Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ashes and Diamonds

'Tell me, Commander, how far does your expertise extend into the field of diamonds?'
- 'Well, hardest substance found in nature, they cut glass, suggests marriage, I suppose it replaced the dog as the girl's best friend. That's about it.'
"Diamonds Are Forever"

I don't think I have mentioned it here before, but I absolutely loved The Famous Five when I was a kid. I think I still have most of the novels somewhere. Anyway, they may have been quite formulaistic, but at the time, I thought they were wonderful as mystery adventure stories. But I don't remember myself reading many other children's mystery fiction when I was a child actually. I watched Scooby Doo! (heck, I still watch Scooby Doo!), but can't really recall any other series.

Bad news never comes alone, the saying goes, but sometimes the opposite holds as well. Judy Bolton, daughter of a doctor and an accomplished amateur detective, was not only proposed to by her childhood friend Peter, she also received news that her recently married friend Irene, who lives in New York, became the mother of a healthy child. Because a recent break-in in her father's practice also supplied Judy with a clue directing her to New York, she decides to combine her visit to Irene with further investigation into the break-in. At the hospital, Judy learns that Irene had become close friend with Jane, who gave birth to a child on the same day as Irene. The two mothers prepare to leave the hospital together, but then chaos strikes: the diamond of Judy's engagement ring falls from its setting, while Jane and her baby disappear. But true horror gets a hold over Judy when she realizes Jane and Irene's babies got mixed up. Judy has a busy day planned as she has to solve the break-in at her home, find her missing diamond, and retrieve Irene's newborn in Margeret Sutton's The Name on the Bracelet (1940).

Actually, I did not read The Name on the Bracelet, as you might have guessed from the cover art. What I read was Judy no Suiri ("Judy's Deduction"), a Japanese translation published in 1980 as part of children's fiction publisher Kin no Hoshisha's Girls - World Mystery Masterpieces Selection line. As the title suggests, this series consisted of thirty translated mystery novels written for girls. Other authors/house pseudonyms featured in this series were Carolyn Keen (Nancy Drew), Clair Blank (Beverly Gray) and Frances K. Judd (Kay Tracey series). The translation of Judy no Suiri was later revised and published by another publisher, who gave the book new art and a new Japanese title: Kieta Diamond ("The Lost Diamond").

Like I said, I wasn't really familiar with juvenile mystery fiction when I was a child, so I had never heard of the Judy Bolton Mystery series before, actually. The first novel in this series was released in 1932, only two years after the debut of the much more popular Nancy Drew. Unlike the way Nancy Drew was written though, author Margeret Sutton did actually write all 38 novels herself and while Judy never became as well-known as Nancy, it appears that Judy has been received fairly well by its readers, as Judy was apparently seen as a more realistic, and better role model for girls than Nancy. Nancy Drew of course nowadays still persists in a way in popular culture, with both new books, and new games being published even now, while Judy Bolton is perhaps not forgotten, but certainly not a big player anymore.

As for why I read this book... The East-Asian library of my university would sometimes clear out old books, which you could pick up for free. I sorta liked the old artwork on the cover and inside, so I took it along, though it took me quite some years to actually read it (at the time, I had no idea the book was a translation of the Judy Bolton series).

The Name on the Bracelet is the thirteenth volume in the Judy Bolton series, and as a mystery novel it's... not particularly exciting. Like a lot with juvenile mysteries, the plot is fairly compact, which means a lot of events hinge on (series of) coincidences. The break-in at the Bolton practice for some connection to the disappearance of Jane in New York, even though the chances of those two cases ever intersecting should be close to zero. Despite the Japanese title, Judy doesn't need to deduce much on her own, as not more than once she's just plain lucky that events turn out in her favor. That's perhaps the biggest disappointment. Judy, in the end, doesn't really detect a lot in this story. It is a juvenile mystery, so I don't expect highly complex plots, but I do wish that Judy's investigations were more clearly a direct result of her own actions, rather than coincidence. It kinda takes away from her agency as a (series) detective, I think.

Though I have to stress, I love the neat line art in this book. The way every illustration features a signature suggests it's original art from an original (American) publication, though the artstyle does look very different from the American covers I can find....

Anyway, The Name on the Bracelet is a rather mediocre mystery novel, even if you keep in mind it's a juvenile mystery. Based on this one single book, there's little I can comment on the similarities and differences between the Judy Bolton and Nancy Drew series (I have only read one or two Nancy Drews), but as a standalone book, this one is forgettable.

Original title(s): Margaret Sutton 『ジュディの推理』

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

She Sailed Away

We are all rowing a boat of fate 
The waves keep on comin' and we can't escape
"Life Is Like A Boat" (Rie Fu)

Note to self: need to try Russian food some time.

Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") [1981]
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") [1982]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") [1987]
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") [1988]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") [1990]
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") [1991]
Atopos [1993]

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case of The Russian Phantom Warship") [2001]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]

Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") [2016]  

Receiving fan mail was by no means a rare happening for actress Reona, but even she had to raise an eyebrow when she got Kuramochi Yuri's letter. One reason for Reona's surprise was that the letter had been delivered to her almost a decade late, as it had been sent to her former agency in Japan before she moved to the States, and it got stuck there. The other reason for Reona's surprise was the contents. Yuri wrote the letter on her deceased grandfather's behalf, as he begged his granddaughter to ask if Reona could go Charlottesville, Virginia, USA to locate a certain Anna Anderson, to tell Anna he was sorry for what happened in Berlin, and that it all could've been avoided if they had the photograph at the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone. Reona has no idea however who this Anna is, and why she was asked to pass on the message. A few phone calls also tell her the letter reached her too late: Anna Anderson had died in 1984, soon after the letter had been posted, and Yuri herself also died in an accident. Reona asks her friends Mitarai Kiyoshi (amateur detective/astrologist/neurologist) and Ishioka Kazumi (writer) if they could look into this curious request. The photograph mentioned in the letter shows the foggy arrival of a Russian warship in Lake Ashi near Fujiya Hotel in 1919, but it is an utterly impossible one: for how could a Russian warship have landed in a lake up in the mountains in 1919, a lake with no shipyards, no access to the sea and not even modern roads at the time! With their interests thorougly piqued, Mitarai and Ishioka chase after the mystery of Anna Anderson and the impossible photograph in Shimada Souji's Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case Of The Russian Phantom Warship", 2001).

Narrator Ishioka starts his tale about this adventure noting that this was a unique case for him and Mitarai, as it did not involve murders, or even death. And yes, Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is indeed probably a book very different from what you'd expect from the series, especially if you've mostly read the English releases, like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. For Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is not a classic detective story with an ingenious puzzle plot that dares to challenge the reader to solve its mysteries. This book is a historical mystery that mixes fiction with fact. You may noticed from the links in the summary already, but the Anna Anderson in this novel was a person who actually existed. She was the best known of all the people who claimed they were Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia. And yes, that means that this novel is about the mystery of Anastasia, the famous heir of the Romanov family of whom it was rumored she managed to escape the massacre of her family.

I guess that the term historical mystery could refer to two types of stories (which aren't mutually exclusive per se). A mystery tale could be set in a historical setting (for example the Judge Dee stories), or the tale could be about a mystery that occured in history ("Where did the hidden treasures of the Templars go?"). The latter of course don't need to be set in a historical setting themselves. Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken obviously belongs to the latter category and is a fairly entertaining example of the genre. I hardly know anything about Anastasia and the final days of Imperial Russia, to be absolutely honest, but the tale told in the pages of this book, which mixes facts and fiction, is entertaining at least. Mitarai, as a fictional character, deducing conclusions based on facts from 'our' real world is also an interesting sight, like Dupin's comments on the Marie Rogêt case (which was based on the real murder case of Mary Rogers). I have no idea whether the theories posed in this novel could survive close academic scrunity, but I for one enjoyed the tale about the alluring mystery of Anastasia with the changing world politics as its background.

The question is though, did this story need feature Mitarai? Yes, some of the deductions Mitarai makes about trauma in the brains and stuff are obviously ideas that 'belong' to him (as he is a neuroscientist), and there are some elements in this story that keep in firmly in the mystery genre, but still, most of the book consists of lectures on history. First it's a long history on Anna Anderson, then it's a history lesson on the Fujiya Hotel, then it's a historical account of the final days for the Tsar and his family... A lot of the time, it's just one or two people telling long tales from the history books. I am not sure whether this story needed the fictional world of Mitarai Kiyoshi, as it could've worked just as well without him. The character Reona also appears in other Mitarai stories by the way, like Atopos and Suishou no Pyramid.

The one element that is clearly something fit for a mystery novel is the titular Russian phantom warship, which apparently appeared in a mountain lake in 1919, despite the mere idea of that happening would've been impossible. In fact, the sheer scale of this mystery (a Russian Imperial warship making its way to a lake in the Japanese mountains) is exactly something Mitarai is used to solving. The actual solution however is... not something you'd expect from a mystery novel, as there were no hints available to the reader at all, and Mitarai just suddenly drops a surprising truth on both his allies and the readers. Sure, the explanation of Mitarai to the phantom warship is absolutely historically sound, but the truth behind the title is really not presented in the form of a mystery novel, as it does not follow the structure of mystery -> clues -> logical solution based on the clues. It's just sprung upon the reader now.

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is an interesting historical mystery on Anastasia, yes. However, it's definitely not what you'd expect from a book in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series. The puzzle plot mystery elements are far to weak for that. I have the feeling Shimada wanted to write a book on Anastasia, and thought it'd appeal to his readers better if Mitarai was involved with the case, but I think adding Mitarai only hurt the story as intended, as the fusion feels a bit forced. The fact a lot of the story involves plain info dumping, instead of a more engaging narrative is also a bit disappointing, as the material itself is interesting.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『ロシア幽霊軍艦事件』

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Double Purpose

Judge not, that ye be not judged.
"Gospel of Matthew 7:1" (King James tr.)

I don't really keep tabs on writers and new releases actually, not even of writers I do like. I just make random searches once in a while. Of course, this means I actually have to remember to make those searches. And that's why I only noticed today's book more than six months after its release (and it's also about six months between me writing this review and it being published online...)

Kamiki Raichi is an attractive senior high school student who practices enjou kousai ("compensated dating") as a part-time job: in theory, compensated dating does not need to mean more than that older men are paying attractive women for their companionship, but in the case of Raichi, she is definitely prostituting herself. That is the reason why Raichi wasn't that surprised when she got a letter from the owner of Sakai Machinery together with a maid costume. While the letter states that Sakai Touzou wants to hire her as a maid for a week, she suspects it's just some man who wants to hire her for her sexual services for a week, with her pretending to be a maid so the people around him won't notice her true identity. But when she arrives at the Sakai mansion in the outskirts of Tokyo, she realizes from the reactions from everyone there that Sakai Touzou did not send that letter at all, and that for some reason, everyone in the house is playing along with the fake letter. Raichi knows something is up, but even she couldn't have guessed that one of the persons in the house would be strangled to death in his room. At the same time, we're also introduced to senior high student Todai Kouhei who lives in Saitama. Having finally found the love of his life in Misaki, he manages to sneak inside the house of his girlfriend and have sex with her for the first time, but is then caught by the father, who has him arrested: Kouhei had mistakenly assumed that Misaki was older than him. And that means he had sex with a minor. Kouhei is taken away by the police in total disbelief to what has happened, but he could never have guessed at the curious link between his crime and the murders at the Sakai mansion in Hayasaka Yabusaka's Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai ("Nobody Can Pass Judgement On Me", 2016).

Hayasaka Yabusaka made his debut as a mystery writer in 2014 with Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken ("The ???????? Murder Case"), which first introduced us to Kamiki Raichi: a high school student prostitute who likes to solve crime as a hobby. That novel, as well as the short story collection about Raichi released afterwards, were quite unique for their focus on sex as a genuine part of the mystery. Sex sells, the saying goes, so often sex is only used in mystery fiction to 'spice things up'. This practice is especially often seen in screen adaptations of mystery fiction. In those stories, sex often has no function in terms of the mystery plot. Sex however is an integral part of the mystery plot in Hayasaka's Kamiki Raichi series. At times, the descriptions of Raichi's sexual adventures might appear surprisingly graphic, but it's always with a cause. From subtle hints to ingenious ways in which they link up with the mystery: the erotic touch to this series is never there just to be erotic, but always a vital part of it as a form of mystery fiction. As puzzle plot mysteries, the books in the Kamiki Raichi series are definitely well-plotted and much, much more than just sex (Sexual descriptions are also a bit toned down in this novel compared to the previous two volumes).

In this third novel in the Kamiki Raichi series however, Hayasaka tries his hands at something new. Traditionally, the puzzle plot mystery has been juxtaposed against shakaiha mysteries, or the social school. The social school of mystery fiction places emphasis on natural realism, and on exposing the problems of actual society. The Stereotypical Shakaiha Mystery would start with the discovery of a woman strangled in her apartment room and a hardworking police detective eventually discovering that she was murdered by her lover, who is also a director of a company, because she figured out he was buying off government officials. This is of course quite different from the romantic image of an excentric detective who solves a series of locked room murders set at a creepy mansion that is isolated from the outside world featuring a Challenge to the Reader. As you may have guessed, I am more a fan of the puzzle plot mystery than shakai-ha mysteries, though I do occasionally enjoy them (Matsumoto Seichou's Points and Lines and Jikan no Shuuzoku are great puzzle plot mysteries with social commentary, and the TV series Aibou does some great takes on the theme too). In essence though, these two schools are at odds with each other, but Hayasaka daringly attempts to fuse the two schools in Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai.

As mentioned in the summary, Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai is divided in two narratives, split up in Raichi chapters and Kouhei chapters. The Raichi chapters obviously follow Raichi inside the Sakai mansion as she tries to solve the murder and figure out why she was lured here as a maid in the first place. Her story is obviously a traditional puzzle plot mystery, involving a murder among a rich, but disfunctional family living in an oddly designed mansion. People familiar with Japanese mystery fiction are probably trained to be highly suspicious of oddly designed buildings, as nine out ten times there's a secret hallway, or some moving part, or a deathtrap built inside and the characters in this novel are apparently meta-concious enough to comment on that early on in the story. Indeed, near the end it is revealed there is something interesting going with the house, but this was telegraphed rather obviously, so it is not really a spoiler (basically, the characters first suggest the house might XXX, and then even mention a story by a different author that does the same thing, basically confirming what it is). The fact that the house is XXX is therefore not the main problem or reveal, but the mystery is solved by figuring out how that was used and how this will eventually lead to the identity of the murderer. This is classic puzzle plot territory, and the logical chain here is entertaining, as you suddenly arrive at the one and only murderer if you can follow the implications of each and every clue to their logical conclusion. What I did find a bit disappointing was atmosphere: the narrative here moves at breakneck speed, and more murders follow after the first, with little time to contemplate events.

The chapters starring Kouhei on the other hand are definitely social school material. After being baffled by the fact that it is illegal for him, even as someone who has only just turned 18, to have sex with someone one year younger than him (whom he even thought was much older), he learns more about the oddities of the law concerning having relations with minors during his stay at the detention center. Age of consent is 18, even though people can marry at 16. The will of the persons involved doesn't seem to matter at times, and there are even cases where a married person of 32 had relations with a girl of 17, but was found no guilty because they were "truly in love", while in another similar case, the man of 32 was found guilty of rape. Raichi herself (who is over 18, by the way) too makes use of the seemingly arbitrary laws and regulations as the act of prostitution might illegal, but the prostitute herself can't be punished by law. These examinations of the workings of the law, as well as the procedures after a sex offender is arrested are pure social school, far removed from Raichi's adventures at the strange mansion.

Eventually, the two narratives obviously link up in a...well, not really surprising manner. From the start, it is obvious the two narratives that start out so far apart will eventually come together. I think calling it a fusion of a puzzle plot mystery and the social school mystery might not be the best description of what happens in this novel. In Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai, the puzzle plot mystery and shakai-ha mystery cross paths. In a good way though. At the point in the story where these two storylines intersect, Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai does manage to impress a lot, as this crosspoint fullfills a surprising number of plot-related tasks for both the puzzle plot and the social commentary storyline. Plotwise, it is one of the most efficient scenes I've ever seen, I think. But besides that, the two storylines feel detached, and because the novel is particularly long, both storylines barely have the space to settle (as mentioned above when I said the Raichi chapters feel a bit rushed).

The conclusion of the novel feels a bit... talkative though. It is supposed to be like an account of the events from the POV of the murderer, but it reads more like the actual writer explaining things. I remember Yabusaka's first novel had something similar, with some of the narrative feeling too much like the author was directly telling the reader, rather than through an external point (in this case, a neutral third person narrator talking about the murders).

As a character, I still like Raichi a lot. She is an energetic female amateur detective who knows she is sexy and uses it. But she is not just simply a femme fetale, or seducer. Not at all, actually. She simply enjoys her erotic adventures, and uses it to her advantage by making money out of it, but her sexuality is not her main weapon in solving mysteries (she'd never get a confession from the culprit during pillow talk, for example). While erotic escapades are part of the mysteries, it is always clear that she doesn't solve them by using her gender characteristics to gain an advantage: Raichi is simply a highly intelligent woman, who manages to solve the most complex crimes because of her great set of brains. She just also happens to be a prostitute. She is also always shown to be a quick thinker and very much in charge (many foolish men have fallen victim to her taser and other means of self-defense), making her a surprisingly strong female character.

Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai is thus an entertaining novel which mixes the classic puzzle plot mystery with the social school based on natural realism. Often, it feels like you're simpy reading two seperate stories, but when the two storylines do cross, this novel does manage to make a very good impression. Juxtaposing the two styles within one story does make the murders-in-the-mansion part feel even more detached from real life, and the many laws, regulations and trial cases mentioned in the Kouhei storyline even more strangely real, which makes this a fairly unique reading experience. Overall, I'd say Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai was a great third entry in a series that has always managed to satisfy.

Original Japanese title(s): 早坂吝 『誰も僕を裁けない』

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Midnight Luna Sea

ひとつの目で明日を見て
ひとつの目で昨日を見つめてる 
君の愛の揺りかごで
もう一度安らかに眠れたら
『The Real Folk Blues』(山根麻衣)

I look at tomorrow with one eye
While my other eye is fixed on the past
If only I could once again sleep in peace
In the cradle of your love
"The Real Folk Blues" (Yamane Mai)

So Photobucket changed its policy, which means you can hotlink to images anymore. That sadly means that most of the posts made from the start of this blog until somewhere in 2013 don't have their images anymore, as I used to use Photobucket for image materials. I *might* fix that in the future, but to be honest, it's going to be a hell of a job to change the image links for hundreds of posts...

I think the 2009 film MW, a live-action adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's thriller manga, was the first time I saw actor Tamaki Hiroshi. In the film, he played a extremely dangerous psychopath. First impressions are hard to forget, so because of MW, I sometimes still have trouble picturing him as a detective, like in Watashi no Kirai na Tantei and today's film.

Shimada Souji's 1981 Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken (published in English as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) was a milestone in the history of Japanese mystery fiction. Not only was it a darn good mystery yarn in the model of the classic puzzle-focused mystery fiction, the novel also inspired a whole new generation of mystery writers in the country, who'd bring forth a revival of the puzzle plot mystery in Japan. The detective featured in the book was Mitarai Kiyoshi, an excentric, but brilliant astrologist, who'd dabble in amateur detecting as a hobby. His Watson, Ishioka, built a career as a mystery writer detailing the adventures he had with Mitarai, and over the course of years Mitarai managed to solve countless of baffling cases, but he also changes jobs. First hebecame an amateur detective (with astrology as a hobby) and he's currently a leading neurologist, teaching at universities across the world.

While Mitarai Kiyoshi made his debut back in 1981, he and Ishioka wouldn't be adapted for a live-action production until 2015, when they first appeared in a two-hour TV special starring Tamaki Hiroshi as the genius detective. Reception was certainly positive, so it seemed almost certain it would be followed by a TV series. To the surprise of many however, the production team decided to go straight for the silver screen. The 2016 film Tantei Mitarai no Jikenbo - Seiro no Umi ("The Casebook of Detective Mitarai - The Sea of the Starry Carriage"), which also carries the official English title Detective Mitarai's Casebook - The Clockwork Current starts with a strange request by Ishioka's newest editor Ogawa Miyuki. She hopes Mitarai will solve some crazy mystery for her, because that'd give Ishioka the material and inspiration to write a new novel for her. While Mitarai isn't really interested at first, the news of a series of unknown bodies washing up on the shores of a small island in the Seto Inland Sea. changes his mind, Mitarai decides to investigate this curious incident, taking Miyuki along (Ishioka has other prior commitments). The trail leads them to the city of Fukuyama, where a series of curious incidents await them: the death of a foreigner, the brutal torture of two parents (the father had his eyes gouged out; the mouth of the mother was stitched tight) and the murder of their poor baby, an attack on an associate-professor in History researching "the Starry Carriage", a mysterious term found on some old scrolls that document the sea battles held early in the nineteenth century and finally: the sighting of a mysterious Nessy-like creature in the Seto Inland Sea. However, only Mitarai is able to connect all these seemingly distinct cases together.

Detective Mitarai's Casebook - The Clockwork Current is based on Shimada Souji's novel Seiro no Umi ("The Sea of the Starry Carriage"; English subtitle The Clockwork Current), which was originally published in 2013 and the forty-ninth story in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series (I reviewed number fifty a while ago). I haven't read the original novel, so I have absolutely no idea how faithful an adaptation this film is, but I do know that the editor Ogawa Miyuki is an original character. In the novel, it's Mitarai's faithful Watson Ishioka who accompanies him on this adventure, but Ishioka was replaced for some reason in this film (even though Ishioka did appear in the 2015 TV special). It is a very strange change at any rate, as Mitarai and Ishioka are very much modeled after Sherlock Holmes and Watson, and replacing Watson with a random figure (his editor) is a bit odd to say the least. While the change is not bad on its own, it certainly doesn't offer any merits at all either. A lot of the charm of the original stories comes from the banter between the two, but that's gone too, as Miyuki is more a fangirl of Mitarai, rather than someone who knows him well and can fight back verbally.


To be honest, I had expected something much more from this first theatrical appearance of such an icon of Japanese mystery fiction. I have read only a mere fraction of all of the Mitarai Kiyoshi series, but I could've named quite a number of stories that would've worked much better on the silver screen than this one. That is the biggest problem of the film actually. The story isn't really suited for the big screen. It's basically about Mitarai investigating several distinctly different cases: bodies washing up on shore, a foreign drug ring, the brutal baby-murder and his tortured parents and a historical mystery about the identity of the "Starry Carriage". But none of them have the impact to really carry a two-hour film narrative, not even taken all together. The narrative jumps from one case to another at a rather high pace and none of them get really fleshed out in a meaningful way. The result is that the viewer is presented with a great number of incidents that don't seem really all that important, or even mysterious (or at least not mysterious enough to make you say you absolutely needed to see this in the theater). I think this story would have been much better if it had been adapted as a short TV series, which each episode first focusing on one case, and then the last few episodes bringing things together. While I admit that the scale of this film was grander than the 2015 special (which was set in urban Tokyo), basically everything The Clockwork Current had in terms of scale of the story and setting, you could also see in select mystery shows made for the small screen in Japan (save for some nice wide shots early in the film, I guess).


It doesn't help the mystery plot is a bit underwhelming. It's a (seemingly) random collection of smaller cases, of which only the baby murder/tortured parents plot makes any impact on the viewer, but as it is only one of the many subplots, it is given just too little time. Mitarai solves some minor mysteries about all of the smaller incidents as the story goes on, eventually revealing the connection between all the seemingly seperate cases, but even that feels a bit artificial, and not particularly surprising or impressive. I have a suspicion that in the original novel, these smaller incidents might all be seperate storylines, which only come together in the end. In the film however, we follow Mitarai and Miyuki as they stumble upon one case after another (in really rapid succession) and seeing Mitarai following up on all of them for seemingly no reason feels very arbitrary, as if the plot compels him to that, rather than his logic (as for most of the time, there's absolutely no reason to suspect any connection to the seperate incidents, save for the fact that this is a film, so of course everything is connected).


The part about the murdered baby/father with gouged-out eyes/mother with her mouth stitched tight appears at first a throwback to the delightfully horrible murder mysteries early in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series (like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders or Naname Yashiki no Hanzai), but the gruesome part is actually fairly superficial rather than functional to the mystery plot and the underlying mystery is kinda dependent on coincidence/sheer bad luck. Shimada has also been dabbling with historical mystery plots in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series for quite some time now, and the "Starry Carriage" subplot is in theory an interesting one, as it delves into the history of sea warfare in the Seto Inland Sea, but this too is a case of time constraints and weak connections to the rest of the narrative that weakening the impact of the plot.

Detective Mitarai's Casebook - The Clockwork Current is in the end not at all what I had expected based on the 2015 TV special. I think that by selecting this particular story as the basis of the film, as well as moving away from the style and framework set in the 2015 TV special, The Clockwork Current ended up as a film that has trouble to impress as a mystery movie. This story simply isn't really suited for the two-hour, single format of a theatrical release as it's too scattered and small-scaled, while leaving out an iconic series character like Ishioka, who is able to bring out the characteristic excentricities of protagonist Mitarai, results in a story that seldom truly feels like it's part of the Mitarai Kiyoshi series. It is definitely not what I had expected based on the 2015 special, so I hope that a future sequel (if it is produced), follows the classic format of the series more faithfully.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司(原) 『探偵ミタライの事件簿 星籠の海』

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Question

笑いたきゃ笑うがいい 失敗ばかりだけど
ブルーナ気分にならないのさ
俺は金も勇気もなにひとつないけれど
力の限り生きてゆくさ
「羞恥心」(羞恥心)

You can laugh all you want / I might be making mistakes all the time
But yet I'll never feel blue
I have no money, nor courage,
But I'll still live on as best as I can
"Embarrassment" (Shuuchishin)

Early on in my studies of the Japanese language, I discovered how helpful Japanese television programs could be for students. If you have ever seen  a Japanese program that is not a drama (for example, the news or a quiz program), you will probably have noticed the extensive use of captions. There is usually a lot of text projected on the screen, from simply the discussion topic at that moment, to comic book-like word balloons of actual spoken lines to emphasize them. This is heaven for a beginning student, as they can learn to read and listen to specific lines, without being overwhelmed by conventional subtitles (that go quite fast for beginning readers).

Hexagon II Quiz Parade was probably the program that helped me the most in learning the Japanese language and I still have fond memories of it. Hexagon II Quiz Parade was a popular quiz show that aired between 2005 ~ 2011 on Fuji TV, hosted by Shimada Shinsuke. The show featured a pool of regular contestants consisting of tarento comedians/actors/singers/models/artists/etc., often coupled with guests-of-the-week tarento contestants. These contestants were divided in three evenly-powered teams, based on the results of a short paper exam they had to do before the show. These teams would participate in various quiz games where teamwork was crucial. For example, each show ended with the Relay Quiz. Like in a relay race, the teams competed directly against each other, with the team that managed to have all six members correctly answering a question in order first, winning the game. The person with the best results in the paper exam was first in line for each team, and the person with the worst results acted as the anchor, so a quick start for a team was never a guarantee that they wouldn't get beaten in the end anyway, as the anchor would often have much trouble with the questions.


That said though, the quiz questions were usually not that difficult, as Hexagon II Quiz Parade was more an amusement program than one to flaunt one's intelligence. The program wasn't about impressing people with difficult questions, in fact, the questions were quite doable for high school students. But that didn't matter, as the program was about having fun with everyone. The hilarious interactions between the various contestants and the host Shinsuke were an important factor to the show's popularity. The fact the quizzes were always done in the forms of games (like having to answer questions while skipping a rope with the whole team) made Hexagon II Quiz Parade just fun to watch, and while there were contestants who were definitely 'smart', the most popular contestants were actually the "o-baka-san tarento", or "dumb tarento". These were the actors/models/singers/etc. who showed a surprisingly lack of common sense or knowledge, who would stumble over high school level materials, or even elementary school level math problems. Their screwball answers were a major source of amusement for their fellow contestant, and also the viewers, but never in a mean way and more often, the viewer was laughing with the o-baka-san tarento than just at them.

The popularity of the o-baka-san tarento in this show was so high, they even formed musical units as spin-off projects to Hexagon II Quiz Parade. Pabo was a three-member female vocal group, featuring Satoda Mai (idol singer), Suzanne (model) and Kinoshita Yukina (model), while Shuchishin ("Embarrassment") consisted of the three actors Tsuruno Takeshi, Kamiji Yuusuke and Nokubo Naoki. The odd name for the latter group was chosen when during one of the quizzes Kamiji misread the word schuuchishin, with host Shinsuke then saying maybe the three of them should form a vocal group under that name as they "knew no embarrassment" (as in: they never showed any embarrassment about the serious lack of common sense they revealed at times).

In 2008, a special spin-off TV drama was broadcast starring the three members of Shuuchishin, and other Hexagon II Quiz Parade members. Odaiba Tantei Shuuchishin - Hexagon Satsujin Jiken ("The Odaiba Detectives Shuuchishin - The Hexagon Murder Case") starts off with a shocking discovery by the three members of Shuuchishin. Recording for a new episode of Hexagon II Quiz Parade is about to start, but the comedian LaSalle Ishii hasn't been seen on stage yet, so Tsuruno, Kamiji and Nokubo offer to go to his dressing room to get him (partly because they just found out that Kamiji's first love from high school is now working as LaSalle's manager). They find LaSalle dying in his room however, with his manager fleeing the scene, but just before he passes away, LaSalle manages to blurt out something that seems to point to fellow comedian Kojima Yoshio. The Shuuchishin trio leave the room to get the producer of the show, but when they return to the dressing room, they find LaSalle's body has disappeared. The producer thinks it's a bad prank and he decides to lock them up in the Fuji TV Studio in Odaiba for the following few days, so the members of Shuuchishin can focus on their upcoming live performance. But the three can't let the case go and start sniffing around more, revealing that all is not well backstage at Hexagon II Quiz Parade.

As a big fan of Hexagon II Quiz Parade, I had been wanting to watch this special for a long time, even though I knew it couldn't be good... and it definitely wasn't. Both the story and acting is pretty bad. The plot is horribly cheesy and melodramatic at time and goes for all the usual tropes (Shuchishin might get disbanded! The members of Shuchishin start fighting with each other, but overcome their differences! The Power of Friendship saves everyone!). As a mystery story, it's really too horrible to even explain, even if there's actually a good in-universe reason for that. The dying message was okay-ish, as it at least was connected to the show (by pointing to Kojima Yoshio, who's also regular contestant). The acting was also nothing to rejoice about. Apparently, they had problems fitting the recording of this special in everyone's schedule, which explains why it's basically all filmed inside the building of Fuji TV (not on sets, but actually in the hallways and office rooms), with the recording of this special probably just being wedged in between other jobs the actors had at Fuji TV. This special is really only for the die-hard fans of Shuuchishin and Hexagon II Quiz Parade, but even then you'll need a lot of patience to endure this.


I wasn't planning to write a review about this special actually, but it did turn my mind to other TV mystery productions I had seen in the past, where people played themselves in person in major roles. I have not often seen this done in Western productions, but it appears that in Japan, once every several years you'll have mystery dramas starring famous people playing themselves, under their own name (as opposed to acting as other people). The best of those without a doubt is Furuhata Ninzaburou VS SMAP, the 1999 New Year special of the Columbo-inspired Furuhata Ninzaburou drama. In it, the five members boy band SMAP (arguably the most famous boy band in Japan of all time) played themselves as they planned a perfect murder during one of their concerts. The way the story really incorporated the personalities and characteristics of these five people, combined with an excellent mystery plot resulted in a fantastic inverted detective story. Screenwriter Mitani Kouki would later do something similar with the baseball player Ichiro, who would play basically himself (famous baseball player by the name of Ichiro. All similarities are "coincidental", a disclaimer message said) as another charismatic murderer in Furuhata Ninzaburou. The 2012 film Detective Conan - The Eleventh Striker became infamous for having J-League soccer players voice themselves in the animated theatrical feature (infamous, because they were terrible at voicing themselves). The 2015 TV special Yougisha wa 8-nin no Ninki Geinin ("The Suspects Are Eight Popular Comedians") featured eight popular comedians (duh) like Bakarhythm and Bananaman playing themselves in a so-so mystery drama where Himura of Bananaman is killed during a live streaming act.

What made Furuhata Ninzaburou VS SMAP so enjoyable was that it utilized the personalities of the SMAP members as we knew them, for a great mystery tale, for a crime only they could've committed, in a setting that unique to them (concert hall). This is what is missing from Odaiba Tantei Shuuchishin - Hexagon Satsujin Jiken, as it feels this could've been much better. I mean, why not have a story about a murder happening during the recording of a show, while everyone is busy with one of the quiz games. You'd have a great set-up, with almost twenty suspects, and a semi-impossible crime angle as everyone's eyes would be on the victim during the recording! Perhaps the story could've featured quizzes more, and played more with the fact the three members of Shuuchishin are considered "stupid". But now we have a story that is barely related to Hexagon II Quiz Parade, with a horrible mystery plot and at best passable acting.

Odaiba Tantei Shuuchishin - Hexagon Satsujin Jiken is thus really only for the fans of Shuuchishin and Hexagon II Quiz Parade, and even then only for the most dedicated of fans. Of which I imagine are only very few among the reader of this blog. As a mystery story, it's ridiculously bad, coupled with poor production values, with this special obviously only being a side-project for all people involved, just shot in between other things. While my expectations weren't high, I had hoped it would involve the program itself more, as Hexagon II Quiz Parade on its own is really an amusing quiz program that really helped me out a lot early on in my studies.

Original Japanese title(s): 『お台場探偵羞恥心 ヘキサゴン殺人事件』

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Matter of Honor

"You rang?"
"The Addams Family"
 
The funny thing is that everybody thought that IQ246, a show in the 2016 fall season, was going to be today's topic when it was first announced, as that show was about an aristocrat detective too...

Takatoku Aika, disciple of private detective Takami Kiriko, has recently started working as a detective on her own, when one day she runs into a mysterious man who calls himself the Aristocrat Detective. While at first the Aristocrat Detective and his three servants seem like they walked out of a costume party, it appears that this person is indeed as rich and well-connected he says he is, as even the police has no choice but to listen to his whims. An aristocrat's main business should be entertaining the fair sex, he maintains, but his personal hobby is detecting crimes, which is why he likes to stick his head in criminal cases. However, 'work' is below his social rank, so he leaves everything up to his capable three servants, from collecting evidence and questioning witnesses, to actually explaining who the murderer was. For you don't credit the building of a house to the hammer and saw: they are merely tools, which is no different from the Aristocrat Detective using his 'tools' (servants) in the most optimal way to solve the crime. Aika refuses to recognize the Aristocrat Detective as a collegue-detective as he doesn't do anything, but with every chance meeting at the most baffling crime scenes, her interest is getting piqued more and more, especially as the Aristocrat Detective seems to be intent at hiding a connection to Aika's mentor Kiriko. Aika thus has her hands full with both the crime of the week, as well as the mystery behind the Aristocrat Detective in the 2017 TV drama Kizoku Tantei ("The Aristocrat Detective").

When it was first announced that Maya Yutaka's The Aristocrat Detective series would be adapted as  a 2017 spring season TV drama, mystery fans were flabbergasted. Reason one: it was going to air on Fuji TV's Monday-9 slot (Monday at 21:00), which is as mainstream prime-time as you can get. The Monday-9 slot is reserved for the TV drama the station wants to push the most that season, and goes paired with big marketing campaigns and very popular actors. Some mystery shows I've discussed here that also aired in the Monday-9 slot were the series based on Higashino Keigo's Galileo and Kishi Yuusuke's Security Consultant Enomoto Kei. Monday-9 is the red carpet treatment, but this time it'd be for a mystery author who had not been adapted for the small screen before. And that brings us to reason two: while Maya Yutaka's a respected author within the mystery fiction scene, I think few readers will regard his works as easily adaptable for a mainstream TV production. Maya's stories are very heavy on meta-discourse on classic mystery fiction, and so they are not only bursting with classic tropes, he also loves playing with those tropes for suprising effects. Which is great for mystery fans, but can be a bit in-jokey for the general public. His protagonist characters also tend to be very over-the-top takes of classic "gentleman-detective" archetypes, with some of them so overly foppish and arrogant they make Van Dine or early Ellery Queen seem like the most humble of men around. Anyway, Maya was certainly not an author who'd you associate immediately with the Monday-9 slot.


I wasn't even planning to watch the show originally actually. The series is based on the Kizoku Tantei series, which consists of two short story collections (of which I have reviewed the first volume some years ago). You might remember I was not super enthusiastic about the first volume: I wasn't a big fan of the Aristocrat Detective character, and while most of the stories were okay-ish, I didn't consider them exceptional. But I picked up some very praising words about the drama early on in the season, so I decided to take a look and was really pleasantly surprised. The production team really managed to take the best parts of the original stories, and rearrange them to make their own, unique product that manages to stand on its own.

I'm not going to write something on every single episode, though I can say they're all based on the stories from the books, and that they're filled with classic mystery tropes, from locked room mysteries and other impossible crimes to stories about perfect alibis and dying messages. There's quite some variety, so I think most viewers will be more than content with this. In terms of solving the puzzle, I'd say you can definitely feel the influence of Queen and the Kyoto University Mystery Club here, as you'll need to watch carefully for clues that betray characteristics of the culprit and then use them to eliminate suspects until you're left with the final suspect (i.e. this clue tells us the murderer did this, which proves they knew fact A, and only a few people knew that. And this clue tells us that the murderer did this, etc.). But while I'm not going to pick any particular episode for special attention, I do want to take a good look in this review at the way the original stories were adapted for the small screen. Each episode basically follows the same two-layered structure: both Aika and the Aristocrat Detective find themselves working on the same case. Aika investigates the case herself, while the Aristocrat Detective's three servants do the work instead of their master. Aika then reveals her deductions, but ends up pointing out the wrong murderer. The three servants then reveal their theory, fingering the correct culprit, with the Aristocrat Detective taking all the credit as his servants did the work.


This means that each episode consists out of one false solution (Aika's solution), which is followed by the true solution (the Aristocrat Detective's solution). What makes this structure so impressive is that this is not from the original stories, or at least not from the stories in the first volume. That means the screenplay writers for this show had to adapt the original stories for TV, and also rewrite the story in a way to allow for a false solution every single time. Last month, I wrote a piece about false solutions and Foil Detectives, and I think Kizoku Tantei is an excellent example of how to do false solutions. Aika's solutions always turn out to be incorrect, but they are never bad solutions. They are absolutely sound deductions, based on the clues as shown on the screen, sometimes with multiple layers to them. I'd say it'd be quite a feat for most viewers to even arrive at Aika's solutions. It's only because she didn't grasp the importance of a minor clue that she turns out to be incorrect. The fact that the Aristocrat Detective's solutions top even Aika's solutions is impressive, especially as this occurs every episode. This drama shows exactly how a true mystery story is based on clues and logical deduction, and how each clue can change the outcome of the equation. The fact they also show this in such a understandable manner is also commendable, as stories with false solutions have a tendency to become too complex for TV. There is also a bigger storyline about Aika trying to figure out who the Aristocrat Detective is and what his link is to her mentor Kiriko, but I have to say that was kind of predictable, even if it did give us some absolutely brilliant moments on the way to the disappointing ending.


What makes this show in particular a delight to watch are the "reconstruction videos" made by the Aristocrat Detective's three servants. Tanaka (maid), Satou (chauffeur/bodyguard) and Yamamoto (butler) are the quintessential servants, straight-faced, loyal to their master and highly proficient in their own fields, but for some reason they always produce a home-made video to explain their own deductions, with the three servants playing the roles of culprit and victim themselves. These videos are absolutely hilarious, with the servants finally 'breaking character' as they're basically just playing around while reconstructing the crime. In the original stories, you'd usually only see one servant per story, who'd do the deducing instead of their master, but in the drama we always see the same three, and it's incredibly fun to see them on the screen each time.

To be honest, the overall casting is quite well (especially the three servants), save for the most important role. I really didn't like Aiba Masaki's take on the Aristocrat Detective. I;ll admit, I didn't really like the character from the original stories either, but that combined with Aiba's acting... Aiba is one of the five members of idol boyband Arashi, which you must know if you have ever watched Japanese TV, as the members host several TV shows, appear in every other commercial and also act in drama/films (and much more). Other Arashi members have also starred in mystery shows, like in Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de, Kagi no Kakatta Heya, Orient Kyuukou Satsujin Jiken and one of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo live-action series. This was the first time I ever saw Aiba as the main star, but I' d say he's the least versatile actor of the five Arashi members, and he really stood out (in a bad way) in Kizoku Tantei among an otherwise very strong cast.

But on the whole, I can only see Kizoku Tantei as an excellent adaptation of the source material. It takes the best parts of the original stories, then adds in enough new material to entertain and surprise everyone. People who don't know the original stories will be presented with solid mystery plots presented in a very entertaining way. People who do know the original stories however will be surprised to see how some of them have been overhauled for the double-solution structure, and this keeps things interesting also for them. The result is a show that should have something to offer everyone.

Original Japanese title(s):  麻耶雄嵩(原) 『貴族探偵』