Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Ah, one more thing, sir."


"Erm, it's been a long while. How have you been? I've been fine. Erm, everyone was young at a time. Of course, so was I. And everyone in that sensitive period, had someone who influenced them. Of course, so had I. The person who I am now, was all because I met that person. Even now, when I close my eyes, the face of that person is visible behind my eyelids.... Let's try closing our eyes."

"Middle School Student Furuhata"

Lately, I have been watching some old episodes of that classic detective show Columbo again. Ever since I was a kid I have loved this show and while occasionally some of the more recent movies are shown on Dutch television, the original series has not been broadcast here for years now. But even now as I watch the series, I feel it has lost nothing of its charm. Heck, in the 40 years since its debut few series were made that were so entertaining in my opinion.

And this is despite the fact that pretty much every episode is the same: you see the murderer-of-the-week (celebrity actors like Leonard Nemoy Dr. Spock) commit his/her murder, usually in a clever way to avert suspicion. Then scruffy-looking lieutenant Columbo arrives and the rest of the episode, consists mostly of cat-and-mouse scenes between just the lieutenant and the killer, with Columbo asking trivial question after question and telling stories about his wife and simply looking a lot more stupid than he actually is. The point of every episode is figuring out how Columbo is going to prove the murderer is guilty.

The show is just two people talking. About a murder you have seen already. Dialogue about something you know everything about for an hour. But it works. Every. Single. Time. The great plots, the great acting, it's all top-notch and every episode is as exciting as the previous one, despite being basically the same. Columbo pulls off the use of a formula brilliantly.

I actually don't like the name howcatchem (c.f. whodunnit), nor inverted detective (techically it's inverted, but from a chronological view, the inverted detective runs completely straight, so the term feels strange to me). But it's been a style in detective fiction since at least Freeman's The Singing Bone (1912). Interestingly, Edogawa Rampo had written one himself too (The Psychological Test (1925), included in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination) and in his 1934 essay The Four Types of Detective Stories, he had identified the inverted detective (the toujo tantei shousetsu: "chronological reversed detective" which feels even more wrong than inverted detective) as his fourth type, but as he had only 3 examples (including his own story), he wasn't sure whether he should include it as a proper detective story type. Time proved Edogawa right though.

A more recent Japanese example would be the Gyakuten Saiban (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney) game series, as in many cases you usually know who did it, you just have to prove it in court. As an attorney using the foolproof Columbo way of pouncing on every contradiction, how insignificant it may seem, you eventually manage to solve the case.

But if you're talking about the inverted Japanese detective, one name should come up immediately: Furuhata Ninzaburou (yes, I shamelessly stole the logo design for this blog). It's pretty much a clone show of Columbo, with lieutenant Furuhata being the one asking many many seemingly trivial questions to the murderer-of-the-week with his polite way of talking. And like Columbo, Furuhata Ninzaburou managed to make every episode worthwile. Running for more than 10 years in Japan, it has been one of the most popular shows there, featuring many high profile celebrities (like Ichiro, SMAP, Sanma and Matsushima Nanako) as murderers. Also amusing are the seemingly non-sequitur introductions of every episode (that in the end turn out to tie up with the theme of the episode neatly), which I occasionally use as introducing quotes myself. But what makes Furuhata Ninzaburou really interesting, is the formal challenge to the watcher in every episode. Inspired by the 1975 Ellery Queen show, Furuhata actually breaks the fourth wall near the end of the episode and asks the viewer whether they can prove the murderer did it, as he certainly can. It's one of those shows I am proud to own on DVD.

Ah, one more thing, sir, the proper way of finishing this post would be a Columbo-ian "one more thing, sir...", of course, but as I can't think of something worth mentioning, this will do. え~、古畑任三郎でした。


  1. I, too, have been watching Columbo lately, including the episode with Leonard Nemoy, and it really has lost nothing of its charm. It's as entertaining as it was when I was a kid. I wonder how well Kommissar Rex, another favorite from my early days as a detective fan boy, would stand up to re-watching now. The opening theme is still catchy! :)

  2. ah :D the inevitable furuhata post! I`ve come across a prestine season 1 box of furuhata during our book-off scavenger hunt, it was 9500 yen if i recall. your thoughts? I`m akshually contemplating xD

  3. The first Furuhata season is the most consistent in quality of all 3 seasons ('cept for the FINAL series) and the Japanese subtitles help a lot when watching it. But if I recall correctly, all the season sets cost the same at the Book Off and in that case season one has the lowest running time of all sets for the same price (I had trouble choosing at the Akibahara Book Off too, where they had all three sets. I went for season three in the end).

    However, the Furuhata DVD's are all kinda... dark. Don't know what kind of crazy DVD mastering they did, but at times you can pretty much only see Furuhata's head floating in space in the introduction scenes :/ (Because of Furuhata's clothing and the black background).