Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Curtains for Three

「NORA」(Garnet Crow)

The sunset is glowing, and look, the rain is stopping
And the roads are getting filled with the smell of dinner
"Nora" (Garnet Crow)

And yes, I have to read at least one detective story set in Fukuoka every year...

After the disappearance of his father, who once had the best ramen noodle food cart in town, Yuge Takumi had to drop out of school, but with the help of his father's friends, he eventually managed to become a private detective in the city of Fukuoka. Between his investigations for laywers, protecting clients from stalkers and getting involved with gang wars in, Yuge spends his free time on his hobby: ramen noodles. He loves visiting his favorite places, but also discovering new restaurants and see how their versions of tonkotsu ramen noodles turn out. And occassionally, Yuge even works on recreating the ramen noodles his father used to make, as both he and the people of Fukuoka still long for a good bowl of Yugefuku ramen. Yuge's love for ramen also plays a big role in his cases though, as more often than not, it's ramen that gives him that little nudge in the mind that allows him to solve the case in Nishimura Ken's short story collection Kanshoku! ("Finished!", 2015).

Long ago, I discussed the first two volumes in Nishimura Ken's Hakata Detective Case Files series. It was the main setting that had me hooked right away: it was set in Fukuoka (and I love Fukuoka) and was about a detective who solved his cases through his knowledge of ramen noodles (and I love ramen). The execution was sadly enouh a bit uneven. I think it's clear from the blog that hardboiled detective fiction isn't my favorite subgenre and the short stories in this series often took that form, so I was quite aware that it might've been a bit unfair from the start, but what I really thought was disappointing was how the link between ramen noodles and the case often felt unnatural and forced. When it worked, the stories were really great: with anecdotes on ramen noodles (and the history of the dish) proven to have some significant parallels to the case at hand. But more often than not, the connections were vague, and incredibly contrived. But on the whole, the series wasn't that bad and as it was planned as a trilogy, I did plan to read all of them. I'll have to admit that I had kinda forgotten about the series though, so I hadn't even noticed that Kanshoku!, the final volume in the trilogy, had actually been released in 2015 already....

On the whole, Kanshoku! is not very different from the previous volumes, with Yuge working on a variety of cases that either have a direct link to ramen noodles, or ones that are solved through him noticing a parallel between his case, and some random bit of ramen trivia. The big difference however is that Kanshoku! is the final volume of the trilogy, so we finally learn why Yuge's father disappeared. The final story, Saigo no Kizuna ("The Last Link") is, for now, the end of the series, revealing the fate of Yuge's father, why he disappeared and how Yuge moves on from that. About half of the stories in this volume help build up to this finale. Of those, two of them can hardly be considered mystery stories though. Chichi to Ko ("Father and Child") in particular isn't about any mystery at all. Yakuza (gangs) in Japan have traditionally shown a desire to prove their legitimacy to the public, and its rivals, for example by helping out during natural disasters, as to prove their place in society. Their link with shrines and temples is part of this, and in the old times, yakuza and shrines and temples would work together on ennichi festival days. Yuge's surrogate father, who took him in after his father's disappearance, is a yakuza boss who's organizing such a shrine festival in downtown Fukuoka, but he fears a rival gang may want to ruin his 'party' to shame his face. While the topic itself is interesting, nothing of importance happens in this story at all, not even a mystery, as it's basically sowing seeds for the finale. Aji no Kioku ("Memory of A Taste") has Yuge and a reporter friend attempting to uncover a large corruption scandal involving a town renewal project and a yakuza gang, but the way the two manage to find evidence is just slightly better than simply stumbling upon a random heap of files on the street.

Shuumeisha ("Successor") is the opening story and one of the few stories really about ramen. The second-generation owner of Touryuu, a ramen restaurant near Kyushu University's Hakozaki Campus, was assaulted on the street, and both the victim and a witness say the assailant was the head chef of the Touryuu restaurant. After the demise of the first owner, his son-in-law took over, and he started to open new Touryuu restaurants across town. They become very popular among a younger public, but only because they serve a different kind of ramen noodles. The head chef of the original Touryuu restaurant on the other hand was still making the soup just like the first boss did, and refused to change along, leading to a cold war between the second owner and the head chef. The head chef denies the accusation of assault, and says he was on the way home at the time the attack took place, and Yuge is hired to prove his innocence. Takumi's also working on another case that happened on the same night, in the same area, as he needs to prove a husband had been assaulting his wife out on the street. It's revealed the two cases are linked through a ramen cart, but I find it disappointing this link was rather weak, and Yuge basically stumbled upon evidence of his case by pure coincidence. There's also a sort of code-cracking part to the story, but no way anyone is going to figure that one out in advance.

In Mawarimichi ("Detour"), Yuge is hired by the widow of a friend who had recently died in a car accident, being overrun near the station. Her husband had originally gone out for a business trip to Tokyo, but it was cancelled on his way to the airport, so he had parted with a collegue there and was going home. The problem is that his whereabouts between him leaving his colleague, and him being getting overrun by the car are unknown, as it wouldn't had taken the husband almost six hours to make it from the airport back to their home. Fearing his last day alive might've been spent cheating on her, the widow wants Yuge to find out what he did that day. The story could've been much better with the hinting. The definitive clue isn't even described to the reader until Yuge reveals it to the widow, so the only way anyone could've solved that was if they knew the station themselves where the clue was, and knew what stood at that particular spot that told Yuge everything. There's some subtle hinting going to support Yuge's theory, that I admit, but it's a bit drowned away by all the time schedules of the various transportation lines that are quoted all the time.

Chuukeiten ("Relay Point") is a short mystery story, where Yuge needs to figure out how a small group of gangster known to be involved with an illegal weapons deal managed to get rid of the weapons in their car, even though they had been tailed from the start until the time the police stopped them. The solution is rather simple, but for once, the link between this tale, and the random ramen anecdote actually works. The connection in Tabi wa Michizure ("Good Company On The Road Is The Shortest Cut") on the other hand is pretty weak, but it's still an entertaing story. Yuge's travelling with his girlfriend and two other acquaintances by train. Among their fellow passengers, Yuge spot two people whom he suspects are money runners involved with a recent corruption scandal, as well as two undercover cops tailing them. The way Yuge deduces how the money runners are going to shake their shadows is pretty interesting, and the ending is actually surprising. There's a subplot going on, where Yuge needs to sort out a fight between the daughter of an old friend, and her fiancé, as they are having a huge row about something. The explanation to that is absolutely brilliant, and really fits well with the ramen theme. The one problem is that the average reader will probably have problems figuring it out themselves, as it requires somewhat specific knowledge. It's a topic I myself am really interested in, so I didn't felt really 'cheated', but a bit more hinting would've made this a classic tale in a very specific subgenre!

Tousaku ("Inversion") is a borderline impossible crime story. In the past, Yuge managed to help a client out who was being stalked by a man who dated her once. While the stalker was caught, his client decided to move anyway, but one day, Yuge just happened to spot the stalker again near his client's new home. The local police, who were aware of the stalker's history, had already been contacted by Yuge's client, as she found hand-posted threatening letters in her mailbox. A camera is installed over the client's mailbox, in the hopes of obtaining new evidence to put the stalker behind bars, but for some reason new letters keep getting posted, even though the stalker is not seen on the footage. So how did he manage to post them? I said it's a borderline impossible story, as it really isn't, and I think the solution is pretty easy to guess once the rather lenthy set-up is out of the way, but I quite liked this story, especially as the jump from the random ramen anecdote to the truth of the case didn't feel as forced as in other stories.

For people interested in tonkotsu ramen though, there's once again a wealth of information to be found here. Nishimura is obviously very knowledgeable about the matter (ramen is serious business), and you'll learn a lot about the history of tonkotsu ramen, not only as a "dish" as well as an object of interest in cultural history. People interested in food history, food culture, early twentieth century history and antropology will be pleasantly surprised. Many of the restaurants mentioned in Kanshoku! are real by the way, so you can visit them yourself.

But on the whole Kanshoku! is not very much different from the other two volumes in the series. Yes, it brings closure to the series, but like always, the link between the case and ramen isn't always clear-cut, and therefore not convincing. When it works, it feels very satisfying, seeing this effect of how a random bit of info on ramen (history) ties to a seemingly unconnected case. But most of the time, the link feels forced. Mirroring can be a very effective device for mysery tales, to serve as a clue to solving the case, as seen in Father Brown or the A Aiichirou stories, but Nishimura wasn't able to get to that quality over the course of the three volumes in the Hakata Detective Case Files series. My thoughts on this series have thus not been changed: worth taking a look at if you're interested in Fukuoka and/or ramen noodles, but otherwise it's not a very consistent mystery series.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村健 『完食!』: 「襲名者」 / 「回り道」 / 「父と子」 / 「中継点」 / 「味の記憶」 / 「旅は道連れ」 / 「倒錯」 / 「最後の絆」


  1. Yuge should hook up with Miss Koizumi of Miss Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles, coming shortly to an anime near you.

    1. Already read the manga and seen the live-action drama. I liked the drama the best actually. Kinda curious as to how the anime will turn out though: the really short chapters work for the manga format, and the drama's slightly longer stories and the real restaurants they visited worked perfectly with the short episodes, but I'm a bit worried that most of worked in the other formats, might not work in a weekly anime format that will likely not feature real restaurant names (but probably like the manga, still based on them w/o actually dropping the name).