Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Mystery of the Fire Dragon

Lady Partridge: But the 7:58 stopping train arrived at Swindon at 8:19 owing to annual point maintenance at Wisborough Junction. 
John: So how did you make the connection with the 8:13 which left six minutes earlier? 
Tony: Oh, er, simple! I caught the 7:16 Football Special arriving at Swindon at 8:09. 
Jasmina: But the 7:16 Football Special only stops at Swindon on alternate Saturdays. 

"Railway timetable sketch" (Monty Python)

Never been on a night express!

Disclosure: I translated Shimada's 1985 short story The Running Dead. Different series though!

Shimada Souji's Izumo Densetsu 7/8 no Satsujin ("The Izumo Legend 7/8 Murder", 1984) starts early on the morning of the twentieth of April at Ooshinotsu Station, where the conductor found a lost bag in the local train that had arrived from Yonago. As it appeared some kind of liquid was leaking through the package, the man opened the bag on the spot, only to find something wrapped in several plastic bags. When he finally unpacked the whole thing though, he was in for a surprise: inside he found the cut-off left arm of a woman! In the following hours, similar discoveries were made at local train stations in and around the region that was once the Izumo Province: some of the bags were found and opened inside a train like at Ooshinotsu, some parcels had already been brought to the Lost & Found at the respective stations. In the end, they retrieved seven body parts at seven different stations: two thighs, two legs, two arms and one torso, all seemingly belonging to the same woman. The missing head, and the fact her fingerprints were burned off with acid, make identifying the victim difficult though. Inspector Ishida is busy working the whole kooky things out when he's greeted by his old friend Inspector Yoshiki Takeshi of Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department. Yoshiki had a few days of holiday and had hoped to meet with his old friend, but those plans seem to be ruined due to the horrible murder in this region. As a fellow investigator, Yoshiki too becomes interested in the case and after studying the time table, he realizes that this might be the work of one single person: All the body parts were discovered on local train lines with stations on the route of the night express Izumo,, meaning that someone on the Izumo could've hidden the bags in the other trains as the Izumo stopped at each of those stations, and then the local trains would leave with the body parts. A few days later, the MPD receives an anonymous letter that indicates the victim might be Aoki Kyouko, a History scholar at Tokyo's K University who's been missing these last few days. Nomura Misao, a colleague at the faculty, had ample motive to want to kill Kyouko, as Misao lost battles with her for both academic prestige and romance these last few weeks. Thanks to the tip, it is confirmed that Kyouko was indeed seen riding the Izumo Express on the night of the nineteenth, but there's also a catch: main suspect Misao has an alibi for the night of the murder, as she was riding another night express, which left Tokyo Station fifteen minutes earlier than the Izumo Express the victim took.

Shimada Souji's best known series is about Mitarai Kiyoshi, the brilliant detective who had a weird career going from astrologist to private detective to neuro-scientist or something like that, but Shimada's second best known series is probably about the MPD Homicide detective Yoshiki Takeshi (which finally got a new volume last year I think, after a long hiatus). I myself hadn't read any of the Yoshiki stories before this one (which is the second in the series), but especially the first three novels are supposed to be Shimada's take on the "travel mystery", a subgenre usually associated with writers like Uchida Yasuo. The travel mystery is, obviously, often about travelling, especially by train. The genre has a distinct touristic angle, with the mystery set in popular tourist destinations/regions often outside the capital Tokyo and the stories also often include references to local habits, folklore and legends. The genre is often seen as a rather light subgenre within the broader mystery genre, often associated with two-hour television dramas that focus more on imagery and playing the tourist than providing a really interesting mystery plot, so it was kinda interesting to see what Shimada would do with this.

People familiar with Japanese mythology can probably make the connection themselves, especially considering the title references both Izumo and the number eight, but the legend of Yamata no Orochi plays a role in this story. Izumo has been always been 'the land of legends', with many myths of Japan originating, and taking place in Izumo. One of the most famous myths is about the mythological eight-headed dragon (snake) Yamata no Orochi. The celestial being Susaso'o no Mikoto was banned from heavens to Izumo, where he learned about the horrible monster Orochi, who each year demanded one of the daughters of two earthly deities. Susano'o prepared vats of liqour and had each of Orochi's heads drink until they became intoxicated and fell asleep: Susano'o then cut the dragon up in pieces, and from its eigh-forked tail he also retrieved the sword Kusanagi, which would become one of the regalia of the Japanese Imperial family. The legend of Orochi plays a two-folded role in Izumo Densetsu 7/8 no Satsujin: Misao and Kyouko's academic rivalry revolved around a theory Misao had about the roots and meaning of the Orochi legend, but of course, the fact the victim was cut up in eight pieces (of which the head's missing), and spread across stations in the Izumo region also invokes this myth, almost as if the murderer themselves considered them Susano'o cutting up an eight-headed dragon.

After the introduction and Yoshiki's first inferences on the case, we're pretty much just coping with one central problem for the rest of the novel. Yoshiki's pretty much convinced that Misao's the murderer the moment she appears on his radar (though I have to say, it feels really forced to have Yoshiki so convinced so early on considering she has a good alibi), so the problem is: how could she have killed Kyouko, who was seen on the Izumo Express, even though Misao was riding in a different night express that evening (in the same general direction, to the west, but via a different route) that had left Tokyo Station earlier than the Izumo? Much of the novel is Yoshiki weighing possibilities only to learn they're wrong, and it indeed seems like an impossible task. There is a possible male accomplice in the Izumo, but multiple witnesses state he had no luggage with him, which means he wouldn't have tools with him to cut Kyouko up in a relatively clean manner (without leaving blood in the compartment) and have bags available to put the body parts in. Misao on the other hand was travelling for a few days and had bags with her which might have held the necessary tools, but she was in another train. Even supposing Kyouko did get on Misao's train, how then would Misao get Kyouko's body back to the Izumo to get all the body parts in the local trains connected to the Izumo route?

Like any good alibi deconstruction story, Shimada does a good job at constantly dangling possibilities in front of you of how the impossible alibi could've been achieved, only to disprove them again and making the whole deal seem even more impossible. Each time Yoshiki thinks he's on the right trail, his experiments or some small comment earlier he had forgotten come back to dismiss his theories. I like the trick of how Kyouko's body parts were eventually disposed off, though I do have to say the book is a bit dragged out in the middle part. The novel is mostly focused on Yoshiki and his investigation, and the other characters barely have any screen time. This means you're often confronted with page after page of Yoshiki reading time schedules and train routes, which can be a bit boring as all you see are times and location names. I figured out a small part of the trick behind the body parts disposal, but I quite like the idea: it's daring, but juuuuust within the realms of what is practically possible. The one mistake that allowed Yoshiki to really seal the deal however, that is something I doubt anyone save for a really savvy train anorak would be able to figure out. The story is apparently based on the actual 1984 time schedule of the train by the way, similar to how the infamous "4 minutes" of Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen was also based on the actual time tables.

What is somewhat unsatsifying however is how many lucky breaks Yoshiki got over the course of his investigation. If not for the anonymous letter at the start of the story, the police might not have had any idea about who this victim was, and there were more coincidental incidents in his favor, like random witnesses who happened to pop up. Even the finale where the culprit is found with the decisive piece of evidence is completely dependent on the actions of a third party who took them on their own will, and not based on any actions or inferences by Yoshiki. You'd almost think this story would've been the same if Yoshiki hadn't been present at all.

Izumo Densetsu 7/8 no Satsujin was on the whole a fairly entertaining novel. The problem of how all the body parts found their way to a different local train is interesting and the imagery with the Yamata no Orochi legend is also okay, though it's also clear that Shimada wrote the novel focusing completely on the main trick and Yoshiki's investigation of the murder. In that regards the novel definitely invokes the utter dryness of a Crofts novel, which might deter some readers (and attract others). For one interested in Japanese trains though, this is probably heaven, as it's based on real time schedules and you can really see how the thing was done by following all the routes and trains.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司『出雲伝説7/8の殺人』

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Personal Call

Is this a series now? Last year, I wrote an article on the role and usage of clocks and timepieces in mystery fiction, which was basically a sequel to an earlier post on glasses. Mystery fiction is at the core a genre that thrives by reusing a lot of elements. Most of the reviews on this blog usually focus on plot-related tropes, like the types of locked room mysteries and their solutions, or how certain clues are developed to point to the identity of the murderer etc. However, the two posts I mentioned right now were focused on more tangible, concrete elements you often see in mystery fiction: objects and how they are used. To quote myself from the glasses posts:

Objects are often important to a mystery story. If a murder is committed, the culprit is likely to utilize an object, that is, a murder weapon, to accomplish their goal. A button left at the crime scene could prove as evidence to the identity of the murderer. Or perhaps the disappearance of an object that should be there will become the focus of an investigation, leading the question of why a certain object was so important it had to be removed. An object is thus usually a clue, something that links it to the solution of the mystery (which could be a murder, but it could be any enigmatic happening). An object might tell you who committed a certain crime, or how it was done, or perhaps why it was done. 

Funny thing is that today's post started with me thinking about something in mystery fiction that has no actual physical presence, namely the chat box or instant messenger. While most of us here probably use our smartphones daily not to call anymore, but to communicate through chat apps, it's weird we still don't see them featured in modern mystery fiction as "the normal": if they do appear in mystery fiction (which is already rare), it's often in the form of "the extraordinary" (where the Internet is considered to be something Special with a capital S), rather than an accepted part of our everyday life. Some may be of the opinion that the fast development of consumer technology has made it difficult for mystery writers to come up with a plot, but after giving it some thought, I find it actually surprising how similar "old" telephones and modern smartphones and instant messenger services are, if we look at their function as a trope in mystery fiction.

When you think of the telephone as seen in mystery fiction, you are likely not to first think of it as an actual physical object, even though it'll probably hurt if an old-fashioned dial phone is swung at your head, or you're strangled with the cord. You might think of the trope of the closed circle situation though, where the group is trapped inside a creepy old mansion or an isolated island together with an unknown killer, and when they try to call for help, it turns out the phone line has been cut (or nowadays: the mobile phones have no connection). Here the telephone is mostly a symbol for suspense, but in essence, this specific role is connected to the underlying function of the telephone in mystery fiction. That is, the telephone serves as a communication line to a third party/third location that is often perceived as direct and synchronous. Calling the police is of course the "normal" manner to use a phone: calling for help from a different place, with the communcation occuring directly and at synchronously. This is different from a letter conversation, which is asynchronous as there's a significant time lap between the utterances in the communcation that isn't considered part of the conversation anymore (receive letter -> send letter back). Instant messanger services are an interesting step between, as while the form may resemble a letter more, the messages are usually delivered err, instantly to the receiver. As everyone will know, chats can be more-or-less as quick as oral communication, so in that way, they're really not that different from telephones in terms of function (of course, one can also choose to let time lapse between messages on purpose). But obviously, the phone is often used in mystery fiction to, well, phone somebody and obtain information for example. Oh, and I'm suddenly reminded of the manga Remote by Amagi Seimaru: the detective in that series couldn't leave his home, and therefore had the young policewoman Ayaki assigned to him as his assistant-in-the-field/woman-of-action, and they mostly communicated with their cell phones, so a phone-fed armchair detective.

Communcation with a phone may be perceived as direct, but it isn't of course: you aren't physically in the same space as the receiver, and more importantly, you don't even observe the conversation partner(s) in full. For example, you don't actually see each other and even the one element that connects you (voices) are actually transported over a phone line (so through a medium), and this all leads to one of the most classic uses of the telephone in mystery fiction: the caller disguising themselves. Sometimes, the culprit phones someone masking their voice so they are simply not recognized (does the handkerchief over the mouthpiece thing really work?), sometimes the culprit pretends to be someone else over the phone. The latter trick can be a bit tricky to pull off convincingly, but the "I have a cold" excuse or the fake static trick is apparently sometimes enough to convince the person on the other side that the culprit is actually a different person. In a way, a phone is a tool that really reduces a person's identity to almost nothing, and the people on the phone often just have to believe the person on the other side of the line is actually the person they claim to be.

This is also related to the other major use of the phone in mystery fiction, namely as an object to establish character alibis. Because communication over the phone is considered to be instant, a phone call is often used to establish that a certain character was at a certain time at a certain place (the other side of the line). This was of course easier in the past, when there were fewer phones in general and you could only call and receive calls from specific places or phone booths, which usually would establish someone's alibi (unless some ingenious trick was used). When people started getting phones for their own homes, things became a bit more complicated and nowadays, everyone has their own smartphones and they can call from practically any place, but generally, it's still often used to find out where characters are and when. If Professor Plum was calling to his secretary from his own home, he couldn't have murdered Mrs. Peacock in the other side of town at the same time. Familiar tricks of course include the "providing the real culprit an alibi by pretending you're on the phone with them while they're actually off committing the murder," the "pre-recorded call that simulates a real-time conversation," the "the culprit uses a trick to make a phone call secretly to the place they're at, making others believe there believe the culprit is elsewhere" and the very, very basic "Say you're in New York when you're actually in Tokyo and oh, look, I'm right in front of the Empire State Building". With no visual contact and the phone effectively acting as an identity mask as mentioned above (as you can claim and pretend to be anyone, theoretically), alibis established by phones can be very tricky. Of course, even in modern times smartphones can still be used to establish alibis, even better so at times. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R's final story The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case had the police check out the GPS logs of the suspects to see whether they really moved around Tokyo as they claimed they had. This resulted in an interesting alibi story, while in other stories, alibis are established (or cracked) precisely because they are mobile: with the caller being spotted as they were calling and walking outside, or catching the type of background noises you wouldn't if it were just a house phone. The first story in the Gyakuten Saiban manga by the Kuroda/Maekawa duo for example was a good example of this.

But to get back to what got me started: chat boxes and instant messenger services. In essence, these "modern" (they're getting on in age actually...) technologies function exactly the same as the phone in mystery fiction. I doubt I have to explain the "mask" aspect of chat boxes and instant messenger services: pretending to be someone else has seldom been easier than just changing a display name. When you have a mystery story about a chat box, you can be sure you'll need to be very suspicious if everyone is who they claim they are behind their display name. Familiar tricks are people using other people's display names to assume their identity, or using multiple display names to pretend to be multiple people (faking conversations). This is the same with instant messenger services, where anyone can choose their own display name and claim to be someone. One of the more interesting Detective Conan stories of the last few years was The Kisaki Eri Kidnapping Case, where Ran's mother is kidnapped. She manages to escape from her kidnappers, though she's still stuck inside the building. She tries to ask to help via a chat app through a smartphone she stole from her kidnappers, but her kidnappers catch on, and use Eri's own phone to feed fake chat messages in the same chat room, making it difficult for Conan, Ran and Kogorou to figure out which messages are by the real Eri, and which aren't. The premise of this story is thus that you already know there's a fake using Eri's name in the chat room, while most of the older stories involving chat rooms try to use that as a surprise (or if they're written now, probably just very uninspired).

In its function as a tool to establish alibis, a chat box or instant messenger service too isn't too different from a phone call. In fact, the time stamps most instant messenger chat rooms have provide a more detailed and accessible form of Ye Olde Phone Record Received From the Phone Company only the police could get. Time stamps attached to every single utterance do change up the game, making it harder to fake than a fake phone conversation with an imaginary conversation partner. One of the more interesting short stories I read last year was therefore Yukashina Miho's Nimannin no Mokugekisha ("Twenty Thousand Witnesses", 2019), where a Youtuber had a perfect alibi not only because of his live videostream at the time of the murder, but also because he interacted with his followers in the chat box accompanying the livestream. Utano Shougo's Locked Room Murder Game series must be mentioned too: while the premise is slightly different because we're talking about video conference chatting here, the use here of the chat room is a great example of the familiar phone tropes. In this series, the masked members of an underground video chat room of locked room murder fanatics commit actual murders and challenge the other members to solve their crimes. Everyone is using fake names and uses actual masks to hide their identity in the chat room, but one of the more interesting moments in the second volume is when the member Mad Header reveals they have a perfect alibi for their murder a few days back, because they were video chatting with the other members in the chat room at the time of the murder (i.e. they were chatting in a previous story, which turns out to be their alibi in the next story). To go off an tangent, Twitter isn't a chat messenger service of course, but I loved how a Twitter timeline was used for a brilliant piece of misdirection in Hayasaka Yabusaka's Mailer Daemon no Senritsu ("The Terror of the Mailer Daemon", 2018) and in principle, the trick can also work in a normal chat room too.

Anyway, this post has gone on for far too long, and I don't even really have a point to make. I guess that I wanted to point out that "modern" technology is often really not that different from "old" technology when it comes to their uses in mystery fiction. Sure, they may make some older tricks harder to pull off, but they also provide a lot of possibilities for new ideas and tricks. If you look at phones in the past and now, they couldn't be any more different, but their core use in the genre is still very similar, so I always think it's a shame authors don't utilize modern consumer technology more, especially as the genre has always thrived by taking the familiar and transforming it slightly. A phone is a phone is a phone, even if it's smart now.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Yesterday Love

In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room.
"Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There"

It was only while I was reading up on the topic of today's review, that I realized I was going back in time with reviewing these Kanno games. Heck, I didn't even know that Tantei Shinshi DASH was one of his games...

Kanno Hiroyuki (1968-2011) was a game designer and scenario writer who's remembered for working on adult graphic adventure games, some of which have made major impact on the history of adventure videogames in Japan. When I say adult graphic adventures, I mean, 18+ with nudity and explicit sex scenes, so in essence story-driven porn. Kanno however was a profound fan of classic mystery fiction, and his major works are also interesting examples of mystery adventure games, often with a science-fiction angle, but with said porn iadded. Due to different regulations for the home console videogame market in Japan, the PC games Kanno designed/wrote were usually censored/altered to remove all the explicit content/rewritten whenever these games were ported to home consoles, and I have reviewed two of his games in the past. Kanno's best known game is perhaps YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World, which I haven't played through yet, but in the past I have reviewed the 'safe' console versions of Tantei Shinshi DASH! (2000) and EVE burst error R (modern remaster of a 1995 adventure): these were both games I did consider flawed in terms of design, but which also offered interesting concepts as mystery-themed adventures.

DESIRE remaster ver. is as the title suggests a remastered version of DESIRE - Haitoku no Rasen ("DESIRE - Spiral of Immorality"), a science-fiction mystery adult adventure game originally released in 1994 on PC-9801 systems, with the remastered version available on Windows, PlayStation Vita and Nintendo Switch. Desire is also the name of the mysterious laboratory on a small island in the South Seas, an institution financed completely (including the island) by the powerful Granchester Foundation. The island is sealed away from the rest of the world, with more than hundred researchers and maintenance staff living more-or-less permanently on the island. While Desire is supposed to be doing research that 'benefits the link between man and ecology', nobody seems to know exactly what is being researched here (not even the researchers and engineers), providing soil for rumors like Desire being a site for the development of military equipment. While Desire has always been shrouded in mystery, one day SNT reporter Albert learns he's been invited to do an interview with Dr. Stelladovic, the head of Desire. Albert's girlfriend Makoto happens to be the head engineer at Desire, whom he hasn't seen in months, so the invitation is accepted at once, but Albert remains cautious. For why call for a reporter now, after so much secrecy, and why him, a reporter of a small news agency? At arrival on the island, Albert finds the young girl Tina on the beach who suffers from amnesia, but that's not the only thing that's odd about the island, as he slowly learns that Desire is not at all what everyone, including the researchers working in the lab themselves, thinks it is.

DESIRE is also an absolutely horrible game to struggle through if you're only interested in the science-fiction mystery aspect of the story. With Tantei Shinshi DASH! and EVE burst error R, I knew that they were originally adult graphic adventures that were toned down later, and while it was never hard to guess what the awkwardly written kiss scenes in the censored versions actually were in the original, uncensored versions, at least the core design of these games and story were still focused on a mystery plot. In DESIRE, there is a core science-fiction mystery plot that taken on its own, does really make an impression and in hindsight is nicely foreshadowed (even if it's not a fair-play puzzle mystery exactly), but the plot is stretched out very thinly to hang horribly written and barely disguised adult scenes and/or innuendo-filled dialogues from, and it's basically impossible to sympathize with any of the characters (save for the young Tina) as everybody is just flirting with everyone and sleeping, errr, passionately kissing around in incredibly unbelievable 'plot' developments. Sure, this was originally an explicit adult graphic adventure, so I guess it's supposed to be like bad porn (and the console versions aren't even porn due to censorship), but there's actually a good idea in there underneath that all, a plot would've been so much more entertaining and enjoyable if not for these obnoxious characters and horribly written dialogue that make the game a true trial to get through. In comparison, the Kamiki Raichi novel series by Hayasaka do feature explicit sex scenes, but at least Hayasaka makes sure to actually implement those scenes for a reason, as they are always integral part of the core puzzle plot, for example because seeing a person naked herself allows Raichi her to rule that person out as as the murderer. That's not the case with DESIRE, where none of the implied sex scenes are even remotely necessary to the core story and only serve as distractions as the story seems to jerk around between extreme mood swings, with plot-important dialogues suddenly turning into passionate kissing scenes from one moment to the next.

EVE burst error (1995) introduced a Multi Sight System, where the player could jump on the fly between two narratives with two different protagonists and you could only solve the case by going through both stories. The older DESIRE uses a more primitive version of this concept: you start the game playing as Albert, learning about what happens at the island and inside the Desire lab. Curious events happen over the course of four days, some even deadly. Once you have finished his scenario, you can replay the game as his girlfriend Makoto. Her scenario shows things from a completely different perspective, so events that raised questions or seemed mysterious in Albert's scenario, are explained in Makoto's story. By completing Makoto's story, you unlocked a third scenario, which answers some remaining questions. In theory, this subsequent jumping from one perspective to another can be used to bring pretty interesting mystery stories, with multiple people seeing the same events from various perspectives, each point of view answering questions raised by other story routes. In practice, it feels just like padding to have more innuendo-filled conversations and build-up to the sex-scenes-censored-into-kiss scenes in this game. Albert's scenario is basically just him flirting with every girl he sees and of course every girl falling for him like that in the span of four days, while Makoto's scenario... it's really, really awful and almost torture to get through.

The thing is, I do think that in essence, DESIRE has a very emotional and touching science-fiction mystery plot. It might not be a fair play puzzle plot mystery, but dig between the awkwardly written scenes of both Albert and Makoto's scenarios, and you'll also come across little instances of competent foreshadowing and build-up to reveal a mystery plot, a concept that one is not likely to forget soon. As you go through the final scenario, you'll realize how a lot of the small comments in the dialogues or actions of certain characters suddenly make sense now and the story itself is truly heartbreaking. But it would've worked much better as a focused short story, rather than how it's done now. There are still unanswered questions/scenes that don't make much sense, so surely this story would've benefitted so much if it had been written as a proper, focused science-fiction mystery adventure game, rather than a science-fiction mystery adventure game that also needs to perform as porn.

In the end, I really can't recommend DESIRE remaster ver., even if it's a very early example of a science-fiction mystery adventure, providing a lineage from DESIRE/EVE to more current mystery games like the Zero Escape series. I do really like the core idea of DESIRE, but for me, it would've worked much better if it had not been conceived as an explicit adult graphic adventure game, and if basically all the characters were completely different for there's basically only one character who's likeable in the whole game now. When I played EVE burst error R, I was also slightly annoyed by awkward writing due to the adult parts, but at the very least, EVE burst error felt more balanced and the story was also better suited for a longer experience. That balance is missing in DESIRE, and you basically have a good, if short science-fiction mystery story that is trapped by awful characters.

Original Japanese title(s): 『DESIRE remaster ver.』

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Three Tools of Death

"Professor Peach, in the library with the lead piping?"
"Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp"

Obviously, Japanese comics are often featured here, but I have also reviewed Dutch and Italian comics here before. I do think however this is the first time I'm doing an American comic...

And most readers will probably have noticed I also like playing videogames, but it may surprise some I have no affinity whatsoever with board and card games. Yes, they're games too, but the experience is so completely different, and I simply never got into board games. I guess that gamebooks are the closest I ever got on this blog. I do know there are also interesting mystery-themed board games out there. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is probably one of the best known board game/gamebook hybrids. Funnily enough though I haven't played the original game, but I have played the videogame adaptation of it...

I'm going to take a wild guess and say that Cluedo, or Clue as it's known in the US, is probably the best known mystery board game in existence. Until only a few weeks ago, I never realized the title Cluedo is read "clue-dough" actually. I haven't seen television commercials for this board game in ages, but when I was a kid, they always pronounced it as "clue-ay-dough" in the commercials over here, so that's how I always called the game in my mind. Anyway, I've always known roughly how the game worked from seeing it in pop culture references, and phrases like Colonel Mustard In The Kitchen With The Wrench were familiar to me, but I never played the game myself or even seen in in real life. And nope, I haven't seen the 1985 Clue film. Anyway, I personally have no bond with the board game, so perhaps it might sound weird I decided to read and review a comic adaptation of the board game, which if you think about it, must be a very niche product.

Yet, the reason is very, very simple. For soon after Dash Shaw started his three issue comic Clue: Candlestick in 2019, I saw a lot of positive reviews popping up, praising it as a captivating mystery comic, one that did justice to the whodunit aspect of the game. So when the trade paperback was released late January 2020 (collecting all three issues), I didn't hesitate to pick it up, even if I didn't really know the original board game that well myself. But even to newcomers to Cluedo, the set-up must sound very familiar as a detective story: the story starts with Professor Plum receiving a letter from his friend Mr. Boddy, who says that of late, he's been receiving death threats. Boddy thinks it may be wise to prepare for the worst case, and make sure the key pieces in his unique crime collection, which includes the knife of Jack the Ripper, the revolver that assassinated President Garfield and more, go to people who can appreciate it. Boddy and his housekeeper Mrs. White receive Professor Plum, femme fatale Ms. Scarlet, auction master Mrs. Peacock, war veteran Colonel Mustard and the shady businessman Mr. Green in Boddy's grand manor, but Colonel Mustard is shot during dinner. As it's not clear whether Mustard was shot by someone at the table or a third party from outside the dining room, they decide to split up and search the manor, but the killer is not done yet. Can the survivors figure out whodunit before it's too late?

Even to someone who has no history whatsoever with the original board game, Clue: Candlestick is an interesting. The art is unique (note the board game space motif!), often tense, but at times deformed to 1930s newspaper comic style on purpose, which goes really well with the black comedy found within the pages. While the characters in the original board game are of course little more than caricatures with some minor profile details, the suspects are fleshed out into far more interesting characters in this comic (issue 2 for example is mostly about the backstory of Ms. Scarlet), providing the characters with motivation and agency. I guess fleshing things out was a theme for Shaw, as even the six weapons used in the board game are given backstories, reimagining them as actual murder weapons which have been used in the past and found their way into Mr. Boddy's collection of crime. It's Shaw's own unique interpretation of the Cluedo world, but that is what makes this comic accessible, as it does not rely on decade-old lore.

Given the source material, it's only natural that Shaw decided to set Clue: Candlestick up as an interactive experience, a murder mystery where the reader is invited to think along, and while I do think the concept is really fun, the execution is also slightly flawed. I guess the thing that comes closest to the concept of Clue: Candlestick is the Professor Layton videogame series, in the sense that the narrative is sometimes 'interrupted' by puzzles that at times do feel disjointed from the actual story. For example, Clue: Candlestick opens with a scene where Professor Plum hears a sound coming through the window. As Plum narrates "Lying in bed, awake, I imagine the path the wind takes through my bedroom" we see how the wind apparently goes through a maze before it reaches Plum. Not only is this a maze puzzle, but it does work really well in showing off how Plum's mind works. At other times though, the puzzles feel a bit unnatural, for example when you're suddenly asked to recall some details from the previous page without turning back.

Ultimately, the mystery of whodunit is also treated as an interactive experience, but it doesn't really work well. At the end of Issue 2, the reader is challenged by the message "You can solve the mystery before the third issue if you do all of the puzzles in issues one and two, and if you have a "Clue" game board for reference... Good luck!". Technically, this is true, but as a mystery story, it's not really satisfying. The most important hint to allow you to pinpoint the murderer is hidden within a puzzle is completely disjointed from the narrative, while you also actually need the Cluedo game board for reference if you want to solve it in issue 2. Which obviously, is not included with this comic. Hiding an essential clue in a puzzle that has nothing to do with the story, and also requiring information from outside the story, is not really fair. What's absolutely odd however is that Clue: Candlestick could've been made a much fairer experience: some scenes seen in issue 3 do make this a fair mystery puzzle, but as you only get to see them in the last issue, you can't use that information in issue 2. Had those scenes been moved to the second issue, Clue: Candlestick would've worked so much better. Also, I think it's really a shame how that vital clue was only hidden inside the puzzle. At the start of the story, there's a puzzle that shows how everyone searched the manor (the order in which they visited the rooms). But even if you didn't solve the puzzle based then, you could also figure the order out by paying attention to the artwork, as Shaw also shows in the backgrounds how the characters moved around. So you could either try the puzzle out, or work the thing out through the story. This isn't the case with the vital clue, which can only be obtained through the puzzle which is completely disjointed from the rest, so that feels very cheap. The whodunit aspect is by the way not extraordinary surprising (in fact it's quite simple), but the concept as an interactive experience is interesting. I guess that players of Clue will have an edge here, something that could've been prevented with some simple scene shuffling.

As a standalone mystery comic, Clue: Candlestick is perhaps not completely fair, which is a shame as relatively simple changes would've done wonders for it, by either pushing the Challenge to the Reader back or pulling some scenes to the front. And certainly don't expect Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo-esque plots with some ingenious murder method or something like that. Ultimately, Clue: Candlestick is still an adaptation of the original board game, and I think that it does work mostly: the emphasis on character movement, fleshing out the character/weapon lore, the interactive aspect of the comic makes it feel like a comic board game and taken simply as a comic book story, the tale it tells is quite amusing. I definitely enjoyed reading it, even if it could've been even more fun with some minor changes.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Secret Garden

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

2018's Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar was a seminal study that explored how mystery manga developed in Japan by focusing on publishing history. It traces a chronological line starting from the fifties until the present based on over 800 mystery-related titles. While the major watershed moment for the genre was clearly the trio of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou in the early-to-mid nineties, the period discussed in the book that interested me most was the period right before that. The seventies provided a space for mangaka to experiment with the format and especially the female writers were very important in this period of exploration, as they did daring and incredible things that really pushed the format. This was the formative period for original mystery manga (not adaptations) and this work was mostly done by women, and this would carry on in the eighties. I have been exploring this formative period the last year with for example Takashina Ryouko's Murder series, the mystery tales of Maya Mineo's Patalliro! and Yamada Mineko's Alice series. But there was of course on one major title I still hadn't tried out, until now.

For how could one ignore Noma Miyuki's Puzzle Game ☆ High School? This series started a decade before Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Detective Conan, but in terms of runtime, it's been similarly succesful like those two giants: the original Puzzle Game ☆ High School ran from 1983-2001, which is really long by any standard. But like Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, it's been followed up by several sequel series, so it's actually running even now, more then 35 years after it originally started! As the title suggests, the original series starts at Hazuru High School, a school with numerous school clubs and circles. These clubs and circles have a extremely high degree of autonomy and are exclusively governed by the student council, and not even the school administration can interfere with these afterschool activities. The beautiful Kazuki and handsome Daichi are two childhood sweethearts who start their own new club: the new Mystery Club is further joined by Mimei, who knows about everyone and everything that's going at the school, and the shy first-year student Takuma, who also dabbles in stage magic. The Mystery Club's goal is to solve mysteries themselves, and there's more enough of mysteries and problems to be solved at Hazuru: from rumors of the all powerful student council president blackmailing clubs to let him sleep with the most attractive club members, to kidnapping attempts on a school idol, a vandal who threw a can of red paint in the school pool and the impossible theft of the student council seal, the members Hazuru's Mystery Club have more than enough to do.

Except they don't ever actually study at this school. I mean, I have read two volumes now, but I have not seen one scene where these students actually, err, do school stuff. They're like the whole day busy with their afterschool activities...

The setting of Hazuru High School is utterly nuts though. I mean, the idea of a student council having infinite power is something I can shrug at, but man, the things that happen at this school are far from normal for an institute for education. I mean, in their second case, the Mystery Club is investigating an underground escort club run by students at this school, one of Club's allies turns out to be a professional nude model who's also dating a former teacher of this school (and he was her teacher when they first met), there are more stories about students who had romantic relations with teaching staff, one story's even about a student who gave birth to a baby, some of the clubs are basically organized crime, the council president is a corrupt womanizer who abuses his power: what kind of crazy high school is this! I mean, sure, this school definitely allows the Hazuru Mystery Club to handle a lot of weird cases not even Conan or Hajime ever encounter at their schools, but what parents would ever allow their children to go to Hazuru? Even Hajime's Fudou High (where there's a high percentage that a student will either be killed or turn out to be a ruthless murderer themselves) is a better educational institution than Hazuru.

Anyway, as a mystery manga, Puzzle Game ☆ High School started out a bit uneven for my standards, but by the second volume it really started hitting a stride, and it does make interested in reading more of this series. Like I mentioned, the Mystery Club is called to investigate (or decides to stick their noses on their own behalf) in a diverse selection of cases and that also results in stories that don't always follow a formula. Whereas Conan and Hajime are most of the time solving murder mystery cases and the focus therefore lies on the whodunnit and howdunnit, this isn't the case here. The story about the escort club is more about how the Mystery Club is going to survive this investigation due to the powerful forces behind the escort club and turns into a battle of wits, while the story about the baby is more a sweet, but straightforward story where the club members uses their expertise to follow up on each clue to find the parent of the baby. Not every story is as strong as the other in terms of mystery or how the puzzle plot is constructed, but there are some stories that are surprisingly fun.

The first story that makes an impression is Nishibi no Naka no Alibi ("The Alibi of the Setting Sun"), where Takuma is accused of completely trashing a locked classroom, of which he alone had the key as he was the last one to leave the room. While he denies the act, the fact he has the key and there's a witness who says he saw Takuma trashing the room puts Takuma on the spot. The locked room element of the story is kinda glanced over and the title gives away too much, but this is the first story in the series to actually be a well-clewed mystery, even if it's too simple. But then you have a story like Akai Pool no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Red Pool"), which is truly a great school mystery. One morning, the school's swimming club find that someone had thrown red paint in the swimming pool, ruining the water. The Mystery Club tries to figure out why anyone would want to commit such a meaningless act. The motive for this 'crime' is both original and fitting the setting and the way the story builds towards the reveal is great. Definitely the best mystery story of the first two volumes.

Kin no Monshou Jiken ("The Case of the Golden Seal") involves a minor impossible theft: two persons who had their plans ruined by the Mystery Club in the past conspire together to destroy the club's reputation. They arrange so the Mystery Club's responsible for protecting the golden seal of the Student Council, one of the symbols of the council. It's to be shown to the students at a certain occassion, but our conspirators has sent a warning letter to the council president saying they will steal the seal, daring the Mystery Club to try to stop them. Hazuki is guarding the seal herself as they transport the seal from the office to the gymnasium, but despite that, the conspirators manage to swap the seal with a fake one. The mystery of how this was done is solved pretty easily, but seeing how the Mystery Club manages to regain their reputation is fun.  The second volume also contains Houseki Goutou ("Jewel Theft"), the first chapter of the mini-series Puzzle Game☆Jr., which is about Hazuki and Daichi's time as middle school students. Daichi used to be childhood friends with Hazuki, but his family moved away, until they recently moved back in town and happened to become neighbors with Hazuki once again. The previous inhabitant of the house was a young student who became close with Hazuki, but unknown to her he was also involved with a jewelry theft. Their accomplice hid the jewel somewhere in the house, but a fallout means they can't find the jewel anymore. As a Poe-esque mystery story about finding a hidden object it's pretty decent and interestingly clewed.

Seen from a historical perspective, these stories are exactly like the puzzle plot mystery manga like we know from Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen, and that coupled with the series set-up with cast of recurring characters and an internal chronology, this is definitely the series that directly precedes the triumvirate of Detective Conan, Kindaichi Shounen and Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou. To be honest, I am kinda surprised that Puzzle Game ☆ High School didn't manage to make bigger waves. Perhaps it was just too soon for its time, because in terms of concept, it's really no different from the major mystery series of the nineties with an emphasis on short puzzle plot mysteries.

These were just what I thought were the highlights of the first two Puzzle Game ☆ High School volumes and as I said already, I do plan to read more of the series eventually, though it's likely I'll just buy a few volumes once in a while, so don't expect frequent reviews. The quality of the mystery plots can be pretty uneven, differing widely depending on the story and the overall background setting of this school is crazy as hell, but when a story manages to hit the right notes, it's capable of providing more than entertaining mystery stories due to its unique setting, so I hope to come across more of these highlights.

Original Japanese title(s): 野間美由紀『パズルゲーム☆はいすくーる』第1-2巻

Friday, February 7, 2020

Time After Time

Time after time 
「Time after time~花舞う街で」(倉木麻衣)

Time after time
The miracle of meeting you
In the city where the gentle wind blows
"Time after Time ~ In The City Of The Dancing Flowers) (Kuraki Mai)

One of the first reviews of last year, and one of my best reads overall of 2019, was Ooyama Seiichirou's Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service", 2018), a wonderful short story collection revolving completely around the problem of the perfect alibi. The stories introduced us to Mitani Tokino of Mitani Clockmakers, a young woman in her twenties who inherited the shop from her grandfather, who also taught her the art of cracking alibis. For a good clockmaker should offer all services related to time and clocks. When the narrator, a rookie police detective, first noticed the sign saying they also offer the service of alibi cracking, he didn't think much of it, but when Tokino easily solved a case where the main suspect had a perfect alibi, he became convinced of her talent and since, he's been occasionally visiting Mitani Clockmakers whenever the police is struggling with a tough case. The stories were a delight to read: while all revolving around the theme of the branch of the impossible crime involving a perfect alibi, there was actually quite some variety (an alibi that depended on the download of a song that was only available for a limited period for example, or a murderer confessing to a murder in his dying moments even though he had a perfect alibi) and the plotting of Ooyama was excellent, with story structures reminiscent of the Queen school.

The first collection was released in September 2018, but it was received quite well, and to my surprise, it was promptly picked up for a live-action television series adaptation. The drama Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu started last weekend, so things went really fast. The show does feature a larger cast than the original stories, and the personalities/background setting of the characters are also changed slightly (Tokino being more bubbly, the narrator now being given the name of Saji and not being a rookie detective), but the core mystery plots seem to be adapted quite faithfully. The stories do really lend themselves wel for fairly straight adaptations, as they are not too long, and the visual aspect of the medium also helps visualize/convey the notion of time quite well (with graphs/diagrams explaining why an alibi appears to be perfect). And oh, man, the main theme of the soundtrack is excellent. Anyway, it seems Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu will become a good and entertaining adaptation of the source material.

Meanwhile though, I thought it might be fun to take a sneak peak at the "second season" of the original stories. Ooyama started working on new set of alibi cracking stories last year, and at the moment, two of them have been published. The first book featured six stories + one story especially written for the collected volume, so I assume the second volume will be of similar length, but as I couldn't wait anymore, I tried the two new stories out already.

Tokeiya Tantei to Shizumeru Kuruma no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Sinking Car") starts in the familiar manner, with the narrator visiting Mitani Clockmakers for help. One morning, a car with the driver inside was found submerged in the dam lake far away from the city. The victim was Fujimura Kouzou, a wealthy, elderly man who liked to fish. At first the police thought he might've just lost control of his car and gotten off the road into the lake where he drowned, but medical examination proved he had been drugged, so the police suspects someone may have lured Kouzou to the lake with the excuse of going fishing together and that the culprit drugged the victim and pushed his car in the lake, after which they made their escape. The main suspect is Kouzou's nephew and only relative Hiroki, but of course, the man has an alibi for the time of the murder: he had a gathering at a friend's house, and all the friends there swear the longest time he was gone was to go to the bathroom, hardly enough to ride up and down the lake to kill his uncle. Personally, I thought the exact method in which the culprit managed to fake his alibi was a bit simple, as the trick is a relatively often-seen one in these kinds of stories, but I did like the chain of clues that first led Tokino on the trail, as she notices a few things about the crime scene that allows her to ask the right questions. So I guess I like the plotting of the clues/the line of reasoning that guides you to the solution better than the solution itself. Sounds negative perhaps, but I actually think that good clewing is perhaps harder than thinking of a good solution/trick in mystery fiction, so I wasn't in any way disappointed in this story.

Tokeiya Tantei to Oosugiru Shounin no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi with Too Many Witnesses") starts with a somewhat nervous narrator visiting Mitani Clockmakers and for a good reason: the death count in this case is already at two, as the murderer in this case is apparently also willing to kill witnesses, and the narrator fears what might happen to Tokino if the murderer would find out about her. The case started with a riverside discovery of the burnt body of Nagoshi, the secretary of Tomura Seiichi, member of the House of Representatives. Nagoshi's body was in a horrible state, but his personal belongings and subsequent DNA examination helped identify his body positively. The night before the murder, Nagoshi had been present at Tomura's fundraiser party in a hotel, but he had been called away by a, what turned out to be a fake, emergency phone call about his father being carried to the hospital. Due the state of Nagoshi's body, the time of death had to be estimated based on the contents of his stomach, as he had eaten the exclusive risotto served at the party and it was determined he was killed not too long after that. When Nagoshi's father reveals to the police that his son may have been blackmailing his boss with some dirty secret to become his political successor, the investigation naturally starts to focus on Tomura as a suspect, but he has a perfect alibi: he was present at his own fundraiser party, with about five hundred guests witness to that, and he was of course also there long after Nagoshi had left the party (which was also seen by witnesses and captured on hotel cameras). A few days later, a man tied to his bed is found dead in his own apartment, and it is discovered that this man was one of the people at the fundraiser party, raising suspicions this man may have seen something which led to his murder, but how could Tomura have snuck away from his own fundraiser party to kill and burn Nagoshi without anyone noticing save for the dead witness?

The story interestingly reminds me of a certain well-known Agatha Christie novel with Poirot: it hits a few familiar notes in terms of why the witness had to die and in very abstract terms, how the perfect alibi was created, but the execution is completely different and it's in no way a redressed version: Tokeiya Tantei to Oosugiru Shounin no Alibi is in fact a pretty good alibi-cracking story as it's pretty comprehensive: there are a lot of little mysteries like why did the murderer set fire to Nagoshi's body and why was the other victim tied to his bed, and there's even the talk about risotto and other elements: at first, the story may seem a bit disorienting, with too much going on, but once the truth is revealed, it turns out all these 'clashing' elements all work really well together. I do find the actions of one certain character a bit hard to swallow (like, you had no suspicions whatsoever?), but this way the perfect alibi was created does do justice to the evenly alluring premise of an alibi vouched for by five hundred guests.

At the moment, I don't know whether I'll be reviewing more single stories from the second season, or whether I'll just wait until the whole volume is released, as I suspect the standalone volume will feature an originally written story exlusive to the volume anyway. But the two stories discussed today definitely make me want to read more about the brilliant deductions of Tokino. Considering the usual length of a television drama series, I wouldn't be surprised if some episodes of the adaptation will be based on stories of the second season, so I'll be keeping an eye out to see if there's an episode based on source material I haven't read yet. But it's clear I will pay more visits to Mitani Clockmakers sooner or later.

Original Japanese title(s):  大山誠一郎 「時計屋探偵と沈める車のアリバイ」/「時計屋探偵と多すぎる証人のアリバイ」

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Clue of the Velvet Mask

"We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin"
André Berthiaume 

Funny thing though, these stories are not nearly as creepy as the cover might suggest.

Renjou Nachi is a very unorthodox scholar of folklore, often seen as the bane of the students who need to pass her course to be able to graduate, due to her incredibly vague essay questions. Renjou is of the opinion that any good folklorist needs to possess limitless imagination, though always grounded in actual facts, if their anthropological field of research is to progress and deepen. Her assistant, Naitou Mikuni, is quite aware of, and in awe of her brilliant mind and imagination, though he also wishes she was less impulsive and not always spending their lab's whole year's fieldwork budget within a month. Folklore's fundaments lie in fieldwork, according to Renjou, so the two travel all across Japan to do research, and of course, as this is a detective story, Renjou has a knack for getting involved with criminal cases (of course murder) whenever she's out somewhere doing research. These murders often involve people connected to her latest topic of research, and not seldom, it's Renjou's new hypothesis about her research topic that also allows her to solve the murder in Kitamori Kou's short story collection Kyoushoumen - Renjou Nachi Fieldwork I ("The Mask With The Accursed Smile - The Fieldwork of Renjou Nachi I", 2000).

Another mystery series about folklore, I hear you say. The last two years, I read a lot of Mitsuda Shinzou's horror-mystery Toujou Genya series, about a writer of horror stories with an interest in folklore, who always gets involved with impossible murders related to esotoric religious ceremonies. Kitamori's Renjou Nachi Fieldwork series sounds somewhat similar at first, though the execution is completely different: both series are ultimately based on real, folkloristic and anthropological research, but Toujou Genya uses that to set-up unique religious ceremonies and local deities, with fully fleshed-out, but fictional histories. Renjou Nachi Fieldwork in comparison is built much more tightly upon real world research, and most of what you read and hear here, is actually applicable to the real world. In that sense it's very similar to the Professor Munakata manga series, though the latter isn't a murder mystery (not always/most of the time, at least). Mitsuda's Toujou Genya also has a distinct horror tone with some hints of the supernatural, while the Renjou Nachi Fieldwork is far livelier, with a lot of comedy. I haven't read much of Kitamori, but the two series I have read (the Minor Kyoto Mysteries series and the Tekki & Kyuuta series) also involve folklore, though of specific locations (the cities of Kyoto and Fukuoka). Renjou Nachi Fieldwork in contrast is about historical research into folklore.

The first story, Kifuu'e ("The Gathering To Seal The Oni"), start with Renjou getting a message from one of her students. Tsutsuki has made a video of a rare New Year's ritual of the Aotsuki clan of the Okayama Prefecture. While similar to ceremonies like the Shuni'e, there's a decisive difference with the better known variations of the ceremony, as in this case, the figure wearing an Oni mask is actually robbed of its mask, indicating a decapitation. Renjou is of course interested in this new variation and travels to Okayama to learn more about it, but then learns her student Tsutsuki was killed, and by none other than Aotsuki Emiko, daughter of the family. It appears Tsutsuki had been stalking her for some years now, and that she stabbed him this time when he visited her again. Most of the plot revolves around the true meaning of the Ceremony to Seal the Oni, which in turn shines a new light on Tsutsuki's death. While the truth behind Tutsutsuki's death isn't particularly shocking, it links up well with the historical interpretation of the Ceremony to Seal the Oni. It's kinda hard to guess the truth behind the ceremony, even with the hinting going on, but it's actually quite convincing as a historical hypothesis and on the whole, this is a pretty entertaining story.

The titular Kyoushoumen ("The Mask With The Accursed Smile") was found in an old storage of the Taniyama family. The wooden mask was apparently acquired in the Meiji period, but many in the village died after it was bought, after which it was sealed away in the storage. Back in the present, the last heir of the family, Reiko, has hired the ruthless antiques dealer Akutsu to appraise and sell the contents of the family storage, and Akutsu in turn send a mail to Renjou about the Mask with the Accursed Smile, saying he'd like her to examine it. Renjou accepts, even if she knows Akutsu is up to no good, but the day after her arrival, Akutsu is found murdered inside the locked storage. Reiko immediately becomes the main suspect as she has the only key, but Reiko not only proves her innocence, but even finds out who really did Akutsu, and more importantly, why. A somewhat chaotic story. I love the immediate motive for the murder, but the set-up for that is a bit sloppy, with vague hypotheses about the meaning of the mask being talked about as fact. I do like what the real purpose of the mask actually is, and how it was hinted at, but the step from there to the motive is too large, even if the motive itself is good. The locked room aspect of the story is basically waved away early on, so don't expect too much of that.

The locked room in Kaerazu no Ya ("The Room of No Return") is far more interesting in comparison. Renjou is asked to investigate an annex room in the paternal home of Moriya Kikue, a well-known feminist and scholar. Kikue believes the room to be a "Woman's Room", where women who had their period were locked up because it was believed that it was impure, and she wants Renjou to prove it. The next morning however, Kikue herself is found dead in the annex room, with the only footprints in the snow in the pathway from the main house being those of the servant who discovered her body. This is the best story of this collection, as the connection between the topic of research (the room) is connected directly to the murder mystery: solving one problem means solving the other, while in the other stories, solving one problem usually only means having set one (big) step towards the solution of the other problem. The real purpose of the room is horrifying, and the hints pointing towards the truth actually presented quite openly, though it takes a lot of imagination and courage to be able to arrive at the true identity of the room. Once you know how the room works though, it's a small step towards who killed Kikue and how.

In Soushishin ("The Deity of Double Death"), Renjou's assistant is approached by a local amateur folklorist, who thinks he has found a brand new interpretation of the legend of the Daidarabotchi (a kind of giant believed to have lived in Japan). He hopes he can do a joint research with Naitou and have it published. Naitou travels, without Renjou's knowledge, to the amateur researcher, who says he has discovered an ancient iron furnace site in the mountains. The first visit is just a preliminary one, but Naitou's friend doesn't show up the other day, and figuring the man may have gone into the mountains alone, Naitou decides to go out himself, where he finds that the man was crushed by a landslide which also destroyed the furnace cave. The mystery then revolves around whether the accident was really an accident, and what the victim's hypothesis on the Daidarabotchi really was. This is the least interesting story: there's some interesting historical sleuthing going on based on the meaning behind actual historical writings regarding the introduction of weapons in Japan, but the modern mystery is really a let down, basically a 'it was all a conspiracy!' solution.

Renjou is sent two research essays by two different people, but both from the same place and both regarding Kakure Kirishitan ('underground Christians') in Jashuubutsu ("The Heretic Buddha"). Both essays use a Buddhist statue which was recently discovered in a small vilage as the focus of their research. One of the essays includes a picture of the statue, which seems to be a Buddha statue whose arms were cut off. Interested in the statue, Renjou and Naitou travel to the village, only to learn that the author of one of the essays was murdered, and what's more, his body was left in a manner that resembles the statue! An okay story, but ultimately, the historical meaning about the statue, and the mystery of the murder don't really connect: the statue is involved with the murder as an object, but the historical backstory is not directly related to the murder. Like I said with the earlier story Kaerazu no Ya, I think this series is at its best when the two do link up in a meaningful manner, so I was a bit disappointed with this. The hinting for the murder is done quite well, but because the historical and murder mystery kinda run parallel, without crossing in a significant manner, the story can feel a bit cramped.

But did I like Kyoushoumen - Renjou Nachi Fieldwork I in the end? Sure! Kitamori has done a lot of research for these stories, and the folklore discussed here is truly captivating, with exciting interpretations of historical events and traditions offered. Readers of Professor Munakata should definitely read this. As a murder mystery, I do find it a shame not all stories manage to propose a truly meaningful link between the modern day murder, and the historical mystery plot, but on the whole, this first short story collection definitely has me longing for more. I do have to say the series is perhaps best read by minor (Japanese) history buffs: obviously, the stories do help you ease into each specific topic, but you do need some prior knowledge about Japanese pre-modern history and culture if you want to be able to put everything into perspective. With zero historical and cultural knowledge of pre-modern Japan, I think it may be hard to really get into each story.

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻  『凶笑面 蓮丈那智フィールドファイルI』:「鬼封会」/「凶笑面」/「不帰屋」/「双死神」/「邪宗仏」

Saturday, February 1, 2020



"I am going to lie now
My one and only lie I will tell you"
"My lie to you" (Valshe)

About a month ago, I repeated the intention to write something about Liar Game, something I'd said for years. I was not lying.

Liar Game is a manga series by Kaitani Shinobu, which was serialized between 2005-2015 and which also acted as the original source material for a Japanese live action franchise spanning two television series and two theatrical films, as well as a Korean live-action series. I name-drop the series occasionally here, and the last time I did that, it was in my post on what I think a "mystery" can be in mystery fiction. For in my opinion, Liar Game is a prime example of how a mystery plot does not need to be about crime, locked room murders, ingenious alibi tricks or anything remotely close to what most people would usually associate with the mystery genre. It shows exactly how immensely diverse a mystery plot can be, and how the usual dynamics associated with a mystery or detective show can change completely by broadening one's views of what a mystery plot entails, without letting go of core concepts like clewing, fair play and a logical build-up and pay-off.

The series is about the Liar Game Tournament, an underground tournament that revolves around big money. Players are provided with 100 million yen at the start of the game, and each stage introduces a new game where more money can be earned or lost. However, participants are also strongly encouraged to cheat, lie and betray to obtain money from other contestants. Losers of a round are disqualified, and burdened with a debt proportional to their losses, which usually means nothing but complete despair (and if you can't pay, the Liar Game Tournament organization will find ways to get their money from you). At the start of the series, Nao, a gentle, but very gullible student, is duped into becoming a participant in the game. She's immediately swindled out of her starting money, so she seeks help from Akiyama Shinichi, a brilliant psychology student and evenly gifted con man. Together they manage to retrieve Nao's money and survive the first round of the Liar Game Tournament. They advance through each round thanks to Akiyama's brilliant strategies and sometimes despite, and sometimes thanks to Nao's natural gift to believe in the good of other people.

It's the variety in games that really makes Liar Game shine as a very diverse mystery series, providing an ever-changing battlefield that allows new mysteries and questions to pop up all the time. While the games can be very different in each stage, they usually revolve around the common theme of trust and betrayal, and the Prisoner's Dilemma. If all contestants in a game would cooperate and trust each other, everyone would be able to get away debtless at the least, and perhaps even earn modest earnings. The problem is that these games are designed in a way so betrayal will always pay off more to the individual traitor and not surprisingly, each of the games end up with everyone trying with minimalizing loss and maximalizing their winnings. It's this framework of original games each with their own specific rules and setting combined with the colorful cast of participants who can choose to trust or betray each other at any moment, which makes Liar Game one of the most entertaining and engrossing works of mystery fiction I've ever consumed.

Each of the games brings a new dynamic because of the unique goals and rules, and while some games are played by the contestants individually, other games are played in teams, which can lead to uneasy alliances. While these games appear at first sight to revolve around an element of chance and bluffing, there are ways in which to 'rig' the game to always win. Each games has clearly defined rules, and often involve elaborate props to play the game (the game Russian Roulette has a special 24-shot revolver for example). It's up to the players to figure out how within the confines of the rules, they can make sure they won't lose the game, and quite surprisingly, this can be done in a lot of ways: from finding loopholes in the rules to making clever use of the props provided for the game to even cooperating (and betraying) on-the-fly alliances with fellow participants. Ultimately, each stage of the Liar Game Tournament ends up being a true mystery story, with proper clewing and a logical build-up to the solution. The solution to what exactly, you may ask. Usually, each stage ends up being a howdunit, whodunit, or both. Because there are ways to 'cheat' through each game, there's always the question of how a game can be manipulated under the eyes of all the other participants and within the framework of the specific game (the Liar Game Tournament referees will throw out anyone who goes against the explicitly stated rules). Sometimes it's an opponent who is mysteriously able to see the moves of the other participants, sometimes it's one of the protagonists who miraculously turns the game completely around even though they were about to lose the whole thing. The question of how the game can be rigged (howdunit) is sometimes combined with the whodunit, as in certain games, contestants aren't able to see exactly the actions of the others, and some people might be betraying others through secret team-ups or manipulating the game in other ways to raise their own earnings and force others to lose the round. At any rate, one will be surprised how despite its appearances, Liar Game is a really well-executed fair-play puzzle plot mystery.

One of the earliest games featured in the series for example is Minority Rule: all the contestants are asked to vote yes or no a statement, and the participants who voted for the majority are disqualified. It becomes clear right away that it's not about answering truthfully to the statement (for example "I am female"), but in what way can the protagonists make sure they will always vote for the minority statement? Another prime example of how a 'simple' game can turn into a brilliant mystery tale is Contraband, where two teams try to smuggle money from the enemy country to a safe place over multiple rounds. At "customs" the enemy state has to guess whether the person passing trough is really carrying money with them or not, and false accusations are penalized with a money fine. At first, this game seems to be merely a game of guessing and bluffing and not a stage set for a fair-play mystery, but as the game continues, it's revealed that there's definitely room to force an outcome within the framework, making it a proper mystery plot.

I recently rewatched the 2010 film Liar Game: The Final Stage, which I had seen in the theatres when it was originally released. This film was the original ending to the two television series before it (2007's first season and 2009's second season) and was followed by the 2012 sequel film Liar Game: Reborn. My own first encounter with Liar Game was through the live-action television series, and while I did try out the manga at a later point, I always thought the live-action series was more entertaining, so I loved watching the finale to the original series in the theatre. I also think Liar Game: The Final Stage is an excellent mystery film, which really showcases how one can build a whole movie with many twists and turns and ever-changing dynamics around one well-designed game As the title of the film suggests, Liar Game: The Final Stage is about the finale in the Liar Game Tournament, so it's best watched after viewing the first two seasons. Over the course of the two television series, Nao and Akiyama managed to proceed through each round to arrive at the final game in this movie, where they are joined by some new faces, but also reunited with familiar characters from earlier stages. The game these final elevent contestants play is titled The Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden exist three types of apples: golden, silver and red apples. In each of the thirteen rounds, each player must pick one of these apples. If all eleven contestants pick red apples, all earn 100 million yen each that round. But if even only one participant choses either a golden or silver apple, only they will earn money while all the contestants with red apples are penalized. There are further rules that encourage not picking red apples, but also to not vote as a whole group on either the golden or silver apples. In the end, everyone picking red apples would be the safest bet, but of course, there are more than a few people in this final stage who are willing to betray the others to make more money. The results of each round are also announced anonymously, so it's impossible to tell who won or who lost each time. Can Nao and Akiyama still manage to win this game and save everyone from debt despite the presence of the traitor "X" who is lurking among the contestants?

I think that The Final Stage shows exactly what makes the series so great within the confines of one single film. While the whole story revolves around one single game, of which all the rules are explained at the very start, The Final Stage never becomes boring over the course of the two-hours-and-some runtime. Each time, a new betrayer pops up, but Akiyama not only always manages to figure out who this is, it's always properly clewed. The mystery plot is highly dynamic, because you're not only looking at "one culprit" in this film: sometimes it's Akiyama himself who has set a trap to capture a traitor, sometimes the focus is on how the traitor managed to manipulate the results of a certain round. Each time, you think all the loopholes of the Garden of Eden game have been found, but then another new, unexpected event occurs, and it's absolutely thrilling to see how the earnings and losses of each contestant change as the game approaches the final thirteenth round and the contestants keep on deceiving each other. By transforming the type of mystery constantly over the course of the film, Liar Game: The Final Stage manages to avoid a common hurdle for mystery films: becoming boring midway. The process of mystery-to-solution is repeated several times in this film and they're all about different problems, so you're never bored. In a way, it's a bit like how Columbo always picks up little mysteries on the way, before he arrives at his final problem.

What is also impressive is that ultimately, this is a fair-play mystery film. Akiyama sets several traps to find out who is betraying the group, and each time, the viewer is shown the clues that build up to how Akiyama set up his traps and how that allowed him to pin-point the traitors. Likewise, the movie also shows how each of the traitors managed to manipulate the game to their own benefit, and of course, these moments are also properly clewed. What's interesting is that everything all happens within the confines of the rules as shown at the very start of the film: it's not like the dynamics change because rules are changed or new rules are added: the game as designed simply offers this much room for a great mystery movie. Nothing in Liar Game is like what you'd normally expect of a "mystery film", and yet few mystery films will  actually be as satisfying as Liar Game: The Final Stage. Rewatching the film really made me see how it is really a fairly set-up story.

Anyway, enough fanboying about Liar Game. I can only repeat myself again and say it's a must-see for mystery fans and those who want to see how much potential the mystery genre really has. People who know series like Death Note or Spiral - The Bonds of Reasoning will know the potential of mystery tales revolving around games with clearly defined rules and battles of wits, and fans of either series should definitely check out Liar Game. I believe the first two seasons are available for (free!) streaming at Crunchyroll, and both are excellent (do watch them in order though).

Original Japanese title(s): 『ライアーゲーム ザ・ファイナルステージ』