Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Witch's Ghost

I'm a Hex Girl
And I'm gonna put a spell on you
"Hex Girl" (The Hex Girls)

My reading skills improved a lot after I went to study in Japan the first time, and it can feel a bit strange going through the books I had read before my time in Japan again now. It probably took me quite some time (together with a dictionary) to read today's topic the first time, but now I can blaze through the same book within an evening....

Japan had closed itself off from most foreign relations between the early seventeenth century and latter half of the nineteenth century (Sakoku), with China and the Netherlands being some of the exceptions. Ejinbara was one of the first harbors that allowed access to foreign ships in the nineteenth century, and thus grew out to be a home away from home for foreigners, and one could sense this 'foreignness' throughout Ejinbara, because not only was the town filled with Western-style buildings and paved streets, it was actually also one of the first places in Japan to have 'modern' facilities like underground waterworks and electricity. The classic look of the town is kept well-preserved, making it a popular tourist destination. The famous Sleeping Detective Mouri Kogorou takes Ran, Conan, Doctor Agasa and the Detective Boys out for a trip to Ejinbara (as thanks for their help in an earlier case). The group has only just arrived in Ejinbara when Conan and Kogorou save a lawyer from being stabbed to death by a mysterious, robed figure. The laywer explains he received a threatening letter signed by The Witch of Ejinbara. The Witch of Ejinbara was also the nickname of a woman who sold medicinal herbs in Ejinbara for almost a century, but who recently died. It appears the author of the letter is after the people named in her will. Kogorou waves it away as a bad prank at first, but when one of people who is to inherit is found drowned to death inside a room with no waterworks, nor any other openings save for the door which was locked from the inside, the people of Ejinbara itself start to fear something supernatural might be behind all this in Taira Takahisa's Meitantei Conan - Ejinbara no Witch ("The Witch of Ejinbara", 2008).

The Detective Conan franchise is quite extensive, ranging from the original comics to an animated TV series, annual theatrical releases, videogames and much more, so the fact that there are also novels based on the series shouldn't surprise anyone. Especially not as I already reviewed one of them in the past. There are three original Detective Conan novels: two of them were written between 2005 and 2006 by Tani Yutaka, an assistant of Detective Conan creator Aoyama Goushou. Ejinbara no Witch followed in 2008 and was written by Taira Takahisa, who is mostly known as a scenario writer for the Detective Conan Special spin-off comic series (a series of short stories mostly written and drawn by Aoyama's assistants), as well as other series as Golgo 13. There is also a further series of Detective Conan novels, but these are not original stories, but novelizations of episodes and specials of the various Detective Conan live action series (Taira wrote those novels too by the way). Enjinbara no Witch thus remains the last original Detective Conan novel for the moment.

This was a re-read for me, but I have to admit I was quite surprised how good it still was! Granted, the main reading audience for this novel is children/YA, so the novel is quite short, but like Gyakuten Idol (an original children's novel based on an existing game series), Ejinbara no Witch presents an original novel that feels like it could've been part of the main series. Sure, this is also true for the first Detective Conan novel, but that one belonged in the group of "Oh man, another of the Detective Boys treasure hunt stories?". With Ejinbara no Witch on the other hand, it is easy to imagine how this could've worked out as one of the better six chapter story in the comics.

The setting is definitely what sells this story. The fictional Ejinbara, which kinda sounds like Edinburgh, is a great location, reminiscent of some of the real Japanese locations that feature Western and other foreign architectural designs from over a century ago, like Nagasaki (full of Western/Dutch buildings) or the Chinatown in Yokohama (argubly the best known Chinatown in Japan). If you're somewhat familiar with these popular tourist destinations in Japan, I think you have a pretty good idea of how Ejinbara looks like. It's a type of setting you sometimes see in Detective Conan, like in Detective Conan: Phantom of Baker Street or Detective Conan: Phantom Rhapsody.

The setting is also put to good use for the mystery plot itself. The first impossible murder is pretty normal, but it's also followed by an impossible bombing inside a room of an old, authentically preserved hotel (the room was of course locked from the inside) and even one inside an old-fashioned phone box. The same basic trick is used for all three murders, which might be slightly disappointing as once you solve one of them, you'll have solved all of them, but in terms of how the plot is structured and how the clues are laid out, this is more than an okay story. The story also makes use of the witch backstory. Witches also exist in Japanese folklore, but the witch from this novel is obviously a "Western" witch, and with references to ladies familiar with herbs being branded as witches in witch trials, you can probably guess how the people of Ejinbara will react as the murders continue.

The book also includes a couple of illustrations by Abe Yutaka: he is a mangaka who has also worked on the Detective Conan Special spin-off series as an artist and who apparently has been friends with Aoyama for a long time (both Aoyama and Abe have drawn manga with characters named after the other). Abe Yutaka's name for example might sound familar to the most fanatic of Conan readers: Aoyama used that exact name for a character in one of his earliest stories. The art is quite good actually; you can tell it's not Aoyama's own art, but it definitely has a good vibe to it.

So Ejinbara no Witch is a more than decent original novel based on the Detective Conan franchise, and also easily the best of the three original novels. The novel is obviously aimed at a younger reading audience, so it's not a long, nor difficult book, but it reads as a good Conan story and that's all I want from it.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌(原)、平良隆久(小説)、阿部ゆたか(絵) 『名探偵コナン 江神原の魔女(ウィッチ)』


  1. I recall you mentioned, or discussed, this book before many years ago. The witch backstory and the drowning in a bone dry locked room sounds very familiar. But more importantly, you say this is a very short novel.

    I know the length of Japanese mysteries can be quite long, compared to their older Western counterparts, and this plays a deciding factor for smaller publishers, like Locked Room International, whether or not to commission a translation. So maybe you should suggest this one to John Pugmire.

    I would not only love to be able to read a Detective Conan novel, but also to have a LRI book on my shelves with Conan on the front cover!

    1. The 'problem' in general with spin-off materials from manga series like this book is that they are usually (partially) owned by the publisher too (in this case: Shogakukan), and all the major manga publishers from Japan already have their own publishing arms in the United States.

      Viz Media (which publishes Conan) for example is owned by Shogakukan, together with publisher Shueisha (of Jump fame, like One Piece, Naruto and Dragon Ball) and is obviously the most logical way for Shogakukan to publish these things (also for the sake of consistency).

    2. Oh, that's a real shame. Because there's not that big of a chance that these publishers, on the American end, will actually release an English translation of a book like this one, is there?

    3. I think Viz has released novels/official guides of really popular series like Naruto and Rurouni Kenshin, but I don't think Conan is even close to that. I don't even think the Conan novels have been released in other regions where the series is far more successful, like in Germany or France.

  2. thank you for keeping your blog alive mr ho-ling! i visit it weekly to keep updated with your thoughts, translation work and updates. keep it up!

    i have a question for you: are you watching any j-drama lately in the same vein as "kagi no kakatta heya" or any kind of smart witty detective/crime series? any special recommendations from your bebhaf? i tried to follow the one with the "rich" detective but did not take a liking to it...

    1. I'm glad you like the blog! Can't help you with recent drama recommendations though sadly enough, as I haven't watched anything this season :/