Friday, November 8, 2019

Murders On-Line


"Arrested for Youtuber crimes"
"Pop Team Epic"

In an article I wrote earlier this year, I noted how I think many contemporary mystery authors still seem to struggle with implementing modern technology in mystery stories, let alone supernatural elements. For some reason, modern technology seems to frighten a lot of writers, as if their mere existence render a puzzle plot mystery impossible (spoilers: that's not true). It's really weird if you think about it, as smartphones and everything are a normal part of our lives now, and I bet a lot of the readers of this article now are reading from either smartphone or tablet, but few mystery authors seem to be able to incorporate these essential parts of our lives in puzzle plot mystery stories in a consistent, regular manner. Both Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo can be seen as the rare occassions, with both series following the development of consumer technology during their serialized run fairl closely. Conan's usage of technology in particular is very noticable, with one of the first stories ending with Conan calling Ran on a public payphone, while nowadays the series often features mystery stories where smartphones and apps are used.

This is definitely a reason why Yukashina Miho's short story Nimannin no Mokugekisha ("Twenty Thousand Witnesses", 2019) was a surprisingly pleasant read, as it's so clearly set in today's society, without relying solely on that notion to present a capable mystery plot. Yukashina debuted this year as a professional mystery author with this story by winning the 16th Mysteries! Newcomer Award. This is basically the sister award to the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award: both are organized by the same publisher and both awards includes a publishing contract for the newcomer for their work, with the Mysteries! Newcomer Award meant for short stories, and the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award for novels. In the case of the Mysteries! Newcomer Award, publication means being published on paper in the literary magazine Mysteries! and as an individual e-book release. Nimannin no Mokugekisha was originally submitted with the title Tsumabiraka ~ Hokenshitsu no Fushigi na Sensei ("The Full Details -The Curious Teacher in the Infirmary"), but it got a title change after it won the award. And to be honest, I like the current title much better.

The story starts with Yuuko visiting the infirmary of the high school of her best friend Junna. Junna had died on the evening of the first of March, falling from the Shin Yodogawa Oobashi Bridge in Osaka and drowning the Yodo River. Junna had been pregnant, and both her mother and the police reached the conclusion she had become desperate and committed suicide. Yuuko however knows this is not true. The day before her death, Junna had visited Yuuko, saying she was going to elope with the father of her baby, but on the night of her death, minutes before her fall, she called Yuuko, saying something was wrong with her boyfriend and that she was afraid and needed help. Nobody believes Yuuko's story however, so she decides to visit Junna's school, as Junna had told Yuuko that their school nurse was someone she could trust if she ever needed any help. While at first Yuuko's surprised to learn that the school nurse Amagai is a man (even if only a temp just filling in for the regular nurse for a period), she soon learns he's indeed more than meets the eye. Yuuko confides to Amagai that Junna's boyfriend and father of her baby is a person known as  "Shiiga", a Youtuber fairly popular with people their age. Junna was supposed to elope with him, but he betrayed her and threw her off the bridge. While Yuuko has also voiced her accusations to the police, there's one problem: Shiiga has an alibi, an alibi which is vouched for by twenty thousand witnesses! For on the night of Junna's death, he was doing a live Youtube broadcast from his room between nine and ten, exactly the period when Junna fell of the bridge. He had twenty thousand viewers during the live stream, with whom he interacted, meaning he could not have killed Junna, even if Yuuko's convinced he did it. So how's Amagai going to crack this alibi?

Youtubers, live streams and chat boxes, it's all a part of the modern life now, so indeed, why not a story where a live stream is the alibi? In essence, it's really no different from the impossible alibi stories where the murderer is on stage while committing a murder, or if you want a more modern counterpart, where the murder is committed while the killer is chatting with someone on the internet. What makes Yukashina's story enjoyable however is that is not relying solely on this story element. While the idea of twenty thousand witnesses is really great, she treats live streams as a matter of fact, and nothing more special than any other part of modern media. Amagai for example uses the internet to google all the facts he needs to know, because, well, that's what all of us do. He's not even technology-savvy, but he can do basic Google searches like any other person. While I think the basic gist of this alibi was created can be guessed fairly easily, I think Yukashina did a good job at not bettng everything on one card: in order to conclusively prove the alibi is false, you need to attack the problem from multiple angles, which are quite nicely clewed in the story. The story does not require any special knowledge about social media or technology that the average person wouldn't know nowadays, but also does not pretend like we live in a world where all of that is strange: it's a matter of fact that they are part of the modern society now, so it simply uses everything that is available. One could definitely point out that the seperate lines of reasoning that Amagai proposes to prove the thing's fake aren't particularly surprising, but Yukashina combines all these ideas in a coherent form, resulting in a compact, but surprisingly dense story that is satisfying from start to finish.

After reading Nimannin no Mokugekisha, I decided to dig up another story which won the Mysteries! Newcomer Award which I had lying around. Ibuki Amon debuted in 2015 with the short story Kangokusha no Satsujin ("Murder in Prison" 2015), which is ironically the complete opposite of Nimannin no Mokugekisha, as it's set in the past, to be exact, the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Hirabari Rokugo was a warrior during the revolution that brought forth the Meiji rule, and while he originally fought on the side of the imperial forces, he eventually turned against them due to their treatment of those who fought during the revolution. It took a lot of trouble to capture Hirabari, who was transferred to Rokkaku Prison in Kyoto. Political motives had led to his incarceration in the former capital of Japan: figures in positions of power feared what Hirabari could reveal about their (dirty) roles during the revolution and wanted him executed as once, while the Ministry of Justice of course wanted to get as much information as they could get out of Hirabari. However, Hirabari's execution was decided upon surprisingly early, so the justice officials Shikano Shikou and his superior Etou Shinpei travel to Kyoto to bring Hirabari the bad news he's going to be executed that very day. Hirabari is eating his congee breakfast while Shikano tells him this, but he suddenly keels over. The man's dead almost immediately, as his food had been spiked with poison. This leads to a problem, for everyone in the prison who had the opportunity to poison the food, also knew Hirabari was going to be executed that day, so who would go the trouble of poisoning the man?

A very different kind of story than Nimannin no Mokugekisha, as it's purely a whydunnit. Why poison a man who was going to be executed and decapitated in a few hours? While there are a few people who seem more likely to have done it than others, there's still the question of why it was done in such a conspicious manner, as suspicion was bound to fall upon only a very limited circle of suspects.  The surprising truth is wonderfully fitting to the time period and singularly unique. While it may be a bit difficult to guess on your own, I'd say Ibuki also did a good job at setting the reveal up with proper hinting to the reader, meaning they too have a fair chance at guessing what that motive could possibly be, even if it's really a motive that only exists in very specific context. But definitely a memorable story.

Anyway, both these stories were entertaining and offered unique situations that makes them stand out in your mind. Ibuki Amon kept on building on the world of his debut story by the way: his first standalone book release Katana to Kasa ("The Sword and the Umbrella") was released last year and is a short story collection featuring further adventures of Shikano. It's definitely a book that's on the radar now. Yukashina Miho only debuted officially last month, as her story was featured in the October 2019 issue of Mysteries!, but I'm definitely keep an eye on her future work too if she chooses to continue writing.

Original Japanese title(s): 床品美帆「二万人の目撃者」

Tuesday, November 5, 2019


an + bn = cn
(Fermat's last theorem)

I'm horrible at the exact sciences.. I imagine that if Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou did its unique style of mystery telling not with mathematics or similar fields of science, but with literature or a field like that, I'd be a lot more enthusiastic.

After reading a couple of volumes of Katou Motohiro's Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou series and the sequel series Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou iff the last year, I realized that I don't have any interest in reading all the adventures of the brilliant, MIT-graduated prodigy Touma Sou and his classmate Kana. There are definitely some interesting stories in this series, especially when the stories involve mathematics and other special fields of interest of author Katou himself, but few stories are truly memorable as mystery stories, so I have decided I am just going to pick my stories now, instead of going through all fifty volumes of the original series, and another dozen or so for the still running sequel iff, as that's just too pricey. Fortunately for me, special anthology volumes were released earlier this year, with the three mystery authors Tanaka Yoshiki, Tsuji Masaki and Arisugawa Alice each editing their own volume. These volumes seemed interesting enough, and when I asked for story recommendations a while back, I noticed a number of the recommendations I got happened to have been selected for Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou The Best - Arisugawa Alice Selection (2019), which made it the most logical next step in my reading of this series.

The volume starts with Jacob's Ladder though, which I already reviewed earlier, so I'll be skipping that story. The second story is Infinite Moon (originally in volume 20) and starts with the arrival of an email from Touma's Chinese friend Hu. Which is a bit strange, Hu was presumed dead, due to a heart disease he had been suffering of his whole life. The email to Touma also prompts a visit by the Shanghai Police, who tell Touma that Hu is known to them as a member of Xi Xing She, a crime syndicate in Shanghai led by four men: the two Liang brothers and the two friends Huang and Wu. While the gang was basically divided in two factions (the Liang brothers, and the two friends), the four bosses carefully kept everything in balance, until three weeks ago, when Huang was fished dead out of the river. While the police had trouble getting information out of the lower-ranked members of the Xi Xing She, it appeared Huang's murder was retaliation by the younger Liang, as Huang had killed the elder Liang brother earlier. The police hope that Touma's friend Hu can tell them more about the power struggle going on, but time is ticking as the remaining Xi Xing She bosses kill each other off, while Touma has to figure out Hu's mysterious message: Come to ϕ. I have read several stories with a series of murders, where the murderer becomes the next victim and then the second murderer becomes the next victim etc., so Infinite Moon was not really surprising to me. I like how Katou links the story with mathematical theories in infinity and 0, but the core mystery plot is not really surprising: a lot of pages are used to simply explain the basic setting, but after that, you don't really need much explanation/clue-hunting to figure out what's going on.

The Kurogane Manor Murder Case (volume 36) reunites Touma with Karasuma Renji, a cocky assistant-professor in Physics who has a soft spot for Touma. Karasuma is a "person of interest" to the police in the investigation into the suspicious death (apparent suicide) of Professor Kurogane of K University in Kyoto. It was Kurogane who had sent Karasuma away from K University all the way to A University and even then, Kurogane kept the brilliant Karasuma shackled: he arranged so Karasuma's research at A University would become a joint project with K University under the supervision of Kurogane's own pupil Shida, which would mean Karasuma's name would end up below both Shida and Kurogane's names on his own research paper when published. Kurogane however was found hanging in his study in his manor one day ago, precisely when Karasuma returned to Kyoto. Kurogane had no reason to commit suicide, but murder also seems impossible as there were no footprints in the snow around Kurogane's study, nor did the help see anyone come or leave the study that day. The police can't really pin anything on Karasuma, but at the wake in Kurogane's manor, a more obvious murder happens: an arrow is shot right in Shida's neck during the night, but due to the long, covered galleries of the traditional Japanese house, none of the suspects could have shot Shida with a bow and arrow from their respective positions, due to the distance and most importantly the low ceilings of the hallways.

The death of Kurogane in his study itself is rather simple, though I do like how it makes clever use of the way a traditional Japanese manor is built (Katou studied Architecture in college). One important hint to the whereabouts of the culprit at this crime site is rather brilliant though, being a reference to Zeno's arrow paradox, though it does expect the reader to guess a certain's character behavior for it to work. Shida's murder is... original, but kinda hard to swallow. The way the building is used to create an impossible situation is great: it makes references to a special archery competition that challenged people to hit a target from one end of a covered gallery to another, the low ceiling making it difficult to shoot an arrow far enough (as an arrow needs to get high to be able to fly further). Karasuma for example had a clean shot on the victim from his position for example, but he'd need to be the strongest person around to have made that shot straight across the gallery. The trick behind the murder however requires you to kinda roll with it: it's original and it definitely works better due to the visual format of the story, but it kinda expects you to a) to know that's possible in the first place and b) that it would actually succeed in one try (even if with some practice), for the arrow was just as likely to hit a non-vital part or simply miss the target. In fact, an acquaintance with experience with archery basically rolled her eyes in disbelief when she saw the solution.

Locked Room No. 4 (volume 40) brings Touma, Kana and Himeko as members of the Sakisaka High School Mystery Club to the classic mystery setting: a mansion on a remote island. Sparrow Tours is a small tour operator/planner specialized in unique experiences, and now they're planning to do a mystery tour on this island, where the participants have to solve a mystery (locked room murders) during their stay. The story for this tour is written by the mystery author Yoimiya Sodehara, and the three kids have come along to act as a test panel. Another 'outsider' is Komaki, the head of Accounting of the parent company World Tours, who says Sparrow Tours' expenses are way too much and that he needs to take care of it right away. Once the group arrives on the island, Komaki goes off on his own, while Toum, Kana and Himeko are presented with the three locked room murder situations of the tour (the victims being played by the various employees of Sparrow Tours who have come along). The three kids quickly solve the three locked rooms (to the frustration to the author Yoimiya), but when they go to the dining room to rest, they find it locked. When they unlock it, they discover the body of Komaki sitting at the dining table, with lit candles illuminating the knife in his chest. With the door locked and the window looking down a cliff, it seems the gang is being presented a fourth, unplanned locked room in their tour. The first three locked rooms are pretty much child's play, and the gang manages to solve them almost instantly. The fourth, main locked room is of course more interesting: it's not super complex, but makes clever use of all that has presented before (like always Q.E.D. stories usually take a long time to set the story up). It's pretty obvious who the murderer is once you see through the main piece of misdirection, but I think this was a nicely plotted tale within the usual 100 pages.

In Question! (volume 44), Touma, Kana and Loki arrive at a mountain lodge house after Touma receives a mysterious letter that says "Question!", featuring Fermat's theorem inside. Included were also directions to the mountain lodge, and curious as to the meaning of this letter, the trio decide to go there. There they find two other groups, who happen to know each other from the local family court: both an elderly couple and a younger couple with a daughter who are living seperately now and busy working out a divorce. At first, the two groups figured this was some kind of last effort by the family court to have the two couples talk things over, but Touma's presence obviously proves that idea wrong. All of them have received the same mysterious letter, though with different riddles. The story unfolds as a kind of treasure hunt, with the solution of each riddle pointing towards another riddle and all coming back to Touma's Fermat's theorem. Don't expect to do much mystery solving yourself as the reader, as that's pretty much impossible and a lot of the story is also devoted to Touma's lecture on Fermat's theorem. It's pretty easy to guess what the story is really about though. Detective Conan also often features stories like these, but I find them more enjoyable there, as they work better as standalone mystery stories with a riddle that can be solved by the reader themselves, whereas even with knowledge on Fermat etc., Question! is mostly just guessing.

Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou The Best - Arisugawa Alice Selection is on its own a fairly entertaining volume. Not a big fan of the opening and ending story of this selection, but the middle part is good Q.E.D. stuff and include some of my favorite stories I have read until now of this series. Arisugawa also obviously selected stories that showcase Katou's interest in mathematics and other academic fields: those topics are often mentioned in the Q.E.D. series, but they play an especially important thematic role in most of the stories included in this volume. I might also pick up one of the other The Best volumes in the future, as I think this approach (picking my stories to read) is probably the best way to enjoy this series for me.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩(原) 有栖川有栖(編)『Q.E.D. -証明終了- The Best 有栖川有栖Selection』

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Crooked House

About a year ago, I wrote a short piece about how I love dramatis personae, name lists and those 'floating name signs' you see visual mystery fiction, because in general, I'm horrible at remembering names, so any assistance that helps me connect the right name to the right face, to the right location in the character relation chart is always very welcome. Lists are especially helpful, because I have the bad habit of sometimes reading several novels at the same time, or start in a novel, put it away for a month or so only to return to it not quite sure who was who again.

At the end of the piece, I joked about musing about family trees in mystery fiction, but lately, I was reminded again of my love-hate relationship with them. So I figured, why not really muse shortly about it?

The direct cause for this post is Houjou Kie's (fantastic!) debut novel Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller", 2019) which I recently read. Due to scheduling shenanigans, you can expect the review as the first one of the new year. I can already reveal I loved the novel, but one point I did have a lot of trouble with at the start was the insanely complex family relations described in this novel. The novel is about time travel, which of course naturally leads to a long family tree, but the focus luckily lies mostly on the living members of the Ryuuzen family in 1960. At the time there were four generations of Ryuuzen, with Ryuuzen Taiga as the head of the family and young great-granddaughter Fumika as the youngest. But with each generation having siblings who may or may have not died in World War II or after, you still end up with a pretty sizeable cast, who are all family. The family tree diagram included helps a lot at the start of the story, as I doubt I would've fully grasped it without it even at the end of the story, but man, sometimes you feel like you're struggling more with just figuring out who's who to whom, rather than the murders!

Family trees are particularly complex and important in the more famous novels of Yokomizo Seishi, where every other adventure of Kindaichi Kousuke seems to revolve around family feuds with main and branch family lines that go on for several generations. One of the more memorable to me is the one in Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie ("The House of Hanging on Hospital Hill" 1978), which involves 'just' two families, but as most of the plot revolves around what the members of the Hougen and Igarashi have to do with each other, it's deceivingly complex. In fact, when the book was adaptated to into a movie, they left out an entire generation to simplify things and it was still quite complex, as Kindaichi and his assistant Mokutarou commented while they were drawing out the family tree for themselves.

The family tree in Yokomizo's The Inugami Clan is quite complex too, and here too the whole plot revolves around the exact relations between the people, as it is clear the murders that occur in this novel have to do with the inheritance of Inugami Sahei and the insane last will he made. Minor note: this version is slightly easier than the Japanese version, in the sense that the names have been simplified in the English translation to avoid confusion for the reader. The (great) 1976 movie adaptation too has a scene where Kindaichi draws out the family tree for himself (and the viewer).

I wonder whether these kind of complex family trees are considered easier to handle in Asian cultures though, and therefore more likely to appear as an element in fiction (and therefore also mystery fiction). Ancestor worship is often an essential part of Asian religions, leading to a very solid grasp on family relations in general. And this is also reflected in the sociolinguistics: I know that for example that the  Chinese and Korean languages differentiate very detailed when using words that describe family relations: an uncle is not just an uncle, but the younger brother of your father is addressed with a different word than the older brother of your mother, even if in English they're both an 'uncle'. These specific words immediately clarify where they are in the family tree relative to you, so that also helps people contextualize family relations on a regular basis. In Japanese, the distinctions don't go as far (no different words for family on father/mother side, but for example there are different words for older/younger siblings, and also whether your uncle/aunt is the older or younger sibling of your parent), but still, in Japan there's definitely a strong conciousness of family line.

Of course, I'm not saying to keep mystery stories with complex family trees away with me. If an interesting story can be made revolving nine generations of a family, go for it! But at the very least, give me a diagram, because I'm really not going to remember just from text who's what to whom in what degree. Anyway, any stories you remember where you thought the usage of complex family relations/family tree diagrams was memorable, in a good or perhaps bad manner?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Come Undone

"Foaf is a word I invented to stand for 'friend of a friend,' the person to whom so many of these dreadful things I am about to recount happens."
"It's True, It Happened to a Friend" (Dale, R. 1984)

I really got into the subject of urban legends after playing the original Hayarigami some years ago. The books by Brunvand are really interesting stuff to go through, and I really recommend them to anyone interested in the topic.

Sekimoto Soujirou is a professor in folklore who is being tried for the murder on one of his students. During his trial however, he dropped a bombshell when he claimed to hold information on the bizarre murder case that occured in the small mountain village of C in S Prefecture: a man had been found murdered, both his eyes gouged out with a pair of scissors. Not sure whether to trust the man or not, the higher-ups decide to Sekimoto put under the surveillance of the Special Patrol Unit of C Police Station. The Special Patrol Unit was originally conceived as an investigative unit that didn't focus on one particular type of crime (homicide, robbery etc.) like in the traditional unit division, but as a unit that could act from many angles, but in practice, its members were only doing deskwork, supervising old, unsolved case files. Rookie cop Houjou Saki is the newcomer in the three-manned Special Patrol Unit which is now tasked to see what information they can get out of Sekimoto. Misuzu, Saki's friend from police academy and a forensic medical expert at the prefectural police headquarters, is also temporarily transferred to C Police Station to assist with the case. Sekimoto reveals to Saki that the murder that happened in C Village resembles an urban legend that has spread through the internet as netlore: the myth of Blindman, a serial killer who blinds his victims with a enormous pair of scissors. More murders occur however as Saki tries to find and stop the ghostly serial killer Blindman in the 2014 game Shin Hayarigami, available on PS3, Vita, iOS, Android and Switch.

Many years ago, I reviewed the original Hayarigami. It was a unique horror mystery novel game, where you took up the role of a police officer handling criminal cases like stalkers, which were themed after urban legends like chain mails and table-turning. Throughout each episode, you could choose what to believe or what to focus on in your investigation, and based on those choices, you'd end up either finding a scientific answer to the happenings, or a supernatural one. Both routes were worth exploring, answering elements of the mystery not explored in the other route, but even with the supernatural route in each case, it was still quite enjoyable as a proper mystery adventure. The series stopped temporarily after the third game, but returned in 2014 with the reboot Shin Hayarigami, which handles the same themes as the original series, but with a completely new cast and setting. I played the recent Switch port by the way, which was coupled with the sequel in one package.

Shin Hayarigami has been seen as the black sheep of the franchise since its release and.... I'm afraid I'll have to agree with those sentiments. Mind you, it's not a bad game taken on its own, even if it does has some flaws (which I'll turn to later). But it did lose a lot of what made Hayarigami such an interesting franchise in the first place. The game leans further towards horror now, and is barely a mystery game. The two most important changes are that the story isn't presented in an omnibus format with seperate episodes anymore, and that there are no scientific and supernatural routes. About the first change: after you complete the Blindman scenario, you can go back and redo some of the story choices you made. Some of these will then lead into a branched storyline, something like a parallel world with the same basic cast and setting, but a completely different story. For example, at one point the basic Blindman scenario seems to be proceeding as usual when a zombie outbreak occurs, and everything about Blindman is basically ignored, as the story shifts to one of the cast trying survive the zombie attack. Characters can act differently or even have completely different backstories depending on where the story branched. These scenarios are of course all horror stories, with a link with urban legends like zombie pandemics, government conspiracy theories, killer insects and more. The game is also very gory, with horrible murders and other visceral deaths that aren't for the faint of heart. As a horror game, I was quite amused by Shin Hayarigami actually.

While making a wrong choice during such a scenario can still result in a game over, each story is more-or-less linear, because there's no distinction between a rational and occult explanation to the scenarios anymore. So whereas the original Hayarigami series would always provide a (partial) rational conclusion to the case, as well as a supernatural one, Shin Hayarigami loses this aspect, and the scenarios that feature the occult really are about supernatural beings as ghosts and curses, whereas the original series would at least provide psychological or partially scientific explanations. The stories presented here are mostly just panic horror, and grotesque horror at that too. Only a few of the episodes feature elements closer to the mystery genre, like the serial killer scenario Blindman (which is obviously about an investigation into a series of horrible murders), and two or three other scenarios where there's some kind of puzzle plot element like figuring out how a (real) curse was implemented. But the main focus of the game is definitely visual horror, which makes it quite different from the original series. I was actually not sure whether I would review this game for the blog as it's barely a mystery game, but the second Shin Hayarigami is supposed to be closer to the original series, so I'm now writing this review in anticipation/hopes the sequel is better.

Shin Hayarigami also introduced a new mechanic called Liar's Art, where Saki needs to lie to or sweet-talk her conversation partner to gain information in order to progress the story. This is a pretty horrible new mechanic, because you only have limited time to select one out of four answers, and you never know what the reaction will be to your answer, as there's almost never a clear link between the two. You're always just guessing and hoping that the vague answer you chose will lead to the right reaction. These segments can be pretty long, forcing you to answer like five times though each and every time, you have no idea what your answer is going to lead to. In a mystery game, you want to have a certain logic between action-reaction, or at the very least, a clearly defined question when you're asked to answer, but that's not the case here.

The urban legend aspect of the game is also a bit weaker this time. Blindman of the main scenario isn't a 'real' urban legend anyway, but one created for this game. The other scenarios do involve more familar urban legends like snuff films and the notion of "a lingering smell of death". Like in the original games, these urban legends are also discussed somewhat, though it's done a bit more casually in this game: with a character like Sekimoto, an expert on urban legends, you'd expect a bit more talking about urban legends, but this game seems more focused on making Saki (the player) part of the urban legends.

That last sentence is perhaps what really emphasizes the horror aspect of Shin Hayarigami that sets its apart from the original series. Horrible things will happen to Saki personally and the people around her in each and every scenario, making her experience the horror rather than investigating seemingly ocult cases. In the end, I don't think Shin Hayarigami is a really horrible game despite some design flaws (the visual atmosphere and music are great by the way!), but it's quite different from what we've grown to expect of the series and the result is a horror game that works fine as one, but where the mystery solving aspect of the series has been reduced to almost nothing. As said, the sequel is supposed to be closer to the original series (reintroducing the split in scientific/occult routes) so I hope that one's better.

Original Japanese title(s):『真 流行り神』

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Lie, Lie, Lie

"The truth is out there"
"The X-Files"

Hey, have you heard about Steel Lady Nanase? The stories of a ghost who carries a steel beam and attacks people around Makurazaka City? They say she's the ghost of the idol Nanase Karin. Never heard of her? Well, she wasn't a household name yet, but she was getting there. She was smart, calculating and that chest of hers! Anyway, she was doing fine until her father died. The two of them, they didn't get along, and there were even rumors he hadn't fallen off the stairs, but that she pushed him. The press was all over her, so she took a break from work to get away from those pesky journalists. Stayed in one city for a few days, then to another, etcetera. Until she arrived in Makaruzaka. One evening, she had snuck into a construction site, when a pile of steel beams fell on her, crushing her face and killing her instantly! And after a while, people started talking. That her ghost still lingered around to avenge her death. That her death was not natural, as she didn't even try to protect herself from the falling beams. She's supposed to be dressed like in her idol days, wearing a mini skirt and a ribbon in her hair, but also swinging a heavy steel beam around at anyone she sees...

Rookie cop Saki of course didn't really believe the rumors of Steel Lady Nanase, but when she heard from a fellow detective that lately, more and more incidents occured in town where people seem to refer to a being that might be Steel Lady Nanase, her interests were piqued, and she agreed to help him out in his investigation. In most of these incidents, like a horrible car accident, the involved eventually gave other excuses for what happened, but strangely enough, it seems their initial, and perhaps most honest reactions were to say they were attacked by Steel Lady Nanase. One night however, Saki herself is confronted with Steel Lady Nanase, and to her shock, she learns that Steel Lady Nanase is really a ghost. And a terrifyingly strong one too, who is growing more powerful by the night. The only ones who can stop Steel Lady Nanase from causing more destruction and eventually perhaps even kill somebody, turn out to be Saki's ex, Sakuragawa Kurou and Kurou's current girlfriend Iwanaga Kotoko, a young girl with a baret and a walking stick. Both Kurou and Kotoko are more than mere humans, falling right in the gap between normal humans and the supernatural. Despite's Kotoko petty and arrogant attitude at times, she is respected and worshipped as the Diety of Knowledge by the various supernatural beings that exist, who count on her wisdom to help her out. Usually, their requests are pretty minor, but now the local ghosts, monsters and other youkai need Kotoko's help to defeat Steel Lady Nanase, who is completely out of control and attacking everyone, humans and other supernatural beings alike. Saki learns from Kotoko that Steel Lady Nanase is an actual product of people's imagination: it's the belief in the urban legend of Steel Lady Nanase that created her and gave her this tremendous power, so the only way to defeat Steel Lady Nanase is to create an even more elaborate urban legend, an even fancier lie that disproves Steel Lady's Nanase's existence for people to believe in, even if she does really exist now. This seemingly contradictional problem lies at the heart of Shirodaira Kyou's 2011 novel Kyokou Suiri, which also carries the English title Invented Inference.

You ever decide to quickly read something because you knew an adaptation was coming? The original novel first caught my eye when in 2012, I was a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club and one of the scheduled bookclub sessions was about this book (I didn't participate then). The title seemed so weird, yet alluring. Later I learned there was also a manga adaptation, which is being published in the United States with the title In/Spectre and then I heard last year that in January 2020, an anime series based on this novel would start. So I decided to quickly read the novel before the anime adaptation would start. Shirodaira Kyou, whom I knew from the manga mystery series Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna, was quite busy preparing for the upcoming hype of the anime series it seems, as both a short story collection and a second novel were published late 2018 and 2019.

Anyway, this is obviously a supernatural mystery: both Kotoko and Kurou have extraordinary powers and can even communicate with supernatural beings like the ghost of the dead, and in fact, early on Kotoko reveals to Saki that Nanase Karin really did just die in an accident and that she wasn't murdered or anything like that, and she can prove that because she has an actual witness to Karin's death: a ghost of a construction worker who had died at that site. So much for a mystery story, you might think, if ghosts can tell you who did or did not kill someone, but that's of course a rather small-minded way to think of a mystery story. Invented Inference is really fun to read, because it's built on a supernatural theme, leading to a type of mystery that is actually quite familiar to veteran mystery readers.

The genius angle with which this novel is written is that Steel Lady Nanase is a ghost that is powered by the belief in her urban legend: because of the internet, modern urban myths can spread with abnormal speed, diffusing a consistent image across the country shared by all readers. This has made Steel Lady Nanase a very powerful ghost in a short time, while in the old days, this process would've taken decades, and it was likely the urban myth would already be forgotten in the meantime. One way to defeat Steel Lady Nanase would be to disprove the urban legend, but as we all know, people like to believe in ghost stories, urban muths and conspiracy theories. Thus Kotoko explains the only way to defeat Steel Lady Nanase, to weaken the belief in her, is to create a new story, which proves there's no such thing as Steel Lady Nanase. But it has to be a story that people want to believe over the story of Steel Lady Nanase, it has to be wackier, more alluring, more worthwhile believing, while at the same time this new story has to be believable and logical. Coming up with a story based completely on lies is easy, but if holes are poked in your new story, then nobody is going to believe it, so it has to be a plausible story too. And thus we have the title: Kotoko has to come up with a completely fictional deduction, an invented inference, that will explain all the incidents that happened across Makurazaka City the last few weeks, including the sightings of Steel Lady Nanase and the enigmatic death of the idol Nanase Karin, an explanation is not only plausible and based on the real facts of the case, but also one that will not create an even worse monster.

The concept of having to come up with what is basically an elaborate lie is really fantastic and touches upon the fundamentals of mystery fiction. For do we really read mystery fiction to find out the truth? No, we read mystery fiction because we like fiction, because we want to hear a story that is plausible and logically based on the facts presented, but also a story that is entertaining, a story you want to believe in, something to amuse you. That is exactly what Kotoko has to do here, and the way she builds up her fake, but plausible deduction is really a sight to see as she skilfully mixes up all kinds of small elements from the urban myth to create her own new (completely fabricated) urban myth. The device of fake solutions of course reminds of writers like Christianna Brand and Anthony Berkeley, who often had the characters in their novels propose false solutions. But the difference is that in Invented Inference, the false solution is not a concept meant to divert you from the truth: the false solution is the goal. In this story, you already have the story of a poor idol who died tragically and is now haunting the city as a ghost swinging a steel beam around, and now the reader and Kotoko have to think of an explanation that is acceptable, based on the facts as far as they are publicly known and most importantly, one that is more entertaining than an actual vengeful ghost story. It's the last condition which makes Invented Inference so original because it's easy coming up with evidence or explanations that there are no ghosts, but people are more willing to believe the more interesting story. Truth is sometimes weirder than fiction, but in this novel, fiction needs to be more entertaining than the truth. The existence of supernatural beings in the world of the novel also doesn't interfere with the fair play element of the mystery, as the story's about creating a new urban myth based on the facts: people's beliefs in Steel Lady Nanase are strengthened by the real incidents she causes, but talking about other supernatural beings in a potential new urban myth is less likely to be accepted unless it has facts to back it up.

I already mentioned this first novel already saw two sequels this last year or so. It was no surprise sequels would follow, as these first novel is also clearly set in a much larger world, with more characters that will be explored more indepth in other stories. Invented Inference is a standalone story, but there's still plenty of questions left unanswered about the characters at the end of the tale.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Kyokou Suiri/Invented Inference, as it took a very original, and seemingly contradictionary approach to telling a mystery plot. The unconventional story setting and disinterest in truth makes this an entertaining read, while at the same time it does make you think, what is it really that makes you want to read a mystery novel. It's pretty light-hearted novel actually, and with the comedic bickering between the characters, surprisingly action-packed narrative and all the supernatural themes going, one might be inclined to think this is also a very light mystery, but at the core it actually addresses a core theme of the whole mystery genre in a way few dare. I might try the anime in January too.

Original Japanese title(s):  城平京『虚構推理』

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Pirate Ship of Fools

I trust that you now find yourself aboard the Obra Dinn. I expected this day to come and my every intention was to tell the ship's strange tale within the pages of this book.
"Return of the Obra Dinn"

A comment often made by readers here is that even if a book sounds interesting, they often can't read it because it's Japanese. The linguistic barrier is of course an important one when it becomes to be being to enjoy a piece of fiction, but as someone who also discusses mystery fiction in other mediums, I have found the hardware barrier for videogames the greatest obstacle. For even if a game is available in a language you can read, it doesn't mean you actually have the hardware necessary to play the game. I have relatively many game consoles/handhelds from various generations, but still, I still am far from able to play all the mystery games that interest me. Today's game for example made waves (ha!) when it was released on PC/Mac last year and a few people brought it under my attention too, but I had too wait for the console releases earlier this week to finally play this lauded mystery game.

The Obra Dinn was a ship of the East India Company set to sail to Far East Asia via the Cape of Good Hope, but it had gone missing in 1803 before it made it to the Cape. Nobody knew what had happened to the ship and it was deemed lost, until it suddenly reappeared near its England port of origin in 1807. The Obra Dinn only brought back a mystery from its voyage: only a few decayed bodies remained spread across the various decks of the ship, but of most of the sixty persons on the crew and passenger list, not a single thread can be found aboard. The East India Company, responsible for the ship's insurance, sends an insurance adjuster to find out how and why each and every person on the ship died or disappeared from the Obra Dinn, and they are also supplied with a special log book and a mysterious pocket watch by an interested party. The book contains the ship layout, and a complete crew and passenger list, as well as sketches that depict everyone on the ship, though no names are attached to the persons drawn. The pocket watch, called the Memento Mortem, turns out to be a magical watch and when it interacts with a corpse, it allows the user to first listen to the last few seconds (not see) that person heard while alive, and then actually witness the moment that person died. Using this watch and the book, the insurance adjuster is now tasked with giving each skeleton a name and cause of death, and by doing so, figuring out what in heavens happened on this ship in the 2018 videogame Return of the Obra Dinn (PC, Switch, PS4, XBox One).

As mentioned, Return of the Obra Dinn was lauded at release last year as an excellent mystery game which really made you think and deduce yourself and after spending a long evening on the ghost ship myself in order solve its mysteries, I have to agree that, at the core, this is really well-thought off adventure game that challenges its players to be the detective themselves and show off their reasoning skills, even if the execution is, at rare moments, perhaps less impressive than the fundamental concept.

The core task of the game is to determine the identity of each corpse and also the cause of death, and if caused by a third party, to determine the identity of this culprit. When you start the game, you have almost nothing. You have an enormous list of names (coupled with their occupation and country of origin) and a few hand-drawn group illustrations with everyone on it, but no names accompany these illustrations, so you don't know what names belong to what faces. With the help of the magical watch Memento Mortem however, you can relive the exact moment of demise of each corpse you find. And with exact, I mean exact. The first body you encounter for example, is that of a man being shot in the chest. When you use the Memento Mortem, you're brought to a frozen moment in time, of the exact moment of the bullet impact on the victim's torso. You are also able to see the surroundings of the victim, and even walk around in this frozen moment and you can actually see who shot this victim! It's at this point that you realize that Return of the Obra Dinn is not a conventional murder mystery game, as the rules of the Memento Mortem mean you're almost always guaranteed to see the culprit around if death was caused by unnatural causes. The problem is of course: you have no idea who all these persons are! There's no context for this dying moment, and while the log book is used to record the location and appearance of each corpse, but you don't know what name belongs to what face, so at first everything is black, with unknown corpses who died due unknown causes. Even if you know how the murderer of a certain person looks like, at the start of the game you have no idea what name goes behind that face! The puzzle is thus focused completely on figuring out the identity of all these people are that appear in these dying memories and some victims might turn out to be murderers themselves in an earlier part of the voyage.

The power to see flashes from the past is what allows you to identify each person, even if at first, everything is very confusing as these death scenes are shown without any context about why and when. Yet, these scenes serve as very important clues, as you can cross-examine these dying moments with the files you have at hand. The first victim is apparently shot by a person they call the Captain, and as there's only one captain on the crew list, it becomes clear who the murderer of the first victim must be. People being addressed directly by name or rank in their dying moments are pretty rare though, and from there, the game really starts challenging your deductive skills. Often, persons will appear in various dying scenes (either as a major player or as a background character), and by chasing these persons across all these moments, you can gather all kinds of hints to determine what name belongs to what face. Some persons are swiftly identified, for example because there's only one or two persons with that specific task on the ship, and you see them performing said task during one of the scenes. For others, you must be very observant and cross-reference multiple sources: a certain type of uniform may denote a certain rank for example, or a certain accent in speech or even the place where people decide to hide may betray who they were in life. You thus may have to check multiple corpses, and their death scenes, to identify a different person, and some persons may only play a very minor role throughout the whole game.

In a way, Return of the Obra Dinn is like a gigantic sudoku puzzle: you know each face and each name, and now you have to determine what names and faces can or can not belong together by crossing off all the possibilities. If for example you know this person is either the carpenter or the carpenter's assistant, but you also heard somewhere that the assistant dies before the carpenter, than you can identify both once you know in what order the two nameless faces died. There's no narrative trickery going on, thankfully, so the female-sounding names do belong to females here and persons with Russian accents don't turn out to be Irish. Return of the Obra Dinn's use of the closed circle trope to create a puzzle is great: the enclosed stage (the Obra Dinn) and a limited cast of characters (the sixty names) ensure that all the relevant information is found on the ghost ship. As a videogame, Return of the Obra Dinn also helps the player out luckily, as each time you correctly identify three persons complete with cause of death, their identity will be confirmed by the game itself, locking their names to those faces, meaning you can't accidentally identify two different people with the same name. That said, some of the characters play such minor roles and seem so nondescript, it's like they were only added to fill out the list of sixty names, which can be a bit frustrating.

As you progress and find more corpses and view their respective dying moments, you're also given the opportunity to dive even further Inception-style if you find a corpse during another corpse's dying moments (because the other corpse happened to be close by). This often happens when several people die in one chain of events. Several people die because of an incident with a cannon for example, and while you first find the last corpse to die there, diving in that corpse's memories allows you to see the people who died before him, allowing you reconstruct the whole sequence of chained deaths. This can be pretty confusing for non-gamers though, as it's at these moments the game basically forces you to dive deeper and deeper into each dying memory, without giving you time to consider the previous dying moment and figure out who that person was supposed to be. This coupled with the achronological storytelling (as you mostly experience things backwards as you dive further back in time each time) and having to figure out what person appeared in what dying memory, can make this game a very tricky experience for those not used to playing mystery videogames, where non-linear storytelling is much more common than in books.

With the reconstruction of the deaths of each person and figure out who they were, you'll also slowly piece together the context of each scene and thus also what happened on the long voyage of the Obra Dinn. The sixty persons on the passenger lists all died or disappeared, but not all at the same time: there are obvious 'chapters' to the tragedy of the Obra Dinn, with some deaths actually quite innocent (illness), while other deaths have more fleshed-out drama building up to them. Eventually, you'll reconstruct the whole truth behind the mystery of the Obra Dinn, and it's here I have the game disappointed slightly, considering the extremely promising premise. For the entire story itself is not a mystery story an sich: there are no mysterious murders to uncover or carefully clewed set-up reveals. The story Return of Obra Dinn tells is achronological, but there are almost no moments where you feel that a (later) dying moment is put in a different context due to clever clues shown in other dying moments (the clues you do find, are to identify people, not to identify the plot). There's no real hinting or foreshadowing to the happenings: you're just being told a story in a fragmentary, and achronological manner (because you can only experience the dying moments of each person) and while you have to fill in some gaps yourself, the overall story is not a mystery story. This gap between what you do (search memories for clues to help you identify each person and their fate) and what you learn eventually (a non-mystery tale of how the voyage went wrong) disappointed me a bit, even if the core tasks you're doing is fun and as detectivey as you can get.

Oh, and I guess I should mention something about the graphics. The 1-bit black/white graphics (emulating old Macintosh games) really give this game a unique atmosphere, though I have to admit that the first person perspective and the black/white graphics did me a bit nauseous after a while (yes, I know you can also change the color type of the graphics,  but first person perspective games don't go really well with me in general). I did have the feeling the monochrome colors made the game more difficult than it would needed to be, in theory, as the (purposely) grainy visuals makes it harder to identify the persons. The music is really nice though! When you're just wandering around, you only hear the enviromental sounds, but once you're viewing a dying moment, you're treated to some grand tunes, some of them really eerie and ominous.

As a mystery game, Return of the Obra Dinn is definitely worth playing. The main task presented really challenges the player's deductive skills. Each time you positively identify a corpse and their fate feels like a major victory by your brains, as you definitely need to be patient, observant and thoughtful to be able to progress in this game. By focusing on the question of who every corpse is, the game is able to offer a very complete and focused experience to the player, testing their abilities to find information across various sources (different dying scenes) and make inferences based on them. But I do have to admit that I was kinda disappointed that the overall story Return of the Obra Dinn tells is not a mystery story on its own, but that is a minor disappointment. Anyway, Return of the Obra Dinn is definitely recommend material for those who want a mental mystery challenge.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Watch Out! The Willawaw!

“Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” 
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Considering Toujou Genya is always getting involved with murder cases that are related to religious ceremonies, it's only fitting I too have found my own ritual when reading this series. Not that it's a positive ritual though. I have mentioned it earlier in my reviews of the Toujou Genya novels, but maaaaaaaan, the set-up takes ages in these stories. The novels are usually around 500-600 pages long and I think in every one of them, the main mystery won't happen until the halfway point. Usually, some mystery that happened in the past will also be discussed in the set-up, but mostly, it's reserved for in-depth research by Genya where he learns about the local religions and shrines and the history of the ritual he'll be attending, and his folkloristic interpretations of said ritual. It's interesting stuff and always relevant to the plot as a whole, but things move at a snail's pace these first 200-300 pages. So my ritual for this series is I always take AGES to get through the set-up. I'm talking me reading one or two pages a day and then trying something else because nothing happens in the story and I want to read something else. Once I finally get to the main murder, I can finish the book in a few days, but sometimes it takes me a month or more to even get that murder. Today's book for example, I think it took me two months since I first started reading it to get past the halfway point, after which it took me just two days to finish it.

Toujou Genya series
1) Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono ("Those Who Bewitch Like The Evil Spirits", 2006)
2) Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono ("Those Who Are A Taboo Like The Malicious Bird", 2006)
3) Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) 
4) Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend", 2008)
5) Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono ("Those Who Stay Inside Like A Sealed Room", 2009)
6) Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009). 
7) Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola", 2011)
8) Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono (2012)
9) Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono (2018)

Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono ("Those Who Are A Taboo Like The Malicious Bird", 2006) is the second novel in Mitsuda Shinzou's series about Toujou Genya, a writer of horror stories, amateur anthropologist (folklore) and collector of scary folklore stories. Genya travels all the way to the small fishing settlement of Tori no Ura in the Seto Inland Sea as he has the rare opportunity to witness "the Ceremony of the Birdman" of the Nuejiki Shrine. Nuejiki Shrine is dedicated to Torinoiwakusubu-no-Kami, or the Great Bird (an eagle deity) and is located on the small island of Torijikishima. The Nuejiki family of shrine maidens that own the shrine usually resides in Tori no Ura however, as the main Nuejiki Shrine is mainly used for rare occassions. This year is such a special case: the Ceremony of the Birdman is a secret ritual with esotoric roots that may only be used when either Tori no Ura or the Nuejiki Shrine is in imminate danger. With dangerously few fish being caught this year, it's decided the Ceremony of the Birdman will be conducted by the shrine maiden Akane. While the actual ceremony must be conducted by her alone, her younger brother Masana, the shrine help Akaguro and three promiment young men from the community also accompany her to the island to oversee the ritual. Accompanying the locals are Genya, and the folklore student Tamako, who both have academic interest in the ritual. While doing his 'homework' on the ritual, Genya learns the ritual was also conducted eighteen years ago by Akane's mother Akana. She was accompanied by a six-year old Akane as well as a professor from a university and his team, who wanted to witness the ritual themselves too. However, Akana disappeared from the shrine during the ritual, even though all exits were watched by the college students and that same night, all the other people too disappeared mysteriously from the island, leaving only the six-year old Akane locked up in a closet. Apparently, the men had been in a panic because of an attack by a Torime, a monstrous bird believed to roam this area, and Akane had been hidden by one of them in the closet, making her the only survivor.

Torijikishima is a small island that is not only surrounded by dangerous underwater streams, but also features an impressive rise at the northern half that ends in a rock cliff. The way the cliff extends both left and right, and partially in the middle makes it seem like a giant bird in flight when viewed above, and is also why the Nuejiki Shrine is built on top of this cliff, with the main shrine in the 'head' of the bird, flanked by two storage quarters in the 'wings'. One needs to walk up a slanted gallery walkway (from the "tail end") to get near the shrine. A set of doors at the end of the gallery give access to another steep staircase, which end at the doors that lead inside the shrine (head). Because of what happened to their mother, Masana is quite worried about his sister doing the same ritual, and he and Genya are stationed at the set of doors at the end of the gallery. A mechanism of bells and strings is set-up between the inner sanctum of the shrine and the watch post and Akane is to ring every few minutes or so to let Masana know she's okay. When the bells are suddenly rung violently, Genya and Masana decide to go inside the shrine. They break open the doors with an ax and find... nobody inside the shrine. While part of the shrine is in a state of chaos, Akane herself is nowhere to be found. Given that Masana and Genya were standing guard at the only exit, and that they can also find no trace of her having jumped off the cliff ends of the shrine (she wouldn't have been able to reach the sea), it seems the only way she could have left the shrine is by flying into the sky. Discussing the matter with the whole group leads to the realization this event is similar to what happened eighteen years ago, and to their great shock, more men of their party disappear one by one.

Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono is the seventh Toujou Genya book I've read in these two years, which should tell you how much I love this series. I seldomly manage to read three books of the same series within a year, and never in consecutive years, so seven books in two years is a personal record, I think. But I also have to say, I think this second novel in the series was also the least amusing of the bunch, though it's still of a high quality: the 'problem' that the other books (especially the novels that follow) are even better, reaching legendary status, while this one is a book I usually would love, but which now even slightly disappoints, considering I know the heights the series will reach. Perhaps I should've read them in order.

For the most part, Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono follows a familiar pattern, with an impossible happening occuring during a religious ceremony, which isn't completely visible to the reader (Genya) and which has a certain historical meaning, which in turn is interconnected with the motive and means of the how the trick was done. This novel is unique in the sense we're not talking about a clear crime here, as all that has happened is that Akane, and later some other people, disappear from the island. There are no traces of any crime having happened and that muddles the investigation, as one has to consider whether there has been foul play or not. In fact, soon after Akane's disappearance, Genya starts with a "Disappearance Lecture", in the spirit of Dr. Fell's Locked Room Lecture. The Disappearance Lecture is somewhat small in scale, as it focuses specifically on the ways Akane could've disappeared from the shrine while for example the third novel, Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono features a Decapitation Lecture that has more general use (Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono has a short Nursery Rhyme Lecture). As we don't know whether we're talking about a crime or not, Genya also explores the possibilities Akane escaped on her own, that she had an accomplice, or that she was spirited away by someone else against her will, all set against the available time in which she disappeared. The Disappearance Lecture helps the reader visualize the several possibilities (and of course the true solution is one that manages to fall outside the categories in a smart way), but I can't help feel the scale of the mystery is somewhat small. Yes, Akane disappeared in a completely impossible manner, but does that warrant that many pages of discussion? The other disappearances in return are very straightforward and are not really treated as a mystery.

I don't know if it's bad luck or not, but earlier in the year I read a book that also utilized a certain very rare story element that forms the core solution to Akane's disappearance, so the reveal was perhaps less surprising than it should've been. I am kinda torn on the solution: it doesn't seem really practical and doable in that amount of time, but it's also adequately hinted at through the usual psychological and physical clues, but also historical, folklorististic and even linguistic clues. That's one thing Mitsuda always does well, point in the direction of the solution through a very wide selection of clues at several levels. It's a reason why these novels often need the long set-up, as the historical background to the rituals is usually of the utmost importance if you want to really understand how and why the mystery came to be. The moment you realize that not only the one object mentioned is of importance, but even a bit of talk about the etymological roots of a word or something like that, that sensation is always fantastic in these novels. Also, Mitsuda once again does a great job at creating countless of false solutions, which he disregards as swiftly as he presents them. The way Genya works is he always tries to think out a possibility, but is always ready to throw the theory away once he realizes it's the wrong one. This means he usually suggests quite a few theories which sound absolutely convincing and which could've easily made for a real solution in a different story, but in these stories, they are misdirection, false solutions to bring you off the trail (though usually elements of each false solution will come back for the real solution).

What made this novel less entertaining than the other novels (even if it's still a good one)? Hard to tell. Partly, I think it's because the long set-up is less captivating: like most of the other novels, the first half discusses a past mystery (The disappearance of Akana and the others eighteen years ago) and we're shown that through the disposition of the then six-year old Akane as she's being questioned by both the police and her doctor. Ultimately, she sees very little about what has happened, so it's kinda hard to get into the mystery, while for example Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono and Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono also talked about mysterious events that happened in the past, but told in a more engaging manner. This made their set-ups, which were also very long, a bit easier to get through. I think ultimately, the final solution of Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono is less grand in scale: you can easily summarize it in one short sentence, and you can then easily guess how it relates to the other elements of the book, while in the subsequent novels, the plots are more based on a common theme, which is utilized in various and diverse manners, rather than just one idea. The first novel, Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono, also revolved around mostly one idea, so it seems Mitsuda really got the synergy theme going on from the third novel on (Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono).

That said, Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono is still a well-plotted mystery story, that features an interesting problem, a memorable solution and most importantly: the way the path to the solution is plotted is excellent, with diverse and subtle clues that give you more than enough a chance to get at least close to the truth. I am not sure when I'll be returning to this series by the way: at the moment of writing, there are still two novels and one short story collection I haven't read yet, of which only one novel is available in the pocket format I prefer. So perhaps I'll wait a few years until more of them are re-released as pockets.

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三 『凶鳥の如き忌むもの』

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Adventure of the Lion's Mane

『名探偵コナン 紺青の拳(フィスト)』

"A magician can make you believe he's holding something in his fist, but it's a detective who can guess what's inside the fist before it's even opened."
"Detective Conan: The Fist of Blue Sapphire"

Many reviews of mystery fiction in a visual format lately!

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volumes 70, 72~76, 78, 82~96 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18), Sunflowers of Inferno (19), The Darkest Nightmare (20), The Crimson Love Letter (21) and Zero the Enforcer (22) in the library)

The Fist of Blue Sapphire is an enormous jewel that once was the symbol of the King of Pirates, but the fist-sized treasure had been sleeping in a wreck on the bottom of the ocean for centuries until it was finally located and salvaged by the Singaporean entepreneur Zhonhan Chen. Because Chen's a lover of martial arts, he has decided to organize a karate tournament, and the winner awaits a champion's belt with the coveted Fist of Blue Sapphire imbedded inside. One of the participants in the tournament is Kyougoku Makoto, the unrivaled high school student martial arts prodigy who also happens to be the boyfriend of Sonoko. Sonoko has invited Ran, her father Sleeping Detective Mouri Kogorou and Shinichi to come to Singapore to see the tournament. As Shinichi's body got shrunken and is now living under the assumed name of Conan (who has no passport), Conan can't travel abroad. At least, not legally. The phantom thief KID decides to tag along with Sonoko's party disguised as Shinichi, and he even kidnaps Conan to come along to Singapore. The gentleman thief's goal is of course to steal the Fist of Blue Sapphire, but he also needs Conan's help here in the Lion City because he's been framed in a murder case in Singapore. At the center of all events is the enigmatic Leon Lowe, an expert on criminal psychology who is known as the Great Detective of Singapore. Leon's is not only responsible for the security surrounding the Fist of the Blue Sapphire, but he seems to have a personal link with the murder victim. Conan needs KID's help to be able to return to Japan, so Conan pretends to be a local kid called Arthur Hirai (ha!) and takes up the job of investigating the murder KID's accused of, as well as the protection of the Fist of Blue Sapphire in the 2019 theatrical release Detective Conan: The Fist of Blue Sapphire.

The twenty-third theatrical film of Detective Conan was released in April 2019 (the home video release came out last week) and marked the seventh year in row in which it broke franchise revenue records. To put in context: the twenty-first movie The Crimson Love Letter was the highest grossing domestic (Japanese) film of the entire year. So this parallel movie franchise based on the original comics by Aoyama Goushou has been doing really well the last few years, pulling a lot of visitors. In fact, The Fist of Blue Sapphire even managed to steal back the number one ranking in Japan from Avengers: Endgame in the latter's fourth week, making Japan the only place where Endgame wasn't the top-rated movie in the world that period, because that little detective outplayed all those superheroes.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. The blue MacGuffin in this story is of course the fist-sized Blue Sapphire, but to start with the old in this movie: The Fist of Blue Sapphire sees Ookura Takahiro return as the writer of this movie's story. The author of the Columbo-inspired Lt. Fukuie novels came up with the very impressive The Crimson Love Letter (arguably the best Conan movie in a decade), so I was really looking forward to the film, though the trailer seemed to suggest this one was more action-oriented (more on that later). And there's also a lot of new stuff to digest in this twenty-third feature. This is the first time Kyougoku Makoto got a prominent role in the movie franchise and this is the very first Detective Conan movie that is not set in Japan, but abroad (Singapore). We also have a new director, after last year's Tachikawa Yuzuru. Nagaoka Tomoka is the first female head director of the Detective Conan film franchise, though she's been a part of the franchise for a long time as senior artist and director. Tachikawa definitely had a very unique take on the franchise, so I was also interested to see how Nagaoka would present her Conan.

I have to start with saying that as a mystery film, The Fist of the Blue Sapphire is nowhere near the heights of The Crimson Love Letter. Whereas the latter presented a great mystery that cleverly mixed the romance-comedy, sports and mystery elements of the story in one delightful flick, The Fist of the Blue Sapphire is less synergetic. Most of the film it's actually not even clear to KID and Conan (Arthur Hirai) what's happening around them. Why was KID framed for the murder? Why was the victim murdered anyway? Why is Leon Lowe trying to rig the karate tournament? Who is trying to frame KID even further? These questions drive the first half of the story, but with no clear answers found, the viewer is just along with the ride as new developments follow after another, without clear connecting tissue. Mind you, the first half is actually quite enjoyable as an action-comedy with romantic elements. The way KID blackmails Conan/Arthur into helping him in Singapore, Ran getting all lovey-dovey with Shinichi not knowing he's actually KID, KID's antics as he plans to steal the Fist of Blue Sapphire and even a deeper look at the relationship between Sonoko and her stoic boyfriend Makoto: it's genuinely fun to watch for the Detective Conan fans and if anything, Nagaoka has a penchant for a good presentation of the story to tell.

But the core mystery plot is not quite at the same level as the presentation. It's for example kinda hard to believe that the first murder (yes, there are multiple) could've been committed like that without anyone noticing (and the clewing wasn't really done well either) and there are more scenes that seem more like they were just thought off because they looked cool on screen, and given a rather lame 'explanation' later. The gruesome image of the Merlion Fountain spewing blood (red water) in the prologue for example was awesome: the explanation for that utterly ridiculous. The motive for the major culprit is also rather difficult to believe, which is really a shame as both The Crimson Love Letter and Zero the Enforcer did really good things with a well-themed murderer. Here you're left wondering what the hell the culprit really wanted to accomplish and whether this was really the smartest way to do that. What doesn't help either is that the film tries to juggle a lot of balls at the same time. The slogan for this movie was Trinity Battle Mystery, but in practice, it means the film wants to show you KID and his impossible heist attempts, Conan uncovering a grand conspiracy plot, Kyougoku's action and his relation with Sonoko and more, but often, the connection between these various plotlines feels quite flimsy.

Is The Fist of Blue Sapphire a complete dud then, like Sunflowers of Inferno? No, that it really isn't. Like I said, the first half of the movie does a really good job at capturing the romantic comedy elements of Detective Conan, which has been one of the main pillars of the series since it runs in Shonen Sunday. The banter between the characters while they interact with a murder mystery really feels like you're used to from the original comics, especially from the larger stories of the last few years like The Scarlet School Trip storyline. The way this film picks up the rivalry between master thief KID and Kyougoku Makoto, who was once hired as the "best security system on Earth" (volume 82), works surprisingly well too. KID as a person framed for a crime he didn't commit is also a lot easier to swallow than the "has KID gone rogue?"  angle of Sunflowers of Inferno, which really didn't work there because it was unbelievable as a driving force for a story. Having KID kidnap Conan to have him solve that mystery, while he himself tries to steal a jewel? Yep, that's what fans want to see. Leon Lowe as the Singaporean Great Detective was pretty interesting, especially as he's quite different from other "Great Detective" characters in this series, focusing more on profiling and psychological manipulation. As per custom, the movie becomes more action-oriented as the ending nears, with this year's climax being really grand. Talking about something borrowed, I'd say that this year's movie seems to borrow from the old James Bond movies with its climax, and it was pretty interesting to see, as I really doubt we'll see anything similar any time soon in this film series.

There are some really nice scenes in the film that really work well as scenes on their own with good composition or cute shots of the characters, and the scene where Conan/Arthur and KID go over the facts of the murders is absolutely phenomenal to see in a mystery movie. But like I said, the film sometimes has trouble presenting itself as a consistent whole, with some scenes not being necessary plotwise. Zero the Enforcer was in many ways not really a Detective Conan movie, but a deep police procedural that happened in the Conan universe, but it was really good at presenting a mystery plot with a consistent theme which it explored throughout its scenes. The Fist of Blue Sapphire is a film I enjoyed as a piece of entertainment, with funny and exciting scenes that look great, but which as a mystery or crime film feels lacking due to poor clewing (though the short theft scenes are good!) and poor character motivation.

When the credits rolled, I asked myself the question: did I like Detective Conan: The Fist of Blue Sapphire? Ultimately, I think my answer is yes. As a standalone mystery film, it's definitely not a standout in this series (at times even sloppy), but as a Detective Conan movie, as a once-in-a-year event which puts the familiar characters in otherwise unbelievable situations, I really did like watching the movie. It's highly enjoyable as a mainstream comedy-action movie, but I wouldn't recommend The Fist of Blue Sapphire as a mystery movie to someone who had never seen anything of Detective Conan, while I could with for example The Crimson Love Letter. On the other hand, I'd say The Fist of the Blue Sapphire does a great job at being an enormously entertaining flick. Anyway, another custom of these movies is that the film ends with a teaser for next year's feature, and while it's not completely clear what the theme'll be, I have to say I'm at least intrigued! Next year, same time, same Bat-Channel!

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン 紺青の拳(フィスト)』