Friday, June 16, 2017

Hello Mr. Detective


 I'll drag this simple case out for thirty-three minutes!
"33 Minutes Detective"

Mystery fiction is at the core about the process of solving a mystery, that is to say, it's about how the initial mystery-filled situation is eventually explained. While the main problem and its solution ("the truth) are of course very important elements, one shouldn't forget that the route from the one to the other is at least as important. If you only had a problem and an answer, you wouldn't have mystery fiction: you'd have a quiz. It's the attention to to the process from A to B that makes it an actual story. Of course, there are many ways to make this journey to the truth attractive for the reader. The investigations in Queen-style stories have a tendency to seem rather clinical for example, but the way the truth is eventually revealed by methodically sifting through various strands of information and clues, by creating logical order out of data chaos has an almost cathartic sense, like slowly cleaning up a messy room. Other stories might try to entertain the reader by starting with an utterly baffling initial situation (impossible murder), and then employing an uncanny feeling throughout the story until the truth is revealed. Inverted stories like Columbo might not be about whodunit, or even howdunit, but pose an alternative mystery ("how did the culprit mess up?") and keeps the journey interesting by slowly breaking down what seems like the perfect murder. The Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games were heavily inspired by Columbo, and do something similar, but also keeps the player engaged by constantly changing the initial mystery, often making it look even stranger than initially thought, until it's broken down at the end.

A while back, I wrote about the trope of false solutions in mystery fiction, and that's of course also a way to make the journey to the truth entertaining. But even so, stories with false solutions are still following the exact same route as the other stories mentioned above: the narrative will eventually arrive at the truth. Even Anthony Berkeley's novels, which play around a lot with the notion of "truth" by bombarding you with false solutions, do eventually reveal the truth. On the other hand you have anti-mystery novels like Dogura Magura or Kyomu he no Kumotsu, which reject the notion of a single truth all together. But a commentator reminded me of a TV drama series that manages to do something completely original with this fundamental structure of mystery fiction.

Enter Kuruma Rokurou: a young private detective and enormous fan of classic mystery fiction. He's good friends with the local police inspector, who often calls for Rokurou's help whenever he's facing another murder case. The murder scenes come straight out of a detective fiction fan's dreams: a bride brutally murdered on her wedding day; murder at a school haunted by ghost rumors; small out-of-the-way communities with strange local habits; a dead body discovered during a musical performance: nobody would complain about these settings, right?  Both Rokurou and the viewer are all set to investigate the mysterious murder when.... the police arrest the murderer. Red-handed. With the knife in their hands. And a motive. And witnesses. And a confession. All questions answered. All within five minutes of the show beginning! Only Rokurou can't just let this go and call it a day. Not because he believes the arrested suspect is innocent. It's because the time slot of the TV show is, minus the commercials, thirty-three minutes long! If they'd wrap things up now, the next show would get into trouble, so no matter what, Rokurou needs to drag the case out until the show fills all scheduled thirty-three minutes! Kurama Rukurou is the 33pun Tantei ("33 Minutes Detective", 2008, 2009), not because he can solve any case within thirty-three minutes, but because he can stall any case for thirty-three minutes.

33pun Tantei was a TV drama that was originally broadcast in 2008, with a short second series following in 2009. It was revolutionary as a mystery show, as the whole premise was that even though the super-simply, obvious truth of the case was always revealed within the first five minutes, they needed to fill the time of their alloted time slot. Rokurou does this by coming up with the most outrageous hypotheses that point the finger to everyone but the obvious suspect, using every single mystery fiction trope he can think off. At the end of each episode though, he always comes back to the conclusion that the obvious suspect who was arrested red-handedly was indeed the real murderer (even though we all knew already).

So to return to what I mentioned in the introduction: basically all mystery fiction is about the journey between the starting point (initial mystery) and the destination (truth) and the sights we see along the way. In 33pun Tantei however, this journey is just an easy five-minute walk. But because we arrived too early at the destination, we decide to talk a long, loooong walk around just to kill some time.

And the way it's done is hilarious. 33pun Tantei is highly inspired by Police Squad!, copying many things from that series (the overall silly tone; the informant scenes; the visit to the lab; the cheap-looking 'driving' shots between scenes and the faux still-shot endings), but whereas Police Squad! was a parody on police shows, 33pun Tantei is that of classic mystery fiction. Each and every of Rokurou's hypotheses about other possible murderers are brimming with classic tropes, from locked room murders, complex alibi tricks using trains to twin substitutes. The problem? Rokurou has too much of an imagination. He takes each of these tropes to hilarious impossible extremes in his desperation to come up with an alternative to the truth. Ice cubes are a familiar old trope in mystery fiction, as they have the handy feature of melting, but what about a gigantic ice cube to allow someone to cross to another window, and then letting the sun melt away all evidence!?

Rokurou's delusions are really the star of the show, as they're hilariously farfetched, but always 'grounded' in well-known mystery fiction tropes. Any fan of the genre will instantly recognize the tropes, but they take on almost grotesque forms, as Rokurou twists the truth around and around in the hopes of proving someone else guilty. It's a real delight to see these over-the-top theories presented in a serious manner by Rokurou, while everybody is busy pointing out the rather obvious holes in every single one of his hypotheses. Indeed, he's always called out on it every time by both the people accused by him, as well as Rokurou's own allies. Rokurou never ever actually manages to defend his flimsy theories, and it often seems like he may not even fill out the complete thirty-three minutes of the show, but somehow, he always manages to perservere. The presentation of these "theories" is also always incredibly funny, with the accused always being portrayed as some kind of monster intent on murder (complete with "evil" make-up), coming up with the most nefarious of schemes.

While basically all episodes follow the same set-up of 1) Case is discovered, 2) Rokurou arrives at scene, 3) Real culprit is caught, 4) Rokurou declares he'll drag the case out, comes up with fanciful theories and 5) Rokurou decides the real culprit is indeed the real culprit, there's still variation to be found. Each episode has a completely different setting (based on stock settings from mystery fiction, from a villa to a TV station and a cruise ship), allowing for different kinds of mystery tropes to be employed in Rokurou's fanciful concoctions, from more Yokomizo Seishi-inspired theories in the episode set in an isolated village, to Christie-approach in the cruise ship episode. There are also some rather original settings, like that at a manzai-comedy venue hall, or one that happens in a building housing several fortune tellers.

The series was created by Fukuda Yuuichi by the way, who's specialized in comedy drama. He has also created the Dragon Quest parody Yuusha Yoshihiko ("The Hero Yoshihiko") TV series for example, and he's also working on the live-action adaptation of Gintama. As for 33pun Tantei, the lead Doumoto Tsuyoshi not only plays an incredibly funny lead in this series, but his role has extra meaning because twenty years earlier, he also starred as protagonist Hajime in the original TV drama series based on Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files"), making him an icon of Japanese mystery fiction.

In a way, mystery fiction has often taken its own tropes too seriously, so it's almost refreshing to see 33pun Tantei take everything to its ridiculous extremes. It has everything a mystery fan likes, but manages to arrange everything in such surprising, and hilarious ways each episode is just a blast to watch, even if you know that in the end, after all the imaginative theories with locked room murders and daring alibi tricks and other impossible cries, that after the thirty-three minutes, the story'll come back to that first conclusion, that the very first and most obvious suspect was indeed the culprit. But that's fine, as the roundabout way to that conclusion is still fantastic.

Original Japanese title(s): 『33分探偵』, 『帰ってこさせられた33分探偵』


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. :) Is 33-minute Detective available on any legal streaming site? Sounds like something I would enjoy...

    1. It's not available on any legal English streaming site at the moment, as far as I know (not on Viki or Crunchyroll at any rate). A commentator in another post mentioned they found fansubs for a handful of episodes.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! Been watching a few eps and loved it. I especially like how every episode ends with a parodied "Freeze Frame" of the main characters that was very typical from a 1960s sitcom show, except that it gets so meta that even that in itself is mocked --- because the frame frame isn't even real, the characters themselves are struggling to maintain that posture!

    1. lol, I never watched Police Squad, so I just found out that the gag is actually lifted out of that wholesale. Still tons of fun though!

    2. Police Squad! is great! The short-lived show was later reworked into the Naked Gun film series, with practically all of the jokes reused, but Police Squad! is the better version.

    3. I see, thanks for the suggestion!

      33pun Tantei really is a one-of-a-kind show that draws its strength from how familiar the audience is with detective tropes. The only other show I recall that reaches that level of "nerdiness of detective trope knowledge" would probably be Meitantei no Okite. These two shows really feel like a love letter from one big mystery fan to another :D

    4. Yeah, 33pun Tantei and Meitantei no Okite are probably the most enjoyable parody detective series around. Trick has a lot of parody elements too, but is in the end still grounded in (a sort of) realism.

      What works in 33pun Tantei is that it's also clearly invented for a visual medium, with high-paced dialogues during the "reconstruction" scenes of Rokurou, with the other characters all making comments on it while Rokurou's winging it. It simply wouldn't have worked as well in any other medium.

    5. btw - in case you haven't heard of them there are two similar Western comedies with police squad style humour centred around case of the week style stories; one is a UK show called A Touch of Cloth, the other a US show called Angie Tribeca. I think Angie Tribeca is better because the 20 minute episodes give it a tighter focus and I think the episodes are simply just a bit funnier. Neither has the focus on the crimes like 33pun Tantei, (iirc Angie Tribeca had a similar gag where episodes would be called "The Wedding Planner did it" so you know not to focus on the mystery), but both are pretty enjoyable for what they are.

    6. Thanks for the recommendations! Hadn't heard of them before, but I'll look around for them.