Monday, January 20, 2014

Trick & Magic

「月光」 (鬼束ちひろ)

Tell me about your reasons
Until I'm able to sleep
"Moonlight" (Onitsuka Chihiro)

To put this review in context immediately, I absolutely worship the TV drama Trick. It is the most awesome series to have graced Japanese TV screens, as well as the silver screen and as such, this review might be slanted a bit towards the very positive.

Trick started as a late-night mystery series in 2000, about a(n incompetent) physics professor Ueda Jirou and an unsuccesful magician Yamada Naoko teaming up debunking supernatural phenomena and solving murders. It drew heavily from the Kindaichi Kousuke series, with many episodes set in remote mountain villages with closed communities, with a bit of Higashino Keigo (scientific mysteries), a bit of Awasaka Tsumao (magic tricks) and John Dickson Carr (the supernatural). But, most importantly, it was conceived as a cartoonish comedy-mystery.

Trick soon grew as a series, as well as a phenomenom, and it soon become a series that certainly took up the appearance of a dark, horror mystery, but was essentially a playground for everyone involved in its production. Actors are encouraged to overact, to overplay their role as characters in a mystery series. You're not the focus of the scene and just standing in the background? Don't worry, you're allowed to do whatever you want there. Heck, even the camerawork is in on it, with enigmatic, yet hypnotic movements during scenes that would normally be taken motionless, and shots purposedly taken off center. Every single scene of every episode, special and film is full with little gags and stuff, but miraculously, it never feels (too) chaotic.

But Trick isn't just a comedy. Because despite all the chaos, despite all the things done for laughs, it's actually a good mystery show! There's always an interesting plot, it's always structured properly and there are the essential hints for the viewer to solve the mystery. One could easily take the same plot and make a super-serious, dark mystery out of it. But, that wouldn't be Trick. Trick is a parody of mystery, of itself and other TV dramas, a playground for the production team, but also a great mystery drama. It is very cartoonish though, so those who prefer serious detective fiction, stay away from Trick, but I myself consider it a masterpiece.

And this year marks the end of Trick. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to be in Japan when they celebrated the series' 10th anniversary with a new movie and other productions, but no such luck this time. The series is to end with the fourth movie, which is running now, but last week a TV special was broadcast set just before the movie, marking Trick's last outing on the TV screen. The head of the Mizugami clan has died, and his three daughters (and their family) all expect a gigantic inheritance. Unbeknownst to them, the Mizugami fortune has shrunk dramatically of late unfortunately and the family is left with very little.

However, the Mizugami inheritance doesn't exist out of just direct financial means. A little box is also left to the family, which is supposed to hold a hint pointing to the whereabouts of a buried treasure. The box is cursed though, so the family decides to ask the famous physics professor Ueda Jirou (and his assistant Yamada Naoko) to help them, knowing that he is an authority on debunking the supernatural (and not knowing that he's actually a fairly incompetent detective and quite scared of the supernatural). But the presence of Ueda isn't enough to prevent a series of murders among the Mizugami clan...

Trick has always borrowed a lot from Yokomizo Seishi's Kindaichi Kousuke series (like in the second season pilot), but this special was the most blatant example, probably, as it parodies his masterpiece Inugamike no Ichizoku. The fight for the inheritance, the three daughters, a masked grandson, murders... heck, there are even (multiple pairs of) legs sticking out of a lake ('ll have to read the book or watch the movies to get that). And just to make it completely clear, the whole story is set in the village of Okomizo.

And I almost died of laughter as I was watching this.

As a mystery story, this special was actually quite good. Sure, the rough outline is based on Inugamike no Ichizoku (and it has some good, original takes on the tropes from the book too!), but the treasure hunt plot is completely original (and also makes the story even more Trick-like) and actually quite good; the hints are laid done very well. There's also a simple locked room murder which on its own might not be very impressive, but as is often with Trick, it's the sum of the parts, the synergy between the seperate parts that really brings out the magic of its plot. Trick stories often consists of multiple murders / seemingly supernatural crimes, usually with fairly simple magic tricks behind them, but it is the way they are sewn together, i.e. how the story is written, that really matters here. And it usually works really well in Trick.

The third TV special is essentially not very different from any other Trick production though. But is that  a bad thing? It's the first Trick production in four years, and we all expect a certain atmosphere from the series and this special delivers precisely that. Like I said, Trick is a playground, and it doesn't really matter if the rough outlines might seem familiar, because it is the way the playground is used that is important. And it never bores me.

In a way, Trick, as a comedy mystery, is something director Tsutsumi Yukihiko had been working towards for a long time. Some characteristics of Trick can be found in his TV drama adaptation of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo (musical cues, enigmatic dynamic camera work, light-hearted tone followed by horror/drama) and Keizoku added in rapid-fire dialogues and non-sequitor humor, but it really came together in Trick and you can just see everyone having a great time here. I have been planning to write something on Tsutsumi's detective drama series here for years now, but maybe I'll actually get around to it this year...

Oh, and this was the first time I actually saw the actress Asakura Aki. I know her voice quite well as Kirigamine Ryou from the Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni radio drama, so I was quite surprised when I heard a familar voice in the special (and yes, I had trouble getting the mental image of Kirigamine Ryou out of my head).

All in all, a great special, and I look forward to the last movie!

Original Japanese title(s): 『トリック 新作スペシャル3』


  1. I bought a copy of The Inugami Clan some years ago. Now I have to read it. I want to find out why those legs were sticking out of the lake.

    1. The joke was actually also used in a season three episode (the one with the punny poems), though with less pairs ^_~

  2. This is out on Netflix, and would make it the first Japanese movie I watched in its entirety purely in Japanese. I got some of the puns in there, so I'm about 40% fluent already! Yatta!

    I think the murder part is a bit lackluster, but the whole treasure hunt thing, culminating with the radical hint, is very entertaining. The acting is wonderful, and I genuinely laughed out loud at some parts, like the part with the 大根 lake, or the discovery of the victim on the bottom of the smelly lake, or the part where the inspector's in the middle of the ocean. It's all so funny, I'm kinda taken aback when the reveal is actually taken seriously. I thought it's gonna be parodied more.

    At the end, Yamada does some silly stuff, like saying they're going to a hot country, manjuu on the hips, and "mushi mura", which I assume hints to the next movie? It's not in Netflix, so I'm not sure I'll be able to watch it. Thanks for the review, Ho-Ling!

    1. Oh, now you mention it, Trick does usually take its dramatic reveal and aftermath suprisingly seriously, despite everything before it. The original series perhaps more so before the franchise became more major with the third series, but still, it's a series staple.

      Mushu Mura Mura is a running gag throughout the series repeated by Yamada, it's a reference to a gag of the comedy trio Dachou Club. But yeah, the banter they have at the very end during the credits is about reference to Last Stage.