Sunday, July 1, 2012

"It all happened on the 11:20 from Hainault, to Redhill via..."

「降りること止めることも出来ずに今日も昨日揺られ、
ああ、夢なんて、昔どこかに描いた落書きだ」
「ファイティングポーズの詩」 (馬場俊英)

"Shaking through today and yesterday, unable to get off or stop,
Aa, dreams are just scribbles made in the past"
"Fighting Pose Song" (Baba Toshihide)

In the Netherlands, I spend quite some time in trains to go to my university. Heck, on bad days, I spend more time in trains than in classes. In Tokyo, my main means of transportation, besides my two feet, were also the trains, which is still an experience I will never forget. It is hard to forget how insanely crowded the trains are in the morning. Heck, I wasn't even always sure whether I could get off at my station, because people just wouldn't, and some couldn't, move out of the way inside the compartments so people could get to the exit. I kinda miss sitting in the train talking with people now, as I cycle everyday to campus, but memories of Tokyo do help realize how much better a bicycle is.

Anyway, trains. I have a friend who is a self-professed train-fan. I never really understood it, but then again, I guess being a fan of detective fiction is also strange. The funny thing, trains, or any means of transport and detective fiction have always had a strong connection. Just think of the many, many mysteries set within trains. Like Tsukidate no Satsujin ("The Tsukidate Murders"), a 2005-2006 one-shot manga penned by Ayatsuji Yukito and illustrated by Sasaki Noriko. 18-year old Karigaya Sorami, raised in Okinawa, has never ever set foot inside a train, because of her mother's strange aversion to them. Now her mother has deceased and Sorami's estranged grandfather wants her to visit him in faraway Hokkaidou. To get to her grandfather's mansion, Sorami has to travel with the luxary express Genya, departing from Chiseppu to Tsukidate.

The Genya is comprised from couches from the Orient Express and the trip will take one night. There are 6 other guests invited by Sorami's grandfather who also travel by the Genya with Sorami, all of them train fanatics and all of them having different 'specialties' within the field of trainology. They are all set for a wonderful night on the train, mimicking the grandour of the guests on that fateful night of that famous Orient Express mystery. And of course, having made all these allusions to Christie's classic, you can be sure something is going to happen. During the night, one of the guests is found murdered within his locked sleeping compartment. Was it the work of the train fanatic murderer who has been active lately?

I have to admit, I had no idea that this was a train oriented manga when I purchased it. I really just went for the name Ayatsuji Yukito. It seems that a lot of the editors at the magazine this story was serialized in are in fact train-fanatics, which is why they commissioned such a story. Anyway, it is almost surprising how much you'll learn about the many types of train-fandom as you read this story. Railway table fanatics, item collecting fanatics, photo fanatics, history fanatics, modelling fanatics, 'experience' fanatics, I really had no idea there were so many kinds of train fandoms. Quite a lot of background research has gone into this story and it's pretty interesting to read.

As for the detective plot, it shows a lot of potential halfway through, but ends up being rather easy, sadly enough. The story starts out a bit slow, but becomes quite interesting with the (first!) murder, it being commited on a running train and inside a locked sleeping couch and all. And then, at the halfway point, something incredible is revealed that acts as a double-edged sword. On one hand, this plotpoint does make it feel more like an Ayatsuji Yukito story, and feels original, surprising and it makes you doubt everything you've read until now. On the other hand, the moment this plot point is revealed is also the moment that the right solution becomes very visible, rendering the latter half of the story as merely filler. I actually think that not revealing the important plot-point, but instead hinting at it and incorporate it into the final conclusions, would have made this a much better story. There were also some 'lucky' breaks for the murderer that seemed a bit too lucky to be convincing.

Finally, I said I liked the train fanatics setting, but one problem was that despite all of the characters having different specialties, they ended up being very similar. Maybe it's because I am an 'outsider' and just see them as a homogeneous group ('the train fanatics'). Maybe the characters of Jukkakukan no Satsujin feel homogeneous too for 'outsiders'. But having these characters saying the same things the same time isn't going help in establishing them as seperate characters. Especially not if half of the them, they are meant as comedy fodder (this is actually quite a funny manga and there is a distinct light-hearted tone to it). Having them act more as different characters would certainly have made for a more thrilling story and it reminds me of how awesome Murder on the Orient Express is with its different kind of characters interacting with each other.

Tsukidate no Satsujin is a competent one-shot murder mystery. It is very train-fandom heavy, so that might be a selling point (or not at all) to some people. It won't go into history as a manga-mystery classic, I think, but it is worth a read if you can get your hands on it. I don't think it's available as an official English release, but there are quite some manga availabe in English from Ikki Comix, so maybe in the future?

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人(原)、佐々木倫子(画): 『月館の殺人』(上下)

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