Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fairy Tale Killer

ほら ti ta ta ta ガラスの針 
十二回の刻を打てば
 聖なる夜の七頭の影が
 無力な人形に手を伸ばす
「Marionette Fantasia」(Garnet Crow)

Look ti ta ta ta When the glass hands
strick the time twelve times
Seven shadows on the holy night
Reach out to the lifeless figurine
"Marionette Fantasia" (Garnet Crow)

Last year, I read the complete original series of Professor Munakata, which I absolutely loved. The series revolves around legends, fairy tales and folklore, and the anthropological research into the origins of these stories. The stories in this series are often based on actual historical and anthropological studies into the origins of stories of for example the Asian dragon, the archetype fable of the Swan Maiden told across the world and Momotarou, and author Hoshino manages to present these historical studies as very accessible tales that entertain on their own too, even if you're not immediately interested in the idea of historical research.

That said though, sometimes it's also fun to just accept fables and legends as is, and not try find the historical (and often awful) truth hidden within the allegories. And to those who like to indulge in the fantastical, look no further than Aoyagi Aito's Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita ("Once Upon A Time, There Was A Body", 2019). As the title probaby suggests, this highly entertaining short story collection is based on Japanese fairy tales, but of course retold with a deadly twist. Everyone in Japan knows the five fairy tales explored in this book by heart, but while the opening scenes of the stories will remain very familiar, Aoyagi adds a twist each time by introducing a mysterious murder. What makes this an exceptionally satisfying read is that each of these variations are firmly grounded within the framework of the original story. So that means, yes, there are fantastical monsters walking around, there are mystical crane birds, talking fish and magical tools in these worlds, but Aoyagi uses these unique elements to create very entertaining, and also very fair puzzle plot mysteries which should satisfy even the most critical of mystery fan, even if it's so heavily steeped in supernatural imagery. Another point of interest is that each of the five stories in Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita is not only based on a different fairy tale, they are also built on different tropes of the genre. One story might be about a locked room mystery, while the other provides an inverted mystery tale. The sheer variety found within these pages is fantastic, making it a must-read.

The opening story Issunboushi no Fuzai Shoumei ("The Alibi of Issunboushi") is a great example how this book subverts expections. The first few sections follow the familiar story of Issun-boushi:  the "one-inch" man who despite his length is quite brave. Trying to defend a princess, he's swallowed whole by an Oni (ogre-like monster), but then defeats the Oni by attacking its from its stomach. The Oni surrenders, and offers a magic hammer, which can enlarge the objects it hits. The mallet's magic changes Issunboushi into a man of over 1,80m tall, he marries the princess and they live happily ever after. Well, not really, for after the wedding, one of the other guards is approached by a man claiming to be from the prosecutor's office, who confides with him that Issunboushi is also a suspect in a murder case. The problem however is that Issunboushi has a perfect alibi: during the period the murder was committed, Issunboushi was inside the stomach of the Oni, and all the other guards were busy trying to get him out of the Oni pushing him back up from the stomach out of the Oni's mouth. So not only is the hero of the fairy tale recast as the villain of the piece, one of the best-known episodes of the fable is changed into the perfect alibi of the culprit! What follows is a very entertaining story in which the real hero of the story tries to break down Issunboushi's perfect alibi, and the trick pulled off is set wonderfully within the framework of this fable. And yes, there's an element of magic/the fantastical involved, but it's perfectly hinted at and the limitations/'rules' behind magic are clearly stated, so it's a completely fair, and most importantly fun tale.

The narrator of Hanasaka Shitai Dengon ("The Blossoming Dying Message") is a dog: the second dog adopted by the old couple that stars in the original Hanasaka Jiisan fairy tale. Their previous dog had found the old couple a treasure, but when their horrible neighbor stole their dog and the dog led him to junk, he killed the dog. In a dream, the dog then told the couple to make a mortar out of the three he was buried at, and the rice put into that mortar turned to gold. The neighbor stole the mortar, but it didn't work for him of course, so he set fire to it. The ashes of the mortar then allowed the old couple to make withered trees blossom again, which pleased the local landlord, but once again the neighbor stole the ashes. It's at this point our dog is adopted by the old couple, but only four days have passed when the old man is found murdered one early morning, lying on a small hill just outside the house. It appears multiple persons had a "grudge" with him, even if most would agree none of that should've led to murder. The only clue available appears to be the plant the old man had grabbed in his dying moments, but what does it mean? On the whole, this story is perhaps not as impressive as the first story: the clue pointing to the true murderer is a bit too obvious (and you know it's not a 'fake' clue as the story tries to ignore it for far too long) and the meaning of the dying message is a bit unfair, but once again, the manner in which Aoyagi uses the fantastical elements from the original story to create a murder situation (including clues and solution) completely unique to this world is immensely fun and it even did a good job at using the dog as the narrator!

As the title suggests, Tsuru no Toujo Gaeshi ("The Crane's Inverted Return") is an inverted mystery story. It's kinda hard to explain this one, as the whole story revolves around the reader not really understanding what's going on. On the face, this story starts out like the famous story about a crane who wants to return a favor to the man who rescued her by weaving cloths from her own feathers. In this version however, the crane's visit to the man is just moments after he has killed the village headman, who wanted to the man to return the debt of his deceased parents. And when the crane, disguised as a woman, first enters Yahee's house to weave clothing, she's told to never open the closet in the back of the room, but as time passes by and Yahee becomes lazy and dependent on selling the cloths woven by the crane, the happy world of the fairy tale seems to fall apart. I can't really tell more about this, but it's a wonderfully plotted tale that plays with the inverted style of mystery stories and it really invites you read it a second time.

Misshitsu Ryuuguujou ("The Locked Dragon Palace") is based on the tale of Urashima Tarou, a fisherman who saves a turtle and is taken to the underwater Dragon Palace of Princess Otohime in return. The few days he spends at the palace feasting however are more than a hundred years in the 'real' world, and when he returns to his home, he finds time has left him behind. This story starts in a similar manner, with Urashima Tarou being brought by the turtle to the Dragon Palace, where all the sea creatures can take on human forms. He becomes the guest of Otohime, but then a murder is committed inside one of the rooms in the palace. There's only one door to the room (the windows are covered in thick coral), and the door was, of course, locked. Humans are considered to be smarter than fish, so Urashima Tarou is asked to solve this locked room murder, which turns out to be much craftier than appears at first. For this is an excellent locked room mystery with a magical twist, set in a world where fish and other sea life can take on human forms, sing and dance and everything. The solution requires you deduce how certain fantasical capabilities of this world work, but this is clewed very capably and no reader should ever claim this is an unfair story because of its use of magic, as Aoyagi does a great job at setting the solution up. Again a very solid example of how the fairy tale framework is explored in the best possible manner to provide a good mystery story.

Personally, I didn't like the last story, Zekkai no Onigashima ("The Island of Oni in the Distant Sea") that much, even if it's not bad. The story is set on Onigashima, the island of the Oni from the Momotarou fable: some generations ago, a few ruthless Oni from this island attacked the humans across the sea for food and treasure, but the whole community of Oni on the island had to pay for their crimes: the hero Momotarou, joined by his entourage of a dog, monkey and pheasant, arrived on the island and massacred everyone here, taking back everything that had been robbed from the humans. At least, that's how the legend goes, but a small group of Oni survived, and now two generations later, thirteen Oni are still living a peaceful life on Onigashima, though quite aware of what mistakes had led to their current lifestyle and the children especially afraid that Momotarou might return to finish the job for good. And the Oni's peaceful life is indeed halted one day, when one of the Oni is brutally murdered. One after another murder follows, but what puzzles the survivors the most is that the manner in which these murders are committed seems to suggest it's not an Oni, but Momotarou and his henchmen who are killing everyone, even though there's not a single sign of any outsider having arrived on this island. The story unfolds in an And Then There Were None manner, with in the end all the Oni dead on the island, but no sign of the murderer. I kinda like the idea behind the truth of this story, but some of the story development seems far too hasty, making the events feel rather artificial. Had this been a longer story, the build-up could've been much better, though I think novella length (or just a few pages more) would've done the trick, as it's also not really an idea fit to fill a whole novel.

But even though I was less impressed with the final story, I still think Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita is a great short story collection that truly manages to convey a sense of wonder to the reader, by transforming famous fairy tales into something that is at one hand still very recognizable, but also perfectly plotted as a mystery story. It's actually surprising how good these fairy tales lend them for mystery parodies, but I assume it's Aoyagi's writing talent that makes it seem oh-so-easy rather than actually being so simple. The concept seems simple, but Aoyagi really went all-out into working the concept out to a genuinely good mystery story collection. Obviously, the stories are more fun if you're familiar with the original fairy tales, but I didn't know Hanasaka Jiisan myself for example, and it still worked for me, so you can definitely also enjoy this book without any prior knowledge.

Original Japanese title(s): 青柳碧人『むかしむかしあるところに、死体がありました』:「一寸法師の不在証明」/「花咲か死者伝言」/「つるの倒叙がえし」/「密室竜宮城」/「絶海の鬼ヶ島」

8 comments :

  1. I remember when I flip through 'Kono Mystery Ga sugoi 2020' magazine, this book's cover caught my eye. And the book seems to be really interesting. Because of the unique theme, perhaps there is a chance of this book to be translated. Also, I think Grimm's fairy tales should be perfect for these kind of mystery stories (e.g. impossible poisoning of snow white, locked room mystery in rapunzel's tower, etc.).

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    1. The cover art is really cathcy, when I first saw it I thought it was a children's illustration book ^_~'

      And yeah, the model can definitely be applied to fairy tales etc. from all over the world. If you look at the recently discussed Kidd Pistols series or Yasumi's Marchen series, those are series that are inspired by existing stories (Mother Goose rhymes and Alice in Wonderland/EMA Hoffman stories), but they ultimately tell original stories that are themed after the source material, while the fairy tales in this collection are more like parody retellings of the existing stories and that really gave this book a nice twist.

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  2. An impossible alibi based on the killer being inside the chambers of a living creature is such a cool idea. Maybe next there could be a locked room mystery where someone stabbed Issunboushi while he was in the stomach of the Oni!

    I tried to think of other possible "man stuck inside the stomach" stories for more of this perfect alibi story inspiration, but can only think of the story of the prophet Jonah, trapped inside a whale swimming in the ocean. If Jonah can somehow kill then...

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    1. Pinocchio has a whale episode too, right? A Fullmetal Alchemist variation would be fun too: someone who was killed while they were hiding inside Alphonse's suit of armor!

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    2. I don't know why "trapped in a whale" reminds me of the Bible first instead of the Disney of my childhood, but hey, my brain's in religious mood. The insides of Pinocchio's whale in the Kingdom Hearts game series is so massive, you can have a whole golden age mansion murder mystery, INSIDE a whale!

      Oh my god, a murder case happening inside Al's armor would be nuts!

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  3. Love me some Garnet Crow.
    Brought me on a loop thinking about meaningful lyrics, for example the lyrics of "Zero" by Masaharu Fukuyama for DC M22 and how perfectly they fit Amuro.
    I also recalled that Ace Attorney 5: Dual Destinies and Miles Edgeworth Investigation 2: Prosecutor's Path had that similar theme of corruption in the justice system. There's something really interesting about that as a basic idea.

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    1. Garnet Crow is a personal favorite, totally fell in love with their music when I first heard their songs for Conan. Have most of their CDs too. While they disbanded some years ago, they'll be having some kind of special project this year because it's been 20 years since their debut, so really looking forward to that!

      I think that the theme of justice worked really well for Zero the Enforcer, but I don't think they should have these "heavy" movies for Conan all the time. It worked as a 'once-in-a-while' off-beat movie that happened to fit well with the established world of Conan, but it wasn't really a movie for everyone anymore, and I imagine children would've had a lot of trouble following the story.

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    2. Yeah I definitely wouldn't want them to keep putting out those type of films, I'm kind of interested in whether they will make the next one similar to that regardless.

      The current director for the films is very good. There are a lot of great directing choices and plot ideas being used that I've been noticing every year. Usually these great directors are known for fluid animation and crazy fighting scenes along with showcasing stunningly beautiful landscapes (Makoto Shinkai) but the director for these DC films always keeps the moment focused on the characters. A great example are the trailers for these films, they really sell these movies.

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