Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Murder on Air

"All the world's a stage"
As You Like It

About four years ago, broadcasting station NHK started with what has become an annual event: Nazotoki Live ("Mystery Solving Live"). What makes this mystery TV show unique is the focus on interactivity: viewers back home can participate with the show through the interactive button on their remotes, and try solve the case themselves from the comfort of their own couch. The show includes not only of a mystery drama part, but also includes a live broadcast from the studio, where three studio guests try to solve the case, together with the other TV viewers. At set times, the drama part is paused, and the guests and viewers at home are asked questions related to the mystery drama. Everyone has a few minutes to think and answer. Correct answers result in points and the guests and the home detectives naturally all aim for a perfect score. After the intermezzo, the drama will continue again, and so forth until the whole mystery has been revealed.

Mystery author Ayatsuji Yukito was a studio guest for the second episode of the show, but this time, he was asked to write (and do a guest cameo role in) the fourth show, broadcast on two consecutive nights (23-24 January 2016). Also surprising was the appearance of Takumi Shuu as one of the studio guests: Takumi is the original creator of the Ace Attorney game series, so a person familiar with mystery fiction, as well as mystery fiction in the form of games in particular.

Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case of the Locked Room of the Square House") isn't just the title of this year's show, it's also the title of the latest episode of the in-universe TV show Kigurumi Detective. While the script isn't finished yet, the basics are already decided: a man obsessed with cubes and squares is murdered in his mansion, inside the study which was locked from the inside. The members of Detective Club CATS, Miko (the brains) and Momo (photographer), as well as Momo's brother (policeman), are helping the production as 'experts' on the genre. The wealthy uncle of the director of the show also gave the studio permisson to film in his mansion, providing the perfect background. But the filming isn't going smoothly: the scenario writer won't finish the script, several of the crew members have personal issues with others and Miko even has to study for her university entry exams. But the biggest problem is of course when someone is found stabbed to death inside the study. Precisely like the episode the crew was about to shoot, the victim was found stabbed to death in the study, which was locked from inside. Can Miko and Momo, and more importantly, the viewer figure out who the murderer is?

This was the first time I watched the show (not live though), and it was a very unique experience. Shows like Ellery Queen, Furuhata Ninzaburou and Anraku Isu Tantei already featured elements of interactivity. Ellery Queen and Furuhata Ninzaburou always asked the viewer if they managed to figure it out too right before the detectives revealed the solution, and Anraku Isu Tantei actually gave viwers a whole week to think and send in their solutions. What makes Nazotoki Live unique is of course the fact it's a live show. This also translates to the way the show is structured. The shows I mentioned above only asked their questions at the end of the show. Nazotoki Live however constantly draws the viewers, and the studio guests, out of the drama to test them on their thinking. The story is structured to have several 'Thinking Points', where the studio guests have to show their deductions. For example, the first 'assignment' the studio guests got was to deduce how the locked room murder in the Kigurumi Detective episode was committed. They (and the viewers back home) are given about ten minutes to think things over and decide on their ideas. The drama then continues, revealing whether the guests got it right or not. Repeat a couple of times until the last question, which is of course: Whodunit?'

The show takes on a very game-esque structure. The guests are given cards to help them with their deductions. Character Cards naturally have all the characters (suspects) of the show, while Data Cards record all the revelant facts to the case. Guests have to answer the questions with these cards (for example: "Who Is The Murderer?" or "Based on What Fact Does Miko Think It Might Be Murder?"). TV viewers also have access to the same cards, either through the interactive menu on their TV or via the official website. The use of 'data cards' is something you see extremely often in mystery games: from the Ace Attorney games (which uses "evidence" and "profiles") to the Detective Conan games and many, many more. The cards are very useful, because there's just so much information. This is where the older show Anraku Isu Tantei dropped the ball, being way too complex without supplementary materials to help the viewer. That said: I think that the show is still a bit difficult if you only watch the TV broadcast. The Data Cards are really handy to get everything sorted out in your head, so it's advisable to have a smartphone or laptop near you with the official website on your browser.

The presence of the three studio guests is also very entertaining. I once wrote a post about how it's fun to observe how people tackle mystery fiction each in their own way. In that post, I talked about Game Center CX, a TV show where a comedian plays videogames and comments on them. Nowadays "Let's Plays" videos have become popular: footage of people playing games and comment on what they're doing. Nazotoki Live has elements of that, as we follow the three studio guests as they think out loud about who the murderer is. And it's pretty fun to see everyone arriving at different conclusions for different reasons. One of the reasons I watched this episode was because I wanted to see Takumi Shuu (creator of the Ace Attorney games) in action, and you could clearly see he was used to thinking 'according to mystery fiction rules', while Makita Sports, who has been a studio guest for all four episodes, deduced based on his experience with the show ("That wouldn't been good TV-wise"). The viewer is also shown the results of the polls of the participants back home, but those are not as interesting: it's much more fun hearing the studio guests explain their choices, rather than seeing a bunch of graphs.

And to bring it back to the actual mystery plot of the show: it was a very fair, but also complex whodunit plot, as expected from Ayatsuji. The plot features fairly 'standard' whodunit procedure: figure out the characteristics of the murderer and eliminate all the persons who do not fit the profile until you have your murderer (see also this post on clues in mystery fiction). Shikakukan no Misshitsu was an excellent example of how to do a deep, but also very fair mystery plot, which you can solve as long as you carefully consider the meaning of each clue. Whodunits like this actually don't need much imagination to be solved, because at the root, they are constructed like puzzles and have a very mechnical feel to them. Turn a puzzle piece around often enough and you're bound to see where it fits. Both the guests in the studio and the viewers back home have more than a fair chance at solving the mystery themselves with the material available to them and in fact, the studio guest come really, really close.

What deserves special mention is the last scene of the first episode. It features a brilliant reveal that should go in the canon of visual mystery fiction. It manages to turn everything, all your deductions up to that point, up side down without even one word spoken. Ayatsuji excels in these moments, where he can create a turnabout with minimal tools. Everything in your head changes, but it's never confusing; you instantly understand why everything is different now and it's very satisfying. What's also interesting is the setting of a film crew: Ayatsuji used this device together with Arisugawa Alice several times when they wrote Anraku Isu Tantei.

For preservation, I will briefly explain what this reveal is (it does not spoil the identity of the murderer). Spoilers for Shikakukan no Misshitsu!! (Select to read):

Throughout the episode, viewers at home are led to believe the victim was killed in the study in the mansion. In the last scene of the first episode, one of the main characters stares up at the ceiling at the crime scene as he sits down on a sofa lost in thought. The camera follows his eyes, revealing there is no ceiling in this study, and showing studio lights. The murder had in fact been committed on a set identical to the study in the real mansion in a film studio. This fact turns the whole case around (as at first, the main suspects were the people at the mansion at the time of murder; now it's the other way around) and I can't praise the way this is revealed enough. Not a word is uttered, but you realize you've been had once you see the studio lights hanging high above. 

Shikakukan no Misshitsu was in several ways a very entertaining watch. The mystery plot itself was great and really makes fantastic use of its medium. And the way the show focuses on 'the solving' aspect is also very amusing: thinking along with the studio guests gives a stimulus you wouldn't get otherwise. I wonder if similar shows exist outside Japan?

Original Japanese title(s): 『謎解きLive 四角館の密室殺人事件』


  1. This sounds so great! I am guessing there is almost no chance of a fan group subbing this segment....do you suppose someone had recorded this at least?

  2. thank you for reviewed the show ! the more I read, the more I wanna watch it. I am sorry for asking this. By any chance, is there a place people share the recording to people to watch ?

    1. Couldn't say, I'm afraid. Considering the legal factor, this is also obviously not the place for discussing that, but considering this show isn't really a mainstream mystery drama, I think it might be difficult finding it.

    2. ahh. that certainly make sense. if you want to discuss about it, do hit me up with an email. it is indeed difficult to watch some that aren't mainstream. thank you for the quick reply nevertheless ! :)

  3. really want to watch but don't know how to find it ... i'm so curious to see how Takumi Shuu deduce the riddle. is he good at it?

  4. so, who won the game ?

    1. Of the studio guests, Takumi had the most points, I remember. I have no idea of who had the most points among the viewers.