Saturday, January 28, 2017

New Classmate of the Dead


"Don't believe in yourself! Believe in me! Believe in me who believes in you!!"
"Gurren Lagann"

I just realized this third entry in the Danganronpa series took ages to release. For people playing the English releases, the wait has not been that long, but for people who play the original Japanese releases, it's been a wait of almost 5 years since the last game...

Sixteen high school students awake to find themselves inside an abandoned school building. They have no recollection of how where they are, how they got there, why they're there, or even of each other. The only thing they remember that each of them is considered to be the "Ultimate" of their respective fields of interests, resulting in a diverse group consisting of people like the Ultimate Cosplayer, the Ultimate Inventor and the Ultimate Detective. Outside, they see that a gigantic dome surrounds the school ground, making it impossible for anyone to make their way to the outside world. A group of cute-looking, but highly dangerous robotic bears led by the black-and-white Monokuma explains to the group of sixteen that they are students at the Gifted Prisoners Academy and that the only way to escape from the school is to murder someone, and get away with it. A class trial is held after each murder, where the surviving students have to debate about the identity of the murderer. If the final majority vote on the identity of the murderer turns out to be correct, the murderer will be executed and the game goes on, but if the murderer manages to fool the rest of the students and lead them to a false conclusion, all the other students will be executed while the murderer will be granted freedom. While at first, none of the students show any intention of participating in such a mad game, it doesn't take long for Monokuma's hints about the outside world and the lost memories of the group to break their will and then the first murder occurs... Can the students of the Gifted Prisoners Academy survive these deadly class trials and find out why there are held captive in the PlayStation 4 / PlayStation Vita game New Danganronpa V3 - Minna no Koroshiai Shingakki (New Danganronpa V3 - A New Semester of Mutual Killings for All, 2017)?

New Danganronpa V3 is the third installment in the Danganronpa series developed by Spike-Chunsoft. The psychodelic presentation and the script filled with pop culture references of the original Danganronpa (2010) gave the quirky courtroom mystery game about a group of sixteen Ultimate high school students of Hope's Peak Academy forced to kill each other a unique vibe and it became a surprisingly big hit. Danganronpa was followed by Super Danganronpa 2 in 2012, where a new group of sixteen students were forced to participate in the mutal killing game, while the fictional universe was explored in spin-off games and novel series like Danganronpa/Zero and Danganronpa Kirigiri. The 2016 TV series Danganronpa 3 formed the end of the storyline that started with the first game.

The 2017 videogame New Danganronpa V3 on the other hand is, as the title suggests, a new start for the series, moving away from the previous storylines and introducing us to a brand new cast and setting. It's actually something only a game series can pull off, now I think about it. Even with a new cast and setting, the player will without a doubt recognize V3 as part of Danganronpa series, because the framework is still the same: it's still a mystery game, the game mechanics are mostly the same as previous games, the art and writing style is the same and there's even plenty of reused music. Only the contents (story) is different. It is nonetheless a different game, even it is also clearly Danganronpa. It's something you can't do effectively with a book for example, as there is no true iconic 'framework' in which to present a novel (save for book design/cover, but that can only convey the 'series' feeling in a limited manner, in my opinion).

Anyway, New Danganronpa V3 is supposed to be a sort of soft 'reset' of the Danganronpa franchise, but at the core nothing has changed. Once again the player is presented with a closed circle situation with sixteen students, with them having to solve the murders they commit among themselves in a courtroom setting, whilst also trying to figure out why they are being held captured at the school by Monokuma. Between the murders, you'll wander around the school (in a 3D map) to solve some simple puzzles, but also spend quite some time nurturing friendships with your fellow students. And yes, it really sucks when a student you befriended is killed in the next chapter, or turns out to be the murderer, though that is what makes Danganronpa what it is: you never know who might turn out to be the murderer, and the person who is always cheering you up might actually also be busy planning an elaborate murder plan to escape from the school. This closed circle atmosphere, where you never know who might get killed and who might kill, is something you can't really find in other (passive) mediums like novels and one of the things that make Danganronpa such an unique experience.

As always, the plot can be roughly split in two: the overall story, about why the sixteen students are being held at the Gifted Prisoners Academy, and the seperate murders that happen among the students (in essence a connected short story collection). The individual cases in New Danganronpa V3 were quite enjoyable. As always, they're all impossible crimes (usually a locked room mystery). While in terms of difficulty, I'd say they're just slightly more complex than the (too simple) ones from the first game, the murder plots in V3 were more innovative and original, and therefore fun, even if it was often easy to deduce what had happened even before the class trials started. Apparently mystery writer Kitayama Takekuni (who also writes the Danganronpa Kirigiri spinoff novels) cooperated on the mystery plots for this game. Kitayama is known as a master of impossible situations with a physical trick behind them and you and you can definitely sense his hand in some of the cases. Some of the cases also make fantastic use of the rules and tropes of Danganronpa's unique fictional universe and even the videogame medium itself. These murder cases are really only possible in this game and nowhere else, and thus offer some truly unique ideas. The fourth episode for example features an original setting for a murder plot, somewhat reminiscent of Komori Kentarou's Lowell-jou no Misshitsu. The seperate cases here show that a mystery plot does not need to be utterly complex to be amusing and rewarding. The overall storyline though has, as always, its share of problems. The overall idea behind the SURPRISE (it's never really a surprise) finale is okay (in a Kyomu he no Kumotsu manner), but the execution is longwinded, boring and simultaneously too ambitious and lazy. It's quite a disappointment in comparison with the smaller cases. The parts of V3 are better than the whole.

As always, the mystery solving gameplay is inspired by the Ace Attorney games, and has the player mainly pointing out contradictions in the utterances of fellow students with the help of evidence and testimony found during the class trial debates (though unlike the Ace Attorney games, there is an action-element involved in Danganronpa, where you need to act quick and have precise control). By pointing out contradictions, you come to new insights, which drives the plot and class trials forward. New in V3 is the ability to lie: occasionally the debate comes to a standstill, but you can lie to force a breakthrough in the debate. It's used only used sparingly though (but adds some replay value as there are some alternative debate routes you can explore through lying). There are also some other minigame-esque segments that also come in play during these mystery-solving debates, but to be honest: they were horrible. Most of them were 'reimagined' versions of game mechanics of the earlier two games, but for some reason all of them have made a turn for the worse. Seriously. I finished V3 and I still don't get how that one rhythm game works, even though I had no problems with its variations in the previous two games.

New Danganronpa V3 is a surprisingly difficult game to explain. At times, it feels like nothing but a somewhat uninspired remake of the first game, and with some game mechanics changed for the worse and (once again) a somewhat chaotic ending, it's easy to look at V3 as a very large step backwards compared to Super Danganronpa 2 or even the original game. Yet if you look at the seperate cases and the things they do there, I have to say I really enjoyed those cases. V3 really has some of the most interesting cases of the whole franchise (from a mystery-plot point of view). So yeah, I'm quite torn by this game. Perfect, it is certainly not and on the whole, it isn't a step forward for the series either. But there are some brilliant moments in here that do make this game worth the time if you're a fan of the series. The game will be released for English markets later in 2017 with the title Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ニューダンガンロンパV3』

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Play It Again

Please Set Disk Card
(Famicom Disk System boot-up screen)


You wake up in a room to find you have lost your memory. Next to you lies a small pocket-sized book. On the cover are a young man and a girl, with a backdrop featuring a great mansion, gravestones and what appears to be the horrifying image of a ghostly samurai warrior. You look at the title. Famicom Tantei Club - Kieta Koukeisha. While you have no memory of who you are and what happened to you, you do know you can read Japanese and, you interpret the title as Famicom Detective Club - The Missing Heir. The title sounds familiar. Perhaps this book has something to do with your past. The cover also notes this book is part of the Famicom Adventure Game Book series. Flipping the book open, you find out it was written by Ikeda Misa and published in 1988. The introduction explains that this is no normal novel, but a game book, where the reader can choose their own destiny. You are shocked to find out that your own situation mirrors that of the book: a young detective lost his memory after a nasty fall of a seaside cliff, and the only clue he has is that he was investigating the suspicious death of Ayashiro Kiku, head of the Ayashiro clan, in the small village of Myoujin. All of Kiku's relatives appear to have a motive for killing her, but then more murders happen, and the villagers think that Kiku has risen from her grave to avenge her death. As you read on, you become convinced this book will serve as a clue to regain your memories.
Go to 1.


You are convinced this book will be the key to retrieving your memories. But in what way? What should you do next? (You can't choose the same option twice).
Find out more about Famicom Tantei Club ⇒ Go to 2.
Find out more about gamebooks ⇒ Go to 3.
Read the book ⇒ Go to 4.
Quit investigation ⇒ Go to 5.

You decide to first find out more about Famicom Tantei Club. Luckily, you come across a lengthy review on some random blog on Japanese mystery fiction. Apparently, Famicom Tantei Club was a mystery adventure game series developed and published by Nintendo. While Nintendo hasn't touched this series for twenty years now, it still has some cult status as one of the creepiest games Nintendo has made in the past. In all three games, the young detective protagonists has to solve a murder case related to local legends and ghost stories. The book you know hold in your hands is an adaptation of the first game in the series, which was also published in 1988 with the exact same title. The story of the game, featuring serial murders among a wealthy family living in a secluded village and legends of the dead reviving is obviously inspired by Yokomizo Seishi: in fact, Sakamoto Yoshio (co-creator of acclaimed game series Metroid), who wrote and designed the original game, had little experience with mystery novels and had only read some by Yokomizo, which is why the atmosphere of the game feels so familiar. The gamebook adaptation of the story is largely similar to the game, but there are still some changes that will certainly surprise people who have played the original.
Add (F) to your inventory.
Learn more about the book ⇒ Go to 1.
Quit investigation ⇒ Go to 5.


A gamebook, also known as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, is a type of fiction where the reader can participate in the story themselves by making choices. The choices you make lead to different narrative branches, all with varying outcomes. Some gamebooks also feature extended systems, like inventory mechanics or luck mechanics with dices. Sound/visual novel games, such as Kamaitachi no Yoru and Machi are in fact nothing more but (highly complex) gamebooks brought in digital form (which seperates them from adventure games like Ace Attorney). Gamebooks were especially popular in Japan in the 1980s, with many gamebooks being published based on Famicom (NES) games. The book you are holding now was also published during the gamebook boom. In this book, you are given choices like where to go next, or what to ask to whom. As you progress, you collect clues and red herrings (which you add to your inventory as alphabet letters), which allow you to eventually solve the case.
Add (G) to your inventory.
Learn more about the book ⇒ Go to 1.
Quit investigation ⇒ Go to 5.


You realize that this book is quite unique, as it's a detective gamebook, whereas most gamebooks are in the fantasy genre. The story in this book is basically the same as the original game (though it does have some surprising changes), but adds in more narrative branches and game over scenarios, some of them quite original and almost hilarious (there is no game over in the original game). A gamebook is a distinctly different experience from a normal novel: here you are forced to make a choice every couple of paragraphs (or even sentences). As such, it's definitely more interactive than a normal book, as you keep flipping back and forth through the book as you keep notes of your clue inventory. In detective stories with a Challenge to the Reader, the reader is often asked to present their own chain of logic to prove who the murderer is. In regards of having to deduce something, this gamebook is very simply. In fact, most of the time, the protagonist will make the connections himself and at set times, the book will also help organize all the hints you've collected until then. What does make this gamebook difficult, and interesting as a detective gamebook, is that you do need to collect all the necessary clues yourself. Forgetting to ask someone something crucial, or accidently going to the village instead of to the doctor's might mean you'll miss out on an important clue. Some clues are vital to proceed in the game, and without them you're forced into a game over scenario. There are also red herrings, which can also prevent you from getting to the end of the story, as simple possession of them already means you're fooled by them. In a Challenge to the Reader-type of story, the story presents you with all the clues, and then asks you to deduce the truth yourself. In this gamebook, you'll have to find the correct clues yourself, but then the story will deduce the truth for you. It's a very different type of experience, but quite unique and a neat way to apply the gamebook mechanism on a detective story. This book is really difficult by the way. Even people who have played the original game will sometimes get tripped up by fake clues and there's very little leeway for mistakes on your way to the end.
Add (C) to your inventory.
Learn more about the book ⇒ Go to 1.
Quit investigation ⇒ Go to 5.


It might be time to wrap up your investigation of this book. As you examined it, you could faintly feel your memory returning.
Inventory check.
Do you have (F), (G), (C) and (X) in your inventory? ⇒ Go to 6.
If not ⇒ Go to 7.


It is impossible to have X in your inventory. You cheat! As you do not take your investigations seriously, you are unable to retrieve your memories.


Do you want to want to put the book away?
Yes ⇒ Go to Epilogue.
No ⇒ Go to 1.


You suddenly remember everything. You were so captivated by Famicom Tantei Club - Kieta Koukeisha that you were walking around reading it, and you slipped on the rug in the living room, hitting your head, causing temporary amnesia. Even though you already knew the original game (or perhaps because), you really enjoyed this gamebook, as it was a surprisingly good example of how to do a mystery story in the form of a gamebook. You are now convinced of its possibilities and hope to find more of these.


Original Japanese title(s): 池田美佐 『ファミコン探偵倶楽部 消えた後継者』

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Gentle Rain From Heaven

ペガサス幻想(ファンタジー) そうさ夢だけは

Pegasus Fantasy /  Yes, Dreams are
The only wings of the heart nobody can steal from you
"Pegasus Fantasy" (Make-Up) 

Today: a series I've been wanted to read for ages, because of the combination of this particular series with the writer. And yes, I know New Danganronpa V3 is out, but I need to find the time to play it and stuff.

Samidare Yui is a sixteen year old girl and student of a Girls Missionary Academy. According to the rules, any student must register with the school in case they want to have a part-time job. Yui is the first student in the long history of the school to have applied to become a detective. Specializing in kidnapping cases, she has slowly been raising her Detective Shelf Classification score. Every professional detective is registered in the Detective Library, which issues a DSC to all detectives. A DSC score shows exactly what the field of specialty is of any detective, as well as their mastery of their field. The most coveted DSC score is 000, indicating mastery of all fields. One day, Yui is invited to a mysterious gathering at the Sirius Observatory, together with four other detectives. One of them is Kirigiri Kyouko, a young girl who has recently transfered to the same school as Yui and who has only just begun her career as a professional detective. At the Sirius Observatory, the five detectives find out they have been lured into a trap, and everyone is knocked out. When Yui wakes up, she finds out that three of the detectives have been murdered, with their bodies cut up in many pieces and mixed around. Because Kirigiri is the only other person alive inside the observatory (and everything is locked from the inside), Yui naturally suspects her, but are things really so simple in Kitayama Takekuni's Danganronpa Kirigiri 1 (2013)?

Danganronpa Kirigiri is a spin-off and prequel series to the Danganronpa game series. The original games tell the story of a group of students of the Hope Peak's Academy being forced to kill each other in a closed circle setting, but in a way so the others don't know who the murderer was. The sadistic killing games were coupled with exciting courtroom segments (the murderer would be released if not detected, but executed if found out) and a very generous dash of psycho-pop presentation, which made the games an unexpected hit. The storyline that started with the first game finally ended last year, with the TV series Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy. Danganronpa Kirigiri is a book series set several years before the events of the first game (and before the prequel novel Danganronpa Zero) and focuses on Kirigiri Kyouko, one of the characters who first appeared in the very first game. But like in the games, Kirigiri remains a mysterious character, as she is always seen from the POV of another person (in this case, Yui's POV).

The writer of this particular book series is Kitayama Takekuni by the way, who specializes in physical gadgets and tricks in his books. You might remember him from some older reviews on this blog (Alice Jou Satsujin Jiken is probably the most interesting one) and I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by that. While I do like them, I never really got used to the science-fiction/fantasy-like worlds in his books. But with Danganronpa, I already know the world from the games and other materials, so I never got bothered by that while I was reading Danganronpa - Kirigiri 1. But I think this book is also quite accesible for people who don't know Danganronpa yet, because it is set so long before the main events of the games start. This is very different from Danganronpa Zero, which you really could only read if you had played the games.

As a mystery story, The Sirius Observatory Murder Case, is a pretty decent impossible murder mystery. The story basically starts with the discovery of three cut-up bodies, and it then uses a flashback to explain the events that led up to it. The way the bodies were cut up kinda reminds of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, but rest assured, this is a very different type of mystery. The solution behind the triple murder inside the locked observatory is clever: it fits the setting, more than enough hints are dangled in front of the reader, and yet it is one that might be overseen very easily. We as the reader have the advantage over Yui, because we know that we can rule Kirigiri out as a suspect because she is a returning character from the Danganronpa franchise, but it's still an exciting closed circle murder mystery.

However, the story does feel a bit short. It's more like a lengthy short story, than a real novel. The book is about 200 pages long, but because of all the dialogue lines (= lots of white on the page), it's actually not that long in terms of character count. For the price (and it goes for a premium price!), Danganronpa - Kirigiri 1 feels a bit lacking in terms of content.

The book is set-up to be a series by the way. In the prologue, the reader learns that a organization called the Crime Victim Salvation Committee is behind everything, offering vengeful people the means to execute their revenge. Over the course of the series, Kirigiri and Yui will learn more about this Committee. The book ends with a "To Be Continued" but each book does feature its own independent storyline, though they do end with a set-up for the next volume.

Overall, I think Danganronpa - Kirigiri 1 is an amusing mystery novel. It's not strongly connected to the main Danganronpa series, but that works for this novel series and it is a very decently constructed mystery, as expected from a writer like Kitayama. It's just a bit short. Of the books I've read by Kitayama however, it's definitely the most accessible, and I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切り1』

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Puzzle for Players

『安楽椅子探偵ON STAGE』

"I am the Armchair Detective. I am nothing more and nothing less than that."
"The Armchair Detective ON STAGE"

Disclosure: I translated novels by both Arisugawa Alice (The Moai Island Puzzle) and Ayatsuji Yukito (The Decagon House Murders) As far as I know by the way, the only things they really co-created are this show, and one of the stories in the mystery game Trick X Logic.

Do you know about the urban legend of the Armchair Detective? The tales go that there is a mysterious entity (who looks like Dr. Doom) who lives solely for the act of reasoning. He has solved countless of baffling cases through absolute logic, but is always forgotten by everyone involved with the case whenever he leaves save for the person who first summoned him to the scene. A small theater troupe has been making a succesful series of stage plays based on this urban legend titled The Legend of the Armchair Detective. The third installment of the mystery stage play however is met with some resistance: creepy messages are posted on the internet predicting the death of the Armchair Detective on stage. Performance of The Legend of the Armchair Detective III goes as planned though, until the last night of the show, when the Armchair Detective indeed drops dead on stage during his scene. Everyone is shocked to discover it's not actor Nakazaki Rakuta's face behind the mask, but that of his twin brother/assistant director Yasuo. Not long after, Rakuta's body is also discovered in the storage room at the troupe's office. Who killed the Nagazaki twins? That is a question not only the Armchair Detective can answer, but also you, the viewer, in the TV drama/game Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE ("The Armchair Detective ON STAGE, 2017).

Anraku Isu Tantei ("The Armchair Detective") is a TV drama originally created by mystery writers Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice for ABC, a local network in the Kansai region of Japan. It is essentially the ultimate Challenge to the Reader Viewer. Each story consists of two episodes. In the first episode, the viewer is introduced to all the characters, the events leading up to, and the events after the murder(s) and most importantly, the viewer is shown all the hints and clues necessary to solve the crime themselves. Viewers are then encouraged to write in with the answers to the following two questions: 1) Who is the murderer? and (more importantly): 2) What is the logical process by which you arrived at that conclusion? The winner, drawn from the people who submitted the correct answers, is presented with a sizeable money prize (500.000 yen in the 2017 edition) and eternal fame. The episode with the solution, detailing the complete process of how you should have deduced the identity of the murderer, is broadcast one week after the first. I have reviewed Anraku Isu Tantei ON AIR in the past, which was broadcast in 2006.

It had been eight years already since the Armchair Detective last appeared on television, so quite a lot of people were surprised by the sudden return of this almost legendary show. Things sure have changed in those eight years though, and while the show was still produced by a local TV station, Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE, the eight installment in the series, marks the first time the show was available to viewers throughout Japan through online streaming and on-demand services. The first episode was broadcast on January 5, 2017, the second episode on January 13.

In essence, Anraku Isu Tantei is at the core nothing more than a pure whodunit, with a few basic (written and unwritten) rules, including 1) there is only one murderer, 2) nobody will tell a lie (on purpose), save for the murderer, 3) everybody acts in a logical manner, 4) nothing "outside" what is shown exists (objects etc.), 5) motive is of no consequence and so on. Usually (and also in the case of Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE), your main objective is to identify a few characteristics of the murderer based on what you saw in the first episode, and use those characteristics to eliminate suspects. For example, let's say you have found evidence on the screen that prove the murderer was left-handed. Then you check for every suspect whether they are right or left-handed (or ambidextrous) and so on. I wrote a lengthy post on this 'elimination-style of mystery fiction' quite some time back now, but this is a form that is especially well-suited for the game-format of this show, because viewers can very clearly show the logical process of how they deduced the identity of the murderer ("Scene 1 proves the murderer was left-handed. Only X is left-handed. Ergo the murderer is X").

It's been eight years since the last episode aired, but Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE was still incredibly difficult. Not as difficult as previous episodes, true, but still, it's gloves off here. The truth behind the double murders on the twins is complex: you can identify the murderer based on basically two characteristics deduced from the crime scenes, but arriving at those two points will require lateral thinking by the viewer, as well as a very keen eye for detail. Still, as you listen to the solution in the second episode, you really can't help but cry out: "Ah! That makes so much sense!". Tthough admittedly, there were a few points where I could see the logic behind it, but did not see it as the one and only possible interpretation possible.

The logical chain that leads to the culprit is definitely not short, but it is so satisfying to get to the end of things. Though I do have the feeling that this episode was in a way 'easier' than previous episodes (it's less mean), but that it did ask for a lot more 'boring' work from the viewer. Making a time table of where everybody was at what time for yourself is pretty handy for example (that's what all the timestamps are for in the episode!) Also, in a puzzle plot mystery novel, it's easy to flip some pages back to check up on something, to reread that part about some minor detail that might be an important hint (I do so often). This is also required with this show: it is utterly impossible to solve this show with just one viewing (unless you have photographic memory). It's definitely easier now than eight years back, now we have digital recorders and on-demand streaming services, but if you want to solve this crime, you'll need to look really carefully for clues, zooming in on the background and stuff. On one hand, I think it's brilliant. This is a visual format, so of course yeah, come on with visual clues and other clues that make use of the medium. On the other hand: as a viewer, it's also not particularly fun to zoom in on a wall to look for a fly resting there, as an example. Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE is a fair mystery story that is solvable, but a challenging one too. It is not as mindwarping shocking as some of the earlier entries in this series though (Ayatsuji commented after the show they tried to be 'gentle' as it was the first episode in almost a decade).

Last year, I reviewed the 2016 installment of Nazotoki Live, another TV show with an interactive format. There they helped the viewer organize all the information and important clues at set points throughout the show, making an otherwise complex mystery plot understandable by breaking the logical process in steps. In Anraku Isu Tantei, the viewer has to do all of that themselves. There is of course a monetary award involved with this, so that's a logical design choice, but it's interesting comparing the two shows. In terms of complexity, the two don't differ that greatly on the whole, but Nazotoki Live helps you on the way, while Anraku Isu Tantei will make you work very very hard on the problem.

The way the character of the Armchair Detective was incorporated in the story itself was fun too. The Armchair Detective is a really fun character, and the solution episodes are often a blast to watch not in the least because of him. The solution episodes are also very meta-concious: all the involved characters are transported to the world of the Armchair Detective, and together with the suspects, he explains the logical elimination process by showing the corresponding scenes from the first episodes as his proof. This explanation process (which includes false solutions and faulty hypotheses) takes an about an hour on average: the plots are just that complex (and therefore of a scale seldom seen on TV).

After the second episode, it was revealed 6819 people submitted an answer. While 60% did guess the identity of the murderer correctly, only 32(!) submissions out of those nearly 7000 got the logical process of elimination correct. So only 0.47% of all the entries guessed the murderer in the correct way. In the end, Ayatsuji and Arisugawa had to choose the 'most elegant' answer from those 32 correct answers, but they couldn't pick one single winner, so there were two winners for Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE.

Anyway, Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE was definitely an entertaining addition to the series. As always, it shows how a true fair play mystery plot can work out on the screen, but like previous installments, it can be very tough at times, and sometimes it's asking the viewer to look at rather small details on the screen too much. Still, there is still an air of magic around this show, with the money prize and the meta-approach to presenting the solution to the viewer in the second episode that makes this an unique experience as both a mystery show and a game. I think that's the word I was looking for. Experience. Anraku Isu Tantei is always an experience. Let's hope the Armchair Detective will be summoned again in the future soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 『安楽椅子探偵ON STAGE』

Monday, January 16, 2017

It Is What It Is

'There's an east wind coming, Watson.' 
- 'I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.'
"His Last Bow"
It was a deliberate choice on my part to not write individual posts on the episodes as they were airing, but I couldn't have imagined my enjoyment of the episodes could vary so much even within the same series.

Has it already been so many years since Sherlock first started? I remember I was living in Japan in 2010, and I had picked up some tidbit that some sort of 21st century take on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson was about to start on BBC. I had very little expectations of it, but I managed to errr... somehow watch the first episode in Japan and was thorougly impressed by it. From the acting to the fast-paced script to the game-inspired visuals, it was all more than just a pleasant surprise, and while it was obviously not always (or seldomly) a faithful adaptation of the original material, the series was simply great entertainment. And as we now know, it became a hit, moving from some obscure summer TV slot to a prominent New Year's Day slot starting with the second series in 2012, followed by a third series in 2014 and a special in 2016. The fourth series of Sherlock started on New Year's Day 2017, bringing three new adventures with the consultant detective and the brave doctor.

The original first series ended on a cliffhanger ending (presumably to fish for a second series), but viewers might remember that this cliffhanger ending was resolved in the most laziest way possible when the series returned. Series 3's The Empty Hearse did a hilarious, internet generation-inspired, Berkeley-esque examination of the difficulties of having to come up with satisfying resolutions to cliffhangers which were obviously not planned out at all, but unfortunately, Series 4 too starts off by basically waving away the ending of the third series (as well as the 2016 special), which showed viewers a video message starring crime consultant Moriarty, who was presumed dead after the events of the second series, prompting Sherlock to return to British soil to deal with the apparent return of his nemesis. The Six Thachers proceeds by shrugging its shoulders at this, and continues with a completely different story. For Sherlock, things are the same old, same old as he continues his work as a consulting detective, but Watson been has busy juggling between his life as a loving husband to Mary, father to baby Rosie and ally to Sherlock. During one of their cases, Sherlock becomes aware of a figure who is enigmatically busy smashing busts of Margeret Thatcher.

I won't go as far as saying The Six Thatchers was a rough start of this new series, but it was definitely an uneven episode. The first half of this episode is obviously based on the classic story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons. What sets this apart most from the original story, besides the fact that the statues are now of Thatcher, are the many scenes with Watson and Mary as young parents, and the initial case that brings Sherlock on the trail of the Six Thatchers (which are basically unrelated events). There is an interesting-sounding impossible situation here, where the son of a Cabinet Minister is discovered dead inside a car parked in front of the house, even though he was presumed to be on a gap year in Tibet. The solution is a bit unpolished. I like the premise of how this impossibility came to be, but the way the story basically decides to handwave away the reason why the son died in the first place is at best sloppy.

As often happens in Sherlock, the second half then adds a twist to the original story it is based on. I've seen a lot of people describe this part of The Six Thatchers as James Bond. I am not sure whether I'll go along with that, but there is certainly a shift from problem-solving with the mind, to a much more action-packed formula. Of course, a good mystery story can still be full of action: many storylines in series like Detective Conan or Spiral are about detectives trying to outsmart each other in life-or-death situations. This is not the case in The Six Thatchers though. In the end, the story does come back to what I thought was a decent, even if not particularly original mystery plot about a traitor in the government, that at least had some similarities to the plots of Sherlock episodes in earlier series. The episode ends on a downer note however.

The Six Thatchers left Watson in a very dark place, so it is no surprise that The Lying Detective starts off with a seperated dynamic duo. Watson still hasn't recovered from the shock of the previous episode, while Sherlock has gone back to his drug habits. But then a new case presents itself to him. Based on information offered by the daughter, he has learned that famous entrepeneur and philantropist Culverton Smith is in fact a murderer. Sherlock becomes obsessed with the problem of Culverton Smith as his drug abuse worsens, much to the dismay of landlord Mrs. Hudson who tries to get Watson to look after his friend. As Sherlock's condition becomes worse, accusing Smith of being a serial killer, Watson and Sherlock's other friends start to wonder whether Sherlock has lost it all to drugs.

As the title suggests, this episode is based on The Dying Detective, and people who know that story can probably guess how this story will end. Like series 2's The Hounds of Baskerville, The Lying Detective is a modern adaptation that stays surprisingly faithful to the original story in spirit from start to finish (as opposed to the first half/second half set-up like seen in The Six Thatchers). So in broad terms, The Lying Detective should offer few surprises storywise, but this episode was in fact one of the trickiest, but also most satisfying episodes of the whole series. The Culverton Smith plot is neatly woven with the overarching storyline of the main characters, resulting in good character studies where we see the members of the cast cope with the events of The Six Thatchers, but not at the expense of an entertaining mystery plot. In terms of direction and visual effects, The Lying Detective is also the MVP of this series,  as it keeps the viewer on their toes with flashbacks, tricky directon and more of the videogame-like presentation we've learned to love (which was strangely subdued in this series, save for The Lying Detective). This is a perfect example of how to do a new take on a classic Sherlock Holmes story, but in its own new context (in this case, as a Sherlock episode). The episode with (once again) a cliffhanger ending involving Watson, featuring a reveal I find both neat, and badly done. The facts which are revealed are entertaining (if a bit farfetched), but it also presented as if Watson/the viewer should, or could have seen it coming, but there were definitely no precise, mathematical "1 + 1 = 2" hints to lead to that conclusion.

With the existence of a certain character unveiled in the previous episode, series finale The Final Problem has Sherlock, Watson and brother Mycroft make their way to a maximum security institution in an attempt to make sense of the events that happened of late. They are lured into a trap though, and the three are forced to play in a series of games that play with the very essence of Sherlock as a person.

The Final Problem is a problem case. In a way, it represents exactly the things I don't like about Sherlock. I like the characters of the show, but that does not mean I want to see a series solely about those characters. Sherlock of course always had this tendency, and it became more apparent starting with series 3, but more often than not, Sherlock and Watson were the focal point of the stories. Not just as the main cast, but I mean that they had personal stakes in the episodes. Backstory this, character development that. They are fictional characters and of course the world is built around them, but that doesn't also need to be the focus of the series, I think. Not every story has to be personal, not every story has to be related to about character development. Using the "Now it's personal" card every time weakens things. Just let me see the characters interact as they are working on something else. But The Final Problem is this problem in extremis. Sherlock is at the center of the universe, everything revolves around Sherlock, everything only has meaning because of Sherlock. The whole plot of this episode is about a character so obsessed with Sherlock they come up with the most convoluted plan? bullying? scheme ever and then organize a small scale Batman: Arkham Asylum and Saw crossover to show to the viewer what kind of character Sherlock is. Seriously, most of the Saw challenges involved don't even ask much of Sherlock's brain, but are just there to show off sides of his personality. It is the ultimate example of having a story revolve around the main character in such an absurd and exaggerated manner possible (one could argue that a character like Moriarty did the same; however he had other motives besides just messing with Sherlock). I have seen people being very positive about this episode precisely because it's all about Sherlock and it's emotional investing and stuff, but to me, this was going way too far into this character-moe territory.

To me, episodes like The Sign of Three and the aforementioned The Lying Detective were good examples of still doing character-focused stories, without sacrificing a mystery plot that could also stand strongly on its own merit. Ideally, these episodes should be the standard for 'character-focused' stories in this series I think, with the 'normal' episodes obviously less involved, focusing more on the mystery plots. The Final Problem in comparison is a story with Sherlock, about Sherlock, for Sherlock. It's a development I also see in for example the Ace Attorney game series, which started out as basically a courtroom mystery short story collection featuring a defense attorney as its protagonist, but has slowly become a courtroom mystery game about the main cast.

The one thing I did like about this episode, was when Featured Character showed how they managed to escape from their holding cell, as that was a great visual trick played on both the characters and the viewers at home. And on a sidenote, why do they keep saying Mycroft is the smart one, if EVERYBODY always gets the better of him and he's made to carry the idiot ball in basically every episode he appears in? Seriously, is there anything he has done that has not backfired in the most obvious of ways possible?

On the whole, I'd say series 4 of Sherlock was the most uneven one until now. While acting was on a high point, I thought overall direction and presentation was a bit subdued compared to previous series, with The Lying Detective being the fantastic exception. The pronounced focus on the main cast is something that I at least don't like as a trend, with The Final Problem being the embodiment of what I didn't want to see from this series. Unlike previous series finales, The Final Problem does not feature any real set-ups for a future series, leading to speculation that this might be the last we'll see from Sherlock and Watson. I'm still not sure how I feel about that. Series 4 is to me both a high and low point, so at one hand I'd love to see more of the quality of The Lying Detective, and on the other hand I dread more Final Problems. Series 4 is what it is, but I have no idea what future Sherlock could be.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Misty Mystery


I can't see you... 
On this long, long Sunday 
I'm stuck waiting for you
"The Long Sunday We Couldn't Meet" (Fujimoto Miki)

Useless fact of the day: the Japanese magazine Shounen Sunday, which is the home of series like Detective Conan, is released every Wednesday, not Sunday.

Chizuru is a second-year student in junior high who goes to a Catholic girls academy. One day, her mother gives her five vouchers for the Yotsuya Culture Center, telling her daughter to take the cooking class there. In the class, Chizuru is grouped together with three other girls of the same age. Moodmaker Momo, gamer Maki and silent, but intelligent Kimiko and Chizuru all appear to have nothing in common, but they grow closer during their cooking class, especially because something curious happens that piques the group's interests. After their initial cooking class, the group decides to try out different classes together, using the remaining four vouchers each of them have. And so begins a tale of four girls in Van Madoy's short story collection Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni ("The Land of Our Dreams On Sunday", 2016).

Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni ("The Land of Our Dreams On Sunday"), which also carries the alternate English title Sunday Quartet, was written by Van Madoy (or Madoi Ban), who first debuted with the Revoir series, a young adult mystery novel featuring the unique setting of a private underground court in Kyoto. Since then however, his works have become more and more accessible, with more normal settings. And for some reason, his protagonists also become younger and younger, as we started with university students, and then went from high school students to a group of junior high students in this book.  I am expecting kids in elementary school in his next book.

Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni is a short story collection featuring so-called everyday life mysteries, a subgenre that mixes the mystery genre with the slice-of-life genre. So we don't see gruesome murders, but mysteries you and I might come across in our everyday life.  These stories are often whydunnits, and look into seemingly weird situations. The difficulty with this subgenre is that the mystery needs to be attractive to the reader, but also 'normal' enough to fit the slice-of-life theme. One of the best stories I've read in this genre is the short story Oishii Cocoa no Tsukurikata ("How to Make Delicious Chocolate Milk") featured in Yonezawa Honobu's Shunki Gentei Ichigo Tart Jiken ("The Spring Special Strawberry Tart Case"). The mystery there is that of how a person managed to make the perfect cup of chocolate milk using a limited set of tools, but the way it unfolds is no less serious and logical than any mystery story by Ellery Queen. But I have also often read everyday life mystery stories where the mystery is not very attractive, often because it's not defined properly, making it hard to judge whether it's a true mystery story or not.

In general, the lack of truly attractive everyday life mysteries is what most stories in Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni have in common. The opening story, Leftovers, is about the cooking class where our four protagonists first meet. Money is stolen from one of the older participants, but the teacher decided to pay the money back to the victim from his own wallet and then let the whole thing go. Considering how much one class pays him (not much), it doesn't make any sense why he would decide to do that instead of finding out who did steal the money. The solution to this question is okay, though the one problem with this subgenre is that it seldom feels 'satisfying' as often both the mystery itself, as well as the solution don't feel conclusive. Often, you feel like anything could've have happened, and the solution often feels a bit arbitrary.

Stories like Ishin Denshin ('Telepathic Restoration') and Ikutabimo Regret ("Countless Regrets") in particular feature 'problems' that don't really work well in the mystery genre. In the first example, the girls decide to deduce what the history teacher had planned to say in his class about the Bakufu system, before he collapsed mid-class and was taken away to the hospital. While a decent tale on its own, it's barely a mystery story, as it is so open and not designed as something be truly solved. The same holds for Ikutabimo Regret, where the girls have to write an ending to an unfinished story for their writing class, and each of them is hoping to find the "correct" ending.

Ifu Senkin, Nifu Genkin ("One Pawn Is Worth A Thousand Generals, Two Pawns Are Strictly Forbidden") has a slightly more defined mystery. The title refers to the rule that with the board game shougi, you are not allowed to put two pawns on the same file (vertical row). Yet that is exactly what Momo is trying to pull off in her shougi class. The story starts with the reveal that Momo is doing an awful lot to pull off that forbidden move, and the rest of the stories slowly explains why. Not a remarkable mystery story by any standard, but I did think this was one of the better-defined stories.

The final story, Ikinari wa Egakenai ("Can't Draw Suddenly") has the four girls finding a crumpled up piece of paper with a beautiful sketch looking down through the clouds at the Imperial Palace. Some dirt stuck on the back of the paper however reveal the words "Help me." The girls naturally decide to find out what the deal is behind the sketch, but how? I thought this story was very fun, as it showed how each of the girls had grown over the course of the book, and the parts where the girls deduce where the sketch must have come from were pretty interesting, but there was no way the reader could've deduce that truth. The reader is only along for the ride here and just have to see how the girls explain all the discoveries they made when they weren't on the proverbial stage. So interesting concept, but not without flaws.

As you will probably understand by now, Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni was not exactly what I was looking for. I do think it works quite well as a youth novel, with a light touch of mystery, as the way the girls are portrayed, and especially the way the classes and their companionship changes them, is amusing. But as a mystery short story collection, it's just not engaging enough. Oh, but I did love the cover art!

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『日曜は憧れの国』: 「レフトオーバーズ」 / 「一歩千金二歩厳禁」 / 「維新伝心」 / 「幾度もリグレット」 / 「いきなりは描けない」

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Secret Code

「Secret Code」(KinKi Kids)

I thought I could see it, but no, I can't
Inside the depths of your heart
But I'm not the type
Who minds the past anyway
"Secret Code" (KinKi Kids)
The thing with serialized series like Detective Conan is that there's quite a lag between the first publication of the individual chapters, and the collected volumes. That's why a story about buying bathing suits and bikinis is published in the middle of December...

As volume 91 of Detective Conan was released mid-December 2016, I had hoped to do this review just before the new year, but the mail was rather slow at the end of the year, as I had feared. This volume starts off with the continuation of The Legend of the Nue of Yadori Village, which started in the previous volume. Osaka-bred high school student detective Hattori and childhood friend Kazuha invite Conan and Ran to come along with Hattori's latest job to Yadori Village. Local legend has it that the hidden Tokugawa gold can be found here, but some years ago, an unfortunate accident resulted in the death of one of the treasure hunters inside a mine. When asked what he saw in the mine just before he died, he replied with the word Nue, the name of a chimaera-like youkai with the head of a monkey, the legs of a tiger, the body of raccoon dog and a snake for its tail. Since then, people stayed away from the area, in fear of the Nue. The mayor of Yadori Village wants to reinvigorate the area however, and he hopes to start a new boom in treasure hunting for the Tokugawa Gold and youkai lovers, so he has invited several people known for treasure hunting, youkai experts and a detective like Hattori to create a new promotion video which should lure in new visitors.

The party is staying in an old abandoned hotel, where the dog of the deceased treasure hunter is also living. On the first night however, the gang is surprised by a horrible cry, followed by a fire just outside the hotel, and when they get outside, they see a gigantic monster standing next to the hotel. Following the monster inside the surrounding forest, Conan and Hattori find one of the party members killed, with horrible slashes across his body. But the night isn't over yet when the Nue strikes again, this time inside a locked room...

Overall a story with good, creepy atmosphere. The truth behind the Nue appearance isn't difficult to guess, I think, and I liked the fundamental ideas behind how the Nue was given life, but I really have my doubts about how feasible the trick is. The locked room murder was clever, though I think figuring out the whole deal about how it was pulled off is a bit difficult based on the hints given. One part of the magic for example involves something I sorta heard about once, but I could never have guessed it could be used in this way, and it kinda comes out of nowhere. The story also ends with a very short introduction of a new, recurring character with a tie to Hattori who will also play an important role in the 2017 Detective Conan theatrical release. The way she is shown is utterly ridiculous and feels incredibly forced.

The second story, The Contents of the Puzzle Box, has a widow asking old Suzuki Jiroukichi for help. Her husband left her an old puzzle box, with a grand Moonstone inside.The problem is that she doesn't know how to open the (booby-trapped) box. She knows her husband had hidden a note with the way to open it inside one of his books, but she could never find it and his books are now donated to the Suzuki Grand Library. Because Jiroukichi can't find the note either, and doesn't know how to open the box, he decides to lure phantom thief KID to his library, challenging him to open the box to steal the Moonstone (Jiroukichi of course plans to catch KID after he has opened the box). The story is part impossible situation, part whodunit. The impossible angle comes from the fact nobody is able to find the note, even though the widow is sure it's inside of her husband's collection (of at least 10.000 books). The solution is kinda hard to swallow: I really doubt that the trick would've gone undetected in a serious search. The whodunit angle comes from the fact KID is (as always) disguised as someone of the main cast. The clues pointing to KID's identity are fairly simple this time, and I think most people will figure them out, though I think they are done in a decent manner that does show that the visual medium does offer a lot of possibilities not available to 'normal' novels.
A Secret Code Across Time is set at Teitan Elementary School, where Conan's class is introduced to Wakasa Rumi, a new assistant teacher who'll be working together with teacher Kobayashi. Conan and the Detective Boys accompany their teacher to the old shed, because she's too afraid to go on her own inside the decrepit building, which hasn't been used for a decade. While searching for the materials she needs, Conan discovers a skeletonized body inside the cellar room, as well as a mysterious piece of paper with some kind of coded message. It appears the deceased was a thief who had died inside that cellar ten years ago, and that the code might be connected to his loot, but as Conan investigates the case, he fails to notice that his new teacher Wakasa might be more than she appears at first sight....

First of all, I'm not sure whether I should be surprised or not that Teitan Elementary School has been the home to a dead body for ten years, without anyone discovering it. I think I should be more surprised than I actually am. I am usually fairly indifferent about code cracking stories, but this one gets bonus points because I got a fairly good idea of the premise behind it fairly quickly. I do like several very plausible-looking theories are proposed as to how the code should be interpreted, and that the final solution incorporates elements of all the earlier theories. The story does forces the idiot ball on several characters though, including Conan.

Volume 91 ends with the first two chapters of The Message In The Fitting Room, which is about Ran, Sonoko and Sera in bathing suits a woman strangled inside the fitting room of a clothing boutique and the dying message she left with the fingers. I have an idea of what the message might mean, but I won't learn about the solution until the next volume, which will be released in April (together with the 2017 Detective Conan film). This story also serves as a hook for an important story in the next volume, which should finally show us the details about how Sera actually first met Conan and Ran when they were kids (which had been hinted at for quite some time now).

Detective Conan 91 was fairly subdued compared to the previous volume, in which most stories had some connection to the plotline of Conan chasing after the mysterious character RUM. Things are not as tense in this volume, with amusing, but predictable stories with Hattori and KID, and a brief introduction to two new female characters who probably turn out to be very important later. Considering the preview, and the fact it's the volume released together with the 2017 film, I expect volume 92 will be a much more densely packed volume, so let's consider this one the enjoyable silent moment before the storm.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第91巻

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

La Demeure mystérieuse

「炎の宝物」 (Bobby)

This love of mine burns like a flame
I hope only you will understand
Embrace me with a bond with you...
"A Treasure of Flames" (Bobby)

I often comment on the covers of Japanese releases here, but I have to say, today's review has easily one of the best I've ever seen. People who are familiar with anime will probably recognize the style immediately.

In the outskirts of Nagasaki stands an old Western-style mansion, with a clock tower on top, It was built in the final years of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) as a country villa by a wealthy man with a love for clocks. Rumors say he had a secret maze built inside the building to hide his treasures, and that he had actually gone missing inside the maze, with nobody being able to even find the entrance to the secret passages to save him. Just a few decades later, around the transition from the Meiji to the Taishou period (which started in 1912), a former servant of the household had gotten into possession of the mansion, but she was murdered in her bedroom by one of her adopted children. Since then, the building has been without an owner, and the people in the neighboring village started calling it the Phantom Tower. Six years after the murder, young Kitagawa Mitsuo finds himself wandering through this haunted mansion, as it recently became the possession of his uncle, who intends to make it his home. While Mitsuo is checking out what needs to be renovated, he finds a beautiful, mysterious woman in the room where the murder took place. Akiko, as her name turns out to be, explains she knows how to handle the mechanism of the clock tower and says she'd love to meet Mitsuo's uncle. But who is this woman, and why was she in the Phantom Tower in the first place? Little did Mitsuo know that this first meeting with the mysterious woman would turn into a grand adventure in Edogawa Rampo's Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower", 1937).

Yuureitou is probably one of the better known novels by Edogawa Rampo, father of the Japanese detective story. But that is not only because it is a novel by Rampo, as there is a a whole convoluted history behind this novel. This book was originally published in 1937, but this was actually an extensive reimagined version of Kuroiwa Ruikou's Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower"), first serialized in 1899-1900 in Kuroiwa's own newspaper Yorozu Chouhou. I don't write that often about Kuroiwa, but he's an important figure in early Japanese fiction: he was a journalist/publisher/translator/writer, who often translated Western novels (w/o actually securing the rights, mind you) for serialization in his (common-people-oriented) newspaper. But his translations are actually best described as adaptations, as Kuroiwa freely changed things in a story to suit his own preferences. But his adaptations were very readable, and popular among. He famously translated Dumas' Le Comte de Monte-Cristo for example as Gankutsuou, "The King of the Cavern", which is still a common Japanese title for the book. Kuroiwa's Yuureitou made such an impression on young Rampo in his youth, that he later decided to write his own version of it (Rampo did ask for permission from Kuroiwa's relatives, by the way).

What's confusing is that Kuroiwa blatantly lied about the original story he translated it from. In the introduction to his Yuureitou, he explained the original work was titled Phantom Tower, by a Miss Bendinson. This was just an fanciful invention however. The real original title was A Woman in Grey, a 1898 novel by Alice Muriel Williamson (there's also a silent serial film based on the book available). But as noted, Kuroiwa's Yuureitou was not an exact translation: the characters in Kuroiwa's version for example all had Japanese names (despite still being set in England!), and Kuroiwa also changed details of the story to make it more exciting for his readers (in general, he placed more an emphasis on the exciting parts of the story, meaning that the first half of the story was shortened, but the latter half was extended). So in short, this story started out as The Woman in Grey, was freely translated/adapted by Kuroiwa Ruikou, and then again reinvisioned by Edogawa Rampo, with both Kuroiwa and Rampo adding and changing things to suit their own style (Rampo's version is set completely in Japan, and he too changed the flow of the story among other details).

As a gothic thriller, Rampo's Yuureitou is fairly amusing. It's very much a Rampo-work, I'd say, with both the good and bad qualities of most Rampo stories. For example, this story is fun to read. As in, every time I think I'm going to stop now, but I feel enticed to read just a bit more. Rampo was a great writer in the sense of writing easy, but captivating texts. This is also true for Yuureitou. Part of this is because this was written as a serialized story, so each installment had to be able to lure new readers. On the other hand, this is also where Rampo's writings sometimes stumble, and that's also the case with Yuureitou, as the story can be repetitive at times (recap moments for new readers), and some events are perhaps not forgotten, but kinda disappear to the background, making the story at times seem more like a series of discrete events, rather than a straight line of cause-and-effect. I'd make the argument though that this problem is less apparent than usual with Yuureitou, as Rampo obviously had the Kuroiwa version available as a guideline.

As with many of Rampo's later stories, Yuureitou is not a straight-up mystery thriller novel, but also features elements of the adventure novel and even science-fiction works. While there is a murder in this book, it's not the main mystery, as that revolves around the mysterious Akiko and the secrets of the clock tower, but even so, I have to admit I think this story feels a bit different from most other Rampo novels I've read. It has a more distinct gothic feel to it, probably because of the original story underneath. Sure, it has typical Rampo elements like an adventurey feel to the flow of the events, but whereas a lot of Rampo's novels are actually set in urban environments, this book is mostly set around the Phantom Tower, with a focus on Akiko and the past of the Phantom Tower. I wouldn't say it's not Rampo-ish, but Yuureitou does put its weight in different places than usual. Reading it as a mystery novel will probably result in some disappointment, as most of the plot twists can be read miles away. It is definitely an old-fashioned story, with plot twists that are rather predictable (I suspect they were even back in 1939), but Rampo still manages to present it in an entertaining way. 

The clock tower plays a big role in this story, obviously. Kuroiwa didn't change the title from The Woman in Grey to The Phantom Tower for nothing, and Rampo even expanded upon the theme of a phantom tower and its secret passages in his version of the story. In fact, the clock tower would prove to become a very important part of animation history. Like I mentioned at the start of this post, the version of Yuureitou I read featured a special cover by none other than the renowed film director Miyazaki Hayao. The (former) Studio Ghibli director famous for animated features like (Academy Award winner) Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Laputa Castle in the Sky, was a big fan of Rampo's Yuureitou. In 1979, he directed his first animated feature, Lupin III: The Castle of Caglistro, based on the Lupin III franchise (he had directed episodes of the TV series). The climax of this (classic adventure!) film is set at... a mysterious clock tower with a secret. This climax scene also formed an inspiration for the scene in Disney's 1989 animated feature The Great Mouse Detective (and in turn also the climax in the Batman: The Animated Series episode The Clock King). So in a way, the clock tower from A Woman in Grey has been a surprising part of popular culture throughout time. I actually wonder whether a game series like Clock Tower was also partly inspired by Yuureitou (the first game too featured a clock tower with secret passageways).

In 2015 Miyazaki opened an exhibit at the Ghibli Museum in honor of Yuureitou: he had designed and built his own model of the titular Phantom Tower, and wrote a short comic introducing the history behind the novel, and explaining about his own meeting with the novel. What's more, he even drew several (detailed!) storyboard pages for the first scenes of the book, explaining how he would animate it (he does note he won't do it though). All this material he created for his exhibit is included in this hardcover version of Yuureitou, published in 2015 (in full-color/high grade paper). For Miyazaki fans, this version is certainly a treat. I'm personally a big fan of Miyazaki's comic art, which is actually quite different from his style in his animated features (his comics are overly detailed, something you can't do in animation), and it's great to see how he envisioned the Phantom Tower.

I would not even dare to suggest Yuureitou is a classic of mystery fiction, but it is definitely an amusing read, even if a bit predictable and simple. But this particular version, with Miyazaki's beautiful artwork providing a commentary on the story and visualizing the image of book, is definitely something special. For people interested in both Rampo and Miyazaki, I can recommend this wholeheartedly.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩(原)、宮崎駿(絵) 『幽霊塔』