Monday, November 24, 2014

The Conspirators


"Just one more thing please"

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

Aibou ("Partners") series
Aibou Eleven
Aibou 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒12』

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Wrong Shape

ちりばめられた嘘 本当は見抜いていた
パズルみたい もうだめ 全然ハマらない
「パズル」 (倉木麻衣)

The widespread lies, I had already seen through them
Like a puzzle gone wrong, we don't fit together at all
Puzzle (Kuraki Mai)

I think I once read that jigsaw puzzles coupled with detective stories were a thing back in the 1920s~1930s, but I can't remember where I read that. Heck, it might be just something I remembered incorrectly (-> very possible). Anyway, today is one of the rare recent jigsaw puzzle and detective story releases.

Benjamin Eddyworth was once a renowned professor on the brain and he in particular was interested in the recognition process of the human mind. Normally, man memorizes all he has seen in a simplified matter, but Eddyworth's theory of the 'mirror world' poses that certain people might memorize everything they have seen 'as is'. He died without the recognition of his peers however and Eddyworth left his vast fortune to his adopted daughter and his brother. The brother is given some puzzle pieces and is told that if he wishes to get the money, he needs to cooperate with his niece (who isn't able to talk). Hoping to cut the middle man girl and get hold of all of the money himself, the brother hires two private detectives to help find the remaing puzzle pieces and solve the message within in the Kyoto University Mystery Club's Kagami no Kuni no Juunintachi ("People of the Mirror World").

Some might raise an eyebrow seeing the name Kyoto University Mystery Club. Isn't that the club where writers like Ayatsuji Yukito, Abiko Takemaru, Norizuki Rintarou, Van Madoy and Morikawa Tomoki, amongst others, come from? Isn't that the club I was a member of during my year at Kyoto University? Yes, and yes. And that's the reason I bought the puzzle.

For I saw a big part of the early creation process behind Kagami no Kuni no Juunintachi from the sidelines, which was released in 2013. It was a project brought to the club by Small Shuppan (Small Publishing), who wanted to release a mystery-themed jigsaw puzzle: the puzzle would be shipped together with a novelette, and the puzzle would serve as a crucial clue to the detective story. In the end, one of the more prolific members of the club decided to take on the project and did most of the work (though every version of the text was looked through and edited by members of the club too, as I think I saw new versions lying in the club room every time I went there). Anyway, that's why the author is credited as the Kyoto University Mystery Club.

Kagami no Kuni no Juunintachi ships in a box with a 300 piece puzzle, a novelette (and some glue). You're supposed to read the novelette up until the Challenge to the Reader, try your hand at the puzzle (there's a clue hidden within) and then see if you're right.

Overall, I think the idea is more fun than the execution though. It's not bad, but the novelette for example is just a softcover booklet with staples in the spine, as if it was just an afterthought. The puzzle itself is... probably alright in terms of difficulty, but the picture is whaley...and wavey....and blue and absolutely boring to make. The accompanying detective story accomplishes what it should do in the limited amount of pages, but the instructions for the puzzle are kinda vague (you're supposed to pick a certain amount of pieces out and figure out something with them). I wasn't able to solve the detective story, but I felt that was more because the exact rules of the game weren't explained to me, rather than me losing at a fair game.

I like the idea of presenting detective stories in new ways though. The way we handle books hasn't changed much since modern times (post-industralization), but that doesn't mean the detective story has to stay the same. Combining stories with objects outside of the book is of course just one idea. 'Traditional' fans of the detective genre miss a lot in the field of videogames, I think, because one can find quite a few interesting game mechanics combined with good detective stories (the choose-your-own-adventure detective which is Kamaitachi no Yoru, or the zapping system in Kamaitachi no Yoru X3 for example). The Professor Layton games tend to go a bit too far with that (with everything reminding the good professor of a puzzle), but can be done quite well.

Kagami no Kuni no Juunintachi is mostly fun for those who seek that niche fix of jigsaw puzzle and detective stories, but as it is, I don't think it's strong enough to really just recommend to detective readers. And I am not very knowledgeable on jigsaw puzzles, so I have no idea whether this was a good one or not.

Oh, and note that on this blog, both the tags Kyoto University Mystery Club and Mystery Club usually refer to the same: the former is just a lot longer and I can only use 200 characters for the tags for each post...

Original Japanese title(s): 京都大学推理諸説研究会 『推理小説 X ジグソーパズル 鏡の国の住人たち』

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Quick One

 「As the Dew」 (Garnet Crow)

Aa, aa, cries the wind and the sun sets
But it seems there is still some love left between us
"As the Dew" (Garnet Crow)

And as I read another mystery series out of order, I wonder how many people actually try to read novels in order? For example in storyline chronology, or in order of publication? I usually just read whatever I managed to get my hands on, and if I got the luxary of choice, whatever seems more interesting, with little regard for order...

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

I was very enthusiastic about Awasaka Tsumao's A Aiichirou no Roubai one year ago, a short story collection with a touch of Father Brown. It had some fantastic impossible crimes and still remains one of my favorite short story collections ever. The complete A Aiichirou series consists of three collections (and one spin-off volume), and you'd think I would read the second volume after the first, but that would make too much sense. So today, A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou", AKA A For Abandon), which collects the final adventures of A Aiichirou, a handsome, but somewhat clumsy photographer. When faced with murders or other baffling situations, Aiichirou occasionally seems to be muttering complete nonsense, but that nonsense always turns out to be the one and only, plain, sober truth amongst the chaos brought forth by crime.

I praised the first volume for its impossible crime stories, but the A Aiichirou series has more than just that. The same holds for this final volume. The collection for example opens with Akashima Sajou ("On the Sands of Akashima"), which takes place on an island owned by a sect-like organization. Nudity makes one free of the worries of modern society, the organization proclaims, so everyone has to be nude on this island. Of course, nudity itself isn't a crime, so the mystery only starts when a gangster suddenly arrives on the island to kidnap one of the guests. An observation by A Aiichirou however poses a completely different look at the happenings on the island. Iibachiyama Sanpuku ("On Mount Iibachi") similarly has A Aiichirou show that a tragic car crash on a mountain was not just a simple accident. Both stories have situations that may be criminal / out of the ordinary (kidnap / crash) at isolated places (on an island / in the mountains), but aren't what they seem. Both these stories are constructed very neatly, with the necessary information available and never too farfetched (I thought the first A Aiichirou story, The Flight DL2 Incident, was less convincing, even though it follows the same basic idea).

Haita no Omoide ("Memories of Toothache") and Aka no Sanka ("A Song In Praise of Red") are the (initially) non-criminal variants of the pattern above. Haita no Omoide is almost hilarious, as it follows three men, one of which A Aiichirou, going up and down the dental department of a hospital. The descriptions are funny and keep the reader interested even though there's no crime happening, but a shocking truth is revealed at the end of the dentist's trip. Maybe not as convincing as the two stories mentioned above, but I enjoyed this story enormously. Aka no Sanka is very similar, where a interview with the parents of a succesful artist is at first sight very normal, but A discovers a hidden truth about the artist. Not as interesting as Haita no Omoide, I thought.

A while back, I noticed a discussion on Twitter about how to define a certain type of story. The whodunnit, howdunnit and whydunnit seem obvious terms, but how to describe a mystery story where only at the end, it is revealed it was a mystery story (i.e. the stories mentioned above). My thoughtful contribution to the discussion was whatthehell by the way. They can be fun, but the core story must have its own interesting points, because there is no mystery (at first sight) to keep the reader hooked and the story must make sense in hindsight, which might not be easy.

But A Aiichirou no Toubou isn't just whatthehell stories, there are also some impossible crimes. Kyuutai no Rakuen ("A Spherical Paradise") is a relatively well-known story about a rich, but slightly jumpy man: he is busy constructing the ultimate shelter, consisting of a small metal sphere, placed inside a fire/earthquake/flood/rapture-proof cave which will keep him safe. The sphere has already been made and on the construction site, even though the cave hasn't been finished yet, but one day the man climbed inside the sphere and locked himself inside. After a while or so, his family members and the construction crew become worried because there can't be much air left inside, and decide to cut the sphere open together with the police, only to find the man has been murdered. Great situation, though I have seen the trick performed in other stories already, which kinda takes away the impact of the story. Well done for a short story though.

Kaji Sakaya ("A Liquor Shop Owner and Fire") follows a man who had always dreamed of becoming a firefighter, and Aiichirou, who would rather stay away from a fire. The two however end up helping at a fire. The murdered body of the woman who lived in the house is discovered and Aiichirou
 and his companion's suspicion fall upon the man they saw inside the house moments after the fire broke out. There is just one problem: the two are also quite sure they didn't see the man come out of the house, and no one else, not even a dead body, was discovered in the house. A rather classic solution, but storytelling makes this one of the better stories in the volume.

Soutou no Tako ("A Two-Headed Octopus") is unlike the previous two a fairly straightforward mystery. A diver is shot just as he prepared to go under water from a boat, and the smoking gun is found on the ground of the base camp on shore.The story has some interesting elements like a search for a Nessie-esque mythical beast in a lake, but the main trick is rather easy to guess, and I kinda feel like the trick wasn't possible to pull off anyway. In that sense, sorta an impossible crime. 

The final story of the volume, and the final story of the series is titled A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou") puts the cameraman in the center of the story. A mysterious person has been following A Aiichirou since the first stories, and A's pursuer has finally caught up on him. A Aiichirou and a travelling companion check into a small inn on a snowy day. The two enter their rooms, located in an annex building out in the garden. A's pursuer however knows Aiichirou is inside and closes in on the target... only to found out Aiichirou and his travel companion have escaped from the annex building. But even more baffling is the fact the duo managed to accomplish their flight without leaving footprints in the snow surrounding the building! A Aiichirou no Toubou is a very amusing ending, which puts A Aiichirou in the shoes of the 'criminal' for a change and it is a pretty decent impossible escape story too. What's more, it forms an actual ending to the series, as some minor threads of plot that had been shattered over a variety of stories finally come together and the mystery surrounding the strange A Aiichirou is unveiled.

Overall a good short story collection with a nice variety of mystery. Not as impressive as the first volume in the series, but definitely worth a read. In general, the A Aiichirou series does really belong among the best of Japanese detective fiction in short form. Oh, and don't worry, a review of the second volume will also appear. Some day.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『亜愛一郎の逃亡』: 「赤島砂上」 / 「球体の楽園」 / 「歯痛の思い出」 / 「双頭の蛸」 / 「飯鉢山山腹」 / 「赤の賛歌」 / 「火事酒屋」 / 「亜愛一郎の逃亡」

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Amber Sunset


Someone needs to be punished

Random observation: I've always the characters in the Japanese word for solar eclipse, (日蝕; nisshoku), interesting. It's literally an insect eating the sun. But now back to business...

It has been about fifteen years after World War II. Japan is well on its way to become an powerful economic power, and both the generation that has experienced the war, as well as the one after the war have slowly become used to this new world. Akira and Youko are both students at Tokyo's K University. Living in the same apartment complex and both having moved here from their hometowns faraway, the two become friends, and more. The two have few financial means, but they have each other, and that's enough for them. That is, until Akira hatches the plan of seducing a rich heiress: at first, he just wanted to make fun of the girl by seducing her and showing how stupid the elite class is, but he slowly becomes entranced with the idea of actually marrying the girl and thus securing his ticket for the easy life. He borrows money from everybody around him to finance his dates, as if his whole life depends on this one chance. All of this causes Youko to suffer, who despite everything is still in love with him. And the dark spots in the once bright life of Akira and Youko become only bigger and bigger in Yamada Fuutarou's Taiyou Kokuten ("Sunspot", 1963).

Yamada Fuutarou started out as a mystery writer (see for example Youi Kinpeibai), but he got his greatest hit in 1959 with Kouga Ninpouchou (The Kouga Ninja Scrolls), a ninja epic that would spark a boom in Japan, as well as lay the foundation for battle manga in later years. And Yamada kept on writing ninja novels: he wrote no less then eight ninja novels between 1959 and 1963. Taiyou Kokuten thus marked a return of Yamada Fuutarou from ninja novels to detective novels.

Detective novel? The summary above seems like that of a postwar youth romance novel, you might say. Where is the mystery? And there you have the biggest problem, and biggest charm point of Taiyou Kokuten. It is a mystery novel. Or else I wouldn't be reviewing it here. But that is probably all I should say about Taiyou Kokuten. The whole point of the book is that the mystery comes from a rather unexpected angle and while almost 90% of the novel is indeed a youth novel, there is definitely something great (if a bit too ambitious) there for the mystery reader. I might be saying too much now, but I'll admit that I probably wouldn't have picked Taiyou Kokuten had I just read the summary and not heard it was a proper mystery novel, so this is all I'll say about that.

Of all of Yamada Fuutarou's works, I've only read Youi Kinpeibai and Meiji Dantoudai (both excellent), and while Taiyou Kokuten takes on a completely different form, it has a certain Yamafuu-esque story which I've come to appreciate. Again, I won't go into details of what that exactly is, because it would just work as a spoiler to Taiyou Kokuten's mystery plot, but I am definitely starting to get a feel for Yamada Fuutarou's novels.

Which is also due to the historical setting of Taiyou Kokuten. Well, it was just set in the time period it was written in, but Yamada Fuutarou is a master in getting the reader in the spirit of the time period of his stories, as well as tying that spirit to his plot. Post-war Japan comes to life within the pages of Taiyou Kokuten. One might think that it's because Taiyou Kokuten is mostly presented as a youth novel starring two students, but that's not the case, I think. Youi Kinpeibai (set in a literary depiction of 12th century China) and Meiji Dantoudai (the early Meiji period) are both very obviously detective stories, but also manage to bring a a historical setting to life. Yamada Fuutarou's is a bit of a history buff (besides the ninja novels, he also wrote a whole series set in the Meiji period) and one can feel his love for times past.

I enjoyed Taiyou Kokuten thoroughly and think it works as a great introduction volume for those who haven't read Yamada Fuutarou yet, and those who aren't in mystery novels per se. It is relatively short and the recognizable setting (not too faraway past) makes Taiyou Kokuten very accessible, while it still retains a peculiar Yamada Fuutarou atmosphere. For those whose interest lie mostly in mystery fiction, I think Youi Kinpeibai and Meiji Dantoudai make for better starts though, as they feature more variety.

Original Japanese title(s): 山田風太郎 『太陽黒点』

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Spider-Man, Spider-Man
Does whatever a spider can
Spins a web, any size
Catches thieves, just like flies
Spider-Man (theme song)

A new translation appears!

Kouga Saburou (1893-1945, real name Haruta Yoshitame) was an early detective writer and playwright. He and Edogawa Rampo had already met before either of them had debuted as writers, with Kouga's own debut in 1923 with Shinjutou no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Pearl Tower") just four months after Rampo's debut with Nisen Douka. Like Rampo, Kouga Saburou used an alias, which he derived from local Suwa legends. While internationally not as known as Rampo, Kouga Saburou is definitely an important name in Japanese detective fiction history. He is also the person to have coined the terms honkaku (orthodox, authentic) and henkaku (inorthodox , unaunthentic) to describe detective fiction: honkaku refers to a puzzle plot story (what some might call a golden age mystery), while henkaku refers to broadly the rest, but especially those mystery stories largely dressed in grotesque and erotic elements (i.e. a lot of Rampo's and Yokomizo's work). The terms are still widely used today and nowadays we even have shin honkaku (new orthodox/authentic), referring to a set of writers who revived the old puzzle plot in this time and age, with touches of deconstruction and reconstruction.

Kumo ("The Spider") is a short story originally published in 1930 and... err.. features spiders. There was no grand plan behind my selection of this story. I had never read anything by Kouga before, but I remembered I had heard this story mentioned as a good story, so I went with my usually rather shaky memory. Having read it though, I do find it an amusing story considering when it was published. I could mention some contemporary writers that might have been influenced by this story, but that might give too much away.

Anyway, enjoy!


The Spider
Author: Kōga Saburō

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Study in Murder


"Give me a receipt for this"
"What's your wrestling stage name?"
"I don't have one! I'm not a sumo wrestler! You mean addressee name. It's Date"
"Here is your receipt"
"Why does it say Datenosato! Like it's a wrestling name!"
"The Green Window" (Sandwichman Sketch)
Despite my emphasis on Japanese mystery fiction on this blog and often discussing videogames, I am not at all familiar with Japanese doujin mystery games. I know there's a big doujin PC game scene in Japan, with a lot of them horror games, and also a lot of them freeware, but I assume/hope some circles also publish detective games. I will look more into that, but today, my first encounter with a Japanese PC doujin mystery game.

Akito Date is a PC game series by doujin circle Flower Bridge Infinity about Akito, a college student who happens to run into murder all the time. While not the most patient guy around, he is in the possession of a good set of brains and manages to amateur-sleuth himself out of sticky situations. There are three games out at the moment, two of which are available for free at Flower Bridge Infinity's website. The first game in the series, Akito Date Dai Ichi Wa: Kyoukou no Iwakan ("Akito Date - The First Episode: Something Wrong With A Murder"), gives us a first glimpse of Akito, who has been drafted as an emergency teacher for a day at the prep school he used to attend (in fact, all teachers at the prep school are alumni). Among his fellow teachers is the hotheaded Minamida, for whom Akito quickly instantly develops feelings that involve a lot of anger and hate and all kinds of not-so-nice ideas. But when Minamida is poisoned and it is discovered that the local convenience store had been getting threatening calls about poisoned food, Akito decides to see the case all through to the end and find out the truth behind Minamida's death.

I'll have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by this game. It is a short one, you can go through the game within an hour, but it does feature a competent detective story. It's a bit obvious who and how, I think, but the hints are laid down fairly well, and it shows that an easy detective story does not has to be a bad detective story: the way to the solution can just be a well constructed, if not very inspiring, road. Of course, it's easier to be impressed by a story that complete surprises you with a fantastic trick, or a deviously constructed plot, but a story that simply does what it has to do in a competent way can be loads of fun too.

As a detective game, Akito Date plays mostly like what you'd expect. Move around locations, talk with witnesses, find some evidence. Nothing new here. There is however a surprising mechanic hidden within the menus. Unlike most detective games I know, the player character (Akito) will hardly comment on the evidence you find, or what he thinks of certain people or enigmatic events. He just collects loads of information to use in the final confrontation with the murderer. In other games, comments would be made to help the player along, to give him a hint in which direction to go / to think.

But if it was just that, Akito Date would be a bad game, because that would just mean that it was a highly unclear game. But it isn't. For there is a special 'consider' function, which allows you to 'consider' the evidence you collected in more detail. Switch it on, and Akito will comment on how this particular part of evidence might fit in the big picture, and what its role might have been in the murder. In short, it is a hint system and a fairly specific one too (as it does not give 'general hints', but a specific hint about a specific piece of item or a character). It's actually quite neat, as the system can give vague hints per piece of evidence: if you don't get it, you can just try another piece of evidence and slowly piece everything together. It's thus a hint system with a lot of levels and it allows everyone to enjoy the game and his own prefered level of difficulty, which is something I had not seen before in detective games (it's either a very obvious hint, or nothing). In fact, I'd love to see this system in more games.

For those who read mystery novels for the puzzle plots, wouldn't it be neat if you could get hints on specific parts, rather than general (obvious) hints, in one way or another? When doing 'whodunit'/'gues the criminal scripts at the Kyoto University Mystery Club, you could always ask some questions regarding parts that were vague to the writer and I think that really helps the puzzle element of mystery stories (as few puzzles are constructed perfectly right away, and this feedback helps perfect the form of the puzzle).

Anyway, Akito Date Dai Ichi Wa: Kyoukou no Iwakan was quite fun, so I also tried the third game, Akito Date Short ~ O no Nai Kuroneko ("Akito Date Short - The Cat Without A Tail") Akito finds himself near an apartment where a student appeared to have died having hit her head during a fall, but a quick look through her apartment suggests to Akito that something else might have happened.

This was made years after the original game and is definitely much more polished. And not only the graphics and music (which are definitely better than the original). The story is also much better constructed as puzzle mystery to be solved by the player; from the hints to the presentation of the puzzle and the way you corner the murderer: everything is better than the original and it's a great little game. It's dubbed a 'short', but it's actually about as long as the first game. Storywise though, it's set after the first (and second) game, so it's better to play them in order.

There are three Akito Date games, two of which freeware. The second game, Fukanzen na Kami no Heya ("The Room of the Imperfect God"), might go for a price, but considering the other two entries in the series are fun, I am quite tempted to purchase it.

Anyway, the Akito Date games were quite a pleasant surprise, as competently, if not super-original mystery games. And two of them are free too! If you have a couple of hours of free time, these games are quite fun to go through back to back. You can get both of them from Flower Bridge Infinity's website. In Japanese of course.

Original Japanese title(s): Flower Bridge Infinity 『アキトDate 第一話 ~凶行の違和感』 & 『アキトDateショート ~尾のない黒猫』

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Triple Mystery

Something old, 
something new, 
something borrowed, 
something blue, 
and a silver sixpence in her shoe

Welcome to another Short Shorts post, where I throw a couple short reviews in a mixer and serve it in one meal-size post. Because they wouldn't be enough seperately. Today, a new Kindaichi Shounen comic, the new Poirot novel and an old DS game.

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 3 ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files R 3") was released last month and contains the rest of The Murder in the Phantom School Building (which started in volume 2). Set within the ruins of a school on an island, Hajime and Super-Intendent Akechi are up against the murdering Ghostly Teacher, the newest creation of crime producer Takatoo. I was quite charmed by the start of the story, as it gave us some familiar series tropes like the island, the importance of location and maps and a treasure hunt and having read the complete story, I can safely count this as one of my favorite stories of the last few years. The story makes great use of its unique setting, and while some murders are a bit easy to solve, the biggest trick the murderer pulled off invokes the likes of Shimada Souji.

Well, there's of course that story that actually plagiarized a Shimada Souji novel in the past...

The grand trick does feel a bit artificial though, but there seems to be a reason given for that and it appears that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, as a series, will continue with the questions raised at the end of the 20th Anniversary series last year and focus on Hajime's nemesis Takatoo. With some hints of Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series and Amagi and Satou's own Tantei Gakuen Q, I am looking forward to further developments in R.

And from something new, to something borrowed.

I can't say I was looking forward to Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders (2014), a new Poirot mystery authorized by the Christie estate. Curious yes, but I think Poirot would have understood that the psychology behind my curiosity was not brought forth by positive expectations, but more by the urge one has to stand and stare at bizarre incidents and painful accidents. One should start with a book with an open mind, going in with obviousy negative expectations is not fair, some people might say. But then again, I don't think using the name of one of the greatest mystery writers of all time, as well as arguably her most famous creation, is really fair towards the reader. It invokes reactions, feelings, questions. Positive thinkers may think 'yay a new Poirot', while more cynical thinkers probably turn their eyes to the commercial motives behind this release. Both sides are valid reactions of course, and while I was in the latter group, somewhere I still hoped to be surprised, to be served a real, all new Poirot mystery in 2014.

But The Monogram Murders was not a Poirot mystery. It was not even a good mystery. This is a story with a man who kinda resembles Poirot because he mentions his little grey cells and occasionally uses la langue français. And also stars policeman-narrator Catchpool who is so dull and incompetent he makes Hastings seem like a nation's leading think tank. The Monogram Murders is a mystery novel, as it features murders of a mysterious character (three persons dead on three different floors of a hotel). But when I think of Christie mysteries, I think of brilliantly concise solutions that bring light to otherwise complex puzzles. A single sentence, a single word that can turn the situation around. The Monogram Murders is nothing but a convoluted mess which needs a whole group of people doing the most ridiculous things for just as ridiculous reasons just so the premise of the book (the three dead people) can come true. It is boring chaos that goes on and on.

The writing occasionally invokes Christie's style, but when the name Agatha Christie is on the cover and it claims to be a new genuine Poirot, I think I should be able to hope for not occasionally, but consistently Christie's style, or else I might as well read any other author inspired by Christie. But I think it just as bad that the mystery itself is just so bad. This wouldn't even have been a good mystery without the Poirot name.

And to end this post with something old. For those familiar with tropes of Japanese suspense/mystery TV shows, the surprisingly long title of DS Yukemuri Suspense Mystery - Free Writer Tachibana Maki - Touyako / Nanatsu no Yu / Okuyu no Sato Shuzai Techou ("A Steamy DS Suspense Mystery - The Data Files of Freelance Writer Tachibana Maki - Toyako / The Seven Spas / Okuyu no Sato") is probably not really that surprising. Free Writer Tachibana Maki is a 2008 Nintendo DS game and basically the Stereotypical Two Hour Suspense Drama in a game form: it is a (very, very simplistic) mystery plot combined with elements of.... the tourism sector. The freelance writer Maki, her camerawoman Satomi and model Yuri travel to Kinosaki, Toyako and Yufuin for articles on these onsen (hot spring) towns. And each time, the trio gets involved with some sort of crime. And of course, these unlikely detectives manage to solve the crime every time, after some humorous scenes, some thrilling scenes, some touristic scenes and strangely enough very few scenes of the women in a hot spring.

Free Writer Tachibana Maki is really a set-your-mind-off adventure, as it's basically one straight road to the end. You just click through the dialogue, choose the next location, click through the new dialogue, go to the next location etcetera. And before you know, you have solved a case. As a game, Free Writer Tachibana Maki is pretty awful. As for the story, well, the mystery plots are all really easy and light-hearted and you don't even need to think to solve these cases. Add in some cheesy acting and bland music and you have a game that in a way is a good representation of the Stereotypical Two Hour Suspense Drama: that is, not a very good production.

Is it all bad? Well, I have to admit that the writing and the characters can sometimes be funny in a I-Want-Dumb-Entertainment way. And to be honest, I sorta find the effort behind this game interesting. Because this game wasn't developed by a game company, but the major map publisher Zenrin. Which explains why the game features fairly detailed maps of Kinosaki, Toyako and Yufuin, why the game features so many photographs of the touristic attractions of these towns and why there's actually an actual travel guide to these towns included in the game. The information is probably outdated now (the game was released in 2008), but you can find hot springs, hotels, hostels, restaurants and more, all complete with prices, photographs, location (on the map) for all three towns. Heck, I can even look up which train I need to take to get to any of these locations. The whole concept of a game/travel guide developed by a map publisher is just so bizarre, it earns some bonus points for that. Too bad, it's so bad as a mystery game. There were some moments where you could see they really tried, for example when the detailed maps turn out to be crucial to solving a mystery (locations of certain places, possible routes, the layout of the roads etcetera), but these moments are very rare and usually not complex enough to really entertain. In the end, Free Writer Tachibana Maki is just a quirky, but not a good game.

And this ends this Short Short post! And no, I don't have anything blue, nor a sixpence.

Original Japanese title(s): 天城征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一少年の事件簿R』第3巻, 『DS湯けむりサスペンスシリーズ フリーライター 橘 真希 「洞爺湖・七つの湯・奥湯の郷」取材手帳』