Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Black Coffee Rag

『探偵神宮寺三郎 Innocent Black』

"It's snowing..."
"Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Innocent Black"

I listen to a lot of videogame music, but usually only from games I've actually played. I think that Innocent Black's soundtrack is one of the few I knew inside-out years before I even got to experience the game. It's that awesome.

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series
The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case (1987) [Nintendo Famicom Disk System]
The Unfinished Reportage (1996) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn]
At the End of the Dream (1998) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn]
Before the Light Fades (1999) [Sony PlaySation]
Innocent Black (2002) [Sony PlayStation 2]
The White Phantom Girl (2005) [Nintendo GameBoy Advance]
Ashes and Diamonds (2009) [Sony PlayStation Portable]
The Red Butterfly (2010) [Nintendo DS]
Rondo of Revenge (2012) [Nintendo 3DS]

Private detective Jinguuji Saburou is hired by Ninomiya Akio, a distressed father who wishes to find his daughter Hazuki who has run away from home. When Jinguuji finally manages to trace Hazuki, he finds out she ran away because she witnessed a very strange happening going on in her father's hospital, and she suspects the vice-president of the Ninomiya General Hospital might be stealing medicine as a side business. Jinguuji starts a new investigation at the hospital, where he finds another client: an elderly mother recently lost her son, who had gone missing two years ago. She never saw him alive anymore, because he recently died of breath failure in a park, and his body was brought to the Ninomiya General Hospital. The mother wants to know if her son really died of breath failure and what he had been up the last two years. Digging deeper, Jinguuji discovers that the son's death and the medicine theft are in fact connected and h starts to realize that some horrible secret ties together the Ninomiya General Hospital, a group of homeless people and a local crime syndicate in the 2002 PlayStation 2 videogame Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Innocent Black  ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Innocent Black").

I've been a big fan of the Detective Jinguuji Saburou videogame series for years. The series started on the Famicom Disk System (a peripheral of the Japanese NES) in 1987 and saw its most recent installment in 2012, making it actually one of the oldest game franchises still active. The basic setting has not changed since the first game: every installment the player is presented a hardboiled detective story starring private detective Jinguuji Saburou, his capable assistant Misono Youko and police detective Kumano, usually set at the edges of underworld of Shinjuku, Tokyo. Occasionally we see more of an extended cast, like the forensics expert Miyoshi Shiho or local crime syndicate captain Imaizumi, and sometimes the story moves to locations outside Shinjuku, but the player can always expect a very story-driven experience with a plot that deals with realistic social problems and the people who are stuck between 'normal' society and the underworld.

The Detective Jinguuji Saburou series got a big blow in 2000 however, after the release of the seventh installment of the series. Data East, the original developers of the series, went bankrupt and many thought that this meant the end of the series. Fortunately, the company WorkJam bought the rights to the series (and still owns them), and WorkJam's first own Detective Jinguuji Saburou game was 2002's Innocent Black. This game is thus seen as a turning point for the series.

Overall, Innocent Black is a well-made entry in the series and a great hardboiled detective game. Gameplay-wise, it's the same old command-style adventure it's been for over 20 years. As expected from the Detective Jinguuji Saburou series, Innocent Black features great character designs and most importantly, fantastic music. All installments of the series have been praised for their catchy jazzy tunes and Innocent Black definitely upholds that tradition and brought some of the best songs of the whole franchise. Illustrator Terada Katsuya's designs look great too and in the visual and auditory departments, this game is really remarkable. Story-wise too, Innocent Black manages to do most things very good: as always the story starts with a small case for Jinguuji (locating Hazuki who ran away), but manages to grow out to something much bigger, without feeling too farfetched. The plot of most Detective Jinguuji Saburou are often best described as social school stories, as they are often rich in social commentary, but it definitely works for the series and Innocent Black features one of the more devilish schemes I've seen in videogame plots. I think that I can wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone who wants to play a detective game on the PS2 with a catchy story.

Is it all perfect? Well no. One thing I thought very disappointing was that compared to the three previous games (Mikan no Rupo, Yume no Owari ni and Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni), Innocent Black was a much more linear experience. Note that the series has always been somewhat linear: you usually advance in the story just by talking to the right people or being at the right place at the right time. The mentioned titles however all experimented with more interactive presentation, like parallel narratives that allowed you to experience the story with multiple characters, or giving the player certain deadlines in which he needed to move the story forward. In comparison, Innocent Black is incredibly linear, as you simply move from hotspot to hotspot to advance forward. I don't find linear games bad per se (in fact, depending on the plot, it sometimes works out better), but the above mentioned titles were the Jinguuji Saburou games I played most recently, so the sudden change was very detectable. This linear direction has been maintained in practically all of the Jinguuji Saburou games WorkJam has developed, with two notable exceptions: Shiroi Kage no Shoujo (the player needs to make deductions every now or then that can potentially lead to a game over) and Ashes and Diamonds (branching storylines).

Innocent Black is also a rather controversial topic among longtime fans of the series, because it tried to do something surprising about the longstanding relation between protagonist Jinguuji Saburou and his beautiful and capable assistant Youko.Without going into spoilers, I can tell you that I too was not pleased at all with what WorkJam was going for and in fact, they had to fix that in the next game, Kind of Blue, probably not in the least because of the negative backlash. Kind of Blue is the only Jinguuji Saburou game I haven't played yet, but I hope to, because Innocent Black did leave a somewhat bad aftertaste because of this particular, but important plotpoint, that didn't even had proper development.

Innocent Black is a game that does a lot right and features a really captivating detective story. It is however also a very linear experience, even compared to earlier installments of the game, and I think that for longtime fans, Innocent Black also feels incomplete with its successor Kind of Blue, because a significant problem is not resolved within Innocent Black's narrative. In that respect, it is an unsatisfying experience, perhaps. But overall, I thought the plot to be interesting and the fantastic music definitely helps.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵神宮寺三郎 Innocent Black』


  1. I was thinking about your prior post about your translation of a Japanese detective novel. I really liked The Summer of the Ubume by Natsuhiko Kyogoku. You have three entries on this author. Vertical did this first book in the series, and then nothing further ever came out. There was also a fan sub of the anime of the next book in the series, which as far as I can tell the fansubbers never finished, but that was also great (that was Mouryou no Hakko, the one about the boxes). Perhaps someone would be interested in translating this series. I would put this one at the top of the heap.

  2. The problem with Kyougoku (and specifically that series) is that the books are extremely long and thus expensive to translate. Vertical itself has stated that the sales of the first book couldn't pay for more novels