Thursday, January 19, 2017

Puzzle for Players

「私は安楽椅子探偵。それ以上でもそれ以下でもありません」
『安楽椅子探偵ON STAGE』

"I am the Armchair Detective. I am nothing more and nothing less than that."
"The Armchair Detective ON STAGE"

Disclosure: I translated novels by both Arisugawa Alice (The Moai Island Puzzle) and Ayatsuji Yukito (The Decagon House Murders) As far as I know by the way, the only things they really co-created are this show, and one of the stories in the mystery game Trick X Logic.

Do you know about the urban legend of the Armchair Detective? The tales go that there is a mysterious entity (who looks like Dr. Doom) who lives solely for the act of reasoning. He has solved countless of baffling cases through absolute logic, but is always forgotten by everyone involved with the case whenever he leaves save for the person who first summoned him to the scene. A small theater troupe has been making a succesful series of stage plays based on this urban legend titled The Legend of the Armchair Detective. The third installment of the mystery stage play however is met with some resistance: creepy messages are posted on the internet predicting the death of the Armchair Detective on stage. Performance of The Legend of the Armchair Detective III goes as planned though, until the last night of the show, when the Armchair Detective indeed drops dead on stage during his scene. Everyone is shocked to discover it's not actor Nakazaki Rakuta's face behind the mask, but that of his twin brother/assistant director Yasuo. Not long after, Rakuta's body is also discovered in the storage room at the troupe's office. Who killed the Nagazaki twins? That is a question not only the Armchair Detective can answer, but also you, the viewer, in the TV drama/game Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE ("The Armchair Detective ON STAGE, 2017).

Anraku Isu Tantei ("The Armchair Detective") is a TV drama originally created by mystery writers Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice for ABC, a local network in the Kansai region of Japan. It is essentially the ultimate Challenge to the Reader Viewer. Each story consists of two episodes. In the first episode, the viewer is introduced to all the characters, the events leading up to, and the events after the murder(s) and most importantly, the viewer is shown all the hints and clues necessary to solve the crime themselves. Viewers are then encouraged to write in with the answers to the following two questions: 1) Who is the murderer? and (more importantly): 2) What is the logical process by which you arrived at that conclusion? The winner, drawn from the people who submitted the correct answers, is presented with a sizeable money prize (500.000 yen in the 2017 edition) and eternal fame. The episode with the solution, detailing the complete process of how you should have deduced the identity of the murderer, is broadcast one week after the first. I have reviewed Anraku Isu Tantei ON AIR in the past, which was broadcast in 2006.


It had been eight years already since the Armchair Detective last appeared on television, so quite a lot of people were surprised by the sudden return of this almost legendary show. Things sure have changed in those eight years though, and while the show was still produced by a local TV station, Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE, the eight installment in the series, marks the first time the show was available to viewers throughout Japan through online streaming and on-demand services. The first episode was broadcast on January 5, 2017, the second episode on January 13.

In essence, Anraku Isu Tantei is at the core nothing more than a pure whodunit, with a few basic (written and unwritten) rules, including 1) there is only one murderer, 2) nobody will tell a lie (on purpose), save for the murderer, 3) everybody acts in a logical manner, 4) nothing "outside" what is shown exists (objects etc.), 5) motive is of no consequence and so on. Usually (and also in the case of Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE), your main objective is to identify a few characteristics of the murderer based on what you saw in the first episode, and use those characteristics to eliminate suspects. For example, let's say you have found evidence on the screen that prove the murderer was left-handed. Then you check for every suspect whether they are right or left-handed (or ambidextrous) and so on. I wrote a lengthy post on this 'elimination-style of mystery fiction' quite some time back now, but this is a form that is especially well-suited for the game-format of this show, because viewers can very clearly show the logical process of how they deduced the identity of the murderer ("Scene 1 proves the murderer was left-handed. Only X is left-handed. Ergo the murderer is X").


It's been eight years since the last episode aired, but Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE was still incredibly difficult. Not as difficult as previous episodes, true, but still, it's gloves off here. The truth behind the double murders on the twins is complex: you can identify the murderer based on basically two characteristics deduced from the crime scenes, but arriving at those two points will require lateral thinking by the viewer, as well as a very keen eye for detail. Still, as you listen to the solution in the second episode, you really can't help but cry out: "Ah! That makes so much sense!". Tthough admittedly, there were a few points where I could see the logic behind it, but did not see it as the one and only possible interpretation possible.

The logical chain that leads to the culprit is definitely not short, but it is so satisfying to get to the end of things. Though I do have the feeling that this episode was in a way 'easier' than previous episodes (it's less mean), but that it did ask for a lot more 'boring' work from the viewer. Making a time table of where everybody was at what time for yourself is pretty handy for example (that's what all the timestamps are for in the episode!) Also, in a puzzle plot mystery novel, it's easy to flip some pages back to check up on something, to reread that part about some minor detail that might be an important hint (I do so often). This is also required with this show: it is utterly impossible to solve this show with just one viewing (unless you have photographic memory). It's definitely easier now than eight years back, now we have digital recorders and on-demand streaming services, but if you want to solve this crime, you'll need to look really carefully for clues, zooming in on the background and stuff. On one hand, I think it's brilliant. This is a visual format, so of course yeah, come on with visual clues and other clues that make use of the medium. On the other hand: as a viewer, it's also not particularly fun to zoom in on a wall to look for a fly resting there, as an example. Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE is a fair mystery story that is solvable, but a challenging one too. It is not as mindwarping shocking as some of the earlier entries in this series though (Ayatsuji commented after the show they tried to be 'gentle' as it was the first episode in almost a decade).

Last year, I reviewed the 2016 installment of Nazotoki Live, another TV show with an interactive format. There they helped the viewer organize all the information and important clues at set points throughout the show, making an otherwise complex mystery plot understandable by breaking the logical process in steps. In Anraku Isu Tantei, the viewer has to do all of that themselves. There is of course a monetary award involved with this, so that's a logical design choice, but it's interesting comparing the two shows. In terms of complexity, the two don't differ that greatly on the whole, but Nazotoki Live helps you on the way, while Anraku Isu Tantei will make you work very very hard on the problem.


The way the character of the Armchair Detective was incorporated in the story itself was fun too. The Armchair Detective is a really fun character, and the solution episodes are often a blast to watch not in the least because of him. The solution episodes are also very meta-concious: all the involved characters are transported to the world of the Armchair Detective, and together with the suspects, he explains the logical elimination process by showing the corresponding scenes from the first episodes as his proof. This explanation process (which includes false solutions and faulty hypotheses) takes an about an hour on average: the plots are just that complex (and therefore of a scale seldom seen on TV).

After the second episode, it was revealed 6819 people submitted an answer. While 60% did guess the identity of the murderer correctly, only 32(!) submissions out of those nearly 7000 got the logical process of elimination correct. So only 0.47% of all the entries guessed the murderer in the correct way. In the end, Ayatsuji and Arisugawa had to choose the 'most elegant' answer from those 32 correct answers, but they couldn't pick one single winner, so there were two winners for Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE.

Anyway, Anraku Isu Tantei ON STAGE was definitely an entertaining addition to the series. As always, it shows how a true fair play mystery plot can work out on the screen, but like previous installments, it can be very tough at times, and sometimes it's asking the viewer to look at rather small details on the screen too much. Still, there is still an air of magic around this show, with the money prize and the meta-approach to presenting the solution to the viewer in the second episode that makes this an unique experience as both a mystery show and a game. I think that's the word I was looking for. Experience. Anraku Isu Tantei is always an experience. Let's hope the Armchair Detective will be summoned again in the future soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 『安楽椅子探偵ON STAGE』

Monday, January 16, 2017

It Is What It Is

'There's an east wind coming, Watson.' 
- 'I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.'
"His Last Bow"
 
It was a deliberate choice on my part to not write individual posts on the episodes as they were airing, but I couldn't have imagined my enjoyment of the episodes could vary so much even within the same series.

Has it already been so many years since Sherlock first started? I remember I was living in Japan in 2010, and I had picked up some tidbit that some sort of 21st century take on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson was about to start on BBC. I had very little expectations of it, but I managed to errr... somehow watch the first episode in Japan and was thorougly impressed by it. From the acting to the fast-paced script to the game-inspired visuals, it was all more than just a pleasant surprise, and while it was obviously not always (or seldomly) a faithful adaptation of the original material, the series was simply great entertainment. And as we now know, it became a hit, moving from some obscure summer TV slot to a prominent New Year's Day slot starting with the second series in 2012, followed by a third series in 2014 and a special in 2016. The fourth series of Sherlock started on New Year's Day 2017, bringing three new adventures with the consultant detective and the brave doctor.

The original first series ended on a cliffhanger ending (presumably to fish for a second series), but viewers might remember that this cliffhanger ending was resolved in the most laziest way possible when the series returned. Series 3's The Empty Hearse did a hilarious, internet generation-inspired, Berkeley-esque examination of the difficulties of having to come up with satisfying resolutions to cliffhangers which were obviously not planned out at all, but unfortunately, Series 4 too starts off by basically waving away the ending of the third series (as well as the 2016 special), which showed viewers a video message starring crime consultant Moriarty, who was presumed dead after the events of the second series, prompting Sherlock to return to British soil to deal with the apparent return of his nemesis. The Six Thachers proceeds by shrugging its shoulders at this, and continue with a completely different story. For Sherlock, things are the same old, same old as he continues his work as a consulting detective, but Watson been has busy juggling between his life as a loving husband to Mary, father to baby Rosie and ally to Sherlock. During one of their cases, Sherlock becomes aware of a figure who is enigmatically busy smashing busts of Margeret Thatcher.


I won't go as far as saying The Six Thatchers was a rough start of this new series, but it was definitely an uneven episode. The first half of this episode is obviously based on the classic story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons. What sets this apart most from the original story, besides the fact that the statues are now of Thatcher, are the many scenes with Watson and Mary as young parents, and the initial case that brings Sherlock on the trail of the Six Thatchers (which are basically unrelated events). There is an interesting-sounding impossible situation here, where the son of a Cabinet Minister is discovered dead inside a car parked in front of the house, even though he was presumed to be on a gap year in Tibet. The solution is a bit unpolished. I like the premise of how this impossibility came to be, but the way the story basically decides to handwave away the reason why the son died in the first place is at best sloppy.

As often happens in Sherlock, the second half then adds a twist to the original story it is based on. I've seen a lot of people describe this part of The Six Thatchers as James Bond. I am not sure whether I'll go along with that, but there is certainly a shift from problem-solving with the mind, to a much more action-packed formula. Of course, a good mystery story can still be full of action: many storylines in series like Detective Conan or Spiral are about detectives trying to outsmart each other in life-or-death situations. This is not the case in The Six Thatchers though. In the end, the story does come back to what I thought was a decent, even if not particularly original mystery plot about a traitor in the government, that at least had some similarities to the plots of Sherlock episodes in earlier series. The episode ends on a downer note however.


The Six Thatchers left Watson in a very dark place, so it is no surprise that The Lying Detective starts off with a seperated dynamic duo. Watson still hasn't recovered from the shock of the previous episode, while Sherlock has gone back to his drug habits. But then a new case presents itself to him. Based on information offered by the daughter, he has learned that famous entrepeneur and philantropist Culverton Smith is in fact a murderer. Sherlock becomes obsessed with the problem of Culverton Smith as his drug abuse worsens, much to the dismay of landlord Mrs. Hudson who tries to get Watson to look after his friend. As Sherlock's condition becomes worse, accussing Smith of being a serial killer, Watson and Sherlock's other friends start to wonder whether Sherlock has lost it all to drugs.

As the title suggests, this episode is based on The Dying Detective, and people who know that story can probably guess how this story will end. Like series 2's The Hounds of Baskerville, The Lying Detective is a modern adaptation that stays surprisingly faithful to the original story in spirit from start to finish (as opposed to the first half/second half set-up like seen in The Six Thatchers). So in broad terms, The Lying Detective should offer few surprises storywise, but this episode was in fact one of the trickiest, but also most satisfying episodes of the whole series. The Culverton Smith plot is neatly woven with the overarching storyline of the main characters, resulting in good character studies where we see the members of the cast cope with the events of The Six Thatchers, but not at the expense of an entertaining mystery plot. In terms of direction and visual effects, The Lying Detective is also the MVP of this series,  as it keeps the viewer on their toes with flashbacks, tricky directon and more of the videogame-like presentation we've learned to love (which was strangely subdued in this series, save for The Lying Detective). This is a perfect example of how to do a new take on a classic Sherlock Holmes story, but in its own new context (in this case, as a Sherlock episode). The episode with (once again) a cliffhanger ending involving Watson, featuring a reveal I find both neat, and badly done. The facts which are revealed are entertaining (if a bit farfetched), but it also presented as if Watson/the viewer should, or could have seen it coming, but there were definitely no precise, mathematical "1 + 1 = 2" hints to lead to that conclusion.

With the existence of a certain character unveiled in the previous episode, series finale The Final Problem has Sherlock, Watson and brother Mycroft make their way to a maximum security institution in an attempt to make sense of the events that happened of late. They are lured into a trap though, and the three are forced to play in a series of games that play with the very essence of Sherlock as a person.


The Final Problem is a problem case. In a way, it represents exactly the things I don't like about Sherlock. I like the characters of the show, but that does not mean I want to see a series solely about those characters. Sherlock of course always had this tendency, and it became more apparent starting with series 3, but more often than not, Sherlock and Watson were the focal point of the stories. Not just as the main cast, but I mean that they had personal stakes in the episodes. Backstory this, character development that. They are fictional characters and of course the world is built around them, but that doesn't also need to be the focus of the series, I think. Not every story has to be personal, not every story has to be related to about character development. Using the "Now it's personal" card every time weakens things. Just let me see the characters interact as they are working on something else. But The Final Problem is this problem in extremis. Sherlock is at the center of the universe, everything revolves around Sherlock, everything only has meaning because of Sherlock. The whole plot of this episode is about a character so obsessed with Sherlock they come up with the most convoluted plan? bullying? scheme ever and then organize a small scale Batman: Arkham Asylum and Saw crossover to show to the viewer what kind of character Sherlock is. Seriously, most of the Saw challenges involved don't even ask much of Sherlock's brain, but are just there to show off sides of his personality. It is the ultimate example of having a story revolve around the main character in such an absurd and exaggerated manner possible (one could argue that a character like Moriarty did the same; however he had other motives besides just messing with Sherlock). I have seen people being very positive about this episode precisely because it's all about Sherlock and it's emotional investing and stuff, but to me, this was going way too far into this character-moe territory.

To me, episodes like The Sign of Three and the aforementioned The Lying Detective were good examples of still doing character-focused stories, without sacrificing a mystery plot that could also stand strongly on its own merit. Ideally, these episodes should be the standard for 'character-focused' stories in this series I think, with the 'normal' episodes obviously less involved, focusing more on the mystery plots. The Final Problem in comparison is a story with Sherlock, about Sherlock, for Sherlock. It's a development I also see in  for example the Ace Attorney game series, which started out as basically a courtroom mystery short story collection featuring a defense attorney as its protagonist, but has slowly become a courtroom mystery game about the main cast.

The one thing I did like about this episode, was when Featured Character showed how they managed to escape from their holding cell, as that was a great visual trick played on both the characters and the viewers at home. And on a sidenote, why do they keep saying Mycroft is the smart one, if EVERYBODY always gets the better of him and he's made to carry the idiot ball in basically every episode he appears in? Seriously, is there anything he has done that has not backfired in the most obvious of ways possible?

On the whole, I'd say series 4 of Sherlock was the most uneven one until now. While acting was on a high point, I thought overall direction and presentation was a bit subdued compared to previous series, with The Lying Detective being the fantastic exception. The pronounced focus on the main cast is something that I at least don't like as a trend, with The Final Problem being the embodiment of what I didn't want to see from this series. Unlike previous series finales, The Final Problem does not feature any real set-ups for a future series, leading to speculation that this might be the last we'll see from Sherlock and Watson. I'm still not sure how I feel about that. Series 4 is to me both a high and low point, so at one hand I'd love to see more of the quality of The Lying Detective, and on the other hand I dread more Final Problems. Series 4 is what it is, but I have no idea what future Sherlock could be.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Misty Mystery

会えない… 
長い長い日曜日 
あなたをずっと待ってるだけ
「会えない長い日曜日」(藤本美貴)

I can't see you... 
On this long, long Sunday 
I'm stuck waiting for you
"The Long Sunday We Couldn't Meet" (Fujimoto Miki)

Useless fact of the day: the Japanese magazine Shounen Sunday, which is the home of series like Detective Conan, is released every Wednesday, not Sunday.

Chizuru is a second-year student in junior high who goes to a Catholic girls academy. One day, her mother gives her five vouchers for the Yotsuya Culture Center, telling her daughter to take the cooking class there. In the class, Chizuru is grouped together with three other girls of the same age. Moodmaker Momo, gamer Maki and silent, but intelligent Kimiko and Chizuru all appear to have nothing in common, but they grow closer during their cooking class, especially because something curious happens that piques the group's interests. After their initial cooking class, the group decides to try out different classes together, using the remaining four vouchers each of them have. And so begins a tale of four girls in Van Madoy's short story collection Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni ("The Land of Our Dreams On Sunday", 2016).

Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni ("The Land of Our Dreams On Sunday"), which also carries the alternate English title Sunday Quartet, was written by Van Madoy (or Madoi Ban), who first debuted with the Revoir series, a young adult mystery novel featuring the unique setting of a private underground court in Kyoto. Since then however, his works have become more and more accessible, with more normal settings. And for some reason, his protagonists also become younger and younger, as we started with university students, and then went from high school students to a group of junior high students in this book.  I am expecting kids in elementary school in his next book.

Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni is a short story collection featuring so-called everyday life mysteries, a subgenre that mixes the mystery genre with the slice-of-life genre. So we don't see gruesome murders, but mysteries you and I might come across in our everyday life.  These stories are often whydunnits, and look into seemingly weird situations. The difficulty with this subgenre is that the mystery needs to be attractive to the reader, but also 'normal' enough to fit the slice-of-life theme. One of the best stories I've read in this genre is the short story Oishii Cocoa no Tsukurikata ("How to Make Delicious Chocolate Milk") featured in Yonezawa Honobu's Shunki Gentei Ichigo Tart Jiken ("The Spring Special Strawberry Tart Case"). The mystery there is that of how a person managed to make the perfect cup of chocolate milk using a limited set of tools, but the way it unfolds is no less serious and logical than any mystery story by Ellery Queen. But I have also often read everyday life mystery stories where the mystery is not very attractive, often because it's not defined properly, making it hard to judge whether it's a true mystery story or not.

In general, the lack of truly attractive everyday life mysteries is what most stories in Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni have in common. The opening story, Leftovers, is about the cooking class where our four protagonists first meet. Money is stolen from one of the older participants, but the teacher decided to pay the money back to the victim from his own wallet and then let the whole thing go. Considering how much one class pays him (not much), it doesn't make any sense why he would decide to do that instead of finding out who did steal the money. The solution to this question is okay, though the one problem with this subgenre is that it seldom feels 'satisfying' as often both the mystery itself, as well as the solution don't feel conclusive. Often, you feel like anything could've have happened, and the solution often feels a bit arbitrary.

Stories like Ishin Denshin ('Telepathic Restoration') and Ikutabimo Regret ("Countless Regrets") in particular feature 'problems' that don't really work well in the mystery genre. In the first example, the girls decide to deduce what the history teacher had planned to say in his class about the Bakufu system, before he collapsed mid-class and was taken away to the hospital. While a decent tale on its own, it's barely a mystery story, as it is so open and not designed as something be truly solved. The same holds for Ikutabimo Regret, where the girls have to write an ending to an unfinished story for their writing class, and each of them is hoping to find the "correct" ending.

Ifu Senkin, Nifu Genkin ("One Pawn Is Worth A Thousand Generals, Two Pawns Are Strictly Forbidden") has a slightly more defined mystery. The title refers to the rule that with the board game shougi, you are not allowed to put two pawns on the same file (vertical row). Yet that is exactly what Momo is trying to pull off in her shougi class. The story starts with the reveal that Momo is doing an awful lot to pull off that forbidden move, and the rest of the stories slowly explains why. Not a remarkable mystery story by any standard, but I did think this was one of the better-defined stories.

The final story, Ikinari wa Egakenai ("Can't Draw Suddenly") has the four girls finding a crumpled up piece of paper with a beautiful sketch looking down through the clouds at the Imperial Palace. Some dirt stuck on the back of the paper however reveal the words "Help me." The girls naturally decide to find out what the deal is behind the sketch, but how? I thought this story was very fun, as it showed how each of the girls had grown over the course of the book, and the parts where the girls deduce where the sketch must have come from were pretty interesting, but there was no way the reader could've deduce that truth. The reader is only along for the ride here and just have to see how the girls explain all the discoveries they made when they weren't on the proverbial stage. So interesting concept, but not without flaws.

As you will probably understand by now, Nichiyou wa Akogare no Kuni was not exactly what I was looking for. I do think it works quite well as a youth novel, with a light touch of mystery, as the way the girls are portrayed, and especially the way the classes and their companionship changes them, is amusing. But as a mystery short story collection, it's just not engaging enough. Oh, but I did love the cover art!

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『日曜は憧れの国』: 「レフトオーバーズ」 / 「一歩千金二歩厳禁」 / 「維新伝心」 / 「幾度もリグレット」 / 「いきなりは描けない」

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Secret Code

見えそうで見えない
キミの心のなか
過去は気にしない
タイプだけれど
「Secret Code」(KinKi Kids)

I thought I could see it, but no, I can't
Inside the depths of your heart
But I'm not the type
Who minds the past anyway
"Secret Code" (KinKi Kids)
 
The thing with serialized series like Detective Conan is that there's quite a lag between the first publication of the individual chapters, and the collected volumes. That's why a story about buying bathing suits and bikinis is published in the middle of December...

As volume 91 of Detective Conan was released mid-December 2016, I had hoped to do this review just before the new year, but the mail was rather slow at the end of the year, as I had feared. This volume starts off with the continuation of The Legend of the Nue of Yadori Village, which started in the previous volume. Osaka-bred high school student detective Hattori and childhood friend Kazuha invite Conan and Ran to come along with Hattori's latest job to Yadori Village. Local legend has it that the hidden Tokugawa gold can be found here, but some years ago, an unfortunate accident resulted in the death of one of the treasure hunters inside a mine. When asked what he saw in the mine just before he died, he replied with the word Nue, the name of a chimaera-like youkai with the head of a monkey, the legs of a tiger, the body of raccoon dog and a snake for its tail. Since then, people stayed away from the area, in fear of the Nue. The mayor of Yadori Village wants to reinvigorate the area however, and he hopes to start a new boom in treasure hunting for the Tokugawa Gold and youkai lovers, so he has invited several people known for treasure hunting, youkai experts and a detective like Hattori to create a new promotion video which should lure in new visitors.

The party is staying in an old abandoned hotel, where the dog of the deceased treasure hunter is also living. On the first night however, the gang is surprised by a horrible cry, followed by a fire just outside the hotel, and when they get outside, they see a gigantic monster standing next to the hotel. Following the monster inside the surrounding forest, Conan and Hattori find one of the party members killed, with horrible slashes across his body. But the night isn't over yet when the Nue strikes again, this time inside a locked room...

Overall a story with good, creepy atmosphere. The truth behind the Nue appearance isn't difficult to guess, I think, and I liked the fundamental ideas behind how the Nue was given life, but I really have my doubts about how feasible the trick is. The locked room murder was clever, though I think figuring out the whole deal about how it was pulled off is a bit difficult based on the hints given. One part of the magic for example involves something I sorta heard about once, but I could never have guessed it could be used in this way, and it kinda comes out of nowhere. The story also ends with a very short introduction of a new, recurring character with a tie to Hattori who will also play an important role in the 2017 Detective Conan theatrical release. The way she is shown is utterly ridiculous and feels incredibly forced.

The second story, The Contents of the Puzzle Box, has a widow asking old Suzuki Jiroukichi for help. Her husband left her an old puzzle box, with a grand Moonstone inside.The problem is that she doesn't know how to open the (booby-trapped) box. She knows her husband had hidden a note with the way to open it inside one of his books, but she could never find it and his books are now donated to the Suzuki Grand Library. Because Jiroukichi can't find the note either, and doesn't know how to open the box, he decides to lure phantom thief KID to his library, challenging him to open the box to steal the Moonstone (Jiroukichi of course plans to catch KID after he has opened the box). The story is part impossible situation, part whodunit. The impossible angle comes from the fact nobody is able to find the note, even though the widow is sure it's inside of her husband's collection (of at least 10.000 books). The solution is kinda hard to swallow: I really doubt that the trick would've gone undetected in a serious search. The whodunit angle comes from the fact KID is (as always) disguised as someone of the main cast. The clues pointing to KID's identity are fairly simple this time, and I think most people will figure them out, though I think they are done in a decent manner that does show that the visual medium does offer a lot of possibilities not available to 'normal' novels.
 
A Secret Code Across Time is set at Teitan Elementary School, where Conan's class is introduced to Wakasa Rumi, a new assistant teacher who'll be working together with teacher Kobayashi. Conan and the Detective Boys accompany their teacher to the old shed, because she's too afraid to go on her own inside the decrepit building, which hasn't been used for a decade. While searching for the materials she needs, Conan discovers a skeletonized body inside the cellar room, as well as a mysterious piece of paper with some kind of coded message. It appears the deceased was a thief who had died inside that cellar ten years ago, and that the code might be connected to his loot, but as Conan investigates the case, he fails to notice that his new teacher Wakasa might be more than she appears at first sight....

First of all, I'm not sure whether I should be surprised or not that Teitan Elementary School has been the home to a dead body for ten years, without anyone discovering it. I think I should be more surprised than I actually am. I am usually fairly indifferent about code cracking stories, but this one gets bonus points because I got a fairly good idea of the premise behind it fairly quickly. I do like several very plausible-looking theories are proposed as to how the code should be interpreted, and that the final solution incorporates elements of all the earlier theories. The story does forces the idiot ball on several characters though, including Conan.

Volume 91 ends with the first two chapters of The Message Of The Fitting Room, which is about Ran, Sonoko and Sera in bathing suits a woman strangled inside the fitting room of a clothing boutique and the dying message she left with the fingers. I have an idea of what the message might mean, but I won't learn about the solution until the next volume, which will be released in April (together with the 2017 Detective Conan film). This story also serves as a hook for an important story in the next volume, which should finally show us the details about how Sera actually first met Conan and Ran when they were kids (which had been hinted at for quite some time now).

Detective Conan 91 was fairly subdued compared to the previous volume, in which most stories had some connection to the plotline of Conan chasing after the mysterious character RUM. Things are not as tense in this volume, with amusing, but predictable stories with Hattori and KID, and a brief introduction to two new female characters who probably turn out to be very important later. Considering the preview, and the fact it's the volume released together with the 2017 film, I expect volume 92 will be a much more densely packed volume, so let's consider this one the enjoyable silent moment before the storm.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第91巻

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

La Demeure mystérieuse

炎と燃えさかる私のこの愛
あなたにだけはわかってほしい
絆で私をつつんで・・・
「炎の宝物」 (Bobby)

This love of mine burns like a flame
I hope only you will understand
Embrace me with a bond with you...
"A Treasure of Flames" (Bobby)

I often comment on the covers of Japanese releases here, but I have to say, today's review has easily one of the best I've ever seen. People who are familiar with anime will probably recognize the style immediately.

In the outskirts of Nagasaki stands an old Western-style mansion, with a clock tower on top, It was built in the final years of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) as a country villa by a wealthy man with a love for clocks. Rumors say he had a secret maze built inside the building to hide his treasures, and that he had actually gone missing inside the maze, with nobody being able to even find the entrance to the secret passages to save him. Just a few decades later, around the transition from the Meiji to the Taishou period (which started in 1912), a former servant of the household had gotten into possession of the mansion, but she was murdered in her bedroom by one of her adopted children. Since then, the building has been without an owner, and the people in the neighboring village started calling it the Phantom Tower. Six years after the murder, young Kitagawa Mitsuo finds himself wandering through this haunted mansion, as it recently became the possession of his uncle, who intends to make it his home. While Mitsuo is checking out what needs to be renovated, he finds a beautiful, mysterious woman in the room where the murder took place. Akiko, as her name turns out to be, explains she knows how to handle the mechanism of the clock tower and says she'd love to meet Mitsuo's uncle. But who is this woman, and why was she in the Phantom Tower in the first place? Little did Mitsuo know that this first meeting with the mysterious woman would turn into a grand adventure in Edogawa Rampo's Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower", 1937).

Yuureitou is probably one of the better known novels by Edogawa Rampo, father of the Japanese detective story. But that is not only because it is a novel by Rampo, as there is a a whole convoluted history behind this novel. This book was originally published in 1937, but this was actually an extensive reimagined version of Kuroiwa Ruikou's Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower"), first serialized in 1899-1900 in Kuroiwa's own newspaper Yorozu Chouhou. I don't write that often about Kuroiwa, but he's an important figure in early Japanese fiction: he was a journalist/publisher/translator/writer, who often translated Western novels (w/o actually securing the rights, mind you) for serialization in his (common-people-oriented) newspaper. But his translations are actually best described as adaptations, as Kuroiwa freely changed things in a story to suit his own preferences. But his adaptations were very readable, and popular among. He famously translated Dumas' Le Comte de Monte-Cristo for example as Gankutsuou, "The King of the Cavern", which is still a common Japanese title for the book. Kuroiwa's Yuureitou made such an impression on young Rampo in his youth, that he later decided to write his own version of it (Rampo did ask for permission from Kuroiwa's relatives, by the way).

What's confusing is that Kuroiwa blatantly lied about the original story he translated it from. In the introduction to his Yuureitou, he explained the original work was titled Phantom Tower, by a Miss Bendinson. This was just an fanciful invention however. The real original title was A Woman in Grey, a 1898 novel by Alice Muriel Williamson (there's also a silent serial film based on the book available). But as noted, Kuroiwa's Yuureitou was not an exact translation: the characters in Kuroiwa's version for example all had Japanese names (despite still being set in England!), and Kuroiwa also changed details of the story to make it more exciting for his readers (in general, he placed more an emphasis on the exciting parts of the story, meaning that the first half of the story was shortened, but the latter half was extended). So in short, this story started out as The Woman in Grey, was freely translated/adapted by Kuroiwa Ruikou, and then again reinvisioned by Edogawa Rampo, with both Kuroiwa and Rampo adding and changing things to suit their own style (Rampo's version is set completely in Japan, and he too changed the flow of the story among other details).

As a gothic thriller, Rampo's Yuureitou is fairly amusing. It's very much a Rampo-work, I'd say, with both the good and bad qualities of most Rampo stories. For example, this story is fun to read. As in, every time I think I'm going to stop now, but I feel enticed to read just a bit more. Rampo was a great writer in the sense of writing easy, but captivating texts. This is also true for Yuureitou. Part of this is because this was written as a serialized story, so each installment had to be able to lure new readers. On the other hand, this is also where Rampo's writings sometimes stumble, and that's also the case with Yuureitou, as the story can be repetitive at times (recap moments for new readers), and some events are perhaps not forgotten, but kinda disappear to the background, making the story at times seem more like a series of discrete events, rather than a straight line of cause-and-effect. I'd make the argument though that this problem is less apparent than usual with Yuureitou, as Rampo obviously had the Kuroiwa version available as a guideline.

As with many of Rampo's later stories, Yuureitou is not a straight-up mystery thriller novel, but also features elements of the adventure novel and even science-fiction works. While there is a murder in this book, it's not the main mystery, as that revolves around the mysterious Akiko and the secrets of the clock tower, but even so, I have to admit I think this story feels a bit different from most other Rampo novels I've read. It has a more distinct gothic feel to it, probably because of the original story underneath. Sure, it has typical Rampo elements like an adventurey feel to the flow of the events, but whereas a lot of Rampo's novels are actually set in urban environments, this book is mostly set around the Phantom Tower, with a focus on Akiko and the past of the Phantom Tower. I wouldn't say it's not Rampo-ish, but Yuureitou does put its weight in different places than usual. Reading it as a mystery novel will probably result in some disappointment, as most of the plot twists can be read miles away. It is definitely an old-fashioned story, with plot twists that are rather predictable (I suspect they were even back in 1939), but Rampo still manages to present it in an entertaining way. 

The clock tower plays a big role in this story, obviously. Kuroiwa didn't change the title from The Woman in Grey to The Phantom Tower for nothing, and Rampo even expanded upon the theme of a phantom tower and its secret passages in his version of the story. In fact, the clock tower would prove to become a very important part of animation history. Like I mentioned at the start of this post, the version of Yuureitou I read featured a special cover by none other than the renowed film director Miyazaki Hayao. The (former) Studio Ghibli director famous for animated features like (Academy Award winner) Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Laputa Castle in the Sky, was a big fan of Rampo's Yuureitou. In 1979, he directed his first animated feature, Lupin III: The Castle of Caglistro, based on the Lupin III franchise (he had directed episodes of the TV series). The climax of this (classic adventure!) film is set at... a mysterious clock tower with a secret. This climax scene also formed an inspiration for the scene in Disney's 1989 animated feature The Great Mouse Detective (and in turn also the climax in the Batman: The Animated Series episode The Clock King). So in a way, the clock tower from A Woman in Grey has been a surprising part of popular culture throughout time. I actually wonder whether a game series like Clock Tower was also partly inspired by Yuureitou (the first game too featured a clock tower with secret passageways).

In 2015 Miyazaki opened an exhibit at the Ghibli Museum in honor of Yuureitou: he had designed and built his own model of the titular Phantom Tower, and wrote a short comic introducing the history behind the novel, and explaining about his own meeting with the novel. What's more, he even drew several (detailed!) storyboard pages for the first scenes of the book, explaining how he would animate it (he does note he won't do it though). All this material he created for his exhibit is included in this hardcover version of Yuureitou, published in 2015 (in full-color/high grade paper). For Miyazaki fans, this version is certainly a treat. I'm personally a big fan of Miyazaki's comic art, which is actually quite different from his style in his animated features (his comics are overly detailed, something you can't do in animation), and it's great to see how he envisioned the Phantom Tower.

I would not even dare to suggest Yuureitou is a classic of mystery fiction, but it is definitely an amusing read, even if a bit predictable and simple. But this particular version, with Miyazaki's beautiful artwork providing a commentary on the story and visualizing the image of book, is definitely something special. For people interested in both Rampo and Miyazaki, I can recommend this wholeheartedly.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩(原)、宮崎駿(絵) 『幽霊塔』

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Turnabout Memories - Part 6

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember" 
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories 

Like always, I end the year on this blog with a look back of the posts this year, because that is of course what happens every blog. I noted last year that there is usually a long waiting list of to-be-published posts because of the way I schedule updates. That still holds for this year actually, and I think maybe something close to 18 months might've passed since I originally read/watch/listened/smurfed the subject before the review actually appeared on the blog. So my memories can be a bit vague. Anyway, as always, this post features a round-up of reviews and other posts that made an impression on me, with categories made up as I go. Anyway, that wraps it up for this year (though I might sneak another Detective Conan review in before the end of the year!), and hope to see you next year!


Best Project Outside The Blog!
The Moai Island Puzzle

Okay, this was an easy one. Last year, I was honored to be the translator of Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders, published by Locked Room International. This summer, LRI published Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle, once again translated by me. I first read the novel back in 2012, and absolutely loved it as a brilliant puzzle plot mystery that did Queen better than Queen ever did, but also with characters I really liked. So I was thrilled I was able to work once again on a novel I loved, and to be a part of the process in bringing Japanese mystery fiction to the English-reading world. Obviously, I was also happy to see both major outlets like The Washington Post and Publisher's Weekly, and fellow mystery lovers write positively about it.You haven't read it yet? Go read it!

Best Non-Review Post! Of 2016!
Arsène Lupin in Japan

I write very few non-review posts, though they're usually fairly well-received, as far as I can judge. That's usually more a matter of having trouble making a coherent, structured posts on my ideas than not having any ideas. So perhaps I really should try to do my best more on features like this. Anyway, this year, we had three of them on the blog. One was about the matter of what  "Solving a fair-play story" means to readers: based on what criteria do you think you 'won' from the author, and when is a story fair? But what I enjoyed best writing was my little look into the history of Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin in Japan. It was a very short piece, but this feature actually had a structure I had planned in advance, going from a look into older thief characters, to publishing history and other series which were in turn influenced by Lupin (as you may have guessed, I always write my reviews/other posts just as I go). It might be interesting to do something similar for Ellery Queen in Japan or Christie, now I think about it. The other non-review post was a tribute to the Dark Shadow figure in visual mystery fiction. Which was also a lot of fun to write, though it was mostly a lighthearted article.

Best Mystery Film Seen In 2016 Featuring Animals I Forgot To Write A Review About
Zootopia

Disney's Zootopia (or Zootropolis, depending on your region) is a buddy cop mystery film set in Zootopia, a city where animals, predator and prey, like together in harmony. It might not be super-surprising as a mystery story, but it is a really tightly plotted, amusing story that stays interesting from start to finish. And yes, this category exists solely to namedrop Zootopia, because I meant to write a review about it but totally forgot (Meitantei Pikachu was also an interesting mystery with animal-like creatures, but that was a game).

Most Interesting Game Played In 2016! But Probably Older!
Gyakuten Saiban 6

To be honest, I didn't think I had played that many mystery games this year, but I arrived at quite a number when I finished counting. Some of them were great (Net High, Meitantei Pikachu), some of them decent (J.B. Harold Murder Club), some of them flawed as a game (Root Letter). The choice of Gyakuten Saiban 6 ("Turnabout Trial 6"/ Ace Attorney: Spirit of  Justice) was however an easy one. The quality of these comedy courtroom drama mystery games has always been very high, but the introduction of the supernatural Water Mirror mechanic, which shows whatever the victim themselves saw in the moments before their death, is fantastic, leading to innovative and surprising ideas for mystery plots. The major flaw of the game is that it is too connected to previous games, with the series protagonists hogging too much of the spotlight, but still, as a mystery game, this was easily my favorite of the year.

Some of the non-mystery games I enjoyed this year: I played all five Sakura Taisen ("Sakura Wars") games early this year, and loved them. I had already played the first two games once in the past, but didn't mind playing them again, as the character-focused SRPG is really fun. SEGAGAGA was a fantastic RPG/simulation game on the DreamCast by SEGA, about the final days of the DreamCast and SEGA has a hardware maker. Only SEGA could've made this, as they make fun of themselves and the whole industry in a surprising way. Really a must-play for SEGA fans. Another great game on the DreamCast was Roommania #203, where you play the role of a god of an apartment room, guiding a student living on his own through adventures of love, thrill and suspense. Hako Boy - Mou Hitohako ("Box Boy - One Extra Box") was a fantastic sequel to the original puzzle game on the 3DS. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (PS Vita) and Grandia (PS) were both enjoyable RPGs, while Danganronpa Another Episode was a fun action-puzzle game set in the Danganronpa world. The Walking Dead Season One (PS Vita) had a great character-focused story, though as a game it felt a bit lacking. Finally, Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3 - Kowareyuku Machi to Kanojo no Uta ("City in Crisis - The Town Falling Down and Her Song", PSP) was what you'd expect from a game by IREM: perhaps a bit limited in design, but very funny and with loads of personality. And great vocal music too!

Favorite Trick of 2016!
Gyakuten Saiban 6 

This is a hard one. Ashibe Taku's short story French Keibu to Raimei no Shiro definitely had a great trick behind the murder for example, which was also tied to a shocking reveal. Ayatsuji Yukito's short story Dondonbashi, Ochita was similarly very shocking and memorable. From the same author came also the TV production Nazotoki Live - Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken at the start of the year, which featured a great gimmick played on the viewer at home. The brilliance of that one was that the moment of the reveal: the last few seconds revealed a fact that turned the whole case upside down, but it was at the same time also the last hint needed to solve the case. In the end, I have to go with a certain trick played in the final episode of the 3DS game Gyakuten Saiban 6 as my favorite trick of this year. Note that different from last year, this category is about favorite tricks, not best. The trick behind the locked room murder in the final episode is, on its own, a fairly predictable one considering the theme of this game, I think, but what I really liked about this story is that it doesn't explain everything behind how it was pulled off. The narrative skips the explanation of some of the actions taken by the murderer(s) on purpose. This would usually be considered something negative, but it works here because of the design: the game contains hints and comments with which the player themselves can solve the last remaining questions themselves. This means the main narrative can get away with a bit of streamlining, as it skips over some minor points, but the curious player can figure out the details behind the trick of they choose to do so. It's this design choice in particular that I love, as replayability is something you seldom see in mystery fiction in general (not just games).

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
- Detective Conan - The Darkest Nightmare (Director: Shizuno Koubun)
- Gyakuten Saiban 6 ("Turnabout Trial 6") (Director: Yamazaki Takeshi)
- Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten Idol ("Turnabout Trial -  Turnabout Idol") (Takase Mie)
- Meitantei Pikachu - Shin Combi Tanjou ("Great Detective Pikachu - Birth Of A New Duo")
- Aibou 14, Ep. 17: Butsurigakusha to Neko ("Partners 14, Ep. 17A Physicist and his Cat") (Scenario: Tokunaga Tomihiko)
- Tsumiki no Tou ("A Tower of Blocks") (Ayukawa Tetsuya)
- Arang-un Wae ("Arang, Why?") (Kim Young-ha)
- Kimenkan no Satsujin ("The Strange Masks House Murders") (Ayatsuji Yukito)
- Misshitsu Satsujin Game ("Locked Room Murder Game") (Utano Shougo)
- The Footprints of Satan (Norman Berrow)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Trials & Tribulations

"The miracle never happen (sic)"
"Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney - Justice for All"

And it's the final review in this month of legal mystery fiction. Of which most were actually stage plays. Weird things happen on this blog sometimes.

The Hero of Heroes show, where the best TV superhero is elected, is held in the Bandou Hotel, and defense attorney Naruhodou, his assistant Mayoi and her cousin Harumi are present too to watch the show live. However, Fujimino Isao, actor of the hero Ninja Nanja is found murdered in his dressing room and suspicion falls on Outorou Shingo, actor of the hero Tonosaman Hei. Amidst the chaos, an unknown person kidnaps Mayoi, and the kidnapper’s demands are that Naruhodou is to act as Outorou’s attorney, and that he should get Outorou a Not Guilty verdict, because the kidnapper doesn’t like to see Outorou hang for a crime he didn’t commit. Naruhodou has no choice but to defend Outorou, who swears he really didn’t kill Fujimino. The best way to get Outorou off the hook is of course finding out who did kill Fujimino, but the investigation leads into a maze with professional killers, a dirty past between Fujimino and Outorou and even a ghost from Naruhodou’s own past. Can Naruhodou win the trial and save Mayoi’s life in the 2015 stage play Gyakuten Saiban – Saraba Gyakuten (“Turnabout Trial – Farewell, My Turnabout”)?

This stage play is a sequel to the 2014 stage play Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten no Spotlight, and both based on the Gyakuten Saiban (Ace Attorney) courtroom mystery videogame series. While Gyakuten no Spotlight was an original story, Saraba Gyakuten is directly based on the final episode included in the second game.


In general, I’d say this play is the better one. This is mainly because the original story on which this play is based is really an exciting mystery story that fits the real-time format well. The kidnapping adds a sense of urgency, while the setting of a murder among hero actors fits the format of a stage play. The conclusion of the story was one of the most exciting, and captivating moments of the whole game series, nay, of courtroom drama mysteries in general, and that feeling is retained in this stage play. The series has always been about turning seemingly hopeless situations in the courtroom around, but few were ever so desperate as these, and the way everything is turned around is fantastic. As a pure murder mystery story, it is actually really not that special, but as a courtroom mystery, Saraba Gyakuten is something special and it translates well to this stage play.

But does this stage play have something to add to the original game story, as you might as well play the game, right? Well, I have to admit that this issue is a bit more difficult to decide on. In terms of acting and presentation, I’d say it’s basically the same compared to Gyakuten no Spotlight. The main cast is the same, even if  this time you see less of Mayoi (because she is kidnapped) and more of her cousin Harumi. I wouldn’t say the acting was much better or worse than with the first play, and in terms of presentation, I think this stage play had a few moments that were quite inspired (the way the backgrounds are used), but that never had really impressive moments like the action scenes or the video footage scene in the first play. The actor-audience interaction is also similar, so the one thing that really sets these two plays apart is the story. And while Saraba Gyakuten is definitely the better story, I think that Gyakuten no Spotlight made better use of the fact that is a stage play, and the fact it is a completely original story of course also scores points.


This is of course always a problem with adaptations. Do you want to adapt an existing story into a different medium, or do you want to do something new using the existing world? I personally prefer the latter in general and I do think that taken on the whole, Gyakuten no Spotlight is the more interesting play of the two, even if the mystery plot in general is not as good as Saraba Gyakuten. I can however imagine that a lot of fans of the Ace Attorney series will prefer Saraba Gyakuten, with the idea of that they always wanted to see this story in live-action. I did think that this play was a lot more tightly plotted than the previous one. Which is because it’s based on the game  scenario of course, but it at least didn’t feature scenes I thought were really useless in the grand picture, which the previous play did have.

Overall though, I think that fans of the series will be satisfied by Gyakuten Saiban - Saraba Gyakuten’s adaptation of the game.  It is a solid stage play that has a captivating story, and the actors do a good job at getting the audience involved with the dramatic events that unfold. If I had to choose, I’d say the first one is the more interesting and original one, but in terms of story, I think this one wins easily.

Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転裁判 さらば逆転』