Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Gold Solution

The Real Folk Blues
The Real Folk Blues (山根麻衣)

The Real Folk Blues
I just want to know real happiness
Not all that glitters is gold
"The Real Folk Blues" (Yamane Mai)

The new Detective Conan film looks awesome! At least, the story seems, like Countdown to Heaven and The Raven Chaser before it, somewhat related to the bigger storyline, so excited! Now if only I can get myself in Japan around April...

Edogawa Rampo's Ougon Kamen ("The Golden Mask") is named after a mysterious figure wearing the titular item, a golden mask with only a set of slit eyes and a giant smile as its face. The Golden Mask has been responsible for the most audicious thefts in recent memory and is also considered the main suspect for several murders. The police has no idea of how to stop the illustrious thief, and the matter seems to turn into an international affair when the Golden Mask threatens to rob the French ambassador. But celebrated detective Akechi Kogorou is also involved and he claims he knows who the mysterious figure is, just based on the discovery of a note with the initials A.L.

Okay, I'll just spoil it now: it is Arsene Lupin. Yes, it was the famous French gentleman thief who had been making trouble in Tokyo wearing a golden mask. Of course, most people who read Ougon Kamen now, read it because they know Arsene Lupin appears in it, so it's not that big a spoiler.

Maurice LeBlanc famously pitted a certain consulting detective against his Arsene Lupin; Edogawa Rampo in turn pitted Lupin against his Akechi Kogorou. LeBlanc was forced to chance the name of this consulting detective to something less dangerous in the courtroom, but with the more lax copyright rules at the time (and most likely also the smaller market and people simply not knowing of the book), Lupin has always stayed Lupin in Ougon Kamen (though TV adaptations wisely didn't use his name).

Anyway, the basic idea shouldn't be hard to guess. Over the course of the novel, Akechi and Lupin have several skirmishes, each party trying to outsmart the other. As with practically all of Rampo's serialized novels, he seems to improvise most of the time, and what you get is a chaotic series of entertaining confrontations between the two. Nothing too deep, but simply fun to read. Especially one part in the middle, which takes place during a party styled after Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of Red Death, is great stuff, as well as a climax that has elements of both the Lupin and Akechi series.

Ougon Kamen was written in 1930-1931, so it is not hard to see how the fight between Arsene Lupin and Akechi Kogorou seemed to have inspired the creation of the Fiend with Twenty Faces (1936), Rampo's own thief-and-master-in-disguises. In fact, the Lupin in Ougon Kamen has some character elements that seem more like the Fiend, than the actual Lupin. Sure, Ougon Kamen's Lupin is still very popular among women, but he is also a bit more ruthless, a bit more willing to shed blood than the real Lupin. Akechi says this might be because Lupin doesn't consider Asians worthy of the same courtesy he shows his own countrymen, but still, this is a weird Lupin. But it's not hard to guess why: Akechi Kogorou is the protagonist, so Lupin has to appear as an actual villain for you to root for Akechi (the same happened to that consulting detective in LeBlanc's crossovers...). In the end we're left with a Lupin who is mostly like Lupin, but also a Lupin who obviously serves as a prototype for the Fiend. I think that Akechi Kogorou himself commented that the Lupin in Ougon Kamen was weird in Nishimura Kyoutarou's Meitantei ga Oosugiru (the legal nightmare crossover with Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, Maigret and Akechi Kogorou vs. the Fiend with the Twenty Faces and Arsene Lupin).
Ougon Kamen is like most of Rampo's serialized novels a bit of a chaotic mess, but the kind of mess that is fun, amusing and bound to leave a smile on your face. It's written for the masses, which is not a bad thing per se, and the childish ideas might not be for everyone, but I know I was amused from start to finish.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩 『黄金仮面』

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Friend of a Friend (FOAF)

「Phantom」 (村田あゆみ)

The word forever is too painful
I can't even talk about tomorrow
But when the day I can sleep silently comes
I will also be able to say goodbye to the faraway past.... right?
"Phantom" (Murata Ayumi)

And as I was writing this post, I wondered, what are some of the better known urban legends in mystery fiction? I don't mean urban legends in mystery fiction, but urban legends about novels / writers et cetera. I have to be honest and I can't think of any at the moment, though I am pretty sure they exists... (and if I am told one now, I'd probably go "oh yeah, I heard that one...")

I heard this from a friend of a friend... you know the Metropolitan Police Department? That building in Tokyo? Well, I was told that there is a secret fifth basement floor. Oh you have heard about that? So you know about the rumors, about dead people having appeared there, and about the voices coming from the rooms? But I bet ya you hadn't heard that on the fifth basement floor, in the Police Historical Archives room, there is a secret police unit working! Well, working isn't the right word, maybe. I heard the higher-ups assigned two policemen to the Police Historical Archives, who have no idea about the truth behind their unit, but they are assigned to cases that seem to be connected to urban legends, supernatural powers and all that is occult. What, there is no thing as the occult? Maybe you're right. Maybe there's a logical explanation for the strange cases in Hayarigami Keishichou Kaii Jiken File ("Hayarigami - MPD's Occult Case Files").

Hayarigami is a sound novel game series, like Kamaitachi no Yoru and 428. For those not familiar with the concept; the story is presented to the player through plain text (accompanied with background images and music), and the player is occasionally forced to make choices, that influence the flow of the story. In short, choose-your-own-adventure books, but in game form. In Hayarigami, you take the role of Lieutenant Kazami of the Police Historical Archives, making the correct decisions in order to unreveal the truth behind the seemingly occult cases. Make the wrong decisions, and the case might go unsolved forever. There are three Hayarigami games, with the first being available on PS2, PSP, DS and even iOS. 

The interesting thing to Hayarigami is that you have two distinct ways of tackling the case; scientific or supernatural. As every case is connected to urban legends and other occult phenomena, one can choose to actually believe in the supernatural (i.e. make choices that show you're open to supernatural explanations), and the case will unfold in a way that poses that occult powers were responsible for the incident. Choose the scientific route, and the case will unfold in a way that poses a rational explanation to the events. And so every story basically gives you two solutions, one that fits a classic, rational detective model, one that fits ghost stories. But they're actually both interesting to go through, and it actually pays to go through both the scientific and supernatural routes, because the routes complement each other, each filling in the little gaps of the other route.

The cases are fun, though a bit short. They all deal with (Japanese) urban legends like Kokkuri-san and cursed chain mails and through the dialogues and such, you actually learn a lot not just about their contents, but also about urban legends as a field in folklore and social studies. I've already mentioned in the reviews of Norizuki Rintarou's Toshi Densetsu Puzzle and Kyougoku Natsuhiko's Hyakki Yakou series (amongst others), I'd always had an interest in urban legends, but playing Hayarigami has really made more interested in the material, and I have found myself going through Brunvand's books on the topic for example.

Of course, myths/(urban) legends and ghost stories have always been a part of mystery fiction, but most of them use and refer to them as simply a background story ("the man was killed in an impossible way, just like in that ghost story I just told you"). Hayarigami (but also Kyougoku's novels on youkai for example) does that too, but also discusses these constructs in the context of folklore and other social studies, how urban legends come to existence, how they evolve and how they are used in a wide variety of ways. It's also why Hayarigami as a game, promoting both a supernatural and a scientific mode at the same time, works without feeling too shizophrenic or contradictory: for a supernatural object, can be used in a rational way. It shows that communication, thoughts and memes can be used in mystery fiction, which is something I'd like to see much more.

As a game, Hayarigami is sadly enough not nearly as long as something like Kamaitachi no Yoru (which has an amazing number of bonus scenarios). Yes, you can basically go through each scenario twice (and there are two bonus scenarios), but it's still a relatively short game. The sound and art direction are top notch though; especially the art is doing a great job in conveying a slightly unsettling atmoshere.

For those interested in (Japanese) urban legends, Hayarigami Keishichou Kaii Jiken File is a great way to start. It is a bit short and might only present a small selection of urban legends, but the way the material is handled is great and bound to pique your interest in the study of urban legends. As mystery fiction, Hayarigami is also fun, providing slightly creepy stories that may or may not have a supernatural tone to them. It all depends on what you choose to believe.

Original Japanese title(s): 『流行り神 PORTABLE 警視庁怪異事件ファイル』

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Friend in Deed

『卒業』 尾崎豊

Nobody realizes our freedom is fake
Our days of struggling will end
Graduation from this control
Graduation from the fight
"Graduation" (Ozaki Yutaka)

Hmm, I'll probably write about the last season of Poirot,  but seeing that three of the four posts this month were already about TV/film productions, I think I'll push that post to December. Which is close anyway (though at my current writing tempo, it might become next year...)

Kaga Kyouichirou series
Sotsugyou ("Graduation") (1986)
Nemuri no Mori ("Forest of Sleep") (1989)
Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita ("One of the Two Killed Her") (1996)
Akui ("Malice") (1996)
Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita ("I Killed Him") (1999)
Uso wo Mou Hitotsu Dake ("One More Lie") (2000)
Akai Yubi ("Red Fingers")  (2006)
Shinzanmono ("Newcomer") (2009)
Kirin no Tsubasa ("The Wings of the Kirin") (2011)
Inori no Maku ga Oriru Toki ("When the Curtains of Hope Come Down") (2013)

Higashino Keigo is probably better known internationally for his Detective Galileo series (thanks to the succes of The Devotion of Suspect X), but his longest running series is the Kaga Kyouichirou series, which started with his second novel Sotsugyou - Setsugekka Satsujin Game ("Graduation - The Setsugekka Murder Game"). I have already written about the later entries in the series (see above), where Kaga appears as an extremely competent police detective, so I was kinda surprised that Kaga was still an university student in this novel. Though the title should have tipped me off. Anyway, Kaga Kyouichirou is in his last year of university, and like the rest of his friends thinking about his future. One of his friends, Youko, however, seemingly commits suicide in her apartment,  but a series of curious facts leads the police, and Kaga to suspect it might have been murder. And when another of his friends dies during a tea ceremony game, it becomes clear something evil has been hiding among Kaga's friends.

Considering this series is Higashino's oldest series, it shouldn't be surprising when I tell you that this novel is quite different from more recent entries in the seriesl. The biggest change: Kaga Kyouichirou appears prominently in the story. Most of the later novels are narrated from the point of view of suspects, with Kaga occasionally popping up to ask annoying questions like he was a disciple of Columbo or Furuhata Ninzaburou. Sotsugyou is definitely his novel though, being about his friends. It shows a side of Kaga I had never seen before, which was interesting.

Sotsugyou is also much more an orthodox detective novel than the psychological mystery dramas that later entries seem to be. Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita and Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita are a bit of anomolies in the series (as they are fair play mysteries, but don't tell you who the murderer is), but the rest of the novels seem to focus more on the suspects and the drama that led up to the murder. Sotsugyou however features two seemingly impossible murders (one in a locked apartment room with limited accessibility and another where suicide seems to be the only solution), making it feel much more 'classic'. Indeed, older Higashino Keigo novels seem more like conventional detectives with clear problems (see also his parody series Meitantei Tenkaichi), which is more fun to read in my opinion. Then again, these older works by Higashino sometimes have the trouble of feeling a bit too conventional, as if he's just writing them with a checklist of tropes besides him.

Overall, I have to say that I do feel that Sotsugyou is a bit underwhelming. The solution to the locked room problem is a bit... well, I guess it forebodes his Detective Galileo series and shows Higashino's scientific background, but content, I am not. And the poisoning murder during the tea ceremony (which is where the subtitle Setsugetsuka refers to) is insanely complex. If you have a story where you need four pages of text, and another four pages of diagrams to explain where every cup was during each stage of the tea ceremony, then the story is probably too difficult for its own good. The two problems also feel very disjointed, and it's almost like reading two seperate storylines. It can work for some stories, but not here.

I wouldn't say that Sotsugyou is a bad novel, but it's not particularly memorable either. For those interested in Kaga's history, it has some nice moments, but as a detective novel it feels a bit safe, and not particularly inventive.

Original Japanese title(s): 東野圭吾『卒業  雪月花殺人ゲーム』

Monday, November 11, 2013

One More Time

『名探偵コナン 絶海の探偵』

"No matter how lost I get, you'll find me, right? Because you're a great detective"
"Detective Conan - Private Eye in the Distant Sea"

Some might wonder why I haven't been doing my Conan manga reviews anymore. It's not because I'm not reading it anymore. But with volume 80 released a while back, I figured it would be easier to just do a ten volumes summary review post in the near future. But I need to reread some volumes, so that might take a while.

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: 『平成のホームズ』: The Heisei Holmes (volumes 1 ~ 10)
Part 2: 『奇妙な集まり』: A Strange Gathering (volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skysraper/The Fourteenth Target)
Part 3: 『心強き名探偵達』: The Brave Detectives (volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century/Captured in Her Eyes) 
Part 4: 『白い影・・・黒い影・・・』: White Shadow... Black Shadow... (volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven/The Phantom of Baker Street)
Part 5: 『満月の夜と黒い宴の罠』: A Full Moon's Night and Trap at a Black Banquet (volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital/Magician of the Silver Sky/Strategy Above the Depths)
Part 6: 『探偵甲子園』: Detective Koushien (volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem/Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure)
Part 7: 『よくあるパターン』: A Common Pattern (volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear/The Raven Chaser/Lost Ship in the Sky)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volume 70, 72~76, 78, and the films Quarter of Silence and The Eleventh Striker in the library)

Unlike last year, I wasn't able to see this year's Detective Conan film in the theater, so I had to wait for the home release of the 17th movie, Detective Conan -Private Eye in the Distant Sea. The film starts with Conan and the gang boarding an Aegis vessel for a tour. The vessel makes a small trip across the sea while the visitors have a look around the gigantic ship and at its state of the art technology. During the sea tour however, the severed arm of a member of the Self Defense Force is discovered, and strange objects placed on the sea route of the Aegis vessel leads the ship's crew, the police and of course Conan to suspect the presence of a spy X on board of the ship. The Aegis is one of the most important weapons in Japan's military line of defense and it would be disastrous for the country to have information stolen. Can Conan figure out who X is before it's too late?

You might guess from the summary, but Private Eye in the Distant Sea is a bit different from most Conan films. Which is probably because the script was penned by Sakurai Takeharu, who is best known for his contributions to the TV drama Aibou (he also happened to have penned the script for the Gyakuten Saiban film). One can definitely feel the influence of police procedural Aibou on Private Eye in the Distant Sea: Conan might have done a series of heroic things in the past, but catching a spy to protect Japan's international relations is a whole different scale from his exploits in the past, and feels a bit strange. The story of the police working together with the Self Defense Force (Japan can't have an 'army' formally), i.e. government organizations working together, is what you'll see in every other Aibou episode, and gives Private Eye in the Distant Sea its own distinct face despite being the seventeenth movie in the series.

It reminds me of the sixth Conan film, The Phantom of Baker Street, which was penned by the late Nozawa Hisashi. That movie might be best remembered for Ninja Jack the Ripper (TM), but it also functioned as a critique on Japanese society, which gave the film a very heavy atmosphere. The atmosphere in Private Eye in the Distant Sea never becomes that heavy though and I liked it better as a Conan film than Baker Street actually.

As a spy-movie, it's okay, I guess. It is pretty easy to figure out who X is, and the film seems more focused on presenting a police procedural (again, like Aibou) and the workings of an Aegis vessel. The film was made with cooperation of the maritime SDF, and that results in a lot of (not very good) promotion shots of a CG-built Aegis, as if you're taking a tour on the Aegis yourself too. But instances where Conan has to be careful in using his satellite phone as the crew is detecting his signals and stuff do make it feel like a real spy thriller and there are actually one or two real surprises hidden in the story. Oh, and like the previous couple of movies, Private Eye in the Distant Sea features guest voice-acting, but Shibasaki Kou is actually an actress, so she did a great job. Then again, nothing can be as bad as the guest voice acting in Quarter of Silence (by a cameraman) and The Eleventh Striker (by professional soccer players). 

I have also seldom laughed this much because of a Conan film, though probably for the wrong reasons (though the fact that Conan has to go the toilet every ten minutes (to make phone calls) was probably meant to evoke laughter). When the film first started, I was kinda worried. Every Conan film starts with a short introduction for those who don't know the basic story, but one could easily they reused everything from previous movies. So I was wondering where the budget went. Well, it went into 1) an awesome(ly ridiculous) fight scene where Ran stops being a mere human and defies all laws of gravity, 2) a scene where Conan's soccer ball kicking should have deadly results and 3) a fantastic scene where Conan figures everything out with evidence and memories flying past him. All these scenes were ridiculously exaggerated, but so awesome (note: people who have seen Quarter of Silence and The Eleventh Striker might know that you have to get pretty crazy to get an action scene dubbed 'ridiculous' in comparison).

Overall, I did like Private Eye in the Distant Sea, probably because it was quite different from the other Conan films. I mean, you have to do something different when you're the seventeenth movie in the series. It might not really feel Conan-esque, but Ran's action scene alone makes it worthwhile a watch for fans.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン 絶海の探偵』

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Look into my Eyes

Look into my eyes きっと会える
 探し続けた人も、場所も 求め続けた答えも
"Look into my Eyes" (Fayray)

Look into my eyes You will definitely find
the person you've been looking for, the place, the answer you've been searching for

Now that I think about it, this review has been waiting to be written for almost two months now. I should really work a bit faster...

The 2004 TV drama Rampo R is based on the works of Edogawa Rampo, grandfather of the Japanese mystery story, and set in contemporary times. Our protagonist is Akechi Kogorou III, grandson of the original Akechi Kogorou, the greatest detective Japan has ever known. Due to his father's sudden demise, Akechi III has to take over as the field agent of the famous Akechi Kogorou Detective Agency, which in turn brings him in contact with the strangest cases and the most grotesque of murderers. The original Akechi Kogorou is known for having solved countless of crimes featuring the most strange murderers, but can Akechi III live up to his family name, and will he be able to solve the mystery of his grandfather's nemesis the Fiend with Twenty Faces, who is said to be still alive?

Rampo R has long been lauded as one of the best Rampo adaptations available, so I didn't hesitate when I had the chance to finally see it. And it certainly didn't disappoint. I have discussed a great number of adaptations of Edogawa Rampo's works by now (Kyoufu Kikei Ningen, Kurotokage, Rampo, Rampo Noir, Moujuu, Yaneura no Sanposha, Issun Boushi VS Moujuu, Akechi Kogorou VS Kaijin Nijuu Mensou, and those are just the TV/film adaptations...), but I will declare it now, Rampo R is by far the most interesting of them all.

It is also one of the most loose adaptations of Rampo's works, but that doesn't hurt Rampo R a bit. Sure, the main story is pretty generic (grandson of the original Akechi Kogorou following his footsteps), but don't let that fool you. Every episode is based on one story (or more) by Rampo (though not all stories originally featured Akechi), set in contemporary times and often highly rewritten to fit in the time-limit of one episode. What makes this series a bit different from most Rampo adapations, is the fact the creators actually aimed for a fair detecive drama, instead of focusing on the more erotic and grotesque aspects of his works. The first episode is based on the horror short story Ningen Isu ("The Human Chair") for example, but this has been extensively rewritten to be a fair detective story. And it works! In fact, Ningen Isu has often been used as an 'element' within other Rampo film adapations (Kyoufu Kikei Ningen and Yaneura no Sanposha had it, for example), but never has it been 1) used as the main plot and 2) done so well (I will admit that Ningen Isu is one of my favorite stories, so Rampo R gets bonus points for that).

The adaptation of famous Rampo stories as fair play detective stories works mostly well. Most of the stories were written as such anyway, but an episode like Kurotokage is a bit strange; the original was a Great Detective VS Great Criminal story, but turning that into a whodunnit of sorts, doesn't work, because everyone knows who the Black Lizard is. Rampo's works often featured larger-than-life criminals (seriously, have you ever seen the titles of his books? From vampires to clowns from hell and electric men, Rampo has everything), so sometimes it feels a bit strange to have a rookie detective face off against them, but then again, he is the grandson of Akechi Kogorou.

Of course, free adaptations don't always work well. In some eyes, any change from the original might be seen as a bad thing. Some might consider minor changes, but Rampo R's changes are anything but minor. Yet, I don't think it is a bad thing per se, and I actually doubt Rampo himself would have really minded, considering a lot of his works were in fact rewritten versions of / reconfigurations of / inspired by other books / ideas / concepts. I think that Rampo, who was often moved (forced) to writing more mainstream, grotesque horror stories, would have appreciated more 'orthodox detective' versions of his own stories. And more importantly, the stories as presented in Rampo R are fun! The spirit of the original stories are kept intact and one can feel the love for Rampo's work throughout the series. And as long as the end product is good and keeps the spirit of the original intact, you won't see me complaining (and even then, I actually enjoyed the TV adaptations of Christie's The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules quite well, even though they were quite different from the spirit of the original novels).

Visually, the series does suffer a bit from being made on a TV series budget. It sorta adds to the childish atmosphere some of the Rampo stories have (a man hiding in a chair is not that scary if you think about it), but still, some of the sets seem a bit cheap. The music on the other hand is fantastic though.

Rampo R is a very free adaptation of Edogawa Rampo's work, but also one of the best. In fact, I think it's the easiest Rampo adaptation to recommend to people and a great example of how adapatations don't have to follow the original to the letter to be good, and respectful to the original at the same time.

Original Japanese title(s): 『乱歩R』

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Risky Room

『レッドシアター』: ジャングルポケットX牢屋

Guard: "Why do you want to escape from this prison that much? What is driving you to do all of this?!"
Prisoner A: ".... Prison Break!"
Prisoner B: "A television series! You serious?! That's just stupid!"
Guard: "...Damn. I have to admit, that is really a cool series!"
"Red Theater" Jungle Pocket X Jail Sketch

I said to myself last month, I have a review backlog of four, five items, so I should post a bit more often in November. And then I noticed we're already about one third into the month with just one review finished. Aaargh. Man, november? It's almost time to start thinking about which pieces of mystery fiction I consumed this year were the best!

The 2013 film Kankin Tantei ("The Confined Detectives") starts with a fateful encounter between Ryouta and Akane. Might sound like the start of a romantic movie, if not for the fact the two are standing in the apartment across Ryouta's one, and that the inhabitant of this apartment, the model Rena, lies dead on the floor. Both claim to have just discovered the body, but seeing the doubtful eyes of Akane (a friend of Rena), he decides to take Akane prisoner in his room, until he can find evidence to clear his own name. Akane, tied to Ryouta's bed, however seems not even fazed by her imprisonment and claims she will be able to solve Rena's murder even from the confines of this room. The time limit is the next morning, when Rena's absence from her work will be noticed. Can Ryouta and Akane solve the murder from within this 'locked room'?

When I first heard about this film, I was really interested. It is based on a comic written by Abiko Takemaru (who seems to dabble a lot in 'modern' media like games and manga) and the concept of basically an armchair detective movie, only with the detectives confined to a room, i.e. a locked room mystery of sorts (if you interpret the words in a different way), seemed awesome.

I used the part tense, because while the concept was fun, the execution was less... intellectually stimulating, as it was basically actress Natsuna in a variety of alluring poses tied to a bed. Which is definitely an effective way of making the detective genre film a lot more atttractive.

As a detective story, Kankin Tantei does a lot wrong, but also a little bit good. The first half hour has a great sense of speed, as Akane and Ryouta slowly learn more about each other through deductions (in a Sherlock Holmes way), and try to find out why both of them were in Rena's room. It never goes really deep, but I guess it works for a film (which just offers less room for really deep, abstract deduction chains). It's also in this first half where Akane and Ryouta slowly find out who might have killed Rena and why.

The fact that they first used 'normal' deductions to figure each other out kinda sets the viewer on the wrong track, because a lot of the inital discoveries surrounding Rena's murder is done by the Wondrous Internet and Magic Applications and Hacking For Dummies. Which... is kinda lame. The truth behind Rena's murder is very disappointing too, and the 'hints' laid down are ridiculous; as if they suddenly remembered they actually needed a murderer, and hints leading to him, and forcefully wrote them in the script. A lot of the happenings in this movie feel like script filler (especially the second half of the film), which is seldom a good thing, and especially not in a detective movie, which ideally is a neatly structured story presenting a good mystery.

There is also the 'problem' of Akane sorta trying to escape from her imprisonment. The first few minutes are quite tenseful, when she's tied to the bed (and Ryouta for no other feasible reason but to live out his fantasies sits on top of her as if that is the most logical way to keep a kidnapped girl quiet), and you're not quite sure what's going to happen and if she's going to escape, but after that first part, you'll see plenty of chances for Akane to get help, but she doesn't. The concept of a confined detective, a detective being forced to solve a crime can be quite exiting (see the last story in volume 38 of Detective Conan for example, but here there never seems to be any real danger. Akane teases Ryouta a lot, even though he is supposed to be her imprisoner. It doesn't help that a lot of the scenes of Akane tied up are obvious fanservice shots with actress Natsuna, so it's kinda hard to take them serious.

But I said the film did some good, right? Well, the puzzle of Rena's murderer was solved kinda badly, there is one aspect of the mystery that was actually done quite well. The hints were nicely spread across the whole movie. During the whole film, I had wondered about little bits and pieces of the plot, thinking they were just signs of bad writing, but all these little things actually came together in a logical way and it was quite well done, I think. If only the whole plot had seen this much care.

While not a great movie by any standard, I am glad I can say Kankin Tantei isn't a total wreck and I did find several aspects quite amusing. Not something to really recommend, but if you have nothing else to do, want to see a bit of mystery, a bit of Natsuna tied to a bed, then it's not that bad a film.

Original Japanese title(s): 『監禁探偵』

Monday, November 4, 2013

Reunion, and Turnabout


"So you also prepared for this? Hmm. I see. But I heard a lot of young men joined the religion after Nosaka Kimiko took over as the representative. Those guys are just into her."
"No way you're goin' to do the same?"
"I wouldn't just join a religion like that. But if they would hand out pamphlets with Nosaka Kimiko's portret on them near Kawaramachi, yeah, I would take them. A title as stiff as 'representative' doesn't fit her. It might be a joke of sorts, but I see why they worship her as the "queen" in the media"
"You're just into her too. What a joke, a queen! The only Queen I worship is Ellery Qu.."
"The Castle of the Queendom"

Everyone been enjoying the last few episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot? I'll probably write something after the last episode is broadcast, but I have to say that I have been mostly pleased up until now. Just two more weeks!

Student Alice series
Gekkou Game - Y no Higeki '88 ("Moonlight Game - The Tragedy of Y '88")
Kotou Puzzle ("The Island Puzzle")
Soutou no Akuma ("Double-Headed Devil")
Jooukoku no Shiro ("The Castle of the Queendom")

The members of the Eito University Mystery Club (EMC) have been involved in several puzzling murder cases, but they could always rely on their club president Egami Jirou to solve the crime and save them. In Jooukoku no Shiro ("The Castle of the Queendom") however, it's Egami who needs help. Or does he? Egami seems to have suddenly disappeared and the members (Oda, Nobunaga, Maria and Alice) fear something might have happened to him. They find clues that seem to indicate that Egami has gone to the mountain village of Kamikura, the home of the headquarters of the new age religion the Human Species Society. HSS was founded by Nosaka Mikage, who after her encounter with the alien Peripari, started to prepare humankind for the coming of the aliens. The current head of HSS is Nosaka Kimiko, who because of her beauty is refered to as 'the Queen', living in her 'castle' that is HSS HQ. The EMC members eventually find their beloved club president inside the 'castle', but during a tour of HSS headquarters, a guard is found murdered near the 'sacred cave' where Pelipali is to return again. The EMC members naturally want to contact the police, but the brass of the HSS say they want to solve the murder themselves to keep the scandal to a minimum (new religions are always watched with a suspicous eye), and basically hold the EMC members captured inside the 'castle', until the case is solved. Of course, the fact that even more murders happen during their confinement is a bit worrying. It is up to the EMC members to solve the crime and regain their freedom.

Ah, my beloved Student Alice series! Whereas Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series can be a hit or a miss series, and is more like his safer, 'steady-income' series, the Student Alice series has always maintained a very high standard as an orthodox detective series. From Gekkou Game on (the first book in the series and also Arisugawa's debut work), the series has been among the best if it comes to being a spiritual successor to the Ellery Queen novels, with beautiful deductive chains leading to the one truth. Jooukoku no Shiro is the last novel of the series for the moment, so I had been kinda 'saving' it, but now I've finally read it. And I was not disappointed.

There are three major characteristics to the novels in Student Alice series; 1) precise deductive reasoning that lead to the identity of the murderer, 2) a closed circle situation and 3) an element of a youth adventure novel brought by the members of the EMC. Let's first look at the mystery of Jooukoku no Shiro. Kotou Puzzle still holds the title of having the most impressive deduction chain of the series (heck, one of the best in the long history of detective fiction, period), but this novel doesn't disappoint either. The process of identifying characteristics of the murderer and see who fits the profile sounds easy, but actually doing it, and doing it in a way that doesn't seem cheap, is another thing and Arisugawa really comes up with a great explanation of how to identify the murderer. It's amazing what one can infer from just one object and it's these kind of novels that really appeal to me in the mystery genre. In Jooukoku no Shiro, the deductions that lead to the murderer are all basically based off one item. This seems similar to Kotou Puzzle, but that had a long, complex single chain of deductions that led to the murderer (X, therefore, Y, therefore Z etc.), while Jooukoku no Shiro has several, shorter deductions that start by looking at the item in question from different angles. Different, but definitely great stuff. And of course, there is a Challenge to the Reader!

The closed circle setting employed here is the most captivating of the whole series, I think. Kotou Puzzle and Soutou no Akuma had closed circle situations because of fairly natural circumstances (geography, weather). The vulcano eruption in Gekkou Game is a natural phenomena, I guess, but it felt so artificial I just couldn't take it all too seriously. Jooukoku no Shiro has the protagonists held prisonor in the Human Species Society HQ, which is actually a lot creepier. It brings elements like questioning whether the HSS has a hidden agenda for holding them captured, and also elements of planning a prison escape. Jooukoku no Shiro is the most dynamic of the series, with the protagonists trying to solve the murder, and trying to regain their freedom. The book is also by far the longest of the whole series, but it never drags.

The setting of a small group confined in a small community with a common religion/belief/goal/characteristic/something to hide is not uncommon (in a variety of genres). I mostly associate it with Yokomizo Seishi and Trick (especially Trick), but who can forget Ellery Queen's little adventure in And On the Eight Day? Original, it isn't, but it can definitely add the right amount of suspense (of us against them) to a genre that can occassonally feel a bit slow.

And the youth novel element comes alive quite good. Because of circumstances, the EMC members were often forced to work seperatedly in the previous novels, so this is the first time we see the whole team (including Maria, who joined in the second novel) acting as a team, reacting to each other and also sharing stories about themselves and their lives as students. In English-language orthodox detective fiction, it seems that (university) students aren't that common a protagonist-type. In Japan however, with the New Orthodox (or New Authentic) school basically starting from university mystery clubs, the student-detective was actually relatively common for a time (just take a look at all the debut novels of the New Authentic school for example). The Student Alice series is the only original New Authentic school series that still has students as its protagonists, but I find it an entertaining setting.

Nothing bad? Well, no. It has the most horrible map of a building I've ever seen. Sure, the precise architecture of the 'castle' isn't needed to solve the crime, but even after finishing the book I still don't know how all the towers and 'flying saucer' buildings are connected...

But in conclusion, a very solid detective novel that should appeal to anyone who likes the genre. There is thrill, shock and suspense, but also a great mystery that shows that pure logic is still the best way to solve a crime. Arisugawa Alice's Student Alice series is definitely one any fan of the genre should try.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『女王国の城』