Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Try and Catch Me

"You see Henry, the pen, the pen is mightier than the sword"
 "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

Hmm. I have seen and read many works of mystery fiction that end with a variation on the Reichenbach Falls, but I think this is the first time I read a story that starts with it.

There exist people in this world with special powers. Some can shapeshift, some can heal deadly wounds. And some of course wish to use their powers for good, while others for evil. The government obviously wants to keep a check on all these potentially dangerous people. Tsujimura Mizuki is one of the government agents hired to keep an eye on one specific person. Ayatsuji Yukito is a brilliant detective, who has a rather troublesome special power. The effect of his ability Another is that all culprits of a crime Ayatsuji solves, are killed in a freak accident. The moment Ayatsuji makes a correct deduction and can confirm that with evidence, the fate of his prey is sealed. The government can’t just let him go around solving cases, so they only allow him to work in very special cases, with Tsujimura acting as his ‘babysitter.’ But there is one person who managed to survive Another. Some months ago, Ayatsuji was sure he killed the criminal mastermind Kyougoku Natsuhiko, who offered plans for perfect crimes to whoever was worthy. But now Kyougoku is back, and Ayatsuji and Tsujimura must now foil his latest plan and figure out how he managed to escape his fate in Asakiri Kafka’s Bungou Stray Dogs Gaiden – Ayatsuji Yukito VS Kyougoku Natsuhiko (“Literary Writer Stray Dogs Another Story – Ayatsuji Yukito VS Kyougoku Natsuhiko”, 2016).

Ayatsuji Yukito? Kyougoku Natsuhiko? Tsujimura Mizuki? Aren’t these all actual mystery writers, you might ask. And you’d be right. Bungou Stray Dogs is a currently running comic, written by Asakiri Kafka and illustrated by Harukawa 35, which features (real) famous authors of literature as the protagonists. In the series, famous literary authors like Edogawa Rampo, Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, Dazai Osamu and many more fight in a war between a detective agency and the port mafia, using their special abilities. The abilities are all named after the works of the said writers, so Yosano Akiko for example has an ability named after her poem Kimi, Shinitamou Koto Nakare (“Prithee Do No Die”).  While the main series only features deceased authors, the spin-off novel features three still-living authors. There are few links to the main series by the way, so you can jump right in with the spin-off novel.

It’s pretty weird to read a mystery novel featuring authors I’ve read (and even one whose work I translated), but I think Bungou Stray Dogs Gaiden does a good job at using these characters in a meaningful way. I have to admit I have never read anything written by Tsujimura, so I don’t how her style is incorporated in the book, but readers who are familiar with Ayatsuji and Kyougoku will have a blast. Ayatsuji’s ability Another is of course named after the highly successful horror-mystery, where a curse manages to find very original ways to kill off a class. Kyougoku’s fascination for youkai and folklore are also used very effectively throughout the novel, and like always, it can turn quite philosophical, but it always has to do with the mystery at hand. But like I already noticed with Tsujimura: you don’t need to know the actual authors to enjoy their role in this novel.

As a mystery novel , Bungou Stray Dogs Gaiden is a pretty unique experience. It’s not a straight-up mystery novel, and often feels more like a horror-novel, as Ayatsuji and Tsujimura try to found out how Kyougoku cheated death. Meanwhile, Kyougoku’s plan is also set in motion, and because this series is about people with special abilities, there’s also a lot of fantasy-styled action in this novel. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t work as a mystery novel. I am probably repeating myself on the blog, but supernatural elements do not make a mystery story unfair. As long as the rules are clear, a fantasy-action where people fight each other with magic abilities can still be a perfectly fine mystery story. Heck, that’s basically what JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is.

Bungou Stray Dogs Gaiden is a very dynamic book because of the premise. Ayatsuji will uncover (part of) a plan of Kyougoku, who will move his own pieces on the chessboard in response, followed by more reactions from Ayatsuji, etc. Over the course of the novel, Ayatsuji will for example uncover a clever plot to kill off Tsujimura, and solve an original locked room murder, and what makes this novel fun is that often, these mystery plots are only possible because the series features supernatural abilities, but which are also clearly defined to give the reader a fair chance at solving it themselves. It gives the book a very original and memorable touch.

Overall, I had a great time with the book. It’s a bit different form most mystery novels, and while knowledge is not needed, it definitely has a bit extra to present to the reader if they’re familiar with Ayatsuji, Tsujimura and Kyougoku. The final solution might not be convincing for some people, but I think it fits wonderful with the themes of one of the above mentioned writers.

Bungou Stray Dogs Gaiden – Ayatsuji Yukito VS. Kyougoku Natsuhiko is not strongly connected to the main comic series, and a pretty entertaining fantasy-mystery, so I’d definitely recommend if you are familiar with any of the featured authors. I had a great time with this book at any rate. The main series is a bit more action-oriented, but also fun, by the way, as it also features some mystery writers (also from the West).

Original Japanese title(s): 朝霧カフカ 『文豪ストレイドッグス外伝 綾辻行人VS.京極夏彦』

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Turnabout Time Traveler


"Will you punish crime as a prosecutor, or save people as a defense attorney?"
"Turnabout Prosecutor 2"

Once more, with feeling!

In 2011, I wrote a review of the Takarazuka Revue’s take on the Gyakuten Saiban (Ace Attorney) videogame franchise. The Takarazuka Revue is an all-female revue specializing in musicals with an almost fairy-tale like presentation, and their version of the mystery videogame series was not perfect, though that was mostly because the original plot had been simplified a lot. The random dancing and singing was weird, but not bad at all actually. In 2013, the Takarazuka Revue did their third adaptation of the game series. Gyakuten Saiban 3  - Kenji Miles Edgeworth (“Turnabout Trial 3 - Prosecutor Miles Edgeworth”) stars the prodigy prosecutor Miles Edgeworth in a journey to find a new way in life after his defeat by the hands of Phoenix Wright, the protagonist of the previous two musicals. He comes across his childhood friend Larry Butz at the airport, who convinces him to fly back home to California. The two step on the plane, but mysterious powers send Edgeworth and Larry back in the past. There they come across Edgeworth’s father Gregory, to whom Edgeworth always looked up to. His father was a defense attorney and it was his father's murder during his childhood that led Edgeworth down the path of the prosecutor. But the Gregory Edgeworth they see in the past, is not the same Edgeworth had in his memories: Gregory Edgeworth was a defense attorney who tampered with evidence, and did anything to get a Not Guilty verdict. Now he’s doing the same in a case where a musician is the defendant in a murder case, and his son is determined to stop his own father from making a mockery of the law, even if it means he has to oppose him in court.

Seriously, how many blogs on mystery fiction will ever get to write about musicals…

As with the previous Takarazuka adaptations, Gyakuten Saiban 3 - Kenji Miles Edgeworth uses the localized names of the characters. This is because Takarazuka musicals aren’t set in the “real world” but in a fantasy-like world where anything can happen. Because of that, they decided not to use the Japanese names, but the English names to give the whole musical an extra touch of “otherworldliness”. The musical is very loosely based on the 2012 videogame Gyakuten Kenji 2 (‘Turnabout Prosecutor 2’), which used a mystery plot to explore the character of Mitsurugi (Edgeworth) and his bond with his father. The story of the musical in particular takes some very vague cues from the third episode included in the game, but you really need to do your best to recognize it, and you might as well consider it an original story.

Overall, it’s a fairly decent mystery story. Which is sometimes interrupted by singing and dancing. It’s too bad I have to say that the singing and dancing isn’t actually related to the mystery plot. It’s a missed chance, because it;d give an extra dimension to the fact the play is a musical in the first place, but now the story just gets interrupted once in a while with music. And I guess that the usual Takarazuka Revue public wants that, but I do wish there was a bit more synergy. By the way, do not underestimate the immense popularity of the Takarazuka Revue. Some might think “Ha! An all-female musical revue?!”, but they are really popular in Japan, with many of the actresses also having a good acting career after they leave the troupe. But that also means a lot of their musicals follow a certain formula, and that also holds for Gyakuten Saiban 3 - Kenji Miles Edgeworth. Obviously, this story also features a lot more emphasis on the drama of the story.

I had kinda forgotten about this, because it’s been a while since I saw the first musical, but they do a pretty good job at translating a videogame mystery game to a play that is done in real-time. There’s some clever use of a screen to show off evidence, and while the mystery itself is not very complex, you usually get just enough time to form some idea for yourself, before they show you the answer. The format of the Ace Attorney games also lends itself very well for a play that is done real-time, because the story does not build towards one big denouement at the end. Like with Columbo, smaller mysteries and contradictions are solved on at a time, which all add up to one bigger story.  Things never get too big for the viewer, which is good. Each format obviously has its own strengths and weaknesses, and I think that this works very well for a theater form.

And fans of the games, they might be happy to hear that the play has the familiar cues, like music taken from the game. The actors are also very good at recreating the animations from the game, and portray the characters really well. Some of them are basically frame-for-frame recreations. For people who have played the games, this is an extra, while I think that for people who don’t know the games, these ‘game-like movements’ add a bit to the surreal world.

If you can get past the time-traveling plot,  Gyakuten Saiban 3 - Kenji Miles Edgeworth is a pretty interesting take on the franchise. It’s definitely not meant as a straight-up adaptation of the series, but a crossover between the games and the Takarazuka Revue’s home style and I think it does a fairly good job at it. The first musical was, despite the changes, still a recognizable adaptation of one of the episodes from the game, while this third musical is, considering everything, basically an all-original story, which might make it a bit more exciting to watch, as you don’t know what to expect.

Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転裁判3 検事マイルズ・エッジワース』

Monday, November 21, 2016

Deep Blue Island


 "Seven ri south of Bicchuu Kasaoka, around the middle of the Seto Inland Sea, about where the three prefectures Okayama, Hiroshima and Kagawa meet, there is a small island barely two ri wide and its name is Prison Gate Island"
"Prison Gate Island

I don't think I will write a seperate review for it, but lately, I've been watching the Japanese drama IQ246 (which is running this season). It's a Sherlock Holmes-inspired inverted mystery series starring Oda Yuuji as the highly eccentric, but undeniably genius aristocrat Houmonji Sharaku (Oda is best known on this blog as the actor of Aoshima in classic police procedural drama comedy Odorou Daisousasen/Bayside Shakedown). To be honest, the plots are not especially innovative, and there have been many, many comments on the voice Oda chose for his character, but still, both production values and fairly funny characters make it a pleasant watch each week.But now to today's topic, which is also a television production.

Yokomizo Seishi's detective Kindaichi Kousuke first appeared in 1946's Honjin Satsujin Jiken, one of the classics of locked room murder mysteries in Japanese fiction. The second appearance of the somewhat shy, but brilliant detective who always wears an worn-down hakama is in Gokumontou ("Prison Gate Island"), which was serialized between 1947-1948, and first published as a standalone release in 1971. Gokumontou is the most respected Japanese mystery novel. It ranked first in both the original Tozai Mystery Best 100 of 1985, and the more recent one dating from 2013 (both lists were compiled through votes by mystery writers, critics and other mystery-related persons and institutions). It is a brilliant book with atmosphere that mixes elements of Japanese culture with the 'Western' puzzle plot in a surprising way, that is undoubtely a work of its time, but can be enjoyed even now. There is no English translation of the book available, though I think there's a Spanish one. There have also been several adaptations of this classic: I reviewed the 1977 film in the past already, but there have been more film, and TV adaptations.

It had been a while since the last adaptation though, so NHK broadcast the newest adaptation of Gokumontou on November 19th, 2016. The story itself is set in 1946, right after World War II. Kindaichi Kousuke was a private detective before the war, but like most young men in the country, he was forced to join the army. Kindaichi made it out alive, but Kitou Chimata, a war buddy, sadly enough passed away during his repatriation. Kindaichi travels to Prison Gate Island, the home island of Chimata to inform his family of Chimata's demise. Prison Gate Island, located in the Seto Inland Sea, used to be the final destination for convicted criminals, but is now a small, secluded fishing community led by the Kitou Main Family. Chimata was the heir to the family, so the impact of his death is much more than Kindaichi can imagine. Kindaichi is however not only on the island to recover, as Chimata had suggested to him, but also stop a crime. In his dying breaths, Chimata said his sisters would die if he wouldn't make it back home. Kindaichi tries to figure out what Chimata meant with that, but it doesn't take long for Chimata's words to come true: one by one, Chimata's sisters are killed in the most gruesome manners. Why are the sisters killed? And why did Chimata know this would happen? Kindaichi has seen many deaths in the war, but never ever has he seen something as horrible like this.

I already wrote a bit more on the details of the story, and how it relates to often-used tropes in Yokomizo Seishi's novels in my review of the 1977 film, so I recommend reading that too for more background information (or: I'm not even going to try to come up with something new on the story, because I'm sure I'll just repeat myself).

A while back, I reviewed a drama based on Norizuki Rintarou's Ichi no Higeki ("The Tragedy of One"), starring Hasegawa Hiroki as the mystery writer Rintarou. I think it was announced just before that special aired that Hasegawa would also play Kindaichi Kousuke in NHK's Gokumontou. Obviously, this was quite surprising, as that meant that Hasegawa would play the lead in two mystery novel adaptations in a relatively short period. I myself had never seen something with Hasegawa before, but I really liked his take on Rintarou, so I was looking forward to Gokumontou.

NHK's Gokumontou is a very faithful adaptation of the original novel. And yes, it's not always a given that an adaptation is loyal to the original work (see also: the more recent Tommy & Tuppence adaptations), but there's a bit of a curse on Gokumontou, actually. For example, I reviewed the 1977 film in the past, which was enjoyable, but which featured an original conclusion. Why? A four-part TV adaptation was broadcast earlier the same year, so a new ending was written so even people who had read the original novel, or seen the TV adaptation could go to the theaters without knowing whodunit. The marketing campaign even had writer Yokomizo Seishi saying he confessing he didn't know who the murderer was. Another problem is that a certain, major hint to the solution in the book involves language that is considered inappropriate for TV broadcast, which means a lot of the older adaptations had to rewritten. These issues however do not pop up in NHK's Gokumontou adaptation, and the result is a very faithful adaptation that does its job fairly well in the two-hour runtime (at times, it does feel a bit rushed, but a single two-hour adaptation is of course already quite lengthy). As a mystery story, Gokumontou is still fantastic, and it shows in this special.

Hasegawa Hiroki as Kindaichi Kousuke was, in a word, interesting. I think the first thing that caught my attention was his relatively high voice, compared to other major Kindaichi Kousuke actors. Ishizaka Kouji (of the Ichikawa Kon films) and Furuya Ikkou (actor who played Kindaichi Kousuke for severa decades on TV) both had relatively low voices, as did voice-actor Kamiya Akira (the original Mouri Kogorou of Detective Conan) in the cassette tape dramas. Hasegawa's Kindaichi is quite open, like Furuya's Kindaichi, but can act fairly frustrated at times: I think this is the first Kindaichi Kousuke adaptation I've seen where you can actually see that Kindaichi Kousuke fought in the war. You don't see this aspect of his life appear prominently, like with Lord Peter's trauma, but especially near the ending, you see a side to the character no other actor has really shown before in adaptations, so I think Hasegawa's was quite memorable.

The choice of music however was horrible. Modern rock music as the theme song? For a story set in 1946 just after the war in a rural, closed community?

But in short: Gokumontou was a good, faithful adaptation of one of Japan's most beloved mystery novels that still managed to be surprising at times in regards to the acting. The special ends with a direct reference to Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku ("The Devil Comes, Playing the Flute"), which is actually the first Yokomizo I read in Japanese, so let's hope more of these specials starring Hasegawa will follow!

Original Japanese title(s):横溝正史(原) 『獄門島』

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Golden Cocktail


Do not mix. Hazardous.

Seems like it's been a while since I did a review on a 'proper' Japanese detective novel, instead of a Japanese translation of a Western novel or reviews on (Japanese) games.

Akechi Kogorou tai Kindaichi Kousuke ("Akechi Kogorou VS Kindaichi Kousuke") is a 2002 short story collection by Ashibe Taku, and the second volume in his The Exhibition of Great Detectives series, a showcase of pastiches starring famous detectives from both East and West. Like many pastiches, these stories also feature an element of parody, and they are best enjoyed if by the reader if they do actually know the detective beneath the spotlight. The story which lends its title to this collection for example, Akechi Kogorou tai Kindaichi Kousuke, features arguably the two most influential detectives in Japanese detective fiction: Edogawa Rampo's famous gentleman-detective Akechi Kogorou and Yokomizo Seishi's quintessential Japanese detective Kindaichi Kousuke. And the reader is sure to enjoy this story if they know something about these detectives, because at the core, this is a very Kindaichi-esque story, about two rival pharmacy shops which used to be one single shop (many Kindaichi stories about the troubles that exist between main and branch families). I already discussed the 2013 TV drama adaptation back then, so I refer to that review for more indepth views on the story. It's a good mystery yarn, with a surprising conclusion, and I definitely prefer the stort story to the drama version, which had some questionable direction in terms of characterization. In the end, this story is still not really a "Versus" story though, so the title might be a bit misleading.

French Keibu to Raimei no Shiro ("Inspector French and the Thunderclap Castle") has Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French going on a well-deserved holiday with his wife Emily. The couple needs to change trains at the station of Cranerock, but there they run into a little problem. Old man Smithers, butler of the Callaway family, has been waiting for ages for a "famous detective from London with the initial F", and thinks that he has found his man in Inspector French. The Inspector learns the story of Harriet Cathaway, last of the Cathaways and owner of Thunderclap Castle in Cranerock. She has recently become of age, but her legal guardian, Mannering, wants to sell the castle behind her back to settle his debts. Mannering is willing to do anything to accomplish this, which is why Harriet's grandfather had arranged for the "famous detective F" to watch over Harriet after his demise. Inspector French and his wife stay for the night in Thunderclap Castle, but the following morning, the body of Mannering is found in the Cathaway Crypt. What's more baffling is that no footsteps of anybody leaving the crypt were found on the snowfield surrounding the crypt, and the crypt was locked from inside, with the key found inside Mannering's mouth.

To be honest, I was a bit confused when I started with this story. An Inspector French story, with a Gothic feel and an impossible crime? I had expected an alibi deconstruction story, like Mystery on Southampton Water. But there is a perfectly good reason why this story does not feel like an Inspector French story and a lot more like a story featuring a certain different character, though it would spoil a bit of the surprise if I'd tell you now. Suffice to say that not all is what they appear to be. The impossible crime plot is great by the way, as it ties in fantastically with that one plot-point I can't tell you about here. Is it a completely fair story? No, as it requires some information not explicitly made known to the reader until the conclusion, but for readers who know about the characters featured in this story, French Keibu to Raimei no Shiro is nothing less than fun, that is a great pastiche, parody and impossible crime story. Definitely my favorite of the book.

Brown Shinpu no Japonisme ("The Japonisme of Father Brown") is based on a fanzine story by Komori Kentarou, but heavily rewritten by Ashibe. G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown finds himself at the residence of Lord Huntington, recently deceased, as the request of his old friend Flambeau. Under the influence of his wife, Lord Huntington had become a great collector of anything from the Far East, especially Japan, and he had hired Flambeau for his detective services. The lord however was found murdered yesterday inside a locked exhibition room, filled will Japanese collectibles. His body was stuffed inside a nagamochi storage trunk, while the murder weapon, a pistol, was found inside an urn. Suspects include the lord's wife, a socialist journalist, who had just had an interview with the lord and a Japanese businessman who had a big row with the lord. The solution Father Brown poses is absolutely brilliant, but almost cheating. It's a wonderfully Father Brown-esque solution, reminiscent of the famous The Invisible Man, but taken to the extreme. It's a bit hard to swallow, especially in this time and age, but it's not one I would deem utterly impossible, and I think it works quite well here, though I do wish there were more hints to this solution. Brilliant, but so utterly crazy it wouldn't work in something outside a pastiche or parody.

Soshite Orient Kyuukou Kara Dare Mo Inaku Natta ("And Then There Were None On The Orient Express") is a very short epilogue set in an alternative universe to Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, which focuses on the Yuguslavian Police Force, who were given a dead body and a report of Hercule Poirot's solution to the crime after the events in the book. It's a simple story that with a surprise ending gimmick, which was not bad. It's not a mystery story though, it's just offering a different way to look at the ending of Murder on the Orient Express.

Q no Higeki - Mata wa Futari no Kurofukumen no Bouken ("The Tragedy of Q - Or: The Adventure of the Two Men With Black Masks") starts with the discovery of the body of Professor Cotswinkel  in his research room in the Detroit Public Library. A witness (and suspect) says the last time he talked with the professor, the man said he had just seen Ellery Queen. The problem is: which Ellery Queen? Because both Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay were in Detroit to do a lecture as Ellery Queen and Barnaby Ross. This is an original pastiche about the Queen cousins, as opposed to the character, set in the time when Lee and Dannay were posing as both Ellery Queen and Barnaby Ross. The story makes good use of this past of the Queen cousins and the solution to the problem is solved in a typical Queen manner, by logical reasoning. The denouement scene is golden by the way: with both "Ellery Queen" and "Barnaby Ross" deducing their way to the murderer in front of an audience. 

Tantei Eiga no Yoru ("Night of the Detective Films") is not a pastiche, but combines an essay on Hollywood adaptations of mystery novels with a locked room murder. A big fan of mystery films is murdered inside his house, and several witnesses swear they saw a strange green, alien-like creature inside the house just moments before the murder was committed. But when the victim's fiancée and the local beat cop enter the house right after the murder, they find only the mask of the alien, with no sign of the person who should've been wearing it. A simple story: the impossible crime is just a minor variation of a familiar pattern. I described the story as a combination of an essay and a mystery short story, but that's really what it is. The first part was intended as an essay on Hollywood adaptations, but it was expanded a bit to include a mystery story.

The final story in the collection, Shounen wa Kaijin wo Yume Miru ("The Boy Who Dreamt of a Fiend"), is basically impossible to describe without giving it away. It's not a mystery story actually, more a fantasy/adventure novel and it ties in eventually with one of the more well-known figures in Japanese mystery fiction, but yeah, mentioning who would spoil the whole thing. Not a big fan of the story, but it is also a very different kind of story compared to the rest.

Overall though, I'd say Akechi Kogorou tai Kindaichi Kousuke is a very amusing pastische collection. The book features a lot of impossible crime situations, and I'd say most of them are actually quite good (especially the first half of the book), though I have to say the collection feels a lot more rewarding if you actually know the many characters that appear here, because the book definitely has a slight parody-angle.

Original Japanese title(s): 『明智小五郎対金田一耕助』: 「明智小五郎対金田一耕助」 / 「フレンチ警部と雷鳴の城」 / 「ブラウン神父と日本趣味(ジャポニズム)」 / 「そしてオリエント急行から誰もいなくなった」 / 「Qの悲劇 または二人の黒覆面の冒険」 / 「探偵映画の夜」 / 「少年は怪人を夢見る」

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Plot It Yourself


Going over the crime scene hundred times. (Japanese saying)

I talk more often about my reading backlog, but I'm even worse with games. I think I bought my copy of this game back in 2010 already... 

The discovery of the body of Bill Robbins in the parking garage of Houlington College shocked the otherwise peaceful Liberty Town. Bill Robbins was the president of the Robbins Company, and his whole family had connections (also by marriage) to all the other major families in the town. And when a man is well-connected, it also means there are a lot of suspects. Was the murderer his new wife, whom he had married only six month ago? His new brother-in-law who hated him? The local physician who has been a family friend for decades, but has no clear alibi? Whoever it was, J.B. Harold, the silent, but methodious police detective in charge of the case is sure to find out whoddunit in the videogame Keiji J.B. Harold no Jikenbo - Satsujin Club, also known as J.B. Harold - Murder Club (Nintendo DS).

J.B. Harold - Murder Club was originally a 1986 PC adventure game developed by Riverhillsoft and written by Suzuki Rika. It did quite good on the market, and was ported to several other systems, from MS-DOS, to Windows, TurboGrafx-CD, Nintendo DS and iOS. It would also spawn many sequels. Riverhillsoft would eventually go bankrupt in 2000, but by that time Suzuki had already left the company to set up developer CiNG, which would be responsible for some of the Nintendo DS and Wii's more innovatieve mystery adventure titles, until CiNG's own bankruptcy in 2010.

The most memorable feature of this game has to be its design as an adventure game. It follows the traditional command-style adventure interface, where you select commands to move around and ask suspects questions. Usually, games that follow this design are fairly linear in their story-telling: you talk to suspect A, which gives you acces to location B and suspect C, which in turn... etc. Once in a while, the story will have some drastic developments, and rinse and repeat. The Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series for example is a classic example of this model.

J.B. Harold - Murder Club however is almost like a non-linear, free-roaming mystery adventure with the command-style interface, which is a rare combination. The prologue of the game shows you how Bill Robbin's body is discovered, and after that, you're pretty much free to do whatever you want, in any order you want. Right from the start, you're able to go to many locations and suspects and each interview with a suspect will result in a new lead: you might want to check up on that alibi the suspect claims to have, or perhaps you want to follow up on that rumor the suspect told you about a different suspect, etc. Because you're basically free to start your investigation anywhere you like, and can choose to follow any lead in any order you want, the game actually gives you a non-linear experience. I for example started with investigating the location where Bill Robbins' body was found, and then questioning his brother and following up on his alibi, whereas you could also choose to investigate Bill's wife, his family-in-law or his business relations first, which would've resulted in very different leads. As you near the end of the game, the story naturally becomes more of a linear experience, as you'll have discarded most red herrings, but especially the first half/three quarters of this game, you're really free to follow up on any suspicions you have.

It's this design choice which makes this a unique game, but depending on the player, it can also be a very boring game. J.B. Harold - Murder Club's story has no real development throughout the course of the whole game. You're just interviewing suspects and then checking up on everything. There's no structure to the game because of non-linearity. Right at the start of the game you're given access to a lot of data, and the rest of the game consists of you sorting everything out. Games like Ace Attorney are designed to keep you on your feet, by feeding the player new information and new story developments every once in a while. This is not the case with this game. In fact, one could simply finish this game by asking every suspect every question and using every available command in the game: eventually you will reach the end. In that aspect, this game can feel very lacking.

If you do really keep up with all the various leads the game feeds you though, you're given a very unique experience. Most mystery games put emphasis on story developments, and the sense of wonder of solving a mystery. J.B. Harold - Murder Club is more 'realistic', in the sense that it puts emphasis on a policeman's legwork: you solve the Bill Robbins murder by good old fashioned questioning of each and every suspect, and checking on their alibis and motives. It's a very minimalistic adventure game, but it works strangely enough. This sober approach is also seen in later in the game: you need to collect enough evidence before you're able to get search warrants from the prosecutor or bring suspects in to the police station for questioning. The overall mystery plot is nothing particularly fancy, but it works in the context of the game, and I found it entertaining.

It's interesting the series is titled J.B Harold though, because J.B. is pretty much non-existent in the game. The character rarely appears on the screen himself, and you never see his dialogue lines, only those of his conversation partners. Bland isn't the right word, it's simply that he appears so very little on screen there's little to say about him.

Overall though,  J.B. Harold - Murder Club is an interesting and original mystery adventure, but it can easily turn into a just-click-on-every-command game, so the player does need to make some effort to keep themselves interested in the story. If you manage to, the game turns into a distinctive mystery game, which really makes you feel like you're slowly uncovering a complex murder case. Some older versions of this game have been released in English, though the version I played, the Nintendo DS port, is not available in English. The sequel was also ported to the DS, so I might pick that game up too some time.

Original Japanese title(s): 『刑事J.B.ハロルドの事件簿 殺人倶楽部』

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Il nome della rosa

「Advance」 (TOKIO)

From my past self to my current self:
What did you leave behind as you walked to the present?
Ask yourself
And the answers will come to you
"Advance" (TOKIO)

Lots of game reviews lately! It's mostly because of the way I plan writing reviews (with games often coming in last in the queue). There's like three, four months between me playing today's game and Net High for example...

The infamous Kinema Mansion Serial Murders happened in 1929, which started with the death of Yoshindou Denemon, former chairman of New World Cinema, a pioneer in film-making. His death was followed by many more, and the murders were left unsolved. An investigation in this series of murders brings journalist Takashi and his companion Emi to the abandoned mansion in 2003. The two only have only set a couple of steps in the great hall, when a mysterious force throws the two back in time. Emi has lost her physical presence and can only occassionally manifest herself as a ghostly figure, but Takashi finds himself, body and all, within the Kinema Mansion in 1929. He has arrived at the mansion the day after the murder on Denemon and strangely enough, everybody seems to be confusing Takashi with Kazuya, the estranged son of Denemon who was invited to the mansion. Takashi decides to solve the mysteries that surround the many strange members of the Yoshinodou family as well as the mansion, hoping that solving the case will send him and Emi back to 2003. Everybody in the mansion seems to have something to hide, but luckily the time-jump also gave Takashi psychometric powers. Can he solve the Kinema Mansion Serial Murders and return safely with Emi to 2003 in the 2003 PlayStation 2 game Glass Rose?

Glass Rose (Garasu no Bara) was the first game by CiNG, a Japanese game developer which specialized in adventure games. CiNG is best known for their innovative works for the Nintendo DS/Wii, such as Another Code/Another Code R and Hotel Dusk/Last Window, which are often praised for their deep stories, believable characters and music. The Fukuoka-based company sadly enough had to file for bankruptcy in 2010, which is still something I remember quite well: I was living in Fukuoka at the time, and had just bought their latest game, only to read the same week that Last Window would actually be their very last game. Anyway, I was long overdue to playing this game.

Glass Rose is a simple point and click adventure at the core, with an emphasis on dialogue-based puzzles. You control Takashi in his investigation into the Kinema Mansion Serial Murders by questioning the varous inhabitants about the murders and occasionally picking up physical clues. There are also three gameplay systems that help give this game its own feel. First is the conversation system. While speaking with the suspects, you can ask about select key words from the conversation partner's utterances. This "Free Word System" allows you to steer the conversation the direction you want and is sometimes used in clever conversation puzzles, where you need to go into several conversation 'branches' before you can proceed with your main line of investigation. A second characteristic of this game is the use of Takashi's psychometric powers. Takashi is able to vaguely read the minds of other people, as well as the 'memory' of objects and naturally, this skill is handy when investigating a murder. Most of the time, Takashi psychometric powers manifest in flashes of objects or locations, which serve as a clue as to where Takashi has to go to next. These segments occur automatically, but during conversations, Takashi can also opt to read the mind of his conversation partner to get a vital clue to proceed (for example, when a person knows something, but wants to keep it a secret from Takashi). This skill is not 'free to use' though, so you must choose to use the skill at the right time. Another characteristic of this game is that the story is divided in distinct time-periods of one hour. Each hour, there are certain actions you have to complete within that time limit in order to move to the next hour (if you fail, you're sent back to the beginning of the hour; fail too often and it's game over). It's a system CiNG has also used in later games like Hotel Dusk and Last Window.

To be absolutely honest, Glass Rose has its share of problems as an adventure game. While the conversation and psychometric power system are interesting, the time limit can be rather troublesome, because the game seldom tells you what you're exactly supposed to do in each hour. As a result, you're often just wandering around the (giganteous!) Kinema Mansion, in search of people and other hotspots to check out. Because of that, the game often feels empty and dragging, as you're just looking for the correct flag to proceed to the next event. Each hour, everything 'resets' in the Kinema Mansion, with people appearing and disappearing from rooms, giving it a very artificial feeling (you usually don't come across people unless it's necessary to talk with them). There are also optional documents to be found within the mansion, which help expand on the backstory, but these too are incredibly tedious to find (especially considering the time limit you have each hour), so overall, I think Glass Rose is a bit disappointing as a game.

As for the mystery story, it can be both great, and disappointing. Disappointing is the identity of the person behind the Kinema Mansion Serial Murders, as well as the path that leads to this conclusion. In the early parts of the game, it's not possible to make a substantiated guess to who the murderer is, while in the latter half of the story, the game basically tells you who it is by suddenly given you information it had been keeping away from you for no reason, leading to a very anti-climatic ending. The fact that the suspects keep appearing and disppearing (as mentioned above) also has a bad influence on the story, as you never really get to feel the fear that should be within the Kinema Mansion, considering people keep getting killed off in a mere three days.

I might sound very negative about this game, but I think that's mostly because I also loved how this game was set-up as a classic Japanese mystery story. A beautifully designed Western-style mansion in late 1920s Japan? Invokes the yakata-mono genre, as seen in Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken and Ayatsuji Yukito's work. The complex family relations and the various, suspicious-looking members who all have something to hide? It was like reading a Yokomizo Seishi novel. The background setting of 1920s filmmaking in Japan, about the decline of silent films and benshi (silent film narrators) and New World Cinema's upcoming talkie remake of their hit silent film Dolls? I absolutely loved this part! While figuring out the main murderer of the Kinema Manson Serial Murders turns out to be not that much fun, slowly taking away the veils that cover up the many, many dirty secrets of the Yoshinodou family and New World Cinema was actually great! The game oozes atmosphere in the early parts of the game, when you're still finding out the backstories of each and every suspect. When the story actually needs to pay attention to the main storyline (the Kinema Mansion Serial Murders), the game becomes less enjoyable and satisfying.

Oh, and for Japanese music fans: Takashi was modeled after TOKIO's Matsuoka Masahiro, who also provided Takashi's voice in the Japanese version, as well as modeling for motion capture. Now I think about it, Capcom (the publisher of Glass Rose) really liked these kind of tie-ups in the PS2 era. Remember the Onimusha series which had protagonists like Kaneshiro Takeshi, Matsuda Yuusaku and even Jean Reno?

So is Glass Rose a bad mystery game? No, I wouldn't go that far. Besides some strange game design choices, it's mostly the conclusion to the Kinema Mansion Serial Murders I find very unsatisfying. But this game has fantastic atmosphere especially in the first half of the story, making use of a model that can be recognized as distinctly Japanese, which should satisfy readers of writers like Yokomizo and Ayatsuji. Glass Rose is not CiNG's best effort (and because Again exists, it's not their worst effort either) and the game can feel a bit too quirky at times, but in terms of atmosphere, I'd say that this is an exceptionally good effort. The first half in particular is really fun, it just didn't manage to keep up that standard all the way to the end.

Original Japanese title(s): 『玻璃ノ薔薇』