Monday, January 20, 2014

Trick & Magic

「月光」 (鬼束ちひろ)

Tell me about your reasons
Until I'm able to sleep
"Moonlight" (Onitsuka Chihiro)

To put this review in context immediately, I absolutely worship the TV drama Trick. It is the most awesome series to have graced Japanese TV screens, as well as the silver screen and as such, this review might be slanted a bit towards the very positive.

Trick started as a late-night mystery series in 2000, about a(n incompetent) physics professor Ueda Jirou and an unsuccesful magician Yamada Naoko teaming up debunking supernatural phenomena and solving murders. It drew heavily from the Kindaichi Kousuke series, with many episodes set in remote mountain villages with closed communities, with a bit of Higashino Keigo (scientific mysteries), a bit of Awasaka Tsumao (magic tricks) and John Dickson Carr (the supernatural). But, most importantly, it was conceived as a cartoonish comedy-mystery.

Trick soon grew as a series, as well as a phenomenom, and it soon become a series that certainly took up the appearance of a dark, horror mystery, but was essentially a playground for everyone involved in its production. Actors are encouraged to overact, to overplay their role as characters in a mystery series. You're not the focus of the scene and just standing in the background? Don't worry, you're allowed to do whatever you want there. Heck, even the camerawork is in on it, with enigmatic, yet hypnotic movements during scenes that would normally be taken motionless, and shots purposedly taken off center. Every single scene of every episode, special and film is full with little gags and stuff, but miraculously, it never feels (too) chaotic.

But Trick isn't just a comedy. Because despite all the chaos, despite all the things done for laughs, it's actually a good mystery show! There's always an interesting plot, it's always structured properly and there are the essential hints for the viewer to solve the mystery. One could easily take the same plot and make a super-serious, dark mystery out of it. But, that wouldn't be Trick. Trick is a parody of mystery, of itself and other TV dramas, a playground for the production team, but also a great mystery drama. It is very cartoonish though, so those who prefer serious detective fiction, stay away from Trick, but I myself consider it a masterpiece.

And this year marks the end of Trick. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to be in Japan when they celebrated the series' 10th anniversary with a new movie and other productions, but no such luck this time. The series is to end with the fourth movie, which is running now, but last week a TV special was broadcast set just before the movie, marking Trick's last outing on the TV screen. The head of the Mizugami clan has died, and his three daughters (and their family) all expect a gigantic inheritance. Unbeknownst to them, the Mizugami fortune has shrunk dramatically of late unfortunately and the family is left with very little.

However, the Mizugami inheritance doesn't exist out of just direct financial means. A little box is also left to the family, which is supposed to hold a hint pointing to the whereabouts of a buried treasure. The box is cursed though, so the family decides to ask the famous physics professor Ueda Jirou (and his assistant Yamada Naoko) to help them, knowing that he is an authority on debunking the supernatural (and not knowing that he's actually a fairly incompetent detective and quite scared of the supernatural). But the presence of Ueda isn't enough to prevent a series of murders among the Mizugami clan...

Trick has always borrowed a lot from Yokomizo Seishi's Kindaichi Kousuke series (like in the second season pilot), but this special was the most blatant example, probably, as it parodies his masterpiece Inugamike no Ichizoku. The fight for the inheritance, the three daughters, a masked grandson, murders... heck, there are even (multiple pairs of) legs sticking out of a lake ('ll have to read the book or watch the movies to get that). And just to make it completely clear, the whole story is set in the village of Okomizo.

And I almost died of laughter as I was watching this.

As a mystery story, this special was actually quite good. Sure, the rough outline is based on Inugamike no Ichizoku (and it has some good, original takes on the tropes from the book too!), but the treasure hunt plot is completely original (and also makes the story even more Trick-like) and actually quite good; the hints are laid done very well. There's also a simple locked room murder which on its own might not be very impressive, but as is often with Trick, it's the sum of the parts, the synergy between the seperate parts that really brings out the magic of its plot. Trick stories often consists of multiple murders / seemingly supernatural crimes, usually with fairly simple magic tricks behind them, but it is the way they are sewn together, i.e. how the story is written, that really matters here. And it usually works really well in Trick.

The third TV special is essentially not very different from any other Trick production though. But is that  a bad thing? It's the first Trick production in four years, and we all expect a certain atmosphere from the series and this special delivers precisely that. Like I said, Trick is a playground, and it doesn't really matter if the rough outlines might seem familiar, because it is the way the playground is used that is important. And it never bores me.

In a way, Trick, as a comedy mystery, is something director Tsutsumi Yukihiko had been working towards for a long time. Some characteristics of Trick can be found in his TV drama adaptation of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo (musical cues, enigmatic dynamic camera work, light-hearted tone followed by horror/drama) and Keizoku added in rapid-fire dialogues and non-sequitor humor, but it really came together in Trick and you can just see everyone having a great time here. I have been planning to write something on Tsutsumi's detective drama series here for years now, but maybe I'll actually get around to it this year...

Oh, and this was the first time I actually saw the actress Asakura Aki. I know her voice quite well as Kirigamine Ryou from the Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni radio drama, so I was quite surprised when I heard a familar voice in the special (and yes, I had trouble getting the mental image of Kirigamine Ryou out of my head).

All in all, a great special, and I look forward to the last movie!

Original Japanese title(s): 『トリック 新作スペシャル3』

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

"Holmes!" I cried. "Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?"  
"The Adventure of the Empty House"

A bit later than I had planned at first, but I finally finished this review! But with the new Trick TV special and all, I'm still not sure whether I'll be able to review a novel this month...

When Sherlock first aired in 2010, I was really pleasantly surprised. I had only heard about the series just before the show started, but I was absolutely overwhelmed by what a great series it was. The show oozed atmosphere and while it might not have been a very conventional Sherlock Holmes adaptation, or maybe because it was not a very conventional Sherlock Holmes adaptation, managed to make a lasting impresssion on me. The second season was as least as impressive, and I had eagerly been awaiting the third season. And I wasn't the only one. Many, many people had been waiting these two years to see the continuation of Sherlock and there was much rejoicing when it finally aired this year. In fact, the whole world was eager to see more of the series it seems. I was quite surprised when a friend told me that the third season would air in South Korea just one week after the BBC's broadcast. We have all waited a long time, and we were not going to wait any longer.

The first episode, The Empty Hearse, deals with the direct aftermath of the second season's finale; Sherlock has been thought dead for two years now, but circumstances force him to return to London, to good old Baker Street 221B. And Sherlock wouldn't be complete without his trusty partner Watson, so after not really tactfully informing his friend of the fact that he had been faking his death for several years, and the not really tactful reaction of Watson on the news, the crime-fighting duo is back to stop a grand conspiracy against the British parliament.

Like the second season pilot A Scandal in Belgravia, The Empty Hearse had a big job of cleaning up after a crucial cliffhanger of the previous episode. And let's be honest, A Scandal in Belgravia did that in the very cheap way. People had to wait quite a while for the second season, and they used that time to think about how Sherlock and John were going to get out of that mess. A Scandal in Belgravia might have disappointed in that respect and apparently the showrunners realized that, because The Empty Hearse is first of all almost a parody or a meta-critique on that. The writers realized that people would think of all kinds of theories of how Sherlock faked his death, that people would pick on every detail available to figure out the trick behind Sherlock's fall. So they decided to put all of those theories in the episode.

There is a small plot about stopping terrorists in The Empty Hearse somewhere, but the best parts of the episode is when it shows you one of the many theories people have about how Sherlock faked his death. The episode starts with a James Bond-like explanation, but we are also presented with a fangirl's dream and other strange ideas, theories you would expect to find, and will probably find on the many, many Sherlock fansites. The episode works out like an Anthony Berkeley story, with theory upon theory being thrown at the viewer, and it's fun! It definitely wasn't what I had expected of it, and I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed the main plot of the episode suffered because of it (this Sebastian Moran character was definitely not nearly as interesting as the one in A Game of Shadows), but a fun start of the season.

The second episode, The Sign of Three, is all about John H. Watson and Mary Morstan's wedding. Most of the episode consists of Sherlock, as John's best man, telling the guests about some of the adventures he has shared with the groom. We are shown a very human Sherlock here and there is actually quite a gap between the Sherlock in the previous and this episode, in my opinion, and that fact, together with a plot that seems a bit chaotic at first, were reason for me to kinda complain about it during the broadcast. But it worked all out really well actually, and I consider The Sign of Three the best of the third season. Sure, the locked room murder might not be very original and the end-game uses a overly familiar trope that the show has used already in an earlier episode, but the sum of its parts, the way hints are placed throughout the episode, the storytelling, the way Sherlock has grown as a person, as an episode that places Watson in the center, I really liked it. The middle part might a bit boring, but I think that as a 'different' kind of Sherlock episode it worked really, just like The Hounds of Baskerville before it.

His Last Vow is based on The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton and similarly deals with a master blackmailer (Charles Augustus Magnussen). Sherlock is asked to deal with him on behalf of a high-ranking government official, but gaining access to Magnussen and retrieving the crucial documents isn't as easy as it seems. Well, of course, not considering that this is the final episode of the season, so like Moriarty in the previous season finales, we are now presented with a very visible, yet hard to reach antagonist for Sherlock and John (Magnussen starts out as a magnificent bastard, but kinda overdoes it as a despicable person after a visit to Baker Street, in my opinion though). The first half of the episode is pretty close to the original story, but the story takes another turn in the second half, with little bits and pieces of plot from previous episodes resurfacing, resulting in a well, finale-esque finale. It was a fun episode, but I liked the previous two episodes better, I think. One thing I have to say though, the 'cliffhanger ending' of this episode is not nearly as frustrating as that of the previous two season finales!

And just a little bit about the visual aspect of the series. I have mentioned earlier that for me, Sherlock, made an impression on me because it makes so much use of videogame linguistics to convey information to the viewer. I have always had an interest in the (visual) depiction of the deduction processes of other to a third party (see this post on Game Center CX for example), and have always found Sherlock to be a great example of how to do it right. The "Sherlock Scan" is depicted as literally descriptive markers floating around the object. Text and mail messages are shown as floating textboxes, instead of shots of a monitor or a phone. This season was visually quite more elaborate though, and felt quite different. The Empty Hearse showed (visually) all the theories people proposed to Sherlock's faked death and did that quite well (though it's a pretty normal practice in visual detective fiction), but the rest of the season also used much more 'grand' visual depictions of ideas. The Sign of Three visualizes an interview with a large number of women through the internet, as a gathering of all people in a grand hall, with Sherlock in the center picking the people that fit his profile. His Last Vow has a very lengthy visual depiction of Sherlock looking for useful information in his mind to deal with a rather life-threatening situation. They look great, I admit, but I miss a little of the simple elegance of the visual depictions in the previous seasons (though they are not gone completely, luckily).

I liked season three overall a lot though and I think it's the most consistent season until now. Well, the team has quite some experience now, so maybe not very surprising. And now, to wait for season four...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Turnabout Corner

華やかな夢なんて 持ちたくはない
 断ち切った過去になど 縛られたくない 
飾らない人生を生きて行く 明日がある限り 
「明日を解く鍵」 (樋口琴路)

I don't want to hold on brilliant dreams
I don't want to be tied up by the severed past
I want to live a careless life, as long as there's a tomorrow

"The Key to Solve Tomorrow" (Higuchi Kotoji)

At this rate, this month might end without any reviews on books, only on other media!

Shinjuku. One of the most crowded districts in Tokyo. Famous for the gigantic underground maze that is Shinjuku Station. The big TV screen mounted on the Studio Alta building in front of the west exit of the station is one of the more recognizable meeting locations in the whole of Japan. And walk a bit deeper into the district from that exit and you'll get to Kabukichou, center of night-time entertainment and yakuza territory. Shinjuku is full of dreams and despair, of life and death and also the home of the private detective Jinguuji Saburou and his assistent Youko. Three cases manage to find their way to the Jinguuji Detective Agency in Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Mikan no Rupo ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: The Unfinished Report"). Jinguuji is sent a key by a journalist friend, asking him to hang on to it for a while, but Jinguuji has no time to find out more about it, because the police has (unofficially) asked his help in a serial murder case with foreigner victims. Youko is meanwhile busy with a case of a disappeared husband who had been working in Shinjuku. But it seems like that these three cases aren't completely unrelated after all...

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou is a long-running hardboiled detective adventure game series and basically the only thing I'm still using the hardboiled tag for. The series started out on the Famicom (NES) and did quite well, as it saw no less than four different games on that system. But the series never appeared on the Super Famicom (SNES) for some sinister reason, so when the fifth game in the series, Mikan no Rupo, finally appeared on the Saturn and PlaySation, it had skipped a whole generation of gaming. But it was still our beloved Jinguuji. Mostly. The art design has made a weird jump to City Hunter-esque designs (thankfully revised in Yume no Owari ni), but the jazz music (now in actual CD quality, instead of the Famicom synthesizer!) is fantastic.

And yes, Tantei Jinguuji Saburou music will appear in Music to be Murdered by.

As for the story of Mikan no Rupo, it's pretty good, though quite short. The Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games are often shakai-ha type stories, detective stories with some social commentary. It fits the hardboiled detective theme, with Jinguuji moving around in both the 'open world' and the underworld and witnessing quite a lot of social problems. Mikan no Rupo in particular deals with the social circumstances of immigrant workers and discrimination, themes that would reappear in later games (for example in one of the titles included in Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Akai Chou). There is no puzzle-solving (neither mentally nor in a gameplay-sense) in the game, so as a player you're more along for the ride. It's an entertaining story, presented in a (mostly) attractive way.

Mostly, I say, because it does has a bit of problems. The flags you have to activate in progress in a story are sometimes really strange (oh, so I have to smoke three times instead of twice? I have to talk to those people in a particular order?). It's not as bad as in the first game (where smoking too much can result in a game over), but still, it's something they should smoothed out a bit (though I have to admit, the fantastic sequel Yume no Owari ni had the same problems). There are also strange sections where you control Jinguuji directly (something that was only done in the first game), but you're dropped in these action scenes with little explanation, and they are more frustrating then fun (like the section where you just have to check every bookcase...).

Something interesting pops up in the final part of the game though. Here we have a fairly straightforward hardboiled detective story, dealing with immigrants and yakuza gangs and such... and then we're suddenly confronted with what appears to be a kind of locked room murder. Sure, the murder is solved quite quickly, and the trick behind needs a bit of work, because it's a bit silly as it is now, but still, we're given a classic problem! The Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series has always been a bit strange like that, actually. Audiovisually, the series breathes hardboiled, from the art by Terada Katsuya to the jazzy tunes of the soundtrack. But even the first game, Shinjuku Chuuou Kouen Satsujin Jiken basically consisted of an impossible crime in the park, and while later games usually feature less incredible crimes, there's often enough space in their plots to present a proper, interesting orthodox whodunnit or howdunnit with very little rewriting. For some reason the plots are always presented a lot easier than they need to be though. Tantei Jinguuji Saburou always moves between several modes of storytelling and it never seems to settle on one final choice. Not a problem per se, but it does mean that the atmosphere of the games can differ quite a bit depending on the title.

I would say that Yume no Owari ni is a much better Tantei Jinguuji Saburou game, if we compare it to another title of the same console generation, but it's not bad. You can get it for practically nothing second hand (the games have been removed from the PlayStation archives, sadly enough) and you won't be disappointed if you liked other titles in the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵神宮寺三郎 未完のルポ』

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

File 2: Music to be Murdered By

The second post in the Music to Be Murdered By series, where I introduce various tracks from mystery productions. Today, a classic!

Title: Detective Conan Main Theme (Vocal Version)
Composer: Oono Katsuo
Album: Detective Conan Original Soundtrack Super Best

The main theme of the Detective Conan anime series is a triumphant, upbeat sax melody by Oono Katsuo and easily the best tune from the whole series soundtrack. It has seen various transformations throughout the years, but this time I'll introduce a lesser popular version of the tune. This specific variation of the main theme, titled Detective Conan Main Theme (vocal version), is a sad version of the song, with someone humming the familiar tune in a slow, almost mourning way. It is usually used during the confession of the murderer. The Standard Use of the track is 1) the murderer finally admits (s)he commited the murder, 2) the murderer explains his/her reasons for the murder 2.5) [Optional] Conan explains why the murderer was wrong for committing the murder and 3) the murderer is taken away by the police. Visually:

Nowadays, it's almost seen as a gag track though. The song may be sad, but the motives of a lot of murderers in Conan are often quite silly and the gap between the sadness and the sheer ridiculousness of the motives is sometimes too much even for this track. The most famous, and most hilarious example of this is in episode 135 of the anime (an original episode not based on the comic), where this song is used while the murderer explains she killed the victim because she threw a clothes hanger at her. Not even a sad song like this one can make her sound like a sympethetic murderer!

Original Japanese title(s): 「名探偵コナン~メイン・テーマ(ヴォーカル・ヴァージョン)」(大野克夫) 『名探偵コナン ― サントラ・スーパー・ベスト』

Monday, January 6, 2014

「Good Luck, 名探偵君」

Who killed Cock Robin?
 I, said the Sparrow, 
with my bow and arrow, 
 I killed Cock Robin. 

Who saw him die? 
I, said the Fly, 
with my little eye,
I saw him die. 

So there has been a major detective drama on TV every day now since New Year... I hope that means this year is filled with great detective shows!

Last year, a new Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo TV drama special was broadcast just after New Year, starring Yamada Ryousuke as the fourth actor playing the young detective. It was a grand, international production, shot in Hong Kong and it was actually the most fun live action adaptation since the original TV drama starring Doumoto Tsuyoshi  (1995-1997). In fact, this 'fourth generation' Kindaichi seemed like a continuation of the original series, with a similar, silly Hajime (as opposed to the somewhat moody third/fourth Hajime), some of the more memorable background music being reused and the same school costumes. Too bad the story itself was quite boring, which is why I never bothered to write a review about it.

But the team itself had potential, so I was quite pleased when I heard that they were going to make another special drama this year based on Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo: Gokumonjuku Satsujin Jiken ("The Case Files of Young Kindaichi: The Prison Gate Cram School Murder Case"). It's revealed that a mysterious person called the Hell Puppeteer had been responsible for planning (not executing) the murders that occured last year in Hong Kong. Kindaichi Hajime was the first person to ever solve one of his crimes, so vowing a rematch, he sents a challenge to the young detective. Something is going to happen on the study camp in Malaysia of the prestigious Prison Gate Cram School. Hajime, Miyuki and Saki all join the study trip in order to stop the Puppeteer's plans, but it doesn't take long before one student after another falls victim to a murderer. Meanwhile,  the Puppeteer takes joy in teasing the young detective with the nursery rhyme Cock Robin. It was the Sparrow who killed Cock Robin, but is Hajime more than just a fly who can only watch Cock Robin die?

Gokumonjuku Satsujin Jiken is based on my favorite case in the second season of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series, which ran from 2004 till 2011. I also consider it one of the best Kindaichi Shounen cases, because it has so many things that you'd expect from the series, all done in a good way. The school setting, nemesis Hell's Puppeteer, a grand trick... We've all seen the elements, but they really work in this story. So how did the adaptation turn out?

Well, it works for the most part. It is a fairly faithful adaptation and the production team did a good job at mimicking the atmosphere of the original series. One problem I had with this production was that the main trick seemed more obvious because the way the show was edited, though that is probably also because I already knew the story. The relative location of everything plays a pretty big part in this story (it's mostly an alibi cracking mystery), but I feel that the production team should have done more to convey that information to the viewer (c.f. Kagi no Kakatta Heya, with their dioramas). I have to say that the major hints were show quite good in the show (though that was also the case in the original manga) and it's definitely a great fair mystery.

The main trick itself might not be very original in theory (you'll find variations of it in the works of some of the authors I discuss here often), and Amagi Seimaru himself had actually also used a variation of it in another of his manga, but even if the trick isn't original, the execution is good, because he builds on it and makes every new, extra element work with each other. Yesterday's Kagi no Kakatta Heya special was just as long as Gokumonjuku Satsujin Jiken, but this was so much better as a two hour production, because it was planned and written as one single story, instead of being two stories glued together. This special will definitely appeal to all fans of the genre.

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo is one of those series where the school setting works best. Fudou High School by now has been the home for a great number of murder victims and murderers (and one great detective) and it's become a bit silly, but school settings are still fairly rare in detective fiction, even though school exams, school buildings, activity clubs and complex human relations offer so much potential for a great mystery!

The drama adaptation has some minor changes compared to the original story. Most obvious is the more international setting, with foreign students at Prison Gate Cram School and the camp being held in Malaysia. I guess it was done because this special was produced internationally and it doesn't really add nor detract, so I don't have any objections against it. There are some character changes (recurring buddy Souta appears in the original instead of Saki, and Inspector Akechi Kengo is replaced by Inspector Lee from last year's special), but again, it works in the context of the series. And finally, the appearance of the Hell Puppeteer. This is his first appearance in this continuity (he also appeared in the self-contained third generation) and he is handled quite good! He's a pretty important character in the series, so I hope they'll do more with him in future productions.

I hope they'll make a TV series with this team though, because it really has much potential. Yamada plays a great Hajime, the Hell Puppeteer shows potential for a good overarching storyline and the lighter atmosphere of these specials work quite well. Seriously, moody Kindaichi was the worst thing ever to happen to the live action series. I am glad they went back on the right track with this series!

July 2014 edit: these specials indeed led to the production of a TV series called Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO. Reviews of each episode start here.

Original Japanese title(s): 『金田一少年の事件簿: 獄門塾殺人事件』

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Dead Man's Mirror

どっかでみたようなデジャヴが何度もUpside Down
 「Face Down」 (嵐)

Opening the door because I want to know what's behind it without getting lost
I find a deja vu I've seen somewhere else before, countless of times Upside Down.
"Face Down" (Arashi)

Writing this review reminded me that I went to a forum organized by Kyoto University featuring Kishi Yuusuke last year. He talked about violence in media and its (perceived) consequences on society, which was quite interesting. I still have my notes somewhere, should probably write them out one of these days though... Don't know why I never mentioned the forum here though.

I first wrote about Kishi Yuusuke's Security Consultant Detective Enomoto Kei series about two, three years ago, with my review of The Glass Hammer. It is still one of the more memorable locked room mysteries I've ever read and I've enjoyed other entries in the series too. The series was made into a TV drama titled Kagi no Kakatta Heya two years ago and I also praised that production as an excellent series focusing solely on locked room mysteries. And attornies Aoto Junko, Serizawa Gou and security consultant Enomoto Kei returned to the small screen last night (January 3) in Kagi no Kakatta Heya Special: Kagami no Kuni no Satsujin ("The Locked Room Special: The Mirror Land Murders"). Serizawa Gou still has the ability to come across locked room murders despite Enomoto's disappearance at the end of the TV series, as he finds one of his clients clubbed to death at home. Locked, naturally. His junior associate Junko on the other hand is dealing with a locked room revival: a man was having a heart attack in his own, locked apartment room, but someone appeared and called an ambulance for him. But how did his savior get and out of the room? Serizawa and Junko are both having troubles with their locked rooms, when Enomoto Kei appears again.

I actually didn't even know about this special until today, so it kinda surprised me. But like I said, the TV series was excellent, so I started watching this special without too many worries (and a little pile of expectations): I was reasonably happy with the results. The special is based on two stories by Kishi Yuusuke; Kagami no Kuni no Satsujin ("The Mirror Land Murder") and an yet unpublished story, provisionally titled Futatsu no Misshitsu ("Two Locked Rooms").  One problem I had with the special was that it really felt like two stories were just glued together. It wasn't one story, just three locked room problems in a row. Then again, most detective shows have trouble giving you a fair locked room murder in one show, so I guess I shouldn't be complaining about a special that manages to give me three locked room murders, two of which quite good.

The locked room revival is fun as a concept, but the trick behind the locked room is not fundamentally different from a locked room murder: it's still about figuring out how (if) someone got out of a locked room. The other two locked room murders in this special are 'normal' murders (no revivals here), but much more interesting. The first one features a trick actually quite simple and primitive, but it's the way it's executed that's memorable. It's quite easy to oversee the solution because it's so simple, and while I have nothing against complex tricks, I really do like it when tricks turn out to be really simple and executable.

The bigger locked room is the one that lends its name to the special's title: a museum curator is killed, but the two corridors that lead to his office were under camera surveillance; one corridor comes from the main hall, while you'll have to go through an Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found on the Other Side themed mirror maze exposition (in construction) to get to the other hallway. It's pretty obvious that the murderer must have gone through the maze (hence the title), but how? The trick is daring, and reminiscent of The Glass Hammer, but a bit more believable. One part of the solution does rely on a bit of specialist information and while I admit there was a bit of hinting to that, I don't believe it's common knowledge, and it felt a bit like one of those super technical tricks from Higashino Keigo's Galileo series, where you're told about a natural phenomenom that's apparently behind the magic. It's not cheating, but how am I supposed to know about obscure lasers? The first part of the trick is fantastic though and is hinted at fairly well too. It's also a trick that works best in a visual medium, so it really works well here.

As a TV production, Kagi no Kakatta Heya is still excellent. The production team really tries to make you understand the nature of the locked rooms, as well as other relevant information. When talking about alibis for example, timelines are put on screen, to ensure the viewer knows where everybody was at what time. Sherlock does a lot with visual information too, though that is mostly additional information (for example, short deductions, text messages appearing above a cellphone). In Kagi no Kakatta Heya, it's used to summarize (long threads of) information for fair play. And of course, the highlight of the show, the miniatures of all the locked rooms! This special wouldn't be complete with one and once again we see the production team doing everything to present the locked room in an understandable way for the viewer. CG reconstructions are probably easier to construct, which is why I really appreciate the work that goes into these minatures.

Oh, and I think I actually missed the ending of the TV series (which was based on The Glass Hammer), but it seems they finally made it clear that Enomoto Kei is actually a security consultant and a thief. This was clear in the novels from the beginning, but the TV series kinda jumped around that. In fact, it's only in this special that Enomoto Kei starts running his own security shop, something he had been doing from the beginning in the novels.

As a locked room mystery, the Kagi no Kakatta Heya Special is a bit uneven. The stories are glued together and it never feels like one single coherent story, but the seperate pieces of the production are quite good; it's just a shame it's not something bigger than just the sum of the parts. For those who loved the Kagi no Kakatta Heya  TV series, as well as those into a good locked room mystery, this special will provide an entertaining two hours though.  

Original Japanese title(s):  貴志祐介(原) 『鍵のかかった部屋SP:鏡の国の殺人』

Saturday, January 4, 2014

File 1: Music to be Murdered By

Welcome to the first post in the Music to be Murdered By corner, a corner where I'll post music from various detective TV series/movies/games. I try to discuss detective fiction in all kinds of media (I should work a bit on that musical tag though...), but it is sometimes hard to discuss everything from a certain medium in a review. I especially find it hard to discuss music in reviews, even though I really enjoy soundtracks.

Thus this corner was born, where I'll just introduce one piece of background music a time. Rule: it must come from a mystery related production. And could there be a better way than start with a track from the album that lends its name to this corner?

Title: Shissou - Main Theme ("The Wild Run - Main Theme") 
Composer: Wada Kaoru
Album: Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo Original Soundtrack - File 1: Music to be Murdered By

Shissou is one of the two main themes for the anime adaptation of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series. The track is thrilling, fast-paced and definitely one of the better tracks of the series. It is usually used just when a new murder is discovered. The Standard Use of this track is as follows: 1) a scream, 2) [Shissou starts] everybody runs to the place where the scream came from, 3) they discover the door is locked and 4) discovery of the victim. And visually:

Given that every other victim in Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo is killed in a locked room set far away from the main party, you can imagine how often you'll hear this theme. A variation is used in the preview of the next episode, maintaining that same sense of thrill. If you have seen enough Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo episodes, you'll automatically start to run to... anywhere as soon as you'll hear this theme.

And that concludes this first post of Music to be Murdered By. This is an irregular corner, so the next post in this series will come whenever I feel like posting music.

Original Japanese title(s): 「疾走 (メインテーマ)」 (和田薫) 『金田一少年の事件簿 オリジナルサウンドトラック File 1: Music to be Murdered By』  

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Big Sleep

「The Real Folk Blues」 (山根麻衣)

I wish I could sleep once more
in the cradle of your love
"The Real Folk Blues" (Yamane Mai)

Did we all enjoy the first episode of the new season of Sherlock? I'll write a review when all episodes have aired, so that post will appear in... a bit more than a week.

Kaga Kyouichirou series
Sotsugyou ("Graduation") (1986)
Nemuri no Mori ("Forest of Sleep") (1989)
Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita ("One of the Two Killed Her") (1996)
Akui ("Malice") (1996)
Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita ("I Killed Him") (1999)
Uso wo Mou Hitotsu Dake ("One More Lie") (2000)
Akai Yubi ("Red Fingers")  (2006)
Shinzanmono ("Newcomer") (2009)
Kirin no Tsubasa ("The Wings of the Kirin") (2011)
Inori no Maku ga Oriru Toki ("When the Curtains of Hope Come Down") (2013)

Kaga Kyouichirou had planned to become a teacher after his graduation, but things don't always go the way you want. Nemuri no Mori ("Forest of Sleep") puts Kaga in the role of the police inspector in charge of  a murder case at the offices of the Takayanagi Ballet Troupe. Haruko, one of the troupe's dancers, was attacked by a man and killed him accidently in self defense. The police has problems figuring out why the man snuck in the offices and suspect that he was trying to find someone or something connected to the troupe. Suspecting the key to this case lies within the troupe, Kaga decides to learn more about the members of the troupe and the world of professional ballet performances.

The second Kaga Kyouichirou novel and quite different from the first novel. Sotsugyou was relatively 'classically styled', with a locked room puzzle and an intricate other problem focusing on actor movements. Nemuri no Mori on the other hand has none of these decorations; a normal bludgeoning death, and an investigation focusing on the psychology of the suspects. There is a relatively 'classic' murder around the middle of the novel, but the howdunnit of that murder is solved rather quickly and it never becomes a focal point in the case. Nemuri no Mori is definitely closer to the later novels in the Kaga Kyouichirou series.

The setting of a theater group is something you'll often see in detective fiction and while a ballet troupe is not that different, I have to admit that Higashino made quite good use of the setting and the world of ballet really comes alive in Nemuri no Mori. Specialized settings are used quite often in Kaga Kyouichirou series, with the world of university level Kendou competitions in Sotsugyou, writers in Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita and a myriad of settings in Shinzanmono, which is definitely one element that makes the Kaga Kyouichirou series interesting to read.

One problem I had with Nemuri no Mori was its tempo though. Most of the novel focuses on Kaga getting to learn more about the members and their ideas on ballet, with the investigation almost an afterthought. Because of that, it's not always clear where Nemuri no Mori's narrative is going. Considering that the novel should be about a murder investigation, I'd prefer for the story to be a bit more focused.

A TV drama version of Nemuri no Mori was broadcast on January 2 of this year, as the fourth entry in the Shinzanmono-branded adaptations of the Kaga Kyouichirou novels. It is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original novel; changes include one concerning the second death, and some changes in the background of the character of Kaga. But I have to admit that I enjoyed the drama version more than the novel. Partly because I knew the story already; solving a bit of the problems I had with the pacing of the story. But it also helped that you could actually see and hear the ballet performances, rather than just reading about them. So much of the story depends on the characters and their passion for ballet, so it really adds to the enjoyments of the story to see and hear their art 'alive'.  

Oh, and the cameo perfomance by Nakama Yukie as Kaga's date at the beginning was hilarious, because Abe Hiroshi and Nakama Yukie are also the stars in the wonderful drama Trick!

I wouldn't call Nemuri no Mori a high point in the series in general, but I did really like the drama adaptation of it (even better than the movie!), so I'd recommend the latter for those who want to learn about one of Kaga's earliest cases.

Original Japanese title(s): 東野圭吾 『眠りの森』, 東野圭吾(原) 新春ドラマスペシャル“新参者”加賀恭一郎「眠りの森」