Monday, January 11, 2016

A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts


--Dear Detective. It's a case--
Raising the curtains of a strange surprise
"Mononoke Mystery" (Teniwoha)

I wonder whether people outside Japan recognize the word mononoke from Princess Mononoke. Confession: I'm not a fan of Princess Mononoke, which I think is just a less interesting version of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (the manga version).

If there's something strange in the neighborhood, who are you going to call? In Tokyo, you'd be calling the Tsukioka Detective Agency. At first, you might be surprised to see the agency is being run by three children, but their detective agency is without the best in its particular field. Which is dealing with youkai: ghosts, ghouls, and goblins that roam Japan. Most of these supernatural beings do little harm to humans nowadays, but there are occasionally youkai who still like to interfere a bit with human lives and that's when Harutari, Yahito and Utsuhi come in action. In Teniwoha's Mononoke Mystery ("Monster Mystery", 2014), the threesome is hired by a local railway company to solve the appearance of a ghost train which has been causing some disturbance among the local population. Their search for the spectral line doesn't take long though, as the train appears several times out of nowhere trying to run the three over. Who is behind the ghost train and why is it running wild in the city?

A while back, I wrote about Teniwoha's Girl Student Detective series, a novel series based on a song. Mononoke Mystery is similarly a cross-media project. Its origins lie in the song Mononoke Mystery, voiced by the famous Hatsune Miku Vocaloid (voice synthesizer software). The imagery of this song in turn are explored in the novel, as well as in a manga series. The world and characters of this so-called Youkai Boys Detective Club series are thus explored across music, books and comics.

The Girl Student Detective series was a normal (if a bit uninspired) detective series, but Mononoke Mystery definitely has an interesting concept: in the world of the Youkai Boys Detective Club series, youkai do actually exist and can cause real harm to people. Youkai are not an unfamiliar concept in detective fiction: Kyougoku Natsuhiko for example is famous for the use of youkai in the Hyakki Yakou series, but there youkai are considered a folkloristic and psychological concept that have influence on the mind and therefore actions of humans. It's the idea of youkai that is of importance there, and no actual supernatural beings are running around in that series.

But as we've seen in various examples on this blog, supernatural or unrealistic phenomena don't mean a mystery plot can't be fair or fun. It's the way supernatural phenomena are presented and used that is of importance (see for example Cat Food, Snow White, Professor Layton VS Ace Attorney and The Caves of Steel for fair, but unrealistic settings). So I was quite curious to see if Teniwoha managed to do something exciting with the concept of youkai in Mononoke Mystery. I'm actually quite interested in youkai, and there are a lot of them in Japan, all with different abilities that could really work well in a detective novel.

Mononoke Mystery however barely shows the potential of actual youkai in a detective story. It is first of all a comedy-action series, focusing on the antics of Harutari (a rather arrogant, but capable detective), Yahito (the cool, level-headed brains and brawn of the group) and Utsuhi (token cute and energetic girl). A lot of the plot is made up by their banter, which I didn't think particularly inspiring. There are also some action scenes where the three use their special powers to take the criminal youkai, in a fairly predictable anime-esque fashion (out-thinking and out-maneuvering the enemy with their specific powers). It is standard-fashion though and even as a comedy-action series, it is not very memorable.

There are some parts that were genuinely inspired though, but never executed in a completely satisfying way. Mononoke Mystery is not a fair-play puzzle plot mystery, but there were neat segments where the three had to deduce what kind of youkai they were facing (which would make their battles a lot easier). Despite being supernatural, fictional beings, youkai are actually very well documented and appear in many documents of several centuries old, and I think most people actually know a fair number of them, so I'd say that the reader has a good chance at catching the hints. I think that this was good concept: it allows for supernatural stuff in the plot, but yet offer fair play in the sense that the reader can logically deduce the identity of the youkai based on the hint. But the way it is done in Mononoke Mystery is rather limited and a bit too obvious and not nearly as entertaining as it could have been.

I think that Mononoke Mystery has an interesting concept, but I guess that Teniwoha is very aware of how to catch the most listeners/readers with his music/books/manga, and he obviously designed the whole Youkai Boys Detective Club series to be a very accessible action-comedy serie with slight mystery elements, rather than something which would satisfy the more genre-specific fans. This first book of Mononoke Mystery also leaves some important questions unanswered, which will probably be addressed in following volumes, but I don't think I'll ever read them, as I very much doubt Teniwoha will push this series in the direction I'd love to see it go to, as I do think the basic idea is catchy. I have the same feeling with Teniwoha's Girl Student Detective series, but that one at least tries to give me some puzzle plot stories.

Original Japanese title(s): てにをは 『モノノケミステリヰ』


  1. I'm just posting this comment to point out that, mere hours before your review appeared here, I posted one with exactly the same post-title, namely "A Gaggle of Galloping Ghost." Of course, the one I reviewed involved spiritualistic elements as well.

    It seems that the plaag geest of the mystery blogosphere, the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler, has risen from his grave again. Well, that or it's simply a coincidence.

    1. Oh, that's kinda creepy. I wrote this post about six months ago and it had originally been scheduled to appear last week, actually. But last week, I decided to push the post to today, because of the Sherlock/And Then There Were None post of January 2nd. At least, I thought that was the reason...

      We might need to call some Ghostbusters.

    2. We're detective fans. So we're not going to call the Ghostbusters. We're going to send an urgent telegram to Thomas Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder.

  2. Good luck to anybody who thinks he can exorcise the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler.