Wednesday, March 28, 2012

番外編: The Fiend With Twenty Faces

What? The post title is not the title of a book or a quote? There is no introducing quote? Shocking! But there is a reason for that.

Because this post is more like a service announcement. Or a commercial. Some might have noticed that Kurodahan Press, who has published some interesting Edogawa Rampo novels / essays in the past, has released The Fiend with Twenty Faces a couple of days ago, the first volume in the Shounen Tantei Dan ("Boys Detective Club") series. The children's literature series stars masterdetective Akechi Kogorou and his assistents the Boys Detectives in their battles against the criminal mastermind Twenty Faces and quite famous in Japan and can been seen as the main inspiration for modern detective comic series like Conan and Kindaichi Shounen.

I had the pleasure and honor of writing the introduction to Kurodahan's The Fiend with Twenty Faces actually. Which was fun! And entertaining! Readers here might have noticed that I 1) like Edogawa Rampo and 2) I like writing about him and his works and to actually do it for an official release, well, I couldn't wish for more! It also means that I actually have the honor of having my name next to Edogawa Rampo's name on sites like Amazon. Which is really weird.

So for people interested in modern detective manga, 1930s children literature, Edogawa Rampo, Arsene Lupin and grand battles between good and evil, masterdetectives and masterthieves (not all of the above per se), take a look at Rampo's famous novel!

And now to solve the puzzle of packing for a year without making my luggage too heavy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

「殺しの際は帽子をお忘れなく」

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
- That depends a good deal on where you want to get to
I don't much care where.
- Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.
…so long as I get somewhere.
- Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Those who can read Japanese (or those who are adept at using translation websites), might have seen it in the comments already. Or you might have deduced it from the fact I kept mentioning I don't have any unread books left, yet didn't went out to purchase them. Anyway, I will be leaving late next week for Japan to study there for a year. Yes, again. In fact, this blog started in 2009 just as a personal blog to keep the home front up to date when I went to study in Tokyo and Fukuoka, but somewhere along the way it transformed into the.... thing that it is now. So the reason I didn't buy new (Japanese) books was because it would be cheaper to buy them there.

I have to admit though that I am not sure what I will do with this blog. I will keep updating with reviews and stuff (I think), but experience has taught me that my post-amount will drop (significantly!), because life tends to get a bit busier as an international student (which is why I made sure that I at least have more posts this year than in 2010!). The other thing is that I am not sure whether I will post non-detective/personal posts here. At one hand, this blog did start out as such, so I might just return to the origins. On the other hand, it might not be very interesting if you're mainly here to read about (Japanese) detectives (I guess that most people only know about the reviews) and you're suddenly reading about ramen. There is a big chance I will write about food.

Anyway, I will keep posting about detective fiction, just not as regularly as now I think.

And now that we have gone over that: short shorts! Where I write short pieces about detective fiction because I couldn't come up with longer texts. Today's victims: the 1946 movie Green for Danger, the 2011 movie Joseon Myungtamjung : Gakshituku Ggotui Bimil and once again an audio drama of Houkago wa Mystery to tomo ni!


Green For Danger (1946) is based on Christianna Brand's novel of the same name and widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best movie based on a Golden Age detective novel. And I have little to add to that. I haven't read the original book, but this is really a neat movie that oh, I don't know, deserves a Criterion Collection release. Oh, wait, that exists already? Great, great! Anyway, the story is set in England, 1944. The country is suffering under the V-1 bomber attacks and the people at Heron's Park Emergency Hospital, a rural war hospital, have quite busy days taking care of their patients. One day, their local postman is brought in having been injured by a flying bomb and has to undergo surgery. The postman never survived the operation, because he died on the operating table before the operation could actually start. Later, one of nurses claims that this was not just an accident or natural death, but she gets killed off before she is able to say more about it. Inspector Cockrill is brought in to investigate the case.


Like I said, I am not familiar with the original novel, but this movie really brought a nice puzzler, combined with captivating characters and especially the setting of the hospital is very memorable. Furthermore, Alastair Sim as the inspector Cockrill is just a delight to look at and he alone is enough of a reason to recommend this movie (though it is a great movie overall). The mystery behind the postman's death is somewhat easy to solve though, but this is just a splendid production.

It reminds me a lot of Team Batista no Eikou ("The Glory of Team Batista"), a popular Japanese mystery novel that has been turned into a movie and TV show amongst others. The main mystery there is also a series of death on the operating table of the elite Team Batista, experts in a very complex procedure. They pride themselves on a perfect record, but then more and more patiens of them die on the operating table, leading to the suspicion that one of doctors might be sabotaging the operations. It relies quite a bit on medial knowledge, but the movie is pretty awesome, starring Abe Hiroshi as the official in charge of investigating whether the deaths were accidents or deaths. Abe's usually stoic, yet at times very playful (almost mean), detective also reminds of Sim's inspector Cockrill.

From England to Korea. I finally got a chance to 2011's Joseon Myungtamjung : Gakshituku Ggotui Bimil ("Joseon Great Detective: Secret of the Wolfsbane Flower"), which has the international title of Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow. The movie is based on a novel by Kim Tak-Hwan and is set in 1782, 16 years after king Jeongjo took the throne. A series of murders on magistrates and other officials, combined with rumors of large-scale embezzling force the king to appoint a secret agent to investigate the case. The unnamed detective (though apparently called "detective K" outside of South-Korea) starts off his investigation rather roughly (resulting in being accused of murder himself and leading to assault on soldiers and such) and the king is forced to 'punish' his detective by sending him off on another, less important investigation (which luckily is strongly related with the serial murders). Helped by a dog thief, the detective start to uncover an intrige of unbelievable scale. And he finds a lot of hidden Christians. Hmmm.

This movie was pretty fun to look at, but it really needed polishing. The overall plot seems too complex at times, but not for the right reasons. Some scenes show some interesting detective work by the protagonist, or Conan-esque emergency escape plans, but it never feels like one coherent story. The plot seem little more than a easy way to glue the scenes to each other, instead of the plot dictating the way the movie progresses. The plot also gets unneccesary complex at the end with plot-twists and reveals that add little to the story, but for the fact that they are so totally surprising and unexpected. Oh, and they could have made the subplot of the Christians suffering under the Confucian rule a bit less... obvious. Yes, I know that a large part of the South-Korean population is Christian, but this was waaaaay too obvious a religous agenda.


Overall, this movie seems highly influenced by Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies, providing a lot of comedy and action, but it is just less polished. Like those Holmes movies, it is possible to set your mind at cruise control and enjoy the scenery. A special mention for Kim Myung-min, who plays a wonderful unnamed protagonist though. At times sharp and brave, but mostly a coward: which means he is similar to Houshin Engi's Taikoubou. Which is never a bad thing (seriously, any protagonist who loudly proclaims that 'I need to find more friends. To have them do the fighting for me', is genius). The international title of this movie by the way seems highly influenced by Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

And finally, once again Higashigawa Tokuya's Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni. First of all, a drama series based on the book (and I suspect some of the uncollected stories) will start late next month! Yeah! And secondly, I finally listened to Momogre's audio adaptation of Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni. Yes, I have already reviewed NHK's adaption of the book, but I was also interested in hearing how Momogre did their version, as their adaptations of Swiss Dokei no Nazo, 46 Banme no Misshitsu and ABC Satsujin Jiken were fun. And I am just a big fan of protagonist Kirigamine Ryou, the vice-president of Koigakubo Academy's detective club (who never seems to be able to solve a case herself).

Momogre's version is based on the first two stories, Kirigamine Ryou no Kutsujoku ("Kirigamine Ryou's Humiliation") and Kirigamine Ryou no Gyakushuu ("Kirigamine Ryou's Counterattack") (translation available for the latter). For a review on the stories themselves, I refer to the NHK version review, as the stories are identical and even the scripts are very similar (even though Momogre's version of Kirigamine Ryou no Kutsujoku is a bit unfair because of something important is mentioned at a later moment). So if they are so similar, why discuss Momogre version? Well, I wanted to convey the feeling of surprise when I, halfway through the drama, finally noticed that this was a Men Only version, i.e. there were no female voice actresses here. Ad yes, Ryou is a girl, but she has a speech pattern similar to a boy anyway, so I wasn't really bothered by the voice. It gets a bit distracting when women who talk like... women are voiced by a man. Momogre's Ryou was also quite different from NHK's Ryou: the latter was an energetic, almost hyperactive girl who wanted to be a detective. Momogre's Ryou.... was a man trying to speak like a girl, resulting in a nagging voice who never seemed as powerful as NHK's Ryou. Which is a big part of Ryou's charm. So in short, NHK's version is superior. In all aspects.

So, I think that this will be the last post of this month and next month... might bring food. Or detective fiction. Maybe detective fiction and food.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉 (原) 『放課後はミステリのあとで』
Original Korean title(s): 조선명탐정 : 각시투구꽃의 비밀

Saturday, March 17, 2012

「君をイッツ・ア・スモールワールドに閉じ込めることに決まったよ。はっは!」

底蟲村の しん太郎どん
痛い痛いと 泣いてござる
何が痛いと 蟹コがきけば
悪たれ鼬の ふうのしんに
喉を切られて 話ができぬ
それで痛いと 泣いてござる
びゅうびゅうびゅうの ざんぶらぶん
びゅうびゅうびゅうの ざんぶらぶん
『かまいたちの夜2 監獄島のわらべ唄』

Shintaroudon of Sokomushi Village
Cried: it hurts it hurts
The small crab asked what hurts
The evil weasle Fuu no Shin
Cut my throat and now I cannot spreak
That is why I am crying it hurts
Byuubyuubyuu no Zanburabun
Byuubyuubyuu no Zanburabun
"Night of the Kamaitachi 2 - The Warabe Uta of Prison Island"

So I did keep myself to my restraint of not buying new Japanese novels this month. But games? Games are something totally different! Even if it is a Japanese sound novel. Yes, that was the closest thing I could find to a novel that was not an actual novel.

I've already made clear that I absolutely loved Kamaitachi no Yoru, a mystery sound novel penned by Abiko Takemaru. The basic scenario, a locked room murder in the ski-lodge Spur (no idea whether I'm spelling that right) in a snow storm, was not particularly original, but the fact that the story developed according to the player's choices, the fact that the story featured multiple endings was really fun. If you were good, you could actually prevent more murders from happening in Spur, while the story would end in a paranoia horror-ending if the player was unable to solve the case as time progressed. It was definitely one of the best games I played last year.

So it shouldn't come as a surpise if I tell you that I had set my eyes on playing Kamaitachi no Yoru 2 - Kangokujima no Warabe Uta ("Night of the Kamaitachi 2 - The Warabe Uta of Prison Island"). The story starts by telling you that within the world of Kamaitachi no Yoru 2, the first Kamaitachi no Yoru was a hit videogame. The characters from the first game were based on actual guests that visited the ski-lodge Spur one night and apparently, some of the dialogue from the game was also based on dialogues the guests had then. There was of course no locked room murder that night though; that was all made-up by Abiko Takemaru, the writer of the game. Abiko has made a small fortune with the game and has bought an old unhabitated island, Moon Crescent Island (and the Moon Crescent Mansion on it) with the profits. He has now invited all of the guests that were present that night at Spur to his mansion as a thanks for having used their names for his story. The strange thing though.... Abiko Takemaru wasn't one of the guests at Spur that night, so how could he have based his story on the guests and events of that night?

When all of his guests (almost all of the cast of the first game and some persons involved with the production of a planned sequel to the game) have arrived at the island, they are told by the old servant Kiyo that Abiko Takemaru himself has not arrived at the island yet. They are also told about the origins of Moon Crescent Island: it used to be called Prison Island, property of the wealthy Kishizaru clan (which made a fortune with spinning factories during the Japanese industrial revolution). The Moon Crescent Mansion was actually a prison built to keep their workers under control, which explains the curious architecture of the building, like the fact that practically no rooms have windows. Genre-savvy people among the cast naturally understand that bad things are going to happen here and they decide to leave the island, but they are told that that is impossible. That night happens to be 'the Night of the Kamaitachi", which refers to a tremendously heavy storm that rages over the island once every 50 years. This is related to a belief that the island is haunted by the Sickle Weasle demon Fuu no Shin, who also appears in a local warabe uta ('nursery rhyme'-esque songs). Our cast is not able to leave the island that night and the mansion even gets locked up completely to prevent rain and wind from coming in. And then, in the early hours of the following day, a loud scream travels through the mansion. When they find out where the scream originated from, they find game producer Shintarou with his throat cut open in a locked room. Just like the first verse of the warebe uta. There are five verses.


The game-system is still the same, so I refer to my review of Kamaitachi no Yoru for more details on that. Short story: this is a novel (accompanied by background pictures and music), where you occasionally have to make choices (which may lead to bad endings etc.). It is up to the player to pick out the right choices to get to the good ending. Technically and contents-wise, this is a more=better version of Kamaitachi no Yoru. The first game was released on the Super Famicom (and later on the PlayStation), while the second game was released for the PlayStation 2 (and PSP), so graphically, there is quite a change, most prominently visible in the use of actually CG models for the characters and sporadic use of cut-scenes. I have to admit that this took a bit away from the creepy ambiance of the original game though, as the notion of motion, of characters and the camera actually moving, adds a sense of life, of safety to the game (which is not really needed for detective). The more=better philosophy is also carried over to the amount of unique ending sequences in this game, which number over a hundred! I've seen three: the good ending and two radically different bad endings (one with the protagonist Tooru getting a seizure because his love-interest Mari found someone else...).


I actually haven't completed the game yet, but I did finish the Warabe Uta Hen ("Warabe Uta Chapter"), the main story/mystery of the game (the game features several scenarios, some are humorous takes on the main story, some go towards science-fiction, etc.). With murders following a nursery rhyme pattern on an island formally called Prison Island, it is obvious that this is a reference to Yokomizo Seishi's Gokumontou. The mystery of whodunnit is not very hard to solve if you are genre-savvy, as Abiko mostly reuses familar patterns and tropes in this story (though it definitely helps if you have played the first game). Which might sound a bit disappointing, but the trick used for the first murder, a locked room murder, is really good and also fantastically hinted at. It is definitely the highlight of the whole story and even though it is still early in the year, I think this will rank among the best I will read this year. The overall atmosphere of the first game was better (though it is still good here), but this trick really makes it hard to decide which story was better.


The setting of Moon Crescent Island and the Moon Crescent Mansion is also fantastic. The mansion is definitely presented as expected from a yakata-mono (mansion-story), which both creepy descriptions and background pictures presenting a claustrophobic image of the former prison. The mansion is really terrifying, with swords sticking out of ponds preventing prisoners from jumping out of the windows and sickles hanging from the roofs to ward of the evil weasle demon. This is a location you will remember even long after clearing this game. Especially if you try out the other scenarios: I've just finished the Sokomushi Village Chapter, which is a horror science-fiction take on the main story, but IT IS CREEPY. The island is creeheepy~

I am not sure whether I should be disappointed or glad I arrived at the solution relatively fast. Yes, that means my deductions were right, but there were a couple of places I definitely screwed up, but I wasn't punished for that (game-wise). It seems like that the first Kamaitachi no Yoru was harder, with more difficult choices to make with fewer retry options. In this game, you could retry some of the (finger-pointing) segments and they even presented the major clues in a systematic way near the end of the story, making it a lot easier to solve the case.You couldn't even prevent murders from happening like in the first game, which makes this a much more linear experience.

Overall, the main storyline of Kamaitachi no Yoru 2 is awesome though. It's a great closed circle detective featuring a great locked room murder trick and it's interactive too! And now to play the other scenarios and to find the remaining 100 ending scenes...

Original Japanese title(s): 『かまいたちの夜2 監獄島のわらべ唄』

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Night of Fright is No Delight

「また博多?この会社、博多枠があるんか?いま博多スリーカードやで」
『ゲームセンターCX #31 「海腹川背」どうでしょう?課長リターンズ』

"Another one from Hakata? Does this company have a Hakata quotum? We have three Hakata cards here!"
"Game Center CX #31 - How about 'Umihara Kawase'? The Section Chief Returns"

Another historical mystery? Do I have a historical mystery quotum? We've had three historical mysteries in a row now!

I wrote rather extensively about Judge Dee last week, so I'll just refer to that post for the basics and characteristics of that series. Anyway, this week I finally had a chance to look at Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, a 1974 telefilm based on van Gulik's 1961 novel The Haunted Monastery. I haven't read that book, so I have no idea whether it is faithful to the original story or not, but most people on the internet, to refer to an anonymous entity, seem to agree that it is mostly faithful. Anyway, the story starts off very Scooby Doo-like. Judge Dee, his three wives and Tao Gan (and other servants) are forced to spend a night at a Taoist monastery because the axle of the Mystery Machine their coach broke down during a dreadful storm. That night also happens to be the anniversary night of the monastery and the judge, despite having caught a cold, naturally has to join the monks in their celebrations because of his rank. But there is more than meets the eye to his monastery, or else it would make for a rather boring story. A window that disappears before the very eyes of the judge, the murky past of the monastery that involves the death of no less than three girls that once stayed here and even the previous abbot and more. Dee has a busy, busy night trying to solve all the mysteries that lurk in this dark place.


And just like that most of Scooby Doo's episodes are fun, this is a truly entertaining telefilm. Which is partly because of the great production values. The titular haunted monastery really seems haunted, as the sets are wonderfully gloomy and eerie. There is a distinct atmosphere of pressure and fear throughout the story, as the judge wanders through the lonely hallways of the monestary and you never know what might be hiding around the corner. Indeed, just like a Scooby Doo episode.

One thing I really liked about this production were the use of still frames that turn into illustrations (I suppose they functioned as eye-catchers for the commercial breaks). It was reminiscent of the late anime director Dezaki Osamu's 'postcard memories' technique, where he would also use still frames that turned into actual illustrations (instead of motionless animation) at dramatic moments. In fact, the overall production values for this telefilm are quite high, and while some of the artistic decisions were a bit doubtful (I was not a fan of the color-schemes of the clothing, for example), this is a really well-made movie.

The sets form a great background to the judge's investigations and while the story is more about the judge's spooky adventures in the building than about bringing a classical orthodox story, there are actually quite some interesting things to be seen here. Most impressive was the deduction the judge shows concerning a picture of a cat by the late abbot and the overall story really comes together nicely near the end, where the judge has one of those moments when everything comes together and the case is solved.

While Khigh Dhiegh physically does not resemble the Judge Dee of the illustrations by van Gulik, I was not really bothered by that. In fact, the whole production conveyed the atmosphere from the series very good (even though I have not read this specific story) and I suspect that some of the dialogue are lifted (almost?) completely from the book. I also think that the reason this telefilm works so well is because the story is located in one specific place without too many references to the outside world. It works perfectly as a stand-alone telefilm, with not too much series-luggage and not too many (temporal specific) cultural references. The down-side is that the setting sometimes leans towards very non-specific, stereotypical depictions of 'Ancient China', but it works in the context of this particular story. It's a shame they didn't continue with a whole series based in this telefilm.

Anyway, I had fun watching this movie and it is certainly recommended to fans of the Judge Dee series.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

One, Maybe Two, Ways Out

「それに有罪無罪をあやつるのが最高のライバルだというならば、裁判官である、あなたが一番ふさわしいのではないか!!」
「ええッ、ま、まさか!それって」
「裁判長!あなたが本当の新ライバルなのだろう!」
『逆転検事2 特別法廷』

"Furthermore, if you say that the strongest rival is the person who can decide who is guilty or not, than you, the judge, are the person most fit for that role!!"
"Whaat? You mean..."
"Your honor! You are the real new rival!"
"Turnabout Prosecutor 2 - Special Trial"

You have activated my trap card. I turn my face-down card around to reveal Another Historical Mystery and set Bertus Aafjes to attack-mode. ....No idea if I am following the rules.

This post is basically just a continuation of the previous post: Paul Doherty's The Devil's Domain was not the only book I read in the park (Yes, I read a lot for a long time in the park). At the same store, I had picked up Bertus Aafjes' De Koelte van een Pauweveer ("The Coolness of a Peacock Feather"), a collection of short stories starring Judge Ooka. The collection is pretty much the same as Een Ladder Tegen Een Wolk, the first Ooka collection: a series of (fairly) short stories where judge Ooka (a highly fictionalized Ooka Echizen) has to solve... problems. Not crimes per se, but Salomon-esque problems that seem impossible to solve in a satisfactionary way. The way Ooka manages to resolve these ironic and seemingly contradictory problems is entertaining, reminiscent of Father Brown-esque situations.

This collection has the same merits and demerits of the first collection, I think. On one hand, the stories are irononically fun and the solutions Ooka presents are often very satisfying. The problem is that the stories are really short and most of them also based on old (Chinese) court records. Persons familiar with Parallel Cases Under the Pear-Tree may be familiar with them, but these court records are really short descriptions of actual (and often strange) cases. In afterword, Aafjes praises van Gulik having expanded upon these court records, changing them into actual stories, but Aafjes' effort is less impressive. His stories are short, adding little of his own to the original plot except for some framing narratives and his own personal observations and opinion on Japanese culture he throws in. The latter can be troublesome at time. I know that Aafjes' observations are his own, personal observations, but at times his writings tend to lean on very Orientalistic views on Japanese culture, which can feel a bit annoying at times.

Wie begint met een lik uit de pan eindigt met het stelen van de rijst of de zaak van de drie goudstukken ("He Who Starts Stealing A Taste Of The Pan Ends Up Stealing The Rice or The Case of the Three Gold Coins") is a pretty fun story, where a tatami maker Saburoubei loses three gold coins he had borrowed to threat his family for New Year. A screen maker called Choujuurou happens to find the three gold coins and spends five days searching across town for their rightful owner. Saburoubei however refuses to accept the money, saying that he was the one stupid enough to drop the coins and that Choujuurou should accept the money for the trouble. Chuujuurou however refuses to accept the money, saying that Saburoubei is the rightful owner and that he would consider it an insult if he was forced to accept the money himself. The two get into a fight, leaving judge Ooka with the problem of two men who refuse to accept three gold coins because of their honesty.

Men kan de hemel zien door het oog van een naald of de zaak van de venter op het festival ("One Is Able To See The Heavens Through The Eye Of A Needle or The Case of the Festival Salesman") is a variation on a very old and classic problem (with the same solution). A man accidently threw the senbei of a salesman on the ground, breaking all of it. The man is willing to pay for the wares he broke, but the problem lies in the price: the man swears the salesman only had 50 senbei over when he bumped into them, while the salesman says he had 150 senbei. With only the crumbs left, how is judge Ooka going to be able how many senbei the man broke? And that answer that first came into your mind as you read this? It's correct.

In Wat de ene mens doet overkomt een ander mens of de zaak van het omstreden lamsvel ("What One Man Does, Is Done To Another Man or The Case of the Disputed Lambskin"), judge Ooka happens to be witness to a fight between a dock-worker and a ferryman. The reason: a lambskin coat. Both men claim to be the owner of the new, fine coat, but how is the judge going to find out which of the two is lying? The solution is brilliant in its simplicity.

Judge Ooka has to solve a problem of emperial proportions in Daglicht dringt door een klein gat of de zaak van de keizerlijke erfgenamen ("Daylight Enters Through A Small Hole or The Case of the Imperial Heirs"). Two heirs have been making a ruckus about their inheritance. With two heirs and two grand mansions, you would think that dividing the inheritance would be easy, as you can just give one mansion to one person and the other to the other person. But the two both claim that the other mansion (the one they didn't get) is better and thus refuse to accept that division. The solution to the problem is very simple and not particularly impressive (it's basically the same as an old riddle also concerning the division of a wanted item).

Rival judge Kujou tries to trick judge Ooka into a loss of face in Wie de generaal wil doodschieten moet eerst zijn paard doodschieten of de zaak van het ondeelbare paard ("He Who Wants To Shoot The General, First Has to Shoot His Horse or The Case of the Undividable Horse"). Ooka is to solve the problem of two rich and influential land-owners who wish to terminate their horse-breeding joint-venture. The problem: they have 13 horses and while they have agreed to pick out six horses each, they can't come to an agreement regarding the last horse Neither of the two men are willing to give up the last horse. How is Ooka to come to a solution that benefits everyone? The solution is eerily similar to the first story in this bundle and I thought this was not as fun as that story.

But Niets is zo zichtbaar als wat men verbergen wil of de zaak van de vele gauwdieven ("Nothing Is As Visible As What One Wants to Hide or The Case of the Many Thieves") is a fun story. A bunch of lower-ranking officials want Ooka to lose face and officially request that Ooka, as the highest official in Edo, to solve the problem of the thieves running wild in town. The solution Ooka has is brillant and more importantly, hilarious.

I am pretty neutral about Een rijke en een vuilnisvat worden vuiler naarmate zij meer bevatten of de zaak van de bekeerde timmerman ("A Rich Man And A Dustbin Become Dirtier The More They Have or The Case of The Converted Carpenter"), where a group of people practicing Nichiren Buddhism tried to convert a carpenter who practices Jodo Buddhism by paying him. The carpenter converts to Nichiren Buddhism for half a year, but reverts back to Jodo Buddhism, saying that practicing the latter is less demanding for the same results. The group of men practicing Nichiren Buddhist claim that the carpenter had deceived them and sue him for the money. The judge's solution is funny, but not particular memorable.

Als de dag aanbreekt wordt ook de vuurvlieg weer een insekt of de zaak van de vergeetachtige geldschieter ("When Day Breaks a Firefly Turns Back Into An Insect or The Case of the Forgetful Moneylender") has the judge trying to help a poor woman who laid fire to a moneylender whom she had given money to for investments. The moneylender took the money, but now claims to never have received money from the woman, driven her to her act of madness. Her sentence is already set, death by fire, but the judge still wants to help the woman who was deceived by the heartless moneylender. The trick judge Ooka pulls off is really satisfying and feels almost similar to those moments in Gyakuten Saiban when they reveal some kind of judicial magic that saves the case.

Bij het rijden leert men het paard kennen, bij het praten de mens of de zaak van de leerjongen op zijn vrije dag ("One Gets To Learn The Horse While Riding, The Man While Talking orThe Case of the Page on His Day Off") is a somewhat bland ending to this volume. The tongue of the cow of Judge Ooka's neighbour (of his second house) has been cut and the only suspect in the neighbourhood was a page on his way home. The page himself also confirms that there was nobody in the neighbourhood when the crime happened, leaving himself as the only suspect. The case is not particularly exciting, but the way the judge reveals the truth to the page is nicely done (through haiku/haikai).

Overall, I found this collection better than Een Ladder Tegen Een Wolk as the stories were more like actual stories rather than short plot-outlines, though it is still far away from what van Gulik accomplished. Actually, the most satisfying Judge Ooka story I've read until now was Een Lampion Voor een Blinde of de Zaak van de Hollandse heelmeesters ("A Lantern for the Blind or the Case of the Dutch Surgeons"), which was completely different from the short stories presented here: being both longer and constructed more like a classic detective novel. I find the Ooka stories entertaining and I think I will pick the remaining volumes up if I happen to see them again in a store, but I don't think I will actively look out for / order those volumes to complete the series.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

「ペロッ・・・ これは・・・青酸カリ!!」

「信用を得るには長い時間がかかりますが、失うのは一瞬のようですね」
『犬のみぞ知る DOG KNOWS』

"It takes a long time to gain trust, but just a second to lose it"
"DOG KNOWS"

I think that the first historical mysteries I've read were the Roma Sub Rosa novels by Steven Saylor. They were recommended to me by my Greek/Latin teacher and I really did find them amusing. Sure, Saylor's writing style seems to swing between good and not-so-good at times and the detective plots miss the grandeur of the Great Classics, but they were really fun for those interested in the Roman Empire. The adventures of Gordianus the Finder were full of little (and big) references to the grand empire and I absolutely loved Roman Blood, the first novel, for its detailed plot concerning the Sextus Roscius Patricide case, the first big case Cicero handled as a laywer. I liked that Cicero a bit more than the Cicero I had to read and translate for my exams.

The historical mysteries by Paul Doherty seem to have been a popular topic of mystery bloggers the last few months. Which is why I picked up one of his books I happened to find at a second hand bookstore. Yes, I said I wasn't going to buy books this month, but hey, I was forced to spend a couple of hours waiting for some documents to be returned to me, so I thought I might as well spend my time reading under the sun in the park. The book was also signed, I discovered later. I assume that it's Doherty's signature. Not sure though.

The Devil's Domain is an entry in The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan series by Doherty. The time: the late fourteenth century! The place: England! The titular Brother Athelstan is a Dominican friar in St Erconwald’s in Southwark and the secretarius of Sir John Cranston, the King's Coroner. Together they fight crime! This time, the dynamic duo are forced to solve a case of international importance. Five French sailors have been caught at sea and are held captive in Hawkmere Manor, awaiting their release when the ransom money from their families arrives. Their host/warden is Sir Walter, who does not bother to hide that he really dislikes French men. But still, he is responsible for his prisoners and according to the international treaties, he is supposed to treat these hostages (relatively) well. And then one day one of his prisoners is found dead, poisoned in his cell. But how was the man poisoned? There are no signs of injection on the body, the man had only eaten and drunk foodstuffs his fellow-prisoners had also eaten/drunk, his prison room was locked and nobody could have entered through the barred window. And as killing of hostages is considered rather rude and it might also endanger an English-French treaty in-the-make, Sir Cranston and brother Athelstan have to work fast to protect England's face.

I have to admit that I know next to nothing of English history. Ancient Rome, Greek, Egypt I have covered. Depending on the period, I'm also comfortable with Chinese and Japanese history. I really have no idea of medieval England, except for the standard images. In fact, the only thing I knew that came even remotely close to the setting of The Devil's Domain was... Discworld. Yes, that was the closest thing I have in my arsenal of random knowledge. But I have to admit: Doherty writes in a pleasant style and he manages to describe the place and period in a way that never feels overwhelming, yet informative enough to avoid falling into the trap of just describing a Generic Medieval England. I could hardly pretend to have become an English history expert by reading this book, but it was certainly educative.

With historical mysteries, the same as with books set in another culture than your own, there is always the problem of how to position the factors of time/culture in your book and what to expect from the reader. Address the topic too lightly and you risk the danger of writing about a Generic Time/Period that is little more than a stereotype. Address the topic too detailed and you risk the danger of being too overwhelming. Footnotes/explanatory notes don't even help that much, as few notes just don't help, while many notes have the tendency to pull the reader out of the actual narrative.

I was less enthusiastic about the impossible poisoning story though. There are some other sub-plots in the story by the way, which were entertaining and tied up nicely with the main story in a Judge Dee-style, but the main puzzle, the poisoning of the prisoners (yes, plural!) in Hawkmere Manor was less satisfying. The set-up is certainly good: Hawkmere Manor forms an excellent (and gloomy) background to the horrifying fact of prisoners not being safe in their cell. But I don't think the solution lives up the set-up. Throughout the story, allusions are made that the poisoning was not possible unless circumstance X is true. Then Sir Cranston and Athelstan have some adventures and at the end of the story, it is revealed that *gasp* circumstance X is true. Not because of an ingeneous trick the murderer came up with or something like that. It is just true. It almost feels like saying that only a ghost could have commited the murder, only to reveal that ghosts exist. It is a whole lot less ridiculous than that and it is only part of the bigger picture, but still, the solution to the puzzle is just not as satisfying as when an actual trick has been used. In fact, there are variations on this solution that actually rely on a trick instead on invoking circumstance X, which are a lot more fun to read (the one that comes up in my mind is one of the short stories in Conan).

I already said that Discworld was pretty much my only point of reference and if we're talking about an impossible poisoning story in Discworld, then we're talking about Feet of Clay, part of the City Watch subseries. And yes, I kept comparing The Devil's Domain with Feet of Clay in my mind as I was reading the first, that was just something that couldn't be avoided. And Feet of Clay is definitely the better impossible poisoning story of the two. It has an awesome trick, smart hinting and it's funnier too. The Devil's Domain is good on a narrative/writing level, but the solution to the main problem is just not nearly as satisfying as that of Feet of Clay.

I might sound very negative, but I did like Paul Doherty's writing style and the setting, so I might try another book in the future (another Brother Athelstan or maybe another series). This is one of those instances where I think I just happened to have picked out the wrong book and that the writer deserves a second chance.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

「これは事故か。殺人か」

「私は信じます。いつか必ずくる事故のない未来を・・・・」
『アクシデンツ -事故調クジラの事件簿-』

"I believe that one day it will come. A future with no accidents..."
"Accidents - The Case Files of Accident Investigator Kujira")

Still no new books, but I at least have new detective games! Kamaitachi no Yoru 2 is going to be awesome! I am just one hour in the game and we already have a grand meta-setting, a secluded island, a curiously designed mansion (ex-prison) and even a warabe-uta (cf. nursery song) that is definitely going to be used for the murders!

But to get to the topic of today. I don't consider myself a fan of the mangaka Yamada Takatoshi, but the fact is that I do enjoy his works very much. It would be easy for example to raise the fact that he made a really neat three-volume manga adaptation of several Shounen Tantei Dan stories. Or the fact that he wrote Dr. Koto Shinryoujo ("Dr Koto's Clinic"), one of my favorite series. It is not really ontopic for this blog, but to make a small introduction: the series is set on a small island in Okinawa, where young doctor Koto takes charge of the island's only medical clinic. It takes hours by boat to reach the nearest large island (with hospitals), so doctor Koto's clinic is pretty much the only place to get medical care for the inhabitants of the island. The story revolves around our young idealistic doctor trying to gain the trust of the inhabitants (who have very bad experiences with their local doctors), mixing humor, human drama, Black Jack-esque emergency operations and even social commentary regarding the Japanese health system. Totally recommended (there is also a TV drama version, which is arguably better than the original manga!)

But I still don't consider myself a Yamada Takatoshi fan. I just like his works. My first Yamada Takatoshi manga was Accidents - Jikochou Kujira no Jikenbo ("Accidents - The Case Files of Accident Investigator Kujira"), which is actually a great manga too. But pretty much unknown outside Japan. Probably even within Japan. Accidents is pretty much what the title says it is: a series about accidents. The protagonist, Kujiragi Yuu, nicknamed Kujira (whale), is a special investigator of accidents appointed directly by the cabinet. Kujira appears whenever strange accidents happens, from exploding planes to people being dragged away by trains and spontaneous exploding brides, using his authority and expert knowledge to find out how the accident happened and how they can prevent it from happening again. And of course, not all accidents are just 'accidents'...

I'll mention right away that this is not an orthodox detective manga like Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. This is not about giving the reader a challenge, not about presenting a puzzle plot with carefully laid out clues and such. And it was never meant as such. So why discuss it here? Well, it is often pretty close to an orthodox detective and it is just a very entertaining series. Most of the stories are about Kujira detecting his way through the aftermath of a terrrible accident, trying to find out what caused it. Which is not very much far away from a normal orthodox detective set-up, right? In fact, most of the stories are actually fairly clued and it is often theoretically possible to solve the cases yourself. Theoretically, I say, because most of us will not have expert knowledge on satellites, the inner workings of airplanes and the way motor engines are built. I think. Or specialist knowledge about geology. These cases are usually not easy to solve (there are some more normal cases though, that turn out to be murder cases and not just simple accidents).


But luckily, it never gets too difficult. Like with medical manga like Black Jack and Dr. Koto Shinryoujo, all of the technical information is presented in a easy-to-understand way, never overwhelming the reader. (Freak) Accidents are also something you often see in the news and thus the subject material in Accidents never feel too unfamiliar to the average reader. Compare to Higashino Keigo's Galileo series: those stories are also often about (rare) natural phenomena causing seemingly impossible situations, but the sitations there never feel familiar enough to the reader and they end up feeling unfair because those stories always refer to expert knowledge no average reader would have. In Accident, the expert knowledge is applied to familiar situations, feeling less detached from the reader's imagined world. In fact, this is also a highly educational manga, as it shows how just a little careless mistake or oversight might cause a bigger accident through natural phenomena and how everything is related to each other. It is certainly not bad to take note of the information presented in Accidents.


And I don't know whether this is a typical Yamada-thing or not, but Accidents contains a lot of social commentary like Dr. Koto Shinryoujo. The latter obviously takes a critical look at the medical health care on faraway islands, the aging of the local population and life on islands in general. Accidents takes a look at the modern society. It's of course easy to criticize large companies who cut corners that lead to large scale accidents (which is also done in this series), but Accidents also looks at the bigger picture, at how man has become reliant on technology which is not as perfect as we might think it is. Yamada does not see technological advancement as a bad thing though: he just wants to remind the reader that we should always watch for accidents and should learn from our past mistakes (accidents), so we can prevent them the next time.

By now it might seem that this is a very heavy, serious series, but that's actually wrong. There is, despite the heavy subbject matter, actually quite a bit of humor in this series (mostly provided by token cute girl Hiiragi) and most stories appeal to the human-drama/feel-good feelings of the reader. In that respect, it is very similar to Dr. Koto Shinryoujo.

Anyway, at ten volumes, this is a neat, short series that should appeal to fans of detective novels / manga. Some might criticize the lack of something like a main storyline, but Accidents is certainly educative and entertaining and you know what, it deserves to be known a bit more.

Original Japanese title(s): 山田貴敏 『アクシデンツ -事故調クジラの事件簿-』

Friday, March 9, 2012

Orient X Occident

夢の楽園を探しながら
走る君を見つめていたい
誇り高く汚れを知らない
君を信じていいですか
『Will』 米倉千尋

I want to look at you running
As you search for the heaven of your dreams
With pride and without any blemish
Is it alright if I believe in you?
"Will" (Yonekura Chihiro)

I really should tidy up my books one of these weeks. Most books are easily accessible, but the times I need a book that is not accessible, well, I really need to work to retrieve it. Carefully constructed towers of books will fall, occasionally on me and it takes ages to get everything back in place. This does not seem that farfetched a scenario actually.

But to go to the topic of today. Judge Dee! Is there a need for an introduction (we always have Wiki)? Seeing I already have a neat little tag for it, means I have written about him in the past, but that concerned a slightly different topic. Namely, Dee Gong An, a 18th century Chinese detective novel, translated by Dutch orientalist / diplomat Robert van Gulik. The novel starred a fictionalized version of the magistrate Di (Dee) Renji. What was special to Dee Gong An, was that it actually resembled a Western detective novel, whereas most Chinese detective novels of the past were less about detecting, but more about bringing an ethical (and ideological) message (thus featuring an emphasis on the punishments of the criminals who went against the order of man/empire). Ghosts and spirits also made appearances as hint-giving plot devices, something that naturally does not fit with the rational Western detective model. Dee Gong An was different, but in a good way.

Van Gulik later wrote his own (original) Judge Dee stories, based on the characters (Judge Dee) of Dee Gong An and continuing with the Western detective story model. Occasionally, the cases were based on actual court records from ancient China, at other times they were completely original. Like Dee Gong An, van Gulik's stories are set in Tang China (when the real Di Renji lived), but contain mainly elements from the later Ming dynasty. Van Gulik also employed a certain plot-device often seen in ancient Chinese detective novels in his own Judge Dee novels: the judge is often busy with several cases (usually three) at the same time, in constrast to the Western detective who usually is concentrating on one single case. Finally, Van Gulik also made illustrations for his novels mimicking the style of ancient Chinese illustrations (which are really neat!).

Fun fact is that van Gulik wrote his stories in English first, with (his own) Dutch translations being published later. The Dutch 'translations' are actually quite fun to read in this time and age, having a sense of... dated Dutch that is less apparent in the English texts. To me, the dated Dutch kinda feels similar to the 'strange' English one sometimes sees in translations of old Chinese texts, adding a layer of 'authenticity' to the texts (in a very inappriopiate way, I admit. But hey, I can't help how I feel about texts!). And yes, this explains why I use both Dutch and English covers in this review.

Van Gulik was a celebrated Orientalist from Leiden University (which makes him my senior... I guess) and was thus an expert on the topic. It is difficult to write realistically and convicing about a different time and place, but van Gulik was one of those persons with both a talent for writing as well as excellent academic knowledge about the topic he wrote about it. Who could have been a better guide to Tang/Ming China than van Gulik? His books are thus interesting and funny detective stories set in a 'foreign' setting that nonetheless never feels strange or wrong.
 
Magistrates (who acted as mayor/judge/detective/jury) in ancient China were appointed to their location of occupation, changing cities once in a couple of years. Van Gulik used this for his novels, with his Judge Dee going to new places (where he meets new friends/enemies/etc.) once in a couple of stories. In this post I will discuss the stories of the Judge Dee canon set in Peng-Lai, where Judge Dee first made his name as a master-detective (the stories were not written in this order by the way).

The Chinese Gold Murders starts with Dee's very first appointment as a magistrate. The city of Peng-Lai is situated near sea, close to the Korean peninsula. Until just a few years ago, China had been at war with the Korean states and Peng-Lai is thus an important strategic point, with a military base to keep the borders in check, but also a lot of trade coming and going from Japan and Korea. Dee's appointment to this city was actually very sudden, because the position became available because the previous magistrate was murdered! He was poisoned in his (locked) library, but the official emprial inquisitor was not able to find out what happened, leaving our rookie magistrate with a huge case. But the judge is also burdened with a smuggling case and even the disappearance of one of his senior clerks, resulting in some very hectic first days as the magistrate in Peng-Lai. Oh, and there is something about the ghost of the previous magistrate haunting his old house...

This is a very entertaining story, which really shows what a great writer van Gulik was. The way he builds up his story is just fantastic: from the map to the city of Peng-Lai to the descriptions of everything that goes on in the city, everything appears alive in this novel. The descriptions of the 'underworld', the international relations with Korea, heck, even a visit to a local restaurant manages to be absolutely captivating. And like I mentioned earlier: despite the 'alien' setting, it never feels too alien for the reader. Everything feels amazingly familiar and never too orientalist foreign (though I have to admit that having read Journey to the West, Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin and The Investiture of the Gods, I might be a bit more used to the setting than most people). The locked room murder of the previous magistrate is a much more ingenous variation of a problem seen in the original Dee Gong An and really good: the problem is just that the solution of the problem definitely deserved more attention; now it is sorta mentioned as side-note (a treatment the trick really doesn't deserve!). The other cases are not as interesting on their own, but van Gulik manages to keep everyone on their toes by masterfully weaving in and out of the storylines (and also by tying up the storylines a bit). The multiple storylines also help by conveying an idea of all the things a district magistrate has to do, as compared to the Western detective who has the leisure of working on only one case. But anyway, this is really a worthwile read!

The short story collection Judge Dee At Work features another three short stories about the time Judge Dee's time as the magistrate of the city of Peng-Lai. The first of them, Five Auspicious Clouds, is set just a week after The Chinese Gold Murders and revolves around the apparent suicide of the wife of an important business man. Technically, this is just a clock-based alibi-trick story, which isn't that great actually. The idea of a clock-based alibi trick set in ancient times is interesting, I concur (no, it's not even based on a sand-clock or sundial). But the trick is rather easy to see through and we all have all seen the mistake the murderer makes way too often to be impressed by it.

It seems that The Red Tape Murder is not very well liked, but I have to admit I have a soft spot for it. Incomplete documents force Judge Dee to visit the military base of Peng-Lai. Some days ago, a murder happened at the base, though that falls under military jurisdiction and not civil (Dee's) jurisdiction. Dee's lieutenants Ma Joong and Chiao Tai however tell him that the suspect arrested really isn't the kind of person to have commited a murder (even though he was the one in the perfect location to have commited the murder) and the judge therefore tries to find out more about the case, without upsetting the people at the base. The bureaucracy is an amusing element of the story, but the most interesting element has to be the actual murder, which features a trick so absurd and farfetched, that it actually seems plausible. It's an original trick and as I write this, I actually have to chuckle because I keep having mental images of the trick in my head. Something that has to be read.

He Came With the Rain on the other hand seems to be a well-received story that I personally don't really care for. Judge Dee happens to hear about a murdered man in a tower occupied by a deaf-mute girl in the marshes outside town. A man was caught red-handed (literally) in the marshes, but the judge is not sure whether that's the man they are looking for. The deaf-mute girl tells the judge about a demon who comes with the rain, but it seems that this is not just nonsense. The one good point of the story: information about folklore. The rest of the story just doesn't interest me. At all. Heck, I really had no recollection of this story as I was rereading this and I think I will forget it again in just a few days.

The final story of Judge Dee's time as magistrate of Peng-Lai is The Laquer Screen, but that story is not set in Peng-Lai, but in a neighbouring district. The judge and his lieutenat Chiao Tai visit the nearby town of Weng-Pei on their way back from a conference as a short holiday. A courtesy visit to the local magistrate Teng makes the judge suspect something strange is going in the household of Teng, but thinks it is none of his business. After some events, Judge Dee and Chiao Tai are mistaken for criminals and they end up in the headquarters of the local underworld, led by a person called the Corporal. It is through these connections that the judge finds out that the wife of magistrate Teng was murdered. Upon questioning him, Teng tells Dee the horrifying story of how his life has been eerily similar to a four-piece laquer screen he had purchased and that the final screen shows how a man killed his beloved wife: Teng then tells Dee that he must have murdered his own wife in a fit of insanity. Dee however refuses to believe that and starts his own investigation.

Like the other Judge Dee novels, The Laquer Screen contains three cases, but they are really deeply intertwined and they might as well be considered one big case. This is overall not as interesting a story like The Chinese Gold Murders. Sure, this book offers something different, with just one lieutenant to support the judge in a town (where he has no jurisdiction). There is a glimpse of the underworld we usually never get to see. The story of the laquer screen is also quite creepy. But there is little room for a real mystery as it has quite a small cast and with several coincidences influencing the way the story develops, it never feels as rewarding a mystery as The Chinese Gold Murders.

Of the stories set in Peng-Lai, The Chinese Gold Murders is definitely the most fun one and actually a great novel to start the series with (though it was not the first Judge Dee novel written). The other stories are fun if you're interested in the series, but not really interesting on the merit of just their plots. And I am not sure whether I will do more Judge Dee reviews in the near future, though I am definitely playing with the idea.

Hmm, in my head, I imagined this post to be quite a bit better than how it turned out to be. Ah well. I am not going to rewrite this again (long story).

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Problem at Sea

"Why must people die? Why must the living die? Or rather, why must they live....simply to die?"

I. Need. New. Books. I really want to read something I haven't read yet! Aaaaaargh. These two months, I have read like... three new books. Two of those, I didn't even really wanted to read: it's just that I don't have anything else left here! Another month, another month...

As I am slowly going crazy, I picked up another book from my emergency pile. Which mostly consists of Uchida Yasuo books. I definitely picked up too many of his books that one time they sold books at university here, without really finding out if these were interesting or not. I have read a couple of his books now, but I am still not sure what to think about Uchida. On one hand, I do like the atmosphere in his particular brand of travel-history mystery novels. Uchida usually spins an entertaining yarn combining domestic tourism, popular history and folklore. His settings are usually very interesting and quite educational. On the other hand, Uchida is not that gifted a puzzle-creator. As a big fan of the puzzle-school writers like Queen, Norizuki and Arisugawa, the simple (detective) plots of Uchida's stories almost always feel disappointing, especially as his well-researched settings usually have great potential. It are the settings that really keep me glued to the pages of his books. If not, I would have given up on Uchida a long time ago. Well, now is an emergency though.

I reviewed two Inspector Iwao (the Shinano Columbo) novels last month, but Uchida's main/most famous series is the Asami Mitsuhiko series. It is an immensely long series that has many, many TV adaptations, audio drama adaptations and even videogames. I reviewed the first Asami Mitsuhiko novel in a faraway past, but to give an idea of the series: Asami Mitsuhiko is a freelance writer for a travel magazine, specializing in local history and folklore. He naturally has to travel a lot for his work and he has a knack for getting himself involved with murders that happen at the tourist spots he investigates. He also has a talent for getting himself into the position of important suspect in those cases. That is, until the local police find out that Asami Mitsuhiko is in fact the younger brother of the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department (Mitsuhiko hates people finding that out though). The best point of the series is precisely what Uchida does best: mixing tourism, folklore and local history with a detective plot. The character of Mitsuhiko provides a perfect vehicle for that (better than inspector Iwao, actually) and there is quite a large extended cast that provides for some entertaining moments throughout the series. This is strengthened by the literary agent aspect of the series: within the Asami-universe, there is a detective writer called Uchida Yasuo who bases his stories on the adventures of Asami.

Kumano Kodou Satsujin Jiken ("The Old Kumano Road Murder Case") starts with writer Uchida Yasuo asking Mitsuhiko to come along to Kumano in the Kii Penisula. Uchida's friend, professor Matsuoka of T University, has asked his help in trying to prevent his assistent Takeno and his students from reenacting an old Buddhist ritual in Kumano. The ritual is called Fudarakutokai, which means 'crossing the sea to Potalaka'. It seems that it has been believed in Japan that the Potalaka Mountains, where the Buddhist deity Kannon resides, are located in Kumano. However, to cross over to the Potalaka mountains, you have to get into a boat and let the sea bring you there. The ritual of Fudarakutokai consists of going out on sea on little boats. That's it. You either die at sea, or reach Potalaka to achieve enlightment. Many monks have actually tried this in the past since the Japanese middle ages, until it was banned in the Tokugawa period. It is probably fair to think that at least the majority of those people probably died.

Matsuoka's students want to recreate the ritual as a form of experiment despite Matsuoka's protests. Matsuoka's assistent Takeno has already signed up to be the one in the boat. Fearing that something bad might happen, Matsuoka wants Uchida on the scene. Uchida thinks he might use the fudarakutokai ritual for one of his books and agrees, taking Mitsuhiko along with him. On their way to Kumano however, the pair gets involved with the mysterious death of a woman who seems to have been following them. When they discover that the woman is linked to the fudarakutokai ritual, they begin to suspect that professor Matsuoka's feelings about the ritual might have been right.

And really not sure what to think about this book. I am pretty sure that my overall negative feeling is right, even though this story is not without its merits. Which is mostly concentrated in the fudarakutokai ritual. I don't have a spiritual interest in Buddhism, but as I have taken courses on Japanese religion and am a big fan of Tezuka Osamu's work, I have seen my share of interesting Buddhist rituals. I was already familiar with a ritual like instant Buddhahood (sokushinbutsu), of which fudarakutokai is a surprising variant. There is also a bit on the legend of Kiyohime and it are these elements that gave this story great potential.

I for one was expecting a locked room murder: here we have a little boat (more like a box), with someone locked inside it, going out on sea. Perfect situation for an impossible crime, right? It really screams for a scenario where the person in the boat gets brutally murdered even though the boat was in the middle of the sea with nobody in the neighborhood. And I admit, the story does develop sorta along those lines, but in the most unimpressive way possible: the person inside the boat is poisoned. Uchida then tries his hand at an impossible poisoning story, but it never really works out because it is almost painfully clear how it was done. Why not have the person killed in a more impossible way? Like dismemberment or something like that. That would have laid more stress on the impossibility of the situation.The strange thing though, the boat as a locked room situation is actually used in another situation in this story, but the impossibility of that situation is only explored after Mitsuhiko explains the trick and why it was seemingly impossible. I was utterly confused by this tactic of Uchida of first not making better use of a locked room situation and then creating an impossible situation which he doesn't explore as such. Seriously. What was he thinking.

There are definitely more problems with the story, from too much coincidences in the plot to a competely useless car chase at the end of the story that seemed written for a thrilling and exciting TV adaptation. The book also suffers from really bad pacing. The book is quite short (250 pages), but the first (and most boring) murder doesn't happen until past the halfway point. The conclusion also takes up almost 50 pages, leaving quite little for detecting. Which would seem sort of relevant. In fact, there are two major problems to solve in this story, but the only time the characters discuss those problems are when they are actually solving it. So the problem is followed immediately by the solution. With stories of writers like Queen and Norizuki, we are usually fed  mid-term deductions throughout a story, just to keep us going to the conclusion. Here the puzzle plot is only mentally explored when the detective is explaining his deductions.

I am still not sure what to think about Uchida. I really loved the background setting of Kumano Kodou Satsujin Jiken, but the detective plot was quite a mess. Surprisingly, the tricks he did end up using in this novel were actually OK, but the way those 'puzzles' were incorporated into the plot was just horrible. I have to admit though, that the other three novels I read of Uchida were not nearly as bad as this book (they were all OK-ish), but this one was really disappointing.

Aaah, new, interesting books. I need them.

Original Japanese title(s): 内田康夫 『熊野古道殺人事件』

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario

"THIS ROOM IS AN ILLUSION AND IS A TRAP DEVISUT BY SATAN. GO AHEAD DAUNTLESSLY! MAKE RAPID PROGRES!"
"Ghost'n Goblins"

Man, Super Ghouls'n Ghosts is difficult. Really difficult. Like, really really difficult. When I first saw Game Center CX's Arino struggle with the franchise, I thought that it was mainly because Arino isn't good with these sort of games, but that was not the case. It's like every enemy spawning point and every enviromental hazard is placed just so you will jump into it. Which either means you lose your armor, or your life (only two hitpoints in the game). And when you finally beat it, they tell you you have to go through the game twice to get to the real final boss! But I finally cleared the game! After a week of relentlessly replaying every level until I knew where every thing was located (and even then it's really difficult, looking at you stage 7 bosses). I probably died more often in one single level in this game than I usually do in a complete game.

But, now for something completely different. Another short shorts (short pieces on unrelated topics), because, well I have nothing I want to write extensively about. I did just realize a major flow with short shorts: there is a big chance that the things I don't want to extensively about are in fact things I don't like that much. Meaning that there is a quite a chance that the overall tone of a short shorts post can become very negative. This time: three adaptations: Moujuu tai Issunboushi, the TV special of Kamaitachi no Yoru and the first episodes of the anime Gosick. And a bit of Kindaichi Shounen.

A while back i read Edogawa Rampo's Issunboushi ("The Dwarf") and the next day I watched Moujuu tai Issunboushi ("Blind Beast vs. Dwarf"), a 2001 film by Ishii Teruo. Like the title suggests, this movie combines the plot of Rampo's Issunboushi with another of Rampo's famous novelettes, Moujuu ("Blind Beast"). These two stories originally had nothing to do with each other except for some repeated themes: both stories deal with a pyshically challenged person committing crimes (involving cutting up people and spreading the parts all across town) . And to make it even more confusing, there is also a bit based on Rampo's Odoru Issunboushi ("The Dancing Dwarf"), but this was originally an unrelated story about a different dwarf. The 1969 film of Moujuu made an impression on me, and I liked Issunboushi, so I was quite interested in this movie. For more details on the stories, I refer to their respective reviews.

I can tell you that this movie is not worth a view though. Where to start, where to start? I know it was filmed on a budget and Ishii manages to sneak in one or two nicely done shots, but the film is overall very bland, which is strengthened by the fuzzy visuals (as it was filmed on video tape and not on film). Despite the 'versus' in the title, the two 'monsters' don't actually confront each other, they only fight for screentime. The two stories develop on their own terms in the movie, with only the private detective Akechi being the only link (as he is investigating both crimes). The Moujuu-based part is inferior to the 1969 film, while the Issunboushi part is only interesting because of Rampo's original story, the audiovisual add next to nothing to it. This is certainly not a way to make an adaptation

And the same can be said of Kamaitachi no Yoru ("Night of the Kamaitachi"). This was a two-hour TV special made to promote the release of the videogame Kamaitachi no Yoru 2. I loved the first videogame and the description of the special really piqued my interest. In the original game, a guest is murdered in a ski pension and the survivors aren't able to get help because of a snowstorm. And unless the player solves the murder, more and more people will get killed. In the TV special, a group of fans (who happen to have the same names like the characters) of the videogame Kamaitachi no Yoru gather in a little pension and one of them gets murdered. The survivors aren't able to get help because of a storm. More and more people get killed. Yes, this is meta-fiction. Which actually works well for Kamaitachi no Yoru, as even within the original game itself there are alternate scenarios of the story that delve into meta-realms.


This TV special did manage to recreate the disturbing, suspenseful atmosphere of the original game (as the story continues, everyone gets a bit hysterical) and the meta-humour works quite well actually, but the second half (well, the denouement) is such an unbelievable mess... The fact that the first half was so entertaining made the second half feel even worse. It poses to be an actual, orthodox mystery (like the main storyline of the original game), but ends up with a supernatural explanation for things. Which makes no sense at all (which is pointed out in the special itself (!), but handwaved way). Even as an alternate scenario, this story would rank as the worst. As a promotion for the second game, this is really weird (though it does incorporates elements of Kamaitachi no Yoru 2), as the main storylines of these games are really orthodox detectives. And not supernatural horror stories.

I also finally cleared all scenarios in Kamaitachi no Yoru. There are some great little hidden stories there (not all mystery stories though) and I really should pick up the second game someday. But a fantastic game. I actually like Kamaitachi no Yoru a lot more than the widely praised 999 - Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors, as there is a lot more to do in Kamaitachi. And it's better written, and more interesting and funnier and...

Gosick, written by Sakuraba Kazuki, is one of the few mystery light novels that is also available in English, but for some reason I never got around to it. And then an anime was made of it last year. And for some reason I never got around to it. Which was partly because of the premise. I have watched anime since I was a child, but I. Just. Can't. Get. Into. This. Moe. Stuff. It is really hard for me. With NisiOisiN's Zaregoto series, there's at least fantastic writing (and you are not constantly confronted with moe characters), but the cute little doll-like super-detective Victorique who acts so tsundere with transfer student Kujou? I had doubts about the series ever since I heard about it. The setting, Interbellum Europe, was interesting though and as there are few mystery series with nice visuals (no, I still haven't watched Another) and I had nothing better to do, I finally tried the first three episodes of Gosick, which were based on the first novel of series.


I think I have to give up on this series. The whole Kujou/Victorique angle is hard to handle anyway (so Kujou only wants to protect Victorique... because she is a girl and therefore needs protection? From him... because he is a Japanese man? Ha?!), but if combined with a predictable, boring plot... The story starts with a locked room murder (with the most obvious solution being the right solution) and then a series of murders on a ghost ship, but we've all seen the tricks and stuff in other series before and done much better too. There is absolutely nothing to the plot of these three episodes to surprise you. I suspect that this is not solely a problem of the original story, but I also think that the director of this series isn't used to doing a proper orthodox detective series. Anyway, there was absolutely nothing appealing to me in these three episodes, something I really regret as there are just too few orthodox mystery anime series.

Though the two kings are still doing good. This week brought us news that there will be a new Conan live action special this special (with the same crew as the TV drama series), starring Shinichi and Hattori. On the Kindaichi Shounen side of things, it was announced that Kindaichi Shounen will back to a fixed seralization schedule from March on! Since the restart, the series has been serialized unregularly, with one or two story (10~15 chapters) a year, but from now on it will run regularly again (weekly/monthly?). It's been twelve years since the ending of Kindaichi's serialization, so something to be happy about!

A while back I read Kindaichi Shounen no Suiri Miss ("Young Kindaichi's Deduction Misses"), a little book compiled by the Setagaya Trick Research Club. Like the title suggests, this book looks at the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series, going over the deductions made by Kindaichi and other utterances made by characters in the stories to see if they are logically correct. Yes, this is a book by fans for fans. Kindaichi Shounen no Suiri Miss collects a great number of short essays, concerning the first 10 volumes of the manga, which means it ends somewhere around the Foreigner Hotel Murder Case (with the Santa and the red chamber). Sounds neat, right? I am actually pretty bad at these kind of logical exercises, but that makes it all the more interesting to see what other people make of it.

Too bad that few of the essays actually concern 'deduction misses young Kindaichi' makes. Most of the essays concern plotholes... on a plotting-level (that is writer Kanari Yozaburou's department) and not on a logical-deductive level (like the title suggests). And I could live with that if not for the fact that about 80% of all these essays concern plotholes that aren't really plotholes and actually a great many of them end on a tone of: 'well, I guess it can be logically handwaved away if you say this or that'. The irony being that it is being handwaved like that in the story (thus negating points raised in the essay to moot) and most of the 'plotholes' aren't even really relevant to the mystery. Which, you would think, be the focal point of such an excersive.

Maybe I should start looking for new reading material....

Original Japanese title(s): 戸川乱歩(原) 『盲獣対一寸法師』 / 『かまいたちの夜』 / 桜庭 一樹 (原)『GOSICK』 / 世田谷トリック研究会 『金田一少年の推理ミス』