Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Last Letter

拝啓 この手紙読んでいるあなたは どこで何をしているのだろう 十五の僕には誰にも話せない 悩みの種があるのです
未来の自分に宛てて書く手紙ならきっと素直に打ち明けられるだろう
「紙 ~拝啓 十五の君へ~」 (アンジェラ・アキ)

Greetings. You, who are reading this letter, where are you and what are you doing now?
I am fifteen, and I have worries I can't talk about to anyone.

If I write a letter to my future self, I'm sure I can confide it all to myself.
"Letter ~ Greetings To A Fifteen Year Old You~" (Angela Aki)

I wonder if, and how the concept of pen pals has changed the last ten, fifteen years, with e-mail and nowadays smartphone apps making asynchronous communication move closer back to synchronous communication...

While cleaning out his old room in his parental home, 33-year old Takanori, nickname Max, finds a box with old letters. Fifteen years ago, in his senior year in high school, he had a penpal called Fumino Aya. She lived faraway in Matsue, capital city of the Shimane prefecture and was like him in her senior year. Their correspondence suddenly stopped after ten letters, but Max discovers an eleventh, unopened letter inside the box. The letter however contains a surprising confession: Fumino Aya wrote in her last letter that she had killed a person and that she would need to pay for her sin. Feeling guilty about only reading this letter now, Max decides to go to Matsue to find out about this ghost from the past. And ghosts are what he finds, because he discovers that there had been a Fumino Aya living in Matsue, but that she had died 25 years ago! So who was his penpal? The only way to find Aya is through her classmates she mentioned in her letters by nickname, but things don't go easy for Max in the 2016 videogame √Letter (PS4/Vita).

√Letter, pronounced Root Letter, is the first game in the Kadokawa Game Mystery series. Follow-up titles have not been announced yet at the time this review is written, but the Kadokawa Game Mystery series uses a so-called star system. Characters are treated like actors in live-action productions, and will appear in various titles in different roles. In √Letter for example, Fumino Aya is played by the fictional actress AYA, and she will presumably also play different roles in future games.


The game is a very old school command-style adventure game, with some minor visual novel elements. In the game, you will be moving around Matsue in search of Aya's old classmates, in the hope of finding out who your penpal was and what happened to her and who she killed. Each chapters starts with the protagonist reading one of Aya's old letters, where she talks about her life and her friends. Using the hints in these lettters, you try to identify her friends and have them tell you the truth. Problem is these friends are obviously hiding something and you need to prove who they are and their link to Aya in order to proceed. As the story goes on, you uncover the truth behind Fumino Aya.

As an adventure game, √Letter is nothing special. In fact, it is very, very classic in set-up and even feels outdated. Talk to a character at A, get told you need to go to B, do an action there, go to C. It is a one way road, and the only diversions on the way are the confrontations with Aya's friends at the end of each chapter, when you need to prove their identity. These segments however are incredibly badly designed, being more vague than should be. But they also feature a "Think" option that in turns tells you the answer, giving you the choice of either guessing without a clue, or being told what to do. These secions also feature a strange timing-based dialogue-gimmick that is supposed to represent tension or something but fails horribly. The game adds some minor visual novel design choices, as it features multiple endings which depend on the choices you make throughout the game. You read one of Aya's letters at the start of each chapter, and you 'reminisce' on what your reply was to each letter of hers. The kind of replies you choose throughout the game decide which of the five endings you will get.The endings are all varied, with a completely different tone to them (from horror to thriller), but only one of them can be considered the 'true ending.'


The game was made with cooperation of the Shimane prefecture. Most of the locations featured in the game are real, and there is even an in-game travel guide explaining these locations. Because of that, √Letter does reminds of travel or topographical mystery ficton.

So I have to admit that √Letter was quite a disappointment as a game, but the story itself was entertaining. The story moves at a slow pace, and suspension of disbelief is kinda needed (it takes Max just a few days to locate Aya's friends based on their nicknames?), but overall, the mystery surrounding Aya really did get me curious. In terms of mystery fiction, there are two mysteries: the overall story of who Max' penpal Fumino Aya is and what happened to her, and the minor mysteries of having to find Aya's friends and proving who they are. While none of these mysteries are really asking the player to think and deduce on their own (the game doesn't even allow for that), but the presentation does make you want to dig deeper in everyone, even if some of the "twists" are rather obvious. Depending on which ending you got, the story can also turn into supernatural horror or even science-fiction, though the true ending is a realistic one.


What was especially well done was the characterization. Each character is shown twice to the player: once through the eyes of Aya, fifteen years ago, and the way they have become now. Usually, there is a gap between what Aya's friends wanted to become when they were young, and what they actually did become in the present day. Both their younger and their adult sides get the proper attention and because of that √Letter feels like a mix between the teenage school drama and a 'normal' adult drama, with people looking back at their lives and rethinking what has happened to them. People who like Solanin for example might find √Letter interesting. I think also that readers who can appreciate the human drama in Higashino Keigo's works will be pleasantly surprised.


I think you can already guess from the above, but I do think that √Letter did not need to be a game. It could have worked as good, perhaps even better in a different medium, like a TV series. The game features some very nice character and art designs by Mina Tarou (Love Plus) and a soundtrack which is a bit limited, but has some great themes. But these are elements that are not game-exclusive. Only the concept of multiple endings is game-like, but even though only the true ending can be considered a satisfying end to the story, so even then it appears this could've worked in all other mediums.

Overall, I'd say that √Letter is a game that could've been much more. The story and the concept behind the game are good, but the translation to a game-format is simply too bare-bones, making the game slower, and perhaps more boring than should've been. I had a reasonably fun time with it, but I can definitely imagine people being less forgiving than me with this game. So it's off for a somewhat troublesome start for the Kadokawa Game Mystery series, though I hope they will release more.

Original Japanese title(s): 『√Letter』

Friday, August 19, 2016

Bridge to the Turnabout

残酷な天使のテーゼ 
窓辺からやがて飛び立つ
「残酷な天使のテーゼ」

This cruel angel's thesis
Will soon take flight from this window
"A Cruel Angel's Thesis"

It's been a while since I did a review of one single short story, actually. And I think this is actually the first time I'm doing a single post on one short story on the blog, because I seem to recall that even at the times I did do seperate short stories, I always put them together with some other (unrelated) things to stretch it out to a full post.

A while back, I discussed 2016's Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten Idol, the first original novel based on the Gyakuten Saiban (Ace Attorney) court mystery videogames. It was not the first time the series was presented in a text-only form though. While there have been some fanfics published in the official fanbooks, the first true, official Gyakuten Saiban story is Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten no Kakehashi ('Turnabout Trial - Turnabout Bridge'), a short story by Kuroda Kenji. Defense attorney Naruhodou and his assistant Mayoi are enjoying a ramen noodle at their favorite joint Yatabuki, when the ramen cook himself asks for Naruhodou's help. One of his customers, Kanae, is being suspected of the murder on the popular action actor Ookochi Hikaru, who was found dead in his hotel room, in the hotel where they were going to shoot his latest film. Kanae was one of Hikaru's biggest fan, and she might have even done things that most people would consider stalking. She knew Hikaru was shooting a film at the hotel and she too had taken a room there. Hikaru was killed inside a locked room, and the only way in or out was through the window. Due to an illegal architectural design, the two towers of the hotel are built so close to each other you could climb over from a window in one tower to a window in the other tower. Because Kanae had taken the room across Hikaru's room, it appears only she could've committed the murder and gotten out of the room and there is even a decisive witness to prove that! Can Naruhodou help Kanae out of this situation?

Gyakuten no Kakehashi is the first official story of the series, but is also one of the most obscure. It was published in two parts in the literary magazine IN-POCKET in 2007 and has never been collected in any form, meaning you need to get your hands on two issues of an old magazine if you want to read it now. The writer, Kuroda Kenji, is also the writer of the 2007 manga of Gyakuten Saiban, so he was already familiar with the material. In the past, I have reviewed a volume of the spin-off of that manga series: Gyakuten Kenji, which was also written by Kuroda.

I'd say that Gyakuten no Kakehashi is a decent mystery story, that manages to follow the formula of the Gyakuten Saiban series. In many ways, this story mimics a first episode in any of the games. The story is basically inverted, in the sense that it does already show you who the real murderer is at the start, even if it doesn't show you the how. In court, Naruhodou is facing prosecutor Auchi, who is always the first opponent in all the games.And like in the games, Naruhodo arrives at the truth by pointing out, and pointing at contradictions. This is a different mode than most mystery fiction, but because this story is based on a game, it follows the same formula, which in turn was based on Columbo. Find a lie, pull the thread, find a new lie, pull even harder on the thread, all the way until everything is untangled. Whereas a lot of mystery stories put all the mystery solving at the end, this series has always been about being an interactive experience, with more things to 'do' throughout the story and a more direct way of showing how one deduction leads to another.

The locked room mystery is also decent. I think most people will get a fairly good idea of what has happened early on, but getting all the details right might be difficult and the hints are laid down good. The one 'complaint' I'd have is that I think this story in particular would've been much better in comic form!

The story was published in IN-POCKET, a pocket-sized literary magazine which features serialized short stories and novels among others, so the writing style of Gyakuten no Kakehashi is fairly serious. matching the rest of the magazine. By which I don't mean that the story does not feature comedy (it does, or else it wouldn't be Gyakuten Saiban), but the narration and the language used is not something you'd usually see in the games. Compare to the more recent novel Gyakuten Idol, which was released in a line aimed at children. The language was much simpler, with more dialogues, but that is what made that novel feel a lot more like how the language used in the actual games (which is basically just dialogue, with some occassional inner monologue). Gyakuten Idol is much better at invoking the atmosphere of the games. The characters in this story for example don't have a real comical side to them, nor do they 'break' character whenever they get caught in a lie, which is a characteristic of the games and it was also recreated very well in Gyakuten Idol.

I am going to guess that they wanted to attract new players to the game, as Gyakuten Saiban 4 had been released earlier that year. By introducing "normal" mystery readers, who read IN-POCKET, to the world of Gyakuten Saiban through this short story, they hoped these people (who normally don't play games) would also try the games. Whether it worked, I don't know. Why they choose this particular plot for a short story, even though it'd work better in comic form, I don't know either. But I can say that Gyakuten no Kakehashi is definitely a decent locked room mystery short story, that should satisfy most fans of the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 黒田研二 「逆転裁判 逆転の架け橋」

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Pursuit

Yes Wonderland
歌は国境超えて
どこまでも進むよ
「ここにいるぜぇ」(モーニング娘。)

Yes Wonderland
Songs can cross over borders
And go everywhere
"I'm Here" (Morning Musume)

Trains have always been important as a binding factor for nations (connecting different places), but I wonder if in Japan's example, the nation's love for trains is also related to the fact that the period the train network was laid down, was also the period that the common folk were permitted to freely move around in the country in the first place? I mean, before that, it was basically impossible for the common man to move around not just physically, but also legally. And then the world suddenly opens up, with trains as the perfect symbol for that.

Train-fanatics all over the country rejoiced when it was announced that the Orient Express would make a second trip to Japan. The legendary luxary train would go from France, through Germany and the USSR, and finally be shipped to Japan, where it would make a trip across the country. The Orient Express safely crosses the sea and is sent off for maintenance for a few days (to adjust for the different size of tracks). During the maintenance, a stash of Tokarev pistols is found hidden within one of the carriages, accompanied by a letter that suggest that the recently deceased ex-Secretary of State was connected to the smuggling. In fear of a scandal, police HQ sends Inspector Saeki to Europe to find out when the pistols were hidden in the train and by whom. Saeki however disappears from Berlin during his investigation, and the police have no choice but to send Inspector Totsugawa after him in an undercover operation to find his collegue and personal friend. Inspector Totsugawa goes to Berlin accompanied by his subordinate Kusaka, but discovers that a Berlin right after the fall of the wall isn't always a nice and safe place to be in Nishimura Kyoutarou's Orient Kyuukou wo Oe ("Pursue the Orient Express", 1991).

The names Nishimura Kyoutarou and Inspector Totsugawa are basically synonyms for "travel mysteries", a particular subgenre of mystery fiction that place a focus on traveling, tourism and means of transport and. Trains in particular are very important to the Inspector Totsugawa series, as they feature heavily in the old inspector's adventures, usually as part of some kind of ingenious alibi trick. As the title of this book also featured the Orient Express, I was hoping for an interesting appearance of the (in)famous train in a Totsugawa-setting, but I really should learn to read the cover blurb of books, because this was a very different book from what I had expected.

Orient Kyuukou wo Oe is basically a shakaiha (social school) version of a Inspector Totsugawa adventure. Shakaiha is a style of crime fiction popularized by Matsumoto Seichou, with the dark side of society, with all its big corporate and government organizations, usually providing the motive for crimes. In this book, we already catch an early glimpse of this, when first Inspector Saeki, and then Inspector Totsugawa are sent to Europe to investigate the smuggling in secrecy to protect the reputation of the ex-Secretary of State. Because it's probably not good for a country's 'face' if people hear your Secretary of State deals in guns. The political, and socio-economical situation in East-Berlin are also of importance of the plot, when Totsugawa and Kusaka discover that not all are happy the wall went down.

The mystery plot of the book is fairly boring. The 'investigation' of Totsugawa and Kusaka basically consists of making it rather obvious they're searching for Saeki (which is, I think, probably not the way to go in a secret investigation) and afterwards they're just following directions given by an unknown party that claims they know what happened to Saeki. Back in Japan, Totsugawa's number one subordinate Kamei is investigating the ex-Secretary of State (helped by private detective Hashimoto, an ex-subordinate of Totsugawa). Their investigation is surprisingly useful, but that's mainly because of incredible luck: basically every person they see over the course of the investigation turns out to have something to do with the smuggling. The plot hangs together by threads of coincidence and after a while you just stop caring, because heck, coincidence will solve everything, right?

I do have to say that I'm especially disappointed the Orient Express is only used in the very beginning of the story, as the hiding place for the Tokarevs. The "Pursue" in the title of the book just refers to the route the train took. The story has a interesting international angle to it, something I'm not used to in the Inspector Totsugawa series (which is very oriented on domestic tourism), though I can't say it was really impressive. Actually, most of the time in Berlin, Totsugawa and Kusaka just stay in their hotel room waiting for phone calls, so it barely feels like they're abroad.

Orient Kyuukou wo Oe really isn't an Inspector Totsugawa book I'd recommend. It has nothing of what you'd normally expect from a Totsugawa book, and there's little in here that manages to stand out (and the little that does, only does so because the rest of the book is so bland). This is one train you don't need to get on to.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎 『オリエント急行を追え』

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Singing Rat

"Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, ... It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared."
"The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire"

Aaaand this is the first review I wrote today. Mind you, this review won't be posted online until another six months...

After returning from Afghanistan having served in the British Army, doctor John. H Watson has to make ends meet and decides to share lodgings with a Mr. Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. Sherlock Holmes is, according to himself, the world's very first consulting detective, who asssists the police in crimes they cannot solve. Not for the glory, but for the sake of the art of deduction. Watson becomes Holmes' partner and starts to write down the adventures they have, and their stories published in Strand Magazine are a huge success all over Great Britain. But Holmes has his vices, and not very innocent ones either. An overdose of cocaine renders the great detective completely mad, and as if it that wasn't enough, an editor of Strand Magazine begs Watson to come up with a new story, while the police informs Watson that Holmes' help is greatly needed because the criminals behind The Red-Headed League managed to escape from the Dartmoor Prison in Princetown, a place thought inescapable. Watson has a lot to do in Shimada Souji's 2015 novel Atarashii Juugohiki no Nezumi no Furai. which also carries the English title New 15 Fried Rats - The Adventure of John H. Watson.

Back in 1984, Shimada Souji wrote a book titled Souseki to London Miira Satsujin Jiken ("Souseki and the London Mummy Murder Case"), a hilarous parody of Sherlock Holmes that also featured famous Japanese novelist Natsume Souseki (Sherlock Holmes also met Souseki in a 1953 story by Yamada Fuutarou by the way, as well as in the 2015 videogame Dai Gyakuten Saiban). And now Shimada has returned to the setting in 2015, even though New 15 Fried Rats is not a sequel to his earlier parody (I don't remember the details, but I think continuity-wise, they don't even match up).

EDIT: It appears Yamada's story is available in English by the way.

As a revisionist look on Holmes history, New 15 Fried Rats has both its high and lows. As often seen in Holmes pastiches/parodies, we have a Holmes with a bit too much love for cocaine, which eventually leads to an admittance into a mental hospital. Left alone is a Watson, who was not only wounded by Holmes, but also has to take care of several problems. The 'easiest' and funniest part is definitely the troubles he has with his editor. Because Holmes' breakdown must be kept a secret, Watson comes up with one lie after another and is eventually forced to write a story not based on an adventure he had with Holmes, but one he invented himself. The result is an entry in the Holmes canon which is indeed a bit strange.

A large part of the story revolves around the famous Holmes story The Red-Headed League. In New 15 Fried Rats, it is revealed that the solution Holmes arrived at was actually a fake solution prepared by the real criminal, with John Clay (who was fingered as the brains behind the operation by Holmes) simply being a distraction. This part has some troubles. Part of the problem is because the true criminal and his plans are already revealed in the prologue of the book. Chapter two of the book then contains the story of  The Red-Headed League as we know it (because it's written from the point of view of Watson/Holmes), but this chapter is basically the same The Red-Headed League as we've known it for over hundred years. I guess this part is needed for people who don't know the story, but for people who do (and let's be honest, most people reading a Holmes parody will be familiar with the Holmes stories), the whole of chapter two is a boring retelling of a familiar story with nothing new to add. New 15 Fried Rats adds an aftermath to this story, with the prison escape of John Clay and others, but the resulting story is a bit unlike any other Holmes story (a love story subplot featuring Watson!) and is more like an adventure novel that relies a bit too much on coincidence.

The final part of the book has Watson trying to figure out how the people behind the Red-Headed League managed to escape an inescapable prison in the first place, and that's where the title New 15 Fried Rats becomes important. Apparently, the phrase "new 15 fried rats" has been going on in the prison for some years now as some kind of song, but the clues show that the phrase also has something to do with the prison escape. I had kinda expected a locked room mystery here, considering Shimada's reputation, as well as his earlier Holmes parody, but I was kinda disappointed when I discovered this wasn't really one. I wouldn't even say this part was particularly clever, even if the way Holmes finally returns to sane society is something to behold.

The biggest problem of New 15 Fried Rats is it's a bit too long, with sections that don't work that well together. Both chapter one and three for example feature events and characters that in this continuity provide inspiration to Watson for several of Holmes' most famous stories. They can be quite funny and sometimes help make sense of some of the inconsistencies in the canon. Yet, they do so little for  the greater context of the book (the Red-Headed League) and I even think those chapters would've been more enjoyable as standalone short stories. The part with the Red-Headed League on the other hand has a very boring beginning (because it's basically exactly the same as the story The Red-Headed League) and the sections afterwards feel a bit un-Holmes-like. On the whole, New 15 Fried Rats is never as cohesive or entertaining as Shimada's own Souseki to London Miira Satsujin Jiken.

I think that for Holmes fans, there are loads of neat references to be found in New 15 Fried Rats and the re-casting of Watson as the hero of the tale is certainly a trick many of us love (I know I do). There are also some interesting elements like the "true" solution to The Red-Headed League and some very comedic parts, but overall, I think that Shimada's 1984 effort into Holmes pastiche/parody was much more enjoyable.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『新しい15匹のネズミのフライ ジョン・H・ワトソンの冒険』

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lovely But Lethal

ラストダンスに間に合うように
いつまでも待つわ あなたに送るメッセージ
「ラブレターはそのままで」(如月ミキ)

To be in time for the last dance
I'll always wait. My message for you
"My Love Letter Still There" (Kisaragi Miki)

It's been a while since the last audio drama review!

Kisaragi Miki was a not very succesful, nor talented idol (singer/actress/model), but even she had her share of fans. Five of her fans have gathered together in a penthouse exactly one year after Miki's unfortunate death to commemorate their idol. The five men got to know each other through online message boards, and that's why the people gathered have the oddest names: Boss, Ono Daisuke, Snake, Yasuo and Strawberry Girl. As they talk with each other about memories of Miki and show off their fan goods, they slowly come to realize that Miki's death, who was thought to have burned to death in a fire in her apartment building, might not have been just an accident. As their discussion evolves, a horrible truth starts to take shape in their minds, one which shows that perhaps one of the five men present at this meeting, might be responsible for Miki's death. A trip into memories unfolds in the 2009 audio drama Kisaragi - Voice Actors Version.

Kisaragi was originally a 2007 film penned by Kosawa Ryouta, featuring the same story. I haven't seen the film, but from what I understand the 2009 Voice Actors Version (by Momogre, who also did the Arisugawa Alice audio dramas) is mostly a very faithful adaptation of the original story. I emphasize mostly, becausse it appears the Voice Actors Version does feature a slightly different ending (more on that later). One more difference is the name of one of the characters. In the original film, one of the characters used the nickname Oda Yuuji, a popular actor/singer. This was pretty funny, because "Oda Yuuji" was actually played by Santamaria Yuusuke, an actor who has played with Oda in several TV series/films before. In Kisaragi ~ Voice Actors Version, "Oda Yuuji" is switched with "Ono Daisuke", who is a famous voice actor. The funny thing here is that Sugita Tomokazu is playing "Ono Daisuke", while the real Ono Daisuke is also acting in this drama as "Boss".

Overall, I'd say Kisaragi ~ Voice Actors Version is a fun story, which might not be very deep, but manages to entertain from start to finish. The story is built completely around conversations between the characters and each of the characters is distinct enough in behavior to keep the listener's attention throughout (the voice actors also do a good job at playing very distinct roles, allowing the listener to keep them apart without any trouble). As for how the mystery unfolds: after one of the men makes a daring accusation, each of them start to remember little episodes surrounding Miki that sheds a different light on the situation. Because of that, the situation keeps on changing and occassionally little remarks made earlier in the story come back in surprising ways. While it's not a completely fair mystery story because of the way the men keep remembering things at crucial points, it does keep the story exciting and it is a very accessible, but interesting example of how quickly deductions can change just by the addition of one new element, like often featured in the mystery stories by Ellery Queen and Anthony Berkeley.

Much of the story's comedy is derived from its (admittedly stereotypical) presentation of idol (w)otaku. Both the film and the audio drama even end with a song by Miki, interspersed with wotagei (dancing gestures and utterances that are done by fans during the performance of a song). Yet it is not mean-spirited and the depiction of wotaku here is even heartwarming. The image of Miki portrayed through their memories is also surprisingly vivid, even though it's a character who's been dead for a year by the time the story starts.

The Voice Actors Version features an ending that... is pretty much the most horrible thing they could've done to 'spice up' the story. Like I mentioned earlier, I haven't seen the film myself, so I can only go by some write-ups, but apparently the Voice Actors Version is the same as the film all the way to the end. What I think is new, is a very short segment (not even a minute long) added to the very end, that is supposed to turn things around, but it makes absolutely no sense. It is basically having a complete detective story which ends with the words "Everything is solved!", followed by the credits and then the words "Or is it?!". It is a cheap way to 'add a new ending' and it basically renders everything that happened until then useless.

Save for the very short original "ending" though, I thought Kisaragi - Voice Actors Version was a pretty entertaining, if light mystery story featuring some really good voice acting. I recommend not listening to the last minute of the drama, then you'll have a good 80 minutes worth listening though.

Original Japanese title(s): モモグレ 『キサラギ 声優ver.』

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Line to Strain

丸竹夷二押御池
姉三六角蛸錦
四綾仏高松万五条
雪駄ちゃらちゃら魚の棚
六条三哲通りすぎ
七条越えれば八九条
十条東寺でとどめさす

Maru Take Ebisu Ni Oshi Oike
Ane San Rokkaku Tako Nishiki
Shi Aya Bu Taka Matsu Man Gojo
Seta Ring Ring Uo no Tana
Past Rokujo Santetsu
After Shichijo it's Hachijo and Kujo
And then it ends at Jujo Toji
 
Whenever I think of Kyoto, I think of the little song I quoted just above this. It's a mnemonic song of all the large roads that go from east to west in Kyoto, and you wouldn't believe how often I had to sing the song to figure out where I was and how far I still needed to go when I was living in Kyoto.

Nishijin refers both to a geographical area in the city of Kyoto, as well as the textile that has traditionally been manufactured there. A visit of Catherine Turner (magazine editor, daughter of a former US vice-president and amateur sleuth) to Kobayashi Souzaemon (owner of one of the oldest textile manufacturers in Nishijin) ends in a little treat in a traditional Gion tea house, where Catherine learns about a geigi-cum-mistress sponsored by Kobayashi. The following day, the mistress is found murdered in her room, and Catherine and her boyfriend Hamaguchi Ichirou suspect the murder might be connected to the Kobayashi family, which has the "usual" problems of second wives who can't seem to give birth to a new heir, sons of first wives who are afraid for their inheritance and pregnant mistresses. Luckily for Cathy and Ichirou, the police detective in charge of the case is an old acquaintance of them, and so the two have a new murder investigation adventure in the old capital of Japan in Yamamura Misa's Kyouto Nishijin Satsujin Jiken ("The Kyoto Nishijin Murder Case", 1987)

The words "Yamamura Misa Suspense" are an institution in Japan. When people think of The Stereotypical Two-Hour TV Drama Mystery, they think of either Nishimura Kyoutarou or Yamamura Misa. Both writers are known for having provided countless of original plots for TV detective productions, often featuring mystery plots that require little thinking, some romance subplot and set in touristic destinations (=anywhere but Tokyo). Yamamura Misa's father's academic work had brought him to Korea during its colonization by Japan and she was born in Keijou (Seoul). They moved back to the ancient capital Kyoto afterwards though and Kyoto features heavily in Yamamura Misa's work.

The Catherine Turner series is probably Yamamura's best known series, as it's been adapted into TV productions and even videogames. Catherine is a journalist and wealthy heiress, who has a great interest in Japanese culture and speaks it fluently (For some reason, she still uses "yes" and "no", even though she knows a lot of complex Japanese phrases...). For TV productions, the character of Catherine is often changed so she's Japanese, or switched out with other Yamamura Misa creations.

I have to admit, I was expecting pretty much nothing of Kyouto Nishijin Satsujin Jiken. I've read a couple of Yamamura's books and seen some TV specials, and they were always very predictable, stereotypical stuff. You've seen one of them, you've seen all of them. Kyouto Nishijin Satsujin Jiken did absolutely nothing to help this image sadly enough. There are some murders. There's a bit of amateur sleuthing. There's a bit of a romance subplot. And there is basically nothing that is really appealing. This is a by-the-numbers book. The Stereotypical Yamamura Misa Plot. Nothing more than that. I don't even feel like going much deeper into it, as anyone familiar with the Two-Hour TV Mystery Drama knows what to they can expect from this story.

The only things that interested me a little where the bits that delve into Kyoto culture, like Nishijin and the local ordinance that regulates building heights to preserve the traditional cityscape (which is why Kyoto is relatively 'lowly' built), but that's basically just trivia (and I've seen them used better in other detective stories too).

Kyouto Nishijin Satsujin Jiken is what you'd expect from a Yamamura Misa novel with Catherine Turner. Just that. Would I recommend it? No. Only interesting if you want to know how the Japanese Stereotypical Mystery Story goes. As a lesson in stereotypes across cultures, it's s certainly educative.

Original Japanese title(s): 山村美沙 『京都西陣殺人事件』

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

「ぶぶ漬けでもいかがどすか」
"How about some bubuzuke?"
(Kyoto saying)

I know Japanese uses a lot of roundabout language to say things, but telling someone to go by offering them some tea is really confusing.

Over a year ago, I read Kitamori Kou's Shina Soba Kan no Nazo - Mainaa Kyouto Mystery, the first book in the Minor Kyoto Mysteries series, with plots built around local customs and other folkways of the city of Kyoto. Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo ("The Mystery of the Bubuzuke Legend") is the second and final short story collection in the series and is basically 'more of the same'. Our narrator is Arima Jirou, a temple assistant at Daihikaku Senkouji Temple. Before entering the enlightened path however, Arima was a talented burglar known throughout West-Japan. But even though he has abandoned his criminal ways, he still gets involved with criminal cases now and then. This is mostly because of the antics of journalist Orihara Kei and the mystery writer Mizumori Ken, who for some reason are always spending a lot of time hanging out in the temple. Because of these two, Arima often gets in a lot of trouble, but luckily for him, Arima's brain can both plan crimes as well as solve them.

The first book in the Minor Kyoto Mysteries series was definitely not perfect, but it had some good points. The actual mystery plots of the short stories were a bit simple and not very captivating on their own, but the link to local Kyoto customs was very interesting. Shina Soba Kan no Nazo was a true topographical mystery: the plots revolved around all things Kyoto: from Kyoto dialects to folkways and sayings. Japan has had a history of limited traveling until the 19th history, and that means that most regions have very distinct customs. Kyoto in particular is an interesting location as it was the ancient capital and has a very long history, resulting in various folkways. The Minor Kyoto Mysteries gives these folkways a place under the spotlight, resulting in very educational mysteries. I was not completely content with the first book in the series, but I was still curious to the second and final volume.

But Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo can be summed up with just one word: tedious. This is easily one of the most tedious books I've read in recent memory. I'm actually surprised at how much trouble I had with going through the book, because while the first book wasn't perfect, I definitely don't remember it being so appaling to read. The book is written in a supposedly humorous tone, but it is extremely tiring if the narration keeps pointing out jokes were made, especially if it's not actually really funny. Biggest offender is the character Mizumori Ken (who is some sort of parody of Kitamori Kou, I think). I already disliked him in the first volme of the series, where he first appeared in the second half of the book. Here he appears in all the stories, and he absolutely ruins each and every story. He's supposed to be a funny troublemaker-type of character, but that experiment has gone horribly wrong. He's basically what's wrong with the book, but in concentrated form. As I focus on puzzle plots and stuff when reading mystery stories, so seldom care about characters or narrative tone, but it's like all of them are conspiring together to make Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo as tedious as possible.

The puzzle plots aren't that interesting either this time. In Korimu ("A Dream of Foxes and Raccoons"), the writer Mizumori Ken wants to write a mystery story based on the fact that takuni-udon refers to different udon dishes in Kyoto and Tokyo: the story is barely a mystery story and feels very forced: as if Kitamori had the same idea and couldn't make it work as a real story, so he wrote a story about not being able to write a story. The title Bubuduke Densetsu no Nazo ("The Mystery of the Bubuduke Legend") refers to the Kyoto custom of 'offering' a bubuzuke (ochazuke) to one's guests. While it might sound like an invitation to stay, it actually means "please get out my house". The mystery plot itself has little to do with bubuzuke though: it's about the murder of an editor, and the main suspect is Orihara Kei. She of course denies having done anything like that, and it's up to Arima to prove her innocence. While a bit chaotic, I think this story has the best puzzle plot of the whole collection, though that's not saying much. I wouldn't say the plot is super original, but the plot does make use of something not very common (though I have seen similar ideas before). Akuendachi ("Cutting Off Bad Ties") has writer Mizumori Ken and journalist Orihara Kei breaking and entering the second home of a recently murdered man, in the hopes of finding a clue to solving the murder. They are discovered by a policeman on guard, but manage to escape by attacking the policeman. Too bad they left Arima's wallet on the crime scene. The story is about the stereotype that Kyoto people like to spend money to keep on appearances, but are stingy on other things, but the actual mystery plot is incredibly boring and predictable.

Fuyu no Shikyaku ("The Winter Assassin") starts with a death threat (using a certain Kyoto treat) to those of the Daihikaku Senkouji Temple, but is simply not fun. The whole 'mystery' is so over-the-top it's easy to guess where the story is going for, but it simply does not work. I think this is the unfunniest story in the whole collection. Kyouzameta Uma wo Miyo ("Behold the the Spoil-Sport Horse") starts with a story of a bleeding horse on a Japanese painting, but the whole story is one big web of coincidence and hard-to-believe actions of characters. Finally, Shiromiso Densetsu no Nazo (The Mystery of the White Miso) is about a person who has been plastering white miso in stores with the message "Do Not Eat. Poison Inside". At first, it was thought to be a prank, but then one package of white miso is found that actually contains a (small) amount of poison. The mystery plot on its own is OK-ish (for the standards of this collection), but the whole story around it is, again, not very tantilizing.

You'd be surprised how much trouble I had remembering what each story was about, even though I finished it just yesterday! The stories are just so unimpressive. One thing I did remember was that it wasn't just the comedy and characters that bugged me, but also the writing style. Jumping between locations and scenes in the middle of a conversation does not help the immersion, especially if said scene changes hardly help the narrative.

I very seldom feel this negative about a book, as I usually try to look for something, anything I liked, but Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo is one of those rare cases where even I have to give up. And I am really baffled, because I was not super-enthusiastic about the first volume in the series, but it was nowhere nearly as challenging as the second volume. Now I'm not sure whether I'll want to read the second volume in Kitamori's Tekki & Kyuuta series...

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻 『ぶぶ漬け伝説の謎 裏京都ミステリー』: 「狐狸夢」 / 「ぶぶ漬け伝説の謎」 / 「悪縁断ち」 / 「冬の刺客」 / 「興ざめた馬を見よ」 / 「白味噌伝説の謎」