Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Turnabout Memories - Part 9

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember"

Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

It is probably the most boring manner in which one can end the year, but alas, it's the tradition here: in the final week of the year, I always write a short overview of the titles and posts of the year that stood out the most. And by which I mean the few ones I still remember. My tendency to work months ahead usually means a fair number of the reviews published early this year, were actually read in 2018, while quite a few (great!) novels I've read this year, won't be properly reviewed until 2020. That coupled with my bad memory usually means things become err, vague. Also: don't take the categories and lists here too seriously. A new Detective Conan volume was released last week, and if the postal services will cooperate, I might do one final review this year, but otherwise this post will be the last and I can already reveal that the book of the first review of 2020 is one I am absolutey sure will end up at the best-of list at the end of that year. Have a nice week!

Important note to future self: update the post archive more often. Adding more than a year's worth of posts is time-consuming and extremely tedious work.

Best Project Outside The Blog!
A Smart Dummy In The Tent

Okay, I'll have to be honest here and say there wasn't much competition this year. Abiko Takemaru's The 8 Mansion Murders was received very positively in 2018, so I was glad I got to work on another one of his works in 2019. This short story about the ventriloquist dummy detective Mario was published in the June/August 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and features a rather interesting impossible crime in a circus fair setting. It's definitely a story I can recommend to those who have a special affinity with the impossible crime trope, because it's got a very original concept. And it's a really funny read too. Some might be disappointed that I didn't get to work on another Locked Room International release of a full novel this year, but errr, sometimes things don't go exactly as one'd hope. I can reveal that there's definitely something coming next year, because err, I've been busy these few months.

Best Mystery Movie/TV series/other linear audiovisual media! Seen in 2019 but probably older!
Hitou Yukiyami Furisode Jiken ("The Case of the Furisode of the Hot Spring Hidden In The Snow Darkness") (Detective Conan episodes 379-380)

I've seen a fair amount of mystery television and film productions, but choosing the best of them wasn't very difficult, to be honest. Not all of them were truly bad, but the two-parter Hitou Yukiyami Furisode Jiken was easily the best of them. As expected of screenplay writer Ochi Hirihito, this 2004 story was another prime example of an impossible murder that involves multiple elements that synergize exceedingly well together, with each element both depending on, but also strengthening another element. The 2019 theatrical release Detective Conan: Fist of the Blue Sapphire was on the other hand more a flick focused on action and comedy. It's actually an incredibly entertaining Conan movie, but as a standalone mystery movie, it's definitely not as impressive. Doraemon: Nobita no Himitsu Dougu Museum was a surprisingly fun, but very light mystery movie. The last two months, I have also followed a few on-going Japanese mystery dramas I'm probably not going to write about in seperate posts, but I have to say that Sherlock - Untold Stories ended up much more entertaining than I had feared: it borrows a lot from BBC's Sherlock, but the idea to use plots loosely inspired by the references to unsolved cases in the original Holmes stories worked out really well. The final episode was errr, very, very disappointing though. There was a reason "Who the hell is Moriya" went trending  on Twiter during the broadcast. The third Jikou Keisatsu series, Jikou Keisatsu ga Hajimemashita ("The Limitation Task Force has Started") was extremely entertaining thanks to a cast who are still having as much fun as ten years ago (when the previous series ran). The mystery plots were pretty simple and outright silly at times, but man, there were some minor gems like one of the most original murder weapons ever in episode 7, and a murder case inspired by the indie zombie film One Cut of the Dead, where the director was murdered even though everybody was busy shooting a whole zombie movie in only one cut.

Best Mystery Merchandise!
Fuwamofu Detective Pikachu pillow (San-ei Boeki)

The Detective Pikachu movie itself was not particularly impressive as a mystery movie (I liked the 3DS Detective Pikachu game better), but it was pretty fun to watch as someone who does like Pokémon. But man, there was some really cool, and absolutely adorable merchandise! Last year, I wrote a short article on merchandise of mystery series, but this pillow (technically, it's not a stuffed doll) is exactly the kind of things I want! The moment I saw this Pikachu with the deerstalker I knew I needed to have it and I quickly ordered it. It's so fluffy! And long-time readers might've noticed that I changed my avatar to Detective Pikachu a few months ago.

Best Theme! Of 2019!
The supernatural in mystery

Okay, this wasn't planned, but I read a lot of mystery fiction this year that featured either supernatural or fantasy elements in a great way. To quote myself from a different post: "Actual prophecies destined to come true, magic watches that show you to the exact moment of death of any person, a murder mystery set in Alice's Wonderland, robotic cats with technology from the future and a 5000 light year road trip through space: this year alone I've gone through heaps of great mystery stories that utilize the supernatural in one way or another, and all of them were interesting puzzle plot mysteries that played the game square and fair." I have read a few other great examples too that will be reviewed next year, but if anything, my readings of this year have only strengthened my beliefs in how much potential the mystery genre holds.

Best Non-Review Post! Of 2019!
Clocks in mystery fiction

For some reason, I always write more editorials/features near the end of the year. Anyway, I've written short pieces on the potential of the supernatural/fantasy elements in mystery fiction, the potential of what a mystery can be, family tress in mystery fiction, the meaning of the Challenge to the Reader and the closed circle situation. As I'm writing this, I realize the reason why I chose the article on clocks as my favorite, is the exact reason why I choose the article on glasses as my favorite last year! For this article was probably the only one I actually thought about before I started writing, instead of just winging it and writing as I went on.Though I do like the Challenge to the Reader one too.

Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2019! But Probably Older!
Armchair Detective Case. 1

I haven't played many 'major' mystery games this year, I think. I already knew in advance the two Shin Hayarigami games would involve the supernatural heavily in their plot and not present pure puzzle plots, even if I did really enjoy the second a lot. The Raven Remastered and Detective Conan - Mirage of Remembrance were replays of games I already knew were quite flawed and while I was pleasantly surprised by the release of a new Tantei Jinguuji Saburou mobile app in the summer, it too was far too limited in scale to leave any lasting impression on its on. Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju was a fun, small game inspired by Famicom adventure games, while I have to admit I expected more comments on my post on Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links Murder Off Miami, a gamebook which included the actual, physical evidence like photographs, handwritten letters (even on in Japanese!), telegrams and even strands of hair retrieved from a comb. In the end, I had to choose between Armchair Detective and The Return of the Obra Dinn: the latter was a fantastic game that really forced you to think as you try to figure out what name and face belonged to the deceased on the abandoned ghost ship, but in the end, I decided to choose Armchair Detective Case. 1 because the synergy between the gameplay mechanics and the overall mystery story made a better impression on me. It's only part of what should become a bigger game, and I hope the whole thing will be released soon.

I didn't review Layton's Mystery Journey DX here, but while the presentation was top-notch as ever, you really do notice that the original puzzle supervisor is gone now. Obviously, I don't only play mystery games, so to name a few other titles that left an impression me this year: Box-Boy & Box-Girl! was a great addition to the small puzzle title, Dragon Quest XI S was a phenomenal game that manages to give a very modern feel to what is in the essence a very traditional system, Pokémon Sword might not be very surprising, but the many QOL improvements and the Wild Area are so good. Worst game played was Tales of the Tempest. By far.

Craziest Detective (Character) Read in 2019!
Yu Bu-ran in Hwanggeumgul ("The Golden Cave")

Okay, this creation by Kim Nae-seong, the father of the Korean detective story, always had a rather melodramatic and theatrical side to him, but I hadn't expected to see him go overboard in the book Baekgamyeon ("The White Mask"), which collected two of the juvenile adventures starring Yu Bu-ran. In the second story, Hwanggeumgul, Yu Bu-ran goes around shooting pirates with his pistol, while crying out to the orphaned children he's supposed to protect to watch him as he guns everybody down. That's... that's probably not how one should act in front of children...

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
- Alice Goroshi ("The Murder of Alice") (Kobayashi Yasumi)
- Invented Inference (Shirodaira Kyou)
- Hagoromo no Kijo ("The Ogress With the Robe of Feathers") (Nemoto Shou)
- Astra Lost In Space (Shinohara Kenta)
- Hitou Yukiyami Furisode Jiken ("The Case of the Furisode of the Hot Spring Hidden In The Snow Darkness") (Detective Conan episodes 379-380)
- Shi to Sunadokei ("Death and the Hourglass") (Torikai Hiu)
- Magan no Hako no Satsujin ("The Murders In the Box of The Devil Eye") (Imamura Masahiro)
- Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit") (Mitsuda Shinzou)
- Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service") (Ooyama Seiichirou)
- Shiryou no Gotoki Aruku Mono ("Those Who Walk Like The Dead Spirits") (Mitsuda Shinzou)

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Dark Night of the Hunters

This happened to a friend of a friend...

This'll probably be the last normal review post of this year!

Houjou Saki is a new graduate from the police academy and as part of her training period before she's officially assigned to a division, Saki has been stationed at a small police box at the station of K City in S Prefecture. Once a thriving industrial city, K City is now slowly transforming into a bed town for nearby Tokyo. After getting complaints from the neighbors about a horrible smell coming from an empty house, Saki and her two senior police officers at the police box go check the building. Inside, they make a horrible discovery: three mutilated bodies of woman wrapped in blue sheets are scattered across the house. It's at the investigation update meeting that Saki learns for the first time that their discovery was just only one in a series: more bodies of women were found lately in empty buildings in K City, all because neighbors complained about the horrible smell of death lingering in the neighborhood. The fact all the victims were horrible tortured with a whip and cut open while alive and the fact all the women are missing body parts, tells the police they're after one and the same culprit. Because the faces of the victims are completely bashed in, their teeth removed and fingerprints burnt off with acid, it's impossible to determine the identity of these women.

What isn't mentioned at the meeting is the curious thing Saki saw when she found the bodies: Saki swears she saw a ghostly apparition in the house a second before she entered the empty building. The figure she saw was a beautiful woman dressed in a white robe, but who for a moment, also seemed to have a skull for a face. While one can guess why Saki's report was ignored by her direct superiors, one person finds it highly interesting: Lieutenant Takahashi Mayako of the Special Patrol Unit of the S Prefectural Police HQ, which usually handles old unsolved cases. Mayako reveals to Saki that thirty years ago, a serial killer active in K City acted with the exact same modus operandi as the current killer. That killer, dubbed the Parts Collector as each of the victims was robbed of a body part, was never caught, but the files mention witnesses who saw the same ghostly apparition Saki saw at the sites where the bodies were found. Mayako is the only one who is convinced there's a direct link between the two cases and has Saki assigned to her as her partner in order to track down the murderer in the novel Shin Hayarigami ~ File 0 Tokoyami no Maria~ ("Shin Hayarigami ~File 0 Maria of the Eternal Darkness~", 2014) by Sayama Misao (pen name of Kushimachi Minato).

After playing and reviewing the two Shin Hayarigami videogames the last few weeks, I learned there of the existence of a spin-off prequel novel, which was released together with the first Shin Hayarigami in 2014. While the first Shin Hayarigami was more of a horror game than the hybrid horror-mystery game the series usually was, I enjoyed the much improved second one a lot, and as I was already in this Shin Hayarigami mood, I decided to dive right away in this novel too. The novel is set one or two years before the first Shin Hayarigami game: Saki is still a rookie patrol cop in her training period. Her meeting with Mayako of the Special Patrol Unit and her experience with the case in this novel would later result in Saki's first official assignment to the Special Patrol Unit and thus get her involved in the Blindman incident. What's funny is that this novel also provides an explanation for a game mechanic. In the Shin Hayarigami games, Saki is a master of "Liar's Art", where she uses sweet talk, threats and any kinds of lies to lure a witness into giving the answers she needs. As a game mechanic, it's pretty frustrating as often you don't know beforehand how a witness will react to the answers you pick, but it's funny how Shin Hayarigami ~ File 0 at a certain point actually provides an origin story to Saki's Liar's Art. I mean, prequel novels often include origin stories of how the gang first met or something like that, but seldom for game mechanic! It's like having a novel that incidentally also reveals how Mario learned how to jump.

As a horror-mystery novel, Shin Hayarigami ~ File 0 strangely enough feels more like classic Hayarigami than the actual game it accompanied. Most of the scenarios in the first Shin Hayarigami were just gorey horror where Saki would always find herself also becoming a partial victim, while Shin Hayarigami ~ File 0, Saki is investigating a case that has some occult nuances to it, without becoming too much a part of it herself, like in the classic Hayarigami games and Shin Hayarigami 2. While the story of Shin Hayarigami ~ File 0 is not split in a scientific and occult route like in those games, the investigation of Saki and Mayako is definitely focused on both these angles. I do think it's kinda a shame that Saki sees a ghost right at the beginning of the story: in the games, even the scientific routes usually contain some supernatural or unexplained element, but that usually only comes near the end. In Shin Hayarigami ~ File 0, the ghostly sighting is basically presented right at the start and accepted as such by Saki and Mayako, which is the opposite of the games, where the unsettling feeling of the supernatural creeps into the story at the very end. While the ghost has no direct effect on the world and most of the investigation would've occured more or less in the same way without the ghost appearing, it's still a bit distracting to have Saki see the ghost multiple times and accept that it's supernatural.

That said, Shin Hayarigami ~ File 0 isn't just about ghosts. Saki and Mayako also perform 'normal' investigative work as they try to track down the serial killer, and this novel was fairly entertaining as a perhaps not remarkable, but okay-ish thriller serial killer story. Don't expect a fair play mystery where you can identify the culprit based on clues beforehand (though I do think this story could've been rewritten to be a bit more fair), but it works fine as a work that focuses on the chase, and the idea of the split in scientific/occult routes of the games is actually represented quite well by the two female senior detectives of this story: Mayako (who believes in the witness sightings of the ghosts) and the forensic expert Hiromi who dismisses all supernatural explanations. The Hayarigami games have always been about urban legends: cases were themed after urban legends, or at times, urban legends would actually be the motive or driving force behind a case. This element is done actually quite well in this novel, even more than how the theme of urban legends was handled in the first Shin Hayarigami. I won't reveal who the "Maria of the Eternal Darkness" in the title is, but this is what I want from Hayarigami! References to and reflections on real-life religion, folklore, and urban legends and juuuust a little bit of an original twist all work together to bring an interesting case is exactly what Hayarigami should do and man, the first Shin Hayaragami would've been so much more enjoyable if it was closer in atmosphere to this novel. The first Shin Hayarigami is a perfectly fine horror game, but Hayarigami shouldn't just be a horror game, but also present an interesting mystery story. The only complaint I have about this particular part of the story that it's not a well-known urban legend/folklore story (certainly not in Japan), but having the characters realize the case is patterned after such a story midway, instead of right at the start also works for this series as a change in formula.

Shin Hayarigami ~ File 0 Tokoyami no Maria~ is not a novel I would recommend to those who haven't played any of the games as on its own, it's an unremarkable thriller, but if you did like either of the Shin Hayarigami games, I'd say this is a pretty solid read. It does a good job at invoking the style and atmosphere of the games in terms of set-up and how urban legends link up with the cases and I also like how you can see how the experiences in this story will eventually shape Saki into the Saki we know from the games (though strangely enough, Saki is much stronger in a fight in the novel than in the games). Play the soundtrack in the background while reading, and you're all set. As far as I know, I have now handled all the story-related content of Shin Hayarigami now, so if I'll return to this series, it'll either be because I've returned to the original Hayarigami series, or because a third Shin Hayarigami game is finally released.

Original Japanese title(s): 『真 流行り神 〜ファイル0 常闇のマリア〜』

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Danger in Disguise

The clouds are heavy.
- Yes, a storm is approaching.
"The Valley of Fear"

It was late last year when I finally read Imamura Masahiro's debut novel Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead", 2017) and like the legends said, it was a highly entertaining, and cleverly written mystery novel that utilized a completely unique, supernatural background setting to not only create a closed circle situation, but also allow for lines of reasoning otherwise not possible. I also reviewed the sequel released early this year (which was great too), but in terms of popularity, it's (obviously) still the first novel that attracts most attention. Its success was not confined to the novel form: Shijinsou no Satsujin has not only seen a manga adaptation, as earlier this week (to be exact, two days ago) the live-action movie was also released in Japanese theatres. I'm dying to see this movie, as on top of the killer source material, both the director and the screenplay writer turn out to be people who have worked extensively on the drama TRICK (a personal favorite), and that distinct rapid-fire comedic tone of that series is also very noticable in the trailer for the movie.

A special prequel/prologue story to Shijinsou no Satsujin was released on the same day as the live-action film premiere, available in either issue 98 of the magazine Mysteries! or as e-book. As a fan, I obviously had to read this as soon as possible. Shijinsou no Satsujin Episode 0 - Akechi Kyousuke: Saisho demo Saigo demo nai Jiken ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead Episode 0- Akechi Kyousuke: Neither His First nor His Final Case" 2019) is set about four months before the events of Shijinsou no Satsujin, in late April. It's been only a few weeks since Hamura Yuzuru started his life at Shinkou University and has become a member of the Shinkou University Mystery Society (not to be confused with the Mystery Club). The club only has two members: Hamura, and the club president Akechi Kyousuke, a great admirer of detectives who has also solved a few cases himself on campus, earning him the reputation of "the Holmes of Shinkou". Akechi is hired by the university's Cosplay Club to investigate a certain incident. In a corner of the campus stands the old "box" building, which currently houses the Cosplay Club, a newly established university club officially affiliated with the university's design faculty. A few nights earlier, the campus guard noticed a suspicious light inside, and when he went inside to check, he found an unconscious burglar lying on the floor. The man was of course arrested, but he claims he was busy looking for something to steal, when someone else entered the building, who assaulted him and knocked him out. While nobody believes the burglar, the Cosplay Club still wants Akechi to investigate the case thoroughly, as the supervising teacher of the club is really fussy and might even close the club if the whole thing doesn't get sorted out.

For the situation is somewhat baffling. In the end, nothing was stolen from the building, as it was mostly used as a spot to hang out by the members of the Cosplay Club (the actual costumes are usually kept at the design faculty) and the money box was even left untouched. But there are indications the burglar may have been telling the truth about another intruder: not only were his gloves missing, some person had also wiped the handles of the doors upstairs clean for some reason, but not those on the ground floor. What reason could the second intruder have to go inside the building if not to steal anything? As the investigation continues, Hamura learns in his very first case that playing detective isn't as easy as the books make it out.

Obviously, this story is a bit different from the two full-length novels in this series (which, vexingly, doesn't really have an official series title yet), as this story does not feature any supernatural elements in any way. It is therefore a fairly normal, orthodox puzzle plot mystery in terms of setting. And while it's a pretty short story, it's also a very well-constructed mystery, one that follows the same type of logical reasoning you also see in the novels. There are enough indications that show a second intruder was there that night, so the problem revolves around the questions what the motive was of this second intruder, as while they did attack the other burglar, nothing was stolen. Guessing exactly what the intruder wanted to do might be a bit difficult just based on those clues, though I have read a different short mystery story, also in a school setting, that basically had the same idea (though executed very differently), and that made it easier to guess what was going on. What's a lot more fun is the subsequent process of guessing who this second intruder was: the elimination process is very simply, but elegant, and completely fair. Once you realize why it was done, all the set-up until then make it brilliantly clear who must've done it, and I like how Imamura also built in an extra little step to show how the culprit could be caught.

I also liked the story a lot as an academic mystery/campus-set story.  Clubs and circles are a pretty important element of university culture in Japan, and there are many mystery stories too that involve them (you may remember I have translated a few that also featured them), but I don't think I've ever seen a cosplay club mentioned/used extensively as a setting in a mystery story before (you do often seen anime/manga/cosplay clubs in err, anime and manga about university clubs). And one moment in particular makes brilliant use of the fact that this is indeed a mystery plot set at a university, and while in hindsight, it's oh-so obvious and nothing remarkable at all, the realization work really well because it's very likely you'll not think of it yourself until it's mentioned and then you see how even the most mundane and trivial specifics of a university campus can be used in a mystery plot.

Shijinsou no Satsujin Episode 0 - Akechi Kyousuke: Saisho demo Saigo demo nai Jiken is a very short tale that perhaps doesn't show off what made the two novels so unique and exciting, but on its own, it's without a doubt also an entertaining piece. It's a cleverly structured puzzle considering the page count, and its competence in mystery combined with the actual character interaction (the fairly light tone of the narration) do give you an idea of what to expect of the novels featuring the Shinkou University Mystery Club.

Original Japanese title(s): 「〈屍人荘の殺人〉エピソード0 明智恭介 最初でも最後でもない事件」

Thursday, December 12, 2019


"A detective story must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end."
"The Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction"

I'll be doing my impression of a broken record here, but I am of the opinion one can do a lot within the mystery fiction genre, and that for example, supernatural or fantasy elements do not, by default, threaten the internal integrity of the genre, in the same sense that realism does not automatically mean a mystery story is actually good or fair.  So what if there is an experimental drug that can turn a sixteen year old boy into a child? Detective Conan's core premise may be based on something out of a fantasy novel, but there have also been various stories within the series that present a completely fair and expertly written mystery plot that utilize the whole fact such a drug exists. A story about actual ghosts that can attack real-life people? Invented Inference (In/Spectre) is easily one of the more entertaining and exciting mystery novels I've read this year, one that at least dares to focus on what makes a mystery plot interesting and build a story around that core idea, rather than just using the familiar set forms of locked rooms murders or anything like that. Actual prophecies destined to come true, magic watches that show you to the exact moment of death of any person, a murder mystery set in Alice's Wonderland, robotic cats with technology from the future and a 5000 light year road trip through space: this year alone I've gone through heaps of great mystery stories that utilize the supernatural in one way or another, and all of them were interesting puzzle plot mysteries that played the game square and fair. What's important for a good puzzle plot mystery story is having a consistent internal logic, not boring realism!

Anyway, this got me thinking about what a "mystery" in a mystery/detective story means to me. Because to be completely honest: most of the 'conventional' mystery stories don't even try to something truly original with what a mystery could be, and keep to the familiar murders and other crimes. We have the familiar whodunnits, howdunnits, whydunnits, howcatchems and the occasional whatthehell (where what appears to be a normal story is revealed to much more, putting previous events in a different context). They may provide an original take on for example the locked room mystery, but they don't attempt at taking one single step back, at examining what a mystery could also entail. To me, a mystery or detective story is not about murders or crime. Like Knox said, it's about a mystery: an unanswered event. The question of who murdered Roger Ackroyd may be such a mystery, just like all the familiar tropes like locked room murders, perfect alibis, whodunnits and whatever comes to mind right away, but the rather mundane question of who someone managed to make hot cocoa with only three mugs and one teaspoon is also a valid mystery. I am not a particular fan of the everyday life mystery subgenre, but I'll be the first to admit I've seen some great stories involving mysteries about seemingly mundane, but still curious and alluring problems, like the problem of the food stalls at a summer festival all returning change in 50 yen coins instead of 100 yen coins.

What can a mystery also be? Some months ago, I read Astra Lost in Space and the first half of that science fiction mystery series involved a type of mystery you never see in 'conventional' mystery stories. A group of space-stranded students try to make their way back to their home planet with their spaceship the Astra. They have to make pitstops at several unknown planets due to the length of their trip and some of these planets house threats which only manifest when it's almost too late. Astra Lost in Space really shines during these moments, as these 'creeping' dangers on the various planets are always well-hinted and foreshadowed before they are actually shown to the reader. On the second planet they encounter for example, the assumption that everything is the same as back home almost leads to fatal conclusions, but both the team, and the reader, could've foreseen the reveal, as it's properly hinted in the narrative from the moment they land on the planet. Whether it's the question of how Lt. Fukuie is going to uncover the ingenious murderer even though the reader already knows what the murderer did in detail, the discovery of a 50.000 year old corpse on the moon, or just the question of why someone decided to litter and not bring their food tray back inside the canteen: a mystery (in a mystery/detective story) can involve anything, as long it's presented as a genuine curious problem and the solution is based on properly presented clues and internally consistent logic.

By the way, I keep saying I'll write a review of Liar Game one day, which too is a fantastic mystery series that uses a completely original premise, revolving around a series of gamble games like Minority Rule (where you want to be voting for the minority) or the Contraband Game (where two teams have to smuggle money to from one room to another, and each team has to play border patrol) that appear to be games of pure chance, but which can be 'rigged' by both pure logic and psychological warfare. It's a great example of what the mystery genre can also offer. One day, I'll really write the review. But not this year.

Earlier this week, the first trailer for the 2020 Detective Conan film The Scarlet Bullet was released, and not surprisingly, it seems to continue the trend of the last few years to be somewhat action-focused. These films have always been more action-focused than the original comics for obvious reasons, but looking back, I have to admit there have also been some great action scenes in these films that are also properly build on a mystery story model. Usually, these scenes involve Conan having to escape some imminent danger, and he eventually manages so by cleverly using the tools available to him. So you have the mystery (how is he going to escape?) and the solution (earlier shots of what's available to Conan as hints, and there's of course internal logic). 2002's The Phantom of Baker Street has a grand climax scene for example where Conan has to survive a very imminent crash of the steam train he's riding into the station. Conan's given verbal and visual clues, and in the end, he comes up with a clever way to not get crushed into a pulp. I'll be the first to admit that the viewer is given very little time to consider the problem themselves, but it's without a doubt a fair puzzle plot. But let's take for example 2008's Iron Man, the movie that properly kicked off Marvel's Cinematic Universe. In the final act, Tony Stark is having quite some trouble fighting off Iron Monger in his own Iron Man suit, until a certain event that helps give Tony an edge over the larger/more powerful Iron Monger suit. This too follows the cycle of having a problem (how's Tony going to win?) presented, and proper build-up/hinting (that one thing happening to Tony earlier himself too) and internal logic. Now I'm not going to say Iron Man's a detective movie because of that one scene, but I do think a mystery story can be much more varied than a lot of people seem to think, because the core values of the genre can be applied in so many ways. While it does need proper set-up to be considered a mystery/detective story, I do think anything can be a mystery.

Anyway, I'd be interested to hear some thoughts about how others look at the concept of "mystery" in the genre and perhaps hear about some personal favorites of examples of not-so-likely mystery fiction.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Stand and Deliver

"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)

Huh, few game reviews this year. And you could even say I'm cheating now, as I played a version that bundled two games as one, but I still review them as two seperate releases.

Two years after the horrifying incident involving the serial killer Blindman from urban myths in the village of C in S Prefecture, police detective Houjou Saki is promoted and transferred to the police headquarters of G Prefecture in return for her silence on the case. She is teamed up with a new partner Sena, a former biker delinquent, self-proclaimed 'fastest guy in the world' and lover of urban legends. The new duo is put on a curious series of murders and assaults committed by a woman dressed in a trenchcoat: a kid was killed and dragged across the street, a couple was suddenly attacked by a woman hiding beneath a park bench, a high school student had her ear bitten off and another woman had her leg chopped off on the street. Sena believes there is a pattern: all these attacks remind of famous urban legends involving female assailants, like that of Hikiko (who dragged her victims across the road) and that of the murderer hiding beneath the bed. As they investigate the case further, Saki has to decide whether there's a scientific, rational explanation to these events or that she should accept that there are occult powers at play here in the game Shin Hayarigami 2 (2016), released on PS Vita, PS4 and Switch.

Some weeks ago, I reviewed the game Shin Hayarigami (as part of the Shin Hayarigami 1&2 Pack on the Nintendo Switch), noting it departed far from the formula of the original Hayarigami series to focus more on (gorey) horror, rather than striking a balance between scientific and occult mysteries like the first three games. I am happy to say that Shin Hayarigami 2 is muuuuch better in that regard as it goes back to the formula which made the original games so unique, providing an interesting horror mystery adventure game that delves deep in the theme of urban legends. The story is presented in omnibus (short story) format, with Saki and Sena working on a different case each episode, themed after different urban legends. The stories can be pretty gory: the second story for example starts with the discovery of the body of a middle-aged woman who has been halved. As in, she was cut in half across her length. Sena is a geek on urban legends, so each time, he'll basically lecture Saki/the player on all kinds of urban legends that have to do with the case at hand, and like with most urban legends, many of them will sound kinda familiar to you, almost as if you ever heard it from a friend of a friend of a friend...

As you investigate each case, you are presented with "Self-Question" segments, where you ponder on the direction of your investigation. Eventually, each episode will split in two distinctly different routes: the scientific route or the occult route. This was the defining system of the original games, as having two routes allowed the game to present both a "normal" mystery story, as well as a more supernatural horror story based on the same premise, but the truth was always somewhere in the middle: while both routes usually play out drastically differently, both sides usually answer questions not answered in the other route. In the first chapter for example, you eventually have to decide whether you believe the woman in the trenchcoat is a supernatural being or not. If you choose not, you'll go hunt for 'normal' clues like a motive and the missing link between all the victims, while in the occult route, you try to figure out how the woman in the trenchcoat came into existence. While both routes have very different conclusions to the same basic premise, both sides are worth playing through, as for example the motive becomes a bit clearer in the scientific route, while the occult route helps explain how the woman in the trenchcoat managed to be at the same place at the same time. Shin Hayarigami didn't feature this specific mechanic, but it's luckily revived for Shin Hayarigami 2, and it makes this game really a lot more enjoyable and unique, as you get to enjoy the same base story twice! The somewhat mediocre Liar's Art mechanic where you try get answers from someone by lying to them returns from the first Shin Hayarigami game, and it's still quite mediocre in this game.

Story-wise, the first half of Shin Hayarigami 2 is a lot stronger than the second half though. The first half is basically classic Hayarigami, with the focus on well-known urban myths like the slasher beneath the bed and the ghost of a deceased idol artist appearing during a live broadcast. The split between the scientific and occult routes is also done well, with both sides answering questions from their point of view (scientifically or with a supernatural explanation), but always including an element of the opposite side to help explain some parts (i.e. even the scientific route will feature some element of the occult, and vice-versa). The second half on however, the stories tend to lean a bit too much towards the, well, not supernatural perhaps, but the over-the-top unrealistic and sometimes outright weird aspecs of urban legends. I find Hayarigami at its best when it's slightly supernatural, when most of it can be explained except for that one thing, but the second half of Shin Hayarigami 2 goes much further than that. In a way though, the final two chapters feel even a bit more like the first Shin Hayarigami title, which could sometimes diverge veeeery far from the basic setting. I personally who'd have preferred if they had kept to the style of the first three chapters (and up to an agree, the extra bonus chapter).

Speaking of that, they kinda try to forget the first Shin game ever happened. The first chapter has Saki still dealing with the traumatic experience of the Blindman incident, but nothing specific is mentioned and basically all the characters/setting of the first game are ignored and forgotten in this second game. That said, I'd say Shin Hayarigami 2 is pretty good in terms of going back to the series' roots overall: it is muuuuuuch closer to the original series, with more room for lightheartier moments (the banter between Saki and Sena) and outright weird characters (Kisaragi, the head director of the Forensic Reserch Institute who also happens to be a shrine maiden) and a bit more indepth discussion about urban legends. And while Shin Hayarigami was devoid of any references to the original series, we actually have a few meaningful references to familiar names, like the name of a certain reporter on the occult in the magazine Mu and ooooh boy, I totally saw that other character coming as he spoke more and more, but that was a great way to reintroduce a familiar face.

Overall though, I had a great time with Shin Hayarigami 2. It's a good return to the series' roots in terms of atmosphere and gameplay. For lovers of urban myths, this series is still gold, as it's really fun investigating cases that may have to do with famous urban legends. It's obviously not fair play mystery as each story will involve some element of the occult and supernatural that comes out of nowhere, but I kinda like how this series plays with providing both a scientific and occult conclusion to each story, and especially the first half of Shin Hayarigami 2 does a good job at that. The ending seems to suggest Saki and her team will return in the future, though it's been nearly four years now since this game was originally released, so it is kinda overdue. Anyway, Shin Hayarigami has always been seen as the black sheep of the franchise (as it was more 'just' a horrorgame), which may have kept people away from this second game, but I think that fans of the original games will actually find quite a lot to like in Shin Hayarigami 2.

Original Japanese title(s): 『真流行り神2』

Friday, December 6, 2019

Bear Witness to Murder

Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Disclosure: I translated novels by both Arisugawa Alice (The Moai Island Puzzle) and Ayatsuji Yukito (The Decagon House Murders). And in case you're still looking for Christmas presents...

I don't plan to find me some Christmas mystery stories when the season approaches, but coincidences do happen, resulting in today's review. Anraku Isu Tantei ("The Armchair Detective") was a brilliant television drama series created by mystery writers Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice, produced irregularly between 1999-2017. Earlier, I have discussed the episodes ON AIR (2006) and ON STAGE (2017), with the latter later being confirmed by co-creator Ayatsuji as being the last episode of this series, at least in the usual format. If one considers the detective genre to be an intellectual game that challenges the reader (viewer) to solve the mystery themselves, than this show was the ultimate example of how to present a mystery drama as a game. Each story consists of two episodes: the first episode introduces the viewer to all the characters, the events leading up to the murder and the subsequent investigation. All the hints and clues necessary to solve the crime are shown in this first episode, while the solution is revealed in the second episode broadcast the following week. Sounds like common sense of course, but this point was of particular essence for this show, as viewers were encouraged to write in that week with the answers to the following two questions: 1) Who is the murderer? and more importantly: 2) What is the logical process by which you arrived at that conclusion? The winner, drawn from the people who submitted the correct answers, was presented with a sizeable money prize.  The show thus provided the ultimate challenge to the armchair detectives at home and one of the more impressive parts of the show was how it had to walk the line between being difficult enough that not everyone would arrive at the correct conclusion, along the correct route, but not being overly complex so nobody could guess who the murderer was in a logical manner.

Anraku Isu Tantei no Seiya ~ Kieta Teddy Bear no Nazo ~ ("The Holy Night of the Armchair Detective ~ The Mystery of the Vanished Teddy Bear~", 2000) was the third installment of this show, the first episode broadcast on December 21 and the solution episode following soon after on Christmas. We are introduced on Christmas Eve to Kumako, a young woman who recently found a new job, but her boyfriend sadly enough can't see her on Eve, so they plan a date for the twenty-sixth. The twenty-sixth is also the first day of Kumako working at NATO (Nihon Action Team Office), a small scale stunt action series production team, which recently got a small hit with the television tokusatsu series Athlete 4. It's also the last office day for the year, so everyone is present at the office. Kumako is introduced to all the staff and actors, but she soon learns her new workplace is also a den of intrige and hate, with love triangles, post-divorce fights and rumors of embezzlement flying around. In the evening, Kumako waits for her boyfriend in a restaurant, but she's stood up and she only comes home after a lot of drinking. At home, she finds an e-mail waiting for her by Norie, her new colleague who plays Athlete Purple in Athlete 4. To her surprise, Norie says she killed the boss of NATO at the office and that she'll commit suicide too. By the time Kumako had reported this to the police, it's already to late: NATO's owner Inoue was found with his head bashed in with his own golf club at the office, while Norie set fire to herself at her own home. The police however determine that Norie did not commit suicide, but that she was already dead by the time the fire was started. It thus appears someone else must've killed Inoue en Norie, and the main suspect is a suspicious figure spotted by the guards of the building that houses the NATO offices. The two men saw a figure dressed like Santa Claus carrying a large sack on his back leave the building that night, only moments after the Inoue murder must've happened. The Santa Claus costume was stolen from NATO's costume wardrobe, but there's another missing object: the rare, large teddy bear Inoue kept as a memento in his office. But why would the murderer steal a teddy bear or dress up like Santa Claus? Eventually, even Kumako is accused of the murder by the police, which is when she decides to use the magical flute she was gifted a few days ago, of which she was told it would save her from danger. The flute is of course the item that summons the titular Armchair Detective, a mysterious entity who is ratiocination personified and who can prove without any doubt who is in fact the true murderer.

The show was conceived as a puzzle plot mystery drama where the reader could participate, so to start off with some statistics: the television station received 36,731 (!) entries for this particular installment, the highest amount of participants in the history of the series. 21.5 percent of the respondents guessed the identity of the murderer correctly, but only forty respondants, or mere 0.1 percent, actually got the process right of correctly identifying the murderer/eliminating the other suspect. The numbers will thus tell you it was pretty hard to get all of the story right. I have seen most of the episodes of this series now, and I thought this was one of the easier episodes actually (it was), but getting full marks would've been difficult.

Because as always Ayatsuji and Arisugawa came up with a deliciously tricky story. The second episode starts off with every major character in the story being transported to the dimension of the Armchair Detective, who then goes through the long chains of deduction that lead to the identity of the murderer. The tone here is rather comedic, with each character trying to argue why they aren't the murderer. There are a few meta-rules here that help the viewer out: there is always only one culprit (no accomplices), everything shown on screen (including the time stamps) is correct and nobody besides the murderer lies intentionally. Still, you need to pay attention very well to keep up with the Armchair Detective while he eliminates the suspects one by one and crosses off false solutions. I mean, how many detective shows do you know that spend between thirty minutes and an hour purely to the explanation of a crime? In order to solve the crime yourself, you need to reference the time stamps of each scene and sometimes check the backgrounds very carefully for hidden clues. In some episodes, the zoom-and-enhance trope can be rather persnickety (and kinda unfair in pre-HD TV broadcasts), but it's done fairly err, fair here. As mentioned, this show has to be both difficult, and also fair enough for the viewer at home (anyone can come up with an unsolvable mystery), and I think this episode is definitely one of the better efforts. It helps this show isn't about locked room murders etc., as they are harder to present in a truly fair manner. You can show a thread and needle on the screen, but it's not really fair to expect from the viewer to imagine what could've done with that. This show is about eliminating suspects, so you have to determine what the murderer must have done or known, and then see which of the suspects does or does not fit that profile. You'll definitely have to rewatch scenes a few times to get it though, and unless you have photographic memory, it's impossible to solve this in one go. There are a few scenes in the first episode that do stand out as being obviously 'oh, this scene is used to prove that this character couldn't have done this or that' but this doesn't hurt the experience, because you still need the context of the murder to understand how this becomes revelant in the elimination process.

In this case, the mystery revolves around two questions: Why the Santa Claus dress-up, and why steal a gigantic teddy bear after committing a murder? At first, the problem seems so trivial and also meaningless, but when the whole solution is presented, you'll see how neatly everything fits, and how all the odd movements of the culprit actually made perfect sense considering the situation. The problem of the teddy bear in particular is great, with a convincing reason as for why it had been spirited away from the office, one that seems so obvious in hindsight. The misdirection is quite clever, and while I kinda knew which characters I could already eliminate based on some of the scenes, I still couldn't make out exactly how the teddy bear was involved, so I was pleasantly surprised when it was all explained to me.

Anraku Isu Tantei no Seiya ~ Kieta Teddy Bear no Nazo ~ is in general a strong installment in this series, and while I'll be the first to admit that this series can be very fussy about its visual clues, I'd say this was actually one of the entries that didn't expect everyone in 2000 to have HD recorders to be able to solve the mystery. Some of the scenes do telegraph themselves too obviously as being clues, but overall, the mystery of the disappearing teddy bear is an amusing one, resulting in a very well-constructed mystery drama show that also does its job well as a Christmas-themed mystery.

Original Japanese title(s): 『安楽椅子探偵の聖夜 〜消えたテディ・ベアの謎〜』

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Script for Danger


"You're with the police?"
"I thought you were selling insurances."
"People often do."
"The Forbidden Plot"

Even with series I like, I usually don't get farther than two books a year, so in that regard, I'd say that Mitsuda Shinzou's Toujou Genya series has been a real anomaly these two years. And that also holds for the series I'll be discussing today.

Because this is the third time I'll be reviewing Ookura Takahiro's Lieutenant Fukuie series here this year. Though I'm pretty sure this will be the last one this year: I read the paperback pocket version of this series, but the most recent two volumes are at the moment still only available in the larger format. In essence, this series has not changed a bit since the first volume. In this Columbo-inspired inverted mystery series, we follow both the criminals in each story, as well as Lieutenant Fukuie, a mysterious young-looking woman who is often mistaken for everything but a homicide detective. Her keen eye for detail, her extensive knowledge about the most obscure fields of interests and most of all, her almost frightening focus on the case at hand (she hardly sleeps) always allow her to pick up the little mistakes of even the most perfectly planned crime, and while some might try, nobody mangaes to escape the Lieutenant for long. Fukuie Keibuho no Houkoku ("The Report of Lieutenant Fukuie", 2013) also carries the alternate English title Enter Lieutenant Fukie With A Report and features three new stories of criminals who are unlucky enough to find her on their case.

Three? Okay, if I had to mention one thing that is different from the previous two volumes, it's that this volume features only three stories instead of four, as the middle story is about twice as long as the usual story length. Besides that, it's still the comedic inverted short story series it's always been. Like Columbo, Lieutentant Fukuie has a lot of comedic traits, mostly her forgetfulness in her own private matters, even though she's a mad computer when it comest to her cases. Scenes of Fukuie forgetting to switch on her phone or simply leaving the thing at home, or having to borrow money from her subordinate to pay her cab because she lost her wallet add some personality to a woman who'd otherwise be an almost perfect cop, being able to outwit both criminals and even the brass in her own organization in her pursuit of justice. Fukuie is even portrayed as an almost supernatural being similar to a fairy at times, as many of the witnesses she questions often end up in a better mood after she's finished her business with them. This series features a lot of witnesses by the way: each story has like five or six segments told from the POV of a witness who happens to be visited by Fukuie, so that goes on top of the segments that focus on the criminals themselves and the parts where Fukuie interacts with her fellow detectives.

In the first story Kindan no Plot ("The Forbidden Plot") we are introduced to Kawade Midori, a manga artist who feels herself forced to kill off Miura Mariko. Once they were best of friends and worked together as aspiring manga artists but eventually, only Midori was approached by a publisher to become a professional. Mariko on the other hand became an editor at a publisher and later the head of the sales department. Mariko however never forgave Midori for abandoning her and going pro solo, and in her new position of power, Mariko has slowly been killing off all the projects involving Midori. When Midori realizes that even her new serialization is in danger of being cancelled before it has even started, Midori decides to plea with Mariko, but when she's laughed away, she killed her old friend in a rage. She dresses the scene to make it seem like Mariko had slipped in the bathroom (Mariko had injured her leg earlier and was using a crutch). Things of course don't go as she had plotted when Lieutenant Fukuie appears, who manages to not only immediately prove it was not an accident due to the seemingly insignificant fact of an open bathroom door, but she also quickly finds Midori's trail, who is desperate to make her new series a grand success. On the whole a good, but perhaps not particularly outstanding story. In essence it's built around the same concept of most of the other stories, with Midori not aware of a certain fact as she committed the crime, which eventually ties her to the murder. As always, this is presented in a reasonably fair manner to the reader, so getting there is always satisfying. Like Columbo, Fukuie will also point out countless of other, minor contradictions that the reader is often also capable of guessing, and this keeps the story from start to finish interesting to read, but Kindan no Plot is not particularly better than the usual Fukuie story (or worse, for that matter).

Shoujo no Chinmoku ("The Girl's Silence") is by far the longest story in this series until now, being twice as long as the average length. One year ago, the Kuriyama Group (a yakuza organization) was disbanded, and the now deceased head asked his right hand Sugawara Tatsumi to take care of the 13 members, by helping them find a proper job and keeping them on the straight path. This was of course no a simple task, as few businesses are eager to hire former gang members and it's been a heavy year for Sugawara finding a place for his flock in society and making sure they wouldn't go back to the underworld again. Kuriyama Jirou, younger son of the former head, wants to bring the Kuriyama Group back again though, and kidnaps the daughter of his brother Kunitaka. Kunitaka had always lived a normal life removed from the gangster-business of his father, but now Jirou wants Kunitaka, as the proper heir to the Kuriyama Group, to gather up the members of their old group and attack their nemesis to start a new gang war. Desperate to stop Jirou from undoing everything the old head had wanted, Sugawara quickly takes steps to locate Jirou's hide-out in the mountains using Kanazawa, a former Kuriyama Group member who went to another yakuza group. Sugawara kills both Jirou and Kanazawa and makes it seem the two abducted the girl together and then killed each other in a fall-out. Eventually the local police find the girl alive and unharmed, standing in a pool of blood of the two dead men. It seems like an easy case at first, but Fukuie quickly deduces there might have been a third person present at the crime scene. Sugawara however is desperate not to get caught as long as the members of the former Kuriyama Group still need his help.

A very long story, which in fact doesn't do anything different from the other Fukuie stories in terms of plot, only being longer. It really does drag a bit due to its length, though I have to say that Sugawara is by far the most sympathic murderer we've seen in this series until now. We see a lot of him due to the length of the story, so it helps his story arc is actually engaging to follow, while we also see a bit of more Fukuie's scary side as she also tackles some corrupt cops in the anti-organized crime unit.

The last story, Megami no Hohoemi ("The Smile of The Goddess") features an unlikely duo of murderers: an elderly couple, of whom the wife is mostly confined to a wheelchair. The story starts with the duo making a bomb, which they plant on an unsuspecting man. The elderly man calmly waits to find the man with the bomb step inside a van with two other man, and then coolly detonates the thing, blowing a car up in broad daylight in the busy shopping streets of Ginza. It turns out the three men were actually bank robbers on the run, who were about to strike again. At first, the police suspects the three had a bomb ready to blow up the safe of their new target, as they had used a bomb the last time too, but small details like the fact the van was parked a block away from their target and a restaurant which had a fake reservation bring Fukuie to the old couple, who thoroughly enjoy Fukuie as a person, but whose sharp questions show she's right on their trail. The final fact Fukuie uncovers to prove the old couple did is really cleverly done and even after Fukuie revealed the fact initially I didn't quite comprehend what the implications were, leading to a delayed "Ooooh, of course!" sensation. The part where Fukuie explains how the couple horribly misunderstood part of the robbers' plan would've been better as a fair-play part in a visual format I think, as it's really cleverly done, but in novel form, it's just told to the reader, and there's no way they could've figured out that part themselves.

I don't sound particularly enthusiastic about Fukuie Keibuho no Houkoku perhaps, but it's really a well-done inverted short story collection. After reading three volumes in a (for me) relatively short period of time though, the stories do feel similar in terms of set-up, so by now, I might be missing a genuine feeling of surprise. All three volumes until now have maintained a very good level of quality in terms of readability and plotting, so any of these volumes is a safe read, guaranteed to satisfy a mystery reader. That said, I do think it's a good thing that I'll have to wait a while for the paperback pockets to be released before I'll see the Lieutenant again.

Original Japanese title(s): 大倉崇裕 『福家警部補の報告』: 「禁断の筋書(プロット)」/「少女の沈黙」/「女神の微笑」