Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Enemy Match

"A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself."
"Enter the Dragon"

I do really hate how the English in this cover is cut off halfway... Just add those last few letters on the front side...

Imoriya Mato is a high school student who at first sight might appear to be a somewhat self-absorbed girl who's good at playing cute in front of the (male) senior students, but looks deceive, and that is why she is chosen by her classmates to be their representative in the Fool's Smoke Game, a tradition at Hoojiro High School. Each year, all the classes and clubs fight to get the best possible location for the school festival, being the roof: if the weather is good, you have the largest space here, with a nice view and most people will eventually arrive there, ensuring great visitor numbers (and thus earnings from whatever stand or stall the class or club will operate). To ensure everyone has a fair chance at getting the roof spot, the Fool's Smoke Games are held: the representatives of all the parties who want the roof compete in special one-on-one games, and the winner moves up in the tournament chart. Mato, accompanied by her friend and "witness" Kouda, soon has her first major game with someone of the Student Council, the organization that up until now was managed to secure the rooftop for themselves via the games. The game they play is Glico with Landmines, a variation on the weighted Rock Paper Scissors game. Her opponent however is perhaps as intelligent as Mato, resulting in a game where both sides constantly try to outsmart the other via various strategies. The outcome of the game results in Mato gaining the respect of the student council and she soon becomes known at the school for being good at these games, which of course gets Mato involved in more games with major stakes, from a club being at risk of being banned from a cafe unless Mato wins, to games involving a lot of money with other schools. Can Mato outsmart everyone in these variations of children's games in Aosaki Yuugo's Jirai Glico ("Glico with Landmines", 2023)?

Long ago, I wrote a review of the (live action) Liar Game series, based on the same-titled manga. It's a series I think is a prime example showing a mystery story does not need to be about crime, locked room murders, ingenious alibi tricks or anything remotely close to what most people would usually associate with the mystery genre, as mentioned in my post on what I think a "mystery" can be in mystery fiction. Liar Game focuses on a series of games (with very high stakes), but these games are not games of chance: they can be won by logical reasoning, by rigging the games while playing the game "fairly" (finding loopholes in the rules given) and often, the fun was that it was the protagonist who somehow rigged these games in their advantage, making them the "culprit", but also presenting a howdunnit mystery of how they could've rigged the game, without violating the rules. Liar Game however was indeed a fair mystery at the same, giving the viewer all the necessary clues/set-up that allowed them to arrive at the same conclusion as the protagonist too in a logical manner, meaning "you" too could have found a fool-proof way to win a game which seems to be one of chance. The series also focused a lot on strategies and counter-strategies of the various players, and the "if you think I think you think I am planning to do this..." element will also be very recognizable to readers of logic game mysteries like Death Note and Spiral ~ The Bonds of Reasoning.

Jirai Glico is a connected short story collection that follows the same tradition as Liar Game by Aosaki Yuugo. He made his debut with Taiikukan no Satsujin ("The Gymnasium Murder") and was touted by the publisher as the Heisei-era Ellery Queen. Jirai Glico is published by a different company and while this book isn't directly inspired by Ellery Queen, one could say his style of writing mystery fits perfectly in the logical game subgenre: Queen-esque deduction chains often focus on "who knows what at what time and what influence does that have on their logical decision taking?", which is exactly what the meat of the stories in Jirai Glico is: we see five different familiar games transformed with additional rules, and we focus on the various, evolving strategies of the participants as they try to outsmart each other. And yes, part of what makes Jirai Glico so interesting is that the five stories all focus on existing games most of us will know, but with a few added rules that completely transform these familiar games into highly strategic matches. The result is a book that has been received very well critically as well, as it recently won the 24th Honkaku Mystery Award.

The title story Jirai Glico ("Glico with Landmines") for example is based on Glico, a weighted Rock Paper Scissors game, where the winner of each single match is allowed to take a number of steps on a staircase. Winning with rock means you can move three steps (Gu-ri-ko/Glico), scissors nets you six steps (Chi-yo-ko-re-i-to/Chocolate), as does paper (Pa-i-na-tsu-pu-ru/Pineapple). The first one to reach the top of the fifty step high staircase is the winner. The variation however is that at the start of the game, both Mato and her opponent are allowed to hide three landmines on any of the steps of the fifty-step staircase: whoever lands on a step with a landmine, will be sent down ten steps. What starts out as a simple game of chance with Rock Paper Scissors, however soon becomes a fascinating game of strategy, with both parties trying to logically deduce where the other placed their mines on the steps, and trying to figure out how to avoid those steps by tactically choosing which hand to play. Aosaki has a lot of fun letting his complex style of plotting loose on this game, and you could say the conclusion of the game is perhaps a bit predictable if you're familiar with these kinds of stories, the climb to the conclusion alone is definitely worth it, as you get to follow two geniuses trying to outsmart each other over... Rock Paper Scissors.

Bouzu Suijaku ("Monk Memory") has Mato helping out the school's karuta club: the members got into a row with the owner of a cafe they often frequented, and now they got banned completely. The student council, fearing the ban will hurt the school's reputation, hopes to smooth things over with the owner, but he refuses, until Mato challenges him in a game. He accepts, and proposes they play a game of memory/pairs with Japanese poem cards. Japanese poem cards have different illustrations on them, and can be roughly divided in three categories: princesses, men or monks. The extra rules involve these illustrations: finding a pair of men means you add that pair to your own pile and you get one new attempt at finding a pair. Pulling a monk pair however means you not only lose the turn, but all the cards currently in your possession go to the discard pile. A princess pair in turn is the best hand, as you not only keep the pair and get another attempt, you also obtain the complete discard pile at that point. They agree the person with the most cards in their possession at the end of the game will be the winner, with Mato's win condition being that for every ten cards he has, one member is allowed back, meaning she'd have to win all the cards in order to lift the ban on all the members. Mato starts this game of what seems to be just memory with more rules, but she soon realizes her opponent is cheating somehow. How is she going to win this game against a cheater? Well... by playing the game fairly... or does she? Bouzu Suijaku is a fun story, as we see Mato manipulating the game in a way to not exactly cheat, but to in a way to bend the rules a bit to fend off the cheater opposite her, and that coupled with a game that looks simple at first sight, but once again is deceptively deep, makes this a rather engaging tale of strategy.

Having caught the attention of the student council president, Mato is approached by her in Jiyuuritsu Janken ("Free-style Rock Paper Scissors"). Recognizing Mato's talents, the president hopes to get Mato under her control, and she challenges Mato to a game of free-style Rock Paper Scissors: if she wins, Mato will become a member of the council and thus has to do the president's bidding, while she promises Mato to locate a certain friend she lost contact with for her. free-style Rock Paper Scissors is in essence a very simple game, being the normal rock paper scissors, only both players are allowed to add one extra move each. They have to show each other the "form" of the move beforehand, but the effect (which other moves lose to it/beat it) is only known to the judge. Thus the two players must play Rock Paper Scissors with five moves, of which one move they themselves created, but the other remains unknown. What results is the story I perhaps liked best, because the president isn't fooled by Mato's act of playing cute, and both go in with guns blazing right from the start, trying to figure out what the effect is of the move the opponent created. The result is a fantastic battle of the wits, as both are willing to "sacrifice" wins in order to deduce the precise effects of the other's hand, while also making sure not to lose the whole game themselves. What is also fun is that this game involves a physical element like we see in competitive karuta, where people try to peak at their opponents' hand beforehand to predict what move they will use, making it much easier to visualize this as a very dynamic game.

Mato ends up having to follow the president's orders, which means she now has to play a game against students of Seietsu High, and a lot of money is at stake now in Daruma-san ga Kazoeta ("Daruma Counted"), as they are playing for Scholarship Chips, which are worth a lot of money at Seietsu High School, and winning enough will easily put you through college. Mato finds herself playing a variation of Daruma-san ga koronda (known as statues/red light green light/fairy footsteps and many more names), where the two participants are dubbed the killer and marker, with Mato becoming the killer. The two are standing at opposite ends of a park, and as in the normal game, the marker has to turn their back to the killer and count. The killer tries to approach the marker during this count, but it's game over if the marker stops counting, turns around and observes the killer moving. The killer has to take each step on each count of the marker. The variant rules for this game have the two players inform the judge beforehand about what they will do the next turn: the marker has to decide on how much they will count, after which they will turn around. The killer similarly has to decide on how many steps they will take beforehand, but is required to take all steps they decided upon, even if it's fewer than the marker's count: this will mean an instant game over. The killer has to reach the marker within a certain number of turns to win, while the marker has to count at least a specific number within X turns. While there is some strategic discussion on, this story is definitely the simplest of them all, and I found this was the easiest story to guess Mato's strategy. It's mostly intended to be a funny story to set-up the finale of the collection though, so I guess it works in that way.

After winning the previous game, Mato finds herself facing her greatest foe yet in the final game Four Room Poker. In this poker game the players have to bet their chips on each round, and of course the strongest hand wins. The hands in this game consists of three cards, but what makes this game of poker special is that every player can pick their own hand. After dealing the first hand of three cards to both players, players can choose to discard up to three of their cards. They are then given five minutes to enter three of four rooms in any order, where the rest of the cards of the deck have been laid out face down on tables. Inside these rooms, unseen by the other player, they can pick any card they want (but are only allowed to touch the number of cards they have to draw). The cards have been laid out according an undisclosed rule, and that's where this game becomes tricky: the only way the players can learn how the cards have been laid out, is to discard cards and drawing new cards each round, and hoping they can figure out how the cards are laid out by seeing what card they drew, but both players will draw, which will disturb the initial layout and making it harder to deduce what card lies where, and as the game proceeds, less and less cards remain, making it harder to create the hand you want. The result is the story that is definitely the most complex to grasp, as the physical aspect, where the players have to go in the rooms each time, adds a whole new dimension to the game of poker. It allows for some game shenanigans you also see in Liar Game that are somewhat unfair to the reader, as you could argue that one of them is cheating, even if the story doesn't consider it as such. So it is harder for the reader to predict how the game will go because of sometimes loose interpretation of the rules, but the way the two players try to outwit each other and react to each other's strategems is a delight to read!

What's more to say about the book? Jirai Glico is an enormously entertaining book that will show that you don't need murders or even anything remotely criminal to present an outrageously fun detective novel, that at the same time will offer you more logical reasoning and deductive chains you'll see in most mystery stories. Definitely worth the read!

Original Japanese title(s):青崎有吾『地雷グリコ』: 「地雷グリコ」/「坊主衰弱」「自由律ジャンケン」/「だるまさんがかぞえた」/「フォールーム・ポーカー」

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