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』

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