Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Turnabout Power vs. Supernatural Power

「The Real Folk Blues」(山根麻衣)

One eye looks at tomorrow,
While the other eye stares at yesterday
"The Real Folk Blues" (Yamane Mai)

Late November last year, I reviewed Imamura Masahiro's debut novel Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead"), which I friggin' loved: it was a mystery novel that took on a very classic approach with its closed circle situation and impossible crimes, but set under extremely unique circumstances. I was already late to the party, as it was widely lauded as the hit mystery novel of the year  in its release year of 2017 and its popularity certainly didn't wane in the following year. In fact, 2019 will see both a live-action movie adaptation and a manga adaptation of the bestseller, so I think that the work will eventually find its way, be it in the form of the original novel or one of the adaptations, to the English-language market.

It was announced around the time I was reading the first novel, that Imamura was working on the sequel, and that it would be published soon, in February 2019. This time, I didn't wait a few years to come across a nice discount campaign, and bought the new book on release day (and finished it on the same day... more or less). Magan no Hako no Satsujin ("The Murders In the Box of The Devil Eye", 2019) takes place a few months after the events in Shijinsou no Satsujin. In the previous novel, Hamura Yuzuru (first-year student of Shinkou University and the narrator) became friends with Kenzaki Hiruko, a second-year student who, unknown to the public, has solved many criminal cases over the course of her life. After the crazy circumstances in which they had to deal with multiple impossible murders in a hostel near Lake Sabea while having to literally fight for survival, Hiruko decides to investigate how that all could've happened, and she learns of a mysterious letter that had been sent to the occult magazine Atlantis: apparently, the anonymous letter had foretold several major deadly incidents in Japan, months before they even happened, including the sudden outbreak near Lake Sabea. Another letter hints at where the prophesy came from: their destination is the abandoned settlement of Magan, where Sakimi lives, an old woman who can supposedly see in the future.

Hiruko and Hamura travel to the small village of Yoshimi deep in the mountains, as you must pass through Yoshimi to get to Magan. To their great surprise, they not only find a gate blocking the road from the bus stop to Yoshimi, but when they slip through, they find that the village itself is completely empty. Well, not completely, because several other outsiders happen to arrive in Yoshimi at the same time, including a journalist of the magazine Atlantis, two high school students of whom one also seems to be able to see in the future too, and a former inhabitant of Yoshimi who's back for the day to visit her parents' grave. Baffled by the disappearance of the people of Yoshimi, the group crosses the bridge across the river to go to abandoned Magan, to the windowless, box-like building where Sakimi and her help live, to ask about what happened to the people of Yoshimi. Here they learn that Sakimi's prophecy  has foretold that in the two days starting tomorrow, two men and two women will die in Magan, and that is why everyone in nearby Yoshimi left. But as some of the vistiting group try to make their way back, they find the bridge back to Yoshimi has been burned down for some reason, and now everyone is trapped on this side of the river, in Magan. At first, not everybody seems to believe in the prophecy, but the following morning, one of the group is buried in a landslide after an earthquake. While this incident might still seem like a mere coincidence on its own, the following murders that happened under seemingly impossible circumstances suggest that Sakimi's prophecy is destined to come true, flinging the party staying in Magan in a whirlpool of fear.

After I finished Shijinsou no Satsujin, I really wondered how Imamura was going to write a sequel to that novel. Was he going to build further on the specific circumstances he used in that book, or perhaps go a completely different way? The answer is that Imamura, perhaps wisely, decided to go a completely different way. We don't see those beings from the first novel anymore, but the reader will not be disappointed by Magan no Hako no Satsujin despite that, as the novel definitely builds on the underlying foundations what made the first novel so good: it combined a classic, closed circle murder mystery story with completely unique (and not particularly realistic) circumstances, to create an immensely original, but also entertaining, and clever detective novel. This time, the unique situation is of course that everything occurs because the prophecies of Sakimi are real. We actually have two people who can tell the future in this novel, Sakimi who prophesied four people will these in the coming two days, while one of the high school students is able to make sketches of incidents happening in the very near future (within ten minutes). Whereas in other mystery novels, you'd usually find out that these people are frauds or something like that, Magan no Hako no Satsujin makes sure you realize that these prophecies are real and thus these insights into future events actually become part of the deduction process. For example, early on in the story the high school student Toiro is both suspected, and partially cleared from suspicion of poisoning Sakimi, because her sketch of the crime scene before it happened, also included an object she couldn't possibly have known about, with the deductions and accussations all revolving around how those objects still made their way in her sketch.

In a way, the concept behind the prophecies isn't very different from what was done in the first novel: Imamura locks his whole cast up in a closed circle situation, and then has a supernatural/unnatural phenomenon threaten our cast. What makes his novels different from most other closed circle mysteries is that the threat isn't simply a force of nature, like a snow storm or the raging sea or something like that, but something out of the ordinary. What's more, Imamura is sure to make use of these unique special circumstances to come up with situations that can only exist because he's utilizing these unique ideas, resulting in mystery stories that are in the core recognizable, but also like something you have never seen before. The core mystery plot in Shijinsou no Satsujin could not have worked if not for those special circumstances, and that is also true for what happens in Magan no Hako no Satsujin.

That said, Magan no Hako no Satsujin is likely to leave less of a visceral impression on the reader at first, as the threat of... those beings was far more intense that the threat of a prophecy. Whereas the first novel felt quite dynamic, with barricades being forced open and the survivors being forced to move around, this novel feels calmer (relatively speaking, of course), as the prophecy itself isn't going around breaking down doors and attacking people. The deaths in the novel are also less gory, though the first clear murder is still quite brutal, with someone shot by a shotgun. This situation is the main problem of the novel perhaps, as the deductions surrounding this death are what allows Hiruko to figure out who the murderer is. The investigation initially focuses on the semi-impossibility of the situation, as everyone seems to have an alibi: nobody was away long enough from the dining room to break open the locker with the shotgun and kill the victim. However, this problem later turns in a more Queenian investigation when Hamura focuses on the physical clues left on the scene, and this part is quite ingenious. The deduction chain based on one physical object left on the crime scene allows one to identify the murderer, and opens up possibilities to solve the other deaths. There's also a situation with footsteps leading to a waterfall, but none back: this one is a bit simpler in design, but a bit tricky to uncover beforehand (as there are basically no real clues indicating what had exactly happened). Another death is quite subtly clewed through physical clues, not as clever as the first one, but still very nicely hidden within the text.

What makes Magan no Hako no Satsujin a unique read however is that the premise of the prophecies being true, is unmistakenly a fundamental part of how this mystery is plotted. I won't spoil too much as obviously, these prophecies spoil the story, but for example, several characters act in certain ways because they know the prophecies are true, and this is also reflected in the deductions made by Hiruko, but also the other characters, and the result is a detective story that can't exist without this shared reality of the existence of foresight. It's not as in-your-face as in the first novel, where you could immediately point out how those beings were involved in the mystery, but by the time you get to the end, you'll see how the theme of foresight is an integral part of the plot, with each of the murders happening or made possible only because the premonitions will come true.

The overall structure of this novel might be trickier than the first novel though, as even after an initial climax, the remaining number of pages betray there's even more to be solved by Hiruko, even if it's not obvious there's something else lurking beyond the obvious. This part was nicely done, even if the hints were a bit more obvious to pick up on. Even so, even this part makes fantastic use of the premise of the prophecies being real.

With the waves and impression the first novel left, I couldn't help myself drawing comparisons with that book in this review of Magan no Hako no Satsujin. The overall impact of this second novel is definitely not as shocking, but Imamura once again manages to write a tightly plotted, fair play closed circle murder mystery, which once again is made possible, and memorable because of extremely unique and special circumstances. The prophecies aren't just for decoration, but are a fundamental element in just about everything, making this a read you just won't find elsewhere. As this novel does build upon the story and characters introduced in the first novel though, it's recommended to read the novels in order. I for one can't wait to see what Imamura will cook up next in the third novel!

Original Japanese title(s): 今村昌弘 『魔眼の匣の殺人』

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Ghost in the Machinery

「最後の列車を待つ 疲れ果てた真夜中のホーム」

"Waiting for the last train / on the platform in the dead-tired night"
"Fighting Pose Song" (Baba Toshihide) 

One of the little things I like, but seldom use in Japanese trains are those turning seats! The ones in the trains of the Eizan line in Kyoto are especially cool, as you could turn them to the windows to admire the falling fall leaves.

Akagawa Jirou is one of the most prolific and famous mystery writers in Japan, best known for his light-hearted detective stories with a comedic tone, like the Calico Cat Holmes series. He was especially active from his debut in the late seventies until the late eighties, and there have been numerous adaptations of his work on television, the silver screen and even videogames. He made his debut in 1976 with the short story Yuurei Ressha ("The Ghost Train"), which is also the title of today's book: the short story collection Yuurei Ressha ("The Ghost Train", 1978) includes five stories in Akagawa's long-running Ghost series. The book opens with The Ghost Train naturally, which introduces us to the protagonists of this series: Chief Inspector Uno from the Metropolitan Police Department is given a few days "off" to spend in a small resort town with a hot spring. He is to look informally into a certain mysterious incident that happened a few days ago: the eight passengers who stepped inside the very first train that day disappeared, as an empty train arrived at the second station in the line. There's nothing but mountains and forests between the two stations and a search gave no results. At arrival in town, Chief Inspector Uno starts poking around, but he's not the only one interested in the case: he also runs into the female college student Nagai Yuuko, who is a fan of detective stories and hopes to solve the case herself. And to Uno's surprise, this active and lively girl is
more than just words.

To start: what's up with Akagawa Jirou and couples with an age difference? Uno (in his forties) and Yuuko (early twenties) flirt a bit around in the first two stories and end up dating, but the middle-aged man and female college student couple is something that happens a lot in Akagawa's stories. Tantei Monogatari, Satsujin wo Yonda Hon.... The female college student is usually the detective character by the way, but for some reason she's always being courted by a man about twice her age.

Anyway, back to the story collection. The opening story Yuurei Ressha certainly has an alluring mystery, with eight people disappearing from a running train. One shouldn't expect some kind of grand trick to this disappearance though: the solution is rather mundane (yet practical). The beef of the story lies with figuring out why this happened, and I quite like the motive. Some events that happen feel rather like a lucky break for the detecting couple, but overall an okay story. Yuurei Ressha was also adapted as a videogame by the way: Akagawa Jirou no Yuurei Ressha ("Akagawa Jirou's Ghost Train") was released in 1991 for the Famicom, and has some surprising names attached to it, like Ikeda Misa doing the scenario and Dragon Quest composer Sugiyama Kouichi responsible for the music.

The second story Uragirareta Yuukai ("The Betrayed Kidnapping") is set some time after Yuurei Ressha. Uno and Yuuko hadn't seen or spoken each other since the train case, but their reunion is not a happy one: Uno is asked to head the investigation into a kidnapping case of the teenage daughter of a businessman. Yuuko happens to be the tutor of the girl, making her a part of the investigation too. As a mystery story I think the conclusion is not as shocking as intended and it's pretty easy to guess who the true kidnapper is, but there's a very good piece of misdirection going early on in the story. In Kooritsuita Taiyou ("The Frozen Sun"), Uno and Yuuko are staying in a resort hotel, when Uno runs into an old friend: a skilled pickpocket who has since reformed. The two recognize another man, a notorious blackmailer, and Uno suspects the man's blackmailing one of the other guests at the hotel, a mother of three. Uno, Yuuko and the ex-pickpocket plan to get the blackmailer to back off, but to their great surprise, they find him dead in his hotel room balcony. And what's more surprising: the man froze to death even though it's summer! The truth behind how and why the man was frozen to deeath is quite hard to swallow, as it's incredibly hard to imagine things could've gone this way, but I have to admit it was pretty shrewdly clewed.

In Tokoro ni yori, Ame ("And locally, rain"), Yuuko has to arrange a number of guest lectures for the university fair and she manages to have her boyfriend Uno do one about his police work for free. While discussing the plans with her supervising teacher, the body of the teacher's assistant is found in the cellar of the faculty. At first it appears he just fell from the staircase, but for some reason, the man was dressed in a raincoat and boots, even though it was not raining outside! Later, another assistant is found murdered near his home, and he too was dressed in the same outfit. How are these deaths connected? The truth behind the various deaths isn't that difficult to guess, but the truth behind the raincoat and boots was pretty inspired and aptly clewed. In the final story, The Festival of The Good Folk Village, Uno and Yuuko hope to spend New Year in a resort town, but an avalanche prevents the train from proceeding any more. Uno runs into a fellow police officer from the Metropolitan Police Department, who says his home village is around here, and he invites Uno and Yuuko to "The Good Folk Village", a small community up in the mountains. The two are welcomed extremely warmly by the people there, but slowly, Uno and Yuuko sense there's something wrong with the village, but what? This story doesn't really work as a detective story for the reader to solve, and has more common ground with horror stories.

Yuurei Ressha is on the whole not a story collection that will leave a very big impression, but it's never really bad either. The comedy between playful Yuuko and the older Uno is pretty fun to follow, and while the individual stories are never masterpieces, there's usually one or two ideas to be found that I at least thought pretty good. The Ghost series is one of Akagawa's long-sellers by the way: there are 24 short story collections and 2 novels, published between 1978 and 2017. I don't have any plans to read more of the series for the moment, but perhaps, if they happen to cross my path...

Original Japanese title(s): 赤川次郎『幽霊列車』: 「幽霊列車」/「裏切られた誘拐」/「凍りついた太陽」/「ところにより、雨」/「善人村の村祭」

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Dragon's Secret

「明日 僕は龍の足元へ崖を登り 呼ぶよ「さあ、行こうぜ」」
『 銀の龍の背に乗って』(中島みゆき)

"Tomorrow I will climb the cliff to the feet of the dragon and cry out "Let's depart!"
"Climbing on the Back of the Silver Dragon" (Nakajima Miyuki)

The discovery for me last year was Mitsuda Shinzou's Toujou Genya series. Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono are easily two of the best mystery novels I've read in years, and while perhaps not completely at the same level as those two, Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono too was a devilish experience in impressive mystery plotting. The series manages to mix brilliant mystery plots with deep insights into local folklore, religions and history together with a distintive horror tone, resulting in absolutely amazing novels. And that meant of course I was sure to read more of the series this year.

The Hami region in Nara is a small, secluded area that is characterized by Mt. Futae, Lake Chinshin located at the foot of that mountain, and the Mitsu River that springs from Lake Chinshin. Four communities eventually settled around Mitsu River, all making a simple and sometimes harsh living from farming. Sayo Village, Monodane Village, Saho Village and Aota Village all exist solely thanks to the blessings of Mitsu River (which feeds the crops), so it is not strange that the people here came to see the river as a deity that determined the future of their lives here. The Mitsu River is therefore worshipped, and feared as a force of nature called Mizuchi, or the Water Spirit, which is believed to be a dragon-like being which resides at the bottom of Lake Chinshin. All four villages have shrines dedicated to the Water Spirit, being the Mizushi Shrine in Sayo, Mizuchi Shrine in Monodane, the Suiba Shrine in Saho and the Mikumari Shrine in Aota, and the four shrines and their priests are effectively the major authorities in this region, with Sayo's boasting the longest history in its divine tasks. The shrines are in possession of seven artifacts said to be parts of Mizuchi, being the Horn, Nostril, Fang, Scale, Bone and the Lightning of Mizuchi.

As life in Hami is so dependent on the Mitsu River, it's no wonder that the most important task of the four shrines is to safeguard the water levels of the river. The human-built dams are manually controlled by the shrines, but in times of unusual draughts, or in unusal wet periods, the shrines have to resort to divine measures, and perform the Ceremony of Mizuchi, which can be either a rain making or rain stopping ritual, depending on what the people of Hami are facing now. Each time, a different shrine is chosen to perform the ceremony, which is held on Lake Chinshin. The Kami-Otoko, a chosen priest, is to go on the lake in a special, covered boat with an opening in the bottom, where he is to sink barrels with offerings for Mizuchi into the lake, all under the watchful eyes of the dancing maid and the priests of the other shrines playing music on the shore. The ceremony is succesful once all six barrels of offerings are sunk to the bottom, but this can be a very perilous ceremony, as at times barrels will come back floating up, and then the Kami-Otoko will have to dive down with the barrel himself to have it swallowed into a dangerous underwater tunnel in the lake. 23 years ago, Mikumari Tatsuo vanished during the Ceremony, believed to have been sucked into the tunnel himself. 13 years ago, Mizushi Ryuuichi was found dead inside the boat with a horribly contorted expression on his face, as he had apparently died of a heart attack in fear of some terrifying sight. It is in 1954 when horror mystery author Toujou Genya and his editor Shino make their way to the Hami region, having learned the Ceremony of Mizuchi will be performed soon to pray for water. Toujou travels across Japan to learn about local folklore, religions and legends, and finds that this is a unique opportunity to witness the ceremony. This year, the ceremony is performed by Mizushi Ryuuzou, younger brother of Ryuuichi who died thirteen years ago. Everyone on the shore looks on as they see the boat rock on the lake surface as each of the barrels is thrown in, but nothing happens even after all six barrels were thrown overboard, and when the captain of the boat takes a look inside the closed, covered room of the small boat, he cries out to the shore that Ryuuzou has been murdered! When they make it to the boat, Genya and the others find that Ryuuzou was stabbed through his chest with the Horn of Mizuchi, one of the artifacts held in the Mizushi Shrine. But how could Ryuuzou have been stabbed by anyone, as the whole lake was under observation during the ceremony? Genya soon suspects this all has to do with the death of Ryuuichi thirteen years ago, but also with a strange storage house Ryuuji (father of both Ryuuichi and Ryuuzou) has kept hidden from everyone and the true, unknown history of the Hami region in Mitsuda Shinzou's Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009).

I always try to keep my story summaries as brief as possible whenever I write a review, but with the Toujou Genya series, I always end up having to sketch a lot of the background story for my summaries to make any sense. This is also done in the series itself: it always takes ages for the novels to actually get to the introduction of a genuine mystery that has be solved, as usually the first half of the novel is needed to prepare the mise-en-place with all the unique religions, insanely complex human relations etc. It was actually something I somewhat complained about in my review of Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono. I do have to say though, Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono, the fifth novel in the series, has been by far the easiest read, despite it not only being the longest entry in the series I've read until now, here too the murder on Ryuuzou doesn't occur until the halfway point of the book (around page 350, of more than 700 pages in the pocket paperback). Yet the story never felt as slowly paced as previous novels. The writing is less winding on the whole I think, so in terms of reading experience, I might say this novel may be the "most pleasant" way to start the series, even if I think Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono are, on the whole, better mystery novels (though Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono is really good too).

I'll refrain from talking about the theme of synergy this time, as I have done that enough in my reviews of Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono, so let's talk about something else: the theme of folklore interpretation. In order to even try to solve the cases that happen in the Toujou Genya series, it is imperative to understand the underlying logic and dynamics of the various rites and folkloristic rituals that form the nexi of the plots in these novels. Themes like spirit mediums, Rites of Adulthood and Shrine Visits to appease vengeful spirits might sound like elements that don't belong in a mystery novel, where logic should prevail, but in the Toujou Genya series, it is necessary to understand why and how these rituals are performed and what the underlying meaning is behind these rituals. For whether you believe in Mizuchi or the kami Aohime or not is irrelevant: it's the human actions, and the human interpretation behind these phenomena that are of importance in the logical processes needed to solve the murder cases in this series.

Most of the mysterious events that Genya faces in Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono revolve around a certain realization he has regarding the Ceremony of Mizuchi, and it's that realization that not only allows him to deduce who the murderer is of Ryuuzou, but more importantly, why. This realization is excellently hinted at. While there are no real physical clues that points to this, the way Mitsuda has used so many elements to hint at this hidden truth behind the Ceremony of Mizuchi is more than impressive. From linguistic hints to associative hints where you recognize one certain action in another, to even brazenly stating the fact as is (of course in a disguised way): Mitsuda does more than enough to nudge the reader in the right direction. Again, this all has to do with religious and folkloristic themes, and it's easy to just wave them away as 'sure, it's not real', but what Mitsuda always does is leaving more than enough clues to allow the reader to comprehend the underlying logic behind these rituals (why are these rituals performed in this manner for what purpose?), and even recognize contradictions in the religious logic behind the rites, which eventually guides you to the truth. Once you have that realization in this novel though, you're still not there, as while that gives you the motive (a very understandable one, considering the horrid truth!), it still doesn't give you the identity of the murderer.

There we have another Toujou Genya staple, the fake solution. Genya's method of deduction consists of first listing a lot of questions that bother him (I think he has like forty questions listed in this novel concerning various incidents) and then just say what comes to mind. He simply comes up with theories and hypotheses as he goes, and when people come up with counterarguments or proof that what he says can't be true, he'll just dismiss what doesn't work, and continue to build his theories in a different direction. That means he can easily spend five pages building a certain theory, and immediately discard it on the next page to try something else. In fact, I think that in this novel, the whole section with both the fake and real solutions in the end take up like a hundred pages together. And the thing is: all the fake solutions are really good solutions. They are really well argumented, and it's usually only by a small detail you forgot that you have to give up on them. Any of these solutions would have made most mystery writers think they have a brilliant solution and totally ended their novel with that, but Mitsuda easily discards five-seven of these brilliant theories to come up with one that's even better. And Mitsuda wouldn't be Mitsuda if he would be using the fake solutions both to steer the reader into the right direction, as well as the wrong direction at the same time. A good part of the denouement of this novel is spent by identifying what characteristics the murderer must answer to, and while Mitsuda is definitely not lying when he presents that list of characteristics, he's also brilliantly leading you away from the true solution. His writing is always very tricky, both "kind" in the sense he's playing really, really fair in terms of clewing, but also very sneaky as he's a master in misdirection and he's usually simultaneously helping and deceiving you. Speaking of that, there's an excellent piece of misdirection where a certain line seems not particular meaningful, but takes on several different meanings once you reach a certain point in the chain of deduction. It kinda reminded me of that one line in Yokomizo Seishi's Gokumontou in how brazenly it is uttered and yet so likely to not be noticed by the reader until it is too late.

If taken completely seperate from the story, the main locked room murder situation of this novel, where Ryuuzou is stabbed with the Horn of Mizuchi even though nobody could've approached him while out on the lake in the closed-off section of the boat, features a clever, but perhaps not entirely shocking trick behind it. However, taken in the complete context of the story, this murder works really well. The motive, means and opportunity behind this murder are unique in the sense that they are not only derived all from the core (religious) theme of this novel, they are also completely concentrated in this main act of murder. There are actually a few other murders that happen in the latter half of the story, though none in particularly impossible situations, but they are mainly a device to push the story forward, and to serve as both hints and misdirection to the identity of the murderer. But again, it's the way Mitsuda manages to flesh out a unique background story and motive based on folkloristic themes, that is also perfectly clewed and actually logical in argumentation, what makes this series in general, but also Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono in particular, an impressive read.

By the way, the series is specifically called a horror-mystery series, and there are actually also some minor (horror) elements that remain unexplained in this novel, as it happens in other novels too. These events do not have direct bearing on the core mystery plot, but there is always a hint of the supernatural in this series (to give a simple example, the Ceremony of Mizuchi basically always works and one of the characters talks about a past event that involved him possibly seeing some monster). These minor, unexplained horror elements should not be any reason not to read these novels though for their mystery plots, as you'd be missing out on something fantastic.

This novel is not directly connected to previous novels (save for some references early on to Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono which happened several months earlier), though there is a nice link with the first novel in the series, Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono. Certain names mentioned in Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono will take on a completely different meaning if you have read the first novel and while it was not necessary, I am glad I read Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono before this novel (especially as I always read these things out of order).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono to be another impressive mystery novel in the Toujou Genya series. Perhaps surprisingly, I did find this novel easier to read that the other entries I've read, and while both Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono are among the best mystery novels I've ever read, I do have to admit they feel kinda samey. In that regard I found Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono, with a slightly more focused look on the underlying folkloristic background of this novel as the nexus of its mystery, a very entertaining read that managed to avoid feeling too similar to other novels in the series. Though I have to say, up until now, all the Toujou Genya novels I have read are incredibly good, and I can't believe that four novels in, I still haven't come across one that even remotely disappointed in terms of plotting. With still three novels and two short story collections unread as I am writing this, I'll be sure to return to this series soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三 『水魑の如き沈むもの』

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Two Points to Murder


"I have seen three photographs of that man."
"No Longer Human"

When Yokomizo Seishi's fictional detective Kindaichi Kousuke first appeared in the excellent locked room murder mystery Honjin Satsujin Jiken (1946), we learned that the young man with the chaotic hair and his shabby, hakama appearance had already gone through a lot on his life. He had left Japan for the United States some years ago, where he got addicted to drugs, but eventually got his life back on the rails in San Francisco. There Kindaichi helped a Japanese tourist, who had been a suspect in a murder case, by solving the mystery himself, and so Kindaichi decided to become a private detective when he returned to Japan. After Honjin Satsujin Jiken, which was set in 1937, Kindaichi would get drafted and sent abroad as a private in the Japanese army and he miraculously made it back in one piece, though his friend Chimata didn't make it, setting off the events of Gokumontou (1947). After that, Kindaichi would pick up his work as a private detective again, solving many cases all across the country. Quite a few of these cases involved horrible serial murders involving complex human relations, generations-long family fueds and hate-filled plots for vengeance.

It was in 1953 that Kindaichi's longest case would start, and it would take him twenty years to solve it! Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie ("The House of Hanging on Hospital Hill", 1978) starts with Kindaichi being hired as a private detective in two related cases involving the old Hougen General Hospital and the adjoining Hougen residence on Hospital Hill in Tokyo's Minato-ku. The hospital and Hougen residence were mostly lost during the bomb raids of World War II, leaving only the ruins of the place that gave the hill its name. Kindaichi is hired by Hougen Yayoi, who is the last of the Hougen bloodline together with her granddaughter Yukari. Yukari has been kidnapped by someone who wants to take revenge on the Hougen family, and Yayoi wants Kindaichi to find her granddaughter. Meanwhile, Kindaichi is also hired by Honjou Naokichi, son of Tokubee of the Honjou Photograph Studio. A few days ago, Naokichi was hired to take some wedding pictures, but to his great surprise, he was led to the old abandoned ruins of the Hougen residence. There Naokichi had to take pictures of a suspicious bearded man as the groom and his apparently drugged bride, which made Naokichi feel very uneasy about the whole deal. Naokichi tried to go to the police, but as there was no evidence something had happened, Inspector Todoroki sent Naokichi to his old friend Kindaichi, who he figured would be better suited for this job.

The detective realizes his two cases must be related due to the Hougen connection, but to his great shock, the case seems to run into a stop when one night, the decapitated head of the bearded man is discovered inside the Hougen residence, hanging from the ceiling. While there is a suspect for this murder, Kindaichi does not manage to wrap the case up as all the leads run cold. Twenty years later, in 1973, this case suddenly starts to come back to life after the demise of Honjou Tokubee of the Honjou Photograph Studio. Someone is apparently after the life of Naokichi, who has now taken over the Photograph Studio, so Kindaichi and Todoroki, who has quit the police and is now running his own detective agency, try to protect the man, but fail, and it seems that this new murder is connected to the deheading case twenty years ago. Kindaichi failed to solve this case in 1953, but can he finally put an end to it all?

In 2013, I reviewed the 1979 film adaptation of this book, directed by Ichikawa Kon and starring Ishizaka Kouji as Kindaichi Kousuke. I've actually owned the two volumes of this book for much longer than that: I think I bought my volumes in 2012, but after I saw the film, I didn't really bother to read the book anymore, though I knew that there were quite some differences between the film and the original book. The most important one being that the two-decade time skip doesn't exist in the film. The original book consists of two volumes: the first set in 1953, and the second in 1973, but the film greatly simplifies the events of the second volume to smoothen out the plot of the film, with everything happening in one go. In the timeline of the novels, Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie is the very last case Kindaichi solves (Akuryoutou was published after, but set chronologically before this novel), and the novel actually carries the subtitle "The Final Case of Kindaichi Kousuke". In the film, Kindaichi has already decided he'll go the United States at the beginning of the film, tired of the tragedy he comes across in his line of work, but in the novel, Kindaichi only decides to travel to the United States after he manages to solve the case, and none of his friends would ever hear from him again (it's not like Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ever really cared about the original Kindaichi Kousuke besides using him as something like brand name, but I don't think they ever explained when Kousuke returned to Japan...)

When you pick up a Yokomizo novel, or specifically a Kindaichi novel, there's a good chance you'll be treated to a complex family tree. Like I mentioned in the introduction, complex family feuds and other interpersonal relations usually lie at the heart of the tragedy in these stories, and often, the plot revolves around insanely complex relations between the various characters, which serve as the motive. Inugamike no Ichizoku for example is all about who will inherit, while Gokumontou, well, you have to read it. Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie is not only the longest novel in the Kindaichi Kousuke series, it also features one of the most complex family trees in the whole series. In fact, the film adaptation greatly simplified it (leaving out an entire generation, making Yayoi Yukari's mother) and it was still difficult to comprehend, which is actually mentioned in the film itself by Kindaichi and his film-original assistant Mokutarou. The first chapter is in fact just a retelling of the family tree of the Hougen (and the in-law Igarashi) clan and this can be a bit tiring, as it does really require the reader to pay attention. For people not into this, I really can't recommend this novel.

The core mystery plot can basically be split in two: the 1953 deheading case and the 1973 murder on Naokichi (and more). The film adaptation focuses mostly on the first case and is relatively faithful to the original novel. It's kinda hard to deduce for yourself why the bearded man was decapitated and then hung from the ceiling, but Yokomizo plays a trick here that I think makes more of a direct impression in the film, but the extended runtime of the novel (especially with the two-decade jump) also gives this idea something really extra. The way it ties back to the family tree is great though, especially as it really motivates why some characters acted the way they did. The events of the second volume are greatly simplified in the film and in fact, the film and the novel feature a different culprit! The basic premise of both versions is similar, but it's obvious that the simplified plot of the film could never have justified the original culprit. I think both versions work in their own way (especially as they place the focus on other aspects of the tale). The novel's second volume is basically a mystery story on its own, that uses the events of the first volume as a motive for the happenings in this volume, and it works reasonably well. Several of the characters who were barely shown in the film get a lot more attention here. The murderer uses a certain alibi trick here for the murder of Naokichi, that Kindaichi reveals as having its origin in one of Yokomizo's other novels, which is pretty funny. Another interesting point is that Kindachi actually manages to protect quite a few potential victims in this second volume. Kindaichi Kousuke, and grandson Hajime, have a pretty spotty record when it comes to saving people, so it was kinda funny to see Kindaichi succeeding mostly in that. Overall though, the focus of the mystery plot does lie on figuring out how each person is really connected to another, so it's a very character-based mystery.

As the final Kindaichi Kousuke story, there are a lot of cameos and references to some of the secondary cast. Several police inspectors who have helped Kindaichi in the past in both the novels and the short stories appear, as well as other minor characters like boss Kazama (Kindaichi's old friend, patron and the one who introduced him to Hougen Yayoi) and the informant-like Tamon Shuu (who in the film is more-or-less replaced by the film-original Mokutarou). Yokomizo Seishi also features greatly in the story, trying to solve the case himself (he also appears in the film adaptation playing himself in the prologue and epilogue). It's obvious that Yokomizo really intended this to be the ultimate story of Kindaichi with both the length and scale of this mystery, as well as with all these references.

I would not rate Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie to be among the best of the Kindaichi Kousuke novels: a lot it does has been done in other Kindaichi novels and while the scale of this story is definitely impressive, the core plot of who is doing what for what reason is surprisingly simple. The core event that ties the 1953 and 1973 events do have a better lasting impression in the novel than in the film, though it does work quite well in the film too, I think. But even if it's not a top grade Kindaichi, I think it's a capably-constructed mystery that works as the very last adventure of Kindaichi Kousuke.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史『病院坂の首縊りの家』

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Thirteenth Pearl


Beauty is like the moon that deceives the hearts of people
It keeps on shining like the misty moonlit night in the summer
"Hakanai Tama no You ni..." (Hoshimori Sana)

In general, I don't really mind from what time period my mystery fiction hails, as long as it entertains me. It's a reason why I don't bother with period tags like "Golden Age" for my reviews. Of course, it can be harder to obtain older material in general, but age itself is not a factor that plays a significant role when I pick the next in line. The same with videogames actually. Obviously, there's an extra hurdle here compared to for example books: a book from 1900 will function exactly the same as one published in 2019 and does not require other objects to work, while you do need to find the proper hardware for each videogame, and it's definitely harder to find older videogames, and the corresponding hardware. That's why the reviews of mystery videogames here on the blog do have a slight bias for newer hardware, as it's simply easier to get hold of them, but again, in general, I just play whatever seems interesting, as long as I have the right hardware.

Unlike books however, videogames have changed a lot in a relatively short period, especially in terms of visuals. When I open De Geheimzinnige Japanees, which is probably the oldest book I have at the moment, it's not that different from any book I purchase now in 2019, even though there's close to a century between those two releases. But if you compare for example Super Mario Bros. (1985) with Super Mario Odyssey (2017), you'll see an immense difference in terms of well, everything, but the graphics are probably the most obvious changes. And of course, these two games don't even run on the same hardware. The graphical style of the original Super Mario Bros. is of course also a product of its time, as the available hardware (the Famicom or Nintendo Entertainment System) then obviously couldn't even dream of rendering something like Super Mario Odyssey. Heck it is likely that nowadays, even one single music track from Odyssey will take up more storage than the Famicom can handle.

The mystery videogames I discuss here are, obviously, all games in the broader adventure genre, where you solve puzzles in order to progress in a story (yes, that is like a mystery story in general, where a puzzle/mysery needs to be solved to reach the conclusion). Broadly speaking, I usually discuss two kinds here. First are the novel games, which are like digital Choose-Your-Own-Adventures: you are mostly just reading yourself through a story, but occassionally you are confronted with a story-deciding choice, which influences the further outcome of the story. Usually you'll be exploring all kinds of branching storylines (and going back) in order to find the correct route to the end. Examples of these games are Kamaitachi no Yoru, 428 and Machi. The other type I usually discuss is the command-style adventure. Here you use set commands like [TALK], [MOVE], [USE], [LOOK] etc. do interact with the characters and environment in order to proceed in the story. These games are basically an offspring of traditional Point & Click adventures on the PC (for example Monkey Island), but with an easier control scheme for home consoles. This particular genre basically originated on the Famicom game system, where games like the first Tantei Jinguuji Saburou (1987), Nintendo's own Famicom Detective Club (1988-1989) and Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (1985) really solidified the genre and nowadays, games like Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney are still mostly based on these older games.

This is why I was so excited when the game Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju ("The Ise-Shima Mystery Guide: The False Black Pearl", Switch) was first announced. While this game was released in January 2019 for the Nintendo Switch, it was developed as an adventure game in the spirit of those old Famicom adventure games. In fact, the developers Happy Meal even noted that they could really just print the ROM on a cartridge and have it run on an actual Famicom if they wanted. As one can see from the graphics, the game really looks like one of those three-decade old videogames. The game looks especially a lot like Okhotsk ni Kiyu, an adventure game developed by Horii Yuuji (creator of the cultural phenomenon Dragon Quest). Horii developed three mystery adventure games for the PC in the 1980s, being Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken, Okhotsk ni Kiyu and Karuizawa Yuukai Annai, and the first two titles were also ported to the Famicom. What makes Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju visually interesting is that the character designs are made by Arai Kiyokazu, who also made the character designs for the Famicom port of Okhotsk ni Kiyu. So the game really looks like a Famicom adventure.

The story of Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju is also quite similar to Okhotsk ni Kiyu. The game starts with the unnamed protagonist, who is a police detective, receiving a call from his young and energetic subordinate Ken, with the report that a body was discovered in Ueno Park in Tokyo. It is not clear whether the man had had an accident, or was killed, but initial investigation is also troubled by the fact the man was not carrying any identification. Eventually, the duo of police detectives manage to track down the man's luggage in a station locker, where they discover he was in the possession of a kinchaku bag (a kind of small pouch) with a beautiful black pearl inside. The faded writing on the kinchaku bag lead the detectives to the region Ise-Shima, a popular tourist destination thanks the Ise Grand Shrine, Meoto Iwa, the fresh seafood and of course, pearl farms. The kinchaku bag seems to originate from a pearl farm of which the name starts with "Hama..." and the detectives this to be a hint to the identity of their corpse, but as they conduct their investigation, they slowly realize the murder might have to do with the luxury pearl farm Le Bijou, which has singlehandedly driven several traditional pearl farms to bankruptcy and is now slowly taking over Japan, and the foreign market with their newest black pearl.

The first murder in Tokyo and then a hint that leads to a tourist destination in Japan, and the detectives also become friends with two women who are somehow connected to the case? Yep, Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju is paying a lot of homage to Okhotsk ni Kiyu. The game really does play as an old Famicom detective adventure game, and people who enjoy games like Famicom Detective Club should really play this game. As a mystery game, you won't be doing much thinking of yourself (like those older games) and the story is more like a stereotypical two-hour suspense drama show, but that is of course exactly what this game is trying to be, and it succeeds really well in that sense. The game is more about following all the leads and being surprised by the sudden story developments rather than giving the player a chance to figure things out themselves (it's not like there are proper hints to who the murderer is) but it does a good job at dangling all kinds of mysterious events and suspicious characters in front of you. I wouldn't recommend the game to people really looking for an adventure game where you have to solve a case yourself, but man, I really, really want people who like Famicom adventures to play this, but it feels exactly like how it should. And that's even including the small annoyances: I never really liked the faux 3D mazes in Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken or the first two Famicom Detective Clubs and they weren't really fun here either, but yeah, it's part of the experience.

While the game looks like a game from the eighties though, the game is set in contemporary times. In fact, you'll be using a smartphone command quite a few times over the course of the game to for example take pictures, search for directions to your next destination and even play minigames to pass the time. A nice touch to mix the "modern" with the "old". At one point, you even check online reviews of the local restaurants! Another great touch is the digital manual: in the pause menu you can find a manual like you used to get with videogames, even complete with empty pages for you to take down some memos! It's also here where you can listen to the deliciously eighties theme song of the game (also used in the trailer).

By the way, I know sometimes (translations of) novels are delayed etc. after the initial announcement and release dates are shuffled, but I don't think I've ever seen it as bad as with this game. Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju was originally supposed to release in Fall 2017, on the Nintendo 3DS. Fall came, and went. After a long silence, the game was then supposed to release in early Spring 2018. And then it was announced it wouldn't be released on the 3DS anymore, but on the Nintendo Switch, but still within the year. And then a few days before 2018 would end, it was announced it would finally release on January 24, 2019. So that's like a fifteen month delay, and it was moved to another system too! That's like having a book announced, it releasing more than a year later and also only as a book you can only read on VR glasses or something like that.

Anyway, you don't have to expect anything more but a 1980s Famicom adventure from Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju, but nothing less either. It feels exactly like one of those old games, including the somewhat simple story, but the game has a lot of charm (great music too!) and for those who enjoy those old Famicom mystery adventures, which have definitely left their mark on mystery videogames in general, Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju is a no-brainer.

Original Japanese title(s): 『伊勢志摩ミステリー案内 偽りの黒真珠』

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Secret of the Forgotten Cave

"The bug is to make my fortune."
"The Gold Bug"

Four years ago, I read my first novel written by Kim Nae-seong (1909-1957), who is commonly seen as the father of the Korean detective story. Kim was born one year before the Great Korean Empire was annexed by Japan, and thus he grew up during the period Korea was a colony of Japan. He moved to Japan, where he studied at the famous Waseda University in Tokyo. It was there that he made his debut as a mystery author in 1935 with the short story Daenkei no Kagami, published in the magazine Purofiru (Profile). The story was, of course, written in Japanese, and he'd publish a few more short stories in Japan (reviews/details here) and even meet with some of the major Japanese mystery authors of the period, like Edogawa Rampo, before he returned to Korea where he'd continue his work in the genre (with stories written in Korean this time). Like Rampo, his stories often have a pulp detective adventure feel to them. His detective character Yu Bu-ran in fact is supposed to be named after (Maurice) Leblanc, whose Lupin novels are of course famous examples of pulpy detective adventure stories. For those interested, I also have an English translation of Muma, a non-series short horror-esque story by Kim.

Oh, and a small note, I am not completely sure about the romanization of the names in this review. Most of them will be correct, but from the little I studied of the language, I know sometimes consonants will aspirate or change in other ways in certain combinations and with a name like Baekhui (白姫) for example, I have no idea whether that is the correct romanization, or whether it'd change to Baekkhui or Baekgui or something like that.

Earlier this month, a new translation of two of Kim's better known works was released in Japan. Shirokamen collects two juvenile mysteries written for the Korean audience by Kim in 1937-1938, which are in spirit quite like Edogawa Rampo's Boys Detective Club series. The first of these two stories is the titular Shirokamen, or in Korean Baekgamyeon ("The White Mask"), which is also considered the juvenile mystery title of 30s Korea. The White Mask from the title is a mysterious international thief who wears a white skull mask, who has been succesfully stealing all kinds of artifacts all over the world. Like any decent thief, he (or she!) is always kind enough to send a letter to his potential victims about what he will steal and when, and of course, the White Mask always succeeds despite all the precautions taken. London, New York and Paris have all become victim to the thief, and now the crook has gone to Korea. His latest victim is Professor Gang, the leading scientist of the country who has been working on a very secret project, which should never fall in the wrong hands. After a day at the circus with his son Sugil and his friend Daejun however, Professor Gang is kidnapped by the White Mask despite efforts of Sugil and Daejun. They quickly decide they need to help of the famous mystery author and detective Yu Bu-ran, but after learning he is out for a few days, they decide they themselves have to capture the White Mask. Professor Gang managed to drop his secret notebook with all the plans for his project during the kidnapping, which the children find, but the White Mask is quick to send them a letter to say he will be stealing the notebook from them that day.

You can really tell this is an innocent children's adventure novel the moment you learn that Professor Gang actually wrote SECRET NOTEBOOK on the cover of his notebook.

As a mystery novel Baekgamyeon is mainly about the adventure the boys have and less about the mystery solving. There are the usual Scooby-Doo! shenanigans like wild chases and disguises and an overdramatic narrator who addresses the reader every three or four sentences about how mysterious or baffling events are. The few "mysterious" events (including the disappearance of the secret notebook from the custody of Daejun) are unlikely truly to surprise the (adult) reader, but the adventures Sugil and Daejun have as assistants of Yu Bu-ran are entertaining enough for the juvenile reader. Though I am not quite sure about Yu Bu-ran's qualities as a detective in charge of his own Baker Street Irregulars. At more than a few times it seems like Yu Bu-ran's really bad at taking care of children. During a chase scene with the White Mask for example, he decides to delegate the remainder of the chase to the two children (this happens literally mid-chase), while he himself goes off to do some research within the comforts of his own home. I'm pretty sure that normally, you should not leave two kids to chase after a dangerous thief so you can go home. Yu Bu-ran and the kids have a few skirmishes with the White Mask across the length of the fairly short novel and while eventually, we'll learn the true goal of the phantom thief which is a bit more than meets the eye, there's just too little depth to the novel to truly impress. It's fairly fun as a children's mystery adventure novel, but it doesn't ever leave Scooby-Doo! territory.

The second story in this volume is titled Hwanggeumgul ("The Golden Cave") and starts at an orphanage. Baekhui is a young girl who has been put in the orphanage after the death of her father, and there she becomes friends with the boy Hakjun. She tells Hakjun about the Buddha statue she got from her father before he died. According to her father, he used to travel the world when he was young and one day, he was near the Himalayas when he came across a wounded woman riding a horse on the run for some pursuers. He quickly disguised himself as the woman and hid her, and rode off on the horse to lure the pursuers away. When he came back, he found the woman had died of her injuries, but not without leaving a letter for Baekhui's father, expressing her gratitude for his kind act. She also explained she was of the Kshatriyas caste in India, and that her pursuers were after a family treasure. The hint to the location was hidden within the Buddha statue she left Baekhui's father. After telling this story to Hakjun, the two dream of finding the treasure themselves to help out all orphans, but to Baekhui's great shock, she learns some suspicious Indians have been hanging out near the orphanage. Hakjun goes out to investigate, but never comes back, so Baekhui tells everything to the director of the orphanage, who immediately seeks help with Yu Bu-ran in order to find Hakjun and find Baekhui's treasure.

Yep, this is a treasure hunt story, and as such, has even fewer mystery elements than the first story. This is an all-out adventure and while the hint to the location of the treasure is in code and needs the mind of Yu Bu-ran to be solved, it's not a fair code as it alludes to completely fictional locations and therefore not solvable to the reader. What remains is a rather kooky treasure hunt story where Yu Bu-ran once again proves he should never be in charge of children. Over the course of the story, we learn a group of Indians is after the treasure (and because there are absolutely no other Indians in Korea, every Indian our heroes come across belongs to the criminal group). But what does Yu Bu-ran do? He has Baekhui and Hakjun and even more children from the orphanage tag along as he chases a group of adult Indian criminals across the sea who have already proven earlier in the story they aren't afraid to kill. And then there's a part where there's a shoot-out on an island, and where Yu Bu-ran first tells Baekhui to watch how he'll shoot down one of the Indians, then boasts to the little girl how much fun that was, and when the girl says she's scared (as they are in a friggin' shoot-out), Yu Bu-ran tells her to watch closely again as he'll shoot another Indian.

Yep, Yu Bu-ran is the bad guy here.

I wouldn't say the two novellettes collected in this volume are required reading. They're obviously juvenile mysteries (for the younger part of this group) and they work work enough as such, even if nothing outstanding per se. But I definitely had more fun with the other works by Kim Nae-seong I read earlier, and a novel like Main for example also invokes the adventure novel spirit, but is a bit more engaging than these shorter tales. Considering their similarities with Edogawa Rampo's Boys Detective Club novels however and their position as both works of the father of the Korean mystery story, and as important juvenile mysteries from 30s Korea, it might be interesting to read these books if you want to learn more about those topics.

Original Korean title(s):김내성 (金來成)《백가면과 황금굴(白仮面&黄金窟》