Sunday, April 15, 2018

Turnabout Storyteller

"The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to the seeker after it."
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd"

On this blog, I try to discuss mystery fiction in various forms. While most of the reviews here are of books, you'll also find many reviews of mystery videogames, audio dramas and I have even discussed mystery musicals. But the medium I discuss most often after books, are the audiovisual productions: television dramas, specials and movies. Mystery dramas and movies are of course quite popular, and many of them are in fact adaptations of novels. An adaptation almost always opens the way for discussion: some stories turn out to work better when it's presented in a visual medium, while other stories actually have trouble working as a visual production. To refer to a recent review on the blog: the solution to the locked room murder in episode 184 of Detective Conan works so much better because it's presented in a visual format and it wouldn't have nearly as much impact in a novel form. But there are plenty of examples where an adaptation might seem troublesome.

Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) has long been such an example. This third novel featuring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot was adapted for Agatha Christie's Poirot featuring David Suchet in 2000 for example, but did it really manage to convey what Christie did in that novel? No, not at all, and it ended up in a rather nondescript television movie of what is arguably one of Christie's better known novels. There's a Russian adaptation, it seems, but I haven't seen that one so can't really comment. But in general, one can say that some ideas simply don't work too well outside a novel, the same way some ideas don't really work outside the audiovisual format, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has long been a headscratcher for that reason.

A few months ago, it was announced that Fuji TV would broadcast a three-hour television special based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in April, with a screenplay by Mitani Kouki. Mitani is a theater/film/TV screenplay writer and director, who is known for his comedic storytelling. He has directed some fantastic hartwarming comedy movies like Radio no Jikan (AKA Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald), The Uchouten Hotel, The Magic Hour and Suteki na Kanashibari. One of his better known plays was Juuninin no Yasashii Nihonjin ("12 Gentle Japanese"), a fantastic parody on the courtroom drama classic 12 Angry Men. He's also an important person in the context of this blog: he wrote Furuhata Ninzaburou, the fantastic Japanese Columbo and Ellery Queen-inspired TV show and he was a showrunner of Sherlock Holmes, a children's detective show which featured not actors, but puppets.


In 2015, his adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was broadcast: the two-part special was set in 1933's Japan and featured not Hercule Poirot, but the great detective Suguro Takeru. While the first two-hour part was a competent, but rather too faithful adaptation of the book (which reminded a bit too much of the 1974 film adaptation), the second part was sheer genius: it told the story of Murder on the Orient Express from the point of view of the murderer(s) in a comedic tone. This inverted adaptation of the story fitted Mitani's style perfectly, as many of his comedy movies are about problems happening 'backstage' at for example an hotel (The Uchouten Hotel) or a live radio play performance (Radio no Jikan). The backstage tale of Murder on the Orient Express was more than charming, and some of the original elements even helped address some of the problems of the original novel! While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has long been seen as a difficult work to adapt, I was really curious to see what Mitani would do with this television special!

Mitani Kouki's adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd titled Kuroido Goroshi ("The Murder of Kuroido") was broadcast on April 14, 2018. The story is set in a small, rural village in 1952, where we first meet with Doctor Shiba, the village's only practitioner who is also a personal friend of Kuroido Rokusuke, the most affluent person in the village. Kuroido is one night murdered inside his study, and suspicion soon falls on his adopted son Haruo, who had left for Tokyo, but had that day returned to the village with debts. Believing in Haruo's innocence, Kuroido's niece (and fiancee of Haruo) asks Doctor Shiba's neighbor for help: it turns out that unbeknownst to Doctor Shiba, his odd neighbor is in fact the world famous detective Suguro Takeru who had retired to the village to grow vegetable marrows. Suguro accepts the request and with the assistance of Doctor Shiba in the form of his new Watson, the two set out to figure out who murdered Kuroido.


One can feel Mitani's love for the original novel throughout this special, which already starts with the names of the characters. While they are all Japanese, they're also neat references to the original characters. The great detective Suguro Takeru's name is for example based off Hercule Poirot: Suguro is a Japanese name that is somewhat similar to the Japanese pronouncation of Poirot, while Takeru is derived from Yamato Takeru, a legendary figure just like Hercule(s). Kuroido is of course a name similar Ackroyd (the kroyd part), while Doctor Shiba in this special is named Doctor Sheppard in the original novel. For fans of the source material, there are a lot of neat little references to be found here.


While the story is set in 1950s Japan instead of 1920s England, Kuroido Goroshi is actually a fairly faithful adaptation of the source material. The core mystery plot is left completely intact and Mitani even adds a few minor changes to make the whole production more entertaining, strengthening the backstories and motives of several of the suspects for example, making it harder to guess who's the murderer. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is especially infamous for a certain reason which I can't and won't divulge here, but those who have read the book will know about it without any doubt, and it's famous enough you might know about it even without having read it. It is the reason why The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is often seen as very hard to do in a visual format. Kuroido Goroshi works surprisingly well, to be honest. While it may not be 100% exactly the same as the book (which would be quite a feat), I'd say Kuroido Goroshi does more than a commendable effort. Clever shifting of some of the events and supporting dialogue lines help set-up the surprising twist quite well, and the moment Suguro reveals who the murderer is, you really see how there's actually more foreshadowing than in the original novel. Like with his adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, Mitani stays mostly faithful to the original novel, but dares to add some new touches here and there to answer some of the unanswered questions of the original novel, making it a very robust mystery story. The motive for the murder is changed by the way, but it really works well in the context of this special: the original motive wouldn't have fitted Kuroido Goroshi and I'm happy they went with this one.


The tone of Kuroido Goroshi is distinctly Mitani, with a heartwarming atmosphere with a lot of playfulness. While Suguro Takeru (played by Nomura Mansai) is the detective character, the true hero of this special is Doctor Shiba as played by Ooizumi You, as he's even longer on screen than Suguro! (Suguro doesn't even really appear on screen in the first third of the special). The scenes he has with his older gossipy sister are pure Mitani gold in terms of warm comedy, and the chemistry between the eager Doctor Shiba and the somewhat eccentric Suguro works really well: I wish we had a whole series with these two. Ooizumi You is playing the assistant this time, but he's played the protagonist in other mystery productions discussed on this blog before: he not only plays the unnamed detective in the films based on the novel series Tantei wa Bar ni Iru, he's also the voice actor of Professor Layton! While some might be of the opinion that the comedic tone might not fit The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I think it works wonderfully for Kuroido Goroshi, as it really manages to give this production its own face, while at the same time, it shows the original novel the respect it deserves. In my mind, this is the best of both worlds: in his two-part Murder on the Orient Express adaptation, most of the Mitani flavor was reserved for the second part, and the first part felt like nothing but a remake of the 1974 film where Mitani's hand could hardly be felt. Kuroido Goroshi however is from the start clearly a collaboration production between Mitani and Agatha Christie, which really sets its apart as a television special.

So Kuroido Goroshi was a very entertaining adaptation of Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that easily surpassed my admittedly reserved expectations of it. Screenplay writer Mitani Kouki managed to come up with a story that is very faithful to the source material, but that at the same time is also distinctly his take on the story. One can instantly recognize his style in storytelling, characterization and comedy, but this is fused brilliantly with Christie's original story, resulting in a television special that is truly a team effort across time and cultures. Mitani also manages to translate a trick that doesn't really work outside of the book format in a surprisingly workable and convincing manner for this special and the result is a mystery special that can firmly stand on its own.

Original Japanese title(s):『黒井戸殺し』

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