Sunday, December 6, 2020

Training for Trouble

ねぇ忘れないでねblue bird
「blue bird」(Garnet Crow) 

Hey, don't forget me, blue bird
"blue bird" (Garnet Crow)

Earlier this year, I re-read the 5-volume manga series Gyakuten Saiban ("Turnabout Trial") by Kuroda Kenji (story) and Maekawa Kazuo (art), based on the comedic courtroom mystery videogame franchise Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney. While the short manga series did feature the familiar characters and settings from the videogames, the plots were created exclusively for this series by writer Kuroda Kenji, and in my review I mentioned how it's actually a very good mystery manga that could easily stand on its own and would also appeal to people without any knowledge of, or even interest in the videogames. The series was originally serialized irregularly between 2006 and 2008 in Young Magazine to cross-promote the 2007 release of the Nintendo DS game Gyakuten Saiban 4 (AKA Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney). 

In 2009, the spin-off game Gyakuten Kenji ("Turnabout Prosecutor") AKA Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth was released on the DS, which focused on the adventures of the prosecutor Mitsurugi (localized name: Miles Edgeworth), a rival character in the main series. The duo Kuroda and Maekawa were again made part of the marketing campaign, as they too started a new series based on this game. Gyakuten Kenji ran irregularly between 2009-2010 in Weekly and Monthly Young Magazine and consisted of eight stories collected in four volumes. In terms of setting, it followed the spin-off videogame: Mitsurugi is a prodigy prosecutor, who always teams up with the hapless police detective Itonokogiri (Dick Gumshoe) to conduct investigations at the crime scene to find the person they are going to bring to trial. While Itonokogiri often thinks the case is open-and-shut, Mitsurugi shows he's not called a prodigy for nothing by uncovering complex murder schemes based on his own investigations. After writing my review of the Gyakuten Saiban manga series, I also re-read this 4-volume series, but to be honest, I found the stories in Gyakuten Kenji not as memorable as the ones in Gyakuten Saiban and ultimately, I just didn't feel like writing anything about it.

So why am I talking about this series now? Well, Kuroda Kenji has been posting some of his unpublished stories/unfinished scenarios on his Note page for a while now, because he thought it would just be a shame if these stories would never see the light and be kept in the vault forever, despite all the effort he poured into them. And so, a few weeks ago, Kuroda also started posting the unpublished scenarios he had written for the Gyakuten Kenji manga! These scenarios were written over ten years ago, but ended on the cutting board. But now these ideas are given new life! I can only applaud such efforts to show the public this cut content, so obviously, I just had to write something about these stories, even though I haven't even written a review about the whole series.

Moesakaru Gyakuten ("The Blazing Turnabout") starts with a few cases of arson at the campus of Medaru Sports Academy, a renowed university with famous athletes who have won many awards. After another incident, detective Itonokogiri decides to visit the head of the school, Medaru Nozomu, in the hopes of learning more, but Medaru is very dismissive of Itonokogiri, assuring the police detective that these were not cases of arson, but just minor accidents of students not being careful with their cigarettes and things like that. It's obvious Medaru doesn't want the news to blow up, and he tries to get Itonokogiri out, but not before Itonokogiri has a chance to meet four of Medaru Sports Academy's finest, who will go an international event next month and are going to have dinner with Medaru now. That night, Itonokogiri hangs around the campus when he runs into one of the four students he met earlier, who has discovered a fire behind the training facility. They managed to extinguish the fire, but nearby, they find the strangled body of Kurama Manten, a gymnast who was one of the four students Itonokogiri met earlier that evening. Itonokogiri is convinced Kurama must've spotted the arsonist and was therefore killed, but when prosecutor Mitsurugi arrives on the scene and starts poking around himself, he discovers a very different motive for Kurama's death.

Those who have actually played the videogame Gyakuten Kenji/Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth might be able to guess why this story was canned. The title Moesakaru Gyakuten was originally intended to be the second story in the series, but the title sounded too much like the title of the final episode in the game it was supposed to promote: Moeagaru Gyakuten/Turnabout Ablaze. Kuroda didn't know about these details of the game, because he worked on the scenario before the game was released, but ultimately, this story was abandoned. A truly unfortunate coincidence and I'm happy he has now found a way to still release this story in a way. As you can see on Kuroda's Note page, it's just the core plot divided in scenes, with all the spoken lines of the characters and the important visual cues written out in detail. There's no art at all, and as far as we know, Maekawa never did create any art for this lost episode.

As a mystery story, The Blazing Turnabout is okay. I found the Gyakuten Kenji manga on the whole a bit disappointing, because I thought the turnabout theme of the series was never as strong as in the Gyakuten Saiban manga series. There were always elements of things turning out to be actually the other way around, but in the spin-off series, the moments always felt less impressive. The same can be said of The Blazing Turnabout: there is a really clever moment where Mitsurugi points out that one certain action of the arsonist-murderer was taken for a completely different reason than you'd first assume, but it feels detached from the rest of the mystery plot. A shame actually, because I love this turnabout part of this story! It reminds of two of my favorite stories in Puzzle Game ☆ High School in terms of what the real goal of the culprit was, and really challenges you to think outside the box. So the 'grand' turnabout moment the story works towards to is really good, even if it's not as grand as we've seen in the main Gyakuten Saiban manga series and admittedly, more hinting would've been welcome: Mitsurugi's realization kinda comes out of nowhere. Other parts of the plot make less of an impression: the identity of the murderer is awfully obvious because it's the one single character who's been given a trait to make them stand out, while earlier parts of the investigation feature very easy to spot "contradictions" or simply Mitsurugi receiving a report that outright tells him something is off. 

In hindsight, the "special school" setting of this story is pretty interesting: the 3DS game Gyakuten Saiban 5/Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies (2013) would eventually also feature a similar setting, though with a special law high school rather than a sports academy. I wonder if this chapter had been published, whether it would've worked the other way around too, and whether the writers for Gyakuten Saiban 5 would've refrained from using a school setting for their game.

Toki no Yakata no Gyakuten ("Turnabout in the House of Time") is an inverted mystery story, which is interesting because Kuroda never wrote any inverted stories for both the Gyakuten Saiban and Kenji series, and now we learn that he did actually write one, but he canned the idea! Tokita Shinnosuke is the founder of TOKITA, a luxury watchmaker. He is retired now, giving him time to spend with his antique watch collection. Or at least, that's what he hoped for, but his son Ryuuzu, who is running TOKITA now is ruining Shinnosuke's life work, and when he learns of Ryuuzu's intentions of selling the company, Shinnosuke decides to take his own son's life. At his own 77th birthday reception, Shinnosuke tells his guests he'll be leaving them for thirty minutes to wind his antique clocks, a daily routine he never skips. He however uses the time to kill his son, who was parked down the hill on top where the Tokita manor stands. When prosecutor Mitsurugi and police detective Itonokogiri arrive on the scene however, their investigation tells them Shinnosuke of all people couldn't have killed his own son in the blank periode of thirty minutes when he was alone, because he is in a wheelchair. Tokita Manor stands at top of a very steep hill, while his son was killed down the street, on the parking lot at the foot of the slope: the slope is too steep for Shinnosuke to safely descend on his own, and also far too steep to climb with his arm strength. Apartment buildings are lined along the hill street, so the image of an the old man struggling to climb the hill in a wheelchair would've been noticed by someone, while the less steep, but roundabout path would take much more than thirty minutes. So how did the man kill his son within half an hour?

This is a truly interesting story to read as a scenario for a comic, because its greatest moment, when Mitsurugi reveals to the reader how Shinnosuke did manage to kill his son within the thirty minutes, is definitely designed to be seen as a comic book panel! You really feel that this plot was written with the visual medium in mind, because it works towards a fantastic shot where you suddenly see how simple, but brilliant Shinnosuke's trick was to get to and back from the crime scene in time while in a wheelchair. The 'turnabout' theme is again not particularly strong here, but as a short mystery story, it definitely has interesting ideas, even if the clewing is a bit too crude (culprit dropping crucial piece of evidence on floor is not really exciting). But the basic idea of how Shinnosuke managed to create a "secret route" to kill his son is really original, and would've looked great on paper.

After posting the scenarios of the two unpublished comics above, Kuroda followed up with one final surprise. In 2007, Kuroda wrote the first original short mystery prose story for the franchise: Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten no Kakehashi was a fun novelette-sized impossible crime story that followed the same format as the Gyakuten Saiban manga, focusing on the courtroom adventures of Naruhodou Ryuuichi (Phoenix Wright) and Mayoi (Maya Fey). Kuroda apparently had plans for a second novelette story, and had hoped to have the two stories published as one single volume, but that dream never became reality, so the plot for this second story was put away, until he posted them on his Note.

Gyakuten no Michishirube ("Turnabout Signpost") is a direct sequel to Gyakuten no Kakehashi, and starts at Yatabuki's noodle stand, where Mayoi, Kanae and Yatabuki are thrilled to see the show by the popular five-man comedy act The Green Monsters tomorrow, to be held at the Twins Hotel where Gyakuten no Kakehashi took place. The Green Monsters have been an enormous hit and consist of five people dressed as monsters with green as their trademark color. The five also had completely different careers before they switched to comedy: Monster King was a stuntman, Monster Queen a model, Dracula a doctor, Wolfman a guitarist and Franken a wrestler. Mitsurugi stops by the noodle stand however to bring bad news: Monster King has died, and the circumstances suggest that Monster Queen killed him. Last night, the five members had been drinking together in Monster King's suite room until late. When the party was over, Dracula, Wolfman and Franken left the twelfth floor, as the two suite rooms on the twelfth floor were occupied by Monster King and Queen. Guards had been posted at the elevator because Monster King has a stalker, and they swear that after Dracula, Wolfman and Franken left, only King and Queen remained on the twelfth floor. Later that night, Dracula, Wolfman and Franken went outside to the court to rehearse their act, when they witnessed how Monster King plunged to his death, having fallen from an old emergency door on the twelfth floor: the door had been in disuse and locked because the emergency stairs had been removed so the door led to nothing, but someone had forced the door open and Monster King fell through that door. Because the three heard him cry for help before he fell, they know it's not a suicide, and because Queen was the only other person on the twelfth floor, she's the main suspect. She however maintains she's innocent and hires Naruhodou as her attorney.

Wow, this was surprisingly fun! While the plot is mostly dialogue and there are some segments that would need to be worked out in more detail in terms of setting clues up, this scenario definitely had potential to have been an interesting locked room mystery! The story revolves around two 'locked spaces', being the twelfth floor of the Twins Hotel as a whole, as well as Monster King's suite room with autolock and the mystery revolves around who could've broken through those locked rooms. The argument goes back and forth in the courtroom as at one moment Naruhodou manages to avert suspicion away from his client, while the other moment a new witness appears who points the arrow back at Monster Queen: exactly like you expect from the series. The plot is slowly revealed in the trial, and the grand trick used by the killer to kill Monster King is definitely the kind of idea you'd expect from this series, with a proper "turnabout" theme, and I've loved to have seen this story worked out completely. I do have to say the plot does work better when you imagine the scene visually, so it's a bit weird Kuroda planned this as a prose story, instead of using the idea in the manga series... Though to be honest, this story does mirror some concepts from another story already featured in the manga.

I wouldn't consider either Moesakaru Gyakuten or Toki no Yakata no Gyakuten hidden masterpieces that had been wrongfully been kept away from us, but they are reasonably entertaining short mystery stories that would've been perfect additions to the published Gyakuten Kenji manga series. The prose story Gyakuten no Michishirube would've been very entertaining as a mystery story too, so it's such a shame Kuroda never got to release his own Gyakuten Saiban volume together with his earlier Gyakuten no Kakehashi. Anyway, as full-fledged "extra" stories revealed ten years after these series originally, I quite enjoyed reading them. But most of all, I can only say I love the idea of creators digging up old material that have gone unpublished/were cut for various reasons like this and making them available to the public. Obviously, I don't expect them to actually work the whole thing out, but even scenarios like these are fantastic material!

Original Japanese title(s): 黒田研二『逆転検事 ヤンマガ版未発表脚本』『逆転裁判 小説版未発表プロット』


  1. Mr. Ho-Ling, I have been following your blog for some time, this is without a doubt the best resource on japanese-language mystery. It's heartbreaking to see so many mysteries that may never be translated into English. Is there any way to request for a book to be translated? Is there any resource for seeing upcoming translations for the English market?

    1. Glad you like the blog! If there's a specific book you want translated, you'll have to try with the publishers and see if if they're interested. It helps if for example the publisher has already published works of the author, or if the author is already in translation.

      The Japanese site Asia Mystery League used to keep a very good eye on all planned translations, but the last two years it's been less pro-active with keeping the list up-to-date.

      There's an upcoming releases thread on Reddit for light novels: most of them are of course not mystery (light) novels, but it's pretty accurate list as far as I can tell (Huh, I didn't even know the Holmes of Kyoto was getting a translation):

      I assume there'll be similar lists for translated Japanese crime novels too, though I don't know them myself.