Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Too Many Suspects

"The murderer is amongst us AKB members!"
"The AKB Murder Case"

Reading Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo or something like Ayatsuji's Jukkakukan no Satsujin, would make you think that every Mystery Club summer camp ends up in a gruesome bloody serial murder case. So I was surprised I made it out in one piece last week. I also went on a trip to Seoul last week visiting friends. I can't read Korean, even though I've actually started studying it several times now: I just never seem to make it to the end. So I am not sure why I was so excited when I was browsing a bookstore. I made it to the mystery section and there were some interesting finds, like a bizarre flood of Sherlock Holmes novels (probably riding on popularity of the BBC series Sherlock and the Richie movies), a semi-rare novel like McCloy's Through a Glass, Darkly available new and my biggest find: a copy of Queen's The Tragedy of Y with a cover that practically spoils who the murderer is. It wouldn't be possible to portray that person more sinister, more evil, more murderer-like than there. Not sure what the publisher was thinking.

Anyway, I haven't read that much lately, so once again a review of a manga. Because they don't take that much time to read. But this is a somewhat special kind of manga. AKB48 Satsujin Jiken ("AKB48 Murder Case", English title: Detective AKB48) is a one-shot manga based on the widely popular idol girls group AKB48. It is impossible to get around the group in Japan, with members not only performing their musical acts, but also appearing in TV shows as regular guests and in commercials. Oh, and did I tell you that there are over 80 members in AKB48 alone (there are also 'spin-off' groups, which would bring the total to a number nearing infinity). The group also has its own manga series and anime, and in principle, AKB48 Satsujin Jiken is just a tie-in manga to accompany a series of commercials starrring AKB48 for Glico's Ice no Mi candy, where AKB members are getting killed off and member Maeda Atsuko tries her hand at solving the murders. The story in the manga is the same as in the four commercials ads, though naturally more detailed in its portrayal of the story and characters.

I am not particularly a fan of AKB, so why a review of this manga? Well. Conan's Aoyama wrote the story for both the commercials and the manga (and he made one promotional piece of art). Which was enough for me.

AKB48's most popular member, Maeda Atsuko is about to graduate (quit) from the group and she has already decided on her life after AKB: she is going to become a detective. But before that, she has to finish her last task as a member: a photo shoot at a private island together with the other 88 members. The photo shoot goes smoothly and the members are to stay for the night at the mansion on the island. During the night however, member Katou Rena is killed. Because the bridge connecting the island to the outside world has been burnt down and a storm was raging over the island, the murderer has to be one of the other AKB48 members on the island. But who and why? With the photo shoot finished and thus her last job as an AKB member over, Atsuko is now ready to take up her first job as a detective.

Well, for what is technically one big ad, AKB48 Satsujin Jiken is really not that bad. But you really need to have some basic knowledge about the group and the inner workings of the whole AKB world to get it. There are naturally loads of inside jokes and references that refer to the various members and the whole election-system (popularity rankings) that drives AKB48. This is definitely not an easily accessible work, especially because there are a lot of characters that are probably instantly recognizable to fans of the group, but to me it was quite confusing. Naturally, only a small amount of the 89 members actually do anything (because there are just too many of them!), but even still, it was a bit confusing at times to me. And just to give the reader a fair warning: the mystery of the murders (yes, more people die) is really only solvable through an expert knowledge of all things AKB.

Which I could have guessed beforehand, as this is still something aimed at AKB fans, even if it is written by Aoyama. There were some missed chances too: the puzzle plot would for example have been more fair to the reader if every member had been properly introduced to the reader (instead of just a handful, and the other girls just being there  'for the atmosphere'). As it is now, Aoyama did come up with a logical elimination plot that allows the reader to cross out most of the members on the suspect list if they pick up on the hints, but as the list becomes shorter, you really need specific maniacal knowledge if you want to get to the end of the elimination process. Which can be presented fairly, if all the data is available within the story, but it is not the case here. Aoyama just expected all readers to be super AKB fans. Which probably most of the readers are. For the fans, this is probably really fun. I was at a loss.

And for the Conan fans, there are some little references here and there that are cute enough. But still, not recommended for those not into AKB48.

I should start going back to good old books again one of these days...

Original Japanese title(s): 秋元康(案)、青山剛昌 (原)、梧桐柾木(画) 『AKB48殺人事件』

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"The curious incident of the dog in the night-time"

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
"Silver Blaze"

Doyle (Holmes) didn't make it on my circle's top ten list of best non-Japanese mystery novels ever, but to be honest, I too didn't vote for Doyle either (despite me being the one who nominated him in the first place). Partly because other people from other circles will probably nominate something out of the Holmes canon, partly also because I am not sure whether I can truly claim that I don't know of ten other detective novels that I would deem better than any work in the Holmes canon. I am not talking about historic importance, just as a work on its own. But enough of small talk.

Both the editor of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Amagi Seimaru (who actually writes this series under a different pen name) have been promoting Sherdock the Detective Dog on their Twitter accounts lately, so I tried the first volume, despite the description on the back. I am fairly sure I would never ever had bought it otherwise. For the premise is: Sherlock Holmes is for some reason reincarnated as a dog. Called Sherdock (Sherlock + Dog). In Japan. And his owner is a young teenager called Wajima Takeru, who is also the only person who can actually communicate Sherdock. Because Takeru also happens to be the reincarnation of Watson (in fact, the name Wajima Takeru can be read as Watson thanks to the complexities of the Japanese language). In Japan. And together, they fight crime!

And nobody in their right mind would have picked this up without some pushing, right?

But to be honest: this is a surprisingly fun series! Of course, you really have to accept first that Sherdock is not even remotely similar to the real Holmes, only spouting misquotes like 'Elementary, my dear Watson'. And imagine you being a teenager, only to have Holmes teasing you about a classmate by saying the following: I can see you're in love with her. And it's one-sided too. No, not likely. But it is funny though. Just imagine Holmes being all smug about it. Anyway, accept the premise of a talking, detective dog who might or might not be Holmes, and you will actually have a fun time.

The series consists of semi-inverted stories. At least, in the first volume. You don't actually see the murderers commit their crimes, but it usually quite clear who the guilty party is: the problem is to prove how he did. It's like when you tune in on an episode of Columbo just after the murderer has commited his crime (which for some reason, is something that happened to me quite often). Unlike Reizouko Tantei, the hints are fairly available to the reader (and they don't rely on specialist knowledge like Kuitan). The stories aren't what I would call classics, but they are not bad and I did like the emphasis on visual hints, an element that is usually not present at all in books.

Visual hints are definitely a reason why I like detective manga. I already sorta mentioned it in a review of an audio drama, but there are a wide variety of hints that rely on the human senses, that just don't translate well in written words. If one reads manga like Conan and Kindaichi Shounen, you'll see that the authors make great use of the visual element of their stories, burying hints in the art. And unlike video, you can easily go back a few pages to confirm things (like normal books), which removes the problem of visual hints in video that are either to hard to detect (short screen-time, too small to see at one glance), or too obvious (with the director trying too hard to convey the fact that something is a hint).

And of course, one of Sherdock the Detective Dog's charm points, or at least, that's what the writer probably aims at, is that Sherdock has the problem of being a dog and not being able to do everything he would like to do himself, thus needing Takeru to act as his human proxy. As of the first volume, this dynamic mimics that of the main dynamic in Conan by the way: Conan has at one hand the freedom to do a lot because he is an 'innocent' child, on the other hand there is a lot he isn't allowed to do himself, thus needing an adult partner to do things for him. The same holds for Sherdock, with the difference that he can just ask Takeru to do things for him, while Conan usually has to act and slyly lead adults to do the things he wants to have done.

Sherdock the Detective Dog is still running, with the fourth volume recently released. For some reason I never really got into Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou (and I haven't even read the spin-off  C.M.B.), but I might follow this series because a focus on inverted stories does make it feel different (even though they are also present in both Conan and Kindaichi Shounen).  I have no idea how this series is going to develop further though. At least with Conan, there is the whole Black Organisation storyline that keeps everything together. Are we going to find out more about why the heck Holmes is a dog? Is Moriarty going to appear as a dog too? I think I am more afraid than curious to how this series is going to develop in the future, but there is only one way to find out. At least, only one that doesn't involve driving in DeLoreans, blue police boxes and other machinery that might mess up the space-time continuum.

Original Japanese title(s): 安童夕馬(原)、佐藤友生 (画) 『探偵犬シャードック』第1巻

Monday, September 10, 2012

Zero Focus

"The record, therefore, which I am about to set down is the first complete and unedited history of the Greene holocaust. It is, I hope, unnecessary for me to state that I have received official permission for my task. I feel that now the truth should be known, for it is history, and one should not shrink from historical facts. Also, I believe that the credit for the solution of this case should go where it belongs"
"The Greene Murder Case"

Warning: there is a big chance that the next post to be published, will be about Sherlock Holmes reincarnated as a dog. You have been warned.

Man, I have postponing writing the review for 0 no Satsujin for so long, that I actually read the sequel in the meantime. Yes, I am good at postponing things. So let's just make this a double review to get it all over with: today, the last two novels in Abiko Takemaru's Hayami siblings series. I had already reviewed 8 no Satsujin a couple of months ago and this is one of those rare, very rare cases where I read the books in a series 1) in the right order and 2) complete the series within a relatively short space in time.  The first novel in the series (also Abiko Takemaru's debut) was really fun and a well-constructed, but not particularly surprising impossible crime novel I t was not bad in any way however and Abiko has a very easy to read writing style, which makes his novels ideal as 'filler' material between 'heavier' reading material.

Police detective Hayami Kyouzou is having another difficult case in 0 no Satsujin ("The 0 Murders"), surrouding the small family of wealthy (and old!) heiress Fujita Katsu. Her only living relatives are her younger brother Genji and her nephew and niece Kushida Tatsuo and Hiroko. In fact, these people don't have any family of their own either, so these four people are all they have in the world. And someone is killing them, one by one, starting with the poisoning murder on not the old Katsu, but instead her young niece Hiroko! Why kill someone with no money? Who has any reason for killing off a small family with almost no ties to the outside world? Kyouzou has no idea, so he calls in the help of two experts on family holocausts in fiction: his younger brother and sister Shinji and Ichio, who happen to be huge fans of detective fiction.

The novel starts quite surprising with not a Challenge to the Reader, but a Notice of the Writer, where Abiko sorta tells the reader he left enough clues for the reader to deduce who the murderer is, and he is even so nice as to give you a list of suspects, saying that all other characters are definitely not involved with the murders. The tone of the Notice might not be very aggressive, but yes, this is just a nicer written Challenge to the Reader. I thought it pretty interesting as most novels don't feature a Challenge to the Reader until the point where all hints are given, which can also make a Challenge to the Reader come as a surprise. If you are not expecting it to be such a detective novel, your 'reading mode' might be totally different. In that sense, it is more fair to include such a Challenge at the beginning and I think it might also be a remnant of Abiko's time at the Kyoto University Mystery Club, where Guess the Criminal scripts are technically all stories feature a Challenge to the Reader.

The puzzle of the holocaust of the family is rather easy to solve though and while the story is definitely fun to read (again, Abiko's writing style is very easy to read), I wouldn't recommend this novel that easily. I would definitely recommend it if you like Abiko's sense of humor (as seen in his other novels, or Kamaitachi no Yoru) and it is certainly not a bad detective novel (though it is sure to be seen with some disagreeing eyes by some mystery fans), but it is also I think the weakest of the three Hayami sibling novels, with actually little incentives that keep the reader attached to the text besides the easy-to-read style. The slapstick humor is also toned down a bit, which makes 0 no Satsujin a rather dry and short book, that at times feels more like an extended plot-outline than a fullfledged novel.

Möbius no Satsujin ("The Möbius Murders"), set just after the events in the previous novel, presents Kyouzou with a new partner (the female detective Kijima) and a new case: a mysterious series of murders in metropolitan Tokyo. The victims vary from little children to elderly men. The only thing that suggests a link between the seperate murders: notes left at the murder scenes with enigmatic number-sequences on them ("2-2", "3-1" etc.). What is the missing link that exists between the seemingly random murders and will Kyouzou be able to stop the murderer? Meanwhile, we also follow the 'adventures' of a teenager called Shiina Toshio, who together with an unknown partner has been going around killing people...

Möbius no Satsujin starts out as a serial murder case like The ABC Murders, then turns into a missing link story like Cat of Many Tails, interspersed with suspense elements where we follow the named murderer. Seems a bit chaotic, but it works and the first two-thirds of this story are very fun to read. It might feel a bit light for some readers too: Abiko's trademark easy writing and slapstick humor kinda undermines the gravity of a serial killer on the loose in the city, but if you can accept that, this should provide for a few hours of entertainment.

Some elements of the the missing link part of the story are good, some not so. The link between the murders is a pretty original one, but the concept behind the enigmatic number sequences left at the crime scenes is almost impossible to guess a priori. The missing link is also revealed halfway through the story, shifting the focus of the investigation towards finding the murderers, but that part is definitely the worst part of the story, with a really unbelievable identity of Toshio's partner. It might have worked if this story was written in a different tone, but it just doesn't work here. It feels so out of tone, that it leaves a somewhat bad aftertaste, despite the entertaining main body of the story.

Taking these two novels together with 8 no Satsujin, it becomes a bit more clear what Abiko did with this series though. 8 no Satsujin featured an impossible murder, 0 no Satsujin the holocaust of a family, Möbius no Satsujin serial murders and a missing link. With all three novels, Abiko used a famous trope of older detective fiction, which he examined using the characters of Shinji and Ichio. Shinji and Ichio constantly reference Golden Age novels when contemplating about the cases, effectively acting as proxies for the genre-savvy reader. Abiko also subverses the tropes in several ways in his novels (I won't go into details for fear of spoiling people). Of course, the detective genre is one that makes extensive use of tropes and subversing them, but there is a difference between coming up with a new solution for an existing trope in the genre, and actually starting kicking at the fundementals of said tropes. These novels make Abiko's place in the history of New Orthodox novels a bit clearer to me at least.

Taken apart, these novels are certainly amusing stories, but they are not what I'd first think of when talking about the New Orthodox writers. I would not advice people to not read them either though, as they are competently written mystery novels. Taken as a set, the three Hayami siblings novels becme a place Abiko manages to have a small discussion about Golden Age novels. Together, they form a better way to explain his position within New Orthodox detective fiction, but I think that in terms of pure originality, Abiko's influence in the genre of mystery gaming is far more important than his novels, so if you had to choose, I'd say you'd need to go play Kamaitachi no Yoru instead.

Original Japanese title(s): 我孫子武丸 『0の殺人』 『メビウスの殺人』

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Japanese Fan Mystery

"Somehow she had never thought of a Japanese as capable of emotion. It struck her suddenly that just because their eyes were shaped differently, (sic) was no sign they possessed no tear-ducts
"The Door Between

Being asked to vote for a list of best mystery novels (both Japanese and foreign) of all time resulted in a long, long discussion and a lot of politics at the Mystery Club. It sounds fun in theory, but just imagine the efforts needed to compress everybody's opinions and favorites in two lists of ten titles. Keeping in mind that the publisher of the list asked several other mystery circles, as well as famous writers, to vote too, 'our' list included quite a lot of strategic choosing (No need to 'push' a certain famous title, because it will come up anyway). Which explains why Christie didn't make the cut in our list. And Queen has a very, very ambigeous spot in the list. But skipping dinner and talking for about four hours about all kinds of detective fiction is... actually closer to hell than heaven. Glad we're done.

And talking about Queen: I read The Door Between recently. Karen Leith is an award-winning novelist who spent most of her life in Japan before moving to New York. She usually walks around in a kimono, her house is full of objects she took with her from Japan and even her house-maid is Japanese. She is engaged to Dr. McClure, a renowned cancer specialist. One day, Dr. McClure's daughter Eva pays Karen a visit, but she discovers Karen in her room with her throat cut open. Furthermore, the door to the room was under constant observation by Eva herself, and all other exits were locked from the inside: The conclusion: a locked room murder! Or, as the police thinks: Eva did it, because if all other exits were locked from the inside, only Eva who was alone near the door could have done it. A shady private eye Terry believes in Eva's innocence though and tries to proof it.

Oh, and this is an Ellery Queen novel, so he appears in there somewhere too.

This is a weird Ellery Queen novel. It was originally serialized in a women's magazine it seems, and heck, does it show. Not to look down upon them unconditionally, but this novel is very different from the previous Queen novels (the nationality novels and Halfway House). The story follows the adventures of Eva, with all the drama surrounding her being a suspect and love triangles and I don't know. Heck, inspector Queen and even Ellery for some time act more like the antagonists rather than the protagonists! I concur that this was also kinda present in Halfway House, but I at least had a lot more fun overall with that novel than with The Door Between.

Which was also because I was not too impressed by the puzzle plot. This is pretty much a locked room puzzle (if one accepts Eva's innocence because she is the poor little female protagonist who needs protection from everybody), but the road to the solution never feels as satisfying as the pure logical elimination method employed in the earlier novels. Ellery mostly guesses. And to be honest, I wasn't too impressed by the solution either. The Door Between is quite far removed from the nationality novels, which makes it that much ironic that the Japanese title of this novel translates to The Japanese Jay Mystery and is considered an unofficial part of the nationality series. Which it really, really isn't. It would have been better if they had done that with Halfway House...

And I know this novel was written in another time and actually, if one keeps that in mind it might not even be that bad, but I made quite a lot Marge Simpson groan imitations as I was reading The Door Between because of its Orientalist views. Like the quote above. Which is really just the tip of the iceberg. It's a parade of all kind of Orientalist remarks by everyone and the book also features some interesting sentences written in romanized Japanese. I really should borrow the Japanese translation one of these days to see what they did with that!

I just read The Door Between as I've read most other Queens and I'm just picking up the last few ones I missed, but man, would I have been disappointed if I had read this thinking this was a nationality novel! I am happy I read this now, because this would have left quite a bad impression on my thoughts on Queen, I think.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


"He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor. But he saw all men walking about like insects"
"The Hammer of God"

Backlog is reduced to two book reviews. And I don't think the booklog will grow that much the following days, as I have trouble getting through the two books I really have finish before next week as is, so the beast is almost slain!

Besides the usual books, I've already discussed games and movies this month, so now it's time for an audio drama! (I think it's unlikely I will ever use the musical tag again. Unless I go to the Gyakuten Kenji musical by the Takarazuka Revue next year...)

Yaneura no Sanposha ("The Stroller in the Attic") is the third audio drama by Momogre/Kikka based on Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice / Criminologist Himura series after 48 Banme no Misshitsu and Swiss Dokei no Nazo. I already reviewed the original short story in the past: a night prowler is active in the city of Osaka. His victims are all women and he has the weird tendency of cuttig his victims' hair and taking it with him (No idea why I am seeing this fetish so often lately...). The police has no idea who the maniac is, until they find a connection between this case and the murder of an old landlord. Two points of interest are found in the old man's diary: one is that the man had taken up the same habit like Gouda Saburou in Edogawa Rampo's famous short story The Stroller in the Attic: the landlord used to climb up the attic to peek at his tenants rooms! The second point of interest in the diary is that the landlord also claimed that during one of his attic strolls, he had seen evidence that one of his tenants was the infamous night prowler. The police suspects the man was killed for finding out too much and sees this as a chance to catch the night prowler. The problem: the landlord identified all of his tenants through some kind of code and the police has no idea which of the tenants is the maniac. Criminologist Himura drags along detective writer Arisugawa Alice, as an 'expert' in solving codes.

This was originally a short story, so I was kinda surprised this story was selected for an audio adaptation. In fact, the only reason I can think of is that this story touches very briefly on how Himura and Alice met. And I do mean very briefly. Besides that point, I actually don't think this story was a very wise choice, actually.

At one hand, I did enjoy the original story and it has been made into a faithful audio drama. As a big fan of Edogawa Rampo and the original The Stroller in the Attic, I loved how this story played with similar themes and actually turned it around: in the original story, the titular stroller eventually tries his hand at murder, while in this story, the stroller becomes the victim of one of his viewing objects. It's a surprising subversion of the original story and the code used in the landlord's diary is also strongly connected with Rampo's story, which makes it the much fun. Also, the original story was fairly short, so I was quite surprised to see that the full length of the drama, around fifty minutes, was filled perfectly, without feeling too dragged out, nor too fast-paced.

One thing I thought was a missed chance in the original story, was the fact that there were no alternative solutions proposed. In Ellery Queen's dying message stories, you are often presented several wrong interpretations until the final, right answer is given. I think it would also have been better for this story if multiple interpretations had been explored more thoroughly.

This is a point I had addressed already in my reviews of the earlier Arisugawa Alice audio dramas: some types of stories are just better suited for a purely audio adaptation than other types. And I don't code-cracking stories are particularly fit to solve with just your ears and head. Or at least: I can't decipher a code just listening to the coded items. I really need to see them before my head starts to process them. And I think that the visual plays a large part in this story anyway, as it deals strongly with voyeurism. It is a story that deals with what the reader sees, with the feeling people get from secretly looking at other people, from peeping. It's this subject matter that makes this story feel much more suitable for a visual medium (and I count a novel as a visual medium, to an extent). Or that might be me just nitpicking. Though I really do have to say that I had the same feeling too when I listened to an audio adaptation of Rampo's The Stroller in the Attic.

There are stories where misunderstanding (mis-hearing something) plays a large part, and then I think an audio-drama would be perfect. There are probably codes cracking stories that probably work better if you actually hear them, but few mysteries nowadays are actually written to be heard, so that explains why a lot of codes are in fact more visually-focused, I think.

It seems that Momogre/Kikka has already a new Arisugawa Alice audio adaptation (alliteration, engage!) scheduled for next month of a story I haven't read yet, so kinda looking forward to that!

Original Japanese title(s): モモグレ (原:有栖川有栖) 『屋根裏の散歩者』

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


「ぼくの名前は、成歩堂 龍一。3ヶ月前に弁護士になったばかり、今日は始めての法廷だ」

"My name is Phoenix Wright. I became a laywer just three months ago and today is my first time in court
"Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney"

Ever since I played first played Gyakuten Saiban (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney), I've considered it as one of the most memorable detective stories ever. Heck, I easily rank the series as more fun than a lot of 'conventional' detective fiction (books) and I always find it a shame that even though a lot of mystery blogs out there do seem to discuss movies (and occasionally audio dramas), they very seldom discuss videogames. The medium might be different, but it is certainly not one unfit for the genre and it is a shame a lot of readers seem to miss out on great stuff, just because it is in a slightly different medium (the same for detective comics like Conan by the way). The Gyakuten (Ace Attorney) series really offers a unique experience, which everybody should have tried.

I had missed seeing the Gyakuten Saiban live action movie when it was first shown in the Netherlands earlier this year, so had I wait for the home video release. Which was last week. In the near future, crime rates have risen so high, that a new judicial system has been implemented to cope with the problem. Under the Initial Trial System, trials will last for a maximum of three days, as to speed up the process. In these trials the prosecution and defense only have to focus on the question of the defendant's guilt, with the actual punishment being determined at a later stage. With the high turnover rate in this world, trials have also grown out to be a kind of high speed consumer good: trials are open to the public to view and the battles between prosecution and defense remind of the gladiator games in ancient Rome. Enter rookie defense laywer Naruhodou Ryuuichi, who has taken the grand case of defending Ayatsuji Mayoi (Maya Fey), who is accused of murdering her sister, who also happened to be Naruhodou's boss at the law office. Will Naruhodou be able to turn the case around and find the real murderer?

Gyakuten Saiban is a condensed version of the first game and a mighty interesting movie too! It is an actual good movie based on a videogame, though still not without its faults. One problem might be the fact that it tries very hard to fit in most of the first game in its two-hour run and especially the first 20 minutes of the movie can be hard to follow if you're not familiar with the original source, I think. It runs at a very high speed, with lots of happenings and most of all: Gyakuten Saiban features its own, particular and unique world, which might be hard to get into if you have not played the game. The above mentioned Intial Trial System is one, but Gyakuten Saiban also features some very unique character appearances (almost all of them being faithful reproductions of the game, including Naruhodou's spiky hair) and a distinct sense of comedy. The summary above might sound very dark and gloomy, but Gyakuten Saiban is definitely a comedy. It might hard to catch all that in the first half of the movie. Are you able to get into this world view, then you're in for a treat. A great comedy-detective with its own face and featuring some of the most memorable scenes in detective fiction. And a lot of fingerpointing!

If one is to compare this movie to the Takarazuka Revue musical, I would say that the latter actually feels closer to the videogames though. Despite the singing and dancing and added romance plots. Visually, the movie is much closer to the original, but the motions of the characters in the game were reproduced more faithfully in the musical. Which doesn't make it better automatically though: it's just that the dialogue and movements of the characters are much closer to the game in the musical than in the movie. Overall, the movie works much better as a stand-alone product though.

As a fan of the game, it is almost impossible for me to not compare it to the original. So I won't even try. The game is naturally quite a bit longer, so a lot of the human relations (Naruhodou - Mayoi, rival prosecutor Mitsurugi and police detective Itonokogiri) feel a bit downplayed in the movie, as there was just not as much time spent on it as in the games. But the visual designs of the characters made it all over perfectly and while the set design is very different from the more colorful videogames, I really like the darker look to the world, with the bright characters running around there. Director Miike also made use of a very cool way of showing the audience the evidence used in the trials, which is a crucial concept in the original game. It is one thing to say someone is wrong and to show him the supporting evidence for that, it is another thing to actually throw the evidence at that person's face. And the occasional use of the music from the videogame in the movie soundtrack is fantastic. At the right moments, you'll hear the great music that is so much a part of the Gyakuten series. 

I have mentioned countless of times that I absolutely love the Gyakuten videogame series. Heck, in a not-so-distant-past, I even wrote my bachelor's thesis about the use of role language in these games! The great thing about the detective plots in these games is the way they are told. We have locked room murders, seemingly impossible crimes and other 'grand' tropes, but there are also 'normal' poisoning cases and seemingly ordinary murder cases here, but even these latter 'simple' cases are made memorable because of how Takumi Shuu, the original creator, wrote the stories.

He mentions it in this essay, but there is an inherent contradiction in detective fiction: readers want to solve the mystery themselves, but they also want to get surprised. And now try to change that into a detective videogame. Players want to get surprised by the mystery, but the game must also be beatable, the player must be able to complete the game themselves. With fighting games, you might expect a player to train, but that is more difficult with detective stories. Well, Takumi wrote all of his stories focusing on contradictions. No matter how big the case, if we look at his storytelling as a sort of grammar, then the smallest unit in Takumi's storytelling is the contradiction.

How is this implemented? In 'normal' fiction, the reader is presented with a big problem (i.e. a naked body found in a department store), with the detective going here and there looking for clues and presenting his conclusions in the denouement. In the Gyakuten games, there is still the big problem, but the road towards the final solution is cut into little pieces, the contradictions. You assume the role of Naruhodou in most of the games and during the trials in the game, witness make statements which usually contain something that contradicts the evidence you have. Why did that witness say he was watching TV, even though I have a report that there was a power shortage? Why did that witness say the defendant hit the victim with his right hand, even though he is left-handed? These may seem like small problems, but eventually, these little problems lead back to the main problem (usually murder). So the player is expected to solve these little contradictions one by one, which in turn slowly lead towards the truth. If a conventional detective works towards the solution of a problem once, than the Gyakuten games are a constant series of little solutions, that in turn lead to the solution of the main problem (like this).

What makes this so fantastic is that the player is never bored. Everytime you manage to explain a contradiction, you find yourself in the particular situation of having brought forth a new contradiction by solving the previous one (and usually, these new situations are not particularly saving your case). You are constantly challenged with new problems that you need to solve on the spot, and your back is against the wall practically all of the time. There is a sense of pressure and with constantly changing circumstances, this is a prime example of presenting a detective story, which often can be quite boring if sticking to the murder-investigation-denouement model, in new and exciting ways.

ADDENDUM: The way the characters keep throwing new evidence towards each other, leading to new contradictions and views on the murders is reminiscent of the way Columbo often spoke with his suspects: coming up with small contradictions, allowing the suspect to present a plausible explanation, which in turn led to new contradictions. In that sense, it is not new per se, but the tempo of Columbo and Gyakuten Saiban is very different, with the little confrontations regarding contradictions in Columbo being more of a tool, while it is a fundamental part of the storytelling in Gyakuten Saiban.

Anyway, sorry for this sidetracking, but this type of storytelling is also present in the movie, which makes it a very interesting kind of detective movie: it is much more action-packed than a movie like Green for Danger or The Devotion of Suspect X, and I don't mean action-packed in the sense of the Sherlock Holmes movies. It is action-packed because the detective plot is presented to the viewer with a distinct rhythm, which allows those with a quick head to think along (or even out-think) the protagonist, which is one of the joys of detective fiction. But unlike 'conventional' detective movies, where you have to wait until the ending, Gyakuten Saiban keeps you on the edge of the seat, constantly bombarding Naruhodou and you with new problems to solve. Like the videogame, this feels like a new format for detective movies, very strongly related to thrillers/adventure movies, despite being an orthodox detective movie!

Hmm, this review definitely lost its direction halfway through. But anyway, this is definitely a must-see for fans of the videogames and it works as a standalone comedy detective movie too, though it might be hard to get in the beginning. If you're able to get accept the unique world of Gyakuten Saiban, then you're in for a great movie which brings a new dynamic to detective movies!

Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転裁判』 

Monday, September 3, 2012

「Justice for True Love 君だけのために」

「人はなぜ傷つけるくせに 許されたいの?」
『君がいるから・・・』 (西脇唯)

"Why do people hurt other people, even though they want to be forgiven?"
"Because you're there..." (Nishiwaki Yui)

Backlog... growing... Doesn't seem to stop.... Must write to reduce.... write to reduce...

All well, I get to borrow the TV a little week longer because of circumstances, so I guess less detective fiction, more games this week. Note to myself: I still need to write the reviews, because playing games only stops the initial problem from becoming worse.

The first words in Norizuki Rintarou's Yoriko no tame ni ("For Yoriko") set the tone for the story: August 23, 1989. Yoriko died. The 17 year old daughter of Nishimura Yuuji was found strangled in a park near her school. The police think it was the work of a sexual maniac who has been active in the area for some months now, but Yoriko's father has doubts about this line of investigation and a long search leads him to whom he thinks the real murderer is. And after stabbing 'his' murderer to death and leaving a note explaining everything to his wife, Yuuji commits suicide. Or at least, he tried to commit suicide, but he was saved in the nick of time, though still in a coma. Writer/detective Norizuki Rintarou gets his hand on the final words Yuuji left behind before his suicide attempt and discovers some hints in the manuscript that point to a totally different truth behind the death of Yoriko.

Norizuki Rintarou is a writer who is strongly influenced by Ellery Queen. The use of a writer-detective protagonist with a police inspector as a father is a clear example of this, but Norizuki is also a Queen-reseacher who specializes in what he calls 'the Late Period Queen problems': meta-problems concerning the role of the detective in fiction, as addressed by Queen himself in many of his later novels. To reduce it to two main points: the detective (and the reader) can never say with absolutely certainty that he has access to all of the hints and clues that lead to the truth. Except for the (meta) explanation that the writer at one points abritrary decides that the story should end and thus isn't going to offer any new hints. So the solution the detective offers at the end of a story can never be guaranteed to be correct. The second point is that the detective himself is not a omnipotient figure with no relation to the murder drama: his presence alone already has presence on the actions of the other players of the tragedy and who is to say that the real murderer hasn't calculated for the interference of a detective through the use of false hints?

Many of the New Orthodox writers in fact deal with these Late Period Queen problems (Maya Yutaka for example), but with Norizuki it kinda stands out because he seems to be mostly exploring this theme in his novels and not in his short stories. His short story collections are very much like the stories in The Adventures of Ellery Queen, stories that focus on the puzzle element. Norizuki's novels however deal more obvious with the darker themes of Queen, and therefore feel very different from the short novels. With the exception of the first novel in the writer Norizuki Rintarou series maybe. Maybe. It's a grey-line there. Yoriko no Tame ni is definitely more like Namakubi ni Kiite Miro than Yuki Misshitsu.

So, what do we have in Yoriko no Tame ni? It starts with why the character Norizuki Rintarou is involved with the case in the first place. He is in fact asked to investigate the case because he is a famous detective. People are bound to starts rumors if a famous detective is on the job, and certain people have an interest in covering up the scandal surrounding the death of the young schoolgirl and her murderer. So Rintarou is initially only asked to acts as a rumor-starter, because of his function as a detective. He is just a polital tool . Which deals with point 2 mentioned above, the influence of the detective on the story and the reactions of the characters.

Also related is the puzzle plot in this novel. Which is actually quite vague and weak. Rintarou starts to have doubts surrounding Yuuji's deduction after reading the manuscript, but it is based on one sorta-defendable point and another fairly weak point. The rest of the story is also based on a lot of guesswork and a bit of psychological analysis, which is very different from the early pure-logic-based Queenian stories as we see in Arisugawa Alice's Student Alice stories. It also makes Yoriko no Tame ni feel more like a Higashino Keigo story than a Norizuki Rintarou story, to be honest. But as said, it can be explained as Norizuki purposely avoiding 'hard' evidence, as that is more easier to fabricate than psychological analyses. If one can't trust the evidence, all the detective can do is hope his reading of the suspects is correct. Because of this, there are also less 'big' detective tropes in Norizuki's novels like closed circles and locked rooms (both available in Yuki Misshitsu though, and a locked room in Ichi no Higeki, but not as a main problem in the latter). The novels focus more on core families and bigger human relations and the drama that springs forth from that.

A lot of academic literary research on detective novels like to play with the analogies between reader=detective, writer=criminal and text=crime in the genre. In that sense, having a detective doing his investigation by reading a text (Yuuji's manuscript) could also be considered an unbelievably meta-plot device. Or maybe I am seeing too much into this. Fact is though that Norizuki seems to like this plot device of having his detective reading texts, as this is also used in the later Ni no Higeki. A more direct influence might be Shimada Souji's Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken, which features a similar plot-point (and with Shimada being a major influence in Norizuki's rise as a professional writer).

In the afterword to this story, Norizuki 'confesses' that Yoriko no Tame ni was actually 'just' a lengthened version of a short story he had originally written during his years in the Kyoto University Mystery Club. The title and the beginning and end are the same, with only the middle part being fleshed out more to bring it up to novel length. It's fun to see that he already worked with Queen problems then, but like one can sense from this review, I am not that enthusiastic about it. Which is why I wrote this lengthy about everything but the actual story. I find Yoriko no Tame ni interesting as a Norizuki Rintarou novel, but not as a novel per se. Though I am probably quite alone there, with international versions being published of this book and this week rumors of a possible South-Korean movie version even popped up.  

Yoriko no Tame ni is admittedly a page turner, it hits all the right emotional switches and the final scenes contain enough revelations to entertain a fan of the genre. In fact, most readers won't probably catch the nonsense I wrote above and will be able to enjoy it as a Higashino Keigo-esque, core-family-centered drama mystery. But for me, it's just too different from Norizuki's puzzle short stories and that is what I like about him.

Original Japanese title(s):  法月綸太郎 『頼子のために』

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Prescription: Murder

「さされた男」 (サンドウィッチマン) 

Take a look! Now! 
- But from what I've seen, the knife hasn't reached the organs because of your body fat. 
- Yes, you're lucky to be a fatty. 
"The Stabbed Man" (Sandwichman sketch) 

A doctor solving impossible problems? Surely we're talking about Black Jack?!

No, we're not. We're talking about Sam Hawthorne. But to start off with a small correction: I said earlier that Edward D. Hoch's Ellery Queen pastiche The Circle of Ink was the first Hoch I ever read. Now that I think about it, I had read Hoch's Queen pastiche The Reindeer Clue (in The Tragedy of Errors) before. Which still meant that I only knew Hoch from his Queen pastiches. So I picked up Sam Hawthorne no Jikenbo I ("The Casefiles of Sam Hawthorne I") last weekend to fix that blind spot in my education. This is a Japanese version of Crippen & Landru's Diagnosis Impossible in theory, collecting the first thirteen stories of Hoch's Dr. Sam Hawthorne series, with two important differences. One is that this first volume also contains the short story The Long Way Down as a bonus, which is not part of the series. The second point is that while there are only two collected volumes of the Dr. Sam Hawthorne available in English, the whole series is actually available in the six volumes of Sam Hawthorne no Jikenbo. Which probably means that I am going to read the whole series in Japanese, as it make take quite some time before the rest of the series is collected in English!

Sam Hawthorne is an old family practitioner, who tells the reader about the adventures he had when he was still just a young doctor, starting in 1924 in Northmont, a New England town. You'd think that this would be a quiet little town, but for some reason all of the world's most brilliant criminals seem to have gathered here, if the amount of seemingly impossible crimes is something to go by. Men who disappear from covered bridges, kids disappearing from schools, a murdered man found in a just-sealed time capsule, not the kind of crimes you would expect in Northmont. It is at least as unsafe here as in Cabot Cove. The inhabitants are just lucky that young Sam is quite good at solving the impossible.

The stories are quite short and I don't think I could write about them without giving too much away, so I'll write a bit more generally about them. My favorite stories of the collection are The Problem of the Old Gristmill (documents disappearing from a safe which was being transported on a train), The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand (a man being stabbed to death in the middle of a bandstand, with the murderer disappearing in front of the eyes of the band and the public), The Problem of the Voting Booth (a man being stabbed while inside a voting booth with observers everywhere), and the bonus track The Long Way Down (a man jumping off a building, but not reaching the ground until almost four hours later!). These stories, but the others too, all show what a great imagination Hoch had, presenting the reader with fun and alluring impossible crime situations.

The first word I had in my head after finishing this volume was craftsman. Hoch's output was tremendous and that may be a reason why most stories are constructed very similar. A lot of the impossible crimes center around a person being under constant observation, with a murder/disappearance happening in the only moment the person escapes observation. Even the hinting in most of the stories is very similar, with the stories being easier to solve as you read more of them, as you start to see parallels in the ways Hoch tells his stories and how he plants hints.

But this is not a bad thing. With many writers, this could be a serious flaw, but Hoch was a craftsman. Tremendous effort went into each story in order to give the reader something new every time. The problems might be very similar abstractly speaking, but the situations he came up are sure to pique anyone's imagination and you always feel like you have gained something by reading the stories.

Which is also because Hoch slowly builds up the town of Northmont as he was writing the stories. There is continuity in these stories, with characters from the town reappearing, with events in the past being referenced to, with distinct references to the time and place of the stories (1920s New England), creating a living setting for Hawthorne's adventures. It makes the stories feel much more personal. And on the other hand, it makes things really disturbing, as the ratio of supercriminals in this little town is very alarming.

Anyway, this is a very entertaining collection of impossible crimes and I will definitely pick up the rest of the series!

By the way, there is an audio drama available of The Problem of the Locked Caboose, produced for the EQMM podcast. It's a fun one, so I recommend a listen!

Original title(s): Edward D. Hoch 『サム・ホーソーンの事件簿』I: 'The Problem of the Covered Bridge' 「有蓋橋の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Old Gristmill' 「水車小屋の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Lobster Shack' 「ロブスター小屋の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand' 「呪われた野外音楽堂の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Locked Caboose' 「乗務員車の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Little Red Schoolhouse' 「赤い校舎の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Christmas Steeple' 「そびえ立つ尖塔の謎」 / 'The Problem of Cell 16' 「十六号独房の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Country Inn' 「古い田舎宿の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Voting Booth' 「投票ブースの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Country Fair' 「農作物祭りの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Old Oak Tree' 「古い樫の木の謎」 / 'The Long Way Down' 「長い墜落」