s table without spilling a drop of soup. Critics who accuse her of taking too many liberties with Japanese history fail to recognize her genius at pulling off these literary acrobatics.
A deadly killer from Japan, a master of the martial arts, announces his arrival in New York City by going on a bloody vendetta. Hey, just a minute, didn’t Eric Van Lustbader adopt that very same formula in ” The Ninja,” back in 1980?
Well, this time the killer, who signs his work “Ronin,” appears bent on slaying one Japanese martial arts master after the next. That’s illegal; so the police close in, and the killer makes mincemeat out of a New York homicide cop. The downed officer just happens to be the partner of Mick, older brother of part-time college professor and full-time martial arts enthusiast Connor Burke. So now you have two brothers: a hard-nosed New York cop with no interest in “understanding” esoteric criminals aside from putting them away (think Michael Douglas in “Black Rain”), and an intellectual who is deeply into Asian martial arts.
Lustbader’s “Ninja” and subsequent books sold well because the author made sure to put more emphasis on the “lust” and less on the “bader,” i.e., his books were sprinkled with sexual passages designed to cause steam to emit from readers’ ears. John Donohue, however, is a decent writer and has thoroughly researched Asian martial arts, but, somewhat disappointingly, has dispensed with the sex altogether.
As in the Lustbader books, “Sensei” does carry an undertone of racialism, since the outcome of the life-or-death conflict hinges on whether a foreign disciple of the sensei can ever fully comprehend the true “way” of Japanese Bushido. But a quarter century after “Ninja,” more deference is paid to political correctness. Yamashita sensei may be skeptical, but now at least he knows better than to refer to his star pupil as a “barbarian gaijin.”
As it turns out, both Connor and Ronin are non-Japanese “outsiders.” The former knows his place and accepts it; the latter, rebelling against what he perceives as Japanese discrimination, goes on a murderous rampage. Naturally the two are fated to fight a duel to the death.
Like the “Karate Kid” film series, “Sensei” includes the obligatory passage featuring a stereotyped Alpha-male who gets too big for his britches and must be cut down by someone who understands the true “way.” We testosterone-driven humans, it seems, simply can’t escape our instinct to butt heads. Adding a veneer of Eastern philosophy makes the violence appear somewhat more elegant, but in the end, no less gratuitous.