Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Gathering Pieces

わりと昔からとめといてたまに読み返す頭んなか
その言葉は言葉にはエコーがついてる
「エコー」(ユニコーン)

I've been saving them up from rather long ago / I sometimes read them again / inside my head
Those words / There's an echo to those words
"Echo" (Unicorn)

If you have ever browsed in the comic department of a bookstore in Japan, you might have come across them: preview booklets. When a publisher decides to push sales for a certain series (for example because there's an anime or live adaptation coming up, or the comic won an award), they'll often work together with bookstores to promote the series. Projects like these often involve little cards placed around the store with comments on the work in question by the bookstore employees themselves, the infamous hiratsumi method of getting attention (putting heaps of the books in question in front of the book cabinet with the cover facing up, instead of putting them inside the cabinets with only their spines visible) and of course preview booklets. These booklets are not meant for readers to take away (and are often chained to the cabinets), but allow perusing customers to read a chapter for free (new comic books are often wrapped in foil in Japan). They are obviously an effective way to introduce new readers to a series and I myself have also bought comics after reading such booklets.


My favorite live action drama of 2016 was Juuhan Shuttai! ("Reprint Ready!"), which was based on a manga about a manga editor and the story behind how a manga is made, from the artist, to the publisher all the way to the bookstore and customer. One of the episodes was about how the marketing department of the publisher decided to promote a series and create preview booklets. I was quite surprised to learn that they actually use overstock of the books to create these preview booklets; they cut out the first chapter from the complete book to create a new booklet, and throw the rest away. It was quite shocking to see they sacrifice whole books to create a smaller book, but I guess it makes more sense than printing extra books before you even know whether the promotion will improve sales.

(If you ever want to learn more about how the manga industry works in Japan, go watch Juuhan Shuttai! or read the manga! It's both fun and informative, especially as it looks at the complete industry, rather than just at the artists or editors)

You don't see these booklets in Japan for 'normal' books (i.e. the non-comic kinds), as reading a comic is a lot easier than reading the first chapter of a novel inside a bookstore, but with the growing popularity of e-books, publishers have been making these kinds of free preview booklets available digitally. Obviously, practical costs are basically nil compared to having to cut out books, repackaging them and sending them off to bookstores, so I expect this practice will grow out to be quite similar to the comic preview booklets.

As I quite enjoyed Aosaki Yuugo's debut book Taiikukan no Satsujin ("The Gymnasium Murder", 2012) some years back, I decided to read the free preview booklet promoting Aosaki. Aosaki Yuugo no Aisatsu ("Greetings from Aosaki Yuugo") consists out of an extended preview of Taiikukan no Satsujin, one complete short story in the same series, as well as an interview with Aosaki and a complete list of his works. As I already read Taiikukan no Satsujin, I will refer to that review if you want to know my feelings on that story. For this review, I'll only focus on the short story included in this booklet, part of Aosaki's short story collection Kazagaoka Juuen Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazagaoka Ten Yen Festival Mystery", 2014), a book I definitely intend to purchase when the paperback version is released.

Mou Isshoku Eraberu Donburi ("A Rice Bowl Where You Can Choose One Extra Dish") is part of the Urazome Tenma series and is set just a few weeks after Urazome managed to solve the impossible murder in the school gymnasium in Taiikukan no Satsujin. Yuno and a friend are having lunch in the school cafeteria when the lady who runs the place cries out she found a tray with a half-eaten rice bowl outside the cafeteria, hidden beneath a window. Because the cafeteria is so small, students often took their trays outside, but as many students didn't bother to bring the trays back, the cafeteria introduced a fee-system: you had put a 100 yen deposit if you wanted to take your tray outside. But even then some people decided it'd be easier to leave their trays somewhere around school, so one week ago, a new strict rule was announced: if they'd ever find something that hadn't been properly returned to the cafeteria, they wouldn't allow people to take their trays outside at all anymore. Fearing that nobody will be able to eat outside from now on, Yuno convinces Urazome to find out who left that rice bowl outside, in exchange for free meal tickets.

This is the first time I read a short story by Aosaki and I really liked it. The main novels in the Urazome Tenma series are meticulously constructed logic puzzles about murder, but this story was much more in line with an everyday life mystery, as the 'crime' is rather light (leaving a tray and bowl outside). Yet, one shouldn't underestimate the mystery, because Urazome first points out some peculiar traits of the tray (for example, why was the main dish left untouched, while all the rice has been eaten and why wasn't the tray brought back even though it was like three steps away from the drop-off point?). The way Urazome first deduces the physical traits of the 'culprit' and even the motive based on a single, physical clue is very much in line with the Queen school, which is natural, as Aosaki is obviously inspired by Queen's writings (his publisher even goes as far as selling him as "the modern-day Queen"). The solution is wonderfully simple, but oh-so-fitting to the setting. I really enjoyed this story, as it makes a solid (even if short) logic puzzle out of an otherwise very mundane problem.

It's also the first time the Urazome Tenma series really felt like a high school mystery. Sure, the previous books were about school clubs and set at Kazagaoka High School, but still, murder feels far away removed from high school life. A problem at the school cafeteria is much more alluring as a school mystery, in my mind. Now I think about it, it's funny that that other school mystery series I love, Higashigawa Tokuya's Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series, is also often not very 'school'-like. The novels are about murder, like the Urazome Tenma series, and while the short stories are not about murder, they do often feature assault and other 'real crimes'. The atmosphere in both series is similar though, with a lot of high-paced, witty dialogue between the students. Another point is that for once, the Urazaome Tenma series isn't overrun with characters. Seriously, the novels are great puzzle plot mysteries, but Aosaki has a tendency to go overboard with the number of suspects/involved characters, especially as most of them are all students. This short story had a nice, small cast.

As I figured writing a full post on one single short story is rather stretching things, I decided to read another short story by Aosaki. Kami no Mijikaku Natta Shitai ("The Dead Body Whose Hair Was Cut Short") is part of Aosaki's short story collection Knockin' on Locked Door, which is about two detectives sharing an office. Touri Gotenba specializes in impossible mysteries, while his partner Katanashi Hisame is an expert on incomprehensible crimes. This particular story was selected as one of the best Japanese short mystery stories published in the year of 2014 by the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan, and included in Honkaku Mystery Best 2015. Kami no Mijikaku Natta Shitai starts with a case broker bringing a case for Katanashi, as he has found an incomprehensible murder. The leader of a small theatre troupe was found murdered in a small, soundproof apartment the troupe rented for rehearsal. She was found in the bathroom, wearing only her underwear and for some reason, her long hair had been cut short and been removed from the crime scene. Evidence seems to be pointing towards someone among her three fellow members, but why would anyone want to cut the hair of the deceased?

The problem is similar to that from a certain book originally published in the Kappa Novels line, the characters in this story comment as they investigate the mystery, and indeed, I know exactly which book they mean and it did sound similar at first (I am not linking to the review on purpose, as the characters didn't want to say it out loud either). Yet, Aosaki manages to come up with a completely different solution to the mystery, one that is both original and satisfying. Like with the previous story, this one is very focused on physical clues (the cut-hair of course, but also more), and their interpretation (why is X in a certain state or why was Y used or not used in the first place?), and I have to admit, I usually like these kinds of clues the best (or at least a lot better than psychological clues). I did like Mou Isshoku Eraberu Donburi more than this story though, but that's because I really like the setting and mystery of that one. In terms of surprise, but also clueing, I'd say that Kami no Mijikaku Natta Shitai is a better constructed story.

This is the only story I have read in the Knockin' on Locked Door series, and it does sound interesting, with two detectives specializing in different kind of mysteries, but who do support each other in their respective cases. I might be picking this up (again, if a paperback version is released. I don't have the money, nor the space to buy hardcovers all the time).

It's been rather chaotic post, about preview booklets and two unrelated short stories by Aosaki, but my concusions are: preview books are good. Aosaki writes good short stories. Paperback releases should be released faster. Yep, that's about it.

Original Japanese title(s): 青崎有吾 『青崎有吾の挨拶』 / 「髪の短くなった死体」

6 comments :

  1. i SO wish i could read those Aosaki Yuugo books. you always speak highly of them. maybe we'll get an anime down the line for each one? crossing my fingers.

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    1. It'd be interesting to see an anime adaptation of the series, considering all the anime/manga references in the stories!

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  2. Aosaki Yuugo is one of the authors, if not the author, introduced to me by your blog whose works I really want to try... But no official Chinese translation in sight. :( Then again, part of the resolution for 体育館の殺人 was spoilt for me in a Chinese mystery movie I watched few months ago, which was strange considering there has been no Chinese translation! That movie also included spoilers for some of Keigo Higashino's novels, but I managed to ignore the spoilers in time,

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    1. What movie was that? Kinda surprised they'd reference his works!

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    2. It's 'Detective Chinatown'/ 唐人街探案, a Chinese mystery-comedy-adventure movie that turned out to be more inspired by the Golden Age and the classic mystery novel than I initially expected. One or two rather obvious loose threads at the end, but nonetheless a surprisingly fair-play resolution...

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detective_Chinatown

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    3. Thanks! I see there's an official release available with English subs, so I'll keep it in mind :)

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