Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Come Undone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Japanese title(s):『真 流行り神』

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Lie, Lie, Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Pirate Ship of Fools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Watch Out! The Willawaw!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Adventure of the Lion's Mane

『名探偵コナン 紺青の拳(フィスト)』

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

Many reviews of mystery fiction in a visual format lately!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 4, 2019

Snow Place Like Home

「籟・来・也」(Garnet Crow)

Fall brings the harvest of fall
And winter brings the harshness of winter
"Rai Rai Ya" (Garnet Crow)

One of my favorite discoveries of last year was Nemoto Shou's manga Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny"). These were originally doujin comics which Nemoto was self-publishing under the doujin circle name Sapporo no Rokujou Hitoma for sale at events etc. In the current age, a lot of doujin material like fanzines, indie videogames etc. is also sold in digital format, but there are still many, many doujin circles that publish their work in physical format. Half of the fun of making a doujin comic is indeed putting the finishing touches on the file you send off to the  professional printer and binder and some time later, you bring your box of freshly created booklets to a convention or some other event to sell the fruits of your labor all by your own hand, meeting and speaking with each and every of the people who swing by your stand. Nemoto had been working on the Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura series for about ten years, and readers praised it as an excellent mystery comics, but due to its doujin status, it was also relatively difficult to get your hands on an actual copy until last year, major publisher Bungeishunju helped getting these fantastic stories on digital storefronts in Japan. Fourteen issues were compiled into three volumes, and I loved each and every one of them (reviews of the first, second and third volume here).

At the end of the third review, I mentioned that the series was still on-going as a doujin comic and that it was unclear whether further issues would be made available as ebooks too. Even if this would happen, it was likely this would take several years, as the other volumes collected 4-5 issues each. But luckily, I didn't have to wait too long to have my reunion with our favorite students of of Shimoyama Middle School: the clever girl detective Sharaku Homura and her assistant Yamazaki "Karate Kid" Yousuke. This summer, Nemoto won the first Hokkaido Mystery Cross Match Award with Hagoromo no Kijo ("The Ogress With the Robe of Feathers"), the sixteenth issue in the Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura series. The Hokkaido Mystery Cross Match Award is presented to the best unpublished mystery story (unpublished as in not by a professional publisher, for short~novelette-size stories) and while this first time, the authors were all living in or around Sapporo (capital city of Hokkaido), residence in Hokkaido is not a requirement to compete. To celebrate this joyous occassion, Nemoto has made this award-winning comic temporarily available for free download (see this tweet for the link) and having read it, I can definitely recommend people to check it out too.

Homura and Karate Kid are out mushroom hunting in the mountains, but after being chased away by a rival mushroom hunter with a rifle and a rather wild dog, the kids are shocked to find a dead man lying in the middle of a snow-covered clearing in the forest. The man appears to have a stab wound in the temple of his head, but strangely enough, the only footprints left in the surrounding snow are those of the victim himself, besides those of Homura and Karate Kid. Police investigation reveals two interesting facts. One is that the victim was indeed stabbed by a sharp instrument in his head (there was even some metal left in his head). The weapon however was not found near the body, ruling out any possibilities of suicide. The other fact is that the victim used to be a monk at the Buddhist temple further up the same mountain, but that he had been thrown out one year earlier for repeatedly stealing money. The victim was unemployed, but he was carrying a bag of mochi (rice cakes) with him, suggesting he was going to visit someone. The other monks at the temple seemed shocked to learn about the death of the victim. The temple is home to various interesting legends and objects of interest, like a Buddhist mummy, but also a stone seal that is supposed to keep an ogress trapped: like in the west, legends that follow the archetype of the story of the Swan Maiden exist all across Japan (see also my review of the opening story of Professor Munakata), but in this version, the Heavenly Maiden who got her robe of feathers stolen, killed the thief herself and turned into a blood-craving ogress, until she was defeated by the founder of the temple some centuries ago. Her feathered robe, a relic kept hidden in the temple, was stolen the night before the victim was killed by what appeared to be the Ogress herself. Did the Ogress use her magical robe to fly to the victim to stab him in the head, leaving no footprints behind in the snow?

Like I said, this is a great story. It's very densely plotted tale at ninety pages, allowing Nemoto to not only come up with several (fake) solutions to the no-footprints-in-the-snow situation, but also flesh out the whole Buddhist temple background and its backstory. Obviously this is of importance to the core mystery plot, but the storytelling does a great job at actually being a story, and not just dumping info on the reader. And there's really a lot to process here: I could easily imagine this plot being worked out into a full novel. As the story unfolds, we learn the victim had his darker side too, and part of the mystery shifts to the question who he was going to visit with his mochi (rice cakes). This part of the mystery is quite original, and the clewing is really clever. It's almost blatantly telling you what's going on, but hidden so well you are likely to miss what Nemoto is trying to tell you.

Speaking of which, this story features a genuine Challenge to the Reader, and it even gives four major hints that really push you in the right direction, without giving the whole game away. As per custom, this comic is very generous in reminding you about things that had been said or shown earlier in the story: you always find proper page references when for example late in the story someone refers to an earlier testimony or about having seen something. Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura is always fair, but especially kind in the way it really shows you where every clue was and when it was mentioned.

The solution to the main problem of the no-footprints-in-the-snow is really original though and this alone makes this issue worth a read. While I know of variants with other impossible crime situations that use a similar idea, it's the way it's contextualized and set-up in this particular story that makes it a memorable story. The means are singularly unique to this particular story and its background story, yet properly clewed and foreshadowed. It is admitted in the comic itself that the probability of success is quite slim and practically, one could argue whether it was even possible for the murderer to actually pull that move off physically, but the sheer originality and also horrifying implications of this particular murder method make this one to remember.

Hagoromo no Kijo, the sixteenth issue of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura, is in short another great entry in the series. I really hope that eventually, all the new issues of this series will also be collected into a standalone volume for sale on digital storefronts. As you may have noticed already, this was issue 16, while the earlier volumes I reviewed collected fourteen issues, meaning I already missed one story in this great series. Self-publishing a series of course has its merits too, but man, it does make it a lot harder reading this series!

Original Japanese title(s): 根本尚(札幌の六畳一間)「怪奇探偵 羽衣の鬼女」

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle


I'd love to fly freely in the sky
- Here, a Bamboo Copter!
(The Song of Doraemon) (Ooyama Nobuyo)

Huh, I never had expected to be writing about Doraemon here. And I'm even now really weirded out by the notion I even have to explain him. For in essence, it's like having to explain Mickey Mouse. Doraemon is a long-running children's comic and cartoon that has not only found succes in Japan, but in the whole of South-East Asia. It's immensely popular there and several generations have grown up together with the blue robot cat. So it feels weird to have to explain such a cultural icon, a figure everyone knows by sight. I mean, Doraemon is so intertwined with Japanese culture he was appointed a special ambassador for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (Remember seeing him in the closing ceremony for the 2016 Olympics?). Anyway, for the people who don't know Doraemon: Doraemon is a blue robot cat from the future, who has been sent to the young boy Nobita. Nobita's a failure at everything he tries, who always gives up and cries the moment things go wrong and that's a habit that sticks. His great-great-grandson Sewashi therefore decides to send his robot cat Doraemon to his great-great-grandfather in the hope Doraemon can help Nobita shape up and change his and his family's future. Doraemon has all kinds of fantastic secret gadgets from the future hidden in his pouch, like the Anywhere Door which can open doors between any location. Many episodes are about Nobita (or his friends Shizuka, Gian and Suneo) coming to Doraemon asking for some gadget to help them out (for example, because they forgot to make their homework) and the kids eventually abusing the gadget until it backfires. While the television series is a comedy series, the long-running theatrical releases take on more epic forms with long adventures. One of my favorites is Doraemon: Nobita no Parallel Saiyuuki (Doraemon: Nobita's Parallel Journey to the West, 1988), where monsters from the Chinese classic Journey to the West take over modern-day Japan, and Nobita, Doraemon and their friends must fight the monsters as the Monkey King and his allies.

It would take until the thirty-third movie until Doraemon would try its round hands at a mystery-themed story in the theaters though. 2013's Doraemon: Nobita no Himitsu Dougu Museum, which also has the English title of Doraemon: Nobita's Secret Gadget Museum, starts with the theft of Doraemon's cat bell by Phantom Thief DX. Desperate to find the bell (actually a secret gadget), Doraemon has Nobita wear the Sherlock Holmes Set, a set of detective-related secret gadgets. With the help of the Clue Lens (which can show clues for any mystery you want to solve), the duo learns the bell is somewhere in the Secret Gadget Museum in the twenty-second century, an institution that exhibits all kinds of secret gadgets and their history. Doraemon receives an invitation for the museum from his sister Dorami, and Nobita, Shizuka, Gaian and Suneo all join to help Doraemon find his bell. Arriving at the museum, the gang are given a tour by Kuruto, a young boy and aspiring gadget inventor who works at the museum. They learn that Phantom Thief DX has struck here too earlier, stealing a secret gadget from the museum. When the following day Phantom Thief DX announces they will steal more gadgets from the museum, the gang prepares to catch the thief and retrieve all the stolen gadgets.

A somewhat odd Doraemon movie as it's set in 'just' the Japan of the future and mostly inside a museum too, instead of some parallel or magical/fantasy world like in most of the other (older) movies. While I am reviewing this movie here on the blog, I wouldn't want to disappoint people, so let me emphasize first that this is mostly a comedy-action movie like you'd expect from Doraemon, and not some kind of hidden mystery gem that will go into the annals of modern mystery fiction. That said, the mystery plot is really not that bad considering this is at the core a children's/family comedy film  and overall, I did enjoy the Sherlock Holmes Set-wearing Nobita vs. Phantom Thief DX story, as it's a genuinely fairly played mystery plot.

Speaking of the Sherlock Holmes Set, you'd think it's a total cheat right? It consists of some nifty gadgets that come in handy when working on a case, like the Radar Stick (falls in the direction of the culprit), Clue Lens (shows clues of the mystery you're trying to solve) and the Detective Hat (gives the wearer a spark of inspiration that solves the case by flipping the rim of the hat). It's not nearly as much as a cheat as you'd think though, as like many of Doraemon's gadgets, they are err... somewhat behind on maintenance, so it's not like Nobita would be able to solve the case within the first five minutes of the movie (in fact, the set was featured in the manga in the past, where Doraemon explicitly said the gadgets were all broken). The whole movie is full of wonderful gadgets which don't exist in the real world though. The Anywhere Door, Big Lights (a flashlight that enlarges the thing it enlightens), Gulliver's Tunnel (shrinks the person who walks through the tunnel), they are of course all items don't exist in the real world.

Yet, the mystery plot of Nobita's Secret Gadget Museum is fair: like any good supernatural/fantasy/science-fiction mystery story, it might have an unrealistic setting with items and tools that don't exist (yet), they are properly introduced to the viewer and all explained, so they are used fairly in the mystery plot. In fact, that was the thing that surprised me the most about the movie: it does a great job at introducing all kinds of Chekhov's Guns and other hints in a completely natural manner in the first half of the movie, which all come back in regards to the mystery plot in the denouement. Nobita uses the Detective Hat to solve the case and guess who Phantom Thief DX really is, but the viewer is capable of doing that too without Nobita's handy gadget, as all the essential clues were shown on the screen to the viewer (who only has to remember how the fantastical secret gadgets can be used). So I'd say Nobita's Secret Gadget Museum is an entertaining example of how to do a proper science-fiction mystery story, even if it's clearly meant for children. There's even room to do some misdirection, and the first half does a good job at keeping things just mysterious enough to make sure the viewer won't be able to solve everything too soon.

The movie also has quite a number of Sherlock Holmes references by the way, and even opens with a sequence of Nobita dreaming about the Sherlock Holmes vs. Lupin movie he saw the night before. As a 'possibly-first-movie-for-kids-that-talks-about-Sherlock-Holmes', it's pretty decent, and there are some funny references here and there hidden that only fans will pick up, so you can tell the screenplay was written by someone who likes Holmes. As a Doraemon movie too, this is fun to watch. It focuses more on the friendship between Nobita and Doraemon compared to other movies in the series and even has a flashback scene to when Doraemon was first brought to Nobita by his great-great-grandson Sewashi.

Doraemon: Nobita's Secret Gadget Museum is on the whole an amusing Doraemon movie that features a simple, but properly presented mystery plot and is likely to amuse fans of Doraemon that also like mystery fiction. It's unlikely I'll be discussing Doraemon here on the blog any time soon again, but this one side trip with the robot cat was certainly no disappointment.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ドラえもん のび太のひみつ道具博物館(ミュージアム)』