Literature: Sano Ichiro

When investigation meets feudal Japanese politics.
Sano Ichirō is a series of mystery novels by Laura Joh Rowland set in 17th century Japan. Sano Ichirō is a dedicated and honorable Samurai from humble origins who has risen to become the Shogun's Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. As he works his way through these mysteries, he must also navigate the tricky intricacies of the shogun's court, an issue compounded by the weak-willed Shogun Tokugawa and his manipulative Chamberlain, Yanagisawa, who sees Sano as a threat to his own considerable power. Because of his status, each of the mysteries in the books link to some type of court intrigue, usually high-ranking members or relatives of the shogun, and often Sano finds his reputation, if not his life, on the line if he fails in solving them.

Sano has allies of his own, however. Most notable are his wife Reiko, a keen Amateur Sleuth and martial artist who uses her high status to find clues within the social circles of women and other places Sano cannot go without attracting notice, Hirata, Sano's loyal retainer who has developed special martial arts techniques to help him in his work, and Dr. Ito, a doctor "exiled" to Edo Jail with an interest in forbidden western medicine.

While Sano and his family and friends are fictional, many of the characters in the book, particularly the shogun and members of his court, are based on real people, though Rowland does deviate from historical fact later in the series in the interest of plot. Some of the cases deal with supernatural or legendary elements as well, including ghosts. Court debauchery abounds as well, with courtesans and fetishes playing a large role in many mysteries.

Eighteen books were released in the series total. The series officially concluded after twenty years in 2014, putting it firmly in Long Runner status.

  1. Shinjū (1994)
  2. Bundori (1996)
  3. The Way of the Traitor (1997)
  4. The Concubine's Tattoo (1998)
  5. The Samurai's Wife (2000)
  6. Black Lotus (2001)
  7. The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria (2002)
  8. The Dragon King's Palace (2003)
  9. The Perfumed Sleeve (2004)
  10. The Assassin's Touch (2005)
  11. Red Chrysanthemum (2006)
  12. The Snow Empress (2007)
  13. The Fire Kimono (2008)
  14. The Cloud Pavilion (2009)
  15. The Rōnin's Mistress (2011)
  16. The Incense Game (2012)
  17. The Shogun's Daughter (2013)
  18. The Iris Fan (2014)

Sano Ichirō provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Yanagisawa's parents in particular, but many parents in the series are terrible parents.
  • Acid Pool: Hoshina, in Red Chrysanthemum, tries to murder Sano in a pool of lye. Sano manages to take him out instead.
  • Action Girl: Reiko, who was allowed to train in martial arts by her father and often finds herself in a situation where she must fight her way out.
  • Anyone Can Die: With this many swords and murders going around, it should be no surprise a few regular characters have met their end.
    • The Perfumed Sleeve: Senior council member Makino, who is the "victim" of the crime.
    • Red Chrysanthemum: Hoshina, decapitated by Sano after trying to murder him.
    • The Fire Kimono: Lord Matsudaira, who commits seppuku after being tricked by Yanagisawa.
    • The Ronin's Mistress: Yoritomo, trying to rescue the shogun from being held hostage.
    • The Iris Fan: The shogun himself is the victim of the murder that brings Sano back to court.
  • Arranged Marriage:
    • Sano and Reiko, as is typical of the time period. Theirs luckily turns into Happily Married.
    • Arranged marriages on the whole are standard, particularly nobility. Miai, or a meeting to arrange a marriage, also serves as a plot point in several books such as The Way of the Traitor and The Cloud Pavilion.
    • Averted by Midori and Hirata, who actually fell in love with each other before they were married.
  • Ascended Extra: Midori first appeared as a thirteen-year-old girl who just happened to be the little sister of the murder victim in Shinjū. Later became a regular character as she became romantically involved with Hirata and became Reiko's friend.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Many of the Edo city police, especially after Hoshina is put in charge. Sano cleans things up some, but most of the truly honest investigators remain only in his inner circle.
  • Bastard Boyfriend: Yanagisawa, displayed most strongly in Bundori and The Concubine's Tattoo. He often re-enacts the humiliation he experienced while he slept his way to the top. The trait is lessened greatly after his love affair with Hoshina collapses, when he realizes others are using his affection to gain power in a similar fashion.
  • Batman Gambit: Yanagisawa often plans these, so even if Sano finds the truth it sets him back or causes him even more trouble. Thanks to Sano's persistence for justice, he almost always manages to subvert them, or at least make them to his advantage as well.
  • Beta Couple: Hirata and Midori; their marriage, rocky as of late, provides a contrast to Sano and Reiko's more stable one.
  • Bi the Way: Keisho-in likes to help herself to her son's concubines from time to time.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Sano, who follows the rules of Bushido strictly.
  • Christmas Cake:
    • Lady Yanagisawa before her marriage. Unfortunately for her, it wasn't out of love but because she was a Tokugawa cousin.
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, the fate of the concubine Ichiteru after she turns 30 and is sent away from court.
  • Clueless Deputy: Hirata starts out this way, but gets much better as the series goes on until his investigative skills rival Sano's.
  • Combat Hand Fan: The murder weapon in, naturally, The Iris Fan.
  • The Coroner: Dr. Ito, who helps Sano by secretly performing illegal autopsies on the victims. He often has the help of his Silent Partner, the eta Mura.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The most severe form of execution available to the Shogun, in which the guilty party is buried in the ground up to his neck and has his head sawed off.
  • Cult: Black Lotus, investigated in the book of the same name.
  • Dead Guy on Display: The fate of many of the criminals Sano catches after they are executed.
  • Deadly Decadent Court:
    • The Shogun's court in Edo is a dangerous place for those who aren't politically savvy, and even for those who are half the time.
    • The Emperor's court in Kyoto, as demonstrated in The Samurai's Wife is about as bad with its internal struggles. The only difference is they wield almost no power over the country.
  • Death by Woman Scorned: Lady Mori, revenging her son against his stepfather for raping him as a child in Red Chrysanthemum.
  • Decapitation Presentation: The practice of bundori, done in the book of the same name; a head is cleaned, made up, and mounted on a spike for display as a war trophy.
  • Delivery Guy: Subverted in more than one way by the normally flighty Keisho-in, who in a rare turn of events is the only one who is collected and confident when Midori goes into labor, coaching the younger woman through the birth of her first child.
  • Dirty Cop: Hoshina, especially after he becomes the lover of Yanagisawa, and then helps to exile him.
  • Dirty Old Man: There's at least one in every book. The Shogun is the most prominent example of the reoccurring characters if you're an adolescent boy.
  • Disguised in Drag: The first time we ever see the Shogun in the series, he's dressed as a woman.
  • Due to the Dead:
    • Most of the murder victims; justified as the Shinto religion treats death very seriously and the proper rites must be observed.
    • Notable as a plot point in The Fire Kimono. The unknown victim was buried in an unmarked grave by one of the local priests out of kindness. That priest is later found as an old man and identifies the murderers.
  • Evil Chancellor:
    • Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who manipulated the Shogun like a puppet and constantly tries to undermine Sano and other officials to maintain his power.
    • After the events of The Perfumed Sleeve, Lord Matsudaira gets a turn.
    • And in The Incense Game, Tokugawa Ienobu assumes this role.
  • The Exile:
    • Often threatened as a punishment for high ranking officials who fail in their duties to the shogun, and carried out in a few cases, most notably to Yanagisawa and his family in The Perfumed Sleeve.
    • Played with by Dr. Ito, who was supposed to be exiled for his use of forbidden western medical techniques; the shogun "lessened" his sentence to working in the morgue at Edo Jail. He might as well be an exile.
  • Extreme Doormat: The Shogun. When he actually tries to take things into his own hands on a couple of occasions, he makes things worse. He subverts this temporarily in The Fire Kimono when he gets fed up with Lord Matsudaira's jealous and condescending attitude.
  • The Exotic Detective: Sano Ichirō, who bears the equally exotic title of the Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People.
  • Eyepatch of Power: In The Black Lotus, Anraku lost an eye sometime before his rise to power. He claims that the blind eye gives him divine premonitions.
  • Eye Scream: The first victim in The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria is killed by a hairpin through the eye.
  • Finally Found the Body:
    • The victim of The Fire Kimono, courtesy of a wind storm toppling a tree.
    • The victims in The Incense Game turn up after a month, due to the earthquake burying them in the remains of a house.
  • George Jetson Job Security: This trope defines Sano's life working for the shogun; he is constantly being threatened with demotion, exile, or death if he doesn't produce results.
  • Girl in the Tower: Reiko, Midori, Keisho-in, and Lady Yanagisawa when they are imprisoned in The Dragon King's Palace.
  • Good Parents: Sano and Reiko, who are concerned about raising their children with morality and honor, rather than to be used as pawns in power games. Hirata and Midori have a similar attitude.
  • Happily Married:
    • Sano and Reiko have love and mutual respect for each other, although their Arranged Marriage didn't start off well.
    • Hirata and Midori until Hirata disappears for martial arts training. They seem to be reconciling as of late.
  • Heir Club for Men: The shogun has no heir. His concubines don't conceive (of course he's much more into boys anyway), his wife is too old. A slew of cousins and courtiers try to fill in the blank, unless and until there's a son.
  • Heroic BSOD: Sano has a minor meltdown in The Pillow Book Of Lady Wisteria after one too many death threat in reward for loyalty and competence.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Hirata in The Perfumed Sleeve, where he is permanently lamed protecting Sano from a deathblow.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Lady Wisteria is a famous first-class courtesan.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Chamberlain Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, and Keisho-in, mother of the Shogun. Others pop in occasionally.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Yanagisawa. Fact indicates the real one was not quite as scheming or nasty as the one in the books, and he was likely little more than a yes man to Tokugawa.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Okaru of The Rōnin's Mistress, who honestly falls for the drunken rōnin who comes to live with her.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • Sano's saving grace on many occasions; his willingness to do what is right usually gives him an advantage when things look bad. Sometimes too close for comfort, though.
    • Frequently averted or subverted by others, though. Suspects and witnesses are often uncooperative with investigations as they are more concerned for their own, or their lord's, honor than they are for actually catching a murderer. Sano knows this, and it causes him endless grief.
  • I Was Quite The Looker: Keisho-in likes to remind people of this whenever they'll listen.
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Sano and most of his circle of investigators are also Samurai.
  • Jidai Geki: The time period the novels are set in, specifically the Edo period.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Sano, after being promoted to Chamberlain following Yanagisawa's exile.
  • Kid Samurai/Kid Detective: Sano's son, Masahiro, seems to be becoming the former as of The Snow Empress and the latter as of The Cloud Pavilion.
  • Kissing Cousins: Lord and Lady Miyagi are cousins in a marriage of convenience because no one would marry into the family.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Sano, as the series progresses. While he always knew life at court was dangerous, years of the shogun failing to show any appreciation whatsoever for Sano's loyalty gradually wears away at Sano's idealism.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: The shogun is desperate for a son. Naturally, his wife never conceives and his concubines don't seem to do much better.
  • Like Is, Like, a Comma: A variant. The shogun uses "ahh" in this way in almost every bit of his dialogue. No other character has a similar speech pattern.
  • Loophole Abuse: In The Cloud Pavilion, the shogun's dog keeper hides behind his attack dogs when Sano goes to investigate him; Sano cannot kill the canines or else he will violate the shogun's law on harming dogs. He comes back later with dogs of his own and sets them loose to fight the keeper's animals. After all, the law says nothing about dogs attacking other dogs.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: The kiai, or "Death Cry", is used as the murder method in The Samurai's Wife.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The victim in The Fire Kimono, whose death was originally blamed on the Great Long-Sleeves Kimono Fire that killed thousands.
  • Mama Bear/Papa Wolf: Do not mess with Reiko and Sano's kids. They will travel for months just to rescue their son, as they did in The Snow Empress, and will even threaten the shogun's own second-in-command, as Reiko did in The Ronin's Mistress.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: In The Concubine's Tattoo, one of the shogun's concubine's manages to conceive. It's actually an eta's son.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who is not only the Shogun's lover, but knows exactly how to phrase things to his lord to make himself look good and his competitors look bad.
  • Marital Rape License: In The Black Lotus, Haru was married off to a much older man and was forcibly raped by him.
  • Mauve Shirt: Detectives Marume and Fukida, who accompany Sano and his family in several novels. Fukida dies in the 1703 earthquake in The Incense Game.
  • Missing Mom: Reiko was raised solely by her father and has no memory of her mother.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Midori doesn't reveal her pregnancy to anyone other than Hirata until after they are married.
  • Nature Hero: Hirata becomes one in The Snow Empress, able to sense the natural aura of things around him.
  • Ninja: Aoi in Bundori, serving as a spy for Yanagisawa.
  • Non-Promotion: Happened for a long time before Yanagisawa's exile, as the shogun gave Sano more to do and relied on him more in governing Japan, but neither promoted him nor gave him much credit for his work.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity:
    • The shogun isn't entirely as stupid as he seems. He's just so afraid of seeming weak that he ignores goings-on around him because the disrespect he senses from everyone is so crushing.
    • In The Samurai's Wife, The emperor's cousin Momozono isn't anywhere near as stupid as his disabilities make him sound. He is genuinely disabled, though.
    • In The Black Lotus, Haru makes several failed attempts to play dumb after becoming an arson suspect.
  • Out with a Bang: Makino has a heart attack while participating in a threesome in The Perfumed Sleeve.
  • Parental Incest: The lover the Dragon King is pining for? It's his mother.
  • Parental Neglect: Yanagisawa ignores all of his children except for Yoritomo. This includes his only legitimate offspring, Kikuko, in part because she is a girl and in part because she is mentally challenged.
  • Photo Op with the Dog: The Shogun, who bars anyone from harming a dog because he was born in the Year of the Dog. He is disturbingly quick, however, to order Off with His Head! to any person he even remotely suspects of being his enemy.
  • Pregnant Badass: Reiko's pregnancies don't slow her down as far as helping in investigations. This comes back to bite her when she miscarries her third child.
  • Public Execution: Constantly, and often unfairly given. One of these also plays host to a major scene at the end of The Fire Kimono.
  • Puppy Love: Taeko has a huge crush on Masahiro. He doesn't seem to reciprocate, but they are playmates. This appears to be changing as of the end of The Shogun's Daughter. At the end of the series, they are engaged to be married.
  • Rags to Royalty: Keisho-in, mother of the shogun, started life as the daughter of a humble grocer. By being the concubine lucky enough to give birth to the previous shogun's heir, she managed to rise above her commoner status. Those who encounter her often note her manners indicate her lack of noble upbringing.
  • Rape as Backstory: Oddly, there are more male characters who have suffered through this, as "manly love" among samurai was a common practice in this period in Japan, and masters taking advantage of their students was sadly not uncommon.
    • Yanagisawa is the most prominent example; the humiliation he went through spurs on his desire to dominate others.
    • The Black Lotus: Junketsu-in was repeatedly raped by her father, who compensated by spoiling her, which taught her that she could use sex to get what she wanted. In the same book, a flashback reveals that Haru was raped by her husband.
    • Red Chrysanthemum: Lord Mori marries Lady Mori purely so he can take advantage of her young son.
    • The Ronin's Mistress: Kira was murdered in revenge for pimping out the son of his retainer; the boy commits suicide, causing his father to vow revenge.
  • Rashomon Plot: Done deliberately in Red Chrysanthemum.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Any time Sano notices a particularly lovely woman, he will note her pale skin and dark hair, as he did when he first saw his wife Reiko. This is the standard of beauty in the series, and one that women will go to desperate lengths to achieve and maintain. Older women, most notably the shogun's mother Keisho-in, apply layer after layer of white makeup to their faces and/or dye their hair black to try to maintain a youthful look.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Extremely rare; corruption is rampant in both the Shogun's court and Edo as a whole, as Sano frequently finds out. Reiko's father Magistrate Ueda is one of Edo's few honest and powerful men outside the main protagonists.
  • Reassignment Backfire: Sano's trip to Nagasaki in The Way of the Traitor, which is supposed to get him out of Yanagisawa's way and destroy his miai. Instead, he comes back after forcing back some powerful enemies and improves his standing in the Shogun's eyes.
  • Red Light District: Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, which can be summed up as "prostitutes, courtesans, and more prostitutes."
  • Ronin:
    • Sano started out as one before solving his first case in Shinjū.
    • The Rōnin's Mistress deals with the tale of The 47 Ronin.
  • Screaming Birth: Midori's delivery of her first child in The Dragon King's Palace.
  • Seppuku: Some samurai are given this option instead of Off with His Head!. Lord Matsudaira also takes this way out after realizing he and Sano have been tricked by Yanagisawa.
  • Sex Equals Love: Lady Yanagisawa desperately holds to this belief when her husband beds her as a reward in The Perfumed Sleeve.
  • Sidekick Graduations Stick: Hirata started out as Sano's sidekick. After he was severely injured protecting Sano and started special martial arts training to compensate for his injuries, he now acts independently from Sano as needed. He also assumes Sano's position as the shogun's chief investigator.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Reiko, who uses her courtly status to find information for her husband's investigations. And if she runs into trouble, she always has a knife up the sleeve of her kimono, and she knows how to use it.
  • Sleeping Their Way To The Top: Yanagisawa got the job as Chamberlain by becoming the Shogun's lover. He encourages his son Yoritomo to employ the same method in an attempt to have Yoritomo declared next-in-line as shogun.
  • Someone Has to Die: In The Concubine's Tattoo, Shichisaburo takes the blame for Yanagisawa's failed plot against the Shogun's mother and is executed, to the stunned disbelief of all assembled, including Yanagisawa himself.
  • Stalker with a Crush:
    • Lady Yanagisawa idolizes Reiko and is fairly obsessed with the woman. She also wants to kill her, since Reiko has a husband that loves her and children who aren't handicapped.
    • Lieutenant Kushida in The Concubine's Tattoo towards the titular concubine, Harume.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers:
    • The original mystery that leads to Sano's career with the Shogun. It was actually made to look like a lovers' suicide by the murderer.
    • Harume and Danzaemon in The Concubine's Tattoo, who could never be together because of their difference in class.
  • Succession Crisis: The lack of a direct heir to the Tokugawa line spurs most of the political plotting in the series as factions compete for the shogun's favor. Sano seems to be the only person in Edo Castle who doesn't want this for this son, which naturally, no one else believes.
  • Surprise Pregnancy: Taeko was conceived before Hirata and Midori were even engaged. Oops.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Minister Ogyu.
  • Those Two Guys: Detectives Marume and Fukida, who back up Sano on almost every assignment. Otherwise, nothing is known about them.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Reiko, outgoing and eager for mystery, and Midori, content to stay in a quiet house with her children.
  • Torture Technician: In The Black Lotus, there is Dr. Miwa, the Black Lotus sect's chief physician, who moonlights as a torturer.
  • Touch of Death: The murder method used in The Assassin's Touch.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Reiko looks almost exactly like her grandmother. They are also similarly stubborn and sharp-tongued.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. This is a trait he shares with his mother and, according to reports from others, his only daughter.
  • Waif-Fu: Reiko is an accomplished martial artist, but she's also a tiny woman.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Yoritomo towards Yanagisawa. Oddly, Yanagisawa actually feels rather affectionately towards him as well, but maintains emotional distance out of caution.
  • Woman Scorned: One of the frequent motives for murder in the series.
    • Lady Wisteria herself, who frames several former clients she has come to loathe in The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria.
  • You Killed My Son: This is the motive behind more than one murder.
    • Yanagisawa vows revenge against Sano for his son's death.