Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Love Searchlight

「蘭くんのハートをスナイプできるのは、彼だけだからね」
 『名探偵コナン 異次元の狙撃手(スナイパー)』 

"Cause he's the only one able to snipe Ran's heart, right?
"Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper

Sadly enough, I wasn't in Japan in April to see the annual Detective Conan film in the theaters this year, so I had to wait for the home release. A friend did see the movie in the theaters then though (and sent me pictures of her standing in front of the theater), which only helped fuel the jealousy wish to see this movie. But now the wait is finally over!

Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper starts off with a literal bang, when one of the guests at the opening of the new Bell Tree Tower in Tokyo is shot by a sniper right in front of our favorite high school student turned child Conan and our favorite female high school student detective Sera Masumi. The two chase the sniper through downtown Asakusa, as do the police and an FBI team, but the sniper manages to escape. The identity of the sniper is revealed to be known to the FBI: an ex-Navy SEAL is taking revenge on people who ruined his life and is now after some of them who happen to be in Japan at the moment. But while Conan and the police use precious time trying to trace down the murderer, the sniper continues his revenge and with more succesful hits, the population of Tokyo naturally starts to panic under the constant snipings. Can Conan find and stop this long-range murderer?

I love this eigthteenth Conan film, even if it feels quite different from earlier Detective Conan films sometimes. Actually, that is probably what made this film work and stand out in this long series. Dimensional Sniper continues the direction started with last year's Private Eye in the Sea, but feels much more a conventional Conan film than that movie. I think one of the biggest points to address here is that Yamamoto Yasuichirou isn't the director anymore: Yamamoto was the main director for all the Conan movies between 2002 ~ 2012, and while there are some I really enjoy of that period (The Raven Chaser!), they tend to be very alike. A special setting like a plane, boat or general location like an island or snowfield, a rather rudimentary whodunnit plot, some neat action scenes and a finale involving a lot of explosions. While the Detective Conan films are still over-the-top action movies, I do think the change in directors these last two films make the series feel fresh again, even if we do get to see the same old tropes again.


While especially the older Conan films featured pretty cool whodunnit plots (The Fourteenth Target!), Dimensional Sniper's story puts the focus on the investigation. Because of the FBI's information, the police knows who they're hunting for and the plot is more about Conan and Sera finding out who the next victim will be and the meaning about the mysterious dice the sniper leaves at each crime scene. The plot is fairly dynamic though, with new discoveries about the snipings made along the way and I wasn't bored even in the little. There's little to this movie who want to guess whodunit, but I think the film did a great job at presenting a thrilling investigation. There is a slight whodunnit element in the second half of the movie, but it is extremely barebones.

 I loved how this movie brought the Conan film franchise back to Tokyo though: the last few years, each movie has been set at some special setting, but I actually loved the earlier movies like The Time-bombed Skyscraper, The Fourteenth Target and Captured in Her Eyes because they were 'normal' Conan stories set in an urban area. Dimensional Sniper does a great job at depicting downtown Asakusa in Tokyo and actually makes the location relevant to the plot (also borrowing ever so lightly from Arisugawa Alice's Kotou Puzzle), which I love. There's also a little interesing symmetry going on in the beginning and ending of the movie.


Also interesting is the light social commentary going in the movie. It's not the first time it has happened in Conan (Phantom of Baker Street and Private Eye in the Sea feature it rather heavily), but it was funny to see how mass and social media were depicted in the movie. It's not heavy or really interfering, but it's something that never showed up in the Yamamoto directed Conan films between 2002~2012, so I still need to get used to it.

Is it all good? Well, I wasn't a very big fan of the Japan - foreigners juxtaposition in both this movie and the previous movie (this one had ex-US officers killing each other off in Japan, while the previous film was about the national defense). But those points are not very heavily pushed on the viewer. I do think that Dimensional Sniper is hard to understand if you're not familiar with Detective Conan lore, especially of the last few years. A lot of recurring parties are involved in this story and one vital plot point that had not even been properly addressed in the comic book series when this movie was first released, was actually revealed in this movie. So this film is connected to the main storyline of the comic and especially the last act can be a bit confusing if you don't know how one particular character is (who is hardly introduced in the movie itself).

Oh, and while with Yamamoto gone, the outrageous skateboard scenes in the movies have became slightly less outrageous, Dimensional Sniper 'makes up' for that by making Conan's shoes even more powerful than ever. You don't have to worry: if anything, the action scenes have become even more ridiculous than ever (though to be honest, the last act borrows a lot from previous Conan films).

While Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper does a few things different from 'regular' Conan films, it does feel like a true Conan film and one of the best in recent years too. The lack of a normal whodunit plot is a bit sad, but I quite enjoyed the film as as an investigation story with a great finale. And it gets bonus points for actually addressing main story plot points, even if it might be a bit confusing who only watch the Conan movies and thus don't know who some of the characters are. But I am glad the Conan films have moved on from the stale formula set in the last ten years, and I'm curious as to how next year's Sunflowers of Inferno will turn out.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン 異次元に狙撃手(スナイパー)』

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Love Love Guilty

"Guilty or innocent?"
- "Innocent"
"Feed them to the Sharkticons"
"Transformers: The Movie"

Today, a game I wanted to play ever since I first heard about it in 2009, I bought in 2012, but only just now finished. And then the review had to wait for three months to be posted.

The lay judge system was implemented in Japan on May 21, 2009. On the same day, the Nintendo DS game Yuuzai X Muzai ("Guilty X Innocent") was released. The subtitle says 'lay judge detective game' and that's precisely what it is. The player takes the role of a lay judge in four different cases, all connected with a death, which may or may not be a murder. It's up to the player to decide whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. Was the death of the defendant's mother-in-law in a fire a tragic accident, or a planned murder? Did the recently appointed professor commit suicide, or was he killed in cold blood? The only way of making a good decision is to listen carefully to the prosecution, defense and their witnesses, examine all the evidence and discuss everything the fellow judges. Can you decide whether the defendant is guilty or innocent?

The implementation of the lay judge system in Japan (an earlier form had been abolished after the second World War) also brought a series of videogames with the lay judge system as a theme. Two years before the actual implementation, Gyakuten Saiban 4 / Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney was released, which also featured the lay judge system in its story. But whereas the Gyakuten / Ace Attorney series is a wacky mystery series that just happens to be set in a courtroom, Yuuzai X Muzai is a much more serious courtroom game. So no hilarious sheningans or pop-culture references like in the Gyakuten / Ace Attorney series or the Danganronpa series: trials are serious business.


Because you play as a lay judge, you also have a very different role than in most courtroom drama videogames: whereas you usually play some kind of detective in those games, or at least someone desperate to either find the truth or defend the client as an attorney, your mission in Yuuzai X Muzai is different. You need to find out whether the defendant is guilty to the charges of the prosecution, or not. You're not looking for the true killer, or trying to solve an alibi trick. You just need to consider whether the claims of the prosecutor are supported by the evidence and testimonies provided by proscution and defense.

Gameplay in Yuuzai X Muzai consists of two parts. The first is the trial, where you listen to the opening statements of both prosecution and defense and the testimonies of the witnesses. As a lay judge, you're allowed to ask the witnesses questions too, and by selecting the right questions, you can occassionally obtain vital information for the case (other lay judges also ask questions in these sections, which can also result in more data). The biggest problem of Yuuzai X Muzai is that this first part is by far the longest part, and also the most boring part. Aside from some questions at the end, you're basically forced to just read through every statement and testimony in the trial, which means you're doing nothing more than just pressing the A button for thirty, forty minutes. But the information presented during the trial is of course very important, like a real trial, so you can't just skip it all. 

Things get a lot more interesting in the second part of the game, where you have discussions with your fellow (lay) judges about the guilty / innocent problem. I think the easiest way to describe this part is to say it's 12 Angry Men. Each case is broken down into several factors (i.e. motive, opportunity, certain pieces of evidence) and you hold short discussions on each of these factors. By agreeing or disagreeing with your fellow judges, or asking questions at the right time, you'll examine the evidence and slowly arrive at a conclusion for each factor: does this specific factor point at the defendant's guilt, innocence or is it impossible to choose at this moment? Sometimes, you'll discover some hidden truth with important implications for the case not mentioned during the trial through these discussions, making these sections feel the most like a 'conventional' detective game. After going through all the factors, you can call for a vote. And because this is a pretty realistic game, you also have to decide the sentence if you arrive at a guilty verdict.

One gripe I had with the game is that Yuuzai X Muzai gives you very little feedback as a game. There is usually some kind of truth hidden behind each case, which you can uncover through the discussions, but you never know whether you're going in the right direction. The game never tells you whether you are making the right choices throughout the game, and you might very well think you're doing okay, arrive at a verdict and only be told at the very end, after the verdict has been handed out, that you unraveled just a mere 35% of the complete truth. Sure, no feedback might be more serious, as real (lay) judges aren't told either whether they managed to unravel all the mysteries in a case, but as a game, I think the lack of feedback is not very motivating. One other, minor thing I didn't really like was the slightly educational, promotional tone the game had. It wasn't a non-stop praise song for the lay judge system, but they do feed the player an idealized image of The Common Man Helping Justice at times, which can be a bit tiring.


On the whole I did like Yuuzai X Muzai, but it's not a game for everyone. This is a fairly realistic simulation game and there is no flashiness, no awesome music, no sense of speed throughout the whole experience. It's an incredibly dry game and most of the time you're just looking at other people interacting with each other as they present evidence and testimony. The discussions are much better though, despite the lack of feedback, and even though you never uncover some kind of complex murder plan with locked rooms and alibi tricks, the little mysteries you do unravel in Yuuzai X Muzai are quite satisfying in their mundaneness. The build-up to these revelations is good and there is just enough of a sense of surprise to them to entertain the player, and yet they don't feel out of place in the realistic world of Yuuzai X Muzai.

Yuuzai X Muzai is an interesting and quite educational simulation of the lay judge system. It is a very slow game though and while it definitely has its moments as a detective story, one should be willing to go through a lot of dry text to arrive at the more stimulating parts of the game. I like the somewhat experimental side of the project though and suggest those with an interest in law (serious law. Not Ace Attorney law) to take a look at the game.

Original Japanese title(s): 『有罪x無罪』

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

His Alias Is

"One shall stand, one shall fall"
"Transformers: The Movie"

And that's another series wrapped up! I just realized that I've read very few mystery series completely, but that's also because I read many contemporary writers. Who knows when those series will stop?

A Aiichirou series
A Aiichirou no Roubai ("The Discombobulation of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Annoyance)
A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou" AKA A Is For Accident)
A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Abandon")

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the last volume in Awasaka Tsumao's wonderful three volume A Aiichirou series. And today, I review the second volume of the series because who cares about chronological order? A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou") collects eight short stories starring A Aiichirou, a handsome, but somewhat clumsy photographer who specializes in wildlife photographs. A often accompanies academic expeditions as the resident photographer, but he has a knack for getting into trouble, or just noticing little things that lead into bigger problems. But beneath his stuttering and cowardly demeanor, hides a frightfully keen mind that can solve the most baffling of mysteries.

As I've remarked in the reviews of the other volumes, the A Aichirou series is heavily inspired by the Father Brown series and the 24 stories can roughly be divided in two categories: the impossible crime stories, and what I like to call the what the hell sories. The first speaks for itself, but what I mean with the second term is a story where it's not immediately clear there is a mystery,  or even in the case it's clear there is some kind of mystery, it's very unclear what it means. In the case of the A Aiichirou stories, these mysteries are usually solved by an uncanny intuition.

The opening story, Wara no Neko ("The Straw Cat"), features a somewhat clearly defined mystery, though the significance and the implications of that mystery sure stay vague until Aiichirou explains all. At an exhibition of the late Kayuya Toukyo, a painter in the Realist school, A Aiichirou discovers that many of his pictures contain strange 'mistakes'. A girl with six fingers, a door in the background that can't possible be used. The story unfolds as a missing link story and the truth hidden behind these mistakes is quite surprising, a bit too surprising maybe. While I admit the story does feature some hints that point to the solution, so much of it depends on 'interpretation' and 'intuition', I find it hard to say it's completely fair. The same holds for Nejirareta Boushi ("The Crooked Hat"), where Aiichirou and an associate try to locate the owner of a top hat: tracing the hat's shop and the store written on a receipt hidden inside the hat results in strange, conflicting stories and once again the missing link between these events is what leads to the truth. Which is so farfetched and impossible to deduce, that this was definitely the weakest story of the volume. Followed by Arasou Yon Kyotou ("The Competing Big Four"), in which the granddaughter of a recently retired politician is suspicious of her grandfather's recent activities. He has been spending a lot of time with some of his old friends, and she found newspaper cuttings, coins and other strange objects in the room they usually stay. The granddaughter wants to know what they are doing there and while the story features some great red herrings and a fairly amusing solution, the jump between the missing link and the solution seems a bit too big and I'd prefer some more hints to exclude other solutions a bit more convincingly.

A personal favorite was Suzuko no Yosooi ("Dressing like Suzuko"). Kamo Suzuko, affectionately called Rinko, was a slightly under-the-radar idol singer, whose popularity soared after her tragic demise in an airplane crash. One year later, her agency holds a Rinko look-a-like contest, with the winner earning the role of Rinko in a film. Aiichirou happens to be in the theater where the contest is held, but he discovers that between all the auditions, something is going on. This is a great whatthehell story, as there really is no visible mystery at all, until A Aiichirou suddenly pulls your attention to the many, but very small points that bothered him. As you go "Now you mention that...", you suddenly realize that there really was something hidden in the story and the solution is quite memorable, especially the circumstances that led to it all.

Igai na Igai ("The Unexpected Corpse") is a relatively straightforward mystery in comparison to the previous stories: a murdered corpse is found on a mountain where Aiichirou and a researcher have been taking photographs of rare fish. The strange thing about the body: not only was it set on fire, it was also boiled. The story links to a local nursery rhyme, giving the whole story a Yokomizo Seishi-vibe. A story that does pretty much everything good. The hinting in particular is fantastic and it's amazing how much is crammed in the limited page count.

And like all A Aiichirou volumes, A Aiichirou no Tentou also features some neat impossible crime stories. Sugake no Soushitsu ("The Disappearance of the House of Suga") features the classic trope of disappearing buildings. Because of a landslide, A Aiichirou and two fellow travelers decide to walk the way to the next town instead of waiting for the rails to be cleared of debris. The trio get lost in the mountains though, but manage to find shelter in the house of the last of the Sugas, of whom legends say their family house has disappeared multiple times in the past. Before the trio go to bed, they see there is a house in the distance from their window, but when they wake up the next day, they discover it has disappeared completely! I had never seen this solution to the problem of the disappearing building before and I quite like it as it actually makes absolutely sense and seems quite plausible. Saburuchou Rojou ("On the Roads of Saburouchou") too is great: a taxi driver wants to pick up his last ride when his prospective client cries out for a good reason: there's a dead body in the backseat! And as if that wasn't strange enough, the taxi driver swears that the body is that of the customer he had just dropped off somewhere else! A solidly written story and the trick reveals the magician within Awasaka Tsumao: he was actually an amateur magician and even wrote another series about a magician-detective. The final story, Byounin ni Hamono ("A Sharp Instrument for the Ill"), also deserves special mention. A patient on the garden-roof of a hospital accidently walks into another patient and falls down. But by the time A Aiichirou, the nurse and other patients have run to the poor man, he has been stabbed in his stomach. Yet everyone swears the victim and his tumbling partner weren't holding knives, nor that any knives were lying on the ground. A very satisfying impossible crime story, also because of the hints Awasaka has spread across the text.

In fact, I noticed I had not once written more extensively about the type of hints Awasaka Tsumao used in previous reviews, so to talk a little about it now: The A Aiichirou stories seldom feature material evidence or hints, but instead feature thematic hints. Awasaka often mirrors certain aspects of the crime / mystery in other segments of the story, that function as hints to the final solution. He usually manages to distort the mirror image enough so it's not immediately clear it's actually the same as the circumstances of the mystery, but it does suit the intuitive mode of detection many of his stories have: if you happen to 'feel' correctly that mirror image A is in fact the same as the main mystery, it's usually fairly simple to deduce the correct solution. It's similar to Miss Marple's and Father Brown's comparisons, and they work brilliantly for these stories. It also helps that the A Aiichirou stories are written in a fairly comical way. Like Higashigawa Tokuya, Awasaka Tsumao hides these mirror images and hints within comical situations that don't appear to be related to the mystery at first sight, only to turn out to be of crucial importance.

A Aiichirou no Tentou is, like all in the series, a great mystery short story collection.. If I had to rank the three collections, I would say that the first is the best, then A Aiichirou no Tentou and then the last, but it is not like one volume is much better or worse than another. I'd say that especially those who like the Father Brown series should take a look at the A Aiichirou series. There is a spin-off volume featuring A Aiichirou's forefather by the way, so I might read that book too one day.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『亜愛一郎の転倒』: 「藁の猫」 / 「砂蛾家の消失」 / 「珠洲子の装い」 / 「意外な遺骸」 / 「ねじられた帽子」 / 「争う四巨頭」 / 「三郎町路上」 / 「病人に刃物」

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blue, Over The Blue

I have a blue house with a blue window.
Blue is the colour of all that I wear
"Blue (Da Ba De)" (Eifel 65)

Because of a ridiculous backlog of reviews, this post won't be published until December, even though I'm writing this in mid-July. A message to my past self: don't worry, the weather will eventually become cooler! And now, back to the main topic of today.

Hoshikage Ryuuzou series
Akai Misshitsu ("The Red Locked Room")
Aoi Misshitsu ("The Blue Locked Room")

The first time I read Ayukawa Tetsuya was two years ago, with Akai Misshitsu ("The Red Locked Room"). I thought it to be a great short story collection overall, with some good impossible crime stories (with Doukeshi no Ori the absolute masterpiece). But because Ayukawa Tetsuya is better known for his detailed, sober and down-to-earth alibi deconstruction stories where you need to take notes and calculate everything, Akai Misshitsu was perhaps not representative of Ayukawa's complete oeuvre. I later reviewed Kuroi Trunk ("The Black Trunk"), which I loved, despite the slightly shocking discovery that the thing about taking notes and calculating alibis wasn't just a joke. But now, I return to Ayukawa's more showy side. Aoi Misshitsu - Meitantei Hoshikage Ryuuzou Zenshuu 2 ("The Blue Locked Room - Great Detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou Complete Collection 2") collects the last set of short stories featuring Hoshikage Ryuuzou, the import/export tradesman / amateur gentleman detective. Most of them were published in the period between 1958 until 1961, except for the last one which dates from 1974.

This volume collects two other color-themed mysteries, Shiroi Misshitsu ("The White Locked Room") and Aoi Misshitsu ("The Blue Locked Room"). The first derives it's title from the ever-popular theme of footprints in the snow, in this case, a professor has been murdered in his home, and the only footprints left in the snow on the path to the victim's house, were of the two persons who discovered the body. A simple trick to suit the low page count, but nothing special here. Aoi Misshitsu lends its title to the collection, but there is not much blueness in the story: the not-very popular stage director of an acting troupe is killed inside a his bedroom with a blue lamp: the door was locked and while the window was open, no tracks were left beneath the window. The impossible situation is alright, but the basic idea behind the locked room murder is very similar to Shiroi Misshitsu.
 
A set of three similar stories form the core of this collection, in my opinion, consisting of Barasou Satsujin Jiken ("Murder at the Villa Rose"), Akuma wa Koko ni ("The Devil is Here") and Suna to Kurage to ("Sand and Jellyfish"). All three of them have the writer-character Ayukawa Tetsuya visiting some his holiday villa, with murder happening there and all three stories also take the form of a guess-the-criminal script complete with Challenge to the Reader. It is kinda difficult to write more detailed about these stories, because like the traditional guess-the-criminal script, these stories take a very minimalist form and focus very strongly on just presenting a (completely fair, well hinted) puzzle plot to the reader. Which is also the problem of these stories: they are very similar in both set-up and execution and the fact that these stories are ordered after each other in this collection isn't really helping with the differentation process. They are also very classically written: I guess that the first members of the Kyoto University Mystery Club took inspiration from Ayukawa Tetsuya's stories, but a lot of the elements seen in these three stories are still often used tropes in the scripts members write nowadays and feel a bit outdated. But of course, you can hardly fault Ayukawa for having people imitate him. One special mention for Barasou Satsujin Jiken though, which features the most daring Challenge to the Reader I've ever encountered.
 
Guess-the-criminal scripts often resemble early Ellery Queen stories, because they often focus on identifying characteristics of the murderer and comparing them to each suspect. Akanesou Jiken ("The Dark Red Mansion Case") and Akuma no Hai ("The Devil Ash") invoke a bit of Queen in another way. Recognizing Hoshikage Ryuuzou's gift for detection, a group of people occasionally comes together to dine and for a  Puzzle Club-esque practice, or one might want to call it a Tuesday Night Club practice. The guest of the day is to tell about a mysterious problem they encountered and after they have finished, Hoshikage Ryuuzou is given fifteen minutes to solve it. Which he does, of course. Akanesou Jiken is actually a very simple and bland mystery plot, about a blackmailing journalist who thought it was smart to stay at the same inn as his victims (spoiler: he dies), but I actually quite enjoyed reading the story. Just to show that a mystery plot is not necessarily the single element makes or breaks a fun detective story (but, it often is). Like the stories above, the deduction style kinda resembles Queen, but I have to say that this story is not really as fair, or at least does not feature as obvious/clear-cut/unrefutable deductions as you'd like such a story. Akuma no Hai is about the death of a professor in a locked room. His dead face was covered by ash, simulating the incidents of his father and grandfather's busts being covered by ash. Just the right amount of complexity for the short page count and definitely one of the best constructed stories of the whole collection.

Shu no Zeppitsu ("His Last Writings in Red") is a novellette which was later rewritten to full-fledged novel with the same title (similar to Jubaku Saigen in Akai Misshitsu, which was also rewritten to a novel). Hoping to receive his ordered manuscript, an editor visits the house of a famous author, which also serves as a gathering place for more writers/illustrators/people in the business. The author is murdered in his study and more murders follow. The story starts out simple enough, but more and more elements make their way into the plot until it you realize the story is a bit too ambitious for its format. No wonder Ayukawa made it into a full novel. It's a fairly okay story, but the main trick is rather obvious to guess, I think and the pacing of the presentation of all kinds of story elements is a bit unbalanced.

Overall, I thought that Aoi Misshitsu was a slightly less impressive sequel to Akai Misshitsu. The impossible crime stories in this book miss the Oomph! factor Doukeshi no Ori had in the first volume. Aoi Misshitsu on the other hand features some traditional guess-the-criminal scripts which are fun, but seen from the modern point of view offer little surprising, because a lot of the probably surprising elements at the time of original publication, have nowadays been become the most basic elements of any guess-the-criminal script. The fact Aoi Misshitsu features a bunch of stories which seem similar isn't helping either. If you'd had to choose, I'd say go for Akai Misshitsu, but Aoi Misshitsu does feature a fairly different selection of stories from the first and is worth a read too.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『青い密室』: 「白い密室」 / 「薔薇荘殺人事件」 / 「悪魔はここに」 / 「青い密室」 / 「砂とくらげと」 / 「茜荘事件」 / 「悪魔の灰」 / 「朱の絶筆」

Monday, December 1, 2014

Comic Book Murder

Weet jij het ook?
"Inspecteur Netjes"

Do you know too?
"Inspector Netjes" 

I read a fair amount of mystery manga, but this might be the first time I review a non-Japanese mystery comic here. I'll still use the manga tag though for (my) convenience's sake.

Inspecteur Netjes ("Inspector Netjes") was a Dutch comic by cartoonist Hanco Kolk that ran in various magazines, but is mostly known for its original run (1989-1999) in the comic magazine Sjosji, named after the comic book characters Sjors & Sjimmie. Inspector Netjes, who borrowed his fashion sense from Maigret, is a hardworking police detective who together with his subordinate Gremmel somehow manages to arrive at the crime scene almost immediately every other week. Every adventure showed the reader the crime scene and a short interview with each suspects, after which the comic would end with a Challenge to the Reader: you could find the solution (always three panels!) printed upside down in a different section of the magazine. There have been only two collected volumes of the inspector, the first being Inspecteur Netjes: Voor Al Uw Zaken ("Inspector Netjes: For All Of Your Cases", 1998), which collects 52 stories from the early years.

Inspecteur Netjes is a comic I've always loved, but with few and limited collected volumes released, the Inspector is probably not as well known in the Dutch comic scene nowadays as let's say, ten, fifteen years ago. I myself haven't come across any of the comics for at least ten years now. As a mystery comic, Inspecteur Netjes is the ultimate guess-the-criminal format story. Every episode is incredibly streamlined (each story is just one page long) and almost all comics follow the following set-up:

1) The first panel depicts the crime scene. The comic starts with "Not long after XXXXX, Inspector Netjes arrived on the scene".
2) The Inspector interviews the suspects. Almost always three suspects, who each get one panel.
3) The one-to-final panel ends with the Inspector declaring he know knows who the culprit is.
4) The final panel ends with everybody, including the Inspector, facing the reader, yelling "Do you know too?".
5) The solution consists of three panels.

Inspecteur Netjes is the detective story condensed to its leanest puzzle form and it's a form I love: you hear me often write about the guess-the-criminal type detective stories and Inspecteur Netjes is one that pulls it off perfectly in highly stylized form. Other mystery comics like Conan and Kindaichi Shounen of course feature much richer environments, characters and setting, but for those who just want to enjoy the pure puzzle element of a guess-the-criminal script, Inspecteur Netjes is much more accessible.


Each story is just one page long, so the mystery plots are usually very simple. Like Ellery Queen's Puzzle Club or Encyclopedia Brown stories, the solution to each mystery usually depends on one single contradiction or clue. What's interesting is that that clues in Inspecteur Netjes are usually very visual; the stories almost always make good use of the visual medium. I also love the simplistic and funny artstyle of the comics, but don't get fooled: there's usually some clue hidden in the background.

I don't plan to discuss all fifty-two stories of the volume, but to pick out some of the gems: The Murdered Gorilla (De Vermoorde Gorilla) is a fantastic story about, well, a murdered gorilla in a zoo. The clueing is good, it's funny and the comic makes great use of its medium. The Disappearing Piece of Art (Het Verdwijnende Kunstwerk) too is a story that only works because this is a comic and is one to remember. The Missing Missing Person (De Vermiste Vermiste) is a lot more 'normal' as a detective comic than the previous two, but again a great example of misdirection based on its medium.

Is it all good? Well, no. While the dialogues and art are always good, some stories are really nothing more than just 'spot-the-little-clue-hidden-in-the-background'. For each of the good stories mentioned above, you have like three or four rather uninspired ones. I think Inspecteur Netjes works better in this collected volume compared to when it was just one comic a week though. Even though not every comic is as good as another, at least the selection does feature some great ones; if you had to read Inspecteur Netjes at a rate of one comic in one or two weeks, you might get bored because some are just so predictable.

Inspecteur Netjes is on the whole a great series though, as it combines comedy and mystery in a very enjoyable manner. Sure, some stories are not as good as others, but as a collected volume, I think Inspecteur Netjes: Voor Al Uw Zaken is a fun Dutch mystery comic.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Step by Step

無邪気に笑い 踊る君 シェリーを口にする度 
妖艶 & 豹変 大人の女に変わってく
「Miss Mystery」(Breakerz)

Smiling innocently and dancing, every time you put sherry to your lips,
A bewitching transformation, you change into an adult woman
"Miss Mystery" (Breakerz)

Lots of firsts in this review: the first appearance of the first quintessential Japanese master detective, a stor that is commonly regarded as the very first Japanese locked room/location mystery and the first time here I was provided with a review copy by the publisher. And that leads into my very first disclosure message.

Full disclosure: Review copy of Edogawa Rampo's The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō was provided by Kurodahan Press. I have written the introduction to Kurodahan Press' publication of Edogawa Rampo's The Fiend with Twenty Faces (2012).

Maybe I should also disclose that I'm a huge Edogawa Rampo fan. Though I think that should have been quite clear by now considering how often I mention him...

Edogawa Rampo, the father of the Japanese detective story, is a well-known name even outside Japan. I myself have reviewed a lot of his books on this blog and while a lot of the material I discuss here isn't translated, actually quite a lot of Edogawa Rampo's novels are available in English, a great number of them starring his series detective Akechi Kogorō. From early inverted stories like The Pyschological Test (in: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination) and Stalker in the Attic (In: The Edogawa Rampo Reader) and novelettes/novels like The Black Lizard (In: The Black Lizard / Beast in the Shadows) and The Fiend with Twenty Faces, Akechi Kogorō has been quite active in the English world. The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō, released early this month, is the latest in Kurodahan Press' series of English Rampo releases and collects three short stories and one novelette featuring the master detective. As the title suggests, these stories are all early Rampo works and let's be honest: as a writer he was usually a lot better early in his career than later on.

The collection starts with one of the best known titles of Japanese detective stories: The Case of the Murder on D. Hill (1925) is not only Akechi's first appearance, it is also seen as the very first original Japanese locked room mystery. As often with early Rampo stories, D. Hill features a loafing narrator/author avatar who is having a drink with the mysterious Akechi, with whom he recently became acquainted. As they have a chat, they notice something weird is going on in the secondhand bookshop on the other side of the road and when they take a look, they discover the wife of the owner has been murdered. Puzzling however is that nobody seems to have seen anybody suspicious leave the block of houses there.

This was not the first time I've read D. Hill, but I've always appreciated this story more for other elements than its impossible crime angle, which really is a bit weak. Granted: considering that Japanese houses in the period often featured thin paper walls, it's kinda difficult to construct a locked room mystery as seen in Western fiction from the same time period and Rampo's first steps, even if a bit shakey like his name suggests, did serve as an example for others to follow. As such, I think the historical meaning of D. Hill is much more impressive than the pure puzzle. But I actually like the other thing Rampo did much better, which I can't really explain in detail without going in spoilers. But suffice to say that for fans D. Hill does feature early examples of familiar Rampo tropes and that as a first appearance story, it is quite enjoyable. I think that anybody interested in Rampo or Japanese detective fiction should at least read this story.

The Black Hand Gang (1925) is the only story of the collection I had not read in Japanese before and quite enjoyed it. The titular gang of vanguards has been making a name for itself in the capital by kidnapping children of wealthy families for ransom. When the narrator's cousin has been kidnapped too, he asks Akechi to help save her. The plot is simple, but fairly satisfying considering the length of the story and it features quite some enjoyable Rampo tropes, including a fairly ingenious code (that sadly enough is a bit hard to understand if you have no knowledge of Japanese at all). Codes of course are fairly important when discussing Rampo, as it was the main puzzle in his debut story The Two-Sen Copper Coin (available in English in Modanizumu), which is often praised for its ingenious code strongly linked to the Japanese language. The Black Hand Gang is also notable for featuring well, a gang that kidnaps children and who act like phantom thieves: fantastic criminals pop up all the time in Rampo's writings (most notably with The Fiend with Twenty Faces, but also someone like The Black Lizard), while kidnapping...whoo, you could write a whole book just about the number of kidnappings in Rampo's stories! It's like every other creation of Rampo will be kidnapped at some time in the story.

Most of Rampo's stories have fairly simple, to-the-point titles and as you can guess, The Ghost (1925), features a ghost. The ghost of old Tsujidō has been haunting his arch-enemy Hirata: his figure follows Hirata everywhere and despite several measures taken (including double-checking Tsujidō's death and keeping an eye on Tsujidō's son), he still can't explain how the face of a dead man can keep popping up. The solution is almost cheating, though it does involve elements that are actually quite ingenious. Better for its basic idea than the actual execution, I think and easily the weakest story included in the collection.

When Akechi Kogorō made his first appearance The Case of the Murder on D. Hill, he was described as an amateur detective / scholar and this was his image throughout all of his early stories published in 1925. These stories have now all been released in English:

1. The Case of the Murder on D. Hill (In: The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō)
2. The Pyschological Test (In: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination)
3. The Black Hand Gang (In: The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō)
4. The Ghost (In: The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō)
5. The Stalker in the Attic (In: The Edogawa Rampo Reader)

From 1925-1926's serialized novelette The Dwarf on however (the final story in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō), Akechi slowly changed into a gentleman private detective, which is how Akechi is commonly depicted as nowadays. Well, he starts off here dressed in Chinese clothes, but trust me, he'll become the dandy gentleman detective later on. The Dwarf is about the investigation into the role of a mysterious dwarf in the disapperance of Yamano Michiko. And I could write a lot about this novelette here, but I actually already did when I wrote a review of the book when I read it in Japanese two years ago, so I'd like to link to that review (man, I used to write really comprehensive reviews, I noticed just now... publication history, voyeurism and modernism among other topics). The short version: The Dwarf is a feast for those into Rampomania, as it has pretty much all of the important Rampo tropes. As a mystery story it's has its share of faults, but I enjoyed it as a pulpy detective story with a dwarf running around with human limbs. There probably aren't many of them out there, I think.

Overall, The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō is a decent collection. The Black Hand Gang and The Ghost aren't the most impressive of Rampo's short stories, but The Case of the Murder on D. Hill and The Dwarf are great additions to Rampo's English library: D. Hill has great value in the history of Japanese detective fiction, while The Dwarf is a fun pulpy detective in the spirit of The Fiend with Twenty Faces and The Black Lizard. I still think Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is the best introduction of Rampo available, but for those who have developed a love for Rampo's pulpy detectives, The Early Cases of Akechi Kogorō offers more of his early work.

Finally, I really gotta ask this: I'm pretty sure that the cover is supposed to be based on The Dwarf, but I can't possibly be the only one who was thinking of the moon of Majora's Mask, right?!

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Conspirators

「一つ、よろしいでしょうか?」 
『相棒』

"Just one more thing please"
"Partners"

I just decided that no Aibou review will go without a mention of the awesome theme song. Sure, this time was not as awesome as last year's version, but certainly not bad!

Aibou ("Partners") series
Aibou Eleven
Aibou 12

Sugishita Ukyou is an extremely effective police detective, but deemed a bit too dangerous because he isn't willing 'to play the game'. So in order to keep him away from ordinary business, but still to keep him close at hand, the higher-ups gave Sugishita command over the Special Order Unit. The title of the unit, which consists just out of Sugishita and his subordinate, can be interpreted in two ways: 1) This unit is to comply to any special order from above. 2) This unit is free to investigate whatever it wants unless there is any special order from above. Because Sugishita isn't the easiest person to work with, many of subordinates have quit the force, but occasionally, he finds the right partner. Sugishita and his partner's adventures in the TV series Aibou ("Partners") have been a staple of Japanese TV for years. In last year's Aibou Eleven (season 11) Sugishita gained a new partner with Kaito, a young, passionate detective and estranged son of the current Assistant Director-General of the National Police Agency. Aibou 12, which ran from October last year until early this year, brings us more adventures of Sugishita and Kaito.

And for those with an OCD: I'm sorry, but the Japanese denotation of the eleventh season of Aibou really uses the English word "Eleven", even though the twelfth season uses numbers...

Aibou Eleven was the first time I caught a complete Aibou season, as I figured that the introduction of a new partner would serve as a good entry point, similar to how people start watching Doctor Who whenever there's a new Doctor. I enjoyed Aibou's ecclectic mix of police procedural, puzzle plots and complex political thriller a lot, something I also appreciated in Detective Conan - Private Eye in the Distant Sea (which was written by a veteran Aibou scriptwriter).


Aibou 12 is in principle the same as the previous season. I guess that after twelve seasons, three theatrical releases and tons of spin-off productions, Aibou has found its niche within the rather flooded world of Japanese mystery dramas and that it will therefore always be sorta the same. But then again, every episode is quite different from the other, because the Special Order Unit can pretty much do whatever it wants. Sometimes we have a deep, dark political thriller that involves all layers of the police force, sometimes it's a very cozy, personal mystery story. Some stories might feature heavy social commentary, while other stories leave a warm fuzzy feeling. I do think it's a missed chance that Aibou seasons are not conceived as one production, i.e. there is no running storyline or theme. Of course, not all series would work with running storylines (I suspect such a plot device would result in overcomplicated plots with Aibou), but I would have loved an overall theme for the season. The estranged relation between Kaito and his father occasionally comes up, and very prominently in the season finale, but I wish it could have been elevated to a bigger theme for the complete season.

Aibou 12 consists of twenty episodes, three of which film-length TV specials, so this review would turn into something unreadable if I commented on all episodes. Instead, some of my favorite moments of this season: the first episode starts off with a bang, as the Assistant Director-General of the National Police Agency is kidnapped, at the same time as the Special Order Unit is investigating a shady online 'expert' on contact with extraterrestrials. Aibou is usually at its best when it can make social commentary on the politics of the police force and other government organizations through fair puzzle plots: this episode is no exception, as it makes some sharp observations about protocol in hostage situations, but still presents an engaging story that delivers the goods to the mystery fan. Similar is the tenth episode, where Kaito is held hostage by a bomb-terrorist to help him smoke out a murdering government agent. The final episode in turn places less emphasis on a puzzle plot, but is a captivating political thriller that asks sharp questions about the lack of a witness protection program in the country.


But there are also lighter episodes that are great. Surprising was the one about an online mystery critic (!), or the episode where a free day of the Special Order Unit conceals a surprising truth. And while some of the 'lighter' episodes also feature social commentary (for example about food safety or the power of mass media), they often go combined with good whodunnit plots and / or an enjoyable police procedural structure. Occassionally, you're even given a (semi) impossible murder!

I loved how each episode could turn out to be completely different from the other episode, but it does make the series feel slightly chaotic. And as I said before, a season is really nothing more than a collection of random cases of the Special Order Unit and I would have appreciated a binding factor, a theme, for each season. Season twelve was fun, but there was nothing fundamentally different from season eleven, even though a season theme would work so well with Aibou. 

But I was very content with Aibou 12 in general and I can't wait for Aibou 13 to start (which, by the time this review is actually published, should already by running for a month or so).

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒12』