Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Riddle For Puppets

ほら ti ta ta ta
ガラスの針 十二回の刻(とき)を打てば
聖なるの夜 七頭の影が
無力な人形 に手を伸ばす
『Marionette Fantasia』 (Garnet Crow)

Look ti ta ta ta
When the glass hands strike twelve
On the holy night, my shadow reaches its hand out
to the lifeless puppet
"Marionette Fantasia" (Garnet Crow)

Clowns. Puppets. I fear them. That's all.

After a great performance at a kindergarten by ventriloquist Yoshio and his little partner Mario, kindergarten teacher Mutsuki 's interest in the shy, but gifted young man is aroused. But as the two get closer, Mutsuki discovers Yoshio has a secret: the puppet Mario isn't just a tool with which Yoshio performs his art, but is a seperate personality within Yoshio. Getting a bit too deep into ventiloquism has given Yoshio both a gift and a curse: his ventriloquism is fantastic, but unlike Yoshio, Mario has a fast mouth and can't always be controlled. But Mario is also in possession of some very impressive deductive facilities, which come in handy as Mutsuki, Yoshio and Mario have a tendency to run into crimes in Abiko Takemaru's short story collection Ningyou wa Kotatsu de Suiri Suru ("The Puppet Deduces From The Kotatsu", 1990), first of a four part series.

Ningyou wa Kotatsu de Suiri Suru is the first story, and lends its name to the collection. After a show in a kindergarten, Mutsuki discovers the secret of Yoshio and Mario. The three work together to find out what the connection is between a series of mysterious events that have been happening at the kindergarten since after Yoshio's show: rabbits have died, a food bucket has been pushed over and other little, yet worrying events. And....the solution is pretty obvious, as it is very similar to that one famous short story of a very, very famous writer. The focus of this story lies not in the mystery of the kindergarten, but simply on the introduction of the main characters Mutsuki, Yoshio and Mario. And even more: the writer goes some length in fleshing out the kindergarten environment, with fellow teachers and the children popping up, but they don't actually reappear in later stories:  in the afterword writer Abiko Takemaru says he had indeed first planned to use the kindergarten as a recurring setting, but for some reason it just didn't happen.

Ningyou wa Tent de Suiri Suru ("The Puppet Deduces In The Tent") is easily the best story in the collection and a fun short locked room mystery too! Yoshio is booked for a big circus-esque outdoor show with magicians, card throwers and other performers and after a great show, Mutsuki, Yoshio and Mario go backstage to one of the resting rooms in the big top circus tent, where they talk with some of the performers. Then one of the performers is found murdered in his own resting room on the other side of the big top, and the only suspect is Yoshio's good friend and fellow ventriloquist Haruka, who was the only person who had entered and left that specific resting room with the victim. The entrance to the room had been under constant observation by people of the staff working nearby, so either Haruka did it, or the murderer managed to get into the observed room... unobserved. The solution Mario comes up with is simple, but good and really fits the atmosphere of the story collection: nothing too complex, but satisfying and quite memorable.

In Ningyou wa Gekijou de Suiri Suru ("The Puppet Deduces In The Theater"), Mutsuki, Yoshio and Mario happen to see the inspector they met in the previous story during a theater perfomance of Der Ring des Nibelungen. They are told about the recent murder of a CEO, who had left a semi-dying message: his diary showed that the victim had been dreaming of being assaulted since a long time ago, by someone or something he called "Siegfried". But the police have no idea whom the victim meant with Siegfried. Even after watching (sleeping through) Der Ring didn't help, so the inspector asks for Mutsuki and Yoshio for help (he doesn't know that Mario's the one who solved the previous case). A semi code cracking / dying message story about finding out the identity of the murderer based on the victim's diary  (similar to Arisugawa Alice's Yaneura no Sanposha) and it's... an okay story. Like many stories that are based on purely the interpretation of a dying message, the final solution can feel a bit arbitrary and this time, it also involves dream interpretations, but I think this was not a bad story at any rate.

And I wouldn't say that the final story, Ningyou wo Nakushita Fukuwajutsushi ("The Ventriloquist Who Lost His Puppet"), is bad per se, but definitely the weakest of the four in this collection. Yoshio is booked for a performance on TV, but the case which holds Mario disappears from the dressing room after Yoshio's show, and then Mario is found 'murdered' in the parking lot of the broadcasting studio. Who would go the trouble of 'killing' a puppet? And can Mutsuki and Yoshio solve the problem and avenge Mario's death? My main complaint about this story is that the main deduction that drives the story towards its conclusion is based on a very ridiculous prejudiced idea, which seemed only appropiate for a fake solution. Also, it's very similar to the first story actually. There's some nice bits about Yoshio having to deal with the death of his other personality, but as a mystery story, I don't really like this finale.

Overall, I think Ningyou wa Kotatsu de Suiri Suru is a fun short story collection. The atmosphere is light and pleasant, with just a bit of main character teasing that we've come to expect from Abiko Takemaru (see also the Hayami siblings series and especially Tooru in the Kamaitachi no Yoru series). A (seperate personality inside a) puppet as an armchair detective is a pretty original and the collection, while short, is quite varied. Ningyou wa Tent de Suiri Suru in particular is quite good as a locked room mystery.

But I can't be the only one who thinks that having a seperate personality represented by a ventriloquist' dummy is a bit creepy, right? It's supposed to be cute and all, I think, but I can't help but think this will all go wrong one day and Mario will go wild.

Anyway, Ningyou wa Kotatsu de Suiri Suru is a short, but fine collection with a slightly scary protagonist, but if you don't have a fear for dolls, you should be fine.

Original Japanese title(s): 我孫子武丸 『人形はこたつで推理する』: 「人形はこたつで推理する」 /  「人形はテントで推理する」 / 「人形は劇場で推理する」 / 「人形をなくした腹話術師」


  1. The set-up for this short story collection is pretty much the same as the one for the anime Puppet Master Sakon (1999, 26 episodes) which I thought was a pretty good detective show. The anime was supposed to have been based on a manga published in Shonen Jump in 1995, according to the Anime Encyclopedia. You didn't mention the date of the short story collection, so I don't know which came first.

    As far as puppets that get you, I think the most famous is the last segment of the famous English horror movie Dead of Night (1945), which was based on the short story The Horrible Dummy by Gerald Kersh. If puppets really bother you, I wouldn't recommend this movie for you.

    1. The volume dates from 1990 (added it to the post). I wasn't a big fan of Sakon, actually. I have read the manga and seen the anime, but I thought the mysteries were kinda meh. Excellent art by Obata though.

      And as for that movie, yeah, I'm not going to watch that. Nope.