Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Classic Creep Capers

"Can't sleep! Clown will eat me!"
"The Simpsons"

In Japan, there's a very lively market for self-published works, commonly referred to as doujin works. You can find doujin material in any form, from fanzines (doujinshi) to self-published videogames, music to audio dramas, and the contents can also be either based on an existing IP (say, a fanfic comic based on Detective Conan or parody games of Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney), to completely original material from the doujin author themselves. While nowadays, a lot of doujin material is also sold in digital format, there are still many, many doujin circles that publish their work in physical format, and half of the fun of making a doujin comic is sending off the data files to a professional printer and binder, and then bringing your box of freshly created booklets to a convention or some other event to sell the fruits of your labor yourself, meeting with each and every customer. Indeed, the biggest anime/manga/game related event in Japan is in fact Comiket, an event that is held twice a year, where countless of doujin authors sell their newest, self-published creations. Comiket nowadays attracts half a million guests, so that shows there's a market for self-published work. For some artists, self-published doujin is a first step in getting a contract with a large publisher to become a professional artist (there are a lot of professional mangaka who started out in the doujin scene), while others simply publish doujin as a hobby. And you also have professional mangaka who are still active in the doujin scene, as a self-published comic is something distinctly different from one published by a large publisher.

Nemoto Shou is one of those professional mangaka who's still active in the doujin scene (under the doujin circle name Sapporo no Rokujou Hitoma/A Single Six-Tatami Mat Room in Sapporo). For about ten years now, Nemoto has been self-publishing a mystery comic series titled Kaiki Tantei ("Detective of the Uncanny") which has been quite well received among those who have read it, but due to the scale of self-publishing, the number of people who were actually able to read his comics was obviously quite limited. Fukui, author of the excellent Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, also mentioned this was a title to look out for: he wasn't able to include it in his excellent history of mystery comics because at the time of writing, these comics were still self-published, but thanks to the efforts of publisher Bungeishunju (Bunshun) and the wonders of the digital world, Nemoto's wonderful mystery comic was finally made widely available in the major e-book stores in Japan in April 2018. The first of the three volumes is titled Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura - Hebi Ningen ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny: The Snake Man", 2018), which collects the original first four issues.

The first story, The One-Eyed Clown, introduces the reader to the two protagonists and the basic setting. Of all the school clubs at Shimoyama Middle School, two are forced to share one classroom for their club activities, because both clubs are on the verge of extinction, each having only one member left. Scientific-minded Sharaku Homura (yes, that is a play on Sherlock Holmes) is the last member of the Experiments Club, while the one-year younger Yamazaki "Karate Kid" Yousuke is the last member of the school's Karate Club. While the two have widely differing interests, the two do share the same inquisitiveness into the many odd incidents happening in and around town. For example, as of late, an one-eyed clown has been seen attacking people near Shimoyama Middle School, so the two decide to check it out, but little did they know this would turn into a gruesome, and baffling mystery, as the clown not only kills one of the school's teachers by impaling him (further proof that clowns are, in fact, evil), the clown also manages to disappear twice from what seems to be an inescapable situation!

The art and the comedy in the first few pages is a bit deceptive, but as the story continues, it's easy to see the similarities between Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. Both focus on murderers who like to dress up like Scooby Doo villains, and both series are actually quite gruesome. With Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, one could guess from the art (especially in the earlier volumes), but man, I was surprised by that first impaling in this story! What follows is an excellently plotted mystery story that might be a bit simple, but it's written and drawn in such a capable manner, I can't but enjoy this series. There are two distinct impossible disappearances in this story: one wherein the clown manages to disappear from an alley with a dead end, and one where the clown disappears from a classroom. The first is simple (it's the first mystery in this story, and Homura solves it immediately), but it has an excellent visual clue, which also signifies the importance of visual clues throughout the series overall (more on that later). The disappearance from the classroom is much better. It is in principle a very easy trick (again excellently clewed), but what would practically be a very clumsy manner to fool the detective becomes a very memorable locked room situation due to the reason why the clown disappeared from the room in the first place. I really didn't see that one coming! Fantastic way to turn a simple idea into something much, much more.

This first story has a lot of visual clues, making excellent use of the comic format. It's also clear that Nemoto loves to play fair with the reader: he even refers to specific pages and panels to show he plays absolutely fair. For example, in the case of the clown disappearing from the classroom, Karate Kid suggests the clown might've been hanging from the ceiling, but Homura says it's impossible, and then we see a flashback to an earlier panel, where we see the room from a low angle aimed at the ceiling! This panel is particularly good, as the focus is aimed at Homura trying to turn on the light switch, but it also conveys the information nobody's hanging from the ceiling. Nemoto is quite good at hiding clues and foreshadowing in these panels by the way, as we'll also see in other stories. The identity of the clown is a bit obvious, also because of these visual clues, but overall I'd say this first story was really entertaining.

Takeshi had only just joined the Karate Club as its second member in Village of the Bloodsuckers, when he died together with his father in what seems a simple case of food poisoning, but during the funeral service, Homura and Karate Kid learn that something sinister might be going on. The Kibasawa family are the descendants of Kakure Kirishitan, people who continued to practice Christianity underground during its ban in the Edo Period, and they have a fortune in gold coins as their family treasure. Lately, a figure resembling a vampire has been seen around the village, who says he came over from Europe to Japan centuries ago, but was defeated by the ancestors of the Kibasawas back then. Now he has returned to take revenge and steal the treasure. Takeshi's father held one of the two keys that lead to the treasure, but that key was stolen. Takeshi's uncle has the last remaining key to the treasure, but despite Homura and Karate Kid's efforts, Takeshi's uncle is murdered in front of Homura's eyes with an iron maiden. Homura suspects that a human, not a vampire was responsible for these deaths however, but the two main suspects both have perfect alibis for the murder of Takeshi's uncle....

It's going full Kindaichi Shounen now, with a bloody murder with an iron maiden and a semi-impossibility due to the perfect alibis of both suspects. The alibi trick is a bit easy to guess as the fact that something happens to Homura a few times is enough of a hint to get you on the right track. It is perfectly well-clewed though, and the misdirection is also well thought-off. There's a dying message too that points directly at the murderer, but it's rather straightforward if you happen to know a certain word, or practically impossible because you don't happen to know that specific word, so it's a not particularly clever dying message.

The Dancing Dead is a very short story, that is more horror than mystery. Homura and Karate Kid are visiting a small fishing village to look for rare starfish, when they learn about a cliff that's a popular spot for people to commit suicide. There they find a figure dressed as Ebisu, who kills a person who had just decided not to commit suicide. A clumsy slip of the tongue allows Homura to deduce who this Ebisu is, but this part is extremely simple. The rest of the story deals with a direct, physical confrontation with this murderer.

The final story included is The Snake Man, which is the name of a mysterious figure creeping around the more rural, eastern part of Shimoyama City. Homura and Karate Kid are introduced through a newly arrived transfer student to Saikawa Kenji, a classmate at his previous school. There are plans to open a large shopping mall in the eastern part of Shimoyama City, and the land owned by the Saikawas is needed for that, but the Saikawas are warned by the Snake Man not to sell their land. The Snake Man is the manifestation of the curse of a legendary giant snake, which was defeated by an ancestor of the Saikawas. To appease its spirit, the giant snake was enshrined in a small shrine inside a cave, with a long corridor of torii gates (painted green, instead of red) marking the entrance to this cave, similar to Kyoto's famous Fushimi Inari. At first, the Snake Man seems to be a creepy, but ultimately harmless being, though Homura and Karate Kid are witness to it being able to run over water. Later, the Snake Man turns out to be quite harmful, as the realtor who wants develop the shopping center is found dead in the garden of the Saikawas. The realtor's hands are cut off, and when everyone makes their way to the underground shrine, they find the realtor's hands inside a small container decorated by snakes. Homura suspects one of the Saikawas committed the murder, but she has one problem: none of the Saikawas had enough time to bring the realtor's hands to the cave after the murder, which means they all have an alibi. The way the murderer gives themselves away is a bit of a cliche, but the semi-impossible angle of how the hands were brought into the cave is pretty original, even if a bit obvious (though that is also partially because it's very similar to a faulty theory proposed earlier in the story). And while all these stories have a surprisingly dark aftermath, I'd say this story had the nastiest aftertaste.

This volume of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura was really surprisingly well done, providing a very entertaining mystery manga. The stories do follow a somewhat similar formula with the dressed-up supervillain vs detective set-up, but as a mystery story, this manga is really good, being absolutely fair, with original plots and a fairly unique artstyle. I'm really happy this series is now widely available as e-book, because the old, physical doujin format of self-published booklets meant that only very few people were able to get their hands on these books. I already have the other volumes purchased, so expect more reviews in the future!

Original Japanese title(s): 根本尚『怪奇探偵・写楽炎 1 蛇人間』


  1. Replies
    1. The three volumes should be available in all the major e-book storefronts in Japan, so Kindle, Rakuten Kobo, honto, etc. I got mine from Book☆Walker.

  2. This looks really interesting! Unfortunately, it's so obscure that I doubt even any translation group (english or chinese) had even heard of, and let alone taking this on as a project.

    1. Well, at least the chances of it ever getting translated are theoretically better now it's available as an e-book. Think of the effort that would've been needed had it still been a physical-only doujin release with an extremely limited run! :P

  3. This sounds really beautiful...
    I hope someone translates it but I'm too not holding much hope :(

    1. It is really in a weird spot as a former doujin that's now made available by a major publisher as an e-book. Its chances had definitely been much better had it been serialized in a magazine.

  4. Linking this one in my blog if you don't mind, as it's relevant to its topics...

  5. Just read this volume. Good lord those endings were super dark. Almost too much.

    1. Yeah, usually the bad guys (whether they are the murderer or not) don't get away scot-free in this series ^_~'