Monday, April 21, 2014

The School Days

普通にやればたった5分で終わる超簡単な事件を
正味33分の放送時間いっぱいまでなんとかもたせる名探偵
『33分探偵』

These super simple cases normally only take five minutes to solve ,
But this great detective will somehow manage to fill all 33 minutes of the show's broadcast time
"33 Minutes Detective"

I still think the TV drama 33pun Tantei ("33 Minutes Detective") was one of the most brilliant shows ever. Premise: they always find the murderer within the first five minutes of the show, but to fill out the thirty three minutes of the scheduled TV program length, the detective comes up with the most outrageous deductions showing someone else might have done it. And after twenty minutes of crazy deductions, it turns out to be the first person anyway. The parody show borrowed heavily from Police Squad!, and that's never a bad thing. And today, another detective with a time limit!

Fourth period has just started at school. Everyone's outside for PE class. Everyone? No, three students are still in the classroom. Well, two students and one dead body. Our dead body is Tae-Gyu, the troublemaker of the class, who isn't making that much trouble anymore because he has been stabbed multiple times in his heart. Well, Tae-Gyu as a person may not be causing much trouble, but his dead body is kinda a problem for Jung-Hoon, ace student of the school: he had opportunity (he is in the classroom), motive (the two had a big fight earlier) and means (he is in fact holding a bloody knife in his hands). So he kinda panics when his classmate (and wallflower) Da-Jung enters the classroom, finding a dead Tae-Gyu and a literally redhanded Jung-Hoon. Da-Jung however 1) beliefs Jung-Hoon's innocent and 2) is a detective fiction maniac, so the two decide to solve the case before the class will return (to find the body) after the fourth period in the South Korean 2009 movie 4 Gyosi Churiyǒngyǒk ("4th Period Mystery").

And to make it more confusing, the movie is also known in English as The Clue and Detectives in Forty Minutes. I'll just stick with the original name.


When I first read about this movie, I got kinda excited. A high school murder mystery? That's usually reserved for Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo (you wouldn't believe how many murderers and victims studied at Fudou High). Count in an amusing premise (solving the murder before fourth period ends) and you can safely say that my interest was piqued.

And it ended in disappointment. A lot of disappointment. 4 Gyosi Churiyǒngyǒk is just... boring. As a detective movie, you'd expect a bit more... deductions, but there are literally just two deduction scenes in the whole movie, and while they're supposed to be impressive, they're 1) incredibly basic and 2) faulty. Which is kinda bad if you're doing a detective movie, and base all plot developments on those faulty deductions. Like the deductions, the presentation of the hints to the viewer also feels very arbitrary, especially the game-changing, all-important hint that literally comes falling down out of nowhere (rendering about 40 minutes of the movie completely useless too). There are also two extended chase scenes in the movie, which felt out of place, messing up the pace of the story. By the way, there is absolutely no way a chase can take over ten minutes within the confines of a school complex!


There was definitely potential for something interesting though. 4 Gyosi Churiyǒngyǒk sets up a great closed circle for example, as security systems and a closed community (students and teachers) kinda prevent outsiders from getting in (or out!) the school unnoticed. But it never goes beyond setting it up the closed system, while it could have been used for much more (students seen far away from their classroom, a 'The Invisible Man'-esque story, alibis dependent on footsteps heard in the hallway etc.). Granted, Norizuki Rintarou's debut novel Mippei Misshitsu, similarly a high school murder mystery, also kinda avoids going really deep with the whole closed community thing, but heck, that novel had a full-fledged locked room murder and meta-discussions on the detective genre to fill the time with, 4 Gyosi Churiyǒngyǒk just bad deduction scenes. And a high school love story that isn't really convincing. And a half-hearted attempt at social commentary on the competitive nature of South Korean education. Half-hearted, so no shakai-ha (social school) tag for this review!

And one little note, but why wasn't the fourth period exactly forty (real-time) minutes in the movie, but slightly longer? The whole time limit thing was the whole premise of the movie, so I was kinda expecting them to do that in real time, instead of taking fifty minutes. It doesn't ruin the movie, but I think it's a missed chance...

4 Gyosi Churiyǒngyǒk was nothing more than a disappointment for me, to be honest. I asked a friend from South Korea about the movie, and she seemed to think it was a horror movie, so maybe it was marketed as such in South Korea, though it's really just a whodunnit mystery movie. And a bad one at it. The only thing I can say about the movie is, move along, nothing to see here.

Original Korean title(s): "4교시 추리영역"

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lonely Goodbye

「貴方を愛していいかしら」
『河原町ルヴォワール』

"Is it alright if I love you?"
"Kawaramachi Revoir"

I've lived for extended periods of time in Japan thrice, and I always get a bit excited whenever I see familiar locations in detective fiction. Big was my surprise when I saw the Tokyo suburb Ekoda in a game, for example. And Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen (Points and Lines) is not just a fun detective story, but the first half is set exactly in the neighourhood I lived in when I was in Fukuoka (Nishimura Ken's Hakata Detective Case Files is also set in Fukuoka by the way). On the other hand, I see 'my' Kyoto neighbourhood quite often when I read detective novels, because a lot of the books I read are written by people who studied in Kyoto, and the two major universities that deal with detective fiction are located quite near each other. The main location of today's book was within my daily living radius: I could actually see the Takano river the moment I stepped out.

Revoir series
Marutamachi Revoir
Karasuma Revoir
Imadegawa Revoir
Kawaramachi Revoir 

Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. From the northern mountains that surround Kyoto, run the Kamo River and Takano River. They join up in the main Kamo River stream, which runs from north to south, right across Kyoto. This blue dragon has been a symbol of Kyoto for as long as people can remember, and its riverbanks are still among the most popular places in the city. The Kamo River Delta, where it splits into the western Kamo River, and eastern Takano river, is also always brimming with people. Except on rainy days. It is not known why Tatsuki Rakka was meeting with her long-lost brother Yamato on the delta that fateful day in the first pages of Van Madoy's Kawaramachi Revoir, but we do know that Rakka was swept away by the river flood and found hours later. Like her name says, she was dead like a fallen blossom. Rakka's sister Nadeshiko decides to get justice done by accusing her brother Yamato of murder not in a court of law, but in the Gathering of the Twin Dragons, an ancient private court with absolute power within the city of Kyoto. However, has Nadeshiko even a ghost of chance against her former boyfriend Rongo, who has gone over to the defense, and the power of the organization behind the Gathering, which seems to be involved in Rakka's murder too?

Kawaramachi Revoir is the final chapter in Van Madoy's Revoir series, which has been a fantastic courtroom mystery series (all named after streets in Kyoto). Marutamachi Revoir introduced us first to the Gathering of the Twin Dragons, a private court where the Yellow Dragon (prosecution) and Blue Dragon (defense) fight for their client's interests. The twist was that because this was a private trial, the Dragons had much more freedom in comparison to a court of law: one could pose the most outrageous and fantastic theories and even use forged evidence, as long as you could convince the judge, and the rival Dragon wouldn't prove you wrong /  a cheater. As such, Gatherings of the Twin Dragons were in fact high-level, high-speed deduction battles, where Dragons would try to twist the evidence and facts constantly to suit their goals. Add in the fact that the series had some really charismatic Dragons, like Rakka who could conjure up evidence from nowhere, Rongo with his meandering deductions, or Tatsuya's pure logic, and you can understand why I love this series. Each entry also did something completely different (Marutamachi introduced the trial, Karasuma focused on the investigation, Imadegawa was about gambling), so the series never got stale. And now, the final chapter.

Which begins quite shocking. I knew I wanted to read Kawaramachi Revoir, so I never bothered to read descriptions of the story before I purchased the book, but to think that Rakka, one of the pivotal characters of the series, would be killed within the first few pages of the book! (It's actually also in the description on the back of the book, so it's not really a spoiler). The rest of the story feels a bit similar to Marutamachi Revoir, as this story too is split into a distinctive investigation and trial part, with all of the action being focused in the trial part (but with plenty of hints hidden in the investigation part). The murder on Rakka seems like a simple case at first, but the imagination of both Dragons bring the case to unforseeable places, which is always the best part of the series (as it's not a court of law, a Dragon's first weapon of choice is a plausible/possible theory, not evidence).

The main trick of the book is something fairly daring, something I have never seen before in a novel. I did think it felt a bit strange, when I caught the first glimpses / hints of the trick, but I was never really able to grasp the whole picture, so when all is explained at the end and all those times I thought "?!" suddenly made sense, that was fantastic. I think that my reaction to the trick was not one of sheer surprise, but more one of delight: to think this was pulled off! It might be a trick better suited for a different medium (games for example), because it does feel a bit strange as you read the book, but it certainly is one to remember. You probably do need a certain mindset to 'get' into the trick though, I think.

Oh, and it was quite interesting to follow Nadeshiko this time. I only noticed it now, but each of the Revoir books not only focused on a different aspect of story, but also featured different protagonists: Marutamachi was Rongo's story, Karasuma showed us more of lively Mitsuru, Imadegawa dealt with Tatsuya's past and revenge, and Kawaramachi is about Nadeshiko dealing with the loss of her sister, as well as having to fight against her own brother and ex-boyfriend. Yet the series does feel like one whole, despite switching protagonists all the time.

Is Kawaramachi Revoir only getting praise? Yes, and no. Kawaramachi Revoir forms a great conclusion to the series, as it brings together a lot of loose threads of plot left in the previous three novels to construct a grand finale. There is even a game-like Final Boss character and by the end of the book, you really feel like it's finally over. But, Kawaramachi Revoir is absolutely incomprehensible if you haven't read the previous books: characters pop up without any introduction, references to past events are constantly made and even smaller details from the previous books prove to be of importance here. I have read the series in order (which is also highly recommended, but because it's been a while since I last read the books, I too had trouble remembering who that one person was, or what that person did in the previous book. Kawaramachi Revoir is fun, but only makes sense in the context of the series.

All in all, I really enjoyed Kawaramachi Revoir as the finale to a great series. People interested in 'special' courtroom mysteries (like Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney) should definitely take a look, but also people who simply enjoy crazy deduction battles. You do need to read the previous three novels to really get Kawaramachi Revoir, but considering they're all fun, that shouldn't be a problem.

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『河原町ルヴォワール』

Monday, April 14, 2014

Retrial

'Take it easy," said the warder, who led Lonsdale Walsh down the stairs from the dock in Court 1 of the Old Bailey, 'you can always appeal.'
"Settled out of Court"

I just realized I managed to write least one post a month on something not from Japan this year. Which is a record for this blog, I think. Other statistics: of all the Japanese books discussed last year, only four were actually bought last year (two of which were only released last year, so I couldn't have bought them sooner anyway): the rest was just backlog...

Lonsdale Walsh had never told a lie. He also couldn't stand hearing people lie. He hated lies. This was not because he was a worshipper of Truth. He simply couldn't stand lies physically and he would get all red in the head just by listening to someone telling an untruth. Modern society wouldn't run smoothly if everyone was like Walsh, and that luckily isn't the case. He was a rarity, and his honesty helped build a trustworthy reputation as a financier. Truth had brought Lonsdale wealth. And it was lies that had gotten Lonsdale Walsh wrongly imprisoned for murder on his rival Adolphus Barnwell. Every witness had commited perjury, just to get Lonsdale convicted. And it worked. But Lonsdale was determined to expose everyone's lies: after breaking out of prison, Lonsdale gathers all witnesses, a judge, a defense attorney and a prosecutor, forcing them to do a second inquiry into the murder. If the lawful roads won't work, then he'll just have to get the case Settled Out Of Court.

Henry Cecil Leon was a County Court Judge and used his experiences, as well as a great sense of humor, to write several books on the British legal system. Settled Out Of Court (1957) is one of those quirky courtroom mysteries, and one I enjoyed immensely. Henry Cecil must have seen a lot of strange going-ons in his courtroom, because Settled Out Of Court is first of all a great parody and satire of the British legal system. The way judges work, the loopholes in the law, the strange ceremony behind each and every trial, Cecil manages to present these (actual) problems of the law in a funny and understandable way. And these critiques never feel too heavy, luckily, always allowing enough room for the main narrative.

Which is also great fun. The secret retrial of Lonsdale's case shows a cast of shady witnesses, who are not sure how to react to these new developments (well, being kidnapped is kinda shocking). The cross-examination of these witnesses are hilarious, and remind somewhat of the witnesses in the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney videogame series, with their obvious suspiciousness and unwillingness to tell the whole truth. But the retrial is also when the reader really gets sucked into the story, as Settled Out Of Court slowly takes on the form of a traditional courtroom mystery, complete with surprising reveals made during examinations. And while we already know that everyone lied to get Lonsdale in prison, it's still exciting to see how defense is going to show that perjury had been commited, in true courtroom drama style.

The extraordinary circumstances of Lonsdale retrial of course remind of other quirky courtroom dramas. I already mentioned the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney game series, but that's actually a fairly traditional courtroom mystery. But Settled Out Of Court is probably closer to something like Anthony Berkeley's Trial and Error, featuring a man who wants to prove his own guilt of a crime. Or what about Van Madoy's Revoir series, which features not a court of law, but a private courtroom, allowing both defense and prosucution much more freedom (i.e. they can come up with the most outrageous theories and lie as much as they like, as long as the other party can't proof that).

Settled Out Of Court is a short book, but it makes every page count. It's funny, it's captivating, it's a little bit silly and also offers sharp observations on the law. Recommended!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Turnabout Gurgitation

 「食いモンの王様といやァ、今も昔も昨日も明日もラーメンさ」
『逆転裁判4』

"The king of food, is still, has always been and will always be ramen"
"Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney"

Last year, just before I left Kyoto, I wrote a lengthy post on ramen (a noodle soup dish). It had nothing to do with detective fiction. But I like ramen, no I love ramen, so I just wanted to do a write-up on the many, many restaurants in my neighbourhood (which was dubbed a ramen restaurant warzone). And yet, it is still one of the best read posts on this blog. I may be doing something wrong here.

And also about one year ago, I wrote about Nishimura Ken's Yugefuku - Hakata Tantei Jiken File, a short story collection centered around ramen, specifically Hakata tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen. Hashigo ("Food Stand Hopping") is the sequel, and has the same set-up: we follow Fukuoka-based private detective Yuge Takumi (and connoisseur of ramen) as he takes on different kind of cases, from locating missing people to fullfledged murder. The cases, while varied, have one thing in common: Yuge always manages to solve them through his knowledge of... ramen. His pet peeve, "Ramen is like a minature map of human society. There is sadness, a bit of hapiness and every else", isn't just words: the key to every case can always be found in the rich ramen culture. And ramen is also a symbol of the greatest mystery Yuge has to solve: his father, who had a ramen stand, disappeared many years ago and Yuge is determined to find his father.

You know what, I could say that Hashigo is basically the same as Yugefuku - Hakata Tantei Jiken File, only slightly worse, and I'd be done with this review. There is really little to differentiate to Hashigo from its predecessor: sure, we see some characters from the first book here too, and we are slightly closer to solving the mystery behind Yuge's father, but that's all. This Hakata Detective Case Files series is apparently planned as a trilogy, but unless Nishimura Ken manages to pull something amazing in the last volume, the series sure doesn't feel like a properly planned trilogy, as the first and second volume are practically the same...

What Hashigo still does right is being a topographical mystery: Fukuoka, its inhabitants and its many, many ramen restaurants really come alive in these stories, and I say that having lived for a year (in Fukuoka; not a ramen restaurant). A lot of the detective stories I read are set on the main Japanese island of Honshuu, so I always appreciate it when I see Kyuushuu as a setting, and seldom has it been described so lively as here. The same holds for the copious amount of information to be found on ramen here. From the complex history of tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen to how yatai food stands are set up, ramen is everywhere in this volume and you'll learn more about the tasty noodle dish than you'll ever need.

Yugefuku - Hakata Tantei Jiken File was at its best when it managed to connect these anecdotes on ramen to the mystery plot in a meaningful manner. It was something that happened rarely though, with most of the stories only barely relating to ramen anyway, and most of the times that some anecdote served as the key to solving the case, it felt kinda too farfetched. Only once or twice did it really work. And in Hashigo, this happened even less. Ryuuro ("Channel") was the only story that kinda worked, I thought, but that was a spiritual sequel and variation to Ten to Maru in the previous volume (and definitely my favorite), also dealing with the movements of ramen stand owners. Kusare-en ("An Unseverable Tie") started out good as an impossible crime story where a suspects commits suicide in the questioning room with a gun that shouldn't have been there, but it was a very simple impossible crime, and once again, the anecdote on ramen that served as the hint, wasn't really that neatly connected to the story.

As a book on ramen, Hashigo definitely manages to fill you up, but it leaves you wanting for much, much more as a mystery novel. It is basically a slightly worse version of Yugefuku, which is the one I'd recommend if you want to read a ramen-themed mystery. And beware, you will crave for ramen the moment you start in Hashigo.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村健 『はしご』: 「後継者」 / 「交差点」 / 「風と桶屋」 / 「流路」 / 「腐れ縁」 / 「家業」 / 「出入りの町」 / 「絆ふたたび」

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Forever my Destiny

途中で放り投げないように 私らしく行こう
望み続けた場所で生きているんだから 
『氷の上に立つように』 (小松未歩)

I will go on as myself so I won't toss them aside halfway through
Because I am living in the place I had been hoping for 
"Like Standing on Ice" (Komatsu Miho) 

You know what, all of my other posts on works written by Matsumoto Seichou started with me talking about the shakai-ha (social school) of detective fiction already, so let's skip that for a change.

The award-winning 1974 movie Suna no Utsuwa ("Vessel of Sand", also known as The Castle of Sand) is based on the same-titled novel by Matsumoto Seichou (available in English as Inspector Imanishi Investigates), directed by Nomura Yoshitarou. The police procedural starts with the discovery of a murdered man on some railtracks in Tokyo: some matches in the coat of the victim quickly brings Inspector Imanishi to a little bar, where the people remember having seen the victim with another, unknown man. They don't know who the two men were, nor where they came from, but they remember one little phrase that was said between the duo: kameda. With kameda as his only clue, Imanishi starts his investigation into the identity of the victim, which will bring him all across Japan.

The English translation of the original nove, Inspector Imanishi Investigates, was the first Matsumoto Seichou novel I ever read and I had quite some expectations for it, considering its reputation and its place in the canon of Japanese detective fiction. I was however quite disappointed by the second half of the book (with a ridiculous murder method that came out of nowhere), and I never felt really positive about the book in general. So what about this movie adaptation?

To start with the conclusion, I quite liked it. It was a lot better than the original novel (they changed that ridiculous second half murder!) and I can definitely understand why Suna no Utsuwa is considered one of the best mystery films of Japan.


The first two-thirds of the movie offer a great police procedural, where we follow Imanishi on his long journey to the truth. The story builds on post-war social changes like urban migration, but also (socio-)linguistic migration and dialects, fields that probably didn't interested me when I originally read the book, but I have done research on Japanese dialects and sociolinguistics in the meantime, so I actually loved it this time. The investigation is admittedly a bit slow and at times, and while not as bad as in the original novel, the story is only able to move forwards by sheer coincidence and luck, but it is definitely fun watching Imanishi slowly, but surely zeroing on the truth.

The movie is also fun to watch (in the meaning of a visual activity), because there are some great shots of the main island of Japan: Imanishi travels a lot all across Japan with the train, following every little hint he has, and we as the viewer are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of that. Like Matsumoto Seichou's phenomenal Ten to Sen (Points and Lines), traveling by train plays a large part in this story, and it's great to actually be able to see it happen on the screen. In the same sense, the movie is also great to listen to: especially when the plot brings up Japanese dialects and accents; it's one thing to read it (and even more confusing, read it in an English translation), but to actually hear it...


The last hour of the movie is quite different from the original novel however. At this point, Imanishi has already solved the case, and he needs to explain the case once again in full, including the motive, to his fellow officers. What follows is a heartbreaking montage of the poor, cruel history of the murderer and what drove him to the murder, accompanied by the fantastic track Shukumei (destiny), effectively making the murderer one of the saddest persons in Japan's fictional crime history.... But only in the movie. In the novel, he only gets like six pages or so. Nomura Yoshitarou's emphasis on the murderer's backstory would later prove to be so influential, that a later TV adaptation of Suna no Utsuwa actually dropped the mystery-aspect of the story, and making it be all about the history of the murderer!

As a shakai-ha (social school) detective story, a theme strongly advocated by Matsumoto Seichou, the movie Suna no Utsuwa is a lot more powerful than the original novel, and in fact better than anything I've actually read by him. But I have to admit that it does feel a bit too heavy, and maybe a bit forced: about eighty minutes of the movie are spent doing a police procedural, and the remaining hour a very thorough explanation of the murderer's motives. Sad as they may be, it does make Suna no Utsuwa is a long movie though, clocking in at 143 minutes and the sudden change in tone halfway through does feel a bit strange.

Overall, I think Suna no Utsuwa is a great movie though. It might have gone slightly overboard with the tears and sadness and all in the second half, but I would say that Suna no Utsuwa surpasses the original novel at all points and definitely recommend watching this movie over reading the book. And that's not something I say often.

Original Japanese title(s):  松本清張(原) 『砂の器』

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Woman of Mystery

握った手の温もりが 唯一な確かなもの
全てを知ってしまうとこれ以上進めない気がする
『Mysterious』 (Naifu)

The only real thing is the warmth when I hold your hand
If I'd know everything about you I have the feeling we couldn't go on
"Mysterious" (Naifu)

To keep things internationally attractive, a South Korean movie today! (And it's not even the first time on this blog!)

Hwa-Cha ("Fire Chariot", official English title Helpless) is a 2012 movie from South Korea, based on Miyabe Miyuki's Kasha ("Fire Chariot", released in English as All She Was Worth), a book I reviewed some months ago. The story is set in 2009, Seoul. A few days before their wedding, veterinarian Jang Mun-Ho and his fiancee Kang Seon-Yong take a short rest at a motorway rest stop on their way to Mun-Ho's parents. When Mun-Ho returns with two cups of coffee, he finds his fiancee gone from the car. He can't reach Seon-Yong on the phone and only finds one of her hairpins in a restroom. When he visits her apartment, he finds it completely ransacked. Finally, Mun-Ho discovers that Seon-Yong's credit history was tainted by bankruptcy and she was told that over the phone right before her disappearance. Mun-Ho's asks his cousin, Kim Jong-Guen (an ex-cop), to help him find her, but their investigation leads to only more questions, when they discover that the name Kang Seon-Yong doesn't belong to the woman Mun-Ho was going to marry. Who is the woman and why was she using someone else's name?

I was told about the existence of this movie by a friend around the time it was first released, and it piqued my interest, as I was a bit surprised they'd make a movie based on Kasha in South Korea: I knew the original novel was well known in Japan, but to have it picked up as a movie in another country? (Then again, there are those rumours they're going to do Norizuki Rintarou's Yoriko no Tame ni in South Korea too...). But the title stuck in my mind, and it was the sole reason I bought a copy of Miyabe Miyuki's famous book. And now I finally saw the movie. The circle is complete.


The story may be set in a different time and space, and everyone has different names, but Helpless is mostly a faithful adaptation. Which means that it is still a compelling search for a woman of mystery (though with a little bit less social commentary in Helpless). The movie runs for about two hours and manages to fill that time in a meaningful, captivating way. Cinematically, I thought Helpless was a solid performance too. There are one or two scenes where the actor playing Jang Mun-Ho gets a bit close to hamming up the role, but he manages to keep it in check. Just. For more about the story, I refer to the review of the original novel as it's really mostly the same. Okay, there are some other changes like Jun being a banker in the original novel, while his counterpart Mun-Ho a vetenarian, but that aside, there are only two major changes. And they kinda hurt the story.

First of all, in the original novel the fiance Jun kinda drops out of the story relatively early on. The rest of the investigation is carried completely by the detective Honma. This resulted in a more objective view on the investigation, as Honma had no personal interest in the woman who had disappeared. In Helpless, Mun-Ho keeps working together with Jong-Guen, adding that personal human drama feeling of him wanting to find out who his fiancee was. This isn't bad per se, but it does link with the second change.


Which is that the woman formerly known as Kang Seon-Yong is visually present throughout the movie. One of the characteristics of the original novel was that we never got a direct glimpse of Sekine Shouko: we'd learn about her through people who had known here, through some lines written on a resume or some other document, always indirectly. There's not one direct quote from her in the fairly large volume. In Helpless however, we see the woman known as Kang Seon-Yong constantly, from the beginning when we first see her disappear, to flashbacks by Mun-Ho and even occasional shots of her in real time. It kinda takes away from the "phantom lady" idea of the original novel, where it's never clear if she really exists until the very end. I get that as this is a visual medium, it's kinda hard to make a movie where the single most important person in the narrative never appears on screen, but I can't feel but a bit disappointed by this change.

The ending is also quite different, which is because of the above mentioned changes: the original novel was about the search for a phantom, an unknown woman by Honma, Helpless is about Mun-Ho's search for his lost fiancee Seon-Yong, a much more personal search. The movie therefore goes more deeply into the relation between the two characters, something not present at all in the original novel and it offers an ending that involves these two persons. I prefer the way it was done in the original, but I can imagine that as a more human, personal story, Helpless is more satisfying.

Overall, Helpless is a decent movie to watch. It's kinda cool to see that Miyabe Miyuki's story can be set somewhere else in a different time, and still be as compelling. I feel that some of the changes kinda mess with the better parts of the original novel, but I'll admit that these changes make sense considering this is a movie, and it does give Helpless its own take on the story.

Original Korean title(s): "화차" based on  『火車』 by 宮部みゆき

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Surely Someday

「凄いや、ラピュタは本当にあったんだ!」 
『天空の城ラピュタ』

"It's amazing... Laputa really does exist!"

Have I ever mentioned that my favorite movie is Studio Ghibli's Laputa, the Castle in the Sky? I don't mean animated movie, or movie from Japan. Just my favorite movie of all time. I'll admit that a lot of that is nostalgia talking, but no matter how many times I watch it, the movie never bores me, with romantic elements like air pirates, girls falling out of the sky (literally) and grand castles floating in the sky. I probably watch the movie at least once a year, but I still get all excited when the movie shows the legendary floating island of Laputa for the first time.

Young Luke Triton finds a similar legend in his "Legendary Mysteries", a book on legends from all over the world. The wandering castle is said to be floating in the sky, appearing all over England. And also, right above Luke's head. The castle disappears just as fast as it appeared though, and puzzled by this, Luke hopes his mentor, the famous archaeologist Professor Layton, will be able to explain this mystery to him. However, it appears that more people have seen the castle: Layton is asked by his old friend Andrew Schrader to find out what happened to Thomas McLuhan. McLuhan disappeared while on his way to his family home up in the north of England, leaving only a letter saying he saw the wandering castle and plans to go there. Layton, Luke and Layton's somewhat bumbling friend Jeremy Campbell decide to travel to the north to unravel this mystery in Layton Kyouju to Sayamoeru Shiro ("Professor Layton and the Wandering Castle").

Level-5's Professor Layton franchise is one of the more surprising hits of the last few years, as the games starring the English gentleman professor are built practically entirely out of puzzles and riddles. Sure, Layton and Luke are always on a different kind of adventure, be it investigating a curious village, or being aboard of a spooky Orient Express-esque train, but in the end, it's always about the puzzles. You see that, Luke? That reminds me of a puzzle. You shall not pass! Unless you solve this puzzle! It's too late, I switched on the Doomsday Device! But you can switch it off with a puzzle! I wish the real world worked like this. And despite the games being essentially big compilations of puzzles, they have been consistently extremely succesful all over the world, and have also spawned other media like theatrical releases and novels.

(And while I am describing the games as puzzle collections and thus may sound dismissive, I have enjoyed all six of them. Well, all except Miracle Mask. Sorry. Heck, I even played the spin-off game)

The games consists mostly about puzzles, but the story is basically a mystery story, in a very broad sense of the word. The world of Professor Layton is a steampunk end-of-century England, with a dash of fantasy, so as myseries, the stories are seldom fair to the player, but they are presented as detective stories. One could say that Professor Layton is more about a detective (Layton solving puzzles and mysteries), rather than really being a fair detective story itself. That didn't stop the professor from doing a fantastic crossover game with one of the greatest detective game franchises ever, though.

But back to the Professor Layton and the Wandering Castle. It's obviously a spin-off novel (set after Professor Layton and Pandora's Box, for those interested), written by mystery writer Yanagihara Kei.  The book is aimed at younger readers (children~young adults), something facilitated by the narration by the professor's young apprentice Luke. As a boy's adventure with a bit of mystery, a bit of science fiction and a bit of fantasy, Professor Layton and the Wandering Castle is really amusing.  The professor and Luke act like they do in the games, and the mystery they try to solve (the floating castle), is definitely something that fits in with the rest of the series. It's a fun adventure, and like the games, things keep moving and new story developments are presented to you constantly as other wind up, keeping momentum right until the end. You don't need to have extensive knowledge of the games either to dive into the book (you could even do without easily), so a lot better than something like Danganronpa/Zero (also a spin-off of a game). Like the Layton games however, you shouldn't expect a fair play orthodox mystery: expect science fiction and fantasy-esque twists and turns, but that's part of the package.

And Professor Layton wouldn't be Professor Layton if you weren't presented with a puzzle once in a while. At certain points of the story, the reader is presented with a puzzle like in the games (for example, one early puzzle is a coded message). This is fun in theory, as it feels like one of those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style stories, but you don't actually need to solve these puzzles to continue with the story and they feel kinda artificial in the story. Granted, that's also the case with the puzzles in the games ("Thanks for opening the door. Hey, that reminds me of a puzzle"), but in the games, you have to solve at least some of them to continue. Here you can just turn over a page, and you'll have Layton saying "every puzzle has an answer!" (but not really commenting on the puzzle in detail).

But what am I complaining about? As a Professor Layton novel, and as a children's mystery novel, Professor Layton and the Wandering Castle is quite fun, doing every thing you'd expect from something with the professor's name on it.

 Original Japanese title(s): 柳原慧 『レイトン教授とそまよえる城』