Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Wheel of Death

It's the circle of life
And it moves us all
"Circle of Life" (Elton John)

For me, my enjoyment of mystery fiction comes for a great deal from the feeling of catharsis when at the end of the story, the mystery is revealed and you are shown the complete picture. It's the feeling of being shocked by finally knowing where every piece of the puzzle is supposed to be, and the sense of amazement to see what that picture is actually portraying. The mystery stories I have enjoyed best in many years of consuming the genre, generally have both an interesting mystery set-up and solution, as well as an interesting (logical) process that leads to that solution. So there's usually a clever mystery (a trick to a problem), but the road to the solution equally features interesting ways for the reader to interact with, be it through ingenious clewing or the opposite, shrewd misdirection. Catharsis can be felt with a good-written mystery whether you managed to solve it (partially) or not: perhaps the sense of utter shock is weakened if you guessed how it all fit together already and correctly interpreted all the clues, but you can still be amazed by just how meticulously and neatly the story was planned. Often, the implementation of an original setting, or a completely original take on what is otherwise a classic trope of the genre, can be enough to give me this sense of satisfaction when consuming a piece of mystery fiction, making it all worthwhile when you get to the end and it all falls in place. I am not per se looking for "shocking reveals/truths" in mystery fiction, mind you. In fact, I can still often be very much amazed simply by the process of clewing that is supposed to lead the reader to the truth, even if that truth is telegraphed too obviously.

On the other hand, if a story doesn't manage to quite reach that threshold of "amazement/shock/wonder" for me, it can feel a bit.. disappointing, even if the book isn't actually bad by any standards. I might recognize clever ideas here and there, but if the execution of the ideas feel underwhelming, I miss that feeling of catharsis at the end of the book, the satisfying feeling of finally realizing how all those lingering questions you had about the mystery and the clues fit together.

Tomonaga Rito's Kanransha wa Nazo wo nosete, which also has the English title Ferris Wheel With Mysteries on the cover, is an example of a book where I simply didn't manage to get that satisfying feeling at the end of the book, even if I see there are clever ideas there. But ultimately, it just doesn't quite manage to provide that feeling of wonder and surprise I am looking for in mystery fiction. Tomonaga made his debut in 2020 with Yuureitachi no Fuzai Shoumei ("The Alibis of the Ghosts"), a book which may not have been perfect, but which did make it into my favorite reads of that year, exactly because there was that sense of catharsis when you finally learned how a student could have been killed without anyone noticing during a haunted house event inside a classroom. It was the reason I immediately bought Tomonaga's second book when I learned it had been released, because I craved for more of his work and the concept of the book sounded interesting: a ferris wheel in a nature park mostly visited by families and young children makes a sudden stop due to small mishap, and while nothing is wrong with the wheel itself, it will take about ten-twenty minutes to start turning again as a safety measure. We follow six groups of people in the carriages of the suspended ferris wheel who all cope with different problems at that very moment. For example, we follow a teenage girl who has followed a middle-aged man inside the carriage, who handcuffs her... and takes out a sniper rifle, for he is a hired killer and she has hired him to make a hit from the ferris wheel when it is in its heighest position. Forced to wait due to the sudden stop, the man however suddenly starts to wonder why this girl wanted to come with him in the carriage and why she ordered the hit in the first place. Meanwhile, we follow a man who actually ends up speaking with a ghost who haunts one of the carriages. She was killed many years ago inside that carriage and only appears whenever the ferris wheel makes an emergency stop like now. She wants the man to solve the mystery of her murder: her memories are vague, but she was stabbed inside the carriage, but how did that man escape from the carriage without any of the attendents noticing there was a body in the carriage? But there are also other, less criminal mysteries going on, like the two female high school students, of which one now wonders why the other girl invited her here and told her to dress in more boyish clothes today. The ferris wheel carries six mysteries, and they all have to be solved before the ferris wheel starts turning again...

Ferris Wheel With Mysteries follows all six groups simulteanously, jumping back and forth between the six different storylines constantly in real-time as they all wait until the ferris wheel starts turning again. The concept itself is fun: it reminds of real-time drama like 24 and this story could easily be adapted for an actual television production. The groups are quite diverse, and provide different kind of mysteries, some more serious like one person who has to solve a puzzle box or else be bombed, some more "mundane" like a boy wondering why that girl he hung out with for so long said she hated him when he confessed his love to her. But ultimately, Ferris Wheel With Mysteries didn't work for me, because the mysteries provided are just too simple in set-up and execution. They don't really provide the sense of shock and wonder I am looking for in the genre, neither in the actual solution nor in the process leading up to the solution. While you are coping with six mysteries taking place simultaneously, you're likely to have very close guesses as to the solutions of most of the mysteries, because more often than not, they are among the first guesses you'll have based on the limited information provided. Even after the different plotlines develop a bit more as you read on, you'll realize your first guesses probably still fit, and at the end... you learn your early guesses were actually correct all the time. This wouldn't be disappointing per se if only the process towards the solution would be more clever, but most of the mysteries are just solved by... the main character of the specific storyline just remembering stuff in a very convenient order, and then realizing what is going on. Very seldom does the book expect the characters, or the reader, to actually contemplate about the logical implications of clues introduced or think more than two seconds about a statement. Everything is very straightforward in this short novel, so you don't get that satisfying feeling of catharsis at the end: you could already see most of the book coming miles ago, and the road to the end didn't provide much excitement either.

There are some clever ideas in this book, but those ideas often feel underutilized. There are some parts of the story that actually do make good use of the unique setting of a ferris wheel, but they are short, and rather pushed to the background, making them hard to stand out. The book even tries to pull a "gotcha!" on you involving the ferris wheel at one point, but it just falls flat because the build-up ("the process") is barely there, making you once again think "Okay, it's not a bad idea, and in fact, it can be interesting if it had been presented in a different way." And that is how I feel about the book as a whole: it somehow fails to present the mystery ideas it has in a rewarding manner for the reader, sometimes because the mystery solving process is boring, sometimes because the truth is not particularly surprising. The attempt to connec these various stories through the ferris wheel is interesting in concept and has a few moments where it does work, but it's hard to be really impressed by it if the minor mysteries that function as the focal point of this book, don't appeal to you.

Tomonaga Rito's debut novel had its flaws, but still managed to become one of my favorite reads of 2020. His second novel Kanransha wa Nazo wo nosete or Ferris Wheel With Mysteries, however does not manage to invoke the same positive feelings. The easiest way to put it would to be say it's underwhelming. While the book does deal with six very different mysteries, the truths behinds these mysteries and the path leading to them just feel too straightforward, never truly surprising or impressing the reader, and while they are not bad in concept, I couldn't help but shrug at the end of the book, for the book just never really managed to "get" me. It's a very short book, and perhaps some of the ideas would've worked better with more pages, but it's not a book I'd put very high on the priority list unless you're specifically looking for ferris wheel mysteries.

Original Japanese title(s): 朝永理人『観覧車は謎を乗せて』

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

When Thieves Fall Out

"When Peter suddenly asked him the question he decided all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down.”
"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"

When I went to study in Japan for a longer period for the first time, I was still relatively early in my language studies, but I ended up in a program for international students with a noticable difference in the level of Japanese proficiency of the students, some having clearly much more experience with the language than I had at that stage. One friend in particular was very advanced and was even using his time to find a job in Japan. In Japan, there is the mechanism of "periodic recruiting of new graduates": companies hiring the newly graduated around the same period of the year. Companies have a preference for newly graduated, so basically all students start doing job interviews in their third years because otherwise, it'll be too late. Often, they have to pass several rounds of tests and interviews, and if you make it all to the end, you will be offered a naitei or promise of employment for the following year, if you actually graduate in your fourth and final year at university. So students in their final year often already know at the start of the academic year in April where they'll be working next April, and they'll start together with other newly graduated. Anyway, my friend actually did try out dozens of companies, doing tests and interviews and everything, and did actually get employed in Japan during his enrollment in our language program, which was pretty amazing in my eyes: we might have been put in the same program and been doing the same classes, but at that stage I certainly wasn't proficient enough in Japanese to even pass the first test round, let alone actually be offered a job!

And of course, the recruitment sessions of big, famous companies attract the largest numbers of students, and it's usually also very difficult to make it to the next round with these companies. So the six students who made it to the final round of the recruitment process of the pioneering IT company Spiralink are absolutely thrilled to be here, and of course all of them hope to be offered a job. While students hunting for a job have usually trained for tjhe different kinds of tests and interviews they might undergo during the recruitment processes of various companies however, these six students had not expected the form of their final test: a group discussion. The six are informed they have a month to learn to work as a team, and they'll be holding a group discussion one month later. The decision on who will be hired depends on their performance at the group discussion, but it's even possible that all six of them will be hired if they all do well. As everyone had expected a direct interview with a recruiter as the final round, the six are somewhat surprised, but given the free culture of Spiralink, they see the merits of this form and they decide to have a few get-togethers to get to learn each other and to prepare for the group discussion, as the six hope that all of them will be hired by Spiralink. The six are all quite different people, some the typical moodmaker, others more suitable as the leading type, but they get along surprisingly well and they all seem convinced they can all make it through this last round together. Until shortly before the discussion, they receive a mail from Spiralink saying that due to the economical situation, they can only recruit one person this year and the new assignment is that they have to decide together in a group discussion which of the six is the best candidate. 

The sudden assignment change makes the six students now six rivals, all wanting the one job at Spiralink. On the fateful day, the six gather in a meeting room. The candidates are left alone here, free to discuss which of them should have the job, while HR is viewing observing this discussion through cameras. The six students decide to hold several voting rounds, giving everyone a fair chance to argue their own case, but early on, the find a mysterious envelope in the room. When they open the envelope, they find six other envelopes inside, one addressed to each of the six students When they open one, they are shocked to find a note that accuses one of them of being a murderer, complete with newspaper articles and photographs about an incident the student had never mentioned to the others. It's at that moment they realize: these envelopes hold dirt on all of them, and somebody must have done to this to improve their own chances at getting the job at Spiralink. Asakura Akinari's Rokunin no Usotsukina Daigakusei ("Six Lying Students" 2021) presents a rather original mystery: which one of these six students is trying to screw over their fellow recruit candidates?

With all that talk about harmony being a virtue in Japanese culture and how the individual has to adapt to the group, there's a lot of competition going in Japanese culture, with entrance exams to get into the best high schools and universities and of course students basically fighting, through their performance at tests and interviews, for a limited number of jobs at the best companies. Having a mystery about a recruitment process is therefore perhaps not incredibily surprising or out of nowhere, but I sure hadn't read a mystery novel about this before, so Rokunin no Usotsukina Daigakusei does win a lot of points with me for that, because it's such an integral part of Japanese culture now, but it's not used very often as a focal point in mystery fiction. With all that competition and rivalry going on around age 20 to basically secure a job that may very well influence how the rest of your remaining life will go, you can definitely imagine some people willing to act rather desperately to make sure they'll be the one with a job at the end of the day. It's a great setting that will resonate with a lot of readers that are familiar with how recruitment works in Japan, but I think that if you aren't really familiar yet with the concept. Rokunin no Usotsukina Daigakusei will provide for an entertaining, and informative read.

For the most part, Rokunin no Usotsukina Daigakusei will not feel like any "normal" mystery novel due to its unique setting and problem, as there's no clear crime or really a mystery going on. Somebody has collected dirt on all of them and placed the evidence/accusations in envelopes in the meeting room, but the focus of the story revolves for the most part on the human drama, on seeing people you thought you knew being exposed as being something different. I think the marketing of this book also focuses partially on it being a work of entertainment, and you can easily imagine this being adapted as a television show or film (in fact, there is already a manga and I think there's also a stage play). The questions of who did it, why and how they are going to find out are obviously not "clearly defined" mysteries like you'll see in conventional mystery stories, with people investigating alibis or how the murderer could hold of a special weapon or something like that. In fact, early parts of the story might feel a bit repetitive, as it's just accusations going back and forth ("you must have done this, you knew you'd never stand a chance!"), without any real evidence.

The merits of this book as a mystery story however come at play in the second half of the book, set some years later after the group discussion, and when all six of them have moved on in their lives. One of the six (former) students decides to look into the incident again, as new discoveries have led them to believe things weren't as they believed they were at the time and it is at this point, revelations are finally made that clearly make this a detective novel. Little comments or actions that occured during the group discussion years ago suddenly take on a completely different meaning, and there are quite some moments that are really satisfying: there's surprisingly enough quite some misdirection going on in the group discussion segment of the book, even though the story seems really straightforward at first, and one has to give it to author Asakura for hiding some really nice surprises in that scene. Innocent remarks turn out to be pretty clevered foreshadowing, and apparent contradictions are revealed to have perfectly innocent explanations. Some of these mysteries are not really for the reader themselves to solve though, I feel and ultimately, I think the way they finally arrive at the "culprit" and their motive is a bit more straightforward than I would have wanted: considering all the various lines of misdirection and foreshadowing going on in this book, I had expected a few more "stages" in the line of reasoning pointing to the culprit, but overall, I think Rokunin no Usotsukina Daigakusei is an entertaining piece of mystery fiction that probably has more to offer to the mystery fan than you'd initially expect. And the book does really delve into the theme of periodic recruiting of new graduates, connecting all strands of its storylines to this main topic.

Rokunin no Usotsukina Daigakusei will not immediately satisfy those looking for a tightly-plotted puzzle mystery where you have to figure out how a locked room was created or where you have to follow a clue to its logical conclusion in twenty steps, but as a work of fiction, it has a very wide appeal that goes beyond the mystery-reading audience, while actually providing quite some interesting elements for the devoted mystery reader too. There's some clever foreshadowing and clewing going on, and the setting of the recruitment interviews as a "crime scene" is quite inspired, resulting in a very suspenseful read that is likely to be remembered due to its unique angle.

Original Japanese title(s): 浅倉秋成 『人の嘘つきな大学生』

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Murder Digs Deep

「事件は会議室で起きてるんじゃない! 現場で起きてるんだ!! 」
『踊る大捜査線 THE MOVIE』
 
"The case isn't happening in your conference rooms!! It's happening down here, at the scene!!"
"Bayside Shakedown"

The Nintendo DS was in many ways an amazing game device, but one of its greatest successes was the way in which it managed to attract a large audience, reaching people beyond "traditional" gamers. This was of course due to the broad of genres offered on the system. Even many "traditional" gamers will likely have had their first experience with Japanese adventure games and novel games through some of the system's sleeper hits like the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and other puzzle-focused games like the Professor Layton games. For people who mostly read mystery fiction, the Nintendo DS had a lot to offer to armchair detectives, from the aforementioned games to Cing's output like Another Code and Hotel Dusk, but also think of the many licensed games: the Nintendo DS had a huuuuuuge audience and developing for the system was also less expensive compared to its console counterparts, so you also had a lot of licensed mystery games like for the CSI series, or for example Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders.

Unsolved Crimes, released in 2008 on the Nintendo DS, has a rather plain title and most publications back at release seemed to treat it as a budget mystery adventure title, riding on the waves of the bigger mystery games on the Nintendo DS. And in a way, that's not wrong, but I think there's a lot more to Unsolved Crimes than you'd initially suspect, even if it's far from a hidden gem. Still, I think fans of mystery fans should take a look at it, especially as in 2022, you can find this game for next to nothing. While developed by Japanese studio Now Production, a studio I have seen often as a sub-contractor on bigger projects, this game is actually only published in the West and does not have a Japanese release. Set in 70s New York, you play the role of a rookie detective of the Homicide Division of the NYPD. Together with your veteran partner Marcy, the two of you investigate crime scenes and report to your boss Captain Abbot. And when I say you investigate crime scenes and not crime cases, I mean that. In all the major cases presented in Unsolved Crimes, the player and Marcy are responsible for going over the crime scenes again: initial investigation and interrogating suspects is always done by your co-workers, and all you get are reports on those findings. Marcy and the player are always just going up and down the crime scene and Captain Abbot's office. Each case, you go over the initial reports and then search the crime scene: perhaps there's a clue the first responders missed or perhaps you notice a contradiction between the testimonies of the suspects/witnesses and the actual crime scene. The cases can vary from a seemingly simple robbery-gone-wrong, to a deadly incident between friends to even cases involving serial killers and a locked room murder. Meanwhile, there's also an overarching storyline that involves the abduction of Marcy's model sister, though the tasks that involve that case are more like mini-games, compared to the more focused main mystery game.

Let me start with just saying that presentation-wise, yes, Unsolved Crimes looks very grey and boring. I think they were going for a 70s crime drama vibe, and some parts of the presentation like the one single music track they play do a better job at conveying it, but the characters designs are pretty boring, and that's made worse by the fact you only see Abbot and Marcy "in person" in this game: all the other characters mentioned are just mugshots that adorn testimony reports. I can definitely see people looking at screenshots of this game on the back of the box and deciding it just isn't worth it, which, again, I think wouldn't be exactly right.

Unsolved Crimes utilizes the touch screen of the DS (ha, do you remember the time when people thought touch screens were just a gimmick!?) to present 3D crime scenes as well as evidence, which you can investigate from various angles. 3D graphics on the Nintendo DS were seldom really breath-taking, but I'd say the crime scenes look decent enough on the system and surprisingly, in most cases the 3D-aspect of the game is actually relevant. Most cases demand some spatial awareness if you want to solve the crime, and the way this integrates the story/puzzle-solving of this game with the presentation is clever. Some mysteries can only be solved by being at the crime scene and looking at things from a certain angle, allowing you to guess why a witness said a certain thing for example, while in other cases, being able to physically walk around at the crime scene just makes it a lot clearer how events must have happened. this is one aspect where mystery adventure games can really pull things off "normal" mystery fiction (books) can't (see also this editorial) and I think that while Unsolved Crimes does nothing mind-blowing, I think it's a good, not too complex showcase and perfect for people who normally don't play games and would want to "ease into" playing mystery games and see what they can offer when it comes to the mystery genre.

The mystery-solving gameplay of Unsolved Crimes however isn't perfect, even though I completely agree with the spirit behind it and I do wish more games would take cues from it, even if the execution here is definitely not perfect. Basically, every time you find some important clues or learn important facts, Marcy will fire questions at you: answer her multiple-choice questions correctly and present the correct proof to back your claim up, and lo, you have made progress in your investigation! Often, you'll need to answer a few important questions about the scene and report Captain Abbot, which will lead to new developments in the case (usually asking the suspects/witnesses for more testimony), allowing you investigate the case even further. Marcy's questions make Unsolved Crimes both an interesting, and yet at the same time quite boring game. Marcy's questions (usually about 15 per case) are really a way to guide the player into solving the crime, and very methodically build on each other: she starts off with very obvious questions, but after a while the questions start building off answers to previous questions, and before you know it, her questions have allowed you to solve that seemingly impossible locked room murder. But at the same time, Marcy's questions are too methodical, they really go through each and every single step and she fires these questions at you constantly, so the player isn't allowed to think for themselves too much. Each case only takes somewhere between twenty minutes to an hour at most, and that's because Marcy's always just leading you to the correct conclusions. While you'll end up with worse end-of-case ratings if you mess up Marcy's questions, it's unlikely you'll do so (often), as she really moves step by step and you can easily see how each questions builds on the previous answer. And I do have to say, i really liked how her questions really made seemingly complex cases very approachable. Yeah, sure, the locked room murder may seem daunting at first, but Unsolved Crimes does a good job at breaking a difficult problem down into smaller problems (questions) which you can solve, and shows how by building on previously made logical conclusions, you can present complex mysteries and really show the player how to tackle them. The way you solve each case is very methodological, and never does a revelation or deduction come out of nowhere. Some of the questions aren't even just multiple choice, but require you to for example pinpoint locations on a map (the spatial awareness I mentioned earlier) or to point out contradictions between testimony and crime scene and those really make good use of the game medium. So I truly like the idea of the leading questions as the major gameplay mechanic of Unsolved Crimes, as it does a good job at translating the "mystery solving" aspect of a mystery story, but at the same time the game is just too linear and hand-holdy because of that.

And that with the aforementioned sobre presentation does really mean Unsolved Crimes looks very boring: if you're not investigating a 3D crime scene, then you're just answering questions from Marcy or perhaps Captain Abbot. Even when you solve the case, all you get are reports about what happened next, and never do you get to meet any of the other characters in person. Action (touch screen mini-games) are found in the mini-missions that concern the kidnapping of Marcy's sister, like a car chase or even a shoot-out, but those aren't really presenting a mystery story or gameplay, and the finale to this overarching storyline is pretty disappointing as you really don't do much of the mystery-solving you do in the rest of the game.

But coming back to what I said earlier: I don't think this is a bad mystery game, and considering you can find a used copy for very little nowadays, I think it's a neat to check out if you still have a Nintendo DS (or 3DS) and have already played most of the major mystery adventure games on that system. Unsolved Crimes is one that you are likely to have missed, or just ignored when it first released in 2008, and while it's certainly not a masterpiece by any means, I think fans of the mystery genre will be able to find things to like about this game. I for one certainly wouldn't mind seeing more games that build on some of the better elements from Unsolved Crimes.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Dead Justice

Where do we go from here?  
When does the end appear?
"Once More With Feeling" (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

The focus of this blog is mystery fiction in the broad sense of the word, so I also look at media beyond just books. Most people are of course also familiar with television or film, but of outside of books, the most-often featured media here tend to be manga and video games, because I generally consume a lot of those forms of entertainment, also outside the mystery genre. In the many years since I started this blog, I've written about a lot of mystery fiction, but the musical tag has one that's always been rather rare here: there just aren't that much mystery musicals, and even fewer that don't actually you to go to the theatre yourself, as few of them are actually made available as home video or streaming after the theatrical run.

The two mystery musicals I have discussed in the past were adaptations of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney game franchise, produced by the famous Takarazuka Revue: the Takarazuka Revue is an all-female musical theatre based in the city of Takarazuka which has been around since 1913 and is a household name in Japan. The Revue's shows are extravagant, fabulous shows that bring its audience to an other world where everyone looks like they stepped out of a classic shojo manga and sings and dances every few minutes. Besides original pieces, the Takarazuka Revue also does adaptations existing IPs like the aforementioned Gyakuten Saiban musicals, but they also have done musicals of famous action manga like City Hunter and Rurouni Kenshin (and in the anime, Kenshin is voiced by a former Takarazuka actress!). For the mystery fan, the Takarazuka Revue also has interesting titles in its repertoire, like a Sherlock Holmes musical.

Yuurei Deka ~ Sayonara suru, sono mae ni ("The Ghost Detective - Before We Say Farewell") is a Takarazuka musical which was originally performed in March 2021 and based on the 2000 novel Yuurei Deka ("The Ghost Detective") by Arisugawa Alice (disclosure: I translated Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle. ). Note that I haven't read the original work, so I can't say how close this adaptation is to the source material, though I am going to guess the elaborate dance and singing scenes are not found in the novel. The story starts at a local police station, where all the detectives are working hard on the case of the murder of a co-worker: a lot of time has passed since the police detective was killed, but they still have no leads. Kanzaki Tatsuya is one of the detectives working on the case, when one night, he's approached by his superior Kyoudou who suddenly apologizes and.... promptly kills him with a pistol. Oddly enough, Tatsuya becomes a ghost, capable of going everywhere but not able to physically interact with other people or objects in the world. He learns from a fellow ghost that he's probably still hanging around as a ghost as he has unfinished business, though in time, he'll move on to the afterlife anyway. Tatsuya tries to warn his fiancee Sumako, who always works at the police station, that his boss is the killer, but she's not able to hear him. Unlike Hayakawa, an old friend who has recently been reposted here. For some reason, probably because he hails from a family with spirit mediums, Hayakawa is able to see and speak with the ghost of Tatsuya, who explains all that has happened to him. Hayakawa agrees to work together to catch Tatsuya's killer, but their investigation has only started when Kyoudou is found shot dead inside an interrogation room at the police station, but no pistol is found at the scene and a witness outside the room states nobody left the interrogation room after she heard the shot, so who shot Kyoudou? A ghost? 

You know, this is an interesting impossible murder situation! Here we have a world with actual ghosts, and a mysterious death that appears to be the doing of a ghost at first sight due to the weapon being spirited away and no murderer found at the crime scene, and yet it's still impossible because we know ghosts in this world can't interact with objects like pistols! Add to that the mystery of Tatsuya not knowing why Kyoudou was killed or even why Kyoudou killed him at the start of the story, and you have a fairly entertaining story. Despite the depressing idea of the protagonist being killed at the very start of the story, there's a distinct comedic tone to the whole musical (probably partially because that fits the style of Takarazuka, I surmise based on the few musicals I saw), with a lot of comedy arising from his co-workers constantly Hayakawa talking out loud by himself, because they can't see the ghost of Tatsuya. And then there are of course the songs and dances strung in between which all gives the story a flashy feeling, with characters singing their own character introductions or a witness dancing to her own testimony. It's a fun watch, though a bit long (though that's perhaps I watched the home video release and I'd experience it differently in the actual theatre).

As mentioned above, I haven't read the original novel, so I can't say how much of this musical is actually taken directly from the novel, how much of the plot might be musical-original or whether important elements from the novel were cut, but on the whole, I think Yuurei Deka ~ Sayonara suru, sono mae ni offers a surprisingly robust mystery story, that even without the musical angle, is worth a watch. In essence, Yuurei Deka's plot consists of multiple ideas and concepts that might be simple on their own, but they are interwoven in clever and thoughtful manners, making the mystery seem more complex than the individual parts are. It's a technique often seen in Detective Conan, where multiple relatively simple ideas that might just be "okay" are strung together to construct a story that is more than its seperate parts added together. So in the case of Yuurei Deka, there are definitely some ideas that seem a bit weak on their own: the direct cause for Kyoudou's death in the interrogation room is just silly and the ultimate reason why Tatsuya was murdered by his boss is also a bit weak, though the set-up (clewing) for both concepts is okay.The way the locked room was constructed was also rather underwhelming, but I think that the underlying fundamentals behind that part of the mystery do tie nicely back to the (admittedly silly) reason why Kyoudou died. There are some really clever smaller parts of the mystery though, with one in particular which I really worked well in musical form: while I can imagine how it was done in the original novel and can see how it'd be pretty tricky too there, the presentation in the musical makes it both easier and harder to spot, and that's quite memorable. Add to that that the story does at point make meaningful use of the whole concept of Tatsuya being a ghost (like him eavesdroppping on people) in terms of mystery, and overall, I think that Yuurei Deka is a good mystery story even if not every single part is as strong.

 

I don't think there are moments where I thought that the musical form (i.e. with song and dance) was essential for this story to work, but that didn't really bother me anyway, and as expected of a Takarazuka Revue story, there was also an emphasis on the romantic subplot (Tatsuya being dead and Sumako grieving for him), but still, this can be enjoyed as a straight mystery story.

I can't make any comparisons with the original novel, perhaps that one is better, or perhaps not, but at the very least, the Takarazuka Revue's Yuurei Deka ~ Sayonara suru, sono mae ni is an entertaining musical that tells an entertaining and well-constructed puzzle plot mystery and unless you're really bothered by the fact the characters suddenly start singing or that everyone's being played by women, I'd say this will probably satisfy the people looking for the rare beast that is a murder mystery musical.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖(原作)『幽霊刑事(デカ)~サヨナラする、その前に~』

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Death Casts a Spell

"It's midnight."
"Cinderella"

I watched a lot of the classic Disney feature-length animated films when I was little, but Cinderella is one of the few I never saw...

The Thompson family was once a prominent family in the Kingdom of Illusion, but those days are a thing of the past now. Mother Catherine is still hoping that one day, the family will return to its former glory and her hopes are settled on her two daughters Giovanna and Layla. Cinderella, the child of her second husband who died a few years ago, is of course not part of Catherine's plans, and Cinderella is mostly just doing the odd jobs around the house. While Catherine, Giovanna and Layla are not as mean to Cinderella as you might have heard from certain fairly tales, it's still no surprise that Catherina plans to only take Giovanna and Layla to the 18th birthday party of Prince Olivier, hoping that the future king of the kingdom will fall in love with one of her daughters. Cinderella is to stay alone at the house, but is suddenly visited by a wizard, who conjures up a nice dress for Cinderella, as well as a pumpkin coach and a mouse-turned-human-coachman. The wizard also gives Cinderella a pair of specially made glass slippers that surprisingly aren't the product of magic. Cinderella really doesnt want to go to the castle party, because it was the perfect night to do some reading, but the wizard sends the stunningly-looking, but grumbling woman off, and a few moments later, Cinderella finds herself wandering at the ball under an alias, hoping Catherine and her step-sisters won't notice her. 

Prince Olivier does notice Cinderella though, and while she tries to decline a dance with the prince pointing to her glass slippers, the prince offers to lend Cinderella a proper pair of shoes from his collection and brings Cinderella to his private room. At first, Cinderella fears the prince might try some funny business, but it's really just a pair of shoes he offers her. They return to the ball, but after a while Cinderella decides it's time to return home, so she and the prince return to his room again to retrieve her glass slippers. Cinderella waits inside the room near the entrance while the prince goes behind a corner to get the slippers, but he takes an awfully long time to get them, and when Cinderella goes deeper inside the room to see what's keeping the prince, she stumbles upon the dead body of Prince Oliver lying on the floor. The guard standing outside the prince's room barges inside upon Cinderella's cry, and Cinderella is immediately arrested. Cinderella of course denies the accusation, even though on the surface, she's the only viable suspect: a guard was standing outside the prince's quarters all this time, and the only persons to go inside were the prince and Cinderella, and only one of these two is alive now. While Cinderella is given a minute to confide with Layla about her presence here, Cinderella is immediately put on trial for the murder on the beloved prince. While Cinderella is a fast talker and manages to stall a seemingly inevitable guilty sentence, time is ticking in Konno Tenryuu's Cinderella-jou no Satsujin ("The Cinderella Castle Murder" 2021), as the magic will fade at midnight revealing her true identity as Cinderella, child of the Thompson family and if she's found guilty, it will probably mean the death of Catherine, Giovanna and Layla too.

The last three, four years, I've been enjoying a lot of these mystery stories that are basically parodies of well-known children's stories, fables or other folk tales. These stories are patterned after these well-known tales, but transform them into magical locked room murders, devious murders where the murderer has a perfect alibi or a surprising whodunnit. Examples would be Kobayashi Yasumi's Märchen Murder series for example, which is based on well-known children's literature like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, or Aoyagi Aito's Once Upon A Time series, where he re-tells well known fairy tales from both Japan and the West as puzzle plot mystery stories. I absolutely love how these stories use tales we all know up to some degree, but transform them into detective stories that are both recognizable and new, and they also often utilize supernatural elements (magic) in clever ways. We all grew up on these stories and "know" the magic used in these tales, so it's really fun to see these elements most of us have known most of our lives used in mystery stories. Cinderella-jou no Satsujin was published last year and written by Konno Tenryuu, of which I have also read his Alchemist series, (it's basically Fullmetal Alchemist as a detective series), so I knew I could at least something decent from this book.

Making a comparison with a different work when discussing a certain book isn't the most elegant way of writing a review. In a way, it's pretty lazy, stating that A is similar to B, hoping the reader knows enough about "B" to understand what you are meaning. It's also something I do a lot in my reviews, because I am not really a really good reviewer. But honestly, I can't help but say this out loud: Cinderella-jou no Satsujin is exactly like a Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney story. There really is no other way to describe this book. And I don't even mean it in a negative way! In fact, I quite enjoyed reading Cinderella-jou no Satsujin, but if you have ever played any of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, you can almost perfectly predict how the plot will unfold, because this book really follows the story pattern seen in those video games exactly. After the murder is discovered, Cinderella is immediately put on trial because the implications of the murder on Prince Oliver are just so big, even though the investigation at the crime scene hasn't even really ended yet! Almost everyone is already convinced Cinderella killed the prince as the trial commences, and even the judge doesn't sound really impartial as he makes the opening speech, but fortunately, if there's one thing Cinderella can do, it's think fast, and talk even faster, and it doesn't take long for Cinderella to pick up on little contradictions in the statements of the witnesses and attack those weak points, slowly proving that she was not the only one who could have murdered the prince even though initially it seems like an open-and-shut case.

And it's from this point on, Cinderella-jou no Satsujin unfolds almost as if it had originally been written as an episode in one of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games. Witnesses with quirky character traits appear at the witness stand with testimonies that initially seem to prove Cinderella's guilt, but Cinderella points out little contradictions each time, exposing these witnesses as either liars, or at least as someone who is under an misapprehension, and when pushed, it turns out their testimonies don't point unilaterally at Cinderella at all, and even open up opportunities for Cinderella to point at other suspects or prove how the apparent locked room murder of the prince is in fact not a locked room murder. The cycle of testimony -> contradictions -> new testimony or new witness -> contradictions is the bread and butter of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, which in turn took inspiration from Columbo, but the whole courtroom setting combined with the way all the witnesses have some weird quirks or how they "transform" (drastically change mood/tone) when contradictions are pointed come straight out of the famous video game series. The book even has an extra investigation segment between two trial parts, where Cinderella is allowed to do some extra investigations at the crime scene, follows the story flow of any given Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney episode. 

The reader is therefore also kept entertained from start to finish, as Cinderella constantly solves little mysteries throughout the tale by pointing out the contradictions in the testimonies. The reader is also given a fair chance at noticing these contradictions themselves too, making this an engaging read because each time, you really want to notice the contradictions before Cinderella does. And whether you manage to point out these contradictions yourself first or not, there's always the extra question of why a certain contradiction exists. Did that witness just intentionally lie to hide something that would reveal Cinderella's innocence? Or were they deceived into assuming something, and why would that be the case? As the story continues, Cinderella of course also points out the possibility of magic having been used to kill Prince Oliver in the locked room. With Cinderella being given a magic dress and a pumpkin coach and more at the start of the tale, the reader is already mentally prepared for the implications of magic on the mystery plot, and Kanno does a good job at setting out the limitations of magic for this plot, similar to how alchemy plays an important role in his Alchemist series, but where it's not just a magic answer to everything. Magic perpaps plays not as prominently a role in Cinderella-jou no Satsujin as alchemy in the Alchemist series, but it's quite satisfying to see all the magic with a Cinderella motif put to good use in this mystery novel. Ultimately, I think the solution to the locked room murder on Prince Oliver is not really complex or surprising when examined as a singular plot idea (so if you'd only look at how the locked room murder came to be), but the journey to the solution is really entertaining and I enjoyed the ride to midnight.

I don't know if there are more mystery stories that are patterned after Cinderella, I assume there are, but Cinderella-jou no Satsujin at least is a fun one! While the basics of the fairy tale are still intact, the wise-cracking Cinderella and the other figures are funny original takes and additions to the tale, and as a mystery story, Cinderella-jou no Satsujin is a well-plotted mystery story that is especially fun if the reader tries to identify the contradictions themselves too, trying to solve the mystery before Cinderella does. I wouldn't mind if Konno would turn this into a series!

Original Japanese title(s):  紺野天龍『シンデレラ城の殺人』