Friday, November 6, 2020

A Taste of Danger

Something old, something new, 
something borrowed, something blue

You know, I really should use my short shorts tag more often. Originally, I intended to use it as a corner to collect short, usually unrelated reviews and other observations that can't fill a complete post on their own. But nowadays, I usually just end up not writing about smaller things, or at least wait until I've got enough material for a full, standalone post. But the last one I did was back in 2016...

Anyway, so just a few random short pieces this time. And let's start with a short look at the eighth volume of  Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37"), which was released in October. It collects a large part of The Poltergeist Manor Murder Case, which started in volume 7, but the volume ends with Hajime having started on his summation of the case (the identity of the murderer hasn't been revealed yet), so I'll wait until the release of the next volume in March to go in detail. Hajime and Marin are this time sent to a Scottish manor which had been moved brick for brick to Japan thirty years ago. The large company Denpoudou now has plans to change the manor into a pension and has started a pilot panel. Hajime's company is a subcontractor of Denpoudou, and Hajime and Marin are there just for the menial work under the supervision of Denpoudou's Shiratori Reo, a young, but very capable manager. The Scottish manor breathes atmosphere, but apparently, some poltergeists were brought to Japan too when they moved the building.The guests have only just arrived when they are greeted by candles in the corridor suddenly lighting up on their own and falling wineglasses and it doesn't take long for ghostly murders to occur, like a poisoned arrow which decided to fly straight into a victim's neck or a woman being attacked by a suit of armor in her locked bedroom. 

Like I said, the story is still on-going, so I'll save my detailed thoughts for later, but I do wanted to note how I didn't really like the chapter before Hajime started his explanation of the case. Basically, up until that point everyone's just in a panic because of the ghostly pranks and the murders, and eventually, Hajime finds the time to investigate on his own with Marin, but this part is so... boring. It's literally Hajime and Marin visiting each crime scene, and Hajime immediately noticing some clue which tells him exactly how the impossible murder was committed. So they move on to the next room, and again, Hajime solves it immediately. It's incredibly boring with Hajime just walking from room to room and instantly solving the murders This is hardly a chapter about an investigation, this was writer Amagi just wanting to serve the readers the necessary clues without actually wanting to pour any effort in the presentation, as this is more-or-less just a grocery list. There is of course an inherent problem with serialized series like Kindaichi Shounen and Detective Conan that have to cut the narrative in distinct chapters that are released weekly/biweekly, but for some time now, the 'clue-gathering-parts' of Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo have felt dry and business-like. Anyway, more on this rather Carr-like story somewhere in March or April!

Originally, the short shorts tag was used for a post which was partially about mystery storylines/homages/parodies in series that weren't strictly works of mystery. About a year ago, I also wrote about how broad the definition of the mystery genre could be, and how for example a film like Iron Man uses proper mystery grammar to tell part of its story. Recently, I've been enjoying some works of fiction that aren't really mystery, but can be studied as such, and I think it's worth mentioning them to give people an idea of what I meant when I said that the definition of mystery can be very broad.

Herakles no Eikou ("Glory of Herakles") is a series of role-playing game that originally started in 1987 on the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) and has seen a few sequels since, with the latest entry being 2008's Glory of Heracles (the only one released in the west). It's a very classic JRPG like Dragon Quest, but as the title suggests, this series is set in a mythological Greek world and with stories partially based on actual Greek myths. Last week, I played Herakles no Eikou III - Kamigami no Chinmoku ("Glory of Herakles III - Silence of the Gods, 2008), a feature phone remake based on the 1992 original created for the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo Entertainment System). While you might not immediately associate "Greek mythology" with the mystery genre, it's surprising how well the story of this game works as a proper mystery ! The story starts in a rather familiar manner for RPGs: the protagonist wakes up with amnesia, having no recollection of himself. But he does learn he has been made immortal for some reason: he can fall off cliffs and land dozens of meters below without dying. Meanwhile, strange events have been happening all over the world: monsters start appearing everywhere because of holes to the underworld being opened, while at the same time, the sun decides to not set anymore. The protagonist decides to find out what's happening, because he suspects his immortal state has something to do with all of this too, and during his quest, he finds new companions who like him have gained an immortal body in exchange for their memories, and they all join our hero to find out the truth about why the gods of Olympus stay silent during this crisis.

The story was written by Nojima Kazushige, a game scenario writer best known for his work on all-time classics like Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X, but he has also written for mystery games like some of the earliest Tantei Jinguuji Saburou ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou") videogames, and it's his writing which changes a story about a quest of a band of immortals in a mythological Greek world into something that's actually a pretty darn interesting mystery! Throughout the game, our party comes across many mysterious events that occur in the world, and each time you think you've found an answer to the question of why everything's happening, another mystery is added to confuse the characters (and the player). Why are they suffering all from amnesia? Why have they been made immortal? What are the gods planning? Near the end of the game, there's a really neat section where everything is explained and suddenly every pieces falls into place, with even a few very early events taking on a very different meaning now you know what really happened. Yet this reveal doesn't come out of nowhere, as Nojima's been making use of foreshadowing and very carefully articulated dialogue to prepare the player for what was coming, utlizing the techniques of a mystery writer. So I'd say this game is pretty interesting for those who want to see how techniques of the genre can be used for very different types of media. The original Super Famicom version of the game is supposed to be a bit outdated when it comes to gameplay by the way, while the feature phone remake recently ported to the Nintendo Switch makes it a very easy game to play (but ideal if you just want to know the story).

I've also been enjoying the anime version of Oishinbo recently, which is a long-running classic manga about food. Everything food. The story is about the newspaper writers Yamaoka Shirou and Kurita Yuuko, who are tasked to compile "the Ultimate Menu" as a special project for the 100th anniversary of their newspaper the Touzai Shimbun. Their search allows them to try out a lot of very delicious dishes, but also puts Yamaoka in the path of his estranged father Kaibara Yuuzan, a famous and influential gourmand who puts cuisine above his own family. The series is perhaps remarkable for its realism: there's obviously a lot of research done on all the ingredients and recipes that are discussed, and the series even looks at "food" as a very broad theme, also focusing a lot on food production/distribution/culture and more.

The interesting thing is that a lot of the stories are also written like they could've featured in a mystery series. Many episodes revolves around Yamaoka getting involved in some kind of argument with a professional cook/critic about food and how a dish should best be prepared, and Yamaoka managing to prove that he was right, even though the opponent appears to have all the advantages. This is basically the same set-up as Liar Game, where characters manage to win games even though that seems impossible at first. In one early episode for example, Yamaoka claims he can prepare a better sashimi dish with a dead fish, than someone who'll use a fresh, living fish, which sounds utterly impossible of course due the matter of freshness, but this mystery can actually be solved by the viewer with some very basic knowledge of food (nothing specialistic, nor does it even require the reader to be able to cook). To make it clear: most of the stories are less likely to be solved beforehand by the viewer because they do require knowledge of lesser-known facts, but you'd be surprised how many of the Oishinbo stories do actually work as proper mystery stories.

And now I want to go eat sushi...

Anyway, that was it for this short short post! Any good recommendations you have for works-that-aren't-really-mystery-but-actually-do-feature-mystery-plots? And your favorite sushi?

 Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一37歳の事件簿』第8巻;『ヘラクレスの栄光III 神々の沈黙』; 雁屋哲(原作)、花咲アキラ(画)『美味しんぼ』


  1. Oishinbo is awesome, although I haven't thought of it as a mystery story before. If people want to check it out, it has an official english sub which can be watched legally on youtube.

    There are a couple of 'works-that-aren't-really-mystery-but-actually-do-feature-mystery-plots' that I like. One of them is the 'Sket Dance' manga. I think Kenta Shinohara would be a really good mystery author. Although it is primarily a gag manga, there are plenty of stories in the series where you do not realize it is even a mystery story until the end.

    More obscure example is the 'Wild Case Files', a documentary series from National Geographic. The premise is actually quite awesome, basically every episodes is about investigation of real-life bizzare phenomena in the animal or natural world. The 'cases' are really awesome and have an impossible-crime feel to it (e.g. the 'flying reindeer case' where an airplane hit an unidentified object in the air, and DNA analysis on the plane discovered that it contains reindeer DNA; the 'dog suicide case': why did a lot of dogs commit suicide by leaping off a bridge in Scotland?; 'the bloody rain case' where villagers in India witnessed bloody red rain falling from the sky; and 'the exploding frogs' where several frogs suddenly exploded for no apparent reason). What is awesome is that the show present several false solutions by several experts before the 'truth' is revealed in the end.

    Medical mystery like the 'House MD' and 'The Glory of Team Batista' series is another niche genre that I like. And another recommendation for 'The Genius' south korean reality game TV show, which is a really well-done real life version of Liar Game. It is really enjoyable to see the players try to find loophole in the rules of each games. Sometimes the players even stumble upon a new loophole which the show producers have not even thought of before.

    1. It's of course only a small selection of Oishinbo that could be considered a proper mystery, but I'll use any excuse to get people started on the series ;) The author of the manga did write a mystery-esque novel called Oishinbo Tanteikyoku by the way (nothing to do with Oishinbo). Kuitan, from the mangaka of Mister Ajikko, is a proper mystery series about food and really fun to read (just... don't watch the live-action version).

      I haven't read/seen Sket Dance myself yet, but I loved Shinohara's Astra Lost in Space, which was simply a very good mystery series. Certainly convinced me of his mystery-writing skills.

      Don't think we have Wild Case Files on the local National Geographic, at least, the title doesn't ring any bells. If it isn't about Nazi superstructures, then it's about Chinese superstructures ~_~

      Oh, Batista is a name I haven't heard for a long time! Saw both the first drama series and the film adaptation, never got to the books though. I believe they even made videogames of them for the DS... (*traumatic flashback to the Galileo DS game*)

  2. I'm excited to see a new volume of Kindaichi, and the premise sounds interesting. Sorry to hear that the plotting has been dry - hoping the solution to the mystery manages to salvage the story!

    1. The preview for the next volume at least seems to suggest that a major character of the original series will finally make her first appearance (in some way)!

    2. Miyuki-Chan? O.o Finally!

      Might she turn out to be the murderess? That would be the most subversive twist thus far in the Kindaichi canon!

    3. It could be Fumi (´・ω・`)

    4. Sigh, Miyuki merely texted Kindaich at the start of volume 1... One wonders what the status of their interactions might be. Even Fumi as a murderess would be a fairly shocking and bold twist.

    5. She has sent a few more messages throughout the series up until now, but yeah, I'm looking forward to finally seeing her again. It might be interesting to see some older murderers return too, as it's been twenty years, so some of them might be released already.

      The ones that didn't kill themselves at the end of their respective story, of course ;)

  3. I watched the first episode of Oishinbo, which I thought was really good, but by the end of the episode, I was very hungry. This may become a problem in the near future...

    As for "works-that-aren't-really-mystery-but-actually-do-feature-mystery-plots," there are a few that spring to mind. First, there's the science fiction writer Gene Wolfe. He's known for stories with involved plots, and often the narrator is either unreliable or just plain doesn't understand what's going on. In either case, there will be clues from which the reader can piece out really what's going on. Frequently at the end of his stories (or at least his novels), you'll be shown what happens, but there won't be an explanation of what it means, so you have to use the information you have to interpret what you've seen. In a way, this kind of reminds me of Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita, except that there's less ambiguity about what happened, and more about why it happened. I've actualy only read one of his novels, Soldier of the Mist (and as I haven't read the sequal, which ties up the plot, I can't say how well it fits in the mystery category (although so far, I think it does (want to see how far I can nest these parentheses? :))). It's also relevant to this post, because, by a strange coincidence, it's set in Ancient Greece. If you wanted to try his short stories (which are rather more accessible), I'd recomend Storeys from the Old Hotel, which has two futuristic Sherlock Holmes pastiches, as well as a murder mystery set in space.

    Another science fiction writer who falls into this category is Tim Powers. His stories fit together in such a way that almost every element contributes to the solution of the plot. Many of his stories make use of time traval, so that things that look like they're just there to set the tone are actualy concretely relevent to the plot. As a result, if you pay attention and look for possible connections while reading, you can actualy figure out how it will all come together. There's even misdirections to keep you from reaching the right conclusions. His books are often mysteries in all but name. I haven't read it yet, but The Anubis Gates is supposed to be his best novel, so it might be a good starting place.

    The last writer I can think of is P. G. Wodehouse (don't worry, I'm not talking about Death at the Excelsior:). His novels always have five or six people or groups of people running around trying to accomplish their own goals and interfering with everyone else's schemes. By the end of the story, everything dovetails in a way that makes perfect sense, given what came before. The Jeeves stories are the best examples of this, but I highly recomend Leave it to Psmith, which is one of the two funniest books I have ever read.

    And finally, I'm afraid that, as I've never eaten any, I can't recomend my favorite sushi...

    (Sorry about the wall of text (and the confusing parenthetical), this comment kind of got out of hand. My excuses are that it's quite late and that brevity is not, and has never been, my strong suit.)

    1. Thanks for the pointers, Storeys from the Old Hotel sounds nice, and I've been thinking of trying Wodehouse for a while now: I keep coming across mentions of the Jeeves stories as mysteries!

      (And don't mind the length of your comments, as long it's insightful, I welcome them ;))

    2. Oh dear, now they have to be insightful? This could be a real problem...

  4. Kindaichi's body proportion on the cover, My GOD!

    Looks like Amagi's trying to make a horror/mystery case with more focus on the horror aspect, but it ends up falling flat on the mystery part. I don't really have much hope for this one especially since I can roughly guess already how the second murder was done since Amagi has already used this type of trick quite often, but we have to see.

    1. To be honest, I think Satou's been a bit inconsistent when it comes to cover art ever since the series returned after 2004. On the covers of some one-shots like the Game House, Hajime and Miyuki look extremely young, in others slightly off-model compared to the inner work...

    2. She has been doing this for almost 30 years, and she did say TGQ drained a lot of her energy in the series' first case after the big finale, yeah. It is justifiable, but in this condition it looks like she can't really keep up even with the biweekly schedule anymore, which is sad.