Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Mystery of the Evil Eye

ひとつの目で明日をみて
ひとつの目で昨日を見つめてる
「The Real Folk Blues」(山根麻衣)
 
With one eye I look at tomorrow 
With one eye I keep staring at yesterday 
"The Real Folk Blues" (Yamane Mai)

Last one of the year!

Following the death of his parents, partially due to his fault, the student Taneda Shizuma travels to the secluded mountain village of Sugaru. While the village's hot springs do see the occassional tourist, Shizuma is not here to relax, but he has chosen this place to step out of life and enter the eternal sleep, having lost his will to move on. He hopes to end things on the day the first snow will fall, but fate has something else waiting for him. On the morning of the first snow, the decapitated body of a girl is discovered on the Dragon's Head, a rock formation where Shizuma had been spending these last fey days looking up at the sky. His ID is also found near the corpse, so both the police and the girl's family are quick to accuse the travelling stranger of the horrible crime, but just as Shizuma is beng dragged away by the authorities, a strange 17-year old girl with one glass eye dressed in suikan (clothes once used in the Heian period) appears together with her father. She introduces herself as Misasagi Mikage, a detective-in-training, which seems to ring some bells with one of the older police detectives present. Mikage's mother, also called Misasagi Mikage, was a gifted detective who had helped the police with solving many cases. She died young however, but now her daughter is determined to step in her mother's footsteps, with some help of her father. Mikage has been training all her life to become a detective and had been travelling across the country, and she and her father happened to be staying in the same inn as Shizuma. She quickly points out a few contradictions at the crime scene, which indicate that Shizuma was probably framed for the decapitation murder, and Mikage's chain of deduction eventually leads the arrow of suspicion back to the manor where the victim herself lived, meaning it's very likely one of her family members killed her. The leading police detective decides to officially ask Mikage to help with the investiagation, and while Mikage and Shizuma bicker a lot despite this being their first meeting and Mikage having saved Shizuma, they seem to get along pretty well in reality and Mikage decides to bring Shizuma along as her assistant.

It is said that more than a thousand years ago, a mysterious girl was born out of one of the hot springs. She grew up and became a beautiful woman, when a dragon started tormentng the region with floods. But with her mysterious powers, she managed to seal the dragon. However, she did not manage to vanquish the monster completely, meaning there were still floods once in four years. After the woman married a human, she gave birth to a daughter Sugaru, who was able to decapitate and defeat the dragon forever with the combined powers she inherited from her heavenly mother and human father. In turn Sugaru's own daughter inherited her mother's name and powers and that tradition has continued until this very moment: Sugaru Village has always been under the control of the Kotosaki clan, and Sugaru is still being worshipped by the villagers as the guardian of the region. This is why the murder case is taken so seriously: the victim Kotosaki Haruna was the oldest daughter of the current Sugaru, and was supposed to take over as the next Sugaru in the future. Mikage's suspicion that the murderer must be someone of the Kotosaki clan is therefore a very serious one, and even with the police's blessing, Mikage's investigation into the murder must be conducted delicately. Initally, Mikage's investigation focuses on the last movements of Haruna, but all the outsiders are shocked to learn that Haruna's father has appointed their second daughter Natsuna (Haruna, Natsuna and Akina being triplets) as the next Sugaru and that she's to start her spiritual training immediately. This worries Mikage, as the motive behind Haruna's murder hasn't been established yet, and as she fears, new murders occur despite precautions. But while she's doing her best to show off that she is really ready to become a detective herself, things spiral out of control in Maya Yutaka's Sekigan no Shoujo ("The Girl With One Eye" 2010).

While I generally do find the books I read by Maya Yutaka entertaining, I don't read them that often for some reason. I think I read his works once every three, four years. This one had been on my to-read list for a long time though, probably since the release? Both the cover and the title had always had a strange appeal to me, being just mysterious enough to really pique my interest. The book also ranked very high (first places) in several of the big annual mystery fiction rankings of the year, so I always wanted to eventually read this book and I guess that over ten years since its initial release, still counts as eventually.

Initial impressions are likely to invoke Yokomizo Seishi's work: a secluded village, a complex family tree with convoluted character relations, and grotesque murders that seem to involve local legends. You wouldn't be wrong, as a lot of these elements do play a very important role in the mystery plot: a lot of Mikage's theories revolve around the motives that could come from the role of Sugaru in the village tradition and how they basically rule Sugaru Village and the whole "small community in the mountains built around one powerful family" screams Yokomizo of course. But in practice however, you're more likely to think of Ellery Queen's work when reading this book. Like the initial scene where Mikage proves Shizuma's (presumed) innocence, this novel features a lot of scenes where Mikage will present chains of deduction based on the physical evidence found at relevant scenes, showing what the murderer must have done and how, and build on those ideas to show which of the family members could possibly answer to the murderer's profile. The book has a lot of these scenes, though they are not always "fair" in the sense that the reader isn't given time to consider the evidence themselves to try to build such a chain of reasoning themselves. Usually, you will hear about the relevant data only for the first time when Mikage's already busy explaining her hypotheses. This isn't bad per se: the hypotheses Mikage builds throughout the novel are entertaining and really clever, but coming up with them yourself can be pretty difficult, and luckily, Maya manages to use the outcomes of Mikage's deductions/her hypotheses for a more interesting thought experiment.

Even though I am not a very experienced Maya reader, even I know one of the more important themes in his works is the post-modern theme regarding detective fiction and truth as seen in later Ellery Queen novels: how can a detective in a detective story ever truly know whether the evidence they base their theories upon isn't fake, planted by the true murderer trying to lure the detective into making the wrong deduction? It's an important theme in Maya's debut novel Tsubasa Aru Yami, but I have also seen the notion of false solutions, and truths hiding behind truths in the few other works I have read by him. Sekigan no Shoujo isn't different, and this isn't even really spoiling the book, for both the book summary and the book's table of contents make this clear. The book has two-part structure, the first set in 1985, detailing Shizuma and Mikage's efforts to solve the murder case developing in Sugaru Village. Mikage barely manages to solve the case and only after many losses, but the second part is set in 2003, when Shizuma visits Sugaru Village again and to his great horror, another decapitation murder has occured at Dragon's Head, and once again it's the oldest daughter of the current Sugaru. Realizing that this can't be a coincidence, everyone involved in the 1985 case realizes that Mikage had probably arrived at the wrong, or at least incomplete truth back in 1985 and that it's likely the same murderer who is responsible for the new death, but how could Mikage have gotten the truth wrong and who is the real murderer?

So in the 2003 part, we get a new series of murders (yes, more murders follow) and we are forced to reconsider the deductions we saw in the first part, while at the same time the new murders must be investigated too. The emphasis now lies on the realization that the murderer must be someone who manipulated the evidence to create a false "truth" for the detectives to find, resulting in a trickier puzzler, as Mikage and the reader have now sift to the evidence/testimonies they obtain and consider whether they can just accept the data "as is" or whether the true culprit isn't trying to lead them astray. This leads to a few brilliant moments, where Mikage has to deduce which clues must be true: usually a chain of deduction is based on clues, but here we have Mikage building chains of deductions just to prove whether a clue is true or not, because only then she'll be able to build a chain of reasoning based on that clue! I guess this is your mileage may vary thing, because Sekigan no Shoujo is very technical puzzler, that really focuses on theories and hypotheses and while I love this kind of mystery novel, some might find it a bit too theoretical and too "if he thinks that I think that they think that..."

The book ultimately builds to a conclusion that links the 1985 murders and the 2003 murders together by basically turning everything you had assumed to be true around. While familiarity with Maya's work might make the ending seem a bit predictable, it's a wonderfully set-up ending, with reinterpretation of old clues and new deductions based on things you had assumed to be done and ready already. Theories that seemed to make complete sense the first time are easily reconstructed in something that seems even more logical, even though you had never doubted it the first time. While the build-up to the actual denouement scene is a bit clumsily written, coming out of nowhere seemingly (how could Mikage ever have guessed where a certain person would be?) , the truth that is revealed here is very satisfying, as you basically go over all the events of the whole book (both parts) again and realize so much misdirection had been going on right in front of your eyes. 

Oh, and a minor point, but I wish this book had diagrams/floor plans. While not necessary to solve the case, a lot of the deductions do revolve around how people moved or where things were lying in a room, so the complete absence of maps is more noticable than in other books. 

So I did enjoy Sekigan no Shoujo a lot. Some might not like the banter between Shizuma and Mikage: while the premise of the book sounds like Yokomizo, the 'friendly fire' banter between the weakly Shizuma and the overly confident Mikage certainly isn't written in the fifties of the previous century. I myself found it enjoyable though, and that combined with the logic-focused plot, I did find this a fun book to read, even if the emphasis is less about letting the reader solve the thing themselves, but more focused on showing the reader the fallability of characters in a detective novel and how people are easily fooled by the murderer, even the detective. Don't read this if you want a straightforward detective, but for those interested in cleverly written puzzlers that do address post-modern themes without giving in to the nihilistic nothingnesss of post-modernism, this is a great read. Maya has not written a sequel in the ten years since the original release, so I assume there won't be one, which is a shame, for I would've liked to see more adventures of Shizuma and Mikage.

Original Japanese title(s): 麻耶雄嵩『隻眼の少女』

Friday, December 24, 2021

Turnabout Memories - Part 11

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember" 
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

It's that time of the year again, time for that tradition of making lists for the sake of making lists! Looking back at the reviews posted on this blog this year, I'd say 2021 was a pretty good year in terms of enjoyable mystery fiction. Especially in the first half of the year I seem to have read a lot of really good detectives, and not surprisingly, a lot of them also featured supernatural elements in the plot, though that is definitely not a set condition and the final list at the end of this post also features a few books that aren't about the supernatural. I didn't really write editorials this year though because... I don't really know why. Perhaps I should make up for that next year. Anyway, as always, the categories in this post aren't really serious and I'm just writing as I look at the past posting schedule, but in case you see a post mentioned here you missed the first time, take a look! Oh, the other tradition around this time of the year is that I mention how I'm already ahead with writing reviews and probably somewhere around the summer now... but I haven't really been keeping up with writing my reviews the last few months, so while I have a lot of books I've finished already, my backlog of "reviews done but not posted yet" isn't that large anymore, so I guess I should get started on that too... With a bit of luck I'll have enough reviews done by the end of January to last me well into the second half of the year!

Best Project Outside The Blog!

Also known as the self-promotion category! Weirdly enough, two of my translations were also published last year, so I sure hope people aren't started to expect two books each year now! Anyway, Death Among the Undead has been a personal favorite ever since I read Shijinsou no Satsujin back in 2018 and after posting my review of the book, I was pleased to see that a lot of readers of the blog expressed their interest in the book. I can safely say that it has been the book that commentators on this blog wanted to see translated in English (or least: those people were the most vocal about it), so it was fun to be able to actually work on a book which so many readers of the blog had been looking forward to. If you haven't read it yet, be sure to do so, because it's a really wonderful puzzle plot mystery that shows realism isn't necessary to have fun and cleverly written detective novel. Supernatural elements have become more and more common in Japanese mystery fiction these last few years, and this book is a great example of the heights it can reach.

Which is basically the same thing I was about to write about Death of the Living Dead. This book is actually on the other end of the timeline, as it was one of the earliest, and certainly best-known mystery novels with a supernatural theme released in the earliest days of the shin honkaku writers. While the theme of the rising dead is shared between Death of the Living Dead and Death Among the Undead, they're ultimately very different books and having read either won't make the other feel less surprising. The focus in Death of the Living Dead is definitely deeper in the sense that it really examines the theme of "death" from a sociological angle, while also serving a very impressive mystery plot that seems overwhelming at first, but manages to tie everything nicely, and surprisingly together. Death of the Living Dead is personally also an interesting project because I already worked on the translation a long time ago, but due to circumstances it only got published now, so it's been a very long wait for me too. I hope readers will enjoy this one too!

One thing I can say for sure: you won't see two translations of me next year with both books having red covers and being about the theme of the living dead!

Most Interesting Non-Review Post! Of 2021!

Okay, I didn't write many non-review posts this year. I guess the only other one was the write-up I did to celebrate the release of volume 100 of Detective Conan. Doing a "real-time" playthrough of a mystery story and writing down my thoughts/questions/suspicions down before reaching the end is new for this blog however. That said, I really needed to do that for Umineko: When They Cry because each episode is about twenty hours long, and I'm sure I'd have forgotten a lot of details if I hadn't written my initial impressions down immediately after finishing each episode. I'm not sure how many readers here actually bothered to look at the notes I kept, but I thought it was an interesting experiment to also show how people (in this case: me) can approach a mystery story and how they come up with theories. Oh, I was thinking about doing something with similar with Higurashi: When They Cry next year, but I'm not really sure whether that is possible. Could somebody who has played Higurashi tell me whether I could also keep notes and try to solve the mystery beforehand, or is it not really comparable to Umineko in that regard?    

Best Premise! Of 2021!
Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari ("Paradise is the Absence of Detectives")

With premise, I mean just having the blurb on the back of the book or something similar being enough to really rope you in, regardless of the actual execution. Mysteries with a supernatural element tend to have an advantage here, but that's definitely not a sure way to rank high on the list here. I enjoyed both Kotou no Raihousha ("Visitors on the Remote Island") and Kyoujintei no Satsujin ("The Murders in the House of Maleficence") a lot for example, but those books actually are about a mysterious, undefined being which you learn more about as you read the book, so the premise of just "something supernatural is attacking the characters" is a bit too vague to *really* pique interest based on the blurb alone. Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu ("The Disappearance of the Alchemist") on the other hand is a great example of a premise that sounds simple, but sounds absolutely amazing and really makes you excited to read it, as who doesn't see the potential of a detective story set in a world where they can practise alchemy? But even Mystery Arena, which is set in a realistic world, has a memorable premise, because it's about participants in a game show who all want to solve an on-going mystery story the first, never knowing whether a clue that comes later will mess up their theories or not, even if they sound really convincing at that point in the story. Ultimately, I decided to go with Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari because the premise is amazing yet "simple": angels exist and take evil people (murderers) to hell right away. At the same time, the whole idea raises so many questions the reader will learn more about as they read on, so the premise itself is still mysterious enough, even as a simple sentence, it sounds very straightforward. 

Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2021! But Probably Older!

As I was looking back at the reviews I posted here, I remembered there were also a few mystery games I played this year I hadn't written anything about (yet). Like Jenny LeClue: Detectivú, a cute adventure game where you play the girl detective Jenny... and her writer Arthur Finklestein, who is forced by his editor to commit a murder in the fictional world of Arhurton where his protagonist Jenny has solved (mostly harmless) mysteries all her live. It starts to repeat puzzles in the second half and finishes with a sequel hook which I didn't really like, but it's a fun game overall. Earlier this year I also wrote about how the Switch ports for the Kibukawa Ryousuke games, which were originally released on feature phones in Japan and had been lost media for some years now. I only reviewed the first two entries, but publisher G-Mode has been pumping them out at quite the fast pace, and I've been playing all of them, and some of them are quite good. But they're so short, so I intend to discuss a couple of them in one post some time... in the future.

But back to the mystery games I played this year. Strangely enough, I played two games featuring Hercule Poirot, with one being an interesting mystery game, but without really feeling like Poirot, while the other game was not as inspired as an adventure game, but really succeeded in feeling like Poirot. Root Film was a surprising improvement over Root Letter, and I also enjoyed playing the remakes of the first two Famicom Detective Clubs. And while I usually only play video games, I have to say I was really impressed by the board game MicroMacro: Crime City too, which serves as a very interesting, visual manner to present a mystery. But the game that made the most impression on me was of course Umineko: When They Cry. You usually don't spend 70-80 hours on a mystery game, and while A LOT of that is really long-winded writing, the way Umineko retells a similar-looking story several times to make you find out connections between them is really interesting as a mystery story, and with very meta-inclusions like Red Truths, it certainly is a game worth looking at if you're at all interested in the game-like qualities of a mystery story.

Most Impressive Cover! Seen in 2021!

I usually pick book covers for this category, but I really like the box of this board game, because you can try out the mechanics of this wonderful board game just by picking this box up in the store! The box has a note that says you can already solve a case of the murdered hamburger seller, and if you look closely at the box art, you'll notice there's indeed a dead man on the cover, and by tracing him across the box art, you can find his murderer and see where they went off too, just like in the actual game itself. Technically, this cover art is just a segment taken from the bigger map of MicroMacro: Crime City, but it's a wonderful design that immediately shows you how the mystery solving works in this game even before the purchase.

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
- Kotou no Raihousha ("Visitors on the Remote Island") (Houjou Kie)
- Kyoujintei no Satsujin ("The Murders in the House of Maleficence") (Imamura Masahiro)
- Watson-ryoku ("The Watson Force") (Ooyama Seiichirou)
- Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Mountain Lodges beneath the Shooting Stars") (Kurachi Jun)
- Umineko no Naku Koro ni (Umineko: When They Cry) (07th Expansion)
- FBI Renzoku Satsugai Jiken ("The FBI Serial Murder Case" in: Detective Conan 100) (Aoyama Goushou)
- Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari ("Paradise is the Absence of Detectives") (Shasendou Yuuki)
- Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan") (Mitsuda Shinzou)
- MicroMacro: Crime City (Johannes Sich)

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

The Devouring

"Foaf is a word I invented to stand for 'friend of a friend,' the person to whom so many of these dreadful things I am about to recount happens." 
"It's True, It Happened to a Friend" (Dale, R. 1984)

Not the last review of the year, but probably the last game review!

Following her involvement in the horrifying incident with the serial killer Blindman from urban myths, police detective Houjou Saki was transferred to the police headquarters of G Prefecture in return for her silence on the case. There she was joined by her new partner Sena, a former biker delinquent with a love for urban legend, and the two of them were put in a special unit under direct control of the station's chief. Their task: to investigate and solve murder cases that are related to the supernatural and urban legends. G Prefecture has become the center for the weird and it requires a dedicated unit, with people with an open mind to handle these cases. After the events in the previous game, Saki and Sena were joined by Koutetsu and Shintarou, two elite homicide detectives who are less prone to believe in the supernatural, but through their encounters with Saki and Sena have learned there's definitely *something* lurking in the shadows sometimes. Shin Hayarigami 3 (2021), released on Switch and PS4, picks up where the previous game left us: Saki, Sena, Koutetsu and Shintarou once again tackle five different, bloody cases of mysterious deaths related to urban legends occuring in G Prefecture, from women being strangled by what appears to be the hands of a baby, creepy French antique dolls appearing in spirit photographs, a woman starving to death, but with strands of hair in her stomach and even... people being turned into human stew after dying in bathtubs with reheaters. The question that Saki, and the player, has to ask themselves always is: should we approach this case from a scientific angle, or an occult angle?

Huh, has it been two years already since I reviewed the first two Shin Hayarigami games and the novel? Hayarigami was originally a horror mystery visual novel series released on PSP and PS2, but after a few years of hiatus, the series returned with the reboot Shin Hayarigami in 2014. While it was enjoyable enough as a horror game with an urban legend theme, it didn't feel at all like the original Hayarigami series though. What made the original three games so fun was each episode you could choose what to believe or what to focus on in your investigation, and based on those choices, you'd end up either finding a scientific answer to the happenings, or an occult one. Both routes were worth exploring, answering elements of the mystery not explored in the other route, and even the supernatural routes did have elements of proper mystery fiction, like figuring out supernatural rules etc. Shin Hayarigami however focused much more on the horror aspect of the story, and even the talk about urban legends wasn't as interesting as the earlier games. Shin Hayarigami 2 (2016) was an improvement, returning mostly to the old formula. The way it tried to ignore the events in the first game was almost comical, but the first half of the game was really good, presenting interesting cases based on well known scary urban legends. The second half however was very occult-focused (even in the "scientific" routes), making it feel like there was no split in the scientific and occult routes at all. So Shin Hayarigami 2 felt like it took two steps in the right direction, but at the same time it put one foot back again, as if it was about to retrace it steps. Shin Hayarigami 3 was released this summer, and for the longest time I was slightly hesitant: would it really be able to take the necessary step forward to make it feel like Hayarigami, and not just any horror mystery game?

Luckily, Shin Hayarigami 3 on the whole does feel like another step in the right direction, and it also has a very interesting story choices that tie the three Shin Hayarigami games together more tightly and at the same time, more closely to the original trilogy, but it's not always succesful. That said, if you liked the original Hayarigami games, or Shin Hayarigami 2, I think you'll find a lot to like in Shin Hayarigami 3. The game features an omnibus format, offering five unrelated episodes (+ one bonus episode) where Saki has to investigate very gruesome deaths that invoke certain famous urban legends. In the first episode for example, Saki and Sena are investigating the death of a woman who was found dead in her apartment, but for some reason every single gap in her apartment had been taped off. She was literally in a locked room, but there are definite signs she didn't die of her own will, and other little weird findings like long strands of hair inside the victim's stomach suggest this is exactly the kind of case for Saki and Sena. Other episodes feature murders apparently committed by killer French antique dolls, while the episode about men being found turned into human stew because they died in their bathtub with the reheat function on (meaning the bath will keep on reheating the water at a set temperature) is a deliciously inspired case based on urban legend! It's here where Shin Hayarigami 3 shines, as it not only takes motifs and themes from familiar urban legends to craft alluring cases, but the game also discusses these urban legends in detail. Sena for example is an urban legend geek, and he often retells the urban legends related to their cases, and the player will probably have heard about a few of them from a friend of a friend. Meanwhile, other characters like Kisaragi, head of the Forensic Research Institute, also analyzes these urban myths from a folklore perspective. If you're familiar with the works of Brunvand on urban legends, you have an idea what you can see in Shin Hayarigami 3: not just the retelling of urban legends, but also analyzing where these myths come from or how new variants are born. The way Shin Hayarigami 3 uses urban legends not just as a graphical skin, but really delves into the topic and shows you research is what makes this game so entertaining. Oh, and talking about graphical skins, the game is definitely gory horror at times. The human stew episode even starts with a warning not to play it right after a meal!

Shin Hayarigami 3 follows the same gameplay flow as we saw in Shin Hayarigami 2 and the old series: as you follow the story, you are occasionally presented with "Self-Question" segments, where you ponder about the direction of your investigation. Eventually, each episode will split in either the scientific route or the occult route. That usually means that Saki will focus on one specific aspect of the case in order to solve it. In the human stew case for example, Saki will focus more on the practical "how was it done" question in the scientific route, while in the occult route, Saki decides to focus on certain foreshadowing dreams all the victims had before they died. Both routes usually lead to different conclusions to the case, but you are always encouraged to play through both sides: both sides usually answer questions not answered/glossed over in the other route. That does mean that even in the "scientific" routes, the supernatural will play some role in the events, and vice-versa. Some might not be a fan of this, but I think it works in the context of this series: the supernatural does exist in this world, but it doesn't mean that Saki and Sena can't investigate these cases and for example figure out logically what the rules are behind a certain curse to prevent new victim to die, or some crimes do involve the supernatural, but still need an acting human to actually commit the murders. It is a shame however that the "scientific" route in Shin Hayarigami 3 is often better described as the "science-fiction" route, with pretty out-of-there events being the "logical" explanation for the events. Sometimes it feels like the difference between the scientific route and the occult route is like "it was a ghost, and the ghost used its supernatural powers to kill someone directly" and "it was a ghost, and the ghost used its supernatural powers in a semi-scifi manner to kill someone". But on the other hand, it does result in a few interesting locked room murder situations in this game that, granted, feature absolutely ridiculous solutions, but they do manage to get that sense of "it's definitely silly, but also slightly convincing" that make urban legends so fun to begin with in general, so it works in that context.

I think one of the more interesting episodes was the one about Ryoumen Sukuna. No, not the character from Jujutsu Kaisen. The mythological person mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, the man with two heads and four arms and legs. It's here where we have a story that isn't just about (modern) urban legend, but also about older mythology and the folklore discussed here is really fascinating, while the case itself is also great: Saki and Sena are asked to investigate a threatening note sent to an archeologist who has recently found he mummy of Ryoumen Sukuna with his team inside a series of abandoned mining tunnels. Saki and Sena, as well as other guests have only just arrived inside the tunnels when the entrance caves-in, trapping all of them inside the mining tunnels. Meanwhile, the mummy of Ryoumen Sukuna disappears, and then people start getting killed... The real-time, closed circle environment of this story is pretty new for this series, but the way this story ties back to the original PSP/PS2 games is also fun. The way it weaves old myths from centuries ago with more modern urban legends is also memorable, making for perhaps the highlight of the game, tied together with the human stew story.


The final episode is where the game trips up, as it tries too much in too little time. Whereas the previous game did its best to pretend the first Shin Hayarigami didn't happen, this episode suddenly tries to make meaningful references to it, while at the same time also telling a story about sightings of the dead rising from their graves and also even making links to the old trilogy, but it falls flat in both routes because everything feels rushed. As a mystery story, the final episode doesn't satisfy at all in both routes, and the things it tries to do hardly succeed. It works, at best, as a sequel hook as we are told a few things that are likely to come back in a potential Shin Hayarigami 4, but at lot of these ideas should've been explored in the direct sequel to the first Shin Hayarigami, not in the third installment! And talking about things I didn't like... the new artstyle doesn't work for me. It's a bit cleaner than the previous games, but it simply doesn't feel as unsettling as the previous style. In the previous two Shin Hayarigami games, the art style and character designs managed to convey a feeling of... oppressing dread, but it's a bit too clean now, and doesn't really support the dark, uncanny atmosphere of the game.

But despite my lukewarm reception of the ending, I still enjoyed playing Shin Hayarigami 3 overall, as up to the last episode, it manages to present entertaining cases. As a pure mystery story, the Hayarigami franchise has never been super impressive perhaps, but the way it delves so deep into the theme of urban legends, even from an academic viewpoint, and uses motifs from well-known stories to present alluring murder cases is quite unique and it serves a type of horror mystery you don't really see elsewhere. Shin Hayarigami 3 has a lot of blatant sequel hooks, so I sure hope Shin Hayarigami 4 will be developed in the future, and I hope they managed to keep up the trend of improving on the previous game. Perhaps the next time, I'll even be satisfied with the final episode!

Original (Japanese) title:『真流行り神3』

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Trick and Magic

"You're a wizard, Harry."
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

The cover art kinda reminds me of Vampire Hunter D even though the art style is completely different.

Most knowlege of magic was lost after the medieval witch hunts, and it was only about a century ago when Aleister Crowley and other magicians started conducting serious research on witchcraft in order to recover all the magic that was lost. Magic is a talent you're born with and very few of these natural magicians exist: all of them are members of, and observed by the international organization the Order of Zenith, and at this moment, only six magicians are known to live. But the fundamentals to the workings of magic, research methods regarding magic and many more topics can be studied by anyone, and in the century that has passed since the renewed interest in magic, witchcraft has developed into a proper academic field, with people across the world studying it, even if they can't conduct magic themselves, similar to how not all Literature students actually go on to write books. The existence of magic is undeniable, but not every culture and country has a proper history of magic due the relatively young age of the field and because magicians themselves are very rare. Japan in particular has very little affinity with magic.

Which is why it became big news when it was announced that Jousui University would be opening the very first Magic Faculty of Japan, and not only that, they even managed to rope in one of the six living magicians as a teacher! Narrator Amane is one of the students in the first class of the Magic Faculty, and is placed in a small seminar class with Ririko, Hio, Imina, Rie and Chisato, five girls and best of friends who have been in the same class ever since elementary, going from Jousui Elementary to Jousui Secondary and now all together in the Magic Faculty of Jousui University. The six students are especially lucky, as they are placed in the seminar class taught by Sakyou Shiina himself, one of the six magicians on this world. Shiina can be a bit of a trickster, but he takes things more seriously after a strange threatening message is broadcast during the opening ceremony of the academic year, where a voice calling themselves Aleister Crowley announces that someone here will be chosen as a sacrifice and they are challenged to deduce who the victim will be, and who the culprit is. At first, it sounds like a bad prank, but one day, Ririko fails to appear in class, and when Shiina uses the magic spell Search, they learn she's on the roof of the building. But when they find her there, she's lying unconsciously on the floor, her face horribly mutilated. Luckily, Ririko will survive the attack and Shiina even declares Ririko's face can be saved, but the police are facing a riddle: the staircase security camera shows that Ririko had been the only person to go up the rooftop that day until she was discovered by Shiina and the others, and there are no other ways to reach or leave the rooftop. For a second, suspicion falls on magic, but that is impossible too. Not only is Shiina the only magician around, current knowledge of magic is still nowhere the level of medieval magicians, and many magic spells are currently "Lost Tasks": spells we know once existed, but of which knowledge is gone. Spells that could make this attack on Ririko possible, like levitation or psycho-kinesis, simply don't exist now. So if it is not magic and not a human act, what made this impossible attack possible in Kuzumi Shiki's Tricksters (2005)?

Tricksters is a six-part light novel series from the mid 2000s and as you will have realized by now, it's one of those mystery novels that feature supernatural story elements and people who have been following this blog for a longer time now I absolutely love it when fair-play puzzlers make use of supernatural elements, as many of my favorite reads these last few years have done exactly that. The initial setting might remind you a bit of Harry Potter, because it's about a school setting and magic, but fortunately, you won't be thinking of Harry Potter all the time because ultimately, the concepts are very different here: not only are there only six magicians in this world (who are all being watched by the Order of Zenith), knowledge of magic too is still relatively shallow, with known spells being fairly limited in their range and power. This helps keep the mystery plot fair of course, as you can't get away just by saying a magician did it. The explanation that magic, as an academic field, is similar to Literature and that people can study the topic without actually practicing it themselves, is pretty easy to understand too.  

And it's also clear right from the start this isn't going to be a normal detective story, as the book basically opens with a Challenge to the Reader, albeit an unusual one. "A Challenge from a Magician" tells the reader that in the following six chapters, people will be deceived and tricked in seven different ways, and it's up to the reader to figure out all seven acts of deception. Interestingly, the challenge is about finding out that there's deception going on, and is not explicitly asking you to solve it. Some are pretty easy to identify, like the reader instantly realizes *some trickery* is going on regarding the impossible attack on Ririko even if you might not figure out how it was done immediately, but some of the other deceptions are well... very deviously hidden, and it did add a fun extra layer to the book. Obviously, this focus on trickery is what gave this book its title.

And it's the seven-fold trickery going on that makes this a surprisingly fun read. You'll be through this book fairly swiftly, as it's not particularly long and most of the text consist of dialogue, but the story offers more mystery than just the initial attack on Ririko. After her attack, some other mysterious events follow, but these events still bring the reader (and narrator Amane and Shiina) back to the same questions: why and how was Ririko attacked on the rooftop, and how did the assaillant get away, because it would have been impossible with or without the use of magic. Because this is a detective story that goes through all the effort to introduce a magic setting, I assume very few readers will be surprised that magic is involved in the trickery in some manner, but figuring out how magic is used won't be easy, especially as the book does a good job at setting limitations on the known types of magic and their effective range. The solution to the locked room situation is therefore quite satisfying, as the book never feels like it's actually cheating you, even though it is called Tricksters. That combined with the fact the mystery plot unfolds beyond the initial locked room situation makes this an amusing to read overall. You'll be thinking of the "seven deceptions" all the time and try to figure out where something is not quite right and whether someone is being deceived in some way and these deceptions do intertwine well.

Tricksters is a fun, short read that makes good use of its magic setting to present an original mystery story, and the book also does justice to its title by really trying to deceive the reader in more than one way, having a much deeper mystery plot than you'd initially expect. I initially became interested in this series because I had heard good things about the third entry of this series (Tricksters D), but it was mentioned it was best to read these books in order (or at least one of the first two books), so I started with this one. It certainly got me interested in the rest of the short series, so expect more Tricksters in the future here.

Original Japanese title(s): 久住四季『トリックスターズ』

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Crimson Love Letter

「このわたくしがあなたを推理の迷路から救い出すー」
『欺瞞の殺意』
 
"That I will save you from the maze of deductions..."
"Deceptive Malice"

Come to think about it, I don't have many books with covers that are this... red.

As an accomplished politician and the boss of the Nire Law and Accounting Firm, Nire Iichirou had been used to controlling every aspect of his life, and that includes his family. He had always intended for his son Hisao to become his successor, but when Hisao died young, leaving behind a wife Hanako and child Yoshio, Iichirou's plans had to be changed. Yoshio, the son of his own son, was still far too young to become his direct successor, so Iichrou arranged for his oldest daughter Sawako to marry the talented attorney Harushige and have him take on the Nire family name, making him Iichirou's de-facto successor. But Iichirou also forced Sawako and Harushige to adopt Yoshio, ensuring that after Harushige, Yoshio would become the head of the Nire clan. Iichirou also arranged for his youngest daughter Touko to marry the attorney Youhei, a man who would function well as Harushige's support. Even Hanako, the widow of Hisao, was used in Iichirou's plans to solidfy his legacy, by matching her with the head accountant of his firm. So was it really a wonder that everything fell apart in the summer of 1966, when Iichirou himself suddenly died and all his children and in-laws realized they had been released from Iicihirou's shackles? 

But what nobody could have guessed, was the form this freedom would take. After one of the memorial services, the whole Nire clan gathers in the manor to have a break and something to eat, when Sawako suddenly takes ill after a sip of her coffee. She is quickly brought to the hospital. But while she's in the hospital, young Yoshio too suddenly becomes seriously ill, and not long after, both pass away. The police soon finds out that both of them have been poisoned with cyanide. The murders apparently revolve around the Nire legacy and basically all family members have a potential motive, but the method of how Sawako's coffee was poisoned remains unclear, until there's a sudden confession of the murderer! While the murderer doesn't give details on their exact motives, the case is more or less done, and the murderer is sentenced for life-time. After the double murder and the convinction of another family member, the Nire clan quickly fell apart and after divorces and early deaths, youngest daughter Touko remains the last-living Nire. However, in 2008, more than 40 years after the murder, the elderly Touko receives a letter from the person who had been convicted of the murders. They had been released from prison due to good behavior and serious health problems and in the letter, they explain that they had actually not been the murderer of Sawako and Yoshio, but that they had confessed to the murder because they realized the police was suspecting them and that the circumstances weren't good, and that if they hadn't made a voluntary confession to leave a good impression on the judges, they may had been convicted to a death sentence due to the very gruesome murders. But in the forty years they had been in prison, they had a long time to think about the murders, and in the letter, they carefully lay out a possible solution to the murders, pointing out who the real murderer probably was. Touko however notices a mistake in this theory, which allows her to propose a theory of her own and so the two start exchanging letters in an attempt to find the real murderer of the past in Miki Akiko's Giman no Satsui ("Deceptive Malice") 2020).

One of my favorite reads and biggest surprises of last year was Miki's Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau ("Deductions Suit Cats Well"), a book about Kaori, a secretary in a law office who'd chat and have deduction battles with... Scottie, the talking Scottish Fold cat kept at the office. Kaori and Scottie would secretly make up detective stories featuring the clients visiting the office and try to outsmart each other. It was a very cute premise, but the book was also surprisingly cunningly plotted book, reminiscent of Anthony Berkeley or Christianna Brand due to the many, cleverly set-up false solutions with great foreshadowing hidden within the amusing banter between Kaori and Scottie. The book also had a two-part structure, with Kaori confronted with a real crime happening at the law office, and the way this second half incorporated the hypothetical deduction battles of the first part for its clewing was really memorable. Anyway, I had bought the book on a whim originally, but had no regrets at all and knew I'd want to read more by Miki, and I eventually settled on today's book.

In a way, Giman no Satsui is quite similar in concept to Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau, though there's no talking cat here. But we have once again a story involving lawyers (the author worked at law offices apparently), there's the focus on false solutions by having characters firing hypotheses each other, which are rejected again only to lead to new theories and realizations etc. and the two-part structure, the first part being the set-up, but also hiding a lot of clues which are only picked up much later. The first part of Giman no Satsui however is really just a set-up of the crime scene, and doesn't really involve many deduction battles. We're presented a fairly dry summary of the core facts of the Nire clan murders, showing where everybody was and what they were doing in the hours leading up to the poisonings of Sawako and Yoshio, and the resulting events, ending with the confessing murderer being sent to prison. The narrative is rather business-like here, as this part is really focused on presenting an objective summary of what transpired on that day, but it's not very long, and the second part set in 2008 does really build very cleverly on this first part.

The second part is when Giman no Satsui becomes really entertaining, as we're treated to a series of letters written by an elderly Nire Touko and the recently released convicted murderer who claims they were not actually the murderer (something Touko was actually convinced of in the first place). They reminisence on the past forty years, but ultimately they of course end up writing about the murders. The first letter reveals the person convicted of the murder had given the matter a lot of thought while they were in prison and that they had arrived at a solution that would explain who could've poisoned both Sawako and Yoshio and why. But then Touko explains she knows something that counters that theory, but thanks to the first letter, she too got new knowledge which allows her to propose another theory, and thus the story starts building theory upon theory based on the core facts we saw in the first part, occassionally corrected by some new pieces of information we get in the letters. It's a fun parade of false solutions which very brilliantly build on seemingly insignificant clues to arrive at surprisingly convincing theories, and yet it never feels futile: each letter brings something new that shines a different light on facts you thought you already knew, and even with the rejection of each theory, you do feel you're approaching the truth. Giman no Satsui is exactly the kind of book for fans of Ellery Queen's work and the focus on building theories on the known evidence/knowledge brick by brick and adapting theories whenever a new fact is introduced. This makes this book feel different from other stories with multiple false solutions like The Poisoned Chocolate Case and Kyoumu he no Kumotsu as it's not presented as an anti-mystery.

Giman no Satsui even adds another twist about 2/3 in the book, when the exchange in letters lead to a new incident occuring, which make you look at the original 1966 murders in a completely different manner once agan. This part is done really well, with some deliciously devilishly hidden clues that hint at what really happened this time and a great conclusion to a book that's been constantly about recalibrating your thoughts on what appears to be a fixed scene, while still building on actual physical clues that have been there waiting all that time for you to finally notice them. 

So I enjoyed Giman no Satsui a lot too, even if it loses cuteness points for not featuring a talking cat. Fans of Ellery Queen, Christianna Brand and Anthony Berkeley will probably like this one, due to its focus on building logical chains of deductions and the many false solutions, but it'd be a disservice to Miki if I'd only say that it's just those elements that made this book: it's the actual plotting of Giman no Satsui and the way the clues are laid out and then picked up to propose the theories that make this a fun book to read. Luckily, Miki has still many books I haven't read yet, so you'll definitely see more of her work on the blog in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 深木章子『欺瞞の殺意』

Thursday, December 2, 2021

番外編:Death of the Living Dead Released

Considering my other new translation released this year was Death Among the Undead, you'd almost think this was planned...

One month ago, on Halloween, publisher Ammo announced they'd be publishing my English translation of YAMAGUCHI Masaya's seminal mystery novel Death of the Living Dead soon.  And soon it was, as I can announce now that the book has been released now, both as an e-book as well as in physical form! I already wrote an announcement post last month, so I guess I'm just repeating myself here, but I was asked by Yamaguchi to work on a translation a few years ago, but a revised Japanese edition was released after I had worked on the translation. I was informed that translation advisors/editors worked on my initial translation afterwards to incorporate the revisions, so while the base is my work, I am very grateful to all the other people who worked on the text! I have to admit I haven't seen the final product myself yet, and due to the long timeline behind the project and the extra revisions that had to be made due to the newer Japanese version, I'm pretty excited to have a look at the book myself too finally. It's been quite some time since I last worked on Death of the Living Dead, so I reckon it'd feel fresh even to me!

For those who missed the original announcement post,Yamaguchi's debut novel originally released in 1989 and is one of earliest and definitely one of the best Japanese mystery stories that utilized a supernatural setting to present a fair play puzzle plot detective. It has won several awards for mystery fiction, both during its original release as well as many decades after the release, proving its relevance even now. Set in the United States, this lengthy tale follows Francis "Grin" Barleycorn, a rock punk who after a turbulent time in the old country, returns to his family home: the famous Smile Cemetery in New England. Grandfather Smiley Barleycorn, the person who brought the Barleycorn funeral directing family business to the States and built the empire that is the Smile Cemetery, doesn't have long to live anymore, giving Grin a reason to finally meet his grandfather and his uncles for the first time in his life. Smiley's been in bad health for some time, and his sons are running the company now in his place, but Grin's uncles all have different ideas what to do with the business once Smiley is really  gone. Meanwhile, a strange phenomenom has been plaguing the world: the dead have started to rise. The scientists haven't figure out why yet, there have been several cases across the world where people simply "wake up" from their death and are still able to think, speak and act basically as if they were alive. The only problem: their body is still decomposing. It's amidst these circumstances that mysterious deaths occur at the Smile Cemetery, and it's up to young Grin to solve these deaths, but what's a detective going to do in a world where death isn't as decisive as it used to be?

I read the book for the first time back in 2014, and I was sold immediately. Going through the book again for the translation only rekindled my love for the book. The way the novel makes use of the supernatural element is brilliant, especially considering that this was first released in 1989. Long-time readers of this blog will have noticed that I have developed a love for mystery novels with supernatural elements these last few years, and the concept itself has become very popular in Japanese mystery ficton, but Death of the Living Dead still ranks among the best of the genre. This is also due to the surprising deep way in which the book tackles the theme of death. Sure, mystery novels usually revolve around death, but Death of the Living Dead really delves into the question of what death means for us humans, and there's a lot of discourse and discussion going on the theme of death across the centuries. You'd be surprised how well-researched this book is on the theme of thanatology, without burdening the brilliant puzzler that is at the core of this novel. The book is basically twice the length most books I've translated until now, and it makes good use of the extra page count to present a very tricky plot, but also to talk about everything death.

Anyway, I basically just repeated every single point I already made in my announcement a month ago, so I'll stop right here. Be sure to visit the official website of Death of the Living Dead as I can really recommend this book to any fan of the genre. Death of the Living Dead is funny, dramatic and poignant, but best of all a really clever mystery novel that has been a well-regarded classic in Japan for three decades, and hopefully it'll appeal to the English-reading audience too!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Greek Symbol Mystery

"この地上すべてを覆うロジックは存在しない"
『或るギリシア棺の謎』
 
"There exists no logic that can cover all in this world." 
"A Greek Coffin Mystery"

Never visited Greece myself. In high school, the classes that took Latin and/or Ancient Greek went to Rome on a school trip, which was awesome, but I would've loved Athens too...

In Tsukatou Hajime's 2019 short story collection Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo ("An Egyptian Cross Mystery"), professional photographer/amateur detective Minami Mikikaze became a guide for his friend, the prominent forensic investigator Elizabeth Kittridge, who is visiting Japan for an international symposium and workshop program on criminal forensic investigation. Beth's father was the surgeon who successfully conducted Mikikaze's heart transplantant when he was a child, and they have kept in touch ever since, which is how Mikikaze became friends with Beth too. Both Beth and her father Ronald are also involved with various international NPOs that support children's organ transplantations across the world and while she's in Japan, she plans to visit a few of the important Japanese sponsors they have been working with all these years. After the events of the short story Aru Holland-Gutsu no Nazo ("A Dutch Shoe Mystery") however, Mikikaze and Beth learn that one of the people they wanted to visit has passed away: the elderly Andou Akemi had headed an important NPO that had helped children all over the world, and while they may be too late to meet her personally, Mikikaze and Beth hurry to Akemi's home so they can at least pay their final respects. The Andou clan is an old family with interesting roots: some centuries ago, a Greek sailor washed up on the shores of Japan and while he always longed to return to Greece, he never managed to return home. Centuries later, the Andou's still pride themselves on their Greek origin. One of the more interesting relics the wealthy family has are wooden coffin made of the wood of the ship that brought their ancestor to Japan. When Mikikaze and Beth arrive at the Andou home, they learn the wake has been postponed, because there are serious suspicions whether Akemi really died of natural causes: a torn-up last will was found in a waste basket in the kitchen and when the male members of the family went down to the crypt to carry out the wooden coffin to lay Akemi inside, a note was found that indicated that Akemi's death wasn't natural. A link is made to the murder on her granddaughter Natsumi, who disappeared four years ago on her way to work and whose body was found last August buried in a grove nearby, suggesting that Akemi's death isn't natural either. Mikikaze and Beth, as experts on criminology, stick around to investigate whether Akemi's death was really a murder in Tsukatou Hajime's novel Aru Girishia Hitsugi no Nazo ("A Greek Coffin Mystery", 2021).

Another review of a book that is based on Ellery Queen this year? Anyway, I quite liked the stories found in Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo ("An Egyptian Cross Mystery", 2019) when I read it last year, so when I learned a follow-up volume was released in February, and that it was a full-length novel, I became quite excited. While I am a fan of the short story format, I knew things could become interesting if Tsukatou would use the Queen-inspired plotting of the short story collection and apply those techniques to a full-length novel. Like the previous stories, you don't need actual knowledge of Ellery Queen's Nationality novels to read this book: there's no real link with The Greek Coffin Mystery, the book is just about a very big family (four generations!) with Greek origins and a Greek coffin, and the book doesn't even take cues from The Greek Coffin Mystery's famous story structure. 

What you do get is a novel that focuses strongly on logical deduction based on physical evidence, with long chains of reasoning that highlight the state and circumstances of how something is found and the logical implications of those line of thoughts. This is of course the (early Queen-style of deduction, where the reader is challenged to figure out some characteristics of the culprit by process of logical deduction: the state of an object can tell something about when the culprit did something, with what purpose they did something, which knowledge they had that allowed them to do something, etc., and these are all hints that can help identify the killer. And you get plenty of moments like these in  Aru Girishia Hitsugi no Nazo: from how the note was found when they carried the wooden coffin out of the crypt, to when and how the torn-up will found its way inside the waste basket in the kitchen to a security camera which has been sabotaged and more. Each of these clues don't seem to mean that much at first, so it's pretty exciting to see how every time Mikikaze manages to point out what these clues really mean and what they can tell us about the culprit. Even the most unimportant-looking action turns out to be a clue that helps identify the killer. The part with the camera is especially great, with a long chain that shows who could and would have sabotaged the camera that was aimed at a corridor that shouldn't be that significant in the first place. By the way, a little diagram of the house and where the camera was would have been useful: while spacial consciousness isn't really necessary to solve this part of the mystery, it does help visualize the situation much better and would allow the reader to come up with the necessary deductions more easily.

But while I did like these particular parts of the book, as a whole novel, I don't think Aru Girishia Hitsugi no Nazo was as entertaining as the short stories. This is partially because the inital premise of the story can feel a bit underwhelming. Beth and Mikikaze only stick around because there are suspicions about Akemi's death due to the discovery of the torn-up will and the vague threatening note found with the coffin, but it takes a looooooong time before the book presents even something remotely certain on whether a crime has really been committed. So for a long time, you'll see everyone talk and discuss issues which may not even be relevant in the first place if there's no crime happening anyway. Even in the later parts of the novel, a lot of the story as reconstructed by Mikikaze feels a bit uncertain despite the convincing ways in which he deduces the facts: the inital starting point of Akemi's death is just so mundane the rest of the plot feels less impressive/captivating, because while Mikikaze managed to construct a stable house of cards, it can all come down easily if the floor beneath it is moved around. Even to me, who likes these more 'theoretical' detective stories that focus on long chains of deductions and what-if scenarios, Aru Girishia Hitsugi no Nazo felt as a slow book because there was no clear crime to focus on. The way the various chains of deductions relate to each other is also a bit different from the usual Queen book: here we have a lot of seperate events with their own chains of events positioned one after another on a long timeline and these events stay mostly discrete , whereas in Queen-like novels, you usually have these different chains of deductions that ultimately come together at one point.

In my review of Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo, I wrote I sometimes had trouble with the writing style, mentioning "It's hard to explain what it is, but Tsukatou often jumps a few minutes ahead and has the characters discuss all kinds of things that seem slightly vague to the reader and after that section, the narration catches up and explains how they got to that point (which explains the vague allusions in the earlier dialogue)." This is also absolutely the case in Aru Girishia Hitsugi no Nazo and while you'd think you'd get used to it after a while, I didn't. At one point, I accidentally started at the wrong section of the book, one section further than I actually was. When they started talking about something I had no recollection of, I didn't even think that was odd: the whole book had been written like that, so I assumed that after a few pages we'd jump back in time again and get the full details. Only that didn't happen, and it was only then I noticed I had actually skipped a part of the story. Normally, you'd realize this immediately, but the way this book is written you basically always have brief moments where you think you have missed something but it's only explained in detail a few pages later.

Aru Girishia Hitsugi no Nazo ultimately does reveal a very intricately structured plot with all kinds of puzzle pieces falling into place and more than a few surprises, but it takes a long time to set-up the finale and to be honest, I enjoyed this book more for its discrete moments, than as a total. It has some really interesting segments where the detective shows off his deductive skills by focusing on the state of the evidence and then following the trail to its logical conclusion, but because the binding elements between these moments is not as fun (Akemi's death is not a clear murder, very few of Akemi's relatives are actually nice characters to follow), the book as a whole doesn't feel as convincing as its finest moments. If you liked Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo, I can recommend this book as it's a fine example of a Queen-like mystery, but I wouldn't start with this book if you want to follow Mikikaze and Beth's adventures: start with Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo first to get an idea of the style, and then decide whether you like it enough or not.

Original Japanese title(s): 柄刀一『或るギリシア棺の謎』

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Case of the Constant Suicides

さくらさくら今、咲き誇る
刹那に散りゆく運命を知って
「さくら」(森山直太朗) 

Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms, they bloom now
Knowing the destiny awaiting them is to fall
"Cherry Blossom" (Moriyama Naotarou)

I mentioned earlier how I always take ages to get pass the first sections of the books in this series. I think almost six months passed since I read the first pages of this book, and when I was finally finished...

Toujou Genya series
1) Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono ("Those Who Bewitch Like The Evil Spirits", 2006)
2) Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono ("Those Who Are A Taboo Like The Malicious Bird", 2006)
3) Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) 
4) Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend", 2008)
5) Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono ("Those Who Stay Inside Like A Sealed Room", 2009)
6) Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009). 
7) Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola", 2011)
8) Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan", 2012)
9) Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono (2018)
10) Maguu no Gotoki Motarasu Mono (2019) 
11) Ina no Gotoki Nieru Mono (2021)

Sakurako grew up in a poor, rural village but she was happy living with her parents, siblings and friends. She even became friends with Aya, a girl from a family with means living in the neighborhood, who taught her to read and write. But with ever-lasting poverty going on, Sakurako agrees to be sent off to the red light district Momozono so she can earn money for her family, even though she doesn't know what a courtesan is. She's brought the Kinpeibairou, a courtesan house, where the 13-year old girl receives education and taught skills she will need in the future by Granny, who keeps on an eye on the women working in the house. Sakurako becomes friends with Yuuko, the daughter of the owner of Kinpeibairou, but after a while Yuuko stops appearing at the house. Meanwhile, Sakurako also senses there's something wrong about the courtesan house, and there are multiple rumors of ghostly figures haunting the hallways at night or looking into the rooms through the windows. At first young Sakurako also doesn't really understand what the Kinpeibairou is, wondering why all the courtesans here get to wear such nice dresses and how they seem to be earning money just by spending time with men in a room, but it's at age 16 when Sakurako is old enough to be put to work when she's confronted with the hellish reality. Sakurako is given the courtesan name Hizakura and manages to attract quite a few customers early on due to her inexperience and Granny selling her "virginity" multiple times. One night, one courtesan throws herself from the window of the exclusive courtesan room on the third floor of the annex, but she miraculously survives the fall. However, two more courtesans follow in her footsteps, attempting to throw themselves from the same window, though luckily, they manage to be saved. Hizakura is also one of the persons who attempted to throw herself from the window, but she was luckily stopped just in time, but Hizakura doesn't actually know why she tried to jump out of the window, and suspects it has to do with the spectral presence roaming in the courtesan house. Afraid for her life, she plans to escape her nightmare and run away from the Kinpeibai.

A few years later, during World War II, Yuuko has taken over the house of pleasure from her mother, renaming it the Baiyuukirou. Circumstances are of course different now during the war, with the courtesan business being seen as a way to support the troops. It's hard to get hold of good new courtesans however, so when Granny brings in a new woman named Someko who reminds Yuuko of Sakurako, she decides to give Someko the courtesan name Hizakura. The idea is to create some gossip about the original Hizakura having returned, and they put Someko in the exclusive courtesan room on the third floor. Meanwhile, there's also a pregnant woman staying inside the courtesan house, a friend of Yuuko's mother who has to give birth discreetly. Half a year passes and the woman gives birth, but soon after throws herself out of the window of the exclusive courtesan room. And then another, and another... After the war, the courtesan house was bought by a third party, who renamed it the Baienrou, making it a restaurant with a special back-establishment where the waitresses sell their bodies. Sako Sousuke is the nephew of the new owner and a newly debuted writer of horror stories, and he has been looking into the case of the constant suicide leaps in the past. Interestingly, a new waitress has been hired who has been given the name Hizakura, which might have been tempting fates, for once again, a series of suicide leaps from that room starts. When mystery writer Toujou Genya comes into possession of the diaries and manuscripts of Sakurako, Yuuko and Sako respectivelly, he arrives at a startling conclusion regarding the haunted courtesan room in Mitsuda Shinzou's Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan", 2012)

The sixth full-length novel and eight book overall in Mitsuda Shinzou's series about the horror-mystery writer Toujou Genya takes on a completely different form than the previous entries and while it's far from my favorite entry in the series, it's quite a unique and memorable experience, and as a mystery novel, it's one that has made a lot of impression on me in regards of the theme. The previous novels basically all followed the same basic premise of being set in a rural place, with an impossible happening occuring during an esotoric religious ceremony with a certain historical meaning, which in turn is interconnected with the motive and means of the how the trick was done. That is definitely not the case here. There's no clear crime committed in this long novel and folklore doesn't even play a big role in this novel. There's talk about a ghostly figure roaming the hallways of the courtesan house throughout the generations, but there's no elaborate analysis into it from a folklore point of view, no views and thoughts presented on it from historical, sociological, economical and religious angles. These eleemnts were a delight to read in the other novels, as Mitsuda always built these stories on actual folklore studies, but the religious angle and how it ties to folklore is next to non-existent here, making it very different from the other novels.

The four chapter structure is another notable change. Toujou Genya himself only makes a minor appearance at the very end of the novel, with the previous three parts making up the bulk of the novel, being the diary of Sakurako (the three leaps out of the window when the first Hizakura was at the courtesan house), an account written by Yuuko about the war period (the second series of leaps, during the second Hizakura's tenure) and a manuscript written by Sako (third series of leaps, during the third Hizakura's time). Throughout the three different accounts, you'll see how the courtesan house changes, and sometimes surprisingly doesn't change. Some courtesans like the first Hazakura disappear from the narrative, some courtesans stay working at the place despite all the owner and name changes, the time changes from pre-war, to during the war and after: it makes the courtesan house a character of its own and throughout the generations, the three narrators also comment on strange, mysterious happenings that occur in the establishment, from figures suddenly disappearing from hallways and footsteps being heard from floors where there's nobody, to of course the repeating series of leaps from the window of the exclusive room each time a courtesan is given the name Hizakura. There's no "clear" crime like a murder or impossible disappearance however, so the mystery of this story is more focused on the atmosphere of the place, which is quite different from the previous novels. I myself found it difficult to stay constantly focused on this book because of this, as it's a very slow book in a series that usually has very slow starts already.

While I said that this book doesn't look at some religious ceremony from various angles like previous books and tie it to the crime, it does look at the theme of courtesans from historical, sociological and economical angles and in that regard, it's like this book uses the method it usually utilizes to examine youkai, religious ceremonies and other folklore topics to examine and analyze the function of courtesans/prostitutes between 1930-1950. Even the setting of the closed-off entertainment district (to make sure no women escape) reminds of the secluded, rural communities with their own customs and rules like we see in the other books. In Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono, you'll get a glimpse in the lives and customs of the women who lived in the courtesan houses, how they were viewed by society in contradicting ways, how their lives changes in and after the war. Mitsuda has clearly done his research and you'll learn a lot about this topic as you read this book, but while it's incredibly informative and interesting, it's obviously not an entertaining topic. The first part of this book, being the diary of the 13-year (and later 16-year) old Sakurako is absolutely horrifying, as you follow a young girl who doesn't even what a prostitute is and who dreams of helping her family by working in the city and slowly realizing what a nightmare her life is. It's incredibly heavy material, and it took me quite some time to get through this first part, because it's really effective at painting the life of young Sakurako and it honestly feels uncomfortable reading this part. The other accounts, being from completely different people, are luckily easier to go through. But in hindsight, I thought it was really a very informative and interesting angle this book focused on, as you're not likely to come across it any time soon elsewhere.

But back to the mystery plot. Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono doesn't feature the same clearly-defined core mystery previous books had, though it still utilizes the method of offering a lot of minor mysteries too, that ultimately tie in together (no Genya making a list of 70 questions to be answered though!). The main mystery is of course the question why people keep throwing themselves out of the window of the exclusive courtesan room on the third floor throughout different periods of time. I really like the core idea behind this, even if it is slightly unbelievable and some parts rely perhaps too heavily on coincidence. But the core notion is one that really fits the unique setting of the red light district, and the concept is worked out quite well throughout the three different periods, but Mitsuda does rely on coincidence a few times to make it a clear three series of three jumps for this novel, so some elements don't feel as strong as others. Genya also addresses the various minor mysteries that pop up throughout the three accounts, like the disappearing figures in the hallways or the footsteps that come from nowhere, and most of them have convincing explanations, though not always hinted at as strongly and they don't always connect that well, so whereas in previous novels usually everything connected back to the main mystery, there are a lot more disconnected nodes in this tale, or nodes that are only connected to the main plot after multiple steps. Plot-wise, Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono is definitely not the brilliant monsters of synergy previous novels were, where everything was connected and written to support other elements. This is anothe reason why this book feels so different from the other novels.

Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono is a weird book to explain and recommend, as it's very different from the previous Toujou Genya novels. It feels like author Mitsuda Shinzou became interested in the topic of courtesans in the 1930-1950s, did tons of research in the topic and afterwards decided to use all that research for a Genya novel. The result is a book that tackles a topic that is quite unlike anything we've encountered before in the series, focusing on a plot quite unlike anything we've seen in the series, but I have to admit, I thought the setting and the theme of courtesans was really interesting, so ultimately, I think it was a worthwhile detour the series took. I wouldn't want all the novels in this series to be like this, but once a while, a book like this is also fun and I have to repeat I really liked the core idea of this book, which is complex in its simplicity, even if the execution isn't as brilliantly neat as we saw in the previous books (which were, to be honest, of an exceptional level in terms of mystery plotting). Don't read this as your first Toujou Genya novel, but if you're looking for a palate cleanser after reading three or four other books in the series...

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三『幽女の如き怨むもの』