Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Attack of the Headless Horror

"Looks like you won't be attending that hat convention in July!" 
"Hudson Hawk"

Today, a fantastic book!

Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) starts with an introduction of Himekubi Mountain and Himekami Village at its feet, situated in the rural outskirts of Tokyo. Himekami Village has since medieval times been ruled by the Higami Clan, which in turn is divided in three houses. The House of Ichigami is the main family and leader of the Higami Clan, while the Futagami and Mikami Houses serve as the branch families. Only males of the Higami Clan can succeed to the position of the head of the Ichigami House and lord of the Higami Clan, and if ever the Ichigami House fails in producing an adult male to take over the position, the next leader of the Higami Clan will be chosen from either the Futagami or Mikami Houses, which in turn becomes the new Ichigami House. Luck has it that the Higami Clan has been cursed and especially the sons of the Ichigami House have trouble staying alive until adulthood, often perishing in their childhood. The person who cast the curse, a princess who was wrongfully decapitated at the end of the Warring State period, has been deified as the mountain kami Aohime, and the people of the Higami Clan have to pray for her mercy in the fall of their third, thirteenth, twenty-third and thirty-third year by visiting Aohime's shrine in the mountains and spending one night there. It is in 1943, during the war, when Choujurou, the future heir of the Higami Clan, and his twin sister Himeko conduct the Thirteenth Nightly Shrine Visit, but Himeko vanishes from inside the shrine as she's making her way to the room where she's supposed to spend the night, despite being observed from both outside and inside the shrine. Himeko is later found dead inside a well, and rumors has it she was found headless. Ten years later, Choujurou once again has to pay a visit to the Aohime Shrine in the mountains, this time to choose one out of three potential bride candidates and ask for Aohime's permission to marry the woman, but one of the women is decapitated inside the shrine, and Choujurou himself is also found decapitated elsewhere on the mountain. Is this the curse of Aohime, or can these deaths be attributed to someone from the other houses hoping to become the next leader of the Higami Clan?

Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is the third novel in Mitsuda Shinzou's Toujou Genya series, which stars the horror/occult novelist Toujou Genya and the bizarre crimes he comes across as he travels across Japan to do research on local folklore. This is the first I read this series by the way (or anything by Mitsuda actually), but it had been on my radar for a long time, as I absolutely love horror-mystery novels with a folklore background (see also the work of Kyougoku Natsuhihiko for example, or a game like Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P). The reason why I started with the third novel was because Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is widely lauded as one of Mitsuda's best mystery novels, and I had learned it was not necessary to read them in order anyway. In fact, Toujou Genya hardly appears in this novel, as Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is presented as an accurate account of the murders that happened in Himekami Village in the past, written as a serialized novel by Himenomori Myougen, mystery author and wife of the police constable who was in charge of both the 1943 and the 1953 case. The novel is written in the hopes that some reader manages to figure out the truth behind the horrible headless killings in Himekami Village.

And what a novel this is! This will no doubt be one of the best mystery novels I'll read this year, as it's a blast from start to end. After an atmospheric start that introduces the reader to the folklore surrounding the vengeful deity Aohime, the curse on the Higami Clan and ghost stories about headless spectres roaming the mountain, we're witness to the absolutely baffling disappearance, and death of Higami Himeko during the Thirteenth Nightly Shrine Visit, which makes up one amazing locked room mystery. Both Himeko and her twin brother Choujurou have to spend one night in Aohime's shrine, which has sleeping quarters attached to it. To make their way from the main shrine to these sleeping quarters, one must pass through a tower. This tower only has one corridor in the form of a spiral stairway, which first goes all the way up to the top of the tower, and then spirals back to the bottom (to the other side of the tower). This means that even if two people start walking from both sides of the tower, they won't see each other until they meet each halfway, at the top of the tower. Himeko is seen entering the shrine and the tower from outside the building by a witness, and heard by her brother Choujurou who was already inside the sleeping quarters waiting for his sister, but Himeko disappears the moment she arrives at the top of the tower. She is not found anywhere inside the shrine, and because of the pebble stone garden surrounding the shrine and the tower, it was also impossible for her (or her body) to slip out the building without being heard. Yet she is found dead outside the shrine, stuffed inside a well. The case ten years later, after the Twenty-Third Nightly Shrine Visit, is not an impossible crime per se, but still as baffling, as one of Choujurou's potential brides is murdered and decapitated inside the shrine's sleeping quarters, and Choujurou himself is also found decapitated elsewhere on the mountain. But why were the two decapitated and how did the murderer make their way to the shrine even though all the mountain entrances were being watched by the police due to the marriage meeting ceremony?

What makes this an exceptional mystery novel is the meaningful repetition of themes. The 1943 and 1953 crimes are for example completely different mysteries, with the first being a brilliant impossible disappearance and the latter more a whydunnit about decapitations, but ultimately, the two crimes are connected by a common, underlying theme of mystery fiction, but executed in very different manners. The two crimes have nothing in common except for this theme, which makes it so devilish, as figuring the precise connection between them won't be easy. I had an inkling of what was going on, but really didn't manage to make the necessary connections between all the various points, so I maybe got 10, 15% of the whole solution. This repetition of themes in different manners is done multiple times in this novel, and in fantastic ways. Most of them would be spoilers of course, but take the theme of decapitation: there are multiple plot threads that involve decapitations in this story, from sightings of a headless creature roaming the forests, to the murders and decapitations of the victims, to heads being found. Each of these threads however have completely different reasons for them, and all of them are convincing. As a master class on decapitations in mystery fiction, I can think of no work that can rival Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, especially as the novel also features a Decapitation Lecture! Locked Room Lectures are popular, and I've seen lectures on dying messages and missing-footprints-in-the-snow too, but this is the first time I read one on the various reasons for decapitations in mystery fiction, and it's a gem! This exceptional focus on certain themes is makes this book so great, as it brings not only variation, but also consistency between the various events.  The impossible disappearance for example is plotted very well even taken on its own, but it is the connection to the other events of the book what makes this one to remember.

One decisive clue to the tale lies in the practice of folklore, what some readers of mystery fiction might not consider fair, as it's basically belief in the supernatural. I myself seldom see a problem with that though, as folklore itself is based on human practices and human perception of the world, which in turn follows (human-made) rules of logic. Supernatural powers might not exist, but the belief in supernatural powers exists and it does govern the psyche, and therefore the action of humans, so a good mystery novel can make great use of that. Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono has a great example of that, as the decisive clue surrounds an action that should've been taken given the folklore we've been presented with throughout the novel. The story takes the time to explore this theme of folklore and the workings and psychology behind it, so even if you don't manage to spot it (I didn't), you don't feel cheated, as it was set-up in a most fair way.

As a mystery novel on its own, Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono is great, but it's the synergy between all the various themes that makes this a classic. No element is there just on its own, everything is to strengthen the rest of the book. The horror elements aren't there just to scare you, they also serve as meaningful misdirection and hints to the solution of the murders. The presentation in the form of a serialized novel isn't there just for fun: it's a crucial part in presenting a part of the mystery in a fair way to the reader. The impossible disappearance and the decapitations aren't just there for the mystery: they are intricately connected to the underlying story of the fall of the Higami Clan throug the curse of Aohime. Everything in this novel has a reason, no, multiple reasons to be there and they make what would've been a great mystery novel on its own, easily one of the best novels I've read these last few years. I can't wait to read more of this series!

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三 『首無の如き祟るもの』

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Red-Headed League

今はわからないことばかりだけど
信じるこの道を進むだけさ
どんな敵でも味方でもかまわない
この手を放すもんか 真っ赤な誓い 
「真っ赤な誓い」(福山芳樹)

Right now I'm surrounded by things I don't understand
But I'll keep on following this path I believe in
No matter the enemies or friends I'll come across
I'll never let my hands go off this crimson oath
"My Crimson Oath" (Fukuyama Yoshiki)

I wonder if the color red, and variations of it (crimson, scarlet, etc.) is the one that appears the most often in mystery fiction titles? The connection to blood makes it a strong contender of course, but I suppose white and black would put up a good fight...

Mark Brendon, celebrated rising star of Scotland Yard, had hoped to enjoy a nice trout-fishing holiday in Dartmoor, but gladly gives up on his leisure time to help the beautiful Jenny Pendean. Her husband Michael and her uncle Robert Redmayne have disappeared, and there are definite signs that her uncle killed her husband. Her three uncles, Albert, Bendigo and Robert had been opposed to their niece's marriage to Michael at first, as they accused him of shirking his duties as a subject of the British Empire in the Great War by failing the militairy medical exam, but the Pendans had proven their worth in the war nonetheless, and during a chance meeting with Jenny and Michael in Dartmoor, uncle Robert learned of their endeavors, and was finally willing to accept his niece's husband. But it appears that a war-induced post traumatic stress disorder led to Robert killing Jenny's husband, and now he's on the run. Despite the best efforts by Brendon, red-haired Robert manages to elude capture, until he appears at the house of his brother Bendigo, and gets rid of him too! As the one responsible for the disappearances of two of his family members, Brandon feels even more pressure to capture Robert, but his mind is also distracted by the beautiful Jenny, whom he fears might be falling for the wrong man so soon after her husband's death. Can Brendon solve the case and woo Jenny over in Eden Phillpotts The Red Redmaynes (1922)?

Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) was an extremely prolific novelist/poet/playwright, mainly known for his country-side novels set around Dartmoor. Agatha Christie used to live near Phillpotts in her late teens actually, and he helped her with her writing early on in her career. At age 60, Phillpots decided he'd try his hand at the mystery genre too, and it appears it suited him well, as he wrote a fair number of mystery stories too. The Red Redmaynes (1922) was his second mystery novel, and while not forgotten in the West, it appears it never did attract the same amount of fame it did in Japan. The praise Edogawa Rampo had heaped upon The Red Redmaynes had cemented its position as one of the classic Golden Age novels in the eyes of the Japanese mystery reader, which is also reflected in the curiously large number of different translations and releases the book has seen in Japan since its initial release. Rampo also wrote a translation/adaptation of The Red Redmaynes, titled Ryokui no Oni ("The Demon in Green", 1936), green being a complementary color to red (see also my review of Yuureitou, which is an adaptation of a translation/adaptation of Williamson's A Woman in Grey).

And after reading The Red Redmaynes myself I can say that while I wouldn't consider this anything near the best the 1920s had to offer in terms of mystery novels, I did enjoy reading it. What some readers might notice early on is that Phillpotts prose betrays his long writing career before making the jump to mystery novels. The descriptions of the background settings (first Dartmoor, later around a lake in Italy) are admittedly somewhat longwinded at times, and might have an old-fashioned feel to them, but they are also vivid and do a great job at envisioning the stage upon which the mysterious case unfolds. There's also a somewhat melodramatic romance plot for Brendon (who falls head over heel for widow Jenny), which again seems to be a throwback to Phillpotts' contributions to other genres, but at least it's well integrated within the mystery plot.

The mystery plot is reasonably entertaining, even if somewhat simple. I think that readers in this time and age won't be that surprised when it's revealed who is behind the Redmayne Tragedy, as the core idea is a very familiar one, but Phillpotts manages to dress the plot in a way to keep the reader engaged. The story has a distinct Gothic thriller novel feel to it in the first half of the novel, with Red Robert Redmayne roaming lonely Dartmoor and the relatively small cast of characters in fear of what he might do next to the other Redmaynes. And by the time the reader has enough of this, the story moves to sunny Italy, where the plot decides to move a lot quicker too, with more exciting scenes to pull the reader in. That said, I doubt the misdirection employed in this book will be able to divert attention away from the truth for a long time, especially as Phillpotts makes it a point to be more than fair to the reader, with a second detective character pretty much spelling out what is going on a few chapters before the climax for the benefit of a different character, as well as the reader. It is a well-plotted mystery story, with everything occuring in the tale for a reason that eventually ties back to the conclusion.

So I thought The Red Redmaynes was a decent novel. It might not be really surprising perhaps, but Phillpotts used the plot he had to write a more than competent mystery novel, with a good plot structure that is supported by Phillpotts' experience with other genres and writing in general. As his works are available in the public domain, I'll probably take a look at his other mystery stories too in the future.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Burn Card

瀬を早み 岩にせかるる 滝川の 
われても末に 逢はむとぞ思ふ 
(崇徳院)

Rushing over a steep plummet / The rapid stream of the river / Is split in two by a rock
But like how those two streams will join once more / We too will find each other once more
(Poem by Sutokuin)

And we start the new year with a familiar face....

While Aoyama Goushou is of course the original creator of Detective Conan, the franchise has grown out to be much, much more than his original comic. Of the many products based on the hit mystery comic, the annual theatrical releases are probably the best known in Japan. Ever since 1997, each April has given us a new theatrical edition of Detective Conan with all-new original stories on a scale not feasible in the comic form. It is actually very rare in most cases in Japan for the original creator to get involved with the production of an animated theatrical adaptation personally, but Aoyama has always been a major part of these movies, often deciding on the main theme of each year's entry, as well as drawing key animation scenes himself (known among fans as the Aoyama key-frames, as they are instantly recognizable). The screenplays however are always written by other people, often specialized screenwriters who have worked on the animated TV series. The last few years, the release of each new theatrical film has also been accompanied with a novelization of said movie in publisher Shogakukan's Junior Bunko series: these novelizations are written for a young public, adapting the movies quite faithfully.

The twenty-first Detective Conan film, The Crimson Love Letter, was released in April 2017 and was received extremely well: it was in fact the highest grossing domestic (Japanese) film of 2017. Let that sink in for a while: the highest grossing Japanese film of 2017 was a mystery film, and an animated one too at that! When details about The Crimson Love Letter's production were first released in 2016, we learned that mystery author Ookura Takahiro was responsible for the screenplay. Ookura, who was written several succesful mystery series that have been adapted for live-action TV dramas (most prominently the Lt. Fukuie series), had not worked on Detective Conan before, but for this special occassion, he was not only put on the screenplay for the film, but also on an episode for the animated series. The Shogakukan Junior Bunko novelization (by Mizuki Shima) of course also released in April, but I waited for the home-video release in October 2017 to watch The Crimson Love Letter, and absolutely loved it.

But I was quite surprised when I learned that an another novelization of The Crimson Love Letter would be released in December 2017. Shousetsu Meitantei Conan: Karakurenai no Love Letter (A Novel: Detective Conan - The Crimson Love Letter, 2017) is a novelization written by the screenplay writer Ookura Takahiro himself, and is based on the final version of the screenplay he handed in. As you can guess: his version is not exactly like the final product, with several scenes either slightly changed, or cut out completely from the film. This new novelization is thus somewhat like a Director's Cut of the film, based on the original vision of the screenplay writer (whereas the Junior Bunko is based on the film that was released, and written for a younger audience). The base story however is of course the same in this version: a nation-wide high school karuta competition is about to start in a few days, so a program to promote the competive game of karuta, the Satsuki Cup and the Satsuki High School Cup is being recorded at a TV studio. A bomber however destroys the whole studio during the recording, and high school student-turned-into-six-year-old-boy Conan and the high school student detective Hattori Heiji suspect that the bomber's aim is focused on key members in the Satsuki Karuta Assocation, as they learn that the champion of the Satsuki Cup has also been killed on the same day. Meanwhile, Hattori's childhood friend Kazuha finds herself in a predicament: she suddenly has to participate in the Satsuki High School competition because her friend Mikoko got injured during the bombing, and one of her opponents is Oo'oka Momiji, a girl who is considered the future karuta queen who also claims she's Hattori's fiancée....

AND OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS COVER.

Ahm. It's only been two months ago since I wrote down my thoughts on The Crimson Love Letter, so I want refer to the film review for my main thoughts about the story and its relation to the main series, as the core plot in the novelization is exactly the same. The novelization is still a great Detective Conan story that manages to mix a proper mystery plot, with a captivating sport story surrounding karuta as well as romantic comedy elements. The film was easily one of the better entries these last few years thanks to the story, and that also holds for this novel. So in this review, I want to pick up some of the differences between the film, and this novelization.

I do want to point out right away that about 80% of the book is more-or-less the same as the film. Sure, most of the scenes have their differences, but these changes are very small. For example: the film starts with the whole cast chatting in the TV studio. In the novelization, their chat starts outside the studio. The novel does make good use of its medium to explain a bit more about various topics, most importantly the game of karuta. I noted in my review of the film that certain details of karuta, like basic rules or strategies, weren't explained really well there: the novelization does a much better job at that, as well as exploring the themes behind the poems on the karuta cards in relation to the film. The downside is that reading about the actual karuta matches isn't as fun as actually seeing them. While karuta is a card game in essence, it's actually a very physical game (see also Chihayafuru), and the energy and dynamic movements going during these matches are of course conveyed much better in the animated feature compared to the novelization. The final act of the story is about the actual Satsuki High School Cup, which was mostly skimmed over in the film with a montage (because it's a sports film!) to jump to the final match, while the novel actually goes a bit more into detail in the various rounds of the competition, fleshing out some characters we only see very briefly in the film.

The novelization also brings some improvements to the mystery plot. Some of the developments in the plot that were handled only briefly in the film are explored more deeply in the novel, which greatly helps the story. While the film works on its own, some of the red herrings and clues were discussed rather briefly there, but Ookura manages to explain them much better in detail in the novel, so for the people who thought things went too fast in the film: try this book!  On the other hand, it's also clear the story was indeed written for a film, as some of the more crucial, and also better clues of this story work much better in a visual format, as opposed to in a novel.

What also work much better in the animated format are the action scenes. The theatrical releases of Detective Conan have always been known for their over-the-top action scenes that you usually wouldn't see in the original comic (precisely because they can't do over-the-top action there), and the animated version of The Crimson Love Letter has some fantastic scenes in a great opening set-piece as well an impressive climax scene. Those same action parts are completely different in the novelization and it's not even a contest: the action scenes in the final film are muuuch better than the ones Ookura originally had in mind (and they are a bit strange too: since when does Conan has a wire in his wristwatch? He's not Lupin III!). What's interesting is that the major scenes that were cut out of Ookura's script were in fact also action scenes. The novelization (and thus Ookura's original script) contains two action scenes that didn't make it into the final movie. While the second of these is admittedly quite unnecessary (I'd argue cutting this scene out was a good choice), it's a pity the first of these action scenes didn't make it. A certain revelation is made in the movie after this scene, and it's one of those parts of the mystery plot that work better in the novel, precisely because this action scene actually helps set-up that revelation. Including the scene, in one way or another, would've improved the mystery plot, so I kinda wish this action scene would've been there, especially because it'd be more interesting to actually see the scene animated.

In the end though, it's clear that The Crimson Love Letter's best version is still the animated feature. While this novelization by Ookura does offer some more insight into the plot, as well as some other versions of certain scenes, this "Director's Cut" is not the best version, precisely because the plot was originally written for an animated film and many of its elements work out better in motion. I'd recommend the novel to those who loved The Crimson Love Letter and want to see how Ookura originally envisioned the story, but yeah, go watch the film if you haven't seen it yet. 

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌(原)、大倉崇裕 『小説 名探偵コナン から紅の恋歌』

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Red Chipmunk Mystery

から紅に染まる渡月橋
導かれる日願って
川の流れに祈りを込めて
「渡月橋 ~君 思ふ~」(倉木麻衣) 

The Togetsukyou-Bridge is colored crimson
I wish for the day that we'll be led here
Sending my prayer along the stream of the river
"Togetsukyou ~Thinking About You~" (Kuraki Mai)

And as I had hinted at in the previous post: the final post this year is about Detective Conan. It's becoming a bit of a tradition now, a Conan review either at the end of the old year, or at the beginning of the new year, which is of course because's there's usually a new Conan release late December.

The 94th volume of Detective Conan, released in December 2017, starts with the final chapter of The Two Swordsmen from Naniwa, a story which started in the previous volume. Osaka-bred high school student detective Hattori is in Tokyo to compete in an inter-high school kendo competition, and he has decided he'll tell his not-quite-girlfriend Kazuha how he feels about her if he manages to win the gold. Hattori's chances are pretty good, despite some serious competition in the form of Onimaru and Okita, who both make a guest appearance from Aoyama's earlier fantasy action-comedy series Yaiba. Luck has it however that a murder is discovered in a faraway corner of the gymnasium grounds during the competition. The victim was one of the judges, which means that the person who was capable of slicing the victim's neck with one single clean cut must be an accomplished swordsman too. A blind witness however heard the murderer flee into the public toilet. The kendo gear the murderer wore is found, but the murder weapon is gone and inside the toilet the police find three persons, who of course all claim to know nothing about the murder. Can Hattori and Conan figure out where the murder weapon went, who the murderer is and get back in time for the kendo competition?

Like I mentioned in the review of the previous volume, The Two Swordsmen from Naniwa is basically a sequel to a story from volume 31, which was also about a murder during a kendo competition, a time limit for Hattori to work with and guest appearances from characters from Yaiba. Okita makes a more substantial appearance this time, as he invites himself to the murder investigation and is revealed to be a classmate of Oo'oka Momiji, the self-proclaimed fiancée of Hattori, who debuted a few volumes earlier and one of the main characters of the 2017 Conan film The Crimson Love Letter. I was really excited about this story when it started in the previous volume, but I have to admit that my final impression isn't as favorable. This is partly because it's been four months since I last read the first three chapters of this story: I had forgotten most of the details, and this volume starts right away with the final chapter. But there were some other points that bothered me: the idea of the disappearing murder weapon is fairly interesting, as it is a very original variation of an old trick that works perfectly in this setting, but it's not hidden very well, and there's no way the police wouldn't have figured that out on their own even through a routine examination (though one can say that Hattori's time limit can be an excuse). Another clue however depends on some knowledge of kendo wear, and it's a visual clue too, but I found it hard to make it out on paper even after being pointed to it, and again, it's something I wasn't aware of in the first place, so it doesn't really feel clever. In fact, most of the fun I had with this story was the character interaction: Okita plays a funny fool at the crime scene, while Hattori (and Ran) are trying to work as fast as they can so they can get back to the competition and win it.

In Ran's Travel Plans, Kogorou and Conan follow Ran into a restaurant after seeing her act all giddy, only to learn that she's meeting with Sonoko and Sera there to make plans for the upcoming school trip to Kyoto, and that she hopes Shinichi (Conan's real identity, before he was turned into a child) will participate with the school trip too, as Shinichi is still a student of Teitan High and it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One of the waiters in the restaurant however is murdered in the employee locker room during the lunch. The man, an ex-boyfriend of the manager of the restaurant, was a prolific foodie blogger, who had ruined the business of several restaurants with his harsh criticism, including those of the brother of the manager, who used to be the former chef cook of the restaurant (who had left to take over his father-in-law's restaurant) and that of the parents of a fellow waitress. The likely suspects were all in the restaurant during the murder for convenience's sake. What makes this case puzzling however is that the murderer appears to have tremendous strength, as they swung a heavy decorative standing vase filled with flowers and water like a baseball bat to the head of the victim and of course, none of the three suspects appears to have been able to accomplish that feat. At least, that's what the story wants to sell, but the murder method is hinted at too obviously, making it extremely easy to guess how it was done. The question of who relies on an extremely minor visual clue, that sorta makes sense because of a certain reason, but man, you need to look very, very carefully to pick up on it. Overall a very minor story that's mostly meant to be set-up for the school trip.

And that can be said of The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap too. Conan wants to participate with the school trip to Kyoto, so he begs Haibara for the experimental antidote to the drug that gave both him and Haibara the body of a child. Haibara refuses to give it to Conan however: the effect on Conan's body is becoming less with each use, and while at first the drug managed to remain effective for several days, the last few times the drug only lasted him a few hours, so she considers it far too dangerous to let him go on a school trip. Also: Haibara is an awful mood. She managed to buy the final phone strap with a cute figurine of the soccer player Higo at a match, and Higo even held it in his own hands, making the thing extra special for Haibara, but she lost it on the train back, when a sudden stop made everyone in the train bump into each other. Conan swears to find Haibara's phone strap, hoping to get on her good side so he can go to Kyoto too.

The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap is really light mystery story, which has Conan deduce the destination station of a father and his kid who they suspect picked Haibara's strap up by accident. What makes this story 'memorable' however is that we actually got a very deep look into how this story came to be in the first place. October 2017 saw the release of Gōshō Aoyama 30 Years Anniversary Book, which celebrated the long career of Aoyama Goushou. Besides illustrations, interviews and messages and art by fellow comic artists, you'll also find a segment that goes into detail into how Aoyama actually creates Conan. As he has to turn in a chapter each week, things are very hectic, with him only sleeping for three hours a day. About three days of the week are spent on storyboarding, five days a week are spent on drawing the actual chapter (yes, there's some overlap, hence the eight days). The mystery plot is usually decided upon within one single day, with the help of his editors. As most stories in Conan usually last for three chapters, that usually means they have a story meeting once every three weeks.

Gōshō Aoyama 30 Years Anniversary Book also contains a transcript of the meeting Aoyama had with his editors for The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap, giving us insight in how Aoyama creates the mystery plots for this series. The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap's meeting lasted for six hours (starting at midnight), and as it was already decided this would be like a prologue to the following story, most of the meeting was about deciding the mystery plot. The core tricks in Conan are apparently usually suggested by the editors: they bring all kinds of random ideas to Aoyama, who tries to incorporate them in his story. For example, one of the editors brought a fidget spinner (Aoyama had never heard of them), explained how they worked and gave some suggestions for how they could work in a mystery story. They also brought a novelty fake Coke bottle, with a secret compartment in the middle so you could hide something inside the cola, which obviously has potential in a mystery story (these ideas were not used in The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap by the way, so no spoilers). Conan's editors will bring like four or five of these ideas they might use for a mystery story each meeting, and then Aoyama and the editors will have a long chat, in which they eventually decide on the main trick of a story and work out into a complete story, with setting, general story flow (accommodated for the planned number of chapters), and things like who'll appear. Once they're done (this meeting was over in the morning at 06:00), Aoyama starts working on the storyboards for that week's chapter.


Detective Conan 94 ends with the first four chapters of The Scarlet School Trip, with the opening chapter marking a milestone in Conan history, as it is chapter 1000! Conan was given the experimental antidote by Haibara under some conditions, so he manages to turn back to his former teenage self to go on the Teitan High school trip to beautiful Kyoto in the fall, mingling among old friends and of course, enjoying his time with Ran. Shinichi runs into the actress Kurachi Keiko at Kiyomizu-Dera, who's a friend of his mother Yukiko (a retired actress). Keiko want Shinichi to solve a code left by a friend who committed suicide at Kiyomizu-Dera. Her latest film is a remake of a film her friends made when they were students, and like her, all of them have become famous people in the industry as actors/directors/screenplay writers etc. Shinichi and Sera are interested as detectives, while Sonoko and Ran are simply interested in the film, so they take on the job, but it's only moments later when the screenplay writer is found murdered inside his hotel room, and bloody footsteps left on the ceiling suggest something pulled the man up to the ceiling, stabbed and dropped the victim on the floor, and then walked on the ceiling to the window to fly away. Or simply said, it's as if the Tengu from their film has come to life! More seemingly supernatural attacks and murders follow, but Shinichi is unable to focus completely on the case as he also has to make sure he doesn't turn back into Conan in front of the others.

The Scarlet School Trip is obviously a story Aoyama created for the special occassion, and it's absolutely packed. Conan/Shinichi having to manage his use of the antidote during the school trip, school comedy involving Shinichi and the rest of his class, the serial murders involving the Tengu, te code, and many, many guest appearances, from Hattori to Oo'oka Momiji and Okita (all three of appearing in The Two Swordsmen of Naniwa), as well as the first appearance in the manga of Inspector Ayanokouji (and his chipmunk pet), who was originally created for the 2003 theatrical feature Crossroad in the Ancient Capital and has become a recurring character in the Conan film series since. The Scarlet School Trip is so incredibly stuffed that I have to admit that the main mystery plot is a bit underwhelming: the murders themselves are rather straightforward at this point (with only the bloody footsteps left behind being weird) and the code is obviously one I'll never figure out on my own. I have to admit I had hoped for murders what would have made more an impression, but it's all drowned out by all the antics going on besides the murders, with all these characters appearing and interacting. I'll have to read the end of the story to see how this'll work out, but at the moment, The Scarlet School Trip is better enjoyed as fanservice, rather than a mystery story.

Detective Conan 94 shares its release date with the first volume of the Conan spin-off Meitantei Conan: Hannin no Hanzawa-san ("Detective Conan: The Culprit Hanzawa") by the way! Last year, I wrote an article about "The Dark Shadow", the figure you see committing the murders and other crimes in visual mystery media like anime and manga before the viewer is allowed to know the identity of the culprit. Like I mentioned in that article, the Dark Shadow had become a meme in Japanese mystery on its own, and now they're even the protagonist in their own spin-off! In Hannin no Hanzawa-san, we follow Hanzawa who has recently moved to crime capital Beika to murder a certain person, but that's easier said than done: while the crime rate in Beika is insane, the police always manages to capture every single murderer, sometimes with the help of even elementary school kids, so life's difficult for a potential murderer, especially if you have just moved to Beika. Finding a dirt cheap, good apartment for example is pretty easy in Beika, but only if you don't mind living in a room where somebody got killed, as it's neigh impossible to find accomodations in Beika where someone hasn't been murdered. And forget about getting your address changed on your driver's license at the police station: the police is far too busy solving murders!

Last week, I reviewed the Kindaichi Shounen spin-off Hannintachi no Jikenbo, which follows a similar premise (a gag comedy about the culprit), but they are actually quite different. Hannintachi no Jikenbo is a parody of existing Kindaichi Shounen stories, and as I mentioned in the review, it's absolutely funny if you know those stories, but otherwise you won't get any of the jokes. Hannin no Hanzawa-san on the other hand is much better accessible, as it's not a parody of a specific story, but a parody in general on the notion of ingenious murders happening in Conan every week, usually all within Beika. So I'd say that Hannin no Hanzawa-san can be recommended even if you're not that well-read in Conan, while you really need to know your Kindaichi Shounen to appreciate Hannintachi no Jikenbo.

Detective Conan 94 thus proved to be a somewhat disappointing volume: most of the stories were very light, as they were basically just there to pave the way for The Scarlet School Trip, but that story itself is at the moment not as impressive as a mystery story as you'd hope, even if it is a blast reading it as a character-centred comedy story. As a spin-off, Hannin no Hanzawa-san manages to hit the right notes, and while it's definitely not deep material, it's hilarious to see the world of Conan from the other side for a change. There's no planned date/period for the next volumes for both these series by the way: Aoyama has to take a rest from his busy schedule to recharge his battery while Hannin no Hanzawa-san is running on a somewhat irregular schedule. I assume however that Conan 95 at least will release in April 2018, together with the new theatrical feature Zero's Executioner.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第94巻
青山剛昌(原), かんばまゆこ 『名探偵コナン 犯人の犯沢さん』

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Turnabout Memories - Part 7

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember" 

Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

I'm wrapping up the year on the blog like I've been doing the last few years, with a short overview of the titles and articles published this year that stood out most in my mind (that I still remember). Because making lists is something everyone does at the end of the year. Of course, because of the way of how I try to spread out my reviews to approx. one a week (so I have a buffer in case things get busy), some of these books were read/seen closer to 18~20 months ago, rather than only a year... Anyway, the categories are basically made up as I go, so it's not really that serious. And that's it for this year. Or not. I might slip in a Detective Conan review in before the formal end of the year, but I might also push it back to 2018. Hope to see you next year too!



Best Cover Seen in 2017!
Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower")

In a time when everybody is just looking at little thumbnails of covers for e-books that readers don't look at anyway on their e-readers, the art of making good cover art might've become less important to some publishers, but there are luckily still publishers who go the extra mile to make good, sometimes absolutely gorgeous cover art for their books. The anthology 7-nin no Meitantei ("The Seven Great Detectives") featured funny silhouettes of the seven authors who contributed to the book, which gave it a unique feeling. Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery") is another example of the great art the Urazome Tenma series has had ever since its initiation, making use of bold colors (especially yellow!). For some good-old retro cover art, seek no further than Shinsetsu Lupin tai Holmes ("The True Tale: Lupin VS Holmes") and while I hate clowns, even I have to admit Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") looks fantastic. But it was the first book I reviewed this year that one. Academy Award winner Miyazaki Hayao's cover for Edogawa Rampo's Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower") is absolutely stunning.

Best Project Outside The Blog!
The Ginza Ghost

Okay, this was a no-brainer. In 2015, I got the chance to translate Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders, published by Locked Room International. 2016 was followed by LRI's release of Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle. And 2017 too offered me the opportunity to translate a great Japanese mystery. Oosaka Keikichi's short story collection The Ginza Ghost features twelve great stories of mystery and imagination from before World War II, by an author who for a long time had been forgotten in Japan. Set in a quickly industrializing Japan that tries to combine the traditional with the modern, these twelve stories (most of them impossible crimes) serve as a showcase into a Japan long-gone, and as a window into the psyche of a gifted mystery author who really perished way too soon (my personal favorites are The Mourning Locomotive and The Hungry Letter-Box).

Most Surprising Form Of Mystery Fiction Experienced In 2017!
Gamebooks!

Early this year, I read/played the two Famicom Detective Club gamebooks by Ikeda Misa based on the Nintendo adventure videogames, and I enjoyed them a lot! It was the first time I played a mystery gamebook, though I have played many sound novel games, so I was quite interested to see how it'd work out with a real gamebook of paper. Both of them were good, and showed me all kinds of interesting ways to do mystery fiction in the form of the gamebook, but as the first one, Famicom Tantei Club - Kieta Koukeisha ("Famicom Detective Club - The Vanished Heir") was very difficult, with several instant death sequences or game overs if you got the wrong item and little leeway for mistakes, I'd say the second one, Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo ("Famicom Detective Club Part II: The Girl Standing In The Back") is the better one, as it's much more forgiving and fun to read/play. I hope I'll come across some more mystery gamebooks in the future.

Best Mystery Movie Or TV Series! Seen In 2017!
Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter

In my mind, I only had to two options to choose from. Kizoku Tantei was an excellent TV adaptation that went beyond the original work, and on the other hand, there was Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter which I really enjoyed from start to finish in all aspects. In the end, I went with the latter. I didn't see that many mystery films this year, and only two of them were released this year. I enjoyed Murder on the Orient Express more than I had expected, true, but Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter managed to impress by being a good mystery film, a good rom-com sports drama and overall a good Detective Conan film too. It brings a whole variety in entertainment, and all the elements are worked out quite well, making it easily one of the better Detective Conan films, but also a great experience regardless of whether you know Conan or not. Murder On The Orient Express (2017) had some light 'action' scenes added and shuffled with the sequence of events to make for a more easy watching experience, but comparing it with The Crimson Love-Letter is like day and sun, as the latter manages to be much more entertaining as a theatrical release.

Best Non-Review Post! Of 2017!
Murder Mysteries Set In Fukuoka

I definitely don't write as many non-review pieces as I actually should, or even want, but for some reason I never get to them. When I do finally get to them, they're usually written on the spur of the moment. Like this article on the many moustaches Poirot has had in visual adaptatons (I am going to guess it's one of the more detailed pieces on the topic), which was obviously inspired by the 2017 film of Murder on the Orient Express. Or this article on in-depth story guidebooks/reference books on mystery fiction, which I wrote after reading the excellent 15th Anniversary Gyakuten Saiban Series Encyclopedia 2001-2016. The most serious piece this year was probably my article on the notion of false solutions, and the foil detective in mystery fiction, but still, the one I enjoyed most writing was the article on mystery fiction set in the city of Fukuoka. It had actually been on my mind for some years now, complete with map and all, but I just never got around to it. With most mystery fiction set in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, I thought it'd be interesting to look at a different setting for a change.

Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2017! But Probably Older!
Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2

I guess that in terms of mystery games, 2017 marked several long-awaited new installments of series I like. January brought New Danganronpa V3, which was overall an entertaining third installment in the hyperactive psychodelic pop mystery game. September also brought a new Tantei Jinguuji Saburou on the 3DS in the form of Ghost of the Dusk, which was a great return to form for the hardboiled detective series, even if it is admittedly a very limited form. Other mystery games I enjoyed were the novel game Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P and J.B. Harold: Manhattan Requiem, but the cake has to go to Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2. While it basically only works in conjunction with the first game and many of the mystery plots are rather obviously 'borrowed' from classic mystery fiction, the grand scale of the overall storyline, the inclusion of an original take on Sherlock Holmes and most importantly: sheer fun in gameplay as you solve the mysteries this sequel serves you, make this game my favorite mystery game played this year.

Some other non-mystery games I enjoyed a lot were The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (wouldn't you want to see a mystery game where you play the murderer using this physics and chemistry engine?!), Bye-Bye BoxBoy! (final installment in a charming puzzle game series), Splatoon 2 (I never play online multiplayer shooters. I ADORE THIS GAME) and the freeware adventure Majo no Ie ("The Witch's House").

Favorite Premise of 2017!
The Detective Rights Auction in Danganronpa Kirigiri 2

A new category for this year. I take the word premise broadly, so that could be "there was quadruple-layered locked room murder", but also "that book uses different fonts to differentiate between narratives" or "that mystery plot is set in a fantasy world, but with clear rules to magic". Other good examples of this category would be Awasaka Tsumao's 11 Mai no Trump ("The Eleven Cards"), which had a novel-inside-a-novel that also served as hint,  Takemoto Kenji's Hako No Naka no Shitsuraku ("Paradise Lost Inside A Box") that utilized two intertwined narratives that each accused the other of being fictional, and Madoy Van's Jikanryokousha no Gyakuten ("Turnabout of the Time Traveller") which made brilliant use of the concept of time travel to make a fair-play mystery plot. The title story from te short story collection Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery") was a great example of the seemingly small, yet puzzling mystery of why all the change at a local festival is given in 50 yen coins, rather than the usual 100 yen coins. I ended up going with Danganronpa Kirigiri 2 by Kitayama Takekuni however, because the idea of the Detective Rights Auction in this book does not only serve a goal as a Liar Game-esque game to drive the plot, it's also a crucial part of the locked room murders of this novel. The synergy going on in this story is absolutely crazy, and I was quite impressed when at the end, it's revealed how all the elements of this story were related to the core mystery plot

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
- 11 Mai no Trump ("The Eleven Cards") (Awasaka Tsumao)
- Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower") (Edogawa Rampo)
- Suizokukan no Satsujin ("The Aquarium Murder") (Aosaki Yuugo)
- Danganronpa Kirigiri 2 (Kitayama Takekuni)
- Misshitsu Satsujin Game 2.0 ("Locked Room Murder Game 2.0") (Utano Shougo)
- Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten Kuukou ("Turnabout Trial -  Turnabout Airport") (Takase Mie)
- Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 ~ Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Kakugo ("The Grand Turnabout Trial 2 ~ The Resolve of Naruhodou Ryuunosuke") (Director: Takumi Shuu)
- Itsutsu no Tokei ("The Five Clocks") (Ayukawa Tetsuya)
- Hako No Naka no Shitsuraku ("Paradise Lost Inside A Box") (Takemoto Kenji)
- Jikanryokousha no Gyakuten ("Turnabout Of The Time Traveler") (Madoy Van)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Cat Who Could Read Backwards

さよならさえ伝えられなくて
それでも僕は今日此処を出てゆくよ 
また素敵な誰かに会えるかな 
気紛れで自由な暮らし僕は野良猫 
「NORA」(Garnet Crow)

Without even saying farewell
I left this place today
I hope I can meet with a wonderful person once again
Whimsical and living freely, I'm a stray cat
"NORA" (Garnet Crow)

English-language mystery novels don't pass by here on this blog that often anyway, but I think that the Roger Scarlett re-issues have at least prevented an all-time low this year.... Phew.

Inspector Kane series (Roger Scarlett)
The Beacon Hill Murders (1930)
The Back Bay Murders (1930)
Cat's Paw (1931)
Murder Among The Angells (1932)
In The First Degree (1933)

When you're a millionaire, people tend to put up with whatever you do. History already proved that when the city of Boston decided that Martin Greenough's Gothic mansion, complete with tracts of lush lands with hills for some pleasant horse-riding, would remain, and that the planned major road would have to go around it.  So when Martin's siblings died, they naturally made their well-to-do brother the legal guardian of their children, and "Cousin Mart's" nephews and niece also learned to give in to his whims. While Mart was not particularly emotionally invested into them, he always shared enough of his fortune so they could go out in the world and enjoy themselves with whatever vice they had, but they also remained financially dependent on him as he strictly forbade them to make any money of their own, even well into their adulthood. This was of course not a problem as long as Cousin Mart would provide for them financially and they would inherit his fortune after his death, but the announcement on his birthday that Cousin Mart would finally marry his long-time companion Mrs. Warden certainly caused some panic, especially when he said he'd need to have a talk with his laywer the following day. And this time, Cousin Mart misread the situation horribly, as he's shot dead the same night, and it is up to Inspector Kane of the Boston Police Department to solve this family matter in Roger Scarlett's Cat's Paw (1931).

Cat's Paw is the third novel by Evelyn Page and Dorothy Blair, who wrote together under the name Roger Scarlett. All five of their novels are set in Boston, and feature Inspector Kane as the main protagonist, often assisted by narrator/laywer Underwood and Sergeant Moran. As you might remember, I have read the five books in a rather peculiar order: I first read the fourth novel, Murder Among the Angells, as it was easily available in Japanese some years ago. Then this year, I read the fifth novel, In The First Degree, then followed by the first and second novel (The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders). There's no distinct chronology in these books (or at least, nothing vital, besides a "hey, remember the time we solved that case?"), so it doesn't really matter in what order you read them, but my reading experience turned out to be more interesting than I had expected.

When I first read Murder Among the Angells, I was fascinated by the presence of the setting of the story, an oddly L-shaped mansion where the murders took place. The curious architecture and closed-off location with a Gothic atmosphere made not only an impression on me, but also several influential Japanese mystery authors like Edogawa Rampo and Yokomizo Seishi and through them, on a fair amount of Japanese detective authors after them (see for example Ayatsuji Yukito and his House series, which is obviously about murders that take place in houses with idiosyncrasies). The eeriness of the location was taken even further in In The First Degree, which featured a plot that admittedly relied less on the layout of the place, but more on the atmosphere, as it had a distinct, Gothic horror tone to it with suspicious inhabitants acting as suspiciously as possible. In my mind, this focus on location and the effect it had on its inhabitants had to be a focal point in Scarlett's writing.

So imagine my surprise when I read The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders, in which the locations made less of an impression on me. Sure, they were still set in big houses set in Boston, but they were not as daunting. They were not closed-off, Gothic houses, and while the inhabitants had their characteristics, it wasn't as if you really felt something was brewing like in Murder Among the Angells or In The First Degree. The mystery plots in these first two novels were also very focused on the alibis of each of the characters and their movements in the buildings, which could make the novels feel a bit slow to read as you'd be stumbling about timestamps all the time. Anyway, the gap between these two novels, and the last two novels was quite large in my mind, so when I started with Cat's Paw, I expected, or at least I hoped it would prove to be the key to this change in tone across five novels.

And that it was. Mostly. I mentioned S.S. Van Dine and Philo Vance a lot when I reviewed The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders, and I'd say that Cat's Paw borrows a bit from Ellery Queen this time, most obviously in its structure: the novel is divided in four parts, The Question, The Evidence, The Case and The Solution, each focusing on a different part of the tale. This dividing of the chapters in distinct parts is something you often saw in early Queen novels, and you'd almost expect Scarlett to also play with the initials of the chapter names (I checked, there's nothing there sadly enough). The Question is a very short prologue, while the bulk of the book is made up by The Evidence and The Case. The Evidence shows us the couple of days leading up to Cousin Mart's murder, as his nephews (and if applicable, girlfriends/wives) arrive in his Boston home per Cousin Mart's wishes. The seeds for the murder are planted in this part, but it might also ask a lot from the reader: more than half of the novel is devoted to this build-up to the murder. You get a good sense of the tension building up in the house, and most of the red herrings and vital clues are set-up in this part, but I can't deny that it can be a bit tedious, as there's no formal detecting going on here yet, it's all mise-en-place (as Mart's not been killed yet). Most of the red herrings and clues do work because they are given the proper amount of time to develop though, so I would say the length was a deliberate design choice. It's also in this part where you can see how Scarlett's style shifted from the alibi/movement-focused story to a more atmospheric story with disfunctional families as seen in the latter two novels. The Greenoughs are all dependent on Cousin Mart's finances, but it's obvious none of them really want to be dependent on him all the time, and every one of them appears to have a reason for wanting Mart dead as they pretend to be nice inside his Gothic mansion. The step to Murder Among The Angells, where a family is ruled by a will of the former patriarch is not a large one.

Cat's Paw moves a lot faster once we get to The Case and The Solution. In The Case, Sergeant Moran conducts some preliminary investigation, while Inspector Kane takes over in The Solution, using the facts and discoveries made in the previous two parts... or does he? The solution proposed by Kane is in the same tradition as the previous two novels, with a focus on possible character movements during the proposed time of the murder (though less focus on the floorplans this time), but the solution also takes a bit more from Queen this time, especially in his focus on physical clues, but Scarlett does at least one thing differently from Queen (in his prime), and that is in the department of fair-play. That Kane gets a few good guesses based on instinct rather than real clues, okay, I can live with that because he actually finds clues to collaborate his suspicions and this is some time before the final conclusion, but the final piece of evidence turning out to be one that Kane that had not been mentioned once until he unveils it to Underwood and Moran, that's not playing fair. What's even more vexing it's actually part of a different clue that had been discussed earlier: Scarlett only chose not to mention that other characteristic at all until Kane did in the final pages, even though it was the decisive clue. The thing is, the mystery plot is actually quite good, with twist and turns and mostly adequate clewing, and with good use of red herrings that were set-up in The Evidence that still manage to help out the main mystery plot in a good way, so why slip up on something like an unfair, final clue?

Having read all five of the Scarlett novels now, I think the first one I read, Murder Among The Angells is still the most enjoyable one, with a more unique premise to set it apart. Both Cat's Paw and In The First Degree are good too, with Cat's Paw a more traditional mystery story and In The First Degree taking its cues from Gothic horror novels in terms of atmosphere. The first two novels, The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders aren't bad per se, but they resemble each other a lot, and in comparison with the later novels, not as entertaining a read.

But to conclude with Cat's Paw: Scarlett's third novel is one of potential, and of missed chances. It manages to break away from the first two novels which were too much alike, and it feels much more ambitious, with its formal division in four parts and a more intricate mystery plot, but it isn't completely fair to the reader either. Granted, by far most of the book can be solved perfectly by the reader based on the clues presented, and even making an educated guess as to the identity of the murderer is quite possible but obviously, holding out on the last clue will result in a weird aftertaste, especially considering the Scarlett novels have mostly been following the Van Dine/Queen school which focuses on fair play and physical clues.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Wild Run

「皆の前でトリックの粗を言うのをやめて・・!!」
『金田一少年の事件簿外伝 犯人たちの事件簿』

"I beg of you, stop talking about the flaws of my trick in front of everyone...!!"
"The Young Kindaichi Case Files Side Story: The Case Files of the Culprits"

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files") was a game-changer when it first started its serialization in 1992. The series about the adventures of Kindaichi Hajime, grandson of the famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke, and his childhood friend/not-quite-girlfriend Miyuki, was the first major detective manga that actually offered a fair-play mystery for the readers to solve, making excellent use of the visual medium to offer clues and mysteries in ways regular books couldn't do. The manga series was a hit, paving the way for other mystery series like Detective Conan, and also spawned both live-action and animated TV, and theatrical adaptations as well as a plethora of other spin-off materials as videogames, audio dramas and more. The first season of the manga concluded in 2000, after which the creators worked on Tantei Gakuen Q. The second season started in 2004: an irregular series of one or two stories a year continued until 2011, after which it was followed by the 20th Anniversary limited series (2011-2013) and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R (2013-2017). It was announced in October 2017 however that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R would conclude its serialization this year, and that from January 2018 on, a new series will follow, which will feature an aged-up Hajime and Miyuki, aimed at an older audience.

And that means Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 14 (2017) is the final volume of this series, which collects the remaining chapters of The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case (which started in the previous volume). Fumi is Hajime's younger cousin who as of late, has become a big fan of the Shinsengumi, an almost legendary police force from the late 19th century. She wants to participate in a children's cosplay event at a local Shinsengumi festival, so Hajime and Miyuki come along to babysit. Hajime could of course never have anticipated that Fumi would get kidnapped. The kidnapper, who calls themselves Okita Souji after the legendary swordfighter of the Shinsengumi, demands a hefty sum of money for the girl, to be delivered by a group of six persons present at the festival who happen to share names with members of the historical Shinsengumi. Hajime pleads with those persons to make the ransom money exchange to save Fumi, and the candidates eventually agree. The kidnapper has the six money-runners carry smartphones and identical bags (one of them with the ransom money), and the group is to start at a train station. Hajime and the police naturally try to follow the group, but by sending the six on and off the trains of Tokyo in various directions through orders by smartphone, the kidnapper manages to shake off the tails of the modern-day members of the Shinsengumi. Hajime deduces that one of the money-runners was in fact in cahoots with the kidnapper, but they are already murdered by the time the police find them. Can Hajime figure out where the kidnapper-murderer fled to and save Fumi?

Okay, even with a title like The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case, anyone could guess that Fumi wasn't the one going to be killed, especially not as this is the last story in the series....

Fans of the series will obviously quickly make the connection to The Hayami Reika Kidnapping Murder Case from the first season, which followed a similar story plot: the idol Reika (and personal friend of Hajime) was kidnapped, and Hajime had to follow all kinds of orders made by the kidnapper on his way to the ransom money drop-off point, and eventually a dead body appears.  In that sense, The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case feels a bit like a rehash to be honest, though it's actually also a good story to show how long this series has been running now, and how it always manages to remain relevant by incorporating the latest changes in society and technology in its mystery plots in meaningful manners. The one thing that stands out most: the use of smartphones! Back in 1997, the kidnapper ordered Hajime around with notes and by calls to public telephones, but now twenty years later, the money-runners who share names with members of the Shinsengumi are all controlled directly by chat apps on smartphones, allowing for on the moment changes in plans! The kidnapper for example notices Hajime as one of the tails, and sends a message to the smartphone of one of the money-runners, telling Hajime to back off. Later in the story, after the murder has been discovered, the police decide to check up on the alibis of all the surviving money-runners (as they lost track of them) with the help of the GPS in each of the smartphones. The use of these "new" technologies are of course a given for us, and you do seem them in modern CSI-esque crime series, but they are not used as often in classically-styled fair-play puzzle plot mysteries, so it's nice to see things like that used effectively in this story.

Like in 2011's The Game Mansion Murder Case, The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case manages to bring some extra excitement in comparison to the usual murder plot by featuring a story-in-progress (the build-up to the ransom money drop-off). This part is obviously also intricately connected to the murder case later, with most of the vital hints to be found here, so that's a great way to structure a story. The execution of the kidnapping, and murder plot is definitely not bad (in fact, I enjoyed it), but it might be a bit confusing for some readers. While the necessary knowledge to solve this mystery is presented in the story itself, it defnitely helps to have some rudimentary knowledge about trains and stations in Tokyo. The six people are all sent off to different stations on different lines, and if you don't know anything about the stations or lines in Tokyo, all you'll see will be a random station and train line names being dropped that convey absolutely nothing to you in terms of relative distance, direction etc. Tokyo's train lines are infamously complex, with several private and public companies running various lines there, and with some lines having their own stations, while at other places, the stations of the various lines are housed within (more-or-less) the same building/maze (more often, the stations have just... grown into each other). The story does make good use of actual architecture etc. of real-life places and works wonderfully as an example of a mystery story set in a true metropolitan setting, but a bit more effort into conveying the train lines and stations might've been better. Perhaps an animated adaptation, with cuts to characters moving on top of a route map, would portray this part of the story better.

Overall though, I enjoyed The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case as an adequate mystery story in a setting we don't see often in this series, and also making good use of technology we take for granted now, but still don't see often enough in fair-play mystery stories nowadays. One thing I want to remark though is that it's not really a series finale. It kinda feels like the series was suddenly canceled, as there's nothing particularly special or grand about this story, like the original finale to the first season was, or the finale to the 20th Anniversary series. It does what it has to do as a mystery story, but it's kinda weird to see this series end with this particular story.

The final volume of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R was released half November 2017, and shared its release date with the first volume to a new spin-off series. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo Gaiden - Hannintachi no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files Side Story: The Case Files of the Culprits") is a gag parody manga by Funatsu Shinpei that doesn't star the young detective, but the murderers from earlier stories! This manga revisits some of the earliest stories, like The Opera House Murders and The Seven School Mysteries Murder Case, but from the point of view of the murderers, and in a comedic tone. 'Cause when you think about it, some of these murderers had to do some ridiculous feats in order to commit their murders. Like one of the murderers remarks in the manga (which was actually tested in the Japanese variety program Suiyoubi no Downtown): they might as well have competed in SASUKE/Ninja Warrior, as the physical strength needed to pull off some of these murders can be quite impressive. Or how about having some meddling kid pointing out that one little mistake over and over again even though you yourself are actually quite aware that that wasn't among your best work and you're already quite ashamed of it?

I laughed a lot with Hannintachi no Jikenbo, but I really have to say this series is aimed an extremely specific audience, namely those who know their Kindaichi Shounen quite well. This series obviously spoils the identities of the murderers of each of the stories included (all from the first season), and the scenes parodied are also often quite specific. This manga very roughly tells the murders as they happened in the original series (with some of the panels being traced from the original comic), but it jumps from one scene to another, and little is explained. It assumes you know the story in question and that you kinda remember the iconic scenes and the rough order of the events: if you fit those conditions, you'll have a hilarious parody manga that uses the inverted form to show a whole different side to a story you thought you knew through and through. This first volume managed to reach quite an audience though: the first print was sold in two weeks, so a second run followed soon (I had to wait a few days for my order as the second run hadn't been printed yet).

The manga reminded me of the legendary Kindaichi Shounen videogame Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo - Hoshimitou - Kanashimi no Fukushuuki, where you play as the murderer trying to commit the perfect crime, with Hajime pouncing on you the moment you make one little mistake. Normally you would want to see Hajime win as the detective, but playing these mystery tales from the side of the murderer really changes the mood, and the moment you realize you left a vital clue at the crime scene and that Hajime will without a doubt prove your guilt is absolutely horrifying.

Anyway, long story short, I enjoyed both the final volume of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, and the first volume of the new series Hannintachi no Jikenbo that actually goes all the way back to the first volumes of the series. The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case is definitely an entertaining mystery story, that sadly enough shouldn't have been used as a series finale however. And the new parody series is really only meant for a very specific audience, but if you fit in there, you should have a blast with it.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一少年の事件簿R』第14巻
 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(原)、金成陽三郎(原)、船津紳平(漫画) 『金田一少年の事件簿外伝 犯人たちの事件簿』第1巻