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 The Hokkaido Mystery Cross Match Award is presented to the best unpublished mystery story (unpublished as in not by a professional publisher, for short~novelette-size stories) and while this first time, the authors were all living in or around Sapporo (capital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」


  1. Gah! It is not fair to taunt me with amazing-sounding no-footprints problems!

    1. You mean that's not the whole goal of this blog? :P

  2. thanks for uncovering this hidden gem for us! this is why i come every day on this blog hoping for an update.

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