Thursday, May 28, 2020

Murder: A Self Portrait

"Now are there any more questions? No? Well, if you don't mind, since my column for tomorrow is put to bed, I would like to do the same thing for myself."
"Ellery Queen: The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express"

Memo to self: don't forget to watch the special Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo #StayHome Youtube live-action mystery drama filmed by the writer of the series/the original anime voice actors this and next week! Pretty nuts how they created that with Zoom and stuff and really looking forward to watching it!

While fans of series like Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo are probably quite aware that these series are published in a serialized format, with individual chapters being published in weekly/biweekly magazines first before a number of them are collected in one single volume, some might be surprised to hear that the serialized format is also still used for "normal" literature. While direct-to-book is still the most prominent form of publication, there are still a number of books that have seen serialization in some form or another: whether it's a "classic" serialized form with installments being published at a steady schedule or for example short stories being published seperately in magazines at random times before they are colllected in one short story collection. With the aforementioned manga, I only buy the volumes and with books, I always buy the individual release, so I usually don't notice much of the serialization process of a certain work, though there are exceptions. I followed the serialization of Madoy Van's Gyakuten Saiban - Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten ("Turnabout Trial - Turnabout of the Time Traveler", 2017) for example, because when it started, I was not sure whether this Ace Attorney spin-off novel would actually receive a standalone release in the first place.

The last few weeks however, I've had a lot of fun with a very special serialized mystery short story. I've mentioned the hit mystery drama Furuhata Ninzaburou quite often here. This comedic inverted detective series about the somewhat peculiar and occassionally very petty Lieutenant Furuhata of the Tokyo police ran for three seasons and one final special season between 1994-2006 and was heavily inspired by Columbo. Like in Columbo, each episode the viewer was shown who committed the crime and how and the mystery presented to the viewer was figuring out how Furuhata was going to solve the case. The series also took inspiration from the Ellery Queen television series, as each episode, Furuhata would turn to the audience and challenge them to guess what put him on the murderer's trail in the first place or how he was going to nab them before the episode would continue into the final act. The series was a creation of playwright and film creator Mitani Kouki. He started out with writing comedic plays for the stage, but his heartwarming comedy films with ensemble casts have also been very succesful in Japan. In a way, his style works perfectly with the inverted mystery, where you follow the murderer before and after the deed: most of Mitani's movies are comedic pieces about all kinds of silly problems happening 'backstage' at for example an hotel (The Uchouten Hotel) or a live radio play performance (Radio no Jikan). He also directed two amusing Agatha Christie adaptations by the way: Murder on the Orient Express was interesting as a two-piece production and the second part was sheer genius: it told the story of Murder on the Orient Express from the point of view of the murderer(s) in a comedic tone. Kuroido Goroshi, an adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd on the other hand was truly a very accomplished adaptation of a book many deem very difficult to adapt.

Mitani has been writing the weekly column Mitani Kouki's Mundane Life for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper since 2000, but with the current pandemic going on, he decided to do something very special: bring back Furuhata Ninzaburou in a short story! The television series Furuhata Ninzaburou stopped in 2006 (there was a spin-off prequel special in 2008), so it's been about 15 years since we saw the somewhat annoying, but sharp detective, and I think nobody had even dared to dream Furuhata would ever return (especially as Furuhata's actor, Tamura Masakazu, isn't very active anymore). The story Isshun no Ayamachi ("A Moment's Mistake") started in the evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun of April 23rd 2020 and ended with the fourth installment published on May 28th. And this is a special occassion, Mitani decided to go with a very special murderer this time: himself! We follow screenplay writer Mitani Kouki as he plans to kill the actor Ooizumi Myou: a talented actor with whom Mitani has worked often. One day, Ooizumi and his family visited Mitani at his home, when Mitani had to leave suddenly. As a polite gesture, Mitani told them they could stay in the house and relax a bit, but he never thought they would actually take him up on his offer. When Mitani returned home, he found the Ooizumi family still hanging around and that they had watched Frozen on DVD. Even though he himself hadn't seen that movie yet. It was the moment he decided Ooizumi Myou must die.

Mitani plans to kill Ooizumi with a home-made pistol at an event for Ooizumi's latest film, with a reception held at a hotel. Mitani is a surprise guest so few people are aware he's in the hotel in the first place. Mitani makes his way to Ooizumi's hotel room, shoots the actor and returns to his own room, where he has also prepared an alibi in the form of a new script he was working on. It doesn't take long for the murder to be discovered, and Mitani soon finds Lieutenant Furuhata in front of his door. Furuhata instantly starts poking holes in Mitani's story, but even so, Mitani is utterly shocked when Furuhata points out the one vital mistake Mitani made during his murder which told Furuhata who the murderer was the moment he met Mitani. But what was that mistake?

Despite the limitations this story has as it's written in the limited word space of four columns, I have to say I really enjoyed this short inverted mystery. It has everything you'd want in a Furuhata Ninzaburou story, the comedic tone, Furuhata 'poking around' until he unveils his ace, the Challenge to the Reader. The fatal mistake Mitani (the murderer) made is a bit silly, but it works in the context of this specific release, as a funny side-story to entertain people during the pandemic. And don't get me wrong, this is still a decent, well-clewed mystery story and not just a purely comedic piece. I could definitely see a full episode being built upon this, though on the other hand, I think the mistake is easier to overlook in its current prose form as opposed to if this had been an actual episode broadcast on television, but it's genuinely a cleverly set-up mistake of the murderer that most readers will never think of.

By the way, people familiar with the Japanese entertainment world will probably have noticed Mitani didn't only have fun using himself as the murderer for this story. The victim Ooizumi Myou is of course a veeeeeery thinly disguised Ooizumi You, with whom Mitani has worked a lot in his films. Ooizumi plays the unnamed detective in the films based on the novel series Tantei wa Bar ni Iru and is also the voice actor of Professor Layton, but for this specific story, it's of course interesting to note that Ooizumi played the Watson-character of Dr. Shiba (Dr. Sheppard) in Mitani's adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Apparently, Ooizumi You did actually once watch Frozen at Mitani's home, though we may assume the real Mitani isn't considering killing off Ooizumi You. Probably. Furuhata Ninzaburou has a history of featuring 'real' people as murderers by the way: last year, I reviewed the special where Furuhata had to take on the Major League baseball player Ichiro (played of course by Ichiro himself) and Furuhata has also crossed paths with the boy band SMAP in the past (also played by the members of SMAP themselves).

Anyway, it was very fun to have these serialized installments of a mystery story to look forward to these last few weeks, and Isshun no Ayamachi didn't disappoint a bit. While it may have been lean because it was written as part of a newspaper column, it feels 100% like a genuine Furuhata Ninzaburou story and I also found the story entertaining as an inverted detective tale with a nice twist. While the series is formally ended, it's nice to see the creators willing to do something special in these times. And who knows, perhaps it's the first step towards getting one new, final production with Furuhata....

Original Japanese title(s): 三谷幸喜 『古畑任三郎 一瞬の過ち』


  1. hello mr ho-ling. i wanted to ask you if you bothered learning how to write kanji when you were studying japanese. or if you "just" learned how to read them?

    1. I didn't learn Japanese by self-study, but in university, so obviously learning to write kanji was also part of the curriculum. You wouldn't pass many exams without learning to write kanji ^_^'