Saturday, October 22, 2016

Negative Reaction


Danger. Do not mix.

As always, I only started watching the 2015-2016 season of Aibou after the 2016-2017 season started. I really always forget about this series until a new season starts...

Aibou ("Partners") series
Aibou Eleven
Aibou 12
Aibou 13
Aibou 14 

The long-running series Aibou ("Partners") has been the police procedural on Japanese television for over a decade now. The series started in 2000 and details the adventures of Sugishita Ukyou, an eccentric, but brilliant police inspector in charge of the Special Order Unit within the Metropolitan Police Department. This might sound like an important function within the police organization, but Sugishita has in fact been put there because the higher-ups deem him too troublesome: while everyone knows Sugishita is in possession of an amazing mind, they also know his sense of justice is unbendable, and that he will never play along with the political games going on within the police organization. The SOU exists solely to keep Sugishita close by in case they do need him. Management also sends troublesome officers to the SOU: the combination of the peculiar Sugishita, and the fact that the unit has no investigative authority whatsover and is very seldom given an assignment (usually in the spirit of 'Return evidence to next of kin'), is usually enough to make those unwanted officers quit the force on themselves. But once in a while, Sugishita finds an understanding partner (hence the title Partners). The official purpose of the Special Order Unit is to undertake special tasks, but Sugishita interprets the meaning of his two-man unit as 'Unless there is a special order not to, they're free to do whatever they want', and so Sugishita often invites himself, together with his partner, to investigations of interesting cases.

In the finale of the thirteenth season of Aibou, Sugishita's third partner Kaito had to leave the SOU, and Sugishita was forced to take extended time off. Aibou 14, which ran from October 2015 until March 2016, starts off with Sugishita's return to Japan. He's surprised to find a guest has been using the SOU office during his long absence: Kaburagi Wataru is a young bureaucrat in the Ministry of Justice, and protégé of the Administrative Vice-Minister of Justice. Kaburagi has chosen to pass some time at the Metropolitan Police Department as a step in his career. Police management sees Kaburagi as simply a guest from the Ministry of Justice (or even a spy), and as Kaburagi does not participate with police investigations in general, he usually spends his free time in the SOU office. While the two realize they have very little in common in terms of personality and habits, Sugishita and Kaburagi do work together to solve a murder case that happened within a prison, and as expected from this series, the reaction of the mix between these two men leads to surprising results.

This is the fourth time I've written an Aibou review, and I have to admit, it's getting more difficult. At the core, the series seldom really surprises in term of structure. As always, the series is a fairly diverse police procedural with a distinct social school background. Crimes in this series are almost always a result of some social injustice either happening in the 'normal' society, or in the society at the level of government organzations and the politics that drive them. Often, an Aibou episode has two 'levels': one is a personal crime, which is a result of some bigger social problem. While crimes of the first part are of course always solved (it is a police procedural), often episodes end with a darker tone as we see how underlying social and political problems still go on as always. That said though, Aibou can definitely do a lot with this formula. Some episodes will focus more on the human drama, while others are pure puzzle plot mysteries. Episodes with old-fashioned locked room murders are followed by episodes providing sharp commentary on the status of the foreign labor force. Every week is basically a surprise, as you never really know what's coming.

I am not going to discuss each of the twenty episodes in this season (of which three are feature-length specials), so like with the previous season reviews, I'll just briefly address some of the highlights. What stood out was that this season had quite a number of episodes with a supernatural hook. The first episode, Frankenstein's Confession, is about an urban legend going in a prison: a guard is killed by a prisoner, who claims he was told to do so by the voice of an infamous, but deceased previous inhabitant of the facility. Episode 7, A Strange Tale of a Kimono, is about a spooky message found written inside a second-hand kimono. While the mystery is rather easy, it's a good example of the type of mystery Aibou can also do, as it's not really a story about a crime (even though this is a police procedural). Episode 8, The Miracle of the Last Installment, starts with the murder on a publisher. However, at the same time the murder happened, a comic artist working for the publisher was working on the last installment of her series, and the panels she drew were exactly like the crime scene. Sugishita and Kaburagi investigation in this premonition comic is one of the more entertaining episodes. Other episodes with supernatural touch include the two-parter The Mountain That Spirits People Away. Episode 5, 2045, strangely enough deals with the opposite of the supernatural, as it's about a complex AI which can analyze crime scene data to arrive at a conclusion on its own.

The social school background of the series can be found in its portrayal of the theme of a current topic like terrorism in both the mid-season special (Heroes ~ Those With Sins) and the final episode (Last Case). The mid-season special focuses on a bomb terrorist who made a deal with the Ministry of Justice in the past, but has now started activities again, while the finale starts off with a class of cops-in-training being brutally shot by a fellow student during their shooting range at the academy, revealing himself to be part of a terrorist group targeting not the common people, but the authorities, specifically the ministers. The plot mixes up grand scale terrorism with a pretty neat puzzle plot.

The standout episode of this season is episode 17: A Physicist and his Cat. The episode starts simple enough, when Sugishita and Kaburagi visit a university to return the personal belongings of a professor who died during an experiment gone wrong, but the way the story develops is really a fantastic surprise.I'd say that the use of Schrödinger's cat in this episode was brilliant, resulting in a unique story that might not be overly complex in terms of a mystery plot, but incredibly memorable nonetheless.

Like in each season, regular and semi-regular characters also get a couple of character-focused episodes. Jinkawa, a police officer who has the habit of falling really easily in love with persons who usually turns out to be the murderer, for example usually shows up once every season. His episode was a very human-drama based episode and can be quite surprising. The forensic investigator Yonezawa on the other hand, a regular who was popular enough to get his own spin-off film, says goodbye in the final episode of this season, as he leaves the crime scene to educate a new generation at the police academy.

Overall though, I have to admit this season on the whole did not feel as strong as previous series. It fet like there were fewer traditional puzzle plot episodes this season, and the couple episodes that were featured, were not especially strong.

I did like the new partner Kaburagi though. Unlike the previous three partners, Kaburagi is not a policeman, so he falls outside the usual line of command. In fact, he is often very critical of how the police, and as a high-ranking beaurocrat, he actually has a fair amount of pull here and there through his many acquaintances. He might be the partner with the most authority until now. He is also portrayed as the opposite of Sugishita in many ways (Sugishita is a tea-drinker, while Kaburagi is a coffee expert. Both hate being passengers in the other's car, etc.) What makes Kaburagi especially interesting as a partner is that he visibly enjoys seeing Sugishita solving crimes in his own unique way, and even obstructs police investigation in order to clear the way for Sugishita.

But in short, Aibou 14 is basically same old, same old. The new partner does bring a new dynamic to the series (this season also featured more dealings with the Ministry of Justice than previous seasons), but at the core, Aibou remains an amusing police procedural that can surprise the reader each time by taking on a different form. This particular season does feel a bit weak in terms of really impressive episodes, but taken on the whole, I thought it was an entertaining series. Season 15 started last week by the way, which has Kaburagi joining the police force officially, so that could shake things up again. And it's very likely I'll be reviewing that series in about a year, when Aibou 16 starts.

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒14』

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Unnatural Death

Ride on shooting star 
「Ride on Shooting Star」(The Pillows)

Ride on shooting star
With the voice of my heart / like a shotgun
I kept on singing
"Ride on Shooting Star" (The Pillows)

Okay, my version didn't actually feature this cover, but I like to pretend it did, because I love this cover for all its cheesiness.

Reaching the stars was no longer a dream for human kind when aliens contacted Earth. Earth learned it was not alone in the universe: there was the Monwaingi culture, a society which has recently discovered space travel themselves and was now sharing its knowledge with the Earthlings. Earth was positioned at the fringes of the conflict between two larger space cultures: at one side, there were the Vorloks, a warlord society, and on the other side you had the Kandemir, a nomadic invader culture. In just a few decades, several nations on Earth had set up projects for space exploration, some with self-built ships, some with ships obtained from the Monwaingi. The Europa for example, a Pan-Euroean female-only ship, had left Earth to explore faraway cultures, while the male-only ship USS Benjamin Franklin went to visit the core of the Milky Way. On their way back to home after their three-year expedition though, the USS Benjamin Franklin return to something nobody could have expected. The whole Earth has been destroyed. The ship barely makes it out of a missile field laid around the remains of Earth, but once on safe grounds, the crew only has questions: What happened to Earth? Where should they go now? And the most important question; Whodunnit? Who killed an entire planet? Engineer Carl Donnan, assisted by his  Monwaingi friend Ramri, takes command of the ship and the three-hundred men and it's these last remaining humans who are trying to figure out who was behind the murder of a planet in Poul Anderson's After Doomsday (1962).

It's been a while since I read a mystery science-fiction novel. Asimov's Robot books have mostly been great puzzle plot mysteries, while James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars was as hard as science fiction could get, but still an excellent alibi-cracking mystery about a corpse that died ten thousands of years earlier than he could've. Poul Anderson's After Doomsday does not paint a future world as comprehensive as the ones featured in the books mentioned above, but it obviously does feature an incredibly interesting premise for a mystery plot that only a science fiction story could present, as it's a whodunnit about the murder of Earth itself!

While the mystery of what destroyed Earth is the driving force of the plot, I do have to say that most of the book is about how Donnan and the rest of the crew of the Franklin first try to recover from the enormous shock they got, and then have some swashbuckling adventures in space. Okay, it's not that adventurey, but Donnan's plan to find as other remaining human ships wandering space is to raise as much hell in space as possible about the destruction of Earth so rumors of their exploits will spread across the universe. After Doomsday is definitely not as close to the 'classic' mystery genre like the Robot novels, nor as methodological as Inherit the Stars.

The scale of the problem of the destroyed Earth is what both makes this book so alluring, as well as frustrating at times. First of all: the premise of the "murder" of planet Earth is brilliant. Seriously. We've seen Aldaraan being blown up to bits, but we saw who the 'murderer' was. Here we have a victim of a scale you could never see in a 'realistic' mystery novel. But the scale is also alienating. Sure, some of the characters mention they had loved ones on Earth, but on the whole, talking about the death of a complete planet is just so surreal, it doesn't really hit you. Talking about Earth this, Earth that makes it feel like Earth is of equal value as one 'normal' victim, especially seen from the perspective of interstellar politics. The narrative does sometimes mention specific Earth nations and regions, but that on the other hand makes it feel very weird, as it'd seem unlikely the actions of one part of the Earth could have such influence on space politics. It's the same with the suspects. Suspects in After Doomsday aren't people, or even groups. It's entire space cultures, which makes the whole problem seem so intangible. On the other hand: we have one mere human as the protagonist-detective. There is definitely a scaling problem.

While I did correctly guess the culprit based on the one vital clue, I have to admit that I didn't actually manage to make a logical reasoning based on that clue, as my err... mastery of a certain rather basic academic field isn't that good. I mean, I knew what the clue must have meant, and I could direct you to the pages that'd support my theory, but I couldn't academically prove it. I had to look it up on the all-knowing Internet later, but it appears that Anderson made two rather crucial mistakes in the one vital clue (See this Japanese source). Which make it unsolvable. I mean, you can solve if if you follow the logic as explained in the novel (or as the reader themselves deduced), but the clue itself, as written down in the book by Anderson, does not lead to the solution as explained by Donnan in the narrative. I'm not sure whether they are unfortunate typos, or 'real' mistakes, but at any rate, the two misses are very painful mistakes, especially they happen in what is basically the only tangible clue in the whole story. Mind you: I still wouldn't have been able to really solve it even without the mistakes, but obviously, the mistakes aren't going to help!

After Doomsday is not a masterpiece of science-fiction mystery by any means, but despite it flaws (and the vital mistakes), I do have to admit I had a few fun hours with it. I have the feeling that this book, with some minor changes, could've been much more than what it is now, so that is certainly a missed chance, but the mystery of the murdered Earth is really a memorable premise.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Cyber Sleuth

すべてハイになっちゃて 爆発 バトって(イェイ!イェイ!イェイ!イェイ!)

Everything becomes high and explodes in a boom (Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!) 
"Great! Turnabout!" (Kamen Joshi)

Riajuu is a word in Japanese internet slang meaning "someone with a fulfilling live in the real world". This usually means having a significant other/good job/many friends/etc, and is obviously the opposite from people who stay cooped up in their home all day staring at a screen or a book on their own. Of course, only people who are not riajuu themselves actually use the word, usually with a tone of irritation/jealousy. An often heard phrase for example is riajuu, bakuhatsu shiro (riajuu, blow up!), often jokingly aimed at couples.

In the world of Net High (Vita, 2015), internet society has blended completely with "real" society: the persona you take on on the internet and SNS like Tweeter is the one people actually perceive. The society has also become a class society revolving around riajuu. Your riajuu level is determined by the amount of followers you have on Tweeter. High ranking riajuu get all kinds of privileges, while people in Rank G can't even use public transport. If you have no followers at all, your Tweeter account becomes a zombie account, and you're stripped of all civilian privileges. Recently, a mysterious entity has introduced the concept of ENJ Battles in this world: if you can prove your opponent isn't the fabulous riajuu they claim to be, you can steal their followers (and go up in ranking yourself). One day, the lowest-of-the-low ranking protagonist witnesses how "That Girl", a person he admired, was utterly destroyed by ENJ Battles, and with the help of a special AI sidekick, he decides to participate in ENJ Battles himself to defeat all the riajuu who only think of getting higher in rankings, and to break up this twisted society.

This blog is focused on mystery fiction, and usually it's not difficult to determine what fits within the scope of the blog, or not, but there are the occassional posers. Net High, a videogame released late 2015 for the PS Vita, is one of them. From the summary above, I think few would associate it with mystery fiction. The outlines was that of a science fiction story, with a background in Japanese internet culture, right? Well, yes, but the problem lies with this question: what is mystery fiction? Note that I don't say crime fiction, because there are plently of mystery stories that don't feature crime. In the essence, I think mystery fiction needs to be about a mystery, and the (logical) road to solving that mystery. And with logical, I mean the road to solving the mystery must make sense within the universe of the work. And if we follow this line, Net High definitely does belong on this blog.

Net High is all about exposing the opponents for the frauds they are. The game features mechanics very close to the Ace Attorney series. During an ENJ battle, the opponent brags about how much of a riajuu they are. The protagonist (named "Me") on the other hand has to point out contradictions in the opponent's statements with the help of gossip he gathered before the battle. Like in Columbo, you start out with pointing out little mistakes, which eventually add up to something big. You say you don't eat the food of 'the common people'? But why is there a photograph of gyuudon on your Tweeter account? The final goal of each ENJ Battle is to reveal the True Identity of your opponent. As said above, in Net High everyone appears to other people in the form of the persona they have taken on online. However, by slowly making cracks in this image, you can eventually reveal their true nature. As you progress on the riajuu ranking, you also find out more about how this society came to be.

Mystery games not about solving murders are actually quite rare, and that's where Net High really shines, as it manages to present the player with a true mystery game experience, without any real 'crime' element. Net High is very easy, even after the patch they had to release to make the game slightly more difficut. Finding evidence and locating the contradictions in your opponents' brag-fests isn't difficult at all. But I really enjoyed the game. As a mystery about uncovering the true persona of your opponents, Net High is a really entertaining, and satisfying game and can thus be considered a true mystery game with a very original setting.
Nowdays, much of people's life occurs online and there have of course been many instances where not-so-nice people have used online information to get to a person in "real life". In Net High, you're the one doing this internet-sleuthing and while it first it might feel a bit stalker-y, the tone of the game luckily keeps it from going into too serious territories (most of the time, you will uncover a big, but fairly amusing secret). And like in Ace Attorney, part of the fun is watching how your opponents break down as they're being exposed.

For those interested in Japanese pop culture: this game is filled with internet references. Example: the ENJ Battles' presentation is based on NicoNico Douga's video player (the largest Japanese video sharing website), with comments 'floating' across the screen. And for those who are interested, but aren't well-versed in net-lingo yet: don't worry, most of the terms are explained through a sort of dictionary function. So those studying Japanese might even find the game handy as a sort of introducion to Japanese internet slang (and other pop culture references).

On the whole, Net High is not a particularly pretty game, or a game with a very memorable soundtrack. It's also a fairly simple game. But when the story and the characters are good, and the easy gameplay is still satisfying, well then, that's all that matters, right? Net High is a mystery game I really enjoyed, because of its original setting. What more do I need to say?

Original Japanese title(s): 『ネットハイ』

Friday, October 7, 2016

Over The Truth

It's time for my annual finally-it's-not-a-review post! I really should try doing more of these feature posts...

Longtime readers of this blog will have noticed that I am a big fan of puzzle plot mysteries. There's a reason why I keep mentioning writers like Queen and Arisugawa, and why I wrote a rambling piece on clues in mystery fiction. To me, mystery fiction is at its best when it's a game between the author and the reader, where the writer has laid out a logical problem for the reader to solve. Obviously, this challenge has to be fair. While I don't believe in either Knox' nor Van Dine's overly specific rules, I do think a puzzle plot mystery has to be fair: it must be possible for the reader to logically point out the solution of the problem in the story, be it a murder or something more innocent like a code. Note that it doesn't need to be realistic: only fair. Mysteries set in science fiction or fantasy settings can be as fair as mysteries set in hyperrealistic settings. Mystery fiction is at its most exciting when it goes beyond the in-universe story of a detective VS a criminal, and transcends to a meta-level duel between the author and the reader.

The win conditions for the author to this game are obvious. The author wins if the reader fails in solving the case correctly, provided that the story contained enough hints so it can be reasonably expected a reader could solve the problem. Revealing without any warning that Sally was in fact a ghost who could float through walls in a natural realistic story is probably not fair. If the story is set in a world where ghost do live, and we find a gravestone with Sally name's on it, then you could make the argument it might've been fair. Of course, 'fairness' is a very subjective thing. When can we say something was adequately hinted at? The author's job is of course to run awfully close along the line of [unsolvable] and [solvable]: it needs to be difficult enough that people believe they can solve it, but not be disappointingly easy. One of the things I heard at the Mystery Club made a big impression on me and it's still one of the things I keep in my head whenever I read a mystery story: It's easy to write an unsolvable mystery story that baffles the reader. It's difficult to write a solvable mystery that still entertains the reader.

If the reader failing in solving the case is the win condition for the author, it stands to reason that solving the mystery is the win condition for the reader. But that brings me to my main question today. What do we considering 'solving' the mystery? The Stereotypical Example: Suppose you're watching a whodunit mystery drama with a somebody, who says this at the beginning: "I bet you the butler did it. It's always the butler, and look at how suspicious he looks", and ninety minutes later, it is revealed it was indeed the butler, do you consider this solving the case? (Never mind the fact that a mystery drama with a guilty butler is actually quite rare) The main problem of a whodunit is right in its nomer. So can you say someone solved the mystery if they correctly identified the culprit? Too often have I seen people saying they solved a mystery not based on logical reasoning, but for 'meta' reasons. From 'you know he's the killer because he acts so nice' to 'you know she's the killer because it couldn't be that couple, and there's nobody left'. Is this solving a case?

No, of course not. If we consider the puzzle plot mystery a game of logic, guessing isn't going to be a correct answer (and don't forget the fact that most people like to forget about hindsight bias). Solving a puzzle plot mystery is like a (very limited) math test: there is a correct way to arrive at the solution, and the key is to have both the method and the solution. I'm pretty sure that you don't get full points at an exam if you just write down an answer, even if correct, on the answer sheet, if you get any points at all. I remember at the Mystery Club, we had whodunit games: participants were given the first part of a short whodunit story, up to a Challenge to the Reader, and you had one hour to read and solve it. If you thought you got it, you'd need to go to the writer of the story and explain the method through which you identified the culprit and eliminated the other suspects. So picking a suspect at random was never an option. You needed to identify the logical path the writer had laid out for you and reveal everything they had hidden in the story in order to 'win'. To me, this was the most game-like form of the puzzle plot mystery and I loved it.

But how much of the path must you have explored before you can really say you solved the mystery?  What if you only identified part of the hints the author laid out across the story? Would you say you solved the mystery? If a story features multiple fake solutions (each with their own proper chain of deductions leading to them), and you manage to deduce all of them, but stumble upon the final, true solution, how much of the mystery have you actually solved? A lot, or almost nothing? The win conditions for the reader will differ per reader, I guess, but I am curious as to what those conditions are. Are you easily satisfied with your own performance, or do you consider everything but perfection as absolute failure?

On a side note, what puzzles me also are people who comment about how they knew right away who the murderer was in series like Ace Attorney, which is in fact mostly influenced by Columbo and like Columbo, seldom a whodunit, but a howdunit. If the mystery never was about hiding the identity of the culprit, why bother solve it, I'd say...

To give two examples of 'solving a mystery' from The Decagon House Murders and The Moai Island Puzzle (Disclosure: I translated both novels): I didn't solve The Decagon House Murders. Guessing who it was, is actually not very difficult from a certain point on, because the pool of suspects has been thinned out near the end, but arriving ata a logical answer as to why X is the murderer is actually quite hard. Some might even say that it is impossible to logically arrive at the solution in this book, though I'd have to argue otherwise: it is actually possible to logically deduce who is very likely the murderer based on hints and facts (who knew what and when) scattered across the narrative: the thing is that this chain of logic is not explained in the novel itself. As for The Moai Island Puzzle, I guessed the identity of the murderer, and I also got a nice chunk of the (amazing) chain of reasoning that leads to that person, but I never felt like I solved the mystery, as it was just a guess + partial suspicions/loose bits of deductions.

Anyway, enough rambling for today. What do you 'solving the mystery' means, and do you actually try to do that when you consume mystery fiction? Obviously, there are more types of mysteries than whodunits, and most stories are actually a mix of several elements, so what is the percentage you need to 'solve' in order to win the game? Thoughts to bring along as I start reading a new (old) book.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rhythm and Police


"A train running on rails is better than a train not running at all"
"Kubikiri Cycle"

It's been like two or three months since I last wrote a review for the blog, but because of the posting schedule, you (dear reader) shouldn't have noticed that. Heck, it will take almost half a year before this post is actually published!

Ayukawa Tetsuya's Tsumiki no Tou ("A Tower of Blocks", 1966) starts with the death of a salesman in music records in a cafe. Given that a mysterious woman had lured the man to the cafe and had left him with a poisonous extra in his drink, it's not strange the police is very eager to hear what she has to say about the whole deal. The police initially have trouble locating the woman though, and when they do figure out who she is, they find out that this Tsuruko, who is a mistress of several men, has gone to Fukuoka for a few days of leisure. The police suspect Tsuruko might've run away, but then even more shocking news follows: her dead body was found next to the rails near Hiroshima, apparently thrown out of the train from her way back from Fukuoka to Shin-Osaka station (for a further connection back to Tokyo). Was she just robbed and murdered on the train? Or is her death somehow connected to the death of the salesman?

Ayukawa Tetsuya was a well-beloved mystery writer who specialized in 1) whodunnit stories and 2) alibi deconstructing stories. And like the other Ayukawa novels I've reviewed in the past, Tsumiki no Tou is an alibi deconstructing story starring Inspector Onitsura... set between Tokyo and Fukuoka. The latter is not a coincidence, nor representative of Ayukawa's work though, mind you. At least, I don't think so. Fukuoka (and the island of Kyuushuu) is often used as a setting in Ayukawa's work, probably because he spent some time there during World War II. But the more important reason is that I actually set out to find mystery novels set in Fukuoka, so my selection of Ayukawa stories is very skewed towards Fukuoka.

That said though, Tsumiki no Tou does resemble the other novels I reviewed a lot. They were all alibi deconstruction stories set between Tokyo and Fukuoka, and the tricks were all based on the actual time schedules for the trains at the time. The books all feature those time schedules, so readers could really figure out the alibi trick themselves, or even use them! Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen famously also featured a trick that could be done in real-life, though I think that was only possible for a short while (because of changing schedules). I think I already posed the question in a previous Ayukawa review, but I wonder how common it is to do alibi stories based on real time schedules?

Tsumiki no Tou is a pretty short novel, but the story has excellent pacing and the solution behind the main problem (how could the main suspect have commited the murder despite having a perfect alibi) is really neat. Ayukawa knew how to do the alibi deconstruction story, and Tsumiki no Tou is an excellent example. After presenting you with a seemingly good alibi, the story keeps feeding you possibilities that undermine that alibi, only to show that alibi is really rock solid. After a while you too start to think the deal is impossible, and it's then that Ayukawa shows the ingenious trick that lies behind the murder. It's this idea of offense and defence that marks a good alibi deconstruction story in my opinion, and Ayukawa obviously knows that. It also helps that the trick in Tsumiki no Tou is not overly complex, like in Kuroi Trunk. Tsumiki no Tou is definitely solvable, and quite satisfying.

I was less impressed by the way the story developed at times though. Too much of the development depended on coincidences of the witnesses. By which I mean, once every while the police would hit a stop, and then a witness would remember something crucial, or talk about something that would turn out to be important. This device can be used once or twice in a novel, but after four or five times, it feels rather forced. It's like a reverse Columbo-situation: just about the time the police is giving up, the witness stops them from leaving with a "One more thing...". It's even more jarring, because the detectives in Ayukawa's novels are actually all quite competent.

I was also charmed by the original motive. Obviously, I'm not going to write in detail about that here, but I don't think I've seen this kind of motive often, and it was also hinted at really well throughout the novel. Motive is not especially important in an alibi deconstruction story, but here it was a very nice bonus.

There's really nothing much I can say about Tsumiki no Tou. If you're looking for a good, solid alibi deconstruction story (that isn't too long), you have your winner here. I find it even more accessible than the previously reviewed Kuroi Trunk and Kuroi Hakuchou, so I'd even recommend this book over those if you haven't read any Ayukawa yet.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『積木の塔』

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Goodbye Despair

『ダンガンロンパ3 -The End of 希望ヶ峰学園-』

"Even if I don't have any talents, I still have hope."
"Danganronpa 3 - The End of Hope's Peak Academy"

I read a lot of mystery series (in any medium), but usually, I don't have to explain that much about the actual series in a review, as most of the time, I only need to explain the general setting and how they pertain to the work at hand. Today's review is really unique in that sense as it needs a lot of explanation.

The Hope Peak's Academy was once a school especially intended for pupils who excelled in their (very) specific fields. From Ultimate Gamers to Ultimate Otaku, Ultimate Cooks and Ultimate Nurses, only the best of the best were accepted at the school. The school turned into a symbol of hope because of its collection of students with a bright future ahead. But through the machinations of a certain individual, the home of hope turned into a birthplace of despair: a worldwide infection of despair spread out like a meme and led to anarchy, chaos and mindless killing among people. In Danganronpa, the last surviving class of Hope Peak's Academy was imprisoned in the school and forced to kill each other through a sadistic murder game, as a display of despair to the rest of the world. However, a group of students kept their faith with hope and made it out alive, taking out the great mastermind. The fight against despair wasn't over, as there were still people around who wanted to spread the chaotic, masochistic beliefs of despair, and the survivors of the class killing, led by Naegi, vowed to bring back hope to the world.

After the events of Super Danganronpa 2, Naegi is brought to the Future Foundation, the main organization that poses the Remnants of Despair. Due to his actions during Super Danganronpa 2, Naegi is suspected of having fallen to the dark, Despair side too, but the high-level meeting on Naegi's fate is cut short when Monokuma, symbol of Despair, shows himself again, and manages to seal off the Future Foundation, Naegi and his friends from the outside world. A new "game" is started with these participants, using a set of bracelets that can limit cerain actions of the participants (a poison is injected if you do perform the NG action). A traitor is hiding among the participants, and this person is killing the others one by one. Can the participants find out who the traitor among them is and escape this game? Meanwhile, it is revealed that the events that are happening right now find their ultimate root some time in the past, in the period before Ultimate Despair broke out. Past and future storylines cross paths as Danganronpa 3: The End of Kibougamine Gakuen ("Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy", 2016) makes its way to the end of the road. Will it be hope or despair that is waiting there?

The Danganronpa franchise started in 2010 with the first game released on the PSP, as an eclectic mix of Ace Attorney style mystery-solving, minor action and character-focused dating simulation elements, with a distinct, psycho-pop atmosphere. Its wacky energy, fueled by pop culture references and a unique visual style led to an unexpected hit. The game was followed by 2012 with Super Danganronpa 2, and other spin-off materials like Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls (2014; a Vita action/puzzle game set between the two main games), and novels like Danganronpa Zero (2011), that fleshed the world out. The anime TV series Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy (2016) forms the end of the storyline surrounding the students of Hope's Peak Academy, which started with the first game. The upcoming game New Danganronpa V3 (2017) in turn will feature a completely new cast and setting, seperate of the Hope's Peak Academy storyline.

And I am terribly sorry for all that exposition, but it is a necessary evil: by now I hope you will understand that Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy should only be watched by people who have already played the Danganronpa games. It is the proper finale to the series, and it won't stop to explain this or that to the viewer: it expects you to know all of that. While it is surprisig the ending of the Hope's Peak Academy storyline is not in the form of a video game (like Danganronpa and Siper Danganronpa 2) , the anime is still supervised by series creator Kodaka Kazutaka (who in his time as freelance writer also wrote the scenarios for several Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games and Detective Conan & Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo).

Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy is split up in two distinct series: Side: Future (twelve episodes) and Side: Despair (eleven episodes). Future is the storyline about the new 'killing game' that is going on at the Future Foundation (set after Super Danganronpa 2), while Despair is set in the past, telling the story about how Ultimate Despair came to be in the first place, using the main cast of Super Danganronpa 2 as the main perspective. While one series is set in the future, and the other in the past, you do need to watch them in the broadcast order, which is Future 1 → Despair 1 → Future 2 → Despair 2 → etc, because the series are written so the storylines intertwine, with either side offering more explanation about events on the other side (you'd be horribly spoiled if you'd watch either side completely first, and then the other side).

Future is where the main mystery is, as Naegi and the others look for a way to escape the killing game and find out who the last Remnant of Despair hiding among them is. As a mystery series, it's passable. The bracelets that limit the actions of the participants reminds of Battle Royale and are used in some interesting ways to control the participants, though the reason why they are used in the first place is a bit vague. The main problem is probably that the first half goes rather fast: Future features not only familiar faces from the earlier games, but also a sizable new cast, but you hardly get time to know them before they're killed off. Especially in a closed circle mystery, where part of the charm is that you want to be suspicious of everyone, it's important to give the viewer time to get to know everyone a bit, not to kill them off after one line of spoken dialogue. As for the mystery of who the Remnant of Despair is: I can sorta imagine people feeling unsatisfied by the motive behind everything, but the way the whole business is set-up is actually quite good for a visual mystery story. The hints that point to the how all make good use of the visual medium, and there's another thing that works really good in this series, which I will come back to later.

Around the midpoint, Future does become rather slow, with little side-stories here and there (and the series isn't long either: twelve episodes). This works partly, because the overall focus of the narrative of Danganronpa 3 switches over to the Despair side, but that does make the Future side drag a bit in comparison. I also think it was a shame that the Ultimate talents of each of the characters didn't really come into play anymore in this story: by now they're more like character traits, rather than part of the mystery, like early on in the franchise.

Despair is set in the past, and is not a mystery story, but something like a school comedy/drama gone horribly, HORRIBLY wrong. It addresses points that have been mentioned only briefly in the games, making an encompassing narrative that explains the events that lead directly to the first and second game in detail. It also provides some extra background to the new characters featured in Future. This is also the most 'spoiler-dangerous' series, as most of the mystery in the whole franchise arises because the player/viewer and the player-characters are not aware of the events that happened in Despair. I think Despair is best described as a Greek Tragedy. Because of the events in the games, you already know the conclusion this story is working to (it is not a hopeful one) and it leaves you with a rather heavy feeling at the end. It can also be very a visceral experience, as you'll be seeing events in rather nasty detail, which had  only been vaguely mentioned in the games.

What makes Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy on the whole an interesting project as a mystery anime is the way the Future and Despair narratives are interlinked. The mystery genre has always been about making sense of the present (i.e. "a murder") through a reconstruction of the past (i.e. "the investigation). Danganronpa 3 shows this in multiple ways: events in Future are for example explained in better detail by showing the past in the corresponding Despair episode. It 'cleans' up the narrative of Future, because they don't have to do constant flashbacks to explain everything (like you often seen with mystery drama), while Despair never suffers, but often really shines by revealing these unexpected pasts in every character. There's also some really clever hinting going in: some scenes in Despair (past) are very neat hints ncessary to solve what is going on in Future, though you are unlikely to notice them until it's too late. So while Despair itself is not a mystery narrative, it is without a doubt a crucial element to making the mystery of Future work. It kinda reminds of bibliomysteries, where a reading of a body of text leads to the solving of a mystery. I have never seen such a neatly constructed mystery using two simultanously developing storylines before though (usually with bibliomysteries, you'll have the main text being 'interrupted' by a smaller body of text), and I wonder whether Kodaka had originally intended this to be a game with a zapping mechanism, like Machi or 428, where you jump between different POVs and put information gained through one POV to use in another POV.

The Future and Despair episodes are followed by one final Hope episode, which really forms the conclusion of the Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy and the Hope's Peak Academy storyline started back in 2010 with the first game. It's a bit predictable, but as the series has always been very open about following the grand tropes of many genres, it doesn't really bother me.

Overall, I did enjoy Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy. It had a lot to do as the ending of a long storyline across several media, but it does a fairly good job at it, by providing answers and details on the past, by providing an admittedly at times somewhat odd final mystery that does thematically fit the other games set in the present, and by ending on a hopeful note. Perfect, it is not, but I for one can't help but be quite pleased with the way they did the dual narrative. It's been a long ride for me too: I originally learned of the series when it was first published in Japan back in 2010, but didn't get a chance to play it until 2012 and I have enjoyed the series quite a lot since then, also delving into the greater Danganronpa franchise. But with this, it's really farewell to the Academy of Despair and Hope. 

Original Japanese title(s): 『ダンガンロンパ3 -The End of 希望ヶ峰学園-』

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Truth Can Never Truly Die

"The dead shall speak. Let's put together the truth of what happened here.
"Trauma Team"

Trauma Center: Under The Knife (2005) was one of those quirky Nintendo DS games that really showed off the use of the dual touchscreen system (years before we all got our fingers attached to our smartphones). It was a medical simulation game, where you assumed the role of a surgeon and used the stylus on the touchscreen to perform surgery and fight off a bio-terrorist attack of superviruses. Calling the game a cult-hit might be going to far, but it had its share of fans, and became a series that was published on both Nintendo DS and the Wii. The series is known as Trauma Center in the English-language world, while in Japan, the series is known as Caduceus.

Trauma Team (2010), known in Japan as HOSPITAL - 6-nin no Ishi ("HOSPITAL - The Six Doctors") is the most recent entry in the series, released for the Wii. In the original game, you only played a surgeon, but as the title suggests, Trauma Team has you assuming the role of six different medical specialists working at the medical facility Resurgam First Care. Prisoner CR-201 (Surgery), Maria Torres (First Response), Hank Freebird (Orthopedics), Tomoe Tachibana (Endoscopy), Gabriel Cunningham (Diagnosis) and Naomi Kirishima (Forensics) each have their own storylines, which occassionaly intertwine with the others (a patient Gabriel diagnoses might be sent to Surgery, for example). As each of the stories develops, the specalists all notice that a medical threat is looming and they need to work together to fight off a new and aggressive virus.

To make it clear right away: this is mostly an action game, where you use the motion controls of the Wii to simulate medical operations. For example, in Surgery you'll be cutting people open to remove tumors, while in Endoscopy you'll be shoving down a cable down a patient's throat to check out lungs and other organs. These parts are not as difficult as the original Trauma Center (luckily!), but it's still nothing at all like the mystery adventure games I usually review here. So why a review? Well, while most specialists don't really belong here, Diagnosis and Forensics are actually pretty much mystery adventures on their own, and really deserve a special mention. As such, this review will only focus on these two specalisms and not the game as a whole. So I'm only looking at the game as a mystery game.

The field of forensics is of course obviously very closely linked to mystery games. In this part, you play as Naomi Kirishima (a protagonist from earlier games), who is given the job of solving unsolved cases. This usually means you need to investigate corpses and other material for clues. You also get the chance to go out to the crime scene and gather evidence there with gear like luminol (bloodtest) and fingerprinting tests. The usual CSI-stuff. Your investigations give you clue cards, and you can combine clue cards with each other to generate new clues (deduction). For example: an Exit Wound and an Entry Wound combined together result in the Trajectory of the Weapon. Combine all the clues together and arrive at the truth. A simple, but effective way to structure a mystery game.

While the gameplay in Forensics isn't particularly original (every other mystery game uses a variation of the clue card system), it's done quite well here, even if it's not really difficult. Of course, Forensics is only a part of the larger game that is Trauma Team, so of course you shouldn't expect a supecomplex mystery plot from it. Still, the game has you investigate a wide variety of crimes with just enough surprises in each of the episodes to keep it from becoming stale.

It's Diagnosis that's actually surprisingly original though. In fact, I think a lot of people won't even associate it with the mystery genre immediately. As Gabriel Cunningham, you need to find out what your patient is suffering from. You have several options to gather your 'medical clues' (symptoms): from simply asking your patient what is wrong with them, to making visual observations and doing various medical tests (like bloodtests and MRI scans). During your diagnosis session, the situation of your patient occassionally changes, making it necessary for you to adjust your diagnosis.

So how is this a mystery game? Well, like I wrote in this post on clues, a lot of mystery novels have you determine the identity of the murderer by first figuring out the characteristics the murderer must have, and then comparing those to the characteristics of all the suspects. You actually do something similar here. After a preliminary diagnosis, you're give a list of possible diseases the patient may be suffering from, and it's then when the sleuthing begins. You need to read through the details (symptoms) of each of the deseases and compare them to what you found. Sometimes you have multiple candidates for your 'culprit'. You'll be making additional tests then, for example brain scans or bloodtests, to determine the exact identity of the disease that the patient is suffering from. This way of working is a lot like the method of clueing I wrote about, and in fact, I think this is one of the few games that actually present its mystery-solving process as such. Which is quite unique, as Trauma Team isn't really a specialized mystery game. It has a bit of a House-vibe to it, but I really think that the Diagnosis part of Trauma Team, where you hunt for the identity of not human criminals, but the identity of diseases, is one of the more original mystery games I've played in recent years.

For people who aren't good with action games, I can't really recommend Trauma Team though. Forensics and Diagnosis are just a part of the game, and you need to complete the stories of all specialists to unlock the second half of the story for everyone. The game is not as difficult as previous entries in the series (in fact, it's a lot easier), but still, trying to stabilize four patients in First Care can be quite stressful if you're not used to motion-controlled action games that also require precision.

That said though, I do think Trauma Team might actually be one of the best mystery games on the Wii, even if it's only partly a mystery game. I enjoyed the game as a whole, so if you're interested in a bit of medical simulation with an interesting approach to mystery games, try it out.

Original Japanese title(s): 『HOSPITAL  6人の医師』