Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mystery Incorporated

「君 どんなの読むの?好きな作家でもいいから」
推理小説どころか、フツーのも読まないんですけど!!
「・・・・・コ・・・・・コナン?」
「ドイルか?王道好き?」
ドイルって誰よ!
『みすけん!』

"So, what do you like? Writers are also fine!"
 - I don't read at all, let alone detectives!-
".....Co...... Conan?"
"Doyle! So you like the classics?"
-Who the hell is Doyle?!-
"Misuken!"

Those familiar with manga and anime, might have heard of the series Genshiken. Genshiken, short for Gendai Shikaku Bunka Kenkyuukai (The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture), is a fantastic meta-series about a college club for otaku. The series features a great cast of members, all with their own field of interest, ranging from fighting games to figures to cosplay, but also includes members who are just lightly into things like anime and manga (or, in a bizarre twist of fate, one person doesn't like otaku hobbies at all, but is forced to hang around because of her boyfriend). As such Genshiken is a very educative, and funny view on Japanese college club culture, as well as fan culture.

People who have been following this blog for a while, might know that I was member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, a college club where we talk about, and write detective fiction. So we were quite surprised when we heard of the limited series Misuken! by Sakataki Arata. Misuken!, short for Misuteri Kenkyuukai (Mystery Club), stars Aiba Chisato, trying to enjoy her first year at a university in Kyoto. And she decides that a boyfriend is necessary to enjoy college life, and that the handsome Kagemori Kiyomasa should be the lucky one. Trying to get close to him, she decides to enter the same college club as Kagemori, not knowing it's a Mystery Club. Chisato is a bit overwhelmed by the almost maniacal love these people have for detective fiction, especially because she hardly reads herself, but she slowly adjusts to the club and starts to genuinely enjoy detective fiction herself too, while she is still trying to get Kagemori to notice her.

Oh, and yes, this is a shoujo (girls) manga. Oh,and note that the mystery in Mystery Club refers to detective fiction. The first time I used the term Mystery Club (the 'official' English term for the club I was at), people were thinking more in terms of Scooby Doo's Mystery Incorporated, I think.

So Misuken! is basically the Genshiken for detective fiction. So it's not a detective story, it's about detective stories. It is loosely based on the Kyoto University Mystery Club (though the 'proper' abbreviation for that club is Mysteryken), as it is also set in Kyoto and shares the same main club activities (reviewing and writing fiction; there are other university Mystery Clubs in Kyoto, but especially writing is an important part of the Kyoto University Mystery Club). But everything is a 'bit' more sparkly and cleaner here. Seriously: I can guarantee you the club room of the actual Mystery Club is not, and will never be even close to being so tidy and big as the one in Misuken!. Also: I am pretty sure that few members of the club entered to find a boyfriend / girlfriend. The part about having a fairly high rate of flunking students. Well, that's slightly more close to the truth. Playing mahjong is definitely real.

But ignore that for a bit and what do we have? A series that tries to do well, but fails in that. The start is very stereotypical for these kind of series, with the protagonist finding about the wonderful world of [insert topic], but I guess it works here. The story eases you into the topic, with every chapter featuring introductions of major titles / writers of the genre, helping protagonist Chisato (and the reader) on her way. I have to admit though, like so many series featuring a hobby or activity, it does sometimes feel like brainwashing. Just like how Captain Tsubasa's Tsubasa managed to convince brainwash everyone of the wonders of soccer, just like how Slam Dunk's Hanamichi slowly starts to understand is getting taken over by basketball, Chisato's sudden 'jump' to detective fiction in the first chapter, thanks to Ayatsuji Yukito's Jukkakukan no Satsujin, is a bit scary.

In subsequent chapters, Chisato gets to learn the other members a bit better, including their own motives for joining (the funniest being someone who not unlike Chisato, joined the Mystery Club, because he watched the drama version of Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de. Because it starred actress Kitagawa Keiko). There is also a bit on 'Guess the criminal' stories, and a fun story about members of the club doing a 'pelgrimage' to the sights described in Van Madoy's Marutamachi Revoir (for those who happen to be visiting Kyoto: you can also do one for Detective Conan: Crossroad in the Ancient Capital!). And of course, every story has a nice amount of references to detective fiction.

The problem here, is that this is a limited, one shot series and the two main objectives of the series: 1) Chisato getting close to Kagemori and 2) giving the reader a glimpse of the club activities and members of a college Mystery Club, are hardly achieved: There's just too little that can be done in just four chapters, and the series 'ends' with almost no sense of fulfillment, you only get 'oh, they might get close' and 'oh, she learned to like detective fiction'. It is a bit of a shame, because I do think there are quite some topics left untouched that should have been included (more about book collecting / buying, more indepth on writing fiction, more characters with distinct preferences etc.). There is just no sense of conclusion here, and you're left with the feeling of 'was this all?'.


The topic of detective fiction Mystery Club is a fun one though and often seen in Japanese detective fiction. This is also partly because many writers debuted as students, and members of university Mystery Clubs. Ayatsuji Yukito's Jukkakukan no Satsujin and Arisugawa Alice's Gekkou Game, two major titles of the New Orthodox movement, feature university mystery clubs heavily for example. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Higashigawa Tokuya's Koigakubo Academy series in turn feature the high school variants. Assuming that genre readers are on average relatively meta-conciousness, having a Mystery Club in a detective story has quite some positive points, as the characters can act more 'smart' because of their meta-knowledge, as well as to convey the author's own, reflexive thoughts on the genre. The difference with Misuken! being that in Misuken!, there is no mystery, it is really only about the activities of an average Mystery Club. It's definitely something I had never seen before. Misuken! also a lot more accessible for precisely those who aren't too familiar with detective fiction, but want to learn more.

The series also shares a bit with series like (the highly underrated) Kingyo Used Books, which manage to convey the feeling, the love people have for books and the culture behind it. Because most of detective fiction is indeed in the printed medium, this shouldn't seem strange, but while you often see book collectors and such in fiction (hello, Ellery Queen!), 'normal' love for books and the average reader don't seem to have a place in fiction, which is a shame. Sometimes, finding a book that reminds you of something, or buying a book because of its nostalgic smell or something like, is just as interesting as finding that first print of A Study in Scarlet. Misuken! might not be as fluent in conveying those feelings as Kingyo Used Books, but it definitely did it right.

Misuken! is definitely a flawed short series. It's nowhere close to a masterpiece like Genshiken, even as a series on its own it's just barely achieving what it should do. The concept is great though, so you might want to read it if you're into detective fiction and want to learn a bit more about what they do at mystery clubs. Because unlike as seen in Jukkakukan no Satsujin, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and the student Alice series, Mystery Clubs in general are not coming across murders on a regular basis. It's really short too, so it doesn't even take that much time to go through it. Oh, and I gathered that this year, the Kyoto University Mystery Club had a significant rise in new, female members. Dare we call it the Misuken! effect?

Original Japanese title(s): さかたき新 『みすけん!』

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