Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Comic Book Mystery

"In a few minutes, this famous cartoonist will be dead. Who killed him? Was it the ambitious lettering man? The layout expert? The background artist? The figure specialist? His disillusioned secretary? Or was it someone else? Match wits with Ellery Queen, and see if you can guess who done it!" 
"The Comic Book Crusader"

My own earliest experiences with the mystery genre were through visual media. Series and direct-to-TV films like Scooby Doo! Where Are You?, Agatha Christie's Poirot and the four animated adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes novels are some of my earliest memories of the mystery genre. And while I did read mystery novels by writers like Christie and LeBlanc before, I only really started reading mystery fiction after I started with mystery manga like Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. So for me, there has always been a very intimate link between mystery fiction and the visual format, and I absolutely love it when mystery fiction makes full use of its medium. Mystery fiction in the form of comics (manga) and animation for example are fantastic in bringing certain clues, like colors or intricate floorplans, or insane murder tricks that are difficult to reproduce in real life, with the amazing Detective Conan episode Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau as a good example. It's for this reason that I have always kept a good eye on various puzzle plot mystery comics, as I am quite aware of the possibilities they offer over the written word in regards to our favorite genre. In fact, I think of the regular mystery bloggers around here, I'm probably the one who looks at these things the most often.

For people interested in mystery manga however, an amazing book and absolute must-read has been released recently. Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi ("Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar", 2018) collects a series of very informative columns by mystery critic Fukui Kenta, originally written for publisher Tokyo Sogensha's Web Mysteries! web magazine. The columns have been edited and updated for this book release, so even those who have read them will find this book very informative. In the two-hundred or so pages of this volume, Fukui presents an incredibly comprehensive history of mystery manga published in Japan, spanning the period from after World War II until the present. As for the question of how comprehensive this book is: Fukui introduces over 800 different titles within this volume, so you are absolutely sure to come across a manga title you never heard of.

Fukui's "seminar" on mystery comics traces a chronological line of mystery manga in Japan, focusing on publishing history. The book is roughly divided in two halves, each comprising of two sections. The first half focuses on comic adaptations of mystery fiction both domestic and foreign. Fukui's story starts with the earliest comic adaptations of Edogawa Rampo's Shounen Tantei Dan series in the fifties, of which there were quite a lot. The many Rampo titles mentioned here not only show the popularity of Rampo's series among the younger public, they are also the first in a long line of novel adaptations. Of particular interest is the part on the comic adaptations of Yokomizo Seishi's work, in particular the novel Yatsu Haka Mura. While I was already quite aware of a "Yokomizo Boom" in the 1970s, when his work's popularity suddenly exploded with pocket re-releases and the live-action film adaptations by Ichikawa Kon, I had no idea that the Yokomizo Boom started with comics! Apparently, the immense popularity of comic adaptations of Yokomizo's work was what convinced publisher Kadokawa Haruki to publish pocket re-releases of Yokomizo's novels in the first place, and what led to Inugamike no Ichizoku becoming the first theatrical film produced by the then brand-new Kadokawa Pictures, which is still one of the four major film studios to this day. Fukui continues tracing the release history of various authors and titles, domestic and foreign, from these earliest successes to the present. Interesting notes of interest include for example the TOMO Comics Masterpiece Mystery series, which included adaptations of books like Crispin's The Moving Toyshop or Futrelle's The Thinking Machine, the part on popular adaptations of contemporary works like Yonezawa Honobu's Classic Literature Club (Hyouka) series and the part solely devoted to Sherlock Holmes and Lupin adaptations. Note however that few of these were monster hits though. The 70s ~ early 90s in particular saw many releases that... just were.

The second half of Fukui's seminar focuses on original mystery manga, and is roughly divided in two parts: the period before the mega-hit series Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and QED, and after. The section on original mystery manga before the 70s does not provide many surprises: I already knew that many series back then weren't really about solving a mystery, but more like spy stories, with the "detective" acting as an agent fighting crime. Examples cited are for example Tezuka's work (like Chief Detective Ken-1). The period from the 70s until the mega-hits is interesting though, and it makes so much sense in hindsight. Apparently, mystery manga series with longer runtimes started mostly in the magazines aimed at female readership, with for example Puzzle Game☆ High School as one of the longest running mystery manga ever (with the original series running from 1983 until 2001, and spin-offs/sequels still being published today). These female-oriented magazines also published many one-shot mystery stories. As I mentioned, this makes quite a lot of sense in hindsight, as the 70s and 80s were also the time when horror manga genre for girls really exploded, and the horror and mystery genres have always been very close. For those interested in the history of mystery manga, I think this pre-Kindaichi Shounen/Conan/QED period holds many interesting titles, and I definitely dotted down some titles I want to read.

While the other "lectures" (chapters) in Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi are all focused on either time periods or themes, Fukui dedicates three chapters to three specific titles. As mentioned, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and QED together symbolize the watershed moment for mystery manga in the early 1990s (some years after the shin honkaku movement started in literary world). Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo was the first classically-styled mystery manga series with a built-in Challenge to the Reader, which also became a big hit with live-action adaptations (the first drama series starring KinKi Kids' Doumoto Tsuyoshi and Tomosaka Rie was a big hit on TV). Detective Conan was created as a direct answer to the success of Kindaichi Shounen and became even bigger, reaching incredible audience numbers (Detective Conan: The Crimson Love-Letter was 2017's best grossing Japanese film. Not just animated or mystery: the best grossing domestic film in general). Personally, I never really got into QED and its spin-offs, though I'm aware of its popularity (you don't run for as long as QED if it were just an average series). Even so Fukui manages to point out interesting points for someone like me, like how author Katou studied architecture in college and how he uses that in his plotting. Spin-offs and related titles are also discussed in their respective chapters by the way, so series like Tantei Gakuen Q, Magic Kaito and CMB are also discussed.

The remaining lectures focus on original mystery manga after the watershed moment. Not all of these were big success of course: magazine Shounen Jump's direct reaction to Shounen Magazine's Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo & QED and Shounen Sunday's Detective Conan's immense successes as mystery manga was the short-lived Karakurizoushi Ayatsuri Sakon, but that never really made a lasting impression. An interesting point made is how in the late 2000s and early 2010s, we saw the uprise of mystery manga with detectives with very specific fields of specialty, like Kuitan (food) or Reizouko Tantei (refrigerators). Fukui also looks at mystery manga with specific themes or audiences, like mystery manga aimed a younger public, or those that mix science-fiction with the mystery genre. Of particular interest are the lectures on "logic game" mystery manga and manga created by mystery authors. The latter is obvious, as we have many authors who write novels who nowadays also write for comics (like Ayatsuji Yukito and Sasaki Noriko's Tsukidate no Satsujin). The 'logic game' mystery genre is one that has really boomed the last decade or so, with Death Note and Liar Game being excellent examples: mystery manga that focus on characters trying to outsmart each other using clearly defined 'game' rules. Mahjong and gambling manga also fall within this genre, as these series too often revolve around surprising use of game rules to outwit the opponent.

If I had to voice a complaint about Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi, it'd be that the book focuses very closely on publication history, meaning that most titles mentioned in this book are really only mentioned  (and perhaps followed by one short sentence saying whether it's good or not). Many sections of this book are just lists of titles, so those who want to learn more about certain titles will have to do some digging themselves too. As Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi is about publication history, it does help if the reader has some rudimentary knowledge about manga publication history in general, because some trends and connections are more easily recognized. The book itself doesn't provide much context if you're not familiar with that. Don't expect this book to explain what kashihon are for example and what they meant for the Japanese manga market in general, as it assumes you know. The Japanese comic industry also has some major differences in terms of serialization and publication practices if compared to for example the European or the US comic industry, and being aware of the characteristics of the Japanese industry naturally helps when reading Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi.

That said though, it is undeniable that Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi is a seminal work for this genre. An amazing amount of titles have been researched for this book, and by categorizing these titles by release year and original publication magazines/lines, Fukui manages to point out trends in the development of the mystery manga genre in Japan, with the genre responding to both internal and external stimuli. The indexes are a godsend too, as they are divided in both titles and authors. The comprehensive framework sketched in Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi makes this a must-read for anyone who wants to seriously write about the topic of mystery manga and I myself can't wait to read new, exciting research on this topic built on the foundation laid out in Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi.

Original Japanese title(s): 福井健太 『本格ミステリ漫画ゼミ』 

18 comments :

  1. It's really cool that someone took their time to compile a book like this, especially for such a specific medium too. It's too bad I won't ever see a translated copy of these types of "database books"; another similar book I'd want to see a translated copy would be Arisugawa Alice's Guide to Locked Rooms...

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    1. I don't see this book translated any time soon, but what I can imagine is that in a few years, we'll see non-Japanese academic literary studies etc. published that build on the framework laid in this book. I'm not actively reading academic papers anymore, but even a few years back you'd regularly see English papers pop up on various themes and topics of manga/anime/games pop up, so I imagine we'll see this book appear on bibliography lists.

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    2. "...another similar book I'd want to see a translated copy would be Arisugawa Alice's Guide to Locked Rooms..."

      That would be an interesting and welcome addition to the Locked Room International catalog.

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    3. Wait, which guide on locked rooms by Arisugawa? I mean, I myself have three books edited by Arisugawa (an illustrated guide of locked rooms, a mook on locked room mysteries and another book on locked room mysteries) and he's bound to have even more :P

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    4. It was one that was reviewed on your blog a long, long time ago, this one specifically:

      http://ho-lingnojikenbo.blogspot.nl/2009/07/blog-post_28.html

      But yeah, one can dream, I guess, haha.

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    5. Yeah, I kinda guessed that, I just realized when I read your comment I had more than one book on locked rooms by Arisugawa :P

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  2. Hi, I am a long time reader here. Thanks for reviewing this book, I am a big fan of mystery manga and I am really interested in reading this. Recently, I am especially interested in the 'logic game' genre. Are you aware of the korean reality competition show 'The Genius'? It has been completely subbed. Basically the concept of the show is: 13 players from different walks of life (celebs, poker player, magicians) compete in 12 rounds of games with distinct rules, some which were heavily inspired by kaiji and liar game. I think you might be interested in this. Thanks again.

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    1. Oh, never heard about that show! Sounds cool though I do wonder how much of it is real and how much of it is scripted ^^' I'll see if I can try out an episode.

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    2. Yes at first I also have my doubts, but it is unscripted because in several episodes, the players completely ignored the game set up by the producers, and instead played the meta game. Several players had also been interviewed by english fans, and they confirmed it. I suggest to try watching in chronological order because season 4 is the grand final, where the best players from the previous seasons returned for the last time. I hope you will like it. Thanks.

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  3. Sounds like a great and interesting read! And didn't we used to refer to "logic game" mystery manga series, like Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning, as strategic detective stories? I think strategic detective or thriller is a better description than logic game. Particularly when talking about a grandly plotted series like Death Note, which succeeded in making the supernatural follow a very specific set of rules.

    Anyway, will you be hunting down and reviewing those very early Yokomizo manga adaptations?

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    1. The word "strategy" doesn't quite cover the type of manga Fukui mentions in the chapter, as he places emphasis on the analysis/explanation of the logical thinking processes that form at the heart of these manga.

      As I've read the books already, I'm not really interested in the really old adaptations of Yokomizo's work, especially as most of them are likely to be rare nowadays and only to be found in specialty antiquarians.

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    1. I don't remember how old I was when I saw them on television, nor whether I saw them first, or read (some of) the stories first. I was young though.

      Kibayashi was hardly the first, nor the last to have worked on multiple mystery titles. Don't forget: while Kindaichi Shounen was a watershed title, the manga genre had been around for already nearly FORTY years.

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    3. Who are you arguing against about what? Your question was: are there more writers who have worked on multiple mystery series. My answer: yes, it's not something rare at all.

      I mean, I literally say multiple times Kindaichi Shounen was a watershed title for mystery manga in both the main post and in my direct reply, so why would you suddenly argue like I am not saying that???

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    4. Manga detective fiction series are so new in the grand scheme of things that crediting anything with them seems kind of silly.

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  5. Are you watching Lupin III part V ?

    only 7 episodes in and it's really, really, really good

    you didn't make a review of part IV so I hope you'll make one for the new series !

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    1. Saw the first couple of episodes, but running behind now. I like to build up a reserve and binge-watch a few episodes in one go :)

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