Monday, December 29, 2014

The Scarlet Letter

何処か遠くの街に居るあの人へのHappy Birthday
「Happy Birthday」 (杏子)

I cry out loudly to the skies above this lively city
To that person somewhere in a faraway city Happy Birthday
"Happy Birthday" (Kyouko)
The previous post was actually meant as the last update this year, but the mailman decided differently. This time, the real last update of 2014, a Short Short post with a selection of great drawn and animated mystery from Japan. Also, I have to mention it again: why do they always release Kindaichi Shounen and Detective Conan on or around the same day?!

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 4 ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files R 4") continues the Fox Fire Float Murder Case which started in the previous volume and is a surprisingly well-made story. The news of the death of a childhood friend brings a group of ex-boy and girl scouts back together, now all grown up as high school students. One of them is Hajime, grandson of the famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke, who still has fond memories of a camp trip many years ago (in which the kids got lost for two days, and Hajime managed to save one of the girls who was bit by a poisonous snake). But death seldom rides alone, and during their stay in the little village, more of Hajime's friends are killed, with all murders being 'decorated' following local fox legends. It is obvious that one of his friends must be the murderer, but who and why?

When I say that The Fox Fire Float Murder Case is a good story, I mean that in the sense of its dramatic qualities. As a mystery story, I'd have to say that it's not a particularly strong story: the tricks the murderer performs are not difficult to guess and even the identity of the murderer is incredibly easy. And like always, the motive is Revenge Because of A Tragic Past. What did I like about the story then? Well, it's neat to see that Hajime is actually part of the Tragic Past. Usually, we see a murderer crying about something horrible (s)he had to suffer because of the victims and we're presented with some sort of long flashback that is supposed to get you emotionally (the mileage on the effectiveness of that may vary). This time however, flashbacks to camp are spread throughout the story, in the form of Hajime talking about his own past. It makes the actual narrative-aspects of the story much more enjoyable, as we have a murderer from Hajime's own personal circle (in the past). The ending in particular is fantastic. The personal angle been done before, for example in The Yukikage Village Murder Case, but like in that story, The Fox Fire Float Murder Case feels fresh because it approaches the series' formula from another angle. The mystery plot is a bit weak, but overall I think this was a solid story that continues the quality of the R series.

Detective Conan 85 is a volume I've been waiting for for a long time. It's already been half a year since the previous volume?! I remember a time when the wait between volumes was about three months. Anyway, this is the volume fans have been waiting for for years. Literally. The Scarlet Truth Revealed gives answers to questions first raised in volume 58, which was originally released in 2007! While after seven years, I think most of the faithful readers had already guessed most of the truth behind the infamous Raiha Pass Incident, which has been the main propulsion for the plot of Detective Conan the last couple of years (especially with the confirmation they put in Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper), but it was still a pleasure to read this story: once you realize how carefully Aoyama has built this story, the hints he hid throughout the years, it's just amazing.

Seriously, think about it: for seven years, Aoyama has been carefully leaving hints and clues, spread across a variety of 'minor' and unrelated stories, all as a build-up to this moment. Seven years! And the hints have been completely fair, but at the same time I doubt anyone had figured out Aoyama's master plan in details. I too had guessed most of the truth behind the Raiha Pass Incident, but I had overlooked quite some little details that showed how careful Aoyama planned this story, but also how fair he has been these seven years. It's too bad this is a difficult story to 'just' recommend: as a detective story, purely looking at its qualities as a mystery story, the whole Raiha Pass Incident story (starting in 2007) is a fantastic story. But because it is spread across different minor stories, it's also near impossible to ask someone to 'just' read it: you'd have to go through almost 30 volumes of Detective Conan to get the full effect! (But the pay-off is incredible).

The volume also contains The Trap of the Headless Shogi Player (coded message based on shogi terms and another Traffic Agent Yumi love story) and A Mystery Sunken in A Midsummer Pool (dead body suddenly appearing in a hotel pool), but they are just boring compared to The Scarlet Truth Revealed. Wait, no, The Trap of the Headless Shougi Player is boring even without the comparison.

To commemorate the twentieth birthday of Detective Conan, a TV special was broadcast on December 26. Titled The Disappearance of Edogawa Conan - The Worst Two Days in History, this special was not only 'just' an anniversary special, it was also heavily promoted as being based on a script by film director Uchida Kenji. The special starts with Conan witnessing a suspicious deal going on in the local public bath, but before he's able to do anything he... slips on the floor and hits his head. The two mysterious men, one the infamous hired killer Kondou, the other a tricksman called The Ad Lib Dragon, abduct Conan (claiming to bring him to the hospital), but in True Great Television tradition, they discover that Conan has lost his memory because he hit his head. The two men are apparently busy with some kind of big deal, and they are told by their boss to bring the now helpless Conan along, as a child will come handy for their plans. Meanwhile, Haibara and professor Agasa find out that Conan has been kidnapped by dangerous people and try to locate him.

I am divided about this TV special. It is definitely a good mystery story. I've never seen anything by Uchida Kenji, but I loved the mystery plot and especially how it played with the viewer's expectations. Neat scene cuts, fairly well pacing (the middle part is a bit boring, but there's a reason for that) and good stuff is done in the ninety minutes runtime. As a mystery movie, I can easily recommend this to any viewer. On the other hand, I am pretty sure this was not originally written for Detective Conan. This was just a story Uchida had and rewrote to add in Conan and the gang. Most of the story is actually about the legendary hitman Kondou, the current job and the other crooks involved in the business and you can just feel that Conan was just added to the original story. So I quite liked it as a standalone mystery story, but not really much as a Conan story, as the Conan link was just so obviously added in the plot at a much later stage.

But in the I-definitely-liked-this category: the first half has an almost unbelievably active Haibara. The first half could easily have been called Detective Ai. Actually, make me a Detective Ai special!

And that wraps this post and this year up!

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R』第4巻、青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第85巻、青山剛昌(原) 『江戸川コナン失踪事件 ~史上最悪の二日間』

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Turnabout Memories - Part 4

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember" 
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

Because there is a rule that blogs need lists at the end of the year, my annual lists of stuff as the final update this year! Read quite a lot this year. More than this blog can handle, actually! I think I've mentioned a couple of times that I've been working a bit ahead since early this year (around March), but would you believe that at a one review per week schedule (which is the usual pace here), I already have enough reviews lined up to last me into the second half of next year? I probably need to do something about that, maybe post twice a week (even if it doesn't really attract more viewers on the whole), or something else, but at this rate, I'll have two years worth of reviews standing by by the time I'll make my end-of-year-list next year! For this post, I'll only choose titles that have actually appeared on this blog already.

Anyway, onwards to the lists! As always, it's a mish-mash of categories I just feel like writing about.

Best Project Outside The Blog!
The Lure of the Green Door

Well, the best project outside the blog is obviously getting my translation of Norizuki Rintaro's The Lure of the Green Door published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. A rough version of it had been posted on this blog a long while ago, but now it's been officially published. More of these projects in the future hopefully. And a special mention of a short essay I wrote for Kyoto University Mystery Club's Whodunit Volume 5, which is a best-of collection of guess-the-criminal stories written by members between 2000~2014 (and some of the contributors have become professional writers in the meantime).

Best Detective Conan Film Seen in 2014!
Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper

Hey, I usually see only one Detective Conan movie this year, but this year (or technically, late last year), there was also the Lupin the Third VS Detective Conan crossover film. At the best moments, Lupin the Third VS Detective Conan is the more enjoyable film perhaps (read: whenever Conan and Jigen are pretending to be father and son), but overall Dimensional Sniper is the better film hands down.

Best Courtroom Mystery Read/Played in 2014!
Kawaramachi Revoir (Van Madoy) 

Always an interesting subgenre, and this year, I got through four of them. Berkeley's Trial and Error, Henry Cecil's Settled Out of Court, Van Madoy's Kawaramachi Revoir and the videogame Yuuzai X Muzai (Guilty X Innocent). Trial and Error and Settled out of Court were both great parodies on normal court mysteries and especially Settled out of Court was unexpectedly great, but I still choose Kawaramachi Revoir, because of the more complex deduction battles between prosecution and defense, the way it forms a finale to the Revoir series and the daring trick performed in the last trial.

Most Interesting Game. Played In 2014! But Probably Older!
Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni (Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Before The Light Fades) (PSX)

This year's detective games I played were a bit uneven. Games like Tantei Gakuen Q (GBA) and Web Mystery (Dreamcast) were just bad, while a game like Detective Conan: Phantom Rhapsody just didn't quite do what it should've done. For me, the final choice lay between Sherlock Holmes - Crimes and Punishments, which was a very enjoyable Holmes game with lots of potential with its deduction system and Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni, which was the accumulation of all the games in the series before it. In the end, I think I enjoyed Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni the best: Crimes and Punishments aimed very high, but some missteps led to a gap between the ideas behind the game and the final product. Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni on the other hand does everything it had set out to do in a fantastic way and makes a better impression as a whole package.

Oh, as for other non-detective games this year: Gakkou de Atta Kowai Hanashi S (Scary Stories That Happened at School S, PSX), Kurohyou 2 (Black Panther 2, PSP), E.X. Troopers (3DS) and Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii) were all great.

Most Interesting Never-Before Read Author! Of 2014
Kim Nae-song (with Main) 

Okay, within any given year, I actually seldom read new writers, so the list of candidates isn't very long anyway. Authors I had never read before until this year include Yamaguchi Masaya, Henry Cecil, Jan Apon (of whom I read no less than four novels this year!), Amagi Hajime and Hayasaka Yabusaka (and some others). But the one I had the most fun with, and whom I want to read more is the author considered the father of the Korean detective story, Kim Nae-song. Main was a great detective-adventure, which might have been not extremely strong in the puzzle department, but I just loved the energy that went into it. The fact that Kim wrote both in Japanese and Korean, is also interesting and I'm pretty sure we'll see more of him on the blog.

The Best 'Trick'! Of 2014!
Trick TV Special 3

I love the ending of Trick - Final Stage, the last film in the long-lived comedy-mystery series, but overall, from the comedy to the mystery plot, Trick TV Special 3 was the better Trick production and one of the best episodes in the series ever.

The Best Trick! Of 2014!
Anraku Isu Tantei ON AIR (The Armchair Detective ON AIR) (Arisugawa Alice, Ayatsuji Yukito)

I love what is usually called a 'trick' in Japanese, though the meaning is a bit wider than the usual English meaning. From the actual mechanical trick to a locked room murder to simply the trap set by the author on the reader, it's all a trick. When I try to write my thoughts of a book, I often tend to write about the originality of a trick and how it was used in the story. Anyway, I read stories with some great tricks this years. From an original locked room in Abiko Takemaru's Ningyou wa Tent de Suiri Suru to the excellent usage of the format of the story (in this case; a voiced reading) in Norizuki Rintarou's Satsujin Pantomine, from the famous The House in Goblin Wood by Carr to the also infamous impossible Diecide in Amagi Hajime's Takamagara no Hanzai. Or what about the inverse mystery about something as trivial as stolen cakes in Yonezawa Honobu's Charlotte Dake wa Boku no Mono, or the absolutely shocking trick that almost seems to come out of nowhere in Hayasaka Yabusaka's  Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken. But I chose a TV production this time because it made so good use of its visual format. The thing pulled off in Anraku Isu Tantei ON AIR is one of the reasons I do reviews about detective fiction in any medium, rather than just focusing on books.

The Most Difficult Book Read. Ever!
Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (The Black Death Mansion Murder Case) (Oguri Mushitarou)

Books you want to have read, but don't want to read? That's this. It might be hailed as one of the Three Occult Books of Japanese mystery fiction, it might be an example for a lot of modern Japanese detective novels, but oh, it's almost unreadable. The evil offspring of a detective novel and an occult encyclopedia. I read a comic version of the same book last month by the way and that was almost normal, but that in turn kinda went against the crazy atmosphere of this book.

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
And that's it for this year! But like I said in the introduction, I have way too many reviews already lined up for posting, so this blog will go on like always also in the new year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Full Score of Fear

Because the fire is right there in your voice
Listen to it, oh listen to it...
The vision of your own dreams
You might see it through
It's in your voice...
"In Your Voice" (Nadia Gifford), "Steambot Chronicles"

I don't have a e-reader, but because I play extensively on my Nintendo 3DS anyway, I figured I might as well try out the application Honto for Nintendo 3DS.And that's what I used to read today's book.

Yurin is a high school freshman, who miraculously passed the audition for the role of little sister of the heroine of the animated film GIN. She will debut as a voice actress among veteran and popular voice actors like Fujimiya Yuu, the tall and handsome voice actor behind the protagonist of the film, and Takase Haruna, who will play Yurin's big sister. By the time Yurin has gotten used to the idea she's really going to be a voice actress, it is already time for the post recording (like with a lot of Japanese animation, recording is done after (most of) the animation has been produced). As a complete amateur, with no experience whatsoever in the acting world, Yurin's nerves are going wild on the first day, but that's nothing compared to the shock she has when she discovers the sound director knocked out in a studio recording booth which is locked from the inside. The director is just unconcious, luckily, but the police has no idea who the assaillant could have left the locked recording booth. And the next day, a real murder happens in the control room of the recording booth. It is said that GIN is cursed and that other adaptations of the original material, like a live action series, were also troubled by strange events. Yurin however suspects that a human hand is behind these attacks and tries to find out who's behind it all in Yoshimura Reina's Seiyuu Tantei Yurin no Jikenbo - Afureko Sutajio no Yuurei ("The Case Files of Voice Actress Detective Yurin - The Phantom of the Post Recording Studio").

And yes, the cover might make it seem like a comic, especially as it is illustrated by the comic artist Miasa Rin (AKB0048: Episode 0, amongst others), but it really is a novel. It features some more illustrations inside.

I once wrote a post on unlikely amateur detectives, and I'd definitely say that a voice actress detective is an unlikely amateur detective. I was instantly sold on just the name of this book, because it seemed so utterly ridiculous that a voice actress (and high school freshman!) would be a detective. And it is! I have read / seen some detective stories with voice acting / recording as a theme: John Dickson Carr's 13 to the Gallows for example, but Ellery Queen too has solved crimes commited during the recording of radio dramas in both an actual radio drama as well as a TV episode. But a voice actor as a detective? It was at least an original idea.

Those not familiar with Japanese animation might not know that voice acting in animation/games/related genres is actually quite big in Japan: popular voice actors sometimes release music, do radio programs and their name alone can attract viewers (listeners?) to new series. The author of Seiyuu Tantei Yurin no Jikenbo - Afureko Sutajio no Yuurei, Yoshimura Reina, is actually a voice actress herself and her experiences are the best part of the novel. Yoshimura gives the reader a peek in the recording process of an animated film in an accessible way. From the practice sentences for voice training to how a regular post-recording session goes and even little things like the arrangement of seats in a recording booth, the glimpse in the world behind the voices is genuinely fun.

As a detective novel, it's a pile of missed chances though. For example, the inside look in the voice acting world is good, but it has no real connection to the crimes in the plot! Doing a strange combination like a voice actor and detective is good and all, but at least make the voice acting part relevant to the mystery plot, like having some aspect of voice acting act as a crucial hint. In terms of mystery, the detective could have been a cook on a cruise ship or almost anything at all and it would still work. Other strangely missed chances are the so-called curse: it's mentioned just one or two times and it never is presented as something really scary: they just say there is a curse. At least try to make the curse a bit more scary / lively for the reader, I cried. The mystery plot itself is rather simple, with the locked room mystery being a varation on a very well-known predecessor, but it is dressed originally enough: it's just a bit disappointing in execution / hinting / presentation. The last chapter (of four) is also a bit superfluous; everyone is gathered and the murderer is revealed, which would be interesting if not for the fact that Yurin has just explained most of the case at the end of the previous chapter...

Then again, Seiyuu Tantei Yurin no Jikenbo - Afureko Sutajio no Yuurei is obviously written for a younger public, so I can't be too harsh on it. The moment I noticed that Yurin had sorta fallen in love with voice actor Fujimiya only because he was so tall and handsome and so dreamy (there were no other scenes with meaningful interaction between them...), was when I kinda realized I wasn't exactly the intended public. With a plot about a 15, 16 year old girl who miraculously gets a chance to become an actress and work with a tall handsome guy and a beautiful actress and has to solve a crime in order to help said tall handsome guy, well, you can guess who the intended public is.

Seiyuu Tantei Yurin no Jikenbo - Afureko Sutajio no Yuurei has some interesting insights in the world of voice acting, but it's a fairly disappointing mystery novel. But it could be fun if you're young and dreaming of becoming a voice actress. Or if you just have some hours free and want to read a mystery novel that doesn't really need you to think.

Original Japanese title(s): 芳村れいな(著), 美麻りん(イラスト) 『声優探偵ゆりんの事件簿―アフレコスタジオの幽霊』

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Love Searchlight

 『名探偵コナン 異次元の狙撃手(スナイパー)』 

"Cause he's the only one able to snipe Ran's heart, right?
"Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper

Sadly enough, I wasn't in Japan in April to see the annual Detective Conan film in the theaters this year, so I had to wait for the home release. A friend did see the movie in the theaters then though (and sent me pictures of her standing in front of the theater), which only helped fuel the jealousy wish to see this movie. But now the wait is finally over!

Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper starts off with a literal bang, when one of the guests at the opening of the new Bell Tree Tower in Tokyo is shot by a sniper right in front of our favorite high school student turned child Conan and our favorite female high school student detective Sera Masumi. The two chase the sniper through downtown Asakusa, as do the police and an FBI team, but the sniper manages to escape. The identity of the sniper is revealed to be known to the FBI: an ex-Navy SEAL is taking revenge on people who ruined his life and is now after some of them who happen to be in Japan at the moment. But while Conan and the police use precious time trying to trace down the murderer, the sniper continues his revenge and with more succesful hits, the population of Tokyo naturally starts to panic under the constant snipings. Can Conan find and stop this long-range murderer?

I love this eigthteenth Conan film, even if it feels quite different from earlier Detective Conan films sometimes. Actually, that is probably what made this film work and stand out in this long series. Dimensional Sniper continues the direction started with last year's Private Eye in the Sea, but feels much more a conventional Conan film than that movie. I think one of the biggest points to address here is that Yamamoto Yasuichirou isn't the director anymore: Yamamoto was the main director for all the Conan movies between 2002 ~ 2012, and while there are some I really enjoy of that period (The Raven Chaser!), they tend to be very alike. A special setting like a plane, boat or general location like an island or snowfield, a rather rudimentary whodunnit plot, some neat action scenes and a finale involving a lot of explosions. While the Detective Conan films are still over-the-top action movies, I do think the change in directors these last two films make the series feel fresh again, even if we do get to see the same old tropes again.

While especially the older Conan films featured pretty cool whodunnit plots (The Fourteenth Target!), Dimensional Sniper's story puts the focus on the investigation. Because of the FBI's information, the police knows who they're hunting for and the plot is more about Conan and Sera finding out who the next victim will be and the meaning about the mysterious dice the sniper leaves at each crime scene. The plot is fairly dynamic though, with new discoveries about the snipings made along the way and I wasn't bored even in the little. There's little to this movie who want to guess whodunit, but I think the film did a great job at presenting a thrilling investigation. There is a slight whodunnit element in the second half of the movie, but it is extremely barebones.

 I loved how this movie brought the Conan film franchise back to Tokyo though: the last few years, each movie has been set at some special setting, but I actually loved the earlier movies like The Time-bombed Skyscraper, The Fourteenth Target and Captured in Her Eyes because they were 'normal' Conan stories set in an urban area. Dimensional Sniper does a great job at depicting downtown Asakusa in Tokyo and actually makes the location relevant to the plot (also borrowing ever so lightly from Arisugawa Alice's Kotou Puzzle), which I love. There's also a little interesing symmetry going on in the beginning and ending of the movie.

Also interesting is the light social commentary going in the movie. It's not the first time it has happened in Conan (Phantom of Baker Street and Private Eye in the Sea feature it rather heavily), but it was funny to see how mass and social media were depicted in the movie. It's not heavy or really interfering, but it's something that never showed up in the Yamamoto directed Conan films between 2002~2012, so I still need to get used to it.

Is it all good? Well, I wasn't a very big fan of the Japan - foreigners juxtaposition in both this movie and the previous movie (this one had ex-US officers killing each other off in Japan, while the previous film was about the national defense). But those points are not very heavily pushed on the viewer. I do think that Dimensional Sniper is hard to understand if you're not familiar with Detective Conan lore, especially of the last few years. A lot of recurring parties are involved in this story and one vital plot point that had not even been properly addressed in the comic book series when this movie was first released, was actually revealed in this movie. So this film is connected to the main storyline of the comic and especially the last act can be a bit confusing if you don't know how one particular character is (who is hardly introduced in the movie itself).

Oh, and while with Yamamoto gone, the outrageous skateboard scenes in the movies have became slightly less outrageous, Dimensional Sniper 'makes up' for that by making Conan's shoes even more powerful than ever. You don't have to worry: if anything, the action scenes have become even more ridiculous than ever (though to be honest, the last act borrows a lot from previous Conan films).

While Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper does a few things different from 'regular' Conan films, it does feel like a true Conan film and one of the best in recent years too. The lack of a normal whodunit plot is a bit disappointing, but I quite enjoyed the film as as an investigation story with a great finale. And it gets bonus points for actually addressing main story plot points, even if it might be a bit confusing who only watch the Conan movies and thus don't know who some of the characters are. But I am glad the Conan films have moved on from the stale formula set in the last ten years, and I'm curious as to how next year's Sunflowers of Inferno will turn out.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン 異次元に狙撃手(スナイパー)』

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Love Love Guilty

"Guilty or innocent?"
- "Innocent"
"Feed them to the Sharkticons"
"Transformers: The Movie"

Today, a game I wanted to play ever since I first heard about it in 2009, I bought in 2012, but only just now finished. And then the review had to wait for three months to be posted.

The lay judge system was implemented in Japan on May 21, 2009. On the same day, the Nintendo DS game Yuuzai X Muzai ("Guilty X Innocent") was released. The subtitle says 'lay judge detective game' and that's precisely what it is. The player takes the role of a lay judge in four different cases, all connected with a death, which may or may not be a murder. It's up to the player to decide whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. Was the death of the defendant's mother-in-law in a fire a tragic accident, or a planned murder? Did the recently appointed professor commit suicide, or was he killed in cold blood? The only way of making a good decision is to listen carefully to the prosecution, defense and their witnesses, examine all the evidence and discuss everything the fellow judges. Can you decide whether the defendant is guilty or innocent?

The implementation of the lay judge system in Japan (an earlier form had been abolished after the second World War) also brought a series of videogames with the lay judge system as a theme. Two years before the actual implementation, Gyakuten Saiban 4 / Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney was released, which also featured the lay judge system in its story. But whereas the Gyakuten / Ace Attorney series is a wacky mystery series that just happens to be set in a courtroom, Yuuzai X Muzai is a much more serious courtroom game. So no hilarious sheningans or pop-culture references like in the Gyakuten / Ace Attorney series or the Danganronpa series: trials are serious business.

Because you play as a lay judge, you also have a very different role than in most courtroom drama videogames: whereas you usually play some kind of detective in those games, or at least someone desperate to either find the truth or defend the client as an attorney, your mission in Yuuzai X Muzai is different. You need to find out whether the defendant is guilty to the charges of the prosecution, or not. You're not looking for the true killer, or trying to solve an alibi trick. You just need to consider whether the claims of the prosecutor are supported by the evidence and testimonies provided by proscution and defense.

Gameplay in Yuuzai X Muzai consists of two parts. The first is the trial, where you listen to the opening statements of both prosecution and defense and the testimonies of the witnesses. As a lay judge, you're allowed to ask the witnesses questions too, and by selecting the right questions, you can occassionally obtain vital information for the case (other lay judges also ask questions in these sections, which can also result in more data). The biggest problem of Yuuzai X Muzai is that this first part is by far the longest part, and also the most boring part. Aside from some questions at the end, you're basically forced to just read through every statement and testimony in the trial, which means you're doing nothing more than just pressing the A button for thirty, forty minutes. But the information presented during the trial is of course very important, like a real trial, so you can't just skip it all. 

Things get a lot more interesting in the second part of the game, where you have discussions with your fellow (lay) judges about the guilty / innocent problem. I think the easiest way to describe this part is to say it's 12 Angry Men. Each case is broken down into several factors (i.e. motive, opportunity, certain pieces of evidence) and you hold short discussions on each of these factors. By agreeing or disagreeing with your fellow judges, or asking questions at the right time, you'll examine the evidence and slowly arrive at a conclusion for each factor: does this specific factor point at the defendant's guilt, innocence or is it impossible to choose at this moment? Sometimes, you'll discover some hidden truth with important implications for the case not mentioned during the trial through these discussions, making these sections feel the most like a 'conventional' detective game. After going through all the factors, you can call for a vote. And because this is a pretty realistic game, you also have to decide the sentence if you arrive at a guilty verdict.

One gripe I had with the game is that Yuuzai X Muzai gives you very little feedback as a game. There is usually some kind of truth hidden behind each case, which you can uncover through the discussions, but you never know whether you're going in the right direction. The game never tells you whether you are making the right choices throughout the game, and you might very well think you're doing okay, arrive at a verdict and only be told at the very end, after the verdict has been handed out, that you unraveled just a mere 35% of the complete truth. Sure, no feedback might be more serious, as real (lay) judges aren't told either whether they managed to unravel all the mysteries in a case, but as a game, I think the lack of feedback is not very motivating. One other, minor thing I didn't really like was the slightly educational, promotional tone the game had. It wasn't a non-stop praise song for the lay judge system, but they do feed the player an idealized image of The Common Man Helping Justice at times, which can be a bit tiring.

On the whole I did like Yuuzai X Muzai, but it's not a game for everyone. This is a fairly realistic simulation game and there is no flashiness, no awesome music, no sense of speed throughout the whole experience. It's an incredibly dry game and most of the time you're just looking at other people interacting with each other as they present evidence and testimony. The discussions are much better though, despite the lack of feedback, and even though you never uncover some kind of complex murder plan with locked rooms and alibi tricks, the little mysteries you do unravel in Yuuzai X Muzai are quite satisfying in their mundaneness. The build-up to these revelations is good and there is just enough of a sense of surprise to them to entertain the player, and yet they don't feel out of place in the realistic world of Yuuzai X Muzai.

Yuuzai X Muzai is an interesting and quite educational simulation of the lay judge system. It is a very slow game though and while it definitely has its moments as a detective story, one should be willing to go through a lot of dry text to arrive at the more stimulating parts of the game. I like the somewhat experimental side of the project though and suggest those with an interest in law (serious law. Not Ace Attorney law) to take a look at the game.

Original Japanese title(s): 『有罪x無罪』

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

His Alias Is

"One shall stand, one shall fall"
"Transformers: The Movie"

And that's another series wrapped up! I just realized that I've read very few mystery series completely, but that's also because I read many contemporary writers. Who knows when those series will stop?

A Aiichirou series
A Aiichirou no Roubai ("The Discombobulation of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Annoyance)
A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou" AKA A Is For Accident)
A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Abandon")

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the last volume in Awasaka Tsumao's wonderful three volume A Aiichirou series. And today, I review the second volume of the series because who cares about chronological order? A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou") collects eight short stories starring A Aiichirou, a handsome, but somewhat clumsy photographer who specializes in wildlife photographs. A often accompanies academic expeditions as the resident photographer, but he has a knack for getting into trouble, or just noticing little things that lead into bigger problems. But beneath his stuttering and cowardly demeanor, hides a frightfully keen mind that can solve the most baffling of mysteries.

As I've remarked in the reviews of the other volumes, the A Aichirou series is heavily inspired by the Father Brown series and the 24 stories can roughly be divided in two categories: the impossible crime stories, and what I like to call the what the hell sories. The first speaks for itself, but what I mean with the second term is a story where it's not immediately clear there is a mystery,  or even in the case it's clear there is some kind of mystery, it's very unclear what it means. In the case of the A Aiichirou stories, these mysteries are usually solved by an uncanny intuition.

The opening story, Wara no Neko ("The Straw Cat"), features a somewhat clearly defined mystery, though the significance and the implications of that mystery sure stay vague until Aiichirou explains all. At an exhibition of the late Kayuya Toukyo, a painter in the Realist school, A Aiichirou discovers that many of his pictures contain strange 'mistakes'. A girl with six fingers, a door in the background that can't possible be used. The story unfolds as a missing link story and the truth hidden behind these mistakes is quite surprising, a bit too surprising maybe. While I admit the story does feature some hints that point to the solution, so much of it depends on 'interpretation' and 'intuition', I find it hard to say it's completely fair. The same holds for Nejirareta Boushi ("The Crooked Hat"), where Aiichirou and an associate try to locate the owner of a top hat: tracing the hat's shop and the store written on a receipt hidden inside the hat results in strange, conflicting stories and once again the missing link between these events is what leads to the truth. Which is so farfetched and impossible to deduce, that this was definitely the weakest story of the volume. Followed by Arasou Yon Kyotou ("The Competing Big Four"), in which the granddaughter of a recently retired politician is suspicious of her grandfather's recent activities. He has been spending a lot of time with some of his old friends, and she found newspaper cuttings, coins and other strange objects in the room they usually stay. The granddaughter wants to know what they are doing there and while the story features some great red herrings and a fairly amusing solution, the jump between the missing link and the solution seems a bit too big and I'd prefer some more hints to exclude other solutions a bit more convincingly.

A personal favorite was Suzuko no Yosooi ("Dressing like Suzuko"). Kamo Suzuko, affectionately called Rinko, was a slightly under-the-radar idol singer, whose popularity soared after her tragic demise in an airplane crash. One year later, her agency holds a Rinko look-a-like contest, with the winner earning the role of Rinko in a film. Aiichirou happens to be in the theater where the contest is held, but he discovers that between all the auditions, something is going on. This is a great whatthehell story, as there really is no visible mystery at all, until A Aiichirou suddenly pulls your attention to the many, but very small points that bothered him. As you go "Now you mention that...", you suddenly realize that there really was something hidden in the story and the solution is quite memorable, especially the circumstances that led to it all.

Igai na Igai ("The Unexpected Corpse") is a relatively straightforward mystery in comparison to the previous stories: a murdered corpse is found on a mountain where Aiichirou and a researcher have been taking photographs of rare fish. The strange thing about the body: not only was it set on fire, it was also boiled. The story links to a local nursery rhyme, giving the whole story a Yokomizo Seishi-vibe. A story that does pretty much everything good. The hinting in particular is fantastic and it's amazing how much is crammed in the limited page count.

And like all A Aiichirou volumes, A Aiichirou no Tentou also features some neat impossible crime stories. Sugake no Soushitsu ("The Disappearance of the House of Suga") features the classic trope of disappearing buildings. Because of a landslide, A Aiichirou and two fellow travelers decide to walk the way to the next town instead of waiting for the rails to be cleared of debris. The trio get lost in the mountains though, but manage to find shelter in the house of the last of the Sugas, of whom legends say their family house has disappeared multiple times in the past. Before the trio go to bed, they see there is a house in the distance from their window, but when they wake up the next day, they discover it has disappeared completely! I had never seen this solution to the problem of the disappearing building before and I quite like it as it actually makes absolutely sense and seems quite plausible. Saburuchou Rojou ("On the Roads of Saburouchou") too is great: a taxi driver wants to pick up his last ride when his prospective client cries out for a good reason: there's a dead body in the backseat! And as if that wasn't strange enough, the taxi driver swears that the body is that of the customer he had just dropped off somewhere else! A solidly written story and the trick reveals the magician within Awasaka Tsumao: he was actually an amateur magician and even wrote another series about a magician-detective. The final story, Byounin ni Hamono ("A Sharp Instrument for the Ill"), also deserves special mention. A patient on the garden-roof of a hospital accidently walks into another patient and falls down. But by the time A Aiichirou, the nurse and other patients have run to the poor man, he has been stabbed in his stomach. Yet everyone swears the victim and his tumbling partner weren't holding knives, nor that any knives were lying on the ground. A very satisfying impossible crime story, also because of the hints Awasaka has spread across the text.

In fact, I noticed I had not once written more extensively about the type of hints Awasaka Tsumao used in previous reviews, so to talk a little about it now: The A Aiichirou stories seldom feature material evidence or hints, but instead feature thematic hints. Awasaka often mirrors certain aspects of the crime / mystery in other segments of the story, that function as hints to the final solution. He usually manages to distort the mirror image enough so it's not immediately clear it's actually the same as the circumstances of the mystery, but it does suit the intuitive mode of detection many of his stories have: if you happen to 'feel' correctly that mirror image A is in fact the same as the main mystery, it's usually fairly simple to deduce the correct solution. It's similar to Miss Marple's and Father Brown's comparisons, and they work brilliantly for these stories. It also helps that the A Aiichirou stories are written in a fairly comical way. Like Higashigawa Tokuya, Awasaka Tsumao hides these mirror images and hints within comical situations that don't appear to be related to the mystery at first sight, only to turn out to be of crucial importance.

A Aiichirou no Tentou is, like all in the series, a great mystery short story collection.. If I had to rank the three collections, I would say that the first is the best, then A Aiichirou no Tentou and then the last, but it is not like one volume is much better or worse than another. I'd say that especially those who like the Father Brown series should take a look at the A Aiichirou series. There is a spin-off volume featuring A Aiichirou's forefather by the way, so I might read that book too one day.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『亜愛一郎の転倒』: 「藁の猫」 / 「砂蛾家の消失」 / 「珠洲子の装い」 / 「意外な遺骸」 / 「ねじられた帽子」 / 「争う四巨頭」 / 「三郎町路上」 / 「病人に刃物」

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blue, Over The Blue

I have a blue house with a blue window.
Blue is the colour of all that I wear
"Blue (Da Ba De)" (Eifel 65)

Because of a ridiculous backlog of reviews, this post won't be published until December, even though I'm writing this in mid-July. A message to my past self: don't worry, the weather will eventually become cooler! And now, back to the main topic of today.

Hoshikage Ryuuzou series
Akai Misshitsu ("The Red Locked Room")
Aoi Misshitsu ("The Blue Locked Room")

The first time I read Ayukawa Tetsuya was two years ago, with Akai Misshitsu ("The Red Locked Room"). I thought it to be a great short story collection overall, with some good impossible crime stories (with Doukeshi no Ori the absolute masterpiece). But because Ayukawa Tetsuya is better known for his detailed, sober and down-to-earth alibi deconstruction stories where you need to take notes and calculate everything, Akai Misshitsu was perhaps not representative of Ayukawa's complete oeuvre. I later reviewed Kuroi Trunk ("The Black Trunk"), which I loved, despite the slightly shocking discovery that the thing about taking notes and calculating alibis wasn't just a joke. But now, I return to Ayukawa's more showy side. Aoi Misshitsu - Meitantei Hoshikage Ryuuzou Zenshuu 2 ("The Blue Locked Room - Great Detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou Complete Collection 2") collects the last set of short stories featuring Hoshikage Ryuuzou, the import/export tradesman / amateur gentleman detective. Most of them were published in the period between 1958 until 1961, except for the last one which dates from 1974.

This volume collects two other color-themed mysteries, Shiroi Misshitsu ("The White Locked Room") and Aoi Misshitsu ("The Blue Locked Room"). The first derives it's title from the ever-popular theme of footprints in the snow, in this case, a professor has been murdered in his home, and the only footprints left in the snow on the path to the victim's house, were of the two persons who discovered the body. A simple trick to suit the low page count, but nothing special here. Aoi Misshitsu lends its title to the collection, but there is not much blueness in the story: the not-very popular stage director of an acting troupe is killed inside a his bedroom with a blue lamp: the door was locked and while the window was open, no tracks were left beneath the window. The impossible situation is alright, but the basic idea behind the locked room murder is very similar to Shiroi Misshitsu.
A set of three similar stories form the core of this collection, in my opinion, consisting of Barasou Satsujin Jiken ("The Villa Rose Murder Case"), Akuma wa Koko ni ("The Devil is Here") and Suna to Kurage to ("Sand and Jellyfish"). All three of them have the writer-character Ayukawa Tetsuya visiting some his holiday villa, with murder happening there and all three stories also take the form of a guess-the-criminal script complete with Challenge to the Reader. It is kinda difficult to write more detailed about these stories, because like the traditional guess-the-criminal script, these stories take a very minimalist form and focus very strongly on just presenting a (completely fair, well hinted) puzzle plot to the reader. Which is also the problem of these stories: they are very similar in both set-up and execution and the fact that these stories are ordered after each other in this collection isn't really helping with the differentation process. They are also very classically written: I guess that the first members of the Kyoto University Mystery Club took inspiration from Ayukawa Tetsuya's stories, but a lot of the elements seen in these three stories are still often used tropes in the scripts members write nowadays and feel a bit outdated. But of course, you can hardly fault Ayukawa for having people imitate him. One special mention for Barasou Satsujin Jiken though, which features the most daring Challenge to the Reader I've ever encountered.
Guess-the-criminal scripts often resemble early Ellery Queen stories, because they often focus on identifying characteristics of the murderer and comparing them to each suspect. Akanesou Jiken ("The Dark Red Mansion Case") and Akuma no Hai ("The Devil Ash") invoke a bit of Queen in another way. Recognizing Hoshikage Ryuuzou's gift for detection, a group of people occasionally comes together to dine and for a  Puzzle Club-esque practice, or one might want to call it a Tuesday Night Club practice. The guest of the day is to tell about a mysterious problem they encountered and after they have finished, Hoshikage Ryuuzou is given fifteen minutes to solve it. Which he does, of course. Akanesou Jiken is actually a very simple and bland mystery plot, about a blackmailing journalist who thought it was smart to stay at the same inn as his victims (spoiler: he dies), but I actually quite enjoyed reading the story. Just to show that a mystery plot is not necessarily the single element makes or breaks a fun detective story (but, it often is). Like the stories above, the deduction style kinda resembles Queen, but I have to say that this story is not really as fair, or at least does not feature as obvious/clear-cut/unrefutable deductions as you'd like such a story. Akuma no Hai is about the death of a professor in a locked room. His dead face was covered by ash, simulating the incidents of his father and grandfather's busts being covered by ash. Just the right amount of complexity for the short page count and definitely one of the best constructed stories of the whole collection.

Shu no Zeppitsu ("His Last Writings in Red") is a novellette which was later rewritten to full-fledged novel with the same title (similar to Jubaku Saigen in Akai Misshitsu, which was also rewritten to a novel). Hoping to receive his ordered manuscript, an editor visits the house of a famous author, which also serves as a gathering place for more writers/illustrators/people in the business. The author is murdered in his study and more murders follow. The story starts out simple enough, but more and more elements make their way into the plot until it you realize the story is a bit too ambitious for its format. No wonder Ayukawa made it into a full novel. It's a fairly okay story, but the main trick is rather obvious to guess, I think and the pacing of the presentation of all kinds of story elements is a bit unbalanced.

Overall, I thought that Aoi Misshitsu was a slightly less impressive sequel to Akai Misshitsu. The impossible crime stories in this book miss the Oomph! factor Doukeshi no Ori had in the first volume. Aoi Misshitsu on the other hand features some traditional guess-the-criminal scripts which are fun, but seen from the modern point of view offer little surprising, because a lot of the probably surprising elements at the time of original publication, have nowadays been become the most basic elements of any guess-the-criminal script. The fact Aoi Misshitsu features a bunch of stories which seem similar isn't helping either. If you'd had to choose, I'd say go for Akai Misshitsu, but Aoi Misshitsu does feature a fairly different selection of stories from the first and is worth a read too.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『青い密室』: 「白い密室」 / 「薔薇荘殺人事件」 / 「悪魔はここに」 / 「青い密室」 / 「砂とくらげと」 / 「茜荘事件」 / 「悪魔の灰」 / 「朱の絶筆」

Monday, December 1, 2014

Comic Book Murder

Weet jij het ook?
"Inspecteur Netjes"

Do you know too?
"Inspector Netjes" 

I read a fair amount of mystery manga, but this might be the first time I review a non-Japanese mystery comic here. I'll still use the manga tag though for (my) convenience's sake.

Inspecteur Netjes ("Inspector Netjes") was a Dutch comic by cartoonist Hanco Kolk that ran in various magazines, but is mostly known for its original run (1989-1999) in the comic magazine Sjosji, named after the comic book characters Sjors & Sjimmie. Inspector Netjes, who borrowed his fashion sense from Maigret, is a hardworking police detective who together with his subordinate Gremmel somehow manages to arrive at the crime scene almost immediately every other week. Every adventure showed the reader the crime scene and a short interview with each suspects, after which the comic would end with a Challenge to the Reader: you could find the solution (always three panels!) printed upside down in a different section of the magazine. There have been only two collected volumes of the inspector, the first being Inspecteur Netjes: Voor Al Uw Zaken ("Inspector Netjes: For All Of Your Cases", 1998), which collects 52 stories from the early years.

Inspecteur Netjes is a comic I've always loved, but with few and limited collected volumes released, the Inspector is probably not as well known in the Dutch comic scene nowadays as let's say, ten, fifteen years ago. I myself haven't come across any of the comics for at least ten years now. As a mystery comic, Inspecteur Netjes is the ultimate guess-the-criminal format story. Every episode is incredibly streamlined (each story is just one page long) and almost all comics follow the following set-up:

1) The first panel depicts the crime scene. The comic starts with "Not long after XXXXX, Inspector Netjes arrived on the scene".
2) The Inspector interviews the suspects. Almost always three suspects, who each get one panel.
3) The one-to-final panel ends with the Inspector declaring he know knows who the culprit is.
4) The final panel ends with everybody, including the Inspector, facing the reader, yelling "Do you know too?".
5) The solution consists of three panels.

Inspecteur Netjes is the detective story condensed to its leanest puzzle form and it's a form I love: you hear me often write about the guess-the-criminal type detective stories and Inspecteur Netjes is one that pulls it off perfectly in highly stylized form. Other mystery comics like Conan and Kindaichi Shounen of course feature much richer environments, characters and setting, but for those who just want to enjoy the pure puzzle element of a guess-the-criminal script, Inspecteur Netjes is much more accessible.

Each story is just one page long, so the mystery plots are usually very simple. Like Ellery Queen's Puzzle Club or Encyclopedia Brown stories, the solution to each mystery usually depends on one single contradiction or clue. What's interesting is that that clues in Inspecteur Netjes are usually very visual; the stories almost always make good use of the visual medium. I also love the simplistic and funny artstyle of the comics, but don't get fooled: there's usually some clue hidden in the background.

I don't plan to discuss all fifty-two stories of the volume, but to pick out some of the gems: The Murdered Gorilla (De Vermoorde Gorilla) is a fantastic story about, well, a murdered gorilla in a zoo. The clueing is good, it's funny and the comic makes great use of its medium. The Disappearing Piece of Art (Het Verdwijnende Kunstwerk) too is a story that only works because this is a comic and is one to remember. The Missing Missing Person (De Vermiste Vermiste) is a lot more 'normal' as a detective comic than the previous two, but again a great example of misdirection based on its medium.

Is it all good? Well, no. While the dialogues and art are always good, some stories are really nothing more than just 'spot-the-little-clue-hidden-in-the-background'. For each of the good stories mentioned above, you have like three or four rather uninspired ones. I think Inspecteur Netjes works better in this collected volume compared to when it was just one comic a week though. Even though not every comic is as good as another, at least the selection does feature some great ones; if you had to read Inspecteur Netjes at a rate of one comic in one or two weeks, you might get bored because some are just so predictable.

Inspecteur Netjes is on the whole a great series though, as it combines comedy and mystery in a very enjoyable manner. Sure, some stories are not as good as others, but as a collected volume, I think Inspecteur Netjes: Voor Al Uw Zaken is a fun Dutch mystery comic.