Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Line to Strain


Maru Take Ebisu Ni Oshi Oike
Ane San Rokkaku Tako Nishiki
Shi Aya Bu Taka Matsu Man Gojo
Seta Ring Ring Uo no Tana
Past Rokujo Santetsu
After Shichijo it's Hachijo and Kujo
And then it ends at Jujo Toji
Whenever I think of Kyoto, I think of the little song I quoted just above this. It's a mnemonic song of all the large roads that go from east to west in Kyoto, and you wouldn't believe how often I had to sing the song to figure out where I was and how far I still needed to go when I was living in Kyoto.

Nishijin refers both to a geographical area in the city of Kyoto, as well as the textile that has traditionally been manufactured there. A visit of Catherine Turner (magazine editor, daughter of a former US vice-president and amateur sleuth) to Kobayashi Souzaemon (owner of one of the oldest textile manufacturers in Nishijin) ends in a little treat in a traditional Gion tea house, where Catherine learns about a geigi-cum-mistress sponsored by Kobayashi. The following day, the mistress is found murdered in her room, and Catherine and her boyfriend Hamaguchi Ichirou suspect the murder might be connected to the Kobayashi family, which has the "usual" problems of second wives who can't seem to give birth to a new heir, sons of first wives who are afraid for their inheritance and pregnant mistresses. Luckily for Cathy and Ichirou, the police detective in charge of the case is an old acquaintance of them, and so the two have a new murder investigation adventure in the old capital of Japan in Yamamura Misa's Kyouto Nishijin Satsujin Jiken ("The Kyoto Nishijin Murder Case", 1987)

The words "Yamamura Misa Suspense" are an institution in Japan. When people think of The Stereotypical Two-Hour TV Drama Mystery, they think of either Nishimura Kyoutarou or Yamamura Misa. Both writers are known for having provided countless of original plots for TV detective productions, often featuring mystery plots that require little thinking, some romance subplot and set in touristic destinations (=anywhere but Tokyo). Yamamura Misa's father's academic work had brought him to Korea during its colonization by Japan and she was born in Keijou (Seoul). They moved back to the ancient capital Kyoto afterwards though and Kyoto features heavily in Yamamura Misa's work.

The Catherine Turner series is probably Yamamura's best known series, as it's been adapted into TV productions and even videogames. Catherine is a journalist and wealthy heiress, who has a great interest in Japanese culture and speaks it fluently (For some reason, she still uses "yes" and "no", even though she knows a lot of complex Japanese phrases...). For TV productions, the character of Catherine is often changed so she's Japanese, or switched out with other Yamamura Misa creations.

I have to admit, I was expecting pretty much nothing of Kyouto Nishijin Satsujin Jiken. I've read a couple of Yamamura's books and seen some TV specials, and they were always very predictable, stereotypical stuff. You've seen one of them, you've seen all of them. Kyouto Nishijin Satsujin Jiken did absolutely nothing to help this image sadly enough. There are some murders. There's a bit of amateur sleuthing. There's a bit of a romance subplot. And there is basically nothing that is really appealing. This is a by-the-numbers book. The Stereotypical Yamamura Misa Plot. Nothing more than that. I don't even feel like going much deeper into it, as anyone familiar with the Two-Hour TV Mystery Drama knows what to they can expect from this story.

The only things that interested me a little where the bits that delve into Kyoto culture, like Nishijin and the local ordinance that regulates building heights to preserve the traditional cityscape (which is why Kyoto is relatively 'lowly' built), but that's basically just trivia (and I've seen them used better in other detective stories too).

Kyouto Nishijin Satsujin Jiken is what you'd expect from a Yamamura Misa novel with Catherine Turner. Just that. Would I recommend it? No. Only interesting if you want to know how the Japanese Stereotypical Mystery Story goes. As a lesson in stereotypes across cultures, it's s certainly educative.

Original Japanese title(s): 山村美沙 『京都西陣殺人事件』

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

"How about some bubuzuke?"
(Kyoto saying)

I know Japanese uses a lot of roundabout language to say things, but telling someone to go by offering them some tea is really confusing.

Over a year ago, I read Kitamori Kou's Shina Soba Kan no Nazo - Mainaa Kyouto Mystery, the first book in the Minor Kyoto Mysteries series, with plots built around local customs and other folkways of the city of Kyoto. Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo ("The Mystery of the Bubuzuke Legend") is the second and final short story collection in the series and is basically 'more of the same'. Our narrator is Arima Jirou, a temple assistant at Daihikaku Senkouji Temple. Before entering the enlightened path however, Arima was a talented burglar known throughout West-Japan. But even though he has abandoned his criminal ways, he still gets involved with criminal cases now and then. This is mostly because of the antics of journalist Orihara Kei and the mystery writer Mizumori Ken, who for some reason are always spending a lot of time hanging out in the temple. Because of these two, Arima often gets in a lot of trouble, but luckily for him, Arima's brain can both plan crimes as well as solve them.

The first book in the Minor Kyoto Mysteries series was definitely not perfect, but it had some good points. The actual mystery plots of the short stories were a bit simple and not very captivating on their own, but the link to local Kyoto customs was very interesting. Shina Soba Kan no Nazo was a true topographical mystery: the plots revolved around all things Kyoto: from Kyoto dialects to folkways and sayings. Japan has had a history of limited traveling until the 19th history, and that means that most regions have very distinct customs. Kyoto in particular is an interesting location as it was the ancient capital and has a very long history, resulting in various folkways. The Minor Kyoto Mysteries gives these folkways a place under the spotlight, resulting in very educational mysteries. I was not completely content with the first book in the series, but I was still curious to the second and final volume.

But Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo can be summed up with just one word: tedious. This is easily one of the most tedious books I've read in recent memory. I'm actually surprised at how much trouble I had with going through the book, because while the first book wasn't perfect, I definitely don't remember it being so appaling to read. The book is written in a supposedly humorous tone, but it is extremely tiring if the narration keeps pointing out jokes were made, especially if it's not actually really funny. Biggest offender is the character Mizumori Ken (who is some sort of parody of Kitamori Kou, I think). I already disliked him in the first volme of the series, where he first appeared in the second half of the book. Here he appears in all the stories, and he absolutely ruins each and every story. He's supposed to be a funny troublemaker-type of character, but that experiment has gone horribly wrong. He's basically what's wrong with the book, but in concentrated form. As I focus on puzzle plots and stuff when reading mystery stories, so seldom care about characters or narrative tone, but it's like all of them are conspiring together to make Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo as tedious as possible.

The puzzle plots aren't that interesting either this time. In Korimu ("A Dream of Foxes and Raccoons"), the writer Mizumori Ken wants to write a mystery story based on the fact that takuni-udon refers to different udon dishes in Kyoto and Tokyo: the story is barely a mystery story and feels very forced: as if Kitamori had the same idea and couldn't make it work as a real story, so he wrote a story about not being able to write a story. The title Bubuduke Densetsu no Nazo ("The Mystery of the Bubuduke Legend") refers to the Kyoto custom of 'offering' a bubuzuke (ochazuke) to one's guests. While it might sound like an invitation to stay, it actually means "please get out my house". The mystery plot itself has little to do with bubuzuke though: it's about the murder of an editor, and the main suspect is Orihara Kei. She of course denies having done anything like that, and it's up to Arima to prove her innocence. While a bit chaotic, I think this story has the best puzzle plot of the whole collection, though that's not saying much. I wouldn't say the plot is super original, but the plot does make use of something not very common (though I have seen similar ideas before). Akuendachi ("Cutting Off Bad Ties") has writer Mizumori Ken and journalist Orihara Kei breaking and entering the second home of a recently murdered man, in the hopes of finding a clue to solving the murder. They are discovered by a policeman on guard, but manage to escape by attacking the policeman. Too bad they left Arima's wallet on the crime scene. The story is about the stereotype that Kyoto people like to spend money to keep on appearances, but are stingy on other things, but the actual mystery plot is incredibly boring and predictable.

Fuyu no Shikyaku ("The Winter Assassin") starts with a death threat (using a certain Kyoto treat) to those of the Daihikaku Senkouji Temple, but is simply not fun. The whole 'mystery' is so over-the-top it's easy to guess where the story is going for, but it simply does not work. I think this is the unfunniest story in the whole collection. Kyouzameta Uma wo Miyo ("Behold the the Spoil-Sport Horse") starts with a story of a bleeding horse on a Japanese painting, but the whole story is one big web of coincidence and hard-to-believe actions of characters. Finally, Shiromiso Densetsu no Nazo (The Mystery of the White Miso) is about a person who has been plastering white miso in stores with the message "Do Not Eat. Poison Inside". At first, it was thought to be a prank, but then one package of white miso is found that actually contains a (small) amount of poison. The mystery plot on its own is OK-ish (for the standards of this collection), but the whole story around it is, again, not very tantilizing.

You'd be surprised how much trouble I had remembering what each story was about, even though I finished it just yesterday! The stories are just so unimpressive. One thing I did remember was that it wasn't just the comedy and characters that bugged me, but also the writing style. Jumping between locations and scenes in the middle of a conversation does not help the immersion, especially if said scene changes hardly help the narrative.

I very seldom feel this negative about a book, as I usually try to look for something, anything I liked, but Bubuzuke Densetsu no Nazo is one of those rare cases where even I have to give up. And I am really baffled, because I was not super-enthusiastic about the first volume in the series, but it was nowhere nearly as challenging as the second volume. Now I'm not sure whether I'll want to read the second volume in Kitamori's Tekki & Kyuuta series...

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻 『ぶぶ漬け伝説の謎 裏京都ミステリー』: 「狐狸夢」 / 「ぶぶ漬け伝説の謎」 / 「悪縁断ち」 / 「冬の刺客」 / 「興ざめた馬を見よ」 / 「白味噌伝説の謎」

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Butterfly Core


Even if I were to die in an accident
You shouldn't feel relieved
I'll return as a ghost
To call out your name
"Tell Me Farewell" (Togawa Jun)

This is basically the first review I've written in two months, but because of Convenient Backlog in To-Be-Posted Reviews, you'll never notice it.

Arang is one of the most famous figures in Korean folklore. Arang was the daughter of the magistrate of Miryang during the Joseon dynasty. The servant Baekga conspired together wth Arang's nanny to kidnap and rape her, but Arang's heavy resistance to Baekga left him no option than to kill the girl. Arang's father thought her daughter had eloped, and he had to resign from his position. New magistrates were appointed to Miryang, but they all died a mysterious death, until Yi Sang-sa was made magistrate. Arang's ghost told Yi Sang-sa the truth behind her death and the following day Yi had Baekga arrested and executed, thus pacifiying Arang's spirit. At least, that is how one version of the legend goes. In Kim Young-ha's Arang-un Wae ("Arang, Why?", 2001) the narrator plans to write a modern version of the tale of Arang, but because he wants to come up with something nobody has written before, he first needs to take a look at the many versions of the Arang tale that have come in existence in the many centuries since it was first told. And as he goes through the material, he finds a possible new answer to the tale of who killed Arang.

Kim Young-ha is a well-received Korean novelist (not specifically a mystery writer), who has also been succesful outside of his home-country; several of his novels are available in English and other languages like German and Dutch. Arang-un Wae is not one of those novels available in English though and as my proficiency in Korean is still almost surprisingly bad, I opted to read the Japanese translation of the book (titled Arang wa Naze). This is the first time I've read a novel by Kim by the way, but one look at the summary was enough to lure me in, as I love folklore and interpretations of it.

Arang-un Wae is a very tricky novel. The Japanese version uses the term historical mystery to promote the book, but only part of the book is. The book is a very meta-concious novel and the story develops at three distinct levels (the chapters themselves jump between these levels constantly). First is the narrator level: here we follow an unnamed narrator who is basically performing background research for his own, modern version of the Arang legend. These chapters introduce the reader to various versions of the Arang legend through historical sources and by comparing them, the narrator raises questions about the 'truth' behind the Arang legend. The narrator hopes to find a new interpretation of the legend, to form the basis of his modern version. The literary detection going on in these chapters is really fun, as you slowly delve deeper into the Arang folklore and start to see differences and similarities between the many versions of the tale. Some decent historical research is done here and even if you're not familiar with the legend of Arang, you're sure to become an Expert in no-time.

The second level is what you might call the proper historical mystery part of the novel. This part is set right after the events in the legend of Arang and has a new detective character figure out the real truth behind the Arang murder. This part is based on the historical research done by the narrator, addressing and answering questions raised during the narrator's background research. It's here where fiction meets historic events, as the narrator skillfully blends the literary research of the first level, with his own imagination in order to come up with his own interesting version of the Arang legend. If the first level is 'normal' historical research of an old mystery, like Jack the Ripper research, then this second level is a fictionalized version of an answer to the mystery. It's still based on actual research, but obviously written as a story, rather than as the conclusion of research. It's not a puzzle plot mystery, but it's certainly amusing to see how the narrator (=Kim Young-ha) used all the various facts he dug up about Arang to carve his own version of the centuries-old tale.

The last level is one I personally thought was the least interesting. These chapters follow a translator in modern-day Seoul as he reminisces on a woman he once lived together with (his "Arang"). To me, this section doesn't really add to the experience. The first two levels interact with each other in an obvious way ("research" -> "practice"), but this modern-day reimagination of the Arang legend lacks meaningful ties to the original legend. Sure, it's original in the sense that it focuses more on the thoughts of the characters in the legend, rather than the Bloody Murder!-angle, but this section just feels too detached from the rest of the book, even though it's supposed to be the main dish (as the literary research and the new solution to the Arang murder mystery were all done to facilitate the writing of this modern-day version!).

The meta-approach jumping between several narrative levels is something that kinda reminds of Dogura Magura, in a much more sane-and-easier-to-understand way. Arang-un Wae is certainly not a straightforward novel and I can understand why most reviews I read, have some (or a lot of) reservations about it. For some, the historical mystery is interesting, but the modern-day reimagination is boring. For others, the modern-day reimagination is captivating, but the literary research boring. The constantly jumping between narrative levels is something I didn't really mind, but as the novel goes in all kinds of directions, I think that most people will find both elements they like and don't like. Personally, I loved the literary research segments. Similar to the youkai segments in Kyougoku Natsuhiko novels, you learn a great deal about history and folklore, but there's also the sense of mystery and the fun of literary detection as you dive deeper in the material.

Arang-un Wae is not a perfect novel, but as a novel that explores a famous tale in Korean folklore in depth, I thought it was really interesting. It's not a straight mystery novel, nor a real literary research, nor a modern novel: the end-product of the mix might or might not appeal to you (to variying degrees), but it's definitely an unique take on both the subject as well as the form.

Original Korean title(s): 김영하 《아랑은 왜》. Japanese version: 金英夏  『阿娘はなぜ』

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


What do you think of the club philosophy?
- It works, doesn't it?
Does it?
- We're all animals! Why deny it?
So you don't believe in suppressing anything? 
- Why would I want to suppress my urges? If your body wants something, it must be natural. 
Well what if you get the natural urge to rip someones throat out, shouldn't they suppress?
"The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery"

Finally got rid of my backlog in review-to-be-written now! Though I cheated a little by postponing writing one review so long I simply don't remember enough of it to write a decent review.

Baron Pierre Benac wanted his name carved in eternity and the easiest way to do that is by having other people doing the hard work. The concept of the Olympique Scientific Internationale held in the French Alps sounded admirable: for one year, the most outstanding scientists in their respective fields of expertise were to live and work together, with each other's presence stimulating their academic work. Mont St. Denis was used to skiing tourists, not so to scientists and academics who kept cooped in their laboratories, but still, the OSI worked. Until the body of one of the scientists was found stuck on a torch, after having his throat torn out. When the police officer in charge of the case is also killed in his office and another scientist barely escapes a second attack by a mysterious, clawed assailant, the baron is forced to call in Professor Niccolo Benedetti, the most famous expert on evil and his associates to save his life project (and while he's at it, the lives of the scientists) in William L. DeAndrea's The Werewolf Murders (1992).

The Werewolf Murders is the second book in the Professor Niccolo Benedetti series, following The HOG Murders and followed by The Manx Murders. I was not very impressed by the professor's appearance in The Manx Murders, but luckily, this second volume is more similar to The HOG Murders, which makes it a lot more entertaining. As always, the eccentric Benedetti is accompanied by his disciple Ron Gentry and his wife, and the three make a good team of three detectives. Ron and his wife basically act as the Archie Goodwin to Benedetti's Nero Wolfe and these series detectives are also joined by the local police and mystery-loving scientists, making The Werewolf Murders a fairly densely inhabitated novel.

The case in The Manx Murders was a bit underwhelming to me: definitely not the case here, with physically brutal murders held in a closed community (the OSI grounds) and a fairly colorful cast all doing their own thing (making the investigation perhaps more complex than realistically should've been). The result is a story that keeps up a good pace right until the very end, something that didn't work really in The Manx Murders, but did in The HOG Murders. In fact, The Werewolf Murders is really a lot like The HOG Murders, from the serial killings in the small community setting to the little problems like too-many-detectives and too-few-suspects.

I thought the puzzle plot a bit more fair in The Werewolf Murders compared to the The HOG Murders though, with better clues (though I still love the deductions surrounding one of the murders in the second half of HOG). The 'big twist' of The Werewolf Murders is a bit easy to guess, though that might be because it's is a very often used trope, especially by Christie (seriously: this is the first time I really thought about it, but she used this gimmick a lot). In The Werewolf Murders, this is done so straightforward I was actually guessing (hoping) it was a trap, but no. There are some other elements that work well with the werewolf theme and overall, The Werewolf Murders is a well-crafted yarn.

Looking back at the series, I think the Professor Niccolo Benedetti series is good, but a bit uneven. The HOG Murders and The Werewolf Murders are incredibly alike, almost like the same tale from different universes. The Manx Murders in comparison is not nearly as captivating as the first two books and is almost so different, it doesn't even feel like it's the same series (save for the same characters appearing).

Now I think about it, I think I've actually read fewer mystery stories featuring fake werewolves than real werewolves. Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within for example had a real werewolf and the werewolves in The Terror of Werewolf Castle...err, they were different werewolves. Even Scooby-Doo! of all things basically featured more real werewolves than fake ones.

Anyway, The Werewolf Murders is an amusing entry in the casefiles of Professor Niccolo Benedetti. It's a bit similar to The HOG Murders in terms of setting though, so I recommend not reading them back to back.