Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Paint Me a Murder

Can you paint with all the colors of the wind
"Colors of the Wind" (Vanessa Williams)

I really shouldn't be writing reviews four months after reading the book...

It is around the turn of the century, when Akitsuki Kazumi's father passes away. Going through his belongings, Kazuo finds an old painting of a manor on a cliff, but part of the upper layer has faded away, revealing a hidden painting, of a man being hanged. The family hopes the painting is worth something, but they are told it's not a particularly valuable painting. Despite that, they receive a rather curious offer: a man called Higami Kouichi is willing to pay much more for the painting than it's actually worth, but a Akitsuki family member has to deliver the painting personally, at an address in Yokohama, the international hub of Japan now it has opened its borders at the end of the 19th century. On his way to the address, he gets lost in labyrithine Yokohama, he's found by Shizuka, a maid of Russian descent who works at the Higami residence. He's surprised when he's brought to the outskirts of the town and crosses a suspension bridge to a cliff to find the manor in his painting! Inside, he's welcomed by Higami and five other guests, but one of the men looks exactly like the hanged man in Kazumi's painting. The six men and women clearly form some kind of group, and little by little, Kazumi manages to piece the story together: these people are the Those Who Remain and they are connected through a set of paintings, which all depict this manor on a cliff. Apparently, the paintings together hold a hint that point towards a treasure, and originally, these paintings were owned by the parents of the people present, save for Higami Kouchi, the sole "original" member of the group. With Kazumi's painting here now, the set is complete, but they have no idea how to find the treasure. A storm prevents Kazumi from leaving that night, but the following morning, they find one of them hanging from the balustrade of the stairs of the main hall. The suspension bridge has also been cut, preventing them from leaving the house. However, just as panic starts to take over, the capable maid Shizuka takes over, because she recognizes that this murder was patterned after the painting beneath the upper layer in Kazumi's painting and that the other paintings are likely to be hiding similar paintings too.  However, Shizuka has more than a few plans to stop the murderer from committing more murders in Tsukihara Wataru's Shiyounin Tantei Shizuka -  Yokohama Ijinkan Satsujin Jiken ("The Maid Detective Shizuka - The Yokohama Foreigner's House Murder Case" 2017).

Last year, I read Inugamikan no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Inugami Manor"), the third novel in this series set in the Meiji Period, focusing on the maid Shizuka, a very efficient, but sometimes rather ruthless woman of Russian descent who appears to be working somewhere else in each book. It was a short book that had some plotting faults, but overall, I enjoyed it as a short read and it had some really interesting ideas regarding mystery tropes (in that book's case: locked rooms and impossible crimes), that however weren't always explored to the fullest because of the relatively limited page count. Still, I definitely wanted to read more of the series, so I decided to go back to the first novel in the series. And in a way, it's a book that is very similar: not without flaws, but at the same time it manages to come up with really original concepts regarding well-known mystery tropes that I had never seen before and overall, it's an enjoyable read.

The theme of this book is the mitate satsujin, murders patterned after something: the nursery rhyme murder is of course a well-known example of this in English language terminology, but the nursery rhyme murder is a bit smaller scope than the mitate satsujin. In this book, the murders are patterned after the hidden paintings, which all depict hanged people, which of course means people are getting hanged. A lot. The upper layers of the paintings all hide a painting of an original member of Those Who Remain being hanged, and while most of them are already deceased (Higami Kouichi being the exception), their offspring look eerily much like their parents, resulting in very creepy murders that look exactly like the paintings. As a trope of course, the nursery rhyme murder and other mitate satsujin are not rare, especially not in Japanese mystery fiction (there's an interesting lecture on the topic in Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono by the way!). I personally love them, so I have read/seen a lot of them, but still, Shiyounin Tantei Shizuka really managed to surprise with how it handled the theme.

For seldom have I seen a detective character in mystery fiction be so pro-active in trying to prevent more murders, and also willing to take such drastic measures. The moment Shizuka realizes the first murder was patterned after the painting, she tries to convince everyone that the only way to prevent further murders from happening is to make the "mirroring" fail: what if for example if they'd just burn all the paintings, making it impossible for the murderer to mirror the murders to the paintings or to make the fact they mirrored the murders clear to the survivors? While obviously, Those Who Remain are after the treasure and refuse to take such a drastic measures, it's wonderful to see how Shizuka is able to come up with incredibly resolute ideas in order to make the whole concept of a mirrored murder fail, taking away the reason for the murderer to pattern their murders after the paintings and hopefully the fundamental reason for the murders in the first place. This is a really weird detective novel I wouldn't immediately recommend to those who have never read a mystery novel, but for those familiar with tropes, Shizuka is a really wonderful and memorable character, because she basically tries to fight back against the murderer by systematically attacking the tropes of the mystery genre. Explaining more about her tactics would spoil the book, but I guess you could compare it to "I won't let you kill me, I'll commit suicide!". A lot of the tactics wouldn't make any sense at all outside the mystery genre, but if you recognize the trope, Shizuka's plans are so entertaining to read because yes, she's willing to do anything to make the theme of the novel not work, and that's a wonderfully creepy concept.

That's perhaps why I'm a bit disappointed the book doesn't always make best use of the concept. The book is rather short, and most aspects feel somewhat underdeveloped. Some characters barely speak one single sentence before being killed off screen, and some of the conversations/deductions are written a bit too briefly, making it hard to understand what's meant/the implications of what is said the first time you read a sentence. As I mentioned above, the parts where Shizuka tries to prevent the murderer from committing more murders based on the nursery rhyme trope are the best, but it's here where the writing tries to handle things too swiftly, making it appear there are jumps in logic: this is also why I wouldn't recommend this book to newcomers to the genre, because while someone with knowledge of the trope can keep up eventually, I think sometimes the writing goes through the concept far too briefly, making it rather hard to swallow. The murders are rather "practical", with nothing fancy about them (not really an impossible aspect to them, or some great chain of reasoning needed to see who did it, as it's bascically "everyone could've done it"), and I think it becomes rather easy to guess who the murderer is once you get into the second part of the book, especially if you keep focused on the theme. As whodunnit, this book won't surprise you very much.

Oh, and one last minor disappointment was that the period setting wasn't really utilized here. The setting of Yokohama in the Meiji Period (where most foreigners lived after the international borders were opened after Japan had been mostly closed for 400 years) is super interesting, but you don't see anything of it! The book is about a closed circle situation inside a manor on a cliff and even the historical aspects don't really come alive in this book: while Shizuka doesn't talk about mystery fiction, it's clear to the mordern reader her strategies are based on modern understanding of tropes in mystery fiction, so she feels a bit out of place. So on the whole, you don't really get to see much of the historical setting.

So perfect, Shiyounin Tantei Shizuka -  Yokohama Ijinkan Satsujin Jiken definitely isn't, but at the same time, it's a book I enjoyed reading, because it had such a wonderfully meta-approach to the nursery rhyme murder trope. I think it's a really worthwhile read if you're familiar with that particular trope in the genre, because the book really manages to do tackle the concept from surprising angles through the "the end justifies the means" approach of Shizuka, giving a lot of food for thought about the genre.

Original Japanese title(s): 月原涉『使用人探偵シズカ 横濱異人館殺人事件』

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Judge Not

 子どものころに わかりかけてたことが 
大人になってわからないまま
「胸がドキドキ」(The High Lows)
 
The things I started to understand as a kid
I still don't understand as an adult
"The Pounding of my Heart" (The High Lows)

So for some reason I thought that volume 100 of Detective Conan was released very early this year, but looking back now, it turns out it was released back in October, even before the home video release of The Scarlet Bullet. Huh. I guess I'm finally getting used to the slower release schedule Conan has had these last few years, because even though nowadays the wait between volumes has doubled compared to the old schedule (about three months) the wait doesn't feel as drastic anymore compared to when they switched to the slower release pace...

Volume 100 of Detective Conan was overall a great volume, with an absolutele banger for a main story featured in the middle, a tense thriller that seemed to merge the bombastic action of the films of Conan with the more sober mode of the manga perfectly, resulting in a spectacular suspense tale that still felt firmly set within the manga universe. And I have read enough Detective Conan to know that after such a high point in terms of story, author Aoyama Goushou tends to slow down a bit again in the following stories, usually following up with smaller stories as he has to restart the game board again, laying down his pieces once more for the build-up for the next big moment. So to be honest: my expectations for volume 101 of Detective Conan, released last week, were not very high because I had seen the pattern more than once. Even the promise of a confrontation between fan favorite mystery character Amuro Tooru and the elusive Phantom Thief KID on the obi of the book wasn't really exciting me. To spoil the conclusion already: I was right, this was a very okay volume that doesn't really stand out particularly, even if you can tell Aoyama is again moving his playing pieces around for a future event. 

The opening story Search for the 13-year old Voice has Conan and the rest of the Detective Boys going to school on a Sunday to tend to the rabbits in the garden, when suddenly a man approaches Haibara and addresses her by the name... Miyano Shiho. Terrified that her cover has been blown, Haibara turns around to learn that the man is actually an alumnus of Teitan Elementary and that his old class, Year 19, is here for a class reunion. Haibara learns that her older sister Akemi used to go to school at Teitan Elementary for a while, and that she had shown her classmates photographs of her and Shiho back then, which is why the man seemed to recognize Shiho in Haibara, but of course, they realize that Akemi's sister Shiho must also have become an adult herself now too, so they assume it's just a coincidence that Haibara resembles Shiho so much. Three of Akemi's old classmates are now looking for their class time capsule: Akemi was the one who hid the time capsule, but she hasn't appeared at the reunion (her classmates don't know she died) and the only clue she's left is a code. Conan instantly realizes the three classmates seem rather worried upon seeing the code, and also learns that Akemi left a message for her sister in the time capsule, so he volunteers to help solve the code and find the time capsule.

Another code cracking story, which seldom make me really excited. Even connecting this story to Haibara's sister doesn't really change things much: the reveal that Akemi went to Teitan Elementary of all places when she was little is of course a biiiiiiit forced and story-beat-wise, this story also reminds too much of previous "Akemi left some message for her sister at some place" stories we have seen two (?) times before in this series. The reason why the three classmates seem shocked by the code is rather easy to guess, though I guess the misdirection ("false solution") of the code, and the true solution are quite solid, both like natural conclusions to the code and not really forced. But ultimately this is just a really compact, small scale story that is not memorable at all despite the minor "bigger" connections.

And the same holds for Meeting With the Goddess of Wind. Agasa is mistaken for the president of a security company, of which a vault was recently stolen which can only be opened by the president. The two criminals kidnap Agasa, severely wounding him in the process and the plan is just to keep the president alive long enough to open the safe, and then get rid of him. Conan chases after Agasa with the help of the police, but they manage to disappear and sneak by police barricades. But how? Another story that mystery-wise is again very minor. The trick of how the abductors managed to slip by the police checks even though their car model had already been identified is, at the core, an okay idea, but this story is basically just that idea when it comes down to the mystery, even though that idea isn't really enough to support a whole three chapter story. Usually, author Aoyama does a great job stringing multiple of these minor ideas into something bigger, but this story also doubles as an introduction of a new character, Chihaya, a traffic police officer who is the sister of the late Hagiwara Kenji, a character who's already dead at the start of Detective Conan, but who's appeared in flashbacks, and these two years Hagiwara also appeared prominently in the Conan spin-off Wild Police Story as well as the 2022 Detective Conan film The Bridge of Halloween which is currently running in theatres. Due to the focus on Chihaya though, Meeting With the Goddess of Wind's mystery side of the story ends up rather underwhelming.

The final full story in this volume is KID VS Amuro Tooru, which has the phantom thief targeting the Robanov (not Romanov) tiara The Queen's Bang, which is currently featured in a local exhibition. At the museum, Ran, Sonoko and Conan also run into Amuro and Azusa, who have a day off from cafe Poirot because of renovations. Sonoko's great uncle Jiroukichi and Inspector Nakamura are of course ready for KID's attack, but Public Security is also present at the venue, because in a few days, Selisabeth, Queen of Ingram, will be visiting Japan in three days, and one of the stops in her schedule is this exhibition. Public Security fears the Queen may change her plans if the tiara is stolen, which would upset security plans, so they want to be sure the Queen's Bang will be safe. Meanwhile, Conan is allowed to stay as the notorious "KID Killer", as is Amuro, the number one disciple of the Sleeping Kogorou (self-proclaimed). The tiara is held inside a stand with a cover and if anyone touches the stand while the security system is on, the whole ceiling comes falling down to crush the thief. At the announced time, a white mist suddenly appears in the room where the tiara is kept, which turns out to be white pain in mist form. Even though their sights is obstructed for a moment, everyone is sure nobody could've approached the stand with the tiara. Conan himself checks the stand, but when he opens it, he finds it completely empty! How could KID have made his way in the mist to steal the tiara?

We have seen this type of KID story more than once, so this tale never manages to truly surprise the reader. It's a well-constructed impossible heist story, but there's honestly really little to differentiate it at a plotting level from KID VS Kyougoku Makoto, Sera Masami or Koumei. Like always, we know KID has disguised himself as one of three members in the cast, adding a whodunnit element to the story, and we also have to figure out how KID managed to steal the tiara. While the core idea behind how KID managed to spirit the tiara away is really, really simple, I like how Aoyama plotted the clewing for this hesist, and also how he hid the simple solution from the reader with misdirection. The idea is so easy to figure out if it had been used "as is", but Aoyama knows just how much misdirection to use to fool the reader, without overdoing and leaving enough clues. There's also misdirection concerning which of the three suspects is actually KID, and while I don't think it's really hard to guess which of them is actually KID, the misdirection (the main red herring) is pretty clever and the type of clues I have come to love of Conan. So I dont think this is an exceptional KID story, but certainly not a bad one and easily the best story of the volume. The volume ends with the first two chapters of  The Case Memos Left by Date, which is about an old case Takagi's mentor Date worked on the week before he died, but which apparently was still on-going one year later. Not really an exciting story up until now, but perhaps the last chapter(s?) can turn things around.

Like I mentioned at the start of the post: even before reading this volume, I knew I didn't need to have high expectations of volume 101 of Detective Conan, because the previous volume had been a clear high point in the series, which is basically always followed by a few slower stories. In that sense, this volume didn't "disappoint" me, because I knew what was coming and even the fact there's not a single murder in this volume doesn't surprise me. The three stories (and partial fourth story) would have been okay additions in any "regular" volume, but having three of these one after another does feel a bit too slow for me personally, so I hope we'll be out of the "expected story dip" by the next volume, which is scheduled for a ... winter release. Sigh. I guess it will release after the home video release of Detective Conan: The Bride of Halloween... I guess I should watch a few anime originals again soon...

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第101巻

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Mystery of the Fun Park Phantom

 Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate
"Inferno"
 
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
"Inferno"

To be honest, I was expecting a very different kind of story based on the cover...

The amusement park Illusion Land was all set to make its grand opening in 2001. The theme park was built in the nature-rich mountains of X Prefecture, and was supposed to be the first step in a larger Illusion Resort project: its location in the mountains provided a fantastic view on the stars, hence the galaxy-theme of the amusement park, as well as the name Ganny (Galaxy + Bunny) for its cute mascotte figure. The people living in the small, dying village of Amatsuki Village had ultimately agreed to move away to nearby Y City and other places to make place for the theme park, and that is also why Illusion Land had a special pre-open event inviting the people of the former village to have a look at the park. But the park had only been open for about an hour, when tragedy struck! Someone in the ferris wheel started shooting at people with a rifle, resulting in four deaths, eight people heavily wounded and the shooter himself also committed suicide. The man turned out to be one of the former villagers who had been against moving out of Amatsuki, and one of his victims had indeed been the woman who had been the central figure to convince everyone that they should give up on Amatsuki and find a new place to live.The horrible tragedy naturally made opening Illusion Land, and Illusion Resort impossible. The place was then bought by the wealthy magnate Toshima Iiori, who is also known as a big fan of urban exploration. For twenty years, Illusion Land was left abandoned, allowing nature (flora at least) to take over the park. And in 2021, Toshima made a big announcement: he was going to invite a group of fellow urban explorers to have a look at Illusion Land. While many people applied to the special sign-up site, only nine people were selected to visit, among them Magami Eitarou, a part-time worker in a convenience store who also runs a popular blog on urban exploration, where he uploads photographs which are received very well.

Upon arrival at the abandoned amusement park, Eitarou is all ready to go explore the land of dreams which has been empty for twenty years, but the representative of their host Togami has an interesting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory proposition. Somewhere in the park, a treasure is hidden, and whoever finds it during their three-day stay, will become the new owner of Illusion Land. Sounds like a dream for any urban explorer to own such a unique place, but by then Eitarou has also noticed that not all of the invited people are actually urban explorers like himself. Sure, there's the writer Aizawa Tomoshi, who writes urban exploration themed detective stories, and there's an editor of an urban exploration magazine, but there are also former employees of Illusion Land, from people in management to those working booths, who wanted to have one last look at the park. But these people too seem strangely interested in wanting to obtain this park. The special wristbands that allowed them into the park also check their vitals to make sure they don't leave the park during the set time period: everyone who leaves the park is disqualified. The first night, Eitarou decides to camp outside while the others prefer to sleep in the camp house, but before he dozes off, he vaguely sees the figure of Ganny walking around the park. The next day, when he goes back to the house for breakfast, it turns out one of the others has gone missing. They go looking for Sudou Susumu, a former manager of the park, but the moment they find a figure dressed in a Ganny suit skewered to the high fence surrounding the park, they all knew it was Sudou even before they removed the bunny mask. This is obviously no suicide, but how can you skewer someone on the outer fence of the park, as each post is twelve meters high, and the body of Sudou was pulled all the way down the spiked post to the ground? At first, Eitarou thinks the game is now over and that the police will be informed about the gruesome murder, but to his great surprise everyone seems rather reluctant to stop the game. But why is everyone so intent on finding the treasure and obtaining Illusion Land? And is it wise to stay inside the park knowing there's a murderer somewhere? That's for the reader to find out in Shasendou Yuuki's Haiyuuenchi no Sastsujin (2021), which also has the English title The Murder Case of [sic] Abandoned Amusment Park on the cover.

Oooooh, so it's the bunny who dies? Like I said above, the cover totally made me initially think that the bunny would be the murderer, like in a splatter horror story. 

Earlier this year, I read Houjou Kie's Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo (2022) and I mentioned how it was initially a bit surprising how that after previous themes of time travel and an unknown creature hunting the human characters, the theme of a VR game sounded rather grounded. Last year, I read Shasendou Yuuki's Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari ("Paradise is the Absence of Detectives", 2020): it was the first time I had read anything by Shasendou, but the book easily became one of my favorite reads of 2021. It was about a world where angels had arrived on Earth and they'd immediately take people away who'd commit a second murder (the first murder is "free"). It had become a law of nature, and yet the story was about a series of murders, something that had become impossible in this world. The unique supernatural setting was used in a brilliant manner and it sure made me interested in more Shasendou's work. So like the aforementioned Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo, Haiyuuenchi no Sastsujin (2021) is rather "normal and grounded" in comparison (not that these books form a series; it's just that my initial interest in Shasendou's work came from the supernatural element) There's no supernatural element here, just an abandoned theme park. Interestingly enough though, the abandoned theme park isn't that common a location for a closed circle mystery story, I think? It's a place that I associate much more with the horror genre, like an abandoned hotel or hospital, and I have indeed played games in this setting. Mystery stories set in theme parks are rarer, and I don't think I've read one about an abandoned one before.

 

So the setting does feel special in a way, which is emphasized even further when you first open the book, as you'll be presented with a nicely designed "pamplet" of Illusion Land, with a map of the theme park with all the attractions and the prices for the various rides etc. It really helps you get in the mood, and of course, you'll be tracing events and people on the map of the park too while you're reading the story, so it helps with the immersion. And as the book continues, you do realize that Shasendou does make great use of the srtting of the amusement park. To be honest, the first murder is kinda disappointing, as you have a whole amusement park with all kinds of broken attractions and rides, and then they find.... a body skewered to one of the posts of the outer fence. Sure, the victim's dressed in a Ganny suit, resulting in a rather cute-creepy scene of having a pink bunny lying there with a twelve-meter high pole through its torso, but still, the body is physically just barely within the confines of the park itself, so it doesn't feel like it makes good use of the setting. As the story continues however, more people are killed off and these make better use of the attractions and the unique setting. Like, if I mention there's a mirror house too, you can probably imagine all kinds of possibilities now. While most of the events occuring in this book might feel a bit "small in scale" taken on their own and with some adjustments, each of them could perhaps have been used in some other setting, but all taken together they do work best the context of this particular setting. So that does make the whole feel like a true amusement park mystery, even if the individual parts don't always feel as strong as one.

Despite the alluring setting though, the book is a bit slow to start. While it doesn't take long for the first murder to occur, the way the story acts all mysterious about why everyone seems to have their own reasons to not want to inform the police and how they are connected to Illusion Land can be a bit frustrating, as the reader is made aware early on that everyone is hiding something and that therefore everyone is acting in a way that is not particularly helpful to the investigation, but it takes some time for all of this to get worked out, and in the end, it feels like there's just a lot of coincidences going on, with everyone having different reasons to act like they act, with as sole goal simply to make the story seem more complex than it actually is. The story pacing is slowed down a lot by all the "why is X acting like" parts, especially when you realize that ultimately, having these specific characters all together in this party feels pretty arbitrary anyway, and then on top of that come all the other coincidences of the (in)actions of these characters, making the story appear like it's trying to be more complex just for the sake of it.

The story eventually also delves into the past of Illusion Land, into the shooting on the people in the park and the true intentions of the shooter, and this part has pretty cool ideas, but also elements that are handled too swiftly in my opinion. The way the reader is shown that the truth behind that case might have been completely different than initially thought is great: the realization that there's a gigantic contradiction in the official account of the events is hidden fantastically, even if some of the clues are mentioned a bit too easily. But a lot of the following logistics that involve that case seem to be handwaved away rather easily. So I absolutely love the main idea used here, especially as it's one that makes brilliant use of the theme park setting, but the details seem a bit unconvincing. The main idea and the build-up alone however already makes this a worthwile read, I think.

You might think I am a bit vague in explaining what makes this story so "amusement park"-esque, but that's really just me trying to spoil not too much. I can only say that a lot of the props and ideas used here all originate from an amusement park and you'll have to find out the rest for yourself! While this obviously does make it sound this book is very much a howdunnit ("props and stuff"), it's not really. I think its whodunnit aspects are really strong too and it's certainly in this manner that this book reminds me of Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari. Initially you have to wade through a lot of the intersecting coincidences/motivations of the various characters, but there are some neat whodunnit twists to be found here.

So yeah, overall, I'd say that Haiyuuenchi no Sastsujin is a fun book! It might not have some supernatural element to it, but Shasendou makes great and full use of the unique location, utilizing a number of ideas that all feel absolutely natural here, but really come together to present a tricky mystery story, The plot's a bit slow at times, but it's definitely worth a read. Now I think about it, I read Haiyuuenchi no Sastsujin almost exactly one year after  Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari, so perhaps I'll read another geeat Shasendou in a year time? I'll sign for that!

 Original Japanese title(s):  斜線堂有紀『廃遊園地の殺人』

Sunday, April 17, 2022

A Very Good Year for Murder

「すいません、キムチ丼大盛り、ご飯抜きで」
『クビシメロマンチスト 人間失格・零崎人識』 

"One extra large kimchi rice bowl please, hold the rice."
"Strangulation: Kubishime Romanticist"

Two game reviews in one week!?

Sometimes, it's just the mention of a setting that is enough to lure me in. Case in point is the topic of today's review, the visual novel Suhoshin (PC, 2022), released by developers No More 500 earlier this week. When I first saw the artwork a few weeks ago and noticed the description said it was a mystery set in the medievel Joseon period of Korea, I knew I had to keep an eye on it, because it seemed just such an original setting. I will admit right away I know very little of pre-modern Korean history in general: due to the East-Asian Studies courses taken in university, I have dabbled a little into pre-modern Korean history and literature, but those were very, very brief trips away from my Japanese major, but still: I have read quite a few mystery stories set in medieval times of various locations from Europe to Japan, which were awesome, so why not one Korean peninsula? Interestingly enough, this is not the first time I have discussed mystery set in Joseon Korea: in the past I've discussed the 2011 film 2011's Joseon Myungtamjung : Gakshituku Ggotui Bimil ("Joseon Great Detective: Secret of the Wolfsbane Flower"), which has the international title of Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow and the novel Arang-un Wae ("Arang, Why?"), which featured literary research into a famous folktale set in the Joseon period, but still, it's far from a common setting, so I decided to try out Suhoshin when it was released earlier this week on PC.

Suhoshin starts with the return of protagonist Yuri to his home village of Yangdong. He was sent to capital Hanyang (Seoul) three years ago and after passing the national exams to become a civil servant, was trained as a guard and learned to conduct criminal investigations. Now his training has been completed, and to his surprise his first official posting is back in his home village Yangdong, a peaceful place quite far removed from other cities. Yuri longs to see childhood friends Soo Ah and Yun Bok, but is also happy that once in Yangdong, he'll be able to thank his patron Mr Kim, a local yangban (gentry) who sponsored the orphan to be able to be educated in the capital. Upon return, Yangdong seems as serene as the day Yuri left and after relaxing with his old friends, he prepares for his new tasks as a guard, but the following day, the village head informs Yuri that a murder has taken place in Yangdong, a crime which hasn't happened in the village for decades! The poor victim was brutally mutilated in her home, where she was discovered. Because of Yuri studied criminal investigation in Hanyang, he's given the task to find out who the killer is. Yuri starts out with confidence, as he has seen quite some crime in the capital, but more and more people in the village are killed almost each night and not even the walled-off segment in town for the yangban is safe. But who is this cruel killer who is able to get into each and every corner of the village without raising any suspicion of its victims? Time is running out for Yuri with each passing day, and perhaps he has to learn that some times, it were his own actions that led to more tragedy.


Some people might recognize the art style from the screenshots right away, though I myself only realized it when I read the description and went: "Oooooh, that's right!". Yep, Suhoshin features character designs by Kageyoshi, who also did the designs for the neat novel game Raging Loop (stylized in Japan as Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P). That was a game that cleverly used the Werewolf/Mafia party for its story structure, but it also told a very interesting story with deeply fleshed out folklore which was fictoinal, but still borrowed a lot from actual indigeneous Japanese nature religions and mythology and the anthropological side to those subjects. Suhoshin is quite different from Raging Loop in many ways, but it has a similarly "educational" side to it, as the game does a lot to explain its historical setting. Key terms in Korean are highlighted in red and recorded in an index, and these terms do a lot to "sell" the historical setting of Joseon to the player. Some words you probably have heard of, like kimchi, but there are plenty of other words that will not ring a bell, and it's a great way to present a setting a lot of people will simply not be very familiar with. 


Gameplay of Suhoshin is what you'd expect of a mystery novel game with a flowchart function. For non-gamers, few games will be as easy to play as these kinds of games, as you are just reading the text and once in a while you'll be presented with story-changing choices that allow the narrative to branch out in various routes and endings, basically the same as a Choose Your Own Adventure book. In a way, the set-up in Suhoshin is also similar to Raging Loop in how it sometimes forces you down particular routes first, before allowing you go back in the flowchart and offering you a new, unlocked choice that gives access to a different route. This means that ultimately, you do read the various routes and endings in a fairly set manner, which is a shame, because it kinda takes away the illusion of actor freedom in this game. Take 428 Shibuya Scramble for example, a similar novel game that does force you to take certain routes first to allow you to proceed, but because that game presents the player with a lot more choices throughout a game of which you are never quite sure which one will be an important, story-changing one or not, the illusion of actor freedom is much greater. Suhoshin is of course a game of a much smaller scale (I finished it within 5 hours), but it would have been nice if there would be a few more bad ending/optional ending branches a player could reach, just so the player doesn't feel like they are just doing all these endings/routes in a set order.

As a mystery story, Suhoshin has a lot of the right building bricks ready, and ultimately, I did enjoy playing this game, but I feel like it could have been much more if they had fleshed out the core plot. The first half of the game feels a bit slow, with Yuri investigating each crime scene but often not being able to come up with very interesting theories simply because each of the murders is fairly "open" and the conclusion is basically "well, anyone in the village could've done it given the opportunity". It's only in the second half of the game a very, very important clue is introduced, but the way the clue is presented is fairly cheap (the equivalent of random person showing up the clue), and from that point on, basically the whole mystery is solved. Once that clue has been presented, even the game doesn't pretend there's much left, because the narrative basically moves on immediately to theorizing on that clue and identifying the killer on its own, without any player input. But what I think is such a shame is that I think there was so much potential to make this a more engaging whodunnit, with the exact same clues/foreshadowing the game already has. Some scenes are really cleverly laid out in hindsight, but a lot of these scenes stood out like a sore thumb because of the limited playtime of Suhoshin, and with only a handful of viable suspects in the game in the first place, it felt like the events of this game were not laid out evenly: very little happens in the first half of the game besides people dying, and then when a genuine clue is discovered, suddenly everything moves at mach speed. If the mid-section had been fleshed out more, with more suspects/a more comprehensive view of Yangdong and more theorizing by Yuri too, Suhoshin could have been a much more engaging whodunnit even if it had ultimately used the same clues. I mentioned before that I would have loved to see more minor branching storylines in this game: this would have gone well with a more fleshed-out mid-section allowing the player to choose more angles in the investigation, introducing more suspects and also a better way to introduce the scenes with foreshadowing more naturally in the narrative. Some might not like the direction this game ultimately took in terms of the mystery by the way, but I think it fits pretty well with the setting, and I myself didn't mind the concept at all, though as mentioned, the decisive clue could've been introduced more steadily I think.

Though I have to repeat, I did have a lot of fun playing Suhoshin, it's just that I think the plot held a lot more potential than the end product, especially as the clues etc. are already fine as they are in the game now, but missing just a little bit more time and space between the planting of the clues and the finale of the game. But overall, I think Suhoshin was an entertaining experience. People who are looking for a mystery game set in Joseon Korea probably don't have much choice anyway, but Suhoshin is definitely worth checking out if you're looking for something in that direction.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

When the Cicada Calls

あなたは今どこで何をしていますか?
この空の続く場所にいますか?
「You」(雪野五月)
Where are you right now? What are you doing now?
Are you somewhere beneath the far-reaching sky?
"You" (Yukino Satsuki)

About the title of this post: isn't it insane that there's a Scooby-Doo show with a Higurashi: When They Cry-inspired episode?

The last two months, the posts on this blog have included short updates on my progress through 07th Expansion's long mystery suspense visual novel Higurashi no Naku Koro ni ("When the Cicades Cry"), released in English as Higurashi: When They Cry. If you've been into anime and manga these last twenty years, it's very likely you have at least heard of this monster hit. Higurashi: When They Cry originally started as a 8-volume doujin (self-published) PC game, with the first chapter released in 2002 and the concluding chapter in 2006. Since then it has grown into a behemoth of a multimedia franchise, with several manga and anime adaptations (the most recent one was broadcast last year!), drama series, live-action films, pachinko machines, everything. It's been a part of Japanese pop culture especially after the first anime adaptations in 2006-2007. As it was a very big mystery-themed franchise, you'd think I would have gotten started on this a lot earlier, but I always found myself an excuse not to: while the anime was easily available since back in the days, I tend to prefer the original work if possible, but I don't really like to play novel games on my PC either, especially not if it meant having to read 8 chapters each about 8-12 hours long. The games have out in English on PC for a long time now by the way, so I think a lot of the readers here do already know Higurashi, either in game form or for example via the anime. Anyway, I kinda missed out on it in the second half of the 2000s, and then for a long time, I eyed the DS version, but that was kinda expensive because it had been divided into four different releases, but with added content. But with the current Switch/PS4 release titled Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Hou ("When The Cicades Cry - Offering"), I finally found a release that had everything I wanted of the franchise (both the original 8 chapters, as well as extra material and console-exclusive chapters), and for a modest price tag too! So it took me a while to get to it, but I finally understand all those Higurashi memes!

Anyway, last year, I played through the memorable mystery novel game Umineko: When They Cry, which is from same creators (07th Expansion). Because I knew beforehand it would take me a while to get through Umineko, I decided to write down any thoughts I had on the mystery on a special blind playthrough memo page on the blog. I liked how it kept me engaged with keeping an eye on clues and what I thought the solution would be. So after having fun with both the game of Umineko and the playthrough, I decided I'd finally play Higurashi: When They Cry this year and after asking commentators here, it appeared keeping notes to guess the solution to the mystery as I was going through the individual chapters would be feasible here too, so I decided to do the same this year. Those who have already played, seen, or read Higurashi: When They Cry might find it interesting to see how my ideas changed (or not) as I played through the chapters. I don't usually do long projects with multiple posts on this blog (because experience told me I don't really like doing them), but these playthroughs were pretty fun!

So what is this gigantic mystery franchise about? Higurashi: When They Cry introduces us to the village of Hinamizawa in June 1983. Hinamizawa is a small rural community with just about 2000 villagers and lies deep in the green mountains. Teenager Keiichi has recently moved to Hinamizawa with his parents and also attends the local school, which is so small all the children of all ages are put together into one class. Keiichi becomes close friends with his fellow members of the after-school game club: Rena (who also recently moved back to Hinamizawa), Mion (the heir of the most prominent family in the village), Rika (the young daughter of the clan of priests which tend to the local shrine) and her bestie Satoko. The change from life in the city to the slow, calm life in the countryside is of course big, but his friends make Keiichi feel welcome in quaint Hinamizawa. Far removed from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, Hinamizawa is like perhaps not exactly a paradise on Earth due to some inconveniences like not having facilities like supermarkets or public transport, but its certainly a peaceful place. Times flies by for the friends and eventually it becomes June, which is when a local annual festival is held: The Watanagashi Festival is a tradition,  celebrating and thanking Oyashiro, a local deity believed to watch over Hinamizawa. In recent years, the festival has grown larger and even people from neighboring towns come to attend it. It's at this point we learn that for the last four years, Hinamizawa has always seen one death, and one disappearance on the night of the Watanagashi Festival. While few people talk about this out loud and efforts have been made to silence the fact that these deaths and disappearances have been occuring at an annual rate now, villagers believe this to be the Curse of Oyashiro and some even whisper that 1983 will be the fifth time the Curse of Oyashiro will take its victims. But is there really a supernatural curse at play in Hinamizawa, or is there something else going on beneath the facade of this seemingly peaceful village, and how are Keiichi and his friends involved in this?

 

Higurashi: When They Cry is a novel game, so the type of game that is focused on presenting a story visually, featuring very little interaction nor does it ever test you with quizzes on your deductions or anything like that. You just read the story as it unfolds, and the "interactive game" element lies outside the actual game: it challenges you to solve the mystery of what happened. The original PC release of Higurashi: When They Cry consisted of 8 chapters. The first four chapters, titled Onikakushi, Watanagashi, Tatarigoroshi and Himatsubushi form one set together commonly known as the Question arc. As you can guess from the name, these first four chapters basically set-up the mystery for the reader, providing them with the questions that need to be answered, as well as the clues necessary in order to solve the mystery of the series of mysterious deaths and disappearances in Hinamizawa. There is a distinct, unsettling atmosphere that builds in these Question chapters that is really great: what starts out as the story of a young boy settling into a completely new environment and finding new friends, slowly turns into something much grimmer, as slowly he starts to stumble upon glimpses of a Hinamizawa he never knew existed, and he is not sure what to think of a lot what is considered "normal" and "tradition" in Hinamizawa, and as events unfold, he learns that perhaps, he never wanted to know. The final four chapters, Meakashi, Tsumihoroboshi, Minagoroshi and Matsuribayashi, in turn form the Answer arc together, with each of these Answer chapters providing answers to mysteries seen in a corresponding chapter (i.e. Meakashi provides answers to the events in Watanagashi), but also offering answers in regards to larger, overarching mysteries that played throughout the Question arc. Similarly to how events played out in the Question chapters of Umineko: When They Cry however, the chapters in Higurashi's Question arc are in essence telling variations of the same basic story about the horrible events that occur after the Watanagashi Festival in 1983, but each of them is executed in completely different ways. The reader is given different "parallel versions" of the events of June 1983 that all build on the same basic set-up, but each time, events play out differently after the Watanagashi Festival, leading to different people dying and other bloody events to occur. Each of the Question chapters basically culminate in a completely different horrible tragedy, even though they all have the same starting point, using the same characters. 

That however is exactly how the game challenges you to solve the mysteries in Higurashi: When They Cry. The reader has to guess why all these horrible events are happening by examining all these "parallel versions" and figure out why they can end up so differently even though the basic parameters are the same. Why did that character do that in Onikakushi, while she didn't in Watanagashi? Why did those events happen both in Tatarigoroshi and Onikakushi, but not in Watanagashi? It's like trying to complete a bigger picture using pieces coming from different sets of jigsaw puzzles, and it's something you don't often see used in mystery fiction. Mystery fiction that deal with parallel universes, time travel stories or games with branching storylines like Kamaitachi no Yoru do utilize similar concepts, with stories unfolding in different manners depending on a story-changing choice made, which therefore forces you think about the underlying meaning of that choice. But like Umineko: When They Cry, Higurashi: When Thy Cry uses eight novel-length puzzle sets and asks you to see which pieces from the different sets, can also be put together to form one extra, hidden picture. Each chapter also tends to focus on different core narative characters and provide extra background information that are relevant to all the chapters. For example, Watanagashi is the second chapter and tells its own version of the June 1983 tragedy, but it also focuses more on the history and folklore of Oyashiro in the village of Hinamizawa, an aspect of the story that was not touched upon nearly deeply in the opening chapter Onikakushi. And the third chapter Tatarigoroshi focuses more Satoko's home situation, which is only briefly touched upon in earlier chapters. Each of these elements spread across the "parallel versions" thus form puzzle pieces that not only address the mystery of the respective episode, but also the broader picture. Because the chapters do build on the same basic setting, earlier parts of each individual chapter do feel kinda samey (even if they focus on different parts of the story), but once the Watanagashi Festival occurs, the uneasiness really starts to settle and each chapter slowly builds to a dramatic, catastrophic finale.

Umineko: When They Cry revolved a series of impossible murders occuring on an isolated island, with the Golden Witch Beatrice claiming these murders were made possible through magic, while protagonist Battler tries to defy her by finding rational answers to the impossible murders. Whereas the series features witches, monsters and other supernatural elements and focused on the theme of magic vs rationality, Umineko: When They Cry drew very heavily from classic mystery fiction in a meta fashion, quoting Van Dine and Knox freely and very much focusing on discussions about how the impossible murders could have been committed by a human murderer using sly tricks we know from mystery fiction, or whether it really was all just magic. Higurashi: When They Cry, while still a series that poses a mystery to the reader and challenges them to solve it, is less firmly built on the traditions of classic mystery fiction and offers more open-ended mysteries for the reader to solve. People who liked the locked room murders and more from Umineko: When They Cry therefore might be a bit disappointed how "mundane" the murders in Higurashi: When They Cry are: don't expect locked room murders or people disappearing from observed spaces or anything like that, more often than not these are murders that could've been committed by anyone in the village or feature other open-ended aspects. The focus therefore lies less on the direct dynamics of how specific each murder is committed, but much more on the macro-level mysteries: what are the underlying circumstances/factors that make it so that in each version we see of June 1983, it always ends in a tragedy? What are the factors that caused the tragedy to unfold in this particular way in this chapter, but in a different manner in the other chapter? I think this makes Higurashi: When They Cry a lot easier to solve than the more technical Umineko: When They Cry and probably also more accessible. Umineko: When They Cry had a lot of meta-level discussions about mystery tropes (like I mentioned in the Umineko reviews, a lot of mystery fans actually get into mystery fiction via Umineko), whereas Higurashi: When They Cry is much easier to enjoy as a suspenseful thriller with a mystery to solve, and I think the clewing in Higurashi is telegraphed more clearly. 

I did enjoy tackling the puzzles in Higurashi: When They Cry. While I can imagine some readers might think the mystery in Higurashi: When They Cry isn't really fair, it's certainly possible to make educated guesses about the most important parts of the secrets Hinamizawa and its residents hold. In my review of Umineko: When They Cry, I noted how the mysteries at the micro-level there were not as impressive as the mystery at the macro-level. That holds even more so in regards to Higurashi: When They Cry, where a lot of of the individual events seem pretty straightforward and even the murders are often just "what you see is what you get", but the focus here lies on how you are going to put each event in the context of the larger mystery: why are these events happening, and how does that relate to the other chapters? In a way, it's like seeing several playthroughs of a board game being played out in front of you. You don't know the game and the rules yet, but by observing several playthroughs, which may have different outcomes in terms of game flow and winners and losers, you still slowly start to see what the game rules are, because you saw connections between the playthroughs. Imagine a person not knowing chess, and observing the pieces across several games. Perhaps the first time they think the Queen can only move 2 spaces diagonally because that is the only move the Queen did in that game, but in a subsequent game she might move across the whole board, and another time she moves across straight lines. And eventually, the person will deduce the exact move range of the Queen. This approach results in a very different kind of mystery to engage with, compared to most detective novels you'll be reading, and I personally like these kinds of unexpected approaches to the genre. But to bring up my last Umineko: When They Cry comparison: Higurashi: When They Cry is also much clearer in its Answer arc in regards to the happenings in the Question arc. Umineko: When They Cry basically gave you a "key" in its Answer arcs, and then asked you to use that key and clear up any questions you have about the Question chapters yourself. Higurashi: When They Cry on the other hand explains the events in the Quesion chapters rather clearly in comparison (basically: "and that's what happened"), again a reason why on the whole, Higurashi is a bit easier to "engage" with than Umineko: When They Cry.

 

Writer Ryukishi07 of 07h Expansion is not an economical writer by any means, and besides the mystery, Higurashi: When They Cry spends a lot of time on characterization and fleshing out the background of Hinamizawa. Considering the focus of this blog, I will mostly concentrate on the mystery-side of Higurashi here, though I know a lot of fans of the franchise are probably more interested in the various colorful characters the series has. It's not something I'll be discussing here, but I do want to make a special note that there is a lot to enjoy about Higurashi: When They Cry beyond the mystery and the way it tackles some sensitive themes, like the issue of child trauma and how to cope with these problems, is quite memorable and it's clear that Ryukishi07's own history as a civil servant had a tremendous effect on Higurashi. As for themes that may interest the reader of mystery fiction more: the idea of an isolated village community with powerful old clans and old folklore comes straight out of a Yokomizo Seishi-style novel of course, and I think that people who liked The Village of Eight Graves especially will find a lot to enjoy in Higurashi: When They Cry. Similarly, the concept of the local deity Oyashiro, the surrounding folklore like the Watanagashi Festival and inferences into the real meaning of Oyashiro's curse, the festival and the history of the village Hinamizawa as a whole is the kind of theme you'll see in Mitsuda Shinzou's Toujou Genya novels, that deal with local history and folklore, murders occuring during traditional ceremonies and "hidden truths"  behind local folklore. If you're into these kind of themes, Higurashi: When They Cry is definitely worth looking into to. 

 

As mentioned earlier, I played the Switch/PS4 version titled Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Hou, which does play a bit differently than the PC version. Most importantly, this release, like previous console/handheld releases on PS2/DS/PS3/Vita, has a few extra console-exclusive chapters that collectively tell a side-story focusing on other characters. This release also presents the various chapters of Higurashi in "sets of chapters", which are all connected as a flowchart. You can only move on to the next flowchart if you have finished the previous one, but that meant I couldn't actually only play the original eight chapters of Higurashi: When They Cry, because each "set" of chapters includes both the original PC chapters as well as the console-exclusive chapters. While most of those console-exclusive chapters are not directly connected to the happenings in Hinamizawa (mostly set in the nearby Kakiuchi City), they do provide with additional clues that pertain to the events in Hinamizawa, so they do make it easier to solve the main mystery in Hinamizawa. It's a shame they force you into this playing order, for I originally planned to play the original 8 chapters first before moving to the extra stories, but that's not possible (unless you use the additional quiz game to unlock all the chapters in advance, but that requires you to... answer questions about spoilers, so option is that's only for people who already know the story). I like that Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Hou has all the content and I like the console art assets/voices too, but it does force you into experiencing Higurashi's story in a very specific manner, which might not be the best one to be honest. Oh, and while I have finished the original Higurashi finale Matsuribayashi, I still haven't finished the console-exlusive finales (the two Miotsukushi chapters) and there's a lot of fan disc content I haven't touched yet either, but I'll get to that some other time...

As with my review of Umineko: When They Cry, my focus in this post was on Higurashi: When They Cry as a mystery story, and while it is not as firmly settled within "meta mystery fiction lore" like Umineko: When They Cry and is less "by a mystery fan, for a mystery fan" in that regard, I still enjoyed my time in Hinamizawa a lot. The way the game challenges you to make connections between the various chapters and try to find some connecting tissue that explains both the mystery in the respective chapter, as well its relation to other chapters is simply something you simply don't see often in mystery fiction, regardless of medium, and while I do think Umineko; When They Cry, as a kind of spiritual sequel, did improve upon the idea, Higurashi: When They Cry was still enjoyable to me. It is by no means a "perfect mystery story", but it is an excellent example of how diverse the mystery genre can be, not just in subject matter but also in the manner in which a mystery is presented and how it challenges the reader/player to interact with it. For those who play on PC in English, I believe the first chapter (Onikakushi) is available for free at the various storefronts like GOG and Steam, so how about a little trip down to Hinamizawa?

Original Japanese title(s):『ひぐらしのなく頃に』「鬼隠し編」/「綿流し編」/「祟殺し編」/「暇潰し編」
『ひぐらしのなく頃に解』「目明し編」/「罪滅し編」/「皆殺し編」/「祭囃し編 」

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

The Magician's Secret

 “For certain, neither of them sees a happy Present, as the gate opens and closes, and one goes in, and the other goes away.”
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

Finished the answer chapter Tsumihoroboshi as well as the Advanced Story arcs Yoigoshi and Tokihogoshi of Higurashi: When They Cry, and have added my thoughts on their consequences for the mystery on the memo page for my playthrough of Higurashi: When They Cry. Still a lot to do, but I guess I'm slowly approaching the finale of this long, long tale of human drama, suspense and mystery!

Yep, it's finally time for this book today!

Nikaidou Ranko series  
Jigoku no Kijutsushi ("The Magician from Hell") (1992)  
Kyuuketsu no Ie ("House of Bloodsuckers") (1992)  
Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent") (1993)  
Akuryou no Yakata ("Palace of Evil Spirits") (1994)  
Yuri Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Lillies") (1995)  
Bara Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Roses") (1997) 
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Deutsch Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Germany") (1996) 
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - France Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - France") (1997)  
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Tantei Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Detective") (1998) 
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Kanketsu Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Conclusion") (1998)  
Akuma no Labyrinth ("The Devil Labyrinth") (2001) 
Majutsuou Jiken ("The Case of the Sorcery King") (2004) 
Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Case of the Double-Faced Beasts") (2007)  
Haou no Shi ("Death of the Ruler") (2012)  
Ran Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Orchids") (2014)
Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken ("The Giant Phantom Mammoth Case", 2017)

The Houshou Clan has been one of the most influential families in the city of Hakodate for decades, so when not one, but two of them appeared at the night club Black Lizard one evening, everyone's eyes were fixed on them. Shibahara Etsuo, accompanied by his beautiful fiancée Suzuhara Tomoka, might "just" be a member of the branch family, but still a well-known face around town, but it was his beautiful cousin, Houshou Kimiko and her fiancé Takioka Takashi who had everyone at the tables around them mumble to each other. The two cousins had not expected to meet each other here, but the four decide to share a table and watch the show they had come for: a magic show by the Sorcery King Mephisto, an illusionist who's had a fantastic run abroad and recently in Tokyo too. After some introductionary magic tricks, Mephisto invites both Kimiko and Tomoka on the stage. Kimiko is put inside a box, while Tomoka is placed on a bed. When Mephisto brings out a chainsaw, everyone gasps for a moment as he slowly brings the loud machine down on the bed where Tomoka is lying. But as the audience hear Tomoka's horrific cry as blood spatters all around on the stage and on the face of Mephisto, they slowly start to realize... that this is not a magic trick! After cutting Tomoka in two in front of a live audience, Mephisto then proceeds to tie his assistant to the guillotine on stage, removes the safety and decapitates her on the spot. Everyone is in a panic and tries to flee the club, while Mephisto disappears backstage. It's only by the time the police arrive it becomes clear how grave the situation is: not only has Memphisto killed Tomoka and an assistant on stage, another assistant was killed in his dressing room and Kimiko has gone missing. But while Mephisto's bloody footprints show how he went backstage and killed his other assistant there, there is no trace of him in the building, even though all doors and windows are locked from the inside. Takioka and Etsuo soon receive a letter from Mephisto, who asks for ransom money for Kimiko, but it also soon becomes clear that Mephisto has a grudge against the whole Houshou Clan and that he is after the three family jewels: the Blazing Eye, the White Fang and the Black Heart, which are connected to a secret of the Houshou Clan. The police try everything to protect the members of the Houshou Clan from Mephisto, but the mad illusionist manages to pull off the impossible everytime: spiriting people out of secured hospital rooms, disappearing from a house surrounded by snow without leaving footprints and steal a jewel from a guarded room. The police inspector in charge soon realizes only one person will be able to help them: the brilliant detective Nikaidou Ranko, but she is busy working on another case in the south of Japan now, so they'll have to hold the fort until she can clear this case up in Nikaidou Reito's Majutsuou Jiken ("The Case of the Sorcery King" 2004).

I'm finally done! Nikaidou Reito's Nikaidou Ranko series was one of the earliest series I started to review on this blog and especially in the early years of this blog, our young protagonist Ranko and her brother/Watson Reito had frequent appearances here. While I didn't read the books as regularly the last few years, it remained a series I have fond memories of: I started reading them early on in my Japanese studies, so they had always been a kind of indicator for me for my studies. And they were also the first "big brick" books I read: most of the novels in this series have really high page count, so especially early on in language studies, those bricks can seem rather intimidating. And I haven't even mentioned Jinroujou no Kyoufu yet, which with four hefty volumes is probably still the longest locked room murder mystery. While I'll be the first to admit that I did not enjoy all the novels in this series as much as I would have wanted do, finishing this series still feels a bit sad. Well, I say "finish" now, but in reality the series hasn't officially ended yet, it's just that I have read all the books currently published, and new volumes only come very, very rarily nowadays. Oh, and I think I mentioned in an older Ranko review already, but I have basically managed to read this whole series out of order! The only ones I read in publication order are Akuryou no Yakata and the short story collection Yuri Meikyuu, as well as the four volumes of Jinroujou no Kyoufu, though the latter doesn't really count because the four books form one story.

I once described early Ranko novels as Carr on crack: the books are oozing with dark atmosphere, set in the seventies and featuring many (MANY) locked room murders and other impossibilities committed in creepy mansions, often against a backdrop of family curses, Western esotericism and medievalism. After the epic Jinroujou no Kyoufu however, Nikaidou shifted the story style significantly by introducing the Labyrinth saga with the 2001 novel Akuma no Labyrinth. This book introduces us to an enigmatic and very dangerous murderer called Labyrinth, who served as the archenemy of Ranko. Their battle would last for four books, ending with Haou no Shi in 2012. Unlike the earlier novels however, the Labyrinth novels were styled more closely to the henkaku horror mystery stories by Edogawa Rampo: these tales were lighter on the mystery, and much heavier on adventure, horror and grotesque story elements, reminiscent of the 20s-50s pulp science-fiction novels with evil scientists and things like monsters, bloodthirsty murders who commit their crimes in the bloodiest/horrific manners possible and elements like secret codes and hidden treasures. To be honest, I didn't really like these novels: Akuma no Labyrinth wasn't bad per se, but it was basically just two short novellas that felt a bit lacking, while Soumenjuu Jiken was just straight-up mad scientist sci-fi horror, and the final story Haou no Shi also didn't stray too far from that model. I understand this was the kind of story Nikaidou wanted to write now with Ranko, but it wasn't really what I wanted to read, so it took me quite a while to finally finish the Labyrinth saga with Majutsuou Jiken, which is actually the second novel in the Labyrinth saga.

Reading things out of order also meant I already knew about the murders in the night club, because they are mentioned in the third novel Soumenjuu Jiken. Majutsuou Jiken and Soumenjuu Jiken take place around the same time, and this is relevant to this book's plot. After solving a murder committed by the Sorcery King in Tokyo (but failing to trace his whereabouts), Ranko travels to Kyushu hot on the trail of Labyrinth. These are the events of Soumenjuu Jiken, but during that story, Ranko also happens to read a newspaper article about the gruesome murders that happened at Black Lizard in Hakodate, which she suspects is related to Labyrinth too, but she can't leave right now as she is busy with her current case. This is also why Ranko and Reito don't appear in Majutsuou Jiken until the end, as they were occupied. That also means that the Sorcery King Mephisto is free to do whatever he wants until the end of the story, and he sure does!

Because Majutsuou Jiken is a suspenseful, incredibly pulpy thriller like we know from Edogawa Rampo, with a creepy, insane murderer with a goofy villain name who goes around hurting or killing people in the most horrific ways because, well, he can and he's evil. There's a certain cartoonish element to this which I can appreciate, and I have to admit: I think Majutsuou Jiken is the best of the four Labyrinth novels, as it does what it's supposed to do in the best manner, without feeling too gimmicky like Soumenjuu Jiken. Go in expecting a pulpy adventure similar to Rampo's The Black Lizard or The Dwarf, and you're okay. The story is basically a string of events where the Sorcery King constantly manages to baffle the police and endanger the lives of Kimiko, Etsuo and the others in the Houshou Clan. The mysteries basically never stop piling up. The book opens with a mysterious murder by the Sorcery King, where he stabs someone in a room while observed by a witness, but then the room disappears. Ranko quickly solves this riddle, and I think many readers will have an inkling of what happened too, but then the narrative switches over to Hakodate, and there the Sorcery King is absolutely unchallenged. A few things that occur while Ranko's occupied: a woman is trapped inside an old stone structure that doesn't even have an entrance, a patient is spirited away from a hospital room while a police guard had been standing at the door all the time, a trapped and shot Sorcery King manages to escape from a house even though there was snow around the building and no footprints can be found, threatening letters from the Sorcery King appear inside the Houshou manor even though there's police security in and outside the house and the Sorcery King makes a whole room disappear from a building. The police and the other involved people like Etsuo are constantly baffled by the impossible disappearances/appearances by the Sorcery King, and it is only in the last quarter of the book that we see Ranko.

But the solutions to most of the mysteries we see in Majutsuou Jiken also betray the pulpy nature of the book. A lot of the trickery employed by the Sorcery King is rather simple and more often than not, these "set pieces" in the story are just there to look impressive, even if there's not really a reason for the culprit to do so. In fact, during her explanation of the events, Ranko even states a few times the Sorcery King only did certain things just to scare the wits out of the people involved. There's also a lot of horrifying moments that mostly just there to creep you out, which also sometimes results in weird moments, like the Sorcery King managing to make Kimiko disappear from her hospital room, thus showing how he can make the impossible possible... but at the same time, we also learn he casually killed a nurse and a guard elsewhere in the hospital. So you have this super criminal who manages to commit impossible feats, but who also just slashes and kills rather casually, There are more moments where we see a lot of violence, which again puts this book firmly in the pulp corner, though Nikaidou does make good use of the more horrifying moments for the mystery plot at some moments. Some events in the story however ae really just there to make the story more suspenseful or to drag things out a bit like a serial adventure story, but I don't think it benefitted the story. The book is really, really long (the pocket paperback version is split in two volumes), but having a pulpy, Rampo-esque story at this size is pretty tiring, as it's one cliffhanger after another, and all the protagonists can do is gasp at every new trick the Sorcery King does. I think the book would've been more fun at half the length, because some parts really feel dragged out. Even the summation by Ranko at the end is strangely lengthy, with Ranko constantly using roundabout comparisons first before she uses twice as many words as necessary to explain each and every mystery. Most of the impossible disappearances feature elements that won't be unfamiliar to a fan of the genre, and will even feel a bit too simple. I do have to say the mystery of the vanished boy, who was spirited away from a house even though the police had arrived outside and there were no footprints in the snow around the house, was surprisingly good, and definitely a highlight of the novel.  The more adventure-esque part of the story near the end is something your mileage may vary on, I didn't really like it but I kinda knew it was coming due to the Rampo inspiration and references in other novels.

Oh, by the way, this story is also book-ended by a discussion between Ranko and Reito about Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and both Ranko and Reito propose theories about the unfinished mystery (with Ranko absolutely convinced her theory is right), so people interested in the Drood mystery might also be interested.

I should note that my expectations of Majutsuou Jiken were definitely not high. The Labyrinth novels never really worked for me, and the two middle books, Majutsuou Jiken and Soumenjuu Jiken seemed to have had mediocre reception, an opinion I certainly shared concerning Soumenjuu Jiken. But you know, perhaps it's me having more "experience" with the Labyrinth novels now, or me becoming more accepting of what Nikaidou wanted to do with these novels, but I think Majutsuou Jiken is actually the best Labyrinth book of the four. It sets out to present a Ranko story in the format of a serialized, pulp thriller like we know of Edogawa Rampo, and it does that in a perfectly fine manner. The book is certainly a bit too long, but there are some good ideas here and there in terms of mystery in this book, and Majutsuou Jiken I think is also the best at really showing the concept of Ranko VS a superhumanly intelligent and vicious insane murderer (with a Scooby Doo villain name), especially compared to the other three books in this saga. So while I think the best Ranko novels are those that predate the four Labyrinth novels, Majutsuou Jiken is the one book you'll want to read if you do want to try out the Labyrinth storyline (and if you don't mind reading things out of order). Anyway, with that, I'm finally done with the Ranko series, at least, for now. I hope Nikaidou Reito will go back to the style of the older books in future Ranko novels, if more are to follow, but no matter what will come, I will probably read it!

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人『魔術王事件』