Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Make Up Tonight

take it easy, it's not easy
「Make Up Tonight」(河合夕子)

The wind's leafing through the files of my memory
Take it easy, it's not easy
"Make Up Tonight" (Kawai Yuuko)

Nazotoki Live ("Mystery Solving Live") is a mystery program produced by NHK with a unique twist: viewers at home (as well as three studio guests) are encouraged to participate actively with the mystery-solving process. The show consists of two parts: a mystery drama part, which is occasionally interrupted by a live studio segment. It's during these breaks that the guests (as well as the viewers) are asked questions related to the mystery drama, that help organize the facts and clues presented in the drama part. Everyone is given a few minutes to think and answer, with points awarded to correct answers (viewers at home can input their answers through their TV remotes, the studio guests can do it live in the studio). Then the show returns to the mystery drama again, and rinse and repeat until the mystery is solved. A perfect score results in eternal fame (a similar show, Anraku Isu Tantei, actually offered a monetary award by the way)

The show appears on television about once a year, and last year, I reviewed 2016's Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case of the Locked Room of the Square House"), which was written by Ayatsuji Yukito. It was the first time I saw the show, but I really loved how they made an otherwise complex mystery very accessible to the viewers at home, as it was a fair mystery plot, but it was also obvious the creators did their best to keep it comprehensible for the viewers at home, as a live mystery drama is another format than a book for example, which asks for different approaches.

The shows are always written by mystery writers, and 2015's entry of this show, Bihakujima Satsujin Jiken ("The Bihaku Island Murder Case"), was written by Abiko Takemaru. In a way, he's perfect for these kinds of shows actually, as he has a lot of experience with recreating the fun of mystery fiction with the help of interactive media. The highly influential novel game Kamaitachi no Yoru was a creation of his for example. The two episodes of this show were broadcast on July 18th and 19th, 2015. Bihaku is a Japanese word meaning 'beautifully white', referring to the classic Japanese idea of beauty that says a woman's skin should be white. The word is often used for skin care products. Bihaku Island is thus a nickname the island got because a local fruit is being used in the products of a succesful make-up company. The director of that company is visiting the island because she'll model for a new company promotion poster. The members of Detective Club CATS, Miko (the brains), Momo (aspirant-photographer) and Momo's brother Ao (policeman) are also part of the group, because Momo got a job as photography assistant. It doesn't take long for Miko, Momo and Ao to see that the director of the make-up company is a rather unpleasant woman, and as decided by the Laws of Mystery Fiction, this director is of course the victim in this murder mystery. Miko and Momo, as well as the studio guests and the viewers back home, will need to figure out what the victim's dying message meant and most importantly: who did it?

For those interested in videogames: it might be interesting to learn that game creator Ishii Jirou was one of the studio guests. He has directed games like 428, but also produced games like 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, so he has quite an affinity for mystery fiction. In fact, he did exceedingly good in this show. Takumi Shuu, creator of the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney game series, would also be a guest the following year by the way.

I have to be honest, and say that as a mystery show, I think 2016's Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken was a lot more enjoyable. Not that Bihakujima Satsujin Jiken is a bad mystery story. It's only... too predictable. The mystery genre, like most genre fiction, is very dependent on tropes, whether they're used straight or subverted. Bihakujima Satsujin Jiken however uses all tropes in a rather straight, uninspired way. A dying message? Of course it's never what it seems at first sight. And of course the one with the camera was assaulted because he filmed something he shouldn't have. As a pure whodunnit, this story relies on the old-fashioned 'elimination' method to arrive at the right criminal (identify characteristics the murderer must have or must not have, and then comparing them to those of the suspects, and eliminate everyone who does not fit the description from the list), but the manner in which the list of suspects is cut short is again rather classic, and never surprising. In fact, I think studio guest Ishii commented on each question that 'If we'd go the classic way, then the answer would be...' and he got it right every time. If you're familiar with these kinds of whodunnit mysteries, this story is a bit too classically structured, and there's little new to be found here. I also found it frustrating there were a lot of obvious red herrings. I don't mind red herrings, but at least give them some meaning, rather than dumping a truck load of them in the story, but never bothering to flesh them out in a meaningful manner (like hinting at subplots that never come to fruition because they were just red herrings; that's just lazy. Give them some closure!).

What I think is great about this show is how it allows for mystery stories that are usually too complex for television. The intermezzzos between the drama parts allow for the studio guests, but also the viewers to organize all the new information they get. The goal of the questions asked during these intermezzos are in fact precisely that: organizing information / pushing the ideas of the viewers in the right way. Because there's a bit of help along the way, the stories themselves can become much more complex than the usual mystery drama. You'd think that having to create a fair play mystery with participants (studio guests and people at home) would result in a mystery plot that'd be easier to solve, but not here: the writers make use of the extended time, and the fact they can gently guide people to the solution through the intermezzo questions to create plots that are quite complex.

One important factor is the fact all participants have access to "evidence cards": the necessary clues to solve the mystery. These cards, which show all the characters and evidence (for example, a card with the dying message), allow everyone to keep all the important facts at hand. Another interesting feature is the use of the homepage: during the broadcast of this show, people could go the official website to find additional evidence, like a panorama picture of the crime scene, so people could examine the crime scene themselves. In the studio, they even have handy alibi charts ready for the guests. I really like how the program really gives the viewers at home a good look at everything in detail. With all the facts at hand, the focus is less on small details, but more on the logic of getting everything to fit (and I like that better in a mystery story).

Overall, I'd say Bihakujima Satsujin Jiken is an okay mystery story that fits perfectly with the unique concept of the program, but it's also a story that is rather predictable and perhaps too classic. I had hoped for something like Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken, which had something extra to surprise the viewer with. I wouldn't say this show was lacking, but it was definitely nothing more than I had expected.

Original Japanese title(s): 『謎解きLive 美白島殺人事件』

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