Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Din And Bustle

"Spoilers! Goodbye, sweetie."
Doctor Who

One of the weirdly specific memories I have of my brief visit to Yokohama's Chinatown (the largest Chinatown in Japan) was how the waiters in the restaurants there were... not as polite as the ones you usually see in restaurants in Japan. They were not actually rude, mind you, but the way they placed the dishes we ordered on the table definitely made more noise than you'd normally expect in a restaurant in Japan!

After being rejected for the police academy, Qin Feng is told by his grandmother to go to Bangkok for a week of soothing the spirit. His uncle Tang Ren is supposed to be the greatest detective in Bangkok's Chinatown, which interests young Qin Feng, who is a big fan of mystery fiction. After arriving in Bangkok though, he learns his uncle is in fact basically just an underling of the local police sergeant, doing odd jobs or finding lost pets. The Bangkok Police Force is busy working on the murder on Sompat. Sompat was a member of a gang that managed to make off with a stash of gold of a powerful gangster called Mr. Yan, with Sampat being the one watching the loot, but when the police entered Sompat's workshop after a long stake-out, they discover Sompat was murdered, and the gold gone from the workshop. Surveillance camera footage of the single entrance to the building show that the only person to enter and leave the shop around the time of the murder was in fact Tang Ren, making him the prime suspect for the Sompat murder, as well as gold theft. While fleeing for the Bangkok Police Force, the original thieves of the gold and Mr. Yan's men, Qin Feng and Tang Ren try to figure out who the true murderer and thief is, and how they managed to enter and leave the workshop without being seen in the Chinese 2015 comedy-mystery film Tang Ren Jie Tan An, which also carries the official English title of Detective Chinatown.

Detective Chinatown was mentioned by a commentator of the blog a while back as a film that had more classic mystery influences than originally expected, and the summary told me it was (basically) a locked room murder, so I decided to give a try and it turned out to be a truly pleasant surprise, as it was definitely a competent mystery film.

I said it was basically a locked room murder mystery, because as you may have noticed from my summary, it technically isn't: Police investigation shows there was only one entrance to the crime scene, and footage from four (!) seperate security cameras show nobody entered or left the crime scene before or after the murder save for Tang Ren. So obviously, the whole problem only becomes an impossible situation only if you accept that Tang Ren is innocent and that thus the real murderer must have escaped the crime scene without being seen. The "It's only a locked room mystery if you accept that one character must be innocent" premise is something not uncommon in mystery stories (Carr's The Judas Window for example), but I do always hesitate about calling it a locked room mystery, as it completely shuts out the most obvious solution ("That one character *is* guilty"), often without any real (logical) reason.

Anyway, the locked room mystery is technically the main puzzle of the story, though it sometimes get pushed to the background between all the misadventures of Qin Feng and Tang Ren. That said though, it's actually a nicely plotted mystery. The trick behind the impossible disapperance of the true murderer is admittedly not very complex, yet effective and it is very competently clued, so an attentive viewer could've connected the dots themselves to come up with the solution. I've seen more elaborate variations of the same trick before, but it worked well here (especially as it's usually harder to do really complex locked room mysteries in the video format). The identity of the murderer themselves is a bit disappointing though, as Qin Feng and Tang Ren were pretty lucky to get on their trail in the first place.

Detective Chinatown is also a comedy(-action) film by the way, so Qin Feng and Tang Ren's efforts to find the murderer are often interrupted by their run-ins with any of the parties after them, often resulting in chaotic chases around Bangkok's Chinatown. It's a lot of physical comedy (think early Jackie Chan films) and in terms of atmosphere, the film kinda reminded me of Higashigawa Tokuya's work, even if in Detective Chinatown, the comedy is not intricitly connected to the actual mystery.

Qin Feng is presented as a big fan of mystery fiction, from the classics like Ellery Queen to modern writers like Higashino Keigo. We see this in his characterization, as he sometimes makes references to famous mystery stories. Which is good, until the moment here he spoils several novels!  No real mystery fan would simply spoil the main tricks of mystery novels like that! The most prominent ones he outright spoils are Aosaki Yuugo's Taiikukan no Satsujin and Utano Shougo's short story Kyuudousha no Misshitsu (collected in Misshitsu Satsujin Game), so beware if you have not read these stories. It's interesting though he references Japanese mystery novels (and relatively recent ones too!) in a Chinese film though, as it'd mean that Japanese mystery novels are fairly well known among the target public. I mean, can you see an American mystery film suddenly making a reference to a Japanese mystery novel?

So in short, Detective Chinatown turned out to be an entertaining mystery film, with a fairly satisfying locked room murder in a setting I had never seen before (Bangkok's Chinatown). My main issue with the film, besides the spoilers, would be that the film is just too long for the plot. The chase scenes and all are really nothing but padding, stretching a plot that could've worked perfectly in ninety minutes, into something longer than two hours, and while they're entertaining, one or two of those scenes could've easily been cut out to streamline the thing a bit. But all in all, I'd say any puzzle-plot mystery fan will find something to their liking with this movie.

Original Chinese title(s): "唐人街探案"

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Scarlet Thread of Murder

忍ぶれど 色に出でにけり わが恋は
物や思ふと 人の問ふまで

Even though I hide it / my face betrays / my love 
So obviously that people ask me / what is on my mind
(Poem by Taira no Kanemori)
It's always such a long wait between the theatrical release of the annual Detective Conan film, and the release on home-video. Especially if friends from Japan and South Korea already start talking about it in the spring....

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volumes 70, 72~76, 78, 82~93 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18), Sunflowers of Inferno (19) and The Darkest Nightmare (20) in the library)

A prestigious nation-wide karuta competition for high schools will be held in a few days and a television program to promote the High School Satsuki Cup and the Satsuki Association behind the competition is being recorded at a television studio in Osaka. Both high-school-student-detective-turned-child Conan and high-school-student-detective-born-'n-raised-in-Osaka Hattori find themselves present in the studio: Conan is there because the Sleeping Detective Mouri Kogorou is invited as a guest for the program, while Hattori and his childhood friend Kazuha are there to cheer for their classmate Mikiko, who will also appear in the show as one of the participants in the competition. A bomb threat, and the detonation of said bombs however completely destroy the television studio, while the police also learns that one of the most talented karuta players of the Satsuki Association and organizer of the television program was murdered in his home. Mikiko was injured during the evacuation from the television station, preventing her from playing karuta, so Kazuha has to take her place at the High School Satsuki Cup, which is still going to be held even though it appears the bomber is after everything and everyone connected to the Satsuki Association. One of the possible targets is Oo'oka Momiji, a beautiful girl whom many believe to be the future karuta queen (champion), and who also claims she's Hattori's fiancée....

Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter (2017) is the twenty-first theatrical feature of Detective Conan. The first Conan film, The Time-Bombed Skyscraper was released in 1997 as a side-project to the animated television adaptation of Aoyama Goushou's hit mystery comic, intended to be the definite theatrical adaptation of the series. The enormous success however turned this into an annual event, and so every April, a new Detective Conan film is released in Japanese theaters. And now we have number twenty-one. That means that there are adults out there who have only known a world where there's a new Detective Conan film released every year. And even though this is the twenty-first film, it appears the audience still hasn't had enough of them: last year's The Darkest Nightmare became the highest grossing film in the franchise, but The Crimson Love Letter managed to break that record this year. Who knows what will happen next year?

Multiple directors have worked on the film series in those twenty-one years and each brought their own distinct taste. Kodama Kenji was responsible for the first seven films, and his films are perhaps best described as truly a "theatrical adaptation of Detective Conan", as these were fairly classic whodunnit mystery films, with usually about two big action set pieces per film to give it the necessary "theatrical feature" feeling. When Yamamoto Yasuichirou took over, the mystery plots were simplified in favor of longer and larger action scenes, with many of his films set at unique locations like flying airplanes or blimps, ships out on sea or a snowy mountain to support his panic-action film direction. The current director of the Detective Conan films is Shizuno Koubun, who really enjoys over-the-top action scenes, even more so than Yamamoto. The whodunnit mystery plots were also downplayed to suit Shizuno's focus on the action, with for example 2013's Private Eye in the Distant Sea basically being a political acton thriller, while 2016's The Darkest Nightmare didn't feature a mystery plot at all, but turned out to be a James Bond-esque spy thriller with grand action scenes. While I did enjoy most of Shizuno's Conan films, it should be noted his films were seldom really detective films: they were amusing action thrillers, but still very different from what Kodama did in the first seven films.

But then I heard that Ookura Takahiro would be writing the screenplay this time, which was certainly interesting. Most of the other Conan films were written by screenplay writers who also write for the television anime series (The Phantom of Baker Street's Nozawa Hisashi is a famous exception), but Ookura is a mystery author best known for his Lieutenant Fukuie novel series. Wouldn't this mean that we'd be getting a traditional mystery film now, I thought. And then the film was released in April, and slowly but surely I saw people comparing The Crimson Love Letter with the older Kodama films, and I knew I had to see it for myself. Ookura would also pen a few episodes for the Detective Conan animated series by the way, with one episode in particular serving as the prologue to The Crimson Love Letter.

So the home video release is finally here, and lo, The Crimson Love Letter is indeed a very entertaining mystery film. And more! But the overall atmosphere is indeed close to the earlier films directed by Kodama, with the murder investigation, and the ongoing investigation into the bombing and the link to the Satsuki Associatoin serving as the main plot. While the details of the mystery plot might be a bit easy to guess as there are awfully few suspects, I think this is one of the very few Conan films of the last few years of which I'm sure I'm going to remember the culprit. The Kodama films all had very memorable culprits with interesting motives, but with the focus shift to action, many Conan films of the last ten years tended to have rather nondescript murderers: their stories were often overshadowed by the true final act of their respective movies, which were more often than not gigantic action set pieces with a lot of explosions, things getting shot down or simply the force of nature being not very kind, and these events were often outside the control of the culprit, meaning the true "end" of each film was seldom a confrontation against a murderer, but one against circumstances. By the time the cast had survived that ordeal, you'd have forgotten about the culprit already. The Crimson Love Letter however features a memorable culprit, gives them the time to expand on their motive, which fits nicely with the mystery plot that also uses the karuta theme in a meaningful manner.

People not familiar with karuta might find it a bit hard to get into the film at first though, as very little is explained about the game. It's a competetive card game, based on an anthology of hundred poems from the Heian period. A reader will read the first part of one of those hundred poems aloud, and the two participants race to find the corresponding card with the second part of the poem. The cards are laid down between the two participants, and strategies involve placing the cards on your half of the field in certain formations and of course memorizing each poem and where each card is placed. The Crimson Love Letter spins an entertaining mystery tale using this theme, but I argue you could also watch this film not as a detective film, but as a sports film. Kazuha is drafted early in the tale to take Mikiko's place in the High School Satsuki Cup, and as she has a rivalry going on with the current karuta champion Momiji, you have all the makings for a classic sports film about a girl going against the odds in a competive sport competition (and we even have intense training scenes!). The film might be a bit brief on topics like strategies and more in-depth themes, so someone who knows absolutely nothing about karuta might feel a bit left behind, but I think this sports-competition-movie element works wonderfully as a secondary plotline, giving The Crimson Love Letter a natural climax to work towards to, instead of just towards more explosions (don't worry, there are plenty of explosions in this film).

The Crimson Love Letter was also heavily promoted as a romantic comedy featuring the Osaka-bred duo Hattori and Kazuha and the film was quite fun to watch as a rom-com too. We have often seen the two bicker and still have their sweet moments, and there are definitely a lot of comedic scenes with those two in the film, making The Crimson Love Letter an easy film to watch even for those unfamiliar with the series. The new major element for this film is of course Momiji, a rich girl and talent at karuta who claims Hattori is her fiancé, and who makes a bet with Kazuha about who will be allowed to marry him. Readers of the original comics will be vaguely aware of Momiji too: she was first introduced in a single panel in a story featured in volume 91 and has since then only made a few cryptic appearences, each barely one page long, in the original comic. This film is actually the first time her character is explored and explained in any way, but it appears she'll be appearing more often in the future too. 

The Conan films are by the way not written by series creator Aoyama Goushou, but he is a pretty hands-on supervisor on these annual productions: the basic premise of each movie is always suggested by him, he always draws several key animation frames himself and he often offers plot ideas for these films that are closely connected to his own manga storyline. For example, the reason why Ran's parents live seperately is never explored in detail in the comics, but it is explained in the second film The Fourteenth Target, and as said, the manga has told us very little about Momiji at this point, as it is considered to be explained within The Crimson Love Letter, even if the comics don't refer directly to the events of this film. The comic also featured a story about the karuta poems around the time of the film's release.

Many will be tempted to compare The Crimson Love Letter with the fan-favorite Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (2003) as both films feature both Heiji and Kazuha in starring roles and the setting in both Osaka and Kyoto (and Kuraki Mai doing the ending song for both films). I'd say they do feel similar, but Crossroad in the Ancient Capital is also clearly a Kodama film, with its emphasis on the murder investigation and Conan clearly in the leading role, while The Crimson Love Letter in turn is also clearly a Shizuno film, with its impressive action set pieces and the courage to give the spotlight and the more prominent exploits of the film not only to Conan, but other characters too (as seen earlier in earlier films like Dimensional Sniper and The Darkest Nightmare). In fact, Conan has some nice action scenes too in this film, but he is not even really the protagonist.

Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter in short feels like a return to the atmosphere of the earlier Conan films, with the emphasis on the mystery plot and the characters rather than just the action scenes. Mind you, there are still some fantastically over-the-top action scenes here that seems to prove these characters aren't human anymore, but with its focus on the main mystery plot, and the sports-competition and romantic comedy elements added, The Crimson Love Letter feels like the best balanced, and most complete Conan film of the last decade.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン から紅の恋歌(ラブレター)』

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Limits of Truth

"My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.”
 "Forrest Gump"

"There must be something comforting about the number three, people always give up after three," Sherlock said in the episode The Lying Detective from Sherlock, and indeed, who would've thought I'd need to bring out the old The Three Great Occult Books tag out again, considering I already discussed all three books already? But as Sherlock pointed out, sometimes it's not just three.

The Three Great Occult Books
Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (The Black Death Mansion Murder Case) (1934)
Dogura Magura (1935)
Kyomu he no Kumotsu (Offerings to Nothingness) (1964) 

The Fourth Great Occult Book
Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku (Paradise Lost Inside A Box) (1978)

The declaration of Naru (nickname: Niles) that he planned to write a detective novel came as a surprise to his circle of friends. The members of the group, consisting of his twin brother Ran (nickname: Holland) and approximately ten other friends and acquaintances, had a love for mystery fiction in common, and affectionately referred to each other as "family". Nobody really knew what Niles' intentions were behind writing a novel using the "family " as the characters, and many of the family members looked forward to the novel titled How Was The Locked Room Made? That is, until a real mystery happens among the group of friends, and it appears this tragedy was already predicted by the events in Niles' novel. As Niles continues writing his novel, reality and fiction cross each other, with occurences in Niles' novel having an impact on the murder investigation in the real world, and vice versa. What is real and what is fiction in Takemoto Kenji's Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku ("Paradise Lost Inside A Box", 1978)?

The term sandaikisho, or The Three Great Occult Books, refers to three Japanese mystery novels considered to be the pinnacle of the anti-mystery genre, written before we readers all got used to terms like Post-Modernism, meta-physical mysteries or even anti-mystery. The books take on the form of a mystery novel, but deny the possibilities of the genre, basically taking the genre conventions to the extreme to show its limits. The term Three Great Occult Books is actually a play on the Four Great Classics from Chinese literature, but give another meaning to the word ki: In Chinese, the same word is used in the context of "outstanding", but in this Japanese instance, the word is used in the meaning of "strange", "occult" or "deviant".

Oguri Mushitarou's Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (1934) for example pretends to be a story about the investigation into a series of murders in a mansion, but is actually the ultimate pedantic novel. It's Philo Vance on crack here, as the detective takes up any occasion to blab about topics including (but not exclusively) occultism, mysticism, criminology, religions, astrology, astronomy, psychology, heraldry, medicine and cryptography. Symbolism is what drives the novel, as the detective keeps relating anything he sees or hears to some obscure topic in any of the aforementioned fields, resulting in an outrageously farfetched deduction.... which also turns out to be correct. It basically ridicules the concept of solving crimes based on evidence and logic by presenting incredibly farfetched deductions based on obscure facts and symbolism. Yumeno Kyuusaku's Dogura Magura (1935) in turn did away with the notion of reality in general: there is no straightforward narrative here as the reader, and the protagonist who might or might not be a mental patient is presented with contradicting documents, records and accounts from which they might or might not construct a murder case that might have happened in the past. Finally, Nakai Hideo's Kyomu he no Kumotsu (1964) is what Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case never dared to be: an utter deconstruction of the possibilities of deduction by having a group of people deduce the most fanciful, yet convincing theories about a death that might not even be a murder, and about a series of hypothethical murders that may or may not happen in the future because they think serial murders are more interesting and fun, while holding onto rules and tropes like having to come up with murder tricks that are completely original. Every theory seems plausible and the perfect solution until the next theory is introduced which seems even more brilliant, until the reader realizes that at this point any theory seems plausible, with no guarantee something is right.

And now to get back to the topic of this review: while the aforementioned books are referred to as The Three Great Occult Books, Takemoto Kenji's Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku is often considered the fourth book, as it not only derives a lot of inspiration from the three great books, but also continues the tradition of being an ambitious anti-mystery novel. The reader should be warned when reading this, as it has absolutely no intention on playing straight with the reader. The novel takes on the form of a mystery novel, but is closer to a post-modern experiment. That said, many Japanese mystery authors have cited this book as having great influence on them, including Ayatsuji Yukito and Inui Kurumi.

Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku is in short the cumulation of The Three Great Occult Books: it takes something substantional from each of those books to weave its own story of murder and mystery. The most iconic trick it plays on the reader is the fluid form of reality and fiction. In the prologue, Niles explains he's going to write How Was The Locked Room Made?, a novel based on real-life, featuring his friends as the characters. But from that point on, the reader is thrown into a mystifying maze, as they are presented with two contradicting narratives: in the uneven chapters, the reader is told one of the "family" members was murdered inside a locked apartment, and that the even chapters are excerpts from Niles' novel How Was The Locked Room Made?. But in those same even chapters, the family members are presented with an impossible disappearance from a locked room, and the events in the uneven chapters are considered to be from How Was The Locked Room Made?. Both narratives thus claim to be reality, and that the other is fiction. What makes things even more confusing is the fact that Niles' book is stated to alternate between chapters based on events that really happened to the "family" and Niles' own story, which means that basically all chapters included in the book are from How Was The Locked Room Made? and that characters sometimes refer to certain chapters that are supposed to be accurate accounts of "their" reality.

It's basically Inception.

The dual narrative structure, both accusing the other of being How Was The Locked Room Made?,  means that characters who die in one narrative, might still be alive in the other and vice-versa. For example, a character called Hikuma is the murder victim in the first chapter, but the same Hikuma is still very much alive in the second chapter, as both narratives consider the other fiction. It leads to the unique situation of having a character detect his own (fictional) death, as the even-chapters Hikuma himself is also curious as to how he died in the uneven chapters. Characters can also act differently across narratives, as Niles' characterization might not be perfect at times. Sometimes events that happen in the fictional world do also happen in the real world, strengtening the link between the two and blurring the boundaries. This play with the narrative and the characters, where you never really know what is real and what is fiction is similar to the effect Dogura Magura had, and at a certain point, the reader doesn't really mind anymore what's real or not. It's a very weird, alienating effect that gives this novel a unique feel.

The many battles of the wits from Kyomu he no Kumotsu are another form of the inspiration for Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku. In Kyomu he no Kumotsu, the characters entertained themselves by comparing their theories about the (hypothetical) murders with each other, setting up special rules like "only original ideas", "no accomplices" and "there have to be multiple murders". These battles of the wits were the driving force behind the plot, as we were presented I think at least four seperate elaborate solutions times four murders each. The "family" members in Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku do the same (they even say they are inspired by Kyomu he no Kumotsu), as each of them hopes to outsmart the others with some brilliant deduction about the mystery they're facing (the murder in the even chapters, and the disappearence in the uneven chapters).We are shown quite a lot of fairly interesting possible solutions to the impossible situations, and it's here when Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku feels most like a "normal" mystery novel, with people trying to solve the mystery. Some solutions are pretty neat actually, and could've worked perfectly for a standalone impossible crime story. That said though, it is also clear it's inspired by Kyomu he no Kumotsu and The Poisoned Chocolates Case, as each plausible theory is easily discarded by the reveal of some new fact, and replaced by another plausible theory, which in turn is also proved to be wrong, etcetera ad infinitum. Nothing is straightforward in this novel.

Indeed not, because the novel also borrows the pedantic mode from Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken. While not as vexing as in that book, the theories of some characters in Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku do feel very pedantic, referencing obscure topics from psychology, chemistry and even esotericism. Some characters will first go on on such themes for four, five pages, only to explain how that concept has parallels with their own situation, and then the application to show how they eventually arrived at their solution. I was relieved to see it never went as crazy as in Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, but this indulging in seemingly useless trivia can be quite hard to get through. Even Philo Vance would find it intrusive.

The title as the Fourth Great Occult Novel for Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku is definitely not undeserved. While it features common mystery novel tropes like locked room murders, impossible disappearances and a whole slew of imaginative solutions that would've been well-received if used in a normal mystery story, the tone of the anti-mystery genre still reigns at the end. The greatest prank it pulls on the reader is that it never lets you know what is real and what is fiction. You are never given certainty about what case you're supposed to be investigating (if there's any case at all), you don't know which characters are supposed to be dead, who is supposed to be alive or that they're supposed to be Schrödinger's cat. It is an extremely strange book, though I did like it. In terms of atmosphere, it resembles Kyomu he no Kumotsu a lot, which was by far my favorite of the Three Occult Books. Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku does leave you with a feeling of senselessness, as if it all had been for nothing, as it was just fiction, but as that was obviously what it set out to do, I can live with it. I would never recommend this book to someone with a "normal" interest in mystery fiction, but it might be interesting for someone who wants to delve more into post-modern mystery novels.

Original Japanese title(s): 竹本健治 『匣の中の失楽』

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Siren's Song

Once he hears to his heart's content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all
"Odyssey" (Robert Fagles translation)

Oh, man, it's been this long already since my last Kindaichi Shounen review?

Police inspector and accomplished amateur fisherman Kenmochi has entered a fishing competition which will be broadcast on television, and Hajime and Miyuki are tagging along to fill out the three-man team slots. The finals are held on Seiren Island, which is widely regarded as a fisherman's heaven due to the unique sea current flowing into the bay, bringing plenty of fish with it. The members of the two other finalist teams happen to know each other: one team consists of three doctors led by head doctor Kageo, while the other team consists of salesmen from a pharmaceutical drug company supplying those same doctors. On the early first morning, just as the contestants and the production team want to get on the boat to get to the fishing spot of the day, they see the dead body of Doctor Kageo lying inside the boat house, which has been locked from the inside. There is another door into the boat house, but one has take a roundabout way to get there. As the group is making their way to the central lodge, they see a light moving from the boat house's other door towards the central lodge too, and when they arrive there, they discover that Doctor Kageo's body has been moved from the boat house to the central lodge by the murderer. As all people on the island were together during these events, it appears a third party on the island was responsible for the murder, or perhaps even the mythical Siren, which is said to roam near the island, bewitching men with her cry. When a second death occurs with another doctor being dragged into the bay by what appears to be a sea creature with extraordinary strength, most are convinced it is indeed the work of the Siren, but Hajime isn't too sure about that and swears to get to the bottom of this case in The Seiren Island Murder Case, collected in volumes 12 and 13 of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R ("The Case Files of Young Kindaichi R").
Yes, yes, it's been a while. My last review of this running series dates from March, when I reviewed the (not so stellar) story collected in volumes 10 and 11. Volume 12 was released in April of this year, but as it contained an incomplete story I decided to wait for the release of volume 13, which came out just a while ago. To be honest, I really didn't like The White Snake Brewery Murder Case, so I have to admit my enthusiasm had waned a bit, and the series had dropped slightly on the priority list, but I do like this series in the end, so when I saw the latest volume was out, I just felt compelled to pick it up.

And I am happy I did, as The Seiren Island Murder Case turned out to be one of the more enjoyable stories the last few years! Part of it is definitely the setting: when I think of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, I think of serial murders taking place on isolated islands, but in truth, this setting had been used very seldom the last few years (only once or twice in the R series I think?). But there's just something... comforting to having a good old island murder story. Is there anything surprising about a storm hitting the island and the phones and radio not working once the first murder has happened? No, of course not, but that's not what you'd expect from this series anyway.

What I liked particularly about The Seiren Island Murder Case though is that it's a good example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Several murders occur throughout the story, and to be honest, none of them are really complex taken on their own: the first murder in the boat house for example is a bit too obvious once you get a grasp on the lay of the ground, while the second murder of the doctor being dragged into the bay is solved rather quickly by Hajime (it's a horribly simple, yet frightening trick) too. A third murder on the other hand is clearly "inspired" by a rather famous classic short story. But what this story does do is connect the various parts in an organic way through the setting of Seiren Island. As a setting, as a locale, Seiren Island works really well as a backdrop to these multiple murders, but without feeling overly artificial like in the (horrible) The Antlion Trench Murder Case from several volumes earlier, which had an overly contrived building at its setting. The murder methods are also completely distinct from each other, but do have some shared elements that once again strengthen that idea of connectivity, without making it feel like it's the same idea rehashed. I do have to admit that Seiren Island does feel a bit like other islands we have seen before in this series (especially the early ones), but as this setting is also closely linked to the actual murders, it still feels unique enough.

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo often features stories that revolve around one big main trick, with every prop and movement being made solely to make that one trick work, but that's luckily not the case here, and it results in a story that is not overly deep perhaps, but very enjoyable to read as you see how everything ties into each other.

It's therefore a shame there also some really lost chances here. For example, the decisive clue pointing to the culprit is ridiculous. I love my share of visual hints, and this series has done quite a few very subtle ones that still feel as fair play, but this one goes far beyond subtle. It's basically just there to say "Look, there's a proper hint here", even though you have to squint your eyes to see it even when pointed out. And I was reading the collected release, as a paperback with good paper and ink: the serialized chapter in Shounen Magazine would've be printed with much worse ink and paper! The plan of the criminal also involves some actions taken by other persons which they might've anticipated, but certainly not counted on. The murders all necessitate planning, but there was no way the murderer could be absolutely sure things would go the way they wanted, so it feels a bit unconvincing there. This is odd, as at other moments, the story does go the trouble to ensure the events do feel convincing. For example, the "island isolated by a storm" trope might feel artificial, but it makes sense here, as the producer actually confesses very early that the TV crew waited for a storm forecast to hold the competition, as it'd make the show look better, despite the dangers.

Volume 13 also features the first few chapters of The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case. The title pretty much gives it away, but Hajime's younger cousin Fumi is kidnapped at a Shinsengumi festival while Hajime was babysitting her. The kidnapper demands that a group of six people, who share their names with former Shinsengumi members, hand over the ransom money. It's been years since we last saw Fumi in this series I think, so that's nice (save for her being kidnapped) and while this story feels a bit similar to The Hayami Reika Kidnapping Murder Case at this moment (complete with the instructions designed to shake off the police) I'll have to read more to really make up my mind about this tale.

The Seiren Island Murder Case might not feel as a truly unique story, nor is it a particularly outstanding story in terms of mystery plotting, but it is a competent story that is an excellent example of how the quintessential Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo story should feel. It is easily one of the more consistent stories of the last few years in the currently running Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R series by using the humble ideas it has in a good, effective manner, and quite a relief after the disappointing story that precedes it.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一少年の事件簿R』第12&13巻

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Beyond Time

"Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Doc. Ah... Are you telling me that you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?"
- "The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?" 
"Back to the Future"

Are novel serializations still a thing today outside Japan? Today's book was released in September 2017, but it was originally serialized in Hayakawa Mystery Magazine, with the first installment released in the March 2017 issue (which went on sale in January 2017). I followed this serialization actually, buying each issue as it was released, but also got the book now.

2001. Engineering graduate student Yuuko bumps into a man who claims to have come from the future. This Doctor Kitamita says he invented a time machine in the year 2016, but a rival tried to take his life, and he had to flee back in time in a panic. Now he's stranded in 2001 and he needs help to make the repairs to his time machine. Yuuko, whose dream is to make a time machine herself too, becomes Doctor Kitamita's assistant, and the two work hard on the machine in the months that follow. That is until one day, Doctor Kitamita is once again attacked by an unknown assailant, with Yuuko being knocked out during the struggle. When she wakes up, she finds that Doctor Kitamita has been murdered and that their laboratory is locked from the inside, with no sign of the assailant. Yuuko is arrested as she's the only living person to occupy the locked lab together with the murder victim. The only one to believe her story about working on a time machine and being attacked is the defense attorney Mitsurugi Shin, who decides to take her case, but defending Yuuko will not be easy with the demon prosecutor Karuma on the case.

Fast forward to the year of 2016. Rookie attorney Naruhodou Ryuuichi has recently taken over the law office of his deceased mentor, but as the clients are not coming to them, Naruhodou and his assistant Mayoi decide to look for clients on their own. Mayoi brings a confused woman to the office as a potential client, but she appears to have problems with her memory. She claims that her name is Yuuko and that she has traveled through time from 2001 to 2016. Before Naruhodou and Mayoi can figure out what's going on though, Yuuko runs off to find Doctor Kitamita, but the following day they learn that Yuuko has been arrested on suspicion of murder on Doctor Kitamita, in a laboratory that had been locked from the inside. How are these two identical locked room murders across time linked and can Mitsurugi and Naruhodou prove their client's innocence in Madoy Van's Gyakuten Saiban - Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten ("Turnabout Trial - Turnabout of the Time Traveler", 2017)?

Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney is a courtroom mystery adventure game that was originally created in 2001, and it has since then grown out into a very large franchise. The most recent entry in the main series is 2016's Gyakuten Saiban 6, but there is also a spin-off series set in Victorian London with the two Dai Gyakuten Saiban games (1 & 2) for example, and that's just the beginning, as there are also musicals, a live-action film, several manga series, an anime series, stage plays and much, much more (most of them I've reviewed). The series celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2016~2017, and the original novel Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten was one of the special celebration projects. This was a first for the series: the short story Gyakuten no Kakehashi (2007) had been serialized before in the magazine IN-POCKET, and Gyakuten Idol (2016) and Gyakuten Kuukou (2017) were both excellent paperback originals aimed at a younger public, but this was the first time Gyakuten Saiban would have a whole novel serialized in a mystery magazine for adults.

What is interesting is that Madoy Van was selected as the author of this original novel. He debuted as a professional author in 2009 with Marutamachi Revoir, which was a mystery novel about a private underground trial held in Kyoto, and in my review I mentioned that I thought that fans of the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney series would probably like it. I met Madoy several times as he too was a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club by the way, and he was even there when we did a book club on the then recently-released 3DS game Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban, where we talked about this series, so it was interesting to see him getting his hands on Ace Attorney-related work some years later.

As a mystery novel, Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten is brilliantly exciting. Madoy has mentioned on Twitter that he arrived at the theme of time travel because the book was supposed to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the franchise, and it is this period of fifteen years that forms the crux of the problem: Yuuko has apparently travelled in time from 2001 to 2016, but in both periods, she is arrested for the murder on Doctor Kitamita in a laboratory that is locked from the inside. It doesn't get anymore wonderfully alluring than this. In practice, we are given two locked room mysteries. The first half of the book is set in 2001, where we follow defense attorney Mitsurugi Shin as he unravels the story of the story of Doctor Kitamita and his time machine and works to prove Yuuko's innocence in court. The locked room mystery is not complex in design at first sight, but then one conundrum is introduced that makes the whole situation a lot more mysterious. The way this is resolved at the very end of the novel is fantastic: it makes brilliant use of the theme of time travelling, and in terms of deduction, it is something you'd expect from an Ellery Queen novel.

The second part of the novel is set in 2016, in the same time period as the first game (this novel is set between the second and third episode of the first game, for those curious). The mystery here is two-fold: once again we have a locked room mystery, but we have the added mystery of how Yuuko managed to travel in time, and how she manages to be accused of the same murder on the same victim once again, 15 years after her first trial. The locked room mystery in 2016 is once again not particularly complex on its own, but a competent one that fits perfectly with both the theme and the props prepared for this story. The greatest mystery, that of Yuuko's time travelling, makes quite an impression. I think the attentive reader will quickly figure out what is going on, but then you stop and really think about it, and it really hits you. It's good this is fiction, set in a world that is not quite our own reality, as it might've been a bit difficult to swallow in any other fictional universe. But as you add up all the seperate parts of this novel, you'll arrive at the conclusion that Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten is an ambitious mystery novel that succeeds in using the fantastical theme of time travelling in an excellent mystery story that is absolutely fair to the reader.

A question most readers will have however is: is Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten a good Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney novel? I'd say yes and no. In terms of structure, it follows the familiar routine of featuring both Investigation parts (where the protagonist gathers information by visiting people and locations) and Trial parts, where most of the puzzle-solving is done by pointing out contradictions in the testimonies of witnesses. The novel does really feel like how the games work in this respect. Madoy also did a tremendous job at really integrating his story with the storyline of the games. The children's novels Gyakuten Idol and Gyakuten Kuukou were fun novels, but they were obviously set in a slightly different timeline, with certain details not corresponding with the main games. Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten on the other hand takes great efforts at fleshing out certain events from the original game (especially in the part set in 2001), and we also see a few welcome cameo's by fan-favorite characters, with one appearance in the courtroom being the absolutely winner. I absolutely loved how the 2001 trial also tied in with arguably the most important event for the first Gyakuten Saiban game in a meaningful manner.

On the other hand, the tone of this novel is quite different from what you'd normally expect from the series, which is best known for its zany comedy and over-the-top characters. This story was serialized in Hayakawa Mystery Magazine, which is a "normal" mystery literature magazine, so the writing style is much more in the spirit of conventional fiction. The characters are never as cartoony as in the games, and the narration is much more sober and "literary" compared to anything featured in the original series. This stands in stark contrast with Gyakuten Idol and Gyakuten Kuukou: these two paperback originals were released in Kadokawa Tsubasa Bunko label aimed at children, and these two novels do a great job at really capturing the atmosphere of the games with larger-than-life characters with weird tics and comedic dialogues. Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten is "What if Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney was slightly more serious", but this also allows it do tackle themes the Kadokawa Tsubasa Bunko novels could never do. For those who have never played the games, but do read mystery fiction, this book is a great entry point.

As a side-note, Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten had a pretty strange serialization schedule at the end. It started in the March 2017 issue (released in January 2017) and the fourth and final installment was originally planned to be released in the September 2017 issue (July 2017), but I guess Madoy missed his deadline, because despite the announcement, the serialization skipped an issue, pushing the final installment back to the November 2017 issue  (September 2017). But the paperback release was already scheduled for September too, so in the end, it meant the standalone book was released just a few days after the final installment was published. And in fact, the release day of the standalone book was pushed back a few days, because with the original release schedule, it would've meant that the standalone book would've been released even before the final installment was published in Hayakawa Mystery Magazine and that would've made the whole serialization pointless.

All in all though, I have to say Gyakuten Saiban - Jikan Ryokousha no Gyakuten's a great mystery story. The style and tone might be a bit different from the games, but what you get in return is a captivating mystery story that features a fantastic theme that also does a good job at striking meaningful connections with the main series. Yet the book is definitely accessible for people who have never played Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney before: while there are some good references to the games for the core fans, it doesn't feel like they're throwing with in-jokes, and it is a very competently written mystery story overall that can stand on its own merits, while also showing why the games are fun as mystery games.

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『逆転裁判 時間旅行者の逆転』

Friday, September 29, 2017

A Frightened Hound Meets Demons Underground

Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir, 
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free; 
Much do I know, | and more can see 
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight
Völuspá (Bellows translation)

It was in the year of 1987 that the world first got to know the ever-smoking private detective Jinguuji Saburou in the Famicom Disk System videogame Shinjuku Chuuou Kouen Satsujin Jiken ("The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case"). It was a hardboiled detective adventure game that, for that period, was surprisingly aimed at an older audience, as the investigation into the mysterious murder of a woman found in the middle of Shinjuku Central Park would bring protagonist Jinguuji and the player to the seedier side of town. While a kindhearted, if somewhat silent man, Jinguuji would not stand for injustice and had the guts to face yakuza gang if the case demanded it. Three other games followed on the Famicom (some of them written by Nojima Kazushige, best known for various Final Fantasy titles), and while the series never scored a real hit, the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou) series somehow managed to survive various game console generations, with releases on hardware like the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo 3DS.

The series not only managed to outlive several console generations, it even manage to outlive two companies. The series was originally conceived by Data East, but they went bankrupt in 2003, with the intellectual property moving to WorkJam. WorkJam then released new games in the series at a fairly steady pace of once every two, three years, but this came to a stop five years ago. Earlier this year, Ark System Works announced they had gotten possession of this series now from WorkJam, which was  just in time too for the thirtiest anniversary of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series.

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series 
1: The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case (1987) [Nintendo Famicom Disk System]
5: The Unfinished Reportage (1996) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
6: At the End of the Dream (1998) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
7: Before the Light Fades (1999) [Sony PlaySation] 
8: Innocent Black (2002) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
9: Kind of Blue (2004) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
10: The White Phantom Girl (2005) [Nintendo GameBoy Advance] 
14: Ashes and Diamonds (2009) [Sony PlayStation Portable] 
15: The Red Butterfly (2010) [Nintendo DS] 
16: Rondo of Revenge (2012) [Nintendo 3DS] 
17: Ghost of the Dusk (2017) [Nintendo 3DS]

The Ghost of Shinjuku (2006) 
A Bright Future (2007)

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Ghost of the Dusk ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Ghost of the Dusk", 2017) is the seventeenth main series entry in the adventure game series and meant to be a thirtieth anniversary game. The main scenario is the titular Ghost of the Dusk, which starts with our hardboiled detective hanging out in his usual bar when he overhears an agitated man saying he found a dead body inside an abandoned mansion in Shinjuku.  With his interests piqued, Jinguuji decides to check up on the story and indeed, he discovers a dead homeless man inside the decrepit mansion. While at first it appears it was just the man's health that did him in, Jinguuji soon discovers that there might be more behind the man's death. As he digs into the unfortunate death, he also becomes acquainted with the current owner of the abandonded mansion, who lives in a small shed on the mansion grounds. The owner, a former doctor, confides to Jinguuji the mansion is cursed, which is why he doesn't live there himself and the curse soon proves itself to be true as more people die on the premises. Jinguuji has faced the most dangerous gangsters and killers in his long career as a private detective in Shinjuku, but can he also win against a decades-old curse?

The sixteenth entry in the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series was released five years ago, and while Fukushuu no Rondo ("Rondo of Revenge") was supposed to be a work to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the series, it turned out to be a very disappointing game, with a story that at times didn't even feel like it was part of the series, and also fairly clumsy attempts at introducing new gameplay elements. In fact, the game was so bad I feared it meant the end of the series. When Ghost of the Dusk  was announced earlier this year though, it was being toted as going back to basics, going back to the roots of the series. The various key persons in the development team had all worked on the series before (most prominently, the scenario writer for 2002's Innocent Black returned), and like the older games, the focus would be on the story and the music. In that respect, I have to say Ghost of the Dusk did its job very admirably.

With the series having last for thirty years, there are just some things you expect from the series. No Tantei Jinguuji Saburou story for example would be complete without an appearance of Jinguuji's capable assistant Youko, or police inspector Kumano of the Yodobashi Police Station in Shinjuku. Fantastic jazzy music is also a must-have in this series. But the setting is also important, as the games are always set in real-life locations, most prominently the city of Shinjuku (part of Tokyo), which houses not only the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department, but also the center of the underworld of Tokyo, with its red-light district and various gangs housing there. It was here were Fukushuu no Rondo slipped up, but luckily, Ghost of the Dusk proved to be exactly what any long-time fan of the series would want in terms of story. It starts very familiar with the discovery of the body of a homeless person. Homeless persons are very often featured in this series, as many people with no way out eventually do end up in Shinjuku, and unfortunately, they often end up as the "disposible" victims of various schemes of gangs and other nefarious parties. The Jinguuji Saburou series has always paid much attention to the helpless in Shinjuku, from the homeless, to the people who get engulfed by the underworld operating there, and is thus a form of social school mystery fiction, as it addresses problems in society in conjunction with its mystery plot. Ghost of the Dusk starts off like this too, but eventually moves towards a much bigger plot that is very satisfying to uncover. While it is definitely not a grand puzzle plot mystery , it does a good job at mixing the hardboiled mode with some minor puzzle plot tropes.

While the series had some interesting experiments with gameplay (like mechanics where you zap between various protagonists and managing assistants), the Jinguuji Saburou series has always been more focused on presenting a hardboiled mystery story than diverse gameplay, and that holds true for Ghost of the Dusk too. You'll only be using the commands to move to the next location to speak with person X or Y, which will drive the story forward, allowing you to go a different location to speak with person Z, etcetera. Most of the story is "read", rather than "played", but the stories of Jinguuji Saburou are usually interesting enough to keep the player hooked. Occasionally, you'll be prompted to interrogate suspects or find evidence in a room, but these segments are always very simple and it is impossible to fail the game or hit upon a game over screen, or even really get stuck. The simple hint system that has been in place since the first game is also still here: Jinguuji can smoke at practically all times, which will give him an idea of what to do next.

The scenario writer (Kaneko Mitsue) commented that while Ghost of the Dusk's main goal was to go back to the roots of the series, but she also wanted to feature something refreshing and new, which eventually became the focus on the cursed mansion. While country houses and mansions with hidden passages are a staple of mystery fiction, they are hard to do in a hardboiled setting, especially one that is set in the metropolis that is Shinjuku. And indeed, the setting had not been used before in the series, but Kaneko did a commendable job at integrating this trope in this series without making it feel out of place.

As a standalone story, Ghost of the Dusk is a short, but captivating scenario, but this is not the only story included in the game. While this is the seventeenth game in the main series, there exists also a spin-off series of application games originally made for cell phones (not smart phones). If one would consider the main series the "novels", than these application games would be the "short stories". Twenty-four of them were released in the past for cell phones, and twenty of them had been ported to the Nintendo DS/PlayStation Portable in the past. The final four should've been included in Fukushuu no Rondo of five years ago, but were excluded for some reason. These final four application games are included with Ghost of the Dusk. Each of them lasts for about two hours, and are even more focused on telling a story than the main scenario, but are very entertaining too.

Onihime-Den ("The Legend of the Devil Princess") starts with Jinguuji being hired by the wife of an actor who will star in a film based on the popular book The Legend of the Devil Princess. She suspects her husband is cheating on her, and wants Jinguuji to investigate him. To his surprise though, it appears the actor is cheating on his wife with.... Jinguuji's assistant Youko. Eventually, Jinguuji gets involved in an investigation into the death of an actress who died during an earlier attempt at filming The Legend of the Devil Princess. In Ai ga Yue Ni  ("Because of Love...") Jinguuji is hired by a young boy to protect his mother, who has a small bar in the backstreets of Shinjuku. She is being harrassed by land sharks, as a new building project is planned right in the block where her bar is. The story is very talky and at times it seems like the writer just wanted to vent their own thoughts on what love is, but overall an okay story. The best of the four applicatoin games is Wasurenagusa no Omoi ("The Feelings of the Forget-Me-Not"), which has Jinguuji finally fulfilling a request he was hired to do eight years ago. The story jumps between the present and eight years earlier, when Jinguuji had just started in town as a private detective, and it's great to see how different he was back then. In Yurameku Hitotose ("Wavering Hitotose"), Jinguuji becomes friends with the two young owners of the antique store Hitotose, and just as the right time, as he is also hired to locate a Buddhist statue which was stolen from a monesetery in Thailand, which has found its way to Tokyo. The story is a bit predictable, but entertaining nonetheless. Also a note: various characters from this short story return in Fukushuu no Rondo (which makes it even more strange that Yurameku Hitotose wasn't included with Fukushuu no Rondo).

Ghost of the Dusk also includes one mini scenario where Jinguuji and Youko solve a murder at a school festival, as well as a download code for a special 3DS port of the second Famicom game, Yokohamakou Renzoku Satsujin Jiken ("The Yokohama Harbor Serial Murder Case"). While the port is more-or-less the same as the original, the sprite artwork of the characters has been very slightly adjusted.

It was reported Ghost of the Dusk would get an English localization by the way, which would make it the second Jinguuji Saburou game to come overseas. The first game on the Nintendo DS was released in the United States under the localized title Jake Hunter, but it is unclear whether this new release of Ghost of the Dusk will feature the same localized title (or even all the features included in the original Japanese release).

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Ghost of the Dusk was overall though a very entertaining entry in the long-running series. Yes, it is a very lineair experience, with little input asked from the player, but these games have always been more about enjoying the human drama stories, the atmosphere and the music and Ghost of the Dusk does a great job at showing why this series has its fans and why it has lasted for so long in a very volatile industry. Ghost of the Dusk's task was to bring the players a good old Jinguuji Saburou experience, and it did precisely that, but the developers have already hinted they might want introduce more engaging game mechanics in the future, and I do hope they eventually come closer to earlier games like Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni, which I consider the pinnacle of the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵 神宮寺三郎 Ghost of the Dusk』

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Detective Chronicles


「忘れ咲き」(Garnet Crow)

Before I knew, I had come to this nostalgic riverside
Or imagined how my dream last night would continue
"Blooming Late" (Garnet Crow)

By the time this review will be posted, the horrible season of hay fever will be long, long gone: that's the only comfort I have while writing this text as the tears caused by those accursed pollen are blocking my sight.

Most of the novels I’ve reviewed by author Ashibe Taku have featured the lawyer Morie Shunsaku as the protagonist. He is a somewhat reserved character (some might even say nondescript), but he has certainly made a reputation for himself as not only a capable attorney, but also as gifted amateur detective. In fact, now I think about it, most of the stories I’ve read he’s not hired for his reputation in the court, but rather as a problem solver. Morie was not always an attorney however. In the short story collection Tantei Sengen - Morie Shunsaku no Jikenbo (“Declaration of Detection - The Case Files of Morie Shunsaku”, 1998), we follow Morie Shunsaku through various phases of his life. And while he might a student in one story and a reporter in the other, the tales all have one thing in common: Morie Shunsaku wil solve any impossible crime that crosses his path.

Tantei Sengen was originally published in 1998 (my pocket edition dates from 2005) as not only the first short story collection featuring Morie Shunsaku, but also Ashibe’s very first short story collection ever. The stories collected in this book therefore originate from the period between Ashibe’s debut as a professional writer until this publication, with the oldest story dating from 1991 and the most recent one included written especially for this collection. While the stories were originally written completely independently, Ashibe decided to edit and rewrite all the stories slightly, and added “Author’s Notes” after each tale, which gives the book a consistent feel, rather than feeling like a handful of random stories.

As I noted above, in the books I have read up until now, Morie was already an attorney, but this book delves more into his past, as we first meet him as a high school student en then follow him all the way through hiss life until he’s become an attorney. The stories are printed in chronological order for Morie (not of original publication date) and thus show an interesting look at the background of a character who is usually actually very nondescript in his own stories. I for one had never imagined him as a reporter, so it was quite funny to see him in different roles compared to how I’ve known him up until now. And speaking about funny, all the stories carry the title A Murder Comedy, and while the stories do have some light banter and funny scenes, it’s not slapstick comedy that’s awaiting the readers here. Each of the stories feature a murder, and most of them are also of the impossible kind (a genre Morie specializes in, but that makes sense if you consider he’s been working with them ever since he was in high school).

The book opens with Satsujin Kigeki no Tokeitou (“The Clock Tower: A Murder Comedy”), which also carries the subtitle An Early Case of Morie Shunsaku. We are introduced to a Morie in his high school student days, when he was a (reserve) member of the school’s theater club. The club has gathered at school even though it is closed because of a public transport strike, as they need to prepare for an upcoming performance. While Morie’s busy with prop making in the court, he notices a notorious delinquent student from a different school loitering around, who has been rumored to have forced the star actress of their play into a relation. The club decides to wrap up things for today at dusk, but a scream brings them and other students and teachers present at school to the nearby grove, where the delinquent student is found dead, his head smashed in. It appears that someone had thrown a rock from the school clock tower at the victim’s head from above and then dragged him to the grove, but police investigation shows that everybody has a solid alibi. Morie’s solution to the conundrum is a reasonable one, but one that doesn’t feel as impressive as it could’ve been. A map for example would’ve done wonders for this story, as well as better pacing to help the hinting. I love the basic idea that makes the perfect alibi possible, but there’s almost no hinting available to show that that was possible, and there are also parts that feel much longer than necessary. Balance isn’t missing per se, but it’s not completely level.

We jump a few years in the future in Satsujin Kigeki no Fushigimachi (“The Curious Village: A Murder Comedy”), as it is subtitled A Case During Morie Shunsaku’s College Days. Morie is on a journey by train, but he misses his train and strands in a small village. A man is shot on the beach near the restaurant where Morie’s killing time. The murder weapon is a curious one: an old Spanish matchlock pistol that’s part of the victim’s collection. Morie tries not to get involved, but fate keeps preventing him from catching the next train and eventually decides to solve the murder. In this story we see Ashibe’s interest in history, especially that of Western culture in pre-modern Japan. I am not completely sure whether this is a really fairly-hinted story: Morie is already on to something right from the start (he’s only reluctant to get involved) and some of the mystery can only be solved by some random trivia that is admittedly introduced in the story, but not in a way that makes it actually possible (i.e. “it” is introduced, but not explained in enough detail for the reader to know that a certain action can be done). I did like how the matchlock pistol was used in the story: while the way it used is not brilliantly original, I think the setting and Ashibe’s interest in the topic made this prop a convincing one. This finale of this story connects directly to Morie Shunsaku’s very first novel adventure (and Ashibe Taku’s debut novel) by the way.

Morie Shunsaku had met a reporter in the previous story, and it was probably that influence that resulted in him becoming a reporter himself. Satsujin Kigeki no Choujin Densetsu (“The Legend of the Birdman: A Murder Comedy”), subtitled A Case During Morie Shunsaku’s Reporter Days I, has your local reporter Morie traveling with attorney Kuki to a hotel, but on their way up the hill they pass by a bus incident. When they do arrive at the hotel, the man Kuki was supposed to meet is gone, and after a bit of questioning, it appears something unbelievable has happened: apparently their man had been seen flying off into the sky from the hotel and he had then caused the bus accident, as the driver had been surprised by a man flying in front of the bus. What is the truth behind this flying birdman? This is one story where I think A Murder Comedy is an apt title, as the whole premise of the birdman and the truth behind it are quite farcical, but in a good way. The story reminds of Shimada Souji actually, in terms of the scale of what happened. Fictional murder doesn’t need to be realistic. Often, the most unbelievable, most fanciful approach can actually work for the best. I think that this story is a good example of having a great premise helping the whole story, as while the solution is a bit easy to guess, the absurdness of everything keeps it going.

Morie continues writing local news reports, though he’s apparently not very good at the job, so he’s sent to another location in Satsujin Kigeki no Mayoiga Densetsu (“The Legend Of the Mayoiga: A Murder Comedy"), with the subtitle A Case During Morie Shunsaku’s Reporter Days II. There he meets with an “old” acquaintance (they met in the previous story) and he’s instantly dragged into a new mystery. Morie’s friend swears she saw a big mansion standing at the side of the mountain, but it has disappeared without a trace. The two climb the mountain to find out what has happened to it, but it appears there never was a house there. Their adventure reminds them of the tale of the Mayoiga, the  “Lost House”, a house that appears and disappears at a whim, but which bestows fortune to its visitors. But Morie’s lost house has left something else: a dead body at the place where the house was supposed to be. Overall, I’d say this is a bit of a confusing story, with multiple plots intertwining in a rather unbelievable way to make the premise (disappearing house, appearing body) possible. It reminds slightly of Queen’s The Lamp of God, but that story was simpler, more to the point and less contrived than this one. 

Morie Shunsaku became acquaintances with the attorney Kuki in the adventure with the Birdman, and as the subtitle A Case When Morie Shunsaku Changed Occupation suggests, Satsujin Kigeki no XY (“XY: A Murder Comedy”) is set around the time when Morie Shunsaku made the jump from reporter to attorney. A murder occurs in the Grand Osaka First Building, a tenant building that also houses Kuki’s law offices, where Morie has been working lately. Witness accounts quickly point the finger to the business partner of the victim, but he has disappeared without a trace. But the tenants of the building aren’t given any time to rest, as the first murder is soon followed by a second murder in the same building, committed by the man on the run. Why is the man after all these people in the building and can the police stop him from committing more? This is both the most ambitious and most flawed story of the whole collection. The fundamental problem is that it tries to do too much for a short story. While this is the longest story of the collection, it moves at breakneck speed to include all the elements Ashibe tried to pack inside these pages and the result is something that just doesn’t feel right: things happen too fast, too chaotic, and the plot doesn’t feel consistent. For example, there is an interesting part involving a dying message and linguistics, but the presentation isn’t fair: a lot of necessary information to arrive at a certain deduction is definitely not common knowledge, and also not presented in advance to the reader. More build-up could’ve easily solved that. That said though, the linguistics part is extremely detailed and I think most readers will just give up on it, as it relies too much on specific knowledge. That is a problem that occasionally arises with Ashibe’s stories, as he obviously has a scholarly interest in a variety of topics (including, but not exclusively linguistics, pre-modern and early modern Japanese history, literature and books), but he has a tendency to dive really deep in that stuff, without giving the proper set-up for readers not versed in those topics. Usually he manages to stray just on the right side of the line, but I’d say this is an example of him going too deep, too fast. The other mystery elements of this story also feel a bit disjointed, and the result is a story that never becomes as good as it could’ve been as it tries too much in too little time.

Satsujin Kigeki no C6H5NO2 (“C6H5NO2: A Murder Comedy”), subtitled A Case During Morie Shunsaku’s Spare Time, is a short intermezzo with a parody undertone. Morie Shunsaku is asked to provide an extra solution to a certain case involving poisoned chocolates. It appears a club of amateur detectives had already come up with six solutions, with another female mystery writer posing a seventh solution, but Morie is challenge to come up with an eight solution. Some other people present in the restaurant invite themselves into the conversation however, and that explains the other subtitle of this tale: Denouement 8~13 to The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Yes, this is a parody of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, the infamous meta-mystery novel that plays with the notion of “one truth” in a detective plot. Christianna Brand added a seventh solution to the tale in her A New Denouement, but Ashibe decides to go even further by adding solutions 8 to 13! The story is fairly short, so the premise, the original six solutions and Brand’s seven solution are all summarized very shortly, and Ashibe’s own solutions are also explained very briefly. Like the original six solutions, they’re more “interpretations” than full-fledged solutions, but as a way to strengthen Berkeley’s idea of dismissing the one truth, they do their work. This tale also includes guest appearances by several of Ashibe’s other fictional detectives (who all propose a solution), so it’s a very tongue-in-cheek story.

The final story Satsujin Kigeki no Morie Shunsaku (“Morie Shunsaku: A Murder Comedy”) carries the subtitle A Recent Case of Morie Shunsaku and was especially written for this collection to wrap things together. A new client of Morie Shunsaku is stabbed in his back in the hallway on his way to the bathroom. A closer look at his client reveals that the man was wearing a fake beard, and when removed Morie is shocked to learn his client was an old high school classmate of his. The surprises don’t stop here, because he also learns that only a block away from his office, another man had been stabbed in his back in a restaurant. The curious thing is that the knife in the back of the other man had the fingerprints of his classmate, while the knife in the back of his classmate carried the fingerprints of the other dead man. But how could they have stabbed each other in the back if they were in two completely different places? The solution to the impossible situation is not very hard to guess, I think, or at least, most will have a vague idea of what might’ve happened. The real surprise is how this story ties in all the previous stories together though, as it is admittedly a neat way to bring a connection to this set of stories, which were originally just separate, independent stories. It’s certainly a thing Ashibe likes to do and it works mostly in this story. The idea of how he connected these stories is really good and had fooled me completely. The actual execution (as in: how he implemented that idea in this last tale) is a bit weird, as the tone of this story suddenly turns into a cliché thriller with basically no build-up, as we’re suddenly given a Morie Shunsaku Must Die! plot that I have actually never ever seen in any of Ashibe’s stories. It feels horribly out of place. A weird way to end a moderately good collection.

My thoughts on Tantei Sengen - Morie Shunsaku no Jikenbo are not very different from how I usually feel about stories featuring Morie Shunsaku, or Ashibe Taku’s story in general. The basic premise behind the mystery plots is usually good and entertaining, but the execution can be a bit chaotic, or too complex at times. Too many subplots here, too much delving into background topics there. His stories always have a distinct feel of slight unbalance, with a great base, but going just too far in this regard or that regard. Depending on the specific work, and the reader, this can be either a good or a negative point. I for example love Ashibe’s experiments with literary references and meta-fiction, like his The Poisoned Chocolates Case parody in this collection, but some might think it feels too much like an inside joke. The stories in this collection all have great ideas within them, and the way Ashibe manages to connect the stories together is also surprising, but each of these stories also has something that makes you go “Good, but…”. Overall, I’d say this collection is a good book, that also offers a good diverse look at the character Morie Shunsaku, but it’s also a book that’ll have you say a couple of times “If only that had been different.”

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『探偵宣言 森江春策の事件簿』 / 「殺人喜劇の時計塔―森江春策、初期の事件」 / 「殺人喜劇の不思議町―森江春策、大学時代の事件」 / 「殺人喜劇の鳥人伝説―森江春策、記者時代の事件I」 / 「殺人喜劇の迷い家伝説―森江春策、記者時代の事件II」 / 「殺人喜劇のXY―森江春策、転身前後の事件」 / 「殺人喜劇のC6H5NO2―森江春策、余暇の事件」 / 「殺人喜劇の森江春策―森江春策、最近の事件」