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』


  1. Sounds fun as usual!
    Would be nice to see a foray of LRI into comics :)
    I'm sure the audience is there :)

    1. Actually, I have the feeling that the general audience that enjoys classically-styled mystery fiction is fairly conservative, and doesn't even bother with "new" forms like comics and games. I mean, very few of the mystery blogs and their commentators even glance at or acknowledge Detective Conan, even though it's not only one of the longest, but also one of the most consistent mystery series in existence anywhere in the world.

  2. Hmm...

    I'd say it depends. For example, the blogs I follow (yours, Tomcat's, JJ's, Patrick's before and others) they're certainly aware of Conan...

    Then again, there's also some scanlation teams which focus solely on detective manga (it's thanks to them I finished Detective School Q!) so at least some people care about this stuff :)

    1. Oh, what I meant is that my impressoin's that there's surprisingly little overlap between for example people who will generally read all the British Library Crime Classics or Locked Room International books or go to watch Murder on the Orient Express or any Christie on the telly, and people who will read mystery manga or watch mystery anime (or animated mystery fiction or comic mystery fiction in general).

    2. Maybe you're right! I myself haven't ready any of BLCC haha...

      At any rate, let's just hope it'll work out in the end.

  3. I think calling me aware of Conan is quite an understatement, but Ho-Ling is right about the surprisingly little overlap between the two groups. They only touch or slightly overlap at the edges. There you'll find fans like Ho-Ling and myself.

    I can sort of understand why (older) mystery readers are hesitant to make the jump to anime and manga mysteries, because the medium is very different and some series can only be obtained from, let's say, alternative sources. But never understood why so many fans of anime/manga detectives don't make the jump to the Golden Age detective story. I know a good portion of them read Christie, Doyle or Leblanc and claim to love detective stories, but they never seem to get pass the most well-known names.

    A real shame, because both sides would profit from a readership crossover.

    1. I don't think it's fair to expect people to read more than the usual, but proven suspects though, in the same sense that while I do want more people to acknowledge mystery fiction in other forms besides the book, like manga and games, but I am not expecting people to jump right in from Conan to something obscure like Sharaku Homura.

    2. I don't expect mystery readers to immediately scour the web for scans of Q.E.D. or anime/manga detective fans to plunge head first into the works of John Rhode or Freeman Wills Crofts. I think it's just a shame these two groups in almost completely self-contained spheres.

      On a side note, I have Conan post coming up very soon on my blog. :)

  4. While there are some reference books such as Arisugawa Alice’s, are there any attempts of a complete Adey-like / Lacourbe-like anthology list trying to count all impossible crime stories made in Japanese?

    1. Can't say I am particularly well-informed about the genre reference works published in Japan, but I myself have never heard of such a work.