Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Last Trick

I am GOD'S CHILD
この腐敗した世界に堕とされた
How do I live on such a field?
こんなもののために生まれたんじゃない
「月光」 (鬼束ちひろ)

I am GOD’S CHILD
Put upon this decayed Earth
How do I live on such a field?
This isn’t why I was born...
"Moonlight" (Onitsuka Chihiro)

Full disclosure: I am a Trick fanboy.

Trick was one of the first Japanese TV series I ever watched, but it is still one of my favorite series ever. It started out as a late-night mystery series in 2000 with a distinct sense of bizarre comedy directed by Tsutsumi Yukihiko (also known for the original Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series, Keizoku and the 20th Century Boys films). Over the course of the first season, the (incompetent) physics professor Ueda Jirou and the unsuccesful magician Yamada Naoko worked together worked against each other somehow managed to unmask fake psychics / supernatural phenomena / strange cults and solve the most bizarre impossible murders. It also drew heavily from the Kindaichi Kousuke series, with many episodes set in remote mountain villages with closed communities, with a bit of Higashino Keigo (scientific mysteries), a bit of Awasaka Tsumao (magic tricks) and John Dickson Carr (the supernatural). But more importantly, this was not a serious show.

Trick has always a playground for everyone involved in the production. From the actors to the people behind the camera, everyone is encouraged to try to make the show as funny and hammy as possible and the result is that Trick, as a series, has developed a very distinct 'grammar' during its run. From intentional overacting to copious amounts of wordplay, pop culture references to non-sequitur jokes, from off-angle camera shots, 'waving' camera shots to abrupt scene cuts, every Trick production is just one gigantic gag for everyone. This was arguably less apparent in the first season, but in the subsequent two TV series, and a series of theatrical releases and TV specials, it had became very clear that Trick was not a mystery show featuring comedy, but a comedy featuring mystery.

Trick series
Trick (TV) [2000]
Trick 2 (TV) [2002]
Trick - The Movie (film) [2002]
Trick ~Troisième partie~ (TV) [2003]
Trick - TV Special (TV) [2005]
Trick - The Movie 2 (film) [2006]
Trick - TV Special 2 (TV) [2010]
Trick -  Youth Chapter (novel) [2010]
Trick DS (game) [2010]
Trick - Psychic Battle Royale (film 3) [2010]
Trick - TV Special 3 (TV) [2014]
Trick - Last Stage (film 4) [2014]

After the third season of the TV series, Trick returned several times for TV specials and theatrical releases, but 2014 marks the end of the quirky adventures of Ueda and Yamada. I reviewed the third Trick TV special in January, which served as the companion piece to the final Trick production, the fourth theatrical release aptly titled Trick - Last Stage. Ueda Jirou, well known as a debunker of the occult, is asked to help mediate in a conflict between a trading company and a small village in the Republic of Equatorial Sungai. The company has bought the mining rights for rare earth elements there, but the local villagers, led by a powerful shaman, refuse to move away. Ueda is to show the villagers that the shaman is just a fake and convince the locals to move. His "assistent" Yamada Naoko is dragged along too of course, but this time, Ueda and Yamada seem to be facing someone with true powers. And what about Yamada's dreams of the end of the world she's been having lately?

The last movie is hard to rate. First of all, I have to admit I was quite disappointed by the main mystery plot of the shaman. While Trick has never been about super-hard-to-figure crimes and murders, the ones shown here were very easy, especially considering this is supposed to be the final entry in such a beloved series. Heck, some of the tricks used for the murder were just rehashes of some old episodes! Also, Trick has always been about strange cults and their leaders, but this time the shaman and the local villagers were very... normal, which almost felt unnatural for this series.


The comedy also seemed to be toned down a bit compared to the releases of the last few years. While still a funny movie, Trick - Last Stage never reaches the parody chaos of Trick TV special 3 for example and it sure isn't even close to the outlandish psychic all star cast like the third Trick film had, or even a catchy phrase like the second film (yoroshiku ne!). In a way though, I do have to say I sorta appreciated the fact director Tsutsumi went a different direction than the full-out comedy of those productions, which fits with Last Stage being the last Trick production and the film's tone does kinda resemble the slightly more humble, serious tone the original TV series had. That said, I thought the first fifteen, thirty minutes were great with tons of new visual gags we had not seen earlier in any Trick production. It just lost momentum when focus switched to the mystery plot proper.

Buut the wrap-up of the mystery plot does connect to themes and questions raised in the very first season in a meaningful matter. While Trick always has a dark ending to each case with a bad aftertaste, the overall themes were not as important for the tone of the series in recent productions, so I was glad Last Stage revisited the more 'meaninful' themes of earlier TV series.


As a ending to the complete series, I have to say I was very content with Trick - Last Stage though. There were little references to earlier series and films (and even the spin-off TV series) spread all over the film, which helped construct the idea of this being the last Trick, but like I said, I thought the film was kinda boring as the (disappointing) mystery plot unfolded. But then the last twenty minutes kick in, and wow! This is how you do an ending to a great series. I wonder how much director Tsutsumi had thought about ending this series, but I absolutely loved what he came up with for arguably his most representative work. The ending works so well in the context of the series and it's almost cheating they used Gekkou, the original ending theme, to play with our emotions. My feelings for this movie went [first twenty minutes= ah, this is funny] -> [bulk of the film = it's kinda bland, isn't it?] -> [last twenty minutes = this is the greatest thing ever I think I need to cryyyyyyyy].

But as you can guess, Trick - Last Stage only works if you have invested the time / emotions by watching preferably everything in the franchise, so that is three TV seasons, three TV specials, a novel, a videogame, two spin-off TV series and the four films. Then you'll get a satisfying ending to the series. You won't even get half of the satisfaction out of this movie if this is the first time you watch Trick, as the bulk of the film is really quite bland.


I do recommend Trick - Last Stage to every fan of the franchise, but I guess I wouldn't need to tell them to watch this series finale. It is for a large part slightly disappointing as a mystery-comedy film, but the little references and throwbacks in the film, as well as the last scene really makes this a must-see. For those who want a funny, but more focused mystery plot, you're better off with the companion piece to this film. But I am perhaps finally ready to say goodbye to the wonderful team of Ueda and Yamada and who knows, Trick has always been known for its quirkiness, so maybe, in a future...

And never forget. "Don't fear supernatural phenomena. Don't be afraid! Come on! Supernatural phenomena!"

Original Japanese title(s): 『劇場版トリック ラストステージ』

Sunday, July 20, 2014

ReturN: File 1

「ジッチャンのことは誇りに思うけど、俺は俺だからさ!」
『金田一少年の事件簿:銀幕の殺人鬼』

"I'm proud of my grandfather, but I am myself!"
"The Young Kindaichi Case Files: The Murderer of the Silver Screen"

Last Saturday, a new live action TV series based on Kindachi Shounen no Jikenbo (The Young Kindaichi Case Files) started. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO features the same cast and production team behind the recent two TV specials (like January's Gokumonjuku Satsujin Jiken), which I liked quite a lot overall. I have been looking forward to this series, so I decided I will try to do reviews on every story as the series is running, like I did with the Detective Conan live action series. My main reason for doing these reviews is because now I have a good excuse to discuss some older Kindaichi Shounen stories, as I seldom do reviews on materials I've already read.

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO
Episode 1 (July 19, 2014): The Murderer of the Silver Screen


Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files NEO") started with a two-hour TV special (ninety minutes without commercials) based on Ginmaku no Satsujinki ("The Murderer of the Silver Screen"). Miyuki is scouted as the lead by genius director Kurasawa for the newest production of the school film club. Kurasawa won a prize with one of his earlier films, The Murderer Scorpion and is convinced his new one will be a hit too, with the help of Miyuki. It is however rumoured that everyone connected to the production of The Murderer Scorpion is doomed to die and behold, indeed film club members start to pop up in a rather murdered state (and wearing the trademark Scorpion mask). Can Kindaichi Hajime, grandson of the great detective Kindaichi Kousuke, protect his best friend Miyuki before she too falls victim to the Scorpion?

The original comic version of Ginmaku no Satsujinki was first released in 1998 and is a pretty minor story within the canon of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. When I first read it, I thought it was a rather mediocre story: a lot of the story relies on coincidence, the trick behind the main problem of a double locked room murder is extremely easy to solve because the presentation makes it rather obvious and while most Kindaichi Shounen stories are very formulaistic, I found that Ginmaku no Satsujinki had very little to differentiate itself from other stories, as it had no memorable characters / tricks / setting.


And to be honest, most of my feelings for the mystery plot still holds. I will admit though that for a production meant for TV (i.e. an audiovisual experience), the crucial plot points do really fit the medium and this is strengthened by the film club setting (i.e. showing actual footage). And as I said, it is not a particularly complex story and most viewers do like mysteries they can actually solve from the sofa. But even though I think this is a minor story, I do think it is a great story for the pilot of the new series.

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo has traditionally featured many, many, maaaaany murders involving students, most of them students of Fudou High. And often school clubs form a setting for these stories. So it would make sense to start Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO with a story involving students. And situated in Fudou High. And about a school club. The very first episode of the original TV series and the original animation series, The Seven School Mysteries Murder Case, had the same goals and intentions and as I mentioned in that review, it makes absolute sense in the context of the series. In Ginmaku no Satsujinki, there is also a good part where someone questions whether Hajime isn't feeling any pressure from being the grandson of the famous Kindaichi Kousuke; the answer is classic Hajime and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO proves that live action Kindaichi Shounen doesn't need any excessive brooding and grandfather traumas any more as featured in the 2001 and 2005 live action productions.


And overall, I think this was a solid pilot for the series. Of course, most of the people involved, including lead Yamada Ryousuke, already had a lot of time to get used to their roles, as the team had already produced two full-length TV specials. Also, stylistically, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO borrows a lot from the original 1995-1997 TV series, including the wacky Tsutsumi Yukihiro camerawork, a lot of the better known soundtracks (like Mysterious Mallets) and sound effects and even little things like the design of the school uniforms (though technically, NEO has no ties to the original series because there are some small inconsistencies with certain characters).

One new feature they added in the series, compared to the TV specials, is a special close-up shot of evidence which are framed as 'how done it' scenes. During the conclusion, all of these 'how done it' scenes naturally all appear  as Hajime explains how the murder was commited. These shots kinda makes the mystery-solving a bit easier, as you are informed very obviously that you saw somethin important, but it does make the game-element of such a TV drama more obvious and fair, I guess. I gotta see more to see if I like it or not.


And random trivia: Kamiki Ryuunosuke guest starred as Kurasawa, but in a distant past, he actually co-starred together with Yamada Ryousuke (Hajime) in the TV drama of Tantei Gakuen Q, which was created by the same writer/artist team behind Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo.

Anyway, great start of the series and I'm looking forward to next week's episode, which will feature an adaptation of The Game Mansion Murder Case. Oh, and if a case is spread over multiple episodes, I will wait with posting a review until the complete story has been broadcast.

Original Japanese title(s): 『金田一少年の事件簿N』 サブタイトル 「銀幕の殺人鬼」

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Silent Death

"Het werk van een detective, " zei Van der Spyck, "heeft dit gemeen met ieder ander soort werk, dat het alleen op resultaat kan hopen, wanneer het grondig en methodisch wordt verricht; dat wil zeggen, zoo gedetailleerd en volledig mogelijk, zoodat het uitgesloten is, dat eenig punt van belang van de aandacht ontsnapt. Om kort te gaan: het is werk, dat den eisch van wetenschappelijk exactheid stelt!"
"Het lijkt mij altijd veel meer een kwestie van intuitie, zei Ellen.
"Dat," zei Van der Spyck, "zeggen alle vrouwen!"
"Discrete dood"

"The work of a detective", said Van der Spyck, "has this in common with all other kinds of work, one can only expect results, if the work has been done thoroughly and methodologically, I mean, as detailed and comprehensive as possible, so there is no question of any point of importance escaping our attention. In short, it is a work that requires scientific exactness"
"I always thought it was a matter of intuition," said Ellen.
"That is," said Van der Spyck, "what all women say!"
"Discreet Death"

I don't read older Dutch novels (say, from before WWII) often, so when I do read one, I'm always surprised at how much the language has changed since then. Well, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised at the changes in spelling, as for some reason Dutch spelling seems to get revised once in a few years (one of the mysteries of the Dutch language). But sometimes you'll hear people now talking about anglicisms in the Dutch language too, but man, some of these older books have way more anglicisms than contemporary writings!

Jurriaan Focken is an elderly retired laywer who spends his time perusing judicial magazines and the latest court decisions. At least, he did so until his eyes mostly gave up on him, and nowadays his assistant/secretary Ellen spends her time reading out loud the above mentioned judicial magazines and the latest court decisions to her boss. Until the day he was murdered. Someone had slipped a poison pill in old man Focken's medicine case, the murderer knowing quite well that the man wouldn't have been able to see a switch had been made. The murderer has to be one of the family, that is, his two sons, the eldest daughter and the twins and their family, but who? Ellen and Professor René van der Spyck, ex-son-in-law of old man Focken, start an investigation to see who would have gone the trouble of killing a man who couldn't have lived much longer anyway in Dieuke Boissevain's Discrete dood  ("Discreet Death") (1940).

An Dutch oldie, and one with a Japanese link: Discrete dood was once scheduled to appear in as the sixteenth volume of a Japanese anthology of Western detective fiction, in turn based on the German AM-Auswahl selection of international crime fiction. The Japanese version of Discrete dood was never released though, but considering the title almost made it into Japan, I was quite curious to what for story it was. And this time, I didn't even had to get a German translation!

But Discrete dood turned out to be a disappointment. For me, the biggest problem of the book is that it's a bit dull... About 80% of the plot consists of Professor van de Spyck and Ellen just investigating the motives of each family member, with next to no plot developments after the initial murder of old man Focker. I am not against plots that revolve around finding motives within complex family relations (or else I wouldn't have read as much Yokomizo Seishi), but I'd like something to happen in a 200 page story. But Discrete dood is a mostly static story and it never feels like the book is really trying to keep me interested.

The ending is also a bit contrived: a big coincidence here, a piece of information that hadn't been given  to the reader there... Which makes the part I quoted as this review's opening quote even more confusing: Boissevain had ample chance to write Discrete dood as a more fair puzzle story, by simply giving the crucial piece of information some time before it was presented at the conclusion. Yes, the solution requires detailed examination of the facts and I do think it was a fairly okay idea.... if the writer had least given me the facts to examine to start with, instead of throwing them in my face and saying I could have solved the murder if I had looked at them better. The conclusion was the first time I was made aware of those facts!

And as I seem to be talking about the question of amateur detectives / professionals in all of my Dutch mystery reviews... I guess Professor Van der Spyck and Ellen are amateur detectives, though one could argue you could see them as semi-professionals considering they're both lawyers (and one even a professor). Yet their profession isn't really of importance to how they work (both of them could have been anything, actually), so maybe more amateur than professional detectives. You'd almost think Dutch mystery novels are full of amateurs. Almost.

I mentioned in my review of Kawaramachi Revoir that I always get a bit excited when I read books set in places I know. I think this is the first time I had that with a Dutch mystery novel, as it is actually set near the town I live, as well as the city where I attended university. I wouldn't go as far as dub Discrete dood a topographical mystery (it really isn't), but it's always fun to see familiar names and locales.

Boissevain's entry in Dutch mystery fiction history is a bit disappointing, especially if you consider the fact this novel was once selected to be one of the few Dutch detective novels translated to Japanese. I am most of all confused with Boissevain's intentions: was Discrete dood meant to be a fair puzzle plot? If so, why not give me the necessary information? If not, why all the allusions to fair play puzzle plot mysteries? But that's a thing I guess I'll never find out.

Original Dutch title(s): Dieuke Boissevain "Discrete dood"

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Mistake of the Machine

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Nobody likes people who cut in line, but I decided to move this review forward in the schedule because it's a recent release (it released on June 20th). I actually have enough reviews written and standing by to last me until well into October at the moment...

Machina looks and sounds precisely like you'd expect from a high school girl with long black hair. Except, she isn't one. In fact, she isn't even human. Machina is one of a small group of detective robots made by professor Sakamaki with superior analytic and investigative skills. The professor has kept his inventions a secret for most of the world, but he occasionally sends his robots out on investigations for friends and fellow scientists. His grandson Masayuki is one of the people who knows about the robots. One day however, three of the detective robots go haywire and escape from the laboratory. Machina and Masayuki have to retrieve the robots and figure out what the bugs are in their AI brains in Morikawa Tomoki's Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken ("The Undefined Adventures of Semiconductor Detective Machina").

And while you might think of Blade Runner, the cover kinda gives away this is not a gritty science fiction thriller about ethics of living beings and all. It's just a cute story.

Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken was released not long after Morikawa Tomoki won the 2014 Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize with Snow White. I loved the wonderful fantasy-filled, yet undeniable orthodox mystery novel and I've been reading his books since. And for those who have been following Morikawa's detectives along with me, must have noticed that all of his novels are heavily influenced by fantasy and/or science fiction elements, but are yet always completely fair mystery novels. Snow White gave the detectives a magic mirror that could tell the answer to any question, and yet it gave enough room for the reader to interact with the story at a deductive level. Shapeshifting cats or all mighty golems? It's still as fair as anything Christie or Queen wrote. So I wasn't too worried when I heard that Morikawa's newest book featured detective robots.

Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken's premise of a hunt for, not a crime, not a criminal and not even the truth, but detectives is quite interesting, even though the fundamental dynamics don't seem to change much from most of Morikawa's novels. In all of his novels until now, the reader was confronted with multiple parties who try to outsmart each other (some in possession of magical, but predefined powers): you'd be fed conclusions of such battles of the brain, which might seem unbelievable at first, but when it is explained why or how something came to be, you realize that everything was fairly hinted at. In Cat Food for example, shapeshifting cats kept trying to outsmart each other in the hopes of saving / killing a group of humans and it was always possible to logically deduce how actions the other party would take based on the given information.

Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken does bring something new here, because this time the antagonist robot detectives aren't acting logically per se. That is, they do act according to logic, but that logic has an inherent flaw, because of the bugs in their programming. Each of the robots has a different fault in his/her AI brain, and it is up to Machina, Masayuki and the reader to deduce what that bug precisely is, based on the actions of the robots. Reverse engeneering of logic.

The book reminds me most of those scenes where Watson and his literary descendents wonder what the heck the detective is talking about / doing now now. The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime? Beating a dead pig? These events may seem mysterious and strange, but there is always a certain logic behind these actions. Usually, this logic is something that we all share (even if we don't realize it immediately), but in Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken, the logic of the detective robots is flawed. But it is always possible to deduce what that flaw precisely is, and that's what makes this book a fun read: it shifts the focus from an event to be detected, to the brains of the detectives themselves as focus of detection.

And on the whole, I'd say that  Handoutai Tantei Machina no Miteigina Bouken is another fun, lighthearted mystery that shows Morikawa's love for the 'great detective' trope. For some, it might feel a bit too lighthearted and the execution of its premise, while good, never reaches the great heights it did with Snow White, but I had a lot of fun reading this. And that's the most important, right?

Oh, for those interested, these are the reviews on this blog of other Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize winners: Otsuichi's GOTH (2003), Norizuki Rintarou's Nakakubi ni Kiitemiro (2005), Higashino Keigo's Yougisha X no Kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X) (2006), Arisugawa Alice's Jooukoku no Shiro (2008), Ooyama Seichirou's Misshitsu Shuushuuka (2013) and Snow White - Meitantei Sanzunokawa Kotowari to Shoujo no Kagami wa Sen no Me wo Motsu (2014).

Original Japanese title(s): 森川智喜 『半導体探偵マキナの未定義な冒険』

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Dish Best Served Cold

忘れかけてた甘い夏の日を
あれからどれくらいの時間がたつの?
大好きだったあの笑顔だけしばらく近くで重ねあう日々を
Ah もう戻れない時を小さく祈っている
「君がいない夏」 (DEEN) 

Those sweet summer days I've begun to forget
How much time has past since then?
The days with just the smile I loved close to me passing by
Aah, I silently pray for the time we can no longer return to

One of the best ice dessert I ever ate was a patbingsu in Seoul. Unlike Japanese shaved ice, which is only covered with a syrup, patbingsu was loaded with many yummy ingredients like fruits. And talking about ice, I am not that big a fan of matcha and black sesame ice cream you see so often lately. Also, I never did muster up the courage to eat the soy sauce soft icecream they sold at the Kikkoman factory...

The Petit Bourgeoisie series
The Spring Special Strawberry Tart Case (2004)
The Summer Special Tropical Parfait Case (2006)

Kobato Jougorou and Osanai Yuki are two model second year high school students. Indeed, all they think of everyday is to how to be the perfect citizen, a real petit bourgeoisie. But their examplary behaviour is just a disguise, a goal to distract themselves from their inherent character faults: Jougorou has the habit of flaunting with his deductive capabilities, while Yuki loves taking revenge on people who have done her wrong. On the first day of summer holiday, Jougorou is visited by Yuki, who wants him to join her with her summer plans: to eat all the summer special desserts / icecream / cakes / other sweets the many bakeries in their town offer. Jougorou tags along on her fattening summer plans, but during their quest for sweetness, the two come across a gang led by someone who has an ax to grind with Yuki. Can the duo uphold their perfect, upstanding image as the petit bourgeoisie in Yonezawa Honobu's Kaki Gentei Tropical Parfait Jiken ("The Summer Special Tropical Parfait Case")?

The first book in Yonezawa Honobu's Petit Bourgeoisie series, The Spring Special Strawberry Tart Case, was a sweet surprise: while I am not a fan of the everyday life mystery genre, which usually revolves around rather mundane troubles, I had to admit that quite enjoyed the things Yonezawa did in that book. How to Make Delicious Chocolate Milk, a story where Jougorou and Yuki deduce how three cups of chocolate milk were served, was fantastic: the problem was extremely simple and mundane, but the logic behind the duo used to find out how the milk could have been served under the specific circumstances was something you'd expect in an all-out investigation by Inspector Queen. The protagonists were quite funny too, so I was looking forward to reading the second book in the series.

To start with the conclusion, I like The Summer Special Tropical Parfait Case. Heck, I like it overall better than The Spring Special Strawberry Tart. Overall, I stress, because I don't think that any moment Summer Special reaches the heights of the chocolate milk story of the first book, but the overall story of Summer Special is better structured, I think and more engaging to read. Like the first book, The Summer Special Tropical Parfait Case consists of multiple short story-esque chapters, but with an overarching story to connect all these stories (the sweets Yuki wants to eat in the summer).

The best of the bunch is the opening story, Charlotte Dake wa Boku no Mono ("Only the Charlottes for me"), which is a fantastic inverted crime mystery, but of course in the vein of a everyday life mystery. Jougorou is presented with the problem of having to hide the fact he actually already ate one of the three charlotte cakes he bought: he hopes to make it seem like he only bought two. It has the thrills of a good inverted story, with Jougorou trying to hide all the evidence that hints at the existence of a third cake and him having eaten it, but on the other hand, hiding the fact you stole some sweets is pretty much the most childish crime there is. For me, the everyday life mystery works best when it applies deep analytical thinking on extremely mundane problems, because it's just funny.

The other stories deal with code cracking and some other mysteries, but and while not bad, none of them really reach the level of the opening story (except for maybe the final chapter). What is interesting though, is the fact The Summer Special Tropical Parfait Case does deal more with crime than The Spring Special Strawberry Tart Case. Sure, there was a stolen bike there and there was a bit more 'regular' (criminal) mysteries as it neared the end, but it seems like The Summer Special Tropical Parfait Case is a bit more 'normal' criminal mystery oriented, than just focused purely on everyday life mysteries.

The Summer Special Tropical Parfait Case is a sweet book, and has just the right mix of crime and everyday life mystery to keep the reader satisfied. One warning though: you will want to eat something sweet when you read this.

Original Japanese title(s): 米澤穂信 『夏期限定トロピカルパフェ事件』

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Murder under Glass

「後学のためにお聞きしたいんだが、この後どうなる?」
「殺しはしねぇでも生かしてもおかねぇ。もっと 詳しく聞きてぇか?」
「いや、結構」
 『探偵はBarにいる2 ススキノ大交差点』

"Just out of curiosity, what's going to happen with him?"
"We won't kill him, but we won't let him live either. Want to know the details?"
"No, I've heard enough"
"The Detective is in the Bar 2 - The Great Crossroads of Susukino"

While I do think metropolises have their charm, I just never get used to actually living there. It's just too... busy. The image of a never-sleeping city sounds fun, but it's just too... restless for me. Everything, everyone always on the movement. One of my scariest experiences in a metropolis was..... simply taking the bus in Busan, South Korea. Everything needs to go fast there, so you need to be standing at the exit before the bus reaches the stop, and the bus basically starts driving away from the stop while your first foot is still somewhere in the air halfway the bus and the pavement.

There is always something happening in the red light district Susukino in Sapporo, capital of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Sometimes something good, sometimes something bad. Masako, one of the popular 'ladies' in a crossdresser's bar, winning a TV talent hunt with her illusion show is something good. Masako being murdered is something bad. The unnamed protagonist private detective and his sidekick Takada wants to know who is responsible for the death of their good friend, but nobody wants to talk about the case for some reason. The detectives eventually pick up some rumors that Masako might have been 'erased' because she used to be romantically involved with a local politician who has been on the rise lately. But the moment the duo starts to investigate this trail, their two heads are marked by both supporters of the politician as well as his enemies (who aim for a I-scratch-your-back scheme). Can they find out who killed Masako whilse being chased all over Sapporo in the 2013 movie Tantei wa Bar ni Iru 2 - Susukino Daikousaten ("The Detective is in the Bar 2 - The Great Crossroads of Susukino")?

Tantei wa Bar ni Iru is a film series based on Azuma Naomi's Susukino Detective novel series: the films are named after the first book in the series, even though the first movie was based on the second novel: Tantei wa Bar ni Iru 2 is based on the fifth novel (Tantei wa Hitoribocchi; "The Detective On His One"). The basic set-up for both the novel and the film series is the same: a comedic hardboiled detective series starrring an unnamed detective and his assistant, set in the red light district Susukino in Sapporo (Azuma's hometown). The titular bar refers to the bar Keller Ohata, which the protagonist uses as his base of operations: he doesn't own a mobile phone, so people who want to reach him have to call there.


I haven't seen the first movie, but the basic setting is very simple, so you'll get into it really quickly. In fact, the whole film moves at quite a fast pace: the protagonist and his assistant are marked by their enemies very early in the story and a lot of the movie consists not out of the detective following every trail he comes across in search for Masako's murderer, rather than fleeing for, and occasionally fighting with the many, many people who try to kill him (and occasionally coming across a hint during his flight). Tantei wa Bar ni Iru 2 is an easy watch and as a hardboiled detective story definitely more about the journey, rather than the destination. But that's not a bad thing: Ooizumi You (protagonist; also the voice actor of Professor Layton) and Matsuda Ryuuhei (the sidekick Takada) really fit their roles and their banter is just fantastic (the film is actually quite funny).

The ending does come rather suddenly though, and even if the journey was the main event, I wish the destination was a bit more impressive. It's not bad, per se, but the way the protagonist and his assistant basically stumble upon the whole truth behind Masako's murder is rather disappointing and feels extremely forced. I can imagine the scriptwriters discussing the endgame of this film: How are we going to give the detective a hint? Oh, you know, we can just let the murderer give at all away at the end. We only have a few minutes left for the ending, so yeah, let's just give it to him straight without any funny business!  Okay, it's not that bad, but depending on the viewer, the ending can disappoint extremely.


In my opinion, one of the more interesting points of Tantei wa Bar ni Iru 2 is the setting of Sapporo. Setting aside Yokomizo Seishi's novels, most Japanese mystery fiction is set in, or near capital Tokyo, or sometimes Osaka and Kyoto, so I always find it refreshing when a story is set somewhere else (see for example my reviews of Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen or Nishimura Ken's Hakata Tantei File). Tantei wa Bar ni Iru 2 is mostly set in the capital of the north, and it has a distinct atmosphere. I have never visited Sapporo or the island of Hokkaido, so I loved seeing this part of Japan. The red light disctrict of Susukino also really comes alive in this movie, and the way it is depicted as partly a seedy neighbourhood, but also as a crossroads of destinies where all kinds of people gather to simply try to make a living, is similar to the way Shinjuku is depicted in series as Tantei Jinguuji Saburou and City Hunter (or Shibuya in the fantastic game Machi ~ Unmei no Kousaten). Sure, it's a very romantic version of the place, but I think these titles are exceptionally good at depicting a location as a living being with distinct characteristics and atmosphere.

As a comedy hardboiled detective movie, Tantei wa Bar ni Iru 2 -  Susukino Daikousaten is quite amusing. It won't be recorded in the annals of international detective fiction, but if you want to kill some time, spending some time wih the unnamed detective in Sapporo is certainly not a bad choice.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵はBarにいる2 ススキノ大交差点』

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Last Vampyre

Like a Bloody Storm
熱く Like a Bloody Stone 
血脈に刻まれた因縁に
浮き上がる消えない誇りの絆
握りしめて
『Bloody Stream』 (CODA)

Like a Bloody Storm
Hot like a bloody stone
The ever-floating bonds of pride
that are carved within the blood lineage of destiny
Hold on them tight
"Bloody Stream" (CODA)

I'm finally nearing the end of my backlog book list! That said, 'nearing' is just a relative word: considering the fact I lived off my gigantic to be read stash for more than a year, I could still continue normal business on this blog for months without getting new material.

Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") [1981]
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") [1982]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") [1987]
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") [1988]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") [1990]
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") [1991]
Atopos [1993]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]

Shimada Souji's Atopos starts a while after the troublesome shooting of the film Aida '87. Actress Matsuzaki Reona's new Hollywood adventure is Salome, a musical drama movie she wrote, with some help of horror writer Michael Berkeley. who has just released a new book based on the infamous female serial killer countess Elizabeth Báthory. The Salome project is a troubled one however. Starting with the murder on Barkeley, Tinseltown is struck with one horrifying event after the other: the drowned body of Sharon Moore, an actress in Salome, is discovered, and the baby children (and grandchildren) of several people in Salome's production staff are kidnapped. Some witnesses claim to have seen a bald, bloody monster at the crime scenes, but the police thinks that Reona, who has a history with drugs and a reputation of being mentally unstable, might know more about the case. The police can't prevent the main cast and production team of Salome from going to the Dead Sea for on-location shooting though. But Death seems to have chased the project all the way from Hollywood to Israel: both the mysterious building (with maze-like layout) where the team stays and the gigantic floating movie set in the Dead Sea serve as the background for more bloody murders, with Reona as the obvious suspect (it certainly didn't help her case when she was discovered covered in blood next to one of the victims).

And at around eighty percent in the novel, detective Mitarai Kiyoshi finally arrives to save Reona and explain what happened.

Atopos is very similar to Shimada Souji's Suishou no Pyramid: both novels revolve around the shooting of a film starring Matsuzaki Reona at an isolated location. Both novels feature an incredibly long prelude: you won't reach the main story until half way through the book. And you have to wait even longer for series detective Mitarai Kiyoshi to appear. I am also not precisely sure how I feel about both novels.

You can hardly call Atopos a short book, as it is nearly 1000 pages long. One might call it two books though. The first 400 pages consists out of a novel-within-a-novel: the book about Elizabeth Báthory by Michael Berkeley. It's bloody horror amusement and quite captivating if you're interested in these kind of famous crimes in history (Nikaidou Reito's Jinroujou no Kyoufu similarly told the story of Gilles de Rais amongst others. But then again, it also featured Nazi Werewolves). But... this narrative about Báthory is actually not really related to the main story of Atopos. The novel-within-a-novel is just to strengthen the atmosphere of the book, suggesting that Matsuzaki Reona might be possesed by the same sadistic bloodlust as the countess, but it's kinda overshooting its goal. To put it in perspective; most of the full novels I review on this site, are shorter than this novel-within-a-novel. A bit of background information and the creation of a setting/atmosphere is good, but this is just too much. But it's entertaining, I'll admit: Suishou no Pyramid did the same thing, but I didn't care for the narrative-within-a-narrative there at all.

So when you have gone through nearly half of the book, you finally reach the main story (the filming of Salome at the Dead Sea). There are quite some murders in this part of the book, with the impossible murder where someone of the staff is impaled on the sword sticking out on top of the floating movie set the most eye catching one: with no cranes in the neighbourhood and no real means of climbing the set (unless you deconstruct the set), nobody could have placed the body there. Another murder is a semi-impossible situation: only Reona could have commited the murder of one of her fellow actresses, but she denies having done so. The murder was commited in the strange building the staff found all ready for their stay right next to the Dead Sea, with a four distinct wings and a maze-like interior: the building is incredibly strange, so as the reader you know something is wrong with it and that it has to do with the murders, but even if you realize that, it's next to impossible to deduce its role in the grand scheme of things (also: compare to the mysterious 'tofu' structure in Onda Riku's MAZE).

I liked how all the murders were connected to one daring solution: even though the murders took all kinds of forms, you could all bring it back to one common factor. However, that solution is quite farfetched and nobody would think of it. In that respect, Atopos really resembles MAZE. And I say Atopos is ridiculous having read other books by Shimada Souji like Naname Yashiki no Hanzai and Suishou no Pyramid, so I know how absolutely crazy (and awesome) Shimada's solutions can turn out to be: but Atopos's main revelation... well, it's not coming out of completely nowhere, but really only Mitarai Kiyoshi could have arrived at the solution based on those hints!

Atopos is very similar to Suishou no Pyramid in terms of set-up and execution, but my feelings towards them are precisely the opposite: I liked the main story and the locked room situation of Suishou no Pyramid, while I thought the first, narrative-within-narrative part of the book almost a waste of my time. On the other hand, I quite liked the first, narrative-within-narrative about Elizabeth Báthory part of Atopos, but I am not that big a fan of the mystery (and its solution) presented in the main story. In general though, Atopos does a better job at presenting itself as one coherent narrative though.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『アトポス』