Wednesday, February 22, 2012

TWO-MIX

「その謎を解けるのは、彼らしかない」
『名探偵コナン&金田一少年の事件簿 めぐりあう2人の名探偵』のCM

"Only they can solve the mystery of that island"
"Detective Conan and The Young Kindaichi Files: The Chance Meeting of the Two Great Detectives" Commercial

I'm re-reading books, so I might as well replay videogames, right?

Readers of this blog might have noticed that I like the two manga Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. I like them very much, as the two are pretty much my introduction to the world of Japanese detective fiction and both series definitely played a big part in my 'education' of the genre.More generally, these two series are easily the most popular orthodox detective manga series in existence and are considered household names in Japan. And in 2008/2009, someone had the great idea of mixing the two series. Which is pretty big, considering that both series are from two different publishers (Shogakukan and Kodansha). At first, the collaboration of Conan and Kindaichi consisted of a magazine that reprinted old stories of the two series together, which wasn't exactly the things fans wanted, I think. We did get coffee, a Conan and Kindaichi branded The Game of Life and somewhat weird crossover art though.

But then suddenly a crossover Nintendo DS game was announced and all was forgiven. February 2009 was the month the world was given the first and only true crossover between Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo in Meitantei Conan & Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo: Meguriau Futari no Meitantei ("Detective Conan and The Young Kindaichi Files: The Chance Meeting of the Two Great Detectives"). Few things can defeat the smile that appeared on my face when I first saw the trailer. I still don't know who came up with the idea of making a crossover between the series, but you have my eternal thanks.

Also because this was quite a decent game. The story starts when Edogawa Conan (and his entourage consisting of Kogorou, Ran and the Detective Boys) arrive at Dusk Island to investigate a series of kamikakushi (people being 'spirited away') that happened on the island. At the same time however, Kindaichi Hajime,  not-really-girlfriend Miyuki and Inspector Kenmochi arrive at Dusk Island, as an old classmate of Miyuki begged them to help prevent a horrible event that was about to happen at Dusk Island. The two detectives each start their own investigations on the island, but Hajime and Kenmochi end up... being spirited away! Miyuki joins up with the Conan-troupe, hoping to find Hajime. Meanwhile, Conan manages to solve a murder that happened on Dusk Island, only to hear that the murder has something to do with a tragedy that happened 25 years ago on Dusk Island, that started with a unsolved murder in the library. Back to Hajime and Kenmochi, who wake up in a place that kinda looks like Dusk Island, but... different. Almost as if... this was the Dusk Island as it was well, roughly 25 years ago. And then the duo is forced to solve a murder in the library to clear their own names...

As can be guessed from the above, the story is split in two distinct Conan and Kindaichi chapters. Conan's chapters are set at the 'normal' Dusk Island, where a series of crimes seem to be related to a incident that happened 25 years ago. Kindaichi's chapters are set at the 'past' Dusk Island, where he is forced to solve the precise murders that turn out to be the whole tragedy of 25 years ago Conan is trying to investigate. The seperate chapters are about seperate cases/investigations, but the main storyline is naturally also explored during these chapters (with the final chapters finally putting Hajime and Conan together). A (plot) device allows the two great detectives to communicate, so we occasionally see the same scenes played out from two different perspectives (once from the Conan-side, once from the Kindaichi-side).
 
The main story is told quite competently and is surprisingly quite long (I think I came near the 20 hours the first time I played it). The seperate cases aren't that difficult, though passable for these kind of adventure games. Conan made the worst deal for this game though. Despite the fact that he manages to get rid of the Detective Boys in return for Kindaichi's Miyuki and Superintendent Akechi (which is a very good trade), his cases are quite boring, mostly dealing with a mad bomber on Dusk Island. A lot of Conan's story revolves around the defusing of bombs and a couple of race mini-games, which was simply boring. Hajime on the other hand has to deal with the Detective Boys in the past Dusk Island, but in return gets the most interesting sub-cases in the story (including multiple locked room murders), a great adventure set at the past Dusk Island that doesn't need bombs to be suspenseful and also the best role in the final part of the story, when the two great detectives reveal the truth behind the incident of Dusk Island. I guess this is to mirror the characteristics of the two series, with explosions definitely being something more of a (movie-)Conan thing, while locked room murders more of Kindaichi thing, but still, I can't help help but feel sorry for Conan.

As a detective game, this is entertaining, but also very predictable. It is standard adventure-fare with a lot of talking and location-hunting. You accumulate keywords during the story-part of the game, which are used as items. At times, you are asked to combine two keywords (items) to make a deduction and at the end of a case, you are asked to fill in a flowchart with keywords through questions like 'who was the victim', 'what was used by the murderer for the X trick', 'who is the murderer', which leads into a confrontation scene with the murderer. There you are prompted several times with questions to show you understand what the trick is (and also includes some things like finding contradictions in testimonies), but it is all quite easy if you know what's going on.

A problem with these games is that most of the cases are quite easy to solve, especially as you are often asked very specific questions (which in turn change in hints themselves). It is a problem inherent to the combination of videogames and detective fiction, I guess. You can always continue in a book whether you solve the murder yourself or not, but this is counter-intuitive to videogames. Most of these adventure games are still built on the premise of finding keywords and then asking 'check' questions to see if you really get it. As a inherent part of game-design, it is normal that all of the keywords you collect are relevant and that usually steers your ideas to a certain thought (= the solution). This is supported by the 'check' questions you always have at the denouement scene in these kind of videogames. The biggest problem here gamers face is usually just how to find all keywords, not the actual process of deduction.

The same team that developed this game also made the Nintendo DS game Meitantei Conan Aoki Houseki no Rondo ("Detective Conan Rondo of the Blue Jewel"), with practically the same game engine and it sadly enough has the same problems like this game. The stories can be entertaining, but the game pretty much forces the solution upon the player, instead of letting him free.

A much more natural change from novel to game is the sound novel, like with Kamaitachi no Yoru. There the story indeed changes based on the input of the player, so if a player doesn't know what is going on in a case, he usually ends up with a bad ending. It is a lot harder to improvise yourself through those games. The 'downpoint' is that those games need massive writing resources, as the writer has to come up with a great number of possible deductions (=storylines) the player may have that may or may not lead to bad endings.Of course, I have written things about detective adventure games in the past already, but as someone who likes games and detective fiction (and apparently as one of the few people actually interested in the combined topic), I am always inclined to comment on this.


But crossover magic does make this a game worthwile to play if you like the two series. It is really fun to see Hajime and Conan working together on a big case and there is enough fanservice available to make you forget the sometimes rather easy game. The cases are not among the best the two great detectives have seen, but the seperate cases, the main storyline of Dusk Island and the little references to the two series work cumulatively to become a enjoyable work for fans (and it is an OK detective game too). I for one would certainly see a sequel to this game!

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン&金田一少年の事件簿 めぐりあう2人の名探偵』

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

「戯言だよな・・・」

広いこの世界に自分はたった一人しかいない。
別にいい。
孤独は好きだ。
虚勢ではなく。
虚勢でも。
『クビキリサイクル 青色サヴァンと戯言遣い』

I am all alone in this wide world.
But I don't care.
Because I like loneliness.
It's not a bluff.
Even if it is a bluff.
"The Deheading Cycle: The Blue Savant and the Nonsense Talker"

I am still holding out quite well without new books, I think. It's been almost two months now and I still manage to update semi-regularly. For those wondering, this situation will continue for still another couple of weeks. And it will make sense in hindsight.

I'm still not sure whether I'll proceed in Nisioisin's Zaregoto ("nonsense, babbling") series, but I can sure go back! It's been a while since I read the first volume, Kubikiri Cycle: Aoiro Savant to Zaregotozukai ("The Deheading Cycle: The Blue Savant and the Nonsense Talker"), so it was about time to fresh up on this quirky locked room mystery. Wet Crow's Feather Island is the home of Akagami Iria, who has been effectively exiled by her family to the island. As things can get boring on a secluded island, Iria has the custom of inviting geniuses to her island (even paying them to come!) to enjoy their company. Genius artists, genius researchers, genius cooks... she collects geniuses from all fields. This time, the young IT-specialist Kunagisa Tomo is also invited, with her friend the narrator being dragged along too to the island. The narrator has a hard time living with all these geniuses, but the relative peace of the place is disrupted horribly when one day Kanami Ibuki, the genius painter, is found murdered in her room. Decapitated. Iria suggest to wait for the arrival of another guest, Aikawa, who is supposed to be genius in all fields, including detecting, but the narrator and Kunagisa have no intention of staying longer on the island than is needed (mainly because Kunagisa hates to change her schedule), so the two try to solve the murder themselves.

As this novel was originally conceived as a mystery light novel featuring moe characters, I have to admit I find it hard to just recommend this to readers. People familiar with anime, manga (or Japanese popular culture in general)? No problem. People who mostly read classic, traditional mysteries from the Western world without an inkling of Japanese popular culture? This might not be the best first choice for you. You might have trouble keeping up with the outrageous and over-the-top characters, the pop-culture references and the seemingly hyper-active storytelling. The simultaneously immensely dark, but humorous tone of the novel might even seem schizophrenic. As a light novel, this is heavily targeted at (Japanese) adolescents, and some might have trouble getting into that mindset without any background information.

If you manage to get that mindset though, you'll come to the conclusion that Kubikiri Cycle is awesome. The mystery, which features multiple locked room murders (and decapitations!) set at an secluded island is certainly enjoyable, if admittedly not very original. There are some interesting twists and turns in the story though and the reason for the decapitations is pretty horrifying (and therefore memorable). It is a very modern way to look at a reason for a decapitation in a detective story and you'd wonder whether NisiOisiN read critic Kasai Kiyoshi's seminal works on (Japanese) detective fiction to come up with such a reason, but it will stick in your mind. Actually, now that I think about it, there is a tendency visiblewith all of the murders in NisiOisiN's Zaregoto novels I've read until now that builds strongly on this idea. NisiOisiN keeps on exploring the ideas utilized in the murders in Kubikiri Cycle in the subsequent novels in this series.

Spoilers for Kubikiri Cycle, Kubishime Romanticist and Kubitsuri High School!! (Select to read):
The human body is reduced to a pure object (of convenience) in the first three Zaregoto novels, lacking any notions of 'humanity': in Kubikiri Cycle a body is used as a 'step', in Kubishime Romanticist the human body is used as a vessel to carry something around and in Kubitsuri High School part of the human body is used as a simple doorkey.
End Spoilers

But the biggest mystery of Kubikiri Cycle is the narrator. The unnamed narrator (one of his nicknames is Ii-chan, but his name is never made known in the series) transforms a 'normal' mystery story into something amazing. The narrator seems to describe himself as a Watson to Kunagisa's Holmes, but I don't think Watson was as unreliable a narrator as Watson. As a person, the narrator is an exeggaration of what probably what many young adolescents at times feel (I at least do!), being the ultimate passive person who just goes with the flow of everything, who just agrees (or disagrees) with everything if it allows him to avoid a conflict of any kind with other people. The narrator is smart, but in his attempts to avoid conflicts, he will, without even thinking anything of it, feign ignorance and lie to his friends, enemies, the readers and even himself. Imagine such a person narrating the story. A lot of the time, you will be more interested in seeing what makes this guy tick. By which I do not imply that the murders are boring, but as you see everything through his eyes, you will be asking yourself what kind of person the narrator really is. This is as much a character study as a mystery, but that is certainly not a bad thing.

Kubikiri Cycle also shows what a master of words and thought the writer NisiOisiN is. Most of the story consists of direct dialogue and the way NisiOisiN plays with words and allows dialogues to change from serious investigation to philosophy and other topics in such a free and natural (but often confronting) way is really impressive. I have to admit thought that a lot of the natural feeling to NisiOisiN's writings disappears when read in English. Rereading Kubikiri Cycle in English made me realize that the distinctive switching between dialogue and inner monologue that NisiOisiN utilizes so much is just distracting in English, as well as the fact that whereas speakers of dialogue in Japanese can be made clear through character-specific speech-patterns (i.e. with the help of speech markers, sentence ending particles etcetera), this is hard to accomplish in English and it results in some very confusing dialogue at times as you don't know who is supposed to be talking. Yes, I like writing about role language in translation.

The mystery element of the Zaregoto series weakens as it continues. The second volume, Kubishime Romanticist, moves away from the closed circle situation on an island and replaces it for a story set in the city of Kyoto, but I find Kubishime Romanticist overall the better experience, as the story is much better suited to NisiOisiN's style of storytelling and it also involves a (relatively) more personal story for the narrator. Heck, I consider it one of the most amusing books I read last year! I wasn't too big a fan of the third volume, Kubitsuri High School, but even with the lesser detective plot, it was a good showcase of NisiOisiN writing talent.

So Kubikiri Cycle is an entertaining locked room mystery, that can become really addictive if you happen to like the narrator, but it might be hard to get into for people with no knowledge at all of Japanese popular culture. And for people who compulsively use quotes from books to for post introductions, it is also a treasure chest of highly quotable material. But now I am just talking nonsense.

Original Japanese title(s): 西尾維新 『クビキリサイクル 青色サヴァンと戯言遣い』

Friday, February 17, 2012

『霧ヶ峰涼の逆襲』

「《バックスクリーン直撃の大ホームラン、ただし始球式》みたいなっ!」
『クビシメロマンチスト』

"Like 'a big homerun right into the back screen, but it was just the ceremonial opening ball'!"
"Kubishime Romanticist"

Three translations within two months seems kinda excessive, doesn't it?

And for those new here, there is a nice little link to the translations there in the sidebar. The best stories? Norizuki Rintarou's The Ripper (for Queenian bibliophiles) [NOTE: Story has been removed). And I have a thing for Rampo's Who? because it took me an insane amount of time to go through it. Why at times it seems like I don't proofread that much? Because I don't. But it is also part of a complex plot to discourage people from stealing these translations by purposely leaving mistakes in my texts. But it is mostly because I just do this as a hobby and as long as it's readable, well, meh.

And I decided that I will at most translate two stories per short story collection (for no particular reason), which means that this will be the last time that we will see amateur high school detective (?) Kirigamine Ryou here for the time being. Because Higashigawa Tokuya still hasn't written a sequel to Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni. I am waiting. Anyway, today's story, Kirigamine Ryou no Gyakushuu ("Kirigamine Ryou's Counterattack") is the second chapter of the hilarious short story collection starring Kirigamine Ryou, a high school girl and vice president of Koigakubo Academy's detective club. Too bad she is not very good at detecting. Kirigamine Ryou's Counterattack is a bit of an outsider story as it is not set at Koigakubo Academy itself and the plot has nothing to do with school or school buildings, but does feature an interesting impossible disappearance from an apartment under surveillance!

As with the previous Kirigamine Ryou translation, the translation is based on the radio drama version of the NHK, broadcast last year. Because there is magic in audio dramas. And because it is shorter. And because I don't really own the original book. I translated it a bit loosely and I couldn't pick up one or two words (the one disadvantage of audio dramas!), but the translation is readable and I think Higashino's plot is interesting and funny enough to keep readers hooked, despite my rushed translating-while-having-a-cold-English. This is a really short read, but there is actually something pretty smart going on here too, so have fun with the story. For those not familiar with reading these script-like things: read it like a script. The narration in italics is by Kirigamine Ryou and SOUND of course indicates the sound effects employed in the drama.

霧ヶ峰涼の逆襲
著者:東川篤哉
脚色:福田卓郎

Kirigamine Ryō’s Counterattack
Author: Higashigawa Tokuya
Script: Fukuda Takurō

Thursday, February 16, 2012

「事件に大きいも小さいもない!」

「音楽家が不調和音に敏感な様に探偵は真実の不調和に敏感であることが必要かも知れません」
『一寸法師』

"Like how a musician is sensitive to dissonance, it might be necessary for a detective to be sensitive to dissonance to the truth"
"The Dwarf"

I was contemplating making a 'crazy-dwarf-playing-with-dismembered-body-parts' tag for this post, but then I remembered I have a batshit-Edogawa-insane-awesome tag here! For when things get so grotesquely absurd that no other word can describe the amount of awesomeness.

Issunboushi ("The Dwarf") starts with a young man, Kobayashi Monzou, taking a walk at night through Asakusa, when he spots a dwarf sitting in the park. The dwarf, as he leaves the park, accidently drops a parcel on the ground. The parcel contains a human hand to Monzou's great surprise and he decides to follow this mysterious dwarf. After long walk through Asakusa, the dwarf disappears into a temple. The following day, the newspapers are all reporting about the discovery of a chopped off female hand and Monzou decides to look for the dwarf again, but the monk at the temple swears no dwarf lives there. Confused, Monzou leaves the temple again and comes across Yamano Yurie, the young and beautiful wife of an acquaintance. It seems like her stepdaughter Michiko has run away from her home and Yurie wants to ask Monzou's friend, the famous amateur detective Akechi Kogorou to help him find her. Akechi however suspects that Michiko might not have left her home on her own will. And as more dismembered pieces of a female body are found throughout the city, it doesn't take long for Monzou to connect the pieces. Who is this dwarf and what is his connection to the Yamano family?

Issunboushi was Rampo's first novel serialized in a newspaper (in 1926), which is pretty much proof of his immense popularity. A novel serialization in a newspaper in those times was like having a TV drama now! In the foreword, Rampo warned the readers that his particular kind of detective fiction was not like the classics, nor like the works of other, contemporary detective writers. His brand of detective fiction was indeed different, borrowing heavily from horror and also distinctly modern and aimed at the masses, which is what made him so widely popular. Rampo did not rate Issunboushi too well in later years, but it was a hit with the public at the time and was also the first Rampo story that made the jump to the silver screen in 1927 (and was remade a couple of times later).

As a detective story, this is actually quite decent. While the grotesque horror plots elements are overshadowing the detective plot, the latter is still constructed adequately and Issunboushi can still be considered an orthodox detective story with layered solutions even and both hard and psychological evidence. There are some really farfetched parts in the story too though (like how the dwarf keeps disappearing), but the main mystery is perfectly solvable based on the hints given to the reader. What is interesting to the mystery though, is how the story at first doesn't look like a real mystery (I mean, the book is called The Dwarf and we have a dwarf dropping body parts). It takes some time for the plot to really settle (and it might hard to recognize it because of the sheer weirdness of the dwarf's actions), but it is there and it is quite good.

The appearance of Akechi Kogorou in this story is pretty unique. Akechi hadn't starred in any of Rampo's stories for some time now, so the story starts with explaining how he had been on business in Shanghai. Which somehow explains why Akechi suddenly decided to dress in traditional Chinese dress. Wait, no, it doesn't. Why would he dress like that? Anyway, Akechi is officially still an amateur detective in this story, but he has assistants (not young Kobayashi though) and as his name was actually know to Yurie, it seems like Akechi was already slowly going towards the image of the dandy gentleman detective he would end up to be. Except for you know, the Chinese clothing. It is interesting though that despite Akechi's presence, Monzou is also seen detecting on his own. It made sense in D-Zaka no Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case of D-Slope"), as Akechi was not an established character at that time and thus a viable suspect, but why have two amateur detectives in Issunboushi?

Yesterday I already wrote about voyeurism in Rampo's work, which is related to this I guess, but a couple of Rampo's stories play with the notion of the public showing of something criminal. This is related to that famous idea in one of Poe's short stories about hiding things in plain sight: in Rampo's work an object that is the proof of a crime is placed before the eyes of the public, but they are not (immediately) recognized as such. It is the realization of what the object is that leads to an incredible feeling of horror. In Issunboushi for example, the arm of a woman is replaced with the arm of a mannequin in a busy department store in the Ginza. At first everybody is just admiring the mannequin, until two boys ask themselves the question: why is that one arm a lot more detailed than the other? The horror you feel when you realize that the thing you have been looking at the whole time was an actual, cut off arm, must be amazing. This is very different from Queen's way of publicly showing grotesque things (like in The French Powder Mystery), as his bodies are usually not meant to be found. In Rampo's work, tension is created because the criminal actually wants the objects to be found, because he wants the people to realize that the object they have been watching is actually an arm or a leg or something. Exhibitionism, I guess.The mind should go like [that is a plastic arm] [wouldn't it be weird if that was a real arm] [but that would be impossible] [or would it....] and then go into panic mode. Other stories by Rampo that play with this include Odoru Issunboushi ("The Dancing Dwarf", no relation to Issunboushi), Hakuchuumu ("The Daydream") and Mojuu ("Blind Beast"). Especially the latter is very similar to Issunboushi, with the latter half of the story focusing on the blind masseur gone mad (= not making this up) who leaves dismembered body parts of women all over town. For fun.

This tendency of public showing might have to do with the modern culture in Tokyo at the time, with its department stores to show off the newest products or the Asakusa Twelve-Stories showing off the newest technology in the world. Indeed, most of the story is set around Asakusa, the main entertainment area of Tokyo and home of the masses who liked a good show. And of gay couples, as Issunboushi starts in a park where apparently gay couples meet (with Monzou curious to the customs of how those people strike up a conversation). The depiction of gay relations in Rampo's work is actually a pretty popular topic, I think I have seen titles of quite a lot of academic articles in the last few years. This was the first time I came across it in Rampo's work though.

And this was actually the first point I wrote down, but somehow it ended up last: man, this book was really written in a different time and place. The depiction of pyshically impaired people as evil is of course one thing. The theme occasionally pops up in Rampo's work like in Mojuu ("Blind Beast"), though they might also be the victim, like in Imomushi ("Catterpillar"). Here however, it seemed like Rampo wanted to make the dwarf evil no matter what and some passages might be considered discriminatory nowadays. I was kinda surprised to see how Rampo changed the image of the dwarf throughout the book: [Evil] -> [Maybe he is a tragic, misunderstood person] to finally -> [No, he was definitely pure evil and let's leave it at that]. Akechi also does something unforgivable at the end of the book, which really emphasized the 'dwarf=abnormal=evil <-> beauty=normal=good' ideas Rampo employed for this book. Which was weird, considering Rampo of all people is usually a writer who manages to depict social deviance as something more sympathetic.

I think I also saw a couple of words in the book that are considered discriminatory nowadays.Not that I would have wanted for the publishers to have changed that: like I said, this was written in a different time, so it was quite interesting to see this all-star parade of words you don't see to often anymore in modern media because they are considered offensive. Which can be quite troublesome at times, with for example a famous hint from a novel by Yokomizo Seishi actually being censored nowadays.

So the short story: this is overall a fun book, that manages to mix an orthodox detective plot with Rampo's trademark grotesque horror in a (mostly) satisfying way. Hmm, did this post turn out to be long? I sometimes have trouble writing an acceptable amount of words for these things, but with Rampo's work the words flow out of me quite easily. And less focused. Mostly ramblings. Let's stop here.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩 『一寸法師』

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

『殺人現場では靴をお脱ぎください』

オレンジ色した 極楽特急に乗り込んで 彼に会いに行くよ
すごいスピードで駅をとばし
あの小さな部屋へ
心がここにない私にね何言ってもムダなの
100万キロのスピード上げて彼のもとへ向かうよ
『恋の極楽特急』(小島麻由美)

Stepping into the orange heaven express, I go to my boyfriend
Passing stations at an incredible speed
To his small room
It's no use talking to me, as my heart is not here
Speeding up to a million kilometers, towards him
"Love's Heaven Express" (Kojima Mayumi)

Like I said in the previous post, I can always rely on Edogawa Rampo. Struck down by a cold and confined to my bed, I spent the last two days going through some works of that old master of Japanese mystery fiction. Most of Rampo's work might be quite different from orthodox detective fiction, the main focus at this blog, but I always make an exception for Rampo.Which reminds me, Rampo is pretty much the only writer where I have to read up a bit on a story before I actually start reading it. Why? Because Rampo was not the most consistent of writers, even having several unfinished stories. You really have to be careful with Rampo sometimes. Anyway, this time I took a look at two (relatively) early orthodox detective stories by Rampo.

Nisen Douka ("The Two Sen Copper Coin") is commonly known as Rampo's debut work and widely praised as the first truly original Japanese detective story when it was first published in 1923 in the magazine Shinseinen. Rampo however wrote Ichimai no Kippu ("A Single Ticket") simultenously with Nisen Douka. So why is only the latter known as Rampo's debut work? The editors at Shinseinen thought that the story of Ichimai no Kippu was too good and suspected that Rampo had based it on some foreign story! The plot of Nisen Douka revolves around a code that was purely Japanese, so the editors had no doubts about the authenticity of that story, but there was nothing typical Japanese in Ichimai no Kippu, so the publication was delayed as the editors researched whether it was based on a different story. It wasn't.

Structurally, the story of Ichimai no Kippu resembles its more famous twin brother Nisen Douka. Both stories are built around the conversation of two people (the story-telling party (not the narrator) and a listening party) who participate in some kind of amateur detecting. In this story, the listener (Matsumura) is told the details of a murder case by his friend Souda. The eminent professor Tomita, a person Souda respects as a scholar, has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of his wife, who was ran over by the train near their home. It was found out that the wife was drugged and further police investigation made it seem like the professor did away with his wife. Souda however suspects that the professor is innocent, based on the discovery of a train ticket he found near the scene of the crime. The next day, Matsumura is astonished to find a letter of Souda published in the newspaper, revealing the truth behind the case, all based on a single ticket.

This is actually quite an ingeneous story by Rampo. It is short, but it is pretty impressive, which has a lot to do with Rampo's gift for storytelling. His plots might not have been always that good, but he sure could write. Many years may have passed, but there is something timeless to his writings. Which you could also say of stories by Doyle and Christie, but there have been tremendous changes in both the written and spoken Japanese language since 1920, with modernization, great social changes and the Second World War as examples, but Rampo's work does not feel as nearly as old as contemporary Japanese writings. Yay for mass fiction!

The plot of Ichimai no Kippu is also quite good. The story is split in two parts (the details of the case and then the explanation by Souda), mirroring a problem / challenge to the reader structure and while it is not completely fair, the plot is (almost surprisingly) logical and satisfying. Realizing that Rampo wrote this in 1923 as one of his two debut works, as an original attempt at what was until then a purely Western literary genre,  Ichimai no Kippu is an impressive short story and I think I actually like this story more than Nisen Douka, due to its more serious tone (though the conclusion to Nisen Douka is admittedly a classic, even among Rampo's work).

Ichimai no Kippu also resembles Rampo's later story Nanimono ("Who?") (translation available), with its focus on footsteps in wet ground and other similar clues and story developments. As a whole, I think Ichimai no Kippu is a better story, but Nanimono is still pretty awesome as an orthodox detective story written in a time when Rampo kinda stopped writing those kind of stories.

Another early orthodox detective story by Rampo is Kohantei Jiken ("The Lakeside Pavillion Case"), his second serialized novel. Since his debut in 1923, Rampo only wrote short stories and it wasn't until 1926 when he first started to write serialized novels. Kohantei Jiken was his second novel, serialized in the magazine Sunday Mainichi, and Rampo himself admits that at that time, he pretty much took on any offer he got, without planning his stories. Which explains why around this period he wrote a lot of unfinished and/or simply disappointing stories. He just winged his way through Kohantei Jiken too with each installment, but it actually turned out  surprisingly good in my opinion. Considering that it was a completely unplanned story.

The narrator is residing at the Lakeside Pavillion, a small hostel in the mountains (facing a lake) to recover from a nervous breakdown. It does not take long for him to be utterly bored and hoping to find some excitement in this place, he remembers he has taken a peculiar invention of his with him on this trip. The narrator has always had a fascination for lenses and he once built a portable peek-machine, a contraption of lenses and mirrors which would allow him peek at places unnoticed. A kind of webcam. He sets the contraption so he is able to look into the dressing room (for the bath) from his own room and spends his days on voyeurism. Until one day, he sees a woman being murdered in the bathroom! He runs to the scene of the crime, only to find out that there is no trace of murderer, victim or even blood in the bathroom. Was it just a dream? The next day however, he discovers that a woman has disappeared and our narrator starts wondering what he did see in his mirror-contraption.

And then things happen. Hey, it is a serialized novel so stuff had to happen every installment and Rampo really just came up with stuff everytime, until he thought he should wrap things up.

A lot of Rampo's protagonists are probably what we nowadays call hikikomori or otaku, with their tendencies to stay inside their room focusing on sometimes bizarre interests. These characters know they are what many would call abnormal, but they seem to have peace with that and just live their lives the way they want to, spending time with what they like. Rampo's descriptions of the psychology characters is really good though and really captivating. Rampo himself had a fascination for lenses, cameras and other apperati that change ones views on 'reality' and this is I think one of the first stories where he really goes into that subject. The description of the narrator of Kohantei Jiken of his love for lenses is bizarre, almost grotesque, yet very amusing and appealing. There is something alluring to the idea of a single sheet of glass changing the surroundings into an almost inrecognizable world. Other famous lens/mirror lovers in Rampo works are the "him" from Kagami Jigoku (1926, "The Hell of Mirrors") and Ookawara Yumiko from Kenin Gengi.

In Kohantei Jiken, the lenses and mirrors are used to peek into the dressing room. Voyeurism is also a big theme in Rampo's work, with the most famous examples being the inverted detective story Yaneura no Sanposha (1925, "The Walker in the Attic"), featuring a man who peeks on his fellow inhabitants of a lodge house from the loft, and the horror story Ningen Isu (1925, "The Human Chair"), where a craftsman builds himself into a chair, allowing him to have very close physical contact with however sits on him. This time though, the voyeur is not the criminal in the story (though peeking is also a crime).

Like I said before, for a mostly improvised story, Kohantei Jiken isn't even that bad. Yes, there are some plotlines that seem to go nowhere, as if Rampo forgot them as he wrote every installment, but most of the plots comes neatly together near the end and includes the classical surprise twist ending Rampo loves so much. The first part, highly focusing on the narrator's fascination for lenses, is probably the best (and most original) part of the story though. While this is mostly an original story, there were some instances, besides the above mentioned themes in Rampo's work, where I suspected that Rampo re-used some plot-elements from earlier stories (in highly rewritten contexts though). All in all though, this is an enjoyable story.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩 『一枚の切符』 『湖畔亭事件』 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

「I can't hang out this world こんな思いじゃどこにも居場所なんて無い」

「はんにんはおいつめられるとどうきとかをじぶんからベラベラしゃべるのがおやくそくや」
『課長は名探偵』

"It's a rule that the criminal will start talking about the motive and everything when he's cornered"

Hmm, so now half of the posts of this month are on audio dramas. My amount of audio dramas I haven't heard yet is also getting dangerously low. Contemplating about rereading Queen's nationality novels for reviews. Not sure yet. Ah, choices, choices.

But anyway... back to one of the main pillars of this blog: Edogawa Rampo. I can always rely on you!

Akechi Kogorou is Edogawa Rampo's most famous fictional detective and a study of the character is in fact a study of Edogawa Rampo's complete work. Akechi first debuted in D-Zaka no Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case on D Slope"), where the amateur-detective Akechi solves a murder that happened in a sealed space (bookshop). Afterwards, Akechi sporadically made appearences in Rampo's work, like Shinri Shiken ("The Psychological Test"), Yaneura no Sanposha ("The Wanderer on the Attic") and even in a slightly disguised form in Nanimono ("Who"; translation available at this blog). The character of Akechi slowly changed as he started to appear more often in Rampo's stories and while he started out as an amateur detective / student clad in traditional Japanese clothing, he ends up as a dandy gentleman private detective. This Akechi Kogorou is used in several of the high-profile adult stories of Rampo, like Kurotokage ("The Black Lizard"). In Kyuuketsuki ("Vampire"), we are first introduced to young Kobayashi, Akechi's assistent. Both Akechi and Kobayashi would be used for Rampo's children's series Shounen Tantei Dan (with especially Kobayashi gaining fame in that series), but both characters thus in fact originated from Rampo's particular brand of grotesque mystery stories. Akechi is thus a character that has been used for a wide variety of stories by Rampo, from his early orthodox detective stories to the more popular ero-guro (erotic-grotesque) nonsense stories to children's stories.

Rampo's postwar creative output was dominated by the Shounen Tantei Dan series, but Kenin Gengi ("The Inhuman Illusion Game") is one of the few postwar novels that aimed at adults, featuring both Akechi and Kobayashi. I listened to the NHK's radio drama based on the book, titled Kenin Gengi yori: Akechi Kogorou Saigo no Jiken ("The Last Case of Akechi Kogorou - Based on The Inhuman Illusion Game"). The story is set in postwar Japan, with a 50 year old Akechi, who is still happily married to the beautiful and smart Fumiyo. "Boy Detective" Kobayashi isn't a boy anymore and all is well. But not for long, of course. One day, Akechi is invited by ex-nobleman Ookawara and his wife Yumiko to their summer house in Atami. As the three, joined by Ookawara's secretary, are enjoying the view from the balcony with binoculars (Yumiko has a fascination for lenses), they witness a man falling from a cliff across the house into the sea. The victim turns out to be Himeda, an employee and confidante of Ookawara himself. Ookawara hires Akechi, wanting to know whether this was just an accident or a murder and Akechi gladly accepts, also because he sees the case, if there really is a case, as a personal challenge to him as a masterdetective.

And there is a case. While it might not be clear whether Himeda's death was an accident or not in the beginning, the fact that potential suspects get bumped off one after another (including one in a locked room) suggest that there is something sinister going on. Has it something to do with the white feather that was sent to Himeda just before he died and which he seemed to fear? Is the fact that the Ookawaras like detective novels and that they love coming up with murder methods relevant? And is an elderly Akechi still capable of the deductive feats that made him famous?

My first comment is not about the actual contents, but the length of this radio drama. Kenin Gengi yori: Akechi Kogorou Saigo no Jiken was originally broadcast in 1983 in twenty (almost) 15-minute installments, so the complete runtime is nearly five hours. Listening to five hours of old and slightly less than perfect audio-circumstances in Japanese is pretty tiring, I can tell you. In fact, I've tried listening to this radio drama several times in the past, but always gave up because it was just too difficult to keep concentrated on it for a long time (by which I mean, I always gave up after thirty minutes, because I kept falling asleep). It took me two years and the fact I have no books I want to read at hand to listen to this drama.

But this was actually pretty fun. Most surprisingly, Kenin Gengi yori: Akechi Kogorou Saigo no Jiken is an actual attempt of Rampo to write an orthodox detective novel, something he hadn't done in years! Alibi tricks, a locked room murder, a layered plot, this is a story that feels very different from the popular pulp stories of pre-war Rampo. Which is also why the original novel kinda bombed in Japan. The story featured orthodox detective tropes, but it is not particularly impressive, with a rather easy locked room murder, alibi tricks that seem kinda dependent on luck and it is quite easy to point out the murderer. In an era where Yokomizo and Akimitsu had already shown what an orthodox detective could be, Kenin Gengi was too simple. For the fans of Rampo's ero-guro nonsense pulp stories, Kenin Gengi was just too tame and normal, missing the bizarre and grotesque taste from Rampo's other works.

I on the other hand quite enjoyed the story, as a kind of throwback to the old orthodox Akechi Kogorou stories. One fun part was the way Fumiyo (Akechi's wife) and Kobayashi helped Akechi with his investigations. I had never seen (heard) Fumiyo in action before, but she seems to be a very capable assistant herself, actively questioning people and even going undercover to help her husband. The Akechis are an interesting detecting couple and I'll definitely try to read/see/hear more of them. Also, the use of tropes like disguises and layered plots felt perfectly normal and natural to me, as they are commonly used plot devices in early Rampo short stories. Yumiko's fascination for lenses of course comes from Rampo's own fascination for lenses, as expressed in an essay and stories like Kagami Jigoku ("Hell of Mirrors"). And while I have to admit that the tricks employed by Rampo in this story were relatively simple, it made perfect sense in-universe for them to be like that. Had they been more complex, the conclusion and the identity of the murderer would have made no sense at all and that would have been a shame, because Rampo came up with a really memorable villain.

Which is of course something he excelled in. But the villain in Kenin Gengi is very different from criminals like Twenty Faces, the Black Lizard, Golden Mask or The Clown From Hell. This time the murderer has no crazy name or weird modus operandi. It seems like a Poirot-saying, but it is the psychology behind the murders that is really impressive and that makes the murderer in this story memorable. It was not really conveyed well in the audio drama actually, but doing a bit of background research really brought this interesting aspect of the original story to my attention. Kenin Gengi's murderer differs so greatly from the Funnily Named Criminals of the past that Akechi Kogorou actually claims that the belle epoch of weird criminals has passed and that maybe it is also time for him to quit being a detective, as things have changed too much after the war (explaining the title The Last Case of Akechi Kogorou of the radio drama). Despite this lamenting by Akechi though, I do feel that this murderer does fit with the characters of some other early criminals Akechi apprehended in his early stories. This culprit fits perfectly with NiSiOiSiN's Zaregoto series too.

And I am not sure whether this was also like this in the original novel or not, but I loved the Kyushu dialect speaking police inspector Minoura! How nostalgic! And probably very distracting if you have never heard dialect from places like Fukuoka (Hakata), Nagasaki or Kumamoto before! But how utterly weird too, from a directing point of view (or if it was in the original novel, from the writer's point of view). Naturally, it is conceivable that someone from Hakata would become inspector in Tokyo in real life, but why would you choose to have someone speak in thick Kyushu dialect in the Tokyo/Shizuoka area? To set him apart as an outsider? To characterize him as a typical, high-handed Kyushu-male? They certainly didn't really succeed with either of these choices at any rate... It seems like that there is no real creative reason for him to speak like Kyushu dialect, besides appealing to me for nostalgic reasons, but I doubt that they would have foreseen that when they produced this radio drama.

But I still think that a five hour radio drama based on one novel is way too long! It took people in 1983 a whole month to go through this series! Madness!

Edit: not sure why I didn't notice earlier I was copying and pasting 'gen'i' the whole time instead of 'gengi' as the story's title... >_>

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩(原) 『化人幻戯より明智小五郎最後の事件』

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mystic Antique

ゲッゲッゲゲゲのゲー 夜は墓場で運動会
楽しいな 楽しいな お化けは死なない 病気もなんにもない
『ゲゲゲの鬼太郎』 (いずみみたく)

Gegegege no ge Nights are spent on a graveyard sports competition
Oh what fun, oh what fun, ghosts don't die and don't become ill

"Gegege no Kitarou" (Izumi Mitaku)

It's been very cold here lately, but that also means that it is perfect weather to lie all tucked up in bed listening to audio dramas with my headphones.

And like I said I would in the previous post, I listened to the audio drama adaptation of Kyougoku Natsuhiko's Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Kaze ("Bag of Hundred Random Demons - Wind"), the sequel to Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Ame. Kaze is like Ame a collection of three stories featuring the private detective Enokizu Reijirou, who has the power to read people's memories, and his entourage of sidekicks (slaves?) and other acquaintances who one way or another will get in trouble because of Enokizu's rather eccentric personality. The stories are light mystery adventures and always have some kind of connection to youkai (spirits/demons/ghosts) and other Japanese folkloristic entities, a field author Kyougoku specializes in. For slightly more on Kyougoku Natsuhiko and the Hyakki Yakou series, I refer to the previous post. Actually, I recommend reading that review before reading this one anyway, because this review is really just a continuation of the previous one...

Kaze repeats the experience I had with Ame: it was fun to listen to, but I have to admit that it does not really deliver on the mystery side of things, despite the fact that the stories always feature two-layered mysteries: the cases themselves and the enigmatic behaviour of Enokizu (and bookshop owner Kyougokudou), seen from the eyes of narrator Motoshima (an ex-client who keeps crossing paths with the gang). But the stories are quite simple, despite the double layers of mystery and the charm to the series is purely derived from the references to youkai/folklore and the crazy characters.

In Gotokuneko - Bara Juuji Tantei no Gaizen ("Gotokuneko - The Determination of the Rose Cross Detective"), Motoshima happens to overhear the name Enokizu as he was out buying a maneki-neko. The girl mitsuko wants to hire Enokizu to help her with a big problem: she has been working for many, many years in the service of her master and has not seen her mother for twenty years. Recently, she snuck out to meet her, but her mother, to Mitsuko's great surprise, says that she is an imposter and that her daughter has been living for years with her now! Because Mitsuko saw a cat (that should have been dead many years ago) running around her home just before she visited her mother, she suspects that a cat-demon might have taken the place of her mother and wants Enokizu to help her get rid of the monster.

To spoil the story: it was not the work of a real cat-demon. And it does not take a genius like Enokizu or Kyougokudou to see what's going on here. Apparently, narrator Motoshima doesn't read Sherlock Holmes, or else he would have guessed the solution almost immediately. I have to admit that the trap Enokizu and Kyougokudou laid to catch 'the cat-demon' was really fun and original though, but it only proves the point that these short stories are mostly carried by the characters and not the plot. Though it is not a bad plot.

The events in Ungaikyou - Bara Juuji Tantei no Zengi ("Ungaikyou - The Doubt of the Rose Cross Detective") are a direct result of the last case and starts off with the kidnapping of narrator Motoshima by a bunch of gangsters, as an act of revenge on the Rose Cross Detective Agency. Shuntou, the guy in charge of the gangsters (who in turn works for The Big Boss) though admits that Motoshima is not really part of the Rose Cross Detective Agency and agrees to let him free. They have to pretend that Motoshima breaks free, wounding Shuntou in the process, or else his underlings might tell the Big Boss that Shuntou let Motoshima go. Motoshima escapes, but he hears later that Shuntou was found murdered, at the exact place where he pretended to have stabbed Shuntou during his escape. Motoshima hopes Enokizu will help him, but it seems that a spirit detective Kannazuki, who uses a magic mirror to read the truth, has challenged Enokizu in a deduction battle.

This is the first story where a murder is actually the main focus, instead of a side-dish and with the narrator as a suspect, this story also feels a lot more exciting and interesting than the other stories. The spirit detective also spices things up, but the actual detective plot is once again not particularly complex. It is easy to guess what happened, even without the power to read memories like Enokizu, which is true for actually all these Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro short stories. They are fun to listen to, but they hardly need someone with special powers (Enokizu) or an excentric genius detective (Kyougokudou).

Motoshima has been avoiding the Rose Cross Detective Agency because of his kidnapping in the previous case, but it seems that cases reach him even then. Menreiki - Bara Juuji Tantei no Giwaku ("Menreiki - The Suspicion of the Rose Cross Detective")  starts off with a friend of Motoshima, living in the same building telling Motoshima that he was burgled. Or that is maybe not the right word: the 'burglar' actually left something. A box. With a mask in it. A cursed mask. Of course, you only get cursed when you put that thing on your fac.... oh, what, Motoshima's friend put it on his face before reading the warning? Oh.

There are more events in this story, but it comes down on the same formula: Kyougokudou and Enokizu figuring things out almost immediately who proceed to lay a trap for the masterminds behind the case, while the narrator Motoshima runs around cluelessly. The mystery is easy to solve, but the characters once again manage to keep things interesting enough for me to listen all the way to the end of the case. Although I have to admit that ninety minutes per story is a bit too long. Judging by the page count of the books, I guess each story would have been slightly shorter than 200 pages, which is relatively long, but it is weird to listen to an audio drama based on a story of 200 pages that is actually longer than a drama based on a story of 300~400 pages. These stories could have been 45 minutes shorter and would have resulted in more focused and better storytelling, I think (though I loved the little segments in between that provided more information on youkai and the characters from the Hyakki Yagyou series).

I definitely wouldn't recommend either Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro books/audio drama series on the merits of the detective plots, but the characters are fun and the underlying themes of youkai and folklore are really interesting. This set, Kaze is better than the previous set though, with more interesting stories as well as benefiting from a (kind of) storyline that binds the three stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 京極夏彦 『百器徒然袋――風』: 「五徳猫 薔薇十字探偵の慨然」 / 「雲外鏡 薔薇十字探偵の然疑」 / 「面霊気 薔薇十字探偵の疑惑」

Monday, February 6, 2012

Antique Mystic

ゲッゲッゲげげのゲー 朝は寝床でグーグーグー
楽しいな 楽しいな お化けにゃ学校も試験も何もない
『ゲゲゲの鬼太郎』 (いずみみたく)

Gegegege no ge, mornings are spent in bed going goo goo goo
Oh what fun, oh what fun, ghosts don't have schools or exams!
"Gegege no Kitarou" (Izumi Mitaku)

I have read quite some books from a range of authors these last few years, but there are still notable blind spots in both my Japanese and non-Japanese readings. One of my major Japanese blind spots is Kyougoku Natsuhiko. Kyougoku is known as a youkai (spirit/monster/demon) expert, which is actually a really interesting field. I have to admit that my knowledge of youkai comes mostly from comic series like Gegege no Kitarou and Inu Yasha, but there is something.. magical to the whole world of supernatural beings with their own characteristics and such. Heck, I actually reviewed the English-language youkai guide Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide here. I should have started reading Kyougoku ages ago! Though I have to admit that the sheer length of his novels does kinda scare me. Those bricks are big!

Kyougoku's main series is called the Hyakki Yakou ("Night Parade of Hundred Demons") series, set in postwar Japan. The series' detective is Chuuzenji Akihiko, who has the nickname Kyougokudou, which is the name of his bookstore (the series is therefore also refered to as the Kyougokudou series, but Kyougoku himself does not seem to like the name). Youkai don't actually appear in the series, but the cases Kyougokudou handles are always related to youkai and other folkloristic customs. Which makes this series really interesting for people interested in anthropology, I guess. And because there is both a film and an English translation of the first novel in the series, Ubume no Natsu ("Summer of the Ubume"), I really have no excuse for not trying this series. Heck, by all means, I should have started this series with Ubume no Natsu, considering all those ways to experience the story!

And yet, my first encounter with Kyougoku Natsuhiko is an audio drama of his novellete collection Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Ame ("Bag of Hundred Random Demons - Rain"). This is a supplement installment to the Hyakki Yakou series, with the main protagonist being Enokizu Reijirou, a private detective of the Rose Cross Detective Agency and friend of Kyougokudou. But can we really call Enokizu a detective? He doesn't investigate. He doesn't deduce. He just solves cases. Which is partly helped by his power to read other people's memories, partly helped by his overblown self-confidence, partly helped by his charisma and partly helped by his assistant. Enogizu is not particularly smart, but he somehow manages to solve every case he takes. But it usually takes some explanation from Kyougokudou himself before anybody even knows what happened.

This is a really weird series. Judging from the (cool) covers on the Kyougoku novels and the length of those books, I had always thought that they were very serious, dark novels. And I don't know much about the main Hyakki Yakou series, but Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Ame is a straight comedy book. It is really a character-driven series, with Enokizu dominating every scene he is in. The fun of the stories is derived from seeing Enokizu doing seemingly random stuff and Kyougokudou acting all mysteriously from the eyes of the narrator, only to have everything to the narrator explained at the end. Enokizu does not seem to be handling many murder cases though and the three stories here evoke at times the feelings of some of the Holmes stories, where enigmatic and puzzling situations (but not criminal per se) perplex the narrator, until the detective explains everything.

The narrator first visits the Rose Cross Detective Agency in Narikama - Barijuuji Tantei no Yuuutsu ("Narikama - The Melancholy of the Rose Cross Detective"). His niece was raped by the son of an influential politician and his friends. The narrator tried to get this story out in the open, but the father of the guilty son managed to hush up everything. Having nowhere else to go, the narrator hopes that Enokizu can give him justice. Which Enokizu gladly gives him. The mystery in this story is mostly in guessing what Enokizu is trying to do with Kyougokudou's help (even using a mysterious rice cooking pot ritual to lure out the gang of rapers to see who deserved the most punishment). This is like a Lupin story with a charismatic protagonist trying to get revenge in the name of a poor girl, but this is hardly a detective story.

The narrator of the previous story returns to the Rose Cross Detective Agency to give his thanks to Enogizu in Kameosa - Bara Juuji Tantei no Uppun ("Kameosa - The Frustration of the Rose Cross Detective") and there he learns about the detective's newest assignment: Enokizu's father wants him to locate a precious pot (kame) and their pet turtle (kame). The narrator, being drawn by Enokizu's charisma, wants to help him and with the help of Kyougokudou, learns about a mansion full of pots where the pot Enokizu is looking for might be. Coincidentally, they also find out that the turtle they are looking for might also be in the neighbourhood. The mystery in this story comes the dual investigation (which seem to be connected in some strange way) and finding out the link between those cases. Once again, the story is dominated by the random actions of Enokizu and the meddling (?) of Kyougokudou (who usually sees through everything rather quickly), with the narrator having trouble keeping up with the two grand forces.

In Yamaoroshi - Bara Juuji Tantei no Fungai ("Yamaoroshi - The Indignation of the Rose Cross Detective"), Enokizu is away from the office for another case, forcing his assistant Masuda to take on a request by a friend of Kyougokudou himself. This friend, a monk, suspects something might be wrong with an old acquaintance of him whom he has not seen in 18 years: when he called his home, they first said that they didn't know the monk and the second time they said that his friend died in the war. Fearing something might have happened to the monk's friend, Masuda and the narrator head to the friend's house, which has been turned into an exclusive haute cuisine restaurant. And luck has it that his own investigations have also brought Enokizu here. Which kinda mirrors the events in the previous story. This is the best story in the collection though. While it does not take a genius to figure out what is going on and there are some really forced coincidences in this story, it is an entertaining adventure for the detectives. There is just little to add to that: this is a story that is fun to listen to, but there is nothing to really praise or critique. The "Ok, that was fun, what shall I do now..."-feeling.

You might disagree with Dine, but a murder in a story does feel a lot better than no murder. The three stories in Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Ame are rather light mysteries that just happen to seem more mysterious, because of the totally random and enigmatic behavior of Enokizu. As mysteries, they might disappoint a bit, but I have to admit, as a character-driven mystery (similar to NiSiOiSiN's Kubishime Romanticist), this is really enjoyable. I also love the anthropological / folkloristic background information to the stories, which really makes me eager to start in the main series.

But I think I'll first listen to the audio drama of Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Kaze ("Bag of Hundred Random Demons - Wind"), the sequel to this collection!

Is there by the way a detective series that takes it cues from urban legends? I am naturally familiar with Norizuki Rintarou's An Urban Legend Puzzle and I should really continue with the game Hayarigami, but any other recommendations?

Original Japanese title(s): 京極夏彦(原) 『百器徒然袋――雨』: 「鳴釜 薔薇十字探偵の憂鬱」 / 「瓶長 薔薇十字探偵の鬱憤」 / 「山颪 薔薇十字探偵の憤慨」

Sunday, February 5, 2012

One Ahead System

「事件の真相を暴くのは法廷の仕事。私達の仕事はね、推理じゃない。見てきたことを、お金を貰って喋るだけ」
『時給探偵~17時までの名探偵』
"Finding out the truth is the job of the law. Deductions, that's not our job. We just talk about what we saw for money"
"Detective Paid By The Hour ~A Great Detective Until 17:00"

And another Short Shorts, that limbo-like place where I write about detective fiction-related things that couldn't fill a proper post on their own. So I just stick them together to make it seem less awkward. Or is forcefully putting unrelated items together more awkward?

Today's topics: a short story by Yokomizo Seishi, the theater-play-turned-into-an-app Jikyuu Tantei and the PlaySation videogame THE Sound Novel. Like I said, they are pretty much unrelated. Heck, I don't even bother to write connecting sentences/bridges between the different parts.

Jokai ("Female Monster") is a Kindaichi Kousuke short story by Yokomizo Seishi, collected in Akuma no Koutansai ("The Devil's Christmas"). Normally, I would do a review of the complete collection, but it only consists of three stories and the other two stories (Akuma no Koutansai and Kiri no Sansou) are rewritten versions of stories I have reviewed in the past already (in The Return of Kindaichi Kousuke; Kiri no Sansou was originally Kiri no Bessou). As those two stories weren't very interesting, I decided it wasn't worth the time and effort to see if the rewritten versions were any better. So back to Jokai. After the events in Yoru Aruku and Yatsu Haka Mura, Kindaichi Kousuke decides to take a little break together with his writer friend Yokomizo Seishi (also the narrator of the story). They arrive at a little town, where the two see how a strange monk steals away the skull of a buried man. The man turns out to be the dead husband of Nijoko, the owner of a bar in Ginza and also the woman whom Kindaichi Kousuke is harboring romantic feelings for. Wanting to help his love, Kindaichi starts investigating the strange theft. But let's be honest, it is not hard to guess how this story will develop, considering the title of female monster and the fact that the detective is in love with the widow. There is nothing surprising to be found in this story (except maybe for the fact that Kindaichi actually harbors feelings for someone else than that girl from Gokumontou). This story is thus another of many, many disappointing Kindaichi Kousuke short stories.

Jikyuu Tantei ~17 Ji Made no Meitantei ("Detective Paid By the HourA Great Detective Until 17:00") was originally a small-scale comedy play by the Suzuki-ku Theater Group. I haven't seen it live, but Suzuki-ku did something awesome with the play: they made a free Itunes app of the play, allowing people to read the script accompanied by photos and music of the play itself. In short, they made a sound novel of their own play. I have to admit that the idea itself is much more brilliant than the play itself, though it is entertaining if you have some free time. It seems that there are two Jikyu Tantei plays (the other with the subtitle Kieta Tantei Joshu / The Lost Detective Assistant), but that play has no app.

The protagonist Karasawagi Kokogorou is a private detective, assisted by the young Komakomai Tomato. An usual day for them consists of looking for lost pets and such (even though that is hampered by Tomato's allergy for animals) and as they are not particularly succesful detectives, they have trouble keeping up with their rent payments. One day, Kokogorou discovers a corpse when he enters his office. A corpse with a knife stuck in his head. Very probably murder. What's a body doing in his office? Normal people would panic, but as Kokogorou is a financial pinch, he delays reporting the body to the police, hoping that someone will come to him with a request for an investigation into this body. Two little problems: people from the apartment building keep coming in and out of office. Two: Tomato only works until five, so they have to receive a request and solve the case by then.


Jikyuu Tantei is a really light-hearted slapstick comedy, with some really weird characters running on and off the stage. It has some funny scenes and I was quite surprised to see that there was actually a bit of clueing and an actual denouement scene in the play, though the investigation into the mysteriously dumped corpse is definitely not the real driving force behind the story developments. I doubt I would have gone to the play had I even known about it, but the idea of turning these plays into sound novel apps is just awesome. There is also a short digest recording of the play available.

And having gone in a sound novel mood, I tried out THE Sound Novel for the PlayStation. Gamers who don't know Japanese might not know about D3's THE SIMPLE series: a budget game series published by D3, that basically copies popular game themes. SIMPLE titles include generic games like THE Mahjong and THE Chess, but also 'copies' of more popular games like THE My Taxi (of Crazy Taxi). There are also some surprisingly good games that have gone on to spawn their own series, like THE Oneechanbara (bikini-clad zombie slaying game) and THE Chikyuu Boueigun (apocalyptic monster-swarm shooter) (especially the latter was an awesome game).

THE Sound Novel (volume 31 of THE SIMPLE series) actually has a proper title, Kuraki Mori no Hate ni ("Beyond the Dark Forest"), but that title is only seen during the opening credits. The story starts with Takahashi Seiichi, a young man on his way to the Genjou mansion to pick up his not-girlfriend-so-why-did-she-ask-me-friend Yui, who works there as a private tutor. On his way, Seiichi picks up some other people on their way to the mansion. When they finally arrive at the mansion, Yui comes out of the house, hoping to leave with Seiichi when a stray bullet fired by a maid, meant for the rats, hits the tire of Seiichi's car, forcing Seiichi and Yui to stay one night extra in the mansion, which has some strange inhabitants. The hellish stay at the Genjou mansion doesn't really start until that Seiichi's car is blown up though...


THE Sound Novel is basically a 'copy' of Chunsoft's sound novels and most specifically, Kamaitachi no Yoru. Graphically, this is very clear from the use of blue (male) and red (female) silhouettes in the background images, but also the font used is eerily similar to Chunsoft's games. From a game-design point of view, it mirrors the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-esque story-telling, with choices made by the player having profound influence on how the story develops. There are about ten different endings in THE Sound Novel, most of them branched storylines that end up as bad endings, which is a bit few, but considering that this is a budget title, acceptable. The problem is that the game does not include a flowchart (the one thing they didn't copy from Kamaitachi no Yoru!), which makes it very frustrating and difficult to see how the player-choices influence the story developments. I first got the very first bad ending possible in the game, but I had really no idea which choice I made earlier got me into this path. For these games, a flowchart is simply a must, as there are just too many nodes to keep in my head.

The story is also very standard, I mean, a boy and a girl locked inside a Western mansion where stuff happens? So the game is not getting points for originality, but then again, that is seldom the case with THE SIMPLE games. As a 'cheap copy' I would say that THE Sound Novel works relatively well. There is a proper mystery plot here going on and while not mind-blowing, I would say that the story is written nicely and includes at least one (and maybe two) tricks that I really found interesting. It was a bit disappointing though that the player, unlike in Kamaitachi no Yoru, doesn't have to deduce much himself. As long as you make the right choices and get into the right storyline branch, Seiichi will solve the case for you. Which takes away part of the fun.


The graphics and the writing managed to evoke the horror-like closed circle atmosphere of the mansion fantastically, but the game is hampered by the fact that it has very few characters (one of them almost a carbon copy of a Kamaitachi no Yoru character) and that there is almost no music present during the game. Especially the latter is very disappointing. There were maybe three or four music tracks in the whole game, only used at select scenes, but total silence for the rest of the game (save some 'incident' sounds like screams). Sound novels works so well because there is music, so this was a really weird design choice. I mean, would Kamaitachi no Yoru have been as scary without music like Gishinanki?

Yes, the only reason I would want a PlayStation Vita at the moment, is the new Kamaitachi no Yoru.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史 「女怪」 / 劇団東京都鈴木区 『時給探偵~17時までの名探偵』 / 『THEサウンドノベル』

Saturday, February 4, 2012

「のち恋い身に暗み生き血の血の名と血吸い貝に砂」

人に名前を尋ねられたら
旅人と
たったそれだけ答えて欲しい
それだけを
『Just Before the Sunrise』 (Rhodes)

When asked for your name
I want you to answer just this
Just a traveller
Just that

This negative relation between the height of my reading pile and the amount of posts I publish is kinda interesting. I think it is about time this absurd daily posting thing should stop though.

And yes, this is an actual review of an actual book I hadn't read before. It's been a while since the last 'normal' review. I did say that I don't have a reading pile at the moment, but the truth is that I do have a small pile of four or five unread books. It's just that those books, mostly Uchida Yasuo and Nishimura Kyoutarou novels, are not very interesting looking and I don't really mind whether I read or not, having picked them up once for almost nothing. It is more like an emergency pile, if I really want to read something and there is nothing left anymore. So yesterday I picked up up the book that seemed most alluring, which was Uchida Yasuo's Hokkokukaidou Satsujin Jiken ("The Hokkoku Kaidou Murder Case"). The text on the back of the cover caught my interest as it told me that this was a novel featuring inspector Takemura Iwao (of The Togakushi Murder Case), also known as the Columbo of Shinano, and curious of his other adventures, I decided on this novel. No, I was not really enthusiastic about this book, but I had to read something.

The Hokkoku Kaidou (normally known as the Hokurikudou) refers to both a geographical area and the main road running through it, at the northwestern edge of Honshu, the main island of Japan. The students Tajiri Fumiko and Nomura Yoshiki are having a road trip alongst this route to gather data for their graduation theses: Fumiko is writing about the monk Ryoukan (1758-1831), while Yoshiki is writing about the poet-priest Issa (1763-1827), who are both strongly related to the Hokkoku Kaidou area. During their trip, Yoshiki's camera is stolen and on that occassion meet Takemura Iwao, the star inspector of the prefectural police, who has been working on the case of the skull-less skeleton of H- University's professor Hatano found at the site of a paleolithic excavation of Lake Nojiri. It's from the two students that Takemura hears that on the same day Hatano's skeleton was found, that another university teacher, and like Hatano a Ryoukan expert, was murdered in Gogouan, the old home of Ryoukan. Not believing in such coincidences, Takemura thinks a connection must exist between the two cases.

The first half of the novel is clearly split between a narrative on Takemura's investigation and a narrative on Fumiko and Yoshiki's adventures. The latter just screams stereotypical two-hour suspense drama, with the classic tropes all making an appearance. A young, beautiful girl on a trip, who happens to see something of importance (without realizing it). The traveling and sight-seeing. The stolen camera because the duo (naturally) took a picture they should not have made. A man in sunglasses following them. The inn. The not-really-a-romance-and-a-bit-of-sexual-tension subplot with Yoshiki. It is a very easy read and you can set your brain to cruise control when reading these parts.

The Takemura narrative is a police procedural, with Takemura trying to solve the murder on Hatano, which is a bit hard because he died two or three years ago. The investigation starts out a bit boring, which is sort of logical because Takemura is in charge of the investigation and therefore has to direct his subordinates, not investigate himself.  Though not in the elite track, Takemura managed to make it to this administrative position at a young age through excellent investigative work, but it also forced him out of the scene of the crime itself. However, it does not take long before Takemura is bored and starts to do some old-fashioned investigation on his feet again. This is when the case starts to get interesting, which is reflected in the way the narratives develop. At first, when the police investigation is quite boring, more pages are dedicated to the adventures of Fumiko and Yoshiki, but the moment Takemura starts his own investigation, the balance slowly shifts to him, with Takemura dominating the latter half of the novel.

The mystery behind the dead professors is not very hard to deduce, also because Takemura has a tendency to voice his (usually) correct thoughts the moment new clues arrive at the scene. But the case never reaches points that really invite praise and reading this book almost feels like a zero-sum game. It was entertaining enough for the couple of hours it took to read this, but I am definitely going to forget about it in a couple of days.

Except for maybe the Ryoukan and Issa parts. Uchida really has a knack of presenting history and popular theories about historical persons in a very entertaining way. I knew nothing about those two poets before I read this book, but I like to think that I've learnt something interesting about them, that might come in handy one day in my studies. The focus on popular historic theory is also very entertaining and effectively introduces another -detective- storyline in the plot. Here for example, Fumiko and Yoshiki find it interesting that the two poets, despite living in the same age and geographical area and occupying similar occupations, never met (officially). They both come up with some theories which might be complete nonsense (but which Uchida no dobut based on actual existing research and theories), but amusing for people with an interest in history nonetheless.

I think that this was the first time I really felt engrossed in the sightseeing part of travel mysteries, as you don't just do spatial traveling (in this case, the Hokkoku Kaidou area and Tokyo), but also temporal traveling (the era of Ryouzan and Issa and naturally the time up until the murder in the present time) and in all four dimensions, an investigation of some kind is done. The actual case itself might not be remarkable, but I have to admit that Hokkokukaidou Satsujin Jiken was an entertaining and educating read because of the traveling.

Original Japanese title(s):  内田康夫 『北国街道殺人事件』