Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Cat Who Wasn't There

冬が過ぎ 新しい季節が来る 君を連れて
「Winter Bells」(倉木麻衣)

Winter passes by / And a new season arrives / Bringing you along
"Winter Bells" (Kuraki Mai)

Perhaps this is not the best time for a Christmas mystery...

'T was on Christmas Eve that succesful author Arima Konoe was murdered at home. Her newly delivered safe had been opened, and all of her jewels, an unpublished manuscript and her last will were removed from it. Usually, her home only housed herself and her assistant, but that evening they were joined by Konoe's estranged daugher and her husband, as well as Konoe's nephew. The police arrests the assistant though, as it was the driver in the toolbox in his room that had been used to break open the jewelry box. His lawyer however hopes that Detective Club CATS can help them. The CATS members Hinata and Aki agree to go over the case again and find out who murdered the writer in the TV show Nazotoki Live - CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha ("Mystery Solving Live - CATS And The Murderer Of Christmas Eve").

Nazotoki Live is a unique mystery TV show produced by NHK that revolves around interactivity with the viewers at home. The drama part of the show is occasionally interrupted by a live studio part, where studio guests and viewers back home are asked questions (viewers at home can answer through their TV sets). Through this questions, the show eventually builds up to the big question: "Who did it?". Points are awarded to each answer, and a perfect score results in a mention in the hall of fame. In the past, I've reviewed the July 2015 episodes (written by Abiko Takemaru) and the January 2016 episodes (written by Ayatsuji Yukito). On Christmas Eve, 2016, the fifth show was broadcast on NHK. As always, the original idea behind the episode came from the hand of a celebrated mystery writer: CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha was written by Ooyama Seiichirou, a writer specializing in locked rooms and Queen-like puzzle plots.

This episode was however very different from previous entries. Whereas previous stories consisted of two ninety minute episodes (broadcast on consecutive nights), CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha was only one hour long! In the past, the combination of two episodes, as well as the questions in between allowed for fairly complex mystery plots (considering the medium). The stories were long, and had rather large casts, but the intermezzo questions (of the kind of "What was the true meaning behind the dying message?" or "Who benefits from this cover-up?") helped the studio guests (and the people at home) organize all the information available and gently pushed them towards the correct solution. In comparison, CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha was a very short story, with a small cast, and few surprises.

Because of the shorter runtime, they even got rid of the studio guests segment! I actually enjoyed these segments a lot, as we followed three participants discussing their theories live on TV. In CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha, the two CATS detectives take over the role, as they too are asked the same questions as the audience. The difference is of course that now everything is scripted, and that's not nearly as fun as the old shows. Seeing other real participants thinking the case over was fun: seeing actors playing a role and discussing their (scripted) theories is just not as engaging (especially as you, as the viewer, start to suspect whether they are not trying to steer you away from the correct solution). It goes against the whole interactive theme of the show. I get that this was something they had to do to accommodate for the shorter runtime, but with little thinking time, scripted 'deduction battles' and this change in formula, one can also wonder whether it was all worth it.

That said though, it's still supposed to be an interactive show, so the official site had all kinds of handy information ready for home detectives, including a complete list of suspects, diagrams of the Arima home and even interactive panorama pictures of the crime scene. The "Evidence Cards" found on the site are the same cards they use in the show themselves, so you can never accuse the show of not being fair, at any rate (actually, very few shows are as far as this one).

On the whole, CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha was an okay mystery story, but nothing particularly impressive. If previous shows were 'novels', then this episode is definitely best seen as a short story. I was surprised that Ooyama didn't go with a locked room mystery actually and I think the way the murderer is finally revealed is a bit weak, though I do like how the story manages to switch things around near the end: at first it seems it's impossible to rule out suspects because nobody has an alibi, but Ooyama then throws something at you that turns the whole situation around. It's a neat idea, but the scale is rather small: Ayatsuji had actually done something similar (in terms of idea) in his episode, and that was much grander.

I'd say I was a bit disappointed by CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha, and the reason for that is clear. It's too short, which means that both the mystery plot becomes shallower, and there's less time to emphasize the interactive side of the show, like having studio guests discussing their theories live and giving viewers back home enough time to think. The changes in the formula are so radical, it does not even feel like the original show anymore. My question is of course whether it's worth to do this show anymore (or use the title at least) if you change it this much.

Original Japanese title(s): 『謎解きLive CATSと聖夜の殺人者』

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