Monday, September 30, 2013

The Most Dangerous Match

「....中国の、古い故事だ。ムカシ、楚の国に、ある武器商人がいた。王の前に出た彼は、2つの商品を取り出した。1つ目は....すべてを貫く《矛》。どんな防具も貫く、最強の武器だ。もう1つは、決して破らぬ《盾》。どんな攻撃も防ぐ、最強の防具だ。」
「ふうん.......あれ。その証人の発言は、アキラカにムジュンしているッ!」
『逆転裁判 蘇る逆転』

"It's an old story from China. There was a weapons merchant in the country of So long ago. He appeared before the king and presented two of his goods. The first, was an invincible halberd. A weapon which could pierce any defense. The second item was an unbreakable shield. A shield which could fend off everything"
"Hmmm... wait, that merchant's story, is a contradiction!"
"Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney - Rise from the Ashes"

I just realized that I haven't used Japanese in my post titles for some time now. Visitor-wise, I don't think there's a significant difference though.

1937. The young Kindaichi Kousuke has recently started his own private detective agency, but has problems drawing in clients. As he has to pay his rent, he does not hesitate to take a case even if it means he has to travel all the way to the city of Osaka. He finds himself getting involved with two rivaling pharmacy shops: the two shops used to be one, but when the original master of the shop died without appointing a successor, his two disciples each opened their own shop, both claiming to be the true successor. A kidnapping case and the discovery of a burnt body keep our young detective busy in the bustling Kansai city. Meanwhile, the famous private detecive Akechi Kogorou has recently returned from Manchuria, and he too decides to involve himself with the case, albeit in the background. Thus starts the grand crossover TV special Kindachi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou.

Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou is a 2013 TV special for Fuji TV, based on a story written by Ashibe Taku. Please note that this is different from the 2005 Asahi TV Akechi Kogorou VS Kindaichi Kousuke special, which was a crossover special set in contemporary times. Anyway, as a concept, this is pretty awesome: Edogawa Rampo's Akechi Kogorou and Yokomizo Seishi's Kindaichi Kousuke are arguably the best known fictional Japanese detectives and a crossover between the detectives of different writers is quite rare. This is something big, like a Hercule Poirot VS Ellery Queen. And of course, certain expectations are created by combining the two names (Nishimura Kyoutarou's series featuring Akechi Kogorou, Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot and Jules Maigret was therefore doomed from the start, I guess).

 Overall, I have to be honest and say I was a bit disappointed by the special. This was not because of the plot of the special though. It was a relatively entertaining story with several good twists that kept the plot going. Hints were layed out very fairly and while the main trick is a bit silly when you actually see it in action (I suspect this part worked better as a written story), the special did provide for an entertaining 100 minutes.

But were the names Kindaichi Kousuke and Akechi Kogorou really needed? The title might say 'versus', but there is no real confrontation, or at least no fair confrontation, between the two detectives. Kindaichi Kousuke has most of the screentime, and a disguised Akechi Kogorou just appears now and then, but it is clear from the start that the famous, more experienced Akechi Kogorou is a better detective than Kindaichi. Akechi is just there to give Kindaichi hints (while Kindaichi doesn't even know he's talking to his idol Akechi Kogorou) and the whole thing feels more like Akechi Kogorou Teaches Kindaichi Kousuke, rather than Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou. Both characters do sorta resemble their original counterparts, but were these two names really needed for this story?


Like I wrote in the review for Morikawa Tomoki's Two Detectives and One Watson, when you have two (or more) rival detectives in one story, you need to make them comparable in deductive powers to maintain an element of competition. This isn't the case here. Other methods might be having the two rival detectives taking on different sides of the case. Strangely enough, the best examples of detective crossovers I can come up with now, are games: Professor Layton vs. Gyakuten Saiban and Detective Conan vs. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo give each series the same amount of time to shine, without one overshadowing the other in terms of deductive powers/usefulness. In Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou, Kindaichi manages to come up with good deductions, but the viewer knows that Akechi Kogorou is always one step ahead.


Which is a shame, because the basic story does fit Kindaichi Kousuke in theme I think. The ending especially feels like it could fit in with the canon Kindaichi Kousuke stories. The use of Akechi Kogorou on the other hand adds nothing to the story, and in fact takes away most of the good feeling you'd get had this just been presented as a young-Kindaichi-in-training story.

Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou is an okay detective story, but it does not live up to the expectations created by putting the two famous names together. Nothing bad, but also a bit more bland than you'd want something with such a title to be.

Original Japanese title(s): 『金田一耕助VS明智小五郎』

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bug X Debug

 "Looking for lodgings." I answered. "Trying to solve the problem as to whether it is possible to get comfortable rooms at a reasonable price."
"That's a strange thing," remarked my companion; "you are the second man to-day that has used that expression to me."
"And who was the first?" I asked.
"A fellow who is working at the chemical laboratory up at the hospital. He was bemoaning himself this morning because he could not get someone to go halves with him in some nice rooms which he had found, and which were too much for his purse."
"By Jove!" I cried, "if he really wants someone to share the rooms and the expense, I am the very man for him. I should prefer having a partner to being alone."
"A Study in Scarlet"

Reason: "Oh, that Lupin III vs Detective Conan crossover TV special a couple of years ago, oh, that was neat, but a bit too much on the safe side of things. So I shouldn't be too excited for the upcoming film sequel of Lupin III vs. Detective Conan."

*watches trailer*

Fanboyism: "To heck with reason! This is going to be absolutely awesome!!"

Morikawa Tomoki's Hitotsu Yane no Shita no Tanteitachi ("Detectives Beneath One Roof") has the additional English title of Two Detectives and One Watson, which I will be using. Over a century ago, a quest for reasonably priced lodgings that brought us the duo of Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson. And reasonably priced lodgings are still very much wanted, so it shouldn't be that surprising that the same noble goal created a new detective - writer team. Or to be precise, detectives - writer team. Both of essayist Asama Osamu's new roommates happen to be private detectives, but very different kind of detectives. Asama himself refers to the two as the Ant and the Grasshopper (from the fable). Machii Yuito, always dressed in a neat suit, is a hardworking detective with an extensive circle of acquaintances. He works by checking the facts, making detailed observations and slowly building his way to the truth. Tenka Reisuke, mostly dressed in pajama, stays mostly at home, sleeping. He works by making brilliant deductions based on one or two observations. Asama's publisher agrees to his idea of writing a book based on one of the detectives. Which of them is going to appear in the book (and receive money)? The one who will solve the mysterious death of a man who starved to death in a storage room locked with a number lock, of which he knew the combination. Will the hardworking ant win, or the playful grasshopper?

The rival detective has always been one of my favorite tropes in detective fiction, though it is not a very widely-used one. Maybe it's because of the work it brings with it. Consider this, writing an intelligent detective isn't easy anyway, and with a rival, you need to write another one!  The characters need to be close to each other in terms of deductive powers, or else the element of competition weakens. The trope is also often used in combination with fake/multiple solutions, the rival detective is then used to propose a fake solution, which the main detective corrects. One can for example think of Simon Brimmer in the excellent Ellery Queen TV series, or to the first appearance of Hattori Heiji in Detective Conan (vol. 10). The problem is that this is often invoked by giving the rival detective insufficient data, which lead to the fake solution. Of course, that can be seen as a character flaw (too hasty to be a good detective), but it leaves the question, what if the two detectives had access to the same information? In that respect, Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case is a better example of rival detectives. Even though the people there do use information only they can have, the starting point is the same and most of the information is indeed shared information. Or what about Van Madoy's Revoir series? In the private trials there, the ultimate goal for the defense and prosecutors isn't finding out the truth, but winning the case. There the detectives (defense and prosecutors) are tested by their gift of making up plausible and logical hypotheses. Here the rivalry isn't about the truth, but just about being convincing.

A more satisfying way to do the rival detective trope is by giving the rivals different methods of detecting. Tantei Gakuen Q has a great premise in that respect, as the children in Q Class all have different fields of expertise that influence their work method; Megu for example has a photographic memory, while Kazuma is more IT-oriented and Ryuu works with cold reasoning (it's not used up to the premise's full extent though). But this might even be harder to write, as a writer needs to come up with (at least) two characters who tackle on a case very differently, and yet as rivals they still need to be evenly skilled.

And in that respect, Two Detectives and One Watson is a very entertaining novel. The start of the novel shows a good example of the different thinking methods of the two detectives: whereas "Ant" Machii sums up a string of observations and list of facts that lead to the conclusion that narrator Asama has been to a certain restaurant before, "Grasshopper" Tenka arrives at the same conclusion with just one inference based on one single observation. Both methods are correct and lead to the same conclusion, but are very different. And as the story continues, we see more and more of the working methods of these two different detectives and it's a pleasure to see each of them tackling the case in a completely different way.

The structure of Two Detectives and One Watson is very similar to Morikawa Tomoki's Sanzunokawa Kotowari series: even though the plot deals with one large mystery (the man who starved to death), the story is structured in smaller mysteries that get solved as the story develops (whodunnit, howdunnit and whydunnit), like how the stories are structured in the drama Trick. Two Detectives and One Watson also has a great sense of speed, and never gets boring. Another thing Morikawa seems to have learned from his Sanzunokawa Kotowari series is changing the conditions every now and then to keep things exciting. Snow White for example started with an introduction of a magic mirror, with more and more functions of the mirror explored as the story continued. Two Detectives and One Watson also has some surprises to keep the reader, and the detectives on their toes. For example: Tenka is shown to be a genius detective, but his extremely short (yet corrrect) deductions offer too little material for a novel, so he actually has to do his best now to create material if he wants to get chosen for the book. The different methods of deduction and the ever-changing circumstances keep the reader's glued to its pages.

Finally, the mystery behind the man who starved to death in a room he could have left is surprisingly fun. At first, I thought that the case would only serve as a background setting for the competition between Machii and Tenka, but the solution turns out to be quite surprising and is sorta reminiscent of Higashino Keigo's The Saint's Salvation, in a twisted way. It works excellent in the context of this story and helps strengthen the Ant and the Grasshopper theme.

In conclusion, a very amusing novel. It's a light-hearted mystery that is simply fun to read, which is actually all the excuse you'll need for picking up the book. And Morikawa Tomoki's new Sanzunokawa Kotowari novel is out now too, so I'll have to pick that up one of these days.

Original Japanese title(s): 森川智喜 『一つ屋根の下の探偵たち』

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The House in the Mist

「ですから、探偵小説の中で起こる事件は、やあり、なるたけ突拍子もないものであって欲しいもんですな。いかにも現実 にありそうな事件くどくど読まされるくらいなら、そりゃあ、警察の捜査記録に目を通しとる方が宜しい。その方がよっぽど、リアルっちゅう意味じゃあ刺激になる」
『霧越邸殺人事件』

It's about time I get started on the review backlog. Today, a book I read probably over a month, maybe even two months ago.

On their way back to the station after a trip, the members of the theater troupe Dark Tent get lost in a sudden snow storm. As they try to find their way back in the forest, they arrive at a big mansion facing a lake. As it's already dark, they decide to ask for shelter, which they get, albeit somewhat reluctantly. The mansion, the Kirigoe Mansion, is inhabitated by a group of people who have strange ways of making their guest feel 'welcome'. The guests are each given a room and a great dinner, but the master of the mansion absolutely refuses to appear in front of his guests, and his servants are also doing the mere minimum. And the guests are repeatedly reminded of the fact that the Kirigoe Mansion isn't a hotel, so they shouldn't wander around. Which may also be for their own sake, because the mansion seems to have a strange power of 'foretelling' the future of those inside its walls. And considering the title Kirigoetei Satsujin Jiken ("The Kirigoe Mansion Murder Case"), it shouldn't be a surprise that the Kirigoe Mansion is also the setting of a mysterious chain of murders. The twist: the victims are all people of the theater troupe, so the master of the mansion figures that it's their problem: the murderer is logically also one of them, so they have to find out who did it themselves.

Kirigoetei Satsujin Jiken is a pretty well-received novel by Ayatsuji Yukito. It's the third novel by Ayatsuji that made it into the Touzai Mystery Best 100 and often hear positive things about it and... yes, it is actually an excellent mystery novel, but I for some reason didn't enjoy it as much as I did other novels by Ayatsuji. And I have no idea why.

For this is really a very competent mystery novel. It is quickly revealed that the murders in the mansion are actually following a pattern (i.e. nursery rhyme murders) and the way the members of the theater troupe deal with the closed circle situation, as well as the mystery behind their host and the mansion make the 600~700 pages fly by (the start is a bit slow though, but it has a killer tempo afterwards). The truth behind the nursery rhyme murders is logical and totally solvable and it is absolutely clear that Ayatsuji is very familiar, and skilled in using tropes like the closed circle, mitate murders, the 'mountain villa in the snow storm', the mysterious host and servants and Western mansions as a setting, as these are also the building blocks for his Yakata series. In fact, this novel was written for a different publisher than th one for the Yakata series, but one could see Kirigoetei Satsujin Jiken as a spin-off title.

But a slightly weaker spin-off. Maybe the novel doesn't really appeal to me, because it's a bit too classic. Which might sound strange, considering my preferences in the genre, but in the Yakata series, Ayatsuji seems to do more surprising with the tropes. From examination, reconstruction and deconstruction, to simply coming up with grand tricks that work on a totally different scale than you'd usually see. Kirigoetei Satsujin Jiken is a lot safer in that respect, and slightly disappointing. Every time I recognized a trope here, I was expecting Ayatsuji to play around with it, but alas it's mostly just using the tropes as is. In a good way, and many writers would dream of writing something like Kirigoetei Satsujin Jiken, but to me, it's a bit underwhelming. But like I said, this is overall a very well received novel, so I am the minority here.

The best part of the novel is the setting of Kirigoe Mansion. Western mansions are of course Ayatsuji's thing, considering his Yakata series, but this has to be the scariest one, mainly because this house actually seems to have magical powers (that don't have actual influence on the mystery part of the story: you can solve the whole thing through logic). It reminded me a bit of the 1977 horror fantasy (comedy?) movie Hausu, with a building that seems to be keeping its inhabitants inside to have some bloody pleasure. No human-eating piano here though. Ayatsuji Yukito has a strong reputation in novels with a strong and memorable settings, but Kirigoetei Satsujin Jiken is certainly among the best of those works. Like I wrote in my review of Ellery Queen's There Was An Old Woman, you have to have certain setting for a nursery rhyme murder to work, a slightly deranged plae where anything can happen. Well, Kirigoe Mansion is that place.

Overall, this is a strong, classical work of mystery fiction. Some consider it among the best of Ayatsuji's works, I find it a bit too predictable, but it's definitely a good mystery that's worth a read.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『霧越邸殺人事件』

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Fourth Side of the Triangle

「落ちよ 時の狭間に!ゴールデン・トライアングル!!」
『聖闘士星矢』

"Saint Seiya"

Now that I think about it, this blog passed it third birthday two weeks ago. Well, technically, the blog itself already started in March 2009, but the switch from posting about studying in Japan, to posting (sorta) regularly on (mostly Japanese) detective fiction, was somewhere around September 2010. Heh. I am probably the most surprised of all about me still writing this blog. Anyway, and now for something not completely different, namely another, ancient mystery.

The title of Shimada Souji's Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") refers to a copy of the Great Pyramid of Khufu made of both stone and glass, situated near New Orleans, facing the Gulf of Mexico. The monument was made by Paul Alexon, a scholar, who needed his own pyramid to prove a revolutionary theory regarding the Great Pyramid. Paul died however, leaving his pyramid (and adjoining tower-annex-living-quarters) to his brother Richard. The odd structure is now to be used as a film set for the Hollywood movie Aida '87, starring famous Japanese actress Matsuzaki Reona. Richard is also on the set, trying to hit on Reona. The first night of filming, during a hurricane, Reona swears she saw a strange creature walking near the pyramid, though nobody else of the staff saw the beast. And then the next day, Richard is found dead in his bedroom at the top of the tower next to the pyramid. The police is astounded to discover that not only was the room completely locked from the inside, the man also drowned to death on top of the tower. The police orders a stop on the filming of Aida '87 until they crack the case, but figuring that might take too long, Reona decides to ask an acquaintance, Mitarai Kiyoshi, to solve the case for her.

As much as I love Shimada's Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken and Naname Yashiki no Hanzai, I can't but say that Suishou no Pyramid is a highly flawed story. It has a very clear and easy to explain problem: it is unnecessary long. The book itself is over 700 pages, but there are many, many parts that feel as nothing more than bad, bad filler. Examples: the first 200 odd pages are dedicated to two narratives, one set in ancient Egypt, one on the Titanic, that have no significant relation to the actual case. The narrative of the actual case starts after this overly long and unneccessary prologue, but it doesn't end there. From there until the end the book is filled with passages that don't seem to serve any purpose in terms of the plot and I think the basic story could have easily been done in 300 pages, instead of more than the double. This is the biggest problem Suishou no Pyramid has, and it made this a very tiring reading experience, which could have easily been avoided. I really have no idea why it's written the way it is.

Because get rid of all the superfluous parts, and you're left with a great locked room mystery. People who have read other stories in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series like Naname Yashiki no Hanzai, Shissou Suru Shitai or Aru Kishi no Monogatari will know that Shimada Souji's impossible crime plots are... grand. I remember once watching the first, and then the last episodes of the animation series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. In the beginning of the series, small robots fight each other on earth, but by the time of the final episode, gigantic combining robots use complete planets and galaxies as weapons. This difference in scale is also detectable here. Shimada Souji has a tendency to come up with mysteries of a completely different scale: whereas 'normal' people would use needle and thread to create a locked room murder, Shimada will use steel wire and jackhammers. And still make it work. The same holds for Suishou no Pyramid, where Shimada will baffle the reader with one of the most impressive solutions I've ever seen to a locked room murder.

Shimada's stories do sometimes feel a bit artificial at times though. I didn't think it was very obvious in Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken, but Naname Yashiki no Satsujin is probably a good example of a greatly executed locked room mystery, but which feels very forced and artificial at the same time.The same holds for Suishou no Pyramid, up to an extent. The setting of a gigantic glass pyramid in the United States is a bit artificial, of course, but this time, Shimada actually plays with this characteristic of his novels and it has very entertaining results. It works mostly if you're familiar with Shimada's works though, so I wouldn't recommend this novel if you've never read his novels before. In fact, it might be a little bit hard to get into, with the above mentioned stray narratives, and the fact that the series detective Mitarai Kiyoshi 1) appears very late in the story and 2) the introduction here isn't enough to really capture enough of his essence as a character.

Between the unneccesary passages and sub-plots, there is also quite some interesting information and background research on pyramids and in particular the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Fun if you're interested in ancient Egypt and it really adds to the mystery. The way the mysteries surrounding the Great Pyramid connect to the locked room murder in the present is surprising and definitely the highlight of this novel.

Cut away half of the novel, and you'd have a fantastic locked room mystery that also interacts with Shimada's earlier novels on a meta-level. But as it is now, it has too much excess luggage, which really hurt the core story. Suishou no Pyramid is one I can only recommend by adding a lot of 'but's and disclaimers. Which is a shame, because the core is really solid.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『水晶のピラミッド』

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Partners in Crime

Life is a game, so take your chance
And play your hand, you just might win
You never know

Reviews of novels will probably resume this week... as soon as I manage to finish the one I'm reading now. 

Aibou ("Partners") is a popular police TV drama which has been running for over ten years. What started as a series of special episodes in 2000, has now grown out to be multimedia franchise, with 11 seasons (the 12th season is to start in October), several films, videogames and spin-off series. And yet, to me it was for a long time just 'the series with the awesome theme song'. It was just too long and while I occassionally watched an episode, I never really felt the need to really follow the show because of its length. But last year's Aibou Eleven offered a nice entry point, so I finally got to see what made this show so popular.

Within the depths of the Metropolitan Police Department (Tokyo), situated in a little office, is the Special Order Unit (tokumeikakari), headed by police inspector Sugishita Ukyou. Sugishita is a highly intelligent and competent detective, but because he 'doesn't play the game right', the higher-ups have basically placed him somewhere away from the action. Management also uses the Special Order Unit as a place to banish unwanted police officers to: with Sugishita not always the easiest man to work with, and hardly anything to do for the Special Order Unit, they figure that anyone placed there will quit the job on their own. At the start of the series, six people have been known to have quit the force because they were placed in "The Lone Isle of the Police Department", with 'loose cannon' Kameyama Kaoru the first 'partner' to have been able to work with Sugishita for a long time (hence the title Aibou ("Partners")). Kameyama worked for many seasons with Sugishita and was replaced with the career policeman Kanbe Takeru as the 'second partner'. Kanbe was eventually placed back in the National Police Agency, leaving Sugishita without a partner.

Which made Aibou Eleven a good time to step into the series, as it introduces the world to Sugishita Ukyou's new partner in the Special Order Unit. Kai Tooru (nickname Kaito) is a newly promoted detective who gets picked by Sugishita as his new subordinate, after they manage to solve a hostage crisis in the embassy of Japan in Hong Kong together. Kai's estranged father happens to be the newly appointed Assistant Director-General of the National Police Agency, who tries his best at getting his son out of the force; he figures that his son won't last long in the Special Order Unit anyway. And indeed, Kaito at first cheated for being placed in the Special Order Unit, as he wanted to go to the Homicide Division. But he soon finds out what Sugishita does here, and why it's called the Special Order Unit. As Sugishita interprets his own unit: 'if there's a special order, the unit will do it', and more importantly, 'unless there's a special order, the unit is free to investigate whatever it wants'. And so we follow Sugishita and Kaito as they stick their noses in a variety of criminal cases and solve them.

And I have to say, I regret I haven't followed this series before, because it was surprisingly fun. At it's core, Aibou Eleven is a buddy-cop drama mixed with puzzle plots, with gentleman detective Sugishita as our masterdetective and Kaito as the viewer-proxy. But it is the variety of plots that made Aibou Eleven really worth watching and I feel tempted now to look for the previous ten seasons now.

As you can probably figure from the introduction above, Aibou in general is a police drama that focuses a lot on the functioning of the police. Like with series as Odoru Daisousasen, you'll learn a lot about the organizational structure of the Japanese police and the internal politics. A lot of the stories are tied to both local and national politics, and in general feels close to the shakai-ha (socially concious mysteries) promoted by Matsumoto Seichou, because they function as a critique on the workings (and resulting corruption) or large-scale organizations. The pilot episode of  Aibou Eleven for example, deals with international politics and diplomatics, as the National Police Agency isn't sure how to react to a hostage situation in the Embassy of Japan in Hong Kong, while other stories deal with the illegal act of amakudari ("descent from the heaven", high government officals quitting their job to work at a company in the sector they governed). Other contemporary social problems, like the sale of identities or the use social media are addressed in this season.

But it's the way these 'grand schemes' are used as a background for more traditional, puzzle plots that make a lot of Aibou Eleven's episodes great to watch. A lot of the problems described above might seem faraway from home, but the way these plots manage to make this social problems relevant, and yet not overshadow the importance of a puzzle plot is, at the best of times, fantastic. The first episode, the hostage sitation in the embassy for example, is in its core actually a 'normal' whodunnit murder mystery. I have to admit that sometimes it feels a bit forced, but overall this is a format I have learned to enjoy.


And not all stories are related to politics anyway. There are some 'normal' murder cases that Sugishita and Kaito get involved with. Because of Sugishita's rank, reputation and the free time the Special Order Unit has, the duo can basically investigate a lot freely, which leads to a variety of cases introduced in the series, from the above mentioned large plots to small-scale murder mysteries. As such, the series probably has something to offer to most mystery fans.

And Sugishita Ukyou himself is an interesting character. He's basically the opposite of Columbo, always dressed as a gentleman, knowledgeable about basically everything, head of his own (very, very small) unit. And whereas police detective like Columbo and Furuhata Ninzaburou work by haunting the suspect and catching them on little slips of the tongue, Sugishita works much more like a 'conventional' police detective. He is basically what happens when you put the archetype of a great detective in the police. It's a bit strange, as I am more used to the 'hard-working' type of police detective in this kind of mystery fiction, but it works and coupled with a partner, very fun to watch. He does share a 'Oh, one more thing please' as a catchphrase with Columbo though!

Oh, and the fact that Kaito's father as Assistant Director-General of the National Police Agency is actually behind a lot of the high-class plots and schemes is interesting for the drama (as it puts the Special Order Unit against Kaito's father), but the fact that Ishikawa Kouji is playing him is pretty funny, as he himself played great detective Kindaichi Kousuke in the Ichikawa Kon movies

Anyway, Aibou Eleven was a fun series and made me much more curious to the rest of the series, as well as the upcoming Aibou Twelve. And strangely enough, this year's Detective Conan movie, Private Eye in the Distant Sea. The scriptwriter of that movie is actually mostly known for his work on Aibou and it would be interesting to see how the Aibou flavor works in conjuction with Conan!

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒 Eleven』

Sunday, September 8, 2013

His Last Bow

ひとりどこにいても そこに見える優しい
あなたの名前呼んで あすを待つでしょう
『愛のバラード』(金子由香利)

Wherever I am, even if alone, I'll look at the gentle you,
I will call out your name and wait for you
"Ballad of Love" (Kaneko Yukari)

And of course, still a backlog on posts. The problem with writing reviews focusing on the use of tropes, is that you'll quickly start to repeat yourself, as you compare the book in discussion to other works with the same trope.  Which is neither fun for readers of the blog, nor for me. Right, now, I am stuck with a bunch of books with topics I already discussed relatively recently, so just waiting for a good moment to write them. So, meanwhile, some other reviews...

Slightly disillusioned by the tragedies he came across in his work, private detective Kindaichi Kousuke decides to go to the United States. However, he gets involved with a strange incident on Hospital Hill. The hill used to house the Hougen Hospital and the mansion of the Hougen family, but World War II had forced a move of both buildings. The ruins are still on Hospital Hill though, and the people of a local photo studio were thus very surprised when they were asked to take a wedding picture in the old Hougen mansion. The bride seemed drugged and thinking there was something fishy going on, the photo studio hires Kindaichi Kousuke (who had come to have his passport photo taken) to solve the mystery. When they visit the old Hougen mansion again to look for clues however, they discover not a happy wedded couple, but the decapitated head of the groom hanging from the ceiling! The mystery behind this strange murder, and its connection to the Hougen family, is what drives the movie Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie ("The House of Hanging on Hospital Hill").

I have already written extensively about Ichikawa Kon's Kindaichi Kousuke movie series in earlier reviews (of Inugamike no Ichizoku (1976), Akuma no Temaru Uta (1977) and Gokomontou (1977); I refer to those reviews in case you want to know a bit more about the history behind the famous movie series of the equally famous Japanese detective novel series. Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie (1979) is in two ways the ending to the Kindaichi Kousuke series: it was the last movie of golden trio Yokomizo Seishi (writer), Ichikawa Kon (director) and Ishizaka Kouji (actor of Kindaichi) (until the 2002 Inugamike no Ichizoku remake), but the original novel is also chronologically the last case Kindaichi Kousuke solved (Akuryoutou however is the last Kindaichi story written). The movie does differ from the original substantially though: the original novel has Kindaichi initially failing to solve the case, and it would take him twenty years to finally find out the truth; this case was the last, and longest case Kindaichi had ever taken. In the movie, the timeline has been smoothed out to for a 'normal' case, and I gather that Ichikawa rewrote quite some characters, including the identity of the murderer.

But as I haven't read the original novel yet, let's just look at this movie as is. The first thing that caught my eye was definitely the more urban, modern setting of this movie compared to the earlier movies. Islands, mountain villages? Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie is set in a normal town and with the movie opening with a jazz band performing for the US occupation troops, you immediately know this is a slightly different movie compared to the previous ones. The original novel apparently made this change more obvious, as it was about a story spanning twenty years, but you'll get the same feeling by watching the Ichikawa Kon movies in a row (even though they were shot really close to each other).

The story is classic Yokomizo material: bloody, grizzly murders, plots of revenge, overly complex family trees and horrible human tragedy. Yes, it's basically more of the same, but this is precisely what Yokomizo does best, and it works here too, but compared to Inugamike no Ichizoku and Akuma no Temari Uta, I have to admit that Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie is a little weaker. The raw elements are alike, but the finish is different. For me, this is most obvious in the fact the earlier two movies were more 'structured' because of the nursery rhyme trope employed there. Such a trope at least makes it feel the story is going somewhere (someone is trying to complete a certain pattern), whereas Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie, you're just confronted with a 'normal' murder, which might have been commited for a lot of reasons. As a movie-viewer, I just find a more obvious structure a bit more pleasant. Though I can't say I was bored with this movie: heck, you'll often hear me question the necessity of more than two hours for a movie, but I enjoyed this 140 minute movie from start to finish.

Not that this is a perfect movie. For example. like I said, Yokomizo likes to use overly complex family trees in his stories, and this is probably the most complex of them all. It is even addressed in the dialogue, with Kindaichi himself saying he doesn't get it, but despite that Ichikawa Kon didn't seem to have thought it necessary to make it a bit more clearer. It is quite important to the plot, so it seems strange to have Kindaichi address the topic, and then ignore it.
  
As movies, all the Ichikawa Kon movies still beautiful productions. Grand shots are followed by playful cut-aways, music is great and of course the acting. Ishikawa Kouji is still the best Kindaichi Kousuke around, and other veterans of the series like Katou Takeshi, who plays a different leading police inspector in every movie (thus meeting Kindaichi 'for the first time' every time) and Ootaki Hideji (who always plays a person with a connection to the past) always make this a series worth watching. But the biggest surprise is in the movie's prologue and epilogue. Writer Yokomizo Seishi had already made a small cameo in Inugamike no Ichizoku, but he actually plays an extended cameo in Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie as himself! Or rather, he 'plays' a writer of detective stories who is friends with Kindaichi Kousuke (loosely basing his stories on Kindaichi). It's a bit of a self-parody maybe, but the scene where Kindaichi is drinking tea with his creator is just fantastic. One should watch the movie if only just for these scenes.

Oh, and the role of Mokutarou, an apprentice at the photo studio, is quite interesting by the way. He quickly becomes Kindaichi's assistant and confidante, and his slouchy dress and manner almost makes it seem like he was set up to be a 'new' Kindaichi Kousuke, in a Batman-esque way. I am pretty sure they didn't make a spin-off with him, but the importance of his role to the story, is almost a mystery on its own.


All in all, Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie is definitely worth watching. Like all the Ichikawa Kon directed Kindaichi Kousuke movies, this movie is a great mystery with fantastic production values which will keep you hooked for the whole runtime. The story is 'standard' Yokomizo Seishi, but very captivating nonetheless, and while Inugamike no Ichizoku and Akuma no Temura Uta are definitely the best of the series, Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie shouldn't be missed.

Original Japanese title(s):『病院坂の首縊りの家』