Monday, March 27, 2017

Private Eye in the Distant Sea

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
"And Then There Were None"

A couple of years back, I wrote about Fuji TV’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic Murder on the Orient Express. It was an interesting project, as it was broadcast in two parts: the first episode was highly inspired by the 1974 film and followed the novel quite closely, while the second episode presented the tale from the perspective of the murderer(s), starting with the motive and how everything was prepared. It was also in this second episode where director Mitani Kouki really shined, as a lot of his films are screwball comedies where things go wrong ‘backstage’, while everybody tries to keep up appearances. The hectic and chaotic hotel of The Uchouten Hotel, the constant improvising during the live performance of a radio play in Radio no Jikan (AKA Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald) and the political games to decide the future of Japan in The Kiyosu Conference are all typical Mitani settings, and his lighthearted, slightly humorous take on how the murder came to be gave his Murder in the Orient Express adaptation a unique touch, even if it was not a perfect adaptation. It would take another few years before another Japanese live-action adaptation of a Christie work would come.

Soldier Island is a small private island far off Hachijojima (an island about 300 kilometers south of Tokyo). A person named Nanao Shin will soon be opening his “Nature Hotel” there: a place of recreation far away from the stress of modern day life, where people can live freely surrounded by pure nature. Nanao has invited eight persons of interest to spend some days in his Nature Hotel: some of the more illustrious guests include former gold medallist swimmer Shiramine Ryou, mystery writer Gomyou Taku, retired actress Hoshizora Ayako and former MP Monden Senmei. The guests look forward to spending a few days at this resort and find the little touches to the “return to nature” call quite charming. For example, cell phones/tablets/etcetera are not allowed on the island (the staff are to keep their belongings in a safe) and the newspaper is only delivered once every few days by a drone. But it is during dinner that the guests, and the two staff members, discover they have been set-up: a mysterious voice accuses each of the ten people present of having committed a crime for which they were never punished and for which they will now pay on this island. The ten all deny having done such a horrible deed and consider it nothing more than a very, very bad joke, but nobody laughs when Gomyou Taku suddenly topples over, having been poisoned with arsenic. As there are no means for the survivors to contact the mainland themselves, they have to wait until the boat arrives after the storm, but as time passes by, they all get killed off one by one following the nursery rhyme Ten Little Soldiers, until nobody is left alive on the island in TV Asahi’s 2017 two-part TV special Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta (And Then There Were None).

And Then There Were None (1939) is of course widely considered one of, if not the best by Agatha Christie. The now timeless story of people on an isolated island getting murdered one by one until nobody is left has had a tremendous influence on mystery fiction in general, also in the eyes of the general public. There are also various adaptations of the story: from the stage play (written by Christie herself) to film and radio adaptations. The most recent one up until now was probably BBC’s 2015 series. Your mileage might vary, but I thought BBC’s adaptation of Agatha’s Christie’s Tommy & Tuppence series in the form of Partners in Crime (2015) was horrible, so I had little expectations for their three-part series of And Then There Were None. But that turned out to be a fantastic mini-series, which managed to portray a distinct, desolate sense of desperation as the story headed to its climax. It was genuinely scary, as people slowly but surely lost their cool with every murder. In my mind, it set a standard to which to compare other And Then There Were None adaptations with, and it was definitely on mind as I watched TV Asahi’s adaptation of the classic.

The TV Asahi mini-series Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta was broadcast on March 25 and 26, each part featuring a runtime of around two hours (making the total runtime longer than the BBC series). The first thing that people will probably notice is that Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta is set in present day Japan, rather than the late 30s UK of the original novel. Soldier Island now lies quite faraway south of Tokyo, while the ten little soldiers to be killed off are all complete original characters (their names are not based on the original names, like in the 2015 Murder on the Orient Express adaptation). To start off with the ten little soldiers: all the characters have completely revised (modern) backgrounds, but they still retain the original crimes they were accused off in the novel. For example, the character General MacArthur of the original novel was accused of sending a younger subordinate officer who had an affair with his wife on a mission with no chance of survival, while in this special, is now former MP Monden Senmei is accused of sending his secretary to a building he knew was the target of an imminent terrorist bombing. Most of the changes work, even though quite a lot of the characters are portrayed less bad than in the original novel (the first victim for example was perhaps not without guilt, but he was also unfortunate in this version for example, rather than being the amoral snob of the original). Like in the BCC adaptation, the characters are constantly haunted by flashbacks to their crimes and show the viewers what they really felt and thought during those times, as oppose to the façade the characters try to keep up in front of the others.

The modern setting naturally also causes some problems. It’s an issue that has long been examined in postmodern mystery novels: is the isolated, closed circle setting even still viable in the present day? It’s a theme Ayatsuji Yukito played with in The Decagon House Murders for example (which was obviously inspired by And Then There Were None), and you still see it often in Japanese mystery fiction these days, but there is no denying there’s some artificial touch to it in a modern setting (note that despite that, I love the setting. I don’t read mystery fiction for realism, I read it for entertainment). In Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta, we see the characters have to hand over their smart devices to follow the rules of the Nature Hotel, which is a solution that works I think. Obviously, the characters do try to make contact with the police after the first death, but by then the batteries have been removed from their devices by an unknown entity. With drones delivering newspapers to the island, one has the feeling the island is not closed off completely from the outside world, but as the story only takes a few days, I guess this idea works quite well.

A question which will probably pop up is: Is there a compelling reason for this adaptation to be set in the present day, rather than the original 30s setting? As at first sight, it only seems to weaken ‘the isolated setting’ premise. To that I have to say: yes, there is absolutely a good reason why it is set in the modern day. One problem adaptations have always struggled with is the balance between originality and being faithful to the source material. Of course, one can add originality in various ways, but the BBC’s And Then There Were None adaptation was on the whole more a faithful adaptation than one that surprised me with original ideas and takes on the source material. Original take is often taken as a negative, as “improvements” are often not what they hoped to be, but in the case of Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta, I’d argue the changes helped make this adaptation at least offers a platform for a wide-sided discussion.

The original And Then There Were None novel has always had a rather existential problem. At one hand, the premise has all ten persons dying on the island, leaving nobody alive on the island, which eliminates the possibility of a murderer roaming on the island. As a narrative, this is a very strong one: you see each of them die one by one until there are none, and then this story ends. But that also means there’s nobody left to solve the mystery of who arranged for all of this. The original novel solved this by adding two epilogues to the story, where for example the police examines the murders after the discovery. I always thought this went against the premise of the story, as it introduced an outside world, even though the story until then had been focused completely on the island and its ten inhabitants. The stage play ‘solves’ this by having the mastermind explaining everything themselves on the island in the conclusion, but this too felt a bit staged. The conundrum “isolated world where nobody is left, not even somebody to explain everything” VS “opening up the isolated world to explain events” is something that probably won’t bother most people, but one that has always bothered me a bit. To bring The Decagon House Murders up again: that story did something interesting there by adding another, mainland-focused narrative right from the start, which had its pros and cons too.

Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta too embraces the open world premise. The special actually opens with a scene set during the police investigation of the island, where they have discovered ten murdered people and are now trying to find out how it all happened. They know something fishy is going on, as the island was isolated from the outside world the last few days. The special then jumps back in time to tell the story of the Ten Little Soldiers all getting killed, only to return to the police narrative for the last hour or so. It is in this part where Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta adds a distinct original touch to And Then There Were None. The original novel was, by design, always more focused on suspense rather than detection. Sure, the characters on the island sure did their best to find out who was trying to kill them (or suspecting it was one of them doing it all), but overall, it felt more like a thriller than a tale of reasoning. The same holds for the BBC adaptation, which was a dark story focused a lot on the psychological side of the characters. In Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta, the people-getting-murdered narrative is obviously inspired by the BBC adaptation, showing us a fairly grim portrayal of how the characters cope with both their direct fears as well as their hidden demons. It even has that same green hue on the screen that I very much associate with the BBC adaptation. The mode in all these versions is that of the thriller, not that of the tale of detection. When we come to Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta’s police narrative however, we are first introduced to a true whodunit mode to the old tale. The somewhat eccentric Chief Inspector Shoukokuji here leads the investigation into the ten murders and it is here where we see the biggest departure from the original novel. Not only is there a distinct comedic tone to this part (with lieutenant Tatara and Chief Inspector Shoukokuji forming a Poirot-Watson-esque pair) and are we introduced to bright, sunny weather now as opposed to the dark, grim tone of the island narrative, the mode of the tale is now a true tale of logical reasoning and detection.

The original novel ended by pointing attention to three hints the murderer(s) left during the tale that should’ve have given away they were the culprit. I have always thought those clues were rather weak and nothing more than very vague nudges, and even then they were open to discussion. Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta changes these hints, replacing them with a series of original hints from which Chief Inspector Shoukokuji manages to deduce what has happened on the island. These deductions also lead to the explanation why it made absolutely sense that this production was set in the present day, rather than the 1930s. While I don’t think all the new hints work (some of them were really obvious),  I think the plot device they were going for was an original one, and I really appreciate they went for it, as it works out quite well on the whole (even if also raises some questions about how workable this really was). On the whole though, I’d say these changes turned Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta in a much stronger whodunit narrative on the whole compared to the original novel, as it starts off with the framing story of the police trying to solve the mystery of Soldier Island, rather than by focusing solely on the events on the island and adding the police as an afterthought. Whether the changed focus is for the best, is something that everybody will experience differently I think, but I was pleasantly surprised by this new take on the old story.

Minor ROT13 spoilers about why it is set in the present day (No spoilers of the identity of the murderer(s)): Puvrs Vafcrpgbe Fubhxbxhwv svaqf bhg gung gur zheqrere npghnyyl erpbeqrq rirelguvat gung unccrarq ba gur vfynaq guebhtu n argjbex bs uvqqra pnzrenf. Gur aneengvir gur ivrjref fnj bs gur gra crbcyr trggvat xvyyrq bss bar ol bar jnf npghnyyl (n qenzngvp vagrecergngvba bs gur) ivqrb zngrevny gur cbyvpr sbhaq naq rqvgrq vagb n puebabybtvpny erpbafgehpgvba bs jung unccrarq (boivbhfyl, gur synfuonpxf naq fghss jrer abg cneg bs gur ivqrb zngrevny). Riraghnyyl, Fubhxbxhwv nyfb svaqf n ivqrb ol gur zheqrere(f) pbasrffvat gurve pevzr naq rkcynvavat jung unccrarq.

In terms of casting, Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta also has some great surprises. The average “star-power” of the cast is actually quite high, so one can’t guess who the culprit is based solely on the name. But what is interesting is that most of the actors featured are actually also known for playing leading roles in mystery shows. Nakama Yukie (Shiramine Ryou/Vera Claythorne expy) is arguably the biggest name and she co-starred with Abe Hiroshi in the fantastic mystery-comedy TRICK. Sawamura Ikki (Chief Inspector Shoukokuji) has been playing Mitsuhiko in the Asami Mitsuhiko TV adaptations based on Uchida Yasuo's novels for many years now, and Yanagiba Toshirou (Ken Ishirugi/Philip Lombard expy) was the always-frowning police bureaucrat Murai in comedic police procedural Odoru Daisousasen (Bayside Shakedown). Watase Tsunehiko (Iwamura Hyougo/Justice Wargrave) deserves a special mention. The man gave a brilliant performance, but was sadly enough not able to see viewer reception himself, as he passed away after years of suffering of cancer about a month after finishing filming, and not even two weeks before the broadcast of the special. Some of his real-life ailments were included into his character actually, making it sometimes hard to see whether his acting was really just acting, or also real. Watase played the railroad-focused Inspector Totsugawa in the TV productions between 1992-2015 based on Nishimura Kyourarou’s books.

I’ll really need to wrap this review up now as it is already way too long, but I think that this post shows the strength of this adaptation of And Then There Were None. Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta is not a straight adaptation of the source material, and some might even disagree with the changes made to the setting, characters and the way the story is wrapped up, but one can’t deny it provides people a lot to talk about. It is a very competently-produced special, and the changes here and there are never out-of-the-blue, but there for very clear reasons that help set this production apart from other adaptations. This is a version that feels unique, that feels like the product of a team that does love the original story, but want to add something of their own to it too. As such, I feel that Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta on the whole is an attempt that deserves discussion about its take on Christie’s evergreen.

Original Japanese title(s): Agatha Christie (原) 『そして誰もいなくなった』


  1. I look forward to watching it.

    Also, thank you for sharing the spoiler, I think it's a pretty cool idea.

    1. Yeah, I think the idea works quite well here, as it focuses more on the solving process of the story than many other adaptations.