Saturday, May 10, 2014

Death TV

「私に言わせれば、すべてのホラー現象はほらに過ぎない。超常現象を恐れてはならない。 Don't be afraid! どんと来い、超常現象!」

"I say that all the horror phenomena in this world are nothing more than nonsense. Don't fear supernatural phenomena. Don't be afraid! Come on, supernatural phenomena!"

I usually begin a post with a little paragraph on something not (directly) related to the main topic. Why? Because I think it's too confronting to go to the core of the story right away. Or something like that. I just like it when there's a little buffer between the start of a post and the main story. Aaaaaaaand that was today's introduction.

The Armchair Detective is a mysterious entity dressed like Doctor Doom who lives purely to deduce. Whenever he is summoned, he teleports all important actors involved in a mystery to his realm, and shows with absolute logic who the murderer is in any given crime. Ever since the Armchair Detective helped the clairvoyant Ashida Luna solve a serial murder case that had baffled the police two years ago, Luna is thought to have real supernatural powers. This time, she is asked to do a live psi trailing session in the TV show Friday On Air, to discover the whereabouts of the missing student Sanjou Miyabi. And the production team behind Friday On Air praise the gods for their decision to use Luna in their show, because the dead body of Sanjou Miyabi is discovered only thanks to the psychic's amazing powers. But then Ashida Luna is killed before she gets a chance to use her clairvoyant powers to find out who killed Miyabi. Can the viewer solve the murders on Miyabi and Luna before the Armchair Detective appears to reveal the truth in Anriku Isu Tantei On Air ("The Armchair Detective On Air")?

Anraku Isu Tantei ("The Armchair Detective") was a TV special series which ran irregularly from 1999-2008. The show was written by veteran puzzle plot writers Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice and designed to be the ultimate challenge to the viewer. Each episode consisted of two parts: the 'problem' part, which introduced the murders, all the suspects and most importantly, all the necessary hints to arrive at the solution, was broadcast in the first week. Viewers were then encouraged to send in questionnaires with 1) whom they think was the murderer, and 2) how they arrived at that conclusion. The 'solution' part was then broadcast in the second week, usually baffling the viewer with lenghty deduction chains presented by the supernatural being the Armchair Detective. Anraku Isu Tantei On Air was the sixth production, originally broadcast in 2006.

The format of the Anraku Isu Tantei shows is obviously inspired by so-called guess-the-criminal (hanninate) scripts. These scripts are more like pure logic puzzles than 'proper' literary stories: there are unwritten rules like a Challenge to the Reader, 'there is only one murderer', 'strength of motive is of no real consequence' and 'all the hints necessary to solve the crime are in the story' (therefore, nothing/no person outside the world described in the story exists) and most of these plots are solved through a Queen-esque elimination method: determine an x amount of characteristics the murderer must have (i.e. must have been left handed, must have had access to the room, must have etc.) and see who fits (or does not fit) the profile. Some might think Ellery Queen's novels feel a bit artificial with the challenge to the reader and all, but these guess-the-criminal scripts are really taking this game-element of detective fiction to the extreme (see also the game Trick X Logic, which takes the same format to a videogame).

And slightly off-topic, but writing these kinds of stories is a pretty important activity in the Kyoto University University Club: one member would write a story, while other members would try to solve it. All the stories that have been published within the club are written on the wall of the club room, and when I was there two years ago, there had been around 400 stories done ever since the tradition started. My name and story is also somewhere there on the wall, by the way.

Anriku Isu Tantei On Air is the first time I watched the show. I love it for its experimental format as a detective show that tries to involve the viewer in an active manner, but it also shows why this format might not be the best for a TV show. Normally, you'd go through a guess-the-criminal script once and then go back in the pages to check up on everything. For example, you'd find out the murderer had to be left-handed at the end of the story, so you'd go back and flip through the pages to see who was right-handed and who left. A good guess-the-criminal script will have several characteristics for a murderer (and play with that too), so it's important to go back and forth to check on all the facts.

However, this is hard to do with a TV show. The video format is not really made for a viewer to go back and forth to check up on everything. And I can assure you, it's impossible to solve the complete puzzle in Anraku Isu Tantei On Air in just one session. If you really want to get to all details, you'd have to watch the first episode at least two, three times and that's only if you already have a good idea about who did it. The DVD of Anraku Isu Tantei On Air does a reasonable job at assisting the viewer, as all the chapter stops are set at moments with crucial information ("X's Alibi", "Y's Alibi" etc.). But even then, you'd need to watch the episode several times. For the viewers who watched this live, they had to have taped the episode, or else they'd never been able to solve the case. Oh, and for your information: when this episode was broadcast in 2006, 19566 people had sent in answers: 6,5% of the respondents (1271) had guessed the correct murderer, while only a mere 0,3% (58) also presented the correct logical arguments to support the suspicion. And people complained the Ellery Queen TV show was too difficult!

But I still think this is really worth a viewing though. One of the reasons I love mystery fiction is because of the puzzle element, the game element behind it and I have never seen a detective TV show treat that aspect as interesting as with Anraku Isu Tantei. The solution is fantastic, with a grand deduction chain leading up to the reveal of the murderer. The plot of this particular episode also makes impressive use of its format as a video: while I admit some of the hints are just barely fair (Maybe a second in a ninety minute show is hardly fair!), there is one amazing hint that could only have been pulled off this convincingly because it was a TV show, and not for example a novel. That said, it's also quite complex, maybe even too complex for a TV show. To put things in perspective: whereas a 'normal' detective TV drama might spend ten, maaaybe twenty minutes on explaining the crime, Anraku Isu Tantei On Air's solution episode takes over an hour to go through all the evidence and logic chains to reach the murderer. I loved how they did it, complete with "quoting" specific scenes to build their arguments, but I can imagine that the casual viewer might not appreciate stories this complex.

I really did like Anraku Isu Tantei On Air, but it's also quite easy to see its flaws. It's a great experiment of a game puzzle-esque detective show on TV and the plot itself is great, as expected from big names like Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice. On the other hand, it might be a bit too complex, as you really need to watch the episode several times if you want to even think about solving the murder yourself. The scale of the story and the impressive logic behind the plot are something seldom, if ever seen in a detective drama, but Anraku Isu Tantei On Air also shows why this is probably wouldn't work for most viewers. Definitely one for the more dedicated mystery fans.

Original Japanese title(s): 『安楽椅子探偵 On Air』


  1. I know that this is old you know where I can find this series?

    1. Sorry for the late reply! (Didn't notice it...)

      Six of the seven episodes are available on DVD. They are kinda expensive though. It might be available in err... other ways, but I haven't found them, which is why I am veeeerry slowly collecting the DVDs.

    2. Nonononono! It's fine! I didn't think that you'd even notice this to be honest... Ah well, time to look for subs! I can't wait to have my mind blown...

      (Also, does the Armchair Detective have an actual armchair? Because I will be very disappointed if he doesn't.)

    3. He does, but only from the second episode on. (He said that a lot of people had sent letters saying he was in a normal chair in the first episode).