Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Journey for Truth

"The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic."
"The Blue Cross"

It's actually amazing how many one-shot adaptations they make of mystery novels in Japan. It's almost like every other weekend there's a two-hour special based on a best-selling novel. You hardly see that outside of Japan, I think, where they usually try to go for a film adaptation. There's the occassional Christie TV special or mini-series adaptation, but that's at best once in a couple of years.

The discovery of a cut-off right arm at Ookawa Park, Tokyo, is the start of a horrible serial murder case. A commuter ticket found together with the arm identifies the victim as Furukawa Mariko, a young, female bank employee who went missing some time ago. But a TV station gets a call by someone using a voice scambler, telling them that the arm discovered in the park is not that of Mariko, but that he'll leave Mariko's arm elsewhere for them to find. The murderer keeps on killing more and more women, plunging the city in fear and he even dares to call the family of the victims to make fun of them. The police investigation have little results, which of course also stirs up social unrest, which is fuled more by the relentless coverage of the case by the media. Freelance writer Maehata Shigeko and teenager Tsukuda Shinichi, who discovered the first arm, start to investigate the case too for a series of articles on the murders, but Shigeko finds it harder and harder to proceed as she sees up close how the family of the victims have to cope with the horrible fate of their loved ones. But Shigeko, the media, the family of the victims and of course the police keep looking for the sadistic killer in the 2016 TV drama Miyabe Miyuki Suspense - Mohouhan ("Miyabe Miyuki Suspense - The Copy Cat Crime").

Miyabe Miyuki is one of the best-known female writers in Japan, specializing in genres like crime and fantasy. I myself haven't read that many of her works (Kasha and R.P.G., off the top of my head), but she's also one of the Japanese writers who is actually fairly well represented in English language translations. Mohouhan ("The Copy Cat Crime") is one of her best-known books, and also one of her longest (or actually, I think it is her longest story). The original seralization, which started in 1995, took about four years, and the currently available pocket paperback version consists of no less than five sizeable volumes. An English translation of the book is available on e-book (also split up in multiple volumes), with the title Puppet Master.

Mohouhan had been adapted for the silver screen in 2002, but Miyabe Miyuki Suspense - Mohouhan was the first time it had been adapted for TV. The drama consists of two, two-hour parts, and was broadcast on September 21-22, 2016. The 2002 film apparently has quite some changes compared to the plot of the original novel, assumably partly because of the runtime, but the 2016 TV drama version has been praised as a very faithful adaptation of the book. Four hours to adapt one book is actually a lot, but considering the size of the original work, I guess this was the best way to do it.

Mohouhan is not a puzzle plot mystery, but a pure crime thriller. In the first part of the drama, the narrative mainly jumps between Shigeko's POV, that of the police investigation, and the POV of the grandfather of Mariko. It is in this part where we see the true horrors of the crime, as the people left behind try to make sense of everything that has happened. Shigeko, as a freelance writer. tries to get close to the families of the victims in the hopes of getting a scoop, but writing about a mysterious serial murderer gets a lot more personal when you actually see the family of the victims break under all the pressure. The narrative jumps cleverly among all the involved parties, showing the crimes from multiple angles. The investigation in this first part of the drama features very little progress though, focusing more on the impact of the crimes. The big reveals and shocks are only revealed in the last thirty minutes or so. The second part of the drama in turn shows the denouement of the story from the POV of both Shigeko and.... the murderer. The murderer cleverly makes use of the media to conjure up a fake story about the murders, which the media, and the people in the country, love to believe. By putting different parties involved with the crimes (family of victims, freelance writer Shigeko, etc.) against each other, the mastermind manages to cause more chaos in the perception of the crimes. But for what cause?

The story is very much rooted in the foundations of shakai-ha (social school of crime fiction). The narrative of Mohouhan shows the interaction between all the parties involved with a horrible serial murder: the (family of the) victim, the murderer, the police, the media writing about the case and the general public. The story especially gives a harsh, but realistic look at the power of the media (in Japan). Do they side with the victims? With the police? Can the media write a narrative where someone else is the victim? Can the narrative in the media actually create new guilty parties? Questions like these are of course nowadays more relevant than ever, with internet and SNS giving everyone a stage to present and spread a narrative to the general public. The TV drama was set in the present day, even though the book was written twenty years ago, but the use of SNS and internet throughout the drama really didn't hurt the story, but only enhanced the role of the media. Another mystery story I discussed here where media played a role is Shirayuki Hime Satsujin Jiken, and to a lesser extent, I guess Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper also had elements of that.

I didn't really like the murderer in this story though. It's a rare thing for me to be talking about motives on this blog (motives are usually not that big an issue in puzzle plot mysteries), but I had some trouble following the train of thought of the murderer. Like the title of the English publication suggests, there's a puppet master, a sadistic, manipulating psychopath, walking around and that can be fun: fiction like Death Note and Aku no Kyouten work because of that, but I can't help but think that the murderer of Mohouhan did a lot that would eventually always lead to their own destruction. And sometimes that is the plan, but it doesn't seem likely in this case. It appears a more hands-off approach to managing would've been better for this murderer.

Overall though, Miyabe Miyuki Suspense - Mohouhan was an enjoyable crime thriller yarn. It's quite long, four hours for just one story, but I never felt like it was dragging or boring.The narrative keeps a good sense of pacing throughout and the characters are interesting enough to make you want to see where they'll end up.

Original Japanese title(s): 宮部みゆき(原) 『 宮部みゆきサスペンス 模倣犯』


  1. Thanks Ho-Ling for an introduction to another writer available in English! Always good to know. I wanted to ask about the common use of body parts, as beginnings or integral parts in Japanese crime fiction. Is this a trend, and if so does it have a rooted meaning?

    Some Chinese friends on my MFA course suggested it was connected (in Chaina also) to mech anime, and Gundam style ideas, but there must be many books that use this idea long before mech anime/manga came around.

    1. I daren't say it's "typically Japanese", but something that might be of influence is the form Japanese mystery fiction took before World War II.

      Detective fiction became really popular with the masses in Japan in the roaring twenties when it merged with gothic/horror/erotic genres, resulting in the ero-guro-nonsense mode. Edogawa Rampo for example, commonly seen as the father of the modern Japanese detective story, started out as a writer of puzzle plot mysteries, but soon focused his attentions to crime stories that emphasized grotesque and erotic elements. Some of his better known stories, like The Dwarf and Moju: Blind Beast (both available in English) for example emphasize the grotesque with murderers leaving the limbs of their victims here and there. So early on in the life of the genre in Japan, the detective story was associated strongly with these deviant themes, which might have left its imprint on the "stereotypical image" of a detective story in the country (similar to the notion of country houses to the British detective story).

      Though this is just a thought. Perhaps digging deeper to pre-modern crime stories (criminal records and punishment methods) might show deeper causes. Or perhaps not.

  2. Thank's Ho-Ling, really helpful stuff. It seems one the one hand that there is some kind of thread running through these works, which leads to severed limbs, but on the other that it may be a coincidence of the Japanese works I have read!

  3. Hello!
    I have a question about your entry few years ago
    I am very interested in Edogawa's "Geneijou" essay collection, particulary in "A Categorization of Tricks" one. It is surely not one of popular books, as I can find the title only on Japanese sites. I assume there's still no translated version of the essays, so I'm looking for original.
    My question is, do you know of any pdf version available online? Or the only chance to read that book is to buy the physical one?
    I would very appreciate your reply on my e-mail address (
    Thank you!

    1. The copyright on Rampo's work has started to expire, so in time, it'll probably appear on Aozora Bunko, but this essay was written pretty late, so it might still take some decades... As far as I know, the only way to get it is finding a physical version of the book (I don't have any digital versions of the thing either, I only have my own pocket).

  4. Thank you so much for the reply. I will most probably just buy a book then. (I'm writing a thesis on Rampo's work and I find your blog very helpful, glad you're here)