Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Publish or Perish


"Nobody cares to acknowledge the mistakes made because of their youth"
"Mobile Suit Gundam"

I read a lot, but my reading pace always has a slow start. I usually read several books at the same time, but it usually take ages for me to go through the first hundred pages or so of any given book. But when I am past that threshold, I suddenly go full gear, and finish the rest of the book in less time than it took me to get through the first hundred pages. That's why it's kinda rare for me to have books lying around that I've read halfway through. Books where I got stuck somewhere in the first hundred pages? Sure. But halfway? I am usually going to fast to stop there... Today, a rare case of a book which was read only halfway through.

Zero Banme no Jikenbo ("The 0th Casefiles") is a mystery anthology released in 2012 with big names like Arisugawa Alice, Ayatsuji Yukito and Norizuki Rintarou. But the twist behind this anthology is that the stories collected here, were all written before these writers made their formal debut as professional writers. Most of these were written in university it seems. In a sense, Zero Bamne no Jikenbo is just a collection of 'amateur' writing, but for fans for any of these writers, these unpublished stories are of course interesting, as it shows how some writers grew from their amateur days into the people they are now. As a piece of fanservice, this anthology delivers the goods and it is also a good motivation for amateur writers now: if they see what kind of stories the professional writers now used to write, they'll probably see that everyone had to start somewhere and that all have humble origins.

I originally bought Zero Banme no Jikenbo when it was released, because it fitted with the theme of my thesis on early New Orthodox detective fiction writers. And after reading the stories and the essays by Arisugawa Alice, Norizuki Rintarou, Abiko Takemaru and Ayatsuji Yukito, I put the book away because that was all I needed for my research. In the end, it took me another year before I finally read the rest of the volume.

A large number of the stories collected in Zero Banme no Jikenbo are guess-the-criminal (hanninate) stories, which I once explained as:

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

A lot of the writers in this anthology were members of university mystery clubs (like the Kyoto University Mystery Club), where guess-the-criminal scripts are common practice. Arisugawa Alice's entry, Aozameta Hoshi ("The Pale Stars"), is a good example of how such a story works, and it just happens I have translated it a long time ago, so I refer to that post if you want to know more about that. Abiko Takemaru's Figure Four is an extremely nonsensical dying message story, but Abiko admits that he would never ever have chosen this story for publication if not for the goal of the anthology: at least you can see that not all writers started out grand and fantastic. In that sense Figure Four is a great example. And maybe it's interesting to note that the Hayami siblings appear in this story.

Kasumi Ryuuichi's Golgotha no Misshitsu ("The Locked Room of Golgotha") is an example of a locked room murder done well in a guess-the-criminal format, which is difficult, because this format is more precise than a 'normal' locked room murder mystery (all the clues must be present and it must be the only answer possible). But it is also very obvious that this was a guess-the-criminal script and not a full fledged story: the solution part, given after the Challenge to the Reader, is just a dry, to the point memo saying who did it and how you can prove it. Fubousou de Hito ga Shinu no Da ("Somebody Will Die At the Fubou House" by Murasaki Yuu), with a murder happening on a Mystery Club holiday is based on fairly basic trick and the 'surprise' ending isn't really surprising, but I like how the story is obviously written for fellow (Seijo University) Mystery Club members, as it deals with club activities and the characters based (presumably) on real members at the time. Finally, but certainly not least is Norizuki Rintarou's Satsujin Pantomine ("Murder Pantomine"), a great puzzle plot story that shows why these guess-the-criminal stories, even if not 'real' literature, are so fun. And the anecdote that at the time, these scripts were read out by the writer for all members to listen to is at one hand surprising, and on the other hand not really. In a time where typewriters and wordprocessors were rare, it does make sense the writer would just write out his own copy, and then read it out to the other members. Of course, I am just used to the sight of 20~30 copies of the stories being handed out to the members present... By the way, the detective character Norizuki Rintarou appears in this story, but written with a different character for "rin" (the name was changed when the writer became a professional).

The rest of the anthology consists out of non guess-the-criminal stories. Takada Takafumi's Bachasvilleke no Inu ("The Hound of the Bachasvilles") is a nonsensical what-if variation on The Hound of the Baskervilles. I only read the first novel of Takada's QED series, but it seems this story has very little of the QED vibe, save for the excessive referencing to the original Holmes novels (the lists of references in the QED novels are huge!). Hatsuno Sei's 14 is about a comedian being stalked by seven different people from all ages and sexes, but he has no idea why. More of a thriller than real puzzle plot mystery, but I have never read anything by Hatsuno, so no idea how this work fits within the big picutre. The same holds for Migawa Korumono's Judgement, about a murderer and a girl he picks up at one of his crime scenes. Never read anything by her, so not sure if Judgement is representative of her work in general or not.

And while I have never read anything by Kirisha Takumi neither, I have to say I was kinda surprised by his Tsuzuki Michio wo Yonda Otoko ("The man who read Tsuzuki Michio"), which was a fun inverted mystery where a certain scruffy policeman talking about his raincoat and his wife visiting Japan is messing up a perfect crime in process. Great stuff here, but it took me a bit before I recognized who this Philip was (as it's just one of his unofficial first names...). A lot of Nishizawa Yasuhiko's mysteries have a supernatural element (psychokinesis, timewarping etc) in conjunction with a totally fair-play puzzle plot, but Mushitori ("Bugcatching") is more science fiction than mystery. It's fun though: two men are in charge of monitoring a grand scale fake arrival of aliens on planet Earth: these aliens are in fact high-level androids of the US government. But what is the goal of the project, and why do some android models keep coming back with bugs that lead to self-existential doubt?

Finally, Ayatsuji Yukito's Toosugiru Fuukei ("A Scenery Too Far Away") is the story about Hiryuu Kouchi, who after the death of her mother, has been haunted by mysterious letters and other events. And I could write a bit more about it, but this story was actually rewritten as Ningyoukan no Satsujin, with most of the main plot and some names intact. They are very alike, so you really don't have to read both of them, though it is interesting to see how Ayatsuji fleshed out one of his old stories to something new and longer. This 'amateur' story was actually sold at one time, as it was included in one of Kyoto University Mystery Club's annual magazines in the past: I actually have a (digital) copy somewhere of Toosugiru Fuukei in a handwritten script!

For fans of the writers included in this anthology, Zero Banme no Jikenbo has its high points. Realizing how the young amateur writers and students behind these stories turned into professional writers afterwards can work as an inspiration for aspirant writers, as while there are quite some good mystery plots here, few stories have the refinement of professional writers (and also important, editing). And of course, a lot of the stories collected here are guess-the-criminal scripts, which aren't meant to be experienced as literature anyway. If you are familar with more than a few writers in this collection, I would recommend Zero Banme no Jikenbo and also if you're interested in seeing how guess-the-criminal scripts work (as you don't see them often in 'official' publishing), but it might feel a bit weak as a standalone mystery anthology without the context. Because when you think about it, this is just a collection of amateur writers, even if they're all professional writers now! If the novelty factor appeals to you though, great stuff here! I know I enjoyed it.

Oh, and one final note: I can only use up to 200 characters for the tags (cross-references) for each post, so I was only able to attach the tags for a few writers.

Original Japanese title(s): 『0番目の事件簿』: 有栖川有栖 「蒼ざめた星」 / 法月綸太郎 「殺人パントマイム」 / 霧舎巧 「都筑道夫を読んだ男」 / 「我孫子武丸 「フィギュア・フォー」 / 霞流一 「ゴルゴダの密室」 / 高田崇史 「バカズヴィル家の犬」 / 西澤保彦 「虫とり」 / 「初野晴 「14」 / 村崎友 「富望荘で人が死ぬのだ」 / 汀こるもの 「Judgement」 / 綾辻行人 「遠すぎる風景」

Sunday, September 21, 2014

ReturN: File 6

『金田一少年の事件簿: 薔薇十字館殺人事件』

"What are you two?"
"Parallel lines. Parallel lines that never cross. That's what Kindaichi and I are."
"The Young Kindaichi Case Files: The Rosenkreuz Mansion Murder Case"

And with this post, I end my review series of the live action series Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO (The Young Kindaichi Case Files NEO), which ended yesterday. I was actually quite surprised to hear that this series was only nine episodes long, which is a bit shorter than most TV dramas, but there it is.

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO
Pre-series TV Special 2 (January 4, 2014: The Prison Gate Cram School Murder Case
Episode 1 (July 19, 2014): The Murderer of the Silver Screen 
Episode 2 (July 26, 2014): The Game Mansion Murder Case
Episode 3 & 4 (August 2 & 9, 2014): The Will-o'-the-Wisp Island Murder Case
Episode 5 & 6 (August 16 & 23, 2014): Young Kindaichi's Road to the Final Battle
Episode 7 (September 6, 2014): The Yukikage Village Murder Case
Episode 8 & 9 (September 13 & 20, 2014): The Rosenkreuz Mansion Murder Case

Hajime, grandson of the famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke and Takatoo Youichi, a professional planner of murder schemes, have stood twice against each other (here and here). But this time, the two must work together. Takatoo has been invited to the Rose Cross Mansion, where a rare blue rose is to be unveiled. But Takatoo isn't there to look at pretty flowers: he is told that his sibling, a person Takatoo himself has never known, will be present too and that he or she will be killed. Takatoo has experiences with planning murders, but none with preventing one, so he asks his nemesis Hajime to help protect his sibling, for which in return he will give himself up to the police. But Hajime (accompanied by childhood friend Miyuki and Mystery Club president Makabe) is not able to prevent murder in the Rosenkreuz Mansion: everyone is locked up in the mansion and one by one guests are killed in locked rooms and neither Hajime nor Takatoo have an idea of who Takatoo's sibling is and who is committing the murders and why. Can the two paralllel lines of detective and murderer finally join their powers and uncover the identity of Rosenkreuz in The Rosenkreuz Mansion Murder Case?

The last two episodes of the on the whole great Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO series are an adaptation of 2013's The Rosenkreuz Mansion Murder Case. It was the easily the best Kindaichi Shounen released in years and I was quite enthusiastic about it in my review of the original comic version. So how did these final episodes fair?

As a mystery, this is still a great story. It features two locked room murders, of which I absolutely love the first one (where someone is stabbed in the ground, lying on a bed of flowers, filling the room to show that the door couldn't have been used by the murderer). The other is only a locked room murder if you accept that one witness is innocent (ironically enough, Takatoo in this case), but is again a locked room murder of the likes that puts it among the best of the long-running series (though it resembles a certain case in Tantei Gakuen Q, from the same author, a lot). The quality of the tricks behind the locked room murder and the scale of the story was definitely a high point in recent years and it translates fantastically to the small screen.

I liked especially how efficient use of CG made the exact layout of the Rose Cross Mansion clear: you get maps and all in the comic, but here a short, simple animation showed in an instant how the building looked like. Simple, but effective. Seems like a small point, but in detective stories with maps and all, it is quite important to show them to the viewer in an easy-to-understand way. In the TV drama Kagi no Kakatta Heya, the contents of each locked room was usually of importance, and the way they used small models of each room was perfect for that series, but in this episode, you just need to understand where all rooms/staircases are and the mini-map animation was more than sufficient.

I do have one complaint, and that is that one big change that kinda messes up the story: in the original story, the closed circle stays intact until the very end, with no means of escape from the Rose Cross Mansion's grounds for the cast. But in the TV version, the police arrives about halfway through the story, which should seriously hinder the murderer's plans in reality, but they skip over that in the TV adaptation (in fact, the plan should fail almost immediately the moment more people arrive from outside the mansion...). I really dislike this change and thought it very disappointing, as it weakens an otherwise really strong locked room murder. Other minor changes include the fact Takatoo does not know the gender of his sibling in the TV version (he did know in the original comic version), and slightly different guests at the Rose Cross Mansion (Mystery Club member Makabe wasn't there in the original). Unlike the adaptation of Young Kindaichi's Road to the Final Battle (episodes five and six) however, this story with Takatoo works within the context of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO series and I enjoyed these episodes immensely better than Takatoo's previous adventure. As the last story, this was a great choice and the production definitely felt like a series final, though it leaves the door open for further adventures.

Looking back at the whole Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO series, I must say that this was an excellent series. The adaptations were quite faithful to the original stories and whenever changes had been made, most of them had quite some good reasons and I agreed with quite a few of them, like changing little details to make the mystery plot more believable etc. (I am not really convinced of the necessity of existence of the other Mystery Club members though...). The stories selected for adaptation was also surprisingly good, keeping a good variety across the whole of nine episodes. And the main cast and the production team did a great job. There was solid acting from the main cast, while the production team really did their best at presenting a fun and fair mystery series. I complained a couple of times that the stories had been simplified a lot because the camera focuses a lot on the clues, but I do think the intent, that is, the intent of presenting an absolutely fair mystery by showing what is important, is good and while I think it backfired in some episodes, it worked great in other episodes. And there was the eye to little details that made the series fun. For example, did you notice that the coded message in the opening theme changed every time?

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO borrowed a lot from the original 1995-1997 live action series directed by Tsutsumi Yukihiko, from musical cues to visual aspects like the dynamic camerawork and even clothing. I would describe NEO as the cleaner version of the original series. It's been almost twenty years since the original series and while they are similar, NEO features better acting, more streamlined directing and obviously looks beter. Looked at as a TV series on the whole, NEO is definitely the better one. Personally though I still prefer the original series because it's a bit rough on the edges; I am a big fan of director Tsutsumi Yukihiko (he also did Trick) and he has a certain quirkiness that is hard to copy completely. The original Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo live action series was one of his earliest works, but it still has a certain atmosphere that, while for a part imitated by NEO, is still quite unique.

But I feel the same about the final episodes of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO as for the whole series. A good adaptation that is sure to satisfy the fans of the original series, but it is also great as a mystery plot on its own. Let's hope more will follow.

Original Japanese title(s): 『金田一少年の事件簿N』 サブタイトル 「薔薇十字館殺人事件」

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Goodbye So Soon

To say goodbye is to die a little
Just like a beginning of dying for a moment 
So long amigo
I won’t say goodbye
「さよならを言うことは」 ("To Say Goodbye"), Fukushima Rila

This is one of those rare times where I use the hardboiled tag on something that is not a review of a Detective Jinguuji Saburou game.

1950s Tokyo. The country is well on its way in its recuperation of World War II, signified by the enormous economic growth. But not everyone enjoys as much of the recovery as others. Take for example private detective Masuzawa Banji. His month is filled with work like looking for lost popular singers who are eloping with handsome men or locating wealthy, cheating husbands for even wealhtier wives, but Banji himself just makes enough to get him through the month with a few drinks as his only pleasure. One day, Banji becomes acquainted with Harada Tamotsu, a drunk with a limp leg, with whom he quickly becomes drinking pals, maybe even friends. Their bond is tested when one day Tamotsu's wife is murdered and Tamotsu turns up literally redhanded in Banji's office. Banji decides to ask no questions whatsoever and drives Tamotsu to the harbor, who flees to Taiwan. Back in Tokyo, the police thinks Tamotsu killed his wife and that Banji helped him escape the country, but Banji believes Tamotsu is innocent. While taking on a new case involving a writer, Banji also tries to find evidence of his friend's innocence in the mini TV series The Long Goodbye.

And people might have noticed from the title and despite the Japanese character names, the somewhat familiar summary above, but yes, this is indeed a TV series based on Raymond Chandler's famous The Long Goodbye, but set in Japan. The Long Goodbye is a five-part mini TV series which was broadcast on NHK from April 19 until May 17, 2014 and starred Asano Tadanobu as Masuzawa Banji, the Japanese counterpart to the original's Philip Marlowe.

One might be tempted to suspect The Long Goodbye is a cheap, loosely interpreted adaptation of the original story because the setting is changed, but The Long Goodbye is actually a very faithful adapation and a fun one too. Granted, there is a lot of US imagery in the Marlowe novels that obviously isn't present in this Japan-set adapation, but the actual plot of the TV series is very close to the original and the post-war setting works perhaps even better in the TV series' setting of Japan than the original novel's the United States. Anyway, despite the changed setting and characters names, I'd say that The Long Goodbye is a great adaptation of the book.

To be totally honest though, I am not that big a fan of the original novel's plot, one of the reasons for that being that I never got why grumpy, wise-cracking tough guy Philip Marlowe got involved with Lennox (Tamotsu) and the writer in the first place: Banji isn't the most cordial fellow around, but it does seem more likely for him to get involved with everyone compared Marlowe. Another reason I didn't like the original novel's plot that much was because it tends to meander a lot. This is partly solved because The Long Goodbye is very clearly written as a five-part series, and the episodic format does help smooth out the presentation of the plot, so again, I am tempted to say that it works better in the TV series. Overall, I still think the mystery plot is not very interesting though, as the plot jumps to the writer-case pretty fast and little happens until the end and the same holds for the TV series, though, like I said, it's a bit better here than in the original novel, I think.

So I wasn't that impressed by the original novel's plot, but I did like the way it was written. In fact, I have written a not-really-a-review of The Long Goodbye in the past, where I basically only stated I thought the atmosphere was good. The same holds for this TV series. The slightly different protagonist and the different setting does give this series a different atmosphere, but I love what they did for The Long Goodbye! It looks great as a TV series (and it obviously has a good budget as an NHK-produced mini-series) and sounds even better: the jazz soundtrack is absolutely amazing. Add in good direction and acting and you have a very solid series.

The Long Goodbye is a surprisingly well-made and faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel. I am not a big fan of Chandler's novels anyway, but I had fun with this TV series anyway and I think that Chandler-lovers will appreciate NHK's The Long Goodbye despite the changes in the setting. The home release is scheduled today, by the way.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ロング・グッドバイ』

Friday, September 12, 2014

Maze of Nightmare

Gegroet, vaarwel, wat gaat het leven snel
O, tranen maken een afscheid tot een hel
"Vaarwel voorgoed" ("De Speurneuzen")

Greetings, farewell, life goes by so fast
Oh, tears make parting into a hell
"Goodbye Forever" (Dutch version of "Goodbye So Soon" from "The Great Mouse Detective")

I buy most of my Japanese books used when I'm in Japan. You can usually find new books quite fast in used bookshops for a fair price. But as I was writing this post, I noticed that today's book was actually released in the same year I bought it. Well, that's not that strange a happening on its own, but I bought the book for a mere 105 yen, even though the book was 'just' released and selling for about 1500 yen new. The used book market in Japan is fast, I know as a reader and buyer, but for the value of a novel to fall to even less than ten percent of its original price in less than a year?!

Nikaidou Ranko series
Jigoku no Kijutsushi ("The Magician from Hell") (1992)
Kyuuketsu no Ie ("House of Bloodsuckers") (1992)
Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent") (1993)
Akuryou no Yakata ("Palace of Evil Spirits") (1994)
Yuri Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Lillies") (1995)
Bara Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Roses") (1997)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Deutsch Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Germany") (1996)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - France Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - France") (1997)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Tantei Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Detective") (1998)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Kanketsu Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Conclusion") (1998)
Akuma no Labyrinth ("The Devil Labyrinth") (2001)
Majutsuou Jiken ("The Case of the Sorcery King") (2004)
Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Case of the Double-Faced Beasts") (2007)
Haou no Shi ("Death of the Ruler") (2012)
Ran Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Orchids") (2014)

Aoki Shunji had nothing left to live for. But one day, his eye fell on a curious advertisement: WILL PURCHASE YOUR WORTHLESS LIFE. HIGH PRICES. Having nothing to lose, Aoki visits the shady laywer Busujima, who has sinister plans with Aoki's worthless life he purchases. Busujima was hired to locate a distant relative of the influential Ouchi clan. Family head Ouchi Daisuke may soon be drawing his last breath and because his own sons have died, he tries to locate some distant relatives to see if they are worthy of becoming his successor. Busujima had found one relative, in a rather dead state, but the lawyer plans to present Aoki as the relative, and together take over the wealth and power of the Ouchi family. The Ouchis are said to be direct descendants of the legendary snake Orochi and the family is therefore the de facto ruler of the Makai Valley on the Noto peninsula, said to be the home of the Orochi. At the entrance of the Makai Valley lies New Holly Village, a small town comprised mostly out of American missionary workers. Some villagers claim to have seen a strange four-armed monster wandering in the woods lately, which also seems to be the only creature who could have committed the horrible double murder of two people impaled on a high tree. Other villagers also seem to have been mentally unstable, sometimes even resulting in deadly confrontations. And Aoki's arrival in the Makai Valley leads to more tragedy...

The beautiful detective Nikaidou Ranko was the only one capable of foiling the plans of the great criminal Labyrinth. Ranko however disappeared in Europe after solving the horrifying double-digit serial murders in Jinroujou no Kyoufu. Not even her brother-by-adoption (and chronicler) Reito knew where she was. Haou no Shi ("Death of the Ruler") starts with the terrible experiences of the fake heir Aoki in the Makai Valley as described above: the story then jumps a year forward, when Ranko finally returns to Japan from Europe after a three year disappearance. She is not interested in detective work anymore, but when she hears her nemesis Labyrinth was involved with the happenings in the Makai Valley and New Holly Village, Ranko decides it's time to put an end to their longtime battle.

A somewhat chaotic summary of Nikaidou Reito's Haou no Shi "("Death of the Ruler"), but that it is because it is a rather context-heavy novel. This novel basically has three points of focus: first is the story of Aoki and the murders that happen in Makai Valley. This a is pretty straightforward part, but the other two focal points make the novel a bit more complex, as they deal with two major plot points of the Nikaidou Ranko series: for Haou no Shi is also the final chapter in the Labyrinth story arc of the series, as chronicled in Akuma no Labyrinth (2001), Majutsuou Jiken (2004) and Soumenjuu Jiken (2007). And not only that, but Ranko also finally returns from Europe after she disappeared at the end of Jinroujou no Kyoufu (1998). I don't recommend going in Haou no Shi without having read at least some earlier adventures of Ranko, because to be honest, Haou no Shi has almost no exceptional merits as a standalone detective story, so I think it's mostly interesting as a book that finally gives us closure on some storylines that had been going on for years.

The events that take place in Makai Valley make up for about three-quarters of the novel, with two parallel-running stories. The first one feels very Yokomizo Seishi-esque, with Aoki posing as a distant relative of the Ouchi family, and a complex inheritance ceremony where suitors vie for the hand of a beautiful heiress in an isolated, rural part of Japan (plus a bit of Edogawa Rampo's The Strange Tale of Panorama Island). The other parallel storyline focuses mainly on a gruesome double murder in New Holly Town, and the accounts of several villagers who are slowly, but surely going mad as they start to see aliens / monsters / cannibals / cursed children and other freaky creatures in town. This is familiar territory for Nikaidou: suspenseful horror stories with a touch of the occult that, even though extremely long, are easy and pleasant enough to read. Nikaidou Reito's books are always gigantic tomes with 600~900 pages, but when you get in the rhythm, the pages really fly by.

In the end, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong in Makai Valley, and one year later Aoki Shunji awakes in a hospital, having lost an eye, an arm and a leg. But what happened exactly? Two locked room murders, and a double murder in New Holly Town where the victims were impaled high up in the trees, and the legendary murderer Labyrinth also showed up somewhere, but Aoki, who is also suffering from amnesia, can't make head nor tails out of it. The answers series detective Ranko has for Aoki are....  a bit disappointing. For a story billed as the end of the long lasting Labyrinth saga, and the return of Ranko, the puzzle plot can be considered mediocre at best: most of the events in New Holly Town are handwaved away with an answer that's almost as bad as saying 'it was all magic!', while the locked room murders also fail to impress. Well, I don't really think that Nikaidou even tried to surprise the reader with the locked room murders, because the tricks behind them are really, really basic. But you'd think that someone who had written the longest locked room murder story (and a fun one at that too!) ever, would come up with something better...

And while I said that Haou no Shi is best read for its ties with the overall storyline of the Nikaidou Ranko series, I'll have to say that even in that aspect, it's not very impressive. Ranko appears very late in the novel and she explains practically nothing about her stay in Europe (and Reito's slightly worrying admiration for his stepsister hasn't gone down a bit, despite having a girlfriend now...). And as the final chapter in the Ranko VS Labyrinth saga, I can tell you one thing: you were probably not expecting Labyrinth to go like that.

Besides Haou no Shi, I actually only read the first book of the Labyrinth saga (Akuma no Labyrinth, Majutsuou Jiken, Soumenjuu Jiken and Haou no Shi), but already in Akuma no Labyrinth, it was clear that Labyrinth was not just a human, but an almost superhuman criminal who could become practically anyone. And the series atmosphere also shifted more towards science fiction/fantasy, I think. Sure, the series always had occult tones (NAZI-WEREWOLVES, I will never forget you!), but those elements were never really confirmed as 100% real. But in the Labyrinth novels, you suddenly have genetically engineered two-headed monsters going around killing people, as if monsters travelling across Japan is just normal business. I get that Nikaidou Reito is going for an Edogawa Rampo-vibe here, but I think he already got that right with his earlier novels (Jigoku no Kijutsushi is extremely Rampo-esque, for example) and now he's just gone too far.

I don't think I can really recommend Haou no Shi, except for those who just want to know how Ranko returns from Europe and who want to read about her final confrontation with Labyrinth. The novel is rather disappointing as standalone detective story and it doesn't even really work as one, because it has too much overall storyline luggage. One for the fans.

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『覇王の死』

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

ReturN: File 5

「夏の幻」 (Garnet Crow)

A summer illusion
When I close my eyes
You are the first I see
"Summer Illusion" (Garnet Crow)

I had forgotten that the currently running Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files NEO") had a scheduled broadcast break last week: episode seven was on just last Saturday. But I am actually happy I don't have to write these episode reviews every week. Anyway, let's move to today's review!

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO
Pre-series TV Special 2 (January 4, 2014: The Prison Gate Cram School Murder Case
Episode 1 (July 19, 2014): The Murderer of the Silver Screen 
Episode 2 (July 26, 2014): The Game Mansion Murder Case
Episode 3 & 4 (August 2 & 9, 2014): The Will-o'-the-Wisp Island Murder Case
Episode 5 & 6 (August 16 & 23, 2014): Young Kindaichi's Road to the Final Battle
Episode 7 (September 6, 2014): The Yukikage Village Murder Case
Episode 8 & 9 (September 13 & 20, 2014): The Rosenkreuz Mansion Murder Case

In episode seven of the live action series, The Yukikage Village Murder Case, Kindaichi Hajime (grandson of detective Kindaichi Kousuke) and fellow Mystery Club members Saki and Makabe travel to the little village of Yukikage. Hajime visited the village once, three years ago, and is now back to reunite with his old friends in the village and to see a local weather phenomenon: the summer snow, which always falls in the early morning of the Bon Festival. At first, Hajime is happy to be with his friends again and see that nothing has changed, but appearances deceive. Everyone has changed in those three years. One friend might have given up on her dreams. Another has trouble finding work after having left school. One has even commited suicide last year. The only one who has not changed in three years, is Hajime. For Hajime, it becomes painfully clear things have changed, when one of his friends is found murdered on the morning of the Bon Festival. But the only footprints left in the summer snow, are those of the victim herself.

The original comic version of The Yukikage Village Murder Case has an unique position within the long running series. Not only is it a fairly short and simple story, but it is also the most personal, most intimate, most emotional adventure of Hajime. Whereas most stories are about spooky legends, greed and REVENGE!!, The Yukikage Village Murder Case dealt with themes of growing up, of change and of friendship. It was about Hajime realizing how people don't stay always stay the same, how friendship and human relations are quite fragile and about having to deal with a victim and murderer from his own personal circles. No other story of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo comic has ever been so emotional and even the rather similar adventure in the novel series (The Heretic House Murder Case) doesn't hit the buttons quite as right as The Yukikage Village Murder Case. A lot of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo stories have Hajime yelling against the murderer about how he's wrong and all of the stories try to feed you A Story To Cry By, but the link with Hajime himself, and the way he has to cope with everything made The Yukikage Village Murder Case one to especially remember.

The live action adaptation does most of it right. To start with what they did wrong: why have Saki and Makabe join Hajime in his trip to Yukikage Village? The original comic was fantastic because nobody else of the cast appeared in the main story. Heck, even childhood friend Miyuki didn't appear. It was just Hajime who visited his own past, with no extended cast, no ties to the 'present', but himself. It's what made the story so personal. In the TV episode, basically everyone comes along (except for Miyuki), which kinda distorts the focus on Hajime that is crucial for this story to work at maximum capacity. I get that for these shows, they want to get all regulars in, but still... I am fairly happy with the rest of the episode. There's some of the best acting until now in this episode (also a bit of the worst, sadly enough) and the whole nostalgic atmosphere is conveyed quite well. Points go to the absolutely heartbroken Hajime who first has to swear he'll find the murderer of his friends, and then has to denounce another friend as the murderer.

As for the impossible murder: the setting is quite classic (a field with only the victim's footprints), but I liked the trick behind it and the set-up for the hint (which is tied to the setting). I have seen variations on the same trick in other (older) stories in the meanwhile, but for me, this was the first time I encountered the trick. Another part of the mystery, that functions as a condition for the reader to fish out the murderer, is actually improved compared to the original comic version, as it is a looooooooot more believable now. Good job there. And because the original story was quite short, it actually fits nicely within the fifty-minute runtime of an episode.

I'm quite content with the episode on the whole. Save for the fact that I wish this episode didn't feature all of the regular characters, it's a great adaptation of a simple, yet memorable story. Next week (and probably the week after) will be an adaptation of The Rosenkreuz Mansion Murder Case, which was one of the best stories of the last few years, so expectations are high!

Original Japanese title(s): 『金田一少年の事件簿N』 サブタイトル「雪影村殺人事件」

Sunday, September 7, 2014

番外編: The Lure of the Green Door

This is probably the second time in the history of this blog that a post features a title that isn't a reference and lacks an introducing quote. The first time was an announcement that I had written the introduction to Kurodahan's release of Edogawa Rampo's The Fiend with Twenty Faces.

And as you have probably guessed, this is another service announcement. Readers of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine might have noticed that the November 2014 issue (on sale now in September) features a story by Norizuki Rintarō in the Passport to Crime section. The Lure of the Green Door is a wonderful and fairly humorous locked room murder mystery featuring Norizuki Rintarō, a writer / amateur detective, who happens to be dragged into the case as he was researching a new book / trying to hit on the librarian. As many of the best locked room short stories, the solution is surprisingly simple, but elegant and The Lure of the Green Door is a very well regarded bibliophilic impossible crime story in Japan.

And I had the pleasure of being the story's translator. Some might remember that I had posted an older version of the translation here many, many moons ago. But after an extensive overhaul of the text by me and the force that is John Pugmire of Locked Room International (who came up with the idea of submitting the story to EQMM and also adapted the story), we finally got The Lure of the Green Door published. It's not the first story by Norizuki  Rintarō available in an English translation, but hopefully, it won't be the last either.

And yes, schemes are designed and plans are made for future releases. But that's a tale for another day.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Lesson in Murder

『金田一少年の事件簿: 吸血鬼伝説殺人事件』

"But by dividing each difficulty, the murderer made the impossible, possible!"
"The Young Kindaichi Case Files: The Vampire Legend Murder Case"

I once wrote a bit about Comic Shock, a used bookstore I frequented when I was Kyoto. I can still recognize which books I bought there because of the plastic covers the people gave every book there. And yes, today's book was bought at Comic Shock. I even think it was the first book I bought at Comic Shock: I was quite surprised to find it there, because while not rare, it is certainly not a really popular book, so I hadn't expected it to find it in an used bookstore.

Ever since his debut in 1947, Amagi Hajime's stories have widely been considered to be among the most best in the subgenre of impossible crimes in his home country, but his stories weren't available in a collected form until 2004. Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei ("Amagi Hajime's Curriculum on Locked Room Criminology") is a collection of both fiction featuring, and critical essays on locked room murders and other impossible crimes. The first two parts of this book are subtitled "Practice" and "Theory", in which Amagi Hajime presents his own locked room typology (like the locked-room lecture in John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man), with several of his own stories as examples of the types of locked room murders he identifies. The third part collects several of Amagi's early impossible crime stories, but these are not presented as part of the lecture course on impossible crimes. Because of the two distinct 'goals' of the book, I decided to divide my thoughts in two parts too. In this review, I will only discuss the third part of Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei: the locked room lecture parts of the book (parts one and two) I will probably discuss in a seperate review on its critical qualities someday. Maybe.

Part three of Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei collects all the stories starring amateur detective Maya Tadashi, a brilliant philosophy scholar and friend of Police Lieutenant Shimazaki (who after becoming an inspector, would later star in Amagi Hajime's alibi-breaking stories). Maya is dubbed 'the Clown of the Crime Scene' by the police, because he always seems to be talking utter nonsense whenever he is facing an impossible crime, but while his statements always seem to be too stupid to be true, they always turn out to be the key to solving the mystery.

The Maya Tadashi stories are all extremely short, but plotted very well, making maximum use of the limited amount of pages. They are also set in the time they were written, so just after World War II and this is of importance: many of the stories deal with the social and economical changes the war had brought upon the country and many of Maya's philosophical musings can be taken as a critique on the manner in which modernity and industralization has changed the country's mode of thinking. I would therefore say that a lot of these stories are quite context-heavy stories, as I think some of these stories are kinda difficult 'to get' without a bit of knowledge on Japan's (socio-cultural) history.

Fushigi no Kuni no Hanzai ("The Crime of Wonderland") was published in 1947 as Amagi Hajime's debut story and is about a man killed in a small passageway, with both entrances at each end of the passage constantly observed by multiple witnesses. A very short story, as well as fairly simple problem: for me, I think the story's merits lies in its historical value (an impossible crime story just after the war, so it belongs next to Giants like Honjin Satsujin Jiken and Shisei Satsujin Jiken), as well as the way Amagi manages to work out the problem in just a few pages, but I wouldn't consider it among the best of the stories collected in this volume.

Kimen no Hanzai ("The Crime of the Devil's Mask", 1948), Kiseki no Hanzai ("The Miraculous Crime", 1948) and Yume no Naka no Hanzai ("The Crime Within the Dream", 1948) are stories featuring similar tricks and to be honest, I didn't really like them. Sure, the premises of a mask of an Oni killing people in a locked room (Kimen no Hanzai) and other disappearing murderers (Kiseki no Hanzai, Yume no Naka no Hanzai) may be alright, but the solutions are extremely basic, probably even when these stories were first published. And I doubt the trick in Yume no Naka no Hanzai could even work as it was described in the story itself: it can be done (I've seen it in other stories too), but those had different conditions that made the execution possible. Here, it seems highly implausible it could have worked.

Takamagahara no Hanzai ("The Crime of Takamagahara", 1948) is considered one of the best Japanese impossible crime stories and I can understand why, though this is really a very unique locked room murder that could only have happened under these very special circumstances.  The "god" of a new religion is strangled to death in his room, but the two men guarding the staircase to the room saw they saw nobody enter or leave the room. How then was the deicide committed? I guessed the solution quite quickly actually, because I have reviewed at least other three stories on this blog that feature a similar trick (I won't link them, because it may be a bit too spoilery), but I would say that the execution in this story is very good and it is indeed a very memorable story. But again, only under these special circumstances.

Ashita no Tame no Hanzai ("The Crime for Tomorrow", 1954), Potsdam Hanzai ("The Potsdam Crime", 1954) and Fuyu no Jidai no Hanzai ("The Crime in the Winter", 1974) are all three about footprints on the ground, or more precisely, the lack of footprints. Ashita no Tame no Hanzai has footprints that stop in the middle of a garden: the solution is simplicity at its best. Maya's short answer to the question how such a miracle was performed is short, but it explains everything in an instant and has the reader go 'why didn't I think of that!'. Fuyu no Jidai Hanzai has a naked, dead lady in the snow with no footprints around it: the solution is a bit like that of Ashita no Tame no Hanzai: they work with the same principle, but are executed quite different. Interesting to look at as a pair. Potsdam Hanzai has some interesting links with the Potsdam Declaration and is an okay impossible crime story, but every effort at summarizing the story sorta spoils the solution, it seems. There is a nice piece of misdirection there, but my attempts at summarizing this story kinda make the solution seem too obvious.

Kuromaku - Juuji ni Shisu ("The Mastermind - Die at Ten", 1955) features a murderer who disappears from an observed house which was searched immediately after the shot, but the solution hinges on 1) one very obvious trick and 2) one very silly trick that can't possibly have worked.

Nusumareta Tegami ("The Purloined Letter", 1954) is the most interesting story of the collecion together with Takamagahara no Hanzai, I think. Holmes always keeps complaining to Watson his stories are too sensational, that the records of Holmes' investigations should place emphasis on the thought process behind each case, right? Well , Holmes would have loved this variation on Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story. The story consists of a letter written by Maya Tadashi, who explains precisely how he manages to find the location of a hidden film with a photograph of a compromising letter. Starting with the definition of what 'solving the case' means, he moves to definitions of clues, and even discusses the role of philosophy and the sciences in modern police investigations, and just as you think his story has nothing to do with the case, he shows how all the previous arguments were crucial parts in the thought process behind locating the hidden film. Nusumareta Tegami is a fairly theoretical story though, something Edogawa Rampo had noted too when he had read one of the earlier versions, and while this is still a very scientifical piece even after several rewritten versions, I think it is a great story.

I am aware that this is an incomplete review, as I've only looked at the third part of Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei, but I feel that this part can stand perfectly on its own: while not all stories are as memorable as others, stories like Nusumareta Tegami and Takamagahara no Hanzai make this a worthwile read. But besides that, the way in which Amagi manages to depict these impossible crimes and their solutions in just a few pages is amazing. A final note: I have no idea when I'll look at the critical study parts of Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei. It might be soon, might take ages. And in the worse scenario, I'll just forget.

Original Japanese title(s): 天城一 『天城一の密室犯罪学教程』: Part 3 毒草 / 摩耶の場合 「不思議の国の犯罪」 / 「鬼面の犯罪」 / 「奇蹟の犯罪」 / 「高天原の犯罪」 / 「夢の中の犯罪」 / 「明日のための犯罪」 / 「盗まれた手紙」 / 「ポツダム犯罪」 / 「黒幕・十時に死す」 / 「冬の時代の犯罪」