Friday, December 25, 2015

Turnabout Memories - Part 5

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

As always, the year on this blog ends with a short look back at the posts of this year. One 'problem' is that a lot of the reviews posted in the first half of this year were actually already written in 2014 (I have too many reviews waiting to be posted...). So my memories of a great deal of the material is a lot older than one year. Oh well. As always, this post features a round up of reviews and other posts that made an impression on me this year, with categories made up as I go. And I can also assure you that I have plently of review written and waiting, so 2016 will be like always. Anyway, that's it for this year!

Best Project Outside The Blog!
The Decagon House Murders

Obviously, Locked Room International's English release of Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders has been a big event for me this year, as I was the translator. I first read the book myself in 2011 and loved it (see my review of the book then). Naturally, I could never have dreamt I would be the one translating it some years later. And I was happy to see that a lot of reviews were quite positive. Who'd have guessed that the Washington Post would write about "honkaku" mystery fiction one day?

Oh, and I totally forgot mentioning it here, but the December 2015 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine also featured a translation by me of Kouga Saburou's The Spider.

Best Translation Posted On The Blog! In 2015!
Muma (Kim Nae-seong)

Well, I only posted one this year. Interestingly enough, it's a translation of a Korean story, though I worked from a Japanese translation (because for some reason, I just can't get Korean in my head). Kim Nae-seong is the grandfather of Korean mystery stories, but basically unknown outside his home land, so I hope that at least this translations helps a bit in bringing him under the spotlight, even if just for a moment.

The Longest Detective Story Of 2015! In Real Time!
The Scarlet Truth Revealed in Detective Conan 85 (Aoyama Goushou)

My review of Detective Conan 85 was posted as the last post of 2014, but after the 2014 list was made, so it still counts for this year. Anyway, The Scarlet Truth Revealed is special because it's actually the conclusion to a storyline that started way back in 2007! And don't get me wrong; it's not like there was radio silence in those seven years: in those seven years, many red herrings and real clues have been left here and there throughout various other stories in the series. I think most fans already knew what was going on, but you can't deny that Aoyama did something ambitious and I'd say it was also done quite satisfactorily.

Most Interesting Game Played In 2015! But Probably Older!
Dai Gyakuten Saiban (The Great Turnabout Trial) (3DS)

Okay, there was little competition this year. Tantei Shinshi DASH! was pretty bad and the two Tantei Jinguuji Saburou PS2 games reviewed this year were certainly not nearly as good as the previous ones. Ghost Trick (DS) was a replay, so doesn't really count. But the 2015 summer release Dai Gyakuten Saiban, despite some flaws, was an exciting and fantastic historical courtroom mystery featuring an original, but highly enjoyable version of Sherlock Holmes. Gyakuten Saiban 5 / Phoenix Wright - Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies (3DS) was a very safe sequel to the series, but Dai Gyakuten Saiban manages to recapture that initial sense of excitement we all had when we first played the series. If only it wouldn't have so many obvious hooks for a sequel.

As for memorable non-mystery games I played this year: I played all three MOTHER (Earthbound) games on GBA, which were very quirky and funny RPGs with its shares of flaws. But man, fantastic and imaginative writing. Super crossover game Project X Zone 2 (3DS) had little improvements over the first game besides being slightly less tedious, but some of the new characters are absolutely golden (Segata Sanshirou is a blast to see in the story). Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is very addictive. Also: I finally played Final Fantasy VII (PS), one of the biggest icons in gaming culture. Like with Star Wars, most people nowadays know the story and all its twists even if they haven't played it, because of the numerous references to it in everything, but I still wanted to play the game. It can feel outdated sometimes, but even now, the music compositions and the background designs are something to enjoy.

But enough about games...

Best Cover Seen In 2015!
Clover Leaf (Van Madoy)

With the rise of e-books, I have the feeling that covers have become less important for a lot of people, even though I absolutely love good cover art. I've seen quite some good ones this reading year. NisiOisiN's Zaregoto series always has catchy cover art with pop colors, like in Psycho Logical. The original hardcover release of Taiikukan no Satsujin ("The Gymnasium Murder") has slightly different art, but the 2015 paperback still has a very striking cover with yellows and blue tints. But I'd say that Clover Leaf's cover was the most unique of the books I saw this year, featuring art by Ogura Mayuko, whose art you can view at her website.

Best Non-Review Post! Of 2015!
Clues in mystery fiction

I only made two non-review posts this year, it seems. One about clues in mystery fiction, one about language-specific tricks in mystery fiction and translation. Both are topics I enjoy, but both posts were written rather chaotically, so they may seem like the ramblings of a mad man. The one on clues is the most comprehensive though and offers a feeble attempt at posing a typology of clues in mystery fiction of the logical elimination kind. And while my 'Clue Lecture" might not be very memorable, I do think that after all those writings on locked rooms and I don't know what, it might be interesting if more people thought about clues in mystery fiction and its relation to the notion of 'fair play' in the genre.

Weirdest Book Reviewed On The Blog! In 2015!
Gyeongseong ui ilbon eo tamjeongjakpumjip ("A Collection of Detective Stories from Keijou")

There's no competition here. A book published in South Korea, featuring Japanese-language mystery stories from the period Korea was a colony of Japan. I am quite certain this is the only English review of the book, and I wouldn't be surprised if it will remain so, considering the contents! Besides the novelty of the stories themselves, I also find the book incredibly interesting as someone who enjoys Japanese literature, linguistics and sociology. Also, this book was a great example of international cooperation, as a friend got me this (and she had to answer awkward questions about why she bought such a book when people at the office saw it). There's another book in the series on urban legends, folklore and stuff by the way, for those interested.

Best Trick of 2015!
Ao wa Umi to Manicure no Iro ("Blue is the Color of the Sea and Manicure") in Niji no Ha Brush - Kamiki Raichi Hassan (Hayasaka Yabusaka)

A "trick" is the element of a mystery story that is the actual mystery and its solution. Like a magic trick, a trick in mystery fiction consists not only out of what the audience sees, but also the actual truth behind the magic. Looking back at the list of reviews this year, the short story Ao wa Umi to Manicure no Iro is the one story that stands out most in memory: I still remember being baffled when first confronted with the mystery, and I remember even better the shock when the truth was revealed. Sometimes, I choose the best trick of the year based on the complexity and structure of the trick, but this year, I choose the trick that made the most impression on me in terms of surprising me.

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
Jikan no Shuuzoku ("Customs of Time") (Matsumoto Seichou)
Kuroi Hakuchou ("Black Swan") (Ayukawa Tetsuya)
Yoru yo, Nezumitachi no Tame ni ("Oh Night, For My Mice") (Renjou Mikihiko)
The HOG Murders (William L DeAndrea)
Fatal Venture (Freeman Wills Crofts)
Taiikukan no Satsujin ("The Gymnasion Murder") (Aosaki Yuugo)
De Laatste Kans ("The Last Chance") M.P.O. Books
Kim Nae-seong Tantei Shousetsu Sen ("A Selection of Detective Stories by Kim Nae-seong") (Kim Nae-seong)
The Sacrlet Truth Revealed in Detective Conan 85 (Aoyama Goushou)
Dai Gyakuten Saiban ("Great Turnabout Trial") (scenario: Takumi Shuu)

Saturday, December 19, 2015


答えはどこに隠されてるの somebody knows
 あきらめないでもうちょい考えて Question! Answer! 

The answer lies hidden somewhere / Somebody knows
Don't give up / Think a bit more / Question! Aswer!
"Q&A" (B'z)

Don't you just hate false covers? The scene on the cover of today does not actually happen in the book. The designer probably came up with this after reading golf links + dead body in the summary, but you'd think the publisher would say something about that.

A game of golf between Bobby Jones and the local doctor ends with the discovery of a man who appears to have fallen off a small cliff. While the man is still alive, the doctor declares that it's only a matter of time, so he returns to the village to make the necessary arrangements, while Bobby stays to watch over the man's last moments. Just before the man dies however, he utters the line: "Why didn't they ask Evans?" This seems to be the end of the tragic affair, but some time afer the body had been identified by his relatives, suspicious job offers from abroad arrive at Bobby's place, which are then followed by attempts on his life. Bobby and his friend Lady Frances Derwent (Frankie) suspect it all has to do with the dead man on the golf course and his last words and decide to find out what really lies behind his death in Agatha Christie's Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1934).

Why Didn't They Ask Evans? is a title that made an enormous impression on me the first time I read it. It is a simple title, but it conjures up so many questions. Who is Evans? What didn't they ask Evans? Why would they need to ask Evans? Who are they? I had absolutely no idea what the book was about, but to me, it appeared to be one of those titles that look silly, but make so much sense in hindsight, if you know the story. I think I've known the title for more than 15 years, so I have to admit: my expectations were rather high, as I'd finally know the answer to the question.

And the answer was...a bit disappointing. Why Didn't They Ask Evans? is a clever title, but I can't say the usage of it in the book is particularly smart. I had expected a dying message puzzle or something like that, but there is actually a very straightforward answer to the question and you're almost given no time to think about it once you've been given the proper hints, so this is a good example of me having way too much expectations based on just the title.

But overall, I did quite enjoy Why Didn't They Ask Evans? as a lighthearted thriller-type of novel. At least, I enjoyed a lot more than the more tedious The Secret of Chimneys I read a while back. I think it's because Why Didn't They Ask Evans? is a lot like The Secret Adversary, which I absolutely love. Like Tommy & Tuppence's first adventure, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? features a young couple (the parents of one being a vicar), who go out on an adventure that is filled with thrills and misadventures and a lot of coincidence and luck. The masquerades, the bluffing, the romantic subplots, the two novels are actually very alike. In fact: the 1980 TV adaptation of Why Didn't They Ask Evans? starred Francesca Annis and James Warwick, who would go on to co-star again in the TV adaptation of The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime a few years later (there is no such thing as a recent Tommy & Tuppence TV series. Nope).

Of course, like The Secret Adversary, Why Didn't They Ask Evans is rather simplistic in actual mystery plot (despite a locked room murder!), with immense coincidence pushing the plot forward despite a serious lack of suspects and such, but I found it fairly entertaining as something light. But you are probably looking for something different if you want something memorable or impressive.

I personally enjoyed Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, but I am very well aware that is is also a very flawed work by Christie. The Secret Adversary dates from 1922, but more than ten years later, Christie basically gave the readers a very similar work, even down to the flaws. I wouldn't put Evans high on the to-be-read-list, but it can be fun if you like Tommy & Tuppence, I think.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Jazz Toast

"I suppose it's a bit too early for a gimlet."
"The Long Goodbye"

Man, Van Madoy's (hardcover) books all have gorgeous cover art. Today's book easily has one of the best covers I've seen this year.

It's April, and Toochika Rinto has just moved from the east to Kyoto, where he'll finally start his new life as a first year student of Kyoto University. He joins the student circle Kamogawa Rampo, which organizes group strolls all across the ancient capital that is Kyoto. Here, he falls in love with his fellow member Aoka Sachi, who seems to have more interest in strange events and mysteries that pop in everyday life. One of the mysteries of Kyoto University is a tale, no, an urban legend about a bar called "No. 3" located on the main campus. The bar is said to constantly move around the campus, sometimes being located inside a classroom, sometimes in a laboratory. But the most curious fact behind No.3 is that the beautiful bartender, Souma Miki, doesn't ask for money in exchange for her cocktails: she will only make a cocktail in exchange for an interesting mystery. Follow Rinto and his visits to No. 3 in Van Madoy's 2014 short story collection Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he ("Another Glass of Clover Leaf - Tonight, To Mystery Solving Bar No. 3").

Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he is Van Madoy's (or Madoi Ban) first short story collection and his first work outside his quirky courtroom mystery Revoir series, which ended last year. At one hand, Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai is quite different from the Revoir series. Gone are the private trials, the many characters who kept up-oneing each other with more and more outrageous deductions which were all allowed in court as long as the other party couldn't disprove them and instead we have a short story collection in the tradition of everyday life mysteries: little non-criminal mysteries that one comes across over the course of a normal day. No murders, no theft. Of course, even if the mysteries are non-criminal, that doesn't mean they can't be perplexing or even down-right impossible. For example, we have a problem of two people could have boarded the same taxi at the same time at different places.
Like the Revoir series though, Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai is also distinctly Kyoto-flavoured. The story is not just 'set' in the city of Kyoto and Kyoto University: the ancient capital and the university are used extensively as the stage for the book and references to local culture, geography and other little things make this book a genuine "Kyoto Mystery" (like for example Kitamori Kou's Minor Kyoto series). Van Madoy studied at Kyoto University, so no wonder the city feels so real in this book, like it did in the Revoir series. This time, the story is about university students who actually study, so we are also treated to quite a lot of scenes set on the Yoshida campus of Kyoto University and overall, I think the book feels very recognizable for anyone who has been in Kyoto or has visited Kyoto University.

Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai ("Another Glass of Clover Leaf") is both the title story as well as the opening story and introduces the reader to Rinto, Sachi and the gang of the Kamogawa Rampo circle. On the way to a welcome party for the new members, Rinto and Sachi witness one of their fellow first-year members step in a four leaf clover Yasaka Taxi (a taxi company which has a three-leaf clover as its logo. There are only four taxis with a four leaf mark). Strangely enough though, Rinto and Sachi then witness different members step out of that same taxi at the party. When they ask those members when they stepped into that taxi, they disccover that they boarded the car at the same time Rinto and Sachi saw their fellow first-year member step in the taxi! Even stranger is that that girl seems to have disappeared, as she never turned up at the party. And as he ponders about that mystery, Rinto walks into the legendary No.3 bar, which serves rather (brain) stimulating cocktails.

A great opening story. The mystery is at the surface simple, but as you'd expect from someone who wrote the Revoir series, things are never what they seem at first, and despite the relatively short length, the plot actually does manage to go quite deep and is much more carefully hinted than you'd first guess. Personally, I also loved the familar setting (the story is set around the area of dowtown Sanjou and Shijou) and the urban legend angle on both the taxi and the titular No. 3 bar itself.

Juliet ni wa Hayasugiru ("Too Early for a Juliet") has Rinto still pining for Sachi, but have his feelings for her created a miracle? Kamogawa Rampo is having a little excursion to a Maiko Odori, where once a year maiko perform their arts to the general public and show how much they've learned the last year. Rinto's seat is in the row behind Sachi, a little way away from her, which is a bit disappointing. However, at the end of the performance, Rinto discovers he is sitting right next to Sachi! How did the two come to sit next each other, even though both were looking at the performance? The solution is a bit obvious if you have been paying attention to the behaviour of the characters in the previous and this story, but I have to say that the final conclusion and sorta twist ending were fun.

Blue Lagoon ni Oboresou ("Like Drowining in A Blue Lagoon") is set in the Kyoto Aquarium, the latest detination of Kamogawa Rampo. Rinto and Sachi meet a woman there, who knows much about the aquatic inhabitants and acts as a guide for them. During their stroll, the woman is pushed down on the ground, but when Rinto starts to chase the culprit down the walking route, he finds his target has disappeared completely. Later, the woman also disappears, leaving Rinto and Sachi only with questions. The answers however are slightly disappointing. The main 'trick' of this story is something I personally don't think is 'strong' enough to serve as a central plot device, so the story feels a bit lacking in impact, in my opinion. The hinting is done adequately, but where the other stories often featured several layers, this story feels the most simple.

Kamogawa Rampo attends the Yamahoko ceremony in Pale Rider ni Miirarete ("Bewitched by the Pale Rider"). Rinto loses sight of Sachi for a while, only to find her unconcious, having falling from her seat up high down to the ground. Rinto is not sure whether it was just an accident or a crime, so he once again sets out for the No. 3 bar to find answers. The story is set-up rather simply, but unlike the previous story, it serves just as an introduction for a thrilling conclusion that delves a bit deeper in the history of the mysterious bar. The mystery elements are rather easy to see through, I am afraid, but I thought it an interesting story that deepens the No. 3 bar lore, which also helps set up the last story.

The final story, Nanashi no Guf ni Uttetsuke no Yoru ("A Fitting Night For No Name Guf"), too sets the No. 3 bar at the center of the mystery. One night, Rinto happens to come across the No. 3 bar again, finding it inside one of the new pre-fab container rooms placed on the campus, and has a drink, before leaving again to visit a friend who lives in an in-campus dorm across from the current location of No. 3. Just an hour has passed when a fire breaks out in one of the pre-fab containers, which was of course the one where the No. 3 was located in. The students manage to extinguish the fire, but when Rinto takes a look inside, he discovers the room was empty. But how could bartender Souma Miki have moved her complete bar, including counter and countless of bottles of drinks, out of that container within the hour of him leaving and the fire breaking out?

The solution to the disappearance of No. 3 is again rather simple, but Van Madoy manages to give the story quite some depth by sticking more mystery to it and also involving the history of the No. 3 bar, and the result is a fairly deep mystery story for the amount of pages. Also, this is the only story actually set on the campus of Kyoto University and I personally saw a lot of familiar sights here. Actually, the exact area where this story is set, is where I spent most of my time during my time at Kyoto University, which may be the same for Van Madoy: it is right next to the club room of the Kyoto University Mystery Club (which also makes a guest appearance in this story).

At the end of the book, we're never really told whether Bar No. 3 is really a magical bar or not. A rather realistic history of the bar is given throughout certain points of the book, but the reader is also given the impression that there is some almost magical force surrounding the bar, attracting customers with riddles on their mind. In the end though, it doesn't really matter. Even if the bar is magical, the mysteries in the book are always solved with logic, so the 'magic' element would not interfere with Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai being a mystery book. The conclusion of the book is rather open-ended regarding the No. 3 bar, so we could well get more adventures in the future, or not.

Nostalgia for Kyoto probably also played a role, but I quite enjoyed Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he. Most of the stories are fun, even if the main tricks can be a bit simple to see through at times. Luckily, Van Madoy usually realizes this all too, and he manages to make even simple tricks appear much more enjoyable by adding layers to the story. The youth romance angle also never intrudes on the mystery plot, and works well as a running storyline. Following Rinto as he tries to get closer to Sachi is certainly entertaining. I for one am quite curious to see if we'll see more of Rinto, Sachi and the mysterious bar No. 3 in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『クローバー・リーフをもう一杯 今宵、謎解きバー「三号館」へ』: 「クローバー・リーフをもう一杯」 / 「ジュリエットには早すぎる」 / 「ブルー・ラグーンに溺れそう」 / 「ペイルライダーに魅入られて」 / 「名無しのガフにうってつけの夜」

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Le Triangle d'or

「Nora」(Garnet Crow)

We haven't said goodbye,
But still I will leave here today
Maybe I will come across a wonderful person again one day
I live on a whim and in freedom, I am a stray cat
"Nora" (Garnet Crow)

I usually try to post reviews of TV productions soon after their broadcast and often have to shuffle with my posting schedule because of that. I make an exception for this review though: this particular special was broadcast early this year, but as I only watched some months after that, and because it was related to some other reviews that were already scheduled, I decided to just put this review at the end of the queue, rather than shuffling and puzzling with the schedule.

The first murder happened three years ago. A young girl of eleven was strangled with a tie wrap on June 6th. Exactly one year later, a woman of twenty-two was murdered under the same circumstances. And last year, a female policewoman was too strangled on June 6th. She was thirty-three when she died. 11. 22. 33. All on 6/6. The police still has no clue who is behind the "doubles murders", but the wealthy Odawara Shizue has a suspicion she is going to be next: not ony is she going to turn 44 on June 6th, she also got a threatening letters accompanied with newspaper articles on the "doubles murders". She hires the private detective Horokusa Junpei, one of the tenants in an apartment building she owns, who is to protect her during her birthday party. The operation goes wrong though, and Shizue is found strangled with tie wrap in her study. The problem however is that she was the only person seen to have gone inside the room, which was locked from the inside. Helping Horokusa investigate the case is Cezaimaru Venico, an impoverished heiress of one of the most important families of the past and previous inhabitant of Odawara Shizue's mansion. And so begins her first adventure as a detective in the TV drama Cezaimaru Venico no Jikenbo ~Kureneko no Sankaku~ ("The Case Book of Cezaimaru Venico ~The Triangle on the Black Cat~").

Cezaimaru Venico no Jikenbo ~Kureneko no Sankaku~ is a TV special broadcast in February, 2015, based on Mori Hiroshi's 1999 novel Kuroneko no Sankaku (The Triangle of the Black Cat"), which also bears the English subtitle Delta in the Darkness. The book is also the first novel in his ten-volume V series, starring Cezaimaru Venico. Note that Sezaimaru Beniko would be a more usual spelling of her name: she however prefers the Cezaimaru Venico spelling and it is the V of her name that titled her series the V series.

It might also be interesting to note that the V series is connected to Mori Hiroshi's S&M series (review of the TV drama is here), even though the V series is set probably about a decade (or two) before the S&M series. In fact, most of Mori Hiroshi's series are connected, some more obvious than others. Even the 100 Years series, which is a science-fiction mystery in a future with androids, is set in the same world as the S&M and V series. I've been delving a bit into the S&M series and the sequel G series of late, so I figured I might as well take a look at this special.

And I was quite disappointed. The premise of a The ABC Murders-esque serial murderer, coupled with a locked room, sounds interesting, right? Well, the locked room murder is of the kind that may only be used if the author has thought of a very original and radical variation, because it is one of the most well-known, simple and first things you'd come up with when the words "locked room" are mentioned. It is Locked Room 101 material and no, Mori Hiroshi did not manage to breath new life into it. It's still the same old thing and anyone will probably recognize it for what it is right away (and immediately guess who the murderer is, by the way). The story continues with more death, but again it's the kind of murders we've seen for more than a century.

More emphasis is laid on the describing the motive behind the murder. It is the kind of some-what philosophical talk we also know of the S&M series, which can be quite an opinion-divider. On one hand, it is more interesting than "I needed the money!", but on the other hand, when people start to talk about the beauty of death and murder and stuff, or what it means to be human or start monologues on other philosophical motives for murders, I feel these scenes (and motives) don't always feel as convincing as the author thinks they do.

Also, I find the characters of this story a bit predictable. A large cast of various characters, including scientists, a well-connected heiress and students that work together and all contribute a little to solving the mystery? Yeah, we already saw that in the S&M series. The V series predates the G series, but the G series also features a private detective in an apartment building who hires students as his assistants. Like I mentioned, I've been reading the G series lately, so I had an enormeous feeling of deja vu as I watched this TV special.

Though I have to say: I've seldom seen a middle-aged, divorced woman with a child as a detective protagonist before.

Though still, I wouldn't recommend Cezaimaru Venico no Jikenbo ~Kureneko no Sankaku~. It's a predicatable detective TV special like you can see practically everyday in the afternoon on Japanese TV (based on own experience, I'd say that's not even that big an exaggeration). If you want to see Mori Hiroshi's work on TV, you might as well watch Subete ga F ni Naru.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣(原)『瀬在丸紅子の事件簿~黒猫の三角~』

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Now Museum, Now You Don't

That belongs in a museum.
- So do you.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Reminder to self: must go visit that mystery fiction library in Busan, South Korea if it still exists.

Professor Munakata was a long-running manga by Hoshino Yukinobu, most famous for his science-fiction work. His first adventure was published in 1990 and introduced the world to the titular professor in Anthropology, specializing in the link between folklore and actual historical events. Since then, he has been appearing irregularly, solving historical mysteries both in and outside Japan. In 2009, the British Museum published the most recent adventure of the professor (at the time), marking the very first (and still the only) English-language publication of the series. Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure starts with the professor being invited by the British Museum to hold a guest lecture. During his stay in London however, the monoliths of Stonehenge are stolen and it appears the hostage takers demand the museum to return all the art objects that have repatriation claims to their respective countries. It's up to the professor to figure out how to save the collection of the British Museum, as well as the monoliths of Stonehenge.

This was the very first time I read the Professor Munakata series, but it sure won't be the last time, because I had a lot of fun with this comic. To start off: the book itself is pretty well made. Obviously, the British Museum is not a 'regular' manga publisher, so it's a surprisingly sturdy book, accompanied by an informative foreword and an interview with Hoshino himself about the adventure and his own trip to the British Museum. The font used also betrays the fact that comics aren't the British Museum's usual work, but that's just a very insignicant complaint about an otherwise good publication.

But the story is more important, right? Well, Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure is almost the last story that was written in the series, and it shows that through its gripping and exciting storytelling, which reveal years of experience. The story manages to mix actual historical facts and the background of the British Museum expertly with Hoshino's own imaginative story of a Stonehenge hostage-taker and the result is a historical adventure of mystery and excitement unlike any other. It's very educational, as you'll learn a lot about some of the British Museum's better known possessions, but the educational parts are also intelligently woven within the fictional part of the story, and nothing is said for nothing. The story eventually leads to a crazy (in the good sense of the word!) conclusion that I want to see as a movie as soon as possible. In fact, this story would actually make for a fantastic movie, I think, similar to how The Louvre featured in All-Round Appraiser Q.

Then again, I've always had a weakness for these kinds of stories that mix history/folklore with a mystery plot, so it's no wonder I like it so much. Interesting enough, the story also touches upon the sensitive topic of repatriation of art objects (and that while this book is published by the British Museum!) Even though this story is one of the last Professor Munakata stories in Japan, it can be read without any prior knowledge of the series. Though if you're like me, you definitely don't have enough with just this one story. I'm definitely tempted to read the original Japanese version now. Readers should also check out Urusawa Naoki's Master Keaton, which might be best described as the adventures of a MacGyvering insurance investigator with an interest in archeology. 

The artwork of Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure is neat and clean, though a bit lacking in the dynamic part. Hoshino's art is well-suited for still, contemplative panels of larger sizes and looks excellent whenever he draws big shots, but some of the (minor) action in the story looks not as intense as it could've been. I guess the style also fits his science fiction stories (which aren't of the Star Wars kind, but the slower, science kind).

The fact that Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure was published by the British Museum is interesting on its own, but this is definitely a story that deserved publication. It's smart and fun and makes you wonder why no other publisher has picked up the rest of the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 星野之宣 『宗像教授異考録』:「大英博物館の冒険」

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Beast in the Shadows

A mask I wore as I approached, I was what I am not.
And though the pattern was unclear, its meaning could be bought... 
"Sins of the Fathers"

I can't say that the cover is really attractive...

In Sins of the Fathers, author and bookshop owner Gabriel Knight learned about his heritage as the last in the line of Ritters and his destiny as a Schattenjäger, a shadow hunter who fights supernatural evil. After his first adventure, Gabriel moved to his ancestral home in Germany: Schloss Ritter, a castle overseeing the town of Rittersberg. A year later, a series of brutal murders around Munchen bring him out of the castle. While the news and police seem to think the murders are the work of a pair of escaped wolves, one witness to the murder of her daughter says it was a werewolf, which means that is work for the new Schattenjäger, even if Gabriel still hasn't gotten the hang of his new job as supernatural hunter yet. Several clues eventually lead Gabriel to an exclusive men's club, which seems to hold the key to the case. Meanwhile, Gabriel's shop owner Grace Nakimura (the Japanologist in me wants to correct the name to Nakamura!) has flown over from the US and is helping Gabriel out with historical research on werewolves, which has a surprising link with Ludwig II of Bavaria. The connection between the 'mad king' and the current murders is the main mystery of Jane Jensen's The Beast Within (1998).

The Gabriel Knight series is a beloved horror-mystery adventure game series that started out on the PC. The first game, Sins of the Fathers, was a wonderful mystery story with a Voodoo background and some supernatural elements. The novelization, which was released four year later and penned by the designer of the game herself, was a bit too close to the source material, I remarked two weeks ago. While the base story was still based on an excellent mix between fiction and history, the inclusion of pretty much all of the in-game puzzles in the narrative made Sins of the Fathers feel like a glorified walkthrough at times.

The sequel to the first game was released in 1995 with the title The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery. As shown above, it sported a completely different graphic style (real-life actors and full motion video instead of animated sprites) and has been met with varying opinions, mostly regarding the acting and the interactive elements of the game. Personally, I quite enjoyed the game (the first Gabriel Knight game I played actually) and the story in particular I find very memorable. This second game was also novelized by Jane Jensen in 1998, released under the same title.

The Gabriel Knight series has always featured supernatural elements in its universe: the concept of Schattenjäger is not just a title and you can be assured that at the end of the mystery, Gabriel isn't going to pull a werewolf mask of someone's face who grumbles he would have gotten away with it if it weren't for Gabriel's meddling. Yet the stories are also genuine mysteries and I absolutely love the story of The Beast Within. Gabriel's werewolf hunting starts with some 'normal' sleuthing, like you see in any detective story and there's nothing supernatural or unfair about that. But the story starts for great heights when Grace appears on the scene and attempts to find out more about werewolves and their link to Ludwig II. Sins of the Fathers was a good example of mixing good historical research with fiction, but The Beast Within surpasses even that story in that aspect. Gabriel and Grace's storylines slowly work towards an intersection, as they hunt for the werewolf in both present and past and the conclusion is a great spectacle. This is a great example of how to use historical research to present an entertaining mystery story.

I wrote a bit about literary detection in my review of Helen McCloy's Two-Thirds of a Ghost. Grace's storyline in particular is a great example of that. In the original game, this meant you had to listen for a long time to passages of documents being read by the actress, but reading the many documents on werewolves and Ludwig II yourself as a part of the narrative is much natural in the novel. It made me appreciate more how this was set-up, as many crucial clues are spread across the documents you read over the course of the story and work great a both hints and foreshadowing. Also, it's more streamlined than in the game, so no more hours of wandering in Schloss Neuschwanstein!

My biggest complaint about the novelization of Sins of the Fathers was that it was too faithful to the original game it was based on. All of the puzzles made its way in the narrative, which was unnatural. This is luckily resolved in the novelization of The Beast Within. This is partly because the original game featured fewer puzzles anyway. The game was filmed with real life actors and puzzles would just mean more filming. Instead, an emphasis was placed on literary detection, which as I pointed out above, works great for a novelization. But Jane Jensen was also wise enough to not include all of the few puzzles that do appear in the game. People who have played the original game may for example be relieved to hear that Gabriel doesn't buy a Cookoo clock to serve as the worst distraction ruse ever in the novel.

All in all, the novelization of The Beast Within is a great supernatural mystery with good historical resarch gone into it. It is also much more enjoyable as a book than Sins of the Fathers and feels much less like a novelization of a videogame (if at all). It is true that the original story was much more suited for novelization than Sins of the Fathers though. Anyway, a great substitute for those who don't want to play the game for whatever reason (too old, not into games), but still interested in its themes.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Queen Is In The Counting House

「The Real Folk Blues」(山根麻以)

If only I could sleep once more
In the cradle of your love
"The Real Folk Blues" (Yamane Mai)

I have only just noticed how many Writer Alice reviews I've already written. I just didn't notice it as half of the reviews are about books, the other half about audio dramas.

Writer Alice series (audio drama)
46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room")
Swiss Dokei no Nazo ("The Swiss Clock Mystery")
Yaneura no Sanposha ("The Stroller in the Attic")
Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken ("-The Castle of Screams- Murder Case")
Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie ("The House With the Long Hallway")
Saru no Hidarite ("The Monkey's Left Paw")  
Zankoku na Yurikago ("A Cruel Cradle")

An earthquake hitting the Kansai area results in heavy damage and some victims getting trapped in their houses or even getting knocked out by debris, but the most surprising result of the earthquake is the discovery of a man being shot in the annex building of the victim's acquaintance. While the victim had been at excellent terms with this friend and her husband, the home owners are naturally quite surprised to learn that the man had been in their house during the earthquake without their knowledge, and are of course shocked by the fact the man had been shot to death. The wife of the manor, before her marriage often surrounded by young men who considered her their 'queen', turns out to be an old acquaintance of criminologist Himura Hideo and mystery writer Arisugawa Alice, as they met in an earlier case two years earlier. Shocked at their reunion as they are, the crime-fighting duo set their mind to the solving the murder in the audio drama Zankoku na Yurikago ("A Cruel Cradle").

Zankoku na Yurikago is the seventh audio drama produced by Momogre based on Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series, which stars the criminologist Himura and mystery writer Alice. It is also the direct sequel to Saru no Hidarite, the audio drama I discussed two weeks ago. I wrote in that review that Saru no Hidarite was based on the book Kisaki wa Fune wo Shizumeru ("The Queen Sinks the Boat"), a book I hadn't read. I also noted that I thought the story might have been rewritten, because the summary of the book was kinda different from what happened in the audio drama. But now I know what was going on: the book Kisaki wa Fune wo Shizumeru actually consists of two novellettes that make up one narrative. For the audio drama, they split it up in two different productions: Saru no Hidarite and Zankoku na Yurikago. Both audio dramas can be listened to seperatedly, but do form one narrative centering around one woman.

I was quite enthusiastic about Saru no Hidarite, but I think that as a detective story, Zankoku na Yurikago surpasses that story. At the core, this is a very Queen-esque plot, which is something I always appreciate. Figuring out what characteristics the murderer must have based on the crime scene and the circumstances under which it was committed, deducing how all of the suspects fit in the big picture, it is done all very nice in this story and is something Arisugawa Alice (the actual writer) is actually quite competent in (Kotou Puzzle for example beats Ellery Queen at his own game!). The earthquake factor also adds something highly original to the mystery plot, as it is an element seldom seen in detective stories. Yet it does not feel as unreal as the volcano eruption in Arisugawa's own Gekkou Game. Earthquakes are actually quite common in Japan, so you'd think you'd come across them more often in fiction too.
The one note I want to make is that one part of the mystery was a bit vague because it was done as an audio drama. When things like architecture, positioning and angles are mentioned, an oral presentation often just doesn't work very well. Figures or being able to slowly read the description are far more effective in conveying things like that to the reader/listener. As I discuss mystery fiction in different media, I often pay attention to the question if the story fits the type of media. Some plots simply work better as a book, some better as an audio drama (or other medium). Zankoku na Yurikago still works as an audio drama, but I think I would have rated it higher if I had seen in on the screen or read it. Momogre's selection of the stories has been mostly well, but I'd say that Zankoku na Yurikago and 46 Banme no Misshitsu are the one where you kinda feel the medium fails slightly in keeping up with the story.

As said, Zankoku na Yurikago and Saru no Hidarite together form one narrative and listening to them after another, I'd say that as a standalone story, Saru no Hidarite perhaps works better. The detective plot, while still okay, is not as strong as that of Zankoku na Yurikago, but the themes there work better on their own. In return, Zankoku na Yurikago does more with the one character connecting both stories, and builds further on themes first introduced in Saru no Hidarite and forms a nice ending to this short story arc within the Writer Alice series. I recommend listening to them both and in order, as both stories are good mystery stories, but leave more of an impression taken together. I think it was an excellent idea of taking the novel and splitting it across these two productions. Length-wise, they were perfect for the complexity of the story, and together they are a lot more satisfying than the adaptation of 46 Banme no Misshitsu, the only other full novel Momogre has adapted as an audio drama.

Like with the previous release, the store Mandarake also offered a bonus audio drama together with Zankoku na Yurikago. Yuki to Kinkonshiki ("Snow and the Golden Wedding") is based on a short story originally included in the short story collection Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie (the two other stories in the collection, title story Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie and Tenkuu no Me are also available as audio drama). Unbeknown to an old couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary on a snowy night, their brother-in-law was murdered in their annex building. The police manages to bring the number of suspects down to two, but miss the crucial evidence to find the guilty one. The husband of the old couple then appears to hold the key that can crack the case, but an unfortunate fall leads to temporary amnesia. Himura and Alice are asked by the police to help. The solution is a fairly simple one. It's hardly satisfying, but then again, this was a bonus audio drama. It's a cute story though.

Zankoku na Yurukago is a good, solid detective story that might work better as book than as audio drama, but still quite enjoyable, especially if taken together wth Saru no Hidarite. I don't think I need to comment on the acting, because that has been consistenly excellent throughout the series.

And for your convenience, the reviews of Writer Alice novels on this blog:
46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room") (1992)
Dali no Mayu ("Dali's Cocoon") (1993)
Russia Koucha no Nazo ("The Russian Tea Mystery") (1994)
Sweden Kan no Nazo ("The Swedish Mansion Mystery") (1995)
Brazil Chou no Nazo ("The Brazilian Butterfly Mystery") (1996)
Eikoku Teien no Nazo ("The English Garden Mystery") (1997)
Malay Tetsudou no Nazo ("The Malay Railroad Mystery") (2002)

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖(原) 『残酷な揺り籠』

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mamba Wamba and the Voodoo Hoodoo

I dreamt of blood upon the shore, of eyes that spoke of sin. 
The lake was smooth and deep and black, as was her scented skin...
"Sins of the Fathers"

It's been a while since I last held a normal, English-language paperback in my hands! The last few years, I've mostly been reading Japanese pockets. And as for the couple of English books I did read, most have them have been those oversized softcover POD books that all slightly differ in dimensions...

Gabriel Knight is a not very succesful horror writer and owner of the similarly not very succesful St. George's Book Shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Police detective (and childhood friend) Mosely has been giving Gabriel some inside information on a series of horrible murders that have been happening in New Orleans, under the impression that Gabriel will base his next book on him and the case. Not a lot of evidence is found at each of the crime scenes, but they are definitely all connected, as theses scenes are all colored red by the blood of the victim and other animals, strange patterns are left in flour and all of the victims are cut open and missing organs. The gruesome nature have resulted in the nomer Voodoo murders, even though the police believes the dress-up is all smoke and mirrors to confuse the investigation. As Gabriel does more background research for his book, he discovers that these murders all do show signs of real voodoo, as a name for old African religions, and that the case might be much bigger than he and Mosely had initially thought and that he and his family was be destined to solve this case in Jane Jensen's Sins of the Fathers (1997).

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is a horror-mystery adventure game originally released in 1993 for the PC by Sierra On-Line. The mature storyline and characters, the horror themes and star-filled voice cast (Tim Curry and Mark Hamill among others) made it a great success and led to two sequels. A novelization of the game was released in 1997, written by Jane Jensen (designer/writer of the series). I recently played the 20th Anniversary version of the game and quite enjoyed it, so when I happened to come across the book, I didn't hesitate to pick it up. The second game, The Beast Within, is also available as a novel by the way.

The Gabriel Knight series is a horror mystery series with supernatural elements, which are also present in Sins of the Fathers. Gabriel for example is revealed to be the last in a family line of Schattenjägers (Shadow Hunters), who similarly to Hoch's Simon Ark have a born instinct to oppose the forces of evil. The latter half of each of the Gabriel Knight adventures feature such supernatural elements quite heavily, but the stories always start with 'normal' detective work, like how Sins of the Fathers starts out with an interesting search for what lies behind the Voodoo murders. I think you can compare it to the Indiana Jones films, which do feature mystical elements, but actual supernatural performances usually stay in the background until the finale.

Jane Jensen has a knack for mixing real history with her fiction, and it works great in Sins of the Fathers: the theme of Voodoo, both authentic ancient African religions as well as the New Orleans kind, is mixed expertly with her own arc on Gabriel and the murders. I don't think I have seen the Voodoo theme often in mystery novels (at least, not so prominently) and I thought that Sins of the Fathers was both amusing and educational. I always love it when history is mixed with mystery novels, but I usually only see European and Japanese history in these novels, so this book wins a lot of originality points.

I have read some spin-off novels from game franchises before and also reviewed them on this blog (Professor Layton and the Wandering Castle, Danganronpa/ZERO and Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Kagayakashii Mirai for example). But Sins of the Fathers is the first time I have read a novelization of a game, and the thing I had feared most was present in this book: it is too faithful to the source material. You could basically use this book as a walkthrough for the game, because I think practically all of the puzzles that appear in the game, also appear in the novel. Some of them work quite well (the infamous tomb code puzzle is a good example of a detective-like puzzle), but other puzzles that are overly obvious designed for games also make an appearance. A very early puzzle in the game for example, where Gabriel needs to distract a policeman with a mime so he can use the police motorbike radio sorta makes sense in the game (actually, I didn't really like it in the game either), but just sounds ridiculous in a novel. In adventure games grammar, it might be normal to pick up random items for later use, but in a novel, it just doesn't make sense to Gabriel to pick up item X for no reason, just so 60 pages later he could use it in a situation he could never have foreseen. I am all about making detective novels more like intellectual games, but this is just (not always sound) game-logic being forced into a novel. It really hurts the story, because a significant amount of the novel is taken up by these puzzles.

All in all I did enjoy Sins of the Fathers, that is, the overall story and atmosphere. As a supernatural horror-mystery, it's simply a good piece of fiction. But it bears its game-heritage too proudly and a lot of elements that might make sense for a game, are also present in this book, which makes the book appear to be nothing more than a glorified game walkthrough at times. I aree that novelizations shouldn't stray too far away from the source material, but still, not everything that works for a game works for a book and vice versa.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Apeman's Secret


"My left hand which resurrects the just is the left hand of god, my right hand which destroys the evil is the right hand of the devil. Be gone!"
"The Left Hand of God, The Right Hand of the Devil"

It's been a while since I last discussed an audio drama!

Writer Alice series (audio drama)
46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room")
Swiss Dokei no Nazo ("The Swiss Clock Mystery")
Yaneura no Sanposha ("The Stroller in the Attic")
Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken ("-The Castle of Screams- Murder Case")
Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie ("The House With the Long Hallway")
Saru no Hidarite ("The Monkey's Left Paw") 

What at first appeared to be just a deadly accident of a man crashing into the sea with his car, soon turns into suspected murder, when the police discovers a fair amount of sleeping medicine in the victim's body. Criminologist Himura Hideo and his friend (and mystery writer) Arisugawa Alice once again join the police investigation as part of Himura's "fieldwork". The police finds out that the victim had debts and soon decides on three suspects: his wife (who has financial gains through the life insurance), a friend of his wife from whom he had borrowed a lot of money (the life insurance money would mean she would be paid back) and that woman's adopted son (who is living off his mother). Yet none of them appeared to have been able to commit the spectacular murder of driving off a car into the sea and swimming back for several reasons, including alibi and being handicapped. Other elements like hypnosis and a mystical mummified monkey's paw which can fulfill wishes also turn the case into at least a two-pipe problem in the audio drama Saru no Hidarite ("The Monkey's Left Paw").

Saru no Hidarite is the sixth entry in Momogre's adaptations of Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series and is based on the novel Kisaki wa Fune wo Shizumeru ("The Queen Sinks the Boat", 2010). I think it's the first time since the very first audio drama (46 Banme no Misshitsu) that they did an adaptation of a full-fledged novel (subsequent adaptations were based on short stories and novelettes). I haven't read the original novel though, but a quick look at a summary makes me suspect the structure of the original story was changed a bit to fit the audio drama format and length.

As a detective story, I quite liked Saru no Hidarite. Unlike the always excellent Student Alice series, the Writer Alice series isn't always as complex or amusing as I want it to be, but I thought this was a very entertaining story (see this post for the link between the Writer Alice and Student Alice series). While the actual murder and all is quite boring, I loved that even though you're presented an obvious one-of-the-three-suspects plot, it keeps moving your attention from one suspect to another in a not-too-forced manner. Also, the story has very strongly links to W.W. Jacobs' short story The Monkey's Paw (1902): the way the story serves as a hint to the conundrum Himura and Alice are struggling with is brilliant, as is Himura's interpretation of the classic. Definitely one of the best detective stories I've read (heard) that reference other stories both in theme and in contents.

Like I said before, I suspect the story was slightly rearranged to fit the audio drama format (because the cover text of the book is hardly the way you'd describe the way it goes in the audio drama), and it works fairly well as it is now. Once again though, the story isn't really one that particularly gains from being presented as an audio drama: the story has no particular links to voice or sounds. I really wonder how they decide on which story they adapt.

Then again, I do have to say that this is definitely a story that works well as an audio drama. Locked rooms don't always work as well if it's all just audio, unless you can shift the focus from solving a mechnical locked room to something else (which is why I prefer the audio drama of Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie to 46 Banme no Misshitsu). And while the story has nothing to do with voice and sounds, I do have to say that it does manage to do something quite well because it's an audio drama, but I will not go in details because of I might spoil the fun.

Retailer Mandarake also offered an extra audio drama together with Saru no Hidarite. Tenkuu no Me is based on the same-titled short story in the short story collection Nagai Rouka ga Aru Ie (of which the title story was also adapted as an audio drama). It is a short story about Alice, who is asked by his neighbour for some advice. His neigbour is a teacher and one of her students has apparently taken a spirit photograph (with a ghost on it). One of her fellow students who took a look at the photo recently turned up dead due to a freak accident, falling of an old abandoned house. The solution is a bit disappointing, as it one of those stories where Arisugawa Alice (the writer, not the character) relies on random trivia and vague clueing. The one interesting point though is that Himura doesn't appear in the story; it's Alice who does all the sleuthing.

Saru no Hidarite was a good audio drama of a good detective story. The audio dramas of the Writer Alice series are always of high quality and this one is no different, but the story itself is also one of the better ones they've done now. The bonus track is a bit disappointing, but the main course is definitely worth a listen.

And for your convenience, the reviews of Writer Alice novels on this blog:
46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room") (1992)
Dali no Mayu ("Dali's Cocoon") (1993)
Russia Koucha no Nazo ("The Russian Tea Mystery") (1994)
Sweden Kan no Nazo ("The Swedish Mansion Mystery") (1995)
Brazil Chou no Nazo ("The Brazilian Butterfly Mystery") (1996)
Eikoku Teien no Nazo ("The English Garden Mystery") (1997)
Malay Tetsudou no Nazo ("The Malay Railroad Mystery") (2002)

Original Japanese title(s):  モモグレ、有栖川有栖(原)『猿の左手』

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fire Walk With Me

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." (Charles Caleb Colton)

Fan-fiction have always been a part of mystery fiction, I guess. I'm still surprised at the amount of Holmes pastiches released over the (many, many) years and on the blog, I've discussed a number of pastiches and parodies of various series. Of course, the quality of fan-fiction is not always even, with some very good, with some bad, but I do find it interesting that people enjoy certain worlds and characters so much they want to do something with all of that themselves.

I'm going to make an educated guess and say that most fan-fiction is in a literary form, considering it's a lot easier to write a story on (digital) paper, than record an audio drama or shoot a film. I was thus rather pleasantly surprised by the existence of Rengoku - Kamaitachi no Yoru 2 Another ("Purgatory - Night of the Kamaitachi 2 Another"), a fan-made sequel to the first Kamaitachi no Yoru game. In the original game, a group of people were trapped in the ski lodge Spur during a snowstorm, together with a cut-up body and a vicious murderer among them. Rengoku is set exactly one year after the first game. A wedding between two of the survivors of the first game brings the old cast together and after the ceremony, all of them go to the lodge again to continue the celebrations. Happy thoughts soon turn into fiery thoughts however when one of them burns to death in a room. It is unclear whether it was suicide or murder, but if the player doesn't act soon, more and more victims will turn to ashes...

Rengoku - Kamaitachi no Yoru 2 Another is playable on the PC (available here) and was written as a direct sequel to the original Kamaitachi no Yoru by three fans (note that there is also an official sequel, which is quite different from the fangame). Like the original game, Rengoku is a sound novel game: text is projected on a background accompanied by music and soundeffects, and you 'read' the story like you'd read a novel. At set points, you'll have to make choices, which will change the flow of the story (basically a Choose Your Own Adventure). In Rengoku, you'll be trying to deduce the true nature of the death-in-flames, and figure out who is behind the whole event.
For a free game, I enjoyed Rengoku more than I had thought I would. It's relatively short, but there are more than ten different endings available, most of them with you dying because you didn't manage to solve the case in time. Like in the original Kamaitachi no Yoru, it's actually possible to solve the crime at different points in the story, which can lead to fewer victims (this concept was dropped in the official sequels). The longer you take to solve the murder (not actual clock-time, but in terms of story developments), the more the story moves into horror-territory, with more victims bursting into flames until everyone disappears in a blaze. So you better make sure you find the truth in time!

Rengoku however is difficult to look at separate from the original Kamaitachi no Yoru: save for one new character, the characters and setting are exactly the same as the first game. Even the music is 'borrowed'. The mystery plot is also rather similar to the original game: okay, in this game everyone burns to a crisp if you're not in time (hence the title Purgatory), while the original games had everyone getting cut and stabbed (for the kamaitachi motif), but the truth behind the first death is actually extremely similar to that of the original game. In that sense, Rengoku is less of a sequel, rather than an alternate version of the original game. In this sense, you could consider Rengoku a rather predictable piece of fan-fiction. Also note that Rengoku contains spoilers for the first game (about the murderer and the trick used), so be sure to play Kamaitachi no Yoru first.

As a short piece of fan-fiction, Rengoku - Kamaitachi no Yoru 2 Another is fairly enjoyable. It definitely plays and reads like a Kamaitachi no Yoru game and for a free game, there's a fair amount of content available. The whole game however is perhaps a bit too similar to the original Kamaitachi no Yoru, including the mystery plot, so it might give you a feeling of déjà vu. But this was certainly not a bad way to pass the time. Rengoku - Kamaitachi no Yoru 2 Another is available for free from this site)

Original Japanese title(s): Varitra、Quiet、キリン 『煉獄 -かまいたちの夜2 another』

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Snow White

We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig
Up everything in sight
"Heigh Ho" (from: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)

Sticking the words "Murder Case" or "Mystery" behind something probably doesn't result in the most most original title for a detective story, but it is often quite effective. Like today: the effect the "Murder Case" has on an otherwise familiar set of words is actually quite a lot more than you'd initially expect.

The body of a beautiful woman, horribly stabbed to death and then set fire to, is discovered in a national park in Nagano. She is identified as Miki Noriko, an office worker of the cosmetics company responsible for the popular "Snow White" soap. Risako, a co-worker of Miki, contacts an old friend of hers, Akahoshi Yuuji, a director on a TV news show who has been waiting for a scoop. Through interviews with several of Risako's other collegues, Akahoshi learns that Miki Noriko's (less striking) collegue Shirono Miki has gone missing since the murder and that Shirono was at very bad terms with the victim, as Shirono was under the impression the victim stole her love interest. The reportage Akahoshi produces however raises questions with people who knew Shirono from the past and as more and more people react on Akahoshi's show through SNS like Twitter, it becomes clear that this case might not be as simple as Akahoshi had though in the 2014 film Shirayukihime Satsujin Jiken ("The Snow White Murder Case").

Shirayukihime Satsujin Jiken is a 2014 film based on a 2012 novel by Minato Kanae, who made it big internationally with Kokuhaku ("Confessions"), as both the novel and the film based on it went worldwide. I've only read Kokuhaku by Minato, and it was an entertaining crime novel, though there was not much detecting. But it was okay, so I started in Shirayukihime Satsujin Jiken with reasonable expectations.

And I was a bit disappointed at some parts, while impressed at other parts. The biggest disappointment to me is that once again, Shirayukihime Satsujin Jiken is not a real whodunnit. Even though the question of who killed Miki Noriko is definitely at the base of everything, there aren't really (fair) clues for the viewer that point to the murderer and I find that very disappointing, because the plot of Shirayukihime Satsujin Jiken is definitely capable of presenting a fair puzzle plot to the viewer (with some slight tweaks), I think.

The plot structure of Shirayukihime Satsujin Jiken is quite similar to that of Kokuhaku: while the main storyline is about Akahoshi and his quest for finding the murderer on Miki Noriko, the story is split into several segments where interested parties talk about both the victim Miki Noriko and the suspect Shirono Miki. The viewer is thus presented with different testimonies, often told from a certain point of view. It reminds of Christie's Five Little Pigs (which has Poirot investigating a case that happened many years ago, so he can only ask questions to the interested parties), or even Akutagawa Ryuunosuke's Yabu no Naka (where three testimonies about the same incident all differ; also known for the Rashomon effect). It is really neat how situations that are mentioned in one testimony, are inversed in other testimonies and gives the viewer the feeling that the whole picture is slowly being completed.

But the solution to the murder is also presented arbitrarily to the viewer (it basically comes falling from the sky) and while the structure mentioned above would have been perfect for hiding clues, clues to the identity of the murderer are rather weak and much too vague. A bit more work would have made it perfect, but now it falls short and it is not really possible to solve the case on your own based on the facts given to you in the narrative up to that point.

A big theme of Shirayukihime Satsujin Jiken are SNS, especially Twitter. Protagonist Akahoshi constantly tweets about his progress in the investiation and tweets that react to him appear constantly on the screen and help move the story forward. It's too bad that things like SNS and the effect of mass media appear so little in detective fiction effectively actually. In Shirayukihime Satsujin Jiken, it is mostly used as a vehicle to do some social commentary, which is the most orthodox way for it to appear in detective fiction, I guess (mass media is used in a very interesting way in a certain part of the story though). Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper did the same thing too, as another recent example. But I've yet to see a good puzzle plot detective story completely built around things like Twitter, identities on the internet and the power of the mass media (rather than feature it as something on the background).

Shirayukihime Satsujin Jiken is a fairly entertaining crime film, that fills it two-hours-something with a simple plot, but with good presentation. Some of the themes addressed do a really good job at captivating the viewer too. My only complaint is really just that the plot could have been a lot more fair as a detective story with minimal effort. As it is now, it's still a reasonably fun film though.

Original Japanese title(s): 湊かなえ(原) 『白ゆき姫殺人事件』

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Suitable for Framing

『名探偵コナン 業火の向日葵』

"You'll definitely end up in regrets if all you'll do is look at him."
"Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno

A friend told me today that in the Korean version of the anime of Detective Conan, Shinichi is called Doyle. Which would mean that Doyle decided to use Conan as a fake name when he was changed into a kid. Which is like the most stupid name you could ever choose as a secret alias.

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volume 70, 72~76, 78, 82~87 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18) in the library)
The series of Sunflowers paintings Dutch painter Van Gogh made are perhaps his most famous works, so it's no wonder Suzuki Jiroukichi, general advisor to the Suzuki Zaibatsu, had to pay a fortune to get his hands on the recently discovered second painting of Sunflowers, which originally was thought to have been lost in a fire in Japan at the end of World War II. The purchase of the painting was the last move he had to make to complete a dream of his: to hold a special exhibit of all seven Sunflowers paintings in Japan. To protect the paintings, Suzuki Jiroukichi has also gathered his own "seven samurai," consisting of art and security experts, including the great "Sleeping Detective" Mouri Kogorou. And security is definitely needed, because the phantom thief KID appears to have an interest in the paintings. Or is it really KID? Because this time, the phantom thief is rather ruthless in his ways and doesn't even hesitate about using explosives... While Edogawa Conan, the brilliant high school student detective turned into a child, is trying to foil KID's attempts at theft, he also needs to figure out what KID's real motives are in the theatrical film Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno (2015).

Trivia: this is the first Detective Conan film in over ten years that doesn't feature an English word in its title.

Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno is the nineteenth film in the Detective Conan film franchise, released in April of this year. It continues the direction the annual Conan films have been taking since 2013's Private Eye in the Distant Sea, which was a break with the films released between 2002 ~ 2012 by featuring a different director and a distinctily different tone. Sakurai Takeharu, scriptwriter of Private Eye in the Distant Sea (and regular Aibou scriptwriter) returns for Sunflowers of Inferno, for a plot that is a lot less political than 2013's Private Eye in the Distant Sea and last year's Dimensional Sniper.

As a big Detective Conan fan, the annual theatrical releases are something I always look forward too, but an appearance by phantom thief KID is always good for bonus points with me, and with a slight Dutch angle through Van Gogh's Sunflowers, I knew I had to see this film. And I was... disappointed.

The film definitely has some good ideas. A mystery story surrounding art (history) was something that hadn't been done yet in Detective Conan films (and even in the manga, it's a topic used seldomly). There's an interesting background yarn about the Sunflowers and the concept of a planned theft of a painting of course has potential of providing an interesting (impossible) heist plot. In a sense, the film also reminds of the third Conan film, The Last Wizard of the Century, with a KID-related plot about a priceless piece of art.

But where does it go wrong? Well, for one, by now, every viewer of Detective Conan knows what kind of character phantom thief KID is, so there's no way anyone would believe that KID would use explosives and willingly endanger other people while stealing something. I'm not even sure whether the film really wants me to believe KID has gone rogue, because it does little to no effort to try to convince me, even though the dialogue apparently assumes we're all trembling in our seats because KID might've become more wild.

And because the film is mostly structured around the actions of KID, it results in a very boring film, because the film wants you to believe KID is a ruthless crook now, but you know it can't be. At the end, the whole mystery about KID's actions in this film is revealed, but this has to be one of the worst mystery plots in a Conan film ever, with basically no hints for the viewer and extremely weak either way. Even the anime original episodes of 25 minutes have better planned mystery plots than this film. And now I think about it, a KID story with a fairly similar reveal has already been done in the manga before.

Oh, and a major, minor gripe I have had for the last ten films or so: Please. Stop. Using. Guest. Voice Actors. I noted in my review of Private Eye in the Distant Sea that "nothing can be as bad as the guest voice acting in Quarter of Silence and The Eleventh Striker" but Sunflowers of Inferno also features an impressively bad performance by actress Eikura Nana. Was she as bad as Quarter of Silence's "" war photographer Watanabe Youichi, The Eleventh Striker's professional J-League soccer players who voiced themselves or The Raven Chaser's DAIGO basically being DAIGO? Perhaps not, but every year, it's incredibly easy to pick out who the guest voice actor is doing because of the immense difference in voice acting skills and it actually distracts.

Oh well, at least the soundtrack featured some nice remixes of the Detective Conan theme...

Anyway, Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno was disappointing. Not only in comparison to the previous two (great) films, but in general as a Detective Conan film, as it features a rather flimsy mystery plot that doesn't work from the fundamentals on. Usually, I'd say that fans of the franchise might appreciate this film, but with Sunflowers of Inferno, it might actually be better if the viewer is less familiar with the series and characters. Ah, as as always, the credits were followed by a short after-credit-scene and a teaser for next year's Detective Conan film. It appears they're going for something big for the twentieth film, because the teaser err... teased Black Organization names, so this might be become a The Raven Chaser-esque film! Which is something I'd LOOOOVE.

Original Japanese title(s):  『名探偵コナン 業火の向日葵』