Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Myna Bird Mystery

"It is the Boys Detective Club, led by young Kobayashi, that will fight with this demon. Those who have read "The Fiend with Twenty Faces" are probably well aware of what the Boys Detective Club is. The Boys Detective Club that consists of ten brave elementary school students, with detective Akechi's famous assistent young Kobayashi Yoshio as its head and the teacher of young Kobayashi is of course that great detective Akechi Kogorou."
"Boys Detective Club"

As I focus mostly on (Japanese) detective fiction here, I don't often write about comics here. Well, of course, Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo are mentioned enough here and I might one day write about lesser known gems like Shoujo Tantei Kaneda no Jikenbo ("Girl Detective Kaneda Hajime's Casebook") or the almost Mythbusters-esque reversed-engineering hybrid-detective The Accidents, but I read enough manga that's not directly detective-related. One of my favorites is still Tezuka Osamu, who is probably on everyone's list (if you have any taste, that is). From his earlier works, to his full-blown series, from Astro Boy to Human Metamorphosis, I read everything. Which is also why Nikaidou Reito's Collector no Fushigi was so awesome. A detective about collectors of Tezuka Osamu manga? Now that I think about it, as series detective Mizuno Satoru is an otaku, would that mean that this novel could somehow bridge the gap between detective readers and manga readers?

Anyway, Tezuka Osamu pretty much wrote everything, so yes, he has some works in his collection that feature the words detective. I am a bit careful not to call them detective manga, as I equalize that to the Japanese term suiri manga ("deduction comic"), which more or less implies the orthodox model of fair play. One of the more often quoted "detective" manga by Tezuka Osamu is Ken-1 Tanteichou ("Chief Detective Ken-ichi"), a short series that ran from 1954 ~ 1957. Protagonist of the series is Kenichi of course, the original protagonist in Tezuka's star system. Like the title of the manga implies, Kenichi, a young boy, is the head of a big detective agency with 26 branch offices all over Japan. Kenichi is a master in disguises, karate and is always assisted by the Myna bird Donguri, who is able to imitate any voices it hears (and record and replay dialogues, gather up birds for big attacks, etc.). As head of the agency, Kenichi travels all over the world, solving cases like locked room murders, mysterious kidnappings and even bizarre happenings like radioactive fish popping up on a mountain.

I'm not going to summarize the stories, as the official Tezuka Osamu site has an absolutely excellent summary page for the series. So I don't see any need for me to try to write something that will turn out to be inferior anyway. I do have to say that my pocket edition doesn't have the final story (Incident of the House Spiders) included.

The stories in form are a bit like Edogawa Rampo's Shounen Tantei Dan series. Which isn't too strange: the Shounen Tantei Dan series became really big after the war, so Ken-1 Tanteichou was released in a time when children's detective fiction was quite popular. Kenichi certainly reminds of young Kobayashi, as young capable detectives. Who carry guns (seriously, WHO ALLOWS THESE CHILDREN TO CARRY GUNS? IN JAPAN OF ALL PLACES?!). And their disguises. And the use of birds as partners. The Baker Street Irregulars were used because they didn't attract attention, but both Kenichi and Kobayashi are actually known all over Japan as great detectives and were clearly written as characters children could look up too. Kenichi also has his own nemesis in phantom thief Mouseboy, a master in disguises who reminds of certain other phantom thieves (more the latter than the former though).

In execution, Shounen Tantei Dan and Ken-1 Tanteichou are very different though. Shounen Tantei Dan was written as kids' adventure novels, but they were still written by Edogawa Rampo. Who was an authority on detective fiction. He knew what he was doing. Tezuka on the other hand, was a master in story-telling, but certainly not an authority on detective fiction. Ken-1 Tanteichou is an amusing series, but most of the stories are really just old-fashioned Tezuka SF spy adventures Metropolis and Lost World or 'normal' spy adventures like Herge's Tintin. Stories like Treasures of Gandhara and Showa Shinsen-gumi are very much stories in the vein of Tintin. The Case of Landownership on Mars and The Case of President Pero's Hidden Treasure are much more like 'normal' detective stories, but clearly written by the very creative mind of Tezuka, with the more fantastic elements overpowering the 'detective' elements. A lot of fantasy (Evil Indians escaping by climbing away on a rope; giant magnets etc.), evil societies and the like, it's really an early Tezuka work and it shows in both the story-telling as well as the art.

Which for the most part is pretty boring for Tezuka's standards. Many pages that only have four or 6 big frames and practically nothing that would suggest that Tezuka would come up with brilliant framing like in Phoenix. Sometimes movie/cartoon-like effects are used, like when someone tumbling changes in an image of a airplane propellor turning, or (classic Tezuka) slapstick moments to break off the tension, but I would say that something like Crime & Punishment was way more experimental than this.

The series is pretty fun for someone interested in Tezuka's early adventure stories, but I don't recommend it to someone who got attracted to this manga just because of the word 'detective' in the title.
Original Japanese title(s): 手塚治虫 『ケン1探偵長』

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