Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Middle Temple Murder

What goes up must come down
(English proverb)

With a noticable draught in new Detective Conan releases last year, I resorted to checking out some of the anime episodes which were not based on the Detective Conan comic source material, but original stories created especially for the anime series. I picked out a few episodoes which are often praised as good mystery stories. Stories like Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken and Meikyuu he no Iriguchi - Kyodai Shinzou no Ikari were indeed better than the usual anime original episode, but the special Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau and the three-parter Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken were far more than that and easily made it into my list of favorite mystery fiction of the year, being excellently locked room mysteries and more importantly, master classes in how to properly plot a mystery plot with synergy between the story and the core mechanics of the mystery.

I still occassionally watch an anime original episode of Detective Conan, but often, I just don't feel the urge to write something on a particular episode. Not all anime original episodes are bad, but they are often kinda nondescript and not particularly memorable, and while the twenty minutes it took to watch the episode were perhaps not wasted, I seldom feel the need to also spend extra time writing down my thoughts on them. With an introduction like this you might be temped to think that the episodes 159-160, Kaiki Gojuutou Densetsu (The Legend of the Mysterious Five-Storied Pagoda) form a real masterpiece for me to be writing about it, but that's not exactly the case. This two-parter originally broadcast in September 1999 however, is a good example of a reasonably entertaining anime original, which similar to Meikyuu he no Iriguchi - Kyodai Shinzou no Ikari, has an interesting core mystery plot, even if the execution might be a bit sloppy at times.

Ran has won a sightseeing tour to Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture by solving a puzzle in a magazine (actually, Conan was the one to solve it), so now she, her father Kogorou and Conan are enjoying the nature there. In the mountains near their ODA Hotel stands the 400-year old Genkaiji Temple and the three learn of several legends involving the temple. For example, there's a dried-up well in the back that supposedly dried up suddenly when in the Edo period, a woman with love grief cried her eyes out in front of it for three whole days and nights. Another legend involves the five-storied pagoda on the temple grounds. In the past, an abbot-in-training tried to elope with someone in the village, but he was swept away by an eagle and he was found hanging from his neck from the pagoda. Another abbot sold valuables from the temple, but he too was found hanging from the top floor of the pagoda after several days of disappearance. It is thus thought people who defy the temple are subject to divine punishment, which the current abbot of the temple, Tankai, believes will also occur to Oda Hideaki, head of ODA Tourism. According to the abbot, Oda swindled him out of the property rights of the land of the temple, and now Oda plans to  use the extra ground to build a theme park. Back at the hotel, Kogorou is invited to join Oda Hideaki for dinner, as having the famous Sleeping Detective stay at the hotel means great marketing, but the following day, Kogorou is shocked to learn that Oda was found hanging from a rope from the highest floor of the five-storied pagoda. With quite a few enemies in his life, it is first suspected this is murder, but both Kogorou and the police soon stumble upon a major obstacle. Oda was quite a portly man, and nobody could've carried his body, alive or dead, five stories up without messing up his clothes or leaving any distinctive marks on either the man himself or the pagoda. It thus seems Oda must've hung himself out of his own will, but that too seems unlikely psychologically, so the only explanation left is... divine punishment?

Nah, Conan has a far more rational solution ready, of course. The suicide theory is also soon proven to be unlikely, as the rope hanging from the eaves of the pagoda wasn't long enough to allow Oda to stand on the balustrade to hang himself, but the problem still remains that it's equally impossible to get Oda up to the highest floor of the pagoda alive to hang him there, especially not without leaving any tracks. The theme of this story is likely to remind of the story in volume 11, which also featured an impossible crime in a Buddhist temple. I reckon that the core idea of how Oda's body was brought up to the top of the pagoda can be guessed pretty easily, even if some of the details might be a bit trickier (there's an interesting part with that involves the rope with which Oda was hanged, but it leaves less of an impression compared to the main trick). It's an impossible crime trick that works quite well in this particular format, even if it's also a bit silly, but it's also so straightforward, it doesn't really needs two episodes. And that is definitely one of the problems of this story: had this story been featured in the manga, it would've taken three chapters and been turned into a single episode. Now it's spread really thinly across two episodes which feel slower than they should be. The mise-en-place of the clues and suspects is functionable, but it's certainly not a classic like Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau.

And the whodunit aspect of this story... well, it's there. But the clues to their identity are far too obviously inserted in the story and almost feel like an afterthought, as if the whole impossible crime part came first, and then the scriptwriter realized he should probably also add some clues that point to the culprit too, and not just to how the crime was committed.

Kaiki Gojuutou Densetsu is perhaps not one of the best anime original episodes, but the core impossible crime is kinda amusing to watch and compared to other anime originals, this is still a fairly decent one that is strictly focused on its mystery plot. While I think two episodes is far too generous, there are some minor twists regarding the details of the crime that give the viewer still something to think about even if it's likely they'll (partially) guess what went on. If you have already seen the same anime originals I saw last year, I think these two episodes follow in the same spirit, even if they are also clearly not as phenomenal.

Original Japanese titles: 『名探偵コナン』159-160話「怪奇五重塔伝説」

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Long Shot


One's whole soul into one shot
(Japanese idiom)

Disclosure: I translated Abiko Takemaru's The 8 Mansion Murders. Also: the cover of today's book is amazing (the angle!).

Shinozaki Rin is a high school student who has been practicing the art of kyudo, or Japanese archery, since junior high. She's quite good at the martial art too, but as of late, she feels she might've hit a ceiling in her development cycle. While she trains several times a week in the school's archery club together with the other club members, she has also arranged she can visit the home of the retired teacher Tanahashi for some extra training. Tanahashi, who is an excellent archer herself and who used to be in charge of the school club, has a small private archery dojo built inside her own garden, and while she does not coach Rin anymore, she has allowed Rin to make use of the dojo for an hour or so in the weekend. One day however, Rin arrives at her old teacher's home only to find her path blocked by the police. A man was found dead with an arrow in his chest inside Tanahashi's archery dojo, and it is suspected that Rin's old teacher accidently shot the man when he walked into the dojo from the back door. Rin's knowledge of all the customs of Japanese archery allows her to poke a hole in the police's story and point the finger in the direction of the real murderer, and Rin unwittingly becomes famous a her school as the attractive prodigy archer detective. To Rin however, that's just more noise in her head as she tries to become better at archery in Abiko Takemaru's short story collection Rin no Tsurune ("The Sound of Rin's Bowstring", 2018).

I definitely have a weakness for mystery stories that involve specific fields or professions, and of course utilize those fields to come up with unique mystery plots. Come to think of it, I haven't read many stories that really utilize specific sports in the plot, save for the semi-frequent ones in Detective Conan (which can be both fun and educational). Anyway, I certainly knew very little about kyudo/Japanese archery and I can't think of any mystery story that's really built on that theme, so in any case, Rin no Tsurune wins points with its original subject matter. The specifics of kyudo are explained pretty well in this novel, emphasizing the fact that kyudo isn't 'just about shooting an arrow in the target', but also a highly ceremonial martial art where the spiritual/meditative aspect of the sport is at least as important as being able to aim and shoot.

Rin no Tsurune is both a mystery story and a YA novel, and perhaps it's best mentioned right away that while the book starts off with a fairly strong mystery vibe, this becomes less and less as you progress in the book. The first few stories feature some "classic" mystery situations that involve archery: the first story is about the murder at Tanahashi's home, but there's also a story for example about an expensive bamboo bow which has disappeared from the school dojo even though everyone was there training and the exit was being watched. The solutions to all these "conventional" mysteries involve specifics to kyudo, but it's a shame Abiko's not always playing fair: some deductions are based on facts about kyudo or the circumstances which aren't disclosed to the reader in advance, but only when Rin explains what has happened. So it's unlikely the reader, even if they had the knowledge about Japanese archery, would be able to completely solve these cases, and most of the time, you'll just go "Alright, that makes sense given the information you have just given me but not before". The way Rin deduces in the first story why it's at least unlikely the victim was shot by accident makes absolute sense for example in a logical way, but you'll never be able to guess it if you don't have knowledge about Japanese archery, and even then it's not really solvable, as the physical clue on which the deduction is based isn't explicitly mentioned until Rin does in her explanation.

After the first three stories or so however, the emphasis of the book definitely shifts towards the more conventional young adult novel, with some minor everyday life mysteries. Rin learns how other people see kyudo, she has her own teenager problems with what to do in the future and how she'll give kyodo in place in her life, and we also have semi-funny parts with Nakata of the school's newspaper club, who wants to make a movie about the "prodigy archer detective" Rin and the beautiful captain of the archery club Yuko (semi-funny, I say, because he's basically just stalking two girls with a camera). At this point however, the "mysteries" presented are hardly anything solvable to the reader however, and are more related to the psychology and motivation of the characters ("Why did they do that?"-type of mysteries). Some might enjoy this better than I did, but I was rather disappointed the "classic" type of mysteries were completely gone in this second half of the book.

As a YA sports novel, Rin no Tsurune can definitely entertain though. We follow Rin in her year as she slowly learns more about the sport she already thought she knew, and we see how all the characters all see kyudo in a different manner and want something else from the sport. We even have a tournament, because every sports story needs that!

Rin no Tsurune can perhaps better be described as a YA sports novel, that also has a few episodes featuring a mystery plot, than a mystery story with a sports element in it. I myself would've preferred the latter to be the case to be completely honest, but I did find the book entertaining as a sport comedy-type of story, especially as I knew next to nothing about kyudo before. But yeah, it's not as focused a mystery novel as you would first hope or expect and I wouldn't recommend this one if you're specifically looking for a puzzle plot mystery about Japanese archery.

Original Japanese title(s): 我孫子武丸『凛の弦音』

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Fatal Venture

"Of course, if you’ve made up your mind about it, you’ll find an answer to everything."
"A Murder Is Announced"

Some old, same old. Every time we have a new Agatha Christie adaptation, we have the discussion about the connection between the friction between being faithful to the original work, the freedom an adaptation should have and what makes a certain mystery plot or the characters work. As I am a reader who focuses mostly on the core mystery plot, I usually allow an adaptation a fair amount of freedom to mess around with the setting/characters, as long as I believe the core mystery plot is done justice. That is why I thought the Murder on the Orient Express adaptation by Mitani Kouki was quite enjoyable, even though it added a completely new section which retold the whole story from the point of view of the culprit. It actually worked out really well as an inverted mystery story, even if the most die-hard Christie fans might call it a blasphemy to change the work that drastically. And I didn't mind at all it featured a new cast, with a new setting in Japan. The 2017 TV adaptation of And Then There Were None too was daring in how it was set in contemporary times (with the visitors to the island even bringing their tablets and smartphones with them initially), but it also offered an excellent reason to do so in the second half of the story. This adaptation also turned the story into a whodunnit in the second half, as it added a completely original second episode after the events of the book, where the original character Inspector Shoukokuji investigated the case of the ten dead people on the island, with a fair-play set-up with new clues.

Inspector Shoukokuji returned in an okay-ish adaptation of The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side last year, where he replaced Miss Marple as the detective character (meanwhile the adaptation of 4.50 from Paddington too featured an original Miss Marple replacement). Last week, the same production team brought us a new Agatha Christie adaptation featuring Inspector Shoukokuji as the stand-in Miss Marple. Yokoku Satsujin, based on the 1950 novel A Murder Is Announced, is essence quite faithful to the original novel, even if the story is now set in contemporary Japan. One morning, everyone in the village is surprised to find an announcement in the newspaper, which says that evening, a murder will be committed in Little Paddocks, the home of Kuroiwa Reiri, a woman who despite not being a born local is beloved by her fellow villagers and the lodgers that also stay in her house. Everyone assumes it's a joke or perhaps some covert invitation for a murder game, so Reiri's friends all come to her home, expecting some party. At the time detailed in the announcement however, the lights are suddenly turned off. A man with a gun barges in the room, threatening them while he blinds the guests with his flashlight. Several gunshots follow, and to the guests' surprise, they find the intruder lying dead on the floor, with Reiri herself coming off relatively unscatched, with only her ear grazed by a bullet. Inspector Shoukokuji is to find out who the assailant is, and why Reiri's home was the stage for such an incident.

You can probably find more than enough reviews on Christie's original A Murder Is Announced, so I'm not going to spend too much time on that. In essence, the truth behind why the unknown assailant had come to Little Paddocks and how he ended up dead is an idea Christie herself has used often in her books and in the Miss Marple series alone, you'll also find other books that utilize the exact same basic premise as in this book. One can talk about misdirection and other themes, but in general, I find this particular idea a bit too lean to stand on its own, and while Christie has some other extra elements to flesh things out, I can't say A Murder Is Announced is one of my favorite Marples, though I have to admit I never were a big fan of her, especially considering the Poirots are far better, and more fun to read.

But to get back to the matter of adaptations of mystery stories. I think this is actually a story that didn't really work well exactly because it was moved to the contemporary times. Part of the underlying plot works in the original works because it was set soon after World War II, making certain actions at least somewhat feasible. But I say it's neigh impossible to do what the murderer did in the story in contemporary times, especially considering the kinds of technology and other things we have now. It simply doesn't seem plausible in this adaptation set in 2019. Whereas the And Then There Were None adaptation of the same team actually went the depths to make sure it all made sense in the new setting and more importantly, that it actually added some new original element to strengthen the core plot, Yokoku Satsujin suffers from the change in setting, and there are no new elements that actually make the mystery plot better. And no, adding more comedy by giving the always stoic Shoukokuji a childish infatuation with one of the characters really isn't helping the mystery plot.

The screenplay writer had a lot of fun with 'translating' the original English names to their Japanese counterparts though. Letitia Blacklock becomes Kuroiwa Reiri ("Black" corresponding with the "Kuro" part of her name). Letitia's companion Dora Bunner is now Tsuchida Torami, who has the nickname Dora. A Murder Is Announced features some interesting wordplay, and this adaptation does a good job at building on that, even if at times, the plot becomes a bit confusing as everyone is given some nickname like Leily and Dora and Rikka.

Even with the changed setting, Yokoku Satsujin is quite faithful in terms of mystery plot to the original novel. But in this case, these background changes still have negative implications for the mystery plot, and unlike earlier adaptations by this team, there were no new mystery elements introduced to help the plot in different ways or give the familiar plot a new twist that still meshed well with the original ideas. The result is an adaptation that despite good intentions, fails to impress and adds nothing to the original experience.

Original Japanese title(s): 『予告殺人』

Friday, April 19, 2019

A Race Against Time

"That belongs in a museum."
"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

The first time I ever heard of the Klein bottle was through developers' comments of the Ace Attorney game series actually, where the village of Kurain (Klein) was named after it.

The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book Uesugi had written for a publishing contest had exceeded the page limit, so Brain Syndrome was disqualified, but to his great surprise, he was contacted by a game company called Epsilon Project, which wanted to purchase the rights to make video game out of his gamebook. Uesugi is thrilled and immediately signs the contract, but months fly by without any real contact from Epsilon. When they finally do contact Uesugi however, he's in for a surprise. Epsilon Project's adaptation of Brain Syndrome wasn't "just" a game: it would be real revolution in game technology. Using unexplored virtual reality technology in the form of the machine K2, the player is submerged in a tank while playing the game, where both audiovisual and full-body feedback give the player the feeling they're really fully immersed in the game world. Uesugi is asked to test-play the game adaptation of Brain Syndrome, together with the part-timer Risa, and both not only find the virtual world of K2 amazing, they also slowly grow closer to each other. But one day, Risa suddenly disappears after a day of work, and then Uesugi slowly starts to harbor doubts about Epsilon Project, as in hindsight, it's a bit strange that he and Risa are driven in a blinded van every day to the secret location of K2 all just to test a videogame, not to mention the other over-the-top security measures taken. Uesugi decides to look for Risa, but the answers he finds are not the ones he had expected in Okajima Futari's Klein no Tsubo ("The Klein Bottle",1989).

Okajma Futari was the pen name of the duo Inoue Izumi and Tokuyama Junichi, who were active between 1981 and 1989. Last year, I reviewed Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta, which I didn't like particularly, but they still had a few interesting titles in their bibliography I wanted to read. Klein no Tsubo was the last novel published under the Okajima Futari name, as they officially disbanded after the release of this novel, and most of the book was actually written by the Inoue half.

The historical lens is something you also often use when reading fiction, as ideas, tropes and customs all change with time, and what might be a brilliant concept at the original of release, might literally be old-fashioned in another time. The same with the mystery genre of course, where many ideas seen in the Father Brown stories seem rather unoriginal nowadays, but that's because everyone in the century after their release has been borrowing ideas from them. Concepts that were groundbreaking at one time are very likely to be commonplace some decades later. And that is definitely the case with Klein no Tsubo.

In 1989, I am sure that virtual reality and related fields were still quite original and not deeply explored yet in mystery fiction. But nowadays, even the smartphone in your pocket is capable to do some form of VR. Haptic feedback, super-realistic AI and words created in a digital realm: it's not uncommon anymore in this world. Movies about virtual worlds that seem realistic to the protagonists have been quite common since the 1990s, and especially since the 2000s we've seen countless of movies and series about people finding themselves in super-realistic virtual game worlds that seem almost real.

Reading Klein no Tsubo in 2019 (okay, I read this novel in 2018. It's only the review which is published in 2019) sadly enough offers far too few surprises. As a mystery thriller, it does absolutely nothing you haven't seen before if you have been around and consumed popular culture the last two, three decades. Mind you, Klein no Tsubo does nothing wrong at all and can be an entertaining read (don't expect a puzzle plot mystery though), but the times have already gone far beyond everything done or discussed in this novel. Some of the plot twists in Klein no Tsubo might genuinely have been shocking and creepy in 1989: but by now even something like a Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons will have not only used those same ideas, but gone beyond that. Nothing Klein no Tsubo as a thriller does, can possibly be a real surprise to someone now.

I think thematically,  Klein no Tsubo is a strong novel, and to repeat myself, it's a perfectly fine thriller that is competently written, but this is an example where you can really feel how time, and Zeitgeist, has made this novel not only outdated, but perhaps even obsolete, as the things the novel accomplishes, have become part of the bare basics of what a modern reader would expect from this specific theme, so you're left with a feeling of "Oh, was that everything? That wasn't just the set-up?".

Original Japanese title(s):  岡嶋二人 『クラインの壷』

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Stolen Kiss


"You only know a small part of me"
"Parts and the Whole" (B'z)

It ain't April unless there's a new Detective Conan theatrical release, coupled with the release of a new volume of the manga. And yep, last year was really weird because of that, as Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer was released on its own, and there was only one lonely volume released in October for the whole of 2018. But now we're in 2019, and Detective Conan: The Fist of the Blue Sapphire has been released in theaters a few days ago. The screenplay is by Ookura Takahiro, writer of the Lieutenant Fukuie series and the excellent Detective Conan movie The Crimson Love Letter, so while the premise of the movie doesn't seem really interesting to me, I'll be sure to catch the home video release later this year in the hopes it'll actually turn out to be really awesome.

But this year, the release of the new movie was also accompanied by a new volume as per tradition. Detective Conan 96 (2019) is an incredibly weird volume though, and taken on its own, it's easily one of the worst volumes of the last decade or so. This is not because of the story contents per se, but has everything to do with the way the comic is serialized. Because each volume has the same amount of chapters, but stories don't always have the same number of chapters, most volumes usually don't end in a neat matter, but often the last story in a volume will continue in the next volume (and a volume therefore usually starts with the remaining chapters of the story that started in the previous volume). In Detective Conan 96, this ends up in the worse possible manner, as it basically only contains one single complete story: a good part of The Targeted Female Police Officers is collected in volume 95, while The Deadly TV Drama Shooting will be finished in volume 97 scheduled for this fall. So if you read this volume, you'll find more incomplete stories than complete ones!

I already briefly mentioned The Targeted Female Police Officers in my review of volume 95, but as the title suggests, this story is about a series of murders on a few female co-workers of Yumi and Sanae in the Metropolitan Police Department's Traffic Section. One night, Sanae has gone out to the karaoke bar with her co-workers Yagi Shiori and Momosaki Touko. Yagi brings Sanae back home after she had a few too many drinks, but on her way back alone, Momosaki is lured by a suspicious figure to a park and brutally killed there. The only clue to her murderer is that it appears she had been trying to point at something as she died, but the message isn't clear. While the police is investigating however, Yagi too is murdered, making this a serial cop killing. The police quickly concludes the suspects are among the three men who were fined and detained by Yagi and Momosaki last week, as all three men claimed they had an emergency and greatly resented being detained by the two officers. The problem however lies in the message both Momosaki and Yagi left behind as they died.This dying message can be split in two parts, and I do like the first part: it's unclear what the dying message exactly is at first, but the clewing here is pretty good and makes use of the visual format. But then comes the matter of interpretation, and well, it's not too farfetched, but yeah, it's one of those solutions where you shrug and say 'sure, that makes sense', but it's not a really satisfying one. And yes, it's a solution that also relies on language, but even then it's rather open for interpretation (the second dying message by Yagi on the other hand is way too straightforward).

What does make this story somewhat memorable is how Aoyama also used the story to bring some new character development. The focus on Sanae naturally also means officer Chiba has a nice role to play in this story, but personally, I loved how that one scene from last year's Zero the Enforcer was now given context. In case you have seen the movie: there's a shot where a certain character has a line that is unspoken, but can only be 'lip-read'. Here we finally learn what that person actually said.

In The Man Who Wanted The Lips, Suzuki Jiroukichi has come up with another scheme to catch the phantom thief KID, this time using the precious pearl Fairy Lip. A chance meeting with Inspector Morofushi of the Nagano Prefectural Police (first introduced in volume 65) gave Jiroukichi a 'brilliant' idea: the pearl is frozen in an enormous block of ice, making it possible for the museum guests to actually see the pearl, but making it impossible for KID to steal it. Meanwhile, Conan and Hattori are also present, with Hattori's mind pre-occupied with the matter that has been worrying him for some volumes now (how to say to childhood friend Kazuha he likes her romantically?). With Conan, Hattori and Morofushi all present, KID sure has a tough night ahead, but despite all the security measures, KID first manages to lock himself inside the glass cage with the ice block and making it impossible to look inside by painting the glass walls with black ink. When they finally manage to get inside, they find that KID has left a card thanking them for the pearl, and also leaving Jiroukichi with a present: countless of pigment-colored Fairly Lips etched inside the ice block itself as ice art. Overall, I'd say this is a fairly weak KID story: it's quite easy to guess how KID managed to steal the pearl and while usually, these kind of stories revolve around who KID disguised himself as is also of importance, this time we're told right from the start who it is, and his secret identity is mostly used as a a gag from that point on.

Similar to the previous story however, this story is also used to further set-up future events for the main storyline. Like I mentioned in my review, the last volume seemed to be moving pieces around for Aoyama to work towards a story climax, or perhaps even the series finale, and this story does that too by revealing the relationship between several characters. By now, it's also kinda silly how many characters in the Detective Conan world turn out to have some relationship with another significant character, but I'm interested to see how this will work out in the future. I also believe this is the first story in the manga where both KID and Hattori appear. They have appeared in the same movies a couple of times, but even in those movies, never really met face-to-face (or at least, not without KID being in disguise). And was that a reference to The Last Wizard of the Century? Usually, the manga makes no direct references to the events that occur in the movies (while mostly seperate stories, some elements from the movies, like character backstories, are part of the Conan manga storyline), but this was a fairly direct reference...

The Deadly TV Drama Shooting starts with Ran, Conan, Sera, Sonoko and her boyfriend Kyougoku Makoto (who plays a lead role in the 2019 movie Detective Conan: The Fist of the Blue Sapphire) watching the latest hit movie Azengers (ft. Kamen Yaiba.). On their way back, Kyougoku (a karate champion) knocks a helmeted robber out, who turns out to be an actor for the TV drama Detective 48. Kyougoku is asked to take over the role (as he can do the stunts too), and actually does a very good job. During the shooting, the gang learns that Tokuzono Saiya, the lead actor of the drama, isn't really getting along with the other members of the cast and production team, especially due to his 'pranks' that actually caused an assistant-director to commit suicide some time earlier. Obviously, he's also the one to die in this story and he dies falling off the fourth floor of the abandoned school building they were shooting at, but the only other person on that floor when Tokuzono fell was none other than Kyougoku, who was preparing for his next stunt. If he wasn't the murderer, how did the real murderer then manage to cause Tokuzono to fall off the fourth floor? The answer... will have to wait until fall. At least, for those who read the collected volumes and avoid the serialized chapters.

I had to laugh out loud because of the Azengers part though, because earlier this week, a special cross-marketing campaign was revealed for Japan, featuring both Detective Conan: The Fist of the Blue Sapphire and Avengers: End Game. And yes, Detective Conan is really that big a phenomenon in Japan that it warrants for these kinds of promotions. Can you actually think of another detective franchise that made it this mainstream in modern pop culture?

But to come back to the main topic, Detective Conan 96 is on the whole a rather disappointing volume in terms of mystery plots. There is only one complete story included, which isn't really a high point anyway as a KID story, and The Targeted Female Police Officers too is at best an average story when compared to other who-of-the-three type of stories in this series. For longtime fans of the series (and I assume you are if you have read 96 volumes), we do get a few more puzzle pieces that relate to the main story, but on the whole, this volume has awfully little to offer, especially as it's been nearly half a year since the previous volume. Let's hope the next volume has something more substantial to offer.

Original Japanese title(s):  青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第96巻

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Invisible Intruder

What can I do, I ask? 
There's nothing left to say 
Why am I here? 
Why am I lost? 
"Spirit Dreams Inside" (L'Arc~en~Ciel)

Hmmm, this review is probably far longer than it should be. My reviews for Mitsuda's work always end up so talkative, even though I usually aim at something slightly shorter. Also: for some reason I always get fewer comments on my reviews whenever it's about a Western novel instead of a Japanese novel. It's not like I expect people to comment each and every time, but I expected more people to comment on Murder off Miami considering the gimmick and the fact it's actually available in English. Oh well.

Ever since I read Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono last year, I became a great fan of his Toujou Genya series. The series mixes brilliantly complex mystery plots with deep insights in local folklore, religions and history together with a distintive horror tone, resulting in absolutely amazing novels, and all four novels I've read until now were almost ridiculously good. In the reviews, I also mentioned that the novels were all relatively long, though they do make good use of their length. That said, I was curious whether this series could also work in a shorter form. Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola", 2011) is the second short story collection of the series. Second? Yeah, I never read things in order. And it appears the series itself is also jumping in time. In the novels I've read until now, Toujou Genya is a horror/occult writer in the early fifties, who travels across Japan to research folklore, especially in the form of yokai, ghosts and other supernatural beings. This short story collection however is set several years before he started his professional writing career. In the five stories of this volume, which are set more-or-less one after another, Toujou Genya is still a college student not long after World War II, studying folklore in Tokyo under the guidance of professor Kimura Yumio. Genya has a 'gift' for running into mysterious, often seemingly impossible crime situations, occassionally due to the meddling of Abukumagawa Karasu, an immensely arrogant senior student who considers Genya his "disciple". Genya himself doesn't like getting into trouble of course and even when confronted with murder, he'd prefer let the police to their job, but sometimes the people around learn the fact that his father is in fact Toujou Gajou, the greatest detective of Japan whom even the police relies on in the most baffling of cases. While he and his father don't get along, it seems Genya has certainly inherited some of his father's mind, as the young student is quite capable of making sense of the numerous impossible murders and disappearances commited within the pages of this book.

In case you were wondering: yes, this book is still quite long, despite being a short story collection. Each of the stories is relatively long for a short story, so you end up with a book that isn't any shorter than the usual novels in this series. Despite their (relatively) reasonable length, the short stories are of course still quite different from the full novels, but they still follow a similar set-up, with at the heart usually a impossible situation as the main mystery plot, which usually ties up to some folklore or ghost story. The insane synergy between the various elements like you find the novels is of course not as pronounced in these shorter entries, but structure-wise, most of these stories are still very well-designed mystery stories, featuring all the tropes you'd want from a Toujou Genya story, including clever ways in which the background ghost/folklore story tying to the actual mystery and of course the multiple solutions.

The book starts with Shiryou no Gotoki Aruku Mono ("Those Who Walk Like The Dead Spirits"), which is set around New Year. Genya is the guest of Motomiya Takeshi, a professor in anthropology, specializing in African masks. Genya's teacher Kimura introduced Genya to this authority in anthropology. Genya isn't the only guest, as Motomiya also has four acadamics from various universities staying at his home during the New Year. Genya soon realizes that all four men are also interested in the daughter of Motomiya. One night, the scholars are exchanging scary stories, and Isaka Atsunori (an assistant-professor in spirit religions at Jounan University) tells about an experience he had with the Sugsho Tribe, where he was witness to a seance: during the seance he heard footsteps beneath their hut, which was supposedly the spirit walking beneath them. Afterwards, he indeed found footprints there, but while he at first thought somebody must've snuck below their hut, he realized later were no footprints going to or away from that spot, meaning no man could've left them there.

The four permanent guests of Motomiya live in a special annex building, The Four Quarters. As its name suggests, the building consists of four seperate quarters and one main hall with a tower: the four quarters form a square together encircling the inner court, while the main hall is situated between the rooms on the lower left and right corner when looked at the building from the sky. Covered passages connect these quarters (and the main hall), but curiously enough, the passages only connect to the closest quarter, so to get from the eastern passage to the southern passage, one must go inside the south-east quarter and take the other door out to the southern passage. The four scholars using the quarters have all set-up their interiors so bookcases shield off the two doors from the rest of the room, so unless you have business with the master of the room, it's the custom to just do a courtesy knock and then quickly slip in out and of the room. The day after the scary stories, Genya visits Inoda Fujio in his quarters, but Genya becomes witness to two baffling scenes. First he sees a pair of sandals walking on their own near the entrance to the snow-covered inner court, and when he looks out there, he notices Isaka lying in the pavillion in the court. The man has been poisoned by a poison of the Sugsho Tribe, but what makes this murder kooky is that there is only one set of footprints left in the snow that indicate how the murderer must've gotten away from the pavillion, but they don't make any sense:they walk away from Isaka, turn around once, and then back to go inside the main hall. But with a witness in the main hall, and Genya's own eyewitness of the walking sandals, it seems the only one who could've struck Isaka with a poisoned weapon, and then walked back into the main hall on sandals across the snow was an invisible spirit.

Sorry for the tediously long summary. To keep the rest short: this is an excellent footprints-in-the-snow story. Like the novels, the story revolves around a background folklore story with some supernatural elements, which then occurs in real-life (in this case, an invisible spirit that leaves footprints). There's a lot going on in this story, but what's impressive is that this one of those stories where suddenly everything falls in place once you realize what is going on. The clewing is really good in this story too, though it does help if you have some knowledge about Japanese culture (there is a kind of negative clue here, that really gives away everything once you know what it is, but it might be hard arriving at this if you have never heard of this custom).

In Tenma no Gotoki Tobu Mono ("Those Who Fly Like The Demons"), Abukumagawa Karasu tells Genya about the Mitsukuri family, which has a unique family kami they have deified. Outside their home is a small bamboo grove, which ends at a cliff. Long ago, Mitsukuri Muna'aki disappeared in the small bamboo grove even though his grandchildren were watching him and he was only out of their sight for a second due to the bamboo trees. Later, Muna'aki's son Munatoshi learned that in the past, a demon was supposed to live in the grove, so he decided to pacify both his disappeared father and the demon with a small shrine. The disappearances didn't stop there however, for during the war, a child too disappeared from the backyard of the Mitsukuris: a boy had crept inside to steal, but was found and tried to run away. Eventually, they found his footsteps running in the direction of the grove, but mysteriously, the footsteps stopped suddenly, as if the boy had been pulled right into the sky. There was no sign of the boy anywhere inside the grove. Later, the body of the boy was found beneath the cliff. Abukumagawa and Genya travel to the Mitsukuri home hoping to be able to study the Mitsukuri family deities, and their timing is almost mysteriously perfect. They learn a girl (the younger sister of the boy who died) was lurking around the house too, and to their horrible surprise, they find her footprints near the grove, but like her brother's, they too stopped mid-track, with no trace of the girl herself.

Another impossible footprints story, though this one is a bit easier to solve, I think. The mystery lies in how the person leaving the footprints could've suddenly disappeared, with no third party close by, nor anywhere where they could've gone. The basic idea behind the solution isn't hard to arrive at, but  it does rely partially on something which seems... well, not impossible perhaps, but perhaps a bit unlikely? There's a second mystery in the very last act of the story, where Genya is convinced something is hidden within a room but can't find it. The clue pointing to the actual location is integrated really well in the story, but the actual location itself seems rather farfetched too. I actually think this story, while not bad, is actually in terms of structuring and clewing than the actual solution revealed.

Shirou no Gotoki Shitataru Mono ("Those Who Drip Like Corpse Wax") is the third and last story about impossible footprints in this collection. After the events of the opening story, Professor Motomiya learns that Genya is an aspiring horror writer, and decides to reveals to Genya that his friend Professor Tsuchibuchi of Jounan University is actually the famous horror writer Inoki Miroku and offers to introduce him to the professor, knowing that there is one other thing at the Tsuchibuchi manor which will interest Genya. Tsuchibuchi's father Shouzou had started his own Miroku (Maitreya) sect and eventually decided to practice sokushinbutsu. This is a practice where the goal is to mummify one's own body while alive, by meditating in a hole in the ground without taking food or water, as so to "turn into a Buddha instantly." Obviously, Shouzou died while doing this. After Shouzou's death, rumors went his mummy haunted three of his former followers, who had betrayed him, but in fact the mummy is buried on the small island in the middle of the large pond in the garden of Tsuchuchi manor. Genya is introduced to Professor Tsuchibuchi and his family and is offered a bed that night, but near the morning, he is awakened by the call of the professor outside. The body of a woman (one of the people renting a room in the large manor) is lying dead on the island in the pond and Genya also notices there are only two sets of footprints in the snow on both the bridge and in the garden: those of the victim herself, and those of the professor himself as he walked up to the body. The professor has an alibi for the night, so how was the woman killed on the island if nobody else left any footprints?

Oh man, this is one densely structured impossible crime story, with a lot of fake solutions. False solutions are a major trope in the Toujou Genya stories, but whereas it's easy to imagine how Mitsuda can work with them in a long novel, it's amazing to see how he can bring the same complexity to a story that it's only a fifth of the lenght of his regular novels! Each of the false solutions doesn't come out of nowhere, but is properly clewed, and the way they are eventually dismissed is of course also founded upon actual clews presented to you in a fair way, or dismissed on perfectly logical grounds. The final solution is great too: what makes this one especially memorable is how a seemingly supernatural event mentioned by a young witness suddenly makes perfect sense, making the supernatural suddenly extremely realistic.

The title story Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola") is not about footprints, but about ikidama or eidola, or doppelganger spirits. Yachio Ryuunosuke is a student who hopes to pick Genya's mind on a certain family matter. It was only during the war when he was still a child, that Ryuunosuke realized the man who used to visit him and his mother once a month was actually his father and that his mother was his mistress. During the war however, Ryuunosuke's mother sent her son to Yachio Takeru's home to be faraway from the bombs falling on Tokyo, though she herself didn't go because of her pride, and she eventually perished in the war. At Takeru's home, Ryuunosuke learned he was Takeru's third son. Takeru's official wife had already passed away, leaving only their eldest son Kumanosuke. Tomoko, another mistress of Takeru, is the mother of Takeru's second son Toranosuke. Tomoko is staying at Takeru's home too, as Toranosuke had gone off to the battlefield as a brave soldier, while Kumanosuke, born with a weak body, had not been drafted. During his stay, Ryuunosuke realizes Tomoko is hoping to become Takeru's new wife and have Toranosuke become Takeru's new heir, but the war changes everything. His bad health eventually kills Kumanosuke and Toranasuke too is declared dead by the authorities at the end of the war. However it turns he's not dead and he does return from the war with horrible injuries to his face, and partial amnesia. Two years later however, another person appears who claims he's Toranosuke and not even his mother can tell which one of them is the real. This leaves the Yachios with a big problem, for who of the two is to become Takeru's heir?

The main problem reminds of Yokomizo Seishi The Inugami Clan, with an heir coming back from the battlefield with horrible injuries to the face, making it impossible to know whether they are really the person they claim to be (a theme that you'll find in other works by Yokomizo). In this story, Genya is asked to figure out which of the two is real, and things take an unexpected turn when one of the Toranosukes apparently commits suicide. While this story does not feature a situation that is as clearly defined as the previous 'footprints in the snow' theme (it is hard to imagine how Genya will figure out who the real Toranosuke is), this story is actually incredibly well-plotted and clewed. I praised the previous story for its complexity with fake solutions: this one builds even further on that theme, with Genya proposing like half a dozen hypotheses about who the real Toranasuke would be, who the fake Toranosuke would be and several different motives. It's amazing how many hints and clues Mitsuda has managed to stuff into this story, but every hypothesis is properly supported by all the foreshadowing and never feels like it's suddenly dropped on you. The way each hypothesis eventually leads into each other, ending with Genya's surprising final conclusion is absolutely fantastic, and reminds of the way Genya does his thing in the longer novels too.

In the final story, Kaonashi no Gotoki Sarau Mono ("Those Who Abduct Like The Faceless"), Genya invites himself to a small gathering of students who hang around to tell each other scary stories. One of them, Hirata, tells about how when he was a child, he saw a kid disappear. He used to live in a nagaya 'row house', with several residences housed in one long building. One of his friends was Yuuki, who was of one of the better-to-do families in the nagaya neigborhood (at least, his family thought so). Around New Year, travelling perfomers would come to the neigborhood and do their act, but that year, Yuuki said he realized that one of those performers was a burglar, and that he had recognized him. He said he'd confront the performer, so he went alone into the small secluded corner of the nagaya block, where the performers were. That particular spot is basically a cul-de-sac: most of that little spot is blocked off by the nagaya houses and the east side is completely blocked by the river (and a high fence). There are only two entrances to the place: either just by going through the front passing by the nagaya houses and turning the corner, or taking the gate at the northern part of that spot, but that gate is usually locked, with the key in the possession of those who move out the human waste. Hirata was waiting for Yuuki to return, but eventually, the performers all left that spot one by one and when Hirata took a look, he found Yuuki had disappeared. Yuuki had obviously not left with the performers, nor was there any other exit by which he could've left without Hirata, or some other passerby notice him, so how did Yuuki disappear? The solution can be guessed pretty easily, though you'll have to make sure you're not going for the false solution, as there are plenty of them once again. What makes this story memorable however is how Mitsuda eventually shifts the focus of the problem to the practical how: while the basic idea of how it was done seems simple enough, the problem of actually arranging and executing it is actually far more complex, and the explanation Genya gives of how it was done is chillingly horrible. It's more of a psychological explanation at heart, but Mitsuda does go the effort to hint this through another part of the story, and it works mostly.

For a short story collection that is only five stories long, this review has been incredibly long I think, so I'll get to the conclusion right away. Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono is an excellent short story collection that is mostly focused on impossible situations, and almost miraculously, it also managed to utilize the complex plot structures of the (very) long novels in these shorter stories. Folklore serving as a background story and clue to the main mystery plot, devilishly constructed false solutions and so many subtle clues: everything you'd expect from a Toujou Genya story is to be found here too. This series has yet to disappoint, and I very doubt it will ever, considering the crazy quality of each of the entries I've read until now.

Original Japanese title(s):  三津田信三『生霊の如き重るもの』:「死霊の如き歩くもの」/「天魔の如き跳ぶもの」/「屍蝋の如き滴るもの」/「生霊の如き重るもの」/「顔無の如き攫うもの」

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Who Took the Book?

"Don't judge a book by its cover"

Last year, I reviewed Ashibe Taku's Double Mystery, which had an interesting set-up as a physical product: the book consisted of two seperate narratives, each starting at a different end of the book. You could start reading from either side, and in the middle (where the two narratives meet), there was a sealed section, which you had to cut open to find out the solution to the two mysteries presented. ....And next I was going to write that somebody in the comment section there dropped the name Dennis Wheatley in regards to me writing about sealed pages in mystery fiction and how you'd sometimes see them in relatively modern Japanese publications, but.... there's no such comment. Huh. So err, I totally forgot where I first learned of the name Dennis Wheatley. Anyway, Wheatley was an English writer and in the 1930s, he came up with a series of mystery fiction not presented in a novel (story) form, but as actual case files. Inside the folder-like productions, you'd find official police reports, photographs, telegrams, handwritten letters and other physical pieces of evidence like strands of hair and matches. The idea was that you'd get to examine all the facts and evidence yourself. At the end of the booklet, you find a section with sealed pages, and by cutting them open, you could find out whether your solution to the mystery presented was correct.

A while ago, I happened to come across a complete copy of the first of the four Crime Dossiers Dennis Wheatley and writing partner J.G. Links published, titled Murder Off Miami (1934). When you open the folder, you first find a telegram sent from the yacht the Golden Gull, which had left Miami earlier that evening. One of the guests on board of the Golden Gull, the British soap magnate Bolitho Blane, had apparently committed suicide during its trip, prompting the immediate return of the Gull. The next document you find is an internal police memo where Police Captain Schwab puts Inspector Kettering on the case. The Golden Gull is the property of Carlton Rocksavage, a rival soap magnate who lately had been in a very fierce product war with Blane, leaving both of them close to self-destruction. Blane had been invited for the yacht trip, among some other guests of Rocksavage and his daughter, to see if they could work something out that would be less harmful to both of them. Before dinner however, Blane disappeared from the yacht, and in his place a suicide note was found. At first, the case seems simple, but some marks in the carpet indicating a body had been pulled across it then appear to suggest Blane didn't jump out of the window of his cabin on his own. What follows are all the police reports (with the testimonies of all the witnesses and suspects) and the evidence found by Kettering addressed to Schwab. At the end, it seems Kettering is completely baffled by the events, but Schwab manages to solve the whole case based solely on everything Kettering himself had gathered.

I have not played any real Escape Room games myself yet, but I had to think of them constantly as I was going through Murder Off Miami, for the basic concept is the same: within a very minimalistic approach to narrative, "you" (the reader/player) use "real" evidence and reports to solve the crime yourself. It is a game set-up in a sense, but modern mystery videogames are narratively speaking far, far deeper than what Murder Off Miami offers. The whole "narrative" of Murder Off Miami is solely presented through official documents and piece of evidence, so as a tale it's rather bare-bones. You won't be here for the deep characterization, the witty author's voice or for some quotable prose. The exact intention might not be the same, and there is of course the limitations in technology back then, but an actual videogame nowadays usually offers everything Murder Off Miami has (you basically always collect evidence and testimonies in mystery games), but usually presented with an actual story and characters, rather than getting to know everybody through police testimonies. Again, presenting a prose story is not the intention of Wheatly and Links here, but I think it is worth noting that Murder Off Miami will remind of modern mystery videogames, but is at the heart also very different.

The goal is to put yourself in the place of Captain Schwab, and figure out what happened to Blane aboard the Golden Gull based solely on the information obtained from the dossier. As you go through the five different reports of Kettering, you get to know the cast of suspects, among them a wealthy widow who's whole fortune depends on Rocksavage making it through, a Japanese negiotiator who hopes to get a soap deal for his government and a sly society man who is more than meets the eye. But you'll also find a wealth of other evidence: photographs taken from the suspects during their police interviews, a lot of handwritten letters (even on in Japanese!), telegrams, diagrams of the Golden Gull. Heck, even strands of hair retrieved from a comb and a match are included in the dossier!

Given you get all these kinds of documents and pieces of evidence, you of course expect the mystery plot to make use of this fantastic gimmick, right? And in a way, it does. And in a way, it does not. First of all, I think the main mystery is perfectly solvable without even looking at the physical evidence like the hairs and photographs. It's pretty easy to figure out who did it (even if the motive is a bit... undeveloped) based solely on the police interviews. In fact, I pretty much guessed who'd it was in the very first report, even before I got to the photographs and stuff, and all the subsequent reports by Kettering only support my theory. And once you figured out who did it, all the rest is just bonus points. That said, the physical evidence collected in the dossier does help further support the solution, though some of these clues can be a bit hard to figure out (the printing isn't really good and some of the clues I shrugged off as "I totally thought that was how things were in the 30s). I would guess that most people who are able to solve this mystery, figure it out based on the police interviews. Once you think you're done, you have to cut open the seal of the last few pages, in which Schwab explains to Kettering who the murderer is and how he figured it out. My copy was already unsealed of course, but if you happen to have a copy too, you could just seal it yourself with some tape before you start with it, of course.

When these dossiers were first published, there were of course worries about whether they would sell, as they took on a very curious form. In fact, it's insane how they did these books. Everything is printed in different kinds of paper in different formats (the telegram is small on cheap paper, the police reports are on typing paper, a letter is written on good quality paper), there's a sealed section in the back, there's friggin' hair and a match in a little plastic bag... No normal publisher could just print and bind the thing, so it must've taken a lot of labor to put these things together. The whole package reminds more of a board game than a book. Apparently, Murder Off Miami managed to sell 120,000 copies within six months (and it is even said Queen Mary bought six copies on release date), so it definitely did hit it off with this concept, but was it really necessary to publish Murder Off Miami in this manner, in the sense that the mystery plot actually demanded this? No. Not really. They could have just printed the whole thing like a normal book, with photographs of the evidence and it'd still work exactly the same. Of course, it's more fun the way they did, but practical, it certainly was not. Apparently, they later made cheaper versions of the four Crime Dossiers without the physical evidence, sealed pages and the ten types of paper and ink and stuff, and at least for Murder Off Miami, I can't see it hurting the mystery plot in any manner. Funnily enough, it appears there's an actual videogame based of Murder Off Miami too.

I did enjoy Murder Off Miami as an experience: it's really fun going through all the police reports and looking with your own eyes, and even holding all the evidence that is usually just described in a few sentences in a story. As a mystery story however, Murder Off Miami is a bit simple, and it's not a story that is made possible because of the concept, but more a story that also makes use of the concept. So that was a bit disappointing, because I was expecting san experience that could only be presented in this way. As complete, good condition copies of the actual dossiers aren't really cheap, I think that if I were to return to this series, I'll try to find the cheaper reprinted versions.