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Literature / Sano Ichiro

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When investigation meets feudal Japanese politics.

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. Throughout his time in the Shogun's court, he has to solve various mysteries and navigate the tricky intricacies of the government that he's now part of. Both issues are compounded by the weak-willed Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and his manipulative Chamberlain, Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, the latter of whom views Sano as a threat to his own considerable power. Because of his status, each of the mysteries Sano has to solve link to some type of court intrigue, usually high-ranking members or relatives of the shogun, and Sano often 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.

Sano Ichirō is a series of mystery novels by Laura Joh Rowland set in 17th century Japan. While Sano and his family and friends are fictional, many of the characters, 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 and mystical powers. Court debauchery abounds as well, with courtesans and fetishes playing a large role in many mysteries.

The series includes the following titles:

  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)

As this is a mystery series, solutions to the mysteries themselves will be hidden, but as much of the plot revolves around the politics of the court itself, those points will not. So, fair warning, major spoilers below.

This series contains examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Lady Yanagisawa envies Reiko's beauty, loving husband, and healthy son, all of which contrasts sharply with her own unattractive appearance, aloof husband, and mentally challenged daughter. Believing there to be a minimum amount of luck in the world, Lady Yanagisawa both wants to be friends with Reiko and destroy her/her family in the hopes that she herself might absorb some of Reiko's good fortune by proxy. Reiko profoundly doesn't want to be around Lady Yanagisawa, but due to court politics and not wanting to draw the woman's ire, Reiko keeps up the facade of a friendship while simultaneously keeping her guard up whenever Lady Yanagisawa or her obedient daughter are around.
  • Abusive Parents: It's common for parents to view their kids as nothing more than political pawns to be used in order to gain higher social standing. As such, they'll often abuse their children either emotionally, mentally, physically, or some combination of the three so as to control them and/or mold them into someone who can achieve a highly lauded position.
  • Acid Pool: In Red Chrysanthemum, Hoshina tries to murder Sano while Sano is in a pool of lye. Sano takes advantage of the pool by pretending to drown, which gets both Hoshina off guard and himself the advantage of surprise.
  • Anyone Can Die: Minor characters die frequently and some of the more prominent characters bite the dust, either as a murder victim that drives the plot of a particular novel or just as a side effect of getting in Sano's way.
  • Arranged Marriage: Arranged marriages are standard practice, particularly within the nobility. One aspect of this tradition is the "miai", a meeting between two families so each member can better access the prospective spouse's character. Sano's search for a wife was a minor plot point in Bundori, and his miai was where Reiko was first introduced.
  • Artistic License – History: For the most part, the way of life depicted during Edo Period Japan is fairly accurate as are various other historical facts. However, there are times where Rowland strays from fact. Some specific examples:
    • There is no evidence that Tokugawa Tsunayoshi was ever attacked, nor is there any concrete evidence that he was homosexual.
    • Tokogawa Ienobu wasn't rendered a simpleton by a mystical attack; he was a very intelligent man and a Confucian scholar. Additionally, rather than be threatened and hated by Lady Nobuko, Tsunayoshi's wife, she actually endorsed Ienobu to become the next Shogun when his eligibility came into question.
    • Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and his family were never exiled, nor did he die in 1709 from being stabbed by a court rival; in reality, his death occured in 1714 of unknown causes. Rowland acknowledges the second fact in The Iris Fan's author's notes.
  • Ascended Extra: Midori first appeared in Shinju as a thirteen-year-old girl who just so happened to be a younger sister to one of the murder victims. She turns into a recurring character after she becomes Reiko's friend and gets romantically involved with Hirata.
  • Authority in Name Only: In The Iris Fan, Ienobu suffers severe brain damage due to Hirata's mental attack. This results in Ienobu becoming a simpleton who, while able to take care of his own basic needs, can only answer Sano's commands.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Edo's police aren't exactly known for putting justice and honor before self-interest, and many would rather their underlings handle the dirty work of policing while they lay back and reap the rewards. Sano manages to clean things up somewhat as his position within the bakufu rises, but most of the truly honest investigators remain within his inner circle.
  • Batman Gambit: Yanagisawa often arranges various traps so that, even if Sano finds the truth, it sets Sano back or causes him even more trouble. Thanks to Sano's persistence for justice, he almost always manages to subvert the Chamberlain's schemes or at least turn them to his advantage.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: There are many times where a character wishes for or wants something, only for that desire to be granted in a way that's detrimental to them:
    • Yanagisawa's parents took advantage of his youthful good looks by openly pimping him to high court officials, hoping he'd eventually work his way to a position of influence. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams when their son became the lover and favorite of the Shogun. Yanagisawa then took great pleasure in using his newfound power to banish his parents to a miserable estate in the middle of Japan's most rural province. Every year they write their son letters, begging for a reprieve, and he takes even greater pleasure in tossing them into the trash, unanswered.
    • A minor example happens at the beginning of The Dragon King's Palace: Reiko is pressured into a pilgrimage with Lady Keisho-in, Lady Yanagisawa, and Midori to Mount Fuji, an already long trip made even longer due to Keisho-in forcing her entourage to stop at various locations along the way. She hopes for something to cut their voyage short... which gets granted soon afterward when their entourage is ambushed and slaughtered, and she and her companions are kidnapped and held hostage.
  • Beta Couple: Hirata and Midori fall in love and later get married after Midori becomes pregnant. Hirata becomes Sano's chief retainer and Midori Reiko's primary friend. However, after Hirata goes off to train in the mystic martial arts, their marriage becomes rocky with Midori even coming to resent her husband. This provides a contrast to Sano and Reiko's more stable relationship.
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: Sano always reminds Masahiro of honor and duty at home. He realizes how well his words and lessons have been taken to heart when the Shogun himself recites them back to him; after Masahiro became the Shogun's assistant, the two of them had gotten into a discussion during which Masahiro repeated Sano's words.
  • Bury Your Gays: Many gay characters don't make it to the end of the series or even the book they're introduced in. In the cases of Tsunayoshi and Lady Keisho-in this can be forgiven as they're historical domain characters and their deaths accurately mirror when their real world counterparts died. Yanagisawa's death can likewise be excused: even though the living Yanagisawa died a few years later than the fictional one, the fictional Yanagisawa was the main antagonist of the series and there was no way Sano and him weren't going to end up fighting to the death at some point. The other gay characters don't really have these justifications, though.
  • Bus Crash: The Shogun's mother, Lady Keisho-in, dies in the five year gap between The Shogun's Daughter and The Iris Fan.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Sano starts out by following the rules of Bushido strictly and always honoring his superior's wishes. This does not last long, since other samurai (especially Yanagisawa) aren't as willing to play by those rules.
  • Chekhov's Skill: In The Iris Fan, Akiko's skill with handling dogs saves Reiko from a potential attack by those dogs and helps the both of them find a clue via the dog's tracking skills.
  • Clear My Name: Sano has been framed for murder a couple times. Each time, the threat of death to him and/or his family members makes him all the more desperate to see the true killer brought to light.
  • Combat Hand Fan: The titular weapon of The Iris Fan is an iron ribbed fan that was used in an attept to stab the Shogun while he slept.
  • Compulsive Liar: Haru, the primary suspect in Black Lotus, seems incapable of telling the truth, more often defaulting to lies and deceit in the hopes that it will earn her trust and divert suspicions. By the time she finally does opt to be honest, it's too little, too late.
  • The Coroner: Dr. Ito Genboku serves as Sano's right hand man when it comes to disceting corpses. Many of the autopsies Ito preforms help give Sano a starting point for investigations with no obvious murder method or to confirm that the victim(s) died in the manner they initially seemed to.
  • Cowboy Cop: Sano begins ignores soctial conventions after he befriends Dr. Ito and uses the former physician's forbidden Western knowledge to find clues. As the series goes on and those behind the Shogun start making things more difficult for Sano to investigate directly, he has to flout his orders to find the truth, usually finding a loophole to remain in his master's good graces while he carefully stirs up trouble to find answers.
  • Cult: The Black Lotus sect, featured in the novel of the same name, is derived of a group of fanatical worshipers who believe the destruction of Japan will bring the dawn of Enlightenment. They seek obedient individuals who can be easily swayed to their thinking (though they have drugs to make this even easier), and those who resist are systematically starved/abused until their spirits are broken. If that fails, they're imprisoned or killed. Underneath the temple are a series of underground tunnels dug by slaves that lead to various villages. Those who are already under Anraku's control willingly do his bidding, no matter how morally abhorrent the task.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: "Nokogiri-biki" is the most severe form of execution available to the Shogun. This is when the guilty party's body is buried alive up to the neck. This leaves enough of the neck exposed so the head can be sawed off.
  • Crying Wolf: In Black Lotus, Haru tries to convince Reiko to get Sano to call off the siege on the Black Lotus's temple, saying that they are the third sign Anraku has foretold. By this point, Reiko is completely done with Haru, thinking this is just another means of manipulation. It is anything but; soon after Sano and the Tokugawa soldiers arrive, a swarm of novices, priests, and nuns exit the temple to attack the soldiers or speed past them to wreak havoc on the nearby town.
  • A Day in the Limelight: Various witnesses and suspects get at least one chapter where their backstory and motivations are explained.
    • In Shinju, the maid O-hana gets a chapter explaning her background and detailing her attempt to leave the Mori estate in order to keep her appointment with Sano. The chapter ends with O-hana getting murdered.
    • In The Incense Game, Minister Ogyu's chapter shows that he was raised by a harsh mother who impressed upon him the need to get into the Shogun's good graces.
  • Dead Guy on Display: The bakugu tradtionally displays the dead bodies of executed criminals with a sign stating the crime they were punished for. This is in an attempt to remined would be lawbeakers what their fate will be should they get caught.
  • Death Faked for You: In The Shogun's Daughter, Yoshisato seemingly dies in a fire that consumes most of Yanagisawa's home. Ienobu had Yoshisato removed beforehand and placed a random peasant boy's corpse in his place. Then he had the house set on fire so as to render the body indistinguishable, and is keeping the living Yoshisato as a bargaining chip for Yanagisawa's help.
  • Decadent Court: The Shogun's court in Edo and the Emperor's court in Kyoto are both dangerous places for those who aren't politically savvy, and even for those who are half the time. Rivalry abounds, assassinations aren't unheard of, and debouchary is par for the course for most of the staff. The only difference between the two courts is that the latter doesn't have any real power over how the country is ruled.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Executed criminals will sometimes have their heads placed on a spike and put on display, to serve as a reminder to any potential criminials. The practice of "bundori" (featured in the novel of the same) is when a decapitated head is cleaned, made up, and mounted on a spike. These "trophies" were then given to the samurai's lord as way of showing their loyalty and honor. This practice was permitted only during times of war, so you can imagine Sano's confusion when someone suddenly takes up this practice during peacetime.
  • Demonic Possession: In The Shogun's Daughter, General Otani, the ghost of a vengeful samurai, takes over Hirata's body with help from the other members of the mystical fellowship. While Hirata does maintain some control over his body, the General can easily take that control away from him, forcing Hirata to do as he says.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: It can be easy to spot which witnesses/murder suspects are going to be bumped off soon if they get a chapter that shows their background and motivations. They're usually murdered by the end of their chapter or- if they're lucky- the book in which they're introduced.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: In The Iris Fan, Hirata lives long enough for his family to be at his side when he dies. After Midori forgives him for leaving them, he dies in her arms, remembering the love he always had for her.
  • Dirty Cop: A lot of Edo's police force use their status for personal gain, such as taking bribes in exchange for letting the accused off the hook.
  • Dirty Old Man: The middle-aged Shogun prefers young boys to any of his concubines, and the first lover of the 30-odd Yanagisawa's that the audience gets introduced to is the preteen actor Shichisaburō.
  • Disguised in Drag:
    • In Shinju, the Shogun's first appearance is during the New Year's festival where he's dressed up as a princess from The Tale of Genji.
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, Shichisaburō disguises himself as one of Tsunayoshi's concubines so as not to raise suspicion while enacting one of Yanagisawa's plans.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: In The Concubine's Tattoo, Lady Ichiteru's beauty, rank, and sensuality arouse Hirata to the point where his inquiries often get off track. He tries to resist her charms, but he fails each time. It's highly implied- if not outright stated- that Ichiteru is partially invoking this trope, using her courtesan training to make him lust after her.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: In The Concubine's Tattoo, during Hirata's last meeting with Ichiteru, she slips a powerful aphrodisiac into his drink and has sex with him. Hirata tells her to stop at least twice, but she ignores him. Ichiteru doesn't get punished for this; while she does get sent back to Miyako in the end, that's only because the castle staff was making room for younger courteasens and Ichiteru was going to be on her way out soon anyway to due her age.
  • Due to the Dead: As the Shinto religion treats death very seriously, most of the murder victims get proper funerals. (Ironically, Tsunayoshi gets no such due: his body is hastily burned in order to prevent the measles he had from spreading.)
  • Dying as Yourself: During his final battle, Hirata sacrifices his body in order to keep General Otani from killing Sano. This forces the ghost away for good. Although broken and dying, he's relieved that he's no longer possessed and allowed to be himself as he passes away.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Many of the usual features of a Sano Ichiro novel are not present in Shinjū. The murder isn't wrapped up in any political intrigue tied to the bakufu, with the Shogun and his court being in the background for a majority of the book. Sano's worst antagonists are a self-serving magistrate and a couple arrogant coworkers instead of the conniving Chamberlain Yanagisawa. There's also more Japanese terms sprinkled throughout the first few novels, even when they aren't necessary. For example, Hirata had a tendency to say "sumimasen" ("Excuse me") when addressing Sano, even after officially becoming Sano's chief retainer.
  • Evil Chancellor: Thanks to the Shogun largely letting his underlings run the country for him, those with evil or less-than-altrustic intentions often vie to be his right-hand man. Chamberlain Yanagisawa is the main one; his knowledge about his lord's temprament means he can easily manipulate the Shogun with mere words alone, and uses those words to contantly undermine Sano and other officials to maintain his power. After Yanagisawa gets sent into exile, Lord Matsudaira takes on this role and maintains the position for a few books until Yanagisawa returns, leading him to commit seppuku. Once Ienobu gets introduced, both he and Yanagisawa fight for this role.
  • The Exile:
    • Downplayed with Dr. Ito; his use of forbidden Western medical techniques would have gotten him kicked out of society for good, but the Shogun decieded to "lessen" his sentance to working at Edo Morgue instead.
    • After a failed attempt at undermining Lord Matsudaira's power, the Shogun finds out about Yanagisawa's ploy and banishes him and his closest family members to Hachijo Island. Almost as soon as he's leaving, Yanagisawa is coming up with schemes for how he'll return to Edo and reclaim his title.
  • Extreme Doormat: Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi is a weak-willed man who is easily swayed by other's opinions. Many officials- chief among them being Yanagisawa- often take advantage of Tsunayoshi's people-pleasing nature by using praise and flattery to manipulate the Shogun into doing whatever they want. Since he's intimidated by court politics, Tsunayoshi prefers to indulge in personal pleasures than actually run the government. The few times he does try to help out, he makes a bad situation worse. While there are moments where he acts more decisive and assertive, such moments are few and far between and whatever spine he had disappears shortly thereafter. It isn't until the end of The Shogun's Daughter wherein Sano calls him out for being cowardly and ineffectual that Tsunayoshi decides to change his behavior.
  • The Exotic Detective: Sano Ichirō is a samurai who lives in Edo-era Japan, a time period in which dectives (as we know them) didn't really exist. As such he's given the the equally exotic title of the Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People when he starts working for the Shogun.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Anraku is the High Priest of the Black Lotus and he wears an eyepatch over a blind eye. He claims that the blind eye gives him divine premonitions, and it's left ambiguous just how much of his alleged power is real or fake.
  • Eye Scream: The murder victim of The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria is killed with a hairpin through the eye.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: Each mystery can be solved alongside Sano. Clues are laid out clearly, some of them even before the detectives find them, and the murderer is usually a character the audience has been introduced to.
  • Fake Kill Scare: During Yanagisawa and Sano's raid of Edo castle in The Iris Fan, Marume is severely injured but remains behind to hold off their enemies long enough for Sano to make his way to the palace. Marume goes down in the wave of fighters and disappears. Sano is upset at losing such a loyal man, but forces himself to continue on as the fate of Japan is at stake. After the climax, it's revealed that Marume was knocked unconscious in the fight, was found by Reiko, and sent to Lord Mori's estate to be tended to.
  • Faking the Dead: In The Samurai's Wife, after the murderer strikes again, Sano passes off Aisu's corpse as his own, hoping his "death" will throw off Yanagisawa. This proves to be useless as Yanagisawa was there with Aisu when the murderer attacked.
  • Finally Found the Body: Tokugawa Tadatoshi, a cousin of Tsunayoshi's, went missing during the Great Fire and was assumed to have died during the chaos. It isn't until over 40 years later that his skeleton is found, with the cut marks on his bones pointing to him being murdered. Finding Tadatoshi's murderer is the plot of The Fire Kimono.
  • Flower Motifs: The titular fan of The Iris Fan is a combat fan that was used to attack the Shogun. The fan bears an iris motif, and irises symbolize boldness, courage, and power. Sano notes that these quailties could be associated with someone who made an assassination attempt on the leader of the country.
  • Foil: Yanagisawa and Sano are both intellegent samurai, but that's about where the similarities end. For each admirable trait Sano has, Yanagisawa possess its reverse: Sano is honorable and modest while Yanagisawa is self-serving and corrupt; Yangisawa wants to control the Shogun so he can have power over others which contrasts with Sano, who doesn't want that kind of power and uses his position to help others; Sano only wants what's best for his family and children, while Yanagisawa uses his sons to further his own goals and ignores his wife and daughter until he needs them, etc.
  • George Jetson Job Security: Staying within the bakufu is no easy feat, even for those who've been in it for a long time. The Shogun is fickle and easily changes his mind; you can be demoted, exiled, or executed for little to no reason, with your loved ones and close associates potentially sharing your punishment. How long you've worked for him or how well you've done your job has no affect in the Shogun's decisions.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: In The Concubine's Tattoo, Hirata administers a sanity-inducing slap to Sano after Sano starts acting mildly hysterical out of relief that the pair of slaughtered concubines he stumbled across aren't in fact his wife.
  • Girl in the Tower: In The Dragon King's Palace, Reiko, Midori, Keisho-in, and Lady Yanagisawa are imprisoned in an abandoned tower as hostages. Reiko manages to manipulate their kidnapper into giving them a higher quality room in a less decrepit building.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Sano and Hirata invoke the dynamic of a pleasent and affable dective and his aggressive partner if both of them are present during an interrogation. Who takes which role depends on the suspect.
  • Good Parents: Sano and Reiko are concerned more about raising their children with morality and honor than using them as political pawns. Reiko's father, Magistrate Ueda, had a more active hand in raising Reiko than the average samurai, and even giving her the education usually reserved for sons after seeing how intelligent she was.
  • Happily Married:
    • Sano and Reiko genuinely care for and love each other. Their camaraderie has helped Sano's investigations more than once. While their marriage becomes strained at various points throughout the series, their love usually pulls through.
    • Subverted with Hirata and Midori; their relationship started out lovingly enough with the two of them actually marrying for love in defiance of tradition. However, Hirata going off for weeks or months at time for his martial arts training put a strain on their marriage. Midori came to view his absences as her husband choosing his personal interests over raising his children. Their relationship never truly recovers and it's only on Hirata's deathbed that Midori truly forgives him.
  • Heir Club for Men: One minor subplot is the question of who the next Shogun will be. Since Shogun Tsunayoshi prefers boys and his daughter is tokophobic, it's highly unlikely that a direct heir will ever come about. The Shogun's weak consituation and growing age causes concerns that, should he die suddenly, a power struggle will errupt. To this end, almost everyone close to the Shogun tries to offer up their own sons or favored male family members as potentiel candidates.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Sano has a minor meltdown in The Pillow Book Of Lady Wisteria after one too many death threats in reward for loyalty and competence; Reiko finds him muttering angrily to himself in their garden, his rage growing to the point where he chops down some bushes in a fit of fury.
    • In The Shogun's Daughter, Sano finds evidence of a crime, is falsely accused of committing said crime, and is then beaten to a pulp by the Shogun with said evidence in front of a full court. He is unable to lift a hand to defend himself for fear of reprisal. When Hirata next encounters Sano, Sano's aura is almost entirely black due to his hatred towards the Shogun.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • In The Perfumed Sleeve, Hirata saves Sano from a potentially fatal sword strike. While Hirata doesn't die, he does develop a permanent limp.
    • In The Iris Fan, Hirata fights against the ghost possessing him in order to keep the ghost from using his body to kill Sano. The fight strains Hirata's body so much, he literally snaps his spine. Needless to say, Hirata doesn't live for very long afterward.
  • Hidden Backup Prince: Invoked: after Yoritomo's death, Yanagisawa presents one of his other sons, Yoshisato, to the Shogun. He claims that Yoshisato is actually Tsunayoshi's, that he was raised by the Chamberlain to keep the Tokugawa line safe from its enemies. Sano, among many others, don't buy it for a second, but the Shogun is so happy that he has a "son" that it blinds him to any holes in Yanagisawa's story.
  • Historical Domain Character: Several characters that appear in the series are from Japanese history. Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi; his mother, Lady Keisho-in; Chamberlain Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and two of his sons, Tokugawa Ienobu, amongst several others have a major or minor role in the novels. Still more are mentioned such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Chamberlain Yanagisawa is a major antagonist throughout the series; he comes up with many schemes that might or do result in the ruination of his rivals, he's incrediably manipulative, and he holds no true loyalty to the Shogun. In actuallity, fact indicates that the real Yanagisawa was likely little more than a yes man.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • One of Sano's defining character traits is his relentless pursuit of the truth regardless of the consenquences. There are times where he'll put his own life or the lives of his family member's in danger if it means catching a killer. The Iris Fan brings this aspect of his personality to the forefront; his search for evidence as to Ienobu's guilt winds up affecting his family's lives as well as the lives of his closest assocciates drastically. It's a major point of contention between him and Reiko, leading them to be at odds for a majority of the novel.
    • Various samurai avert or subvert the trope: instead of doing the right thing, they instead follow selfish pursuits or ignore injustices, or they're more concerned about protecting their master's honor, and will lie for them when telling the truth would be more beneficial in the long run. Sano has to deal with both types of people during each of his investigations.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: After a hideously abusive childhood, all that matters to Yanagisawa is power, but that drive wars with his deep-rooted need to be loved. A handful of times during the series, he's presented with a choice between true love and maintaining his position. Since his power is all that protects him from the legions of enemies he's made during his rise to the top, Yanagisawa he can't ever contemplate giving up even a slice of it. As such, he'll always sends his love interest away to banishment or death.
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Sano and most of his circle of investigators are also Samurai who have trained in some form of fighting art. Sano himself was a tutor and historian before becoming the Shogun's investigator. This background helps him hunt down evidence and witnesses during the various cases he's given.
  • Irony:
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, Reiko- a firm believer in the power of women- completely ignores the various hints and broken alibis that implicate Lady Miyagi. Instead, she brushes this suspect off as their lord's insignificant shadow and believes the lord to be the murderer due to his obsession with death and defilement. When the suspect confesses to killing Harume, Reiko notes how social mores blinded both Sano and herself.
    • In The Iris Fan, during the meeting in the aftermath of the Shogun's death, there is concern that Sano is the only one who can control the words and actions of the new shogun, Ienobu. One of the Senior Elders protests that they can't have a Shogun that can't think for himself. A guilty silence shortly follows as everyone remembers how much of an Extreme Doormat Tsunayoshi was.
    • In the end, Sano ends up having sole and absolute control over the new Shogun, allowing him to basically rule Japan in all but name. Bear in mind, Snao was one of a small group of people who genuinely had no interest in ruling Japan, and he spent a lot of his time struggling just to stay in court, keep his reputation intact, and his family alive and safe.
  • Jidaigeki: The novels are set in the Edo period during the later years of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi's reign.
  • Kangaroo Court: Trials are rarely fair, placing an emphasis on expediency than actually meting out any real justice. Of the judges that appear in the series, only Reiko's father, Magistrate Ueda, is the one who actually cares about making an informed ruling. The others aren't troubled by the thought of potentially condemning innocents if it means staying within the Shogun's good graces.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Sano starts out the series as a teacher turned yoriki. After saving the Shogun's life, he becomes Shogun Tsunayoshi's top detective. Following Yanagisawa's exile, Sano gets his biggest promotion when he's made Chamberlain. He gets kicked back downstairs after Yanagisawa arranges for Lady Nobuko to be raped and the Shogun demotes Sano for failing to save his wife. Then he gets kicked back up again after Yanagisawa refuses to leave his home while mourning the death of one of his sons. After he refuses to give up on finding evidence that will show that Ienobu had a hand in the death of the Shogun's only daughter, Sano is kicked way down the bakufu ladder. Then up yet again after Tsunayoshi reinstates Sano to find out who attacked him. Finally, Sano becomes shogun-by-proxy when his voice is the only one that Ienobu will obey.
  • Killed Offscreen: In The Incense Game, Detective Fukida is killed by the massive earthquake. Even though the earthquake is shown in the book, Fukida's death is not.
  • Kissing Cousins:
    • The Concubine's Tattoo's has Lord and Lady Miyagi, a couple who are blood-cousins in a marriage of convenience because no one would marry into the family.
    • One of the murder suspects in The Iris Fan is a little too close to her cousin for it to be just familial.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: While Sano always knew life at court was dangerous, years of the Shogun failing to show any appreciation whatsoever for his loyalty gradually wears away at his idealism.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: The Shogun is desperate for a son and heir. Naturally, his wife never conceives and his concubines don't do much better.
  • Like Father, Like Son:
    • Sano and and his son, Masahiro, are very similar in attitude with Masahiro adopting his father's philosophy towards honor. He even takes over Sano's post at the end of the series.
    • Reiko and her daughter, Akiko, are both headstrong, willing to push the boundaries of what women aren't allowed to do, and enjoy solving mysteries.
    • Yanagisawa and Yoshisato are both clever, handsome, and crave power, and even have similar postures and expressions. There is one key difference, though: Yoshisato desires power because he sees he can do good with it, unlike his father who simply wants to control everything and crush those who get in his way.
  • Like Is, Like, a Comma: Shogun Tsunayoshi uses "ahh" almost every time he speaks. It's a way of showing his indecisiveness, as he drops it whenever he becomes more assertive. This tic goes away entirely after Sano calls him out on his ineffectual and self-indulgent behavior.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: Lady Nobuko is shuffled off to a monastery thanks to her actions leading to the Shogun's death.
  • Long Game: The 47 ronin enact their plan to get their revenge against Kira over a year after the dissolution of Asano's house.
  • Long Runner: The Sano series has eighteen novels to its name, all of which were released over the course of 20 years.
  • Loophole Abuse: In The Cloud Pavilion, the Shogun's dog keeper hides behind his attack dogs when Sano goes to investigate him. Sano can't kill the canines or else he will violate the Shogun's law on harming dogs. Sano 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 It Look Like an Accident:
    • The Fire Kimono is partially about the Great Fire of Meireki, a massive inferno that wound up killing thousands. When Tokugawa Tadatoshi went missing during the disaster, it was assumed he was one of its victims. It isn't until over four decades later that his skeleton is found, and Dr. Ito finds evidence on his bones that indicates Tadatoshi was really stabbed to death. The main plot of the novel concerns itself with Sano's investigation into Tadatoshi's death.
    • The plot of The Shogun's Daughter is kicked off when the Shogun's only direct decedent, his daughter Tsuruhime, dies presumably from smallpox. Lady Nobuko, however, suspects foulplay, and Sano's investigation ends up revealing that the infection was deliberate: Ienobu had Tsuruhime's bed rubbed down with a smallpox-infected blanket by Ukyo, a maid who'd already survived the disease. Tsuruhime's death ensured that Ienobu's precarious postion as the designated heir wouldn't be taken by any sons she might've had.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: The murder method used in The Samurai's Wife is known as kiai, a type of deadly cry that causes massive hemorrhaging to anyone in its path. It's achieved through controlled breathing techniques and tightly managed concentration.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe:
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, Ito's autopsy reveals that the concubine Harume died while carrying a child. Lady Mori thought it was her husband's, leading her to poison Harume out of jealousy. The baby was actually Jimbei's, the eta's chief.
    • In The Shogun's Daughter, it's revealed after Tsuruhime's death that she might have been pregnant with a potential Tokugawa heir. Tsuruhime's husband hated her, and she was having an affair with another samurai.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Chamberlain Yanagisawa knows exactly how to phrase things to his lord and lover to make himself look better than his competitors. It gets more and more impressive as the books go on; just when it seems Yanagisawa can't go any farther with stretching the truth, he somehow does. It culminates when he manages to pass off one of his own sons as the Shogun's long lost son and future Tokugawa heir.
  • Marital Rape License: The primary suspect of Black Lotus, Haru, was married off to a much older man who raped her.
  • Mauve Shirt: Detectives Marume and Fukida are two samurai who accompany Sano and his family for several novels. In The Incense Game, Fukida is one of the causalities of the 1703 earthquake.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The story is set in real world Edo-era Japan, but there are several instances where vaguely supernatural things happen. The "maybe mundane" part gets blurrier and blurrier as the series goes on until the spirit of a murder victim possess her lover. Hirata himself gets possessed by a vengeful ghost who forces him to do its bidding.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot:
    • In Shinjū, the bodies of a peasant man and a young samurai woman are written off as yet another story of two star-crossed lovers committing a double love suicide so they could at least be together in death. It isn't until Sano probes further into their deaths that he finds out that they were murdered by Lady Niu in an effort to protect her son. Said son is plotting to murder the shogun.
    • In The Samurai's Wife, Sano's investigation of the imperial Left Minister's death eventually reveals a plot to overthrow the Tokugawa government and reinstate the emperor as ruler of Japan.
  • Mook Lieutenant: In The Samurai's Wife, a samurai man named Aisu is introduced as Yanagisawa's chief retainer. He lives through about half of the book before getting killed by the murderer who mistook Aisu for Sano.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Shortly after Hirata and Midori become a couple, Midori becomes pregnant. She tells no one about it expect Hirata, and even then it's only so she can explain exactly why they need to be married and fast. Much later on, her daughter follows in her footsteps when Taeko becomes pregnant with Masahiro's child and says nothing until after she and Masahiro become engaged.
  • Nature Hero: During his time in Ezogashima, Hirata learns how to sense the natural aura of the world around him. This new insight helps in future cases.
  • Ninja: In Bundori, Aoi is a ninja who works for Yanagisawa. She supplies him information as well as manipulating his enemies.
  • Noble Fugitive:
    • Yanagisawa pretends to be a monk after escaping from exile and planning his return.
    • After being kidnapped by Ienobu's men, Yoshisato escapes them and pretends to be a gangster, even becoming leader of a gang.
  • Non-Promotion: Before Yanagisawa's exile, the Shogun gave Sano more work and relied on him more in governing Japan, but neither promoted him nor gave him much credit.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Haru of Black Lotus makes several failed attempts to play dumb after becoming an arson suspect.
  • Official Couple: Sano and Reiko are the series' main couple. Once they come to an understanding, they quickly fall for and become devoted to each other. Reiko also becomes one of Sano's main consultants and confidants when it comes to brainstorming ideas and discussing evidence.
  • Old Maid:
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, Lady Ichiteru desperately wants to be the concubine that conceives the next Shogun before she turns 30 and is forced to return to Miyako.
    • Due to her appearance and shy nature, Lady Yanagisawa remained single for a long time before Chamberlain Yanagisawa eventually married her. Unfortunately for her, the marriage wasn't out of love but because she was a Tokugawa cousin.
  • Out with a Bang: Makino had a heart attack while participating in a threesome.
  • Parental Incest: Many characters have this as part of their background.
  • Parental Neglect: A lot of characters have parents that ignored them or are parents that don't pay attention to their child(ren). Yanagisawa ignores all of his children except for Yoritomo and Yoshisato. This includes his only legitimate offspring, Kikuko, in part because she is a girl and in part because she is mentally challenged.
  • Playing Hard to Get: When Midori asks Reiko for advice on how to get Hirata to pay attention to her again, Reiko basically tells to her to invoke this trope. It backfires pretty quickly; Midori tries too hard to act aloof and cold which just confuses Hirata at first. He also quickly figures out what she's trying to do and is only amused by it.
  • Pregnant Badass: Pregnant or not, Reiko will do whatever to be part of Sano's investigations. This comes back to bite her when she miscarries her third child.
  • Promiscuity After Rape: Several characters who were raped in their past are very promiscious in the present: Yanagasiwa, Haru, and Yugao, just to name a few.
  • Public Execution: Constantly, and often unfairly given. This becomes a plot point towards the end of The Fire Kimono; Sano stages Yoritomo's execution, using Yanagisawa's love for his son as a means to draw Yanagisawa out from hiding.
  • Puppy Love: Taeko develops a huge crush on Masahiro when she's seven. He doesn't feel the same way at first, seeing her as just a playmate. After saving his life at the end of The Shogun's Daugter, Masahiro starts to develop feelings for her.
  • Put on a Bus: Yanagisawa and Hoshina are not present during the investigation of the Black Lotus case, as they are on a tour of inspection. Senior Elder Makino takes their place as Sano's main detractor.
  • Rags to Royalty: Lady Keisho-in 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 that her lack of refined manners reveal her heritage.
  • Rape as Backstory: Both male and female characters have this, though there seem to be more male characters who have suffered through this. Since "manly love" among samurai was a common practice in this period of Japan, masters taking advantage of their students was sadly not uncommon. The trauma experienced from the assault often results in a motive for more power over others (as is the case for Yanagisawa) or, in extreme cases, murder (such as when Kira was murdered by his retainer for pimping out said retainer's son).
  • Rashomon Plot: Each of the suspects tells their own version of how Reiko ended up in Lord Mori's chamber. Unsurprisingly, their stories don't exactly mesh with each other: Reiko's tale explains how she came to be in the Mori estate, but not how she got into the state she was in when Sano found her; Lady Mori paints Reiko as some two-timing seductress who killed Lord Mori in cold blood; Lady Mori's son describes Reiko as a blackmailer who was doing Sano's bidding, etc.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: As this is the standard of beauty during the series, many women have this appearance and will go to desperate lengths to maintain and/or achieve it. Older women, such as Lady Keisho-in, will 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 within the Shogun's court and Edo as a whole, as corruption is rampant in both. Outside of the main protagonists, Magistrate Ueda is one of Edo's few honest and powerful men.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sano not only calls the Shogun by name, he calls him out for his childishness, irresponsible ways, and passive-aggressive behavior, additionally calling him a coward unworthy of bearing the Tokugawa name. Much to his, and everyone else's absolute shock, Tsunayoshi agrees with him.
  • Reassignment Backfire: Sano's trip to Deshima, 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: The Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, which can be summed up as "prostitutes, courtesans, and more prostitutes."
  • Refuge in Audacity: It takes quite a bit of samurai bravado and no small amount of iron balls to not only call the most powerful person in Japan a coward, but to declare him unworthy of his name and title and get away with it.
  • Revisiting the Cold Case: When the Shogun's cousin goes missing, a search party is sent out to find him, but a few months without any success leads people to believe he died in the fire. It isn't until four decades later that his skeleton is found, and Sano is tasked with finding out the truth behind his death.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Both Sano and Reiko turn out to be right, though the actual facts were either obfuscated or hidden. While Haru did kill the Commander, she did it in self-defense and hadn't even intended to kill him outright. She also didn't murder her husband via arson: it was an accident that she took took advantage of so she could escape his abuse. The Black Lotus are indeed just as devious and dangerous as the public think them to be, even more so than anybody could have imagined.
  • Rōnin:
    • Sano is the son of a rōnin and, by extension, was one himself before becoming a yoriki.
    • The Rōnin's Mistress deals with the legend of The 47 Ronin.
  • Sadistic Choice: After her husband dies, Lady Nobuko has to choose between killing either Yanagisawa or Ienobu and letting the survivor take over the mantle of Shogun. There's just one problem: she has ample reason to murder both of them. Yanagisawa had her kidnapped and raped in order to discredit his rival and Ienobu arranged the death of her only child. Unable to decide who she hates more, Lady Nobuko snaps.
  • Screaming Birth: Midori screams through most of the birth.
  • Seppuku: Depending on their status, some samurai are given this option instead of execution, seeing it as a means for them to regain the honor they lost. Some characters take this route when their situation seems too bleak to get out of. After going against one of Sano's orders, Hirata offers this as a way to atone for his disobiedence. Sano forbids him, instead urging him to use this as a lesson. "Jigai" is the woman's version, used by Lady Yanisagawa after her husband's death leaves her and her daughter's future uncertain.
  • Sequel: While the murder and murderer of The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria weren't part of the previous book, the affect the Black Lotus case had on the main cast clearly shows: Sano's temper is quick to kindle due to the mental and emotional turmoil that formed after the raid on the sect's temple; Reiko doubts her deductive abilities and intuition due to backing a suspect that ultimately proved to be a manipulator and murderer; their marriage rests in a state of fragile equilibrium because they were on opposing sides, which fomented bad blood between them, etc. Additionally, some loose ends are tied up regarding just how the Black Lotus was able to exist for so long without reprisal: several influential members of the bakufu were Black Lotus followers, meaning they were able to cover up the sect's doings from people who might have done something about it.
  • Serial Escalation: With each progressive entry, the crimes and court politics get more intense, culminating in an attack on the Shogun himself.
  • Sex Equals Love: Lady Yanagisawa desperately holds to this belief when her husband beds her as a reward in The Perfumed Sleeve. When Lady Yanagisawa tries to explain to Reiko that Yanagisawa loves her, Reiko mocks her for thinking that lust and love are the same thing.
  • Shipper on Deck: In the Black Lotus, both Sano and Reiko would like to see Hirata and Midori get married, but their class origins and Hirata's recently aquired arragonce makes the prospect difficult.
  • Shoot the Dog: Sano generally forgoes torture, seeing it as both inhumane and an inefficient means to obtaining reliable testimony. However, every so often he will break this rule, usually when a suspect or witness tries his patience for too long.
  • Sidekick Graduations Stick: Hirata starts out as Sano's right hand man before assuming Sano's position as the Shogun's chief investigator after Sano gets promoted to Chamberlain. As the series progresses, Hirata gets more attention in the spotlight, even getting his own subplot that spans multiple books.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Reiko uses her courtly status to search for information that her husband and his detectives might not otherwise find. 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: While most government positions are obtained through birth, some ambitious samurai will circumvent this system by sleeping with their superiors. Yanagisawa is a promenent example, as he got the job of Chamberlain by becoming the Shogun's lover and confidante. He encourages his son, Yoritomo, to employ this method in an attempt to have him declared as next-in-line to the Shogun's position.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Lieutenant Kushida developed an obsession with Harume shortly after she entered Edo Castle.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers:
    • In Shinjū, the titular case is about an upper-class lady and a shunga artist who committed double suicide in the hopes they would be able to live together in the afterlife. It's an enforced example: the two victims had never met in life, and their deaths were made to look like a shinjū by the murderer.
    • In The Concubine's Tattoo, Harume and Danzaemon, the eta's headchief, were deeply in love, but could never be together because of their vast differences in class.
  • Status Quo Is God: Downplayed. Once Sano becomes sosakan, a status quo is established that includes Sano having to solve a politically charged mystery with Yanagisawa using the investigation to either take down Sano or further his own power. That doesn't mean things stay stagnant, though: Sano gets married to Reiko, who becomes an important asset to his investigations. Together they have two children, both of whom eventually help solve cases in some way. Sano's position within the court changes multiple times over the course of the series, as does Hirata's. Hirata himself has his own personal struggles regarding his duty to Sano and his family. His situation also changes considerably throughout the series: originally a doshin, he becomes Sano's chief retainer after assisting him in the Bundori case. He then gets married to Midori and becomes sosakan after Sano's own promotion to Chamberlain. Then Hirata gets gravely injured which gives him a limp, leading him to turn to mystic martial arts in order to compensate, etc.
  • Stupidity-Inducing Attack: Hirata uses his last ounce of energy to throw a mental attack at Ienobu. Although Ienobu can take care of his basic needs, the attack causes him to only be able to do something if Sano orders him to.
  • Succession Crisis: The lack of a direct heir to the Tokugawa line spurs most of the political plotting as factions compete for the Shogun's favor. Sano seems to be the only person in Edo Castle who doesn't want this for Masahiro which, naturally, no one else believes. This dilemma pretty much becomes the focus of the last two books after the death of Tsuruhime, the Shogun's daughter, and an attack on the Shogun himself.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Minister Ogyu was born female but raised as male by a family that had desperately hoped for a son. It's the threat of being exposed as a fraud that leds her to murder.
  • Those Two Guys: Detectives Marume and Fukida are two of Sano's retainers, and are often seen with one another. They don't have their own subplots, their personalities aren't as well developed as the rest of the main cast, and they only appear whenever their assitance is needed.
  • Time Skip: Utilized to varying degrees. The largest one happens between The Shogun's Daughter and The Iris Fan: five years have passed between the events of the former and the beginning of the latter. Circumstances have changed greatly for Sano and those around him, and not for the better.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Reiko is a samurai lady who prefers adventure and Midori is a women who prefers being a housewife.
  • Torture Technician: Dr. Miwa is both the Black Lotus sect's chief physician and their torturer. His background in medicine aids in his research of poisons.
  • Touch of Death: Dim-mak is a martial art techinque that involves touching someone at a specific point of the body. At least two days later, the victim will die of a burst blood vessel in their brain. This is the main murder method of the Ghost, the antagonist of The Assassin's Touch.
  • Trauma Conga Line: After he's severely injured in The Perfumed Sleeve, Hirata starts down a dark path that sorely tests his previously honorable, good-natured character. It begins when he decides to embark on mystical martial arts training to compensate for his new disability. He's forced to leave his wife and children for months at a time, which causes major resentment from Midori. He eventually falls in with a group of mystical conspirators that want use their skills to altar the course of Japan. When Hirata threatens to leave after realizing they intend to destroy the Tokugawa shogunate, they threaten to kill Sano. Their superior skills force him to protect said master by keeping quiet about what is going on and remain under their control, infuriating Sano and making it impossible for him to stick up for his retainer. Hirata tries to take down the conspirators, but they beat Hirata nearly to death and force him to become a host to a vengeful ghost general. After killing off the conspirators, the general forces Hirata to murder and steal for Ienobu over the course of five years, never letting him go home. This eventually forces Sano to label Hirata a traitor, which turns both him and his family into outcasts, leading Midori to develop a deep hatred for Hirata. When Hirata finally appears in the final battle at the palace, the general tries to make him kill his long time friend and master to prevent his plans from being stopped. Hirata fights back so hard against the ghost's control that he snaps his bones, tendons, nerves, and even his own spine in order to stop the ghost from hurting Sano. Although Hirata manages one last mental attack on Ienobu to thwart the general's plans for good, the strain and injury to his body is too much for him to ever recover from. He dies in Midori's arms a few hours later.
  • Trial by Ordeal: In The Snow Empress, Cheiftan Awetok offers a traditional Ainu trial in order to figure out who murdered Tekare. Upon being presented with a pot of boiling water, the accused plunges one of their hands into the pot. If the accused's hand remains unscathed, its because the spirit of the victim recognized their innocence and protected them. If the accused's hand gets scalded, they're guilty. Both Awetok and Urahenka go through the trail and neither of them are harmed. Daigoro posits that they used some type of native potion to prevent them from getting hurt, but Sano can't imagine any type of balm doing what he suggests. Turns out that neither Awetok nor Urahenka commited the crime, suggesting that the trail was completely legitimate.
  • Turn in Your Badge: After Sano refuses to stop investigating Ienobu, Tsunayoshi takes away his rank and bans him from court.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Reiko looks almost exactly like her grandmother and even shares a couple characteristics with her: they are both similiarly stubborn and sharp-tongued.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After all of his careful scheming and planning, Yanagisawa loses it when it's revealed that Sano's voice is the only one that Ienobu will obey. This proves to be one too many times that Sano has interfered and won, for Yanagisawa snaps and attacks Sano.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: The reason Ienobu wants to be shogun so badly is so he can force all those who made fun of him for being weak and disabled to bow before him as ruler of Japan. Taken to its extremes when Sano finds out he's made plans to conquer the world.
  • Woman Scorned: Just one type of motive in the series. In The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria, Lady Wisteria frames several former clients she has come to loathe.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: General Otani needed the other members of the fellowship because they were the only ones who could help provid him a host. Once he's possessed Hirata's body, Otani uses his newfound physicallity to murder the rest of the fellowship within seconds.
  • You Killed My Father: The murder of a family member- usually a child- is the motive behind more than one murder.
    • Yanagisawa vows revenge against Sano for Yoritomo's death, even though Sano had nothing to do with it. Ditto with Yanagisawa's other son, Yoshisato. Although, in his case, he was later found to be alive and in hiding.
    • Lady Nobuko never forgave the one who caused the death of her daughter, Tsuruhime. She pulls a knife on Ienobu in the final battle, but is only stops herself from killing him when Yanagisawa enters, and she can't decide who she hates more.