Wednesday, July 19, 2017

She Sailed Away

We are all rowing a boat of fate 
The waves keep on comin' and we can't escape
"Life Is Like A Boat" (Rie Fu)

Note to self: need to try Russian food some time.

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]

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case of The Russian Phantom Warship") [2001]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]

Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") [2016]  

Receiving fan mail was by no means a rare happening for actress Reona, but even she had to raise an eyebrow when she got Kuramochi Yuri's letter. One reason for Reona's surprise was that the letter had been delivered to her almost a decade late, as it had been sent to her former agency in Japan before she moved to the States, and it got stuck there. The other reason for Reona's surprise was the contents. Yuri wrote the letter on her deceased grandfather's behalf, as he begged his granddaughter to ask if Reona could go Charlottesville, Virginia, USA to locate a certain Anna Anderson, to tell Anna he was sorry for what happened in Berlin, and that it all could've been avoided if they had the photograph at the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone. Reona has no idea however who this Anna is, and why she was asked to pass on the message. A few phone calls also tell her the letter reached her too late: Anna Anderson had died in 1984, soon after the letter had been posted, and Yuri herself also died in an accident. Reona asks her friends Mitarai Kiyoshi (amateur detective/astrologist/neurologist) and Ishioka Kazumi (writer) if they could look into this curious request. The photograph mentioned in the letter shows the foggy arrival of a Russian warship in Lake Ashi near Fujiya Hotel in 1919, but it is an utterly impossible one: for how could a Russian warship have landed in a lake up in the mountains in 1919, a lake with no shipyards, no access to the sea and not even modern roads at the time! With their interests thorougly piqued, Mitarai and Ishioka chase after the mystery of Anna Anderson and the impossible photograph in Shimada Souji's Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case Of The Russian Phantom Warship", 2001).

Narrator Ishioka starts his tale about this adventure noting that this was a unique case for him and Mitarai, as it did not involve murders, or even death. And yes, Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is indeed probably a book very different from what you'd expect from the series, especially if you've mostly read the English releases, like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. For Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is not a classic detective story with an ingenious puzzle plot that dares to challenge the reader to solve its mysteries. This book is a historical mystery that mixes fiction with fact. You may noticed from the links in the summary already, but the Anna Anderson in this novel was a person who actually existed. She was the best known of all the people who claimed they were Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia. And yes, that means that this novel is about the mystery of Anastasia, the famous heir of the Romanov family of whom it was rumored she managed to escape the massacre of her family.

I guess that the term historical mystery could refer to two types of stories (which aren't mutually exclusive per se). A mystery tale could be set in a historical setting (for example the Judge Dee stories), or the tale could be about a mystery that occured in history ("Where did the hidden treasures of the Templars go?"). The latter of course don't need to be set in a historical setting themselves. Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken obviously belongs to the latter category and is a fairly entertaining example of the genre. I hardly know anything about Anastasia and the final days of Imperial Russia, to be absolutely honest, but the tale told in the pages of this book, which mixes facts and fiction, is entertaining at least. Mitarai, as a fictional character, deducing conclusions based on facts from 'our' real world is also an interesting sight, like Dupin's comments on the Marie Rogêt case (which was based on the real murder case of Mary Rogers). I have no idea whether the theories posed in this novel could survive close academic scrunity, but I for one enjoyed the tale about the alluring mystery of Anastasia with the changing world politics as its background.

The question is though, did this story need feature Mitarai? Yes, some of the deductions Mitarai makes about trauma in the brains and stuff are obviously ideas that 'belong' to him (as he is a neuroscientist), and there are some elements in this story that keep in firmly in the mystery genre, but still, most of the book consists of lectures on history. First it's a long history on Anna Anderson, then it's a history lesson on the Fujiya Hotel, then it's a historical account of the final days for the Tsar and his family... A lot of the time, it's just one or two people telling long tales from the history books. I am not sure whether this story needed the fictional world of Mitarai Kiyoshi, as it could've worked just as well without him. The character Reona also appears in other Mitarai stories by the way, like Atopos and Suishou no Pyramid.

The one element that is clearly something fit for a mystery novel is the titular Russian phantom warship, which apparently appeared in a mountain lake in 1919, despite the mere idea of that happening would've been impossible. In fact, the sheer scale of this mystery (a Russian Imperial warship making its way to a lake in the Japanese mountains) is exactly something Mitarai is used to solving. The actual solution however is... not something you'd expect from a mystery novel, as there were no hints available to the reader at all, and Mitarai just suddenly drops a surprising truth on both his allies and the readers. Sure, the explanation of Mitarai to the phantom warship is absolutely historically sound, but the truth behind the title is really not presented in the form of a mystery novel, as it does not follow the structure of mystery -> clues -> logical solution based on the clues. It's just sprung upon the reader now.

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is an interesting historical mystery on Anastasia, yes. However, it's definitely not what you'd expect from a book in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series. The puzzle plot mystery elements are far to weak for that. I have the feeling Shimada wanted to write a book on Anastasia, and thought it'd appeal to his readers better if Mitarai was involved with the case, but I think adding Mitarai only hurt the story as intended, as the fusion feels a bit forced. The fact a lot of the story involves plain info dumping, instead of a more engaging narrative is also a bit disappointing, as the material itself is interesting.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『ロシア幽霊軍艦事件』

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Double Purpose

Judge not, that ye be not judged.
"Gospel of Matthew 7:1" (King James tr.)

I don't really keep tabs on writers and new releases actually, not even of writers I do like. I just make random searches once in a while. Of course, this means I actually have to remember to make those searches. And that's why I only noticed today's book more than six months after its release (and it's also about six months between me writing this review and it being published online...)

Kamiki Raichi is an attractive senior high school student who practices enjou kousai ("compensated dating") as a part-time job: in theory, compensated dating does not need to mean more than that older men are paying attractive women for their companionship, but in the case of Raichi, she is definitely prostituting herself. That is the reason why Raichi wasn't that surprised when she got a letter from the owner of Sakai Machinery together with a maid costume. While the letter states that Sakai Touzou wants to hire her as a maid for a week, she suspects it's just some man who wants to hire her for her sexual services for a week, with her pretending to be a maid so the people around him won't notice her true identity. But when she arrives at the Sakai mansion in the outskirts of Tokyo, she realizes from the reactions from everyone there that Sakai Touzou did not send that letter at all, and that for some reason, everyone in the house is playing along with the fake letter. Raichi knows something is up, but even she couldn't have guessed that one of the persons in the house would be strangled to death in his room. At the same time, we're also introduced to senior high student Todai Kouhei who lives in Saitama. Having finally found the love of his life in Misaki, he manages to sneak inside the house of his girlfriend and have sex with her for the first time, but is then caught by the father, who has him arrested: Kouhei had mistakenly assumed that Misaki was older than him. And that means he had sex with a minor. Kouhei is taken away by the police in total disbelief to what has happened, but he could never have guessed at the curious link between his crime and the murders at the Sakai mansion in Hayasaka Yabusaka's Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai ("Nobody Can Pass Judgement On Me", 2016).

Hayasaka Yabusaka made his debut as a mystery writer in 2014 with Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken ("The ???????? Murder Case"), which first introduced us to Kamiki Raichi: a high school student prostitute who likes to solve crime as a hobby. That novel, as well as the short story collection about Raichi released afterwards, were quite unique for their focus on sex as a genuine part of the mystery. Sex sells, the saying goes, so often sex is only used in mystery fiction to 'spice things up'. This practice is especially often seen in screen adaptations of mystery fiction. In those stories, sex often has no function in terms of the mystery plot. Sex however is an integral part of the mystery plot in Hayasaka's Kamiki Raichi series. At times, the descriptions of Raichi's sexual adventures might appear surprisingly graphic, but it's always with a cause. From subtle hints to ingenious ways in which they link up with the mystery: the erotic touch to this series is never there just to be erotic, but always a vital part of it as a form of mystery fiction. As puzzle plot mysteries, the books in the Kamiki Raichi series are definitely well-plotted and much, much more than just sex (Sexual descriptions are also a bit toned down in this novel compared to the previous two volumes).

In this third novel in the Kamiki Raichi series however, Hayasaka tries his hands at something new. Traditionally, the puzzle plot mystery has been juxtaposed against shakaiha mysteries, or the social school. The social school of mystery fiction places emphasis on natural realism, and on exposing the problems of actual society. The Stereotypical Shakaiha Mystery would start with the discovery of a woman strangled in her apartment room and a hardworking police detective eventually discovering that she was murdered by her lover, who is also a director of a company, because she figured out he was buying off government officials. This is of course quite different from the romantic image of an excentric detective who solves a series of locked room murders set at a creepy mansion that is isolated from the outside world featuring a Challenge to the Reader. As you may have guessed, I am more a fan of the puzzle plot mystery than shakai-ha mysteries, though I do occasionally enjoy them (Matsumoto Seichou's Points and Lines and Jikan no Shuuzoku are great puzzle plot mysteries with social commentary, and the TV series Aibou does some great takes on the theme too). In essence though, these two schools are at odds with each other, but Hayasaka daringly attempts to fuse the two schools in Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai.

As mentioned in the summary, Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai is divided in two narratives, split up in Raichi chapters and Kouhei chapters. The Raichi chapters obviously follow Raichi inside the Sakai mansion as she tries to solve the murder and figure out why she was lured here as a maid in the first place. Her story is obviously a traditional puzzle plot mystery, involving a murder among a rich, but disfunctional family living in an oddly designed mansion. People familiar with Japanese mystery fiction are probably trained to be highly suspicious of oddly designed buildings, as nine out ten times there's a secret hallway, or some moving part, or a deathtrap built inside and the characters in this novel are apparently meta-concious enough to comment on that early on in the story. Indeed, near the end it is revealed there is something interesting going with the house, but this was telegraphed rather obviously, so it is not really a spoiler (basically, the characters first suggest the house might XXX, and then even mention a story by a different author that does the same thing, basically confirming what it is). The fact that the house is XXX is therefore not the main problem or reveal, but the mystery is solved by figuring out how that was used and how this will eventually lead to the identity of the murderer. This is classic puzzle plot territory, and the logical chain here is entertaining, as you suddenly arrive at the one and only murderer if you can follow the implications of each and every clue to their logical conclusion. What I did find a bit disappointing was atmosphere: the narrative here moves at breakneck speed, and more murders follow after the first, with little time to contemplate events.

The chapters starring Kouhei on the other hand are definitely social school material. After being baffled by the fact that it is illegal for him, even as someone who has only just turned 18, to have sex with someone one year younger than him (whom he even thought was much older), he learns more about the oddities of the law concerning having relations with minors during his stay at the detention center. Age of consent is 18, even though people can marry at 16. The will of the persons involved doesn't seem to matter at times, and there are even cases where a married person of 32 had relations with a girl of 17, but was found no guilty because they were "truly in love", while in another similar case, the man of 32 was found guilty of rape. Raichi herself (who is over 18, by the way) too makes use of the seemingly arbitrary laws and regulations as the act of prostitution might illegal, but the prostitute herself can't be punished by law. These examinations of the workings of the law, as well as the procedures after a sex offender is arrested are pure social school, far removed from Raichi's adventures at the strange mansion.

Eventually, the two narratives obviously link up in a...well, not really surprising manner. From the start, it is obvious the two narratives that start out so far apart will eventually come together. I think calling it a fusion of a puzzle plot mystery and the social school mystery might not be the best description of what happens in this novel. In Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai, the puzzle plot mystery and shakai-ha mystery cross paths. In a good way though. At the point in the story where these two storylines intersect, Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai does manage to impress a lot, as this crosspoint fullfills a surprising number of plot-related tasks for both the puzzle plot and the social commentary storyline. Plotwise, it is one of the most efficient scenes I've ever seen, I think. But besides that, the two storylines feel detached, and because the novel is particularly long, both storylines barely have the space to settle (as mentioned above when I said the Raichi chapters feel a bit rushed).

The conclusion of the novel feels a bit... talkative though. It is supposed to be like an account of the events from the POV of the murderer, but it reads more like the actual writer explaining things. I remember Yabusaka's first novel had something similar, with some of the narrative feeling too much like the author was directly telling the reader, rather than through an external point (in this case, a neutral third person narrator talking about the murders).

As a character, I still like Raichi a lot. She is an energetic female amateur detective who knows she is sexy and uses it. But she is not just simply a femme fetale, or seducer. Not at all, actually. She simply enjoys her erotic adventures, and uses it to her advantage by making money out of it, but her sexuality is not her main weapon in solving mysteries (she'd never get a confession from the culprit during pillow talk, for example). While erotic escapades are part of the mysteries, it is always clear that she doesn't solve them by using her gender characteristics to gain an advantage: Raichi is simply a highly intelligent woman, who manages to solve the most complex crimes because of her great set of brains. She just also happens to be a prostitute. She is also always shown to be a quick thinker and very much in charge (many foolish men have fallen victim to her taser and other means of self-defense), making her a surprisingly strong female character.

Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai is thus an entertaining novel which mixes the classic puzzle plot mystery with the social school based on natural realism. Often, it feels like you're simpy reading two seperate stories, but when the two storylines do cross, this novel does manage to make a very good impression. Juxtaposing the two styles within one story does make the murders-in-the-mansion part feel even more detached from real life, and the many laws, regulations and trial cases mentioned in the Kouhei storyline even more strangely real, which makes this a fairly unique reading experience. Overall, I'd say Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai was a great third entry in a series that has always managed to satisfy.

Original Japanese title(s): 早坂吝 『誰も僕を裁けない』

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Midnight Luna Sea

ひとつの目で明日を見て
ひとつの目で昨日を見つめてる 
君の愛の揺りかごで
もう一度安らかに眠れたら
『The Real Folk Blues』(山根麻衣)

I look at tomorrow with one eye
While my other eye is fixed on the past
If only I could once again sleep in peace
In the cradle of your love
"The Real Folk Blues" (Yamane Mai)

So Photobucket changed its policy, which means you can hotlink to images anymore. That sadly means that most of the posts made from the start of this blog until somewhere in 2013 don't have their images anymore, as I used to use Photobucket for image materials. I *might* fix that in the future, but to be honest, it's going to be a hell of a job to change the image links for hundreds of posts...

I think the 2009 film MW, a live-action adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's thriller manga, was the first time I saw actor Tamaki Hiroshi. In the film, he played a extremely dangerous psychopath. First impressions are hard to forget, so because of MW, I sometimes still have trouble picturing him as a detective, like in Watashi no Kirai na Tantei and today's film.

Shimada Souji's 1981 Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken (published in English as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) was a milestone in the history of Japanese mystery fiction. Not only was it a darn good mystery yarn in the model of the classic puzzle-focused mystery fiction, the novel also inspired a whole new generation of mystery writers in the country, who'd bring forth a revival of the puzzle plot mystery in Japan. The detective featured in the book was Mitarai Kiyoshi, an excentric, but brilliant astrologist, who'd dabble in amateur detecting as a hobby. His Watson, Ishioka, built a career as a mystery writer detailing the adventures he had with Mitarai, and over the course of years Mitarai managed to solve countless of baffling cases, but he also changes jobs. First hebecame an amateur detective (with astrology as a hobby) and he's currently a leading neurologist, teaching at universities across the world.

While Mitarai Kiyoshi made his debut back in 1981, he and Ishioka wouldn't be adapted for a live-action production until 2015, when they first appeared in a two-hour TV special starring Tamaki Hiroshi as the genius detective. Reception was certainly positive, so it seemed almost certain it would be followed by a TV series. To the surprise of many however, the production team decided to go straight for the silver screen. The 2016 film Tantei Mitarai no Jikenbo - Seiro no Umi ("The Casebook of Detective Mitarai - The Sea of the Starry Carriage"), which also carries the official English title Detective Mitarai's Casebook - The Clockwork Current starts with a strange request by Ishioka's newest editor Ogawa Miyuki. She hopes Mitarai will solve some crazy mystery for her, because that'd give Ishioka the material and inspiration to write a new novel for her. While Mitarai isn't really interested at first, the news of a series of unknown bodies washing up on the shores of a small island in the Seto Inland Sea. changes his mind, Mitarai decides to investigate this curious incident, taking Miyuki along (Ishioka has other prior commitments). The trail leads them to the city of Fukuyama, where a series of curious incidents await them: the death of a foreigner, the brutal torture of two parents (the father had his eyes gouged out; the mouth of the mother was stitched tight) and the murder of their poor baby, an attack on an associate-professor in History researching "the Starry Carriage", a mysterious term found on some old scrolls that document the sea battles held early in the nineteenth century and finally: the sighting of a mysterious Nessy-like creature in the Seto Inland Sea. However, only Mitarai is able to connect all these seemingly distinct cases together.

Detective Mitarai's Casebook - The Clockwork Current is based on Shimada Souji's novel Seiro no Umi ("The Sea of the Starry Carriage"; English subtitle The Clockwork Current), which was originally published in 2013 and the forty-ninth story in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series (I reviewed number fifty a while ago). I haven't read the original novel, so I have absolutely no idea how faithful an adaptation this film is, but I do know that the editor Ogawa Miyuki is an original character. In the novel, it's Mitarai's faithful Watson Ishioka who accompanies him on this adventure, but Ishioka was replaced for some reason in this film (even though Ishioka did appear in the 2015 TV special). It is a very strange change at any rate, as Mitarai and Ishioka are very much modeled after Sherlock Holmes and Watson, and replacing Watson with a random figure (his editor) is a bit odd to say the least. While the change is not bad on its own, it certainly doesn't offer any merits at all either. A lot of the charm of the original stories comes from the banter between the two, but that's gone too, as Miyuki is more a fangirl of Mitarai, rather than someone who knows him well and can fight back verbally.


To be honest, I had expected something much more from this first theatrical appearance of such an icon of Japanese mystery fiction. I have read only a mere fraction of all of the Mitarai Kiyoshi series, but I could've named quite a number of stories that would've worked much better on the silver screen than this one. That is the biggest problem of the film actually. The story isn't really suited for the big screen. It's basically about Mitarai investigating several distinctly different cases: bodies washing up on shore, a foreign drug ring, the brutal baby-murder and his tortured parents and a historical mystery about the identity of the "Starry Carriage". But none of them have the impact to really carry a two-hour film narrative, not even taken all together. The narrative jumps from one case to another at a rather high pace and none of them get really fleshed out in a meaningful way. The result is that the viewer is presented with a great number of incidents that don't seem really all that important, or even mysterious (or at least not mysterious enough to make you say you absolutely needed to see this in the theater). I think this story would have been much better if it had been adapted as a short TV series, which each episode first focusing on one case, and then the last few episodes bringing things together. While I admit that the scale of this film was grander than the 2015 special (which was set in urban Tokyo), basically everything The Clockwork Current had in terms of scale of the story and setting, you could also see in select mystery shows made for the small screen in Japan (save for some nice wide shots early in the film, I guess).


It doesn't help the mystery plot is a bit underwhelming. It's a (seemingly) random collection of smaller cases, of which only the baby murder/tortured parents plot makes any impact on the viewer, but as it is only one of the many subplots, it is given just too little time. Mitarai solves some minor mysteries about all of the smaller incidents as the story goes on, eventually revealing the connection between all the seemingly seperate cases, but even that feels a bit artificial, and not particularly surprising or impressive. I have a suspicion that in the original novel, these smaller incidents might all be seperate storylines, which only come together in the end. In the film however, we follow Mitarai and Miyuki as they stumble upon one case after another (in really rapid succession) and seeing Mitarai following up on all of them for seemingly no reason feels very arbitrary, as if the plot compels him to that, rather than his logic (as for most of the time, there's absolutely no reason to suspect any connection to the seperate incidents, save for the fact that this is a film, so of course everything is connected).


The part about the murdered baby/father with gouged-out eyes/mother with her mouth stitched tight appears at first a throwback to the delightfully horrible murder mysteries early in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series (like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders or Naname Yashiki no Hanzai), but the gruesome part is actually fairly superficial rather than functional to the mystery plot and the underlying mystery is kinda dependent on coincidence/sheer bad luck. Shimada has also been dabbling with historical mystery plots in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series for quite some time now, and the "Starry Carriage" subplot is in theory an interesting one, as it delves into the history of sea warfare in the Seto Inland Sea, but this too is a case of time constraints and weak connections to the rest of the narrative that weakening the impact of the plot.

Detective Mitarai's Casebook - The Clockwork Current is in the end not at all what I had expected based on the 2015 TV special. I think that by selecting this particular story as the basis of the film, as well as moving away from the style and framework set in the 2015 TV special, The Clockwork Current ended up as a film that has trouble to impress as a mystery movie. This story simply isn't really suited for the two-hour, single format of a theatrical release as it's too scattered and small-scaled, while leaving out an iconic series character like Ishioka, who is able to bring out the characteristic excentricities of protagonist Mitarai, results in a story that seldom truly feels like it's part of the Mitarai Kiyoshi series. It is definitely not what I had expected based on the 2015 special, so I hope that a future sequel (if it is produced), follows the classic format of the series more faithfully.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司(原) 『探偵ミタライの事件簿 星籠の海』

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Question

笑いたきゃ笑うがいい 失敗ばかりだけど
ブルーナ気分にならないのさ
俺は金も勇気もなにひとつないけれど
力の限り生きてゆくさ
「羞恥心」(羞恥心)

You can laugh all you want / I might be making mistakes all the time
But yet I'll never feel blue
I have no money, nor courage,
But I'll still live on as best as I can
"Embarrassment" (Shuuchishin)

Early on in my studies of the Japanese language, I discovered how helpful Japanese television programs could be for students. If you have ever seen  a Japanese program that is not a drama (for example, the news or a quiz program), you will probably have noticed the extensive use of captions. There is usually a lot of text projected on the screen, from simply the discussion topic at that moment, to comic book-like word balloons of actual spoken lines to emphasize them. This is heaven for a beginning student, as they can learn to read and listen to specific lines, without being overwhelmed by conventional subtitles (that go quite fast for beginning readers).

Hexagon II Quiz Parade was probably the program that helped me the most in learning the Japanese language and I still have fond memories of it. Hexagon II Quiz Parade was a popular quiz show that aired between 2005 ~ 2011 on Fuji TV, hosted by Shimada Shinsuke. The show featured a pool of regular contestants consisting of tarento comedians/actors/singers/models/artists/etc., often coupled with guests-of-the-week tarento contestants. These contestants were divided in three evenly-powered teams, based on the results of a short paper exam they had to do before the show. These teams would participate in various quiz games where teamwork was crucial. For example, each show ended with the Relay Quiz. Like in a relay race, the teams competed directly against each other, with the team that managed to have all six members correctly answering a question in order first, winning the game. The person with the best results in the paper exam was first in line for each team, and the person with the worst results acted as the anchor, so a quick start for a team was never a guarantee that they wouldn't get beaten in the end anyway, as the anchor would often have much trouble with the questions.


That said though, the quiz questions were usually not that difficult, as Hexagon II Quiz Parade was more an amusement program than one to flaunt one's intelligence. The program wasn't about impressing people with difficult questions, in fact, the questions were quite doable for high school students. But that didn't matter, as the program was about having fun with everyone. The hilarious interactions between the various contestants and the host Shinsuke were an important factor to the show's popularity. The fact the quizzes were always done in the forms of games (like having to answer questions while skipping a rope with the whole team) made Hexagon II Quiz Parade just fun to watch, and while there were contestants who were definitely 'smart', the most popular contestants were actually the "o-baka-san tarento", or "dumb tarento". These were the actors/models/singers/etc. who showed a surprisingly lack of common sense or knowledge, who would stumble over high school level materials, or even elementary school level math problems. Their screwball answers were a major source of amusement for their fellow contestant, and also the viewers, but never in a mean way and more often, the viewer was laughing with the o-baka-san tarento than just at them.

The popularity of the o-baka-san tarento in this show was so high, they even formed musical units as spin-off projects to Hexagon II Quiz Parade. Pabo was a three-member female vocal group, featuring Satoda Mai (idol singer), Suzanne (model) and Kinoshita Yukina (model), while Shuchishin ("Embarrassment") consisted of the three actors Tsuruno Takeshi, Kamiji Yuusuke and Nokubo Naoki. The odd name for the latter group was chosen when during one of the quizzes Kamiji misread the word schuuchishin, with host Shinsuke then saying maybe the three of them should form a vocal group under that name as they "knew no embarrassment" (as in: they never showed any embarrassment about the serious lack of common sense they revealed at times).

In 2008, a special spin-off TV drama was broadcast starring the three members of Shuuchishin, and other Hexagon II Quiz Parade members. Odaiba Tantei Shuuchishin - Hexagon Satsujin Jiken ("The Odaiba Detectives Shuuchishin - The Hexagon Murder Case") starts off with a shocking discovery by the three members of Shuuchishin. Recording for a new episode of Hexagon II Quiz Parade is about to start, but the comedian LaSalle Ishii hasn't been seen on stage yet, so Tsuruno, Kamiji and Nokubo offer to go to his dressing room to get him (partly because they just found out that Kamiji's first love from high school is now working as LaSalle's manager). They find LaSalle dying in his room however, with his manager fleeing the scene, but just before he passes away, LaSalle manages to blurt out something that seems to point to fellow comedian Kojima Yoshio. The Shuuchishin trio leave the room to get the producer of the show, but when they return to the dressing room, they find LaSalle's body has disappeared. The producer thinks it's a bad prank and he decides to lock them up in the Fuji TV Studio in Odaiba for the following few days, so the members of Shuuchishin can focus on their upcoming live performance. But the three can't let the case go and start sniffing around more, revealing that all is not well backstage at Hexagon II Quiz Parade.

As a big fan of Hexagon II Quiz Parade, I had been wanting to watch this special for a long time, even though I knew it couldn't be good... and it definitely wasn't. Both the story and acting is pretty bad. The plot is horribly cheesy and melodramatic at time and goes for all the usual tropes (Shuchishin might get disbanded! The members of Shuchishin start fighting with each other, but overcome their differences! The Power of Friendship saves everyone!). As a mystery story, it's really too horrible to even explain, even if there's actually a good in-universe reason for that. The dying message was okay-ish, as it at least was connected to the show (by pointing to Kojima Yoshio, who's also regular contestant). The acting was also nothing to rejoice about. Apparently, they had problems fitting the recording of this special in everyone's schedule, which explains why it's basically all filmed inside the building of Fuji TV (not on sets, but actually in the hallways and office rooms), with the recording of this special probably just being wedged in between other jobs the actors had at Fuji TV. This special is really only for the die-hard fans of Shuuchishin and Hexagon II Quiz Parade, but even then you'll need a lot of patience to endure this.


I wasn't planning to write a review about this special actually, but it did turn my mind to other TV mystery productions I had seen in the past, where people played themselves in person in major roles. I have not often seen this done in Western productions, but it appears that in Japan, once every several years you'll have mystery dramas starring famous people playing themselves, under their own name (as opposed to acting as other people). The best of those without a doubt is Furuhata Ninzaburou VS SMAP, the 1999 New Year special of the Columbo-inspired Furuhata Ninzaburou drama. In it, the five members boy band SMAP (arguably the most famous boy band in Japan of all time) played themselves as they planned a perfect murder during one of their concerts. The way the story really incorporated the personalities and characteristics of these five people, combined with an excellent mystery plot resulted in a fantastic inverted detective story. Screenwriter Mitani Kouki would later do something similar with the baseball player Ichiro, who would play basically himself (famous baseball player by the name of Ichiro. All similarities are "coincidental", a disclaimer message said) as another charismatic murderer in Furuhata Ninzaburou. The 2012 film Detective Conan - The Eleventh Striker became infamous for having J-League soccer players voice themselves in the animated theatrical feature (infamous, because they were terrible at voicing themselves). The 2015 TV special Yougisha wa 8-nin no Ninki Geinin ("The Suspects Are Eight Popular Comedians") featured eight popular comedians (duh) like Bakarhythm and Bananaman playing themselves in a so-so mystery drama where Himura of Bananaman is killed during a live streaming act.

What made Furuhata Ninzaburou VS SMAP so enjoyable was that it utilized the personalities of the SMAP members as we knew them, for a great mystery tale, for a crime only they could've committed, in a setting that unique to them (concert hall). This is what is missing from Odaiba Tantei Shuuchishin - Hexagon Satsujin Jiken, as it feels this could've been much better. I mean, why not have a story about a murder happening during the recording of a show, while everyone is busy with one of the quiz games. You'd have a great set-up, with almost twenty suspects, and a semi-impossible crime angle as everyone's eyes would be on the victim during the recording! Perhaps the story could've featured quizzes more, and played more with the fact the three members of Shuuchishin are considered "stupid". But now we have a story that is barely related to Hexagon II Quiz Parade, with a horrible mystery plot and at best passable acting.

Odaiba Tantei Shuuchishin - Hexagon Satsujin Jiken is thus really only for the fans of Shuuchishin and Hexagon II Quiz Parade, and even then only for the most dedicated of fans. Of which I imagine are only very few among the reader of this blog. As a mystery story, it's ridiculously bad, coupled with poor production values, with this special obviously only being a side-project for all people involved, just shot in between other things. While my expectations weren't high, I had hoped it would involve the program itself more, as Hexagon II Quiz Parade on its own is really an amusing quiz program that really helped me out a lot early on in my studies.

Original Japanese title(s): 『お台場探偵羞恥心 ヘキサゴン殺人事件』

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Matter of Honor

"You rang?"
"The Addams Family"
 
The funny thing is that everybody thought that IQ246, a show in the 2016 fall season, was going to be today's topic when it was first announced, as that show was about an aristocrat detective too...

Takatoku Aika, disciple of private detective Takami Kiriko, has recently started working as a detective on her own, when one day she runs into a mysterious man who calls himself the Aristocrat Detective. While at first the Aristocrat Detective and his three servants seem like they walked out of a costume party, it appears that this person is indeed as rich and well-connected he says he is, as even the police has no choice but to listen to his whims. An aristocrat's main business should be entertaining the fair sex, he maintains, but his personal hobby is detecting crimes, which is why he likes to stick his head in criminal cases. However, 'work' is below his social rank, so he leaves everything up to his capable three servants, from collecting evidence and questioning witnesses, to actually explaining who the murderer was. For you don't credit the building of a house to the hammer and saw: they are merely tools, which is no different from the Aristocrat Detective using his 'tools' (servants) in the most optimal way to solve the crime. Aika refuses to recognize the Aristocrat Detective as a collegue-detective as he doesn't do anything, but with every chance meeting at the most baffling crime scenes, her interest is getting piqued more and more, especially as the Aristocrat Detective seems to be intent at hiding a connection to Aika's mentor Kiriko. Aika thus has her hands full with both the crime of the week, as well as the mystery behind the Aristocrat Detective in the 2017 TV drama Kizoku Tantei ("The Aristocrat Detective").

When it was first announced that Maya Yutaka's The Aristocrat Detective series would be adapted as  a 2017 spring season TV drama, mystery fans were flabbergasted. Reason one: it was going to air on Fuji TV's Monday-9 slot (Monday at 21:00), which is as mainstream prime-time as you can get. The Monday-9 slot is reserved for the TV drama the station wants to push the most that season, and goes paired with big marketing campaigns and very popular actors. Some mystery shows I've discussed here that also aired in the Monday-9 slot were the series based on Higashino Keigo's Galileo and Kishi Yuusuke's Security Consultant Enomoto Kei. Monday-9 is the red carpet treatment, but this time it'd be for a mystery author who had not been adapted for the small screen before. And that brings us to reason two: while Maya Yutaka's a respected author within the mystery fiction scene, I think few readers will regard his works as easily adaptable for a mainstream TV production. Maya's stories are very heavy on meta-discourse on classic mystery fiction, and so they are not only bursting with classic tropes, he also loves playing with those tropes for suprising effects. Which is great for mystery fans, but can be a bit in-jokey for the general public. His protagonist characters also tend to be very over-the-top takes of classic "gentleman-detective" archetypes, with some of them so overly foppish and arrogant they make Van Dine or early Ellery Queen seem like the most humble of men around. Anyway, Maya was certainly not an author who'd you associate immediately with the Monday-9 slot.


I wasn't even planning to watch the show originally actually. The series is based on the Kizoku Tantei series, which consists of two short story collections (of which I have reviewed the first volume some years ago). You might remember I was not super enthusiastic about the first volume: I wasn't a big fan of the Aristocrat Detective character, and while most of the stories were okay-ish, I didn't consider them exceptional. But I picked up some very praising words about the drama early on in the season, so I decided to take a look and was really pleasantly surprised. The production team really managed to take the best parts of the original stories, and rearrange them to make their own, unique product that manages to stand on its own.

I'm not going to write something on every single episode, though I can say they're all based on the stories from the books, and that they're filled with classic mystery tropes, from locked room mysteries and other impossible crimes to stories about perfect alibis and dying messages. There's quite some variety, so I think most viewers will be more than content with this. In terms of solving the puzzle, I'd say you can definitely feel the influence of Queen and the Kyoto University Mystery Club here, as you'll need to watch carefully for clues that betray characteristics of the culprit and then use them to eliminate suspects until you're left with the final suspect (i.e. this clue tells us the murderer did this, which proves they knew fact A, and only a few people knew that. And this clue tells us that the murderer did this, etc.). But while I'm not going to pick any particular episode for special attention, I do want to take a good look in this review at the way the original stories were adapted for the small screen. Each episode basically follows the same two-layered structure: both Aika and the Aristocrat Detective find themselves working on the same case. Aika investigates the case herself, while the Aristocrat Detective's three servants do the work instead of their master. Aika then reveals her deductions, but ends up pointing out the wrong murderer. The three servants then reveal their theory, fingering the correct culprit, with the Aristocrat Detective taking all the credit as his servants did the work.


This means that each episode consists out of one false solution (Aika's solution), which is followed by the true solution (the Aristocrat Detective's solution). What makes this structure so impressive is that this is not from the original stories, or at least not from the stories in the first volume. That means the screenplay writers for this show had to adapt the original stories for TV, and also rewrite the story in a way to allow for a false solution every single time. Last month, I wrote a piece about false solutions and Foil Detectives, and I think Kizoku Tantei is an excellent example of how to do false solutions. Aika's solutions always turn out to be incorrect, but they are never bad solutions. They are absolutely sound deductions, based on the clues as shown on the screen, sometimes with multiple layers to them. I'd say it'd be quite a feat for most viewers to even arrive at Aika's solutions. It's only because she didn't grasp the importance of a minor clue that she turns out to be incorrect. The fact that the Aristocrat Detective's solutions top even Aika's solutions is impressive, especially as this occurs every episode. This drama shows exactly how a true mystery story is based on clues and logical deduction, and how each clue can change the outcome of the equation. The fact they also show this in such a understandable manner is also commendable, as stories with false solutions have a tendency to become too complex for TV. There is also a bigger storyline about Aika trying to figure out who the Aristocrat Detective is and what his link is to her mentor Kiriko, but I have to say that was kind of predictable, even if it did give us some absolutely brilliant moments on the way to the disappointing ending.


What makes this show in particular a delight to watch are the "reconstruction videos" made by the Aristocrat Detective's three servants. Tanaka (maid), Satou (chauffeur/bodyguard) and Yamamoto (butler) are the quintessential servants, straight-faced, loyal to their master and highly proficient in their own fields, but for some reason they always produce a home-made video to explain their own deductions, with the three servants playing the roles of culprit and victim themselves. These videos are absolutely hilarious, with the servants finally 'breaking character' as they're basically just playing around while reconstructing the crime. In the original stories, you'd usually only see one servant per story, who'd do the deducing instead of their master, but in the drama we always see the same three, and it's incredibly fun to see them on the screen each time.

To be honest, the overall casting is quite well (especially the three servants), save for the most important role. I really didn't like Aiba Masaki's take on the Aristocrat Detective. I;ll admit, I didn't really like the character from the original stories either, but that combined with Aiba's acting... Aiba is one of the five members of idol boyband Arashi, which you must know if you have ever watched Japanese TV, as the members host several TV shows, appear in every other commercial and also act in drama/films (and much more). Other Arashi members have also starred in mystery shows, like in Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de, Kagi no Kakatta Heya, Orient Kyuukou Satsujin Jiken and one of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo live-action series. This was the first time I ever saw Aiba as the main star, but I' d say he's the least versatile actor of the five Arashi members, and he really stood out (in a bad way) in Kizoku Tantei among an otherwise very strong cast.

But on the whole, I can only see Kizoku Tantei as an excellent adaptation of the source material. It takes the best parts of the original stories, then adds in enough new material to entertain and surprise everyone. People who don't know the original stories will be presented with solid mystery plots presented in a very entertaining way. People who do know the original stories however will be surprised to see how some of them have been overhauled for the double-solution structure, and this keeps things interesting also for them. The result is a show that should have something to offer everyone.

Original Japanese title(s):  麻耶雄嵩(原) 『貴族探偵』

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Night Prowler

What if that star is not to come
Will their dreams fade to nothing? 
When the horizon darkens most
We all need to believe there is hope
"Wind's Nocturne" (From: Lunar: Silver Star)

I occasionally receive review materials that are related to mystery fiction for other writing gigs, but I seldom use those materials for this blog, actually. There's no hard rules about reusing review materials, but I myself don't like writing reviews on the same subject again, even if it's for a different place. But it's been more than half a year ago since I wrote a review of today's work, so I figure even I am able to write something that isn't too similar to that first one.

Mikoshiba is known as a talented, but unscrupulous attorney, who is willing to take on any case and do anything to help his client as long as his (remarkable) fees are paid. At least, that is what the veteran prosecutor Misaki thought of Mikoshiba, so he's very surprised to learn that Mikoshiba took on the Tsuda murder case. Tsuda Akiko has to stand trial for the murder on her dead-beat husband, a crime she has already confessed too. The Tsudas were a poor family, as the mother had to work so their two daughters could eat, while her father stayed cooped up in his room wasting money on the stock market, which was apparently the reason for the murder. But why in heavens would Mikoshiba take on a hopeless case from a client who has no way of paying Mikoshiba's usual rates? Prosecutor Misaki ponders on this as he prepares to head the prosecution himself in the Tsuda case in Nakayama Shichiri's Nocturne of Remembrance.

Nocturne of Remembrance was originally released in Japan in 2013 with the title Tsuioku no Nocturne. The English translation was released in 2016. Nocturne of Remembrance is technically a sequel to 2011's Shokuzai no Sonata ("Sonata of Atonement"), though you do not need to have read the first book. It isn't available in translation anyway, and I also learned about Shokuzai no Sonata long after I read Nocturne of Remembrance.

There are basically two narratives in Nocturne of Remembrance. The first one focuses on the exploits of attorney Mikoshiba, as he investigates the Tsuda case and hopes to find a way to prove his client's innocence, despite Akiko's confession to the crime. This part is not much different from most common courtroom drama mysteries, as we see how Mikoshiba visits the crime scene, interviews people and tries to find something which can disprove Akiko's claims and point to a third party as the murderer. Mikoshiba is framed right from the beginning as an attorney with no ideals, but who acts on a fee, and as we aren't really given a look inside his mind. As a result, you do want to root for him as the defense attorney in a hopeless trial, but you also question his true motives throughout. Mikoshiba is the subject in this narrative, but in the other narrative, he changes to the object, as those chapters star Prosecutor Misaki, who suspects Mikoshiba is up to something and is more interested in investigating the defense attorney rather than the case. We thus look at Mikoshiba from two opposite sides throughout the book, and the result is a story with quite some momentum, as you keep 'switching sides'.

Calling Mikoshiba an "anti-hero" would be going too far, I think, but the dual structure does allow for a portrayal of Mikoshiba that makes him the main mystery of the book, in a certain way, more so than the actual truth behind the Tsuda murder case. As a result though, it becomes clear quite early on that the focus is not so much on "Who committed the Tsuda murder?", but "Why is Mikoshiba on this case?", which kinda weakens the impact of the Tsuda case, around which everything is built. The book says the Tsuda case is the main thing, but it shows something differently.

I read somewhere that Mikoshiba was sorta based on Tezuka Osamu's legendary manga Black Jack,  about a brilliant surgeon without a license who operates on whoever can pay him. There is certainly a streak of the black-and-white-haired doctor in him. This image of him is strenghtened by his interactions with one of the daughters of the defendant, who sticks around him and gives him a human side.

The mystery plot (the Tsuda murder case) of Nocturne of Remembrance is also decent. The beginning can be a bit dry, with legal documents and stuff appearing in the book, but once the trial starts and Mikoshiba starts to show what's he made of as a defense attorney, Nocturne of Remembrance shows why courtroom dramas can be so amusing. It's fairly clued for the most part and I think especially readers of Higashino Keigo will enjoy this, as there's definitely the human drama angle to this story too. As for the mystery behind why Mikoshiba wanted this case: the way it is revealed in this novel feels rather forced. A bit more finesse to the way it was revealed/inserting the relevant segments would've been much, much better. It was too easy to simply guess, based on the way those segments appeared in the book.

Nocturne of Remembrance, as well as my first encounter with Nakayama Shichiri, was thus an entertaining experience. The story might lack a bit of genuine surprise (at least, on my part), but the way the narrative keeps things exciting by being both 'for' and 'against' Mikoshiba makes this a good read from start to finish.

Original Japanese title(s):  中山七里 『追憶の夜想曲(ノクターン)』

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cold Reading

Please Set Disk Card
(Famicom Disk System boot-up screen)

Prologue

Takada Naoya is the young assistant of private detective Utsugi Shunsuke, a man so trusted by the authorities he's called in when the lifeless body of 17-year old Youko is recovered from a river. Naoya discovers that Youko has been strangled before she was thrown in the water, thus making it a case of murder. Because Utsugi is busy with a different case, young Naoya is put on this case, which brings him to Youko's high school. There he meets Youko's friend Ayumi, who tells Naoya that Youko, as a member of the school's Detective Club, had been investigating the school ghost story of "The Girl Standing In The Back": a ghostly figure said to haunt the school by manifesting herself behind people's backs. Naoya suspects Youko's death might be connected to this ghost story, which finds its roots in the disappearance of a student of the school 15 years ago. Whether his investigation in Ikeda Misa's Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo ("Famicom Detective Club Part II: The Girl Standing In The Back", 1989) is succesful, is completely up to the reader's choices.
Go to 1.

1

As you read the text on the back of the book, you realize that this is a gamebook. The name Famicom Detective Club and Ikeda Misa sound familiar too. You know remember that you already read a review of the gamebook based on the first game on this series a while back. Where do you want to start your investigation?
Read up on gamebooks and Famicom Detective Club ⇒ Go to 2.
Read Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo ⇒ Go to 3.
If you have read everything ⇒ Go to 4.

2

You remember that Famicom Detective Club was once a mystery adventure game series by Nintendo. Some might be surprised that this Nintendo series was about murder cases that were steeped in legends, ghost stories and other supernatural backgrounds, but the Famicom Detective Club games used to be a fairly well-known series among adventure gamers, though Nintendo hasn't touched the franchise in decades save for ports of the old games. The first two games date from the late eighties, which was also when gamebooks were popular in Japan. The gamebook Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo is based on the game with the same title, which was originally released in 1989 on the Famicom Disk System (NES) as the second entry in the series. An enhanced (and fantastic!) remake of this game was also released on the Super Famicom (SNES).

Gamebooks, or Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, have the reader make choices as they read, which lead to branching storylines. Whereas in a normal novel, the protagonist is destined to take the left turn in the maze, in a gamebook, the reader might given the choice to go left, right or back, each choice leading to a seperate outcome (in a gamebook, each choice will lead you to a different page). Many of the choices will eventually lead to a bad ending, and only the true detective can make it to the end of the case. Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo has some extra mechanics besides making choices: you also need to collect necessary clues and useful items as you fight against time, because movement between locations, but also fruitless lines of investigation all cost time, and you only have a limited amount of time units.
Go To 1.

3

Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo is set some time before the first book and details how the protagonist and Ayumi, his later colleague at the Utsugi Detective Agency, first met. The story in the gamebook is a more streamlined version of the one featured in the game, with fewer characters and some changes in how the story develops, but is at the core the same. People who have played the original game might be surprised by the changes that do exist though: some of them I had never expected, but I quite liked them in this version of the story. As a detective story, Famicom Tantei Club Part II has always been an engaging experience, as it mixes the murder investigation at a school with a more ghostly substory involving the rumors of the Girl Standing In The Back amidst a cast of rather unique characters in an engaging manner. In comparison to the gamebook of the first game, the prose of this second volume is more enjoyable, with more text before each choice, which helps fleshing out the story. Because you keep on flipping between pages as you make choices, it's easy to lose track of the story, but this book has several moments where the story gives you a breather, and helps you organize all the facts you have collected. Like in the previous gamebook, the focus lies not on figuring out who did it on your own, but on finding all the relevant evidence yourself. A classic Challenge to the Reader gives you all the hints, and then asks of you to deduce who the murderer is. It's difficult to do justice to that in a gamebook, so while the story will make all the necessary deductions for you in this book, it's up to you to actually find all the evidence needed for those deductions. Your choices will bring you along different routes, and choosing to talk with a certain person at a certain time might result in getting your hands on a crucial piece of evidence (or actually missing out on it, as you're supposed to be doing something else).

This gamebook appears to be easier than the one based on the first book. The mechanics are slightly different, but at least this second book doesn't have red herring pieces of evidence that lead to game overs once you get your hands on them. Though this book certainly isn't easy: there are still some items you absolutely need to find if you want to complete the story and it's easy to miss them. There are also many bad endings. Being taken off the investigation because you didn't find enough evidence before a certain point in the story is one of the better bad endings. In a fair number of them, the murderer actually goes after you and the murderer is rather good at err, murdering. The first book is more challenging, but in terms of overall enjoyment as both a game and a tale, this second volume manages to win.
Go to 1.

4

You have gotten a good idea of what Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo is. Are you satisfied with this review?
Yes ⇒ Go to 6.
No ⇒ Go to 5.

5

The murderer suddenly appeared behind you, driving their knife inside your back. If only... you had been content with the review.... THE END.

6
 
You have decided that you've gotten all you needed out of this review.
Go to Epilogue.

Epilogue

You come to the conclusion that Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo is an enjoyable mystery gamebook that does justice to the original game. You are now also of the opinion that this should be the last review written in gamebook format. As mystery gamebooks are fun, they'll probably appear on this blog in the future again, but it'll be in a normal review format then.


HAPPY ENDING

Original Japanese title(s): 池田美佐 『ファミコン探偵倶楽部 Part II うしろに立つ少女』

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hello Mr. Detective

「この簡単な事件、俺が33分もたせてやる」
 『33分探偵』

 I'll drag this simple case out for thirty-three minutes!
"33 Minutes Detective"

Mystery fiction is at the core about the process of solving a mystery, that is to say, it's about how the initial mystery-filled situation is eventually explained. While the main problem and its solution ("the truth) are of course very important elements, one shouldn't forget that the route from the one to the other is at least as important. If you only had a problem and an answer, you wouldn't have mystery fiction: you'd have a quiz. It's the attention to to the process from A to B that makes it an actual story. Of course, there are many ways to make this journey to the truth attractive for the reader. The investigations in Queen-style stories have a tendency to seem rather clinical for example, but the way the truth is eventually revealed by methodically sifting through various strands of information and clues, by creating logical order out of data chaos has an almost cathartic sense, like slowly cleaning up a messy room. Other stories might try to entertain the reader by starting with an utterly baffling initial situation (impossible murder), and then employing an uncanny feeling throughout the story until the truth is revealed. Inverted stories like Columbo might not be about whodunit, or even howdunit, but pose an alternative mystery ("how did the culprit mess up?") and keeps the journey interesting by slowly breaking down what seems like the perfect murder. The Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games were heavily inspired by Columbo, and do something similar, but also keeps the player engaged by constantly changing the initial mystery, often making it look even stranger than initially thought, until it's broken down at the end.

A while back, I wrote about the trope of false solutions in mystery fiction, and that's of course also a way to make the journey to the truth entertaining. But even so, stories with false solutions are still following the exact same route as the other stories mentioned above: the narrative will eventually arrive at the truth. Even Anthony Berkeley's novels, which play around a lot with the notion of "truth" by bombarding you with false solutions, do eventually reveal the truth. On the other hand you have anti-mystery novels like Dogura Magura or Kyomu he no Kumotsu, which reject the notion of a single truth all together. But a commentator reminded me of a TV drama series that manages to do something completely original with this fundamental structure of mystery fiction.

Enter Kuruma Rokurou: a young private detective and enormous fan of classic mystery fiction. He's good friends with the local police inspector, who often calls for Rokurou's help whenever he's facing another murder case. The murder scenes come straight out of a detective fiction fan's dreams: a bride brutally murdered on her wedding day; murder at a school haunted by ghost rumors; small out-of-the-way communities with strange local habits; a dead body discovered during a musical performance: nobody would complain about these settings, right?  Both Rokurou and the viewer are all set to investigate the mysterious murder when.... the police arrest the murderer. Red-handed. With the knife in their hands. And a motive. And witnesses. And a confession. All questions answered. All within five minutes of the show beginning! Only Rokurou can't just let this go and call it a day. Not because he believes the arrested suspect is innocent. It's because the time slot of the TV show is, minus the commercials, thirty-three minutes long! If they'd wrap things up now, the next show would get into trouble, so no matter what, Rokurou needs to drag the case out until the show fills all scheduled thirty-three minutes! Kurama Rukurou is the 33pun Tantei ("33 Minutes Detective", 2008, 2009), not because he can solve any case within thirty-three minutes, but because he can stall any case for thirty-three minutes.

33pun Tantei was a TV drama that was originally broadcast in 2008, with a short second series following in 2009. It was revolutionary as a mystery show, as the whole premise was that even though the super-simply, obvious truth of the case was always revealed within the first five minutes, they needed to fill the time of their alloted time slot. Rokurou does this by coming up with the most outrageous hypotheses that point the finger to everyone but the obvious suspect, using every single mystery fiction trope he can think off. At the end of each episode though, he always comes back to the conclusion that the obvious suspect who was arrested red-handedly was indeed the real murderer (even though we all knew already).


So to return to what I mentioned in the introduction: basically all mystery fiction is about the journey between the starting point (initial mystery) and the destination (truth) and the sights we see along the way. In 33pun Tantei however, this journey is just an easy five-minute walk. But because we arrived too early at the destination, we decide to talk a long, loooong walk around just to kill some time.

And the way it's done is hilarious. 33pun Tantei is highly inspired by Police Squad!, copying many things from that series (the overall silly tone; the informant scenes; the visit to the lab; the cheap-looking 'driving' shots between scenes and the faux still-shot endings), but whereas Police Squad! was a parody on police shows, 33pun Tantei is that of classic mystery fiction. Each and every of Rokurou's hypotheses about other possible murderers are brimming with classic tropes, from locked room murders, complex alibi tricks using trains to twin substitutes. The problem? Rokurou has too much of an imagination. He takes each of these tropes to hilarious impossible extremes in his desperation to come up with an alternative to the truth. Ice cubes are a familiar old trope in mystery fiction, as they have the handy feature of melting, but what about a gigantic ice cube to allow someone to cross to another window, and then letting the sun melt away all evidence!?


Rokurou's delusions are really the star of the show, as they're hilariously farfetched, but always 'grounded' in well-known mystery fiction tropes. Any fan of the genre will instantly recognize the tropes, but they take on almost grotesque forms, as Rokurou twists the truth around and around in the hopes of proving someone else guilty. It's a real delight to see these over-the-top theories presented in a serious manner by Rokurou, while everybody is busy pointing out the rather obvious holes in every single one of his hypotheses. Indeed, he's always called out on it every time by both the people accused by him, as well as Rokurou's own allies. Rokurou never ever actually manages to defend his flimsy theories, and it often seems like he may not even fill out the complete thirty-three minutes of the show, but somehow, he always manages to perservere. The presentation of these "theories" is also always incredibly funny, with the accused always being portrayed as some kind of monster intent on murder (complete with "evil" make-up), coming up with the most nefarious of schemes.


While basically all episodes follow the same set-up of 1) Case is discovered, 2) Rokurou arrives at scene, 3) Real culprit is caught, 4) Rokurou declares he'll drag the case out, comes up with fanciful theories and 5) Rokurou decides the real culprit is indeed the real culprit, there's still variation to be found. Each episode has a completely different setting (based on stock settings from mystery fiction, from a villa to a TV station and a cruise ship), allowing for different kinds of mystery tropes to be employed in Rokurou's fanciful concoctions, from more Yokomizo Seishi-inspired theories in the episode set in an isolated village, to Christie-approach in the cruise ship episode. There are also some rather original settings, like that at a manzai-comedy venue hall, or one that happens in a building housing several fortune tellers.


The series was created by Fukuda Yuuichi by the way, who's specialized in comedy drama. He has also created the Dragon Quest parody Yuusha Yoshihiko ("The Hero Yoshihiko") TV series for example, and he's also working on the live-action adaptation of Gintama. As for 33pun Tantei, the lead Doumoto Tsuyoshi not only plays an incredibly funny lead in this series, but his role has extra meaning because twenty years earlier, he also starred as protagonist Hajime in the original TV drama series based on Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files"), making him an icon of Japanese mystery fiction.

In a way, mystery fiction has often taken its own tropes too seriously, so it's almost refreshing to see 33pun Tantei take everything to its ridiculous extremes. It has everything a mystery fan likes, but manages to arrange everything in such surprising, and hilarious ways each episode is just a blast to watch, even if you know that in the end, after all the imaginative theories with locked room murders and daring alibi tricks and other impossible cries, that after the thirty-three minutes, the story'll come back to that first conclusion, that the very first and most obvious suspect was indeed the culprit. But that's fine, as the roundabout way to that conclusion is still fantastic.

Original Japanese title(s): 『33分探偵』, 『帰ってこさせられた33分探偵』

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Middle Point Symphony

「聖闘士には同じ技は2度通用しない」 
『聖闘士星矢』 

"The same technique won't work twice on a Saint." 
"Saint Seiya"

I love the cover of this book. Too bad it never gets as awesome as on the cover. I'd have loved to see a more prominent team-approach to the current storyline.

The Crime Victim Salvation Committee is the organization behind the Duel Noir: a match of wits held between murderers out on revenge and detectives. The Committee sells perfect crime schemes to would-be murderers, but also invites detectives to the crime scene to solve said perfect crimes. Young detectives Yui and Kirigiri have tracking down the Committee and one of the most important figures in the organization decided to have a wager with the duo. He presents the two ladies with The Twelve Locked Room Temples, a challenge consisting of twelve locked room murders which they have to solve within one week. If they can either prevent, or at least solve all murders and apprehend the culprits, he promises to leave the Committee, which would severely weaken the organization. Picking up from the previous volume, Kitayama Takekuni's Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 (2015) has the two detectives gathering a team of comrade detectives as they fight against the clock to take down the remaining Locked Room Temples.

It's the fourth volume in this spin-off series of the Danganronpa series focusing on the past of character Kirigiri Kyouko as she starts out as a professional detective. Connections to the main story as told in the games are fairly light, and unlike spin-off novel Danganronpa/Zero, I think this series can be read quite easily without any prior knowledge of the series. The Danganronpa Kirigiri novels are penned by Kitayama Takekuni, whom we know on this blog as a writer who specializes in highly mechanical locked room murder mysteries. The things he uses may not be Rube Goldberg contraptions, but you'll definitely find gadgets, gimmicks, and more stuff in his locked room mysteries, and this characteristic of his work remains even though he's now working on an existing IP.

If you have read my review of Danganronpa Kirigiri 3, you might remember my biggest complaint about it: It was an incomplete story. While there were also some plotlines left open in the first two volumes, they were without a doubt seperate stories that could stand on their own. The third volume introduced the challenge of the Twelve Locked Room Temples, but only one of those twelve locked rooms was solved in that volume (plus five off-screen by a third party). The volume didn't satisfy at all, as it had a great concept, but then stopped just as things were getting interesting. The third volume was in fact nothing more than a prologue, even though it certainly wasn't sold as one. Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 picks up right away from the third volume, with Kirigiri and Yui first recruiting a band of allies, among which they divide the remaining six Locked Room Temples. Do not even try to read this volume without reading Volume 3, as this volume explains absolutely nothing and dives straight into the action.

The previous volume was very shallow, as it only featured one locked room mystery. This time, we have three of them, presented through parallel storytelling. Well, actually it's two and a half. For while the case of the disappearing murderer at the Libra Girl's Academy sure looks interesting, it's not actually solved in this volume. This might a more common practice with serialized comics, with storylines spanning several volumes, but this is rather ridiculous for a normal novel, even if it's a series. I mean, the previous volume only had one locked room mystery, but at least it was solved and filed away within that volume. But to be presented only the first half of a story, and to have to wait for the next volume for the solution? That's just cheap and annoying. At the time I'm writing this review, it's been over a year since Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 has been released, and there is still not even a release date scheduled for the next volume, which (hopefully) includes the conclusion to this murder mystery (EDIT: the fifth volume has been announced and released in the period between me writing this review and actually posting it).

The remaining two (mostly) complete locked room mysteries in this volume are luckily fairly entertaining, if a bit short. One of Kirigiri and Yui's allies is sent to an abandoned school, which has been cut off from the world through a landslide. Inside the gymnasium, he finds a girl stabbed in her chest, her body placed inside a circle of candles. He also finds four students, who explain they're from their school's Mystery Club. They had been challenged by the Black Magic Club to come here, but when they arrived here (before the landslide), they stumbled upon the deceased victim, a fellow member of the Mystery Club. The detective soon deduces that it's quite possible that one of the Mystery Club members present might've committed the murder, but all four of them have perfect alibis as they were all together making their way to the abandoned school at the time of the murder.

The clueing in this story is surprisingly well done. It uses a piece of knowledge now commonly known through all those forensic science-oriented mystery shows in a very original way and the particular way in which this murder was committed was something I had never seen before. The one problem this story had, and which also holds for the other story, is that it's presented in a very concise way. While the locked room murder trick is original, the narrative allows for very little space to actually contemplate on it. More pages would've allowed for more depth in the story and the characters. Now it feels more shallow than it should be. I wouldn't call this a bad story, but there was much more potential in this.

The last murder case handled in this volume is set at the Twin Abilities Development Research Facility. Kirigiri arrives too late at this laboratory where they research the psychic and physical bonds between twins, for when she arrived at the scene, two researchers on watch had been knocked out and the two test subjects, twin brothers, were already murdered. It is a mystery how the murders were committed though. The brothers were being held in different wings of the building, and the corridors in both wings were both locked at two points each. The special locks used can only be opened by the fingerprint of the researcher registered on the lock, so you'd need the fingerprints of all four researchers to open all the locks to both wings to kill both victims. Or was the bond between the two brothers so strong that killing one automatically led to the death of the other?

In comparison to the previous locked room mysteries, I'd say that this one is not really as impressive as the ones we've seen earlier in this series (or even this volume), though I think I can forgive it because of the themes it's playing with. I can't talk about it in detail as it'd give the game away, but I can definitely understand where Kitayama was going for with this locked room trick, and while I think he does not pull it off just as well as planned, I think it's more than a good effort and an original way to play with reader's expectations. Is it really fair? Perhaps not, though I think that's also partly because of the earlier mentioned problem of the storylines included in this volume being rather short. More space would definitely have helped the premise of this story a lot.

In the end, Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 has the same problems as the previous volume, though less severely. Once again, it's an incomplete story. While we do have two fairly entertaining locked room mysteries included in this volume, we also have one murder mystery storyline which is literally abandoned midway. As this is sold as a standalone volume (for a premium price), I can't say I'm really pleased with that, especially as the following volume took over a year to be released. Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 is literally just a part somewhere in the middle of a longer storyline, with no proper introduction nor conclusion. As for now, the Twelve Locked Room Temple storyline is entertaining as a concept (even if the individual Locked Room Temple storylines are a bit hasty), but the presentation is awful, as it spans several volumes leaving the reader with bits and pieces that don't make any sense outside the larger context. I might become very enthusiastic about the whole thing once it's done and ready so I can look at the complete storyline, but as a consumer, I think the manner in which this storyline is presented to the reader is awful, and that it hurts the otherwise interesting premise. Volume 5 was released in March of this year, more than a year after the release of this volume, so I hope that volume will bring some closure.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切り4』