Saturday, February 25, 2023

Death of an Author

Gimme Love Gimme Love 君は doubt
「真っ赤なlip」 (Wands)
Gimme love / Gimme love / Doubt about you
What a horribly shoddy trick
"Brightly Red Lips" (Wands)

Back in September, when I discussed volume 102 of Detective Conan and while waiting for the home video release of The Bride of Halloween, I mentioned perhaps discussing a few anime originals again, but for some reasons this took months...

Detective Conan anime original episodes
Scenario by Ochi Hirohito:
21: TV Dorama Roke Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case of The Television Drama Filmed on Location
88-89: Dracula-Sou Satsujin Jiken ("The Villa Dracula Murder Case")
184: Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly")
379-380: Hitou Yukiyami Furisode Jiken ("The Case of the Furisode of the Hot Spring Hidden In The Snow Darkness")
596: Tenraku no Alibi ("The Alibi of the Fall")
603-605: Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room")
905-906: Nananengo no Mokugekishougen ("Eyewitness Testimony, Seven Years Later")

Scenario by Hashiba Chiaki
203-204: Kuroi Ikaros no Tsubasa ("The Black Wings of Icarus")
208: Meikyuu he no Iriguchi - Kyodai Shinzou no Ikari ("The Entrance to the Maze: The Anger of the Giant Statue of the Heavenly Maiden")

Scenario by Mochizuki Takeshi
210-211: Gosai Densetsu no Mizugoten ("The Water Palace of the Legend of the Five Colors"
214: Retro Room no Nazo Jiken ("The Mysterious Case in the Retro Room")

Scenario by Saitou Kenji
159-160: Kaiki Gojuutou Densetsu (The Legend of the Mysterious Five-Storied Pagoda)

Scenario by Mikami Koushirou
730: Kanpekisugita Figure ("The Figure That Was Too Perfect")
753: Share House no Shikaku ("The Blind Spot in the Share House")
859: Kurayami no Sangaku Route ("The Mountain Route in the Darkness")

Scenario by Yamatoya Akatsuki
971: Glamping Kaijiken ("The Curious Glamping Incident")
1050-1051: Morikawa Goten no Inbou ("Intrigue at the Morikawa Manor")

The previous time I discussed episodes that were originally written for the anime adaptation of Detective Conan (so not based on the original comic by Aoyama Goushou), I think I found a format that worked for me: focusing on specific scenario writers and picking a few episodes out that stood out to me for one reason or another. Most of the single episode anime originals are usually a bit too lean on the meat in terms of mystery, simply because they are quite short with about only twenty minutes of runtime. Sometimes they have interesting ideas here and there, but it's just difficult really developing those ideas fully in the runtime, so often I end up watching an anime original thinking it wasn't really all that bad and that there were parts here and there that were promising, but it's only a select few that I think are truly worth a recommendation as a must-see, and most of them I have already discussed here in previous posts. So now I just pick a few of the shorter episodes that might not be really must-sees, but might have interesting points here and there, and worth watching if you've already seen the truly major anime original episodes.

Episode 21 TV Dorama Roke Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case of The Television Drama Filmed on Location") is one of the earliest anime original episodes of the series and originally aired on June 24th, 1996. On its own, it's not a particularly memorable anime original to be very honest, save for the anime of the script writer: Ochi Hirohito, or Ochi Koujin as he is currently called, was already credited in earlier episodes as episode director and storyboarder, but this was the very first episode he wrote a story for. He would move on to write a few of the best anime original episodes for Detective Conan, most notably Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly") and Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room"), and while episode 21 is nowhere as good as those classics, I thought it'd still be interesting to take a look at his first original Conan story.

The episode opens at Beika Temple, where a television crew is busy filming the mystery drama The Threat Laughing in the Darkness, starring none other than Okino Youko. Mouri Kogorou, Ran and Conan are also present, because Kogorou has been hired as a consultant for the mystery parts of the story, and as a big fan of Youko, he of course wouldn't refuse the job. Some of the crew members include the scripter Taeko, whose family runs Beika Temple, her fiance and assistant director Yuuji and a sleazy camera operator called Anzai. Once the day of filming has ended, Kogorou and the kids are invited to come along to the inn the crew is staying at for dinner, though one of the actors, Nachi Shingo, who is very keen to repeat to you he plays the handsome roles, refuses to stay at the "shabby-looking" inn. Early in the night, Anzai is seen leaving the inn, and after a while Ran, Conan and Youko also go out to visit the convenience store, but as they pass by Beika Temple they see a suspicious figure, and when they enter the temple grounds, they find Anzai lying dead on the ground. There is however one big clue: a dying message left by the victim. But what does the message "komainu" (the lion-dog statues seen at temples) mean?

Funny trivia: this is the first time the character of Takagi Wataru appears in the series. He's still unnamed, but he has the same design and he is voiced by voice actor Takagi Wataru, after whom the character is named because in one of the later episodes, the voice actor had to ad-lib one time as the 'unnamed recurring police detective' and said his own name.

I can almost hear readers lose interest now because I mention it's a dying message... and to be honest, it's not like this episode has a super original angle to the trope of the dying message. While it's almost painfully obvious who the killer is and what has been done in order to evade suspicion, I will give the episode credit for trying to fill the relatively short run time of approximately 20 minutes with a few twists, even if they are telegraphed too clearly. It is not just one single thing that is done here, but it's clear Ochi tried to fit in a few more surprises here and there to flesh out the mystery, and while ultimately, the result is fairly average for an early Detective Conan anime original, it might be worth watching it after viewing the other Ochi episodes, just to see how truly great he can be.

Episodes 203-204 form a two-parter titled Kuroi Ikaros no Tsubasa ("The Black Wings of Icarus") penned by Hashiba Chiaki, who also wrote episode 208 Meikyuu he no Iriguchi - Kyodai Shinzou no Ikari ("The Entrance to the Maze: The Anger of the Giant Statue of the Heavenly Maiden"). To be honest, I thought I had already written about this episode on the blog because I have the feeling it's one of the better known anime originals, but I guess I never got around to it. The story, originally broadcast on August 14th and 21st, 2000, starts with Kogorou, Ran and Conan arriving at a hotel located in the mountains near a lake, as Kogorou was lured by the local beers. Arriving at Hotel Arimori, they are pleasantly surprised to see the twins Minaho and Honami there, whom they previously met in the anime original Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly"): the two are now working at this hotel.  A fellow guest at the hotel is the haughty actress Bizen Chizuru, a demanding woman who is especially good at aiming her inherent anger at the employees of the hotel, while her husband tries to soothe things and apologizes for his wife's behavior. Her husband, Shiromoto Hidehide, is a nice enough businessman, though he has plans to develop the land in this area, despite a nearby mountain plateau being the home to many rare butterflies and plants, so the plans for land development naturally worries the people of the hotel. The list of guests becomes one person longer when the president of a production company begs Chizuru to give up an upcoming major role promised to her and allow a younger (bigger) actress to take the role instead, a plea which doesn't help Chizuru's temper. The following day, the president and Shiromoto go for fishing, while the hotel manager and the cook join Ran and Conan to visit the mountain plateau, while Mouri remains at the hotel watching television, and the twins attend to the hotel. Chizuru herself also stays cooped up in her room as she's still furious about having to let go of the role. Everyone goes around minding their own business that day, but at the end of the day, when everybody returns to the hotel, Shiromoto realizes Chizuru doesn't react at all to him knocking on her room's door. They unlock the door with the master key, but the door-guard blocks the door, so they are forced to break it down, only to find Chizuru dead, hanging from the ceiling. At first this seems to be a suicide, something Chizuru had threatened to do earlier, but a close examination of the scene quickly tells Conan, and the police that this wasn't a suicide, but a murder, committed in a locked room. But while some of the suspects have fairly solid alibis, like being on the mountain plateau the whole day, some others have less clear alibis, so which of them is the murderer?

You know what's funny about these episodes? This story not only references Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly") through its reappearance of Honami and Minaho, it also contains a reference to TV Dorama Roke Satsujin Jiken! In one scene, Kogorou is watching a re-run of a television drama special starring Okino Youko, and it's indeed the one they were filming in TV Dorama Roke Satsujin Jiken. Ochi Hirohito in fact storyboarded the story and directed the first episode of the two-parter, so it's funny how he managed to stuff this episode full with references to his own stories.

Anyway, the fake suicide in a locked room is solved rather quickly, and the trick is rather rudimentary, so that's obviously not the big focus of the episode. It's also painfully easy to guess who the murderer is because there's basically only one person with a really strong alibi at first sight, which of course going by mystery meta logic means they did it. The basic idea of the trick the murderer used is telegraphed too obviously too (like... a major hint is basically spelled out with giant letters in front of you at two seperate times in this two-parter...), but you know, the dynamics and all of that of the trick are actually quite good. In a way, the story slightly reminds of two Agatha Christie stories: the main one is Evil Under the Sun, with the actress being killed, people in a hotel all loafing around somewhere else during the day and the matter of alibis being a focal point of the story, while the main trick of this two-parter vaguely reminds of the main trick of another, less major Christie work, only... better? They're not similar enough to be really 1:1 parallels, but the underlying concepts are fairly similar, though transformed into a different "mode" as it were to suit this particular story, but this story builds more on the same premise, adding more elements to make it a more complex, deceptive mystery and making the whole alibi trick a much stronger one. Small touches like having Kogorou, Ran and Conan pass by a road construction site in the very first scene of the first episode, and having those construction workers also function as witnesses to some of the alibis is also nicely done. Some of the clues that lead Conan to the truth are quite good, like the one regarding the state of the hotel room, though the truly decisive clue pointing to the murderer is of the type I personally don't really like because this type of clue often feels a bit... too much like they are planted by the writer of the story to have a decisive clue. While I don't think this two-parter is as strong as Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly") and Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room"), it sits comfortably in the category immediately below those masterpieces and is definitely the best anime original to be discussed in today's post.

Going back to an Ochi-written episode brings us to episode 596, Tenraku no Alibi ("The Alibi of the Fall"), originally airing on November 20th, 2010. One evening, Kogorou, Ran and Conan are visiting Orion Planning, a production company specializing in planning and producing television programs, commercials and other events, as the company wants to work with Kogorou on a mystery puzzle book. As arranged, Kogorou calls his contact Higashiyama on his extension upon arrival, as he's located in the annex behind the main Orion Planning building. While Kogorou is on the phone with Higashiyama however and he gazes outside the window towards the annex, he sees a body fall in front of the window. The victim is Takahata, an event planner at Orion, who seemingly committed suicide from the main building, jumping down the window (and passing in front of Kogorou on his way down). A suicide note seems to confirm this was no accident, but a few clues uncovered early on lead to the conclusion this might actually be murder. Suspicion falls on the two Orion employees in the building, but both seem to have iron-clad alibis: Higashiyama was on the phone with Kogorou in his office in the annex building during the fall, and was crossing from the annex to the main building by the planning employee Sunagawa, while Sunagawa herself welcomed Kogorou and the others in the office only moments before the fall, and couldn't have made it up and down the fourth floor from where the victim fell without being seen by the people who were repairing the broken elevator in the main building, and back to be seen by Higashiyama as he crossed the skyway to the main building. But as the episode title suggest: one of them must've have used some kind of alibi trick.

For a single episode, this story is fairly packed, which is perhaps why it starts off fairly quickly. We have the first part of the police and Conan figuring out why it wasn't a suicide, and how the murderer could've rigged things to create a false alibi, but then there's a second part where Conan, and the viewer, has to determine how the culprit actually secured a solid alibi for the moment the fall occured, as the trick Conan figured out still requires the murderer to be relatively close to the victim at the time of the fall. The way the episode seems to focus a lot on a certain prop quickly gives you an idea what was used to accomplish that feat, but I think the trick itself is pretty clever, and has a nice visual clue to it too. The episode has a few smaller details that on their own don't say much, but are clearly also included to facilitate the mystery, so I think it's a pretty solid mystery considering the short run-time, and if you compare it to TV Dorama Roke Satsujin Jiken, you can definitely tell Ochi's plotting developed a lot, even within the single episode format. Note by the way that in the episode itself, Ochi is credited with the name Uonji Chiko. (O-Chi Ko-Ji-N = Ochi Koujin).

The two episodes above where picked because of the writer of the script, but that was not the case when I decided to watch episodes 1050 and 1051, Morikawa Goten no Inbou ("Intrigue at the Morikawa Manor"), originally airing on July 17 and 23, 2022. Kogorou, Ran and Conan are brought to the private island of Morikawa Yuuzan, a man built an empire on soft ice. The island actually has some of its hills shaped like soft ice, and in the private rooms in the manor all have their own soft ice serving machines. Soft ice emperor Morikawa is dying however, and he hopes the famous detective Mouri Kogorou's insights can tell him which of his three sons is best fitted to inherit the company and his fortune, as all of them have some obvious flaws: the oldest son having interest in soft ice and research, but not in actually running a company, while the two younger sons seems a bit too eager to want to become the big boss after their father's death. The three siblings obviously don't get along, to the despair of the head manager of the house, Yuka, who as the daughter of the previous head manager, actually spent most of her childhood growing up with the Morikawa brothers. At dinner, one of the brothers doesn't appear however, and the following day, another one is not seen at the breakfast table, which worries the others. They go to the rooms of the two missing brothers, using the master key to open the door, but they find the youngest brother lying dead inside his own room: his own room key is lying inside the room, and as the master key was kept secured in a special box, it appears this was a locked room murder. Kogorou wants to alert the police immediately, but the family lawyer reminds Kogorou he signed a contract that his duties to his client take priority and that he needs to determine the best heir. Kogorou intends to do that job, but also decides to investigate this curious death, but it doesn't take long for more murders to occur in the Morikawa manor...

This was a surprise in two ways. First of all, the title seemed interesting on its own, combined with the fact it was a two-parter, but I hadn't really expected a Yokomizo Seishi-inspired story. But yeah, a wealthy elderly man on the verge of dying and his will leading to a series of murders happening are obviously taken from Inugamike no Ichizoku (The Inugami Clan), and the way the second murder is discovered is directly inspired by Akuma no Temariuta, but in a slightly more... comical way. And that ties in to the second surprise: after the episode ended, I took a look at the credits to see who penned this episode and it was... Yamatoya Akatsuki. The man (who also works on Gintama) who wrote an excellent Tantei Gakuen Q anime original with a locked room set in a sunken ship... but who also wrote Detective Conan episode 961 Glamping Kaijiken ("The Curious Glamping Incident"), which may be the most insane Conan episode ever. In fact, in retrospect, Yamatoya's hand explained a lot, as the third murder has a rather ridiculous clue which allowed Conan to identify the killer which I initially just let slide, but knowing this was written by Yamatoya now, it suddenly clicked: yes, this was the kind of insane logic that Glamping Kaijiken also had. And the whole focus on soft ice is in hindsight a bit silly too. But I think the episode was pretty interesting as a Yokomizo Seishi-inspired episode, especially as the unique setting is used in a clever way for the first and second murder. Well, in the case of the second murder, it's just that it works really well to sell the discovery of the murder (I'm not talking about a clever murder trick here), but the first murder definitely has interesting ideas to it, even if it's not really realistic. I also think it needed one extra hint to be completely fair, but overall, I think the concept behind how that locked room murder was created was quite interesting, especially as it blended well with the whole design of the Morikawa manor. I wouldn't say this two-parter is a must-see, not even in the insane manner Glamping Kaijiken was, but still, if you have seen most of the must-sees already, this two-parter sits right halfway the utterly crazy Glamping Kaijiken and the very conventional puzzle plot Tantei Gakuen Q episode Suishin 30m - Kaitei Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken.

Anyway, these were another six anime original episodes of Detective Conan. Save for clear exception Kuroi Ikaros no Tsubasa, I wouldn't place them near the must-see category, but as I am now focusing more on specific scenario writers I think these episodes did have their share of interesting elements, which is why I decided to write a bit about them. Any anime originals you want to recommend? There are plenty I have seen, but not discussed here, but obviously, there are many, many more I simply have not seen yet and if there's an anime original you think really deserves watching, please leave a comment!

Original Japanese titles: 『名探偵コナン』21話「TVドラマロケ殺人事件』,203-204話「黒いイカロスの翼」, 596話「転落のアリバイ」, 1050-1051話「森川御殿の陰謀」

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Still Waters

 "Excuse me?"

Yes, I know, it's not a bad book that usually results in a bland review. It's just a bland book. 

Aibou ("Partners") is an extremely succesful police drama in Japan that's been running since 2000 and by the time this post is published, Season 21 should be entering its final stage.The series is about Sugishita Ukyou and his partner in the two-man unit the Special Orders Unit within the Metropolitan Police Department. Sugishita is a brilliant police detective, but with very strong sense of justice and therefore not always willing to play along with political games within the police organization. Yet, he's too valuable to let go, which is why he is been assigned to the SOU, stuffed away in a small office in police headquarters. Technically, he shouldn't have anything to do unless there's a special order, but Sugishita likes to stick his nose in police investigations all the time nonetheless, unless there's a special order telling him not to. Over the course of the series, several younger detectives have been assigned as Sugishita's subordinate within the SOU, who often form a contrast with the cool-headed Sugishita but work well as a team, hence the title partners. But with a series as long as Aibou, it's of course only natural for cast changes to occur, and Sugishita has seen several 'partners' go throughout the series, starting with his first partner act-before-think Kameyama, followed by the dandy gentleman Kanbe, the hotheaded Kaito and the more conniving Kaburagi.

Sugishita also stars in a series of novels written by Ikari Uhito (a pen name of Torikai Hiu), where he isn't joined by these partners. The stories are usually set in the period between one partner leaving and the new one arriving in the show, or other moments within series continuity when the two aren't working together. Last year I read Sugishita Ukyou no Misshitsu (The Locked Room Mysteries of Ukyo Sugishita, 2013), the third book in this series and found it an entertaining novel for fans and even for newcomers to the series, it could still work as an entry point even if not the optimal choice. Anyway, I was curious to the rest of the series, so I decided to read the first book this time. Sugishita Ukyou no Jikenbo ("The Casebook of Sugishita Ukyou") was released in 2010 and consists of two novellas. Both are set in the time period with Sugishita's first partner Kameyama: the first story between season 1 and 2 during Sugishita's holiday, and the second story after Kameyama left the series in season 7 in 2008-2009. I read this book late 2022 by the way, and after reading the book, I decided to look up the timeline details of this book and I was utterly surprised to learn Kameyama had actually returned to the television series as Sugishita's partner in the currently running Aibou 21. I hadn't really been watching the series the last few years, so I had never expected Kameyama to really return to the main cast. As a reader, you don't really need to know about Kameyama of course, and he's only briefly mentioned in these stories, but I thought it was funny I read this book right around the time Kameyama returned to the series. 

The first story titled Kage to Taru ("Mist and Barrels") is set in Scotland: Sugishita is in the UK for a holiday and via his B&B, he learns that a small whiskey distillery is going to have a special event in a few days: that distillery has ten barrels of single malt whiskey aging for fifty years, and now they'll be opening the warehouse. Andy McMillan is the current owner of the distillery, but it was his grandfather Paul who came up with the plan to make super mature whiskey, creating five warehouses: one for ten years, one for twenty years, etc. Last year's barrels with whiskey aged forty years was a huge success, so everyone is looking forward to opening the last warehouse, though some are worried. Thirty years ago, Andy's grandfather Paul died in an accident in a warehouse and ten years ago, Andy's father Ian too died after opening the forty-year old warehouse, in a very enigmatic manner as it appeared like he had been stepped on by a giant. This is tied to a local belief that seeing the God of Scotch, a mythological giant, will lead to good whiskey, but will also bring misfortune. And now Andy's son says he saw the giant in the mist himself too recently. Sugishita is invited to witness the opening of the warehouse too, but when it is unlocked, they find one of the barrels has fallen off the rack, upside down. They lift the barrel up, only to find the head craftsman had been stuffed inside the barrel. The poor man is rushed to the hospital, but it is too late. But how did the head craftsman get inside the locked warehouse, inside a whiskey barrel, and what does his death have to do with the death forty years ago?

I don't know much about making whiskey, but I guess the author does, because a lot of the story is about the things that go on at a distillery and how whiskey is made. The story is quite long (much longer than the second story in the book) and deals with several semi-impossible situations, like the death of the head craftsman in a warehouse which has been locked for fifty years and which shouldn't have been opened, and the mysterious death of Ian ten years ago. Sugishita is a Japanese police officer on holiday, so he can't really butt in, but Sugishita wouldn't be himself if he actually cared about that, so naturally, he investigates this tragedy that happened to his hosts. I don't really like the truth behind the body-in-the-barrel death and the locked warehouse on their own to be honest, because it involves people just acting really stupidly multiple times for all of that to work, though I have to admit I am more impressed by the way Ikari (Torikai) manages to tie everything together: he comes up with a convincing reason for why certain things had to happen and is also good in leaving a variety of clues like Andy's young son's testimony about the God of Scotch and him playing with his cat, it's just that the actual "event of the death" isn't quite convincing to me. At least, not the way it is done (perhaps if it had been executed with different details, I would've liked it more). This is one story I'd have loved to see in television form though, as while the trick of the locked warehouse is a bit silly, I can imagine it would at least have been funny to see acted out on screen.

The second story, Kenmun no Mori ("The Forest of Kenmun") is one I really didn't like. It involves Sugishita travelling to Amami Oshima on the reqeust of Kakuta, his old friend and head of the division Organized Crime. A wanted criminal was recently involved in a boat accident on the island and is now being detained in a hospital there with his accomplices, and Sugishita is to escort this Yasuda back to Tokyo. Yasuda and his Chinese henchmen manage to escape the hospital just before Sugishita arrives though, and thus starts a manhunt for the dangerous criminals, who seem to be busy with a certain plan, but nobody knows what it is. In the meanwhile, Sugishita also hears about tourist sighting a kenmun, a local yokai, in the forest, but what does this have to do with the flight of Yasuda? It's one of those stories that's really just about working towards a punchline, which can work for a detective story, but this particular punchline just wasn't that impressive or surprising. I feel like that the idea behind the punchline could have been used as a "normal" focus for a mystery story pretty well, but by making it a punchline to the mystery of what Yasuda is trying to do while on the run from the police, it feels a bit underwhelming.

So on the whole, I didn't like Sugishita Ukyou no Jikenbo as much as I liked the third volume. I think the third volume can be enjoyed even without much knowledge of Aibou, but I think the stories in this first volume are rather bland, so if you don't have any connection with Aibou in the first place, there's very little here to warrant a recommndation. I'll probably still read the second volume, just to see if it's closer to this volume, or the third volume in terms of plotting, but this one is only for the fans.

Original Japanese title(s): 碇卯人『杉下右京の事件簿』:「霧と樽」/「ケンムンの森」

Friday, February 17, 2023

I can’t make bricks without clay

Minor service announcement.

I am not sure how many readers here make use of the master list of all the reviews/editorials found in the Library, but if you had looked at the list say the last two, three years, you may have noticed I hadn't really kept it up to date. To be very honest: that was because the list had become a complete mess backstage with bloated HTML and mark-up conventions that usually broke everything every time I wanted to add a new link. My only way out was basically redoing the whole list, or at least, cleaning up everything now to make things easier on myself going forward. And after a lot of time squinting my eyes at the screen cleaning code I have finally done that. I simplified the master list in terms of mark-up conventions so I don't have to play with font sizes and italicizing book titles etc. anymore (meaning there's less chance of me breaking things in terms of page lay-out). I have also simplified the list itself a bit: I have reduced the number of repeated entries as now, adaptations are generally only listed once with the original creator (instead of also being listed a second time in the seperate games/TV/film/theater categories). Authors who I have only read in anthologies also don't get seperate entries anymore, but are only listed in the anthology category. This should make the list less bloated, and easier for me to update because I don't have to enter some entries twice in different categories.

I hadn't updated the list in 3+ years, so there were quite a few notable absentees in the list until yesterday. Imagine, the old list had only one entry for recent favorite Houjou Kie and I had to add like 10 Kindaichi Case Files volumes... Anyway, the update should make things easier if you are looking for a certain book or reviews of a certain author. This blog has been running for 10+ years, so there are quite a number of posts, and hopefully the renewed master list makes it easier to find things. 

(Oh, and as this isn't really a deep post anyway, I might as well point to the Honkaku-themed Discord server again. Have a look around if you want to talk about mystery fiction with other honkaku fans!)

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

“No, no! The adventures first,” said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: “explanations take such a dreadful time.” 
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Always interesting to compare the cover of the pocket edition of a book with the original release. Sometimes, it's the same, sometimes they go for a completely different style and sometimes, you have something like today's book: obviously designed by the same artist, but still a different illustration for whatever reason.

The shin honkaku movement brought forth a renaissance of the puzzle-focused mystery novel, but it was one non-fiction book that really helped revitalize interest in such novels. Proof of the Great Detective was an account by the real-life great detective Yashiki Keijirou, who wrote about his own cases and adventures. While the real-life murders he wrote about in his memoirs were never as fantastical as the fictional ones created within the shin honkaku movement, his exploits did spark interest in all things mystery related. On the other side of the spectrum was the author Haijima Tomie, one of the leading figures in the early periods of shin honkaku and therefore highly respected by mystery readers everywhere. Her success led to her building her own house named after one of her books: the Locked Room Manor. 

It is in a guest room inside the Locked Room Manor where college student Hinoto Ryou wakes up. At first, he's confused about his current situation, but then remembers he had been invited into the house by Hajima, but then knocked out somehow. A video message appearing on a monitor addressing him, and other people, tells him to leave the room and go up to a central room on the third floor. Eight people arrive in the great hall there, all obviously confused about what they are doing here. They find Haijima standing high up on a balcony overlooking the spacious room, far beyond their reach. Haijima explains all eight of them are her prisoner and there is no way out of her house now. In the coming four days, locked room murders will occur inside the Locked Room Manor and she challenges her eight prisoners to solve them. Each day, they are given one collective chance to come to this room again and explain their deductions about how the locked room murder(s) are committed: if they get it right they are released at once. After four days, she'll stop this insane game and even go to the police herself to surrender herself, but perhaps everyone will be dead by then. To prove she's serious, she kills another woman right in front of her prisoners, dumping the body from the balcony. Fortunately for them, one of the prisoners is Mikan Hanako: a former super-popular tv-personality who is also a talented detective. One year ago, she stopped all her media activity and deleted her Twitter account with over a million followers to concentrate on her detective work. However, there's one problem: Hinoto Ryou absolutely hates Hanako and all detectives. Previously, Ryou's family had been murdered and even though the murderer had sent a challenge letter to Hanako, she was not able to prevent the tragedy from happening and only managed to solve the case when it was too late. Since that moment, Ryou has harbored an intense hatred towards Hanako, whom he sees as a blight on this world: a person who doesn't recognize the tragedy behind murders and only sees them as puzzles to be solved, and it's detectives like her that in fact attract insane murderers like Haijima to come up with these insane crimes that involve innocent people. But even Ryou has to admit that Hanako is their best way to get out of this mess, and while not all eight prisoners are all too keen to work together because obviously, these are all people who don't know each other, they are united in their struggle against Haijima. After the first night however, one of them is found murdered in his locked room, but how was the murder commited and save Hanako get the rest of them out of Haijima's trap in Ichikawa Tetsuya's 2014 novel Meitantei no Shoumei - Misshitsukan Satsujin Jiken ("Proof of the Great Detective - The Murders in the Locked Room Manor")?

Ichikawa Tetsuya made his debut in 2013 with the first Meitantei no Shoumei ("Proof of the Great Detective") by winning the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award. And nope, I haven't read that book. I'm not really fixated on reading things on order, assuming (hoping) later books don't explicitly spoil previous ones, so for some reason I decided to start with the second novel (and as far as I know, it didn't spoil anything from the first). Anyway, I went in mostly blind, and basically all I had was the subtitle, so I figured it would be safe to least assume it'd be about locked room murders.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that wasn't really correct.

Despite the subtitle, the place of the murders being called the Locked Room Manor and yes, the murders happening in this story being locked room murders, the main focus of the story isn't on the locked room murders. The focus is much more on their closed circle situation. At the start of the story, Haijima even refers to games like Danganronpa, saying how they are now trapped inside the house and how her prisonors will be killed off one by one in impossible crimes. She even adds a rule that during the night, her prisonors will have to stay in their own rooms and not leave until the following morning (or else...). That coupled with the rule they only get one collective chance a day to guess how the murders have been committed results in a very game-like set-up similar to Werewolf, and makes you really aware they are in a closed circle situation. While Hanako and the rest do spend time trying to figure out how the murders are committed, some of them coming up with their own theories, you'd be surprised how much of the book isn't directly about the locked rooms, but for example about the distrust that usually exists in closed circle mystery stories, how everybody feels like they can't really trust the other even though Haijima's shadow is looming over them. 

This is of course personified by narrator Ryou, who hates Hanako despite knowing she's their best chance to get out of there, but Ryou is also used to address some post-modern interpretations of the detective-character like you might know from Late Queen Period problems: in Ryou's view, detectives like Hanako are just cruel people who see murders and crimes as nothing more but intellectual games and entertainment, and the victims and their loved ones are just a by-product. Criminal masterminds like Haijima or others who go for locked room murders or other impossible crimes only exist because such "great detectives" exist, as if to challenge these criminals to try their best. This Batman-Joker problem can be felt throughout the novel via Ryou's narration and at times admittedly, this can be tiring because I assume most readers of a puzzle plot mystery novel are... not against the great detective archetype, though it's also not a very long book so it's not like you have to cope with it for ages.

If you're looking for an original take on the actual mechanics behind the locked room murders, I don't think this will be the book for you, The truth behind how the individual locked room murders are committed is fairly simple in the end, though to prove that, Hanako has to go pretty far, and that in itself is pretty interesting. For the rule is that not only do they have one chance per day, the solution has to be logical and based on clues and facts found at the scenes and can't be just a 'guess.' To prove how the locked room murders were committed however, Hanako looks less at the actual physical evidence found at the scene, but more at the whole situation: why is Haijima holding them hostage, why is she holding this sick game of locked rooms and more, and that eventually brings Hanako to a solution that is more than just a series of locked room murders. I actually do like the truth that Hanako ultimately arrives at and it fits the themes of this book perfectly, but yeah, don't expect too much of the locked rooms as mysteries on their own, it's more about what lies beyond them.

So with people often confusing closed circles with locked room murders, it's ironic that this book, that has locked room in its title and does feature locked room murders, is actually more interesting in the way it handles its closed circle situation. Though that may be intentional. It is a fun book when looked at it as such, and the way it plays with the post-modern themes while incorporating 'real' detective fiction history (there are a lot of references to real books and writers) make it a worthwile read for those who are into modern Japanese mystery.

I wonder if you see Hanako more from a less biased view in the other novels though. Ryou is obviously looking at Hanako with a certain mindset which really colors the whole book in a certain way, but I hope other books show Hanako a bit more, because here Ryou often intentionally avoided the series detective. She's an interesting enough character though, with just enough of an air of mystery, so I'd like to read more about her adventures.

Oh, and as one last note. Tokyo Sogen Suiri's books usually all feature an extra English title inside or on the cover to accompany the Japanese title. Sometimes it's a direct translation, sometimes not. This book's English title however is just "The Detective 2" which is a biiiiiit too generic I think.

So Meitantei no Shoumei - Misshitsukan Satsujin Jiken wasn't at all what I first expected it would be, focusing more on the closed circle situation rather than the locked rooms from the title, but I still ended up liking it for tackling the themes it focused on. It might be a bit too meta for some readers, though I think it's still perfectly readable without much 'meta-knowledge' and I'm certainly interested to read more of this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 市川哲也『名探偵の証明 密室館殺人事件』

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Murder Digs Deep

"The melody of logic always plays the truth."
"Spiral - The Bonds of Reasoning"

Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna or Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning was a mystery(-themed) manga created by writer Shirodaira Kyou and artist Mizuno Eita which ran from 1999 until 2005, and which also saw an anime adaptation in 2002. The series was about Ayumu, who lives with his sister-in-law Madoka after his brother Kiyotaka disappeared. Kiyotaka was a true prodigy, talented at everything he did and his brilliant mind was put to good use as he was a police detective, but two years ago, Kiyotaka disappeared after a final phone call with Ayumu where he mentioned the phrase "Blade Children". At the start of the series, Ayumu gets involved in a murder case that occurs at his school, but with the help of the school newspaper club president Hiyono, he manages to prove his innocence, only to learn that this murder involved the Blade Children and that he himself, as the younger brother of Kiyotaka, has become involved with this affair too. This is the start of an adventure where Ayumu and Hiyono start digging in the mystery of the Blade Children, which however is not without danger for themselves and more often than not, Ayumu finds himself forced into deadly games of life and death to get to the truth. While the first volume or so might make Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning look like Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo with 'a case of the week', it soon becomes a very different series, focusing more on deadly strategic games where Ayumu has to fight for survival with his mind, and the last third/ending of the series is probably not at all like you'd expect based on the first chapter, 

Author Shirodaira Kyou also wrote four novels set in the world of Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning (with illustrations by artist Mizuno), and in general, they seem to have been received pretty well, so I always wanted to read them, and recently, I managed to get hold of them. The first one I read is not the first on the series though: I started with the second one, because it was often referred to as the best in the series and I even sometimes saw references to the book outside of a Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning context, so just on its merits as a mystery novel! Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna 2: Koutetsu Banchou no Misshitsu ("Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning 2: The Locked Room of the Steel Gang Boss") was first released in 2002 and as I am typing this, I was paging through my own copy, which was apparently from the 14th printing run in 2004, so I guess this book sold reasonably well to have at least so many print runs! The book has no direct ties to the main series, so you could get pretty easily into it without any prior knowledge of the series, as it is clearly set very early in the series' timeline, when most of the Super Dramatic Events haven't happened yet. You could easily read it after just reading the first volume of the manga or watching the first few episodes. The book opens with a nightly visit to the convenience store by Ayumu, when he witnesses a girl dancing on the street. The girl feels offended by Ayumu's staring eyes, while Ayumu is offended by her dancing in the street for everybody to see, and after a bit of bickering, the girl orders Ayumu she never wants to see him again, but also gives him a metal badge with the kanji for "steel" etched into it, telling him to keep it safe. The following day, when Ayumu is loofing around in the newspaper club's office, Hiyono immediately recognizes the badge as the one once owned by the "Steel Banchou" or "Steel Gang Boss" about five decades ago. She tells about the Golden Age of School Gangs, when juvenile delinquents at schools across the country formed gangs who would gather under charismatic "banchou" (gang bosses) like the Magic Gang Boss or Pistol Gang Boss, and how ultimately the dramatic suicide of the Steel Gang Boss prevented a nation-wide gang war. Ayumu buys nothing of Hiyono's story, but then the mysterious girl, who happens to be a student at their school too, appears in the club office. At first it appears she wanted to hire Hiyono to locate "the boy she gave a badge to", but finally noticing Ayumu in the room and being too proud to admit she wants the badge back, she changes her request to Hiyono (and Ayumu): she wants them to prove that contrary to what is believed, the Steel Boss didn't commit suicide, but was in fact murdered inside a locked room and by doing so, destroy the nearly fifty-year old legend of the Steel Boss who gave his life to prevent a war.

Okay, I have to admit this book wasn't at all what I had expected of it. For on the whole, this tale isn't really connected to the main Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning series and at times even feels out of place. The only real connections are Ayumu and Hiyono, but the "world-building" presented in this story sounds nothing at all like the rest of the series, which is really odd. It feels more like a story author Shirodaira wanted to write, and he happened to use Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning to tell this story because it would have an established audience of readers already. On the other hand, I can definitely understand why so many readers like this particular novel, and how it is an important novel when seen in a wider context, to be exact, in relation to Shirodaira's later work.

So the book doesn't really feel like a Spiral story, and that's also because almost half of the book consists of excerpts from an in-universe book, being the definitive work on the Golden Age of School Gangs and their wars. This book details how in post-war Japan,  juvenile delinquent students started forming gangs at school under the leadership of banchou, who would get into fights with the leaders of other schools. What follows is an absolutely bonkers story about school gang bosses plotting to become the number one boss across the whole of Japan, putting other schools under their control, and in-party power struggles eventually leading to the rise of the Magic Gang Boss and the Pistol Gang Boss, two charismatic leaders who basically each controlled half of the schools in Japan. But when a new leader arrived in the form of the Steel Boss, the balance of powers was disturbed, and things were heading to a nation-wide school war between the three factions, until on the day of the war of the fates, the Steel Boss was found dead inside the little shed he was living in on the riverside. He had taken poison, and the cottage was locked from the inside. A few days later, letters were delivered to the Magic Gang Boss and the Pistol Gang Boss signed by the Steel Boss, where he stated his wishes to stop unnecessary bloodshed and his death should be enough to make everyone realize this, and this became the legend of the Steel Boss. Author Shirodaira obviously has immense fun writing this completely ridiculous story of high school students fighting each other like Warring State period generals, with 'wars' being fought along the riverside and 'clever' strategies and tricks employed by the warring factions, It doesn't feel like it fits Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning, but the world of those stereotypical Japanese school gang delinquents fighting nation-wide wars is just really funny, and while this "history lesson" is really really long, it does set-up the mystery and all the necessary clues to solve the death of the Steel Boss. For the facts say the Steel Gang Boss died drinking poison in a small river-side shed, of which the door was barred from the inside and the window wouldn't open due to a crooked frame. That coupled with the suicide letters sent to the Magic Gang Boss and the Pistol Gang Boss seems to indicate suicide, so can Ayumu prove this was actually not a suicide, but a locked room murder, and can he prove who did this and why?

And this is the point where this book becomes important in the greater context, for we soon learn their client isn't exactly looking for the truth, but she simply wants to destroy the legend of the Steel Gang Boss. And so Ayumu comes up with three different explanations based on the known facts for the death of the Steel Gang Boss that indeed put the Steel Boss' death in a completely different light, changing his death from a honorable suicide to prevent a war, to a one-direction murder. So in a way, Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna 2: Koutetsu Banchou no Misshitsu is a kind of direct precursor to Shirodaira's later series Kyokou Suiri (known in English as both Invented Inference and In/Spectre). In Invented Inference, the truth usually often involves something supernatural, and the series detective has to come up with a believable human explanation for the events, so one without the supernatural stuff even though that is the truth. So that series revolves around coming up with believable inferences based on the known facts, but they don't need to be true. Invented Inference is about interpretation and multiple solutions and those are exactly the themes of Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna 2: Koutetsu Banchou no Misshitsu: we are told what is likely a factual build-up to the death of the Steel Boss nearly fifty years ago, but Ayumu then comes up with alternate interpretations of the facts that lead to believable theories about the murder of the Steel Boss. And that is quite fun! The basic puzzle pieces are all the same, but by shuffling them and turning some pieces around, you are able to come up with a very different picture. Each of Ayumu's theories seem plausible enough, but make use of clever interpretation of the facts presented in the excerpts from the history on the Golden Age of Gang Bosses, allowing him to "open the locked room" and change the Steel Boss' suicide into a murder and make the Steel Boss a simple "victim" rather than someone who sacrificed himself. The book isn't really long, so the three "solutions" are all fairly simple, but they are supported well by the clues both in terms of "mechanics to create the locked room situation" as well as in motive, and they can be quite surprising. I believe a lot of readers praised this book because it was their first encounter with a mystery novel built around multiple solutions/interpretations, and given that Shirodaira later came up with Invented Inference, I think he himself liked the idea a lot too. The book is more interesting read as a book about motives though than as an actual locked room mystery, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna 2: Koutetsu Banchou no Misshitsu also contains a short story which is technically a prequel, starrring Ayumu's brother Kiyotaka back when he was in the police force. Apparently, there was a whole series of these short stories published online back when the manga was still being serialized. The four novels would all include these stories with Kiyotaka as extras. This particular story is a pure whodunnit which is split up in two parts, the problem and the solution, so I assume originally, they published the first part online and the solution would be published a bit later, allowing readers some time to guess who the murderer was. As a whodunnit it's pretty simple, and a bit weird because it involves a man creating a robotic hand for himself to commit a murder but stuff happens of course, but it's fun enough considering this was just a short story published on the official site. 

Anyway, Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna 2: Koutetsu Banchou no Misshitsu is not at all what I had expected. I have read spin-off novels for detective manga series before, like those of Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, but those novels were written to be like the stories in the manga. Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna 2 was clearly not written with such intentions. It is only marginally connected to the Spiral series. but as a mystery story, it's pretty fun, focusing on the concepts of multiple solutions. The story itself, about the student gang wars, is really ridiculous, but you can sense Shirodaira had a lot of fun coming up with that backstory and especially knowing he later went on to write Invented Inference, I think Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna 2 is a pretty rewarding mystery.

Original Japanese title(s): 城平京(著) 水野英多(イラスト) 『小説 スパイラル~推理の絆2 鋼鉄番長の密室』

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Wrong-Way Door

"There's no place like home."
"The Wizard of Oz"

I've been watching this Youtube channel where they introduce interesting apartments up for rent in the Tokyo Metropolis area a while now, from apartments that have very weird layouts to rather inventive manners to make incredibly cramped rooms feel somewhat spacious and still have all the utilities you'd expect from an apartment.

A writer on occult matters who also functions as narrator receives a call from an acquaintance, hoping to get some advice regarding a house he's thinking of purchasing. The house is quite new and is put on sale because its previous owners have moved out. It is in a nice residential area near the station and with lots of parks in the vicinity, making it a perfect home for him, his wife and his first child, but there's something that bothers the acquaintance. Because on the floorplan created by the real estate agent, there's a mysterious walled-up space between the kitchen and the living room. Not only is the "dead space" incredibly small, it is also surrounded by the walls of the various rooms around it, so it has no use. A walled-up space is pretty creepy, so the narrator decides to call in an architect he knows, who also happens to be a fan of mystery fiction. At first, they arrive at the idea that the space might originally have been a built-in closet or cupboard for either the kitchen or the living room, but that a tight budget might have meant they had to abandon the plans and they walled over the "reserved" space. Sounds innocent enough, but as they take a closer look at the house, they see more and more peculiarities hidden within the floorplans of this two-storey house. At first, these small points seem strange, but not particularly important, but as they start theorizing why the rooms are laid out the way they are, they slowly arrive at a completely unexpected, and astonishing theory about this curious house. While at first, their theory seems incredibly absurd for it would be much more than just plain "creepy" and actual horror, some time after the narrator publishes a horror story based in this event, he is informed of a different house with a floorplan with very similar characteristics. What is the truth behind the horrifying mystery behind these floorplans in Uketsu's Hen na Ie ("A Curious House" 2021)?

An interesting book, with an interesting story behind it. Uketsu is a horror storyteller who is also a Youtube content creator, and originally, this story was one of their 2020 videos, a creepy story about a mysterious floorplan and their attempts at learning what the meaning could be behind the strange kitchen space and the other rooms. This "real estate" mystery was like an urban legend, starting with something very mundane (a house on sale and its floorplan), but then slowly the horror creeps in, leading to a surprise twist revelation. The video was quite popular, leading to Uketsu writing a whole novel based on the video. And now even a film is the making! In the past, I have written short editorials about floorplans in mystery fiction, and the use of (3D) space in mystery fiction (games), which probably is enough of a hint to tell you I quite like floorplans in mystery fiction, so the idea of a mystery tale that revolves around looking at floorplans, finding out what's "off" about them and figuring out what the meaning behind it is, sounded quite alluring.

It is a very short book ultimately, and I feel it's definitely the first chapter, directly based on the original video which is the most fun and surprising. If you just glance at the floorplans, it seems normal enough for a Japanese home, but as you check the rooms and the "dead space", you start to sense there is certainly something not quite normal about this home. Uketsu is introduced as a horror writer, not a mystery writer, and I would say you can definitely feel this from the atmosphere of the story. It's really like one of those urban legends, where something small that doesn't seem quite right turns out to have a surprising and often far-fetched truth, but that's what makes urban legends fun in the first place of course, the irrational horror hiding behind modern, urban elements. But in terms of build-up of the story, it's definitely a proper mystery story, with clues hidden within the floorplans themselves, but also for example what we hear about the previous owners from the real estate agent etc., with theories regarding the seperate curious elements of the house being put on top each other to build a surprising daring tower of connected theories. The theories here of course not "Queen-style" super tight chains of logic that seem to point to the one and only truth, but they are alluring and silly enough that I will gladly "believe" like a good urban legend. 

In a way, the weird floorplans in Hen na Ie are very similar to the floorplans you see in the curiously-designed houses in mystery fiction like The Decagon House Murders and Murder in the Crooked House, but at the same time, they are very different because the houses in Hen na Ie should be completely normal buildings, built in normal residential areas and made to house normal nuclear families. And yet, a good look at their plans reveals they are not normal, and that gives off this sense of creepiness, whereas the floorplans in mystery stories like the two mentioned above may look strange due to their shape or because of strange rooms, but there it's almost expected, as you know a murder is going to happen there and that these grotesque houses themselves also play a role. So again, the "horror" element plays a big role in the enjoyment of Hen na Ie, the sense of uneasiness of not expecting such elements in a normal house.

The book is fairly short and written like a non-fiction reportage, consisting mostly out of transcripts of interviews and telephone calls. After the first chapter, we learn about more houses that have these weird characteristics in their layout, and the theory behind the meaning of these layouts grows and grows as the narrator and his friend start comparing the various houses and their floorplans, and guess what the purpose of these houses are. The idea behind the other houses after the first chapter are quite similar in a way, so they aren't as surprising, but part of that is explained due to the connection these places have. But I do feel the ending isn't as satisfying as the set-up of this book. As mentioned, the first chapter really manages to capture the uneasy feeling of an urban legend with the seemingly normal, but actual abnormal floorplan, and even though the narrator and his friend arrive at a theory, you don't really get solid confirmation about whether they are really correct or not, so that feeling of uneasiness stays. But in the last chapter, we do get full confirmation about everything, which is I guess suitable for a normal mystery story, but this was more a horror mystery tale, and in this specific instance, I would have been content with just the idea of people coming up with elaborate theories based on the floorplans (whether they are real or not), as I think the "definite" answer leans a bit too "obviously" into the horror, while I liked it when it was less defined.

But on the whole, I quite enjoyed Hen na Ie as a short read with an original angle. The book is perhaps better as a horror story that uses mystery fiction "grammar" but the focus on the floorplans and also giving the reader a chance to look at the plans first to see if they can figure out what's wrong about the houses and what the meaning of that could be is entertaining, and as someone who loves floorplans in mystery fiction in general, I was pleasantly surprised. It's not a super deep mystery, but perfect as a short inbetweener.

Original Japanese title(s): 雨穴『変な家』