Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Step by Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Conspirators

「一つ、よろしいでしょうか?」 
『相棒』

"Just one more thing please"
"Partners"

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

Aibou ("Partners") series
Aibou Eleven
Aibou 12

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒12』

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 so...blue...and 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

あぁ、あぁ、ひゅるる陽は墜ちて
まだ愛があるみたいじゃない
 「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

誰カガ罰セラレネバナラヌ
『太陽黒点』

Someone needs to be punished
"Sunspot"

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

『蜘蛛』

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!

蜘蛛
著者:甲賀三郎

The Spider
Author: Kōga Saburō

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Study in Murder

「領収書をちょうだい、領収書」
「四股名はどうなさいますか」
「四股名はねぇよ。力士じゃねぇんだよ、俺。宛名だね、宛名。伊達で」
「ではこちらでございます」
「何で伊達の里に書いてあんの。四股名みてぇになっているんだ」
『みどりな窓口』(サンドウィッチマン)

"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』