Saturday, January 30, 2021

Crime in the Cards

"You don't have to know anything about mahjong to draw mahjong manga!" 
"Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga"

It's actually crazy how I managed to watch a whole series of Akagi without actually understanding mahjong...

After solving a crime that happened at her school, Kamino Suzuko is offered a special summer part-time job as a temporary police detective, giving her the authority to mingle with police investigations. The crimes she gets involved with however all happen to have one common theme: mahjong. For some resaon, she always finds herself at crime scenes that are connected to the famous board game, be it a mysterious poisoning in a mahjong parlor, a tragic death that occurs during a long evening of mahjong or even at the headquarters of one of the biggest mahjong clubs in the country. Suzuko, who's become more and more interested in the game after her first case, uses her knowledge of mahjong to solve each case in the four stories collected in Aoyama Hiromi's manga Chuuren Poutou Satsujin Jiken ("The Nine Lanterns Murder Case", 1997).

2018's Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar is still a treasure cove for me, as the extensive write-up on the history of mystery manga made me aware of a lot of mystery series I had never heard of. Anyone who decides to read mystery manga will definitely stumble upon Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou, but most mystery manga won't even run for a tenth of the length of these series, so it can be difficult to track interesting titles without help. I for one have greatly enjoyed going after comics mentioned in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, and last year for example, I reviewed KYŌ, Puzzle Game ☆ High School and the Father Sakura series.

Chuuren Poutou Satsujin Jiken is definitely a title I would never have picked up if not for the mention in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, as it's quite a unique title. Most manga I discuss here were originally serialized in major comic magazines like Shounen Sunday (Conan), which feature a wide variety of comics aimed a certain demographics. Aoyama Hiromi is an artist however who mainly draws gambling manga and the four stories starring Kamino Suzuko too were serialized in Kindai Mahjong Original: a magazine which obviously is about the gambling game of mahjong. Mahjong is very popular in Japan, both as an analog game as well as an online game, so yep, you can actually publish a magazine that's solely about the game and keep it running for decades. Besides text articles, Kindai Mahjong also features a lot of comics about mahjong, though they often involve other genres too: the Kamino Suzuko series is simply a mystery-themed mahjong series and author Aoyama even admits he had at best read ten mystery novels in his whole life when he started on the series, figuring the mahjong part would cover his weaknesses.

Oh, and as a little note, mahjong is also popular among members of the Kyoto University Mystery Club. Most nights, you'll find people in the club room spending all night playing the game and someone like Ayatsuji Yukito is actually quite accomplished as a mahjong player.

But I should probably mention first that I know extremely little of mahjong. While I have seen the whole live-action drama series of Akagi, I still don't know any of the playable hands in mahjong, and while I recognize Ron and Tsumo as play terms, I don't know when you're able to use them. The four Kamino Suzuko stories however were obviously written for people who do know mahjong well, as it ran in a magazine that was only about the game. So the biggest worry I had going in was that these comics would be incomprehensible to me. But I have to say, while I wouldn't call these comics must-read classics of the genre, they were fairly enjoyable even without a basic knowledge of the rules of mahjong. Each of the four stories is named after a hand in mahjong by the way.

Chuuren Poutou Satsujin Jiken ("The Nine Lanterns Murder Case") introduces the reader to Kamino Suzuko, who is brought in to assist with a poisoning case that occured in a mahjong parlor, during a game of four members of the Mystery Club of M University. The poison is found on the tile the victim picked up, but how could any of the other three students at the table manipulate the game in such a way to have the victim pick up that tile? While the story might be hard to solve on your own if you don't really know mahjong, the plotting is strong enough to keep you entertained: each possibility is slowly elimanted one by one, until it almost becomes an impossible poisoning and whenever the conditions of the game become relevant for the mystery solving, it's explained in a way that someone who hasn't once played the game will understand it. 

Taasuushi Satsujin Jiken ("The Four Great Blessings Murder Case") is just borderline related to mahjong: Suzuko has joined the Mystery Club and is invited by fellow member Tamae to her uncle's place, who runs a pension in a ski resort. Her aunt, a famous illustrator, is there to welcome the group, but after dinner she needs to leave for a meeting on an upcoming release. During the night, the four students and Tamae's uncle enjoy a feverish night of mahjong, but the following morning, they find Tamae's aunt lying frozen to death on the doorsteps. At first sight, it appears she returned to the pension late in the night, slipped on the steps and eventually froze to death without anyone inside noticing the tragedy, but Suzuko suspects something is going, even if the most likely suspect, her husband, had been playing mahjong with the gang all night. This time, the mystery is just barely related to the actual playing of mahjong, so it's fairly doable without any knowledge of the game. While some parts of the mystery seems a bit forced (wait, that was the only way to do that action?), the core plot of how the aunt was killed after everyone saw her off together is certainly not bad and there are even some really clever moments.

Daisangen Satsujin Jiken ("The Three Great Dragons Murder Case") is set in Suzuko's past, showing how she solved her first murder case at her missionary school. A nun discovers Suzuko's friend Mizuho lying beneath the clock tower, apparently having fallen from above. The head nurse soon wants to wrap things up as an accident, but Suzuko thinks there's more to this case: some say Mizuho wanted to commit suicide because she was being bullied by her room mates, but Suzuko also heard Mizuho mutter "Oh, Maria..." as she looked up at the Maria statue in the clock tower while lying heavily wounded on the ground. Suzuko starts an investigation into the bullies of Mizuho, but they are being attacked one by one by a mysterious figure, who leaves mahjong tiles near their victims. One minor clue actually makes very clever use of mahjong, and I wonder if people who know the game would've been more prone to fall for that trap, but overall, this story was the least interesting in the volume, with a murderer with a rather hard-to-swallow plan and a more suspenseful story that however misses the finesse of the earlier stories.

Kokushi Musou Satsujin Jiken ("The Peerless Patriots Murder Case") have Suzuko and a friend visit a reception to celebrate the finishing of the headquarters of the mahjong club El Dorado. They accidentally find themselves in the private quarters of the director of the club, who's having an argument with a prominent member of the club about the future of the club. The two are eventually shoed away, but that same night, after the reception, the father of the club's director is found murdered in the office Suzuko and her friend also visited earlier that evening. While the director himself has a perfect alibi for the time of the murder as he was at the reception, the other man has vanished, and he's the main suspect, but Suzuko suspects there's more to it as an attempt on her life is made. The solution has basically nothing to do with mahjong, but is a clever and also fairly believable trick used by he murderer to make the impossible possible. I think that people used to reading mystery fiction are more likely to think of this trick, but the whole thing is worked out in a competent enough manner.

For a collection of stories by someone who was actually writing a mahjong manga, Chuuren Poutou Satsujin Jiken is a surprisingly competent mystery manga, even if it's never groundbreaking. If I'd actually known mahjong, I might've enjoyed the stories even better, but even without the necessary knowledge, the stories in this volume are plotted well enough to allow the reader to appreciate the mystery writing. I wouldn't say this series is anywhere near an absolute must-read, but keep the title in the back of your head and try it out sometime if you happen to want to read a slightly unique mystery manga.

 Original Japanese title(s):青山広美 『九蓮宝燈殺人事件』


  1. Thanks for the review. 😊 I'm always on a lookout for more mystery manga, but I don't think this one has been translated into Chinese. But I do enjoy mahjong, and so am interested to see how mystery and mahjong come together. 🧐

    I've just finished Chan Ho-Kei's 'Man Who Sold The World', and quite enjoyed it. I was wondering, halfway through, if the story might end on a tragic note, but held onto hope in the light of my experience of 'The Borrowed' and 'Second Sister'.

    I quite enjoyed 'Man Who Sold The World', and found the main twists interesting. I can see why you might prefer 'The Borrowed', as 'Man Who Sold The World', despite being the award-winning work, feels somewhat uneven.

    In fact, I see a pattern among the early winners of the Soji Shimada prize: both 虛擬街頭漂流記 and 'Man Who Sold The World' strike me to have similar weaknesses. In that both are early efforts in producing Chinese novels in the vein of the shin honkaku tradition, and somewhat bend over backwards to layer one twist after another, and to play tricks with perception - in ways that can feel a little too unrealistic. I liked the central twist for 'Man Who Sold The World', and didn't think there was a need to pile on two or three additional twists that felt somewhat forced. 🤔

    Will now go and read your review of 'Man Who Sold The World'. 🤓

    P.S. 'Second Sister', I think, is stronger than 'Man Who Sold The World' - and as such is worth reading. In any case, it has an English translation - which I appreciate!

    1. Gambling like Kaiji and Akagi are to a degree mystery manga, like Death Note and Liar Game. But in a series like Akagi, they do assume you know how the game works, so when I watched it, my mind was constantly: 'Oh man, this is so tense but I have NOOOO idea why exactly' XD

      Yeah, you definitely point something out about the early Soji Shimada Award winners that I had noticed too. I've read the first three now (so the two you've read, and I Am The King of Manga), and the main twist usually revolves around a trick of perception. I wonder if that's just what Shimada prefers, because unlike his earlier novels, a lot of his novels nowadays seem to focus more on psychological detection/problems that have to do with how the mind perceives events.

      Second Sister is on the wishlist! Can't say when I'll get to it though, I've been reaaaaaally slow with reading ever since we entered 2021. Gotta speed up these weeks... And I've been even slower with writing reviews, because I still have like eight or nine unwritten reviews ~_~

    2. In some senses, 'Second Sister' is like 'Man Who Sold the World' - but it feels tighter, more mature, and better managed. 😊 But it's also longer - possibly twice as long. 😐 And so that might be a stumbling block given the number of unwritten reviews you're working your way through.

      My bundle of Chinese novels will be arriving very shortly, and it's largely compromised of mystery novels written by Chinese authors - rather than Chinese translations of Japanese mystery writing. I look forward to seeing how the native Chinese mystery writing scene is evolving. 🧐

    3. Oh, lenght itself isn't really a problem, in fact, it's the shorter books which make the to-write list longer and longer without giving me time to catch up ;)

      I wonder if some of those books you ordered are available in Japanese... it's not like they've been publishing that many of them, but the last few years there's definitely been a slight growth in translated Chinese mystery novels in Japan

  2. If anything is going to make me learn about mahjong, it is probably manga. If I recall correctly, the meitantei conan series also have cases involving mahjong.

    Even though I can't read Japanese yet, I have bought 'Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar' based on your recommendation. It is like Robert Adey's 'Locked Room Murders', but for fans of mystery manga. I do wonder how wide is the scope of manga listed in the book, because sometimes there are mystery manga such as 'Psychometrer Eiji', 'Bloody Monday', 'Bistro Pas Mal no Jikenbo', which I feel do not fit the honkaku style, although they do have elements of detection. Then again, the book do contain the 'logic game' genre.

    1. Yeah, there's an early story in the Conan manga which I remember ends with the punchline that Ran's super good at mahjong, but I can't recall what the main story is about XD The anime has mahjong-related stories too, like the OVA that accompanies the film The Raven Chaser.

      Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar is fairly focused on the titular honkaku titles. I guess the author had to draw a line somewhere because lots of thrillers and horror manga do often have a kind of detection element, but that would've been way too much to discuss. Eiji and Bloody Monday are not mentioned for example, and I don't see Ikebukero West Gate Park or The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service either, but one could argue those have detection elements too. With most logic game manga, at least the focus is always on a mystery + solving process so that fits perfectly within the scope of the book, while other series might not always be about that process.

  3. The latest story in Ron Kamonohashi finally kicked it up a notch. The previous overarching villains were cartoony so I guess Amano might've thrown them away (as there were a numerous unnamed teachers shaded out hinted as some kind of future opponents) and swapped them for a more serious Tantei Gakuen Q-type organization. Hopefully the first volume sales show decent numbers as I want to see what the author is able to cook up once the story focuses on main storyline cases.

    1. I just finished reading the latest chapter last night, so I'm not still quite sure what to think about the 'main story twist' now. As a concept, Ron vs the teachers of the academy etc. is more original than *again* protagonist detective VS the type of crime organization that's becoming far too original in Japanese detective fiction, so I'm still divided and I'll have to see what it'll bring.

      Interestingly enough, I think the killed serial killer story was the best story until now, with an original story template and one that made good use of the buddy-cop dynamic: in some other cases, Ron and Toto just feel like Conan and Mouri.

    2. If I were to rate the cases I think it's something like

      1. Observatory case - felt more personal, the comedy isn't always that funny so this one being more serious didn't make it too bland. The case didn't reinvent the wheel or anything but it was pretty properly crafted.

      2. ESP television case - quick but effective as a mystery story.

      3. The Hot Spring case - just due to the atmosphere a hot spring usually brings, it's neat. A quick story otherwise that could've been better.

      4. 5. Hand Collector - I think the answer is a bit 50/50 on how to feel about it, and the 'best detective in the country' perfectionist character ended up being kind of disappointing and forgettable. The story itself was acceptable but I'm not sure if I buy them having the will to cut people's hands. Also the way how they have that one dude who's good at investigating scenes out there confirming stuff on the other end of the phone is very reminiscent of the way Conan's cases go.
      The story starts with Ron appearing out of nowhere to the crime scene, saying to Isshiki that 'you'll understand later how I knew to come here'... and nothing, it's never explained. Maybe he has a tracking device on him with homing glasses?

      5. The serial drowning case - acceptable as kind of mindless fun, I guess

    3. For the moment, I liked the series' simpler stories better actually. I don't think the observatory and hot spring cases are bad, but I have a feeling they could've been worked out a bit more because both of them felt a bit rushed at times or at least that it could've been expanded upon for a more comprehensive mystery, while the shorter stories felt perfect for what they wanted to tell and how deep you could get into the stuff. For example, with the observatory case, I wish the second victim had more screentime/more to do earlier in the story to give them more of a presence, because they went a lot easier than you'd expect ~_~

    4. I can see what you mean but I think Amano had to rush this out to try to get people more interested in buying the first volume.

      There's a new mystery manga series out on WSJ called "i tell c" that's like an inverted Ron Kamonohashi and I suspect that will also have a similar placement for a story like this, depending on what kind of story it even ends up being (writing seems kind of shoddy, half-baked atm).

      Oh I also forgot the legendary "Piggy Bank" case, that one was just bad.

    5. Ah, now you mention it, I did see the cover of Weekly Jump with i tell c on it. I think they describe it as a suspense story, but I might try a few chapters later.