Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Monsters Unleashed

"How many times do I have to tell you? There is no such thing as ghouls, ghosts, goblins or monsters! Listen up, there is absolutely absolutely no such thing as.... MONSTER?!!!!" 

Today, a book I really didn't want to read. I think I bought it used when I was in Kyoto, but the things I heard about it were so discouraging I left it unread for almost six, seven years. But I guess I had to read it some day.

Nikaidou Ranko series  
Jigoku no Kijutsushi ("The Magician from Hell") (1992)  
Kyuuketsu no Ie ("House of Bloodsuckers") (1992)  
Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent") (1993)  
Akuryou no Yakata ("Palace of Evil Spirits") (1994)  
Yuri Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Lillies") (1995)  
Bara Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Roses") (1997) 
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Deutsch Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Germany") (1996) 
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - France Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - France") (1997)  
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Tantei Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Detective") (1998) 
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Kanketsu Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Conclusion") (1998)  
Akuma no Labyrinth ("The Devil Labyrinth") (2001) 
Majutsuou Jiken ("The Case of the Sorcery King") (2004) 
Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Case of the Double-Faced Beasts") (2007)  
Haou no Shi ("Death of the Ruler") (2012)  
Ran Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Orchids") (2014) 
Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken ("The Case of the Giant Ghost Mammoth", 2017)

The celebrated detective Nikaidou Ranko and her brother Reito first learned of the horrible murders and other crimes committed by the super criminal Labyrinth in the adventures chronicled in Akuma no Labyrinth. Nobody knew who or what Labyrinth was, but he, or she, was able to commit the most horrifying murders and other mystifying crimes, and was also very eager to challenge Ranko in public to try and solve their 'exploits'. During the events of Akuma no Labyrinth, Ranko and Reito came across an old abandoned house that Labyrinth had used for some reason, and they discovered that Labyrinth had some of the old furniture there shipped off elsewhere. Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Case of the Double-Faced Beasts", 2007) starts with Ranko, Reito and the police hot on the trail of that set of furniture, and their journey brings them to the southern island of Kyushu. There they learn that two grotesque and blood-curling serial murders happened there the last few days: a whole hospital was completely destroyed from within, with the victims horribly mutilated with limbs torn off and worse, while elsewhere, the inhabitants of a whole village were also similarly killed as if they were mere broken toys. The only clue for Ranko are the testimonies of some survivors, which seem to point to the existence of genetically-engineered two-faced monsters created during World War II, who are being used by Labyrinth to... do what actually?

A few weeks back, I reviewed Nikaidou Reito's short story collection Ran Meikyuu, which also marked my return to the Nikaidou Ranko series after quite some years. The reason I hadn't touched this series for so long was basically this novel. I had already read most of the series, and I actually quite like it: I love post-war 70s atmosphere, the locked room murders and other impossibilities are often grand, over the top and always sure to leave an impression and the distinct occult/horror tone that pervades throughout the series is something perhaps not all can appreciate, but most of the time, I think it works out quite good. That is, the above holds mostly for the series until the mammoth work Jinroujou no Kyoufu (which is probably the longest locked room mystery ever, spanning four pockets of over 700 pages each).

The Nikaidou Ranko books written after Jinroujou no Kyoufu introduced a new storyline (though chronologically set before Jinroujou no Kyoufu), and a nemesis for Ranko: the enigmatic super criminal Labyrinth. These novels also meant a shift in tone: whereas the earlier novels were like Carr on crack, the Labyrinth novels were styled more closely to the henkaku horror mystery stories by Edogawa Rampo, which were lighter on the mystery, and much heavier on adventure, horror and grotesque story elements, reminiscent of the 20s-50s pulp science-fiction novels with evil scientists and things like that. The first novel in this mini-series, Akuma no Labyrinth was not that bad, but the fourth novel and ending to the Labyrinth series (Haou no Shi) was at best mediocre, with a disappointing mystery plot and an over-emphasis on horror and science-fiction elements. I had also heard that the two novels in the middle, Majutsuou Jiken and Soumenjuu Jiken were far worse, with especially Soumenjuu Jiken often panned as horrible, so I wasn't too eager to read them. But like I mentioned in the introduction, I only learned of Soumenjuu Jiken's reputation after I had picked it up, so it remained unread in my collection for a long time. I haven't read Majutsuou, nor do I have a copy at the moment, but the events in Majutsuou Jiken and Soumenjuu Jiken happen almost simultaneously: while Ranko is investigating the case of the double-faced beasts in the south of Japan, she learns of a horrible murder that occured during the show of an illusionist in the north and realizes Labyrinth is also behind that case.

But to get back to Soumenjuu Jiken: I have to agree with the general consensus that this was not a very entertaining novel. Most importantly, it's not really a mystery novel. It is pre-World War II science-fiction horror. Unno Juuza is quoted in the book, and yeah, that's certainly a name that'll pop up while you read this novel, as well as things like Conan Doyle's The Creeping Man, Rampo's Kotou no Oni or Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. For the double-faced beasts that feature in the title? Yeah, they exist. The novel opens with an account by a woman who, as a girl, had miraculously survived the extermination of her village by the titular double-faced beasts. She lived on Skull Isle, an island housing a secret laboratory of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, with her village serving as camouflage. Strange experiments went on in that laboratory, all in the hope to win the war. The double-faced beasts were one of the weapons produced by these experiments: the gorilla-like animals had four arms, stremendous strength and stamina, possessed poison breath and could burn people with rays from their eyes. The beasts were taken away at the end of the war, their existence kept top secret by the extinction of the village on Skull Isle. We also learn that Labyrinth too was o a product of genetic engineering by the Imperial Army during the war: Labyrinth is a ruthless superhuman with extraordinary mental and physical traits originally designed as a super-soldier until they escaped the clutches of their creators, so Labyrinth gaining possession of these double-faced beasts is not good news.

The bulk of Soumenjuu Jiken consists of accounts by various people who had encounters with either the double-faced beasts or Labyrinth, both during the war or now, twenty years later, when Labyrinth and the double-faced beasts are leaving a bloody trail throughout Kyushu. Ranko learns about all these accounts as she's chasing after Labyrinth, slowly puzzling the tale of the double-faced beasts and the origin of Labyrinth together. These accounts are very grotesque and basically horror-stories, as we learn about the horrifying acts of these genetically engineered creations, with every single detail about how limbs were torn off and things like that explained. There's no mystery to be solved here, just sheer horror. At the end of the novel, Ranko does make a few deductions that show that not all events were as they seemed at first, but the things she figures out are poorly clewed and rather unimpressive. Soumenjuu Jiken reminded me of Shimada Souji's Nejishiki Zazetsuki, as that novel too revolved around an account of something that seems incredibly fantastical, and which invites to an alternate interpretation that is a bit closer to reality, but the 'alternative' interpretation by Ranko of the events and the existence of the double-faced beasts in Soumenjuu Jiken only involves small parts of the story: most of the monsters-are-loose story is true, and with genetically-altered monsters from World War II wiping whole villages out and things like that, it's kinda hard to care about what Ranko has to say about things that ultimately make no difference at all to the problem they're facing. (that is: that they have to fight genetically-altered monsters from World War II).

And what really kills this novel is the length. It's incredibly long. The version I have is about 750 pages long in double columns: the paperback pocket release consists of two volumes, each nearly 600 pages long. The thing is: it really doesn't need to be this long. The novel consists of accounts by various people on the double-faced beasts, and the story of Ranko and Reito piecing the whole thing together using these accounts, but I think almost half of the book is repeating itself. For example: there's an extended account by a teacher who discovers how a hospital was raided by the double-faced beasts, with everyone inside horribly ripped apart. This is followed by the Ranko narrrative, where she learns about the hospital case and then gets a report from the police. The problem: there is a lot of overlap. All the important facts we learn from the accounts, is always also repeated again in the Ranko narrative, so you're almost always told something twice. Obviously, something good could be done with a dual narrative structure: the discrepency between the eyewitness account and what Ranko learns from the police might for example be connected to some mystery. This however never happens in this novel. It's always a horror account, followed by a more business-like account of the same facts. This repeats itself over and over again, which explains why this book is so ridiculously long even though very little happens here. So even read as a science-fiction horror novel, I can't say Soumenjuu Jiken is good: it's a very repetitive novel and the horror-side of the story doesn't really work towards a (worthwile) climax anyway, so you'd better have no expectations there either.

So no, I can't say I can recommend Soumenjuu Jiken, not even if you like the Nikaidou Ranko series. It's completely different from the earlier novels, and while the other two Labyrinth novels I'd read where also a bit more focused on horror, they at least featured stories one could recognize as a mystery plot, with locked room murders or other impossible crimes. Soumenjuu Jiken on the other hand is all about monsters causing bloody havoc, which at the end is followed by a flimsy attempt at turning it into a mystery story by having Ranko making insignificant deductions, considering they do nothing at help solving the problem that they are facing double-faced four-armed monster gorillas. I remember that Haou no Shi (the last of the Labyrinth novels) kinda revealed the plot and outcome of this novel, so for those who have emotionally invested in this series, I can say you can just skip this novel and skip to Haou no Shi if you really want to see how the Labyrinth saga ends (even if that novel isn't that great either).

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『双面獣事件』


  1. Do you not read reviews before buying a book ?

    1. Not very often actually. This one was a case where I got it at the used book store for a mere 105 yen, and I already knew the writer, so it was a complete blind buy until I learned of its reputation later. Usually, I pick up things here and there about an author or a book, I read the blurb to assess whether the basic premise appeals to me, and only in the cases when I still can't make up my mind, I might read a short review or an impression. A couple of weeks back I reviewed The Borrowed for example: hadn't read a single review of it, but I had heard positive things about it here and there in tweets etc., and the premise appealed to me, so I bought it.

  2. Thanks for reading this book in our place. Your sacrifice won't be forgotten ;p

    From what I gather in your reviews, Nikaido seems to have peaked with werewolf castle, with the only impressive work since then being labyrinth of orchids

    Regardless, I'm still hoping a western publisher pick him up soon

    1. I think Nikaidou made a conscious choice to have an atmospheric change in this series after Werewolf Castle, with the emphasis on science-fiction horror as a tribute to the Rampo pulp thrillers, but yeah, I don't think the latter books are nearly as entertaining as his earlier books, which also had a distinct Rampo-esque horror atmosphere, but as part of a classic impossible crime plot and not as the main dish.

    2. maybe he just gave his all to his magnum opus that is "werewolf castle" and lacked inspiration for the sequels. it happens. ugh it sucks that i will never be able to read that series.

      on a positive note, 428 shiya scramble is FINALLY getting localized for ps4 and steam. teenage me drooled forever on it. are you also looking forward to it?

    3. Well, I can't say I'm really excited about 428's upcoming English release, as I already played the game so many years ago :P I mean, it's not like I'm going to play the English version. I am glad it's finally made available for a new audience though, as it's a fantastic game.

  3. Nothing worse than a badly paced story...