Friday, July 26, 2013

Justice ~Future Mystery~

FIRE AWAY 心解き放つ
研ぎ澄ました瞳で
全ての謎を解き明かす
胸騒ぎの未来を今

Fire away and release your heart
Solve all the mystery
With your sharp eyes
Can you feel the thrilling future now?
"Justice ~Future Mystery~" (Two-Mix)

I thought getting my Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban review out on the net three days after the release was fast, but apparently, I can write/play games even faster. Hmm.

The legendary attorney Naruhodo/Phoenix Wright was disbarred eight years ago for a crime he didn't commit. He promptly escaped from maxi He passed some years as a poker player / pianist, but has now returned to the law world in Gyakuten Saiban 5 (to be released as Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies in the near future). And things have changed in eight years. Dark times are upon the legal world. The public has lost its trust in the legal system. Even attorneys and prosecutors themselves don't believe that justice is served in court anymore and feel forced to fabricate evidence themselves to ensure they reach their goals. Heck, things have gone so crazy that even prosecutors convicted for murder, can still stand in court and proceed their work! Naruhodo, backed up by his two subordinates Odoroki and Kokone, once agains stands in court to turn this grim situation around like he has done so many times in the past.

A new Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney game! Longtime readers know that I am a big fan of this courtroom drama game. I wrote my bachelor thesis based on the script of Gyakuten Saiban 3. I have discussed the game mechanics, the manga, the musical, the movie and spin-off titles like Gyakuten Kenji 2 and Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban in the past on this blog. But a new title in the main series? It's been many years since Gyakuten Saiban 4, so I was very excited. Heck, I bought my Nintendo DS for the original Gyakuten Saiban, and my current Nintendo 3DS mostly for Gyakuten Saiban 5 (and Animal Crossing, of course).


As a detective game, I still think that the Gyakuten Saiban series is undefeated. There are many ways to translate detective fiction to a game, but the method original creator Takumi Shuu introduced in the world many years ago was just brilliant. The player had to find contradictions in testimonies in court, which in turn lead to new testimonies (with new contradictions), and it was by this process that the story progressed, because each new testimony brought you new information. What is so great about this system is, is that works as both a gameplay mechanic and detective fiction. A flawed detective game like Sherlock Holmes and the Silver Earring for example just forces you find a lot of evidence, and then suddenly everything is explained for you in a movie without any interaction. This might work in a book, but is boring as hell in a game. In the Gyakuten Saiban games however, every testimony gives you that distinct great feeling when you solve a mystery, and it makes you feel like a brilliant (but struggling) detective when you finally see the big picture of the case. Add in quirky humor, a great music and HOTBLOODED FINGERPOINTING, and there you have Gyakuten Saiban in a nutshell.

Last year's crossover title Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban felt really fresh, because a slew of new mechanics and a unique world setting, brought us a new way to enjoy the courtroom. Witchcraft in a trial? This game made it work, and mechanics like mob testimonies kept the player on their toes. Gyakuten Saiban 5 however is set in the real world and does not differ in principle much from the previous games. Yes, there is that new mechanic based on psychology where you look for contradictions between a witness' testimony and his emotions, which actually works out quite well, but for some reason feels less 'organic' to the trial parts, than the magic tome and witchcraft rules in Professor Layton vs. Gyakuten Saiban. There is too much of a gap between parts where they keep hammering on the fact you need evidence in the court, and you then talk about how it is a contradiction that someone was feeling glad even though she should've been sad.


But more of the same of Gyakuten Saiban, is still quite good. There are some interesting cases to be solved here, including one that seems to be committed by a youkai (a supernatural being), for it was committed in a locked room where the seal on an ancient monster has been removed. Great stuff, as the story 1) actually plays on the youkai boom in Japan that started several years ago, and 2) the theories and legends surrounding youkai are actually of vital importance to the plot, in a Kyougoku Natsuhiko way. Though I have to admit, the case also reminded me of a certain Mori Hiroshi story too. The case in the game is short, and you figure out who the murderer is quite fast, but the way the twists and turns are plotted, is very good.

Another case is set at a law high school with special attorney/prosecutor/judge classes. What makes this case so memorable is that it ties in well with the overall theme of the game, the so-called dark times of the law, without being too obvious so. The problem is addressed through the teaching goals of several teachers at the school (some think it' okay to forge evidence to get your client off the hook), but it never feels like they rubbing it your face. The case itself, where a teacher is killed in the same way as a mock trial scenario written by a student, is fun too, as it combines the school setting and the murder-according-to-a-scenario in an interesting way.


There are one or two instances, where events of an earlier case, are mirrored in a not-very-obvious way in later cases: this is excellent plotting: it shows that the writers didn't just brainstorm a couple of cases and stuck them together. The youkai case for example addresses issues which wll be of importance in the last case Naruhodo has to solve in this game, but it is luckily done subtle and shows how to do a proper storyline that consists of seperate, but related cases. In Gyakuten Kenji, this was done by tying up the storylines of the seperate cases through an overlapping entity, but I much more prefer this thematic mirroring done in Gyakuten Saiban 5. One problem however is that there were quite a few instances of cases in Gyakuten Saiban 5 mirroring events of earlier games: at some times does give the player a feeling of deja vu, because it is basically presenting the same case in a slightly different jacket. This is not foreshadowing or thematic mirroring, this is just reusing an old plot.

Oh, and this has always been a series that has its share of interesting murder settings, which include film studios, the prosecutor's office, courtrooms, an amusement park and an airplane, but even I was surprised they skipped 'water' and went straight for... outer space (in a way). Overall though, it does feel like Gyakuten Saiban 5 was made a bit 'safer' than spin-off title Gyakuten Kenji 2. The latter for example featured an Ellery Queen-like search in a prison and a much more tightely structured overall plotline. Gyakuten Saiban 5 is more or less what you'd expect, both in gameplay mechanics as in cases, and that is not a bad thing, but makes it hard to distinguish from other games in the series.


It's definitely not a perfect game though. It in fact suffers a bit from having too much legacy: the return of Naruhodo, the 'dark times of the law' and a bloated cast of returning characters in the final case which means nothing to someone who has never played a Gyakuten Saiban game before. It's not incomprehensible, but its hard to get into for a newcomer. Which is a shame, because it's one of the best detective games on the 3DS at the moment. Oh, and this has become a pet peeve of mine lately, but like in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, this game has problems with presenting a coherent narration: the game keeps changing the point of view, going from this character to another. And at times, the character narrating (in the first person) isn't even the same as the character you're playing, mirroring the weird Watson/Holmes problem I encountered last week.

As someone who loves detecive fiction, would I recommend this game? Yes. And yes. The feeling you get when you slowly, but surely solve little contradictions in testimonies until you manage to turn things around in the courtroom, is something only this series can provide. There are some great cases in this game and thematic mirroring between cases is something what should be done more often in detective series. It is the fifth entry in a series though and builds upon that past, so you should play the previous games first.

As a Gyakuten Saiban fan, would I recommend this game? Yes. And yes. It feels at time very much as a reaction, to the (sometimes somewhat negative) reception of Gyakuten Saiban 4, but it does that mostly well, in my opinion. Music and animation are top-notch, the story addresses some serious themes that can be seen as a natural result of all the major cases Naruhodo has solved until now and there is quite a bit of fan service. It does give you a deju vu feeling at times though, and I don't think the way the new character Kokone is implemented in the story is correct (i.e. she comes off to me as a Mary Sue), but hey, it's a new Gyakuten Saiban 5 and we've all been waiting for this.

Original Japanese title(s):  『逆転裁判5』. TBR as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sherlockian!

"I think that I had better go, Holmes."
"Not a bit, Doctor. Stay where you are. I am lost without my Boswell"
 "A Scandal in Bohemia"

Okay, so maybe blogs on Japanese detective fiction are a bit of a niche, so I shouldn't expect many more of them to just pop up. But what about something on detective games? Not just from the 'traditional' game reviewer's point of view, but also as a piece of detective fiction? Please?

The actions of Sherlock Holmes have not always been clear to John H. Watson, despite having worked many years with the illustrious detective. Sometimes things only make sense if you have a highly analytical mind like Holmes himself. But lately, Holmes' actions have seemed not only strange, but outright suspicious to Watson. The newspapers also seem to suggest that Mr. Holmes of Baker Street isn't all he seems: they seem to have evidence that proves that some of Holmes' best cases, were in fact set up by Holmes himself and that threats, blackmail and even murder aren't uncommon for him. Watson naturally does not want to believe the newspapers, but during the dynamic duo's investigation of the brutal murder on a Bishop, the good doctor can't but see that Holmes is indeed acting very strange, and he can only watch as his greatest fear slowly becomes true in the adventure game The Testament of Sherlock Holmes.

I reviewed Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes and the Silver Earring in March: The Testament of Sherlock Homes is the most recent entry in their longrunning series with Holmes. Previous Holmes games featured crossovers with Chtulhu, Arsene Lupin and Jack the Ripper, but Testament is a pure Holmesian affair. I have to admit though, after the grim reality of Sherlock Holmes VS Jack the Ripper, the plot surrounding the The Testament is a bit farfetched and slightly non-Holmes-like, with very exotic poisons and a rather explosive endgame, and there are some bad scene transitions and plot points left open at the end, but it is overall quite captivating, I have to admit.


The biggest problem of the game however, is that the developers didn't seem to be able to make up how to implement both Holmes and Watson. In the novels/short stories (except for those two), the role of Watson is clear: he is the narrator, and serves to give the reader a look at Holmes from the outside. Through Watson, we see Holmes making enigmatic utterances about dogs that don't bark and for who knows for what reason walking around measuring rooms, making him the more mysterious, and more impressive when he explains what happened.

In Frogwares' games however, you're usually controlling Holmes, even though the story is narrated by Watson. It's a very strange gap between narration, and actual point of view and it results in a very shizophrenic experience. The Silver Earring had the same problem (only a lot more extreme), where you're controlling Holmes to gather evidence, but you are not Holmes: the character of Holmes makes his own deductions seperate from the player, and actually withholds information from both Watson, and the player! So the game tries to accomplish two things at the same time: allow the player to 'be' Holmes, while at the same time being able to surprise the player with one of Holmes' genius deductions. But it feels so strange, because it is only achieved by dividing the player interaction in the two categories of narrative point of view, and gameplay-wise point of view. Most of the time, Holmes decides to go somewhere without informing Watson (the player point of view), then the player controls Holmes doing whatever without any explanation as to why, and then afterwards, Holmes (might) explain to Watson (once again, the player) what they just did.


Takumi Shuu correctly noted that the above two points, surprising the player, as well as allowing the player become a genius detective, are hard to accomplish within a game. His Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series therefore does not have a genius detective, and is more focused on short bursts of tht feeling where the player suddenly figures out everything.

There are some instances in Testament where you control Watson, but most of them are very tedious and meaningless jobs. There are instances where you first control Holmes, then ask Watson to get a book five meters away, after which you control Watson. You get the book, give it to Holmes, and the player control returns to Holmes. Useless perspective switches which don't add to the experience.

And that is a shame, because there are many instances where this could have implemented much better, especially as the story focuses on Watson's suspicions of Holmes. Early in the game, Holmes and Watson split up, and Holmes (accidently) causes a death. Watson arrives later and can't help but wonder what happened there (and this only helps his suspicion grow). But the players knows it was accidental, because he controlled Holmes up to that moment. Had the player controlled Watson and only seen the result, then the suspicion would be grounded. As it is now, it's just bad story-telling.


Another unsolved problem of The Silver Earring are the logic puzzles. Apparently, everybody in London used complex IQ puzzles to lock their belongings at the turn of the previous century, instead of just lock and key. Hidden love letters? Hidden in a chess puzzle. Vault? Locked with a Queens Problem. Little box with stuff for work? IQ puzzles. In the Professor Layton games, it is part of the setting to have puzzles literally everywhere ('oh, that reminds me of a puzzle'), but for a game striving to recreate 19th century London, these puzzles feel extremely artifical.

Is it all bad? No, actually, it is not. I might seem very negative about The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, but I actually quite enjoyed it. When it's doing things right, it's really doing things right. There are some deduction scenes where you gather evidence, and then have to logically combine the things you saw/heard, to arrive at a conclusion. While easy, these scenes really put you in the feet of a great detective logically figuring things out. One part in particular is very good, where you deduce what a man did in a room, by looking at the state of the room itself.


The atmosphere is also fantastic. Frogwares has been working for many years with the Sherlock Holmes title, and have archieved two things: they managed to replicate the world through attention to detail. Walking the streets of Whitechapel, really feels like walking through the streets of Whitechapel. 221b Street? Little details like VR shot in the wall, or a photograph of the woman in Holmes' night stand are not neccessary from a gamewise point of view, but add so much to the Holmes feel. But Frogwares has also introduced a slew of interesting locations and places to their Holmes world in the last few years, and while we don't have visit our favorite bookshops Barnes, we see some familiar faces in Whitechapel (from Sherlock Holmes VS Jack the Ripper) that really give us the feeling that this is indeed a coherent world.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a decent game, and quite fun for Holmes fans. The overall design, from story to world view, is great, but it is the transition to game that doesn't always work that well. The split between narration point of view, and gameplay point of view (=Holmes vs. Watson) just doesn't work out that well and many puzzles feel very artificial. Frogwares' newest Holmes game, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, is scheduled for next year and I hope they manage to smooth out these problems.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Clue of the Chocolate Box

お願い 想いが届くといいな
対決の日が来た
チョコレイト・ディスコ
 『チョコレートディスコ』(Perfume)

I hope my feelings reach him
The day to face him has come
Chocolate Disco
"Chocolate Disco" (Perfume)

Ignoring the Ellery Queen review series (which were re-reads), it's been over half a year since I last reviewed an English novel (I did discuss three Dutch novels three months ago though!). And even then I read it in Japanese. So I thought it was finally time to read that classic of detective fiction. And the next review will also be of something Western, though probably not something most readers would expect. Or actually, if they have been here long enough, they would definitely expect that.

In Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, the Crimes Circle, a group of amateur detectives led Roger Sheringham, tries its hand at solving a case that has proven to be too difficult for Scotland Yard. The case: a box of chocolates was delivered to Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, which he in turn gave to fellow member Graham Bendix. Bendix took the box home to give to his wife. The box of chocolates turn out be poisoned however and Joan Bendix dies; Graham luckily has eaten less chocolates and was 'just' severely ill. The police has no idea who poisoned the chocolates or why. At the suggestion of Sheringham, all six members try to figure out who the culprit is, and to everyone's surprise, every member manages to present a completely different explanation to the case!

Yes, this Japanese cover is absolutely awesome.

As is the book itself, by the way. The Poisoned Chocolates Case is of course most famous for its structure: the six members all focus on different aspects of the case, employ different methods (induction / deduction / combination /etc) and propose different solutions to the case, and all theories sound very plausible. What becomes clear as the story progresses though, is how every detectives works in a biased way (even if they don't notice it themselves), choosing to look at what fits their theory, or what they think is the focal point of the case, ignoring elements that don't fit their train of thought.

Detective stories with multiple (false/incorrect) solutions aren't rare, of course. In fact, it's a convention I really like in detective fiction, as I love to see how ideas develop into full-fledged theories; whether something is true or not, is of less importance to me. There seem to be roughly types to the false solution: 1) the false solution based on faked evidence by the real murderer and 2) the false solution based on a faulty deduction by the detective. The first type is quite prevelant in the Queen novels, most famously in The Greek Coffin Mystery, where the murderer keeps planting clues to manipulate Ellery's deductions. The second type needs a bit of clarification: with a faulty deduction, I don't mean faulty as in that the logic itself is wrong, but rather based on incomplete / false information. This seems very close to the first type, with as biggest difference the fact that this isn't set up by the murderer, it happens completely independent from the murderer's intentions. The Poisoned Chocolates Case is of course an example of the second type. Each of the detectives choose to ignore significant elements of the case, which is why they all arrive at different solutions. What is so great is that the solutions are all convincing, thanks to the perfect presentation skills of the members of the Crimes Club (and Berkeley's writing).

An extreme version of the second type is seen in Van Madoy's Marutamachi Revoir, where the detectives purposely construct very plausible, but (probably) false theories, deliberately ignoring evidence and brushing elements of a case off as insignificant. In the special (non-official) courtrooms of Marutamachi Revoir, the goal is to convince the judge, which means that the detectives are practically encouraged to just make something up, as long as the judge believes it and the solution fits their goal.

Having this many solutions of course leads to a post-modernistic ambiance: what can we believe if solutions keep getting rejected. The brilliancy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case lies in the fact that despite the somewhat pessimistic stance towards truth, there is actually a point to the various solutions which saves us from the helplessness of post-modernism. Would I call it an anti-mystery? No, definitely not, and that is all because Berkeley conciouslessly walked along, but never across the line.

Berkeley does really like poking at the genre though. Not only does he give you a handful of solutions, his Crimes Circle is full of the amateur detectives you've come to expect from the genre. Their upper-class conciousness and their pride in being 'experts in criminology' is simply hilarious, and the remarks they throw at each other. Of Berkeley's other books, I've only read Jumping Jenny, which was basically also just making fun of Roger Sheringham. I'd almost feel sorry for him. If he wasn't such a snob.

In conclusion: a must-read. It is both a critique of, and an ode to the classic genre and what makes it fun and it works!

Oh, and pure chocolate is the best.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Author! Author!

"All the world's a stage"
"As you like it"

No, I don't have an Ayatsuji Yukito quotum for this month. Really. Next week the new Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney will be released, so expect something on that when I've finished that, but before that, I promise I'll post some non-Ayatsuji related reviews. Heck, They'll even be about non-Japanese novels! One of them, about poisoned chocolates...

But first, to show it's over with Ayatsuji for this month, we'll kill him off, in Ayatsuji Yukito Satsujin Jiken - Arujitachi no Yakata ("The Ayatsuji Yukito Murder Case - The House of the Owners"). Nakamura Seiji is a famous architect, who always placed secret hallways and hidden doors in his creations. For some reason, his creations also seem to attract death, as his houses have been the setting for many murder cases. One day, the owners of Nakamura's Decagon House, the Labyrinth House, the Clock House and the Black Cat House, who are all referred to by their house, gather in the Mirage House. It is said that a stack of gold is hidden somewhere in the mansion, probably in one of secret rooms Nakamura designed, and the four men hope to find the treasure by solving a mysterious code. Black Cat House however manages to solve the code before the other three do, and he sneaks into the secret treasure room alone. The other people manage to solve the code themselves not long afterwards, but when they open the secret room, they find the murdered Black Cat House inside!

Such goes a mystery play Mystery Night organized together with famous writer Ayatsuji Yukito (writer of the series about Nakamura Seiji's houses). Atsumi Reika, the editor in charge of Ayatsuji Yukito, is attending the play, but it turns out that the actor playing Black Cat House was really murdered during the performance. The only people who could have commited the murder were the actors on stage and the people in the wings of the stage, during the times the lights were out for scene changes. Morishita, the stage director, hopes that Ayatsuji Yukito will solve the case, as he's a famous detective writer, but then Ayatsuji himself is found as a corpse!

Well, of course Ayatsuji Yukito isn't really dead (or I have been mailing with a dead man this week). A bit confusing, but The Ayatsuji Yukito Murder Case - The House of the Owners is the novelization of a stage play, about a murder commited during a stage play. And it wasn't a normal stage play either. For it was organized by Mystery Night, a murder play group which has been around for 26 years. As far as I know, the basic set-up is the same every time: a murder play is performed in front of the public, after which the public have a chance to question the suspects. At the end of the night, guests hand in sheets with their deductions / who they think the murderer is. Gather enough points and your name will be remembered as a great detective forever (or something like that). This particular 'crossover' was held in the summer of 2012, as it was the 25th anniversary since their debut for both Ayatsuji Yukito and Mystery Night,

The book contains a novelization of the murder play, written by Amane Ryou, as well as a report on how the play went and some interviews with the actors and Ayatsuji Yukito himself. For this review, I'll only look at the novelization of the play. The rest is probably quite interesting if you attended the play yourself, but a report on how the project was organized just isn't that captivating if you weren't there. I have to note that the novelization is very short, with the novelization about as long as the rest of the book (300 pages in total).

The setting of an actual murder happening during a murder play isn't new, of course. I remember an early Kindachi Shounen no Jikenbo story for example, as well as a very recent Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney stage play. And if we go further and go to murders committed during filming of movies / TV shows and such, we could probably fill a very interesting post. But not this time. But on topic: the novelization of Ayatsuji Yukito Satsujin Jiken is surprisingly fun, but it does show to an extent that sometimes, tricks just seem better suited for certain media over others.

The whole story about how the actor of Black Cat House was murdered in a locked room on stage, and the consequent Ayatsuji Yukito murder is definitely fun to read. The setting, a murder play in the theater, is used to its fullest and the original writers obviously wrote this keeping in mind the public would walk around the set looking for clues The main trick, while not particularly original, does really fit the stage. As such, this is quite a good example of a fair play mystery play.

But on the other hand, some might think the novelization of the stage play is less succesful, because you can't see it performed in front of your eyes or walk around the set. While I didn't had any problems with the main trick, I have seen several reviews of the book by people who said they had troubles visualizing the trick, which might betray its origins as a stage play. The novelization by price-winning Amane Ryou is also a bit... bland, I have to admit. I don't how much he added to the original stage play (probably mostly Reika as the reader-proxy), but while adequate, the novelization does not impress.

For fans of Ayatsuji Yukitos novels, there's a lot to be found here: the play-within-the-play is presented as a side-story of Ayatsuji's Yakata series, complete with a Nakamura Seiji mansion. Heck, the title Mirage House was actually one of the proposed titles of Ningyoukan no Satsujin. But the most surprising part is of course Ayatsuji's own demise in the story. As he notes himself, one could consider it retribution for having killed so many people in his books. It's a bit surreal to see him in this role, but funny.

But I admit that this novelization is a hard sale for people who don't particularly like Ayatsuji Yukito. The story works better as a stage play than a novel, I admit, and the allure of this project is mostly derived from having Ayatsuji killed... so if you're nto a big fan of him, you probably won't enjoy this book. The novelization is also very short, and the rest of the book is only interesting if you want to read some interviews and a field report on how the original stage play went.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人(編集)、天祢涼(ノベライズ) 『綾辻行人殺人事件 主たちの館』

Monday, July 15, 2013

High Rise Hair Raiser

“Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear"
Edgar Allan Poe

Having survived a summer in both Fukuoka and Kyoto, I thought I'd be better prepared for the summer here; I mean, if I can survive near 40 degrees Celcius, 25 degrees shouldn't be that hard, right? And of course, I was wrong. So wrong. And I don't even have airconditioning here

Bikkurikan no Satsujin ("The Surprise House Murders") starts with the young adult Michiya finding the novel The Labyrinth House Murders by Shishiya Kadomi in a bookstore. The novel about the strange serial murder case that happened in the mansion designed by architect Nakamura Seiji, was esecially interesting to Michiya because he had first-hand experience with another of Nakamura Seiji's creations, many years ago, when he was twelve. Michiya had just moved into a new town, where he had become friends with Toshio, who lived in the Surprise House. Nobody actually knew why it was called the Surprise House. Some say it was because the house was full of jack-in-the-boxes. Some say it was haunted by a ghost who loved scaring people. Some even say the complete house was a jack-in-the-box. But one thing was sure; as a house designed by Nakamura Seiji, it was destined to become a murder scene. Because on Christmas, Michiya found Toshio's grandfather murdered inside the Surprise House, in a room locked from the inside. And as Michiya starts to think about the murder, the reader is told all the events that led up to the murder.

The eight Yakata novel and a weird one too. I also said that about the previous entry in the series, but they differ from the norm for quite different reasons. One of the major reasons for Bikkurikan no Satsujin feeling different, is because it was actually written with a totally different target group in mind. The book was originally written for publisher Kodansha's Mystery Land imprint, a line of mystery novels for children. The change in target readers shows, with an easy to read writing style, a child protagonist and even illustrations to accompany the story. It is however a full-fledged part of the Yakata series, Ayatsuji Yukito assures the reader.

I am not sure what to think about it though. First of all, the titular Surprise House never really manages to surprise. Or impress. Or do anything. Sure, it's a mansion, with one or two 'strange' things to it as you'd expect from a Nakamura Seiji house, but it misses the impact other mansions had. The obligatory secret passage (all of Nakamura Seiji's houses have secret hallways, so that's not a spoiler) is used in a great way for the story though, but the Surprise House itself is rather bland. There were other mansions in the series with somewhat 'boring' themes initially, I admit, but something like Kuronekokan no Satsujin shows that even a bland idea for a house can turn out quite good. The Surprise House however misses a real identity. The real reason behind name Surprise House isn't revealed until quite late in the story, and even then it's not really impressive, so it never manages to stand out as a setting.

Most of the story's atmosphere is derived from young Michiya finding out more and more about Toshio and his grandfather, and their past which involves a family tragedy. The build-up of this segment is great, and connects well to the first of two main surprises Ayatsuji wants to spring on the reader. The problem: it works great as a horror story, less as a fair detective story. Had I read this as a horror story, I would be moderately pleasantly surprised, but as this is an entry of the Yakata series, I can't help but feel a bit underwhelmed.

The locked room is similarly not completely satisfying. The locked room is presented as the main problem of the story; the novel starts with Michiya's recollections of how Toshio's grandfather was discovered, before going back to explain all the events that led up to the murder. As such, the solution to the locked room problem can't but disappoint, I think. I can see where Ayatsuji was going for with this locked room, and it might work as part of a larger, more complex story, but not as the main attraction.

And as a children's mystery/horror book? It's freakin' scary at the end. Or at any rate, I found it really creepy. It reminded me of the short comic stories by forever young Umezu Kazuo, which often utilize a shock surprise ending. These stories are also unbelievably creepy (and hilarious/absurd, from a certain point of view), even though they were originally intended for children. 
 
As a proper entry in the series, Bikkurikan no Satsujin is a bit underwhelming. There is the house, there is a secret passageway, a murder happens, but it's just not enough. This might be partly because the novel was deliberately written for a different target group, but that raises the question why this story wasn't written as a spin-off to the series.

On a side note: the Yakata series is slated to end with ten novel. As of now nine of these have been released (and I have reviewed eight of them now): 

Jukkakukan no Satsujin (The Decagon House Murders)
Suishakan no Satsujin (The Watermill House Murders)
Meirokan no Satsujin (The Labyrinth House Murders)
Ningyoukan no Satsujin (The Puppet House Murders)
Tokeikan no Satsjin (The Clock House Murders)
Kuronekokan no Satsujin (The Black Cat House Murders)
Ankokukan no Satsujin (The Darkness House Murders)

Bikkurikan no Satsujin (The Surprise House Murders)

I have to confess though: I will not discuss another Yakata novel in the next post, but it will be related to the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『びっくり館の殺人』

Sunday, July 14, 2013

「名探偵と言われた俺のジッチャンと、俺自身の誇りにかけて!」

「Good Luck, 名探偵」
『金田一少年の事件簿 黒魔術殺人事件』

"Good luck, great detective"
"The Young Kindaichi Case Files: The Black Magic Murder Case"

Another ten days until the new Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney is out! Last time, I managed to clear the game and write a review on it in just two, three days, so let's see whether I can top that!

Unlike his illustrious grandfather, Kindaichi Hajime isn't a private detective, so he usually doesn't take requests for investigations. This time is different though, for his client is... Takato, the genius murderer who has been making a living by selling 'perfect crime' plans to those with revenge in their hearts. But it turns out that Hajime wasn't the only one after Takato. Someone calling himself Rosenkreuz has 'invited' Takato, or rather his alter-ego the Hell Puppeteer, to the Rose Cross Mansion. If he doesn't comply, Rosenkreuz threatens to harm Takato's sibling who'll also be present at the mansion. Takato plans to kill Rosenkreuz (as he dares to threaten him), but the problem is Takato doesn't know anything about his sibling, except for the fact that s/he exists. Takato has experience with planning murders, but has no experience in protecting people, so he decides to ask his nemesis Hajime for help. In return, he promises to give himself up to the police when it's all over. And so the genius detective and genius murderer (and Hajime's friend Miyuki) head for the Rose Cross Mansion, together with some other guests who hope to get a glimpse of a Blue Rose the mysterious Rosenkreuz claims to have bred. And of course someone is murdered. Can Hajime protect Takato's sibling, find out who Rosenkreuz is and prevent Takato from murdering Rosenkreuz?

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo franchise, a new limited serialized series started last year. This series has ended now with the fifth installment, but boy, did it go out with a bang! I was quite happy when I first heard this series started, but to be honest; the stories were quite bland. While I usually post reviews of the newest Conan / Kindaichi Shounen volumes, I just couldn't find enough interesting to write about for the Kindaichi Shounen volumes, which is why I have only reviewed the first volume (which reminds me... I still have to read the 'new' Conan volume of three months ago). This last story, spread across the fourth and fifth volume, is different however.

For one, this story brings back the scale and atmosphere of the earlier stories. And I don't just mean that it follows the same basic pattern of the series (of course it does). But it also does its best to recreate the horror-like closed circle atmosphere of yore. It never gets as bloody and dark as the very first stories, but still, a man chopped in neat parts, served on the dinner table should count as dark, right? The setting of a cross-shaped mansion, complete with a rose garden (which is covered with poison) is also one of the more memorable settings of this long-running series. Which is quite a feat considering Hajime has been running around crime scenes for 20 years now.

The two locked room situations in this story are also surprisingly good! One involves a stabbed man lying on a rose petal bed in a room, with the petals placed all the way up to the (inwards opening) door, meaning the murderer couldn't have escaped from the door (and the windows were locked too). The second impossible situation is also fantastic and reminds of the large-scale tricks more often seen in the earlier Kindaichi Shounen series (though I have to admit that the Kowloon story of the 20th Anniversary series had ridiculously large-scale trick too...). What is especially interesting is that the second situation isn't really impossible. It's just that the witness who stood in front of the crime scene, is the murderer Takato and you have to choose whether to believe his testimony or not.

Lately, a lot of the Kindaichi Shounen stories have felt too gimmicky, by which I mean that stories either revolved too much around one trick, or that stories featured tricks / murders that didn't feel connected to the rest of the story. They were just there because they were, admittedly, good tricks, but not because they fitted in the setting. For a lot of the later Kindaichi Shounen stories, I actually can't remember which tricks belong to which stories, because they don't feel like they belong to each other. The two impossible situations of the Rose Cross Mansion Murder Case really fit the story setting however and feel as an organic part of the whole.

It seems like Amagi wrote this story as a proper ending of the 20th Anniversary series, but also as a set-up for future stories. At one hand, this final volume feels like a return to the style of earlier stories, in a full circle sense of things (though it is interesting to note that nobody dressed as Rosenkreuz ever appears, nor is there a legend / urban legend / curse / etcetera at work here). On the other hand, Amagi has planted some very significant plot points, that are bound to get picked up in future stories.

Anyway, great ending for a somewhat disappointing series. The 20th anniversary of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo might be over, but I'm sure we'll see more of him soon!

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原) さとうふみや(画) 『金田一少年の事件簿 20周年記念シリーズ』第4、5巻 (『薔薇十字館殺人事件』)

Friday, July 12, 2013

"Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing"

君のいない未来がただ大きな闇に見え死んでしまえば生きなくていい
 そんな事ばかり考えてた穏やかな月明かりに
『Holy Ground』 (Garnet Crow)

A future without you is covered with darkness, so I might as well die,
I was thinking beneath the gentle moonlight 
"Holy Ground" (Garnet Crow)

Considering I prefer short stories, I find it quite a feat myself I've actually read two of the three longest Japanese detective novels (one of which should still be the world's longest one, too) Now I only need to read Miyabe Miyuki's Mohouhan ("Copy-Cat Crime") to complete the series!

It feels like I read Ayatsuji Yukito's Kuronekokan no Satsujin just a while ago, but it's actually been half a year already. So it was time to read another entry in Ayatsuji's Yakata series. Ankokukan no Satsujin ("The Darkness House Murders") brings us to another mansion full of secret hallways and other trickery. The titular Darkness House, a grand mansion with four distinct wings and a tower, stands on a small island in the middle of a lake deep in the mountains of Kyushu and is inhabitated by the wealthy, yet mysterious Urado family. Chuuya, a young student is invited by his friend Genji, son of the current head of the Urado family, to spend a few days in the Darkness House, as are some other relatives and family friends. Those days Chuuya spends at the mansion however, are strange. The house itself is definitely not making Chuuya feel comfortable, as it has no windows and is mostly covered in darkness, but Chuuya also comes across a stranger falling from a tower, Genji's slightly deformed sisters, a legend about mermaids in the lake and, the mysterious Banquet of Daria, a special dinner named after the wife of the first head of the family. And it all ends with murder. Several murders, of course. What is the secret behind the Urado family and the Darkness House, and can Chuuya make it out alive?

First thing I have to say about Ankokukan no Satsujin. It's long. Very long. Too long. It's not as long as Nikaidou Reito's Jinroujou no Kyoufu (probably still the world's longest detective novel, or at any rate the longest locked room mystery), I think, but it comes close. Even more important however, is that Ankokukan no Satsujin feels long. I read the original publication, which consists of two books of 600 two-column pages, but nothing of interest happens until the end of the first book (and the second book doesn't improve much on that, to be honest). The start to corpse time is ridiculous and the worst I've ever seen. Compare to Jinroujou no Kyoufu, 1) stuff happens all the time and 2) the length is actually used to its full potential. Here, it feels like the story could have, and should have been told in half the amount of pages.

But the story feels long not only because of physical reasons, but also because of the way it is written. Half of the story, Chuuya is confronted with events that are only enigmatic to him, because nobody bothers to tell him anything. The meaning of the Banquet of Daria? The secret behind the mausoleum in the garden? Genji's amnesiac past? Chuuya has some valid questions, but everybody just says 'we'll tell you later', which they do, just eight hundred pages later. Part of it is of course build up, the fear of everybody but the protagonist=reader knowing something, but it shouldn't be done the way it is done in Ankokukan no Satsujin. I recently watched Another, the series based on Ayatsuji Yukito's novel, and it had the same problem, with everybody refusing to tell the protagonist anything, despite knowing the answers to most questions. It is a very artificial way of stretching things, like...talking...in...a...dot...dot...dot...style.

The atmosphere of Ankokukan no Satsujin is basically horror, a style Ayatsuji often dabbles in but usually not in this series. The house is brilliantly described as a real place of darkness (literally). The truth behind the Urado family is also surprising, in the sense it wasn't the kind of setting you'd expect if you have read the Yakata series up until now (I'd have totally expected in a Nikaidou Reito story though...). Not a bad thing per se, but I am not sure whether I like it in this particular series. It's different, for sure.

As a detective novel, Ankokukan no Satsujin has one or two moments that really shine, but there are also a great number of moments that felt very predictable. The basic pattern Ayatsuji has been playing with since the first novel in the Yakata series is also present here, so the reader won't be that surprised when that narrative element reaches its conclusion. On the positive side of things, Knox might have not been too keen on secret hallways, but Ayatsuji makes the use of secret passages a great, and fair, part of the deduction process. There is also a fantastic blind spot introduced in the novel and while I am not that big a fan of this novel, I have to admit that this blind spot is worth remembering. 

Ankokukan no Satsujin is the seventh novel in the series, but feels a bit different from the other novels (mainly refering to Jukkakukan no Satsujin, Suishakan no Satsujin, Meirokan no Satsujin and Tokeikan no Satsujin). Yes, there is a closed circle situation and a house full of secret hallways, but there is also a distinct horror-like atmosphere throughout the novel not present in the rest of the series. The scale of the story is also different, from the page count to the size of the Darkness House. However, Ankokukan no Satsujin also turns out to be a very important part of the whole mythos of the series and does not feel as 'detached' as Ningyoukan no Satsujin.

All in all, a hard one to judge. Ankokukan no Satsujin forces you to wade through hundreds of pages (literally) to find something good, but there it is there (if you can survive that long). But this entry is quite important to the story of the whole series, so one shouldn't skip it /choose for not reading it. Does it offer enough good for the bad? Not sure, actually. I don't regret having read Ankokukan no Satsujin, but I certainly wouldn't recommend people to start with this novel; it really has to be read as a part of the Yakata series, or else you won't get enough out of it.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『暗黒館の殺人』

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Recipe for my Love

"Let's split up gang!"
"Scooby Doo, Where Are You!"

Three notes: 1) Post 400! 2) Yes, I should post more often. And 3) I switched computers, with a slightly different keyboard, and I keep mistyping stuff because every key is slightly further away / gives slightly less feedback then my fingers are used to. So there is a chance this post has more typos than usual (and 3.5) yes, still too lazy to proofread).

I can't exactly remember what the first mystery series was I've seen/read, but seeing as it has to be either Columbo, Poirot or Scooby Doo, Where Are You! and the latter is a cartoon, so I'm guessing it's the latter. For Scooby Doo, Where Are You! is really an awesome mystery series! And I don't even mean that sarcastic. Sure, it might be formulaic, but that is not a bad thing per se. For example, I love the way every episode features someone basically reenacting (urban) legends to scare off people; I am pretty sure that's where my love for the mitate trope in mystery fiction comes from.

In fact, my strange love for Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series with its creepy mansions with secret hallways? My love for Edogawa Rampo, his Shounen Tantei Dan series with kid detectives and criminals dressed in silly suits and outlandish plans? I suspect that's Scooby Doo  there working somewhere in my subconciousness.

Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated has the same basic premise as the original series: a group of four teenagers and their dog solve mysteries. Fred, with a bizarre love obsession for traps, rich Daphne who has a crush on Fred, smart Velma, who is having a secret relationship with Shaggy, who in turn has troubles choosing between Velma and his dog Scooby. Their town, Crystal Cove, always seems to be under attack by some kind of monster or other supernatural phenomena, which always turns out to be the doing of some person with the most ridiculous motives and gadgets. The town actually thrives on the tourism lured by the supernatural however, so people aren't really grateful when the Scooby Gang once again prove the New Monster of the Week is actually just human. During their adventures, the Scooby Gang discovers there was once another detective group of four teenagers and an animal mascot, who disappeared from Crystal Cove twenty years ago. Taking the name of their predecessors, the new Mystery Incorporated sets out to discover what happened to the original group.

Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated is basically a Scooby show for the Buffy-generation. An episodic structure, but with character development and a story arc to connect everything. It's also a very meta-concious series, making references to, and parodying many horror movies, pop culture and of course the long (and sometimes) troubled history of the Scooby Doo franchise. And it works. Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated does everything right and does it amazingly.


The Scooby Gang might still unmask a villain dressed in silly clothing every episode, but the story arc really changes everything for the Scooby Doo franchise. Each episode brings the Scooby Gang a bit closer to the truth behind the mystery of Crystal Cove and the disappearance of the original Mystery Incorporated, so it's very easy to fall in the okay, I've been watching over an hour now, but just one more episode... trap. Crystal Cove as the main setting, and an extended cast of secondary characters (including the parents of the Scooby Gang!) all add something new to the franchise and I am almost surprised the series could have lived without those elements for so long.


Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated is a great series on its own, but it really shines as a parody / tribute to all of Scooby Doo. The series starts out as a sort of sequel to the original Scooby Doo, Where Are You! series, with clear references to the monsters that appeared in that series (there is even a museum starring all the unmasked monsters!). But it goes further than that. In the original series of Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, people went through ridiculous troubles (dressed in just as outlandish clothes) to scare off people from the treasure of the week. Mystery Incorporated! takes it up a notch, with some criminals making use of military-class technology and wrecking half of town for the most trivial of reasons. Scooby Doo was of course never a realistic series, but taking this to the extreme does not hurt the series at all. The tongue-in-cheek way to make fun of the franchise is simply hilarious, with a simple example being every episode ending on a variation on the famous I'd have gotten away with it if it wasn't for you meddling kids.

And occasionally they throw a curveball. There were episodes that actually surprised me, something I'd never expected from a Scooby show. From an episode that is drawn in the old style and serves as a tribute to a number of old Hanna-Barbera series to an episode that actually subverts the standard formula in the most surprising way; the whole series is great, but there are some moments where they decided that 'just awesome' wasn't enough and they had to go one step further.


Of course, even if you don't catch all the references, Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated is still a solid series. Children who watch it now, will probably see it like when the first generation of viewers first watched the original series, while the older generation will see what a loving remake/reconstruction/parody Mystery Incorporated is.

And to bring it back to Japanese detective fiction and what I wrote in the introduction, isn't Scooby Doo really the closest thing we have to Rampo's Shounen Tantei Dan / Akechi Kogorou series? A highly formulaic series starring children solving mysteries, with 'monsters' turning out to be mere humans / the Fiend with Twenty Faces (spoiler: it's always Twenty Faces) using trickery / stage magic / unlikely technoogy. Houses with hidden hallways and other secrets? The many monsters seem closer to the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series, but names like The Black Lizard, the Clown from Hell, the Vampire were first featured in Rampo's novels.

Anyway, I definitely recommend any fan of the original series to try Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated. It's an excellent series and sometimes, a mystery series can sometimes work just as well without bloody murder, locked room mysteries and supercomplex deductions.