Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halfway House

「 あの翼があるから鳥だといい、牙があるから獣だといった、どっちつかずの話に出てくるあの蝙蝠ですか?」

"Do you mean the bat, that animal nobody can decide what it is, as some people call a bird because it has wings, while some people call it a beast because it has fangs?"

I aim at a minimum of four posts a month, but maybe I should also work on spreading the posts a bit, so it at least seems this blog has a regular schedule. Anyway, number four on the last day of the month, so just safe. November should be a bit more active.

Today, Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie ("The House with the Long Hallway"), another audio drama based on a short story in Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series. When criminologist Himura Hideo and writer Arisugawa Alice aren't somewhere (like in Malaysia) solving crimes, they actually have work. Himura teaches as Kyoto's Eito University and it is one of his students, Hibino Hiromitsu, who stumbles into trouble. Wandering in the mountains of Kyoto, examining genkai shuuraku (highly depopulated towns; near ghost towns) for his thesis, Hibino gets lost. As the sun starts to fall, he finally finds a little house with the lights on. Inside, he finds three people from the occult magazine Black & White, who are working on an article about a ghost that appears in the house. Hibino is invited to stay with them for the night and offer to give him a lift back tomorrow. He accepts, and takes an interest in the work of the reporters. The ghost is said to appear in a long, underground hallway which connects the house to another house a bit further away. The hallway is cut in half by a door which can be locked from either side.

No ghost appears that night though, and Miyamatsu Takeyuki, an expert in the occult, who should have come, also fails to appear. Anyway, the reporters, and Hibino, spend the night drinking and talking and when dawn breaks, they take one more look at the hallway. But for some reason, the door in the middle is locked from the other side, and when they enter the hallway from the other house, they discover Miyamatsu, dead, leaning against the door. According to the police, the man must have been killed around the time Hibino and the others had been drinking, but Hibino swears no-one left the small party long enough to have been able to go to the other house, into the hallway, kill and lock the door, and go back all the way over the mountain. But on the other hand, the door was locked from the other side, and it seems there is no way possible of tampering with it from this side. The problem that Himura and Alice has to solve is thus whether this was an alibi trick, or a locked room trick.

Like I mentioned in the review of the audio drama of 46 Banme no Misshitsu, some types of stories are better suited for an audio adaptation than others. Locked rooms, especially those that rely on some mechanical trick, are a hard one to pull off effectively in an audio drama for example (which is why the audio drama of Carr's The Hollow Man doesn't really work...). And I still have to have the pleasure of hearing one, but I would love to hear an audio drama with an audible clue. But taking this thought of locked rooms back to Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie, do I think the story works?

Yes, oh, yes! Because the main problem of Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie isn't about solving a locked room. it's about figuring out what kind of trick was used in the first place. Was it an alibi trick, or a locked room trick? Figuring out what happened in the first place is actually something I enjoy very much, and while the set-up was different, a highly popular novel by Higashino Keigo basically also plays with this kind of trope expectation. I think I mentioned in the review of Higashigawa Tokuya's Koukan Satsujin ni Mukanai Yoru that knowing the type of trick in advance can ruin a story, but Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie is more like a meta-story, since it plays one level above where most detective stories are. The double layered story ( 1. What is the problem? 2. How to solve the problem?) works pretty good as an audio drama, and is a solid story (regardless of medium) overall.

Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie also has a distinct yakata-mono flavor, something I hadn't seen in Arisugawa's works since 46 Banme no Misshitsu (though that may be because of my choice of reading). The two houses connected by a creepy hallway, somewhere deep in the mountains, a ghost haunting the place (the majority of ghosts in Japan are actually female, by the way). You'd almost think you'd walked into one of Ayatsuji Yukuto's novels. Which is seldom a bad thing.

In short, a fun story which works quite well as an audio drama. It's actually a pretty deep story because it is basically playing around with genre tropes, making you guess (deduce) what kind of story it is, making it a good, slightly meta-mystery.

Arisugawa Alice's audio dramas:
46 Banme no Misshitsu
Swissdokei no Nazo
Yaneura no Sanposha
Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken 
Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie
Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『長い廊下がある家』

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Faraway Journey


"Tairon's a firefly?" I did't get what Atsuko was trying to say.
"You know, like the dodoitsu poem. A firefly who doesn't cry, burns more fierce than a cicada who burns and cries out of love. Tairon, he hides his feelings."
"The Malay Railway Mystery"

I've been going through the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney videogame series again lately, and once again lament the fact that many mystery readers will never set eyes on the fantastic writing and plotting power of Takumi Shuu, just because he creates videogames and not novels. The medium might be different, but Takumi makes great use of the possibility and freedom of the medium to bring some of the most effective and memorable detective stories to the reader and his dialogues and play with Japanese scripts are also fantastic. Actually, the Ace Attorney games are probably one of the biggest and most important exports of Japanese mystery fiction in the last ten years in the English-speaking world, together with Detective Conan, but most readers (who actually do want to read Japanese mystery fiction) seem to ignore them, just because they are in a slightly unfamiliar medium.

Anyway, enough about that...

Criminologist Himura Hideo and detective writer Arisugawa Alice visit their old friend Tairon who runs a guest house in Malaysia in Maree Tetsudou no Nazo ("The Malay Railway Mystery"). Himura and Alice have a great time, traveling across the beautiful country by train. Their friend's guest house is also a fantastic place, and time flies by. And then, just a few days before Himura and Alice are about to leave, the dead body of another Japanese traveller is discovered. The victim was found inside a trailer house, which was locked and taped from the inside. And yet there is no doubt it was a murder. Suspicion falls on Tairon, and Himura and Alice must clear their friend's name and find the real murderer before they leave for Japan.

It's been over two years ago since I last read a novel in Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series. While the adventures of Himura and Alice started out very good, each new entry in the series became less and less interesting.  Since then, I have been enjoying Arisugawa Alice's Student Alice series thoroughly (and occasionally audio dramas of the Writer Alice series), but as I could get Maree Tetsudou no Nazo for cheap, and it featured a locked room mystery, I figured why not (for those confused about the difference and relations between the two series, see this review of Arisugawa's Soutou no Akuma).

And... Maree Tetsudou no Nazo isn't a bad novel, but nothing special either. At first I felt deceived, because despite the title The Malay Railway Mystery, the body isn't found inside a train, but in a trailer house. Which isn't even attached to a car or anything. It's still a locked room, but let's be honest, if you can choose between 'locked room in a trailer house' and 'locked room in a train', the latter trope is more exciting, right? I am pretty sure I've seen the solution behind the locked room somewhere before (though I can't remember where, so I don't know which was earlier), and it is a pragmatic and sorta realistic solution, but nothing particularly memorable.

In fact, the most memorable part of the whole novel is Alice trying out his pigeon samurai English on the unsuspecting local population (which is admittedly really funny Japanese-translated-straight-to-English). But I guess that this is the way Arisugawa wants to go with his two main series. The Student Alice series is his serious series, mostly aimed at the hardcore fans of the genre who seek Queenian logic in their plots (like in Kotou Puzzle), whereas the Writer Alice series is more easy to pick up, and slightly aimed at fangirls with the relation between Himura and Alice (see also the audio dramas, which are produced by a company that also seems to aim at a certain female fan population). Not a bad thing per se (see also Higashigawa Tokuya's humorous novels), but I am definitely more a fan of the Student Alice series.

Also, why set the book in Malaysia, when half of the cast is Japanese anyway? Like I said, the way Alice struggles to communicate with the non-Japanese local population is fun, but if most of the people he interacts with is Japanese anyway, and the murder took place in a location that isn't even really related to the Malay Railway, why bother with the whole Malaysia idea (except for keeping the Queenian title tradition)?

Maree Tetsudou no Nazo as a locked room mystery is not bad, but not particularly exciting either. It's a decent mystery, but considering Arisugawa Alice is also capable of writing absolute masterpieces (in the other series), I can't help but feel a bit disappointed.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『マレー鉄道の謎』

Friday, October 11, 2013

Summer Time Gone


"Nothing strange occurs in this world, Sekiguchi"
"The Summer of the Ubume"

Still alive, still alive. Just really slow at both reading and writing (reviews) lately...

1952. Japan is recuperating from World War II and started its first steps in what would be called the post-war economic miracle. All look towards the future. Or do they? One day, the writer Sekiguchi visits his old friend Chuuzenji Akihiko, also known as Kyougokudou, the name of his bookstore, to ask him the question, "Is it possible to be pregnant for 20 months?". The question refers to the unlikely, but very real ordeal that seems to be laid upon Kuonji Kyouko. With rumors of disappearing babies surrounding the Kuonji Clinic, Kyouko's husband having disappeared from a locked and observed room just before the pregnancy and other strange events, one is tempted to believe in a curse by an ubume (a youkai /Japanese ghost/demon born from the regret of a mother dying in childbirth). Kyougokudou, who also works as an exorcist, however answers that there is nothing strange in this world and proceeds to remove the mysterious veil that seems to cover this case in Kyougoku Natsuhihiko's Ubume no Natsu ("The Summer of the Ubume").

Oh, and let me make it clear at the start of this review: The Summer of the Ubume is available in English, so no "but it's in Japanese, so I can't read it anyway"!

A long time ago, I reviewed the audio dramas of Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Ame and Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Kaze, which were about the (mis)adventures of private detective Enokizu Reijirou (who has the power to read people's memories). Both dramas were based on two short story collections that are part of Kyougoku Natsuhiko's Hyakki Yakou ("Night Parade of a Hundred Demons") series. Ubume no Satsu is the first novel in the series (and Kyougoku's debut novel), introducing all the main characters and elements of the series. Not only do we meet bookshop-owner/exorcist/detective Kyougokudou and private detective Enokizu for the first time, but also other series regulars like narrator Sekiguchi, the policeman Kiba and Kyougokudou's sister Atsuko. And more importantly, we are shown our first glimpse of the wonderful world of youkai ('ghosts', 'demons').

The use of youkai in this series might be a bit different from what you'd expect if I said this was a detective series about ghosts/demons. Unlike series like Scooby-Doo! or novels with impossible murders that seemingly only could have been commited with help of supernatural powers, youkai are treated as a highly scientific and rational device. By which I don't mean that youkai actually exist as supernatural beings, but that the cultural construct of youkai is actually real. Youkai are treated as a cultural and social construct, a device invented by the people of yore to explain certain circumstances and happenings. The existence of a youkai itself might be irrational (is it?), but the ideas, the background of a youkai can all be examined rationally. In Ubume no Natsu, Kyougokudou explains a lot about the history of youkai (and in particular the ubume) from sociological and folkloric points of view and this is absolutely a treat for those into Japanese folklore. For those into mythology and urban legends, this is fantastic stuff and I enjoyed these parts enormously. The way Ubume no Natsu connects to youkai folklore isn't really by suggesting an ubume did it, but by mirroring the history and cultural functions of the ubume to the events in the story. And this is done really well.

I personally love detective stories where you learn more about the history of 'supernatural' beings / urban legends and where the folkloric/sociological functions are actually of importance to the plot. Gyakuten Saiban 5 / Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies has an interesting story for example, and the game Hayarigami - Keishichou Kaii Jiken Files ("Hayarigami - The Metropolitan Police Department's Strange Case Files") also features scenarios where you learn more about urban legends themselves (the contents), as well as the folkloric functions they have in society.

But writer Kyougoku obviously really, really likes writing about these kind of things and even more fields of science, like philosophy and it can be hard for those who 1) just want to read a mystery and 2) aren't interested in folklore. The first 100 pages of the story for example consist of a long discussion between narrator Sekiguchi and Kyougokudou about conciousness, the mind and perception, and while the topic does relate back to the main story, one can't deny that 100 pages is a bit long. This isn't a short story, and it's also not always a focused story and the somewhat pedantric tone of the story (mostly Kyougokudou who acts as a surrogate for writer Kyougoku) isn't for everybody.

The main problem of the story, the disappearance of Kyouko's husband from an observed locked room twenty months ago is... not really fair, though it does fit the atmosphere of the story, as well as the hints laid out throughout the narrative. There are also some more twists and turns to baffle the reader besides the locked room (though to be honest, I got most of the story except for the locked room). I am definitely not fan of the trick as is, but it does work in conjunction with the themes of the story and while I might really hate if it had been done by another writer, I'd say that Kyougoku does pull it off (the trick in the sequel, Mouryou no Hako ("Box of Mouryou") is similarly a bit disappointing as is, but great as a thematic device).

Ubume no Natsu, together with Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider, forms the start of the so-called second wave of the Japanese New Orthodox/Authentic detective novel school by the way (Note: I normally use the term "orthodox" here, but because I mainly used "authentic" in my MA thesis, I might use both terms here at times). The New Orthodox school is both a revival, and reconstruction of the classic detective novel. Ayatsuji Yukito's debut work Jukkakukan no Satsujin is seen as the start of the New Orthodox movement and novels of the early writers in the movement like Abiko Takemaru, Norizuki Rintarou and Arisugawa Alice all showed strong influences from classic novels, but also deconstructive and reconstructive elements to the genre (thus making it "New" Orthodox, as opposed to just a copy). The second stage of this movement however, as envisioned by genre critic/scholar Kasai Kiyoshi, represented by novels like Ubume no Natsu and Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider on the other hand, while still more-or-less classic puzzle plots, tend to be 1) very long novels and 2) 'a bit' more pedantric, which explains the different fields of sciences and more information being jammed between the pages.

The New Orthodox school is by the way most often seen in terms of the history of the Japanese detective novel. Kasai Kiyoshi for example looks strongly at it as a development stage for the detective novel, while writer/critic Shimada Souji also looks at it as a culturally specific movement in the history of the genre. Actually, in general, most of the genre critics/scholars (including bloggers) seem to be very focused on genre history (if it isn't that, than it's using detective novels as an object to discuss other discourses, like gender studies / political /religious fields etc.). Personally, I am not that interested in genre history an sich. Longtime readers will have noticed that I often write about the use of tropes in novels, so it shouldn't be surprising when I say that when I wrote my MA thesis on the Japanese New Orthodox school, I focused on the tropes that made up the school, rather than placing it in a genre history / comparing it to English genre history. Anyway, this is the reason you'll seldom see 1) publishing years in my reviews, 2) the term 'Golden Age' (as it historizes things) and discussions when/if it died/revived/etcetera here. I have considered writing a short history of Japanese detective fiction for this blog several times actually (to help contextualize things for readers), but as I am not a fan of that, and as I figured that as long as I focus more on tropes, a history isn't really needed...

Ah. I got distracted. Ubume no Natsu. Yes. A wordy mystery, with deep conversations on a wide variety of topics and a somewhat strange locked room mystery. If you're into Japanese folklore, go for it. If not... go read it anway because it's one of those rare cases that it's actually available in English. 

Original Japanese title(s): 京極夏彦 『姑獲鳥の夏』