Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Have You Got Everything You Want?

"The human and personal element can never be ignored."
"The ABC Murders"

You know, while I spent all full three days at the Kyoto University November Festival (campus festival), I mostly remember just sitting inside the Mystery Club's assigned classroom to sell our club anthology, instead of walking around.

Houtarou's plans for his three years at Kamiyama High School had been to get by, doing as little as possible, but his school life turned out quite differently after his older sister forced him to join the school's Classic Literature Club to save it from dying out. As all the older club members had now graduated, it was up to Houtarou and the other three first-years to continue the tradition of the club. After joining the club, Houtarou found himself involved with all kind of small adventures at school: at the wishes of the club president Eru, the four digged into the history of the club's magazine "Hyouka" and its link to the school festival, while they also helped out class 2-F with their short mystery movie they filmed for the school festival. In Kudryavka no Junban ("The Kudryavka Sequence", 2005), the school festival finally starts! The Kanya Festa is a three-day event where classes and school clubs can show off their activities. For the Classic Literature Club, that means selling the latest issue of their club anthology "Hyouka" at the festival, but there is a "small" problem: due to a mistake, they ordered not thirty copies at the printer's, but two-hundred. As a niche product of a virtually unknown club, two-hundred seems like an utterly impossible number, but as they need to earn back the costs, all members try to come with plans to sell more anthologies, from asking other clubs to help selling "Hyouka" to participating in the various competitions at Kanya Festa to raise the name value of the Classic Literature Club. As the festival continues however, a series of curious thefts occurs, where small objects are stolen from various clubs and at each 'crime scene', a message is left by the thief who calls themselves Juumonji.

Kudryavka no Junban (subtitle: Welcome To Kanya Festa!) is the third novel in Yonezawa Honobu's Classic Literature Club mystery novel series (also known as the Hyouka series, as the anime series is named after the first novel). The series falls within the everyday life mystery genre, that focuses on the solving of enigmatic events that might occur in the normal, daily life, as opposed to bloody murder. It's a sub-genre that naturally fits the high school setting of Classic Literature Club much better than let's say every day a bloody impossible murder after school, and when done well, the everyday life mystery genre can be very entertaining. One of my favorite examples of the genre is from another series by Yonezawa, where the whole mystery revolves around the "impossibility" of how someone could've poured two cups of hot cocoa despite some limitions in the kitchen. That said though, in the second novel of the Classic Literature Club, Yonezawa had the students work on a fictional murder (they had to deduce the ending of an unfinished mystery movie) and that was a really entertaining mystery novel too. But I have to admit that the everyday life mystery genre also often lets me down a bit. It is really hard to come up with a good, everyday life mystery that is both alluring, yet "normal" enough and holds for the solution.

The Classic Literature Club series had been building towards the Kanya Festa ever since the first novel, as all the events in the first two novels basically only occurred because people were preparing for the school's cultural festival. Whereas the first two novels in the series were exclusively narrated by Houtarou, Kudryavka no Junban has us jump between the four members of the Classic Literature Club during the three days of the school festival, as each of them are busy trying in their own way to sell all two-hundred anthologies. This gives the reader an interesting look in the school festival, with for example mood maker Satoshi having fun at the various events (in order to make a name for the Classic Literatue Club) or club president Eru working with the management and news clubs of the festival in the hopes of getting a better chance at selling their wares. Read as a novel about life at a high school, Kudryavka no Junban can be quite interesting, delving into themes like expectations, and due to the varied cast, it's unlikely to really bore.

Unless you're reading the book for a mystery. It takes quite a while for the mystery plot of the thefts to really get going and even then, the core plot is a bit lean on the meat. The idea of a thief stealing seemingly insignifiant objects from various clubs can be fun, but the "surprising" relation between the various thefts is revealed very soon in the story, and afterwards little happens until the conclusion. The mystery doesn't have enough charm to its enigma, and the solution, well, you are not really going to logically deduce that in advance, with proper clewing as the basis of your reasoning. Of course, the everyday life mystery is often built on 'interpretation'  and seldom with mathematical reasoning, but for example, the first novel (Hyouka) was much more engaging as a mystery story, as it dealt with multiple hypotheses built upon each other, with new hints devalidating older hypotheses, but these still remained the basis of further theories. The scope of Kudryavka no Junban is far smaller, with a solution to the thefts that begs the question: "Why in heavens go through all that trouble to accomplish that?". Especially after the brilliance of the second novel, I have to say I felt a bit disappointed by this novel, as it's simply too lite as a mystery novel in comparison.

So yeah, of the three Classic Literature Club novels I've read until now, Kudryavka no Junban was the least interesting as a mystery novel. I have to admit that as a juvenile novel, this might the most interesting of the novels until now, giving us four different narrators and a varied view on the school festival, but read as a mystery novel, it's simply not as intricately plotted as the previous two novels, which had all those false solutions and playing around with Houtarou as a fallible detective and other things like that. I'm not sure whether I'll continue with the series. The anime series Hyouka covers the events of the first four books (three novels and one short story collection), so I might just try out the short story collection too. Or I might not. It won't happen soon anyway.

Original Japanese title(s):  米澤穂信 『クドリャフカの順番』

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Dimensional Sniper


My weapon is a Colt Python 357 Magnum.
The only thing I can't shoot, is the heart of a beautiful woman.
"Chance" (Kamiya Akira)

The cover art of this volume is SOOOO going to form one complete illustration with the cover for the next volume.

In the previous volume in Kitayama Takekuni's Danganronpa Kirigiri series, the young detective Kirigiri Kyouko and Samidare Yui managed to give a painful blow to the Crime Victim Salvation Committee, an organization which sells perfect crime schemes to people who want to exact revenge on others, but which also invites private detectives on the scene to see if they can solve these perfect crimes. In Danganronpa Kirigiri 6 (2018) however, Kirigri and Yui aren't trying to solve these Duels Noir directly themselves anymore, as they have been challenged by Johnny Earp. Earp is not only one of the three best detectives alive, bearing the highly coveted "triple zero" qualification, he's also a secret agent of the Crime Victim Salvation Committee, specialized in 'cleaning up' people. He's also quite amused by Kirigiri and Yui, and challenges them to a series of sniper duels held during the Duel Noir. Kirigiri and Yui are given a sniper rifle, and some basic information regarding an upcoming Duel Noir, indicating the location, the kind of murder scheme ("a locked room murder", "mistaken identity" etc.) the client bought from the Committee and other information. Kirigiri and Yui not only have to deduce what the exact murder plan is based on this grocery list, they only have three bullets to stop this murder from happening, for example by shooting the culprit, or by sniping some of the tools they might need. Earp on the other hand is on the "defense" team, and will use his sniper rifle to prevent Kirigiri and Yui's attempt at stopping this Duel Noir in progress. As Earp is a master in all firearms who boasts an Olympic Games-level skill in sniping, Kirigiri and Yui have no chance of winning in a straight shoot-out, and they have to outwit the triple zero detective, obstructing the Duel Noir from a distance without being spotted by Earp.

Danganronpa Kirigiri 6 is still part of the same spin-off novel series of the videogame series Danganronpa as before (knowledge of the games is not necessary to read this series), but whereas the previous novels focused on author Kitayama Takekuni's specialty (mechanical locked room murder mysteries), this sixth volume brings something completely new to the table. The earlier novels had Kirigiri and Yui trying to solve locked room mysteries based on a grocery list of murder weapons, murder tricks and other items while investigating on scene, while this time, the duo can't even come close to the scene (due to Earp's sniping skills), and they have to deduce 1) how the murder is going to be committed and 2) somehow stop this murder scheme using the sniper rifle and 3) not getting spotted by Earp in the meantime. It's a very different dynamic, and it results in different types of locked room mysteries compared to those we've seen before. This time they are simpler, but they only serve as the background drop for the sniper duels, and the mystery lies in how Kirigiri and Yui are going to stop the murders with their shots. The mystery is thus two-fold: the underlying locked room mystery, and the 'meta' mystery of how Kirigiri and Yui are going to invade, and stop that plan.

To be honest, the concept is much better than the execution. The prologue offers an interesting, but ultimately very simple example of how the sniper duel could go: while the locked room mystery presented there is very rudimentary, Kirigiri and Yui show their wit in stopping the murder from happening by destroying a vital element of the murder scheme, while keeping out of Earp's sniping range. This first part shows a lot of potential, especially if the following sections would be about more complex murder schemes, which would not only be more difficult to predict, but also with more occassions for Kirigiri and Yui to interfere with their rifle.

The rest of the book however is quickly filled with short, disappointing intermezzo and the final sniper duel which runs according to very different rules than the first sniper duel. There's an interesting impossible murder there, where Kirigiri and Yui, while under fire, have to solve the mystery of someone being shot right in the face inside the mirror house of an empty entertainment park, even though no other people besides the victim were inside the mirror house, and the shot doesn't seem like it could've come from anywhere. The solution is a bit hard to swallow though, as the murder method is rather impractical and it doesn't seem like it could be pulled off in one go, which in turn would've left much more evidence. But the true disappointment is that by this time, the sniper duel with Earp has more-or-less been abandoned, and the potential shown in the prologue isn't even touched upon. There's another subplot that is properly clued, but it's not as good as it could've been, considering what the prologue showed.

Danganronpa Kirigiri 6 manages to change gears significantly compared to the previous books, but it doesn't make any good use of the amazing potential it does offer. What could've been an amazing double-layered mystery with battle-of-wits-and-sniper-rifles being played against a backdrop of locked room mysteries, turns out in the end to be a collection of random moments and ideas that never really come together. The series does seem to be heading towards the ending though, which the cover also seems to suggests. I'll be reading this series to the end, but I have to admit that on the whole, Danganronpa Kirigiri seemed to have peaked way too early (volume 2 was fantastic) and since then, its potential has always been much more than the actual, final product.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切り6』

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Justice For All

「零 - ZERO」(福山雅治)

There is always only one truth
But there isn't only one justice 
"ZERO" (Fukuyama Masaharu)

The first new Detective Conan review of this year! Volume 95 will be released in a few weeks, so expect a review near the beginning of November!

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volumes 70, 72~76, 78, 82~94 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18), Sunflowers of Inferno (19), The Darkest Nightmare (20) and The Crimson Love Letter (21) in the library)

The Tokyo Summit is scheduled to be held in the Edge of Ocean, a newly built leisure spot in the bay of Tokyo, but one week before the prestigious international meeting takes place, the International Forum in the Edge of Ocean is blown up completely, killing several police officers who were preparing for the summit. While at first it seems the explosion might've been an accident, the Public Security Bureau of the Metropolitan Police Department manages to find a set of fingerprints on the cover of the cable that sparked the explosion, and to the surprise to all, they belong to former police officer Mouri Kogorou, now famous as the master detective the Sleeping Kogorou. Maps of the Forum and other schedules related to the Summit are found on his personal computer, and Kogorou is arrested on suspicion of terrorism by the Public Security Bureau, despite protests of Kogorou's loved ones and his allies in the Metropolis Police Department. While trying to save Kogorou, Conan finds out that he has one formidable opponent this time: the mysterious Amuro Tooru. Amuro, who is known to have no less than three different identities, is seemingly out to frame Kogorou for the explosion and with both the Public Security Bureau and Prosecutor's Office working surprisingly hastily to get Kogorou's trial started, Conan has little time left to find out who's really behind the explosion and what Amuro's true goals are.

Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer is the twenty-second theatrical feature of Detective Conan, first released in April 2018 (the home-video release was released last week). The first Conan film, The Time-Bombed Skyscraper was released back in 1997 as an extra project to accompany the animated television adaptation of Aoyama Goushou's mystery comic series. What was originally intended to be an one-off thing, turned into an annual event however, and so every April, a new Detective Conan film is released in Japanese theaters. While you'd think things would slow down a bit after twenty-two years, the opposite is actually true: the Detective Conan films have been breaking record after record the last few years. In fact, last year's fantastic The Crimson Love Letter was the highest grossing domestic (Japanese) film in 2017 overall, showing how good these films do in the theatres.

Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer is in several ways very different from the very accessible The Crimson Love Letter. First of all, we have a new director, Tachikawa Yuzuru, who replaces Shizuno Koubun who was responsible for the last seven films. Shizuno's films were more focused on action than on the mystery plot, though he peaked with The Crimson Love Letter as a really complete mystery film. And whereas The Crimson Love Letter was a rom-com mystery films with sports and action elements that didn't require much prior knowledge of the series, I'd say that Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer is far less easy to get into. I'd definitely recommend viewers to at least read the manga until volume 85 to get a better image of the character of Amuro, who is the focal point of this film.

The scenario for this film was written by Sakurai Takeharu, who in the past was also responsible for Private Eye in the Distant Sea (2013), Sunflowers of Inferno (2015) and The Darkest Nightmare (2016). Sakurai is known for writing scenarios for various police detective dramas, especially the social school-inclined police procedural Aibou, and in a way, Zero the Enforcer is very much like an Aibou story. The political thriller deals with the goals of the various organizations within the Japanese police and the Ministery of Justice. In a way, everyone involved tries to do what they think is good for "Japan", but the lengths they're willing to go to accomplish their goals are all different, leading to in-faction fighting and all kinds of hidden deals. I'd say that Zero the Enforcer is perhaps the most difficult Conan film up until now for children to follow, as the names of divisions within the police are thrown around constantly and in the end, a lot of the focus lies on the motivations of the characters. Zero the Enforcer is easily the Detective Conan with the strongest theme running across the whole work, but it's sure nothing at all like the far more easy, yet well-plotted entertainment that was The Crimson Love Letter. As a mystery story, Zero the Enforcer is a bit simple, as you basically have one major clue to the identity of the terrorist and almost no suspects, but it is wonderfully well integrated in the grander story of what drives each of the characters and their respective groups. That said though, the ultimate goal of the culprit was a bit drastic. I mean, had they completely succeeded in their plans, they might've been responsible for the most damage caused ever in a Detective Conan film and I assure you, the last few years the criminals have not gone easy on their explosions!

As for action, the last half hour or so has some nice action scenes. The idea behind the Detective Conan films is also to do things they can't do in the original comics, and this usually means grand explosions and a lot of action, and this one doesn't disappoint. Some feel a bit like alternative versions of action scenes seen in earlier movies, but the finale is really something that befits a film that is about a character called Amuro...

Speaking of Amuro: this film is truly all about Amuro. He is portrayed as a character with various faces, sometimes kind and funny, sometimes cold and calculating, and as he also juggles with various identities and loyalties in both the original series and this film, he comes off as a good character to juxtaposit against Conan, who is far more straightforward in his beliefs and actions. You never really know what's on Amuro's mind and whether you should view him as a friend or foe. I think Sakurai tried to do the same thing with KID in Sunflowers of Inferno, but that didn't work there at all, as "the attempts" to portray KID as a kind thief gone rogue were incredibly sloppy and not convincing at all: with Amuro in Zero the Enforcer, this idea of a character-focused drama based around a character who might or might not be an ally to Conan feels so, so much better.

Zero the Enforcer has been an enormous hit in Japan by the way, especially among the female viewers. The phrase "Amuro's woman" became a catchphrase for all the people who fell for the mysterous Amuro in this film (usage: "I became Amuro's woman!") and even talkshows had segments talking about this phenomenon. With many of the original viewers of Conan now grown up, it's not strange to see that these older fans are attracted to an adult character like Amuro. Personally, I do have the feeling that the last few years, characters like Amuro have been given a bit too much attention in the marketing etc and it appears that author Aoyama himself is also a big fan of the character, giving him all kinds of nice scenes and lines, but I think he worked really well in this movie.

But is Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer truly a Detective Conan film? That's a hard one! It's certainly not the "traditional" Conan film like The Crimson Love Letter was, and the political thriller mode Zero the Enforcer adopts is not a story-type you often see in Detective Conan. But it does work as an exciting thriller with a mystery plot that feels grounded within the Detective Conan universe. I'd never recommend this movie to someone who has never seen Detective Conan as it's not really representative of the series, but as this is the twenty-second film, I do think that it works as "something different once in a while". With its focus on character and the underlying theme, Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer manages to carve its own place within the long history of the Detective Conan films and it works very well as suspenseful action-triller that can stand on its own. As per tradition, the next Detective Conan film (which will be released in April 2019) has also been announced in a post-credits teaser, and I'm interested to see how the new director will continue these films.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン ゼロの執行人』

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Grim Judgment

闇の国へと連れていかれた あの日
君の温もりさえも ah
「未完成の音色」(Garnet Crow)

That day you were taken away to the Land of Darkness
And only your warmth, ah
Was left on the earth
"An Incomplete Sound" (Garnet Crow)

It is no secret that I often prefer the short story form over the full-length novel when it comes to mysteries. As someone who focuses a lot on the core mystery plot, and the solution, I find that the short form works better in terms of execution and focus, as the limited number of pages forces an author to really think about what is important to the main mystery plot and how to effectively present that, while the plot in full-length novels sometimes tend to meander, and relying more on filler for misdirection than anything else.

Another reason I prefer the short story form is a simple one: I want my mystery fast. The fewer pages it takes me to get to the first corpse, or impossible theft or anything, the better. It doesn't even have to be the main mystery yet (though that's usually the case of course in the short form), but at least present me my mental task early on. Some writers can get away with something else in the short form: many of Awasaka Tsumao's excellent A Aiichirou series are funnily enough only revealed to be proper mystery stories at the very end, as you don't even realize something was being played on you, but those I can forgive because 1) Awasaka's an amazing writer and 2) the short story form means it still doesn't take long for me to get to the main plot. But in general, I'm a very vulgar reader who wants his deaths (or other mysteries) as soon as possible.

It's for this reason I have to admit I found the first half of Mitsuda Shinzou's Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono ("Those Who Bewitch Like The Evil Spirits", 2006) extremely tiring. It's not a short novel by any means (600 pages!), but the first true mystery for the reader to solve isn't introduced until the halfway point, near the 300 page point! It took me about two months to get through this first part, as I have the bad habit of reading multiple novels at the same time, and because things went so slow in this novel, I finished no less than five other novels in the time it also took me to read this first part, which I all started after beginning reading Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono. In its defense though: after I was past the midway point, I finished it within two days. What kept me reading all that time, albeit very slowly, was of course the fact that the other novels I read in Mitsuda's Toujou Genya series were excellent: Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono was an amazing start of the year with one of the best mystery novels I've read in years, and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono was surprisingly enough a true masterpiece on its own too. Those were respectively the third and fourth novel in the Toujou Genya series, so I thought it was time to read the first novel in the series.

Toujou Genya is an author of horror stories, who travels across Japan to research local folklore, religions and legends. His travels in the early 1950s bring him to Kagagushi Village, a small mountain community flanked by Kaka Mountain and Kugu Mountain. For centuries, this area has been known for people being spirited away mysteriously, and Genya is also interested in the local belief in the fearsome mountain deity Kakashi, who is deified in the form of scarecrow-like figures placed around every corner in the village, and within all houses. The village has two prominent clans: the Kagachi Clan and Kamikuji Clan. The Kamikuji Clan is the "White Clan", as they represent the auspicious Kaka Mountain, while the Kagachi Clan is considered the "Black Clan", as this family is aligned with the inauspicious Kugu Mountain, which is the home of the feared Kakashi. It's also the Kagachi Clan which since ancient times has been a family line of spirit mediums: female twins (who are all called Sagiri across all generations) are very common in the family, and they are easily possessed by the spirit of the mountain deity, making them also powerful spirit mediums who can exorcise other evil spirits from other people with the help of Kakashi's powers. The Kamikuji and Kagachi Clans have long been vying for the top position in the village, but lately some within the Kagachi Clan have been plotting to escape the stigma of being a family that is possessed by an evil spirit, and they hope to join the two clans together by marrying Renzaburou, youngest son of the Kamikuji Clan to Sagiri, the youngest daughter and current spirit medium of the Kagachi Clan. Somebody seems to be very against this plan however, as the morning after Genya arrives in the village, a travelling monk who had been the guest of grandmother Sagiri, and in on the plot to join the clans, was found hanged inside the meditation hall of the Kagachi residence and dressed up to look like Kakashi. At first, it seems that either granddaughter Sagiri, or her insane aunt Sagiri (twin sister of young Sagiri's mother) must've done it, but the time table based on statements of several witnesses makes it look impossible for them to have really done it, and then more murders happen, with all victims dressed like Kakashi, but also seemingly impossible for anyone to have done it. It doesn't take long for people to start to fear that it was the mountain deity Kakashi itself who executed divine judgment on those who wanted to put an end to the Kagachi Clan.

As this was my third time I read a Mitsuda novel, I had some expectations of what would come, and of course, the post-war setting and tropes like local folkore/religions, small mountain communities absorbed in said folklore and more were exactly what I expected. The novel also had a distinct horror flavor, as the Toujou Genya series is explicitly described as a horror-detective series (each novel also has some unanswered parts that contribute to the horror flavor). Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono had a slow beginning too, but like I said, it was really slow this time, as the first three-hundred pages are mainly devoted to a very detailed set-up, with insights into the backgrounds of the Kagachi and Kamikuji Clans, the history of Kagagushi Village and neighbouring Haha Village and the local folklore. Getting a good image of the character relations in particular is incredibly difficult, with every other woman in the Kagachi family called Sagiri (written differently in Japanese, but all prounounced the same), clans with several branch families, divorces and second marriages and more. While the story in this first half does have some mysterious, and especially horror parts regarding some children being spirited away in the past, the main mystery (the murders) really takes a long time to start. Not to say that the first part is completely obsolete of course: the background of the families IS of vital importance to the plot, and there's plenty of hints and foreshadowing to be found here, but still, one does wonder whether it couldn't have been a bit more concise.

I praised Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono for being absolute masterpieces in synergy: each component in both novels worked to enhance the other elements there, which was possible because each of the mysteries, from the impossible murders to other enigmatic happenings, could be ultimately led back to one single concept. Each of these novels utilized unparalled originality in bringing one single theme in so many various forms and variations, all for a clear purpose. Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono is similar in concept, as basically all the mysteries can indeed be led back to one single answer, one concept that brings light to everything, but in terms of execution and finesse, this first novel in the series is not as amazing as the third and fourth, even if it's a pretty ingenious thing that's pulled off here. Once you're at the answer, you really want to go back and read the whole thing again, because you suddenly realize there must've been an abundance of hints and foreshadowing that you've missed completely. The concept is also only made possible due to the special atmosphere of the village, which really enhances the synergy of the whole novel. What is a bit disappointing however is that the individual mysteries aren't as alluring as the grand picture. The reader is presented several times with a situation that isn't exactly an impossible situation, but situations that simply leave quite a few questions open. Most of the time, the viable suspects aren't really dismissed, only seen as 'gee, they could've done it, but it doesn't seem likely because it would've been a bit difficult, and also strange for them to have done it like that'. But this leaves a lot of ambiguity as you read on, so the individual mysteries feel a bit lacking compared to the impossible disappearances or the brutal decapitations of the later novels. But to reiterate, the main idea behind the whole book is really ingeniously done. While the basic idea might seem familiar, this particular variation is definitely not. It is arguably one of the hardest variations to do, and I doubt many authors could pull it off with this much success. And while I admit this trick does work best with some page room, I still think that the set-up didn't need to be that long. And as noted before, these novels are also toted as horror novels, and there are always some elements that remain unanswered and in the mist, though the core mystery is of course always addressed properly.

These Toujou Genya novels also love their fake solutions by the way. Each time, Genya only starts announcing his suspicions at the end of the novel, but he always explores every possibility: meaning he will often start building cases against someone, only for him to dismiss it at the end before he moves on to someone else. These fake solutions are both brilliant and vexing. When you first start to realize who he's going for, your first reaction is "no way, that's just stupid" but as Genya continues his summation of hints and foreshadowing, you really start to have doubts, only for him to say he was wrong anyway and then moves on to the next. This fake-out solution isn't just for the shock element though: his latest hypothesis is always built upon the fundamentals of the previous one, showing his thinking process. He also incorporates the reactions and statements of the people present during his summation, so sometimes he actually deduces the identity of the murderer on the fly, adapting for the information obtained just minutes before by someone crying out how absurd his theory is. The fact these fake solutions are also properly clued really make the Toujou Genya novels a very tricky reads.

Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono is thus a very slow read, that is not as good as some of the later novels in the series, but it is still a very tricky, and ingeniously plotted mystery novel that makes fantastic use of its format and setting. It does pull of something I really can't see many novels do, but I wouldn't recommend this novel as a first step into the Toujou Genya series: the other two novels can be read on their own without any problems and are much more consistent throughout from start to finish. I think that in a parallel universe, Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono would've been a crowning achievement for any writer, but in this world, Mitsuda manages to write even better mystery novels later on that improve on the ideas and writing found in this novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三『厭魅の如き憑くもの』

Saturday, September 29, 2018

This Love is Thrill, Shock, Suspense

"They were good days. Yes, they have been good days."

Hmm, I thought I was doing far too few mystery videogame reviews this year, but I'm actually not doing bad, even better than last year.

Mihate-chou is a small seaside town that lately has gathered some attention through the popular novel WorldEnd. The fantasy-romance novel was based on local Mihate-chou folklore, which says that once in a hundred years, deceased persons will come back to life and roam the town. According to the legend, these "People from the Underworld" will return in the summer, and while they themselves don't realize they are dead, they will eventually become the cause of a horrible tragedy in the town. WorldEnd became a bestseller, and this summer, a film adaptation of WorldEnd featuring the popular idol-singer Nikaidou Rei will be filmed in Mihate-chou. The protagonist of Arc System Work's 2018 videogame WorldEnd Syndrome (Switch/PS4/PS Vita) arrives in the early summer in Mihate-chou as a transfer student. He is soon invited to join the Folklore Research Club of Mihate High School, a new school club created by Kaori Yamashiro, his home-room teacher and also the author of WorldEnd. The club is still just a test, as Kaori hopes to make it an official school club next year, so there's only a handful of students, who also happen to be all girls. A summer of bitter-sweet youth romance seems to be awaiting our protagonist in Mihate-chou with five eligible love interests , but the image of Mihate-chou as a nice seaside town turns out to be nothing more but a facade. A murderer lurking around Mihate-chou has already killed two high school students and this case appears to be connected to the Folklore Research Club. Is it a coincidence that the dead are said to come back to life exactly this year?

When WorldEnd Syndrome was first announced last year, my interests were immediately piqued. It was marketed as a Romance X Mystery Adventure game, which are two game genres rarely put together. The background story of the dead returning to life and mingling among the living also sounded as the basis of a cool mystery story (somewhat reminiscent of novels like Another or Death of the Living Dead), so I really looked forward to this game. I was therefore quite bummed when the game was delayed suddenly from April 2018 to August 2018. The wait was worth it though!

In essence, WorldEnd Syndrome is a dating sim videogame with a mystery theme. I'll probably need to explain the "dating sim" genre to non-gamers here, but basically, a dating sim is a story-driven videogame, that focuses on a protagonist developing a romantic relationship with one of the eligible characters within the context of the story (see also my review of Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito-). By speaking with certain characters or helping them out, you'll raise your affinity levels with them, and certain events will play out between the protagonist and a character if you manage to raise the affinity levels high enough (for example, you unlock an event where the two go on a date). WorldEnd Syndrome has five eligible heroines, from the energetic, strongminded Maimi to the mysterious Miu and the clumsy Hanako and more, and eventually you'll "lock on" a certain route, giving access to exclusive events with a specific girl. WorldEnd Syndrome, like many dating sims, gives you a limited resource (time) to woo your girl: each day of August is divided in three periods (morning, afternoon and evening), and you can choose to visit one of the various locations each period. If you happen to meet up with Maimi at school in the morning for example, your affinity with her will rise, while that also means you won't be able to meet Miu at the restaurant at the same time. There are diverse scenes with all the girls, from rom-com-esque conversations to scenes where the girls open up more to the protagonist. Choices have to be made, and eventually you'll end up with one certain girl for the rest of the story, which will offer some light summer romance scenes with that specific girl (and obviously the other girls become less important once you're locked onto a route). Occassionally, you'll have to make certain choices during story events, that may influence how much affinity you gain, or even change the further flow of the story (I definitely ended up dead because I picked a choice I thought was quite innocent...).

WorldEnd Syndrome is however also a mystery story, though it takes a long time to really get there. The mystery revolves around the murders of the school girls, and the question of whether a Person from the Underworld has really found their way among the living in Mihate-chou, but it's not like the characters are actively trying to solve these mysteries. Each route (depending on which girl you end up with) gives you a different look at the various events that unfold during the summer, and they each offer fragments of the truth: for example, in the case you end up dating Hanako, you'll learn more about the incident with the stalker of the idol Nikaido Rei, while the Miu route will explain more about the folklore surrounding the People from the Underworld (and you hardly hear anything about the stalker case here). You'll have to play through all five routes to eventually figure out the truth behind all the incidents that occur in Mihate-chou: while each route does unveil some part of the picture, it's always incomplete, and they usually conclude with a bad ending. It's only by replaying the game with all five heroines you'll be able to find out what really happened this summer and find a happy ending for all. This does mean that the first half of the game hardly feels like a mystery game: you are not actively detecting anything and you only see fragments of the plot. It's only in the latter half that things start to fall in place in your mind (luckily, you can skip any text/scenes you have already seen, making subsequent playthroughs fairly swift).

In the end, the game doesn't really expect you to solve all the mysteries in advance based on fair-play clewing, but once you've arrived in the final few chapters, you'll realize that there were definitely also hidden clues available and signs of foreshadowing, and there are a couple scenes spread across the routes that suddenly take on a different meaning in hindsight. The sensation of having all the broken story fragments fall in place is pretty good, and I'd say that WorldEnd Syndrome definitely works as a true mystery story, and not just as a dating sim game. For people not used to playing these kinds of games, where you have to replay certain parts over and over with different story outcomes, the story might be a bit confusing, but overall, I think WorldEnd Syndrome is a good example of how to make a mystery story work in this game genre. Even the supernatural background setting of the dead coming back to life works: while there are no "rules" or anything governing the supernatural phenomenon like you usually see in (good) mystery fiction with special settings, there are still scenes throughout the game that make more sense in hindsight once you realize what was going on, and they never feel cheap.

By the way, the backgrounds of this game are really cool, with nice touches like pinwheels moving in the background or swaying light sources. Most of the game is voiced too, which is nice. For a completely original new IP in a rather niche genre, this game was some good production values. There are also a few collectibles spread throughout the game to encourage multiple playthroughs.

The ending hints heavily at a sequel, and as I enjoyed WorldEnd Syndrome, I sure hope that sequel comes. As a game, it definitely feels more like a dating sim game for most of the time, but once you arrive in the latter half in the story and the jigsaw pieces start to fall in place, the game also starts working as a mystery adventure game. The game does a pretty good job at presenting a disjointed mystery story that comes together in the end, but it is really, really slow the first time. But if you'd ask me, "Is WorldEnd Syndrome really a mystery adventure game?' I'd say yes, and a fun one too.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ワールドエンド・シンドローム』

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The E-mail Mystery


"You will die after one week. Mailer Daemon"
"The Terror of the Mailer Daemon"
Design-wise, I still like those old clamshell flip-phones, and I'd actually prefer them over smartphones if only they could match smartphones in some way in terms of functionality.

Kamiki Raichi series
Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken ("The ???????? Murder Case", 2014)
Niji no Ha Brush - Kamiki Raichi Hassan ("Rainbow Toothbrush - Kamiki Raichi On the Loose", 2015
Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai ("Nobody Can Pass Judgement On Me", 2016)
Souja Misshitsu ("The Locked Rooms of the Twin Snakes", 2017)
Mailer Daemon no Senritsu ("The Terror of the Mailer Daemon", 2018)

The attractive red-haired Kamiki Raichi is one of the more unlikely detective characters you'll come across. Of course, the fact she's a senior high school student who loves playing amateur detective isn't that strange on its own: we have enough examples of that. But her main source of income might be reason for some raised eyebrows, as she practices enjou kousai, or "compensated dating". In theory, this means that older men are paying younger, attractive women for their companionship and in practice, and also in Raichi's case, it means she's prostituting herself and she's good at her job. She has a few "regular clients" who visit her at regular intervals in her own luxurious apartment, one of them being the student Jin. One day, he shows Raichi a strange e-mail he received on his phone with the message "You will die after one week," sent by the "Mailer Daemon". It was sent one week ago, meaning that Jin's supposed to die that very day, but they don't think much of it, and after their usual private time, Jin leaves Raichi's apartment. He is killed on his way home however, and Raichi vowes to find out who this Mailer Daemon is and to avenge her client. She learns from the police that the Mailer Daemon had struck once earlier: a female office worker had been killed in her own apartment, and she too had received the same e-mail. The one link between the victims is that they both still used old feature flip-phones (garakei) from the service provider X-Phone instead of smartphones. While Raichi's investigating the case, she also learns that Inspector Aikawa, one of her "regular clients", wants to resign from his job after previous events (see: Souja Misshitsu) and has now gone off somewhere, so she now also needs to help her old friend in Hayasaka Yabusaka's Mailer Daemon no Senritsu ("The Terror of the Mailer Daemon", 2018).

It's been four years already since Hayasaka Yabusaka's debut with the first adventure featuring his self-prostituting Raichi, and this series has remained quite unique within the wide mystery genre due to its use of sex as vital part of the mystery. In most mystery fiction, sex is only used to spice things up if it appears, but in the Kamiki Raichi stories, sex is an integral part of the core mystery plot. The descriptions of Raichi's sexual adventures might seem a bit graphic at times, but they are always there for a cause: they contain vital hints to solving the crime or link up to the mystery in rather ingenious ways and the mystery wouldn't work without those scenes. Mailer Daemon no Senritsu is graphically quite tame compared to the first two entries in the series by the way, but you definitely need to think a bit dirty if you want to have a chance at solving the mystery of Mailer Daemon.

Each of the previous three novels were obviously written around their respective, major twist solutions. I can easily summarize each of the previous novels with "oh, that's the one where XXX", and you'd instantly understand what I'm talking about. What Hayasaka did well for each of these entries was working these single ideas out to full-fledged novels. Mailer Daemon no Senritsu feels quite different as a mystery novel, because this time, there's not really one major twist that explains most of the happenings. Instead, this novel is packed with a lot of smaller ideas and mysteries to be solved. What I found disappointing was that the various ideas didn't seem to connect well, and at times Mailer Daemon no Senritsu felt quite disjointed, even if it had a few good ideas. The first half of the novel has some short, but pretty interesting situations. The locked room murder in the prologue is excellent: it is only a locked room murder in the eyes of the victim, as she's suddenly attacked in her apartment room even though she made sure there was nobody in the room save for her dog. The police swiftly figures out what happened, as does Raichi, but the simple locked room mystery is both smart and really quite what you'd expect from the Raichi series, as it preys on the reader (and the victim) to make a certain assumption. Near the half-way point, there is another death that is first assumed to be a suicide, but soon proved to be a murder: this one is fairly simple, partly due to the good clewing in the novel, but it's also a highly original concept to use in mystery fiction. The circumstances are slightly unique to Japan perhaps, but it's a good example how to use modern technology in puzzle plot mysteries set in this age.

The second half of the book revolves around Inspector Aikawa, who's staying in a strange pension in a small fisherman's village. He learns that Raichi's involved with the Mailer Daemon case and that she tweeted extensively on a certain day, when she was observing the four main suspects of the case while they were viewing a certain theatre play together. The other guests in the pension turn out to be acquaintances of Raichi too, and spurred on by the Challenge to the Reader tweet Raichi wrote, the group decides to try to find out who the Mailer Daemon is, based on the tweets of Raichi made during that theater visit. This part really feels disjointed from the first half of the book, as the pension guests focus solely on the tweets from the theater now. It is an interesting part, with each guest adding a bit of their own to the solution, but once again, the mysteries here are more like a series of minor, not directly connected ideas rather than a well-structured whole. There are some ingenious parts though: one idea makes brilliant use of the way Twitter works for example and it is quite amazing how this part was written. As always, the solution also depends on some erotic aspect of the story, and while the initial reveal was pretty good, I thought the actual explanation of the how and why this came to be was a bit underwhelming. The motive for the murders too is at one hand understandable in a real-world manner, but would anyone go as far as murder to accomplish this? In the end, I felt that Mailer Daemon no Senritsu had its share of good ideas for mystery plots, but they didn't always worked well together to form one consistent novel, and perhaps they would've done better as single ideas in short stories, rather than thrown together.

By the way, while Mailer Daemon no Senritsu can be read without any knowledge of this series, I'd strongly recommend you reading this one as last. I don't know if Hayasaka has concrete plans for Raichi's future at this moment, but for now, it seems Mailer Daemon no Senritsu is written to be the final part of this first "chapter" of the Raichi series, spanning four novels and one short story collection. Mailer Daemon no Senritsu is brimming with references to the earlier stories, and there are also quite a few guest appearances from the other novels/short stories, who all help out a bit in solving this mystery. Heck, even Hayasaka himself makes a guest appearance (in a television show)! The whole novel is filled with fanservice, so it's really best to read the previous stories first and the ending of this novel seems to suggest that we are at least not likely to see the secondary cast from the last few novels (like Inspector Aikawa and his subordinate Komatsunagi) any time soon again. Speaking of the cast, the names of the characters this time are pretty awful in a fun manner (everyone basically has a Very Literal Name, like Raichi's client having the character for "customer" in his name).

I have to admit I find it hard to make up my mind on Mailer Daemon no Senritsu. It doesn't work nearly as well as previous novels as one consistent, well-plotted mystery story, but it has some really good small ideas in it (I love the locked room murder in the prologue) and it also makes fantastic use of original fields in mystery fiction, especially modern technology like smartphones, Twitter and the garakei flip-phones. The many guest appearances and the packed plot make for a rather hasty story that feels a bit light, but it's certainly an entertaining read for those who have followed Raichi's adventures until now, with lots of fanservice. The ending seems to be saying Raichi will be taking some time off to find new clients, but I do hope that Raichi will return in a future novel, because I certainly still haven't had enough of her!

Original Japanese title(s):  早坂吝 『メーラーデーモンの戦慄』

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Burglar in the Library

"Everything in red. I keep thinking of that darned scarlet letter."
"The Scarlet Letters"

I think I'm in the minority here, but I really can't study in libraries. I always found it amazing how fellow students managed to study in the university library, because I really couldn't focus in a public space like that. Seeing people studying in family restaurants in Japan was the other extreme, of course.

Urazome Tenma series
The Gymnasium Murder AKA The Black Umbrella Mystery (2012)
The Aquarium Murder AKA The Yellow Mop Mystery (2013) 
The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery AKA The Adventure of the Summer Festival (2014)
The Library Murder AKA The Red Letter Mystery (2016)

The Kazegaoka Library serves an important community role for the Kazegaoka district of Yokohama, from meeting spot for the elderly, place where a child picks their own books to read, to studying spot for the local students. One early September morning however, two librarians find that someone has used the library in a very different manner: they find the college student Shiromine Kyousuke lying dead on the floor, surrounded by a few books which flew off the bookcase. Kyousuke, a regular of the library, was beaten to death with a hardcover copy of Yamada Fuutarou's Encyclopedia of Human Death. The police investigation soon stumbles on various problems, ranging from how and why Kyousuke snuck into the library in the first place to why he was killed in such an odd place. But what stumps the police the most is the dying message left by the victim: there was a Japanese character "ku" (く) written in blood, but the protagonist on the cover of the popular detective novel Radio Control Detective was also encircled with blood. With no explanation for the two messages, the police decides to call in their "consultant" Urazome Tenma: an incredibly lazy, yet brilliant high school student who ran away from home and is now living in secret on the school premises. Earlier in the year, Tenma managed to solve the murders in his school's old gymnasium and in the local aquarium, and even though he's right in the middle of his end-of-semester examinations, he decides to focus his mind on the body in the library in Aosaki Yuugo's Toshokan no Satsujin ("The Library Murder", 2016).

Oh, man, I love the covers in this series. Anyway, Toshokan no Satsujin, which also carries the alternative English title The Red Letter Mystery, is the third novel in the Urazome Tenma series, and the fourth entry overall. The paperback pocket edition was released in September 2018. Aosaki made his debut with 2012's Taiikukan no Satsujin, the first in this series, and his publisher already lauded him as the "Heisei-era Ellery Queen" then (little did they know at the time that the Heisei era wouldn't last that much longer). As this nickname, and the alternative English titles of his novels suggest, Aosaki is heavily influenced by the Queen school of mystery fiction: this type of mystery focuses on long deduction chains based on physical clues and on the identification of characteristics of the killer: clue A, B and C tell us that the killer must be D, E and F, and only X answers to that description. For those who enjoy a true pure puzzle mystery plot, one that really challenges you into logically deducing who the murderer must be, Toshokan no Satsujin offers exactly what you want.

Like the early Queen novels, the crime scenes in this series are set at semi-public areas, from the school gymnasium to a local aquarium. In this novel's case, we have a public library. And I say semi, in each case, there are still restrictions to the accessibility of these scenes: in the gymnasium murder case, we actually had a locked room murder, while in the aquarium case, the murderer must've been in the backyard area of the aquarium. In Toshokan no Satsujin, the public library scene is restricted because the murder occured in the night inside the library, and obviously only a couple of people could've gone inside the library at that time. The book has a nice diagram of the library to help you visualize the place, and it's actually also quite handy while deducing some of the actions of the murderer. Now I think about it, spatial movement is one of the more important factors in Aosaki's mysteries: you'll always be focusing on the actions of the murderer, but that also includes where they went in what order, as it's exactly that what usually allows you to identify some important characteristic of the killer ("if they first did X, and then went upstairs to do Y, then that means Z").

But physical evidence is always the foundation to solving the case. I can tell you right now, you are never going to solve this 100%. I mean, this is a clever book, an incredibly clever book even, and that also means the deduction chain necessary to identitfy the murderer completely is very, very long. The starting point of these chain focuses on several pieces of evidence, most notably the two dying messages, the books spread around the body and several smudges of blood around them. In order to solve this case, you'll need to develop multiple threads of reasoning based on these pieces of evidence and work with them simultaneously: sometimes you'll be intertwining these threads, sometimes you'll be following them independently of each other. I'd be impressed if you managed to get more than half of the conditions you should end up with, as these are really tricky, but well-founded deductions. Not even the one chain The Moai Island Puzzle is as complex as what's done here. What luckily makes Toshokan no Satsujin a readable experience that there is sort of a halfway point: Tenma's explanation of the case isn't completely end-loaded, but he will reveal a couple of his deductions throughout which help the reader out and result in story development, and especially one reveal in the middle is good: the reader actually has the advantage over Tenma, but even then you might not guess what Tenma's going to reveal then. As an experiment in deduction however, Toshokan no Satsujin is fantastic, as it showcases a lot of different ways of how to develop one single clue into a full chain of thought. I'd hesitate recommending it to someone who has never read such a type of mystery novel however, as the explanation part after the Challenge to the Reader is really long: there's just so much the book expects you to deduce to figure out whodunit.

The way Toshokan no Satsujin handles the dying message by the way is great. Dying message stories can be a bit of a hit or miss if they focus on the meaning of the message, like they usually do. Sometimes the solution is far too farfetched for something written by someone dying, other times the meaning is far too obvious. The meaning of the dying messages do matter in Toshokan no Satsujin of course, but Tenma actually manages to deduce quite a lot about the identity of the murderer not based on the meaning of the dying messages, but how they were made. As I've mentioned earlier in a post on clues: these type of mysteries focus on the actions and inactions of the actors involved, and the reason why certain actions (or inactions) are taken. Toshokan no Satsujin does a tremendous job showing how the circumstances that led to the creation of these messages are a clue on their own, giving the meaning of the message less importance. This alone makes this a worthwhile read.

Don't expect much of the motive though. I mean, motives almost never ever matter in these types of elimination-method-mysteries, where you're identifying specific characteristics of the killer, but even as someone who doesn't really minds weak motives, I have to say that the motive of the killer in Toshokan no Satsujin is portrayed really weakly. It basically comes out of nowhere and doesn't even really make sense. The logical prison built around the suspect is solid, but you really wonder why that suspect committed the crime in the first place. The novel also focuses much more on its recurring cast, and don't expect to learn much about the suspects either besides some basic characteristics.

Moving away from the core mystery plot (gasp!), I found this a fairly entertaining and funny novel as usual. The geeky Tenma offers loads of obvious and less obvious to manga, anime, TV drama and other outings of popular culture (really fun to see how many of these you get), and the banter between his "assistant" Yuno and her classmates about school and other stuff is always amusing to read. All the four books in this series are set in the same year by the way: Taiikukan no Satsujin and Suizokukan no Satsujin are set before summer break, the short story collection Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo is set during summer break, and Toshokan no Satsujin is as said set in early September, in the week of the end-of-semester exams (each chapter is in fact named after the exams held that day). The books can be read standalone, but there are always references to people they meet and other stuff to earlier stories (no spoilers by the way), so it does pay off to read them in order, especially as there's a very light sub-plot of Yuno trying to learn more about Tenma's background with each novel (though that's moving really, really slowly).

I had been looking forward to reading Toshokan no Satsujin for a long time now (as I waited for the pocket release...) and I'm happy to say that it definitely met my expectations as a logic-focused puzzle plot mystery. It's at one hand a very accessible novel, with a lot of easy banter and a YA vibe, but the core mystery plot is as complex as you can get, and if you're not used to this, I can imagine people getting frustrated at the enormous long chains of reasoning Tenma explains at the end. For fans of early Ellery Queen or The Moai Island Puzzle for example: this is the goods! Smart, surprising deductions based on seemingly meaningless clues, and a plot that makes good use of the public library as its crime scene. Personal favorite for this year, but it might be a bit too Queen-ish for some, despite the lighter YA fiction atmosphere throughout the novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 青崎有吾『図書館の殺人』