Saturday, January 12, 2019

Writ in Stone

"Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."
"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

I was always more a fan of the ancient or classic cultures in my History class, or at least the pre-modern periods. 

Three years ago, I reviewed the manga Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure, published by the British Museum. It was the first time Hoshino Yukinobu's Professor Munakata series was released in English. The titular character is a professor in Anthropology at Tokyo's Toa Bunka University, whose research interests lies within the link between legends, myths and other folklore, and actual historical events. I absolutely loved the book: Hoshino is best known for his (hard) science fiction series, but in this volume, he really managed to beautifully mix real historical and anthropological research with his own original storyline, resulting in a suspenseful historical mystery tale about the British Museum and Stonehenge. At the end of my review, I concluded I wanted to read more of the series, as Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure was actually one of the last stories published in Japan and part of the second Professor Munakata series: so there was still a lot to read. For some reason though, it took me until to actually get started on the series properly. And that of course means starting with the beginning, with the original series. Professor Munakata was first introduced to the world in 1990 in the two-part opening story The White Wings - The Iron Star in Munakata Kyouju Denkikou ("Professor Munakata's Adventures"). After a lecture at the university about the myth of the Swan Maiden and how variants of this very myth exists in various ancient cultures, from the Ancient Greeks all the way to Japan, the professor is visited by Ikago Mana, one of his students. She has brought her parents along, who want to show the professor a ceremonial sword which was discovered in the little shrine in their home village near Izumo. Professor Munakata is incredibly surprised by the object, and especially by the engraving of a certain constellation in the blade. Realizing that this sword is also related to the myth of the Swan Maiden, he returns with Mana and her parents to the village for some fieldwork, and the discovery he makes there will change the professor's life forever.

To make one thing clear from the start, not all of the Professor Munakata series can be considered a mystery story within the context of the blog. All the stories in this series do pertain to folklore and other historical mysteries which Munakata uncovers or delves deeper into, but few of the stories are told in the manner of a true puzzle plot mystery (mystery -> hints -> solution based on hints) and some of the stories even feature almost supernatural conclusions that seem to come out of nowhere. That said though, the series is absolutely fantastic, as Hoshino's gripping storytelling is top-notch, and the way he intertwines real folklore research with his own original adventures is absolutely a delight. Some of the earlier stories for example involve the legends of Chiyou, the Daidara and the legendary spider Ryomen Sukuna, which Hoshino (Munakata) explores through both actual anthropological research that is both fascinating and educational, as well as his own original plots. For fans of actual historical mysteries, this series is definitely a must-read.

Occasionally, though, the stories are told in a more traditional puzzle plot format. This is definitely the case with the series opening story. Even though it involves a topic you seldom see in "conventional" mystery fiction (the meaning behind the Swan Maiden) and there is no proper crime in this story either, I have to say that The White Wings - The Iron Star is truly a well-clewed historical mystery story that does a good job at allowing the reader to arrive at the hypothesis Professor Munakata himself arrives at at the end of the story. After the professor's arrival in the village, he is shown several sites that might have bearing to his research, like the shrine where the sword was found, as well as a dried-up lake of which the name also carries a reference to swans. After a fascinating explanation of how his research involves how this proto-myth is to be found across several cultures all across Eurasia, we are introduced to a rival TV anthropologist, who has drawn his own conclusions about the discoveries made in the village and is preparing for a new show. By this time, the mystery of "what needs to be solved" might still be somewhat vague to the reader, though they definitely have access to the clues and can even already connect some of them. It's only after a certain frightful event in the night that not only Munakata, but also the reader can suddenly see how everything that happened and was mentioned throughout the story is connected.

It is not difficult for a historical mystery to become too complex for a reader to solve themselves. Any mystery story needs to provide the proper context in order to be solvable, and in the case of a historical mystery, you need to balance providing enough of the necessary context without resorting to information overload, all without burdening, or underselling the core mystery story. Which is exactly why I thought The White Wings - The Iron Star was such an exceptional historical mystery story. While some readers might know a variant of the Swan Maiden myth, it's unlikely the reader is an expert on all the variants that exists in various cultures. That coupled with the (fictional) historical artifacts found in the village and even a rival "detective" who forms his own hypothesis, you'd think the reader is at a huge disadvantage, but they really aren't. In the end, professor Munakata proposes a daring hypothesis that ties all the discoveries made in the village to the lecture on the Swan Maiden he made earlier and not only is it a fair hypothesis (solely based on the clues proposed in the story), the reader has plenty of chance to arrive at this conclusion themselves, as everything shown and told in the story logically leads to this hypothesis. There's even proper visual clewing going around that helps professor Munakata and the reader in figuring out the function of some of the discoveries made in the village, and at the end, this story really makes the reader feel like they have solved a millenia-old mystery themselves.

So while not all of Professor Munakata's stories lend them well for discussion on this blog, I think the first story is definitely a fine example of how to do an excellent historical mystery story that not only attempts to reinterpret folklore, legends and myths from across the world as actual historical events, but also using a grammar that sets its firmly in the puzzle plot mystery genre, following a set-up of proper clewing that allows the reader to reach the intended conclusion themselves in a fair manner. As for now, I have immense fun with this series (still not finished), and if more stories follow that adher more closely to a traditional mystery story, I'll be sure to follow up with another story review.

Original Japanese title(s): 星野之宣『宗像教授伝奇考1 白き翼 黒鉄の星』


  1. Sounds like an interesting read. I enjoyed the british museum story and hoped more would be translated. The C.M.B. manga volume 4 and 6 also had full-length historical mysteries which you might be interested in, which is different from the usual short stories structures.

    1. The British Museum itself would obviously not publish more, but it's a shame nobody else picked the series up. Thanks for the recommendations: I think I picked up the first of the recently released multiple-in-one e-book volumes of CMB for free, and I believe 4 should be part of the first one.

  2. A thing that is weird: all the things fascinating in this entry, from reinterpreting the myths of the real world in the mystery format to using the traditional approach in decidedly non-crime tales look like an exact description of C.M.B. Perhaps you should actually try that series instead of Q.E.D.? It also has more shorter stories per volume so less chance to get everything disappointing. Some stories like Nishou-Tei in Vol. 24, Sai no Zu in Vol 20, Rasen no Kottouhinten from Vol 22 are still among the most memorable mystery plot I remember.

    By the way: perhaps, you could go with Arisugawa’s list itself?

    Jacob’s Ladder Vol. 4
    Infinite Moon Vol. 20
    Kurogane Mansion Murder Case Vol. 36
    Locked Room No. 4 Vol. 40
    Question! Vol. 44

    1. I have read the first volume of C.M.B. a long time ago, but like with Q.E.D., it didn't really manage to get hold of me. The first few volumes are often offered for free at digital storefronts though (like Q.E.D./iff), so I might try some more in the future.

      And I'm definitely considering picking up the Arisugawa-edited Best Selection volume of Q.E.D. A commentator on my post on Q.E.D.'s Salem Witch Trial storyline had a few recommendations for the series, and Arisugawa's volume seems like a fairly solid selection.