Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Same to Us

「アカレンジャー! アオレンジャー!キレンジャー!モモレンジャー!ミドレンジャー!五人揃って、ゴレンジャー!」
"Red Ranger! Blue Ranger! Yellow Ranger! Pink Ranger! Green Ranger! Five together, we are the Go-Rangers!"
"Secret Squad Go-Ranger"

My first part-time job was at a nursing home actually. Well, the kitchen of a nursing home.

Mei is a newly recruited caregiver who works at the Azuki Home, a small-scale day nursing home for the elderly. Most of the clients still live in their own places, so they are picked up every morning and brought to the home. At the Azuki Home, everyone is fed and bathed (if the assistance is needed) and of course there's a lot of chatting together and at the end of the day, everyone is brought back to their homes. Occassionally, clients stay for a few nights at the Azuki Home, which was also the case with Himeno Ichirou. At least, that was until he died. One day, everyone in the house is shocked by a loud noise and one of the caretakers checked up on old Himeno in his room, the man was found lying bleeding on the floor. The people of the Azuki Home only learned later that it was already too late when they found the man, but what's even more shocking is the fact that Himeno had not simply fallen from his bed on the floor, but that he had been deliberately hit on the head with something hard. The police naturally starts an investigation, and Mei herself too is interested in the case as a fan of mystery fiction, but both investigations soon stumble upon two major obstacles: the murder weapon can't be found inside the Azuki Home, even though nobody left the premises after the body was discovered and what's more baffling: five aging witnesses in the recreation room say that through the door opening, they saw a man run down the hallway only moments before the body was discovered. While a hanging curtain and some boxes on the floor obscured parts of this fleeing figure, they all had a good view on the man's torso. But all five witnesses claim this suspicious figure was wearing something else! Red, blue, white, black and green: how can five witnesses all have seen five different colors?! Mei's co-worker Haru fancies the grandson of one of the clients who happened to be visiting his grandmother at the time of the murder, but it appears the police vaguely suspects he might be involved, so Haru and Mei work together to figure out who the murderer really is in Senda Rio's debut novel Goshoku no Satsujinsha, which also has the English title The Murderer of Five Colors on the cover.

The Ayukawa Tetsuya Award is awarded each year by publisher Tokyo Sogensha to a promising new and upcoming author: the award includes a publishing contract for the debuting author and due to its focus on puzzle plot mysteries, I myself have greatly enjoyed the award winners: in recent years for example I have read and loved 2019's winner Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller"), 2017's winner Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead") and 2016's winner The Jellyfish Never Freezes. So I always keep an eye on the announcement in the fall of each year to see what new author is coming. 2020's winner of the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award however interestingly enough had some similarities with one of the winners of the 2020 Mysteries! Newcomer Award, which is the equivalent award for short stories from the same publisher. You may remember I reviewed Yamato Hironori's short story Kamu Roujin ("The Biting Senior") last year, but that story too was about a small day nursing center for the elderly. It's kinda funny that both winners took on similar themes, even if it's kinda understandable as an aging population is a real-life social problem in Japan. n any case, a nursing home isn't a setting you're likely to associate with murder soon, but last year, we had two award-winning stories that went with such a setting. Author Senda Rio herself actually works (worked?) as a nurse by the way, so I assume that the depiction of the Azuki Home and how everything works is depicted in a realistic way. Save for the murder.

The Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winners I mentioned earlier were all written as fanciful detective stories, with locked room murders in isolated mansions or locations and other familiar tropes, so it took me a bit of time to adapt to the very mundane, realistic setting of The Murderer of Five Colors. The story itself too takes a while get going: while the book opens with the discovery of the body, the sequences after the opening scene are a bit slow as it properly introduces the setting of the Azuki Home and the many related characters and their relations: with the nursing and support staff, clients and visiting family all on scene at the time of the murder, it takes a while to get a good view on who is who and where everybody said they were at the time of the murder. Yet, the set-up is definitely necessary as there's a whole web of human relations that lie at the bottom of the case. The main suspect for example is the grandson of one of the clients of the Azuki Home: he happens to be dating the granddaughter of the victim Himeno, but lately, he's been growing slightly senile and had a one-sided fight with the suspect's grandmother, and therefore didn't like his prospective grandson-in-law at all. There are a few more instances where you need to keep a good eye on who's what to whom, as with all the information you're fed, you could make a pretty complex relationship chart of all the characters.

Things become more interesting once the main problem is presented. The matter of the missing murder weapon is of course also important, but the more baffling puzzle is of course how in heavens five witnesses could swear they all saw the fleeing suspect wearing a completely different color? If it were only two similar colors, like black and blue, you could suppose that some witnesses just didn't have eyes as sharp as the others, but with witnesses saying the suspect was red, blue, white, black or green, who knows which of them is actually right? Due to the contradicting testimonies, it's difficult for the police to pin the crime on any of the people in the Azuki Home at the time of the murder, paving the way for Haru and Mei to find out why their clients all saw a different color.

The five-color problem might sound a bit simple in comparison to the impossible murders we saw in previous Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winners, but the way in which the problem is solved is definitely what I expect from the 2020 winner. Senda manages to provide a convincing, logical explanation to why five different witnesses managed to see five different colors even though they looked at the same man at the same time. While some parts of the explanation might sound a bit familiar or could be easy to guess, it's the combination of all the ideas that manages to make this a great problem of logic: plenty of possible interpretations that a reader is likely to think off are also shown to be incorrect (yeah, it's not color blindness), so while the problem might seem mundane, it's properly worked out to be a truly baffling conundrum. The plot surrounding the murder weapon is less memorable in comparison.

The book has a great conclusion by the way, where Mei confronts her suspect and carefully lays out her deduction before the other party. It's a surprisingly tense confrontation due to some shocking events that occur before the climax, but as things are unrafelled by Mei, you'll learn there was more going on than most readers probably had noticed, and it results in a nice ending to the story, where some scenes suddenly make more sense in hindsight as you learn what their true part in the puzzle was.

Goshoku no Satsujinsha (The Murderer of Five Colors) might not be going for the familiar, classic tropes of the mystery genre and the setting and even the main problem might take some time to get used to, but once you're done with the book, you'll definitely understand why it was the 2020 Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winner. It's a fun story, utilizing an original setting to present a problem that at first seems too simple, but Senda manages to expand on it and really make this a novel-length mystery with perhaps more surpises than you'd initially expect.

Original Japanese title(s): 千田理緒『五色の殺人者』

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Purple Sickle Murders

Umineko: When They Cry

Finally got started on the Famicom Detective Club remakes! Funny to see how old-fashioned they still play, despite the new coat of paint.

After completing the mystery game Umineko: When They Cry a few weeks ago, I decided to have a look at what kinds of spin-off material are available, and the one that caught my attention was Umineko no Naku Koro ni Murasaki: Forgery of the Purple Logic ("When The Seagulls Cry Purple: Forgery of the Purple Logic" 2012-2013), a two-volume manga which was also mentioned in the comments in the Umineko: When They Cry review. The main reason why this title stood out was because it starred my favorite character Furudo Erika: an obnoxious girl who is aware that she's cast in the detective role in a mystery story and is willing to do the craziest things if it will allow her to solve the truth behind a case. But then I read a bit more about Forgery of the Purple Logic and it turned out it was more interesting than I had first expected. The short-lived series is illustrated by Suzushiro Kurumi and written by Hitohira, based on an original idea by Umineko: When They Cry author Ryukishi07 and is conceived as a pure whodunnit mystery story. When this series was originally serialized in the magazine Comp-Ace between 2012-2013, the readers were even challenged to guess the truth and send in answers. With a lot of spin-off material focusing more on character interaction, Forgery of the Purple Logic stood out with its focus on a mystery, so I picked up the two volumes immediately (okay, I'll admit that was because there was a sale going on).

In Umineko: When They Cry, a series of murders among the members of the Ushiromiya clan and their servants occur on October 4th and 5th, 1986 on the private island Rokkenjima. The Golden Witch Beatrice claims that the seemingly impossible murders were committed with the help of her magic, but Ushiromiya Battler refuses to believe in her magic. Amused by Battler's attempt to deny her magic, Beatrice holds a series of "games" with Battler by "resetting" the events of October 4 and 5 and having the events unfold differently each time, challenging Battler to come up with a "rational" explanation for the various impossible murders or give in to her magic. Beatrice and Battler observe the deadly events on Rokkenjima from a meta-universe where witches and other supernatural beings live, like watching a live broadcast or a narrative-within-a-narrative structure and Battler has to figure out what's happening on the island based on what he is shown to him.

In Umineko no Naku Koro ni Murasaki: Forgery of the Purple Logic ("When The Seagulls Cry Purple: Forgery of the Purple Logic"), the Golden Witch Beatrice decides to do things differently for a change, and she creates a new "gameboard" (iteration of the Rokkenjima murders) where magic doesn't exist at all. Her stance this time is therefore not to make Battler give up and accept magic as the answer. In fact, she simplifies the enigmatic murders on Rokkenjima to one single question: whodunnit? Events start in a familiar manner: the members of the Ushiromiya Clan have gathered on Rokkenjima for their annual family gathering, but on the first night, six of them are killed together. The telephone has been disabled and a storm prevents the others from fleeing the island. Coincidentally though, a mysterious girl called Furudo Erika washes up on the shore, having been in an accident at sea. She claims to be a detective, but even she can't prevent more murders from occuring, even though everybody is aware there's probably a murderer among them. Can Erika on the island, and Battler in the meta-universe, figure out who the culprit on Rokkenjima is before everyone is murdered?

Even if you're not familiar with Umineko: When They Cry, the basic premise of a closed circle situation on an island will not be very surprising, but Forgery of the Purple Logic is actually quite a unique mystery manga, because it uses two concepts from the game to create a pure logic puzzle for the reader to tackle: the Red Truths and Purple Statements. In the world of Umineko: When They Cry, Red Truths are statements that are absolutely true and do not need further supporting evidence. If it's stated in red that X is dead, you don't need to worry about X faking their own death or anything. Likewise, if it's stated in red that access to room is only possible using one of the available keys, you don't need to worry about secret passages. You can consider it a way for the author to tell the reader directly that these are the exact rules/parameters of the detective game and that you don't need to be too suspicious about some facts. Purple Statements were originally only featured very briefly in Umineko: When They Cry, but are used more extensively in Forgery of the Purple Logic: like Red Truths, Purple Statements are also absolutely true unless they are spoken by the culprit: they are able to lie even if their statement is in purple. Note that the culprit is not obligated to lie when stating something in purple: they may be lying, but they can be stating an absolute truth too. 

The reader is thus challenged to solve the question of whodunnit in Forgery of the Purple Logic based on the Red Truths and Purple Statements presented throughout the tale. Red Truths are absolutely true, while only the culprit in this story (specifically defined as someone who has killed someone personally, so it can't be just an accomplice) can lie with a Purple Statement, so the reader has to identify the murderer and make sure that accusing this person of the crimes does actually fit with all the known Red Truths and Purple Statements. The concept is somewhat reminsicent of the old riddle with people who only speak the truth and people who only lie and you have to find out who the liar/honest person is, but on a much greater scale because if the variety in statements: colored statements can be about everything, from the circumstances of the deaths and crime scene to people vouching for other people's alibis. Figuring out how your murderer fits with the long list of known colored statements can be trickier than you might expect at first.

Oh, and if you're looking at these black/white images and thinking, geez, there's awfully little red and purple there, you're absolutely right. Like most manga, Forgery of the Purple Logic is mostly printed in monochrome, so they had to come up with a different solution to convey the differences in color:
Red Truths are denoted with a wiggly line next to them, while Purple Statements are denoted with a straight line next to the relevant text. It's a... servicable solution, but after a while wiggly and straight lines blend together as you read on, and it's definitely never as clear as using colors. I wish they had used something more obvious to set the two types of statements apart, like blocks and circles or something like that.

Forgery of the Purple Logic thus offers an original approach for a mystery manga, as you're basically tackling an elaborate logic-based puzzle where you need to figure out what the truthful statements are actually hiding, which Purple Statements don't seem to work together with Red Truths, and from there, work your way to the solution. There are two big caveats however. The first is that like the original Umineko: When They Cry games, Forgery of the Purple Logic won't spell out the whole solution for you. In the last chapter, Erika does reveal who the killer is and there's a whole "and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for this meddling kid" scene, but the manga does not explicitly explain how this person committed the murders or how the reader was supposed to figure it out based on the Red Truths and Purple Statements. If you hadn't figured it out yourself, the final chapter will at least make it clear whose statements you should distrust and you can probably work your way back, but it's still up to the reader themselves to figure out how the murderer managed to lie low among all those colored statements. I myself had figured out the last half of the story, but the first half of the story was a lot trickier and I had to google the solution. Which admittedly, was actually quite clever: the final solution makes pretty clever use of the Red Truths and Purple Statements to fool the reader in a certain way and it's a story that only could have existed because it used colored statements. It's definitely designed as a logic puzzle and while some might find it too sterile, I love these kinds of stories.

The other caveat is that
Forgery of the Purple Logic is pretty much unreadable unless you know Umineko: When They Cry already. There are many characters in this series, and Forgery of the Purple Logic barely attempts to properly introduce them to readers who don't know anything. The story starts of right away with six of them dead on the island and it's not even really explained how everyone is related. This is even worse in the parts set in the meta universe, as Battler and Beatrice are constantly visited by other witches, demons and other supernatural beings while they're observing the murders on Rokkenjima, and these appearances are just fan service, with them all showing up just to say one or two lines and leave again without contributing anything to the story. The final chapter of Forgery of the Purple Logic just goes very briefly into the subject of motive, and while the reader who has played all the eight episodes of Umineko: When They Cry can probably come up with something that could work as a motive because they know all the characters and their motivations, it's absolutely impossible for someone who doesn't know anything yet to come up with anything remotely satisfying based solely on this manga. 

I think Umineko no Naku Koro ni Murasaki: Forgery of the Purple Logic is an interesting experiment in mystery manga, one that builds on the 'solve-it-yourself' attitude of the original Umineko: When They Cry games by providing a pure logic puzzle mystery story without a detailed solution. If you liked Bernkastel's puzzle in the last episode of Umineko: When They Cry, you'll definitely love this and I have to say, the puzzle Forgery of the Purple Logic presents using Red Truths and Purple Statements is amusing. Which is perhaps why I also think it's a shame it's so deeply and firmly set within the Umineko: When They Cry world and setting, because the way it is written, it's basically unaccessible for people who don't know Umineko: this is in no way an introductionary work as it basically wants the reader to fill in the many, many gaps that are left untold in terms of characterization and background information, and that means many readers will miss out on a what is otherwise a fun approach to the puzzle plot manga.

Orginal Japanese title(s): 竜騎士07(原案), 人比良(シナリオ), 珠洲城くるみ(絵)『うみねこのなく頃に 紫 Forgery of the Purple logic』

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Running On Fumes

" It is probably speeding on its way thither at the present instant as fast as steam can take it."
"The Adventure of the Second Stain"

This reminds me I want to try Steam Detectives one day...

It's finally time for Ema to start thinking about her future and decide on her apprenticeship. In an age where highly advanced steam and aether engines have made everything possible in this world, the future is bright and possibilities are unlimited. And while following her father's footsteps sounds alluring, travelling across the world as the captain of a flying aether-engine ship, her mind is set on becoming a detective, like the highly esteemed private detective Murie. She manages to arrange to be taken on as Murie's apprentice when her father returns to the metropolis from an important scientific mission: their airship moved to the atmosphere to research outer space for a while, but the expedition returned with a very odd capsule, which seems to hold a boy of Ema's age. She accidently opens the capsule, releasing the boy, but he appears to be normal boy. He is put in Murie's charge while Murie becomes involved in an investigation related to the space expedition and the mystery of why the boy was in the capsule, but meanwhile, Ema and the boy Yuujin get involved in all kinds mysteries that happen in the city, from with a locked room murder in a hotel where a scientist is knocked on the head with a rock to a man being stabbed with a knife while standing in the middle of a long corridor made completely of glass, with only Ema and Yuujin nearby and nobody else who could've approached the victim unseen. What they don't know is that they're about to uncover an insidious plot in Ashibe Taku's Steam Opera (2012).

Sometimes you come across a novel where you just know that the author not only greatly enjoyed writing the work, but also that the book was perhaps not so much written for a certain audience, but mostly for the author themselves. That's definitely the case with Steam Opera, which really feels like a book where Ashibe just went loose and decided to tackle all kinds of themes he himself likes. Of course, that's always been his forte to a degree: his bibliophilic tendencies is usually very prominent featured in his stories with lots of reference to literature and history, and often his plots also go deep into these themes. But Steam Opera feels like it was completely built upon Ashibe's personal interests, which is not a bad thing, mind you. 

When you're reading this mystery novel, with a steampunk alternate universe setting (with steam-powered trams, escalators, everything!) and written like a Jules Vernes-esque adventure novel with a distinct light novel-ish tone, with a young girl detective as the protagonist, it almost like you're ticking off a list of themes Ashibe likes. His love for late nineteenth century adventure novels is something you clearly see in his other works, as is his interest for the female detective protagonist as a trope, and the last years he's also been dabbling in light novel writing, so Steam Opera is really a book where he just throws together. And for the most part, it does work. The opening chapters of the book are exciting, as they introduce the reader to a steampunk world with aether engines and other familiar tropes of the steampunk genre and you know this distinctive universe will also be the setting for some interesting mysterious cases. Ema is pretty fun as the strongminded and usually quick-minded protagonist and the story combines the tropes of the classic science fiction adventure novel with more distinct light novel-conventions like the banter, but resulting in a world that you're not likely to find in many other mystery novels. That said, personally, I would've preferred a little more focus on the mystery side of the story, as sometimes the adventure-ish sides of the story don't seem to go anywhere than just to show off the characters.

Soon after the return of Ema's father's ship however, several mysterious murders occur in the steam-powered capital. They are of an impossible kind and the experienced reader of course knows that because we're now in a world with highly advanced steam and aether engines, solving the mystery will a be a lot trickier than let's say a mystery set in our own world. The first murder in that regards is perhaps a bit disappointing, about a man who's knocked on his head with a heavy stone in a locked hotel room, though it does utilize elements unique to this world. The situation in the Crystal Palace gardens is far more interesting: a man is stabbed by a knife in a corridor made completely of glass, allowing everyone around to have a clear view of the victim. With the victim standing in the middle of the curved corridor and Ema and Yuujin on either end of the corridor, nobody could've approached the victim to stab him, and yet there's a knife sitting neatly in the victim's body. I kinda had an idea what was likely the trick behind this murder, because the first case gave me a hint, but I think it's ultimately worked out really neatly in this novel. Speaking of which, the book builds to a climax that makes great use of the unique steampunk setting, but it also fits the almost fantasy-like story premise with a boy found in space. It's a grand conclusion that didn't quite manage to surprise me as much as it probably should have, because by mere coincidence, I had played with a similar idea but more as a joke theory, but Ashibe manages to convincingly work out this idea to write an ambitious work of steampunk fantasy mystery, but I don't think that everyone will like it: like I said, I first thought of it as a joke theory because I thought it'd be funny in such a novel and some might even find it unfair. If you didn't see it coming, it will hit you like a rock, and then you'll realize that you could've seen it coming, but it's a conclusion that really could've only worked in this specific steampunk world and it's a memorable one.

I do think that Steam Opera would perhaps have worked better in the form of something like an anime series. It already has the light novel atmosphere, but I also think that the steampunk world itself could've also used more time to really settle, as sometimes the set-up for some relevant elements of this world feels inadequate, whereas more runtime would've prepared the viewer more thorougly. The novel itself isn't really short, so but a more deliberate episode-by-episode structure would've made this a better experience.

Steam Opera is a book that's obviously written by Ashibe, for Ashibe, but that doesn't mean it's not amusing on its own. While the mystery subplots take a bit of time to really take off, the book does work to a conclusion that's memorable because of the way it utilizes the unique steampunk setting to present a mystery that you won't find anywhere else. That said, the storytelling at times feels more focused on the comedic steampunk adventure-side of the story, so if you're just reading this for the mystery, things will be a bit slow and longwinded perhaps.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓『スチームオペラ』

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Secret in the Stars


Looking up at the night sky alone, I saw a comet
But it appeared and was gone in a second
"Comet" (Younha)

First time I read something by Kurachi, but certainly not the last!

While he may have been morally right, Sugishita Kazuo knew there would be consequences for the undiplomatic, and especially physical manner in which he dealt with his abusive superior. He liked working at the marketing company, so he feared he'd be fired, but surprisingly, he was "only" moved to a completely different part of the company to give the whole deal some time to die down. Given that he liked marketing, he wasn't especially happy with his appointment to the new and small entertainment section, but it was better than losing his job. Sugishita is made manager-in-training (basically just a personal assistant) of Hoshizono Shirou, a "star watcher" and popular television personality who's been making women crazy with his handsome looks and romantic talks about the stars and constellations. Sugishita develops an instant dislike for the arrogant and showy Hoshizono, but the day after they first meet, he's already forced to go on a trip with him, as Hoshizono has been invited by the boss of a big land development company. This Iwagishi has recently bought a run-down campsite in the mountains. The original owner was a lover of camping, and wanted people to come down here in their caravans and spend a nice time in the nature, but financially, this wish was just not feasible and Iwagishi got the whole campsite, complete with ten log houses and a main building, for a dime and nickle. His plan is now to develop this campsite into a kind of leisure facility with the stars as the theme, as the location in the mountains make it perfect for stargazing. 

The camp is still in its original condition, but Iwagishi has invited a few guests who he thinks can help make his stargazing leisure facility a success: besides Hoshizono, he has also invited the highly successful romantic novelist Kusabuki Akane as well as the famous UFO expert Sagashima Kazuteru. The three guests (and their assistants, as well as two female companions) are to spend a night here at the camp with Iwagishi, to see what suggestions they may have for the facility and whether they would be could involved in some way, like having Kusabuki write a novel set around the location. The initial talks about the facility during dinner are good, but the following morning, Iwagishi is found murdered in his log house at the camp. The camp has no phone lines however, and when Iwagishi's assistant tries to drive down the mountain, he finds that the heavy snowfall of last night has completely blocked off the road. The survivors realize they are trapped by the snow on the campsite with a murderer on the loose. To Sugishita's great surprise however, he learns that Hoshizono is actually a lot sharper than he pretends to be, and together, the starwatcher and the assistant start investigating the murder on Iwagishi in the hopes of preventing more murders in Kurachi Jun's Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Mountain Lodges beneath the Shooting Stars" 1996).

I have mentioned quite often on this blog that the logic school of mystery writing, as seen in the works of novelists like Ellery Queen and Arisugawa Alice, is my favorite. Some might prefer the 'flash of inspiration' style of writers like Agatha Christie and to a lesser extent John Dickson Carr, where a small clue is supposed to tip off the detective or reader on the whole crime and you're expected to "just" suddenly see how everything fits, but I always have been a fan of the slower, and more deliberate manner of the logic school, where you add up a lot of minor clues like 1) the murderer was right-handed, 2) the murderer had to know fact X because they did action Y, 3) the murderer only learned of fact X after time Z, 4) the murderer is not one of the characters who were at A, etc. to eventually find out who the murderer was and how everythhing fits together. I spent a whole post trying to explain why I love this kind of clewing and my feelings on this have not changed: I love how this kind of plotting tries to really make mystery fiction like a game, because it makes the process more fair. This kind of whodunnit-focused novels often have you identify a list of characteristics of the murderer and compare them to the known suspects. These stories feel fair because as you slowly start to cross off suspects on the list, you usually figure out for yourself you're still missing one or two identifying conditions: perhaps you already know the murderer must be right-handed based on Scene 37, and you know they had to know about the clock in Scene 23, but it's only when you're left with three suspects and go over the story again that you realize the fact two of those suspects didn't take sugar in their tea was significant!

Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is a fantastic example of the logic school of mystery writing. It might have a rather familiar story setting, with a group of people trapped in the mountains due to heavy snowfall and the murders are certainly not committed in a spectacular or baffling manner, but it's completely focused on offering a puzzle that challenges the reader to logically infer who the murderer is. The reader is actually made aware of this the moment they open the book, for this book has a very unique chapter naming convention. The chapters are not really titled: they always open with a two, three sentence notice that summarizes the contents of said chapter and notes what's important or not. For example, the first chapter literally opens with the notice that the protagonist of the story will appear there and that "The protagonist is the narrator and the Watson. They share all information they learn fairly with the reader and are not the murderer." The next chapter, where Sugishita meets with Hoshizono for the first time too starts with a notice that "the detective becomes involved with the case by pure coincidence and is not the murderer", while in a later chapter where Hoshizono and Sugishita discuss the murder and they focus on several important facts, the chapter opening states that these observations made by Hoshizono are indeed correct. The whole book is playing the game open and fair from start to finish, and it's almost surreal to see little post-its by the writer that say what's important and whether some incident was just a coincidence or not. They do make Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin an exciting read though, because at the same time, you know it really won't be that easy and that Kurachi is trying to present a puzzle that will surprise the reader with how the murderer will be identified in the end. It's also fun to go over the chapter introductions again once you're done with the book: some of these notifications might seem a bit too cryptic the first time you read them, but they make more sense once you know everything and some of them are quite clever! I played Umineko: When They Cry after reading this book, but the chapter 'titles' here are somewhat similar in idea to the concept of Red Truths in that game.

And yep, the whodunnit puzzle is pretty ingenious even with the help of those chapter openings. If you love early Ellery Queen or for example The Moai Island Puzzle (disclosure: I translated that book), you're in for a treat, because Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is exactly what you're looking for! Finding all the clues that will eventually lead you to the identity of the murderer is very tricky, but never unfair: each time one of the identifying conditions is mentioned, it's likely you'll have noticed (part of) it, and even if you didn't, you're sure to realize that they are very convincing logical conclusions drawn from what you have seen at the crime scene and in other parts of the story. It's of course ultimately combining all these facts together to form an image of the murderer which will prove to be difficult: I for one had a good idea about who the murderer was, but I really couldn't find the clues that could logically exclude everyone else besides the person I had set my eyes on, as I always would end up with other suspects based on the clues I had found! It's at these moments I love this kind of mystery fiction, where I have to decide whether I'm just on wrong track, or simply missing some kind of clue or misinterpreting a clue that would allow me to logically arrive at a different person. You'll need to identify quite a few conditions to be able to cross off all the names save for the murderer and that does mean some of these conditions are a bit easier to identify than others (and some of them feel will probably feel familiar as they're popular ideas in mystery fiction), but getting all of them is difficult and some of them are pretty clever that make good use of this particular story setting, like strange circling mark in the snow as if made by a rotating UFO's expulsion device.

In terms of appearances, Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin might feel a bit too familiar, with its tense closed circle situation in the snow, and the familar story beats like the surviving people becoming suspicious of each other, attempts to get through the snow to find help and more, but I think Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is a great showcase that it's possible to write a great tale of mystery and logical reasoning even when using familiar building blocks: Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is easily one of the best mystery novels I've read this year, because it's so dedicated to offering a solvable logical puzzle, where the reader is rewarded for activally thinking along and trying to figure out whodunnit by carefully considering the clues and considering the precise implications of each action of all the characters. Some readers might feel this book feels a bit too like a puzzle, but for me, this is exactly the kind of mystery story I love. 

Original Japanese title(s): 倉知 淳『星降り山荘の殺人』

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Last Note of the Golden Witch

Sleep peacefully, my beloved witch Beatrice

Aaand like I had hoped, I managed to finish this post just before the Famicom Detective Club remakes release next week!

A few months(!) ago, I started playing 07th Expansion's very, very long mystery visual novel Umineko no Naku Koro ni ("When the Seagulls Cry"), released in English as Umineko: When They Cry. I knew beforehand that playing through all eight episodes of this game would take a long time, so I decided to add a playthrough memo to the blog to write down my theories/ideas per episode and at the end of March, I also wrote a post on Umineko when I had finished the first four episodes, putting me on the halfway point. The eight episodes of Umineko are split across two story arcs: the first four episodes form the Question arc, presenting the main problems for the players to solve, while the last four episodes form the Scatter arc, which doesn't explicitly spell out the complete solution, but does provide the player with many important answers which can be used by the player to fill in the remaining gaps. In a way, this post, and the previous post on Umineko also form one set together too. In the first post, I mostly wrote about the concept of Umineko: When They Cry as a product, the basic story and the mystery elements that stood out to me in the first four episodes. In this post I'll try to look at Umineko: When They Cry more closely a piece of mystery fiction, so I'll skip a lot of the basic information regarding the games here. 

You'd best read the other Umineko: When They Cry article first if you aren't familiar with the concept yet, but to put it very simply: a series of locked room or otherwise seemingly impossible murders occur on the island of Rokkenjima, where the Ushiromiya clan has gathered for an annual family gathering. It appears the murders of the Ushiromiya family members and the servants are part of a ritual to revive the Golden Witch Beatrice and indeed, she rises as the last people on the island die. Battler Ushiromiya, one of the victims, however refuses to believe in magic and witches, which amuses Beatrice. She decides to play a game of wits with Battler: she creates a 'new' version of the closed circle murders on Rokkenjima, which Battler and Beatrice observe from an parallel universe. Beatrice's position is that the impossible murders are made possible through her magic, while Battler has to prove that these murders are not the result of magic, but committed by a real-life person. They go through this twisted game again and again, resetting the 'chessboard' of this insane fantasy mystery game again each time, with the two discussing the various murders from a meta-level, and Battler struggling every time to come up with a comprehensive human explanation for the events.

I finished the final episode about two weeks ago, but honestly, it took me a long time to sort out my thoughts on the game. Mainly, because it's really long and grand in scale. While the eight episodes form one story overall, the first four episodes Legend of the Golden Witch, Turn of the Golden Witch, Banquet of the Golden Witch and Alliance of the Golden Witch are each basically a whole mystery novel on their own. The following episodes End of the Golden Witch, Dawn of the Golden Witch, Requiem of the Golden Witch and Twilight of the Golden Witch also feature some murder mystery elements, though less elaborate and they are usually just used as a kind of case study that function as hints to solve the mysteries in the first four episodes. But even so, there's just a lot going on here, and I do have to say that if you ever want to start playing Umineko: When They Cry, you do need to plan it out it a bit because it's time consuming, with each episode taking about 8-10 hours.

This makes Umineko: When They Cry a tricky mystery story, because from the start, it simply tries to overwhelm you with sheer volume. At the end of the first episode, the Golden Witch Beatrice revives and no real explanations are given regarding the murders that occured. From that point on, the player and Battler are thrown in the game of the ever-repeating Rokkenjima murders, meaning you have the previous series of murders to solve, as well as newer iterations, as none of the murders are solved in the first four episodes. Nearly twenty people die in each iteration of the Rokkenjima murders, often in locked rooms or seemingly impossible situations because everyone has an alibi, so the number of individual murders you need to solve quickly becomes rather hard to keep track of. This wouldn't be a problem on its own if not for one characteristic of Umineko: When They Cry: writer Ryukishi07 isn't economical with words. While every scene may have a certain purpose, some only apparent with the power of hindsight, the writing is extremely longwinded, with each seperate conversation going on for like thirty, forty lines even though it'd only take four lines to convey the main message of a certain scene. So it's not just that the main murder mysteries and the relevant background stories take on a grand scale in Umineko: When They Cry: all of this is also buried in so much text it's just tiring to get through at times. Because there are so many murders in each episode, sometimes you think of a theory and want to check up on/compare to an earlier dialogue, but more than often I just didn't do it because I knew it'd mean having to dig through a haystack, even though I knew precisely what kind of needle I was looking for.

That said, the concept of having to piece the truth together by viewing various alternate versions of the Rokkenjima murders was very entertaining. While in each episode, the Rokkenjima murders are quite different, with changing victims and murder circumstances, the underlying basic story and interpersonal character relations at play remain the same: only the specific events that occur on 1986, October 4 and 5 on Rokkenjima differ each time. This means that while the player has to solve different murders each time, there are always connections between the 'parallel universes' and these allow you to solve the mystery. An event that occurs in Legend of the Golden Witch might take on a different meaning after seeing a scene in Requiem of the Golden Witch for example, or perhaps you notice something that happens in the first episode, actually turns out to be a pattern that repeats across all the episodes. Figuring out how these pieces that are apparently from different sets of jigsaw puzzles do actually fit together is something you don't often see in mystery fiction. Mystery fiction that deal with parallel universes, time travel stories, or games with branching storylines like Kamaitachi no Yoru have similar ideas at times, where stories unfold in different manners depending on a story-changing choice made, which therefore make you think about the underlying meaning of that choice. This however never happens at the scale of Umineko: When They Cry, with complete novel-length stories as its puzzle pieces. While I was jotting down my ideas for each episode in the playthrough memo, I'd always try to see how the events we saw in an episode could also apply to previous episodes, and whether I could see patterns emerging. It did actually put me on the right track, which was really satisfying. At first you have all these scattered points that seem miles away, but as you progress, you'll be able to connect all the dots and draw clear lines between them.

One of the core themes of Umineko: When They Cry is whether you give in to the fantasy solutions the Golden Witch Beatrice offers you, or whether you try to find a 'realistic' explanation. The player and Battler observe each version of the Rokkenjima murders from a parallel universe, but through a 'filter' of Beatrice, who actively tries to push her 'fantasy' solutions. The result is that as the player, you'll often see grand fantasy battles between the warriors and monsters summoned by Beatrice and the murder victims: these are the 'interpretations' of Beatrice of how the murder occured, while Battler and the player have to try to figure out how these locked room/impossible murders could've happened without interference of the supernatural. You could simply enjoy Umineko: When They Cry as a fantasy story by the way, believing in the story that witches suddenly appeared inside a room to horribly torture a victim, but I already declared we'd be talking about Umineko: When They Cry as mystery fiction here. The merits of Umineko: When They Cry as mystery fiction do definitely lie more on the overarching storyline than the individual murders though. Not that they are bad, but often a lot of options are left open on purpose when it comes to the impossible crimes. Some locked room murders are basically only "impossible" if you choose to believe that some characters aren't accomplices or lying, something often pointed out in the episodes themselves. This is usually done purposely as to not tip the balance in favor for a fantasy or mystery solution, but because many options are kept open/vague, sometimes the mystery seems to lie mostly in the fact that the reader isn't given enough specific information regarding each murder scene. Seeing how these murders eventually link together though is good though, but it's clear Umineko: When They Cry is best enjoyed at the macro level.

Umineko: When They Cry starts in an overwhelming manner, with the lengthy narrative and then explicitly showing off the 'magical fantasy solutions' of Beatrice to confuse the reader who's looking for a human explanation for the events, but as you go through each episode, you'll slowly piece together an internal logic of the game, which can be both fun and frustrating. At various moments in the story, the game will make it clear that the mystery is solvable based on the hints it'll provide and that there are certain rules it will adhere to make this a fair and solvable mystery, but it expects the player to figure out these limitations themselves. Which adds another layer of mystery to solve for the player, but which can feel a bit unfair, because the player can never be sure whether 1) the game and the player are really playing according to the same rules and 2) whether the rules won't change midway. The game has an inherent advantage from the start, so by making the rules part of the mystery too, it's only tilting the balance even further. It's unclear for example at first how 'much' of the information seen in each individual episodes actually apply to all the other episodes. It demands a lot of dedication of the reader to not only engage with the core plot, but with the meta rules too, so that's quite tricky and doesn't always feels fair.

The meta-gaming element of Umineko: When They Cry is also prominently shown with its concept of Red Truths introduced in the second episode: a statement made in red is true. Beatrice might for example show victim X being killed by a monster in a locked room, which the player and Battler can choose to not believe, but if Beatrice states in red that X was killed and The door was locked from the inside and the only key was found inside the victim's pocket, at least these facts are true and no further evidence needs to be provided to support these statements. The Red Truths are the main game-like element of Umineko: When They Cry which otherwise doesn't feature any gameplay elements which allows the player to direct interact with the mystery and, personally, I love the Red Truths. They function like third-person narration in mystery fiction, because a fair-play mystery novel should never blatantly lie to the reader in the third-person narration. Beatrice is most definitely a subjective and unreliable narrator, but any statements she makes in red are true regardless of her status. In a way, Red Truths can simplify a situation because it gives you some certainties regarding an otherwise confusing situation: by stating X was killed for example, the player doesn't need to worry about X faking their own death. Of course the Red Truths are also used to further confuse the player, as it often leads to interesting dynamics to the deduction battles between Beatrice and Battler, as Beatrice can sometimes kill off a complete theory of Battler just by making a red statement that contradicts a fundamental premise. Like Obi-Wan, Beatrice is also good at stating truths that are true from a certain point of view though, so often, you need to be careful to the exact meaning of each Red Truth. But it's quite fun to come up with a theory that manages to wiggle its way through all the various relevant Red Truths and definitely one of the best ideas of Umineko: When They Cry. It reminds of the plotting technique often shown in the logical reasoning school of mystery fiction, where a long line of reasoning changes when a new fact is introduced. In Umineko: When They Cry too, Battler and the player have to constantly adapt to new Red Truths being introduced. Sometimes you have a working theory up until the very end of an episode when Beatrice suddenly decides to make a new Red Statement that kills your hypothesis and now you have to reconsider how that new fact changes things. I think the Red Truths make this notion a lot more tangible for mystery readers, making it instinctively easier to understand how deductions can and sometimes have to change with the introduction of new facts.

It's a shame though that the game make it harder than necessary for people to approach Umineko: When They Cry's story from a mystery angle. The game introduces a lot of Red Truths starting from the second episode, some applying to specific murders, some applying to the overal storyline, but even though the game has a special menu for character profiles and so-called TIPS (extra background information), the game for some reason does not provide a kind of database or list that collects all the Red Truths for you, nor can you look up details for each crime scene afterwards. If you want to read up on specific Red Truths again, you need to be lucky and remember in which scene they were mentioned, because that's the only way to find them again  (and that brings us back to the problem of Umineko not being economical with words). For a game that so often explicitly challenges the reader to solve the mystery, it's a complete enigma why it doesn't allow the player to look up Red Truths in a simple manner, especially when sometimes you have situations where a Red Truth is mentioned that also applies to previous episodes, and it just becomes a hassle to look things up again between episodes.

Whereas the first four episodes of Umineko: When They Cry offer you the main problems to be solved (the four different iterations of the Rokkenjima murders and the underlying circumstances that led to the murders), the last four episodes form the Scatter arc: these episodes do not explicitly say who did it how and why, but are like allegories that hint very strongly a some of the major answers, and once those answers have put you on the right track, you should be able to fill in most of the remaining questions yourself. I mentioned in the other Umineko post that the concept of a work of mystery that doesn't actually reveal the truth at the end reminded me of Higashino Keigo's Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita ("One of the Two Killed Her") and Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita ("I Killed Him"), which both don't reveal who's ultimately arrested for the murders in those books, nor is a detailed explanation given to the reader as to how the detective managed to identify the killer. I'd say Umineko: When They Cry is a lot more generous with its hints than those books though (though the scale of Umineko does make it more difficult). But by the time you get to Requiem of the Golden Witch (episode 7), it's basically only not dotting the i's for you and with the hints and answers provided there, the attentive reader should be able to figure out the details for themselves. The way how especially End of the Golden Witch and Dawn of the Golden Witch (episodes 5-6) use new variations of the Rokkenjima murders to not only present new murder mysteries, but also to act as hints to solve the previously seen murders in other episodes is brilliant though! You're basically shown easier murder cases that utilize elements from the mysteries from previous episodes, so if you manage to solve these 'easier' versions, it will help you on the way to figure out how the murders in first four episodes were committed. The game also starts throwing Knox and Van Dine around to players who aren't really familiar with mystery fiction, and while I think I know finally understand why people into Umineko often seem to consider Decalogue and the Twenty Rules to be far more important than they actually are for good mystery fiction, I guess at least Knox and Van Dine do give unexperienced mystery readers something to hold on to. But the way these episodes use an oblique manner to guide the player to the solution without explicitly showing it is great, and I think the execution was good: I was somewhere on the way to the solution myself by the time I started on episode 5, but they really helped me focus in on the solution without actually explicitly telling me the answers.

The grand solution that ties all the various iterations of the Rokkenjima murders together is quite satisfying too, using an interestingly thought-out background story and characters to allow multiple 'parallel universe' versions of the Rokkenjima murders to occur. I really like how the answers to whodunnit, howdunnit and whydunnit are very closely related, meaning that once you figure out one angle, you're likely to solve the rest too. Once you start seeing the big picture, you'll also see how the macro concepts can apply on the micro-level and in turn how each individual murder could've been committed. Some scenes also take on a completely different meaning knowing what's really going on, and the player is even challenged to take a good look at some Red Truths again: sometimes they seemingly clash with the answer, but after a little bit of thinking you'll see how you could fit the Red Truths in without creating a contradiction. I sometimes mention the theme of synergy in mystery fiction here, how a mystery plot often feels more satisfying if it doesn't have discrete "blocks" of mysteries/murders, but where things are interconnected and elements work because of the existence of other elements, and I think Umineko: When They Cry does a good job at tying up the whodunnit, howdunnit and whydunnit together in that regard. I think that's also a reason why Umineko: When They Cry can get away without explicitly stating the solutions in the game. That said, some aspects of the solutions to the many, many murders that occur throughout the narrative do feel a bit easy, some almost coming down to "Ha, X lied at the time, they did commit the murder!". But seen from a macro-level, the mystery is definitely entertaining enough, though I do wonder whether it really needed eight lengthy episodes to tell.

While Umineko: When They Cry has the confidence to not overstate the various solutions of the mystery, it oddly does not have the same confidence in its themes though. Umineko: When They Cry can easily be consumed as a character drama, as it spends a lot of time fleshing out the various characters, both human and from the witch world and the characterization is ultimately also necessary to set the motives up, but the game is really, really intent on making you understand what it thinks about the theme of fantasy vs. truth and its impact on the characters. I'm sure a lot of people love the character-focused approach of Umineko, but if you're mainly here for the core mystery, you'll find this an extremely slow mystery story.

Umineko: When They Cry also has distinct 'anti-mystery' themes by the way, and obviously takes inspiration from the famous four Japanese 'anti-mystery' novels, Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken ("The Black Death Mansion Murder Case"), Dogura Magura, Kyomu he no Kumotsu ("Offerings to Nothingness") and Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku ("Paradise Lost Inside A Box"). It shares especially a lot of themes with the latter two. Umineko does not try to be like a tightly plotted Queen-like mystery novel where logic will prevail and clear all mists, but embraces themes from the mentioned novels like the unreliable narrator/observer/presentation, murder as entertainment, investigations into narratives-within-narratives, meta-discussions on mystery fiction, mysteries at multiple story levels (micro and macro) and an open-ended approach to the notion of "truth" with multiple solutions and characters not discussing the truth, but a possible truth. The more character-focused approach of Umineko in particular seems to be direct reaction to one of the major themes of Kyomu he no Kumotsu and I do think that if you like Umineko, it's worth taking a look at Kyomu he no Kumotsu and Haka no Naka no Shitsuraku or vice-versa. 

Considering its length, one could probably tackle a review of Umineko: When They Cry from a lot of angles, perhaps delving more into the characters or the overall themes of the game, but as I'm writing this post for this blog, the focus is on Umineko: When They Cry as a mystery story, and I am happy to say I'm glad I finally got around to playing it after hearing so much about it. It is an ambitious mystery story, using several parallel versions of the 'same' Rokkenjima murders to weave a complex web of storylines and while at the start, things can be overwhelming, the moment you start to see the connections and patterns and slowly work your way to the solution, you'll see Umineko: When They Cry is quite unique as a mystery story due to its enormous scale, though length is definitely also one of its more frustrating points. Sometimes you'll just have to roll with the story and accept characters doing this or that, but on the whole, I think Umineko: When They Cry manages to present an interesting fantasy story weaved by the Golden Witch Beatrice, which can also be seen as a complex mystery story by the reader as long as they are willing to engage with the various murders and mysteries. Umineko: When They Cry is worth a read if you're into Japanese mystery stories (as it's obviously written within a context of shin honkaku fiction), but on the other hand, I do have to repeat it's really, really long, so it's a reading project you'll want to 'plan' ahead. Oh, as a final note, I'll probably keep the playthrough memo page where it is, because I've been linking to it in various posts anyway. If you are going to play Umineko or if you have already read it, it might be interesting to compare notes.

Original Japanese title(s): 『うみねこのなく頃に散』 「End of the Golden Witch」/「Dawn of the Golden Witch」/「Requiem of the Golden Witch」/「Twilight of the Golden Witch」