Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yellow Iris


"Let's study flower language tonight. First, we have the Cyclamen. In flower language, it means suspicion. Ehhm, then the Yoshino Cherry. In flower language, a beautiful person. Weeping plum. Knowledge. And the Miyakowasure. In flower language, it means a short parting. This is Furuhata Ninzaburou"
"Furuhata Ninzaburou: A Short Parting"

Finally handed in my final paper for this term, which meant I finally have time to play videogames read books. Heck, I should also finish some books now, papers and exams kinda messed up my reading schedule, resulting in me taking several weeks to read a book that can be read in several hours,

Renjou Mikihiko's Modorigawa Shinjuu ("Love Suicide at the Returning River") was recommended to me several times as one of the best mystery short story collections in Japan and indeed, it ranked as the best short story collection in the Tozai Mystery Best 100, entering the list at a very decent 12th position. Luck also had it that the local second hand book store had it in stock when I finally decided to actually look for it, so there I was. To be honest, I knew nothing about Renjou Mikihiko. Well, almost nothing. But for some reason I had always associated the name with 'serious' literature (whatever that is), and not with mystery. So I started in Modorigawa Shinjuu not sure what to expect. What I got however, was very pleasant.

Modorigawa Shinjuu collects five out of eight stories by Renjou that are collectively called the Flower Funeral series: the stories don't have any real connection to each other, but they all feature flowers as a common motive. I don't know about the three stories not collected here, but the stories in Modorigawa Shinjuu were also all set in the Taishou (1912-1926) / (1926-1989) early Shouwa period of Japan. I'm personally most familiar with these periods through the works of Edogawa Rampo, but there are no phantom thieves running around the city in these stories.

I tried discussing the stories seperately, but as it turns out very bland and a bit spoilerish, I give up on that and will try to give a more overall view on the collection. My first impression, which starts with opening story, Fuji no Ka ("Scent of the Wisteria"), is that Renjou Mikihiko is indeed not just a 'normal' mystery writer. His prose is really nice and he has a great talent in conveying the feel of the locale (in this story, the entertainment quarter of a harbor city) and human emotions. In fact, the story didn't feel like a mystery at all: sure, there was apparently a serial killer on the loose in the entertainment quarter, but the way the narrator, and Renjou, spoke about things made it feel much more like a well written short story about such environments near the end of the Taishou period.

And the conclusion comes and I was surprised to see that Renjou did really write a nice detective story, complete with clues and all, without me noticing. I won't say that it is a masterpiece, but it did manage to surprise me. Renjou's prose is nearer to writers who write 'serious stuff', which certainly made me underestimate the way the detective plot was weaved into his story about the Taishou world.

And this holds for all the stories in the collection. Renjou comes with great stories that are really interesting to read even without the mystery element, which convey a great sense of history and emotions of the anonymous mass of the Taishou period. We see the entertainment quarters of modernised cities in Fuji no Ka and Kikyou no Yado ("House of the Chinese Bellflower"), the world of organized crime in Kiri no Hitsugi ("The Paulownia Coffin"), the way temples are run and the effect of superstitious belief in small communities in Byakuren no Tera ("The White Lotus Temple") and tormented young writers in the titular Modorikawa Shinjuu ("Love Suicide at the Returning River"), themes and motives which are explored really well.

But he somehow manages to sneak in quite good mystery plots within them too, even if it takes a long time for them to come afruit. Most of the stories are a bit vague regarding fairness though, in the sense that we usually have an enigmatic situation that seems to repeat several times, with a hint here and there, with everything solved when the final hint is presented, but the jump to the final conclusion is usually based on intuition. Like a lot of Christie's short stories, the stories in Modorigawa Shinjuu are based on a reverse interpretation of situations, but there is no actual proof for this: it's just a guess based on the hints left by the author. I for example really liked the Modorikawa Shinjuu (for which the collection is named), but the solution is based on basically nothing but conjecture, lacking convincing power. I suppose that not all stories can be about pure elimination logic a la Queen, but the stories already feature a rather dreamy feel, which combined with the somewhat less-than-100%-convincing plots lead to detective stories which definitely work, but don't feel as strong as they might have been (to me at least).

And probably a slightly more regular posting schedule in February. Probably. And I'll probably write slightly better / more coherent reviews. The amount I've written this week about things like Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, Taishou Tokyo, human-computer interfaces and other stuff  was just a bit too overwhelming (I should learn to plan ahead) and I really have to recharge my writing power bar.

Original Japanese title(s): 連城三紀彦 『戻り川心中』:「藤の香」 / 「桔梗の宿」 / 「桐の棺」 / 「白蓮の寺」 / 「戻り川心中」

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Geek Interpreter

"Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world"
"The Problem of Thor Bridge"

I have been quite busy the last few weeks with perfecting my techniques for postponing writing reports until the last day (?), which will probably continue until the end of January, so I haven't been able to read  / write as much as I actually want. Hope to post at least one book review by next week though...

We all know that Sherlock Holmes is hip again since the Guy Ritchie movies and the BBC series. When I visited South-Korea in September, I was surprised by the amount of Sherlock Holmes books they had in the bookstores (seriously: I can't actually read Korean, but I saw multiple versions from I assume different publishers, so were they all different translations!?). Heck, I already reviewed a manga about Sherlock reincarnated as a dog! Anyway, so I wasn't that surprised when I came across a manga called Sherlockian!. I was surprised when I read the back though, because this wasn't a manga about Sherlock Holmes, it was a manga about Sherlockians! (or Holmesians as civil people should be using) and the canon problems they analyze! It was a ridiculous concept for a series, which was why I bought it at once.

The university student Harada Airi likes to read the Holmes stories and one day discovers that her professor Kuruma is actually a Holmesian. Kuruma invites Airi to a local Holmesian meeting (thus making her a member) and... that is it. The series unfolds as Airi starts to learn more about the little problems Holmesian like to study, like the disappearance of Mr. James Phillimore, or the first name of Watson, or the precise location of that darn war wound of his, which for some reason or another are usually also related to a current problem Airi is facing in her daily life.

There is not much to say about the series, actually. I liked the first volume, because I like Sherlock Holmes and because I am familiar with Holmesian problems. Which is both the strength and weakness of this series: I don't know how big a Holmesian writer Ikeda is, but he has done enough research / read enough secondary literature to create amusing, sometimes touching short stories. They feature daily life mysteries (or sometimes not even a mystery at all), with Holmesian problems as their theme: one great story is about how a dying man enjoyed reading the Holmes stories, until he came across the point where Watson's wife calls him James instead of John, arriving at the assumption that his wife might have been cheating on him. Another story on the other hand reenacts the disappearance of Mr. Phillimore, when a colleague of Airi at the local bookshop disappears after she went back into her apartment to get an umbrella for her father. It's not a big mystery and the story serves mostly as a vehicle to present the Holmesian problem, but it works.

But what I consider a weakness of this series, or at least what I think is unclear, who should be reading Sherlockian! ? First of all, I can't imagine that people who haven't read Holmes will find any enjoyment here. Secondly, the reader needs to be interested in Holmesian problems. Thirdly, said reader shouldn't be a big Holmesian him/herself, because then Sherlockian! doesn't has much to offer. I enjoyed Sherlockian!, even if I already knew about the problems posed in this volume (except for the Jack the Ripper story...), but this is really a series that is aiming at a niche, inside a niche, inside a niche.

Though I would totally recommend it to Japanese Holmes fans who want to learn about the canon...

Original Japanese title(s):  池田邦彦 『シャーロッキアン!』第1巻

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Destination Unknown

大きな詩を カバンにつけこんで
約束の場所めざして let's keep on running
「アコギな二人旅だぜ!」 (景山ひろのぶ、遠藤正明)

Let's go look for the answer you started to lose
Across the neverending horizon
Stuff a big song in your suitcase
And head for the promised place, let's keep on running
"A Duo's Acoustic Guitar Trip!" (Kageyama Hironobu, Masaaki Endou)

I really shouldn't be writing this review, considering I have a paper due tomorrow which I haven't even started with yet...

I had been wanting to read more Ayukawa Tetsuya ever since Akai Misshitsu - Meitantei Hoshikage Ryuuzou Zenshuu 1, so I picked up his Kuroi Trunk ("The Black Trunk"), the novel that could be considered Ayukawa's debut novel. I say considered, because Ayukawa, whose real name is Nakagawa Tooru, had initially won a contest with his Petrov Case in 1950, but due to problems with the publisher the book wasn't properly released then. It wasn't until 1956 that his first original novel, Kuroi Trunk, was published by Kodansha, under his new nom-de-plume Ayakawa Tetsuya. The story starts at Tokyo's Shiodome station, where a very suspicious smell from a black trunk sent there to be picked up, prompts the station attendant to call the police and open the suitcase. And lo, they indeed find a dead body stuffed inside the trunk. Tracing where the trunk was sent from, the police stumble upon the name of one Chikamatsu Chizuo, who sent the trunk to Tokyo under his own name from Fukuoka's Fudajima station. The hunt for Chikamatsu starts, which results in the discovery of his dead body, as he seemingly commited suicide. Seemingly, as inspector Onitsura, who used to be a classmate of Chikamatsu, suspects there is something more sinister going on with the problem of the black trunk.

Kuroi Trunk is seen as one of the best novels of 'alibi-breaking' Ayukawa and considered one of the classics of Japanese detective fiction in general. It's highly Crofts-inspired (especially The Cask) (and a bit of Yokomizo), as Ayukawa himself admits, which might also explain why it is certainly not one of the most pleasant books to read in terms of readability. But it is definitely a recommended read, because Ayukawa weaves a highly complex web of alibi tricks and deductions surrounding the origins and whereabouts of the titular black trunk.

As an alibi deconstruction story, the story settles on its main suspects about half-way through the story, but the complexities start there. Not only does the main suspect seem to have an unbreakable alibi, there is also another, fundamental problem governing the developments in this novel, that of who put the dead body in the black trunk and more importantly how. This forms both the novel strong and weak points. At one hand, we have a really well-constructed maze of actions, time-tables and other considerations, with a story that never feels boring. Every section of the story seems to have its own function, to complement something to the final solution.

On the other hand, Kuroi Trunk is definitely too complex for its own good at times. The story is hard to solve if you don't take notes regarding the time-tables: the murder and subsequent sending of the trunk to Tokyo takes place over a period of several days and Ayukawa sometimes discusses character movements in units of minutes. There are a lot of minutes in several days. Including the time-tables for the trains is a welcome point (and Ayukawa based his story on actual train time-tables at the time), but they are definitely also kinda scary. In my pocket version, the commentary includes a time-table that reconstructs the actual events surrounding the murder and just looking at it makes my head hurt. Note that I am saying this even after reading the novel.

I had seen this eye for minutely constructed alibi-breaking stories already in Doukeshi no Ori, which I loved, but it worked better there because it was a short story. The scale of the story is totally different and with Kuroi Trunk, it feels just... too hard. I don't think I will ever make this comment again on this blog, but Kuroi Trunk feels much more like a puzzle, than a novel (note that I am someone who likes early Queen, his short short stories and overall someone who looks more at puzzle plotting and placements of hints, than at actual characterization).

Kuroi Trunk is a classic post-war alibi-breaking mystery featuring trains and set in both Fukuoka (the northern part of the Kyushu island) and Tokyo, which is strangely something you can say also about Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines"). They were released around the same time and feature similar ideas (though the execution and focal point is definitely different). As someone who lived in Fukuoka, I always love seeing Fukuoka and the usage of the local dialect in novels, which is featured in both these novels, though I am wondering why I see so much of Kyushu in Ayukawa Tetsuya's writings: unlike Matsumoto Seichou, he doesn't even originate from there. To bring back the point of Kuroi Trunk being a puzzle: Ten to Sen may feel alike, but it is definitely a novel and a fine one at it too.

I do like Kuroi Trunk though, but I doubt I would recommend it to people as their first Ayukawa, as it is a bit too complex for its own good at times. If you like alibi deconstructing stories though, it's definitely a recommended read.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『黒いトランク』

Monday, January 7, 2013


Take my revolution 生きて行こう
『輪舞-Revolution- 』

Take my revolution, let's live on
Reality is closing in frantically
I want to find my place to be, my worth
The person I've been up until now

Maybe it is a bit ambitious to write my very first mystery short story in a language in that is not my mother tongue. Maybe. Not sure why I said I would write something. Ah well, at least I have an idea of what to write now after days of torturing my mind...

Note: I think the hardboiled tag on this blog doesn't differ much in meaning from the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou tag.

Twenty-twelve was the year many game series celebrated their 25th anniversary. Megaman, Final Fantasy, Street Figher and... Tantei Jinguuji Saburou. OK, so the detective adventure games starring hardboiled private detective Jinguuji Saburou and his assistant Youko are hardly known outside Japan (despite, or also thanks to a somewhat failed localisation trip on the DS), but heck, it means something if you manage to still be an active game-series after twenty-five years, especially considering it is an detective adventure, which is certainly not one of the best selling genres in the gaming world. I for one am a big fan of the series and it was just a matter of time (and me getting a 3DS) before I would get to Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Fukushuu no Rondo ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Rondo of Revenge"), the game released in celebration of its 25th anniversary.

The story starts with Jinguuji waking up, only to find himself bound and being used as a punching bag by some gangsters. They seem to want information about a certain something from Jinguuji (and they also seem to have a personal grudge against him), though he honestly has no idea what they're talking about. Jinguuji manages to escape, only to discover that the police found the dead body of an ex-client of him in the trunk of his car, making him the prime suspect in the murder case. Chased by both the gangsters and the police now, the Shinjuku detective has to clear his name and find out what happened.

Maybe I should have figured out something was wrong with this game when after my escape from the gangster, I discovered that Jinguuji lost his cigarettes and couldn't smoke. A Jinguuji who can't smoke (and he stays like that until late in the story!). Heck, the Jinguuji games are probably the only games featuring a dedicated smoke button!

I had heard some complaints before I started with the game, but this is probably the worst Jinguuji I ever played. Definitely not how you celebrate a great history of 25 years of hardboiled detective stories set in Shinjuku, Kabukichou with a jazzy soundtrack. First of all, the game is short. I mean, around 6 hours of gameplay is not what you'd expect from something promoted as an anniversary product. The main scenarios in other DS entries in the series were also relatively short, but those also featured ports of the mobile phone entries in the series and other extras!

Another problem is the story itself. The story doesn't seem to know what it should do: it tries to invoke the anniversary spirit by loosely tying it up to previous games and characters, but for some reason the writer(s?) decided to tie it up to plot points and characters nobody cares about. The new characters on the other hand aren't interesting at all, and the scale of the story feels no different from the stories we usually see in the mobile phone entries in the game. And you'd expect a 25th anniversary game developed for the 3DS to be at least a bit more compelling than a mobile phone game. There is not a lot of detecting going on here and most plot developments happen whenever you finally manage to find a gangster alone to beat information out of him.The plot being about Jinguuji on the run, also means that Jinguuji can't go about his business in his usual manner, resulting in a very different kind of story-telling compared to the previous games.

And it's not like they didn't try new things at all, but none of that really works. There is no need for 3D models instead of sprites if they hardly move and don't blend in with the background. Creating the investigation segments in 3D is a great idea (reminiscent of the 'escape the room' genre), but why connect it to a very strict penalty system for every 'useless' action? How am I going to figure things out if I get penalties for every action I try?! The idea of escape sequences, where you have to run away from your assailants in Shinjuku by selecting the correct choices (mingle with crowd / pretend to buy cigarettes / etc) is interesting, but there has to be some logic between the choices and outcome: how am I going to guess that hiding between the trees will result in me getting discovered, but hiding behind a car not?! (And it was done better and with better music in Ashes and Diamonds anyway...)

The good thing of this game? The music is absolutely fantastic, but most of it is reused from older games. And with most, I mean that I can remember only one or two genuine new tracks.

No, Fukushuu no Rondo was very different from Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Yume no Owari ni ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou - At The End of the Dream"), an older game released for both Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation in 1998. Yume no Owari ni is commonly seen as one of the best, if not the best entry in the long-running series. I beat the game somewhere in September and was not sure whether I was going to write a review, but when you get confronted with a bad game... Like in any good Jinguuji game, the story starts with a new job for the private detective: this time from Nagata Yuka, a high-school friend of Jinguuji's assistent Youko, who is a master student at Fuminaga university. She thinks someone has been stalking her and wants Jinguuji to find out who it is. Jinguuji quickly solves this stalker case apparently, but Yuka disappears the day after that, leaving her teenage sister Mika alone. Jinguuji, Youko and Mika all start their investigation surrounding the disappearance of Yuka.

And I definitely get why it's seen as one of the better Jinguuji games. The story is fun, with the stalker case being the perfect build-up to Yuka's kidnapping, but that isn't all. This isn't the first Jinguuji game to to feature multiple protagonists and parallel story-telling, but it's done quite well here with four characters (Jinguuji, Youko, Mika and police detective Kumano). There is some obsolete overlapping, but most of time it's genuinely adding something to the story, filling in the gaps that pop up if you stick with one character all the time. The story is also a lot darker than you'd expect at first and for fans of the series, it's also interesting that this game actually tells of how Jinguuji and Youko actually met. Sure, it's not an orthodox detective story, but that is not what I expect of Jinguuji games: I want a slightly hardboiled story set at the borders of the 'normal' world and the underworld of Shinjuku featuring great characters with great music.

Yes, great music. Jazz is what makes Jinguuji tick (Jazz and cigarettes. Copious amounts of nicotine) and Yume no Owari ni has some great tracks. At times, you just let go of the controller to listen to classic tunes like Emotion or Silent Shadow II. I understand why the series isn't that known outside Japan (and even there, it's far from mainsteam), but I wish at least the music was better known! And from the audio to the visuals: Yume no Owari ni is also the game with an art direction closest to the designs made by Terada Katsuya and definitely my personal favorite.

In the end, what makes Tantei Jinguuji Saburou work as a series, and it is very similar to series like City Hunter and Angel Heart in that aspect, is that we have a detective protagonist who can move freely in both the 'light and dark' world of Shinjuku who isn't the main focus of the story: instead the clients he meets and the cases he uncovers are what make his adventures memorable (or not). In these 25 years, the Jinguuji series has hardly changed, but that is because it is definitely an example of a game whose focus lies in its story. Jinguuji is a medium through which you present a heartwarming story. Putting Jinguuji in the center of things, or trying to get him away from his normal working conditions / environment results in a shift in story-focus that just doesn't work. If Jinguuji had an overall story like City Hunter or Angel Heart, you could get away with such changes ocassionally, but it's not likely they are going to introduce something like that 25 years in the series...

Short story: don't play Fukushuu no Rondo. Play Yume no Owari ni. Listen to jazz. Smoke.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵神宮時三郎 夢の終わりに』 / 『探偵神宮寺三郎 復讐の輪舞(ロンド)』

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Fragments of Memories

『Just Before The Sunrise』

I just want to keep looking at your smile
Holding you in these arms called memories

I really should reconsider my writing style: delaying reviews because I can't come up with introductions (which usually have nothing to do with the actual review) is a bit inefficient...

It had been a while since I last read something by Shimada Souji and because it was recommended by a couple of people, I decided to read Nejishiki Zazetsuki ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki"). The novel stars Shimada's series detective Mitarai Kiyoshi, who debuted in 1981 as an astrologist, but became a full-time private detective in 1987. I hadn't read any Mitarai novels after that, so I was kinda surprised to see that between 1987 and Nejishiki Zatsuki (originally published in 2003), Mitarai Kiyoshi had become a professor specializing in brain science at Sweden's Uppsala University. A man called Egon Markut is brought to him, who seems to have severe problems with his memory: his short-time memory seem to be disfunctional and he even forgets he met Mitarai when the professor leaves his office for a second to get some coffee. Egon seems to have perfect memory up util one specific point in his life, but he has no idea what happened then. The only clue Mitarai has, is a novel Egon Markut wrote: Return to the Tangerine Tree Republic, a fantasy story starring 'Eggy', who visits a fantasy world inhabited by elves who live on top of trees, men with no noses and people with detachable, screw-type heads.

No, I didn't choose a book with a man with amnesia and a narrative-within-a-narrative structure again on purpose.

In a sense, Nejishiki Zatsuki is sorta reminiscent of Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken, Shimada's debut novel. Both stories feature Mitarai Kiyoshi as an armchair detective, with a document functioning as his only clue. But this time, the document is clearly a fantasy story and this is where the novel starts to crumble, in my opinion. The document in Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken worked, because it was set in reality and narrated as such. Deducing from one single sentence in Harry Kemelman's The Nine Mile Walk worked, because it was set in a certain time and period. Heck, Watson's unpublished document in Queen's A Study in Terror worked, because it was a honest narrative. But Nejishiki Zatsuki's Return to the Tangerine Tree Republic doesn't work as a fair document. Sure, Mitarai manages to deduce a lot from it, by literary analysis and comparisons with reality, but it is a lot more shakey, a lot more vague than the utterances mentioned above. It never feels convincing and Shimada occasionally allows for Mitarai to check his deductions (which are of course confirmed), but it feels very forceful: the deductions don't become real because they are convincing enough and are the most logical conclusion drawn from the evidence, it' because the fictional creator arbitrarily just decides that it is the truth in this novel. Which is of course true for all works of fiction, but you need to have at least some level of plausibility to really work.

In the end, Mitarai manages to deduce the truth behind what made Egon's mind go boom, but the case itself is so simple, it's almost unbelievable the same author wrote novels like Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken and Naname Yashiki no Hanzai. In his early novels, a main characteristic of Shimada's work was an almost idiotic grand mechanical trick. As if he was working on a different scale of life. He would use hammers and drills instead of thread and needles to make a locked room, and still be subtle about it. In Nejishiki Zatsuki, you're left with a case that anyone could solve the moment the vagueries of Return to the Tangerine Tree Republic solved.

In the end, it feels like Shimada wanted to work with the premise of having to solve a real-life case working from a fantasy book, but the problem is that none of the elements really work here: at one hand, we have the too vague fantasy book that allows for very broad deductions, making Mitarai's deductions feel plausible, but not 100% convincing. The way Shimada makes these deductions truth feels forced. On the other hand, the real-life case to which the fantasy book refers to feels too bland and you're left with the feeling that you just worked yourself through a 600 page book without an equivalent pay-off.

And oh, had I already mentioned that a new English translation of a novellette by Shimada Souji is to appear in EQMM soon?

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『ネジ式ザゼツキー』