Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Turnabout from Heaven

"Heaven or Hell!"
"Guilty Gear"

Back in April, I reviewed two multi-part episodes from the Detective Conan animated series, which were not based on the original comics by Aoyama Goushou, but written especially for the anime. An important reason why I decided to watch those older episodes in the first place was a lack of new material: volume 94 had been released in December 2017, but various circumstances led to a short hiatus in the serialization of the comics. Usually, a new volume is released in April (to coincide with the annual theatrical release), but with the delay, I decided to fill the April gap with those episode reviews. For the moment, my real return to Conan appears to be within reach, as both volume 95 and the home-video release of the 2018 theatrical feature, Detective Conan: Zero The Enforcer are scheduled for October.

But as those two releases are still a bit more than a month away, I figured I might as well look at a couple more of the anime original episodes of Detective Conan, and to keep it to a theme: today I'll be reviewing two stories with an impossible crime. First up: episodes 88-89 presented the viewer with a story with a very alluring title: Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken ("The Villa Dracula Murder Case"). The "Sleeping Detective" Kogorou, Ran and Conan are on their way to the villa of renowned horror author Torakura Daisuke, better known as "Mr Dracula". The nickname is not only based on Torakura's own name, but also on the fact the novelist mostly writes about vampires, and he even wears the stereotypical suit and cape as his usual get-up. At arrival at the Villa Dracula, Kogorou, Ran and Conan first meet with several of the other people staying there, like Torakura's assistant, his editor and a folklore researcher consulting Torakura's collection. Torakura meets in private with Kogorou, explaining he wants to hire the Sleeping Detective to investigate his wife's adultery, and invites him to stay in the villa for the night. Torakura himself retreats to his study for the night, as he has a deadline coming up. The study itself is almost completely seperated from the main house: it looks out over a cliff and the only way there is through a single, long corridor that leads right into the living room.

When Torakura doesn't answer the phone at midnight however, the people in the living room start to fear something might've happened to the man who doesn't sleep, so the gang makes their way through the corridor, to the locked door of the study. They go around through the outside balcony, but when they get inside the room, they find Mr. Dracula staked to the wall, like a vampire!  What baffles Kogorou and Conan however is that the study door was locked from the inside, and that the corridor to the study was being watched from the living room all the time. The murder weapon (a prop from a vampire movie) had been taken from the storage room in the main building, which means the murderer must've taken the weapon, passed through the living room to get to the corridor and the study, all unseen! Considering that's utterly impossible it seems the only other way in is through the balcony overlooking a cliff and the sea, but that means the culprit must've flown to the balcony, as if they were a vampire!

Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken was written by Ochi Hirohito, who's also the writer for Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau and Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken. Those stories I praised for being fantastic stories that are excellent examples of synergy in mystery fiction, where various elements like backstory, motive, murder method and clues are all intricately connected, with each factor strengthening, but at the same time also depending on the other factors. Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken is a relatively older story, and while one can easily recognize Ochi's hand here, it's also clear that this episode is not as insanely tightly structured as those later genre masterpieces. In essence however, the main mystery plot of Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken is very similar, revolving around a clearly-defined impossible crime situation, with a special prop object featuring at the crime scene (in this case the stake prop from a vampire film) that serves as a second focal point of the plot. At one hand, Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken is certainly a well-plotted story. Sure, it's awfully easy to guess who the murderer is, but like with Ochi's other stories, it's the how that stars. It's here that Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken shows it's a very capable, but ultimately lesser attempt of what Ochi would perfect in later stories: the various elements of the story feel less strongly connected and dependent on each other and the result is oddly enough a very good impossible crime story that has some good visual clewing going on too, and any other writer would've been absolutely pumped to come up with something like this, but Ochi would go on write stories that I personally feel are some of the best thought-out mystery core plots ever, making these two episodes feel less impressive (luck has it I saw these two episodes last too). Note the attention to character movement (floorplans!) and the exact order of events in these two episodes by the way: these are also staples of Ochi's mystery plotting and also visible in his later masterpieces. Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken is an excellent impossible crime story on its own, with various good ideas strung together to create a really alluring crime, but it's definitely overshadowed by Ochi's later work for the series.

Ochi's episodes are often mentioned when talking about the best of the anime original episodes of Detective Conan, but another one that is often mentioned is episode 208 Meikyuu he no Iriguchi - Kyodai Shinzou no Ikari ("The Entrance to the Maze: The Anger of the Giant Statue of the Heavenly Maiden"), which was an one-hour special originally broadcast on October 19th, 2000. Kogorou, Ran and Conan are this time heading for Mt. Tenbu in the Shizuoka Prefecture. A giant statue of a Heavenly Maiden was erected in the mountains many, many moons ago, but as of late, Doumoto Tourism has been aggressively developing the Mt. Tenbu region as a tourist destination. The colossus is the main attraction of course, so there's a hiking promenade that leads up the mountain right to the statue, and despite the protests of the local people, Doumoto Tourism even built a ropeway to the top of Mt. Tenbu, which goes through a mountain tunnel dug right beneath the Heavenly Maiden statue. Kogorou is invited to attend the the opening ceremony of the ropeway, but also to keep an eye out on Doumoto Eizou, who fears the ceremony might also be the perfect time for someone to get even with him, as some local people say that the wrath of the Heavenly Maiden is sure to get him for making that ropeway. To celebrate the opening of the ropeway, Doumoto Eizou has several other people join the first ride up the mountain, including some local journalists as well as Kogorou, Ran and Conan. As the carriage goes through the mountain tunnel however, the lights suddenly go out, followed by a cry in the dark by Doumoto Eizou. When the ropeway carriage makes it out of the tunnel, right behind the back of the Heavenly Maiden statue, they find that Doumoto Eizou has disappeared from the carriage, and to their great shock, they see his dead body lying in the palm of the colossus!

An impossible disappearance from a locked carriage mid-air this time, and the almost immediate appearance of the body in the hand of a gigantic statue: one can certainly not accuse Meikyuu he no Iriguchi - Kyodai Shinzou no Ikari of having a boring premise! This one-hour special is of perfect length, with enough runtime to build up a proper mystery, though one could say it has very room for fluff or red herring side-plots. To be perfectly honest, I think it's rather easy to guess how most of the magic was done: one character in particular stands rather out with their actions in this story, and from there it's really not that difficult to make an educated guess about how the impossible teleportation was pulled off. In essence, I think this episode features ideas that shouldn't be too surprising to someone who has read some mystery, or even someone who only watches Conan: this episode however does manage to present a very unique setting to pull these ideas off, and the result is a story that might not be completely original in terms of core plot, but which does hit the right notes when it comes to execution.

Anyway, for those who want to try out more of the anime original episodes of Detective Conan, I think these two stories will be good picks. No, they are not as brilliant as Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau and Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken, but those are exceptional episodes, not only just as Detective Conan episodes. Both Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken and Meikyuu he no Iriguchi - Kyodai Shinzou no Ikari however should entertain any fan of the genre as solid mystery stories. For the moment, I think I'll reserve my next Conan review for the two new October releases, but I might return to some other anime original episodes after that.

Original Japanese titles: 『名探偵コナン』88-89話「ドラキュラ荘殺人事件」, 208話「迷宮への入り口 巨大神像の怒り」

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Ladies and Gentlemen


"Oh, that doesn't only happen in foreign mystery novels you know. I myself have handled a case exactly like that. Murders happening precisely according to the lyrics of a handball song that had been passed on for ages in that region."
"Wow! That means that the murders here in Japan are far more progressive than I thought!"
"White or Black"

When you think of Yokomizo Seishi's detective Kindaichi Kousuke, you think of a man dressed in a traditional hakama who solves the most grotesque serial murders committed in small villages and other closed-off communities, often with a connection to old, local traditions or legends, or long-time feuds between clans. Kindaichi Kousuke's stories stand symbol for the old Japan trying to survive in post-war Japan, for the type of rural community that still holds on to the old beliefs and traditions that is quickly dying out in the face of the post-war Japanese economic miracle. The most famous of Kindaichi's adventures, like The Inugami Clan, Gokumontou and Akuma no Temariuta all deal with settings that feel outdated in the new Japan, but that are also undeniably brimming with what made the Japanese community what it was in the first place.

Yokomizo Seishi's Shiro to Kuro ("White or Black", 1974, but serialized in 1960-1961)) is therefore a very strange reading experience for long-time fans, as it has Kindaichi Kousuke tackle the new type of community of Japan, quite unlike the communities of old Japan: apartment complexes. The brand new Hinode Apartment Complex is a fine example of how it's nothing at all like the old villages in Japan: while you still have a large number of people living in close proximity, individualism reigns here: people haven't lived their whole life there, but have moved from all kinds of places from Japan to this apartment complex in Tokyo; everyone has their own apartment which is completely closed off from the other occupants of the building once locked; nobody really "lives" here, as most people don't work inside the complex, but elsewhere in Tokyo and only return to the Hinode Apartment Complex to sleep.

Junko is one of the occupants of Building No. 18 of this twenty-building large apartment complex, and also an old acquaintance of Kindaichi Kousuke, as she used to work in a bar which he and Inspector Todoroki frequented. It's the help of Kindaichi she needs, as of late, poison pen letters that start with "Ladies and Gentlemen" have been going around in the Hinode Apartment Complex, which has already led to an fortunately unsuccesful attempt at suicide. Junko wants Kindaichi to find out who's writing these vile letters, but their talk isn't even over when across the street, in an apartment building that is still under construction, a dead body is found, of which the face is completely covered by tar! Construction workers were busy finishing the roof of the building, when they noticed they were leaking hot tar right into the trash chute of the building, and to their surprise a body of a woman had been dumped at the trash site, who got all the tar over her face. Going off by her clothes, it seems the victim is Katagiri Tsuneko, the proprieter of a tailor's in a shopping arcade next to the apartment complex and actually the person whom Junko suspected to be the writer of the poison pen letters, but a scrap of paper with the mysterious words "White or Black" found in Tsuneko's home shows she too was a recipient of a poison pen letter, and it might actually be the reason she was murdered.

Shiro to Kuro is one of the last Kindaichi Kousuke novels (only followed by Kamen Butoukai, Akuryoutou and Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie) and as said, feels very much unlike other entries in this series due to its undeniably modern setting. We do see Kindaichi work often in Tokyo and other urban settings in the short stories, but the default location for the Kindaichi of the novels remains the somewhat outdated rural community, so having Kindaichi work on a murder inside an apartment complex inside Tokyo is fresh, to say the least. Even the way the body was found is surprisingly "modern"! For we've definitely had our share of mutilated bodies in the past stories, like decapitations, burnt faces, bodies thrown upside down into a lake, bodies crushed beneath a shrine bell and more, but to use the tar of a construction site to cover up a face? The "closed community" setting and the horrible state of the discovered body is undeniably Kindaichi Kousuke's territory, but Yokomizo really succeeds in making these familiar tropes feel eerily different by use of the new, modern urban setting instead of the old-fashioned, rural setting. In that sense, I'd say that Shiro to Kuro is an excellent example of "reimagining" or "modernizing" the series.

That said though, I have to admit that the start of this novel was perhaps the best part, with especially the middle part a bit dragging in my opinion. The narrative of the middle part is mostly made up by following several of the inhabitants of the Hinode Apartment Complex, who all suspect each other of being the poison pen writer and/or the murderer of Tsuneko, and while it can be somewhat entertaining reading up on all these characters, it's also a very slow part, with few worthwhile revelations and a lot of repetition. You'll be reading about character A for example, who bumps into B, and then we follow B, but the narrative repeats things about B even though we were already told about that in A's narrative, and then the same with C, etc. Personally, I'd have preferred reading more about Kindaichi's investigation, especially as several matters regarding the investigation are hardly addressed in this middle part, even though you know it's probably going to be important to the solution. For example: the identity of the victim. Not only Kindaichi and the police, but almost everybody involved is funnily enough aware than you should never take a faceless body for granted in a mystery story, so everyone raises the question where the victim is really Tsuneko or not. It's a very important question, as the unrecognizable victim is an often-used trope in Yokomizo's work, and he seems to be aware that the reader is aware of that too. But as the middle part does not focus on Kindaichi or the police, you find out little about their efforts into establishing the identity of the victim then, even though it's a question that keeps nagging you from the very beginning of the book.

The final solution offers an okay, even if not particularly awe-inspiring explanation for the tarred face. The explanation to the murder and the poison pen letters is basically something Yokomizo likes to use a lot in his novels, and it works... well, not incredibly convincing here to be honest. It works, yes, but a bit more tangible clues for the reader, instead of convenient late witnesses who just happen to remember something at arbitrary points would've made for a more satisfying mystery story as one can't deny it feels like a lot of coincidence. Which can work in a mystery novel, but it can be very easy to rely too much on coincidence to construct "mysterious circumstances" to baffle the reader, and Yokomizo is running the borderline here. The mysterious words "White or black" found on the scrap of the torn-up poison pen letter Tsuneko received turns out to be a vital clue to the identity of the murderer by the way, but no way someone from this generation is going to figure that out. It might've been a viable clue for readers back in 1960, but even then it wasn't widespread knowledge I think, and when the contemporary reader arrives at Kindaichi's interpretation of the phrase, they'll not even go "oh yeah, I heard about that", but "yeah, never heard about that".

Shiro to Kuro thus starts off as an interesting, more modern take on the classic Kindaichi Kousuke story structure, set in the new closed community of the post-war economic miracle Japan, but with a mystery plot that is recognizable for long-time Kindaichi fans. The main problem for this novel is that there are plenty of other Kindaichi Kousuke novels that pull off similar ideas much better, so there is little going for this novel besides the, admittedly, inspired setting.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史『白と黒』

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The House of Wax

"Wax on, wax off"
"The Karate Kid"

Never been to Madame Tussauds, now I think about it, even though there's a pretty prominent one close by I often pass by...

A few months ago, I learned of the existence of the manga Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura. Manga artist Nemoto Shou originally self-published these comics (under the doujin circle name Sapporo no Rokujou Hitoma) at comic conventions and other events, meaning they were only available to a limited audience, as self-published comics (in physical form) are usually printed in limited numbers for obvious reasons. Earlier this year however, publisher Bungeishunju (Bunshun) made the whole series available as e-books through all the major e-book storefronts in Japan. I've already reviewed the first two volumes, which collected the first four, and the subsequent five issues. Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura 3 - Routarou ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny - Mr. Wax") collects the following five issues and is for the moment, the last volume available. The premise is still the same: girl detective Sharaku Homura and Yamazaki "Karate Kid" Yousuke are the last members of respectively the Experiments Club and the Karate Club of Shimoyama Middle School, and they have a knack for running into crime: curious criminals with nefarious and often bloody plans and a knack for dressing up like a Scooby Doo villain roam the city Shimoyama, and it's up to Homura (with some assistance of Karate Kid) to solve the often impossible crimes. 

The opening story Mr. Wax is also probably the longest story of the whole series. Homura and Karate Kid run into a mysterious figure who goes by the name of Mr. Wax, a fitting name as his face is made out of... wax. Standing by a wax figure hanged from a tree, Mr. Wax says his revenge has only started, after which he disappears and when the police investigate the wax figure, they find a dead body hidden inside! While Homura and the police know Mr. Wax has more people on his list, their efforts to thwart the man fail, and a second victim is found in what appears to be a locked room situation: the victim was hiding inside the emergency shelter he had built in his garden, but when the police arrive, they find that the main room was filled with wax up to knee height! The victim was lying dead on top of the set wax, meaning he was killed after the room was filled with wax, but that also means that Mr. Wax couldn't have left the room, as the set wax would've blocked the only door out of the room and shelter! As Homura and the police investigate further, they figure out the connection between the various victims and Mr. Wax, but can Homura also solve the mystery of the wax room?

Perhaps the trickiest and most ambitious story of the whole series up until now! There's even more going on besides the locked wax room, but that part is definitely the most important one, and it's really good! Like the other murders of this story, the locked room mystery really makes good use of the wax theme, and while I have seen mystery stories that are sorta based on the same principle, this one is still very original. The concept of sealing a room with wax is pretty memorable on its own too: wax figures in mystery fiction aren't really original on their own anymore, but there are some really inspired takes on the wax theme here. The whodunnit aspects of this story are also great, with various hints (especially visual ones) spread throughout the tale, and it really forces you to pay attention to everything, as some are really well hidden.

With Mr. Wax almost filling half of the volume, the remaining four stories are relatively short. In The Blades of the Phantom, a director of a construction company is being chased by a masked lunatic wielding two knives. The man tries to flee, only to get into a train accident, which is witnessed by Homura and Karate Kid, who suddenly become the two new targets of the Phantom. A short story that has some neat visual clewing going on in regards to the identity of the murderer. The Tower of the Dead is much more entertaining: a thief called Spider has been stealing masks from various places for some time now, and the school of Homura and Karate Kid was also robbed of a rare African mask. A famous sculptor who used to go to the same school offers to make something else in return, and Homura and Karate Kid are invited to his home. The sculptor is also the creator of four noh masks, each representing one of the four basic emotions, but they are stolen by a thief. Everyone goes chasing after the thief, who flees into a tower which has a long history with violent deaths. As the tower only has one staircase up, they figure Spider is trapped, but to their great surprise, they can't find Spider anywhere in the tower: they have completely disappeared with the masks, even though there's no other exit! While practically speaking, this is a very risky way to create an impossible disapperance situation, the motivation is well-grounded, and on the whole, this is really an innovative way to disappear from the tower! Certainly one of the better short stories of this series.

In The Demon of the Underworld Marriage, Homura is kidnapped by someone wearing a demon mask, who says they're to arrange a marriage between Homura and Aiba Shimon, a writer who recently passed away. Having dug up Aiba's body, the demon says they'll arrange for Homura (who looks like Aiba's first love) and Aiba to "marry" so Aiba won't be alone in the underworld. Luckily for Homura, she's found just in time, but as she doesn't believe in monsters, she's convinced something's fishy about Aiba's death and the true motive of the Demon of the Underworld Marriage. The true intentions of the culprit mesh very well with the misdirection going on, and while the motive might be a bit easy to guess, it's still a creepy story with an original set-up. The final story, Fiend X, is about a letter the police received from "Fiend X", which indicates a dead body will be found at Shimoyama Shrine summer festival. Homura and Karate Kid help with the search, which ends in the haunted house attraction: the body of a woman who had been missing for a while was found inside a statue. From there the story works to a very quick conclusion, though that too involves some surprises. The identity of Fiend X is very well-clewed in a visual manner, and you want to hit yourself for not spotting them as soon as Homura did. While the story is rather limited in scale, it's still a good example of how this series makes excellent use of its medium.

As this is the last volume for the moment, this is a good time to look back at the series in general. It's an almost surprisingly well done mystery manga, that really shows what a good fair-play puzzle plot mystery should be like. The themes are of course quite classic, with impossible crimes like locked room murders, impossible disappearances and more, but also screwball stories like the Quiz Master story from volume 2. These mystery stories all feature original mystery plots that can impress any fan of the genre. What Nemoto does especially well throughout the series is making use of the medium: most of the stories have distinct, visual clews that are really well done: it's easy to miss them, but they are not mean or underhanded, like drawn really small or anything like that. In fact, often they're right in your face, but not in a way you'd notice it until it's too late, just like the best of clues in "conventional" mystery fiction. You really need to not just read the comic, but take the art in. This is also true for other mystery manga like Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo of course, but I have the feeling that these comics, especially Kindaichi Shounen, are sometimes less fair in their visual clewing, with very small details you have to zoom in on to get them. Nemoto feels more confident in his clewing in comparison.

As for atmosphere, I'd really recommend this series to fans of Edogawa Rampo. With murderers dressed up in all kinds of manners, and the rather fantastical backstories and murder methods, it's clear where Nemoto gets his inspiration from. There's a certain nostalgic tone prevalent here that works with the type of story, and it's something you can also sense in works by for example Rampo, but also Nikaidou Reito (who is also obviously inspired by Rampo's work). There is of course something silly about murderers dressing up like Snake Men or wearing wax masks or pretending to be the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, but it works in this series, because there's a sort of children's literature vibe to it all, that is earnest in its intention to simply entertain the reader.

Anyway, as I understand it, the Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura series will continue as a self-published comic, so for the moment, Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura 3 - Routarou is the last volume available as an e-book. I hope that publisher Bunshun will publish a fourth story collection once enough issues have been self-published by Nemoto, as this has been a really fun mystery manga, and I can't wait to read more!

Original Japanese title(s): 根本尚『怪奇探偵・写楽炎 3 蝋太郎』

Friday, August 17, 2018

Monochrome Motion

「未完成な音色」(Garnet Crow)

It was a hope I held on for only one single time
But what is dancing within your hands is
An imperfect sound
"An Imperfect Sound" (Garnet Crow)

Don't you just hate it when an anthology features one story you really want to read, but where most of the other contents are made up out of stories you already have in other publications? Or when a certain book is re-released, but includes some new content, for example a new story, or an updated chapter or something similar? That one story or that little bit of new content is certainly alluring, but does it justify basically double-dipping on certain stories or other books?

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series 
1: The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case (1987) [Nintendo Famicom Disk System]
5: The Unfinished Reportage (1996) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
6: At the End of the Dream (1998) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
7: Before the Light Fades (1999) [Sony PlaySation] 
8: Innocent Black (2002) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
9: Kind of Blue (2004) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
10: The White Phantom Girl (2005) [Nintendo GameBoy Advance] 
14: Ashes and Diamonds (2009) [Sony PlayStation Portable] 
15: The Red Butterfly (2010) [Nintendo DS] 
16: Rondo of Revenge (2012) [Nintendo 3DS]
17: Ghost of the Dusk (2017) [Nintendo 3DS] 

18: Prism of Eyes (2018) [Nintendo Switch/Sony PlayStation 4]

The Ghost of Shinjuku (2006)
A Bright Future (2007)

That is the question that sticks with me the most as I played the Switch/PlayStation 4 game Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes"), released in August 2018 as the eighteenth main series entry in what might possibly be the longest running mystery adventure game series. As always, the game revolves around the adventures of the ever-smoking private detective Jinguuji, his assistant Youko and the local police detective Kumano as they work on curious cases in Shinjuku, Tokyo. This latest game is basically a series anthology, complete with the usual complaint I have with anthologies: most of the content is already available in other forms. Prism of Eyes contains no less than thirteen different scenarios (stories), most of them about two to three hours long to read through (plus one bonus story). The problem is that only three of those scenarios (and the bonus story) are completely new, original content. The remaining ten stories, thus the bulk of the whole game, are high-definition remakes of select titles from the spin-off series which were originally not released on game consoles, but on mobile phones. While the original services offering the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou mobile phone applications have stopped long ago making them rare games in theory, all twenty-four mobile applications are quite easily available, as they were included (in batches) in previous main series titles. That means that if you have been following this game series since at least the DS titles,  you will already be familiar with about seventy-five percent of this game.

I have been a long-time fan of this series. In fact, I started playing these games just before I started learning Japanese, so to me, the experience of playing these games have always been also a way to measure my proficiency in the language, but that does mean that Prism of Eyes feels rather lacking in content to me, as so much is simply repackaging of old material I already know. The three brand-new scenarios (which are collectively titled Prism of Eyes) do try to do something interesting. Assistant Youko and police inspector Kumano have been playable characters in some of the previous titles, but that was usually in a shared role with Jinguuji, or with each other, with chapters alternating between these characters. Never before have Youko and Kumano, who have been in this series ever since the first title, carried their own story from start to finish. The three new Prism of Eyes scenarios however have Jinguuji, Youko and Kumano each star in their own story. In False Night, Jinguuji runs into Asakura, an old buddy from the university boxing club, who is apparently chased by some suspicious figures. Asakura disappears, but Jinguuji learns that Asakura has stolen a bag from a VIP room in a club run by a shady organization and now everyone is after Asakura and his bag. Detective assistant Youko stars in Gems For the Dead, where a college friend Yuiko, who is now a jewelry designer, asks Youko to model for her. She also wants Youko to investigate her boyfriend, who has been acting weird strangely, and Youko discovers a strange connection between Yuiko's boyfriend and a series of murders happening in Shinjuku, where a gem is left with each victim. In The Truth of the Cursed Mirror, police inspector Kumano is investigating the death of an assistant-professor in archeology in a dig-site discovered at a construction site. At first sight, it appears the man simply slipped and died because of his injuries, but there are some points that bother the experienced police detective, and there are also rumors the assistant-professor's death is connected to a curse enscribed in an ancient bronze mirror found at the site.

As per the current series tradition, these games don't really offer much in terms of interactivity, only allowing you to use a few simple commands like "Move" and "Look" to move between locations and ask witnesses specific questions, and it's impossible to get stuck or even get a game over screen. In return, these games can focus very much on story-telling, and while the core is still a mystery plot, the human drama angle this game series has adapted especially since the entries released on the DS, is very much noticable here. The three stories do play into the strengths of the three characters: Jinguuji's scenario has him dealing with underworld gangs and secret wars, Youko's story is far more focused on the characters, while Inspector Kumano's story has him dealing with red tape and pressure from within the police organization as he tries to solve his case. The three scenarios are rather passive experiences as mystery stories, focusing more on the slow unraveling of the case and events, rather than giving the player the tools to do it themselves, but they definitely work as captivating mystery stories. But, considering these three scenarios are each about two, three hours long each, Prism of Eyes does really feel lacking in content. The scale of these three stories is rather limited. And sure, taken together you might have about nine hours, but as a main series entry, I'd prefered a long, nine-hour story (like in the older games, like series pinnacles Yume no Owari ni and Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni), rather than three shorter stories. Prism of Eyes is the first Tantei Jinguuji Saburou to be released on a home console, rather than a handheld device (DS, PSP and 3DS) since 2004's Kind of Blue, so I had hoped we'd be getting the scaled-up experience this time, with more robust gameplay mechanics like the zapping system, time system or even the train-your-assistant systems of earlier games, but no. The DS and 3DS original scenarios were arguably also rather small in scale, but that wasn't very surprising considering the hardware (Ashes and Diamonds on the PSP in comparison is pretty long), and the inclusion of the mobile phone application games back then was a worthwile addition, as that was the first time they were made available in a physical format, and you couldn't get them anymore on the cell phones.

There are also various minor signs that Prism of Eyes could've used some extra polish. Some of the in-game effects (like sliding assets) are incredibly ugly and the order of in-game commands (like "Look", "Item" and "Move") changes sometimes between the various scenarios. So most of the time, "Speak" follows the command "Look", while for example in False Night, it's I think "Item" that follows "Look" for no apparent reason. So on the whole, I think the new stories are okay, but the whole game does feel like unambitious, and the execution is at times even sloppy.

The ten other scenarios included in Prism of Eyes are as mentioned simply HD-remakes of scenarios originally released on mobile phones, and later made available on DS. To be honest, I don't really like the new HD graphics. While the character designs are done by the same person who did most of them orginally (JUNNY), I prefer the more unique designs of the original versions rather than the ones used for the HD remakes. I'm not going to write something on all of the stories, but to pick a few: The Six Sheets of Crime is a personal favorite, as it has one of the more traditional puzzle-oriented plots of the whole series, with a locked room of sorts and a pretty ingenious way that indicated the murderer. This story was written by Kodaka Kazutaka, who would later create the Danganronpa game series. Prism of Eyes features another scenario written by Kodaka. As Times Goes By... is a HD remake of a what itself was a fairly faithful remake of Toki ga Sugiyuku mama ni..., originally published on the Famicom in 1990. The original Famicom title was the first in the series to focus on human drama (and the first game in the series without a murder!) and was written by Nojima Kazushige, whom most people will know as the scenario writer of mega hits Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X. The mobile phone remake (on which this HD remake is based) smoothes the story out a bit. The Linked Curse is another HD remake included in Prism of Eyes which was originally written by Nojima (and a personal favorite too) and has Jinguuji investigating the death of a young man who claimed he was cursed. This is actually the one and only mobile phone application game I bought for my Japanese phone when I was studying in Fukuoka, and I have rather fond memories of it. Pretty weird to play this game now in high definition on my television, considered I first played it the screen of on a small clamshell phone!

Prism of Eyes includes a short demo of Daedalus - Awakening of Golden Jazz, an upcoming prequel spin-off game featuring a younger Jinguuji during his time in New York (set before the flashback events of Yume no Owari ni). The gameplay of this "Chapter 0" is quite different from the usual games, and also a bit clunky in this demo, but as the game'll be released later this year, I'll be sure to check it out.

One thing I can't complain about is the music of Prism of Eyes. Seriously, I don't know how, but the music of each and every entry in this series simply rocks. Or to be exact: jazzes. The jazzy soundtrack of this series is absolutely fantastic, and I'm sure to add the new Prism of Eyes tracks to the playlist I use when I'm writing (which is actually mostly made out of Tantei Jinguuji Saburou music, as they work perfectly as non-intrusive background music).

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes is in my eyes a somewhat disappointing game. After the steps taken in last year's Ghost in the Dusk, I was hoping for a grand scale Jinguuji Saburou game like we had in the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 days, but Prism of Eyes is unambitious, with only a few, short new scenarios. If you have never ever played a Jinguuji Saburou before, the thirteen scenarios found in this game (+ bonus story) will definitely offer a varied collection of mystery stories that also provide a good picture of what the series has to offer in terms of characters and storytelling, but for people who have been playing these games for a longer time, Prism of Eyes has far, far too little to offer in terms of original content.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵 神宮寺三郎 Prism of Eyes』

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Search of Truth

The days and the months are drifting by
As though they didn't notice seasons changing in the breeze 
They all look the same but I sense something's there 
Waiting around the path
Revealing a truth that I will defend
"Time Hollow" (Mouse)

Despite the cover, this is technically a science-fiction mystery, I guess...

The Shiigahara Academy Case some years ago involved the death of a female science teacher of that school, for which the prosecutor Meijou was arrested. He insisted he was innocent, but evidence showed that only he came near the victim after she herself signed for a certain delivery at the school, namely a package containing the very poison that would be used for her death. Meijou was convicted for the murder, though some suspect the fact Meijou was working on a grand scale corruption case involving the Shiigahara Group (which funded the academy) might not be completely unrelated to his predicament. Some time later, prosecutor Kikuzono Ayako receives a tip from attorney Morie Shunsaku that might allow them to prove Meijou's innocence, as the research center HICALI has a particle accelerator that can determine at the particle level whether a certain piece of evidence used in Meijou's trial is indeed what it was assumed to be. After leaving the evidence behind at HICALI, Kikuzono is taken by Morie to the Everholy Lodge, a private hotel owned by the Shiigahara Group for its members. There they find among the other guests some people that might be connected to Meijou's case too, but to the two attorneys' surprise,  one of the guests is murdered inside a locked hotel room. Kikuzono however quickly figures out who committed the murder and how... or did she? For at the very moment she pointed out who the murderer was, she is transported to another dimension! It appears a fault with HICALI's particle accelerator is the cause of her dimension-hopping, and she theorizes that she might be flung back into her own world if she manages to solve the murder in the Everholy Lodge, but there is one problem: while this parallel world is mostly like her own world, it appears that the vital clue in Kikuzono's original theory doesn't exists in this parallel world, meaning she has to figure out a whole new explanation for the locked room murder in Ashibe Taku's Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Murder In The Dimensional House", 2014).

This is a weird novel. Mystery fiction is not necessarily about realism of course, and the rate at which most amateur detectives run into corpses or other mysteries like impossible disappearances is hardly something anyone would consider realistic. World consistency is more important and this is why fantasy and science-fiction mystery novels work: they might not be "realistic", but ideally, there's consistency in what can be done or what can't be done with magic/future technology, and those rules govern those worlds just in the way the general laws of nature govern most other mystery stories. Yet Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin seems quite strange compared to other novels in the Morie Shunsaku series: sure, this series is strangely broad, as in one novel, Morie might be acting like a real attorney, working on a Lay Judge case that is meant to portray how a Lay Judge case really works in Japan, but in another story he might be solving the mystery of a Birdman or solving purely fictional murders. Yet I had not expected him to appear in a science-fiction mystery, which this novel is essentially, as we're talking about a dimension-leaping prosecutor. That said though, the parallel world premise is the only science-fiction part of the mystery, as it's not like the murder was committed with death rays or anything like that. The story follows prosecutor Kikuzono by the way, who is apparently a semi-recurring character/rival in the series I myself hadn't met yet, rather than Morie himself.

The premise is that due to an incident at HICALI's particle accelerator, Kikuzono is flung into a parallel world each time she makes a wrong deduction. She realizes she can only return if she figure out who the real murderer is of the Everholy Lodge Murder Case, but the catch is that every parallel world is slightly different. The murder has happened in each world, but everyone has slightly different names for example (in one of the worlds, Morie has an expy called Emori for example) and the details of the murder are also slightly different. The devil is in the details they say and that is correct here, as it's these details that make each dimensional jump so tiresome for Kikuzono, as each time, her previous theory about the murder is rendered completely useless. For example, in one parallel world, her theory hinged on the fact the murder weapon was a fairly small knife, but the moment she pointed at her suspect, she was thrown into another parallel world, where the knife had turned into a Japanese sword, that couldn't possibly work with her theory. Each time the details of the case change slightly, making her previous theory impossible and forcing her to rethink it.

This idea is somewhat similar to the multiple solutions trope we see in stories by Ellery Queen (most famously The Greek Coffin Mystery) and Anthony Berkeley (most famously The Poisoned Chocolates Case), novels which are structured around presenting one new solution to the same case upon another to the reader. There is a fundamental difference however to the parallel worlds in Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin and those works: in the works of Queen or Berkeley, the false solution is possible because a detective either interprets the evidence wrong, or more often, they are not yet in possession of all the relevant facts. It's only after the false solution is proposed that New Evidence A appears on the scene, which allows the detective to refine their theory to include this New Evidence A, changing their solution (see also my article on the Foil Detective). This is not the case in Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin: in this novel, the facts themselves actually change or even completely disappear, forcing Kikuzono to reconsider her theories. So what was once a knife, can suddenly turn into a sword, or an item that existed in one world that allowed her theory to work, doesn't even exist in the next parallel world. So in this novel, the false solution is not made possible by adding facts, but by removing them or altering them. This wouldn't fly in a "realistic" novel of course, but does work in the framework of parallel worlds.

Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin is thus more a thought experiment in deduction and the locked room mystery, than a mystery novel that wants to challenge you in a fair way with false solutions, as it's obviously not fair to the reader, nor to Kikuzono, that fundamental facts are suddenly changed at the whim of the author/parallel worlds. It's a mostly entertaining experiment though, as Kikuzono has to come up with a new solution to the locked room murder each time with a diminishing number of clues, and I think she goes through like four or five different solutions on what is essentially a rather small-scale locked room mystery, but which eventually makes an impression because of all the variations it goes through. But there's quite some repetition in this novel due to all the dimensional hopping, and because the facts keep changing solely to deny Kikuzono's theories, it feels somewhat mean-spirited, and at times even futile, as her theories are always rejected not because they are logically not sound, but simply because the facts are changed to her disadvantage.

The final solution to the locked room murder... is almost too grand for this novel. The solution takes some minor elements from each of the other solutions Kikuzono proposed in the parallel dimensions, which makes this a pretty clever one, but even from that starting point it's a looooong way to the final solution, and it definitely needed better clewing, as it really came out of nowhere, even with the build-up through the other solutions. It's a shame, as the core concept of this locked room mystery is utterly nuts, in the good sense of the term, but the minimalist clewing doesn't do it any favors, as at it is now, it's only vaguely hinted at best, and even then there's so many logistics about it that could've been hinted at in a better manner. The idea is of course that each of the previous parallel world solutions all contain elements of the final solution, but even then, I think that this final solution to the locked room mystery would've worked better on its own, with it as the true focus, rather in this particular novel that's more built around the idea of having multiple parallel versions of the same locked room.

What struck me the most I think was the nagging feeling that this story would've worked better as a videogame, as that medium works better with presenting parallel worlds. Kamaitaichi no Yoru, 428 or Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P also work with branching and/or parallel story paths and as games, they can allow the player to do stuff easily like jumping back and forth between different paths through flowcharts. I think Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin would've been more fun if the parallel worlds weren't presented one after another, but simultaneously (allowing you to jump between the various worlds), allowing you to explore each world yourself, rather than going through them in order.

I said it at the beginning and I will repeat it now: Ijigen no Yakata no Satsujin is a weird story. It uses a science-fiction framework to play with the trope of the false solution in an interesting way, focusing on a somewhat simple locked room mystery and it's quite entertaining to read it as such. Yet I also feel that this concept might've worked better in a different format, and that the true solution of the locked room mystery is crazy enough that it deserved more attention as a full-fledged novel that is solely about it, rather than being part of a number of solutions to the locked room conundrum, as the clewing for the true solution is somewhat inadequate. It's definitely not a typical Morie Shunsaku novel, though I have to say: by now it seems that Morie Shunsaku can work with any type of mystery.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『異次元の館の殺人』

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Secret in Time

"You would have made a good archaeologist, M. Poirot. You have the gift of recreating the past."
 "Murder in Mesopotamia"

A few months ago, I reviewed Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, which provided an extremely well-researched history of detective and mystery comics published in Japan post World War II. It offered a wealth of information, so I dotted down a lot of titles that I wanted to read. What was most interesting to me was the period between the late 70s and early 90s. Before the 70s, original mystery manga (so not adaptations) were less about puzzle plots, but more about the adventures of a detective as a secret agent or spy. In the early and mid-90s, we got the huge watershed moment with Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and QED, which made original pure puzzle plot mystery manga common. But what happened in the period that led up to that watershed moment? Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar filled in the gaps for me, showing that the puzzle plot mystery manga's roots could be traced to the uprise of female manga artists in the 70s who would leave an everlasting impression on the industry. The 70s provided a space for experimentation within the manga format, and it was especially daring female artists who did incredible things there. A while back, I reviewed the animated feature They Were Eleven! for example, based on a comic by industry legend Hagio Moto which incorporated mystery, science-fiction and human drama. The horror genre in the manga format has also been long associated with comics for female readers, as that too flourished in the 70s under the auspices of female manga artists. From there it's not hard to see how horror artists would work their way to mystery manga, as the two genres have much in common.

One of the artists mentioned in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar who caught my attention in particular was Takashina Ryouko. In the early seventies, she made several comic adaptations of Edogawa Rampo's novels Kotou no Oni, Panorama-tou no Kidan and Kurotokage, but in 1979, she finally created her own original mystery comic, and it was a genuine puzzle plot mystery manga. Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken ("The Piano Sonata Murder Case") was first published in 1979 in the magazine Nakayoshi Deluxe, and that would only be the start of Takashina's Murder Case series. The initial series ran from 1979 until 1984, spanning six stories. In 2002, Takashina resumed the series in the magazine Mystery Bonita, with more murder cases to be solved.  Note that while I call this a series, the stories themselves have no relation to each other: each story is a standalone tale, with no links to the other stories save for the "Murder Case" in the title. The 2005 release of Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken collects the first three stories in this series.

The title story Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken (1979) brings us to a familiar setting from 70s manga written for female readers. Seiko is the undisputed madonna of her high school, and her piano skills even earned her special privilages there, like a private room with a piano for her and her clique, ironically referred to as Seiko's "salon". One of the people in Seiko's clique is Iku, her cousin, who was practically raised together with Seiko. However, unlike the rich, beautiful and talented Seiko, Iku is quite poor and rather clumsy, and while Seiko always says she considers Iku her little sister, she's basically using Iku as her own personal slave. While a few other students at the school show interest for Iku personally, like the captain of the tennis club and Murakami, the popular upperclassman, Seiko's constant downplaying of Iku stand in the way of her ever growing to be anything more than "Seiko's inferior cousin". That is until one day, when Seiko's showing off her piano skills to her "salon", a horrible incident happens: during the sonata, a bottle of acid falls on Seiko's face out of nowhere, and during her painful struggle, she falls through the window, down several stories on the cold ground. After Seiko's death, Iku starts blaming herself for her death, and her pain is only amplified through rumors at school that Seiko's ghost is still roaming the piano room, but Murakami is convinced there's a perfectly logical reason to explain everything and starts investigating the truth behind Seiko's death.

Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken is a fairly accomplished story that sets out to combine several genres, with the mystery plot as its main core. While the death and the consequences of that on Iku's mind form the main core of this story, there's also a good dash of the romantic high school drama to be found here, and the influences of the horror genre are certainly also very present. The result is a hundred-page story that does not really bore, as it is capable of offering something else every other page, yet it never feels too chaotic. The core mystery plot revolves around a semi-impossibility: nobody knows where the bottle of acid came from and how it fell on Seiko, even though she was surrounded by everyone in her clique, and the door to the salon room was shut. The solution is okayish: it makes good use of the particular circumstances, but the hinting was a bit crude, with only one real physical clue that required a bit of creative thinking to arrive at the conclusion. The horror and high school romantic drama elements also tie in well with the mystery plot, leading to a story that is not quite as pure as a for example a Detective Conan story, but it is without any doubt a direct predecessor of the big mystery comics.

Shuugaku Ryokou Satsujin Jiken ("The School Trip Murder Case", 1980) is about Ari and Kaoru, who have been close friends since they were little kids despite the one-year difference in age. Now at high school, everyone thinks they are dating, but Ari at least still sees Kaoru only as her friend. That is until one day, Kaoru is murdered during the school trip to Kyoto, killed by an unknown assailant in the mountains behind Ginkakuji Temple. It's only after Kaoru's death that Ari realizes she had romantic feelings for Kaoru, but there are still strange points surrounding Kaoru's death, who died very soon after his own father. His classmates say they saw Kaoru in town even after the burial and when one year later, Ari herself is going on the same Kyoto school trip, she decides to investigate Kaoru's death herself. To be honest, this second story was a bit of a disappointment. It goes heavy on the drama, which isn't bad on its own, but the truth behind the death of Kaoru and his ghost isn't really surprising, nor really original. Well, I guess the explaination of his ghost might be original, but fair, it certainly isn't. Had it been hinted at earlier, it would've been slightly better, but now you might as well have told me it was magic.

Gakuensai Satsujin Jiken ("The School Festival Murder Case", 1980) too features a high school setting and stars Miharu, member of the school's theatre club and the only daughter of a wealthy CEO. As of late, she's been dating Minamoto, the current head of the club, but she's also being courted by Nagatani, a graduated member of the theatre club and protégé of her father. Strange things have been happening around her lately, mostly involving a strange lady who is harrassing Miharu with strange phone calls and even has her cat scratch Miharu's hand. When Miharu's chosen to star besides Minamoto in the club's performance of Poe's The Black Cat as the wife, things start to run out of hand, ending in tragedy when Miharu accidently kills her tormentor. But why was she being stalked in the first place and how can she ever live with herself knowing she killed someone?

A story that delves more into psychological horror than the previous two, but also a story that is far more exciting. The thriller-mode shouldn't fool you though, as technically, I'd say Takanashi goes further here in regards to actual clewing than in the first two stories, with some neat visual clewing. The truth behind what happened to Miharu might be a bit easy to guess because of the limited cast whom are a bit easy to identify as 'good' or 'bad' persons, but the story works its way to a Poe-esque conclusion at the school festival, which is quite entertaining.

As a volume, Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken gave me an interesting glimpse in the development of the puzzle plot mystery manga in Japan. The stories included here may lack the focus on the core puzzle plot of the main mystery manga we have now, but the way the three stories here clearly incorporate a true puzzle plot mystery at their core, while also showing the influence of, and cleverly utilizing the tropes and modes of the high school romance drama and horror genres that were far more commonplace in the world of comic publishing back then, show that Takashina's work helped pave the way for the major mystery manga we have now, as completely original works, instead of adaptations, and as a series solely devoted to mystery stories (as opposed to series that occasionally feature a mystery story).

Original Japanese title(s): 高階良子 『ピアノソナタ殺人事件』

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Crime in the Queen's Court

"Not quite. Actually, it's from Carroll's other book, Through the Looking-Glass. And to complete the title?"
"Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There."
"The Mad Tea Party"

Two reviews with Alices in one week?!

Last week, I reviewed the first volume of Nemoto Shou's comic Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura. This series was originally a doujin manga, meaning it was self-published by Nemoto himself (under the doujin circle name Sapporo no Rokujou Hitoma) in very small numbers, sold at events etc. This meant few were actually able to read the comic, but earlier this year, Kaiki Tantei - Sharaku Homura was made widely available in the e-book format thanks to publisher Bungeishunju. I enjoyed the first volume a lot, so my expectations for the second volume were obviously quite high. Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura - Youki no Kuni ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny -  The Land of the Wondrous Beauty") collects the next five issues of this series about girl detective Sharaku Homura and Yamazaki "Karate Kid" Yousuke. As the last members of respectively the Experiments Club and the Karate Club of Shimoyama Middle School, the two are forced to share a classroom for their club activities, but more often than not, the two end up chasing after curious criminals who like to dress up like Scooby Doo villains while committing impossible murders and other baffling crimes.

This second volume derives its subtitle from the opening story, The Land of the Wondrous Beauty, which is absolutely nuts. Homura finds her one day chasing after a rabbit with a watch, but she falls in a hole and loses conciousness. When she finally wakes up, she discovers that she has shrunken to a miniature size and wandered into a curious land. When she is finally captured by a soldier resembling a playing card, and confronted with the Queen of Hearts who breaks both of Homura's hands, Homura realizes to her shock that she's in Alice's Wonderland! Homura is helped by Alice herself to escape from Wonderland, but then another girl from Homura's school is captured by the Queen, as well as Homura's parents, and a priceless gem owned by the girl's jeweler parents is demanded as a ransom. Advised by both Homura and the police, the parents refuse to hand the jewel over, and keep it in a highly secured room of which both the door and the glass case in which the jewel is held is locked. Yet the people from Wonderland manage to steal the jewel from under the noses of its owner, the police and Homura herself!

Did I already say this story is nuts? The opening of this tale is really weird, with Homura wandering into Wonderland, and while this series has had its share of weird villains in weird dress, having the Queen of Hearts as the main opponent is more than strange in a detective tale. This is a tale of mystery however, and as we have come to expect from Nemoto, it's also a well-structured, and always fairly clewed puzzle plot mystery. The premise is crazy, but the logic used to explain how the jewel was stolen from its double-secured room is both clever and surprising, explaining also why the set-up of this tale is a bit on the longer side (and of course, there's a logical answer as to why Homura ended up in Wonderland). The ending of the story, when Homura and the police have cornered the criminal reminds a lot of Edogawa Rampo pulps, with a crazy chase inside the culprit's lair that is strangely enough incredibly large. I mean, why steal a jewel when it's obvious your secret lair you used for your evil schemes costs you a lot in the first place...

Quiz Master is a shorter story, where Homura is kidnapped by the titular Quiz Master, who challenges Homura to an epic battle of... quizzes! If Homura manages to answer three questions correctly, she'll be released, but for each wrong answer, a suit of armor holding a lance will move closer, and with the third wrong answer, she'll be made in to shish-kebab. The catch is that the Quiz Master's questions are incredibly nitpicky, so Homura does her best to stall for as long as possible until help arrives. The main clue pointing to the identity of the Quiz Master is something I should have picked up, though it could have needed a bit more to really make it a good clue. The explanation as to how Homura managed to get help is a lot better, and the clew is deviously well-hidden.

In The Scorpion Code, Homura and Karate Kid happen to walk right into a desperate struggle for power within the notorious Scorpion Gang. The boss of the gang wants to retire, and he has made a secret code that leads to the hiding place of the majority of the gang's loot. The one who solves the code, will become the new leader of Scorpion. The other gang members just want to get their hands on the loot however and don't care about the future of the gang, and try to capture their boss to make him hand over the loot just like that. While on the run, the boss runs into Homura and Karate Kid, and he confides into them the secret code, which they now must solve before the other Scorpion members get there. It's a relatively simple code-cracking story that is fairly clewed, but it does lack a sense of genuine wonder or surprise that most of the other stories do offer.

In The Distorted Face, a man with a horribly distorted face is popping up in various parts of Shimoyama City, asking the directions for a home of a certain old man. The old man used to be a robber, and one day, he tried to steal a bulldozer from a construction site to use in a robbery. He was discovered by someone at the site, but he killed the man by crushing his head with the bulldozer. He fled abroad a rich man, and returned when the statute of limitations expired for his murder. With each sighting of the man with the distorted face obviously out for revenge, the old man becomes more anxious, and in the end he decided to stay inside his locked house the whole day. Yet one night, when the police is staking the house out, they suddenly hear yelling, and when they break into the house, and into the locked bedroom, they find the old man dead, and with obvious signs of a horrible fight having happened inside. Yet the man with the distorted face is nowhere to be found, and logically, he could never have entered the house in the first place, so how did he assault the old man? A well-clewed story, and while the impossible angle isn't very surprising, the hinting is good, and Nemoto does a good job at giving a good reason for why there's a locked room in the first place.

Paintings of the Dead has Homura being hired to solve a weird puzzle: her client owns a painting by Ikichi Taken, a painter who was so obsessed with the idea of making a painting of the dead, he stole the corpse of a young lady to make paintings of the body as she'd rot. He was captured, but one of his paintings, still in the early phase of the rotting process, came into the hands of Homura's client. He has been threatened by a mysterious figure who says they'll complete the painting by having the corpse decay even further. The painting is held in a small storage room, with the painting secured to the wall. While Homura, Karate Kid and the owner stand guard in the room with the door as its only opening, the lights go out, and when they return, they find that the corpse in the painting has indeed changed, with more of the flesh decayed! Nobody could've entered through the door during the blackout, as they would've noticed, and the painting couldn't have been switched out of its frame in that short a period, so how did the painting change? A brilliantly thought-off story: the explanation is so simple once pointed out, but oh-so-devious, and excellently hinted. The horror-vibe of the story also helps, and the whole thing works towards a really creepy ending.

I forgot to mention it in my first review, but while these volumes collect the original self-published comics of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura, these e-books also contain some exclusive material, with some stories (like the title story) featuring brand new epilogues that shed some new light on the culprits and their motives.

So this second volume of Kaiki Tantei Homura Sharaku is again excellent mystery comic material. While most of the stories do have a similar vibe because of the trope of the 'dressed-up villain' with insanely complex plans that are a bit silly if you think about it, the mystery plots are usually really entertaining and precisely what you want in a puzzle plot story. Many of the hints are visual, making excellent use of the medium. A difference between this volume and the first is definitely diversity: from the crazy opening theft story to a code-cracking story to a short like Quiz Master: there's a lot more variety here, which serves as a welcome change after the first volume. Only one volume left!

Original Japanese title(s): 根本尚『怪奇探偵・写楽炎 2 妖姫の国』

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Stolen Relic

"You have then a private 'Black Museum.'"
 "Bah!" Mr. Shaitana snapped disdainful fingers. "The cup used by the Brighton murderer, the jemmy of a celebrated burglar absurd childishness! I should never burden myself with rubbish like that. I collect only the best objects of their kind." 
"Cards on the Table"

I assume that most of the readers here are not only into mystery fiction in general, but fan of one, or probably, multiple series. Some might be completely hooked on a certain series and try to binge-read/watch/listen (to) them, while others are doing it slowly on purpose, to savor each and every taking of the particular series. Some might also be actively collecting a series: trying to get their grubby hands on every release of a certain version for example, or perhaps various versions of the same book because they have different cover art or something like that. I myself have a Detective Conan volumes from various countries for example, something that looks neat in the bookcase.

Today however, I want to look at something else that fans like to have: merchandise. With merchandise, I mean items that aren't a form of mystery fiction on their own (book/TV series/films/audio dramas/videogames etc.), but related objects that are meant for display, or for actual usage, that bear the branding of a certain mystery series or author. Fans love merchandise, as can be seen from the many, many, many collectors of practically any series. Some love to flaunt their fandom with branded mugs or T-shirts, while others simply like to put an action figure in the glass case, but in any case, merchandise is big business. So I was wondering what readers here have in terms of mystery-related merchandise. That said though, a first look will probably show that it can be pretty hard finding official mystery fiction-related merchandise. Which made the success of BBC's Sherlock the more tangible: at the very height of the series, you saw T-shirts with quotes, Sherlocked mugs, heck, Sherlock funko dolls being sold in shops.

Speaking of figures and dolls, I don't have much myself: besides for a few Detective Conan and Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney keyholders, I'd say the only mystery-related figure I have is the Detective Pikachu amiibo (an amiibo is a NFC-enabled figurine, which can communicate with certain games for various results: the Detective Pikachu amiibo can be used in the Detective Pikachu game to unlock special scenes and hints). I absolutely love the little guy with his Holmes hat though. There are a few action figures that I'd love to own though. For example: there's an action figure of Yokomizo Seishi's famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke, as played by Ishizaka Kouji in the 1976 film adaptation of Inugamike no Ichizoku. The thing comes with real cloth clothes and even his suitcase with all the travel stickers, just like in the movie! Another figure I'd love to have is the one of the Dark Shadow/the Culprit of Detective Conan, who comes with a whole arsenal of weapons and facial expressions.

But to get back to some of the merchandise I do have. Sometimes, merchandise is simply a replica of an iconic object used in a certain series. Not all series lend themselves to this of course, though I heard that people started looking for that long coat Sherlock wears in Sherlock some years back.... Anyway, I have here for example a school badge as seen in the mystery manga Tantei Gakuen Q, with which the students of Dan's Detective Academy could identify themselves to the police, giving them the authority to mingle with official police investigations. Another piece of merchandise I have is a pink pass case, which people might recognize as the pass case Momiji lost in Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter. And yes, it comes with the pictures hidden inside and Momiji's public transport card!

I also have a weirdly large amount of mystery-related... stationery. I have pens, notebooks, clear file folders, desk pads and post-its with Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo branding. They don't have anything directly to do with those series of course, but errr, stationery is actually useful merchandise. My somewhat faded bookcover is also handy: most books and comics in Japan follow standard sizes, so many people use bookcovers. This particular one is mostly suited for standard tankobon-sized manga (I have different ones for novels), but they are really handy. 

To finish off, the weirdest merchandise I have. A friend had sent these to me as a surprise, and lo, I was surprised. I was aware there was Detective Conan tea, and even with SUPERCUTE artwork for the bags. But I did not know there was Detective Conan-branded instant curry. I haven't eaten them yet, but apparently, the Conan Curry is "spicy in appearance, but sweet in taste", while the Dark Shadow curry is supposed to be really black. And perhaps poisoned. I mean, it's the curry of the culprit. I'm really curious as to how they'll taste. But yeah, mystery fiction-related food is not something I come across often.

Anyway, this was some (most) of the mystery fiction-related merchandise I have. I'd like to know what you have! A Holmes bust like Holmes had, a replica of Poirot's moustaches, a Poisoned Chocolates Case, anything!