Friday, August 17, 2018

Monochrome Motion

たった一度だけでも抱いてしまった希望
君の手の中に踊るのは
未完成な音色
「未完成な音色」(Garnet Crow)

It was a hope I held on for only one single time
But what is dancing within your hands is
An imperfect sound
"An Imperfect Sound" (Garnet Crow)

Don't you just hate it when an anthology features one story you really want to read, but where most of the other contents are made up out of stories you already have in other publications? Or when a certain book is re-released, but includes some new content, for example a new story, or an updated chapter or something similar? That one story or that little bit of new content is certainly alluring, but does it justify basically double-dipping on certain stories or other books?

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series 
1: The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case (1987) [Nintendo Famicom Disk System]
5: The Unfinished Reportage (1996) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
6: At the End of the Dream (1998) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
7: Before the Light Fades (1999) [Sony PlaySation] 
8: Innocent Black (2002) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
9: Kind of Blue (2004) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
10: The White Phantom Girl (2005) [Nintendo GameBoy Advance] 
14: Ashes and Diamonds (2009) [Sony PlayStation Portable] 
15: The Red Butterfly (2010) [Nintendo DS] 
16: Rondo of Revenge (2012) [Nintendo 3DS]
17: Ghost of the Dusk (2017) [Nintendo 3DS] 

18: Prism of Eyes (2018) [Nintendo Switch/Sony PlayStation 4]

Novels
The Ghost of Shinjuku (2006)
A Bright Future (2007)


That is the question that sticks with me the most as I played the Switch/PlayStation 4 game Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes"), released in August 2018 as the eighteenth main series entry in what might possibly be the longest running mystery adventure game series. As always, the game revolves around the adventures of the ever-smoking private detective Jinguuji, his assistant Youko and the local police detective Kumano as they work on curious cases in Shinjuku, Tokyo. This latest game is basically a series anthology, complete with the usual complaint I have with anthologies: most of the content is already available in other forms. Prism of Eyes contains no less than thirteen different scenarios (stories), most of them about two to three hours long to read through (plus one bonus story). The problem is that only three of those scenarios (and the bonus story) are completely new, original content. The remaining ten stories, thus the bulk of the whole game, are high-definition remakes of select titles from the spin-off series which were originally not released on game consoles, but on mobile phones. While the original services offering the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou mobile phone applications have stopped long ago making them rare games in theory, all twenty-four mobile applications are quite easily available, as they were included (in batches) in previous main series titles. That means that if you have been following this game series since at least the DS titles,  you will already be familiar with about seventy-five percent of this game.


I have been a long-time fan of this series. In fact, I started playing these games just before I started learning Japanese, so to me, the experience of playing these games have always been also a way to measure my proficiency in the language, but that does mean that Prism of Eyes feels rather lacking in content to me, as so much is simply repackaging of old material I already know. The three brand-new scenarios (which are collectively titled Prism of Eyes) do try to do something interesting. Assistant Youko and police inspector Kumano have been playable characters in some of the previous titles, but that was usually in a shared role with Jinguuji, or with each other, with chapters alternating between these characters. Never before have Youko and Kumano, who have been in this series ever since the first title, carried their own story from start to finish. The three new Prism of Eyes scenarios however have Jinguuji, Youko and Kumano each star in their own story. In False Night, Jinguuji runs into Asakura, an old buddy from the university boxing club, who is apparently chased by some suspicious figures. Asakura disappears, but Jinguuji learns that Asakura has stolen a bag from a VIP room in a club run by a shady organization and now everyone is after Asakura and his bag. Detective assistant Youko stars in Gems For the Dead, where a college friend Yuiko, who is now a jewelry designer, asks Youko to model for her. She also wants Youko to investigate her boyfriend, who has been acting weird strangely, and Youko discovers a strange connection between Yuiko's boyfriend and a series of murders happening in Shinjuku, where a gem is left with each victim. In The Truth of the Cursed Mirror, police inspector Kumano is investigating the death of an assistant-professor in archeology in a dig-site discovered at a construction site. At first sight, it appears the man simply slipped and died because of his injuries, but there are some points that bother the experienced police detective, and there are also rumors the assistant-professor's death is connected to a curse enscribed in an ancient bronze mirror found at the site.


As per the current series tradition, these games don't really offer much in terms of interactivity, only allowing you to use a few simple commands like "Move" and "Look" to move between locations and ask witnesses specific questions, and it's impossible to get stuck or even get a game over screen. In return, these games can focus very much on story-telling, and while the core is still a mystery plot, the human drama angle this game series has adapted especially since the entries released on the DS, is very much noticable here. The three stories do play into the strengths of the three characters: Jinguuji's scenario has him dealing with underworld gangs and secret wars, Youko's story is far more focused on the characters, while Inspector Kumano's story has him dealing with red tape and pressure from within the police organization as he tries to solve his case. The three scenarios are rather passive experiences as mystery stories, focusing more on the slow unraveling of the case and events, rather than giving the player the tools to do it themselves, but they definitely work as captivating mystery stories. But, considering these three scenarios are each about two, three hours long each, Prism of Eyes does really feel lacking in content. The scale of these three stories is rather limited. And sure, taken together you might have about nine hours, but as a main series entry, I'd prefered a long, nine-hour story (like in the older games, like series pinnacles Yume no Owari ni and Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni), rather than three shorter stories. Prism of Eyes is the first Tantei Jinguuji Saburou to be released on a home console, rather than a handheld device (DS, PSP and 3DS) since 2004's Kind of Blue, so I had hoped we'd be getting the scaled-up experience this time, with more robust gameplay mechanics like the zapping system, time system or even the train-your-assistant systems of earlier games, but no. The DS and 3DS original scenarios were arguably also rather small in scale, but that wasn't very surprising considering the hardware (Ashes and Diamonds on the PSP in comparison is pretty long), and the inclusion of the mobile phone application games back then was a worthwile addition, as that was the first time they were made available in a physical format, and you couldn't get them anymore on the cell phones.

There are also various minor signs that Prism of Eyes could've used some extra polish. Some of the in-game effects (like sliding assets) are incredibly ugly and the order of in-game commands (like "Look", "Item" and "Move") changes sometimes between the various scenarios. So most of the time, "Speak" follows the command "Look", while for example in False Night, it's I think "Item" that follows "Look" for no apparent reason. So on the whole, I think the new stories are okay, but the whole game does feel like unambitious, and the execution is at times even sloppy.


The ten other scenarios included in Prism of Eyes are as mentioned simply HD-remakes of scenarios originally released on mobile phones, and later made available on DS. To be honest, I don't really like the new HD graphics. While the character designs are done by the same person who did most of them orginally (JUNNY), I prefer the more unique designs of the original versions rather than the ones used for the HD remakes. I'm not going to write something on all of the stories, but to pick a few: The Six Sheets of Crime is a personal favorite, as it has one of the more traditional puzzle-oriented plots of the whole series, with a locked room of sorts and a pretty ingenious way that indicated the murderer. This story was written by Kodaka Kazutaka, who would later create the Danganronpa game series. Prism of Eyes features another scenario written by Kodaka. As Times Goes By... is a HD remake of a what itself was a fairly faithful remake of Toki ga Sugiyuku mama ni..., originally published on the Famicom in 1990. The original Famicom title was the first in the series to focus on human drama (and the first game in the series without a murder!) and was written by Nojima Kazushige, whom most people will know as the scenario writer of mega hits Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X. The mobile phone remake (on which this HD remake is based) smoothes the story out a bit. The Linked Curse is another HD remake included in Prism of Eyes which was originally written by Nojima (and a personal favorite too) and has Jinguuji investigating the death of a young man who claimed he was cursed. This is actually the one and only mobile phone application game I bought for my Japanese phone when I was studying in Fukuoka, and I have rather fond memories of it. Pretty weird to play this game now in high definition on my television, considered I first played it the screen of on a small clamshell phone!

Prism of Eyes includes a short demo of Daedalus - Awakening of Golden Jazz, an upcoming prequel spin-off game featuring a younger Jinguuji during his time in New York (set before the flashback events of Yume no Owari ni). The gameplay of this "Chapter 0" is quite different from the usual games, and also a bit clunky in this demo, but as the game'll be released later this year, I'll be sure to check it out.


One thing I can't complain about is the music of Prism of Eyes. Seriously, I don't know how, but the music of each and every entry in this series simply rocks. Or to be exact: jazzes. The jazzy soundtrack of this series is absolutely fantastic, and I'm sure to add the new Prism of Eyes tracks to the playlist I use when I'm writing (which is actually mostly made out of Tantei Jinguuji Saburou music, as they work perfectly as non-intrusive background music).

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes is in my eyes a somewhat disappointing game. After the steps taken in last year's Ghost in the Dusk, I was hoping for a grand scale Jinguuji Saburou game like we had in the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 days, but Prism of Eyes is unambitious, with only a few, short new scenarios. If you have never ever played a Jinguuji Saburou before, the thirteen scenarios found in this game (+ bonus story) will definitely offer a varied collection of mystery stories that also provide a good picture of what the series has to offer in terms of characters and storytelling, but for people who have been playing these games for a longer time, Prism of Eyes has far, far too little to offer in terms of original content.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵 神宮寺三郎 Prism of Eyes』

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Search of Truth

The days and the months are drifting by
As though they didn't notice seasons changing in the breeze 
They all look the same but I sense something's there 
Waiting around the path
Revealing a truth that I will defend
"Time Hollow" (Mouse)

Despite the cover, this is technically a science-fiction mystery, I guess...

The Shiigahara Academy Case some years ago involved the death of a female science teacher of that school, for which the prosecutor Meijou was arrested. He insisted he was innocent, but evidence showed that only he came near the victim after she herself signed for a certain delivery at the school, namely a package containing the very poison that would be used for her death. Meijou was convicted for the murder, though some suspect the fact Meijou was working on a grand scale corruption case involving the Shiigahara Group (which funded the academy) might not be completely unrelated to his predicament. Some time later, prosecutor Kikuzono Ayako receives a tip from attorney Morie Shunsaku that might allow them to prove Meijou's innocence, as the research center HICALI has a particle accelerator that can determine at the particle level whether a certain piece of evidence used in Meijou's trial is indeed what it was assumed to be. After leaving the evidence behind at HICALI, Kikuzono is taken by Morie to the Everholy Lodge, a private hotel owned by the Shiigahara Group for its members. There they find among the other guests some people that might be connected to Meijou's case too, but to the two attorneys' surprise,  one of the guests is murdered inside a locked hotel room. Kikuzono however quickly figures out who committed the murder and how... or did she? For at the very moment she pointed out who the murderer was, she is transported to another dimension! It appears a fault with HICALI's particle accelerator is the cause of her dimension-hopping, and she theorizes that she might be flung back into her own world if she manages to solve the murder in the Everholy Lodge, but there is one problem: while this parallel world is mostly like her own world, it appears that the vital clue in Kikuzono's original theory doesn't exists in this parallel world, meaning she has to figure out a whole new explanation for the locked room murder in Ashibe Taku's Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Murder In The Dimensional House", 2014).

This is a weird novel. Mystery fiction is not necessarily about realism of course, and the rate at which most amateur detectives run into corpses or other mysteries like impossible disappearances is hardly something anyone would consider realistic. World consistency is more important and this is why fantasy and science-fiction mystery novels work: they might not be "realistic", but ideally, there's consistency in what can be done or what can't be done with magic/future technology, and those rules govern those worlds just in the way the general laws of nature govern most other mystery stories. Yet Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin seems quite strange compared to other novels in the Morie Shunsaku series: sure, this series is strangely broad, as in one novel, Morie might be acting like a real attorney, working on a Lay Judge case that is meant to portray how a Lay Judge case really works in Japan, but in another story he might be solving the mystery of a Birdman or solving purely fictional murders. Yet I had not expected him to appear in a science-fiction mystery, which this novel is essentially, as we're talking about a dimension-leaping prosecutor. That said though, the parallel world premise is the only science-fiction part of the mystery, as it's not like the murder was committed with death rays or anything like that. The story follows prosecutor Kikuzono by the way, who is apparently a semi-recurring character/rival in the series I myself hadn't met yet, rather than Morie himself.

The premise is that due to an incident at HICALI's particle accelerator, Kikuzono is flung into a parallel world each time she makes a wrong deduction. She realizes she can only return if she figure out who the real murderer is of the Everholy Lodge Murder Case, but the catch is that every parallel world is slightly different. The murder has happened in each world, but everyone has slightly different names for example (in one of the worlds, Morie has an expy called Emori for example) and the details of the murder are also slightly different. The devil is in the details they say and that is correct here, as it's these details that make each dimensional jump so tiresome for Kikuzono, as each time, her previous theory about the murder is rendered completely useless. For example, in one parallel world, her theory hinged on the fact the murder weapon was a fairly small knife, but the moment she pointed at her suspect, she was thrown into another parallel world, where the knife had turned into a Japanese sword, that couldn't possibly work with her theory. Each time the details of the case change slightly, making her previous theory impossible and forcing her to rethink it.

This idea is somewhat similar to the multiple solutions trope we see in stories by Ellery Queen (most famously The Greek Coffin Mystery) and Anthony Berkeley (most famously The Poisoned Chocolates Case), novels which are structured around presenting one new solution to the same case upon another to the reader. There is a fundamental difference however to the parallel worlds in Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin and those works: in the works of Queen or Berkeley, the false solution is possible because a detective either interprets the evidence wrong, or more often, they are not yet in possession of all the relevant facts. It's only after the false solution is proposed that New Evidence A appears on the scene, which allows the detective to refine their theory to include this New Evidence A, changing their solution (see also my article on the Foil Detective). This is not the case in Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin: in this novel, the facts themselves actually change or even completely disappear, forcing Kikuzono to reconsider her theories. So what was once a knife, can suddenly turn into a sword, or an item that existed in one world that allowed her theory to work, doesn't even exist in the next parallel world. So in this novel, the false solution is not made possible by adding facts, but by removing them or altering them. This wouldn't fly in a "realistic" novel of course, but does work in the framework of parallel worlds.

Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin is thus more a thought experiment in deduction and the locked room mystery, than a mystery novel that wants to challenge you in a fair way with false solutions, as it's obviously not fair to the reader, nor to Kikuzono, that fundamental facts are suddenly changed at the whim of the author/parallel worlds. It's a mostly entertaining experiment though, as Kikuzono has to come up with a new solution to the locked room murder each time with a diminishing number of clues, and I think she goes through like four or five different solutions on what is essentially a rather small-scale locked room mystery, but which eventually makes an impression because of all the variations it goes through. But there's quite some repetition in this novel due to all the dimensional hopping, and because the facts keep changing solely to deny Kikuzono's theories, it feels somewhat mean-spirited, and at times even futile, as her theories are always rejected not because they are logically not sound, but simply because the facts are changed to her disadvantage.

The final solution to the locked room murder... is almost too grand for this novel. The solution takes some minor elements from each of the other solutions Kikuzono proposed in the parallel dimensions, which makes this a pretty clever one, but even from that starting point it's a looooong way to the final solution, and it definitely needed better clewing, as it really came out of nowhere, even with the build-up through the other solutions. It's a shame, as the core concept of this locked room mystery is utterly nuts, in the good sense of the term, but the minimalist clewing doesn't do it any favors, as at it is now, it's only vaguely hinted at best, and even then there's so many logistics about it that could've been hinted at in a better manner. The idea is of course that each of the previous parallel world solutions all contain elements of the final solution, but even then, I think that this final solution to the locked room mystery would've worked better on its own, with it as the true focus, rather in this particular novel that's more built around the idea of having multiple parallel versions of the same locked room.

What struck me the most I think was the nagging feeling that this story would've worked better as a videogame, as that medium works better with presenting parallel worlds. Kamaitaichi no Yoru, 428 or Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P also work with branching and/or parallel story paths and as games, they can allow the player to do stuff easily like jumping back and forth between different paths through flowcharts. I think Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin would've been more fun if the parallel worlds weren't presented one after another, but simultaneously (allowing you to jump between the various worlds), allowing you to explore each world yourself, rather than going through them in order.

I said it at the beginning and I will repeat it now: Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin is a weird story. It uses a science-fiction framework to play with the trope of the false solution in an interesting way, focusing on a somewhat simple locked room mystery and it's quite entertaining to read it as such. Yet I also feel that this concept might've worked better in a different format, and that the true solution of the locked room mystery is crazy enough that it deserved more attention as a full-fledged novel that is solely about it, rather than being part of a number of solutions to the locked room conundrum, as the clewing for the true solution is somewhat inadequate. It's definitely not a typical Morie Shunsaku novel, though I have to say: by now it seems that Morie Shunsaku can work with any type of mystery.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『異次元の館の殺人』

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Secret in Time

"You would have made a good archaeologist, M. Poirot. You have the gift of recreating the past."
 "Murder in Mesopotamia"

A few months ago, I reviewed Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, which provided an extremely well-researched history of detective and mystery comics published in Japan post World War II. It offered a wealth of information, so I dotted down a lot of titles that I wanted to read. What was most interesting to me was the period between the late 70s and early 90s. Before the 70s, original mystery manga (so not adaptations) were less about puzzle plots, but more about the adventures of a detective as a secret agent or spy. In the early and mid-90s, we got the huge watershed moment with Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and QED, which made original pure puzzle plot mystery manga common. But what happened in the period that led up to that watershed moment? Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar filled in the gaps for me, showing that the puzzle plot mystery manga's roots could be traced to the uprise of female manga artists in the 70s who would leave an everlasting impression on the industry. The 70s provided a space for experimentation within the manga format, and it was especially daring female artists who did incredible things there. A while back, I reviewed the animated feature They Were Eleven! for example, based on a comic by industry legend Hagio Moto which incorporated mystery, science-fiction and human drama. The horror genre in the manga format has also been long associated with comics for female readers, as that too flourished in the 70s under the auspices of female manga artists. From there it's not hard to see how horror artists would work their way to mystery manga, as the two genres have much in common.

One of the artists mentioned in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar who caught my attention in particular was Takashina Ryouko. In the early seventies, she made several comic adaptations of Edogawa Rampo's novels Kotou no Oni, Panorama-tou no Kidan and Kurotokage, but in 1979, she finally created her own original mystery comic, and it was a genuine puzzle plot mystery manga. Piano Sonato Satsujin Jiken ("The Piano Sonata Murder Case") was first published in 1979 in the magazine Nakayoshi Deluxe, and that would only be the start of Takashina's Murder Case series. The initial series ran from 1979 until 1984, spanning six stories. In 2002, Takashina resumed the series in the magazine Mystery Bonita, with more murder cases to be solved.  Note that while I call this a series, the stories themselves have no relation to each other: each story is a standalone tale, with no links to the other stories save for the "Murder Case" in the title. The 2005 release of Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken collects the first three stories in this series.

The title story Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken (1979) brings us to a familiar setting from 70s manga written for female readers. Seiko is the undisputed madonna of her high school, and her piano skills even earned her special privilages there, like a private room with a piano for her and her clique, ironically referred to as Seiko's "salon". One of the people in Seiko's clique is Iku, her cousin, who was practically raised together with Seiko. However, unlike the rich, beautiful and talented Seiko, Iku is quite poor and rather clumsy, and while Seiko always says she considers Iku her little sister, she's basically using Iku as her own personal slave. While a few other students at the school show interest for Iku personally, like the captain of the tennis club and Murakami, the popular upperclassman, Seiko's constant downplaying of Iku stand in the way of her ever growing to be anything more than "Seiko's inferior cousin". That is until one day, when Seiko's showing off her piano skills to her "salon", a horrible incident happens: during the sonata, a bottle of acid falls on Seiko's face out of nowhere, and during her painful struggle, she falls through the window, down several stories on the cold ground. After Seiko's death, Iku starts blaming herself for her death, and her pain is only amplified through rumors at school that Seiko's ghost is still roaming the piano room, but Murakami is convinced there's a perfectly logical reason to explain everything and starts investigating the truth behind Seiko's death.

Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken is a fairly accomplished story that sets out to combine several genres, with the mystery plot as its main core. While the death and the consequences of that on Iku's mind form the main core of this story, there's also a good dash of the romantic high school drama to be found here, and the influences of the horror genre are certainly also very present. The result is a hundred-page story that does not really bore, as it is capable of offering something else every other page, yet it never feels too chaotic. The core mystery plot revolves around a semi-impossibility: nobody knows where the bottle of acid came from and how it fell on Seiko, even though she was surrounded by everyone in her clique, and the door to the salon room was shut. The solution is okayish: it makes good use of the particular circumstances, but the hinting was a bit crude, with only one real physical clue that required a bit of creative thinking to arrive at the conclusion. The horror and high school romantic drama elements also tie in well with the mystery plot, leading to a story that is not quite as pure as a for example a Detective Conan story, but it is without any doubt a direct predecessor of the big mystery comics.

Shuugaku Ryokou Satsujin Jiken ("The School Trip Murder Case", 1980) is about Ari and Kaoru, who have been close friends since they were little kids despite the one-year difference in age. Now at high school, everyone thinks they are dating, but Ari at least still sees Kaoru only as her friend. That is until one day, Kaoru is murdered during the school trip to Kyoto, killed by an unknown assailant in the mountains behind Ginkakuji Temple. It's only after Kaoru's death that Ari realizes she had romantic feelings for Kaoru, but there are still strange points surrounding Kaoru's death, who died very soon after his own father. His classmates say they saw Kaoru in town even after the burial and when one year later, Ari herself is going on the same Kyoto school trip, she decides to investigate Kaoru's death herself. To be honest, this second story was a bit of a disappointment. It goes heavy on the drama, which isn't bad on its own, but the truth behind the death of Kaoru and his ghost isn't really surprising, nor really original. Well, I guess the explaination of his ghost might be original, but fair, it certainly isn't. Had it been hinted at earlier, it would've been slightly better, but now you might as well have told me it was magic.


Gakuensai Satsujin Jiken ("The School Festival Murder Case", 1980) too features a high school setting and stars Miharu, member of the school's theatre club and the only daughter of a wealthy CEO. As of late, she's been dating Minamoto, the current head of the club, but she's also being courted by Nagatani, a graduated member of the theatre club and protégé of her father. Strange things have been happening around her lately, mostly involving a strange lady who is harrassing Miharu with strange phone calls and even has her cat scratch Miharu's hand. When Miharu's chosen to star besides Minamoto in the club's performance of Poe's The Black Cat as the wife, things start to run out of hand, ending in tragedy when Miharu accidently kills her tormentor. But why was she being stalked in the first place and how can she ever live with herself knowing she killed someone?

A story that delves more into psychological horror than the previous two, but also a story that is far more exciting. The thriller-mode shouldn't fool you though, as technically, I'd say Takanashi goes further here in regards to actual clewing than in the first two stories, with some neat visual clewing. The truth behind what happened to Miharu might be a bit easy to guess because of the limited cast whom are a bit easy to identify as 'good' or 'bad' persons, but the story works its way to a Poe-esque conclusion at the school festival, which is quite entertaining.

As a volume, Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken gave me an interesting glimpse in the development of the puzzle plot mystery manga in Japan. The stories included here may lack the focus on the core puzzle plot of the main mystery manga we have now, but the way the three stories here clearly incorporate a true puzzle plot mystery at their core, while also showing the influence of, and cleverly utilizing the tropes and modes of the high school romance drama and horror genres that were far more commonplace in the world of comic publishing back then, show that Takashina's work helped pave the way for the major mystery manga we have now, as completely original works, instead of adaptations, and as a series solely devoted to mystery stories (as opposed to series that occasionally feature a mystery story).

Original Japanese title(s): 高階良子 『ピアノソナタ殺人事件』

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Crime in the Queen's Court

"Not quite. Actually, it's from Carroll's other book, Through the Looking-Glass. And to complete the title?"
"Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There."
"The Mad Tea Party"

Two reviews with Alices in one week?!

Last week, I reviewed the first volume of Nemoto Shou's comic Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura. This series was originally a doujin manga, meaning it was self-published by Nemoto himself (under the doujin circle name Sapporo no Rokujou Hitoma) in very small numbers, sold at events etc. This meant few were actually able to read the comic, but earlier this year, Kaiki Tantei - Sharaku Homura was made widely available in the e-book format thanks to publisher Bunshun. I enjoyed the first volume a lot, so my expectations for the second volume were obviously quite high. Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura - Youki no Kuni ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny -  The Land of the Wondrous Beauty") collects the next five issues of this series about girl detective Sharaku Homura and Yamazaki "Karate Kid" Yousuke. As the last members of respectively the Experiments Club and the Karate Club of Shimoyama Middle School, the two are forced to share a classroom for their club activities, but more often than not, the two end up chasing after curious criminals who like to dress up like Scooby Doo villains while committing impossible murders and other baffling crimes.

This second volume derives its subtitle from the opening story, The Land of the Wondrous Beauty, which is absolutely nuts. Homura finds her one day chasing after a rabbit with a watch, but she falls in a hole and loses conciousness. When she finally wakes up, she discovers that she has shrunken to a miniature size and wandered into a curious land. When she is finally captured by a soldier resembling a playing card, and confronted with the Queen of Hearts who breaks both of Homura's hands, Homura realizes to her shock that she's in Alice's Wonderland! Homura is helped by Alice herself to escape from Wonderland, but then another girl from Homura's school is captured by the Queen, as well as Homura's parents, and a priceless gem owned by the girl's jeweler parents is demanded as a ransom. Advised by both Homura and the police, the parents refuse to hand the jewel over, and keep it in a highly secured room of which both the door and the glass case in which the jewel is held is locked. Yet the people from Wonderland manage to steal the jewel from under the noses of its owner, the police and Homura herself!


Did I already say this story is nuts? The opening of this tale is really weird, with Homura wandering into Wonderland, and while this series has had its share of weird villains in weird dress, having the Queen of Hearts as the main opponent is more than strange in a detective tale. This is a tale of mystery however, and as we have come to expect from Nemoto, it's also a well-structured, and always fairly clewed puzzle plot mystery. The premise is crazy, but the logic used to explain how the jewel was stolen from its double-secured room is both clever and surprising, explaining also why the set-up of this tale is a bit on the longer side (and of course, there's a logical answer as to why Homura ended up in Wonderland). The ending of the story, when Homura and the police have cornered the criminal reminds a lot of Edogawa Rampo pulps, with a crazy chase inside the culprit's lair that is strangely enough incredibly large. I mean, why steal a jewel when it's obvious your secret lair you used for your evil schemes costs you a lot in the first place...


Quiz Master is a shorter story, where Homura is kidnapped by the titular Quiz Master, who challenges Homura to an epic battle of... quizzes! If Homura manages to answer three questions correctly, she'll be released, but for each wrong answer, a suit of armor holding a lance will move closer, and with the third wrong answer, she'll be made in to shish-kebab. The catch is that the Quiz Master's questions are incredibly nitpicky, so Homura does her best to stall for as long as possible until help arrives. The main clue pointing to the identity of the Quiz Master is something I should have picked up, though it could have needed a bit more to really make it a good clue. The explanation as to how Homura managed to get help is a lot better, and the clew is deviously well-hidden.

In The Scorpion Code, Homura and Karate Kid happen to walk right into a desperate struggle for power within the notorious Scorpion Gang. The boss of the gang wants to retire, and he has made a secret code that leads to the hiding place of the majority of the gang's loot. The one who solves the code, will become the new leader of Scorpion. The other gang members just want to get their hands on the loot however and don't care about the future of the gang, and try to capture their boss to make him hand over the loot just like that. While on the run, the boss runs into Homura and Karate Kid, and he confides into them the secret code, which they now must solve before the other Scorpion members get there. It's a relatively simple code-cracking story that is fairly clewed, but it does lack a sense of genuine wonder or surprise that most of the other stories do offer.


In The Distorted Face, a man with a horribly distorted face is popping up in various parts of Shimoyama City, asking the directions for a home of a certain old man. The old man used to be a robber, and one day, he tried to steal a bulldozer from a construction site to use in a robbery. He was discovered by someone at the site, but he killed the man by crushing his head with the bulldozer. He fled abroad a rich man, and returned when the statute of limitations expired for his murder. With each sighting of the man with the distorted face obviously out for revenge, the old man becomes more anxious, and in the end he decided to stay inside his locked house the whole day. Yet one night, when the police is staking the house out, they suddenly hear yelling, and when they break into the house, and into the locked bedroom, they find the old man dead, and with obvious signs of a horrible fight having happened inside. Yet the man with the distorted face is nowhere to be found, and logically, he could never have entered the house in the first place, so how did he assault the old man? A well-clewed story, and while the impossible angle isn't very surprising, the hinting is good, and Nemoto does a good job at giving a good reason for why there's a locked room in the first place.

Paintings of the Dead has Homura being hired to solve a weird puzzle: her client owns a painting by Ikichi Taken, a painter who was so obsessed with the idea of making a painting of the dead, he stole the corpse of a young lady to make paintings of the body as she'd rot. He was captured, but one of his paintings, still in the early phase of the rotting process, came into the hands of Homura's client. He has been threatened by a mysterious figure who says they'll complete the painting by having the corpse decay even further. The painting is held in a small storage room, with the painting secured to the wall. While Homura, Karate Kid and the owner stand guard in the room with the door as its only opening, the lights go out, and when they return, they find that the corpse in the painting has indeed changed, with more of the flesh decayed! Nobody could've entered through the door during the blackout, as they would've noticed, and the painting couldn't have been switched out of its frame in that short a period, so how did the painting change? A brilliantly thought-off story: the explanation is so simple once pointed out, but oh-so-devious, and excellently hinted. The horror-vibe of the story also helps, and the whole thing works towards a really creepy ending.

I forgot to mention it in my first review, but while these volumes collect the original self-published comics of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura, these e-books also contain some exclusive material, with some stories (like the title story) featuring brand new epilogues that shed some new light on the culprits and their motives.

So this second volume of Kaiki Tantei Homura Sharaku is again excellent mystery comic material. While most of the stories do have a similar vibe because of the trope of the 'dressed-up villain' with insanely complex plans that are a bit silly if you think about it, the mystery plots are usually really entertaining and precisely what you want in a puzzle plot story. Many of the hints are visual, making excellent use of the medium. A difference between this volume and the first is definitely diversity: from the crazy opening theft story to a code-cracking story to a short like Quiz Master: there's a lot more variety here, which serves as a welcome change after the first volume. Only one volume left!

Original Japanese title(s): 根本尚『怪奇探偵・写楽炎 2 妖姫の国』

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Stolen Relic

"You have then a private 'Black Museum.'"
 "Bah!" Mr. Shaitana snapped disdainful fingers. "The cup used by the Brighton murderer, the jemmy of a celebrated burglar absurd childishness! I should never burden myself with rubbish like that. I collect only the best objects of their kind." 
"Cards on the Table"

I assume that most of the readers here are not only into mystery fiction in general, but fan of one, or probably, multiple series. Some might be completely hooked on a certain series and try to binge-read/watch/listen (to) them, while others are doing it slowly on purpose, to savor each and every taking of the particular series. Some might also be actively collecting a series: trying to get their grubby hands on every release of a certain version for example, or perhaps various versions of the same book because they have different cover art or something like that. I myself have a Detective Conan volumes from various countries for example, something that looks neat in the bookcase.

Today however, I want to look at something else that fans like to have: merchandise. With merchandise, I mean items that aren't a form of mystery fiction on their own (book/TV series/films/audio dramas/videogames etc.), but related objects that are meant for display, or for actual usage, that bear the branding of a certain mystery series or author. Fans love merchandise, as can be seen from the many, many, many collectors of practically any series. Some love to flaunt their fandom with branded mugs or T-shirts, while others simply like to put an action figure in the glass case, but in any case, merchandise is big business. So I was wondering what readers here have in terms of mystery-related merchandise. That said though, a first look will probably show that it can be pretty hard finding official mystery fiction-related merchandise. Which made the success of BBC's Sherlock the more tangible: at the very height of the series, you saw T-shirts with quotes, Sherlocked mugs, heck, Sherlock funko dolls being sold in shops.


Speaking of figures and dolls, I don't have much myself: besides for a few Detective Conan and Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney keyholders, I'd say the only mystery-related figure I have is the Detective Pikachu amiibo (an amiibo is a NFC-enabled figurine, which can communicate with certain games for various results: the Detective Pikachu amiibo can be used in the Detective Pikachu game to unlock special scenes and hints). I absolutely love the little guy with his Holmes hat though. There are a few action figures that I'd love to own though. For example: there's an action figure of Yokomizo Seishi's famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke, as played by Ishizaka Kouji in the 1976 film adaptation of Inugamike no Ichizoku. The thing comes with real cloth clothes and even his suitcase with all the travel stickers, just like in the movie! Another figure I'd love to have is the one of the Dark Shadow/the Culprit of Detective Conan, who comes with a whole arsenal of weapons and facial expressions.


But to get back to some of the merchandise I do have. Sometimes, merchandise is simply a replica of an iconic object used in a certain series. Not all series lend themselves to this of course, though I heard that people started looking for that long coat Sherlock wears in Sherlock some years back.... Anyway, I have here for example a school badge as seen in the mystery manga Tantei Gakuen Q, with which the students of Dan's Detective Academy could identify themselves to the police, giving them the authority to mingle with official police investigations. Another piece of merchandise I have is a pink pass case, which people might recognize as the pass case Momiji lost in Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter. And yes, it comes with the pictures hidden inside and Momiji's public transport card!


I also have a weirdly large amount of mystery-related... stationery. I have pens, notebooks, clear file folders, desk pads and post-its with Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo branding. They don't have anything directly to do with those series of course, but errr, stationery is actually useful merchandise. My somewhat faded bookcover is also handy: most books and comics in Japan follow standard sizes, so many people use bookcovers. This particular one is mostly suited for standard tankobon-sized manga (I have different ones for novels), but they are really handy. 


To finish off, the weirdest merchandise I have. A friend had sent these to me as a surprise, and lo, I was surprised. I was aware there was Detective Conan tea, and even with SUPERCUTE artwork for the bags. But I did not know there was Detective Conan-branded instant curry. I haven't eaten them yet, but apparently, the Conan Curry is "spicy in appearance, but sweet in taste", while the Dark Shadow curry is supposed to be really black. And perhaps poisoned. I mean, it's the curry of the culprit. I'm really curious as to how they'll taste. But yeah, mystery fiction-related food is not something I come across often.

Anyway, this was some (most) of the mystery fiction-related merchandise I have. I'd like to know what you have! A Holmes bust like Holmes had, a replica of Poirot's moustaches, a Poisoned Chocolates Case, anything!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Sea Breeze

We are all rowing the boat of fate
The waves keep on comin' and we can't escape
"Life Is Like A Boat" (Rie Fu)

I haven't seen much of Nara, now I think about it. Only spent half a day there in total. I guess I could've seen more of it when I was living in Kyoto as it's basically around the corner, but then again, a lot of Nara has to offer is basically also in Kyoto. Except for the deers of course.

Disclosure: I translated Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle.

A meeting with a video production company about an original direct-to-video adaptation of one of his books brings Osaka-based mystery writer Arisugawa Alice from the west to Tokyo. His publisher in Tokyo also informs him his latest book is just fresh off the presses and ready to be shipped off, so Alice decides to swing by there too to see how the thing turned out. His colleague-cum-friendly-rival Akaboshi Gaku happens to be at the publisher too, and the two have a bit of chat (Alice naturally gifts the man his latest book). Akaboshi tells Alice he's working on a new mystery novel himself, and that he himself is actually about to leave for the west of Japan, for "Nara-by-the-Sea" to do some research on the theme of his new work: mermaids. Nara-by-the-Sea is a fancy phrase to describe Obama, a coastal town with many Buddhist temples which acted as the harbor for the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto, the greatest difference with those two cities of course being that Obama lies by the sea. The following day however, Alice learns that Akaboshi's body was found at the coast near Obama and it doesn't seem likely he'd commit suicide Alice and his friend Himura Hideo, who teaches criminology at Eito University, decide to find out what happened to Akaboshi in Arisugawa Alice's Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu ("Death in Nara-by-the-Sea", 1995).

I think I mention this every time one of these series comes up, but the actual author Arisugawa Alice has two main series, both of which feature a character also named Arisugawa Alice. The Alice in the Student Alice series is a young student who acts as the Watson to the older student Egami, while in the Writer Alice series, we follow an Alice in his thirties who's a professional mystery author, who acts as the assistant to Himura Hideo, a criminologist. The interesting thing is that both these Alices write each other: the student Alice is a budding mystery author who writes about a professional mystery author named Alice and his friend Himura, while the writer Alice writes about a young student named Alice and his senior Egami. It's just a small thing that doesn't have any real bearing on either series, and it's not always mentioned either, but Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu has a funny reference where someone mentions that the Alice there had written a novel called Something-something Puzzle, which is of course The Moai Island Puzzle which I translated.

Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu is the third novel in the Writer Alice series, after 46 Banme no Misshitsu and Dali no Mayu, and also the first serialized novel Arisugawa wrote. It is obviously intended as a take on the travel mystery sub-genre: mystery stories that revolve around tourist destinations, the local culture/history and of course, the act of (recreational) traveling itself. It is a genre that is especially associated with television productions (obviously, as you can actually see the places), but also seen as a rather 'light' genre within mystery fiction, as often the mystery plots are of secundary importance, below the 'tourist' mode of the story. Travel is also an important theme in Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu: Alice and Himura travel together to Obama in the hopes of finding what brought Akaboshi there and a trace of his murderer and along the way, the reader is told a lot about local Obama history and legends. In fact, one aspect I didn't really like of this novel is that it very often dumps a lot of information on the reader that feels too much as exposition. For example, there's a part where Alice and Himura talk about an Obama-related legend concerning the immortal nun Yaobikuni (it is said that you become immortal if you eat mermaid's meat), but you basically get to read an encyclopedia entry. This happens several times, where information that would've been more appealing to read in the form of an interactive discussion is presented as dry information (there's a part about The Exorcist too), and it results in a reading experience that is simply not as pleasant as one'd hope at times.

Travel also plays an important in the mystery plot. It doesn't take long for the story to focus on the alibis of the various suspects, and the attentive reader should notice right away the story is heading for an alibi-cracking plot, given the extreme focus on times and locations in the story (the importance of the alibis and the question of who could've murdered Akoboshi at that time and place is also emphasised a few times by Alice and Himura, so it shouldn't come as a surprise). The solution to it all is rather disappointing. There are basically two clues that point in the direction of the murderer (motive isn't a clue by the way) of which one is rather simple and basically nothing more than semi-trivia, and that would've fared much better in a short story, rather than a novel. The other clue is sorta okay, but very hard to imagine things would really work out that. It's especially hard to imagine in this time and age: perhaps it was more convincing in the early nineties of Japan in the certain field of industry this relates too. The circumstances that allowed this murder to happen in the first place are also a bit hard to swallow, and the actions of a certain character are just accepted as is without giving a convincing reason about why they would ever want to do that.

There is a second murder about halfway through the novel and tt features a method that has very little convincing power. There's an episode of Columbo that does the same actually, but it's similarly kinda hard to swallow there. The method also features something that wlll feel out-of-date. Of course, novels are always a product of their time, and I don't mind at all when I see things in novels that are obvious from a time I didn't know, but for some reason, I feel very differently about things and technology I myself do know and have used in the past, and that are outdated now. To me, part of the murder method feels like something from yesterday, but I can imagine that people from a generation younger than me will have no idea what they're talking about, yet it's also not far enough ago to feel "oh yeah, that's how things were done back in those days". Or maybe I'm just getting old....

Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu thus isn't one of the high points in Arisugawa's oeuvre. It has an idea that might've worked better in a short story rather than a novel, but little of the rest of the novel really managed to impress. It is slow due to the many expositions and focus on alibis and while one can derive some entertainment from Alice and Himura's usual banter and perhaps the travel mystery angle on the town of Obama, there's never really a moment that really makes the reader sit up straight to see what's coming next. The Writer Alice series is much more popular than the Student Alice series and sadly enough, this has also its influences on the output, as while all the novels in the Student Alice series are really, really good, the Writer Alice is less balanced with more distinct higher and lower points, and Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu is one of those novels that simply isn't as good as some of the other novels in the same series.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『海のある奈良に死す』

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Melody of Death

「悪魔ここに誕生す 」
『悪魔が来りて笛を吹く』
"Here the devil was born."
"The Devil Comes Playing The Flute"

It's really weird to see actors you only know from one, specific role playing someone completely different. The only drama I've seen with Yoshioka was the excellent Dr. Coto's Clinic TV drama series where he played the titular Dr. Coto. I watched those series like ten years ago, so it was weird to see him in a very different role now.

Yokomizo Seishi's Kindaichi Kousuke is arguably Japan's greatest fictional detective in literature, and there have been more than a few adaptations of his adventures ever since his debut in 1946's Honjin Satsujin Jiken. Two years ago, NHK (Japan's national public broadcasting station) produced an excellent TV special adaptation of Gokumontou, starring Hasegawa Hiroki as the famous detective dressed in a shabby hakama and a hat. Some months back, it was announced that NHK would produce the follow-up TV special, though interestingly, this second special featured a different lead as Kindaichi Kousuke: apparently the concept is that they will cast a new Kindaichi each time, to fit the atmosphere of the specific work and the script. On July 28th, 2018, Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku ("("The Devil Comes Playing The Flute") was broadcast on NHK Premium, starring Yoshioka Hidetaka as private detective Kindaichi Kousuke. Kindaichi is asked by Tsubaki Mineko to investigate the circumstances of her father's death, Viscount Tsubaki. The viscount was the prime suspect in the so-called Tengin Poisoning Case several months ago (based on the real Teigin Case, also featured in Ellery Queen's International Case Book), but the viscount was able to prove his innocence. However, the viscount decided to commit suicide some months afterwards, leaving a message to his daughter that "the shame is too much for him to bear and warning her for the devil who comes playing the flute." But even after his death, family members claim to have seen him hanging around the house playing his flute music, so it is decided they will hold a seance to see if he's really dead. Kindaichi is invited to watch the seance, which ends abruptly when a mysterious mark dubbed the Mark of the Devil appears on the seance table and the Viscount's flute arrangement "The Devil Comes Playing The Flute" suddenly resounds throughout the mansion. This is just a prologue for the tragedy though, as the following day, former Count Tamamushi (Mineko's great uncle) is found murdered in the seance room, and it appears this was a locked room murder!

The novel of Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku was originally released in 1973, and I have to admit I have a soft spot for it, as it was in fact the very first Kindaichi Kousuke novel I read in Japanese (I had read the English translation of Inugamike no Ichizoku before). The works ranks as one of Yokomizo's better known works and it has been adapted for both the silver and the small screen several times, though the most recent adaptation before this 2018 one dates from eleven years ago already.


I praised 2016's Gokumontou as a faithful adaptation of the source material. To be honest, I am not sure what to think of this adaptation of Akuma ga Kitarie Fue wo Fuku. On one hand, it has incorporated some of the very small details of the original novel, which is something I really appreciate. On the other hand, the ending has some extremely drastic changes that really transform the work into something different, and personally, I didn't like the direction of this final act of the special, so I am quite torn. As a mystery story however, both the special and the original novel focus on the why and who, rather than the how. Most of the murders featured in this novel could've been committed by anyone, and for example the trick behind the locked room murder is not particularly original nor surprising. The emphasis thus lies in the motive behind the murders, and this is tied directly to the insanely complex relations between the various characters in this story. The initial situation within the Tsubaki mansion isn't simple on its own, with Viscount Tsubaki and his family, the family of his wife's brother, as well as her uncle (and lover) all living together, but as Kindaichi starts to dig around to see what Viscount Tsubaki's last words might have meant, he starts to uncover that few of the people in the house are what they seem to be, and what he finds is almost grotesque. The story thus focuses on figuring out the deranged backstories of the various characters, which does lead to a rather slow TV special, as very little happens and it's mostly Kindaichi having a conversation with someone else.


This TV special really went all-out going into the dark aspects of this story though, even changing some story elements in the denouement just to make it even heavier on the heart. As a portrait of how unhinged people can become and how it can lead to murder, Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku does more than a good job, but this focus on human psychology does mean the mystery-solving itself feels less important. While there's an interesting clue that points directly towards the identity of the killer, most of the very long denouement is spent on Kindaichi hesitating whether he should tell everyone his shocking findings, and the reactions of everybody on his revealings. For people into motives, Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku will probably be a very satisfying special, as man, it's unique. This does explain why Yoshioka was cast as Kindaichi for this special. Yoshioka plays a somewhat older Kindaichi than previous ones, as judged from his graying hairs, but the human warmth and gentleness of his Kindaichi is what really saves this special from becoming far too heavy and I couldn't imagine Hasegawa's Kindaichi to have given the proper counterbalance to the atmosphere of this special. I do find it a shame that the original ending was changed quite drastically, as I felt the original novel at least showed some light at the end of the tunnel. I did like how the very final scene in the special manage to salvage one part of the original ending, when Kindaichi realizes that he could've guessed the identity of the murderer right from the start thanks to a clue that has been presented to the viewer right all throughout the special.

Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku is a very atmospheric TV special, resulting in a work that really explores the dark aspects of the original novel. This dark feeling is luckily countered by a new Kindaichi Kousuke who brings something unique, but some of the plot changes were only made to make this a heavier story, despite it already being a dark story from the start, so this special ends on a really depressive note, something I think wasn't necessary per se. At the very least, it is obvious that NHK is willing to approach each of these Kindaichi Kousuke adaptations in completely different manners, so it'll be interesting to see how their next adaptation will turn out (which is heavily hinted to be Yatsu Haka Mura). At any rate, I'll be sure to watch that one too, as despite the story changes, I do think this was an adaptation worth watching.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史(原)『悪魔が来たりて笛を吹く』