Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Mystery of the Blue Train

“Yes, yes, I know. Life is like a train, Mademoiselle. It goes on. And it is a good thing that that is so.” 
"The Mystery of the Blue Train"

It's always weird reading books with complex and intricate alibi tricks that involve the railway, when you're actually waiting on the platform for a train that's ten minutes late already...

The discovery of the body of an attractive woman in the Tama River in Tokyo appeared to be nothing more than usual business for inspector Totsugawa and his team at first, until they find a reporter who swears the victim was with him on the Hayabusa last night. The Hayabusa is a Limited Express with sleeping carriages, departing from Tokyo and arriving at Kumamoto on the other side of the country the following day. Until both trains stopped their services in 2009, the Hayabusa and its sister train Fuji were both colloquially referred to as the Blue Trains, as a reference to their characteristic blue carriages, as well as one to the famous Le Train Blue. The travel reporter had been on the Hayabusa to write an article about the trip to Kumamoto and he is sure one of his fellow passengers in the private compartment carriage had been the victim. But if she had indeed been on the Blue Train to Kumamoto as the reporter says, she could never have made it back to Tokyo to be fished out of the river as a corpse the following morning. Inspector Totsugawa however has to move carefully in this case, as the discovery of the private business card of the current Minister of Transport in the victim's purse links her to a daring caper that happened several years ago, a case in which the culprits used that very business card to scam a bank out of funds. A long and puzzling case awaits Totsugawa in Nishimura Kyoutarou's Blue Train Satsujin Jiken ("The Blue Train Murder Case"、1978).

Nishimura Kyoutarou is an immensely pro-active mystery writer who since his 1970 debut has written nearly 600 novels, most of them in the so-called "travel mystery" subgenre, which focuses on traveling, tourism and means of transport. The subgenre has elements of the Croftian school, as it often involves alibi tricks using trains, airplanes and other means of transport, but also celebrates "the country": stories are often set across various areas in Japan, and so they also include a touristic element, as each book allows the reader to travel to a place faraway. Nishimura's most famous creation is Inspector Totsugawa, who made his debut in 1973. Nowadays everybody associates Nishimura with Inspector Totsugawa and his railway mysteries, but it was actually's 1978's Blue Train Satsujin Jiken that started it all, as it is seen as the very first of Nishimura's travel mysteries.

That said though, you wouldn't have guessed from the writing, as Blue Train Satsujin Jiken starts off really captivating, as it manages to paint an interesting portrait of the titular Blue Train Hayabusa and its image in the public's eye. There is a certain romantic image to trains, especially sleeper expresses, and descriptions of the children going out to take pictures of the Blue Train are certainly not a creation of Nishimura's imagination, but something that is grabbed from real life and it's parts like these that really help give the Blue Train a firm place in this tale. The opening chapters also do a great job at inviting the reader to the mystery of a woman who may or may not have disappeared from a sleeper coach only to re-appear on the other side of the country and an enigmatic assault on the reporter on the train.

Like the novels by Crofts and Ayukawa, we follow Inspector Totsugawa as he leads his team during the investigation. And indeed, like in the novels of those two writers, it's not just Totsugawa who has his moments throughout the story. Totsugawa's whole team is of importance, and he'll often remain in headquarters, while his men and women do all the footwork and follow up on their clues. It's here where we really feel the "travel mystery" element of the book. Totsugawa himself for example travels all the way to Fukuoka (Hakata) to investigate the Blue Train early in the book, while later in the book one of his subordinates actually travels on the Blue Train, seeing all the different sights, while another subordinate is investigating in a different part of the country alongside the route. We follow the team as they travel across Japan, giving you an amusing look at the country. Domestic tourism was of course already present in Japan, and with travel standards slowly raising in the post-war period, this focus on travel was well-received, as affordability, comfort and speed were all improving.

It is in the latter half of the book things start to fall apart though. Well, 'fall apart' might be worded too harsh, but the plot definitely looses steam, as it appears Nishimura appears to have problems giving a good explanation to the otherwise promising premise. Reasons he gives for why things happened the way they happened appear sound at first sight, but even a slightly closer look quickly reveals that doing those things doesn't really make sense. As it is now, the plot feels very artificial, as the actions of the characters only served to create the initial disappearance, rather than that characters were taking logical actions in regards to their own agendas. The thing becomes too complex, with the only reason being that those events need to happen so the initial mystery premise can become true. There is actually some really clever clewing going on, but a lot of that is overshadowed by the arbitrary manner in which the mystery is revolved.

The puzzle-plot driven mystery story is of course always a fairly artificial construct, but it's up to the writer to at least give a logical reason for the actors in the story to do the things they do. In this novel, it's not utterly unbelievable, but it sure looks like there were tons of ways to do things in a simpler and less conspicuous manner.

What I did really like about this novel, and a lot of railway mysteries in general actually, is that it's all based on real timetables. There's just something magical about mysteries that make use of the actual schedules of trains, and the land they traverse through. The Blue Trains as described in this novel don't exist in their original form anymore, sadly enough, so train aficionados might find some comfort in reading about those trains of the past in novels like these.

Blue Train Satsujin Jiken in general is an okay novel on average, with a great first half, but a less impressive second half. It's certainly entertaining on the whole and one can easily imagine how Nishimura found his groove and his audience with this first travel mystery novel, despite its shortcomings. A lot of Nishimura's later works feel very similar and not very inspiring actually, with trainy train plots with simple mystery plots barely worth writing about, but Blue Train Satsujin Jiken, as one of his (relatively) early works is a moderately amusing classically constructed puzzle plot mysteries of some quality, like many of Nishimura other early works.

Original Japanse title(s): 西村京太郎 『寝台特急(ブルートレイン)殺人事件』

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Witch's Ghost

I'm a Hex Girl
And I'm gonna put a spell on you
"Hex Girl" (The Hex Girls)

My reading skills improved a lot after I went to study in Japan the first time, and it can feel a bit strange going through the books I had read before my time in Japan again now. It probably took me quite some time (together with a dictionary) to read today's topic the first time, but now I can blaze through the same book within an evening....

Japan had closed itself off from most foreign relations between the early seventeenth century and latter half of the nineteenth century (Sakoku), with China and the Netherlands being some of the exceptions. Ejinbara was one of the first harbors that allowed access to foreign ships in the nineteenth century, and thus grew out to be a home away from home for foreigners, and one could sense this 'foreignness' throughout Ejinbara, because not only was the town filled with Western-style buildings and paved streets, it was actually also one of the first places in Japan to have 'modern' facilities like underground waterworks and electricity. The classic look of the town is kept well-preserved, making it a popular tourist destination. The famous Sleeping Detective Mouri Kogorou takes Ran, Conan, Doctor Agasa and the Detective Boys out for a trip to Ejinbara (as thanks for their help in an earlier case). The group has only just arrived in Ejinbara when Conan and Kogorou save a lawyer from being stabbed to death by a mysterious, robed figure. The laywer explains he received a threatening letter signed by The Witch of Ejinbara. The Witch of Ejinbara was also the nickname of a woman who sold medicinal herbs in Ejinbara for almost a century, but who recently died. It appears the author of the letter is after the people named in her will. Kogorou waves it away as a bad prank at first, but when one of people who is to inherit is found drowned to death inside a room with no waterworks, nor any other openings save for the door which was locked from the inside, the people of Ejinbara itself start to fear something supernatural might be behind all this in Taira Takahisa's Meitantei Conan - Ejinbara no Witch ("The Witch of Ejinbara", 2008).

The Detective Conan franchise is quite extensive, ranging from the original comics to an animated TV series, annual theatrical releases, videogames and much more, so the fact that there are also novels based on the series shouldn't surprise anyone. Especially not as I already reviewed one of them in the past. There are three original Detective Conan novels: two of them were written between 2005 and 2006 by Tani Yutaka, an assistant of Detective Conan creator Aoyama Goushou. Ejinbara no Witch followed in 2008 and was written by Taira Takahisa, who is mostly known as a scenario writer for the Detective Conan Special spin-off comic series (a series of short stories mostly written and drawn by Aoyama's assistants), as well as other series as Golgo 13. There is also a further series of Detective Conan novels, but these are not original stories, but novelizations of episodes and specials of the various Detective Conan live action series (Taira wrote those novels too by the way). Enjinbara no Witch thus remains the last original Detective Conan novel for the moment.

This was a re-read for me, but I have to admit I was quite surprised how good it still was! Granted, the main reading audience for this novel is children/YA, so the novel is quite short, but like Gyakuten Idol (an original children's novel based on an existing game series), Ejinbara no Witch presents an original novel that feels like it could've been part of the main series. Sure, this is also true for the first Detective Conan novel, but that one belonged in the group of "Oh man, another of the Detective Boys treasure hunt stories?". With Ejinbara no Witch on the other hand, it is easy to imagine how this could've worked out as one of the better six chapter story in the comics.

The setting is definitely what sells this story. The fictional Ejinbara, which kinda sounds like Edinburgh, is a great location, reminiscent of some of the real Japanese locations that feature Western and other foreign architectural designs from over a century ago, like Nagasaki (full of Western/Dutch buildings) or the Chinatown in Yokohama (argubly the best known Chinatown in Japan). If you're somewhat familiar with these popular tourist destinations in Japan, I think you have a pretty good idea of how Ejinbara looks like. It's a type of setting you sometimes see in Detective Conan, like in Detective Conan: Phantom of Baker Street or Detective Conan: Phantom Rhapsody.

The setting is also put to good use for the mystery plot itself. The first impossible murder is pretty normal, but it's also followed by an impossible bombing inside a room of an old, authentically preserved hotel (the room was of course locked from the inside) and even one inside an old-fashioned phone box. The same basic trick is used for all three murders, which might be slightly disappointing as once you solve one of them, you'll have solved all of them, but in terms of how the plot is structured and how the clues are laid out, this is more than an okay story. The story also makes use of the witch backstory. Witches also exist in Japanese folklore, but the witch from this novel is obviously a "Western" witch, and with references to ladies familiar with herbs being branded as witches in witch trials, you can probably guess how the people of Ejinbara will react as the murders continue.

The book also includes a couple of illustrations by Abe Yutaka: he is a mangaka who has also worked on the Detective Conan Special spin-off series as an artist and who apparently has been friends with Aoyama for a long time (both Aoyama and Abe have drawn manga with characters named after the other). Abe Yutaka's name for example might sound familar to the most fanatic of Conan readers: Aoyama used that exact name for a character in one of his earliest stories. The art is quite good actually; you can tell it's not Aoyama's own art, but it definitely has a good vibe to it.

So Ejinbara no Witch is a more than decent original novel based on the Detective Conan franchise, and also easily the best of the three original novels. The novel is obviously aimed at a younger reading audience, so it's not a long, nor difficult book, but it reads as a good Conan story and that's all I want from it.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌(原)、平良隆久(小説)、阿部ゆたか(絵) 『名探偵コナン 江神原の魔女(ウィッチ)』

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Identity Crisis

「このカクテルの名はXYZ―つまりもう後がないということさ」
『シティーハンター』

"The name of this cocktail is XYZ... In other words, the end of the line."
"City Hunter"

I adore the covers for Yokomizo Seishi's novels for publisher Kadokawa. They were all done by Sugimoto Ichibun, and really capture the creepy atmosphere often found in Yokomizo's novels. Though to be honest, today's book wasn't that creepy.

Mikoshiba Susumu might still be young, but he has already made a name for himself as the "Detective Kid", for his help in solving various crimes. When he's not out solving crimes though, our Detective Kid also has earn a living (as he lives alone with his older sister), which he does at a local newspaper as an assistant. However, he often finds himself on the trail of crime while doing his odd jobs for the newspaper, and many of these cases involve Phantom Thief X・Y・Z, a notorious gentleman-thief and expert in disguise whose only virtue is that he has never taken a life during the execution of his crimes. See how the Detective Kid fares against X・Y・Z in the three stories collected in Yokomizo Seishi's Kaitou X・Y・Z ("Phantom Thief X・Y・Z", 1984).

Yokomizo Seishi is of course best known for his Kindaichi Kousuke series, arguably the quintessential fictional Japanese detective, as Kindaichi, who is always dressed in a hakama, goes around solving crimes especially in rural postwar Japan, within small communities where old traditions still reign. Yokomizo started out as an editor for no-one less as Edogawa Rampo before World War II, and he had also written some mystery stories himself, but he really made it big right after the war with the phenomenal Honjin Satsujin Jiken, the first novel starring Kindaichi Kousuke, and he'd mostly stick with writing Kindaichi afterwards, which feature bloody murders and horrifying scenes.

Kaitou X・Y・Z however is interestingly a juvenile mystery. The three stories collected in this volume were originally published in 1960~1961 and are only a small selection from the Mikoshiba Susumu/Detective Kid stories. The comparison with Edogawa Rampo's Shounen Tantei Dan is one which presents itself immediately of course. Rampo's iconic series was also a juvenile mystery novel series, starring a young detective solving cases involving a phantom thief obviously inspired by Arsène Lupin. In reality though, the comparison stops here, as Rampo and Yokomizo do very different things with this premise.

The most important difference is that in Rampo's series, the Fiend with Twenty Faces is really an evil person. Sure, he doesn't like to kill, but he's still a rather dastardly thief who is clearly the nemesis of both young detective Kobayashi and his mentor the great detective Akechi Kogorou. He has to be evil, because we know from other novels that Akechi and Kobayashi are good. Yokomizo's Phantom Thief X・Y・Z on the other hand is very much modeled after Arsène Lupin, the gentleman-thief. In his appearances in the stories featured in this book, X・Y・Z actually does very little crime. The stories are told from the point of view of Mikoshiba Susumu/Detective Kid, so he always looks at X・Y・Z as his enemy, but X・Y・Z actually helps the Detective Kid a lot during his investigations, as X・Y・Z is never the true culprit behind the story. The result is actually very odd. X・Y・Z acts like Arsène Lupin, as a true hero character helping others while doing some light crimes, but as the story is told from the Detective Kid's point, the narrative is always saying what an evil thief he is, even though he just totally saved Detective Kid's life and all. X・Y・Z is a very sympathetic character, but for some reason he's not made the protagonist. And by the way, the Detective Kid is okay, but certainly not a brilliant detective. The true hero of these tales is definitely X・Y・Z. In Rampo's stories, Akechi served as the 'safety net' and responsible adult who would take care of Kobayashi if things got too dangerous, but in these stories, it's actually X・Y・Z himself who plays the same role in regards to the Detective Kid, as they (unknowingly to the Detective Kid) work together to find the real culprits.

I'm not going to discuss the three stories in this volume in detail, as they are quite simple in set-up and execution.  All three stories, Kieta Kaitou ("The Disappearing Phantom Thief"), Nazo no Juuendama ("The Mysterious 10 Yen Coin") and Daikinkai ("Gold Bullions") basically follow the same structure: The Detective Kid is sent on some assignment by his newspaper, he comes across some murder, finds a clue that proves X・Y・Z is involved, X・Y・Z helps the Detective Kid a couple of times on the way with or withous his knowledge, and finally the murderer is caught. I guess some of the premises are interesting, like Nazo no Juuendama starting with a scene with somebody trying very hard to obtain a ten yen coin in the possession of the Detective Kid (something like an everyday life mystery), but even as juvenile mysteries, I'd say these stories are rather simple.

Interesting is the world of the Detective Kid though. The Detective Kid is working at the same newspaper as Mitsugi Shunsuke, a journalist whom I first met as the assistant of Yuri Rintarou, another detective created by Yokomizo Seishi. Mitsugi is featured in all the three stories, helping the Detective Kid in his investigations (and also acts his boss, as the Detective Kid is supposed to be his assistant). Another familiar face who appears in all three stories is Inspector Todoroki, who often cooperates with Kindaichi Kousuke in his investigations. So it's here where we see that there is actually a kind of Yokomizo World, where characters like Kindaichi Kousuke, Yuri Rintarou, Mitsugi Shunsuke, the Detective Kid and X・Y・Z all live together. I hope someday, there'll be a drama not only of Kindaichi Kousuke, but of this whole extended Yokomizo World.

Anyway, as a juvenile mystery, Kaitou X・Y・Z is nothing special, to be honest. The three stories are very simple, and also a bit confusing as the true hero of the stories is portrayed (clumsily) as an antagonist. As a note in Yokomizo Seishi's bibliograpy though, I do find this an interesting read, both as the notion of a juvenile mystery written by someone I really do not associate with the genre, as well as a work that connects the worlds of different series by Yokomizo together. Try it if you're very interested in Yokomizo's work.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史 『怪盗X・Y・Z』: 「消えた怪盗」 / 「なぞの十円玉」 / 「大金塊 」

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Moonlight Madness

「お お か み が く る ぞ  !!」
『レイジングループ』

"The wolves are coming!"
"Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P"

It's been a good year in terms of gaming for me, I noticed. I seldom play the newest releases right away, so I do have the luxury to carefully pick the games I want to play in any given year, which could be a new game but also one from twenty years earlier, but this year has been surprisingly good, with basically no real duds.

Fusaishi Haruaki finds himself riding around aimlessly on his motorcycle after a break-up with his girlfriend, until he realizes he has absolutely no idea where he is even though it's very late at night, in the middle of rural, mountainous Japan. He tries to make his way to the nearest town, but crashes on one of those small mountain paths. He is found by the girl Chiemi near a river, and she decides to bring the new visitor to her home: Yasumizu Village, hidden deep within the forests of the mountain. Yasumizu is a tiny and incredibly poor farming/hunting community with barely ten inhabitants, ruled by the belief in the mountain deity Shinnai. Yasumizu is controlled by the more prosperous Fujiyoshi Town on the other side of the mountain, which occasionally uses Yasumizu as a 'trash can', as sometimes 'unneccesary' people from Fujiyoshi find themselves banned to Yasumizu. The people of Yasumizu therefore stick with each other and dislike outsiders, so Fusaishi's plans are to fix his motorcycle and leave again, but it seems the mountain has other plans for him, as a sudden thick mist consumes the whole of Yasumizu, and it is only then that he learns about an ancient legend passed down here in Yasumizu, and the horrifying ceremony related to that. Here in the mountains, the people believe that whenever Yasumizu is enveloped by mist, a number of werewolves from the underworld are revived who will disguise themselves as one of the villagers of Yasumizu. Each night they will kill one villager, until they have wiped out the whole of Yasumizu in revenge for what the villagers did to them many centuries ago. In order to fight these werewolves, the mountain deity allows the villagers to execute one villager (a person whom they suspect is a werewolf) every day. The werewolves will win when they have killed all the humans, while the humans win if they manage to execute all the werewolves.

At first, Fusaishi thinks it's all just religious nonsense, and can't believe people will just starting killing each other because of the mist, but already after the first night he finds that someone has been eliminated in a seemingly supernatural manner for violating the mountain rules, and he is witness to how the whole village slowly starts to take the deadly werewolf game seriously, with both the humans and werewolves killing persons every day and night. But Fusaishi has one big advantage over the others: he mysteriously gained the powers to 'rewind' to the beginning of all this with all of his memories intact whenever he dies. This allows him to learn from each experience and make new choices to change his own future. Making use of these time-loops Fusaishi needs to survive the lunatic werewolf game and find out why this supernatural ceremony exists in the first place in the videogame Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P (2015).


Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P is a horror-mystery videogame developed by Kemco and Dwango, and originally released on iOS and Android in 2015, and later ported to other devices like PS4, Vita and Switch. I hadn't heard about this game until a few months ago, when it ranked into Japanese game magazine's Famitsu's fan-voted popularity poll for adventure games. Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P was standing very bravely next to giants in the mystery adventure genre like the Kamaitachi no Yoru series, Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series and the Danganronpa series, so you can guess why my interests were piqued. The theme was also quite alluring: While I myself have never played the Werewolves game myself, I am quite aware of the popularity of the role-playing party game (which is also known as Mafia) and its ties with the mystery genre, so a mystery game which would use the Werewolves game as a motif was basically an instant-buy for me. From what I know, Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P has most of common ideas from the party game: a number of werewolves have infiltrated among the participants of the game, with the werewolves killing one of the human participants each night, while the humans (among them also the undercover werewolves) voting on persons whom they suspect are werewolves in order to execute them during the day. In most Werewolves games, there are also special human characters with powers to help the humans (like being able to check the true identity of one person each night), and this is also replicated in Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P..


Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P is a novel adventure game, which is basically a digital Choose-Your-Own-Adventure: most of the game is a lineair experience like a old-fashioned novel, but once every while the player themselves need to make a choice about what to do, and these choices influence the further outcome of the story. You might for example be given the choice to ask a certain question to someone, which could give you new information, or perhaps agitate someone enough for them to kill you. In ye olde days of actual paper Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, making choices also meant flipping through the pages a lot, as each choice would bring you to another page, but all of this hassle is of course streamlined in videogames, allowing for complex branching storylines but with a simple interface (usually, like in this case, in the form of a flowchart that shows exactly the result of each single choice). Rei-Jin-Gu-Lu-P however adds something interesting to the formula. Fusaishi gains the ability to be 'rewound' to the start of his ordeal every time he dies, with the preservation of all of his memories, which allows him to make choices at times he couldn't at first. For example, according to the rules of the mountain deity Shinnai, each and every night all villagers must cleanse their bodies, remain in their own dwellings locked from the inside, and go to bed early while the mist lasts. The first time Fusaishi dies is when he goes wandering outside during the night, where he is killed by a werewolf-like being. Thanks to his powers of rewinding though, he 'learns' the lesson of obeying the rules he thought nonsense, this time giving him the choice to go outside at night again, and the new option of remaining inside. In Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P it's thus often necessary to die on purpose, in order to learn new information that you can take back with you in time to avoid the same death a second time. Exploring all the choices and their outcomes, even if you know you might die, is a cornerstone of this game, as even death can be helpful for later rewinds.


Most of the story however is presented in a lineair fashion, and what you get is a very suspenseful mystery tale. Early on in the story, Fusaishi remarks that the werewolves ceremony is basically a strategic communication game, and that's precisely what it is. The villagers are randomly assigned their roles as humans/humans with special abilities/werewolves, and during the day, all the villagers must discuss together who they think is the most likely to be a werewolf. Some people might be suspected of being a werewolf because they appear to be acting differently from usual for example, while the way one person is trying to cast suspicion on someone else might be suspect on its own, as the werewolves among them are obviously trying to steer the discussion in a way as to kill of a human and not one of their own. And of course, there's the majority who at first doesnt' believe in werewolves, but are slowly but surely pushed in a position where they finally have accept they'll have to kill themselves or be killed. Add in the creepy background of the mountain forests and misty Yasumizu Village and you have an excellent closed circle mystery tale, with a good dash of supernatural elements for flavor. The supernatural elements are mostly about providing a background to keep the game fair for both the werewolves and the humans. They are what we'd call "rules" in the party game version of Werewolves and the supernatural only interferes with the pure logical/realistic side of the game if someone violates the rules.(i.e. the werewolves are only allowed to kill one person in the night, and are punished for that if they don't obey the rules). So at the core, the werewolves game is a purely fair whodunnit game, of humans trying to figure out who the werewolves are based on both psychological and physical clues. What is interesting is that Fusaishi, due to his rewinding powers, actually manages to change the game drastically several times. The roles of humans/werewolves are distributed randomly once the mist hits Yasumizu Village, but thanks to Fusaishi's rewinding shenanigans, the identity of the werewolves and humans are changed a couple of times. A person who is revealed to be a werewolf in Fusaishi's first loop might turn out to be a human in the second loop, and vice-versa. It's through these various 'versions' of the story that the player learns more about the various characters, as they all show different sides to the player through subsequent loops. But no matter who's who in the current loop, Fusaishi's goal remains the same: surviving the game and figuring out why this game exists in the first place.


While the background story of the revived werewolves and the mountain deity Shinnai are obviously fiction, I have to commend how fleshed out the religious side to the tale is. It borrows a lot from actual indigeneous Japanese nature religions and mythology, but also includes the anthropological side to religion. For example, a lot of attention is paid to the system of "adapting" older gods and deities into newer religions, which is a practice that has happened often in the history of Japanese religion. In a faraway past, I took several semesters on Japanese religion, and especially on how for example religions like Buddhism or state-led Shinto 'absorbed' other religions to gain legitimacy, and that's exactly one of the bigger topics mentioned in Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P. I think readers of writers like Kyougoku Natsuhiko and Mori Hiroshi will have a blast with the background story of this game, as it is fleshed out really well, with many ties to how religions actually developed in Japan.

It is therefore such a shame the last loop/scenario, which explains everything about the werewolf ceremony and the reason why Fusaishi is able to rewind in time is rather disappointing. Up until the last loop, the game did an excellent job at both using the above mentioned supernatural/religious elements in conjunction with the more realistic, anthropological explanation to underlying religious elements, but in the last loop, they are used in basically the least interesting manner possible.The ending basically tries to be both supernatural and realistic/logical, which can certainly be done, but the way it's done in Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P feels rather like an easy way out, resulting in something that never feels as satisfying an experience like earlier loops. What I do have to admit is how smart the clewing was in regards to the identity of the true mastermind behind everything. The hinting was really clever and subtle, but oh-so-obvious in hindsight.

Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P does add a very innovative feature after you beat the game, and it's something I have never ever seen done in mystery fiction before. In the Exposed Mode, you can replay the game from the start, but new lines of dialogues and inner monologue are added for all characters, not only protagonist Fusaishi. This means you can see what happened at a certain location while Fusashi wasn't around, but also what other characters (including the werewolves!) were thinking at certain points in the story. It gives a lot of insight in all the characters, showing things from their POV. In mystery fiction, you sometimes see something similar when the culprit has revealed their true colors, explaining what they were doing and/or thinking in earlier scenes, but in Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P's Exposed Mode, you get to see additions to practially every single scene, as well as for almost all characters. It's also a great way to explain some of the smaller questions about character motivation and events that happened throughout Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P, without slowing down the main story. I wish more story-based games had a mode like this! The whole game has voice acting for all the dialogue and inner monologue lines by the way, and that includes the Exposed Mode. I didn't like the voice actor of protagonist Fusaishi at all though, and his character (personality) was also far from my favorite, but the story itself, as well as the other characters were enough to get me hooked.

So all in all I did really enjoy Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P despite a somewhat disappointing ending. While it does not allow much room for the player to deduce much themselves (unlike for example Kamaitachi no Yoru, which was also a novel game), the story presented is a fantastic gripping tale that smartly utilized the rules of the Werewolves party game with a very richly thought-out background story revolving around the mountain deity Shinnai and other supernatural elements. It is a story where one can get really immersed in thanks to the gripping atmosphere and dramatic developments and it's certainly become one of the more interesting adventure games I've played this year. Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P apparently also has some links to another adventure by the same developers titled DMLC: Death Match Love Comedy, which I might try out in the future (as far as I know it's not a mystery game though, so it won't be discussed here probably).

Original Japanese title(s): 『レイジングループ』

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Vanishing Magician

月夜の悪戯の魔法 君は月影に囚われ
新月 闇に潜むように 君の輪郭が見えない
「月夜の悪戯の魔法」(Breakerz)
 
Mischievous magic on this moonlit night / You are captive of the moon's shadow
You can't be seen / As if you're hiding in the darkness of a new moon
"Mischievous magic on this moonlit night" (Breakerz)

Stage magic and the mystery genre have a lot in common of course. Both revolve around fooling the onlooker. It's all about misdirection, about making people think something has happened (something impossible at times even), even though the truth is something completely different. The key difference between the two is of course how it ends: stage magic is all about keeping up the illusion, while a mystery story cannot be complete without revealing how the illusion was created. But as there are close ties between the two, it's no surprise that there are many mystery stories that are about stage magic, from murders committed during a show to stories with impossible murders where every suspect is a magician.

Awasaka Tsumao (1933-2009) is usually mentioned on this blog because he was a very brilliant author of short stories featuring impossible situations and other baffling crimes. His A Aiichirou series for example feature some of Japan's best short stories, and one read of them is enough to understand why Awasaka was also sometimes refered to as the "Japanese Chesterton", as their wonderfully imaginative, yet ultimately simple set-ups remind very much of Father Brown's adventures. But Awasaka was also known as a stage illusionist, and his love for stage magic can also be seen in his mystery work. His Magician Detective Soga Kajou series for example featured, as the title suggest, a magician who also detected, and many of the stories revolved around magic tricks.

It should therefore not be a surprise when I tell you that Awasaka's very first novel published, 11 Mai no Trump ("The Eleven Cards", 1976), featured magicians extensively. It's been exactly twenty years since the Majiki Community Center opened, and three local clubs are to perform in the venue to celebrate the Center's role in the community. The program opens with a magic show by the Majiki Club, followed by a children's ballet performance and finally a puppet theater show. Little goes exactly as planned with the magic show of the Majiki Club. This was to be expected perhaps, as stage experience was something very few of the amateur magicians in the club had, but still, dying pigeons and children ruining tricks were obviously not something any of the magicians had expected. But even with everything going on both onstage and backstage (they also have to do all the spotlights/music/etcetera themselves), the Majiki Club manages to get to the end of the show mainly unscathed. Or did they? The fact that one of their female members, Shimako, didn't appear for the finale performance of the whole club was odd, but they figured something very urgent had come up.  It was the police however, accompanied by another of the Majiki Club members who usually works as a police doctor, who brought the bad news: Shimako had been murdered during the magic show in her own apartment room. And the strange thing is: her body was surrounded by several broken objects, including a broken phone, a dead bird, a perfume bottle... Everybody in the club is shocked, as they realized all these 'broken' objects, including Shimako herself, were the main props in The Eleven Cards, a short story collection written by the head of the Majiki Club, about eleven unique magic tricks invented by the club members.

Let me start with this: this is an incredible first novel. True, Awasaka had already debuted as a mystery writer one year earlier with his short story DL2 Gouki Jiken, but a short story is obviously not the same as a full-length novel, and yet Awasaka manages to present something unbelievably polished. Is it a perfect novel? Well, to be honest, I thought sometimes the narrative could be a bit too talkative, especially on some of the more technical, or historical aspects of stage magic. But with 'too talkative' I mean like two or three pages longer than I had hoped, rather than being a bore to read. On the whole, this is a very complete novel, that already rouses your interests with the table of contents.

For 11 Mai no Trump is divided in three distinct acts, of which the second is the most interesting. But we start with the first of course, which details the happenings both on and backstage during the Majiki Club's performance at the Community Center. This is a mostly comedic piece, where we see how each of the performing members prepares for their act and how things go in front of the audience. The tricks seldom go as planned however, and there is a lot of chaos backstage too, so it kinda reads like Mitani Kouki story, with all the comedy going on. As we read on, we learn more about the members of the club, but we also get a lot of insight in the world of stage magic, as the tricks performed are all discussed in detail, and it's here where Awasaka shows his knowledge of stage magic, as he manages to both pose the illusion, and explain the tricks behind them, in a captivating way. People who like stage magic should really enjoy this part, as Awasaka is great at conveying interesting information while also advancing the story. This part ends with the death of Shimako and the realization her death is somehow connected to the novel The Eleven Cards.

The second part of the book is The Eleven Cards, which is presented as a story-within-a-story. The premise of The Eleven Cards is that magicians often come up with new illusions and tricks, that are sadly enough very hard to perform, as they rely on very specific situations, making them unusable for a proper show. The members of the Majiki Club all had a trick like that up their sleeve, so the president of the Majiki Club decided to write a novel introducing those eleven acts, starring the members of the club. What follows are basically eleven very short mystery stories, where one magician performs an utterly baffling illusion, while the other members try to figure out how the trick was done. From a telegram that tells the future to a bird which can see through paper and a telephone which can guess what card a person chooses: the magic tricks shown off in these short stories are all very inventive, and the solutions to them are great. Each of these tricks could've easily supported a longer short story with ease, and they really show off what an imaginative magician Awasaka must've been. In fact, I think that, if they had been in possession of the ideas presented in The Eleven Cards, most people would've just used those to write a short story collection and called it a day, rather than using those ideas just as a story-within-a-story device. The eleven stories are all written as experienced by the writer himself (the president of the club), and we learn more about the interactions and relations between the Majiki Club members as we read this story-within-a-story.

The final part of 11 Mai no Trump has the members of the Majiki Club attending a stage magic conference some time after Shimako's death and the events there eventually lead to the discovery of who killed Shimako. It is here where Awasaka's novel really shines, as he reveals how carefully constructed his tale was. Clueing (or clewing) is an art, and Awasaka shows in his debut novel that he is Master Clewer already. The way he has sprinkled clues here and there across the novel, from the magic show at the Community Center to the eleven short stories in The Eleven Cards is brilliant, something only the best of the best could've done. The moment everything comes together is an eye-opener: innocent-looking lines and events suddenly take on a completely different form. The conclusion of this novel is basically split into a whodunnit and a howdunnit/alibi deconstruction story, and it's especially the whodunnit part that is memorable. The howdunnit too is very impressive though, as it makes very good use of the stage magic background, but without feeling 'unfair' to the reader. As you read the conclusion, you realize that Awasaka has been very attentive to the reader, always explaining in detail how all the stage magic works, and his insights in the topic as presented throughout the book are more than enough for the reader to figure out how the murder was committed.

What really surprises me is that this book is all about stage magic and the amateur performers of stage magic, but it never feels too alienating for someone who knows very little about it. It does not feel like a book for lovers of stage magic per se. Awasaka is clearly not just writing for his own people: he wants to show people why he loves stage magic and because of that, 11 Mai no Trump, remains open to all readers from the very first page to the last, never indulging too much in inside comedy or overly detailed descriptions of knowledge only experts could appreciate.

The three-act set-up, with a story-within-a-story device, is something I had not expected from Awasaka actually. I never saw him much as a bibliomystery writer, but playing with the conventions of books is of course exactly what bibliomystery writers like Ashibe Taku do. The idea of naming the story-within-a-story after the actual title of the book is an alluring one, and the three acts do all feel quite different from each other. Awasaka might have perhaps decided on this structure because he was more familiar with writing short stories, but he definitely made good use of it, and when you reach the end, you do feel like you read one complete story, rather than loose parts thrown together.

And as I read this book, I felt I could now draw lines and connect several loose points in my own Detective World thanks to 11 Mai no Trump. Because I am quite sure that things like Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target and the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series were heavily inspired by 11 Mai no Trump (Ace Attorney creator Takumi is a self-professed fan of Awasaka so no surprises there, I guess).

So yeah, 11 Mai no Trump, great stuff here. It's an ode to (amateur) stage magic, but also an ingeniously plotted mystery novel (with a short-story-collection-within-the-story) that manages to impress throughout. As a showcase of how to properly clue a mystery novel, 11 Mai no Trump is mus-read material, and the fact that this was Awasawa's first novel makes that even more amazing. Certainly one to remember.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『11枚のとらんぷ』

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Cloudy Memory

上空舞うもの達とOver Drive
 どこまでも青い世界にいたい
「Over Drive」(Garnet Crow)

Together with those that dance in the sky high in Over Drive
I want to be in a world that is blue everywhere
"Over Drive" (Garnet Crow)

You know, I’ve been wanting to read this book for years, ever since I finished the main series, but for some reason it never found its way to my shopping cart until now.

A Aiichirou series
A Aiichirou no Roubai ("The Discombobulation of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Annoyance)
A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou" AKA A Is For Accident)
A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Abandon")  


Spin-off
A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou ("The Alarm Of A Tomoichirou" AKA A Is For Alarm")

Samurai are often seen as a warrior class in popular media, but the Tokugawa Shogunate ushered in an era of (relative) peace in the country when it took control of Japan and secluded the islands from the outside world early seventeenth century. So what do warriors do when there’s peace and there’s no need for battle? Samurai basically became public servants, and were granted all kinds of comfortable government jobs with easy income. And there were a lot of rather curious jobs made up for these samurai. But no matter the task, the same basic rule applied to all jobs: the closer the job got you to the shogun (physically), the better the job. One of the more senseless jobs is the Cloud Watch, which consists of watching the clouds all day and making predictions about the weather (it doesn’t even matter if they seldom come true). However, only a very small number know that the small team of the Cloud Watch, led by the head A Tomoichirou, is in fact secret task force under the direct control of the Shogun. Whenever there is a mission too delicate for the police to handle, it’s up to A Tomoichirou and his subordinates to earn their salary in Awasawa Tsumao’s A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou (“The Alarm of A Tomochirou”, 1997).

Long ago, I reviewed Awasaka Tsumao’s three A Aiichirou books, which was a wonderful short story collection, with several tales that rank among the best of Japan’s impossible crime short stories. The titular A Aiichirou was a travelling freelance photographer, who had a knack for inadvertently getting involved with all kinds of mysterious incidents. But his unique way at looking at events always allowed him to make sense out of chaos. A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou is a spin-off, starring Aiichirou’s ancestor in the restless final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (mid-nineteenth century), who is revealed to also be a person who is good at solving mysteries. There are some other nods to the original series: Tomoichirou’s subordinates of the Cloud Watch are for example all ancestors of certain persons Aiichirou meets in the main series, but you certainly don’t need any prior knowledge to start with A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou, as the references are kept at a minimum.

In fact, A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou is also very different in tone compared to main A Aiichirou series. The main series was obviously based on G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, with curious incidents (not always criminal) which are solved by unique, intuitive insight by the detective character, often by comparing, and finding parallels in two ostensibly completely different situations. There was barely an ongoing story (maybe two stories out of twenty-four that delve a bit deeper in Aiichirou’s past), and no main cast, with Aiichirou’s travels bringing him to new locales and new people all the time. The seven stories collected in A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou however do feature a recurring main cast with the people of the Cloud Watch, even if the titular A Tomochirou’s not always at the focus of the story. Passage of time is also an important factor in these stories: about one year passes between each story (we are told the Cloud Watch does perform other missions in the meantime), and the changing political background (the final days of Tokugawa Shogunate as the pressure of both national and international forces builds) is something you definitely need to keep in mind as you read these stories. Of pre-modern Japanese history, the Tokugawa/Edo period, especially its final days (Bakumatsu), is the one I am most familiar with, but knowledge of the political background as well as about how the Shogunate is organized is definitely something that will make reading this book a lot easier for you, as it likes to throw historical terms at you.

I started with this book expecting “A Aiichirou in the Bakumatsu period”, but the adventures ancestor Tomoichirou has are actually very different from the ones Aiichirou has. Like I mentioned above, Aiichirou’s stories include some of the best Japanese impossible crime short stories, and like the Father Brown stories, they have a distinct comedic tone that accompany almost fable/fairy-tale like settings and situations.  The stories in A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou however place less a focus on the mystery element, and are written more like regular historical novels (jidai shousetsu) and toriminochou (pre-modern detective stories featuring Edo police forces, like The Curious Casebook of Hanshichi). These stories are more like the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with an emphasis on the dynamics of a tale, sometimes sprinkled with a bit of action (sometimes with swords) and political intrigue. The stories can also be a bit more graphic than the Aiichirou stories.

Kumomiban Haimei (“Appointment of the Cloud Watch”) details how several men proved their tremendous courage and/or wit during the Great Ansei Earthquake of 1855, saving the shogun from more than one disaster. For their services rendered, the men were all appointed to the Cloud Watch under leadership of A Tomoichirou to serve as the shogun’s personal covert task force. As a ‘How The Team Got Together” type of story, it’s okay, though as a mystery story it feels lacking. Historical knowledge about a rather specific detail is needed to truly appreciate what Awasaka tried to do here. It appears that in the original serialized version, this story actually featured some illustrations that helped visualize what was going on. I do think it’s a neat idea actually, but it doesn’t really work in modern times, as the knowledge needed for this trick to really shine isn’t common sense to modern man. Had this story been written in 1855, when common sense entailed a different set of knowledge, yes, it would’ve been a much better story then, but now it falls a bit flat because it hinges on a small note in the history books.

A Tomoichirou and Moko Mouzou, a master of the ninja arts, are on an undercover mission in Fudaraku Oujou (“Departure for Potalaka”) to investigate rumors of a daimyou killing more than thirty of his people in his castle in a rage. During their investigation, the two learn of a strange ceremony which has been becoming popular in the region. A recently arrived monk apparently has the power to send people directly to Potalaka, residence of Kannon, the Boddhisattva of Mercy. People don’t have to spend a lifetime building karma, but can be sent to paradise immediately, leaving only a peaceful corpse behind. Tomoichirou and Mouzou suspect murder of course, but it appears the ‘victim’ is always left alive in a closed-off hollow, with their relatives and the monk keeping vigil all night. Yet the victim is always ‘gone’ the following morning, leaving nothing but a peaceful expression on their face. This story is basically an impossible crime story, and while the solution to how people are sent do paradise is nothing shocking, I have to say the way the clues are structured, and how everything in the end ties up together is brilliant. I think this is the best story of the collection, as it manages to combine the ‘gritty realism’ of the historical crime story with the plotting of a mystery novel splendidly.

Clocks were popular novelty items in the Tokugawa Period and led to very unique Japanese clocks, but the Earthquake Clock in Jishindokei (“The Earthquake Clock”) went beyond normal clocks. This gift to the shogun was not only able to tell the time, but also to predict earthquakes, with ‘features’ like human hair and skin to measure delicate changes in temperature and a big base to prevent the clock from tumbling over during a quake. Juutarou of the Cloud Watch however was not occupied with this new toy of the shogun, as he was busy investigating the double suicide of a prostitute he frequented. He suspects something is wrong, but he couldn’t have expected his adventure would have anything to do with the shogun’s clock. Or could he? The reader sure could, as the two parts are initially so disconnected, anyone could guess they’d come together one way or another. This is a story more focused on the adventure rather than the mystery, though it features a Sherlock Holmes-esque deduction at the start of the story which gets inverted twice in an interesting way. What I don’t like is that the main idea of this story is basically recycled for Bara Inrou (“The Disconnecting Seal Case”) a story later in this volume about the Shogun’s request for a photograph of himself and some lectures on Rangaku (Dutch studies) and the science behind photography, but which ends in the exact same way as Jishindokei.

The Cloud Watch is tasked with locating the shogun’s long-lost son in Onnagata no Mune (“The Chest Of The Female Role Actor”). When the shogun was young, he once had a relation with one of the women in the Inner Palace (the inner section of the palace housing all the women of the Shogun), and he only learned after the woman had left the Inner Palace that she had in fact been pregnant. It’s been many years since then, but as his health is failing and forces around him gather to seize power, he decides it’s time to locate his one heir. This is a mediocre story at best: the search for the lost heir is rather boring, and it’s only pure coincidence that leads the Cloud Watch to the heir in the end. Some deception is going on that sorta reminds of Father Brown, but the execution is so minimal, it is hardly worth mentioning.

Satsuma no Nisou (“The Nuns of Satsuma”) is the darkest story of the collection, as it revolves around the serial killings of young girls. The Cloud Watch is ordered to investigate the disappearance of the younger sister of one of the women in the Inner Palace, and they find out she was killed the day she disappeared; her stomach cut open and organs removed. Some days later, another girls is washed up from the river. The connections between the two cases: young girls being cut open, and witnesses seeing nuns hanging around the girls just before they’re gone. While this story develops mostly as a grim serial murder story, with the Cloud Watch fighting against time to stop the murderers from taking more victims, the whydunnit plot is actually very clever: the ‘missing link’ that explains why this is all happening is hidden ingeniously, and the way these events eventually connect to an important event in Japanese history was both surprising and satisfying. One of the better stories in the collection.

The final story, Oooku no Sharekoube (“The Skull Of The Inner Palace”), is set in the Inner Palace. Normally, the Shogun is the only male allowed in these women’s quarters, but Tomoichirou and Juutarou, dressed as women, manage to sneak inside as they are tasked to investigate rumors of a ghostly appearance in the Inner Palace, as unrest inside the Inner Palace seldom is a good sign for events outside the Inner Palace. The truth behind the ghost is… okay, I guess. There is some good hinting going on, even if a bit little, but I thought the story dragged a little, and after hearing about the Inner Palace in previous stories, I thought the depiction of it in this story was a bit… underwhelming. Compare to the scary battlefield that was the harem in Yamada Fuutarou’s Youi Kinpeibai.

A Tomoichirou no Kyoukou is on the whole an okay story collection, though one certainly shouldn’t expect it to be very much like Aiichirou’s adventures. This is first of all a historical detective story, which also happens to feature to a degree an element of the more puzzle-oriented plot from the main series. The first half is definitely stronger than the second half on the whole though. People who liked The Curious Casebook of Hanshichi should definitely enjoy this book.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『亜智一郎の恐慌』: 「雲見番拝命」 / 「補陀楽往生」 / 「地震時計」 / 「女方の胸」 / 「ばら印籠」 / 「薩摩の尼僧」 / 「大奥の曝頭」

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Dead Weight

僕にしか言えない言葉を今君に届けたい
「君に届け」(Flumpool)

I want to send you the words only I can say to you now
"Reaching You" (Flumpool)
 
'T was in the summer of 2012 that I first read a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts, as Mystery on Southampton Water had been selected as the topic of a book club session. I wasn't the only person at the session to never had read a Crofts before though, so the discussion eventually broadened to Crofts in general, and it didn't take long for Crofts' debut work to be mentioned. The people who had read The Cask (originally published in 1920), were quite reserved about it. While the reception of the plot was, by and large, positive, I distinctly remember several people point out it was tedious to read. Note that we're talking about a Japanese book club here, so the people here were talking specifically about the Japanese translation of the novel, but it appeared it was very old-fashioned, making it less enjoyable that it could've been. I had not read the book, so unfortunately, there was little I could comment on whether this was also true for the original text.

But the idea, the image of The Cask being a tedious to read book did stick with me. I have read some more Crofts in the meantime, both in Japanese and English, and I can definitely say the Japanese text is not always a smooth read (though I think there is a more modern translation available of some works). Still, the idea of "The Cask = Tedious Experience" was very much alive in my mind when I started reading the book, five years after my first encounter with Crofts. The novel starts at an English harbor, where a newly arrived ship is being relieved of its cargo. A small incident leads to damage to a cask, which is supposed to be a shipment of statues from France. Glimpsing through the hole they made in the cask, the workers however find that the thing is packed with gold sovereigns, as well as something that looks a lot like a human hand. The alarm is raised at the shipping company, but by the time management has informed the police about the incident, the recipient of the cask has already made off with his shipment. Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard and the rest of the police force however soon give chase after the disappearing cask in Freeman Wills Crofts The Cask (1920).

Crofts' debut novel does not feature Inspector French, who starred in all the other Crofts I read, but The Cask certainly feels like a genuine Crofts, even at this earliest stage in his career as a mystery author. The introducing chapters of the novel for example are set at a harbor, detailing the work at a shipping company. Businesses are a setting very often utilized in Crofts' work, as seen in for example Murder on Southampton Water and Fatal Venture, where the settings are also two water-related companies. This story however does not stick with this setting, and jumps from setting to setting as the narrative follows the titular cask back to where it came from.

This does lead to one of the elements that can be seen as a source of tediousness. Soon after the harbor setting, we switch over to our main point of view, that of the police in their investigation of the whereabouts of the cask, and things are described rather meticulously here. We'll see a scene, then a report is made to a higher official explaining the scene we just saw, then the inspector talks about the scene we just saw twice already, then we see another party enter the scene who needs more explanation about that same event... Sure, police work is detailed, and one can at least say The Cask is very eager to make sure the reader is not left behind by its story, but it happens more than once that you might feel certain events could've been handled more briefly in the story. Sometimes it feels like we're just circling around the same matter again and again, and this can be a bit vexing.

This extreme focus on a singular point is also basically what this novel is about. The titular cask is without a doubt the most important object in the story, and very detailed enquiries are made about how it made its way to England with a body inside it. The mystery plot, I thought, was quite interesting, as leads to surprising reveals about the route the cask made on its way to the final destination, as well as an alibi deconstruction subplot, something very much associated with Crofts. There's of course a time table made over the course of the story, detailing a seemingly perfect alibi of a potential murderer, and it's up to the police, and readers, to find the weak spot and break it down. The precise method used is a bit shaky, as it relies slightly on faulty memory of third parties, but as an element of a much larger, and very carefullly constructed mystery plot, I thought it was entertaining enough. That said though, the fact the whole book is about the route a cask took can be bit boring for some readers, I can definitely imagine, especially combined with the way the narrative is set-up.

Though I guess that in this respect, it's better than Ayukawa Tetsuya's Kuroi Trunk (1956). Ayukawa was one of the most respected puzzle plot mystery authors, and was very much inspired by Crofts. His debut novel, Kuroi Trunk, was obviously an homage to The Cask, as it too revolves around a meticulous investigation around a recepticle containing a body (a black trunk in this case) and an alibi deconstruction subplot, but while I like the book, it's also even more detailed and tedious than The Cask, as it's packed with time tables, and you're expected to track the movements of persons and objects in units of minutes (over a distance from one side of Japan to the other). Again, I think Kuroi Trunk is a great mystery, but people who have trouble with The Cask will find this one even more a problem.

The Cask in the end was luckily not as awful as I had feared, and I actually quite liked it. Yes, it can be a very slow novel, but I guess I was already used to Crofts' style, and I have read books that do worse on aspect. I wouldn't consider this my favorite Crofts though, and even I think that of the few I have read, The Cask might be the one that that is the least suitable to start with, but this is certainly more than a worthy debut novel for Crofts.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Adventure of the Dancing Men

"There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet."
"His Last Bow"

I've reviewed only one mystery game this year, it seems (and a couple of other game-related materials). Huh. Still have a few more planned for this year, but still, that's surprisingly few game reviews this year.

The greatest challenge facing the Meiji government in Japan around the turn of the 19th century was the modernization of all facets of the country, including its legal system. One year ago, Naruhodou Ryuunosuke made his way from the Japanese capital to Victorian London to study as British law as part of an official government exchange mission. He became friends with the brilliant, yet very eccentric Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, the renowned detective whose exploits have become known all over the world thanks to the stories published in Strand Magazine. Ryuunosuke eventually made a name for his name in Old Bailey, as he learned that wherever on the world, defendants will always need the help of defense attorneys to stand by them in their time of need. The truth behind the at times zany, but always complex cases Ryuunosuke solved not only showed that London's perhaps not the bright place he imagined it to be, but little could he have guessed that all the adventures he had over the last year would all intersect and come together to reveal a truth about the darkness that envelops modern, enlightened London. Standing in court to protect other asks for courage from a defense attorney, but does Ryuunosuke also have the resolve to remain there even in the most difficult of times in the 2017 Nintendo 3DS game Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 ~ Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Kakugo ("The Grand Turnabout Trial 2 ~ The Resolve of Naruhodou Ryuunosuke").

Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 is a direct sequel to 2015's Dai Gyakuten Saiban, a spin-off game of the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney game series. In this series of comedic adventure mystery games, you take up the role of a defense attorney solving cases and revealing the true culprits behind murders in the courtroom. The original series was conceived by Takumi Shuu, who would eventally leave the main series for side-projects like Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban. He brought us Dai Gyakuten Saiban in 2015, which was a spin-off game set in the London of Sherlock Holmes, who also played a big role in the story. The sequel Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 was long-awaited, mostly because the first game was clearly just the first half of a story: many plot points were not resolved in the first game, and this left a pretty bad aftertaste for what was in fact a fun game, but which was clearly not "complete". Whereas previous games in the series were always designed as standalone games, Dai Gyakuten Saiban simply could not stand on its own with all those unanswered questions and hooks, so fans were quite eager to see how Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 would turn out.


The essence of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 is of course still same as always. The core has always been built around solid mystery plots with a good touch of comedy, set in the courtroom, featuring the so-called contradiction system. The player, as defense attorney Ryuunosuke, needs to point out contradictions between witness testimony and evidence. Pointing out a contradiction leads to new testimony, which in turn leads to new contradictions and by slowly unraveling the thread like a True Columbo, the player eventually figures out the identity of the true murderer. In the two Dai Gyakuten Saiban games, you'll also occasionally have to reason with the jurors in order to turn their guilty vote in one of not-guilty, which you of course do by pointing out contradictions in their lines of thought. Nothing has been changed in these mechanics for this second game, but you don't have to fix what's not broken, right? Finding contradictions by carefully comparing what the various weird witnesses claim, and the evidence you have at hand is still a great feeling, as you really feel that you, as the player, figured out what's wrong. I reckon that's how Columbo is feeling all the time. As you solve each contradiction one by one, you also gain better understanding of how each case unfolds, rather than havng a detective character explaining everything at the end of a tale in the denouement. Few games have come up with better ways to translate the "puzzle solving" of mystery fiction into such an intinuitive game mechanic.


Sherlock Holmes plays an important role in the Dai Gyakuten Saiban games, not only as a character in the story, but also as a game mechanic. The Holmes in these games is quite comedic, with a very silly side to him (don't forget, the stories in Strand Magazine are fiction!), and that side to him is also reflected in his deductions. For Holmes once said "From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other." and that is basically what Holmes does in this game. He presents brilliant deductions based on very small clues. The problem: He's usually looking at the wrong clue, which means that while his method is good, his starting point is usually wrong, which results in him arriving at very surprising (yet "brilliant) conclusions (to use the example above, he's supposed to start with a drop of water, but deduces a desert based on a grain of sand). In these scenes, you're supposed to 'guide' the flow of Holmes' deductions the right way by ever so gently indicating the correct clue/starting point. It's a very fun mechanic, that reminds of mystery writers like Queen, Brand and Berkeley, who often show in their books how chains of deductions can change completely just by adding or removing one single clue. Conan also often does the same by 'nudging' Kogorou in the right direction in Detective Conan. The presentation of these scenes is excellent by the way, showing off how Holmes' mind works in a very extravagant way, and there is one scene in particular in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 that is absolutely amazing.

So you use these mechanics (together with simply talking with all the suspects/investigating the crime scenes) to solve various cases over the course of the game, which brings us to the mystery plots. We are treated to familiar tropes like fantastical, yet baffling locked room murders (especially locked room murders, now I think about it), and most of the cases make excellent use of the setting of late nineteenth/early twentieth century, with some of them very unique to the time period. Efforts are of course taken so the 'modern player' knows what's up, but the fact that these cases work because they are set in that time period is definitely worthy of praise. There are some unique settings, like a Chamber of Horrors in a wax museum or a shabby apartment building with walled-up windows because of window tax, but also a case revolving around a daring scientific experiment gone wrong, which adds a bit of a steampunk feel to the setting. The London of this game is definitely not historically accurate in every detail, but the world-view is consistent enough for every player to know what is possible, and what is not, and that is the most important for a mystery story.


What I thought was unfortunate though was that a lot of the core mystery plots in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 were very easy to identify, as they come from fairly well-known stories. Of course, Takumi Shuu has often used famous tricks and scenes from mystery fiction in his game as a homage/reference (the original three Gyakuten Saiban games have several scenes straight out of Columbo for example), but in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2, it is overly clear where the core trick came from, especially as the source material is not particular obscure. So each time, I was hoping it would turn out not to be the same as story X, only to find out that it was basically exactly the same as story X. I thought this was a shame, as Takumi is usually very capable of building much more around a basic trick, while this time, it seems the effort to rework these ideas into more original concepts was not as intensive. So while the main plots of this game make good use of the time period, I can't deny that it's also because they are based very obviously on stories that actually date from that time period. That said though, Takumi also makes sure to play with the fans' expectations of how things will go. It's something he already did in the first Dai Gyakuten Saiban, but he does the same in this second game (though arguably not as effective).

The experienced mystery fan, or specifically the Holmesians with us, will have a lot of fun picking up on the numerous references to the Canon though. Some familiar names are used in surprising ways, and there's even a very daring take on Holmes lore revealed near the end of the game. Some might find it lacking in respect for the original stories, but I absolutely loved it as an original way to play with the whole idea of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and it's one that fits perfectly within the world of Dai Gyakuten Saiban (which doesn't pretend it's the ultimate interpretation of Holmes anyway. It's simply an original take on the character and everything around him).


As I mentioned earlier, the greatest point of criticism aimed at the first game was the fact that it was clearly just the first part of a longer story, with many plot points addressed, but simply unresolved. The marketing campaign for Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 was thus very eager to emphasize that all the mysteries would be revealed in this second game, which it fortunately did. I can safely recommend people who played the first game and felt dissatisfied about the story to play this second game, as it really does answer all the pertinent questions you may have. But this second game also made clear that this story was really not meant to be split in two. Writer Takumi basically admitted in an interview that the scale of the story he came up with was too large for one game, but that doesn't mean it was a story fit for multiple parts/games. He simply wrote too much. Each of the games is quite long (I ticked in at around 24 hours for each game), so you could hardly expect them to have put everything in one single game, but the story structure makes it clear that most of the episodes originally belonged together, but were sliced up in two episodes, and in some instances, spread aross the two games. One episode in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 is closely related to an episode from the first game for example, but they would've worked much better had they been in the same game in terms of hinting, and in fact, I suspect that they originally did belong back-to-back, or that they were actually one story. The way Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 relies so much on references (plot points/clues) to the first game, and especially the manner in which foreshadowing/clues are structured, make me suspect that this was always meant to be one big story.

There are of course mediums that split their story in two or more parts in an effective manner, for example the two live-action Death Note films or Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, but that does not hold for Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2. I also think the structure of the Gyakuten Saiban series might have hindered the development of the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series. Traditionally, each game has always consisted of distinct episodes (which may or may not also have interlinking story elements), but I feel that some parts of the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series would've worked better as a contineous story, rather than arbirary seperating them in episodes. So following the Sherlock Holmes model, I think a "novel" structure would've worked better for some elements than the short story collection model.


Another reason why the two Dai Gyakuten Saiban games feel like they were originally one set is the extensive reuse of assets. Many characters, locations and music tracks return from the first game, making it difficult to differentiate them. The new tracks are all great, but there are only relatively few original compositions, so that's a bit disappointing. So while it really does look and sound great, there's also a great sense of déjà vu, again weaking the feeling that you're truly playing something new, instead making it feel like you're just playing the continuation of something that shouldn't have been split up in the first place.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 ~ Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Kakugo is an excellent mystery game, but it can not stand on its own. It works because there is a Dai Gyakuten Saiban that posed the questions answered in this sequel. The game offers, on the whole, interesting and captivating mystery plots that make good use of the unique setting, and it also plays a lot with the Sherlock Holmes character for surprising results, but from start to finish you feel that this is simply the second half of a story. So I can only recommend the game if you've played the first game. Together, they form a fantastic series of mystery games that rank among the best, but its ambition is also what makes each individual game not as strong on its own.

Original Japanese title(s): 『大逆転裁判2 -成歩堂龍ノ介の覺悟』

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Time Hollow

The days and the months are drifting by
As though they didn't notice seasons changing in the breeze 
They all look the same but I sense something's there
"Time Hollow" (Mouse)

It might be because of where I live, but I've never really understood the preference of some cultures/societies for the am/pm denotion of time, rather than a twenty-four clock. Why would you choose to say 08:00, but add am/pm to specify what you really mean because 08:00 on its own is confusing and you know it, while you could also use 08:00 and 20:00: two distinct denotations of two distinctly different points in time. It's way more efficient!

It was attorney Morie Shunsaku's assistant Tomoka who was the most excited about her boss's latest gig, even though she wouldn't be involved herself. Morie had agreed to take over a certain task from one of his colleagues, and this task brought Morie all the way to the countryside, to the ancestral home of the Amachis. Keijirou had inherited the place as the head of the family after the death of his father, immediately followed by the death of his older brother. Keijirou had remained single until death, and poured all his attention to collecting antique Japanese clocks: at the time he died, his home was full of restored Japanese clocks, and there was even a clock tower with the traditional Japanese time system. Morie is sent to this Japanese Clock Mansion to read Keijirou's will, but little did he know that his task would be the start signal for murder. Morie wakes up in the middle of the night after the reading, and he is witness from his room in the annex to a struggle going on in the main mansion, which eventually becomes a murder. But he learns to his great surprise there was no murderer inside the room where it all happened when the door was forced open, even though Morie had his eyes on the room right up to the moment the other group entered the room in question. The police quickly learns of Morie's reputation as a gifted amateur detective, so they ask him to think along too in Ashibe Taku's Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Japanese Clock Mansion Murders", 2000).

Right from the start Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin lets you know that you are indeed reading a very, very classically-structured mystery novel. The characters themselves are luckily meta-concious enough to notice that 1) a reading of a will for a wealthy family with complicated interpersonal relations and shady pasts, coupled with 2) a mansion filled with Japanese clocks and a genuine clock tower in the countryside and 3) a mysterious bandaged man appearing in the house, well, this combination can not end well. If you're faced with these elements, yes, you are very likely a fictional character in a story highly inspired by Yokomizo Seishi's novels. Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin might be written in 2000 (the paperback version I read dates from 2004), but in terms of atmosphere, it's definitely a throwback to Yokomizo's postwar classics.

Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin, and Ashibe Taku's Morie Shunsaku series in general, is usually fairly reserved when it comes to playing the meta game compared to works from other writers like Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice, whose books are usually filled with references. In comparison, Ashibe usually keeps references to other mystery novels just below surface (usually through comments made by assistant Tomoka). Ashibe does know his stuff though (as seen in his The Exhibition of Great Detectives series among other), but he chooses to not indulge too much into that in this particular series. Still: even without the references you can clearly tell Ashibe likes his classics, as Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is brimming with familiar tropes and elements. The book is never really surprising, and a lot of situations feel, well, not clichéd perhaps, but a bit too familiar. Is that a bad thing for a classic puzzle plot mystery? Not per se, but I have to admit at times the book almost felt more like a parody, because it was so straight a take on classic tropes that it felt almost as a critique. Perhaps it's just me, and perhaps I've seen too many of these situations, but the basic outline of Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin felt at times more like a Stereotypical Japanese Mystery than a genuine Japanese mystery, and I doubt that was the intention.

As a mystery tale, Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is a reasonably complex one, with multiple murders including an impossible one (with a disappearing murderer) and one has to praise Ashibe for connecting a lot of loose elements into one, consistent plot. There are a lot of things going in terms of the mystery plot, and some of the ideas are pretty clever. There is a pretty subtle misdirection trick early on in the novel for example, and another with a certain kind of secret message (which by the way is basically impossible to translate in a natural manner). Most of these elements are on their own not very surprising, but by expertly linking them together, Ashibe manages to come up with a satisfying plot. Craftmanship is something that can change simple ideas in great execution, and I think this novel is an example of how to use plotting effectively.

The one big problem of Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is also its greatest strength. I have noted in previous reviews of Ashibe's works that his stories often entail a lot of historic research, especially in regards to bibliophilic topics. While the main theme of this particular story might not be about literature, it is clear that Ashibe did read up on the topic of Japanese clocks, and pre-modern time systems in Japan. Japanese clocks are pretty unique, we are told, as whereas most cultures adopting Western clocks also adopted the Western two-times twelve hours system that go with those clocks, Japanese engineers used the Western mechanics to show Japanese time (which was quite different, with "hours" with variable lengths depending on the season). The start of Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is admittedly a bit slow, as Morie (and the reader) are given a lecture on ancient Japanese time systems, but like I often feel about this side of Ashibe's work, I I thought it was pretty interesting. I already knew a bit about it, but I thought the topic engaging, and of course, I knew it'd pop up later in relation to the main mystery.

And that's also the problem, because when you have a story about a mansion filled with Japanese clocks, and you're given a lecture about it, you can bet it will be of importance to the mystery plot. Considering the theme, I think most people can make a fairly good guess about the role of the Japanese clocks, and that kinda spoils the surprise of the novel. Ashibe boldly references another, fairly well-known mystery novel that used a similar idea (though in a completely different manner), which shows even more of his cards (I have a review of the book in question, but I'll refrain from linking to it). The actual trick behind the main mystery is...too complex for its own good by the way. It's clever, yes, but the puzzle asks so much of the reader, you're inclined to just give up and nod to what you're told. Puzzle plot mysteries are fun, but there's a line between a fun puzzle plot, and a puzzle plot that becomes a chore. Here, large parts of the puzzle almost feel like a chore, even though I can see that on a structural and contents level, it's a crafty one.

So I'm a bit divided on Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin. I can't deny it's a very cleverly structured puzzle plot mystery, even if the premise is undeniably a bit too familiar, but the main theme and mystery of the novel are also a bit too clever for its own good, weakening its own position. I wouldn't recommend the book to someone as an introduction to Morie Shunsaku, I think, as it feels a bit uneven because of the points raised above, but it is certainly not a bad, nor even mediocre mystery novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『和時計の館の殺人』