Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Trouble in Warp Space

"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." 
"Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There"

I don't like doing reviews of the same author in a row, so I'm glad I got to sneak Death Come True in between...

Tanabata "Kick" Kikuno was one of the members of the local idol artist group Blue Sky G as a high school student, but after the trio disbanded, Kick enrolled in the police academy and after graduation she was assigned to the National Police Agency. An attractive former idol in the force was considered to be beneficial to the image of the police, but after the rookie detective managed to solve a murder case with the help of the good men and women of the Homicide division of the Metropolitan Police Department and the brilliant police data analyst Shinkai "Angler" Yasukimi, people higher up in the NPA started to get nervous, as they fear the highly popular and capable detective might climb the career ladder faster they can. Attempts are made to undo Kick's posting to the MPD Homicide division, as any successes made there by Kick are bound to boost her career and make things more difficult for others. But it's not only internal politics that trouble Kick, but also international relations. Kick and "Angler" are sent to Boston to protect the Japanese MIT exchange student Sanjouin Haruhiko: as the scion of the Sanjouin clan, who have served for generations as important diplomats, Haruhiko is expected to become one of Japan's most important diplomats in the future. Haruhiko is also friends with Norman Kirk, son of a US senator who is currently on the committee negotiating an important US-Japan trade treaty in the making, and figures in the upper echelons of Japanese politics are convinced that Haruhiko's connections are essential to the negotations.

However, both Haruhiko and Norman's names have been found on a hit list. Some days ago, the body of Norman's bodyguard was found in a car hidden in a state park. There were also clear signs two other people had been killed and buried somewhere in the park, though their bodies have not been discovered yet. In the victim's pocket, the FBI found a letter signed by the "Quantum Man," who swears to avenge "Fiona" by killing the seven people who caused her death. It turns out Haruhiko, Norman and five others formed a little group of friends who regularly used drugs and that their dealer Fiona had been killed during a turf war while she was trying to buy cocaine for them. The Quantum Man apparently blames these seven for Fiona's death. So three of the group are already dead, and the first murder was apparently committed under impossible circumstances: the first victim had entered a large storage unit to retrieve their stash of drugs while the others were waiting outside the only entrance. The others were alerted by a pistol shot and rushed inside the storage unit, but inside they could not find a sign of the murderer. But how could the Quantum Man have shot somebody inside without being seen enter or leave the building and with all exits watched? The investigation in Boston ultimately doesn't lead to new results, but a few weeks later, Kick is shocked to learn that Haruhiko, Norman and the two remaining persons on the list are coming to Japan because of intensified trade treaty negotiations. A succesful murder attempt on the son of a US senator would surely lead to an international scandal and weaken Japan's position in the negotiations, so it's in everyone's interest to prevent any further murders. The whole party stays at a fancy hotel in Tokyo owned by the Sanjouin family, which boasts advanced and effective security measures like a moat and motion sensors surrounding three sides of the hotel grounds, a special VIP building with elevators that can only be operated with a valid room key and an intelligent hotel layout which allows security cameras to cover every inch of the non-private sections of the hotel without any blind spots. And yet the Quantum Man succeeds again! Can this murderer really never be observed directly, but only by proxy through their actions? The higher-ups are willing to make Kick the scapegoat for the blunder, so her only way out is to solve these impossible murders before she's demoted in Katou Motohiro's Quantum Man Kara no Tegami - Tsukamaeta Mon Gachi! ("Letters from the Quantum Man - Those Who Make The Arrest Win!" 2017)

I've been reading Katou's mystery manga Q.E.D. and C.M.B. irregularly for a while now, but ever since I learned Katou has also been writing a novel series, I've been quite curious about them. The first entry in Katou's Tsukamaeta Mon Gachi! ("Those Who Make The Arrest Win!") series about former idol Tanabata "Kick" Kikuno was published in 2016, followed by sequels in 2017 and 2019. And now you might wonder: "Huh, I can't remember seeing a review of the first novel, but this post is about the second novel..." The answer is: I didn't pay attention and put the second novel in my shopping cart instead of the first by accident. All well. Everything I thought I needed to know was explained in the first few pages anyway, so you can definitely start with the second novel if you wish to do so. By the way, readers of Q.E.D. iff and C.M.B. might remember the character Kick, as she has also appeared in crossover stories there. There's one big Katou-verse going on, and it was actually surprising we didn't see any explicit Q.E.D. references in this novel, given that the first part of the novel is set in Boston and MIT, where Q.E.D.'s Touma lived and studied for some years.

Interestingly, I think of all I've read of Katou until now, I think this novel was the one I enjoyed the best overall, as one complete product. Theme-wise, there are a lot of similarities with Q.E.D. and C.M.B., but I think the balance between the various elements and their variations was the best here. The tone of the novel is a bit comedic of course like Katou's manga series, but there's more. For example, at first the athletic Kick seems to follow the model of the female sidekick figures Kana and Tatsuki from Q.E.D. and C.M.B., but she's given a lot more depth as the narrator of the story and while she's ultimately not the detective-character (that's "Angler") and occassionally out of her depths as a rookie detective, she's a pretty sharp character who is entertaining to follow. And while she also shows off her athletic skills, Kick's antics aren't just physical. Over the course of the story, several people in the NPA try to get Kick kicked out of Homicide and make her the scapegoat of any mistakes made during the operation, but Kick manages to slip away in rather clever ways. These segments make up for smaller, but interesting mysteries that invoke the spirit of the Q.E.D. stories that focus on logical contradiction and human psychology. The manner in which Kick manages to evade demotion after the hotel murder in particular is brilliant: properly set-up and clewed, the solution not only saves Kick, but manages to chase the conspirators into a corner in an amusing manner. It makes Kick a more interesting protagonist to follow than for example Touma and Shinra in Q.E.D. and C.M.B. respectively, as Kick is more of the underdog who still manages to hang on. The underlying storyline of the internal politics inside the MPD and NPA surrounding Kick's posting to the homicide division make Kick's own narrative interesting, especially as it also ties into the overall investigation in meaningful ways.

References to fields of science are of course the bread and butter of Q.E.D. and as Kick's hunting after the Quantum Man in this novel, we find naturally some references to quantum mechanics (Yes, the Cat's here too. Or not). In this tale, the circumstances of impossible murders committed by the Quantum Man serve as a way for Katou to write, in a simple and accessible manner, about some basic concepts of quantum physics. The murderer seems to defy normal physics in any case, as they can enter and leave places under observation without being detected at all, as if they can simply walk through walls. The most surprising ones are the double murder in the hotel, where the murderer manages to enter their victims' hotel rooms and leave without ever appearing on the security cameras and another murder where someone wearing a bulletproof vest is shot in the heart, even though there was nobody standing at the place where the shot was fired. The whole book is filled with impossible murders, though I have to admit I wasn't always as impressed by them. The first one for example is very simple and I don't think the misdirection works very well. In other cases, I can appreciate the basic ideas behind these murders, even if they rely on familiar ideas, but they don't always seem feasible in the context of the story: the murderer must've been one very busy and also very lucky person, as it's nearly impossible nobody noticed anything during all the preparation of the murderer. The Quantum Man is of course unmasked as a normal person who only appeared to have done the impossible, but the things they did do require so much luck, they might as well be someone defying the laws of nature. If it had only been a single instance of these murder plots, I wouldn't have thought too much of it, but when the murderer pulls off things like that one time after another without anyone ever asking questions, it's almost like they're really superhuman.  Reminds a bit of the murderer in The Tragedy of X. That said, I did like how Katou stringed these murders all together to create the illusion of the Quantum Man. And the murder situations themselves are alluring.

The detective-character of this series is the data analyst and former FBI agent Shinkai "Angler" Yasukimi. It's no surprise he reminds a bit of the protagonists of Q.E.D.. and C.M.B., though you see less of him because Kick's the one who's narrating and she has different tasks. I liked how near the end, the discovery of certain object allows Angler to set his trap to catch the murderer: the way he deduces the implications and true meaning of the object is truly clever. The stories I've read of Q.E.D. and C.M.B. don't often feature this kind of reasoning, with a focus on the interpretation of the physical evidence (as often seen in Ellery Queen-inspired mystery fiction), so that was a nice change. Though the rest of the impossible murders are more in the spirit of Katou's other series, with the focus more on looking at the known circumstances from a different angle and reinterpreting what we know already, rather than by finding physical clues or building a case through chains of deductions.  The plots in Katou's mystery manga also involve human drama, sometimes up to the extent that I think having a series detective kinda undermines the story, but here the human drama is mostly reserved to the end and I like the balance much better.

But seen as one complete story, I really enjoyed Quantum Man kara no Tegami - Tsukamaeta Mon Gachi!. It was fun to read, the various impossible murders are strung together in an interesting way through the Quantum Man even if the solutions aren't always as convincing, and while it's not a short novel, plenty of stuff happens here to keep the reader entertained from start to end. I'll definitely also pick up the rest of the series in the near future.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩『量子人間からの手紙 捕まえたもん勝ち!』

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Accuracy of Death

『Death Come True』

"Is this a film? Or a game?"
"Death Come True" tagline

We usually expect to find the name of the author on a novel, and the same holds for the screenplay writer in film credits, but it took a while before we got proper crediting in videogames. Up until the mid or late nineties, it was still pretty common to find aliases in videogame credits, as many videogame companies didn't want individual employees to be credited by name. Crediting could also be vague: you usually had segments like "Music" and "Programming" in videogame credits, but finding out who wrote the story or the actual text in a videogame could be a lot trickier, as this work was usually done by planners, but planners don't exclusively work on story, so you could never know who the writers were on a videogame. It's pretty hard to find proper writing credits for the majority of the Detective Conan videogames for example, as they have been around since the original GameBoy era. Things are different nowadays thankfully, allowing you to finally identify videogame writers you like.

Kodaka Kazutaka is an interesting case for myself, as I had played a few videogames written by him long before I became aware there was such a person. Kodaka became famous with the Danganronpa videogame series, a high-paced, quirky courtroom mystery game with psychodelic presentation and a script filled with pop culture references. I started with the series in 2012 with the first game, which is when the name Kodaka was first registered in my head, but later I heard he had also written some other videogames I enjoyed. While Danganronpa was Kodaka's own creative invention, he had previously worked as a freelance scenario writer for videogames, and it was during this period he wrote a lot for the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou franchise, writing both original stories for mobile phone releases as well as a few Tantei Jinguuji Saburou novels (Shinjuku no Bourei and Kagayakashii Mirai). The Six Sheets of Crime had always been one of my favorite entries in the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou mobile phone series, so I was quite surprised to learn that that was one of Kodaka's contributions. What was even more surprising was that Kodaka was the writer on the Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo crossover game Meitantei Conan & Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo: Meguriau Futari no Meitantei ("Detective Conan and The Young Kindaichi Files: The Chance Meeting of the Two Great Detectives"), a Nintendo DS game which was a lot better than I ever dared hoped for.

As I had somehow managed to play all of Kodaka's mystery-related videogame output without ever planning for it and had indeed enjoyed most of them, it was only natural I'd keep an eye on him to see what he'd put out next. Death Come True (2020) is Kodaka's latest mystery videogame and was released this week. As you may have noticed from the screenshots though, Death Come True looks completely different from the previous games Kodaka worked on, as it makes use of Full Motion Video (FMV) filmed with actors, including Kuriyama Chiaki (Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill) and popular voice actor Kaji Yuki. I believe Kodaka studied something film-related in college (which is how he eventually rolled into the game industry), so in a way, him working on a game like this makes a lot of sense. The story does start with a familiar trope you see in a lot of Kodaka's other videogames: the protagonist waking up and having no idea what happened. The noise of a ringing phone wakes a young man lying on a hotel bed. At first, he's dazed and has no idea what happened to him, but a look in the mirror makes him realize he has no memories of who he is and why he's in this hotel room. But the television soon gives him some answers: the photograph of the serial killer Karaki Makoto shown in the news is the same face that looked back at him in the mirror. Confused, "Makoto" looks around his hotel room, only to find an unconscious woman tied up in the bathroom. This is followed by a loud knocking on the door by a police man who wants to take a look inside, a start sign for the evening of fright awaiting Makoto, where he needs to solve the mystery of who he really is and what he's doing in this hotel.

Interestingly, this game starts with a video message by the actor of Makoto, Hongou Kanata, asking the player not to spoil the story to others, kinda like the warning you get in the stageplay of Christie's The Mousetrap. The screenshots used in this article are just from the trailers, so I assume that's all safe.

Death Come True's promotion tagline was "Is this a movie? Or a game?" and that is definitely a fitting line. The game plays like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure: most of the time, you'll be watching a live-action drama, but once in a while this video will stop and you'll be prompted to choose how to proceed with the story next. For example, in the earliest part of the game, you can choose to open the door for the policeman knocking on the door, or to hide. These choices influence how the story will develop: a wrong choice usually ends up killing you one way or another, while the correct choice will of course progress the story. There are also moments where you are forced to experience a game over first, but that allows you to make new choices that weren't available the first time. The game thus revolves around finding the correct route (the correct sequence of choices) that will allow Makoto to figure out what is happening and why he's here. The game is not very long, and the first playthrough will probably take you about the time of a movie, which again invokes the tagline "Is this a movie? Or a game?"

But I think that ultimately many players will ask themselves: "Was it really necessary for this story to be told in the format of a videogame?" The limited scope of the game, the short play-time and the presentation don't really benefit the story that much to be honest. There are actually very few branching points in the story, and you only get to choose between two options of which one is almost always blatantly going to lead to a game over screen, so the whole experience is quite linear. Comparing Death Come True to other games that follow a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure approach (novel games) like 428 and Kamaitachi no Yoru is almost like night and day. Sure, Death Come True may have fully acted video sequences from start to finish, but because the game's so short, it's very simple to figure out what choices you should make. Whereas games like 428, Machi and Kamaitachi no Yoru have a looooooot more branching story paths and choices, which makes it a lot trickier to figure out what the correct route is. In those games, you really have to track your choices in a flowchart to see how the story changed at all the branching points, while in Death Come True, there's no flowchart function in the first place and each time you make a wrong turn, you're just returned to the previous branching point, allowing you to correct your mistake immediately. Because of that, you often feel like Death Come True might as well have been "just" a movie, as the branching points don't really add that much to the narrative and most players will experience the story in the exact same order anyway.

A game like Kamaitachi no Yoru makes pretty interesting use of the branching story structure to convey its mystery plot: even if you end up on a story route that'll get you killed, you usually can find small clues here and there that help you solve the overall mystery, and it's by combining the information you find across all branching routes that allow you find the correct route. The player is encouraged to try everything out to gain more information, and it also challenges the player to remember those small clues when making subsequent story-changing choices. However, due to the smaller scale, Death Come True often fails in really incorporating the player into this decision making. Most of the time, the story will more or less tell you what to do next, instead of relying on the player to figure out what the correct choice is. This is definitely partially because there are so few branching points in the first place. But nine out of ten times, it's like the story just gives up on being a game, and has the full motion video explain everything, without testing the player whether they actually paid attention or not. And in the remaining instances, you'll notice some kind of clue and expect the story to test you on that at some point in a clever way, only for the story to suddenly put a spotlight on that clue and to telegraph very clearly you should remember this and that this will be coming back in two minutes and that you should make your choice based on this clue. It tends to make the player a very passive part of the game. Of course, I understand that having to film more branching storylines/introducing more branching parts to bring out its potential as a videogame would've made this game more expansive and expensive, but as Death Come True is now, I don't think having it as a normal movie would've hurt the story in any way.

Taken as just a mystery story, Death Come True will definitely feel familiar to those who have played more videogames by Kodaka, especially Danganronpa. Story beats like the protagonist with amnesia, the closed circle situation and attempts at providing meta-criticism on the videogame medium are his bread and butter. I don't think the story is bad per se, but I feel there's a lot of untapped potential here. Had this been a game with a larger scope, there would've been more time to flesh out the characters (some of them don't even add anything to the overall plot now), more room to flesh out the clues and perhaps even allow the player to be more involved with the mystery solving process. The story of Death Come True feels a bit rushed as it is now and especially near the end, when the game finally tries to give the player a bit more agency in solving the mystery, it feels lacking as a lot of story elements just didn't have any time to really settle. One moment in the climax where the player *should* be feeling triumphant for pointing out a contradiction for example, feels disappointingly shallow as the game couldn't have gone more out of its way to tell you what that contradiction was, instead of letting the player solve it themselves and it doesn't help that this happened just moments earlier, so the clue never had any time to bury itself and remain hidden. Clues usually feel more rewarding if you do register them initally, but forget about them and only recall them at the necessary moment, but in Death Come True, everything you need to know is always told like one minute earlier.

And as a side note: all the Danganronpa games start with the respective protagonist waking up with amnesia, and the story is always about figuring out why they and the other members of the cast are locked up in a closed circle situation. So having amnesia is a fundamental part of the plot there. But Kodaka also likes the amnesia trope, or the 'knocked out and I can't remember exactly what happened' trope in the stories he wrote in his freelance days. Kodaka wrote four Tantei Jinguuji Saburou mobile phone games in total, and two of them use the same trope. In Search for the Dying Smoke! the player takes on the role of Jiinguuji's assistant Youko and his friend in the police Kumano, as Jinguuji himself suffers from amnesia. The Square Trap starts with Jinguuji being asked to transport a suitcase with money, but he's knocked out and wakes up in a room with a dead man lying next to him. And in the Detective Conan & Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo game, Hajime is knocked out early in the game only to wake up on a very mysterious island. Kodaka really loves this trope.

Death Come True did not redefine FMV games the way Her Story did and while I like the basic concept of the game and the story, as it's done now, I don't feel like the videogame medium adds something significant to the mystery plot. In fact, we have seen many of the story elements of Death Come True in movies before and while videogames excel in presenting branching narratives in a clear way, Death Come True doesn't feature nearly enough branching points to actually make full use of the videogame format. It's not a bad game per se, but I would've been willing to pay for a larger-scale game if that meant we'd see a more fleshed-out world and a story that made better use of the videogame format.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Man Made Murder

"It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic."
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

Always welcoming specific story/volume recommendations for this series!

I have mentioned earlier that while there are definitely stories I enjoy from Katou Motohiro's Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou and its sequel series iff, I don't like the series enough to want to read all of the adventures of the brilliant prodigy Touma Sou and his energetic sidekick Kana, so now I'm picking my stories. Last year, three special "The Best" anthology volumes were released with stories selected by prominent mystery writers, and I already read the volume edited by Arisugawa Alice. Earlier this year, I also read an edited anthology of the spin-off series C.M.B. But now I'm back at Q.E.D. and it shouldn't be a surprise that my return to this series is once again through one of these anthology volumes: Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou The Best - Tanaka Yoshiki Selection (2019) is of course edited by Tanaka Yoshiki, who most people will probably not immediately associate with mystery fiction, as he's best known for his epic novel series like the space opera The Legend of the Galactic Heroes and the fantasy The Heroic Legend of Arslan. Like the Arisugawa-edited volume, this The Best volume contains five stories chosen out of the 50-volume run of the original series.

While I started reading Q.E.D. more seriously from 2018 on, I had already read a bit of it over a decade ago (also watched the drama!). The Faded Star Map (originally from volume 3) was probably the last story I had read before my reading hiatus, because the first three volumes of Q.E.D. have been in my bookcases for ages. The story introduces us to a derelict star observatory on a mountain, once the property of the amateur astronomer Tsukishima Fukutarou. He disappeared twenty-five years ago, but as the surrounding mountains are now all turned into a ski resort, the local authorities want to break the building down, and the local court has invited Fukutarou's two sons (and granddaughter), his brother-in-law and a close friend to the building, to determine who will become the legal owner of the observatory and to work out the financial side of the story. While they poke around the observatory reminiscing about old times, they stumble upon a horrible corpse inside the telescope. It appears someone, probably Fukutarou, had fallen inside the telescope and had been burnt to death by the sun, which would explain his disappearance. Given he was dead and all. The man from the court is sent back down the mountain to fetch the police, but a sudden snowstorm prevents them from climbing up to the observatory. It's the same storm which brings Touma and Kana to the observatory, as they are on a school trip nearby but got lost in the snow. The group is forced to spend the night here, but while the building is old, it doesn't take long for everyone to make the building suitable for shelter again. The following morning however, they find the brother-in-law hanging outside the bathroom window, but determining who could've killed him (and why) that night proves to be quite tricky. A story that makes very good use of its unique setting of a star observatory, but also a story that is a bit predictable exactly because of that, as you can make fairly educated guess about what happened simply based on the very long lead-up to the murder, which has quite a few scenes that don't do much to hide the fact they're going to be important later on. The murder itself has some links to the impossible crime trope, but I think the dramatic underlying back story leaves a bit more of an impression.

A Frozen Gavel (volume 9) starts with a scene beneath the Kachidoki Bridge, one of the many bridges that cross the Sumida River in Tokyo. A decayed hand falls on one of the boats going beneath the bridge, and when the authorities investigate, they find that a corpse has been stuffed inside a pipe, and the pipe itself has been jammed inside an opening between the sides of the lifting bridge. The police can only get the pipe out by raising the sides of the bridge again, which is easier said than done: Kachidoki Bridge has actually not been raised for thirty years due to the relentless streams of traffic here. But obviously, the pipe and the body need to be retrieved and so the bridge is raised again for the first time since 1970. Two surprising discoveries are made: the victim had a strange note in his pocket, but the victim was also wearing a special watch dated 1975, five years after the bridge was last raised! So how did the culprit manage to get the pipe wedged in between the sides of the bridge? While Touma and Kana poke around, they are approached by a strange, old man who seems to know more about the note, and perhaps even the victim, but why would he approach the two of them? A strange tale that has few interesting elements taken on their own, like the impossible problem of the pipe got wedged in the bridge, a strange old man who challenges Touma to solve the mathematics problem of the Seven Bridges of Königsberg and the mystery of the old man's personal history, but I feel it doesn't really work together. The pipe problem is pretty smart, but completely impractical in this specific setting (how would the culprit actually be able to do that on the Kachidoki Bridge?) and the reason to do so is also incredibly vague, betting on a one-to-a-million chance that things may occur in that manner. The same with the Seven Bridges of Königsberg: the solution and the way it relates to the actal case is interesting, but in the end, why go through all that trouble on some extremely minor chance things would go like this? This is a story where the parts taken seperately are far more interesting than the sum.

Crime and Punishment (volume 24) is obviously inspired by Dostoyevsky's book of the same title: we follow the graduate student Sendagawa, who hates how unfair life can be: how can a brilliant man like himself be so poor? When he hears of the news of a burglar being active and succesful in his neighborhood, Sendagawa decides to take matters in his own hands, and commit a burglary too and pin his crime on the real burglar. Sendagawa isn't stupid though, so he first plans to fake a burglary on his own room so the police will think of him as one of the victims. That part of the plan goes well, but his attempt at theft goes horribly wrong though: the moment he realizes the owner of the house he had wanted to burgle was in fact lying very dead in the living room, he also understood that things looked pretty bad for him, as it's a bit suspicious if a burglar is standing next to a dead body. He quickly runs away from the scene, but to his great surprise Inspector Mizuhara (Kana's father) seems to harbor suspicions about the theft at Sendagawa's place, and now he even thinks Sendagawa might've committed the murder! Desperate, he tries to plead with Kana and Touma to help him, and Touma is of course able to pinpoint the real murder rather easily. This was a story with a fairly limited scale, but I do quite like it. Like the original novel, it reads like an inverted detective, as we see how Inspector Mizuhara slowly starts to suspect that Sendagawa faked his own burglary to get himself off the hook, while Sendagawa obviously wants to not only hide that, but also avoid being accused of the murder. The clues that eventually lead the real murderer are a bit basic, but on the whole, Crime and Punishment is a fun story to read.

Caff's Memories (volume 41) starts with a call by Lin, an old friend of Touma's from Taiwan. Lin had gone to the United States to study when Touma was attending high school there, and Touma helped Lin with her English lessons. Later, Lin married Caff Darby, a highly succesful financier, and they lived a happy life together, but Caff is now in prison. Lin begs Touma to visit Caff and to go over Caff's case with him, and that's how we find Touma visiting Caff in prison. At first, the arrogant Caff wants to throw Touma out, but when he hears it was Lin who sent him hear, he calms down a bit, and Touma asks him to tell him his story, and how he ended up in prison. Caff claims he's been set-up, and starts his story how he first met Lin, how he became impressed with her fortune telling skills, and how they eventually fell in love, married and became rich as an investors thanks to Lin's powers. Eventually, Touma points out to Caff what really happened based on the story, but overall, I wasn't too big a fan of this tale. Like many of Q.E.D. stories, the core mystery plots revolves around Touma interpreting long chains of events (often a life story) differently than the persons who experienced it themselves and I think the basic idea isn't bad per se, but come on, Katou is cheating a bit here. It does result in a very emotional story that leaves an impression, but it feels like the story is just written completely around this punchline. It's not a story you'd see in Conan or Kindaichi Shounen, granted and if you're into reading more character-focused mystery stories, this is a good example of Q.E.D. being far superior to those series in that respect, but still, I feel cheated.

Touma meets up with Koyuki, a professional editor who sometimes needs to pick Touma's brain for her work regarding specialistic topics. In Pilgrimage (volume 46) however, she wants Touma's help for a more personal reason. Her deceased father was a well-known writer of non-fiction books, always based on meticulous research and great journalistic work. A while back, she came across an unpublished manuscript by him titled Pilgrim. The words "Coincidence? Or Intentionally?" scribbled on the folder seem to point to the reason why it was never published, but she doesn't understand why her father held on on this story, and she hopes Touma can shed light on the matter. Koyuki's father had done research on Usui Shigeru, a talented man in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during World War II. His wife had been murdered soon after they had gotten married in 1940. The murderer was an ordinary street robber Yamai Seimei, who had immediately fled the country. With the ongoing war, not much could be done about Yamai, but when the Japanese army occupied French Indochina, they stumbled upon Yamai, who was now finally captured for good and had to await his trial in Hanoi. Usui is given permission to travel to Hanoi to attend the trial of the murderer of his wife, but after passing Shanghai and arriving in the city of Nanchang, he gets off the train and tells his assistant he plans to walk the remaining 1000 kilometers to Hanoi. While the assistant tries to talk him out of it as it's not only an extremely long trip, but also very dangerous, Usui has made up his mind. It takes a harrowing two months for Usui to arrive in Hanoi, but at the trial, Usui makes a surprising statement: he advises the court not to give Yamai the death sentence, even if Yamai did kill his poor wife. In the end, nobody knew exactly why Usui made his pilgrimage on foot and why he had forgiven Yamai.

First of all: wow, I can safely say I'm absolutely sure that this is the first time I've read any story set in French Indochina during the Japanese occupation in World War II. So cookies for originality. Like Caff's Memories, this story is about Touma reinterpreting the events in a way completely different from the other people, though I think the reader can probably make a guess as to Usui's motives for pleading for Yamai's life and for going on the pilgrimage (especially as the other characters in the story propose a lot of theories, but seem to be avoiding one certain line of thinking). Ultimately though, I think Pilgrimage is an excellent example of the human-drama focused mystery tale that you definitely don't see in Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen and what really sets Katou's style of storytelling apart. These stories that focus on stories set in the past (often related to some actual historical event), about characters with very unique and strong-headed personalities that clash with each other and eventually do something that seems like a total mystery until Touma shows how one can interpret their actions in a way that seems logical to those specific characters.

By the way, I can sorta get Touma always flying across the world for a case, but how come Kana's also often going along abroad in this series? It's like these high school students get to go abroad every other volume...

Whereas the Arisugawa-edited volume seems to have focused more on stories with tropes like the impossible murder, locked rooms and serial killings, Tanaka Yoshiki's selection seems to be focused more on stories that focus on the human drama that eventually results in death. In that sense, I think Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou The Best - Tanaka Yoshiki Selection makes a better case for this series to show what makes it unique and distinct from other mystery manga series. For people who want more fleshed-out characters in a mystery tale and a focus on their drama and motives, Q.E.D. seems a far more logical choice than Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen, which focus more on the case-of-the-week. I do like how these two The Best volumes are so radically different in terms of theme, so it's likely I will eventually pick up the The Best volume edited by Tsuji Masaki to see what his take on the series is.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩(原) 田中芳樹(編)『Q.E.D. -証明終了- The Best 田中芳樹Selection』

Sunday, June 21, 2020

House Arrest

"Curious thing, rooms. Tell you quite a lot about the people who live in them."
"Crooked House"

Volume 7 of Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37") will be released this week, will probably take a while before I'll get to it though... (Limited shipping options at the moment).

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the special Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files") project Stay Home Satsujin Jiken (The Stay Home Murder Case). With everyone being asked to stay home as much as possible, series writer Amagi Seimaru (AKA Kibayashi Shin) decided to produce a #StayHome-inspired murder mystery. Mitani Kouki did something similar when he used his weekly newspaper column to publish a brand new Furuhata Ninzaburou story to bring some much-needed joy to people's lives, but Amagi's project can be described as far more ambitious, as his Kindaichi Shounen story was made to be filmed as a short live-action drama! Of course, because it's advised to not go out, all the actors filmed their own parts at their own places. These individual parts were then edited together in a Zoom-like screen, allowing everybody to 'play together' in one scene without actually being physically together (the story does pretend everyone's together in one room). The voice actors of Hajime and Miyuki from the television series reprised their roles for this special story (obviously, they got Hajime and Miyuki as profile pictures), and it surprisingly does feel like a genuine Kindaichi Shounen short story. Other roles were performed by actor-acquaintances or themselves (Amagi's own older sister Kibayashi Yuuko was cast in the role of the victim), while the background scenes too were presumably filmed at the Kibayashi family home.

In the previous post, I also explained how this drama was released in two parts.  The first part was released on Youtube on May 31, while the solution was released as paid content a week later. I wasn't sure whether I'd discuss the second part/solution at the time, even though I had a pretty good idea who the murderer was/how to prove it, but I did finally manage to watch the second part, so I decided to write this short follow-up post.

To go over the story of Stay Home Satsujin Jiken again: Inspector Kenmochi has to self-isolate due to a nasty fever, so he asks Hajime to help him with the investigation into the murder of Komatsuzaki Akane, a middle-aged woman who made a fortune with her own company. Because her dog had been barking for days, her neighbors became suspicious and when the police entered the very spacious Komatsuzaki manor, they found a stranged Komatsuzaki. The main suspects are the three persons known to have visited the victim on Friday, the day before Komatsuzaki is presumed to have died. The housekeeper, the victim's niece and the Uper Eats delivery guy all met Komatsuzaki that day for chores and deliveries, but none of them seemed to have noticed anything weird about Komatsuzaki at the time. Komatsuzaki always changed the code of her door lock after people visited her, so it also seems unlikely any of these three could've entered the manor on Saturday to kill Komatsuzaki. But as Hajime pokes around the home, he starts to suspect something else is going on.

Like I mentioned in the first post, Stay Home Satsujin Jiken does feel like a real Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo short story despite the unique circumstances in which it was produced, but that also means that a lot of it is rather familiar in terms of plotting. There is a focus on visual clewing of course, but it's fairly simple here (probably partially because they had to prepare all the story props themselves with 'normal' objects you have lying around at home) and most people will soon realize what the main contradiction is that allowed Hajime to identify the murderer. Some clues are just lightly changed versions of ideas and concepts we have already seen in earlier stories in this series, so fans will immediately recognize them. A different trick used by the murderer to protect themselves is actually I don't immediately remember as having ever seen in the Kindaichi Shounen main series, but I do know it's one of the possible tricks seen in the brilliant Kindaichi Shounen videogame Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo - Hoshimitou - Kanashimi no Fukushuuki ("The Case Files of Young Kindaichi - Stargazing Isle - The Sad Monsters of Revenge"), where you play as the murderer and have to make sure Hajime won't catch you (yes, it's an inverted mystery game!). On the whole, Stay Home Satsujin Jiken is not a remarkable mystery story, but it's definitely a very fair one and with a little effort and thinking, you should be able to pinpoint the murderer. Who, of course, has A Tragic Backstory. Because what else?

In the conclusion of the first post on Stay Home Satsujin Jiken, I wrote " If my hunch is right, Stay Home Satsujin Jiken may perhaps not be extraordinary if one looks only at its merits as a mystery story, but I think I will forever remember it as a special piece of mystery fiction, a memento of that period in 2020 when the world was different, a detective story where you absolutely need to understand the context in which this was produced. It's an immensely odd murder mystery, created in immensely odd times." I don't have much to add to that actually. If we had seen this story in the manga, I'd have shrugged and just considered an average Kindaichi Shounen short story that doesn't do anything wrong, but doesn't stand out in any way either. It's the story behind how this story was produced that sells it, and in that regard, I think it's definitely worth remembering that in 2020, we had that one weird Kindaichi Shounen story filmed over Zoom with laggy sound and creepy talking profile pictures of Hajime and Miyuki. I guess we'll see more StayHome-related mystery fiction this year: I know there's an anthology coming up in August titled Stay Home no Misshitsu Satsujin ("The Stay Home Locked Room Murders") with Kitayama Takekuni as one of the contributors for example and it'll be interesting to look back in few years to look at all the COVID-19-related mystery stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 『金田一少年の事件簿STAY HOME殺人事件』

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Track of the Zombie


I want to go all out
The whole universe is just a sleight of hand
"Rebirth" (Perfume)

Now I think about, with Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet being postponed to 2021, I guess today's topic is the only new mystery movie I really planned to watch this year. I'll probably watch some more, but this was the only recent release (not older than a year) I absolutely wanted to see.

By sticking their noses in all kinds of incidents and occasionally even actually solving them, the duo of Akechi Kyousuke and Hamura Yuzuru have earned themselves the reputation of the Holmes and Watson of Shinkou University. One day, the two young men are approached by fellow student Kenzaki Hiruko, who too has assisted the police in criminal cases in the past. She tells about how the university's Music Festival Club has received a threatening note with the message "Who will be sacrified next?", and how it's likely related to the annual club trip to the Sabea Rock Festival. Many female members of the Music Festival Club were afraid to go because of the trip, so Hiruko was invited to come along to make up for the numbers even though she isn't a Music Festival club member. Hiruko wants Akechi and Hamura to join her to investigate into the meaning behind the note.  The trio joins the rest of the Music Festival Club at the Violet Villa, a pension owned by Nanamiya, one of the graduated members of the club. Each year, Nanamiya allows the club members to stay here, but Hamura quickly realizes Nanamiya's main goal is to get lucky with the female members. During the club's nightly visit to the Sabea Rock Festival however, they notice some visitors start to behave weird and before they know it, they're surrounded by a horde of zombies! Once a person's bitten, they turn into a zombie themselves, and it doesn't take long for the Rock Festival to change into a Fest of the Dead.

Not everyone makes it back alive to the Violet Villa, and the group of survivors barricade themselves against the waves of zombies still roaming outside. The group can only wait for outside help to arrive and they all retreat to their own rooms in the hotel, everyone making sure to lock their doors. The following morning, the Music Festival Club's president is found dead in his room and the horrible biting marks on his face leaves little doubt that his death came by the hands of a zombie, but there are also several problems to this conclusion: while only a zombie could've committed the murder in such a horrible way, only a human could've performed feats like somehow opening the victim's locked hotel room and leaving mysterious handwritten threatening notes in and outside the room! Was this the work of a zombie, a human, or both? Time is of the essence as more and more impossible murders occur while the zombies start to break down barricade after barricade in the 2019 film Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead").

It's no secret that Imamura Masahiro's debut novel Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead", 2017) immediately become one of my favorite mystery novels after I read it, and I also enjoyed the 2019 sequel novel and the prequel short story a lot. The brilliantly original manner in which the novel combined classic mystery tropes like the closed circle and the locked room murder with the style of zombie panic movie resulted in a true gem of the genre: it was a well-plotted fair play mystery story that incorporated a 'supernatural' element like the zombie to create unique mysteries to solve and Imamura didn't just use zombies as window dressing: these beings were absolutely essential to how the mystery plot worked. The novel was received extremely well in Japan, so it didn't really surprise me when the film adaptation was announced and I've been looking forward to it since. The movie was released in December 2019, while the home video release followed earlier this week.

One thing that made me really enthusiastic for the movie was the tone of the trailer: the distinct comedic tone with fast-paced dialogue and rapid shots reminded me of the classic comedy-mystery drama Trick, one of my favorite mystery television franchises of all time. Turns out that I wasn't imagining things: director Kimura Hisashi was the assistant-director on many projects directed by Tsutsumi Yukihiko, including Trick, and it's obvious Kimura took inspiration from that franchise. I only learned recently Kimura also acted as chief director on a lot of mystery drama I enjoyed in the past, like 99.9, IQ246 and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO, so I was sure his film adaptation of Shijinsou no Satsujin would be fun to watch. Actress Hamabe Minami, who plays Hiruko in the movie, has also been in a lot of mystery-related productions lately and I loved her in everything I saw of her work. I first saw here in the mystery drama Pure (also produced by people who worked on Trick by the way) where she played a hilarious lead as an idol who acts all cute in front of others but who's actually a connniving vixen, but she also starred as the main character Tokino in the excellent Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu and has a guest role in Detective Conan: The Scarlet Alibi (which has been postponed to 2021). Add in Kamiki Ryuunosuke (who played Kyuu in the drama of Tantei Gakuen Q) as Hamura and Nakamura Rinya (who plays the lead in Bishoku Tantei, based on the manga by Higashimura Akiko) and you have a whole trio of leads who get casted as detectives. At any rate, given the source material and the people working on the movie, my expectations for Shijinsou no Satsujin were pretty high.

And I am happy to say that Shijinsou no Satsujin is indeed a highly entertaining mystery film that any fan of the genre must watch. The story features some minor differences with the novel to smooth the narrative out (for example, some characters' backgrounds have been changed and the novel went slightly more in detail about the background of the zombies), but in general, Shijinsou no Satsujin is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original work, but with more visual impact (duh). That means you're in for a two-hour movie where you're treated to no less than three different types of locked room murders in a pension that is under attack by zombies, which is a pretty high number of impossible crimes for a single modern, blockbuster-type of movie. These incidents all have seemingly contradictory elements, as both a human and zombie hand can be felt, for example, a locked hotel room which was obviously unlocked by a normal human, while all the biting could only have been done by a zombie. The mysteries are cleverly written to make you wonder if a human could in any way direct a zombie to commit a murder, without putting themselves in harm's way. The brilliance of these murders is that they are only possible in this specific setting, with the zombies. You couldn't replace the hordes of zombies outside with a flood or anything, the whole story is built around the concept of the living dead roaming outside. The movie is pretty tight at two hours, and I feel that ten more minutes of runtime to flesh a few scenes out may have helped, but on the whole I'd say the screenplay does a great job at presenting what is in essence a fairly complex mystery story with multiple murders with impossible elements and the zombie panic side of the story, all within the limits of a two-hour movie. While a mystery genre movie can often feel quite static, Shijinsou no Satsujin is wonderfully dynamic because the zombies keep coming closer and closer.

A few of the focused shots and changes in this movie do make it a bit easier to guess who the culprit is compared to the novel, I have the feeling. In that sense, the film is definitely being very fair and even if you know who the criminal is, there's still some interesting mysteries for the viewer to solve (I love the reason why the culprit went all that trouble for the second murder!). The movie also focuses less on the architecture of the pension (you only see the layout a few times and it's pretty hard to grasp where everyone's room is just by watching the movie), though I have to say the screenplay does a great job at using the visual medium to convey a certain piece of key information to the viewer, which was presented in a different way in the original novel. The method they choose fits better with the medium as it's easier to process, and a good example of how a film adaptation can change things around in a mystery movie to make the best of the medium's specific qualities.

I wouldn't be surprised if Shijinsou no Satsujin will also turn out to be the best mystery movie I'll see this year. It helps that the source material is good, naturally, but it is genuinely a well-produced mystery movie with at one hand a very classic approach with a closed circle situation, impossible crimes and a cast of suspicious characters and on the other hand the more visceral and fast-paced format of the horror movie. The comedic tone with minor parody elements may not be for everyone (Hah, creepy old lady in the bus is definitely a Yokomizo reference), but I absolutely love it and people who liked drama series like Trick will definitely like this film. Most of the changes do make sense as they fit the medium of the two-hour film better, so on the whole, I'm more than satisfied with Shijinsou no Satsujin: it's a fantastic detective movie that can stand on its own and which truly uses its original approach to the mystery genre to its fullest.

Original Japanese title(s): 『屍人荘の殺人』

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Whispers In the Fog

"You are young yet, my friend," replied my host, "but the time will arrive when you will learn to judge for yourself of what is going on in the world, without trusting to the gossip of others. Believe nothing you hear, and only one-half that you see."
"The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether"

Talking about stories of the past: the new television drama based on Yokomizo Seishi's Yuri Rintarou series looks pretty good! Sure, the story has been moved to a contemporary Kyoto setting and assistant Mitsugi is now a novelist instead of a newspaper journalist, but it retains a light gothic and somewhat pulpy atmosphere befitting this series. It was about time we got more adaptations of Kindaichi Kousuke's older brother...
Today's book is a very strange short story collection and one could definitely argue it's not a "proper" mystery, though I did enjoy it a lot. Kujira Touichirou's debut work Yamataikoku wa Doko Desuka? ("Where is Yamatai-koku?" 1998) collects five stories that are all set in the small bar Three Ballets. Regulars of the bartender Matsunaga include the History professor Mitani, the lecture assistant Shizuka and the amateur researcher Miyata. Miyata and Shizuka have the tendency to always get into arguments about historical topics, and without any exception, it's because Miyata spouts some ridiculous theory about some major historic event, like the crucifixion of Jesus or the enlightenment of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. But while Miyata's claims always seem too absurd to even pay any attention to, he's always able to actually prove his outlandish theories based on historical sources, begging the question if you can trust any historical facts at all.

Yamataikoku wa Doko Desuka? is a really weird book to explain. The stories collected in this volume are not really proper puzzle plot mystery stories like the ones I usually discuss here, but I think they are best described as extremely well researched experiments in deduction with a history theme. In a way, they remind me of Kemelman's famous short story The Nine Mile Walk. The stories all follow the same basic formula, themed after the 5W1H questions: Who, What, When, Why, Where and How. At the start of each tale, Miyata will present a statement that sounds absolutely ridiculous at first, considering the consensus about historical facts, like claiming that the Meiji Restoration had been planned by one single man or that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, in fact did not reach enlightenment while meditating beneath the Bodhi Tree. While both Shizuka and the reader will at first dismiss Miyata's claim as utter nonsense, Miyata then explains the reasoning process behind his claims, usually by focusing on contradictions in the actual historical sources presented and showing his own interpretation of those contradictions.

While the mysteries discussed in this book are not carefully planned fictional mysteries, I think Kujira does a great job at showing how the reasoning process in a mystery story should work, and that is why I think this is a good example of experiments in deduction, and why this is a book that should be discussed here. Obviously the theories proposed in this book are very likely not true at all and thus fiction: the theories proposed by Kujira are not meant to be taken as historical studies that want to bring forth a paradigm shift. But in these stories, Kujira does show how the deduction process in a mystery novel should pick up on all clues (in this case historical sources and the contradictions found there), how to interpret and explain clues/discrepancies and finally construct a theory that explains everything, while incorporating all the clues/sources. Each of these stories shows how you can construct the most fanciful, yet convincing tales as long as you build properly on the clues and use some imagination, and in that sense, I think it's definitely worth reading this book to see how a tale focused solely on the deduction process could work. The stories are also quite easy to read, as it mostly consists of banter between the four characters, with the discussion slowly, but surely providing the proof for Miyata's theories.

But as you may guess, the book does require you to have some historical knowledge to truly appreciate the tales here. The title story Yamataikoku wa Doko Desuka? ("Where is Yamatai-koku?") for example probably doesn't sound really interesting if you have never heard of Yamatai-koku, but if you do know it's the name of an ancient country in Wa (Japan) which was only referenced in historical sources and that historians still don't know/don't agree on where it exactly was, you can imagine how interesting this can be. Kujira quotes a lot of genuine historical sources in his stories, which can be a bit boring, but he uses those sources to show contradictions, and from there deduce what the real meaning of those texts must be. In the case of the Yamatai-koku story for example, the focus lies on the question whether the directions to Yamatai-koku as written in the historical sources were actually correct: Kujira quotes several different sources that help him establish how and why these sources could've been wrong, and then builds on that to arrive at his (Miyata's) proposed location of Yamatai-koku. While the final story, Kiseki wa Dono You ni Nasareta no ka? ("How Was The Miracle Accomplished?") is about the Biblical resurrection of Jesus, the other stories are about Japanese/Asian history and if you're completely blank on those topics, you'll have a very hard time getting through this book. Shoutoku Taishi wa Dare Desu ka? ("Who is Shoutoku Taishi?"), Bouhon no Douki wa Nan Desu ka? ("What Was The Motive For The Betrayal?") and Ishin ga Okita no wa Naze Desu ka? ("Why Did The Restoration Occur?") deal with major incidents/figures in pre-modern Japanese history, while Satori wo Hiraita no wa Itsu Desu ka ("When Did He Attain Enlightenment?") is about the historical Buddha, so Indian/religious history. The stories expect you to have some basic knowledge about these events, as the author quickly starts quoting historical sources to move on to the alternative interpretation (so it assumes you know the accepted versions). I do have admit that these stories do feel a bit alike after a while: they all follow the exact same story structure and with the abundant quoting of historical sources, they do sometimes feel a lot longer than they actually are.

I suspect that people who like the Professor Munakata series, or Katou's Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou and/or C.M.B. Shinra Hakubutsukan no Jiken Mokuroku will have a blast with this series though, as they all have similar stories, based on actual historical sources, pointing out contradictions between them and then presenting an alternative interpretation of historical events (often caused by very human motives). I personally have an enormous weak spot for these kinds of historical mysteries, so I really enjoyed this book, but I can imagine that people who like more conventional mystery stories will feel less positive about these stories.

Still, I think Yamataikoku wa Doko Desuka? is a good example of an experiment in deduction and it does a great job at recontextualizing (fantasizing about) well-known historical events. It's actually fun to see how the author uses the known historical sources to turn everything around and arrive at completely different conclusions than the accepted consensus and in that sense, it's a very unique type of mystery story. Personally, I think this is one that will become one of my highlight reads this year exactly because it's so different.

Original Japanese title(s): 鯨統一郎『邪馬台国はどこですか?』: 「悟りを開いたのはいつですか?」 /「邪馬台国はどこですか?」/ 「聖徳太子はだれですか?」 /「謀叛の動機はなんですか?」 /「維新が起きたのはなぜですか?」 /「奇蹟はどのようになされたのですか?」

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Deadly Hall

"I’m on a list of murder suspects. Always thought that would be kinda cool. But it’s just tedious."
"Tangle Tower"

That upcoming open-world Sherlock Holmes game by Frogwares sounds interesting, but I don't have the hardware at the moment...

Detective Grimoire and his sassy assistant Sally are summoned to the titular Tangle Tower to solve the murder on Freya Fellow. Tangle Tower is located on an island in a curious lake with purple water and surrounded by cliffs and despite the name, Tangle Tower is actually a building with two towers, connected at the base by the main building. In the past, the manor served as the residence of a certain family, but after a few generations of marriages and deaths, none of the original family remain in Tangle Tower. Now it's inhabitated by members of the Fellow and Pointer families, who each live in their own tower (think Murder Among the Angells). The victim Freya was one of the younger generation and was working on a painting of her relative Flora in the top room of the Fellow tower. A horrible noise coming from the room attracted the attention of everyone in Tangle Tower, and when they kicked open the locked door, the inhabitants found Freya lying right in front of her unfinished painting, stabbed in her chest. No weapon is found in the tower and Flora refuses to say anything about what happened, but curiously enough, Flora seems to be holding a bloody knife in the painting and it turns out real blood was used for the red 'paint'. Detective Grimoire first fears that it's the painting itself that killed Freya, stabbing her while she was painting, but once he and Sally start to poke around and question the people at Tangle Tower, they realize that everyone has a secret to hide, and some of those secrets are not quite innocent.

Tangle Tower is a 2019 iOS/Switch/Steam mystery adventure game and the sequel to Detective Grimoire and Detective Grimoire: Secret of the Swamp. I haven't played any of the previous titles, but this title caught my attention the moment it was announced: the writing was funny, the artstyle unique and catchy and of course, it was a murder mystery! Having finished the game, I can say it's not absolutely necessary to have played the previous games, but it would definitely result in a more rewarding experience if you did: the game introduces some story-related elements near the end that I suspect are references/direct connections to Secret of the Swamp, and some of this is left a bit too vague for people who don't know anything about the other games.

Anyway, I guess the easiest manner to describe Tangle Tower is to call it a mix between Ace Attorney and the classic point & click adventures like Monkey Island. You control Detective Grimoire and Sally as they wander around the manor looking for clues and interrogate the suspects. Pretty standard adventure material here: question everyone about the murder, find clues, confront suspects with clues etc. The manor is a gorgeous place to explore: the cartoon art style reminds of classics like The Curse of Monkey Island and works wonderfully well with the witty writing: the larger-than-life characters who are just not quite ordinary remind of the characters in the Ace Attorney games (great animation!) and interrogating them is just fun. You can examine a lot in this game too, and you're always treated to some entertaning banter between Grimoire and Sally. The game is fully voice-acted too, adding to the cartoon style.

Tangle Tower looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, but how does it fare as a mystery game? Well, it's a bit uneven at times. My least favorite parts are probably the mechanical puzzles, as I seldom like them in mystery games. Like I mentioned in my review of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, why does everyone keep important stuff (evidence/clues ) in little safes that can be opened by solving a mechanical puzzle!? Every person in Tangle Tower has something important hidden away in some mini-safe that is only locked by a puzzle, and not say, a key. The first half of the game can be quite monotonous for that reason: you're just asking all the characters about their alibis etc and solving little mechanical puzzles that always give you some very significant clue. This collect-everything-needed-before-we-proceed part of the game is quite long, and there are no real developments in the story or anything.

Once you have a better grasp on the case though, Tangle Tower starts to focus more on solving the murder mystery. After collecting enough evidence, you can start confront the suspects to make them reveal their secrets (everyone has something to hide). These segments include an interesting deduction system, where you have to make a statement (accusation) by constructing a sentence. The sentence follows the structure [noun] + [verb construction] + [noun] + [verb construction], and you usually are presented somewhere between five to ten options for each sentence element. The game will only proceed if you manage to construct the correct sentence, so it's an interesting way to test whether the player really knows what's going on and following the current line of investigation, as having to construct a full sentence is a lot harder than just picking one out of three options. This mechanic reminds of the one used in Trick DS, where you could combine three elements (objects, circumstances, location, persons) to form a hypothesis which could be used in various situations. While this mechanic can, theoretically, become quite complex by adding more and more elements, it's kept relatively simple in both Tangle Tower and Trick DS. In Tangle Tower, you shouldn't have too much trouble figuring out what the correct sentence is if you paid attention, but it's still a good mechanic to actually make sure you did pay attention. It's a shame that at other times, the characters of Grimoire and Sally seem to make deductions/interpretations of the evidence on their own, without the player's input. Perhaps the developers couldn't think of a way to 'test' the player first, but it's at those times that you feel a disconnect between the player and the characters, as things are done for the player, while at other points you do have to more thinking on your own.

The core murder mystery plot however is not particularly memorable. The way it uses one element that is unique to the enviroment of the setting of Tangle Tower is clever and well-foreshadowed as is the use of the painting, but at the core the truth behind how the locked room murder was committed is fairly basic. I also imagine that many players will find the conclusion rather rushed and understated. The motive is not really convincing as it is shown now, and like I mentioned before, some elements involved with the conclusion of the story are somewhat related to the previous game. Other elements are kept vague as possible hooks for future games I suspect, but because of that, some scenes and character motivations don't feel convincing enough, and on the whole, the murder mystery plot seems just one or two steps away from something much better.

I did enjoy Tangle Tower on the whole though. As a standalone mystery story, it could have been fleshed out more, but the journey of discovery itself is fun, with witty writing, memorable characters and a great visual style. The sentence-based deduction system is interesting and I'd love to see a more robust and comprehensive version of it in other games. Tangle Tower is not that long, so perfect if you're looking for something short to squeeze between games with a larger scale.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Secret of the Fiery Chamber

From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. 
"The Fall of the House of Usher"

>> The spambots have been very active lately in the comments, so I'll have to manually moderate comments for the moment. I'll try to approve comments as soon as possible. Sorry for the inconvenience!

Bluuuurgh, Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet has been moved to a 2021 release definitely! The first time in almost a quarter-century there's been no new annual Conan film...

The cover art of today's work is fairly straightforward in terms of concept, but I really like the actual artwork. It was actually the cover art of this book which first attracted my attention, back when the publisher first announced it on Twitter.

Tadokoro Shinya had always wanted to become a detective himself, but then he realized his classmate Katsuragi Teruyoshi was, in fact, the most gifted detective he ever saw. Born as the son of a rather wealthy family, Katsuragi grew up surrounded by people who are always keeping up appearances and trying to act as nicely as possible, which made the boy especially sensitive to being told lies. This helped him hone his deductive skills, which have also been used to solve actual crimes. Tadokoro on the other hand has also been dabbling with writing mystery fiction, and it was through his editor he learned that the famous veteran mystery author Takarada Yuuzan was living near the place where his class would be staying for school camp that summer. Takarada is one of the giants in the genre, but he's been silent for the last five years due to his age. As both Tadokoro and Katsuragi are big fans of him, they quickly agree that they'll use their free day during school camp to sneak away and make their way to the Takarada manor in the mountains. While climbing the mountain path however, the two are surprised by a sudden thunderstorm, which causes a mountain fire. With the path down blocked by the fire, the two make their way to the Takarada manor together with several other people who too seek refuge, like the neighbor living down the mountain. The son of Yuuzan is at first reluctant to let people inside, but given the emergency and the pleas by his own two children, he decides to let everyone in as they await the emergency workers to make their way to the house. The guests learn that the cliff-facing Takarada Manor is full of gimmicks like hidden rooms, flip-wall closets and even a drawing room with a double ceiling, which can be lowered all the way down to the floor.

Yuuzan himself has been bedridden for some years now, but Tadokoro is surprised to see another familiar face: the insurance agent who was visiting the neighbor and who fled together with him is Asukai Hikaru. They only met once ten years ago, when Asukai as a high school student solved a murder case right in front of him, inspiring him to become a detective too. Ten years later, she seems to have lost all interest in detection, which highly disappoints Tadokoro. However, the following morning, it seems that having both two detectives (Asukai and Katsuragi) at the scene may have been tempting fate, for in the morning, they notice some blood in front of the drawing room. When they can't open the inwards-opening doors, they realize the double ceiling must have been lowered, preventing the doors from opening. When they go check out the winch system, they find it the wirings have snapped loose from the winch, which must have dropped the ceiling instantly instead of gently lowering it. After a quick repair, they enter the drawing room to find a horribly crushed victim inside. At first, it's assumed to be an unfortunate accident as it doesn't seem likely nor practical that someone could've timed the ceiling to drop on someone inside the drawing room, as the inside of the room is not visible from the winch control room, but Katsuragi isn't completely convinced it was an accident. But is it wise to start accusing people of murder here and now, given that they are all trapped in a house with a mountain fire closing on them? It's a battle against both fire and setting the right priorities as the timer counts down in Atsukawa Tatsumi's Gurenkan no Satsujin ("The Murder in the Fiery Red Manor" 2019).

Gurenkan no Satsujin seemed to garner a fair amount of attention when it was released last year as a very classically-styled puzzler, which is of course quite clear when you read the summary above: a motley crew trapped inside a manor in a closed circle situation due to a mountain fire, two detectives working on the same case, a house owned by a veteran mystery author full with gimmicks, hidden passageways and a death-trap murder with the double ceiling which has slight impossible elements to it, and as the story continues, we'll also learn a serial killer from the past has also has cast their shadows over the house and a lot more happens too. In a way, this reminded me of my first review of this year, of Houjou Kie's excellent Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller"), which was also a novel absolutely brimming with classic tropes and set mostly inside an isolated manor with a time limit to destruction upcoming (but it was also a story which included a scifi element because of the time travelling aspect). The time limit aspect is emphasized in this novel, as each story section is not only accompanied by a title, but also a timer which counts down to the eventual fall of the house (starting at 35 hours before the end).

The mountain fire trapping the characters in a manor in the mountains is of course a device that is very reminiscent of Ellery Queen's The Siamese Twin Mystery, though I'd say that the comparisons do stop here (we don't have a plot revolving around a dying message for example). In fact, what I think surprised me the most about Gurenkan no Satsujin is how the story often moves in a different way than you might expect. For example, the murder in the room with the double ceiling is mostly solved (save for some details) in the first half of the book already. It's really weird, as at the least, you'd expect it be only the first in a series of murders which will make use of the unique gimmicks in this house, but yeah, it really doesn't go the way you'd expect. This horrible murder where the victim was crushed by the moving ceiling gimmick is used in a very clever way: obviously it's not about the direct question of how the murder was committed, but Atsukawa addresses a lot of points, using the opposing detectives Katsuragi and Asukai, to explore the matter whether it was an accident or murder: it's here where Atsukawa shows his careful plotting, as both characters will point out countles of clues to support their own theory, and which really allow the reader to think along. Early on for example, the characters argue that if the doors to the drawing room were closed, the murderer could not have known whether someone was inside the room and who, and if they were open, the ceiling would've been held up by the doors, making it impossible to crush someone with it. While the idea of a ceiling coming down seems simple enough, Atsukawa cleverly makes it a truly mystifying murder as no theory seems to fit completely with the facts, making this a very alluring problem. It's not a true impossible situation, but it's definitely surrounded by contradicting facts, and they ultimately do point towards the cleverly thought-out, but truly horrible truth of what actually happened in that room.

But like I said, most of this is handled in the first half of the book already. So what happens next? Well, I'm not going into details, but basically, Atsukawa has been laying many trails of bread crumbs in the first half of the story that aren't even directly related to the murder, and he starts following them to their respective conclusions. Character dynamics change completely in this second half as Katsuragi starts peeling away the layers of deceit that have been covering up the truth in this novel, setting up the finale and truly revealing who committed the murder in the manor. I'm a bit torn on this part, to be honest. Katsuragi starts pointing out a lot of contradictions that occured earlier in the story, but a lot of them are so... uninspired, they don't really make an impression on their own even if their ultimate implications are important to the plot. Sure, the fact that character lied is of course important, but when the lie is uncovered because of classic tropes of the type of Ye Old They Said They Were Right-Handed But Used That One Thing With Their Left Hand Clue, you can probably understand why I say it can be a bit underwhelming. What I do like is how Atsukawa has really laid out a lot of crumb trails all across the story up until the second half and it's quite satisfying taken as a whole process to see everything come together, but some of these puzzle pieces just seem too familiar. The plot also relies heavily on coincidences, which can be a bit dissapointing: Tadokoro meeting the one woman who inspired him to try become detective himself at this manor right during a mountain fire even though they had only met once in a completely different place is actually one of the more realistic coincidences that occurs in this story compared to what is revealed later in the novel. Regarding the mountain fire though, at first I felt it didn't really add that much to the plot, but Atsukawa actually ties it to the core puzzle plot in multiple ways, and cleverly too, and I think it's actually more important to the plot than it ever was in The Siamese Twin Mystery.

Gurenkan no Satsujin is on the whole a capably plotted mystery story that really loves the classic tropes. I think that lovers of Ellery Queen especially will appreciate the book, as a lot of plot-pushing deductions are based on the interpretation of either physical clues or observed facts or following them to their logical conclusions. The book does suffer a bit from the author's intention to include so many ideas though. It's a very long novel, that also jumps between perspectives at times and even includes a rather meta discussion between what a detective ultimately ought to be, but that together with the already beefy mystery plot results in a book that takes its time to unfold. That said, Gurenkan no Satsujin is a story I myself did not find absolutely extraordinary, but still a very cleverly, and skilfully plotted mystery novel that's well worth a try.

Original Japanese title(s):  阿津川辰海『紅蓮館の殺人』