Sunday, December 25, 2016

Turnabout Memories - Part 6

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember" 
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories 

Like always, I end the year on this blog with a look back of the posts this year, because that is of course what happens every blog. I noted last year that there is usually a long waiting list of to-be-published posts because of the way I schedule updates. That still holds for this year actually, and I think maybe something close to 18 months might've passed since I originally read/watch/listened/smurfed the subject before the review actually appeared on the blog. So my memories can be a bit vague. Anyway, as always, this post features a round-up of reviews and other posts that made an impression on me, with categories made up as I go. Anyway, that wraps it up for this year (though I might sneak another Detective Conan review in before the end of the year!), and hope to see you next year!

Best Project Outside The Blog!
The Moai Island Puzzle

Okay, this was an easy one. Last year, I was honored to be the translator of Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders, published by Locked Room International. This summer, LRI published Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle, once again translated by me. I first read the novel back in 2012, and absolutely loved it as a brilliant puzzle plot mystery that did Queen better than Queen ever did, but also with characters I really liked. So I was thrilled I was able to work once again on a novel I loved, and to be a part of the process in bringing Japanese mystery fiction to the English-reading world. Obviously, I was also happy to see both major outlets like The Washington Post and Publisher's Weekly, and fellow mystery lovers write positively about it.You haven't read it yet? Go read it!

Best Non-Review Post! Of 2016!
Arsène Lupin in Japan

I write very few non-review posts, though they're usually fairly well-received, as far as I can judge. That's usually more a matter of having trouble making a coherent, structured posts on my ideas than not having any ideas. So perhaps I really should try to do my best more on features like this. Anyway, this year, we had three of them on the blog. One was about the matter of what  "Solving a fair-play story" means to readers: based on what criteria do you think you 'won' from the author, and when is a story fair? But what I enjoyed best writing was my little look into the history of Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin in Japan. It was a very short piece, but this feature actually had a structure I had planned in advance, going from a look into older thief characters, to publishing history and other series which were in turn influenced by Lupin (as you may have guessed, I always write my reviews/other posts just as I go). It might be interesting to do something similar for Ellery Queen in Japan or Christie, now I think about it. The other non-review post was a tribute to the Dark Shadow figure in visual mystery fiction. Which was also a lot of fun to write, though it was mostly a lighthearted article.

Best Mystery Film Seen In 2016 Featuring Animals I Forgot To Write A Review About

Disney's Zootopia (or Zootropolis, depending on your region) is a buddy cop mystery film set in Zootopia, a city where animals, predator and prey, like together in harmony. It might not be super-surprising as a mystery story, but it is a really tightly plotted, amusing story that stays interesting from start to finish. And yes, this category exists solely to namedrop Zootopia, because I meant to write a review about it but totally forgot (Meitantei Pikachu was also an interesting mystery with animal-like creatures, but that was a game).

Most Interesting Game Played In 2016! But Probably Older!
Gyakuten Saiban 6

To be honest, I didn't think I had played that many mystery games this year, but I arrived at quite a number when I finished counting. Some of them were great (Net High, Meitantei Pikachu), some of them decent (J.B. Harold Murder Club), some of them flawed as a game (Root Letter). The choice of Gyakuten Saiban 6 ("Turnabout Trial 6"/ Ace Attorney: Spirit of  Justice) was however an easy one. The quality of these comedy courtroom drama mystery games has always been very high, but the introduction of the supernatural Water Mirror mechanic, which shows whatever the victim themselves saw in the moments before their death, is fantastic, leading to innovative and surprising ideas for mystery plots. The major flaw of the game is that it is too connected to previous games, with the series protagonists hogging too much of the spotlight, but still, as a mystery game, this was easily my favorite of the year.

Some of the non-mystery games I enjoyed this year: I played all five Sakura Taisen ("Sakura Wars") games early this year, and loved them. I had already played the first two games once in the past, but didn't mind playing them again, as the character-focused SRPG is really fun. SEGAGAGA was a fantastic RPG/simulation game on the DreamCast by SEGA, about the final days of the DreamCast and SEGA has a hardware maker. Only SEGA could've made this, as they make fun of themselves and the whole industry in a surprising way. Really a must-play for SEGA fans. Another great game on the DreamCast was Roommania #203, where you play the role of a god of an apartment room, guiding a student living on his own through adventures of love, thrill and suspense. Hako Boy - Mou Hitohako ("Box Boy - One Extra Box") was a fantastic sequel to the original puzzle game on the 3DS. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (PS Vita) and Grandia (PS) were both enjoyable RPGs, while Danganronpa Another Episode was a fun action-puzzle game set in the Danganronpa world. The Walking Dead Season One (PS Vita) had a great character-focused story, though as a game it felt a bit lacking. Finally, Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3 - Kowareyuku Machi to Kanojo no Uta ("City in Crisis - The Town Falling Down and Her Song", PSP) was what you'd expect from a game by IREM: perhaps a bit limited in design, but very funny and with loads of personality. And great vocal music too!

Favorite Trick of 2016!
Gyakuten Saiban 6 

This is a hard one. Ashibe Taku's short story French Keibu to Raimei no Shiro definitely had a great trick behind the murder for example, which was also tied to a shocking reveal. Ayatsuji Yukito's short story Dondonbashi, Ochita was similarly very shocking and memorable. From the same author came also the TV production Nazotoki Live - Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken at the start of the year, which featured a great gimmick played on the viewer at home. The brilliance of that one was that the moment of the reveal: the last few seconds revealed a fact that turned the whole case upside down, but it was at the same time also the last hint needed to solve the case. In the end, I have to go with a certain trick played in the final episode of the 3DS game Gyakuten Saiban 6 as my favorite trick of this year. Note that different from last year, this category is about favorite tricks, not best. The trick behind the locked room murder in the final episode is, on its own, a fairly predictable one considering the theme of this game, I think, but what I really liked about this story is that it doesn't explain everything behind how it was pulled off. The narrative skips the explanation of some of the actions taken by the murderer(s) on purpose. This would usually be considered something negative, but it works here because of the design: the game contains hints and comments with which the player themselves can solve the last remaining questions themselves. This means the main narrative can get away with a bit of streamlining, as it skips over some minor points, but the curious player can figure out the details behind the trick of they choose to do so. It's this design choice in particular that I love, as replayability is something you seldom see in mystery fiction in general (not just games).

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
- Detective Conan - The Darkest Nightmare (Director: Shizuno Koubun)
- Gyakuten Saiban 6 ("Turnabout Trial 6") (Director: Yamazaki Takeshi)
- Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten Idol ("Turnabout Trial -  Turnabout Idol") (Takase Mie)
- Meitantei Pikachu - Shin Combi Tanjou ("Great Detective Pikachu - Birth Of A New Duo")
- Aibou 14, Ep. 17: Butsurigakusha to Neko ("Partners 14, Ep. 17A Physicist and his Cat") (Scenario: Tokunaga Tomihiko)
- Tsumiki no Tou ("A Tower of Blocks") (Ayukawa Tetsuya)
- Arang-un Wae ("Arang, Why?") (Kim Young-ha)
- Kimenkan no Satsujin ("The Strange Masks House Murders") (Ayatsuji Yukito)
- Misshitsu Satsujin Game ("Locked Room Murder Game") (Utano Shougo)
- The Footprints of Satan (Norman Berrow)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Trials & Tribulations

"The miracle never happen (sic)"
"Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney - Justice for All"

And it's the final review in this month of legal mystery fiction. Of which most were actually stage plays. Weird things happen on this blog sometimes.

The Hero of Heroes show, where the best TV superhero is elected, is held in the Bandou Hotel, and defense attorney Naruhodou, his assistant Mayoi and her cousin Harumi are present too to watch the show live. However, Fujimino Isao, actor of the hero Ninja Nanja is found murdered in his dressing room and suspicion falls on Outorou Shingo, actor of the hero Tonosaman Hei. Amidst the chaos, an unknown person kidnaps Mayoi, and the kidnapper’s demands are that Naruhodou is to act as Outorou’s attorney, and that he should get Outorou a Not Guilty verdict, because the kidnapper doesn’t like to see Outorou hang for a crime he didn’t commit. Naruhodou has no choice but to defend Outorou, who swears he really didn’t kill Fujimino. The best way to get Outorou off the hook is of course finding out who did kill Fujimino, but the investigation leads into a maze with professional killers, a dirty past between Fujimino and Outorou and even a ghost from Naruhodou’s own past. Can Naruhodou win the trial and save Mayoi’s life in the 2015 stage play Gyakuten Saiban – Saraba Gyakuten (“Turnabout Trial – Farewell, My Turnabout”)?

This stage play is a sequel to the 2014 stage play Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten no Spotlight, and both based on the Gyakuten Saiban (Ace Attorney) courtroom mystery videogame series. While Gyakuten no Spotlight was an original story, Saraba Gyakuten is directly based on the final episode included in the second game.

In general, I’d say this play is the better one. This is mainly because the original story on which this play is based is really an exciting mystery story that fits the real-time format well. The kidnapping adds a sense of urgency, while the setting of a murder among hero actors fits the format of a stage play. The conclusion of the story was one of the most exciting, and captivating moments of the whole game series, nay, of courtroom drama mysteries in general, and that feeling is retained in this stage play. The series has always been about turning seemingly hopeless situations in the courtroom around, but few were ever so desperate as these, and the way everything is turned around is fantastic. As a pure murder mystery story, it is actually really not that special, but as a courtroom mystery, Saraba Gyakuten is something special and it translates well to this stage play.

But does this stage play have something to add to the original game story, as you might as well play the game, right? Well, I have to admit that this issue is a bit more difficult to decide on. In terms of acting and presentation, I’d say it’s basically the same compared to Gyakuten no Spotlight. The main cast is the same, even if  this time you see less of Mayoi (because she is kidnapped) and more of her cousin Harumi. I wouldn’t say the acting was much better or worse than with the first play, and in terms of presentation, I think this stage play had a few moments that were quite inspired (the way the backgrounds are used), but that never had really impressive moments like the action scenes or the video footage scene in the first play. The actor-audience interaction is also similar, so the one thing that really sets these two plays apart is the story. And while Saraba Gyakuten is definitely the better story, I think that Gyakuten no Spotlight made better use of the fact that is a stage play, and the fact it is a completely original story of course also scores points.

This is of course always a problem with adaptations. Do you want to adapt an existing story into a different medium, or do you want to do something new using the existing world? I personally prefer the latter in general and I do think that taken on the whole, Gyakuten no Spotlight is the more interesting play of the two, even if the mystery plot in general is not as good as Saraba Gyakuten. I can however imagine that a lot of fans of the Ace Attorney series will prefer Saraba Gyakuten, with the idea of that they always wanted to see this story in live-action. I did think that this play was a lot more tightly plotted than the previous one. Which is because it’s based on the game  scenario of course, but it at least didn’t feature scenes I thought were really useless in the grand picture, which the previous play did have.

Overall though, I think that fans of the series will be satisfied by Gyakuten Saiban - Saraba Gyakuten’s adaptation of the game.  It is a solid stage play that has a captivating story, and the actors do a good job at getting the audience involved with the dramatic events that unfold. If I had to choose, I’d say the first one is the more interesting and original one, but in terms of story, I think this one wins easily.

Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転裁判 さらば逆転』

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Innocent Black

"There is, perhaps, nothing of which the layman is so grossly ignorant as of the law. He has grown to depend upon what he is pleased to call common sense. Indeed his refrain, "The law is common sense," has at times been echoed by the judiciary. There was never a graver error. The common sense of the common man is at best a poor guide to the criminal law. It is no guide at all to the civil law"
"The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason"

The blog's been rather legal-mystery-themed lately, now I think about it... 

Randolph Mason is an attorney who recently returned from France to the United States. He used to be a famous, and feared man in the courtroom, but few of his peers remember him after his long stay overseas. Yet, certain kinds of people still finds his way into the offices of Mason. Desperate people. People who are backed up to the wall by Fate herself. Mason offers a way out for these people. A legal way out. Thanks to his enormous knowledge of US law, Randolph Mason can get anyone out of any problem, as long as they have no moral objections to his plans, for while he can always get you past your problems in a legally innocent way, said actions are seldom innocent in the eyes of the public. In Melville Davisson Post’s The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason (1896), we see seven of these schemes.

I first learned of the Randolph Mason series in a column written by Takumi Shuu, creator of the Gyakuten Saiban (Ace Attorney) videogame series, who mentioned Mason as one of his childhood heroes. In the Ace Attorney games, you play as a defense attorney who manages to turn desperate situations in the courtroom around and win a Not Guilty verdict. And the Randolph Mason series… I guess it’s also about a defense attorney who manages to turn desperate situations in the courtroom around and win a Not Guilty verdict. The big difference however is that Mason and his clients are morally guilty. In fact, all the stories in this short story collection are about perfect crimes planned by Mason himself for his clients, which can never get them in any legal problem.

I have seen and read my share of courtroom dramas, and of course seen ‘evil’ defense attorneys and prosecutors in those stories, but I think this is the first time I’ve read one where the protagonist is actually the criminal. In a moral way. Mason has plans for all kinds of problems. You need to raise some money quick? Mason has a foolproof plan to cheat the money out of others, which is perfectly fine according to the fine print in legislation. Need to kill someone? Mason teaches you how to do it so the cops and prosecution have no leg to stand on in court. The mystery in each story in this collection is about how Mason and his client are going to get away with their crime in a legal way, because to the eye of the public, they are obviously guilty in any sense of the word.  Oh, and one of the reasons why I decided not to do short write-ups on all seven stories is because you really want to start with each story without any idea of what’s coming. Also: I’m bad at summarizing, so I’m afraid I’d give the whole game away.

While a lot of the courtroom dramas I’ve seen are usually “just” entertainment, without any strong ideas about the legal system itself, it is clear that Melville Davisson Post wrote these stories to show how absurd US law could be. Each story is accompanied by an excerpt of the law that applies to the story in question, and while I don’t know whether those laws still hold nowadays in those states, it appears Post thought them quite ridiculous back in the day, and showed that with his hypothetical case studies in this book. I think people interested in old legal history might find this book also interesting, though I can guarantee you this is very readable as just a piece of mystery fiction.

What is interesting is that neither Mason nor his clients are never really portrayed as sympathetic people. Mason is just someone who wants to challenge Fate, and has no problems with coming up with plans for murder. The motives of his clients to commit the crimes are also often not very sympathetic (“I committed a crime! Now I need to commit another crime to hide my first crime!”) and that’s err, pretty original in courtroom mystery dramas.

I had fun with The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason though. I think I’d describe as it as an upside-down Ace Attorney. It’s a mystery story where an attorney manages to pull of some legal miracles. Only this time, the attorney and his client are actually guilty in a moral sense, and only innocent in the eyes of the law. Recommended reading for people interested in an amusing take on the courtroom mystery drama.

Saturday, December 10, 2016



Turn the roulette of destiny
Thinking deeply about this or that is a mystery
Look, your person of destiny is over there
Always looking at you
"Turn the Roulette of Destiny" (Zard)

"My name is Kudou Shinichi, a high school student detective. When I went to the amusement park with my childhood friend and classmate Mouri Ran, I witnessed a suspicious deal involving a man dressed completely in black. I was concentrating so hard on the deal, I didn't notice one of their comrades sneaking up on me from behind. That man made me take a drug, and when I woke up, my body had shrunken!"

Fans of the manga/anime Detective Conan will be very familiar with these lines, as every theatrical release of Detective Conan starts off with this short monologue that summarizes the premise of the long-running series for those who don't know it yet. This is actually quite unique. Few film series this long will take the time to explain series lore to first time viewers. They'll either expect you to get along right away, or Go Back To Start. But this usually backfires with longer series, as series lore does form a steep obstacle at times to jump in, and expecting people to start from the beginning and make it all the way to the current state is a bit too much, especially if if we're talking about a series that has been running for over twenty years. So it's actually quite nice of the Detective Conan films to carefully explain the most important parts of lore (that pertain to the story) for every film.
The original manga (comic) of Detective Conan started in 1994, with an animated series (and annual theatrical releases) following in 1996. It's therefore been over twenty years since animated Detective Conan started. And when you think about it, it's not strange if many viewers of Conan have actually never seen the very first episodes/chapters. Especially in Japan, where the manga is serialized and the animated series is broadcast weekly on TV, it's quite possible for a regular viewer to have never seen earlier episodes, as opposed to viewers abroad who usually have to purchase the series as comic books or home video release, and these people usually start at the beginning. How to fix that? Easy: show the viewers the beginning of the tale yourselves again.

To celebrate twenty years of animated Conan, a special was broadcast on December 9, 2016, outside its usual block. Detective Conan Episode "ONE" - Chiisaku Natta Meitantei ("Detective Conan Episode "ONE" - The Shrunken Great Detective") is a 90-minute long animated remake of the first couple of episodes that explained how high school student Kudou Shinichi turned into a child with the name Edogawa Conan. At the start of the special which was supervised by original creator Aoyama Goushou, we're introduced to Shinichi and his childhood friend Ran. Shinichi has been making a name for himself as a brilliant amateur detective, and he hopes to become the Sherlock Holmes of modern times. One day, he promises Ran, his childhood friend and secret crush (the feelings are mutual, even though they daren't confess to each other), he'll take her to the amusement park Tropical Land if she manages to win an upcoming karate tournement. Little did Shinichi know though that accidently witnessing a shady deal of some mysterious men dressed in black would change his life forever.

To be absolutely honest, I hesitated about writing a review on this special. Because at the core, Episode "ONE" is not a mystery story. While the special is indeed based on the first two chapters/episodes of the series, known as the "The Rollercoaster Murder Case" and "The Shrunken Great Detective", the focus of the narrative is changed from the murder mystery, to Shinichi, Ran and the other characters. and the story of how Shinichi was given a drug that turned him into a child. In the twenty years since the series first started, many, many characters have been introduced, and the characters already featured in the first episode also got expanded backstories over the course of time. Episode "ONE"'s goal was to bring that larger, extended world into the first story of Detective Conan. Characters like Shinichi's parents or Ran's best friend Sonoko were for example only introduced a couple of volumes later, but are featured in Episode "ONE". So the goal of this special was to basically make the first story feel more consistent with the elements introduced later in this series, especially in regards to characters.

Most of these insertions are pretty natural too, and they won't bother people who don't know the characters, but they do add something extra for the fans. Having Inspector Takagi assist Chief Inspector Megure in this special works for example, even though Takagi's original first appearance wouldn't be until much later in this series. Or seeing newscaster Mizunashi Rena presenting the news on TV, even though she made her first appearance in volume 48. It all helps make the world feel a bit more consistent. Some revelations regarding the events in this story which were only touched relatively recently in the series (the last two years or so) were also included, once again strengthening the timeline. Details of the amusement park date of Shinichi and Ran has also been expanded upon in later productions, like the 2000 theatrical release Captured In Her Eyes, and these elements have also been incorporated in the tale of Episode "ONE".

The 'problem' with Episode "ONE" is precisely this focus on the characters though. This special has no real storyline to kept you hooked throughout the ninety minutes. Yes, Shinichi solves no less than two murders over the course of the special, but they are more like a bonus. There is no introduction, build-up and climax of a story in a classic sense. The special is simply busy with introducing the viewer to a wide cast of characters, and at the end Shinichi is turned into a child, calls himself Edogawa Conan, goes off living with Ran and her father and then it ends, contuining in the rest of the series. The 2014 special The Disappearance of Edogawa Conan might not have been a conventional detective story, but at least that was a decent mystery story. The twentieth film Detective Conan: The Darkest Nightmare (2016) was perhaps one of the most character-focused films of late, but the driving plot there was a spy thriller. Episode "ONE" however is more like 'A Day In The Life Of...'. I mentioned that most of the expanded character introductions work in this special, but there are still some that make no sense if you only watch this special. Mentioning characters like Bourbon, Chianti or Korn at this point adds absolutely nothing to the plot of Episode "ONE".

The murders featured in the special are the infamous Rollercoaster Murder Case by the way, from the first episode/chapter of the manga, and an expanded version of the one you see in the first three, four pages of the first chapter. The details of the Rollercoaster Murder Case have not been changed, and is still a visually impressive, but slightly hard-to-believe murder.

So is Episode "ONE" just fanservice? Well, yes, mostly. But there is a reason why I decided I'd write a review anyway for the blog. The reason is basically what I mentioned at the start of this post. If people don't feel like going through twenty years of Detective Conan just to get to where the series is now, I do think Episode "ONE" works as a good introduction, as it shows the connections to the various characters and parties in this series much better than the original first episodes on their own. Episode "ONE" introduces most of the major characters in one way or another and from there it's easier to jump into the series. I guess that this is also the real goal of Episode "ONE", to provide a new basic entry point for people.

Oh, and a nice touch for long-time fans was the opening theme, as well as the insert song! ZARD was a singer very strongly involved with Detective Conan, so it was great to her voice again in a recent Conan production.

I would not call Detective Conan Episode "ONE" - The Shrunken Great Detective a must-see by any means. For longtime fans, the material included is basically all known already. It is a fairly amusing refresher course though (I had for example already forgotten how Kyogoku first got to know Sonoko). For people who don't know the series, I do think Episode "ONE" might be misreprensenting the series slightly, as it does not really present itself as a mystery story, but it does a decent job as a revised introduction for a very long series.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌(原) 『名探偵コナン エピソード"ONE" 小さくなった名探偵』

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Thou Art the Man

It is probably no exaggeration if I claim that perhaps the most revered character in mystery fiction is the detective. Indeed, the genre is often also called detective fiction, and as the genre (ideally) revolves around the unraveling of a mystery (regardless of form and degree of criminality), the character burdened with the task of solving it is naturally seen as the pivotal archetype in this genre. The victim, if present, is ostensisbly a focal figure in the mystery, as their situation (often quite dead) is what drives the plot of a mystery story, yet all things considered, their character is not really of consequence to the present of any mystery story. Victims belong to the past and may well be part of the history leading up to the mystery, but are often nothing more but part of the furniture by the time a story is running. Roger Ackroyd may be mentioned prominently on the cover, but it's not really a story about him.

The culprit (often a murderer) is often a close second to the detective. There have been famous murderers in crime fiction. Obviously, the culprits from inverted series like Columbo or Furuhata Ninzaburou come to mind right away. You follow these criminals (who can be portrayed both sympathetical or despicable) from the start to the end of the tale and they are thus at the center of things. But there are also memorable murderers in conventional whodunits and other stories. Think of Murder on the Orient Express for example. Often, the criminal will reveal their true colors when exposed as the culprit and go out with a bang, if not literal, often figurative by desperately denying defeat.

These culprits however are people with a name and a face. These are culprits with a history, with ties to other people, with feelings and memories. In today's post however, I want to put a different kind of culprit center stage. A culprit without a face, without a name. A culprit who, by destiny, can never make it to the end of a tale in their original form. An ode to the unknown criminal. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the Dark Shadow.

Who the Dark Shadow is? Nobody knows. They are known under various names, including the Dark Person, the Culprit and of course, the Person In The Black Tights. They appear in various series, committing various crimes, but are never caught by the detective in this form. They are the connective tissue of the visual mystery genre, a legend transcending time, space and most importantly, the borders between various creative works from different publishers.

People not familiar with visual mystery media might not know the Dark Shadow, as their appearance is mostly (but not exclusively) confined to those forms. It is the figure on the screen that commits the crimes before the viewer is allowed to know the identity of the culprit. In visual mystery media, including animation and comics, the culprit is often depicted as a dark shadow, something that is made possible because of the freedom of the respective mediums (it is rather difficult to cast a shadow on one single person in a brightly lit room in a live action mystery production). Using this visual device, authors can actually show their culprits committing their deeds and doing other things, without giving away who they actually are, not even gender or other characteristics. The shadows are not meant to be an actual depiction of the culprit, but a visual substitute.

This visual expression was first invented for mystery comics in Japan by mangaka (comic artist) Satou Fumiya, of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files") series, which started in 1992. While the comic was written by someone else, Satou was the person who drew the comic and one day, she was given a rather surprising plot to work from. The screenplay asked for her to show what the culprit was doing, but obviously, she could not actually give the identity away of the murderer. In a novel, there are plenty of ways to describing the culprit without giving away a name or any characteristics (for example, use words like 'culprit', 'someone' or 'the murderer' as a description), but that method is difficult to use in a visual medium. The solution she ended up with was the Dark Shadow: a nondescript figure who they could show in the comic panels without any fear of spoiling the story. The idea might've come from kuroko, stagehands in Japanese theatre. Kuroko (or kurogo) are often dressed completely in black and are basically running crew: they move props and help with scene changes and the viewer is supposed to think of them as 'invisible'.

The interesting thing is that while the Dark Shadow originated from Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, the series often has no need for them. In this particular series, especially early on, the murderers often made use of local legends and ghost stories to commit their murders, and therefore often dressed up as monsters and ghosts. In the first story in the series for example, you see the murderer more often dressed as the Phantom, than in the form of a shadow. It was therefore not this series that actually made the Dark Shadow into an actual hit.

That only happened with Detective Conan, which started in 1994. Mangaka Aoyama obviously faced the same problem as Satou and therefore resorted to the same solution as her. But as culprits in Detective Conan don't dress up nearly as often as the ones in Kindaichi Shounen, the number of appearances of the Dark Shadow are actually much higher in Detective Conan. When Detective Conan became an animated series, use of this trope became even more prominent and in the twenty years since then, the Dark Figure has grown out to become one of the most recognizable characters of Japanese mystery fiction, even though they are not actually "a character" at all!

Part of the charm is that the whole idea of the Dark Shadow is actually quite ridiculous. In comic-form, it works remarkably well most of the time. There are the rare cases where the Dark Shadow, first seen as a nondescript, medium-sized person committing a crime, is revealed to be the fat midget hunchback, even though their shapes don't match up at all, but in general, the device of the Dark Shadow does its job admirably. In animation however, things can become rather hilarious. Often, you'll see the culprit standing together with the victim in a bright room, where only the culprit is depicted as a Dark Shadow, even though both people are clearly illuminated by the same light source. Scenes where the Dark Shadow makes their way through a crowd, even though every single person in the crowd is clearly recognizable, are laugh-inducing. The Dark Shadow is also capable of showing emotions, ranging from anger to despair and sadness, but it does look a bit strange to see a completely dark figure cry.

This scene from the theatrical release Detective Conan: Crossroad in the Ancient Capital, seventh in the film series, is a good example of the rather unique way the light must bend to make this happen. This is obviously not realistic, but the public is well aware of the trope, and suspension of disbelief is upheld. Another example from the Detective Conan film series is in the fourth film: Captured in Her Eyes, where the protagonists are chased through half an entertainment park by the culprit. The culprit remains in their form as the Dark Shadow even as they chase after the couple in a motor boat. 

In the quarter-century since the Dark Shadow's first appearance, they have become a widely recognized form of visual expression in Japanese media and is thus often used in other outings of the mystery genre in visual form. Besides the many mystery manga / anime released after Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Detective Conan, you'll also see the familiar figure appear in other media like video games. The mystery Danganronpa franchise (2010) also depicts its murderers as a Dark Shadows until it's time to reveal who the murderer is.

And even in live-action productions you occassionally see them, even if it's a bit weird. The devilish complex Anraku Isu Tantei ("The Armchair Detective") for example makes extensive use of the Dark Figure during the Exposition Episodes, when they go through various reconstructions and hypotheses of how the murder was committed. The live-action series of Detective Conan also had a few appearances of a similar figure.

There are even posable action figures of the Dark Shadow! This one is part of Detective Conan merchandise, and there are many more pieces of merchandise available with your friendly neighborhood murderer.

The tragic part of the life of the Dark Shadow however is that they generally do not make it to the end of the story. Their fate is sealed by the fact they are in a detective story: once the identity of the culprit is revealed, the culprit changes from the Dark Shadow to the actual character with a name and a face who did it, and the Dark Shadow ceases to be. No matter how much physical and mental feats they have shown to commit their crimes, no matter how long they have appeared on the screen or on the pages, no matter how much trouble they might've given the detective, in the end, their destiny is always the same. They are revealed, and disappear.

But let us, the people who have been witnesses to all of their exploits, remember them. As the saying goes, it's not about who you are, it's about what you do. Dark Shadow, I salute you, oh king of the culprits.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

It's Show Time!

"The show must go on" 

Yep, another review of a mystery story performed on the stage!

Defense attorney Naruhodou Ryuuichi and his assistant Mayoi managed to get tickets for a stage play of Mayoi’s favorite superhero show: Tonosaman. But during the climax of the show, a giant paper lantern prop comes crashing down, severely injuring the actor Dan Yuuya, who played the antagonist in the play, the Crow Tengu. It is suspected that the actor who played Tonosaman, Niboshi Saburou, engineered this ‘accident’ on purpose. He was the one who was supposed to give the cue to the stage hand to lower the lantern,  and the cops think he gave the cue when Dan was standing beneath the lantern on purpose in an attempt to kill him. Naruhodou and Mayoi, who have saved Niboshi once before in a trial, want to save him again and start investigating the theater and the actors in the 2014 stage play Gyakuten Saiban – Gyakuten no Spotlight (“Turnabout Trial - Turnabout Spotlight”).

I have seriously reviewed almost all forms of the Gyakuten Saiban (Ace Attorney) franchise on this blog now. From the original games, from the manga and the film to the novel, from the musicals to the ‘normal’ stage play now. I’d have done the drama CDs and the anime too if they weren’t that errr, not interesting.

But anyway, this time a stage play of the successful videogame series about a defense attorney solving crimes in court. I have discussed the musicals by the Takarazuka Revue before, but Gyakuten no Spotlight is a ‘normal’ theater play, which is pretty interesting. The film, even if it also features actors, is obviously very different from these productions which are performed in real-time in front of an audience, but Gyakuten no Spotlight is also quite different from the Takarazuka Revue musicals, because this stage play is done in a much smaller theater, and the actors are all much closer to the audience. You can really see the actors react to the audience and vice-versa, which is not much the case with the Takarazuka Revue musicals, which are set in a surreal world on its own. In fact, Gyakuten no Spotlight has a pretty funny opening, where Naruhodou and Mayoi sit down together with the real audience, because they too are there to watch the Tonosaman stage play. It gives this mystery play a very homely feel, which something you seldom experience with mystery fiction.

Gyakuten no Spotlight is a completely original story, even if it shares some parallels with stories from the games. It’s a fairly meta-conscious mystery story, as it’s a stage play about an attempted murder that happened during a stage play, and this is done very well: they explain a lot about how things go backstage and how a play like that is performed and all of that also is strongly connected to the actual mystery plot and the gimmicks which were used to pull the attempt of. Overall, it’s a fairly simple mystery story if you look closely at the details and the way the hints are spread out isn’t particularly inspiring, but it certainly gets the thing done. The ‘problem’ is of course that this is a real-time play. In the games they can present a piece of evidence early on, allow you look at it for four hours, and just about the time you have forgotten about it, you get to use it. This doesn’t work in a stage play and so it asks for a different type of laying hints around, but there were times here where the hints were just presented in a clumsily way (like one minute before they used it), or were just too simply.

Like in the games, the play is roughly decided in two phases (times two): one phase where Naruhodou and Mayoi investigate in the theater looking for clues, while the climaxes are to be found in the trial scenes, where all mysteries are solved and the true culprit is revealed. I think the audience has more than a fair chance to solve the case themselves, and personally I’d preferred it too be just a bit more complex, just a bit more shocking, but all well.

I did like the feeling of the stage play. Like I said earlier, things are a lot more interactive here, with the audience and the actors reacting to each other, and it gives a very different kind of vibe off compared to the film (which is of course edited and a ‘past’ performance, as compared to the real-time performance of the stage play). Gyakuten no Spotlight is fun to watch, and as it’s two hours long , that is also definitely something that is necessary, but certainly not something that is easy to achieve. I did have the feeling that sometimes some scenes felt a bit ‘dragging’, which is of course the other side of the same coin: everything is being done real time, so there is no editing or quick cuts to other scenes and stuff. They did do neat stuff you could only do in theater though, like a clever way do present the scenes set in the detention center, or a hilarious way to show ‘video footage’ of the Tonosaman play. One thing I thought weird was that some scenes seemed really unnecessary for the story (for example, the ones with the girl who is infatuated with the prosecutor Mitsurugi). It was like they were there only to prolong the story and to give everyone a role in the play.

In the Takarazuka Revue musical adaptations, the actors would do very convincing recreations of animations from the games. This isn’t done in this stage play, which is a missed chance, though I do understand why. This stage play is fairly natural and everything happens in a dynamic way, but game animations would look very strange in that world. Recreating the game animations worked in the Takarazuka Revue musicals, because they are set in an artificial world. By the way, they do use music from the games in Gyakuten no Spotlight, and there are some nice rearrangements there.

Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten no Spotlight is overall an entertaining, and original adaptation of the Ace Attorney series though, which manages to offer a new experience not seen in other adaptations. And I think that original mystery plays are not that common anymore nowadays, so that I think this might also be interesting for people who like mystery fiction in general, and not just people who like the Ace Attorney series, as you seldom see something like this.

Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転裁判 逆転のスポットライト』