Thursday, January 28, 2016

Murder From the Bridge


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

And so, my first review of an Ayatsuji Yukito novel since the publication of The Decagon House Murders. *Insert disclaimer message that I translated the novel in English* But as I have been writing reviews for Ayatsuji novels years before I translated that book, I like to think I can still write these things without too much bias...

Ayatsuji Yukito has been a succesful mystery writer ever since his debut with The Decagon House Murders. His House/Yakata series has been received with much acclaim, he has been involved with other projects like TV and videogame productions and all is fine.... until one day he is visited by a mysterious young man "U", who feels awfully familiar to Ayatsuji. The young man presents him a "whodunit" script, a tradition of the Kyoto University Mystery Club where participants are only given the first part of a mystery story, based on which they must deduce the criminal. Ayatsuji is not particularly charmed by "U"'s cheeky attitude, but takes on the challenge. And as he is being tricked, fooled and played with by "U"'s story, Ayatsuji slowly starts to recognize something of himself in "U" and the sort of mystery stories he writes in Ayatsuji Yukito's short story collection Dondonbashi, Ochita ("Dondon Bridge is Falling Down", 1999).

I hope the summary is clear enough, but Dondonbashi, Ochita is a very meta-concious short story collection, as the author Ayatsuji Yukito himself stars as the main protagonist! At the essence, Dondonbashi, Ochita is a 'whodunit' collection. A whodunit is a game-esque tradition of the Kyoto University Mystery Club where stories are split in "problem" and "answer" chapters: readers are challenged to solve the case based on the "problem" chapter, which contains all the necessary hints to determine the criminal. Written and unwritten rules include "there is only one criminal", "strength of motive is of no importance", "nothing outside the text exists", etcetera (see also this post). Ayatsuji Yukito was a very proficient writer of whodunits during his time at the club and its influence can therefore be felt throughout his works.

It's therefore quite amusing to see Ayatsuji being challenged himself with whodunit stories by the not-so-mysterious "U" (who is obviously a younger, more cheeky and childish Ayatsuji, as the initial comes from Ayatsuji's real name). Over the course of the collection, Ayatsuji gives harsh critiques on "U"'s writing style, for example pointing out that the characters feel artificial or that his writing is too dry, but that's exactly the critique Ayatsuji originally got when he himself debuted with The Decagon House Murders. The conversation between the "older" Ayatsuji and "young" Ayatsuji ("U") therefore reveal a lot about how much he has changed since his debut.

The stories are set across various points in Ayatsuji's career, and contain references to many of his works: from his House series to lesser known projects as the PlayStation game YAKATA - Nightmare Project and local TV drama shows. While there are no real spoilers, I do think that Dondonbashi, Ochita has more to offer if the reader has read a fair amount of Ayatsuji's work, as a big part of the book comes from its meta-approach.

As for the whodunit stories themselves, they are fun, but as Ayatsuji himself comments: they are not 'literature', but fairly dry stories that just give you the necessary info to solve the murder. Whodunit stories are by tradition in form closer to a game than actual literature, so some readers might feel the stories are just too boring, because sometimes they resemble lists of data. Because of the bare-bones set-up of most stories, I will write next to to nothing about the actual storylines: even that would spoil the fun a bit. The first two stories Dondonbashi, Ochita ("Dondon Bridge is Falling Down") and Bouboumori, Moeru ("Boubou Forest is Burning Down") are definitely the best of the bunch: Ayatsuji is a master in getting the reader off-guard and twist endings, and these two are excellent examples of them. The solutions to these two stories wil have you cry foul play and say this is absolutely nonsense, yet you will also realize that Ayatsuji was absolutely fair and that there were more than enough hints pointing at those solutions. Dondonbashi, Ochita is also interesting in that it's actually also an impossible crime story, which you don't often see in these game-like whodunit stories. But still, you can't deny the data-lists-esque approach to the stories: especially the fact that all the important lines are bolded every time makes you think you're just going through a check off list of facts rather than reading an actual story.

Ferrari wa Miteita ("The Ferrari Saw") and Izonoke no Houkai ("The Fall of the House of Izono") are not linked to the "U" plot device and I think also weaker: they are solid whodunit plots, but they miss the grand shock factor of the previous stories (Ferrari has one, but is rather obvious, I thought). The last story, Igai na Hannin ("The Unexpected Murderer") has "U" challenge Ayatsuji with a story Ayatsuji himself wrote (but forgot about). The story is based on a TV short drama Ayatsuji wrote for local TV stations (Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou also wrote one each). It's is a very short story that is built around a neat trick, but I've seen Ayatsuji use a very similar trick (in a different context) in a different story, so I caught on quite fast. I think that the basic trick has a lot more impact in this version though.

Dondonbashi, Ochita is a neat short story collection that features some of Ayatsuji's more trickier, but (purposely) blandly written stories. The stories can feel a bit childish, but are always completely fair and it takes no trouble picturing Ayatsuji grinning as he wrote these stories, with the simple goal of catching the reader by surprise. However, I think that the surrounding meta discussions about Ayatsuji and his novels really add to the enjoyment of this book. On the other hand though, I doubt this book is truly enjoyable for readers who have never read any other Ayatsuji novels, nor to people not familiar with the game-like 'whodunit' stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『どんどん橋、落ちる』: 「どんどん橋、落ちる」 / 「ぼうぼう森、燃える」 / 「フェラーリは見ていた」 / 「伊園家の崩壊」 / 「意外な犯人」


  1. Speaking of Ayatsuji Yukito, do you have any plans to review his latest book in the Mansion series, "The Mansion of Strange Masks"?

    1. The review's been done for...more than six months actually (closer to a year even)! I have just too many reviews waiting in the queue... For the moment the post is scheduled for March.

  2. So would you say that as someone who is interested in these "whodunit scripts" of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, but is not blessed with the ability to visit Kyoto himself, this would be a good book to simulate the feeling of the tradition?

    1. It's probably the closest thing in the sense that I don't believe any of the other former members of the club have published a similar book with these kind of stories.

      A while back, I wrote about one of the more recent stories the club made public online to attract new members, did you try that story? (Though I'm not sure whether it's still online, it was supposed to be online for a limited time). The club also has published five Best Of anthologies throughout its history. The fifth/most recent should still be available for mail order, and another commentator mentioned having picked up a few volumes in the used market in the review for Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei.

    2. I got it! Thanks, Ho-Ling! I'll read it asap and will post my comments on that post. Have a good night.