Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Unfinished Crime


"The same technique won't work twice on a Saint."
"Saint Seiya"

A logical school mystery story based on Saint Seiya would be awesome. "No, you couldn't have killed him. You already once used all your techniques on him, and we all know the same technique doesn't work twice on a Saint: ergo you had no techniques with which you could kill him!"

In the previous two novels of Danganronpa Kirigiri, the young detectives Yui and Kirigiri learned about the Crime Victim Salvation Committee: an organization which hosts the Duel Noir, a game of detective vs murderer. The Committee provides a would-be murderer with means, methods (murder plans) and opportunity to exact their revenge, while also inviting a detective on the scene. If the detective manages to prove who the murderer is within seven days, the detective wins, and otherwise, the murderer gets away with murder. But now the Committee has set its eyes on the two detectives who have been doing surprisingly well in the Duel Noir. Yui is challenged directly by one of the top dogs of the Committee, who works as a 'producer' of murder plans for the Committee. She is given the trial of the Twelve Locked Room Temples: she has seven days to solve twelve locked room murders which are about to start. Even with the help of Kirigiri, this seems like an impossible task, so their first task is to locate the legendary detective Mikagami Rei, who might be of help to them. In a world whether neither ally, nor enemy are precisely what they seem, can Kirigiri and Yui overcome the challenge of the Twelve Temples in Kitayama Takekuni's Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 (2014)?

The third book in this spin-off series of the Danganronpa franchise, focusing on Kirigiri Kyouko in the early years of her career as a detective. Links between this series and the main Danganronpa series are fairly light, so it's quite possible to read this series on its own. You do need to read the books in order though. In fact, that is the biggest problem with Danganronpa Kirigiri 3. People used to reading comics or manga are probably familiar with the practice of storylines taking place over several volumes/issues. Longer-running manga in particular often have storylines being spread across several volumes. There is a fixed number of pages for each volume, so often, you'll find you're still in the middle of a story when a volume of Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ends: the next chapters are included in the next volume. This is a common phenomenon with ongoing comic series. You don't really see this practice with novels: sure, pocket releases of novels are often split up on two or more volumes in Japan, but that is splitting up one complete story in parts (not an ongoing story), mainly profit for maximization and convenience (bulky pockets are hard to read).

Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 however is obviously just an introduction for a bigger story. The idea of Kirigiri and Yui having to solve twelve locked room mysteries within seven days sounds like a cool set-up for a short story collection about impossible crimes, right? The thing is, it takes more than half the length of this book to even get to the starting line of this challenge. Whereas the previous two books threw you right into an interesting closed circle, impossible crime story, this book takes plenty of time to get you all excited about a trial of twelve locked room mysteries to be solved, and then it has just enough pages left for one (1!) of those murders. To be continued in the next volume. It makes this volume feel extremely empty, because there is basically only one short mystery story here, and the rest is just set-up for something that isn't even resolved in this volume, and I'm not even sure it'll be resolved in the next volume. Sure, there's some other things going on too, mostly revolving around the identity of Mikagami Rei, whom Kirigiri and Yui need to find to even stand a chance to win the challenge, but it's fairly light material. Again, a story split over multiple volumes is a very common practice for ongoing comics, not so for novels. As it is now, it's a very unbalanced book on its own, as there's just too little.

Oh, by the way, the Twelve Locked Room Temples, that is indeed a reference to the anime/manga classic Saint Seiya, where the best known story arc, the Sanctuary Arc, is about our band of heroes who have to pass through Twelve Temples and defeat the twelve guardian Gold Saints there within twelve hours. So Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 feels like the story ends after they passed by the Aries or Taurus Temple.

The one impossible crime they do solve in this volume is good though, even if the pace's a bit hasty because of the fewer page count reserved for the story, compared to the previous two volumes. The murder reminds of Yokomizo Seishi's classic Honjin Satsujin Jiken, with a man being stabbed with a sword in a locked room of the annex of a traditional Japanese manor. In fact, it is obviously inspired by that story, but Kitayama wouldn't Kitayama if he didn't come up with a genius murder trick for this story. It's ridiculous, in the good sense of the word, and I myself thought it was highly original too, as I had never seen something similar before. There's a reason why Kitayama is feared for his rather mechanical impossible crime plots, and this is an outstanding example of the things he comes up with. It's not all perfect though, as the way Kirigiri deduces who the murderer was, was rather weak, which both Kirigiri and the author seem to acknowledge, as the actual 'proof' comes from the old 'make them slip up' ending that is seldom satisfying.

To be honest, I hesitated about writing the review for this particular volume. It is obviously only part of one single story. It is uneven, because I'm missing a very large chunk of the bigger picture. But then I think: 'But this book is being sold as a standalone book. And the previous two volumes were also part of an ongoing storyline, but also managed to be perfectly fine standalone books.' So I think potential readers should be made aware that this is an incomplete story. Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 does not work on its own.

There is little more I have to comment on Danganronpa Kirigiri 3. It has a great concept, it has a decent short impossible crime, but it is also incomplete. Despite the price of the book, you're getting maybe the first half of a story. And that's not really nice. I see a lot of potential to do something fantastic with the Twelve Locked Room Temples gimmick, but I guess we'll need to read the next volume to see if it really works out.

Original Japanese title(s):  北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切り3』

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Magic Book


I've been loving for ten and two thousand years
I yearned for you even more after eight thousand years
"Genesis of Aquarion" (Akino)

I have a lot of books, but I am not a collector (I am a reader). I think the oldest book I have is De Geheimzinnige Japanees (review here), which is probably over a hundred years old (can't find the exact publishing year), but I only have that thing because I wanted to read the story, not to own an  old book.

Many clients of attorney Morie Shunsaku can be deemed 'memorable', but Kuga'numa Eijirou was one of the more unique ones. His first job for Morie was a simple one: to draw up a will. For his second problem however, he did not need the attorney Morie, but the famed amateur detective Morie. Morie is to look into an old manuscript Kuganuma got his hands on: the manuscript appears to be have been used as a journal by six different persons from different places, over a period of three hundred years: the earliest part dates from 1700 and was written by a traveler in the East, while the last entry dates from as late as in 1937. What ties this six records together is that each of them contain an unsolved mystery: from a murder that couldn't have been committed because the suspect had a perfect alibi, to a walking set of armor that vanishes from a locked room in a second. Morie is supposed to look into the book, but that is not his only problem, because his client is killed right after he left Morie's offices, shot down in a cul-de-sac, of which the entrance was observed by Morie's assistant and with no footprints left in the snow by either the victim, nor the murderer. Can Morie solve all the unsolved riddles that lie before him in Ashibe Taku's Sanbyakunen no Nazobako ("A Three Hundred Year Old Box of Mysteries", 2005)?

The Morie Shunsaku series is Ashibe Taku's main series, featuring an attorney who also works as an amateur detective. Sometimes, his sleuthing is part of his main job, like in Saibanin Houtei, but he is just as likely to accidently stumble upon a mystery, like in The Castle of Grand Guignol. Ashibe basically uses the character for a variety of stories, meaning you never really know what you can expect from a Morie Shunsaku novel until you've started with it. Sanbyakunen no Nazobako lies somewhere in between the extremes: he was asked to solve the mysteries recorded in the book in his role as an amateur detective, but it's his obligation to his client (and curiosity) that has him go into the murder of Kumagawa.

Sanbyakunen no Nazobako is by any standards a very unique book. It is basically a story-within-a-story (or to be precise: six-stories-within-a-story), with the Morie Shunsaku narrative bookending the six stories recorded in the book. These six stories have no direct connection with each other: they are set in different times, different places and with different characters. We start off with a story about a traveler in the East in 1709 for example, but the next story is about the pirate ship the Sea Serpent in South-East Asia in 1721, while the one after that is in set in China in 1793. Each of these stories belong to a different genre. From a swashbuckling adventure to a Western to an record of an expedition in Africa: every story is unique and on the whole interesting enough to read on their own. Diversity is something that is defintely not lacking in Sanbyakunen no Nazobako.

The stories are obviously also mystery stories (or else I wouldn't be discussing it). The mysteries featured in the stories vary from impossible disappearances and murders to alibi tricks. What makes these narratives unique though is that the mysteries remain mostly unsolved within each seperate record. While some minor mysteries are solved, often the biggest question remains unanswered. Morie doesn't solve all of the stories until the very end of the book, in the final chapter. A problem here is that most of the mysteries aren't really that inspired. I'd say that this partly because of the unique set-up of this book. You have six stories that all feature a minimum of two mysteries (one to be solved within the narrative, one to be left unsolved until the end of the book), plus the murder in the bookend chapters. That's thirteen different mysteries and solutions. And that's not even the whole problem.

For the true unique feature is that Morie eventually explains each of the six unsolved mysteries at the end of the book and shows that each of the mysteries actually had a common factor, one that is even shared with his own murder case. So this book features thirteen problems that need to be solved, seven of which also need to have a common factor. The result however is that each of the problems is rather simple and not particularly exciting. Part of the reason why I'm not doing summaries on each of the short stories is in fact because the stories are so short, and the premises behind the problems so simple I don't think I could do a meaningful summary without spoiling something. Anyway, the solutions are usually so simple that not once do you really feel catharsis when a century old riddle is solved, and some are actually bad (the one in the story set in Beijing is ridiculous). None of the problems really have the time to build up tension because of the large number of stories. The book is certainly not short, so perhaps it would've been better if there had been less, but longer stories that could provide more complex mysteries. The fact each of the stories end with an unsolved mystery is also a bit... irritating. While you know the solution will come at the very end of the book, the fact each time you 'reset' everything (new setting/characters) for each story makes the wait for the conclusion feel even longer.

The 'connection' between the various mysteries is also suspect, at best. The common factor that Morie identifies, and which becomes a clue for his own case, feels very forced, as it almost requires Adam West Batman-logic to identify that factor in some of the stories. This hurts the overall book, because the premise is that Morie solves the six records, recognizes a pattern and applies that to his case: if the pattern is not obvious, the conclusion will fall flat.

While I don't think the experiment was a great succes, I do really like the idea behind Sanbyakunen no Nazobako. A lot of the books I've read by Ashibe Taku incorporate elements from the bibliomystery genre, and as this book is all about solving a crime through the reading of secondary texts, I think lovers of the bibliomystery genre can appreciate the effort. I also think the first story, A New Venetian Night's Entertainment, is really great as a bibliomystery. The 'murder mystery' is rather easy to solve, but the deeper reading of this text by Morie at the conclusion was fantastic. Very occasionally I see mystery stories do something similar, and when it's done well, it's really satisfying.
Sanbyakunen no Nazobako is a fantastic example of a great idea, but where the execution lacked. It definitely has some great moments as a bibliomystery, and it won't bore as each narrative gives you something new, but as a mystery novel it feels lacking, especially considering how absolutely great this book would've been if the concept had been executed perfectly. It might be going a bit too far to call it a missed opportunity, but there was definitely more that could've come out of this idea.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『三百年の謎匣』

Friday, March 10, 2017

On The Rocks

Crime, it's the way I fly to you (Snake Eater) 
"Snake Eater" (Cynthia Harrel)

Yes, yes, I know, I'm behind with my Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files R") reviews... Today's volume was released back in November... Oh, and now for something completely different, but apparently I'm already over 700 posts here on the blog.

The White Snake Brewery Murder Case, a story collected in volumes 10 and 11 of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, starts with Inspector Kenmochi traveling together with Hajime and Miyuki to the village of Hakuja, as the police has received information a murderer-on-the-run might be hiding there. The village is the home of a particular, white-ish water source, which has a tendency to 'twist' when it's flowing, resembling a white snake. The spirit of the White Snake is said to watch over the village, and the White Snake Sake brewed here, which uses the white mineral water as a key ingredient, has brought prosperity to the villagers for many decades. Hajime and the other, pretending to be normal tourists, attend a tour of the White Snake Sake Brewery, which also allows them to take a peek at the inner sanctum of the brewery, where the moromi (the main mash) is allowed to further ferment. But then the body of a recently returned son of the brewery owner is found inside one of the mash containers. Is this the work of the murderer Inspector Kenmochi is chasing, or is something else going on at the White Snake Sake Brewery?

First thing that I noticed: while Hajime is indeed the grandson of Kindaichi Kousuke, and a brilliant young detective himself, who has shown countless of times throughout the series that he's great at solving mysteries, you do have to wonder what Inspector Kenmochi was thinking when he decided to take two high school students along on his mission to find, and capture, a desperate murderer on the run in a remote village. Usually Hajime and Miyuki get involved with murder cases by accident, so there's little you can do about that, but I think there might be some problems about a high-ranking police detective taking minors along on a dangerous task.

Though I have to say that in general, The White Snake Brewery Murder Case is actually a very weak story. It is eleven chapters long, which is the norm for long stories in this series, but it feels barely any denser in terms of actual content than a short story. The obi of this volume says "One Of The Most Complex Cases Of This Series, Completed!" about this story, but The White Snake Brewery Murder Case is in fact probably one of the simplest stories of the series. The solution to the problem of the corpse in the container is incredibly obvious from the start. It is very likely the first thing that pops in mind once you're presented with the whole setting, and I kept hoping it was just a red herring, but alas, it turned out the simple, least original solution was indeed the correct one. This on its own doesn't mean disaster though, as a good mystery writer can, with effort, weave different ideas and plots together to make a whole stronger than its parts, but I think series writer Amagi was on an off-day, because the other elements of the mystery plot proper were as poorly inspired as the main trick. From the way the murderer gives themselves away, to the often-seen 'psychological trap' Hajime uses to prove who the murderer is: the ideas themselves are poor, and it all feels like disjointed ideas, rather than a whole story.

There is for example a whole back story surrounding the family of the owner of the brewery, which is supposed to spring all kinds of surprises on the reader, but it fails miserably at that task as once again, the most obvious, the simplest answer to any question always turns out to be the correct one. There's nothing tricky about this plot, nor anything that feels like it was constructed to entertain the reader.

And what I lament the most is perhaps how the setting goes to waste. Save for film sets, 'normal' work places are not very commonly used as a setting in this series actually, at least not for the longer stories (they do feature more ofen in the short stories). While The White Snake Brewery Murder Case is not the first long story to feature such a location, it is still rare enough for me to notice it, as usually Hajime and Miyuki find themselves in more unique (and often isolated) locales. This type of setting is much more in Detective Conan, as The Sleeping Kogorou is hired by clients from various backgrounds. The White Snake Brewery Murder Case can be fairy informative about how sake is brewed (if you're a total amateur like me), which is always one of the things I like about these kinds of specialist settings, but to have it used on a bland mystery plot....

Of all the stories ever since the series returned with Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R started in 2014, The White Snake Brewery Murder Case is probably the worst, as the mystery plot is by far the least inspired. Everything is too obvious, even it is not even entertaining in its obviousness, as the presentation of the plot and the way the clues are presented are rather crude (c.f. Gyakuten Kuukou, a book written for children and very simple, yet plotted and structured in a very good manner). I can only hope volume 12, to be released in April, will be return to form for this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一少年の事件簿R』第10&11巻

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On The Lake Shore

たたどり着いたwhite mermaid
「水のない晴れた海へ」(Garnet Crow)

Towards the sunny sea with no water
Arriving there is a white mermaid
"Mizu no nai hareta umi he" (Garnet Crow)

Time for another Lupin!

Raoul d’Avenac is one night visited by a mysterious woman, Catherine, who pleads for help. Apparently, something sinister is going on in her home, and only Raoul can save her. At the same time, Raoul gets a call by brigadier Théodore Béchoux, who also wants Raoul's help with the investigation of a mysterious murder. It appears that mysterious visitor and Béchoux are both involved in the same case, so Raoul decides to help Catherine. As for why both Catherine and Béchoux want this gentleman's help: for most people is just a well-known gentleman often seen at parties. But a select few know that Raoul is in fact the private detective Jim Barnett, who in turn is actually the famous thief Arsène Lupin. Raoul/Lupin brings the woman to her home, where her sister Betrande is. The Barre-y-va mansion was given its name because it stands on a hill near the river Aurelle: the tide makes the Aurelle overflow, and the water reaches just until the hill, hence the name "the tide goes there". Here Raoul learns a great many deal: apparently an impossible murder has been committed on Catherine's brother-in-law during her absence, with Béchoux himself being a witness to how the poor man was gunned down by an invisible assailant who disappeared from the little island the two men were on. With a mysterious figure also making attempts at Catherine's life, Lupin has quite a lot to do in Maurice Leblanc's La Barre-y-va (1930).

And yes, I read the Japanese translation of the book. To be precise: the Minami Youichirou translation. As I've explained in this post, the Minami translations are aimed at children, so they are usually rewritten to be more concise, simpler in structure and easier to read. The Japanese title of this book is Lupin to Kaijin (Lupin and the Fiend), and according to what I could find, it appears that this particular translation placed more emphasis on Lupin's battle with the unknown fiend, and removed a romantic subplot surrounding Lupin.

I enjoyed Victor, de la Brigade Mondaine a lot as a novel in the famous Lupin series, as an entry that did something different. La Barre-y-va in contrast feels a lot more familiar. Lupin helping a damsel in distress, a mysterious adversary for Lupin to fight with, the legacy of Catherine and Bertrande's grandfather hidden away somewhere which needs some code cracking: none of these elements are particularly original to the series, and because of that, the whole reading experience feels like déjà vu. Even the (not really) shocking ending is very similar to a previous Lupin novel. La Barre-y-va feels stale, predictable and not original. It's one of the last Lupin novels published during Leblanc's lifetime, and while I praised Victor, de la Brigade Mondaine for still being original despite being a very late Lupin novel, La Barre-y-va is precisely the opposite.

The book starts with an interesting impossible murder situation: Catherine's brother-in-law is shot down by an unseen assailant from a pigeon house on a little island, only accessible by a little rickety bridge. Béchoux and other witnesses had the whole island in sight as Béchox made his way to the victim and searched the pigeon house and island, but he came out empty-handed. The solution to the murder however is laughable and very unlikely it wouldn't have been found out immediately. Leblanc has written much better, and more satisfying impossible situation stories than this one.

And I guess I could write a bit more about Lupin's encounters with the mysterious figure, or the final solution to all the mysteries that happened around the Barre-y-va mansion, but in the end, it all comes down to this: La Barre-y-va is not one of Leblanc's best efforts, and he has written other books that employ the same elements, but better. So why bother with this one?

I've only a handful of unread Lupin novels left, and I guess this is what usually happens when you're reading a long-running series: unless there's some chronology involved, you often read the best books first, so as times passes, you're bound to come across the less entertaining books. La Barre-y-va is definitely a good example of that. I'm not sure when I'll get to the last of the unread Lupins, but let's hope they are more fun than this one.

Original Japanese title(s): モーリス・ルブラン(原)、南洋一郎(訳) 『ルパンと怪人』

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lost Shadow

視界まで遮る 愛しい人の姿あさえ

Screens are buried in handy apps
Blocking our sights, even the figures of our loved ones
"2012Spark" (Porno Graffiti)

I have visited Shinjuku in the past, and I know it's a very different place in real life, but I have to admit, I still love the romanticized version of it in fiction like the Ryuu ga Gotoku (Yakuza) games, City Hunter/Angel Heart and the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games.

In the two months since the first attack, at the start of summer, numerous people have been assaulted in the city of Shinjuku. While all victims managed to survive their attacks, the police still has no idea as to the identity of the assailant is. Because the attacker manages to disappear as fast as they appear, rumors that a ghost is behind these attacks start to spread across Shinjuku. One day, private detective Jinguuji Saburou is visited in his office by Itou Mizuho, a beautiful girl with a strange request: she wants Jinguuji to stop the Ghost of Shinjuku, to protect a friend of hers. Mizuho isn't ready to give Jinguuji all the details yet, and wants to take some time to think it over, but that same night she falls to her death from a building: she had been caught redhanded as the Ghost of Shinjuku herself, looking down at her latest victim, and had fled to the roof and fallen off it, but not before admitting to the police she was indeed the Ghost. Jinguuji however can not believe that Mizuho was really the attacker, and decides to take on her request anyway in Kodaka Kazutaka's Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Shinjuku no Bourei ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: The Ghost of Shinjuku", 2006).

The Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series is a long-running video game series which celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year. The first game was one of the first adventure games for the Famicom (NES) to be made for an adult audience, with a hardboiled detective as the protagonist who had his home base in Shinjuku, home of the shadow side of society. I have reviewed most of the games on this blog, by the way. Shinjuku no Bourei is one of the novels based on the series and was written by Kodaka Kazutaka. He is now best known as the creator and writer of the Danganronpa game series, but he used to work as a freelance game scenario writer before he was hired by Spike-Chunsoft and has written the scenarios for several of the mobile phone games of Tantei Jinguuji Saburou. He also wrote two novels based on the games, the one discussed in this post, and 2007's Kagayakashii Mirai.

Shinjuku no Bourei is by far the longest of the original novels based on the games, and the extra length really pays off. I did enjoy Kagayakashii Mirai, but it was definitely a bit hasty, but Shinjuku no Bourei is about twice the length (it's two volumes long) and the result is a story that follows a structure very similar to the mobile phone games, with basically a four act set-up. The story revolves around Jinguuji's investigation in the true nature of Mizuho's request, as well as the identity of the Ghost of Shinjuku, but it doesn't take long for the detective to step on some toes he shouldn't have stepped on, and the case quickly escalates into something much bigger than he had expected. Like in the games, Jinguuji needs to make good use of his friends within both the proper authorities, as well as within the underworld to advance, and like a good old hardboiled detective, he sometimes also needs to use some violence to get himself out of trouble. This story in particular features some new characters (both friendly and less so) whom I'd loved to see in the games. There's not that much of a mystery for the reader, as I think that the plot becomes quite obvious fairly early in the story, but it's seeing how things develop, and how the truth comes out that is interesting here (and what's usually the case in the games).

I also loved that this novel featured more of the extended cast of the games. Kagayashii Mirai focused on Jinguuji, and to a lesser extent his assistant Youko, but we also see police inspector Kumano and yakuza gang leader Imaizumi in this novel, who have always been a major part of the series since early on. It helps make the novel feel like it's really part of the series, having these familiar faces pop up at the right time.
While the realistic, hardboiled setting of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games is as far as you can get from the psycho-pop puzzle plot courtroom drama mystery that is Danganronpa, it's interesting to see some themes Kodaka used here seemed like a very early version of themes he'd also use in Danganronpa (as well as Detective Conan & Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, which he also wrote). It's not a rehash, but you could see how some themes used in this book eventually evolved into a (minor) element featured in the Danganronpa series. Funny thing is that I had already played Kodaka's Jinguuji Saburou games, Detective Conan & Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and the Danganronpa series by the time I first heard that Kodaka was responsible for all these games. It's the same with TV productions: these are often produced by very large teams, so sometimes you don't notice the scenario writer.

Do I think non-fans of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series will also enjoy this book? Well, not really. It's not a bad novel by any means, but while I myself did enjoy the book, this novel doesn't succeed really at conveying the atmosphere of the series. By which I mean: a lot of the atmosphere from the games comes from the visual aspect, as well as the (fantastic) music. And when fans read this book, they'll have a good sense of the 'feeling' this book is going for, as their imagination will provide support. But without that knowledge, without knowing how the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou usually looks and sounds like, I'd say the writing of this novel is a bit too to-the-point to really leave an impression on its own merits. It's not bad, it's just that the prose is a bit too basic.

As a fan of the seris though, I really did enjoy Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Shinjuku no Bourei. It really feels like a story you'd expect to see in one of the games, and that is usually the one thing novels based on games have to succeed in. The prose is a bit sparse, but the plot is entertaining, featuring some great characters that fit perfectly within the whole world of Tantei Jinguuji Saburou. Recommended material for those who want to see more of the veteran detective outside of the game medium. A new Tantei Jinguuji Saburou game will be released later this year for the Nintendo 3DS to celebrate the franchise's 30th anniversary by the way, and you can definitely expect a review of that game popping up in due time.

Original Japanese title(s): 小高和剛 『探偵神宮寺三郎 新宿の亡霊」(上下)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Journey for Truth

"The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic."
"The Blue Cross"

It's actually amazing how many one-shot adaptations they make of mystery novels in Japan. It's almost like every other weekend there's a two-hour special based on a best-selling novel. You hardly see that outside of Japan, I think, where they usually try to go for a film adaptation. There's the occassional Christie TV special or mini-series adaptation, but that's at best once in a couple of years.

The discovery of a cut-off right arm at Ookawa Park, Tokyo, is the start of a horrible serial murder case. A commuter ticket found together with the arm identifies the victim as Furukawa Mariko, a young, female bank employee who went missing some time ago. But a TV station gets a call by someone using a voice scambler, telling them that the arm discovered in the park is not that of Mariko, but that he'll leave Mariko's arm elsewhere for them to find. The murderer keeps on killing more and more women, plunging the city in fear and he even dares to call the family of the victims to make fun of them. The police investigation have little results, which of course also stirs up social unrest, which is fuled more by the relentless coverage of the case by the media. Freelance writer Maehata Shigeko and teenager Tsukuda Shinichi, who discovered the first arm, start to investigate the case too for a series of articles on the murders, but Shigeko finds it harder and harder to proceed as she sees up close how the family of the victims have to cope with the horrible fate of their loved ones. But Shigeko, the media, the family of the victims and of course the police keep looking for the sadistic killer in the 2016 TV drama Miyabe Miyuki Suspense - Mohouhan ("Miyabe Miyuki Suspense - The Copy Cat Crime").

Miyabe Miyuki is one of the best-known female writers in Japan, specializing in genres like crime and fantasy. I myself haven't read that many of her works (Kasha and R.P.G., off the top of my head), but she's also one of the Japanese writers who is actually fairly well represented in English language translations. Mohouhan ("The Copy Cat Crime") is one of her best-known books, and also one of her longest (or actually, I think it is her longest story). The original seralization, which started in 1995, took about four years, and the currently available pocket paperback version consists of no less than five sizeable volumes. An English translation of the book is available on e-book (also split up in multiple volumes), with the title Puppet Master.

Mohouhan had been adapted for the silver screen in 2002, but Miyabe Miyuki Suspense - Mohouhan was the first time it had been adapted for TV. The drama consists of two, two-hour parts, and was broadcast on September 21-22, 2016. The 2002 film apparently has quite some changes compared to the plot of the original novel, assumably partly because of the runtime, but the 2016 TV drama version has been praised as a very faithful adaptation of the book. Four hours to adapt one book is actually a lot, but considering the size of the original work, I guess this was the best way to do it.

Mohouhan is not a puzzle plot mystery, but a pure crime thriller. In the first part of the drama, the narrative mainly jumps between Shigeko's POV, that of the police investigation, and the POV of the grandfather of Mariko. It is in this part where we see the true horrors of the crime, as the people left behind try to make sense of everything that has happened. Shigeko, as a freelance writer. tries to get close to the families of the victims in the hopes of getting a scoop, but writing about a mysterious serial murderer gets a lot more personal when you actually see the family of the victims break under all the pressure. The narrative jumps cleverly among all the involved parties, showing the crimes from multiple angles. The investigation in this first part of the drama features very little progress though, focusing more on the impact of the crimes. The big reveals and shocks are only revealed in the last thirty minutes or so. The second part of the drama in turn shows the denouement of the story from the POV of both Shigeko and.... the murderer. The murderer cleverly makes use of the media to conjure up a fake story about the murders, which the media, and the people in the country, love to believe. By putting different parties involved with the crimes (family of victims, freelance writer Shigeko, etc.) against each other, the mastermind manages to cause more chaos in the perception of the crimes. But for what cause?

The story is very much rooted in the foundations of shakai-ha (social school of crime fiction). The narrative of Mohouhan shows the interaction between all the parties involved with a horrible serial murder: the (family of the) victim, the murderer, the police, the media writing about the case and the general public. The story especially gives a harsh, but realistic look at the power of the media (in Japan). Do they side with the victims? With the police? Can the media write a narrative where someone else is the victim? Can the narrative in the media actually create new guilty parties? Questions like these are of course nowadays more relevant than ever, with internet and SNS giving everyone a stage to present and spread a narrative to the general public. The TV drama was set in the present day, even though the book was written twenty years ago, but the use of SNS and internet throughout the drama really didn't hurt the story, but only enhanced the role of the media. Another mystery story I discussed here where media played a role is Shirayuki Hime Satsujin Jiken, and to a lesser extent, I guess Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper also had elements of that.

I didn't really like the murderer in this story though. It's a rare thing for me to be talking about motives on this blog (motives are usually not that big an issue in puzzle plot mysteries), but I had some trouble following the train of thought of the murderer. Like the title of the English publication suggests, there's a puppet master, a sadistic, manipulating psychopath, walking around and that can be fun: fiction like Death Note and Aku no Kyouten work because of that, but I can't help but think that the murderer of Mohouhan did a lot that would eventually always lead to their own destruction. And sometimes that is the plan, but it doesn't seem likely in this case. It appears a more hands-off approach to managing would've been better for this murderer.

Overall though, Miyabe Miyuki Suspense - Mohouhan was an enjoyable crime thriller yarn. It's quite long, four hours for just one story, but I never felt like it was dragging or boring.The narrative keeps a good sense of pacing throughout and the characters are interesting enough to make you want to see where they'll end up.

Original Japanese title(s): 宮部みゆき(原) 『 宮部みゆきサスペンス 模倣犯』

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Candidate for Crime


I want to spread out my wings
And soar through the wide sky
Towards a free sky, where there is no sadness
That's where I want to go flapping my wings
"Give Me Wings" (Akai Tori)

I try to point out nice covers when I come across them, but let me also point out that the cover of today's book is really one of the laziest efforts I've seen, as it's nothing more than a simple collage of existing character artwork slapped together. It is so devoid of any inspiration, it actually looks almost identical to the previous book in the series (which was also a lazy copypasta). As they have an illustrator doing original art for the inside of the book, you'd hope they'd let them design the cover too, though I guess they'd prefer recognizable official artwork from the main series...

Young attorney Odoroki Housuke had a nice holiday planned: first he'd visit an old friend in the city of Uminobe, and then step on a plane at Uminobe Airport. During the baggage checkpoint, Odoroki notices something lying on the ground. As he picks it up, the man before him suddenly cries out and staggers back, falling on top of Odoroki. As people start to gather around them, Odoroki realizes the man is bleeding. It doesn't take long for everyone to notice that the man is in fact dead, and that the object Odoroki picked up from the floor --and is still holding in his hands-- is in fact an ice pick that fits rather well with the wound on the victim. Odoroki is immediately arrested as the murder suspect. Naruhodou, Odoroki's boss at the Naruhodou Anything Agency, is determined to prove the innocence of his subordinate in the courtroom, but the fight won't be easy: the victim was one Uranashi Masamichi, a popular and influential local politician, so there is a certain pressure to wrap up the case swiftly and Naruhodou's opponent in the court is prosecutor Garyuu, a former rockstar who is a lot sharper than you might expect. Can Naruhodou save Odoroki and find out who the true killer is in Takase Mie's Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten Kuukou ("Turnabout Trial - Turnabout Airport", 2017)?

2016's Gyakuten Idol was the first original full-length novel based on the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney franchise, a long-running courtroom mystery videogame series (and if you have been reading this blog for a while now, you will have noticed that I'm quite a big fan of the series, and that I review not only the games, but also the books, the musicals, the film, the manga, the stageplays etc.). Gyakuten Idol was released in Kadokawa's Tsubasa Bunko label, a line specifically aimed at children. At first, I had no high expectations of the novel, but author Takase Mie (who had a lot of experience writing novels based on game franchices like Fire Emblem and Kirby) managed to surprise me very pleasantly. Yes, the language used in the novel was indeed simple, and yes, the novel was short, and yes, on the whole the plot was not particularly complex, but it was fun! The story and the clues were plotted very well and you could clearly see Takase had experience in writing good mystery novels, as well as for children. Heck, I have read many mystery novels meant for an older audience that weren't even half as tightly plotted as Gyakuten Idol. The book did well enough, it appears, as we now have a sequel, once again written by Takase Mie and featuring original character designs and illustrations by Kikuyarou, who also does some official artwork for the Japanese e-zine for the Ace Attorney series.

And yes, with Gyakuten Kuukou Takase once again delivers a mystery novel that is clearly written for children, but is still enjoyable for adults as it is very well plotted mystery novel. The main problem is one of an impossible kind: while the victim was stabbed with a poisoned weapon, Odoroki himself insists nobody besides himself was in the vicinity of the victim at the time he cried out. The murder happened at an airport, and all the other potential suspects had already passed the security checkpoint, so they couldn't even have carried a weapon on their bodies. The whole premise sounds like it could've come from an early Queen novel, with a murder that happens in an open, public location and people being searched for potential murder weapons. Now I think about it, Gyakuten Idol had some Queenian qualities too, with once again a murder happening in front of an audience, and location maps and character movement being part of the plot (which is the same for this novel). The way the real murderer managed to get rid of the murder weapon is actually quite neat in the sense that is an original method, and that it is very neatly clued throughout the story. Again, it's not a difficult problem, and I wouldn't be surprised if quite some readers catch on what happened once the clue appears, but nonetheless, the way all the clues are scattered across the narrative effectively is a skill many authors actually have trouble with.

As per series tradition, most of the revelations are made in the courtroom, with Naruhodou pointing out contradictions in the testimonies of all the witnesses, thus slowly revealing the truth. Naruhodou (and the reader) seldom know in advance what the witnesses will testify about, so it's always a surprise to them, which leads to dynamic story developments. Because Gyakuten Kuukou is a novel, and not a game, the distinct flow of a trial from the games is slightly altered, but it works in the context of this format (non-interactive novel), and it still feels exactly like a true Ace Attorney story. But in general, it's still the same set-up as in the games: whereas a lot of mystery novels try to solve everything at the end, this series has always been about solving a lot of smaller mysteries/contradictions after another, which eventually reveal the whole picture, similar to Columbo.

While this book is definitely accessible for those who don't know the game series, it's of course mainly aimed at fans who are already familiar with the series. And there's a lot for them to find in this novel too. The story definitely feels like it could've appeared in the games, including its cast of original characters. But there's also a lot of interesting situations to be found in this novel for those are very familiar with Ace Attorney lore. For example, funnily enough Odoroki (Apollo Justice in the English localization) was the only employee of the Naruhodou Anything Agency who had never been a defendant in a case before, so this was an interesting first (though it's a shame he didn't get to defend himself in court). Prosecutor Garyuu (Klavier Gavin in the localized version) is also a bit of a forgotten character lately, so seeing him in the courtroom again, against Naruhodou no less, is something longtime fans will probably find interesting. This novel series in general is very good at recreating the atmosphere of the games actually. This is partly because of the very simple prose, but the way the characters are written, and some of the ideas show that Takase knows her source material. For those interested, the book is set a bit before the events of Gyakuten Saiban 6.

Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten Kuukou was thus once again a more than solid mystery novel, that should also satisfy the fans of the franchise. In my review of Gyakuten Idol, I concluded my text by saying I hoped they would turn this into a series. And as we can see now, the results were great, so I definitely hope they'll bring out more of these in the future. A new volume every six, seven months would be great!

Original Japanese title(s): 高瀬美恵 『逆転裁判 逆転空港』